Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dolly Mixture

Back in the days of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I suspected Joss Whedon of having devised the series just so he could work - some might even say play - with lots of pretty young people. It seems true of all his creations. But then he liberally sprinkles his series with great characters, sparkling dialogue and lots of just generally clever witty stuff to persuade you that, no, the man is a genius. And heck, even if it's all to disguise his true motives, it's still genius.

That said, I'm not one of those who believes that Mr Whedon can do no wrong. Buffy had its disappointing patches, I really wasn't sold on Angel until quite late into the series and here, at the end of the first season, I'm still not entirely convinced by his latest offering, Dollhouse.

Once again he has assembled a cast of pretty young things, headed up by the superlative Eliza Dushku (so good she even enabled me to see the merits of Tru Calling), and most of them are talented too. With Amy Acker, Harry Lennix, Tamoh Penikett and Reed Diamond among the regulars, it's like Angel, Commander In Chief, Battlestar Galactica and Homicide: Life On The Street all met up for a party and ended up going home with the wrong partners. The series itself is a similarly odd mix of brilliance and 'bits that don't quite work'.

For starters, the premise is ludicrous. Now I'm all for absurd premises - for a while I've followed a series involving a man travelling through time and space in a police box and more recently I've been entertained by the exploits of a tech support guy working at a Buy More who has all manner of state and international secrets beamed into his brain. As to the former, I couldn't begin to tell you why that works for me, but as for the latter - Chuck - mostly it gets away with it with a combination of tone (you never take it seriously) and just not really going into the ins and outs of how it works - or doesn't. But there's something about the Dollhouse that leaves me thinking the foundations are a little shaky.

Even in the (admittedly brilliant) final episode, a character laughs at the revelation that the Dollhouse was nothing more than a high class brothel. And no matter how much the proprietors attempt to justify it, with phrases like 'your ultimate fantasy', when you see Eliza Dushku dressed up in S&M gear and wielding a whip you can't help thinking (amongst other things) that it is all an overly elaborate and expensive setup for what it provides. Those capable of paying the price tag (implicitly *very* high) for a doll could most likely obtain much the same with greater ease, far less moolah, a fraction of the cloak and dagger and ultimately - given that rumours abound on the streets about this secret establishment - just as discreetly elsewhere. There's also a skin-crawling creepiness to it all that's slightly off-putting. (Unlike characters like Miss DeWitt, say - ably played by Olivia Williams - who is creepy in a good way.)

In the midst of it, there are some applications that make a kind of sense - the woman who has a copy of herself 'saved' so that she can extend her life long enough to discover the identity of her murderer and the touching tale of the guy who has a doll help him celebrate the anniversary he never got to share with his deceased wife. And the whole thing is an actor's dream, handing many of the cast the opportunity to play a different role each week and play dress-up.

It begins much like the experience of existence as a doll, waking up to something new each episode, no clear recollection of exactly what happened last week and a degree of confusion as to where it's all leading. But the Whedon sparkle is there in the scripts and that, coupled with the generally charismatic ensemble of characters, tends to elevate a show that you might otherwise pass over. And if on those strengths you do decide to stick with it, it does eventually hit its stride, developing with twists and turns that (assuming they haven't been spoilered!) will have you sitting up and paying attention. Ultimately persuading you that, yes, in fact the producers do have a clear idea of where it's all heading and that it might even be interesting when you get there.

Exceptions would be the Tamoh Penikett thread (he's essentially like Mr McGee in The Incredible Hulk) which, although it does throw some genuinely startling curve balls along the way, has only a limited number of possible outcomes - and I happened to guess the one they went for. Sort of. The breakdown of the memory wiping and the 'revelation' that it's nowhere near as efficient as the Dollhouse management believed is thoroughly predictable from the get go, but on the other hand without it there wouldn't be much of a story at all, so that can be forgiven.

Anyway it's a short first season, so well worth a gamble, and the final handful of episodes are a fantasy drama tour de force that does reward viewer loyalty through the slow series start. And unlike Firefly it actually has been granted a second season. I'm not as fired up and keen to see what's next as I was at the same stage in Firefly - and I'm more excited by the news that, apparently, there will be more Dr Horrible - but it has at least grabbed my interest. The season finale, as I said, is nothing short of brilliant and is full of surprises - although in some respects it feels like the overall *series* finale that Joss made ahead of time in case, like Firefly, it got canned before its time. Second season will in all probability follow on from events in the preceding episode (12) and this thirteenth episode is perhaps best viewed as a tantalising extra for the time being. All in all, a curious - but positive - season closer for a series that can certainly be described as 'unusual'.

Unfortunately because I've endeavoured to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I've probably painted as vague and indistinct an impression of Dollhouse as I had after the first couple of episodes, but at the end of the day it does amount to a qualified recommendation. On a purely superficial level, it amounts to a grown man playing with dolls. But since the grown man is Joss Whedon, I feel obliged to take notice.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Long & Winding Rhodes

'It's the journey, not the destination' might be applicable to life (I'll let you know) but as previously demonstrated by our holiday to Crete, it has nothing to do with travel. I love being places. But going places is invariably a drag. And it was much the same with my very recent (just got home yesterday) week on the island of Rhodes. Scheduled stupid o'clock departure made worse by a flight delay, too many long hours in a very basic airport, the usual story.

Just as well that Rhodes was beautiful and entirely worth the hassle of what Lonely Planet guides tend to refer to rather breezily as 'Getting There & Away'. Especially good as I only booked the (much-needed) holiday last minute, with no particular preference as to destination beyond 'somewhere nice and somewhere hot'.

Yes, the place is absolutely heaving with tourists, but since I was one of them I couldn't very well complain. Besides, most of them were cooking themselves to a crisp on the beaches or by the hotel pools and it was easy to steer clear of that and do my own thing. Of course, there's a certain breed of tourist for whom travel doesn't so much broaden the mind as fatten the brain, but I only really encountered any of them when it came to getting about the island by bus. The local bus service is great, but they do operate according to the principle that the bus is never full. Standing room is regarded as infinite and people are just asked to keep shuffling back, so on longer trips competition for seats is of course fierce. So twice I found myself caught up in a bottleneck at a bus doorway, where tourists of various nationalities battled for pole position. I know queuing is a quaint British tradition but it does work reasonably well and involves a degree of common courtesy. But it'll never catch on in Rhodes: I think I was the only one present actually allowing people to board in front of me.

Luckily the Greeks were a great deal more friendly and courteous than those tourists, ranging from the traders and maitre d's who were merely out to pounce on you with charm to make a sale to the genuinely welcoming and hospitable. Prices were higher than on Crete, which was only to be expected since that was two years ago, but my one main disappointment in the tavernas and restaurants was that the tradition of tailing off a meal with a complimentary little dessert and glass of ouzo wasn't observed at all here. Still, that didn't prevent me from finding my favourite bar, in which I could sit and write and fend off the baking afternoon heat with a nice cold beer: The Blue Palm, ladies and gentlemen, I thoroughly recommend it. Lowest priced beer in Ixia (where I was based), the guy who runs the place really makes you feel welcome and the place even has its own cats who can be found sunning themselves on the veranda or seeking shade under the tables. It's good for evening meals too, although my favourite haunt for dining was (and I hope I'm spelling this right in my clumsy non-Greek alphabet) Derliki, where the food was great, really reasonably priced and I was really well looked after by a lovely Polish waitress, named Agata. Interested in writing herself, she always had time for conversation and, having lived and worked in Rhodes for some while, also helped as an unofficial guide, with advice on how best to see some of the local sights.

She told me to get lost - in the nicest possible way. By which, I mean, she advised me to lose myself in the streets of Rhodes Town - the Old Town - and she was absolutely right. Honestly, it was an amazing experience and, souvenir shops aside, it was like strolling around Tortenschloss. The city featured in my (as yet unpublished) fantasy novel is inspired by St Michael's Mount, of course, but much much bigger, and Rhodes Old Town, for all that it is a thriving, bustling mecca for tourists, manages to impress as a living medieval city - right in the heart of a modern town, but separated by bridges and battlements. It feels truly vast and just by wandering around, taking random turns you can easily stray from the vibrant clutter of cafes, tavernas and tackier souvenir shops into a warren of cobbled streets and alleyways. Surrounded all the while - even in the touristy stretches - by history: Medieval, built on Byzantine, built on Ancient Greek.

That was my first solo excursion. Being on a budget, I only shelled out for one of the agency-organised tours, but that was worth the price as a general tour of the island, painting a great overall impression of the landscape and taking in several key attractions, as well as affording an opportunity to sample some of the local (alcoholic) produce. And why not. I'm not one of those tourists who goes abroad just to drink beer - I like to drink lots of other stuff too. (On the subject of which, Retsina was a hit, Metaxa rather tasty - Souma, not so much, but if your throat ever feels in need of industrial cleansing, it's perfect.) We visited the Valley Of Butterflies, a really picturesque valley where the Jersey Tiger Moths incredibly manage to outnumber the tourists, and Monolithos, a spectacularly situated medieval monastery with a commanding view of the Aegean. But the highlight of that day had to be Kameiros (above) which, for me, was far more impressive than Knossos on Crete, unspoilt by the colony of souvenir shops that flock outside the Minoan ruins and, crucially, spared the indignity of Sir Arthur Evans' ham-fisted efforts at restoration. All this and more taken in along a course down the wonderfully unspoilt West coast (not a hotel in sight!), meandering cliff-edge drives followed by winding mountain roads through the interior, flanked by rugged rocky slopes and/or hills laden with cypress, olive or fig trees. And even the occasional sprawling town, comprised entirely of the ubiquitous modern Greek architecture (i.e. boxes), managing to look pretty from a distance.

In contrast to that busy day, another of my solo excursions was devoted exclusively to one place. And Lindos (below), an hour and a half by bus down the East coast on the East coast, does demand that kind of attention. Not only because you have to climb a winding path (in the sweltering heat) to reach the acropolis, and not only because when you reach the top you'll need to rest in the shade of a handy fig tree, but because you'll want a few hours for admiring both the architecture (and again here different historical ages meet) and the incredible views in every direction. Also, although I'm fairly sure this is not an everyday occurrence, while I was up there, the acropolis was being 'buzzed' by a man in a flying contraption that consisted of a seat, an engine and a parachute. For all the airlines' faults, I just hoped I wouldn't be expected to fly home in one of those things - but it made for another memorable moment.

Sadly, there's a similar problem with stray cats on the island, although I don't know if they're quite as prevalent as on Crete. And, me being me, I befriended a few of the local felines while there - I'd promised my wife I'd take pictures of any cats I encountered. What was more heartening was that I met a lovely lady who was taking care of a lot of the cats in her neighbourhood. And while there were no rescue centres, there was at least a programme for sterilisation as a means of trying to keep the situation from getting out of hand. Heartbreaking to see these poor little creatures starved of affection, amongst other things, but good to know that, unlike on Crete, there seemed to be some people who cared.

All in all then, a great holiday and as well as recharging the batteries, it was fuel for the imagination and I managed to get some useful writing done while soaking up the rays. There were a lot of pubs and bars that were far too British, boasting big-screen footie or X Factor, in their efforts to cater for what must be the majority of tourists, but as I said it was relatively easy to avoid all that and find my own favourite places with more local flavour. By far the tackiest tourist moment had to be the taverna which, as I passed by, was (I think) just warming up for its advertised Greek night with a musician giving a rousing performance of Elvis Presley's '(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You' on the accordion.

Just one of the many moments that raised a smile. Although that one was very much in passing. No, I couldn't be tempted in to participate. But like Crete, I could easily be tempted to make a return trip to Rhodes some day. Ideally when they've invented the matter transporter because I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have all my bodily particles rearranged and beamed around the globe before I'd spend another hour in a Greek airport. :-)

Of course, there are always alternatives, like a leisurely Mediterranean/Aegean cruise, which has a lot of appeal. But it'd be really bad of me to start thinking of future holidays when I've only just returned home. Wouldn't it...?