“…And know the place for the first time”: Love as Synthesis in Our Flag Means Death

Barbados, 1717. Stede Bonnet seems to have it all: wealth, land, and a doting family. And yet he leaves it all behind; runs off, like a thief in the night, to pursue a life of piracy. His ship isn’t captured but commissioned; he pays his crew in wages, not plunder; and his impractical attire and genteel ways come to earn him the nickname, ‘The Gentleman Pirate’.

It’s a tale as old as time… right? Maybe not, but Stede Bonnet’s story, though much of it is lost to time, is true – and it’s the subject of HBO Max’s best new series: Our Flag Means Death. Created by David Jenkins (People of Earth) and starring Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby as Stede, it follows the ridiculous and often disastrous exploits of the Gentleman Pirate and his beleaguered crew as they roam the high seas. When news of Stede’s escapades reaches the infamous pirate Blackbeard, played by Oscar winner Taika Waititi (who also executive produces), an unlikely romance begins to blossom between the pair.

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‘You must seek him out’: Battling the Doubled Self in The Green Knight

There is nothing out there quite like The Green Knight. Directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and starring Dev Patel (Lion, The Personal History of David Copperfield), it adapts the 14th century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose author remains anonymous. The story follows Gawain (Patel), the roguish nephew of King Arthur who longs to become a knight, but whose reckless response to a mysterious stranger’s ‘friendly’ game takes him on a quest that could claim more he is willing to give. The film has been praised for its stunning visuals, bold reworking of the story, and for Dev Patel’s scintillating turn as a honourless knight searching for virtue. From Lowery’s tactful, attentive direction to Malgosia Turzanska’s bewitching costumes and Andrew Droz Palmero’s hypnotic cinematography, the film itself is a mesmerising meditation on what it means to truly earn the thing you search for. That’s not to say it’s perfect: some critics have found it to be frustratingly opaque and self-indulgent. Others have argued that it’s a bad adaptation which omits the poem’s fun, satirical, and queer aspects, though Jude Ellison S. Doyle makes a persuasive counter-argument that this Gawain is closeted rather than straight-washed.*

This post has its origins in a Cardiff BookTalk discussion in December 2021, hosted by Dr Anna Mercer and featuring guest speakers Dr Usha Vishnuvajjala, Dr Sabina Rahman, and Professor Tison Pugh. To have such a fascinating film dissected by such brilliant scholars is a rare privilege, and it was especially thrilling to hear the speakers discuss duality within the film, as it’s a theme which hews close to my heart. While watching the film, I started thinking of the Green Knight as Gawain’s double, both symbolically and literally. It’s a thought which has haunted me almost as relentlessly as the film has, making the writing of this post something of an exorcism. My reaction to it was visceral, if not immediate. It is an oozing, spooling thought of a story; a slouching towards Bethlehem with no softening prophecy. This is a film that isn’t afraid of waiting: surreal and sensual, it courts silence, romances absence; not darkness visible, but silence audible. I watched that film with my whole body… I was the sash around his waist.

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I Got You Babe – Romantic Symbiosis in Venom: Let There Be Carnage

We’re at the point where it’s become clichéd to bemoan how woeful most comic book movies are at romance. The love interests within them tend to exist to tortuously tick the boxes on the heteronormative checklist; even when there is romance to be found, it usually culminates in a kiss or a proposal or a declaration of some sort, perhaps even a wedding – but that is where they end. Very few go on to interrogate the intricacies of romantic love and how characters navigate relationships. Most superhero movies tend to conjure about as much romantic tension as a couple of plastic action figures being bumped together. But Venom: Let There Be Carnage isn’t most superhero movies, and it takes romance very seriously.

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‘Did I ever tell you about the illusion of free will?’ American Gothic (1995-96) and the Suggestibility of Guilt

*TW mentions of slut-shaming, suicide, rape, sexual assault, murder*

Many TV shows that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life – and American Gothic, which ran for a single season on CBS between 1995-96, definitely deserved better. Developed by indie horror king Sam Raimi and former Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy, American Gothic stars Gary Cole as Sheriff Lucas Buck – “That’s Buck, with a ‘B’” – who rules the small town of Trinity, South Carolina with an iron fist and a silver tongue. With a host of supernatural powers at hand, Buck holds the townspeople under his thrall and uses them like pawns to fulfil his evil whims. He’ll solve your problems, for a price – and he always comes to collect.

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Daddy Issues: BBC’s Jekyll (2007) and the Hereditary Hyde

To call Steven Moffat a divisive figure in the pop culture landscape is something of an understatement. To some, he’s the genius quipster who, coupled with long-time collaborator Mark Gatiss, is responsible for some of the finest British TV of the twenty-first century. To others, his work can be sometimes accused of being winkingly contemptuous of its own audience. Their recent take on Dracula isn’t the first time Moffat’s taken his scalpel and his sass to a fin-de-siècle Gothic monster. That honour goes to Jekyll, a modern-day sequel to the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson classic, which happens to be a rare and welcome instance of one celebrated Scottish writer adapting the work of another – to schismatic effect.

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A Portrait of the Mad Scientist as a Young Man: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series by Kenneth Oppel

Frankenstein’s legacy is legion; ironic, given how greatly Victor feared what the descendants of his nameless creation might wreak on the world. A latter-day legend that interweaves science and faith, cruelty and beauty, the monstrous and the sublime, is one which continues to scintillate and scare us to this day. As such, Frankenfictions, mash-ups and retellings of the tale are ubiquitous in a landscape caught in the thrall of nostalgia, where classic monsters are being made and remade again and again – though not always to great commercial or critical success.

The prequel is a particularly tricky art form to master, and rarely done well, because the story that so captivated people simply hasn’t happened yet. The temptation to merely mimic the broad strokes of the original can render the prequel itself narratively inert – or so ambitious that the endeavour fails completely. Others can open up new worlds entirely. And so when I learned of a duology of Frankenstein prequels, set in Victor’s teenage years, I must admit I checked them out solely out of morbid curiosity. I fully expected some angsty YA knockoff, especially judging from the Ben Barnes-alike on the cover, with a couple of references to lightning and Prometheus dotted throughout. But what I found instead was an engrossing, engaging and inventive tale that not only does justice to Frankenstein but carefully lays the groundwork that sets Victor on his Gothic quest.

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The Ghost and Mrs Demure: Looking Back on Spirited (2010-2011)

Discovering a series long after it’s ended is a lot like being Captain Picard in that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where he lives a lifetime in twenty-five minutes. You know: the one with the flute. Like Picard, you get transported into a strange new world, gradually learn its ways, and grow to love the people you meet there – only to return to the present, bereft, but all the better for having those memories to treasure. Picard is told by the shadows of those that once were, “The rest of us have been gone a thousand years. If you remember what we were, and how we lived, then we’ll have found life again… Now we live in you.” That’s exactly how I felt after happening upon a wonderful and tragically overlooked gem of a series called Spirited.

Created by Jacquelin Perske and Claudia Karvan (who also stars), Spirited centres on the unconventional relationship between a “living” human, Suzy Darling (Karvan), a strait-laced dentist, and the ghost occupying her apartment, Henry Mallet (Matt King), a 70s rock star. In life, Mallet was the frontman of legendary punk band The Nerve; last sighted in Australia in 1983, he rocks up in 2010 – seemingly unaged – in the swanky Sydney penthouse owned by Suzy, who’s finally left her loathsome husband Steve (Rodger Corser) and taken her two children along with her. Airing on Australian premium channel Foxtel between 2010-2011, the show was unjustly cancelled after two seasons despite winning awards, high ratings, and a dedicated fan base who implored the network to #SaveOurSpirited after the axe fell.

Love stories between a ghost and a human are a rarer supernatural subgenre than most. When they do pop up, they usually focus on a couple who were already together before one of them shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving the living partner to struggle with their loss and ultimately learn to move on. In these stories, to love a ghost, and let them go, is a way of personifying the grieving process. Rarer still are the romances in which the pair only meet after one of them has died, the most prominent of which – classic movie The Ghost and Mrs Muir, and its television remake – has been cited by Karvan as a major influence on Spirited.  And rarest of all is Spirited itself, an achingly sweet, whimsically funny, and charmingly offbeat series that will break your heart and make it beat again.

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The Lost City of SG: Looking Back on Stargate Atlantis

I remember the first time I encountered Stargate as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 2009, and I had just returned home from school, burned out and burdened with worries: achingly unspoken crushes, friendships that were changing beyond recognition, and exams that would determine the course of my life (or so I thought back then). I switched on the television and stumbled across a scene that captured my heart. There was a man, in a place that looked at once ancient and futuristic, who was in the process of losing his mind – not only memory and skill, but his entire sense of self. In his life he had been abrasive, even cruel, it seemed – but his friends were kind, and they were loyal, and they cared. They fought tooth and nail to cure him and, when all options had been exhausted, to take him to a place that would give him a day of mental clarity, surrounded by loved ones, before the end.

That man was Dr Rodney McKay, the episode was ‘The Shrine’, and the series was Stargate Atlantis. I had fallen hard on all counts. The second my mum came home from work, I started babbling about this incredible show and this amazing character, and it wasn’t long before she was hooked too. She had introduced me to Star Trek and Star Wars when I was very young, and it felt fitting that I could now introduce her to something that I had loved and discovered. Better still that we could discover the lion’s share of the series together. Every day, after dinner and before homework, we would travel through the stargate in our living room through to the Pegasus Galaxy, and spend time with a cast of characters who were fast beginning to feel like friends.

The show found me in a time of uncertainty, and it found me again in a time of even greater need: the year of our Lord COVID-19. When the UK locked down in March 2020, Stargate Atlantis provided sanctuary and salvation in the way that only one’s most beloved stories truly can – and I’m forever grateful to the cast and crew for a lifetime’s worth of adventure. Nostalgia might have sanded down the show’s rough edges and cemented over its pitfalls, but it’s still a gangbusters bit of sci-fi by any measure. The longevity of SGA, and the legacy of the franchise as a whole, prove that these stories and these characters – like the stargates themselves – can be buried in obscurity for a long time before being dusted off and rediscovered, as powerful as ever.

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The Atheist Parable of Ad Astra

A star travels through the stars. This appears to have been the inspiration behind 2019’s arthouse blockbuster Ad Astra, a film whose pitch was, according to director James Gray, ‘Brad Pitt goes to space’, and whose title refers to the Latin phrase (perhaps uttered by Virgil), ‘per aspera ad astra’ (‘through hardships to the stars’) . Pitt is the latest in a long line of lonely-eyed leading men to travel through the bleakness of the cosmos as means of traversing his own perilous soul. He plays Major Roy McBride, an astronaut with a near-inhuman capacity for keeping a cool head and a stable heart rate even in the most catastrophic conditions. His father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), left Earth three decades ago to lead the Lima Project on a mission in search of extra-terrestrial life; sixteen years have passed since the crew reached Neptune, and made their last contact with Space Command. On learning that his father may indeed be alive, and perhaps responsible for the recent bout of lunar surges that threaten to destroy life on Earth, Roy embarks on a literal and psychological odyssey to save both his father and the galaxy.

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Black lives matter. Black trans lives matter. They always have, and they always will – but they have not always mattered to, or been valued by, the social structures and institutions which uphold white supremacy, nor by those who perpetrate or benefit from this systemic racial injustice. Black lives have been continually and relentlessly disrupted, abused and taken by the very people who should be protecting them.

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