Hi, guys, back again and ready for the first in my Foundation Media exploration of World War II. I should probably state for the record, this little jaunt into the war years is going to be so far from comprehensive that it hardly bears thinking about. It’s just that the last month or so, I have stumbled across a lot of stuff pertaining to that time, it’s gotten me thinking about it, and I want to share with you. I have not a doubt in this world that A) I’m going to be skipping a crap-ton of interesting stuff, and B) we’ll be looking at this subject again (and again and again). So, there you are.
In the meantime, it’s been a quiet couple of days here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia. The weather is slowly getting less horrible, which makes my arthritis very happy. I’ve gotten to see my grandsons, and was able to celebrate my granddaughter’s birthday; Happy birthday, Ada, enjoy being a year old! And make sure to be good for your mama (feel free to drive Daddy crazy; he certainly tried my patience when he was your age!) By the way, I forgot to mention it Monday: Sunday was my wedding anniversary! 29 years and my heart still speeds up a little when Hubby walks into the room (which is not to say that there haven’t been times when killing him and burying him in the backyard has not crossed my mind, LOL). I love you, sweetheart, and I hope we have another 29+ years together!
Speaking of my son, I expect a visit from him within the next few days, and that might bode well for you, my readers. Seems that, when Son was helping me set up this blog (I freely admit to being techno-challenged), he encouraged me to go ahead and set up a webpage to attach to my blog and Pen Name email addy (yes, it’s a pen name, sorry about that; it’s my maiden name, only scrambled a little). I did so, paid for the domain name and, well, that’s it. Son is not a web designer, so he was of little help in that department. Besides, I didn’t want to throw just any old thing up; if I didn’t have a good idea of what to do with the webpage, better to just let it sit until I find a good idea.
Good news: I’ve had a good idea. I don’t know if it’s doable, however. So I asked Son to come over and we can talk it through. When I have more information, I’ll be sure and share it with y’all.
Okay, enough about me. Time to move on to today’s topic: Installment One on World War II month. X Company.
X Company is a tv series that just started a month ago, on Wednesday nights, on the Canadian Broadcast Company channel in, duh, Canada! I heard about it over on Dieselpunks.org; thank you, Jersey Jake, for the recommendation! Since I’m Appalachian rather than Canadian, the show is not available in my area, so I’ve been watching it online.
X Company is not Dieselpunk (hey, I warned you). It’s straight historical fiction. According to Wikipedia, it’s a “Canadian/Hungarian spy thriller television series” that “takes place during World War II and follows five recruits to be trained as secret agents at a Canadian training facility near Lake Ontario. ” The episodes I’ve seen so far have been primarily set in occupied France (they shot the first season in Hungary, presumably for the terrain’s similarity to the French countryside), and, according to Wikipedia, “is inspired by the real spy training school Camp X.” (obviously a real place, and you can read more about it here).
The basic story is, there’s this five man team of soldiers and experts who have been sent into Occupied France to perform various military and/or intelligence gathering missions. A typical military mission: to blow up a bridge (the first episode) or to retrieve a downed airman (the fourth episode). A typical intelligence-gathering mission would be to get copies of German codes (second episode) or to spy on a local Nazi leader (the third episode).
Their execution of setting is genius. Everything and everybody looks the part. Costumes, hairstyles, makeup, perfect. The landscape, sets, props, perfect. A little fillip that I think works pretty well, considering. So most of the story takes place in France. But, outside Quebec, most of your viewers aren’t French speakers. So when the characters are speaking French, they drop their natural accent and go into a French accent. No, it’s not the perfect solution, but it is an unobtrusive and understandable way to communicate to the audience that they’re no longer speaking English. As a writer for radio drama, I appreciate the practicality of this approach.
Interestingly, they don’t do the accent thing with German; instead they go with spoken German with subtitles. I approve. It makes the Nazis seem more removed from the audience; even I find it distancing, and I speak German. It makes the Nazis feel alien and much less sympathetic, which is right for your villains.
The writing is pretty good stuff. The plots have not wowed me with their innovation yet, but they’re good, solid stories that I can easily suspend disbelief with and enjoy. And it’s early days yet; they have plenty of time to knock my socks off.
On the Dieselpunks.org forum, it became a topic of discussion as to how exactly to apply the Five Man Band trope to our team. I have my own opinions on the matter.
The leader of the team (and, duh! The Leader in the Five Man Band), Aurora Luft, is played by Quebec native Evelyne Brochu. She’s playing, duh, a French Canadian, and is the only girl in the field so far. I like the character pretty well. They’ve made her strong without making her seem icy and/or flat, which is too often the case when writers want to put a woman in charge of a group of men. It’s like the characters are overcompensating or something. Aurora doesn’t do this. She does what she needs to do, and isn’t afraid to kill; but she still has emotional depth. Her skill, other than being the one who speaks French the best, is as an actress; in every episode so far, she has done at least a perfunctory undercover bit, play acting the meek French maid to get one past the evil Nazis.
Her backstory is fairly thin, being primarily that she was in love with Rene, fellow Quebec native and former leader of their team; he was shot in the first episode, fell into a river and is presumed dead, since no body was recovered by either army. Personally, I suspect a soap-opera-esque reappearance of Rene eventually, though I hope they don’t go there; it’s too obvious and it’s been done to death. BTW: I hate the name Aurora; this is a war show, not a Disney film or bad fan fiction, for heaven’s sake! Granted, it’s a beautiful name, and for all I know it’s a common one in Quebec. But there are so many beautiful French names, surely we can do better than the one that screams “Twilight Fan Fiction Character of Epic Mary Sue-ness!”
Next is Neil McCay, played by English actor Warren Brown. McCay is the Lancer in the Five Man Band, the tough-as-nails, straightforward foil to Aurora’s softer, more devious approach. Back when I was RPG gaming a lot, we called a character like him a “brick.” His job was to stand toe-to-toe with the baddies and absorb (and dish out!) punishment, giving his team time to get into a better position and situation for dealing out death, or whatever. That’s mostly what McCay does; he’s the guy with the big gun. But, again, they haven’t gone the entirely obvious route; he speaks a bit of French, and can play act when necessary, well enough to deceive the Nazis.
McCay’s backstory is fairly sparse at the moment. He has what my poor untrained ears says is a working class London accent (I can’t be any more specific than that), and apparently the character hails from there. He lost his entire family during the bombings in London, and that is his touchstone, as it were. It gives him a hard, scary edge at times. The fourth episode revealed that one niece, eight years old, survived the Blitz, and was shipped to safety in the north of England with other orphans.
Next we have Tom Cummings, an American soldier played by Canadian actor Dustin Milligan. According to the Five Man Band, Cummings would be either the Big Guy or the Lancer. Both he and McCay are in contrast to Leader Aurora, in different ways. McCay is the obvious second in command. But he could also very much be the Big Guy, leaving Cummings to be the Lancer. Hmm… have to think about that one.
Anyway, as I said, Cummings is the lone American of the group. He has the most amorphous job of the group, sometimes doing technical work (second to the Smart Guy, who we’ll get to in a minute), sometimes fighting. Most of the time, though, his job is talking. What tiny backstory we get on him is that he was in advertising before the War, and is a great salesman and/or persuader. In one episode, he is talking to a Frenchman he has prisoner, and manages to talk the guy in circles enough that he implicates his own guilt in the death of his romantic rival, not cool when the grieving widow is sitting right there beside him.
The other thing about Cummings is an odd one. He seems strangely reluctant to kill, a little strange coming from a soldier in the middle of a war zone. Not in every episode I’ve seen so far, but in a least half, when given a chance to either kill or disable, Cummings has chosen to disable. He does this even when it endangers himself and the mission. Granted, avoiding murder and bloodshed is a laudable, honorable goal, but while you’re fighting a war for your life and the lives of people around you is not a good time to start practicing it.
Then again, maybe that’s the perfect time to practice it. Hmmm. Interesting ethical and moral question. Anybody have any thoughts on that?
Next we have Harry James, played by Canadian actor Connor Price. I don’t know what nationality the character is supposed to be, so I’m defaulting to Canadian. He’s the Smart Guy in the Five Man Band: he’s a techno-genius and gadget master. This is the character I think I know the least about. Beyond the fact that he was some sort of child prodigy in techno stuff, well, that’s about it. He’s the very youngest of the group (doesn’t look more than nineteen or so) and the others seem to make no small effort to protect him. Which makes sense, not only is he young, but his skills make him an asset that would be difficult to replace.
I know the least about this character, as I said. But in some ways, he’s the one I feel the most for. It’s the age and the nerd factor. He’s nineteen-ish (my own younger son is just turned 21) and he’s played as sweetly naive; when a young woman dies after he tried to help her, he weeps openly. And the nerd factor: I was a nerd long before it was cool, and my own children (particularly my boys, though my girls can nerd out from time to time) are unrepentant nerds. My boys are even techno-nerds like Harry. I guess the character just pushes my mommy buttons; I’m girly like that sometimes.
The final character is Canadian civilian Alfred Graves, played by English actor Jack Laskey. In the Five Man Band Alfred is the Chick (yeah I know he’s a guy; go read the TV Tropes entry. In the Band context, the Chick doesn’t have to be a girl; just a character that is weaker than and protected by the other team members). Alfred is ostensibly the primary protagonist; the first episode of the show was partially focused on his volunteering to help with the war effort, and his subsequent recruitment into the X Company. Plus, each episode so far has opened and closed on a scenelet of him in a jail cell, awaiting something. But, while I find the character emotionally very sympathetic (at least twice he’s made me cry, and we’re only four episodes into the series!), intellectually, I find him annoying.
First off the writers have given Alfred a photographic memory. That’s all well and good, it makes him a useful asset to an intelligence gathering team (though I’m not sure how I feel about them seeming to have given him an autism-spectrum type affliction as well; then again, maybe it’s just crushing shyness, not sure.). But the stopping point for me was giving him synesthesia as well. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, synesthesia is a neurological condition wherein some senses (most commonly just two senses) are tangled together, so that triggering one sense triggers a “false” signal in another sense. For example, every time your subject sees the color green, he also smells roses.
For starters, they gave him the complete works: every sense crosses over with every other. Overkill much? But here’s the thing. As a writer, I find this too much and unnecessary. Does the synesthesia affect the character’s ability to do his job? Maybe, but only in the most perfunctory way. Does it inform the character, give us insight into his mind, his heart, his motivations? Okay, once, but not in a way that only synesthesia could have told us. They could have achieved the same effect without all the fuss about synesthesia.
Moreover, you’ve heard of the I-Guy (as Stephen King calls it). This is our primary viewpoint character, the one we’re supposed to identify with and sympathize with. He plays the part that the various companions do in Doctor Who: he’s the audience stand-in, doing the things, feeling the emotions, asking the questions that the audience would ask, were they in that same position. So tell me how is the average joe on the street supposed to identify with a character who is so far removed from the norm? A genius with photographic memory, crushing shyness (or autism spectrum), AND synesthesia? Okay, maybe it might work, but it’s not the way I would have gone, had I been the writer. Introduce the character, yes, fine. But don’t make him the I-Guy.
Okay, thought of something just now, and maybe it explains what they’re getting at with Alfred. I could see the argument that the synesthesia is a way to visually express what the character would never say aloud. He is crushing on Aurora a little; they expressed it by showing her (from his POV) with a cloud of blue around her (right after he had implied he associates warmth and comfort with shades of blue). And the crushing shyness/autism/whatever….. I can see that it allows him to experience the war as a child would, with an emotional vulnerability that none of the other characters can afford to have. It allows him to what maybe I would feel, if I were suddenly dumped in a war zone and told, “Here’s a gun, do your best.”
Maybe. Still, I’m not entirely sure I would go the same direction.
That is my big complaint about the show. And I’m getting past it. For all the flaws in his development, Alfred is a sweet character, and he has his moments. My little whinge aside, the show is good stuff, and I firmly recommend it. Pulp fans can appreciate the action of it all. Dieselpunk fans can also appreciate the action, even without the punk element. And the history buffs in all of us will be well-fed by it. Check it out, seriously; it’s on Wednesday nights on CBC, for those of you in Canada. For the rest of us, find it online, you won’t be disappointed.
And I think that’s it for me. The longest blog post I’ve written so far. I guess I felt pretty strongly about this review. You know the drill: tweet, share, comment. If you wanna write to me, my email is on my About page.
A word about Fun Fridays: I don’t hear much from y’all. Here’s the thing. A submission doesn’t have to be something you personally made/did/wrote/whatever. It’s perfectly cool to say, “Hey, look, I found this online the other day and thought of the blog.” I don’t care where the recommendation originated; I just wanna share cool Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp stuff. Besides, I can’t spend every waking moment surfing the Net to find it all myself; I need your help. So if you did something cool, saw something cool, whatever, send it along to my email addy (on my About page, as I said). I totally wanna see it.
All right. Soap box is tucked away nice and safe. Time for me to go find some breakfast! I’ll see you on Friday!
Y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!