strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I have been doing lots of cool Dracula-related things lately, but until now haven't had the chance to write them up. They really need it though, as I will definitely want to remember them. So for today this is what I did two weeks ago at the Fourth World Dracula Congress - the latest in a series of ad hoc academic conferences on Dracula which began in Bucharest in 1995.

I wasn't actually sure I would be able to go to this until quite late in the day, as it was scheduled for a Thursday and Friday during term-time, but Friday is our regular research day anyway, and as luck would have it a lecture which I deliver fortnightly on Thursdays did not fall in that week. So off I went! Obviously the choice of Dublin for the venue reflected its status as Bram Stoker's birthplace, and indeed I had already made sure to visit his houses on my previous visits to the city: one of which in 2014 I managed to write up on LJ, and the other of which in 2015 I don't seem to have done, but involved visiting his childhood house on the edge of the city. Indeed, the whole conference actually took place in the same venue as the Augustan poetry conference which was the reason for me going over in 2014: the Long Room Hub on Trinity College campus. It was quite strange operating in the same venue but in a rather different capacity: last time academic, this time fannish. But that distinction only held true for me personally. The conference as a whole was very much an academic event, and indeed more so than I'd expected really. Every paper I heard was strong, and some represented really significant steps forward in our knowledge of Dracula: the novel, its author and the rich mythos behind it all. I'll highlight the two which that most held true for first, and then sketch out the others a little more briefly and by theme.

The first highlight paper was by Hans de Roos on Makt Myrkranna, the Icelandic 'translation' of Dracula )

My second highlight paper was by Paul Murray, author of 'From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker', which was initially published in 2004 but released in an updated edition in 2016 )

So those two papers between them were worth the price of admission alone. But then there were lots of other awesome papers! I have grouped them into themes, which in some cases reflect the way they were grouped for the conference, but in others do not. This is just how they come together for me.

Biographical papers )

Literary papers )

Papers on place )

Papers on Dracula from a Romanian perspective )

Papers on historically-attested 'vampire epidemics' in eastern Europe )

And then of course as if the conference were not enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed my third visit to Dublin in as many years. My main companion was Julia, chair of the London-based Dracula Society (i.e. the people I went to Romania and Geneva with), with whom I shared a room at Stauntons on the Green, a pleasant autumnal walk across a park from the city centre. We enjoyed several nice meals together, tried various Irish whiskies, met up with Julia's friend Brian Showers of the Swan River Press who organised a Ghost Story Festival in Dublin earlier this year, took a tour of Trinity campus including its splendid Long Room, and popped into Sweny's chemist, a historical pharmacy which features in James Joyce's Ulysses and is now run by volunteers as a literary centre and site of historical interest. Plus, after Julia had departed for her earlier flight, I mooched around Dublin a little more on my own, tracking down Sheridan le Fanu's house and buying a jolly nice new pair of flares. I close with a few photos of the sights of Dublin )

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strange_complex: (Barbara Susan planning)
OK, so here's me trying to catch up with Doctor Who reviews. I'll aim to keep them short(ish... for me), as there are so many to catch up with. And obviously, I'm now doing this with hindsight, so I'm unlikely to be saying the same things here that I would have said if I'd written about each episode at the time. But I do have the notes I wrote while watching each episode to hand, so can see what I thought about them on initial viewing.

Between its Viking setting and its explicit concern with the consequences of time travellers changing history, the first half of this story reminded me strongly of The Time Meddler, and was clearly supposed to. My own notes for the latter remind me that it was the first Doctor Who story to articulate the idea that time travellers shouldn't change history, as opposed to the idea that they can't (which is what we get the very first time the issue comes up at all in The Aztecs). As the Doctor says to the Monk, "You know as well as I do the golden rule about space and time travelling - never, never interfere with the course of history" - though it's noticeable that this rule has only ever applied to Earth history, as known to a contemporary TV audience. The Doctor can clearly change history on other planets as much as he likes!

This story is all about the Doctor breaking that 'golden rule' and creating a tidal wave where he should leave only ripples. At the time of broadcast, this was clearly signalled as a pivotal moment both emotionally for the Twelfth Doctor, and structurally for New Who as a whole - particularly through the explicit flashbacks to his decision to save the Caecilius family in Fires of Pompeii and his self-identification as someone who 'saves people'. And now in retrospect we can see how much it foreshadowed, too. The first half of this story put a lot of emphasis on how in saving Ashildr by using Mire technology, the Doctor had created a hybrid of the two races, and the second had Ashildr referring to herself simply as 'Me'. To join those dots, the closing words of Heaven Sent:
You got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half-Dalek. Nothing is half-Dalek; the Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.
Of the two halves, I preferred the second. That's not to say I disliked the first, and especially its core idea of the Mire being defeated with the power of imagination, stories and spin rather than brute force. But the second half appealed more aesthetically, offering a lot that was Hammeresque or generally Gothic, while its explorations of the consequences of immortality were suitably emotionally weighty. I also liked many of the smaller touches in the second episode - like comedy highwayman Sam Swift, Ashildr / Me trying out life as a man for a while (very Orlando), or her use of journals to work around the problem of a limited memory but an unlimited life-span. I'm only 39, but I am beginning to know the feeling!

Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether both halves of this two-parter could actually have been handled as pure historicals, rather than pseudo-historicals. This takes us back once again to The Time Meddler, which was the first Doctor Who story to insert an alien threat (the Meddling Monk himself) into a story set in Earth's past. Both halves of this story qualify likewise, thanks to the presence of fake-Odin and the Mire in the first and Leandro and his people in the second - but could much the same plots otherwise have unfolded without them? I'm pretty sure it could have done for the first episode, with Ashildr's village simply facing down a more powerful neighbouring warrior tribe instead of the Mire and making them look like fools to be laughed at around camp-fires up and down the land. The only adjustment needed would be to establish that the Doctor carries medical chips of some kind around on the TARDIS which could take the place of the Mire chip - but that wouldn't be hard.

It would perhaps be slightly harder for the second episode, as it's important to Ashildr / Me's emotional arc in this story that she is trying to find a way off the Earth to more exciting prospects beyond - this is what makes her collaborate with Leandro, kill Sam Swift and then realise that she has done something awful in a flawed cause. But I should think a clever story-teller (not me!) could still come up with some way to put her through that arc which didn't involve aliens. Perhaps she could instead have ended up aspiring to some kind of apocalyptic destruction-of-Earth plan, in the hope that it would put paid to her own unwanted and unending life along with everyone else's, but realised once her plan began to unfold that she didn't want this after all, and needed the Doctor's help to stop it? (Though that may be too utterly dark for Doctor Who, even now - defeating an alien-of-the-week is always a much safer bet for a feel-good story.)

But my point is that I felt that we were dancing on the edge of not really needing the alien element in either of these episodes - like it was there because that is simply the accepted Doctor Who format, rather than because it was actually necessary to what the stories were trying to do. Certainly, these weren't celebrity historicals - indeed, they stayed well clear altogether of touching on any specific Earth history as it might be known to a contemporary TV audience, which as I've suggested above is the real 'golden rule' of time travel. The matter of whether or not a particular Viking village was defended successfully against attack, or whether someone called Sam Swift was or wasn't hanged at Tyburn, wouldn't break our suspension of disbelief about these stories (and thus the whole of Doctor Who) taking place within our history, and our universe as we know it. And if we've got to the point where Doctor Who is producing historical stories that barely need aliens in them to work, then could it be possible that some time soon we'll take the next step onwards from there, and get to the stage of having a historical story which doesn't have aliens in it at all? That's something I have to say I'd really like to see after all these years without one.

Finally, I don't really watch Game of Thrones properly, though I've seen enough of it to have been able to recognise some of its musical cues in The Woman Who Lived in particular. But I enjoyed Maisie Williams' performance last year as the central character in the Channel 4 film Cyberbully, and was impressed again across these two stories - and of course Face the Raven, which I've also seen since. She has already appeared in the 'next time' trailer for Hell Bent, and I'm glad that we will be seeing both her and her character again.

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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
This is the first in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

We begin with the historical Dracula, because while Hammer's Dracula and Bram Stoker's Dracula are both very exciting, and their imaginative use of the Romanian landscape certainly shaped the way I saw it (see future posts on this), still in truth they are the products of Britain and Ireland respectively. It is direct encounters with the historical Dracula and his world that Romania has to offer, and that was my number one reason for wanting to go there. This isn't to say we visited every possible site connected with him while we were there. In practice, our trip was focused on Transylvania and Moldavia, whereas he was Voievod of Wallachia - the southern part of the country, between the Carpathians and the Danube. So we only spent a single day in the part of Romania which he actually ruled, which means there are still plenty more historical-Dracula-related sites for me to discover on a return visit. But between our day-trip to Wallachia, the fact that he spent a lot of his life in exile in Transylvania anyway, and the wider cast of historical characters who also have a role to play in his story, we did pretty well.

The highlight of our visit was Poienari castle, which we visited on our second day )
SAM_1856.JPG

Many more Poienari pictures )

On our third evening, we arrived at Sighișoara, where we proceeded to stay for the next two days. It is a medieval fortified town, with its centre very little changed by the march of history, and it contains this house:
2015-05-27 08.16.10.jpg

More of the house, in which the historical Dracula may or may not have been born )

After those two sites, we were done with the historical Dracula himself, but there were still plenty of places on the itinerary where we came across various of his political allies, enemies and relatives )

All in all then, traces of the historical Dracula were never too far away, and of course just being able to explore the geography and settlement structure of the landscape in which he operated helped me to understand him far better than I did before I went. There is more to learn, as ever, but this was a very satisfying historical Dracula field-trip.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of Ceaușescu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that light )

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious history )

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggars )

I also noticed that there wasn't a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m film )

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Given my current obsession with Dracula and the fact that I am a historian, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later I would want to read up on the historical man behind the myth. I also wasn't going to be satisfied with one of the many popular works on the topic. I wanted Proper History. In fact, what I really set out in search of was an English-language translation of the primary sources. Some of these are available online, such as one of the German-language pamphlets about him printed in Nuremburg in 1488 here. But those are very obviously highly sensationalistic, to a degree which makes the Historia Augusta's Life of Elagabalus look moderate and objective. Meanwhile, I could see that better material must be out there, such as the official document which this image of his signature was taken from. And I wanted to read it!

So I did my research, and very quickly this book stood out from amongst a large and rather motley field. Online reviews and tables of contents confirmed that it includes some 50 pages of translated primary source material (about 1/5 of the book), including official documents and letters from and about Wallachia, Ottoman Chronicles, a Byzantine historiographer, one of the German pamphlets and a Hungarian court historian. This isn't an absolutely comprehensive collection. The official documents and letters are 'selected'; Treptow for some reason omits the Russian pamphlets also published about Dracula (which are as sensationalist as the German ones, but to different effect); and he also cites at certain points, but doesn't present in full, the observations of Pietro Tommasi, the Venetian ambassador to Buda. But I could see in advance, and can confirm now, that it is very definitely the fullest available English-language source collection for Dracula currently on the market.

That would have been enough to make me want to buy it, but meanwhile, my investigations had also made it clear that the other 4/5 of the book were the thing I wanted next most after the primary sources - a proper scholarly analysis of the historical Dracula. This Amazon review from a history professor planning to use it in their teaching sounded particularly promising, while I also found a syllabus for a college course at Rutgers in which it plays a central role (and which I think is taught by someone different from the Amazon reviewer), and a Masters thesis published online which cites it extensively and admiringly.

All eminently promising, you would think. Surely no reason to hesitate about buying a copy? Except that there was, and is, because the author is a convicted paedophile )

Thankfully, once I had accepted the stain on my soul by buying it, the book did at least turn out to be everything I was hoping it would be as a work of history. The first few chapters, which provided background information about Wallachia and its politics in the period when Dracula came to power, were relatively unexciting, as they were primarily synthesis, but then Treptow turned in earnest to the reign of Dracula himself, and I found myself reading a chapter which began like this:
Communist historiography created the image of Dracula as a class hero who struggled to curb the abuses of the evil boyars. This thesis has been repeated so often that it is usually taken for granted, without realizing the political motives that inspired it. Precisely for this reason the relationship between Vlad III and his boyars must be reconsidered. [p. 73]
"Aha!" I thought, virtually rubbing my hands with glee, "now we are about to get some proper history!" And we did )

That's not to say I think this is the most perfect book about Vlad III Dracula that could ever be written, and it certainly doesn't attempt to be the most comprehensive. Biases and omissions )

So there is definitely more for me to read and discover about the historical Dracula than this book alone could tell me, but that's fine – that's how history is, and I'm glad I still have more to find out (and access to a University library to help me with it). Nonetheless, I think I was right in choosing it as my starting-point, because the historical analysis in the first 4/5 of the book was lucid, well-supported and above all transparent, while of course the translations of the primary sources in the final 1/5 now mean that I am very nearly as well-versed in the actual evidence for Dracula's reign as any expert in the field. Like most ancient rulers, his big attraction here is that the available evidence is so limited that reading it all doesn't take very long – and as I say repeatedly to my students, this means that you quickly can get on to the business of analysing and debating it, which is the really fun bit of history.

Of the sources themselves, the documentary sources (deeds, letters, decrees) are clearly the most useful for learning about the actual activities of Dracula as a ruler. Indeed, many of them are written (or dictated, or merely signed off) directly by him in the first person, which is the very best primary evidence you can ask for from any historical ruler. But I must say my favourite to read were the Ottoman sources )

After reading the collection as a whole, I also now feel much clearer than I did before on the whole issue of impalement )

I have certainly learnt a lot about late medieval eastern Europe from this book, which has in turn helped me think about various aspect of ancient politics and warfare by comparison and contrast. Reading about almost any monarch whose power essentially rested on military strength also helps me to understand Augustus better in the same sorts of ways, while one whose source-issues and reception history bear such close resemblances to Augustus' is particularly helpful. But of course I didn't just come here for a real-world history lesson, but also to flesh out the back-story for my favourite fictional vampire. I'm well aware that Bram Stoker knew pretty little about the historical Dracula, and was a bit confused about what he did know. But what if, in spite of that, you want to play the game of splicing together the two?

The truth is, it's difficult to do plausibly. The biggest problem is that the historical Dracula had at least two children between losing his throne in 1462 and regaining it in 1475, and then died in warfare only months after the latter event. If you assume both a) that vampires can't have children, and b) that his motivation for becoming a vampire would have been to achieve political success, then you end up stuck in a blind alley, because he can't have become a vampire until after he had finished having children, and by that point in his life his political successes were qualified at best. It also doesn't help that, like most Wallachian monarchs, he went round founding or granting bequests to churches and monasteries, and writing letters full of phrases like "by the grace of God", "we swear before God", "with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ", etc. - all of which would surely burn in the mouth of any vampire Dracula.

Then again, there are occasional phrases in the primary sources which leap out at anyone looking for a spot of vampirism. Like in Dan III's letter to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei, where he says that Dracula has broken faith with the Hungarians "following the teaching of the Devil", or the various references in the Ottoman sources to him flying through the battle-field "like a black cloud", or the story from a poem written shortly after his imprisonment (annoyingly omitted from this book) about him dipping bread in people's blood and eating it. There is also the fact that one of his most famous military attacks took place at night. All of this is of course either perfectly easily-explicable in ordinary human terms, or probably made up – but if you want to, it does provide just about enough fodder to build up a story in which he dabbles with vampirism and / or is assisted by a vampire for some years, but doesn't actually become one himself until at or shortly before the moment of his (historically ill-documented) human death. That is good enough for me.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Mirabile dictu, I am now on top of BOTH film reviews AND Doctor Who reviews, so at last I am able to move on to book reviewing. I have three unreviewed books in the queue, two of which I aspire to knock off today.

Like The Historian, this book came my way courtesy of the Notorious Dracula-Enabler of Old Meanwood Town, and I moved straight onto it after finishing the former. It is a very different book, though. Where The Historian was all about the atmosphere, this one is all about the action. There are dramatic carriage-chases, deadly duels, monsters on the Underground, encounters in dark alleyways, campaigns of vengeance stretching over generations - all the makings of a Gothic romp, really. But the prose is pretty ordinary; functional, rather than beautiful. And the authors' claims about what the novel is doing make it difficult not to scoff.

The background is that the Stoker family missed out on a lot of the potential revenue generated by the original novel, because some kind of minor technical mistake was made when filing for copyright for it in the USA. This came to light during negotiations with the Universal film studio in the 1930s, and once it had been revealed, it meant that the family lost all rights over any adaptation of the story. Meanwhile, a screenwriter and horror geek called Ian Holt had long been looking for the opportunity to write a Dracula sequel. Through various networks of Dracula enthusiasts, he eventually managed to meet Dacre Stoker, Bram's great-grandnephew, and they agreed to collaborate on this novel. So Ian Holt could benefit from the profile and marketing opportunities afforded by the Stoker name, while Dacre Stoker could re-establish a Stoker family stake in the Dracula character.

All of this is explained in an Afterword at the end of the book, in which both authors tell their 'story'. Unfortunately, though, between this Afterword and the novel itself it is patently obvious that a) Dacre Stoker is no writer (he literally says "Ian reassured me that, even though I had never written a novel before, I could do it"), and b) that Ian Holt is in truth much more of a film geek than a Bram Stoker aficionado. So we end up with this novel, which presents itself as The One True Sequel to Stoker's novel, but actually throws a lot of Stoker's canon out of the window, preferring the filmic traditions instead. Examples include:
  • Sunlight is fatal to vampires - famously invented for the innovative special-effects climax of Nosferatu (1922)
  • Carfax Abbey is in Whitby and next to John Seward's Asylum - invented for the stage-play to slim down the number of different locations, but popularised by Universal's Dracula (1931)
  • Renfield is a former partner of Peter Hawkins, Jonathan Harker's employer - Universal again
  • Lucy, who of course occurs only in flash-backs in this novel, having met a sticky end in the first one, is repeatedly described as having red hair - sounds like Francis Ford Coppola to me.
The in-story explanation for all this is that Stoker wrote his novel after a stranger (later, of course, revealed to be Dracula) related the basic events of it to him in the pub, but that those events were not related accurately in the first place, while Stoker also adjusted and embroidered them as he wrote them up. So this novel incorporates both Stoker's novel and Stoker himself, who appears as a character, but can also either keep or discard any of the details of Stoker's novel which it fancies, by simply declaring that those details either were or weren't 'true' narrations of the facts. Thus the surviving characters from Stoker's novel - John Seward, Mina and Jonathan Harker, their son Quincey, Arthur Holmwood and Van Helsing - all exist within this novel, and indeed young Quincey Harker finds out about Stoker's work and confronts him angrily about its resemblance to his family's real experiences. But those aren't actually quite the same as the events experienced by characters with the same names in Stoker's novel.

In some respects, this is fine, because it allows room for the exploration of the experiences and perspectives of Stoker's characters not covered in the original novel. But talking about those gets spoilery ) But the purely mechanical changes which favour film-canon over book-canon felt off to me in a book explicitly positioning itself as a sequel to Stoker's novel. This is what the Afterword has this to say about the issue:
"Our dearest wish is all Dracula fans - of the book and of the films - will read and enjoy our sequel. To this end there are several areas which we felt that film fans had so embraced and had become so engrained into Dracula legend that we could not overlook them. To the literary purists we apologize, but we feel this is a necessary concession, made in the hope of once and for all harmonizing Dracula fans."
Is it just me that finds their self-appointment as the 'harmonizing' healers of Dracula fandom breath-takingly arrogant? And naive, for that matter. But that aside, I don't think it is necessary to do things like move Carfax from London to Whitby so that people who know the story of Dracula primarily from its film adaptations can enjoy this story. Besides, the experience of reading it is one of encountering less a deliberate and clever merging of myths, and more a distinct impression that its authors couldn't actually be bothered to read the novel properly. Basically, it feels like this is the Dracula screenplay which Ian Holt always wanted to write, and probably had written well before he met Dacre Stoker, awkwardly and not entirely successfully re-configured to fit the opportunities offered by the collaboration.

That probably sounds hugely snobbish, but there you are. People get annoyed if what they find when they open the covers of a book doesn't match what is promised on the front. In fact, you can end up cancelling out the goodwill you would have achieved by being more honest about what you are doing that way. Because it's not actually as if this book is dreadful in and of itself. Like I said, the new angles on Stoker's characters which build on what he wrote, rather than contradicting it, are fun. And there are some quite good inter-texts which again don't contradict Stoker, but enrich the story by evoking the wider tradition around his text, and thus in turn drawing meta-referential attention to its status as a work of fiction. Those get spoilery, too! )

Basically, then, this is a cracky mash-up of Stoker's novel, its many filmic adaptations (though especially the American ones), a load of other Gothic tales, and some historical people and events, all wrapped up into a ripping adventure yarn with a surprisingly brutal ending. As such, it's a pretty good read. But the definitive sequel to Stoker's Dracula it is not.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I saw this almost three weeks ago now, and have been wanting to write about it ever since, but life is busy, and this was never going to be a short review. I thought it was great, though. It hasn't been getting the best reviews, apparently, but I haven't been reading them anyway, because I was always going to watch this with a different eye from most critics, so I don't really care what they think. Rather, it was obvious to me from the first trailers I saw that this film was going to do something I have long yearned for in a Dracula movie - make a proper attempt to explain how the historical Vlad III Dracula might have become a vampire, and do it by using something very much like the Scholomance mythos (in brief, an underground Devil's school which is part of Romanian folk-legend, is exactly where Bram Stoker says Dracula got his dark powers from, and may ultimately derive from genuine ancient pagan religious practices).

I am fundamentally positively disposed towards the idea that the Dracula of vampire legend should have begun his life as the historical Voievod. It really enriches almost any Dracula story for me to have that wealth of back-story sitting behind the character (whether or not Stoker himself used the historical figure as anything much more than a bit of vague window-dressing). I also like the idea of vampirism having its roots in ancient paganism, which the Scholomance legend can evoke without needing to be explicit about it, and which is toyed with in Hammer's Brides of Dracula. So I went into this film already loving it for even having attempted to bring all that to life on screen. And I came out feeling that even if it hadn't been the perfect movie, or told the story in quite the way I have sketched out in my own head during idle moments, it is still probably the best shot the modern-day film industry will ever take at stitching together the two.

Of course, because I'm a historian, my perfect Dracula-the-vampire origin story would respect what we actually know of the historical Dracula to the letter - but no-one else would want to go and see that film, because it would be dry, dull and dramatically unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the word is that Universal were basically using the film to fly the kite for a reboot of their 'monsters' back-catalogue in the form of a superhero-style multi-verse. So what they needed to do was to turn the historical Dracula into a classic 'troubled hero' type figure. Their take is that he was so determined to protect both his country and his family against impossible odds that he accepted the power of vampirism in full knowledge of its potential dangers, and as a result achieved what he wanted for others, but paid a terrible personal price. This adds up to a fine dramatic arc, and leaves them at the end of the film with a sympathetic superhero figure with a dark past - just what they needed! But history does get pretty distorted in the process.

As it happens, I've just finished reading a Proper Academic Book about the historical Dracula (to be reviewed in its own right shortly), so I am in a very good position indeed to spot the historical inaccuracies in this film. Here are some of them - and the reasons why Universal apparently introduced them )

Not super-accurate, then, in short. But my list is not meant as a stick to beat the film with. As I've shown, all of its deviations from the historical record (as we know it) have an obvious dramatic justification in terms of the story it wanted to tell. And in any case, this isn't a historical drama. It is a superhero / vampire movie. Having gone into the cinema to watch a film about the historical Vlad III Dracula turning into a vampire, it would be pretty churlish to then insist that everything else about the film should be entirely historically accurate (much as I, personally, would pay big money to see that film nevertheless). Meanwhile, for all that individual events are obviously distorted, embellished or entirely invented, I actually think that overall, the feel of Dracula's reign was captured pretty effectively. My guess is that someone did some pretty careful historical research during the early stages of this film's development, and that although quite a lot of what they found out was later laid aside for dramatic reasons, much of it survived to inform the outlines and atmosphere of the story.

Certainly, the basic situation of Dracula as a warlord in a small, geographically-remote country, vastly out-resourced by a neighbouring imperial power, is pretty effectively conveyed. The outlines of his conflict with the Ottomans are roughly right, too, even if the outcome of the final confrontation with Mehmed II is bobbins. And the landscape through which the action unfolds feels plausible too - the castles, the forests, the monasteries - even if the details aren't precise. OK, so it's all a bit Game of Thrones-ified (directly in the casting of Art Parkinson as Dracula's son and the location filming in Northern Ireland, and indirectly in the feasts, drapery and Dracula's improbably-blonde wife), but again, this is a fantasy film, and as such jolly well should be in dialogue with other productions in the same genre. Also, the special effects employed when Dracula used his vampire powers to control the weather and lay the smack down on the Ottoman army with his cloud of bats almost made me wonder if they'd been developed on the basis of some of the descriptions of those very same battles from the Ottoman primary sources. This is the sort of passage I'm thinking of:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Source: Appendix II.E, Treptow 2000]
OK, so in the film the heaps of corpses are Ottoman, rather than Wallachian, but if you've seen it I think you'll recognise the sorts of scenes which are being described here.

There is an obvious political problem with telling the story of Dracula's historical conflicts with the Ottoman empire in a 21st-century context, though. It is essentially an east vs. west narrative, and if your superhero origin story requires you to cast Dracula as the hero, that means the Ottomans - i.e. a bunch of Muslims - are going to appear in the role of the enemy. Some of the problems with the way the Ottomans are portrayed in the film are outlined in this New Statesman article, although I'm afraid the article as a whole really annoyed me, because it perpetrates massive historical inaccuracies about Dracula even while complaining about the film's inaccuracies regarding the Ottomans. (For the record, the Ottomans did not attack Wallachia to 'quell' Dracula's 'blood-thirst', but because he had stopped paying tribute to them, and nor did the Hungarians arrest him because they had 'had enough of his grizzly antics' either, but for their own reasons of political expediency.) The issue is definitely there, though. I don't think it's quite as bad as the similar set-up in 300, where the Persians were literally portrayed as inhuman monsters, but it's true that the Ottoman characters in Dracula Untold are portrayed as aggressive, arrogant, amoral, authoritarian and materialistic, in contrast to the brave, honourable, individually-developed and impoverished Wallachians (or Transylvanians, as the film has it). Some of the dialogue also reflects very contemporary-sounding prejudices. In one scene, two Wallachians / Transylvanians approach the Ottoman camp, and say something along the lines of "Have you ever seen anything like it?" "Soon everyone will be Turks". I could really have done without that - and, rather sadly, I don't think I can really conceive of a world in which an American-made east vs. west film would ever be made without at least some of it.

But so far I've talked about this largely as though it were a historical drama, and it is not. On the supernatural side of things, I've already said how thrilled I was to see that the film-makers had decided to have Dracula become a vampire thanks to an encounter with a devilish creature in a cave - i.e. something very much in line with the Scholomance mythos. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script, this character, who is played by Charles Dance, was explicitly presented as the Roman emperor Caligula, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Certainly, as filmed, the character is portrayed as power-hungry, eaten away with corruption, and keen to become master of his own deadly set of supernatural games. (His last line, "Let the games begin", seems to suggest that he has only just got started on an elaborate master-plan, presumably to be unveiled across a series of further films.) All of that matches up well enough with Caligula, but seems to have been ironed out during production into a more generic back-story, in which Dance's character is simply an ancient magician, rather than any specific individual. And honestly, although the prospect of a film about Dracula which also had a Roman emperor in it would have been Really Quite Exciting, I think that was the right choice. The original conception would have distracted from and complicated the main story, while the more generic version allows room for him to be whomsoever the viewer might choose - including Zalmoxis if you like it that way (which I do!).

Anyway, Dance is absolutely fantastic in that role, bringing to it every ounce of the great British villain tradition in a manner which Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes or indeed Christopher Lee could be proud of. Indeed, most of the cast were pretty impressive, although some of the characters which they were playing could have done with being developed better by the script. After Bram Stoker's Dracula, I think there is a whole generation of film-goers who react viscerally against the idea of any story-line involving Dracula's love for his wife surviving over the centuries and being rekindled by her reincarnation, which unfortunately does happen at the end of this film, but if you can bring yourself to give that a pass I think it was quite effective to include his wife in the story, so that we could see the impact of the changes which he undergoes on that very personal relationship. She is the first one to realise that something very bizarre has happened to her husband, to try to help him cover it up, and eventually (of course!) to suffer for it, while he has to grapple with and try to resist the intense urge to drink her blood. And although she obviously has to act within the framework of an essentially medieval society, she is clearly delineated as strong and capable character - again in quite a Game of Thrones-ish sort of way.

Meanwhile, the overall look of the film, and especially the clouds of killer bats, was just great, and I particularly loved the spectacle of hordes of properly ghoulish-looking vampires stalking through the battle-fields towards the end of the film, helping Vlad to wreak hideous vengeance on his enemies. If you think you might like it, those visuals alone make it worth catching in the cinema, rather than waiting for the DVD. And thankfully, I've just about managed to get this review up while you still have time for that.

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
Yes, the title of this post is correct. I was away all of last weekend, only saw this episode on Monday night, didn't have time to write it up in the week, and haven't even seen Listen yet either due to being out at a house-warming party last night. (The sacrifices I make for you, [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau!) So here I am, slightly over a week behind on Who-blogging.

I expected little more than fun and fluff from this story, but actually it delivered fun, fluff and quite a bit of substance to boot. In particular, it continued to develop the questions of heroism and what constitutes a hero from the first two episodes very nicely )

This is great, but it also leave me with a slight niggling sense of dissatisfaction, because a naive belief in heroes can be dangerous as well as inspirational )

Maybe I'm over-reading what was basically just a meta-fictional romp through story-land, though )

Meanwhile, both Clara and the Doctor get some further nice character moments )

Finally, obviously this week's nod to the season's Big Plot Arc is a spoiler )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Back in November, I pondered the question of why Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to his castle in the 1958 Hammer film, and concluded that it was because he is a bookish sort who genuinely wants his library put in order (i.e. Dracula does not simply lure Jonathan there with the intention of killing him). In comments on that post, both [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan drew my attention to the existence of The Historian, in which a rather different Dracula likewise lures a series of librarians and / or historians into his clutches for the same purpose. Not long afterwards, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan used words like 'dull', 'dry' and 'ponderous' to describe it, but while it is certainly slow-moving, and has various other flaws which I shall cover below, on the whole I absolutely loved it. Though set in the 20th century, it is basically about modern characters slowly working out that the historical Vlad III Draculea not only survived his own death and became a vampire, but is also an active threat to them in the present day. I am increasingly finding the historical Dracula almost as fascinating as the Hammer Dracula - and Hammer do, thankfully, provide just enough of a thread to link the two together in the first film, via Van Helsing's single line, "Records show that Count Dracula could be five or six hundred years old."1 So naturally the story of how the one became the other then becomes of great interest, and this book seemed to me a very compelling and impressively historically-grounded take on that story. (Another rather more fantastical and action-oriented take on the story hits cinemas in October.)

That's not to say it's perfect. It takes a long time to get going, and a lot of the early material in particular is basically gratuitous scenery porn )

A few other things could have been tightened up a bit, too )

Anyway, I have criticised a lot, but that's because this book was so close to being really incredible that its flaws are frustrating. So let's move on to some of the things I liked about it.

One was the meta-fiction )

Another thing I liked were the inter-texts )

And then there is the portrayal of Dracula himself - a topic which becomes rather spoilery )

Oh well, he was good while he lasted. And meanwhile some interesting ideas are left tantalisingly-unresolved for ongoing musing. In particular, the precise nature of the relationship between the daughter who is the main narrator and Dracula, which also can't be discussed without spoilers )


1. Obviously, so does Stoker in his novel, which is nice, but the Hammer films are the primary canon to me, even though I'm well aware that that is rather unfair, given that Stoker created Dracula-the-vampire in the first place. I guess as a Classicist I am just comfortable with the idea that the first version of a story doesn't necessarily need to be viewed as the definitive one, and while Stoker's novel is certainly extremely good, I just prefer the Hammer films for all sorts of reasons - and saw them before I read the novel anyway, so that they did come first for me.

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strange_complex: (Strange complex)
Yes, I thought I might want to write a little about this. I'm still concerned that I might find tonight's special a little disappointing (though also still hopeful I won't), but even if I do, this went a long way towards marking the anniversary appropriately for me. I do very much love the William Hartnell era after all - enough that that is where my LJ username now comes from. And it is a great pleasure to be able to use the Doctor Who anniversary to help develop and refine my work-related thinking about anniversary commemorations, as well.

It's fair to say, as Laurence Miles has done most forcefully (in a post now sadly deleted from his blog), that An Adventure in Space and Time both mythologised and stereotyped some of its main characters )

Anyway, as both a work of drama and a nostalgic tribute, An Adventure in Space and Time was brilliant )

Fannish tick-boxes and tributes )

Cameos and casting )

Anyway. 50th anniversaries are funny ones, I think. They stand on the cusp between memory and history. Enough time has passed for things to have changed a great deal, for memories to have become distorted, and for the need to reinterpret the past in a way that makes sense now in the present to have arisen. But it is generally not long enough for all those involved to have died, so that there is also a need for negotiation between direct memory and reinterpretation - sometimes both at work within the same people. If Doctor Who marks its centenary, which I very much hope it does, the line of direct memory to its origins will by then have been broken. It will all be about second-hand interpretation of the recorded past, via archives and photographs and interviews and of course the show itself. But it will be enriched by the fact that the 50th anniversary has served as a prompt to add to our collective store of direct memories, now while we can and before they are gone forever.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews, partly because I was in New York when this (half-)season started, and partly because I didn't find the first few episodes very inspirational anyway. This is an attempt to catch up.

7.7 The Bells of Saint John )

7.8 The Rings of Akhaten )

7.9 Cold War )

7.10 Hide )

7.11 Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS )

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strange_complex: (Penny Lane)
I wrote about my experiences curating the [twitter.com profile] PeopleofLeeds Twitter account earlier today, and said at the end of that post that I would share here some of the pictures which I posted to that account during my week, so that I have a more permanent record of what I did with it. This post contains some (though not all) of the pictures I took of non-Art Deco landmarks in Headingley during my week, and the things I said about them.

The no-longer original oak )

5, Holly Bank, one-time home of J.R.R. Tolkien )

The Cottage Road and Hyde Park cinemas )

Remants of the Victorian-era Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens )

None of the above photos are that great, of course, because they were taken with my phone camera, and I didn't usually have the luxury to be able to wait around for good weather, good lighting, no cars, etc. before I took them. But that's the nature of Twitter, and I think they did convey a good sense of what I like about my area.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I watched this on Christmas day, but amongst noisy family goings-on, so took the opportunity to rewatch it from the peace and quiet of my own sofa on New Year's day before trying to review it. I enjoyed it very much both times, though. It is certainly Matt Smith's best Christmas special to date, and quite possibly better than some of David Tennant's as well - though I'd have to rewatch those too to be sure.

The opening titles )

Intertextuality )

Design and symbolism )

Victorian values )

The Doctor )

The Vastra, Jenny and Strax Show )

Clara of the split personalit(y/ies) )

Clara's mystery )

Light-bulbs, meta-narrative, parasites and eggs )

The character implications of the multiple Claras )

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
And now, for my return train journey, let us consider the matter of A Town Called Mercy.

History and past continuity )

References beyond Who )

Kahler Jex and the Doctor )

Weaknesses )

Cool bits )

Future implications )

And now I think I deserve to finally watch The Power of Three...

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
As I said earlier in the week, I’ve been busy (though happy!) lately, and so am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews. I’m writing this up while on a train to London, where I will deliver a workshop on Space and Ancient History for school-teachers (which might as well be called Space, Time and Ancient History, since you can’t really talk about space without talking about time). An appropriate context for writing about a Doctor Who story with an Egyptian queen in it, I think. Obviously, I‘m writing this with the benefit not only of having read many other people's reviews of Dinosaurs, but also of seeing it with the hindsight of A Town Called Mercy. I've tried to acknowledge the effects of both of those where relevant. I also haven't yet seen The Power of Three, let along The Angels Take Manhattan, so I don't know where they will take us. As for my last review, I've grouped my thoughts under thematic headings.

Overall writing / plotting )

Time and history )

Guest characters )

Solomon and his death )

Awesome bits )

Past continuity )

Future implications )

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strange_complex: (Rory the Roman)
Oh wow - I loved that! This is what I watch Doctor Who for - proper engagement with the emotional experiences of the characters and clever ideas which break the rules of reality. It seems all too rare to get both in one episode these days, but this one got it just right. In my view, the only other episode this season so far which has done that was The Doctor's Wife, and I think this one was very much in the same league. In fact, I've a feeling I liked this one slightly better - but then I've only just seen it, so of course it seems more vivid and exciting than a story I last saw in May.

The dark side of the Doctor )

Gender-aware dialogue )

History books yay! )

And a little art history to boot )

RTD-era continuity references )

Moffat's own ongoing themes )

A couple of minor criticisms )

All in all, though, absolutely cracking stuff - and I look forward to I Can't Believe It's Not The Shining next week with renewed enthusiasm. :-)

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
So Moffat certainly does love his historicals. I noted at the end of last season that he was delivering a hit-rate of historical stories almost equivalent to Doctor Who in the mid-'60s. And it's not just that the bulk of this episode was set in 1969. It was the tropes he was playing around with at the beginning that really struck me - because they came straight out of the mid-'60s episodes.

See, I've got a little file of all the times 'history books' were directly referred to in Doctor Who in the mid-'60s - usually so that they could stand for the established, 'objective' view of history, as known to humanity, which the Doctor's adventures would then subvert and dance between the lines of. And that's exactly what we got at the start of this episode, too, when Rory asked Amy, "Do you really think he's back there trying to wave to us out of the history books?"

And I've flagged up case after case of in-story use of television screens as a parallel for the real-life viewers' experience of following the Doctor's adventures on their own televisions. That one's not unique to the '60s - it's been deployed over and over again throughout Doctor Who's history, including as recently as Moffat's A Christmas Carol. But this week's specific device of placing the Doctor within a Laurel and Hardy film reminded me very strongly of some of the '60s examples of it, and particularly the First Doctor's visit to a silent film set in The Daleks' Master Plan.

So, in short, it's not just that Moffat is setting stories in the past a lot. It's that he seems to me to be doing it with a very strong awareness of how Doctor Who has done that same thing within its own past. Indeed, as I've also said before when commenting on Whovian historicals, there does seem to be a particular tendency for Doctor Who stories which are set in the (real) past to become commentaries on the show's own past as well. And I could definitely see that going on here.

But of course that is by no means all, because the new thing which Moffat has really contributed to Doctor Who's treatment of history is his trademark tangling of time-lines - which was once again absolutely central to this story. That makes it hard to assess this episode it is own right at the moment. We've seen terrible and amazing things, but we've also been reminded that time can be rewritten. So who knows how it will all pan out next week. I've just got three squees and a question, which are going safely behind a spoiler cut )

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I was out when this was broadcast, and away the following weekend, so it's taken me a while to find time to sit down and write up my thoughts about it properly. So apologies for the fortnight's delay, but here at last is my write-up of the Doctor Who finale.

This has been the first season finale from the hand of Moffat, so most of fandom was waiting with bated breath to find out if we'd finally seen the back of magic reset buttons, dei ex machinis and Total Bollocks Overdrive. My view on that is that actually we haven't really )

So overall it was a more satisfying finale than RTD used to produce, although still not entirely WTF-free. And Moffat has of course also left us with a tantalising list of unanswered questions )

Meanwhile, back to this episode, I thought Matt Smith was superb again, right from his touching-without-being-sentimental monologue by little Amelia's bedside to his mad-as-fish wedding dancing. Little Amelia herself was great too, but I'm afraid that after a whole season I'm still quite lukewarm about grown-up Amy )

Not to worry, though, because I am growing immensely fond of Rory... )

...especially now that he has lived through nearly 2000 years of Earth history )

Anyway, the phone-call at the end of the story strongly suggests that the Christmas special will give us an Egyptian goddess on the Orient Express... in space! Clearly not a pure historical, or even a straightforward historical in the sense of being set chronologically in Earth's past, then – but still by the sounds of it a story which will draw on not one but two periods of human history. With a Doctor I now firmly like, a multi-companion TARDIS team and a historically-well-informed companion on board, that should be pretty good watching.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
Yeah, so - for the fifth time this season, I spent the weekend doing things that stopped me seeing Doctor Who on Saturday night, and then most of the rest of the week writing about them. It's going to happen for the season finale, too, which is a bit sad.

I'm afraid I was quite disappointed by this episode )

The history and geography were a mish-mash, too )

Still, all that said, there was some good material here too, which I believe I will present as bullet-points:
  • I liked the gradual emergence of information about the Krafayis - at first presented just as a straightforward monster, but later something which we develop compassion for as we come to understand it better.
  • Bill Nighy as the art critic was just great - absolutely perfectly cast doing exactly what he does best.
  • The structure of a story which begins with paintings in a Parisian art gallery and later requires a visit to the era when they were painted was a HUGE shout-out to City of Death, for which much win - though poor old Foury never did get to meet Leonardo da Vinci (or not in that story, anyway).
  • It's interesting to note that the Doctor puts particular stress on telling Van Gogh when he is depressed on the bed that the one thing there always is is hope - surely a fore-reference to how the opening of the Pandorica is going to be resolved at the end of the story?
  • On a similar note, interesting also that the casual references to unscreened adventures at the beginning of the story are to visits to 'Arcadia' and the 'Trojan Gardens'. I'm reading those as places in space which happen to have Classically-resonant names rather than actual Arcadia or a garden at the historical Troy - but they still fit nicely with the season's theme of myths and legends, and with the Pandorica, which is presumably another example of the same thing.
  • Bored!Doctor waiting outside the church for the space-chicken to appear was really funny.
In fact, there were some great Doctor moments throughout this episode, and indeed plenty of good individual moments and well-crafted lines for all the characters. I did enjoy watching it, for all I've said above. But I didn't feel that it entirely lived up to its own pretensions.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
Basically, I loved this episode, except for some reservations about the way the black characters were handled. Because unfortunately both of them succumbed to a spoilery racist trope )

Other than that quite serious flaw, though, it was a really good story )

The story as a historical )

The Doctor )

More on the handling of Earth history )

Amy and Rory )

The plot arc )

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