Saturday, 23 January 2010

"The most tablet-related excitement since Moses..."

Last summer I purchased a Sony Reader. In the months since I have watched with a mixture of vested speculation and early-adopter frustration as e-reader technology leapt forward. Since August, Sony have discontinued my PRS-505 and launched a version with a touch-screen, Amazon have released the international version of the Kindle and announced a DX newspaper-sized version of the device, and Barnes and Noble has unveiled the Nook. Now the interwebs are a-twitching with rumours of the iSlate/iPad/Apple Tablet which is reportedly to be announced at a press conference next Wednesday. Gizmodo in particular is foaming at the metaphorical mouth: every other post seems to be about the as-yet-unannounced device.

Though ebook advocates and Apple aficionados are treating the device as the Second Coming, actual facts are hard to come by. All we have to go off are mock-up images (above) depicting the prophesied device which, if even halfway accurate, will leave my poor Sony Reader looking like a primary-school chalkboard. The images tend to present a device like a flattened, oversized iPhone: a handheld backlit touch-screen with full colour display. If accurate, this would eschew the traditional E-Ink display and the electronic paper look of current e-readers. Unless Steve Job’s army of engineers have created either a new kind of a screen or a new kind of Li-ion battery, this would suck down power far quicker than is convenient for an ebook reader.

Despite the lack of facts, speculators argue that the iSlate could do for ebooks what the iPod did for digital music: make the medium functional and bring it into the mainstream. I have been using my e-reader for some months now and though I enjoy the convenience of it, there are a couple of things about books that it simply cannot mimic.

First, reading from it can become tiresome. Every printed book is different: different size, different paper, different font, different shade of text, different weight. E-readers standardise text so that reading one book feels the same as reading any other. PDF books have the advantage of retaining unique formatting but the size of PDF pages makes them more inconvenient for the e-reader screen than formats like ePub and LRF – formats which improve readability but make text homogenised and dull. E-readers therefore eliminate the excitement that comes from putting one book aside and opening a brand new one. Every book looks similar: every book looks grey.

Second, academic texts don’t work on an e-reader. The reading of an academic book is very different from the reading of a narrative book. Academic books require flicking: from index to text; from contents to chapter. E-readers flow nicely when reading a book cover to cover but cannot approximate the ‘flick through’.

I like my e-reader but I don’t love it. Since August, my diet has been split between paper books and books off my Reader. It hasn’t been indispensable in the same way as my iPod is. That’s what I’m so interested to see what Apple brings to table on Wednesday (if anything): whether their ebook reader can offer the blend of form and function that Apple are known for; whether it will revolutionise the electronic publishing industry; whether I’ll ever be able to afford it.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Review - The End of Time

At the beginning of this new year, the BBC gave us The End of Time. Unfortunately David Tennant's swansong as the Doctor epitomised everything that was wrong with Russell T. Davies’ tenure as head writer of Doctor Who. It was a poorly plotted, overstuffed, nonsensical mess. Thankfully the reign of Moffat begins soon and he knows how not to write a Russell T. Davies script.

First, don’t use the ‘Doctor as Messiah’ theme. It was bad when Davies used it as a deus ex machina to solve the inextricable problem he’d written in for the end of Season 3. This time it went much too far: a church built to worship the ‘blue box’, the universe singing the Tenth Doctor to sleep. The character has more pathos when his good deeds go unrewarded, when he is a silent protector doing what is right for no personal gain. The Doctor is a great character without being the lord and saviour of the cosmos.

Second, less is more. A story can be epic without throwing everything you have into it. Davies’ season finales invariably involved the Earth being in peril on a planetary scale. Surely the population is used to it by now. This time the script contained a planet full of The Master, Gallifrey returning, green alien people and their spaceship, a cult devoted to The Master, a convenient billionaire with a convenient private army, a regeneration, and coincidences that would make Dickens cringe. Increasing the danger does not necessarily increase the drama. Put a single character in danger. Tell a small, personal story. Just because the BBC gives you a massive special effects budget doesn’t mean you need to use every penny.

The two previous points were demonstrated during the regeneration. It was far too heavily laden and melodramatic. It took twenty minutes for it to happen and the emphasis on the character ‘dying’ took away all the continuity between this incarnation and the next. By making this regeneration such a big deal, Davies insulted all the previous actors who took the role: no prior incarnation had the universe sing him to sleep, no prior incarnation blew up the Tardis. A more subtle regeneration would have been to have Ten enter the giant nuclear plot device, free Wilf, get filled with radiation, cower in a ball with some special effects light, and then to emerge as floppy-haired Matt Smith.

Third, leave characters alone. Rose didn’t need a cameo. Martha didn’t need a cameo. Jessica Hynes certainly didn’t need a cameo. As much as I enjoyed Bernard Cribbins, Wilf didn’t need to be the companion. Any stranger would have sufficed for that role: when the Doctor angrily says that Wilf isn’t “remotely important” would have made more sense if, during the previous episode, Wilf hadn’t been continually told that he “was important”.

Finally, write plots that make sense. Davies’ previous scripts seem logical compared to the nonsense in The End of Time. What does The Master gain from becoming everyone on the planet? If all the other Masters were the same as the original, the planet would descend into an unending war for supremacy. Why does the Doctor want to stop the Time Lords returning when he has spent four seasons of character development moping about being the last of his species? What happened to The Master in the end? Why did the Doctor keep flipping the gun from Simm to Dalton like an indecisive merry-go-round?

David Tennant will be missed: he was good in the role and brought energy to scripts that resembled Harrison Ford’s famous remark to George Lucas – “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.” Russell T. Davies deserves credit for bringing back the show (and for writing that brilliant Torchwood mini-series last year). But it’s good that Doctor Who will now be getting a writer who understands time travel. You’d think that to be the absolute minimum to be expected from a head writer on a show about time travel.