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What’s the Matter, Psychoville?

Here I will attempt to weave together two perhaps unlikely subjects – an epic sci-fi novel and a black-comedy TV series. By some coincidence, I finished reading/watching both yesterday, and by another, they both left a distinctly ‘unfinished’ feeling lingering with me, while both being utterly marvellous right up until the last few minutes. I’ll try not to include too many spoilers here, but it’s going to be tough…

 

Matter

Cover image, while undeniably cool, unrelated to novel.

Matter, Iain M. Banks’ latest addition to his series of ‘Culture’ novels, is a feat of a mind both fascinating and slightly humiliating. Fascinating in that I read great swathes of this book literally slack-jawed with wonder at some of the invention on display; humiliating in that one feels utterly intellectually insignificant while reading. Not only is the voluminous creativity a sight to behold, but the sheer detail and, on occasion, humour of it all adds up to a blinding package.

Take an idea like the Shellworld, on which most of the novel is set. I say ‘on’ which, but the point of  a Shellworld is that the inhabitants live ‘in’ it – it’s a synthetic planet, inside which there are about a dozen ‘levels’ on which various species live out their entire lives, and at the centre of which is a being regarded as a god by the planet’s denizens. Sounds like a beautifully simple idea? Yup. Wish you’d come up with it yourself? Thought so. The basic idea is fleshed out considerably throughout the novel; we find out that navigation is done through a set of hollow ‘Towers’ between the levels, for example, and some tantalising hints are dropped about the original purpose of the Shellworld’s construction.

It is in the midst of a war between two levels of this Shellworld that some dastardly deeds are occurring, and the resulting flight from, plan to deal with, and resolution of these actions makes up the bulk of the narrative. Natives of the technologically primitive Eighth level of the Shellworld must leave their homeworld and enter the wider universe, coming into contact with the hyper-futuristic utopian Culture who have so permeated Bank’s sci-fi thus far.  

The interplay of these (and other) disparate societies, and the exceedingly delicate political circumstances around them, serves to create a satisfyingly varied palette of semi-anachronisms from which Banks can paint his world (perhaps the feudal sword-wielders are a little too quick to adapt to the space-age tech they encounter later in the tale for it to be fully believable, but no matter (no, Matter)). It’s a truly wonderful ride, and as you’re being thrown around through memorable scenes from space stations to vast waterfalls to the Shellworld core, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all leading up to something rather spectacular. But… the ending just doesn’t quite do the epic story justice.

Firstly (SPOILERS), Banks goes into a lot of detail describing the actions of the novel’s main antagonist (indeed, many sections of the novel are told from his perspective), only to have him snuffed out without so much as a word in the penultimate chapter.  He’s then replaced by another evil creature, who lasts no more than one chapter. Talk about anti-climax. This abrupt demise only serves to raise several (unanswered) questions about his motivations right from the get-go.

Secondly, the ‘explosive finale’ promised by the blurb on the back of the book takes place in a rushed 15 pages or so at the end. You may say Banks is deliberately leaving the reader space to ponder the thoughts and feelings of the characters as they battle an ancient (yawn) evil, but this could still have been done in a bit less of a hurry. In a book which is so complex to need an appendix with lists of names, species types and Shellworld-related jargon, one could expect a more satisfying conclusion, perhaps involving a confrontation with that original bad-guy. Would that be too much of a cliché? Maybe, but it would give some much-needed closure. Banks doesn’t even have the excuse of a sequel (: not that many of the main characters last until the end anyway). (END OF SPOILERS)

One pair of writers who have this exact excuse for the somewhat anaemic finale of their latest effort is Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, co-creators of (though I bet they’re somewhat tired of hearing this every time they’re mentioned by anyone) The League of Gentlemen. This latest effort, Psychoville, was a jet-black comedy with a truly brilliant cast of characters, from the lonely, blind, Beanie Baby-collecting Mr Lomax, to Dawn French’s Joy, a midwife who’s just a wee bit too obsessed with one particular doll. Seemingly unrelated at the start of the series, their stories become increasingly intertwined, ending in (yet another) ‘explosive finale’ when they are all brought together by a mysterious stalker in the last episode.

Sound like you’ve heard it all before? Well, you have, kind of. The series was partially a spot-the-movie-reference game, with the most obvious of these coming in episode 4, with its entire 30 minutes filmed in one long take in an homage to Hitchcock’s Rope. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that the series is an exercise in lazy nods to myriad other writers, however. Psychoville displayed an uncommon verve for character development, and more than enough original material to keep you glued to the screen (in my case, the iPlayer screen) every week.

But who gives a damn about all this character development and plotting stuff if we haven’t yet answered the most important question about any comedy – does it make you laugh? And the answer is a resounding yes.All but one (see below) of the characters were both hilarious and strangely endearing, and near-classic scenes abound: man-child serial killer David Sowerbutts scrawling ‘FUCK PIG’ on the wall with his own excrement in an overenthusiastic fake murder at one of those murder-mystery nights; Mr. Lomax’s constant mistaking of a chocolate biscuit for his mobile phone; the laugh-as-you-shit-yourself scene where Joy’s baby apparently comes to life; the constant lampshading of plot elements. For me, most of the laughs came (appropriately, I suppose) from the clown character, Mr. Jelly, and his interminable confusion with his arch-rival, Mr. Jolly. The scene where he half-arsedly attempts to entertain at a care home while the residents are more involved in more, shall we say, sublunary matters, is comedy gold, for instance.

The only one of the 5 characters who didn’t provide any laughs was the dwarf panto actor, Robert. His story had an unecessary supernatural element which felt out of place at the end when almost all the mysteries were wrapped up in a rational manner, but most problematic of all, it just wasn’t funny. Maybe this would have worked in a drama series or something of that nature, but when compared to the menagerie of wondrous characters the rest of the series is built upon, Robert simply came across as dull.

So, the ending. Again, one would expect that in a series where 6 episodes have been devoted to getting the characters together in the same place, the resulting meeting would be dramatic to say the least. Well, it isn’t. The eventual revealing of the villain is somewhat prosaic, to tell the truth, and his raison d’être is not at all satisfying. Also, in the last few minutes the writers throw several new plot elements into the mix which are entirely unrelated to anything that’s gone before – an obviously desperate bid for a second series. This stuff felt chucked-in for the sake of it, and really spoiled what could have been a neat ending.

Not, as you may first assume, my family photo.

Not, as you may first assume, my family photo.

Exactly the same as Matter, then, Psychoville built my expectations up like I was a child during Advent, only to deposit a large and disappointing lump of coal in my metaphorical stocking. The most important point, though, is this: when an audience have been subjected to a long, grueling piece of media, the least you can do is give them a good concl

 

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