Fangirl Fridays: Tali’Zorah vas Normandy

After time adrift among open stars
Among tides of light and to shoals of dust
I will return to where I began.

The story of the quarians as presented in the original Mass Effect will likely be a familiar ones to fans of the Battlestar Galactica reboot: betrayed by their creations, the robotic geth, they were driven from their homeworld, forced to drift through the galaxy in a ragtag fleet. Oh, sure, there are some key differences – the geth aren’t actively pursuing the quarians, for one, and the Mass Effect galaxy is full of sentient life, so though most other species distrust and mistreat the quarians, there are still opportunities for trade and diplomatic relations. But you might be forgiven for thinking of the quarians as rather derivative, at least as first. As their story unfolds, however, particularly in the subsequent games, we see how complex their history truly is, particularly where the geth are concerned. We come to understand their complicity in truly heinous acts that ultimately led to their exile and near extinction. And, depending on how you play it, we see the quarians as a people step into a bold new future.

None of it would mean a thing if it wasn’t for Tali’Zorah vas Normandy. Though she is ultimately joined by other voices, we first hear the story of her people in her words. When new information comes to light, it is her perspective that illuminates the actions and reactions of the quarian race. And it is her presence on the crew of the SSV Normandy that makes us care. Because during her time with Shepard and the rest of the team, she becomes crew. If you put in the time and effort, she becomes more than that. She becomes family – a fact that both she and Shepard will readily acknowledge.

Quick, careful, and lucky.

When we first meet Tali’Zorah, she’s Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a somewhat disreputable young woman (solely by virtue of being a quarian apart from the fleet) on her Pilgrimage – a rite of passage all young quarians must undertake in order to prove their worth to the Flotilla and attain adult status in their society. Her information is literally vital to unlocking the next chapters of the story. You can skip meeting Garrus or Wrex if you like, but if you fail to recruit Tali to your cause, that cause is lost.

She’s more than just a key to the rest of the story, though. You may not see that if you don’t put in the effort – you can find her in Main Engineering whenever you feel like talking, but if you don’t go down there, she won’t seek you out. Those conversations are honestly one of the best parts of the game. Through those long talks in Engineering, you begin to see Tali as a whole person: nervous, shy, geeky, unaccustomed to dealing with outsiders, but nevertheless brilliant and caring. Truly, profoundly dedicated to her people, but also devoted to the well-being of everyone in the galaxy, and increasingly loyal to Shepard personally. Occasionally sarcastic, sometimes even witty, with a sly, subtle sense of humor. Every time I play this game – no matter how I’m playing Shepard – I can’t help seeing her as a surrogate little sister, imagining Shep taking Tali under her wing. Maybe that’s just my overactive imagination talking, but I don’t think so. You instinctively want to protect Tali, and more than that, to help her thrive – to shepherd her (pun definitely intended) to her ultimate, glorious destiny.

Tali'Zorah vas Normandy in all her glory.

And what a destiny it is. When we see Tali again in Mass Effect 2, she has returned to the Flotilla, becoming Tali’Zorah vas Neema, a leader among her people. Her team roams the galaxy, ranging far from the rest of the fleet, chasing down missing quarians and elusive scientific data. In fact, to some extent, you might see her as the quarians’ answer to Commander Shepard. She’s an investigator, a troubleshooter, and a staunch defender of her people. Even so, when her immediate duties are fulfilled and the opportunity arises, she readily signs on with Shepard again, rejoining the crew of the Normandy on their mission to save the galaxy…again. This earns her a certain amount of scorn among her own people, some of whom are only too eager to brand her Tali’Zorah vas Normandy – a small but definite mark of shame tied in with fleet politics and the fallout from certain events on the Flotilla. Tali, however, refuses to treat the label as such. Instead, she embraces the name, keeping it even after her path leads her away from the Normandy again and wearing it with pride. Though she loves her people, and would literally lay down her life for them, it is clear that she loves Shepard and the rest of the Normandy crew as well, and looks back fondly on her time with them.

And yet, despite her increasing importance to her people, her evolving and expanding role in the Flotilla, and the confidence and grace that come to her with maturity, she remains humble, open-minded and, yes, occasionally awkward and geeky. One of the sweetest moments in the second game comes when she tells Shepard that she’d gladly join their suit environments if she could – a gesture of intimacy (not necessarily sexual intimacy, but simply the intimacy that comes with any close relationship) among the quarians, whose already-weak immune systems have degraded in exile to the point where they must wear isolation suits at all times – and, predictably, stammers and stumbles over the explanation as the implications occur to her, her blush nearly bright enough to be seen through her helmet. In the third game, she speaks openly with Shepard about her fears and doubts – above all else, her ability to live up to the trust her people have placed in her and to fulfill the duties that come with her role as a leader. And as new information comes to light regarding the quarians and the geth, she adapts to it. It’s not always easy for her, but she’s willing to change her mind. And in the end, depending on Shepard’s actions and the conversations she and Tali have had, Tali’s willingness to change her mind can potentially lead to a new and glorious destiny for all quarians. For all her doubts, for all her fears, for all her insecurity, her power and influence are undeniable, as is the responsibility she takes for her choices every time she exercises that power.

May 30th. Check your local comic book shop.

Idealistic, brilliant, nervous, geeky, sarcastic, funny, sweet, loyal, stubborn, kind and forgiving, Tali is one of the Mass Effect franchise’s most fully realized and sympathetic characters. It’s no wonder that she’s attracted a pretty huge following, and that the quarians in general are widely beloved among Mass Effect fans. It’s unsurprising that fans clamored for the opportunity to romance her (which they got in the second game – at least if they were playing a male Shepard) and that they’re still hungry for more. They’ll soon get it: Mass Effect: Homeworlds #2, out next month from Dark Horse Comics, will give us a glimpse into Tali’s adventures before she met Shepard. Hopefully there will be many more such stories to come, filling in the gaps between her meetings with Shepard in each game, and expanding on the vital work she performed for the Flotilla. I don’t think any of us are quite ready for her story to be over. There’s so much more to tell.

Keelah se’lai.

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Fangirl Fridays: Toph Beifong, Earthbending Master

If you’re any kind of fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, then you probably already know that the follow-up series, The Legend of Korra, officially premiered on Nickelodeon today. If you’re not a fan, then you should probably either stop reading this post (because you’ll hate it), or – if you haven’t seen the series at all – you should go watch it and then read this post, because really, you deserve to meet Toph Beifong for the very first time as the living, vital, amazing character she is. I’ve included the usual Amazon links up above, but I believe the show is also available on Netflix Instant. Go on, give it a watch, I’ll wait. (Please note that I’m referring to the series here. Don’t bother with the live-action movie. I know I haven’t bothered with it. I’ve just heard horrible things.)

As awesome as Toph is, she isn’t the star of the show – that role, of course, falls to the Avatar and titular last airbender, Aang. Toph doesn’t even appear until Avatar‘s second season (or Book Two), but she makes a hell of a splash once she does show up. Where most of the first season revolved around Aang’s attempts to learn waterbending, the second season premiere marks the beginning of his quest to find an earthbending teacher. (If you did as I asked above and watched the show before reading this post, then I don’t need to explain that bending is the ability to manipulate the primal elements of nature – water, earth, fire, and air. If I did need to explain that, then seriously, go watch the damned show now.) Though Team Avatar finally finds an Earth Kingdom city with an earthbending school in the sixth episode, Aang doesn’t really trust the teacher there, and he and his companions, Katara and Sokka, keep on looking. With a little digging (and a moment of badassery on Katara’s part), they find their way to an underground earthbending competition full of ridiculous, larger-than-life personalities like The Boulder. (THE BOULDER!)

Toph is NOT going to take your crap.

Despite all of the raw might on display, Aang doesn’t seem too impressed…until the competition’s champion, the Blind Bandit, emerges to fight The Boulder herself. The Blind Bandit is aptly named: because to Team Avatar’s obvious surprise, she’s a tiny little blind girl, seemingly easy prey for someone with The Boulder’s power. But Aang soon realizes just what she represents – an earthbending friend of his had previously told him to find someone who listens to the earth, and as he watches this girl fight, and ultimately hand The Boulder’s ass to him, he realizes that’s exactly what she’s doing. When the ringmaster calls for challengers to the Blind Bandit, Aang throws himself into the ring, using his airbending powers to defeat Toph more or less by accident. Though he tries to catch up with her and persuade her to become his earthbending tutor, her pride initially prevents her from accepting the offer, and she ultimately storms off.

I won’t spoil the rest of the episode (even though hopefully you’ve all already seen it), but suffice to say that Toph finally does join Team Avatar. Unlike Katara or Sokka, though, she’s not instantly on Aang’s side. Their friendship – and it does swiftly develop into full-fledged friendship – remains playfully antagonistic even at the best of times, and seriously antagonistic at the worst of times. Toph does not suffer fools gladly, and Aang frequently acts like the ultimate fool.

I like Toph for a lot of reasons. She’s the queen of snark, of course, and that’s always sure to win me over. Her deadpan sarcasm is frequently hilarious. Her no-nonsense attitude is refreshing in comparison to Aang’s impulsiveness, Sokka’s arrogance and madcap scheming, and Katara’s idealism. She’s far from perfect, of course – she has a major chip on her shoulder, but not without reason. She’s a character with genuine depth.


She also proves the old adage that – in the words of Master Yoda – size matters not. The greatest earthbender on the planet is a little girl with flowers in her hair, and that’s awesome. When (in the third season) Team Avatar goes to see a play about their adventures, the role of “Toph” is played by a huge, hulking man – with Toph’s characteristic flower-adorned bun – simply because, clearly, no one will believe that someone of her incredible power actually looks like she does. (Of all the members of Team Avatar, Toph is least offended by the actor playing her part – she actually thinks it’s really cool and pretty funny.) Toph’s understanding of earthbending is so profound that, when her back is forced up against a wall, she actually forces herself to metalbend – something that no earthbender was previously able to do on the show; worked earth was essentially ‘dead’ to them. But in a moment of crisis, Toph has her limit break, and that leads her to help reshape the world.

But when I really think about Toph…there’s a lot more to her than that. Namely, her blindness doesn’t define her. To be sure, it informs her character: her earthbending talent derives in part from the fact that she’s used it to augment her senses and, in a way, to replace her sight with her instinctive perception of the vibrations in the earth around her. She even learned to control her talent as an even younger girl by going directly to the source: the blind badgermoles who originally demonstrated the power of earthbending to humankind, and with whom she shared an affinity. And Toph’s powers do have their limitations, and yes, sometimes the fact that she can’t see clearly makes her life difficult.

But that’s not all she is. It’s so common on children’s shows – on television to general – for writers to turn characters with disabilities into caricatures. To turn every focus episode those characters happen to get into Very Special Episodes all about how their disabilities make their lives difficult and force them to depend on friends and family. Toph doesn’t get that treatment. Her blindness is there, yes. It’s acknowledged. It’s part of the story. But she remains independent and headstrong and snarky and powerful. When I think of Toph, I think of the deadpan snarker and earthbending master and all-around awesome character who happens to be blind. I definitely don’t think of a poor, beleaguered blind girl we were all made to feel sorry for…because that’s simply not who she is, and we weren’t made to feel sorry for her. Sympathetic, yes. Scared, at times, sure. But no more or less so than any of the other characters. Toph accepted who she was, found her strength, and used it to stand as a hero, on equal footing with all the others. And that is why I love her.

Gone, but not forgotten.

Her legacy lives on in the new series. One of my favorite moments in the premiere of The Legend of Korra was the moment when the camera cut away to a statue of an adult Toph Beifong, master of earthbending and metalbending alike, and founder and mentor to Republic City’s metalbending police force. And then the camera cut back to Toph’s no-nonsense daughter, the leader of that same police force, and we saw the other part of that legacy. We probably won’t ever hear Toph snarking at Aang or Katara again. We probably won’t ever see her use her earthbending to shut some poor fool up. But Toph’s story isn’t over – not as long as her legacy remains. She laid the foundation for a whole new world.

That world belongs to the new Avatar, Korra, now. It belongs to Tenzin. And it belongs to Lin, not Toph, Beifong. But as long as it endures, Toph lives.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you like what you’ve just read, please consider donating to my summer pledge drive. If you can’t donate yourself, but you’d still like to help, please spread the word about the blog and about the pledge drive itself. The more readers and potential supporters I pick up, the better.

Fangirl Fridays: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars is smarter than you. Veronica Mars will ALWAYS be smarter than you.

So. Uh. Earlier this week, I made a stupid joke about Gossip Girl (which is seriously even more ridiculous than it was when it started, and no, I don’t really know how that’s possible). And then freaking Kristen Freaking Bell retweeted me. And then my Twitter feed blew up. I don’t know what effect that’s had on the blog, if any – I definitely haven’t noticed the kind of spike I got when Leigh Alexander retweeted my post on Sex, Gender and D&D – but, well, I’ve been meaning to write about Veronica Mars anyway, and what better time to do it, right?

As I was putting together this post in my head, I couldn’t help remembering some of the initial chatter surrounding the show. See, back in the day, I was a pretty big Smallville fan. (Yeah. That worked out well for me. On the plus side, the show did lead to a truly awesome tabletop RPG.) And, being a fan, I followed this site called KryptonSite. When Veronica Mars was announced, man, you could have cut the snark with a knife. Smallville’s breakout character had been Chloe Sullivan, a cute, snarky blonde teen reporter and conspiracy theorist played by Allison Mack, and here the UPN – which was, at the time, the WB’s direct competitor, though they would later merge the networks into the CW – was creating a show about a cute, snarky blonde teen detective. (I realize I’m using the word snark a lot. I’m talking about Veronica Mars here, so it’s hard not to.) In retrospect, okay, the sass directed at UPN was kind of ridiculous. It was pretty coincidental, and honestly, as much as I love Chloe Sullivan (and she was really the only reason to watch the show…even Erica Durance‘s Lois Lane couldn’t quite compare), Veronica could kick her ass six ways from Sunday. Even KryptonSite came around and created NeptuneSite. But forgive us our trespasses. In those days, all we had were basic premises and publicity photos of Kristen Bell looking spunky and adorable. We had no idea what we were in for.

This was my haircut for like three years running. It did not look as good on me as it does on her.

What we were in for, as it turned out, was a fresh, intelligently written detective series with powerful noir sensibilities transplanted into modern-day Southern California. It was a show about the haves and the have-nots (with Veronica and her dad – formerly the sheriff, recalled after he crossed the wrong people – firmly on the side of the have-nots), about the corruption at the heart of a seeming paradise, about teenagers who had to grow up and face reality way too fast (and the teenagers, and adults, who never really grew up at all). But above all else, it was a show about a girl who lost her best friend, who lost her mother and her social status and everything that had previously defined her, and could have given up, could have given in, but didn’t. Instead, she stood up and pushed back. She refused to accept the bullshit that rained down on her, and she ended up making a difference to a lot of people. Faced with the choice to change or die, she decided to go with change.

Let’s back up and discuss the basic premise of the show: just a year before the premiere, Veronica had it all. Maybe her family couldn’t match the wealth and influence her peers enjoyed, but she was very much part of the in crowd. She was dating the son of the man who first brought incredible wealth to the town of Neptune, California (populated mainly by the insanely rich and the people who work for the insanely rich), she was best friends with that man’s daughter, her mother was a celebrated prom queen from Neptune’s past and her dad was the county sheriff. And then, in a heartbeat, it all changed. Veronica’s best friend, Lilly Kane, was murdered, violently and viciously. Sheriff Mars began to suspect that the Kane family was responsible – at the very least, they seemed to be trying to cover up some of the circumstances of their daughter’s demise. The Kanes, of course, reacted with outrage, and the town’s most influential families threw themselves firmly behind them. Sheriff Mars was recalled, the Mars family had to move out of their long-time home, and Veronica’s mother chose to abandon them entirely. Though Veronica tried to keep going as she had been, her relationship with Lilly’s brother Duncan soon came to an end, and she rapidly became a social pariah. In the end, Veronica was drugged and raped in the course of her last attempt to hang with the social elite (at least for a while), and the new sheriff refused to even investigate the crime.

Like I said: she could have given up at that point. And everything that had happened to her clearly continued to cause her pain, years down the line. But she came back fighting. She embraced her outcast status and, over time, began helping other people in her position, other people who had nowhere to turn. And she did so with style, sass and, yes, snark. She also did so with profound intelligence and a very healthy sense of self-confidence. There were a lot of great characters on the show, and it was, for the most part, very smartly written…but Veronica herself is the number one reason to watch.


Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and Veronica Mars was no exception. The series was always something of a cult phenomenon. Though it routinely got rave reviews, it just didn’t capture the audience UPN/the CW wanted, and after a third season that suffered greatly from both Veronica’s transition to college (always a difficult step for shows centered on teenagers) and a lot of misguided executive meddling (including the truly inexplicable decision to slow down the show’s kickass theme song and throw in a really dorky teen drama title sequence), the series was cancelled. There was talk of skipping the show ahead to focus on Veronica’s future career with the FBI or continuing the story through comic books, but none of that ended up happening. And while there continues to be talk of a Veronica Mars movie, and Kristen Bell herself is on record as supporting the idea, so far that seems to be a pipe dream, too.

Honestly, maybe that’s for the best. Yes, I am a huge fan of Veronica Mars. I don’t think we really have an equivalent to Firefly‘s Browncoats (Marshmallows?…), but I’m totally there. I absolutely think everyone should watch this show. And if Veronica ever came back to us, in a movie or a series chronicling her time in the FBI or a comic book or anything, I would totally be there. But did the show really die too soon? I have to admit that I’m not sure. The major plotlines were pretty much resolved. There weren’t a lot of unanswered questions left. Anything else might feel forced.

No, I’m mainly pissed that the show never really got the merchandising it deserved. There was talk of action figures, but aside from some trading cards and a truly awful Veronica Mars mini-bust…there’s not a whole lot left of the show, physically. The DVD sets, of course, but that’s about it. I really want Veronica to join Tali’Zorah and Cassie Sandsmark and Claudia Donovan on my shelf of awesome, but short of modifying an Elle action figure, I don’t think I can actually make that happen. Aside from that, I’m fine with the material we’ve already got. I don’t really need more.

…oh, who am I kidding. If Kristen Bell ever actually gets to inhabit Veronica Mars again, I’ll be watching. What they say about Veronica is true for me, too. I’m a marshmallow.

Veronica Mars is currently available on Netflix Instant and You can also buy the DVDs. Pick your poison – but do give the show a try. I heartily recommend it.

Fangirl Fridays: Katniss Everdeen, The Girl On Fire

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed in the UK edition of The Hunger Games

Welcome to the third and final entry in Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’m sure you all saw this particular post coming – really, is it any surprise that my favorite female character is the trilogy‘s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen herself? After all the time we spend in her head, after everything we see her do, after everything she goes through, it’s hard not to feel a deep and abiding sympathy for her.

Of course, feeling sympathy for Katniss isn’t the same as liking her, and I know that a lot of people don’t – or, at least, they feel that she’s deeply flawed, particularly as the series goes on. To be honest, I agree: she is deeply flawed. She has a serious inferiority complex. She breaks down, here and there, under the pressure she faces, the weight that’s placed on her shoulders from the very beginning and only grows as time goes on. Her confused feelings for Gale and Peeta throw a seemingly inappropriate romantic subplot into the midst of a long, hard fight against an oppressive government and a desperate struggle to survive in a world gone to shit. Too often, she is caught up in the plans of others, in the great crashing waves of history, rather than acting on her own initiative and her own behalf.

And here’s what we’re all forgetting: Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl.

She’s a teenage girl, for crying out loud! She’s allowed to be silly! She’s allowed to be distracted by boys! She’s allowed to fall short of the impossible goals that have been placed before her! For crying out loud: could you even survive all the crap she goes through? Because I know I couldn’t. I’ve folded in the face of a hell of a lot less. And yes, I’ve picked myself up again and yes, I’ve grown stronger, but I’m also something like a decade older than Katniss and I haven’t been through half the crap she has as of the start of the first book. So, yes, I forgive Katniss her flaws. I forgive her the occasional teenage girl moment. In point of fact, as with Rose Red, I love her not in spite of her flaws, but because of them.

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence: flawed, but not AS flawed.

In fact, if I have one complaint about Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, it’s this: the film version of Katniss doesn’t seem to have those moments. She’s almost too strong, too capable, too aloof, too stoic. We see her suffer, of course – physically, mentally, emotionally. We see her falter and fail. But where is the girl who forgot herself on stage with Caesar Flickerman, twirling and giggling in her dress and forgetting, just for a moment (and a moment she clearly regretted later), that she had been sent far from home to suffer and die to sate the Capitol’s bloodlust – that every last one of them had? Of course, not all of this can be placed on Lawrence’s shoulders: as I said on Monday, the movie doesn’t put us in Katniss’s head. We don’t hear her thoughts. We don’t see the doubts and insecurities she works so hard to keep hidden from view. And so Lawrence’s portrayal seems to fall short. I still think she embodies Katniss in many ways – but, if anything, she comes off as perhaps too strong. (It is, of course, not fair to blame Lawrence for the lack of giddiness in Katniss’s interview with Caesar Flickerman, either – the scene was clearly just not written to accommodate giddiness or gaiety. The writers and director chose to go in another direction. It’s not a bad direction, but I do feel something is lost.)

But I already reviewed the movie, so let’s get back to Katniss herself, particularly as she’s portrayed in the trilogy as a whole. You know, as I look back on my experience with the books, I can’t help but compare Katniss to other figures central to wars and revolutions and crises throughout history. George Washington springs to mind, of course. Thomas Jefferson, too. Abraham Lincoln. The Roman hero Cincinnatus. One might even draw certain parallels with Joan of Arc. We lionize these people. We make them larger than life. We tell grand, sweeping, epic stories about their deeds. But, in the end, they were simply people. They, too, had deep flaws. In some cases, a close historical reading reveals those flaws; in others, they are lost to time. But all of them, I promise you, were human.

The world will be watching. The world will always be watching.

Katniss Everdeen is much the same way. The generations that follow the revolution in Panem will undoubtedly lionize her, at least to some degree. Certainly they will paint her as a larger than life figure. The finer details of her life, of everything she experienced, of everything she suffered, will be washed away by the relentless tides of history. But we aren’t reading the future history of Panem. We aren’t reading a biography of Katniss Everdeen, the Girl On Fire, the Mockingjay, the fearless leader of the revolution. We aren’t even reading Katniss’s own memoirs – not really. We’re following her present. We’re living her life, moment by moment, as she faces impossible odds, suffers terrible losses, grapples with her own feelings and her own doubts. And that perspective is amazing. That perspective is precious. That is a perspective we so rarely see in actual history. Can you imagine what any historian would give to crack open Abraham Lincoln’s brain and see what he was actually thinking at any given time? Or Washington’s? Or good old Joan’s? In many cases, of course, we have memoirs, we have letters, we have records of conversations…but it’s not the same as actually getting into someone’s head, is it? Even the most impromptu conversation is full of spur-of-the-moment editing and self-censorship. Katniss doesn’t get to edit her thoughts and feelings…and, yes, she comes off just a little worse for it.

One of the film’s taglines is this: The world will be watching. It really will. In truth, Katniss is paraded before two worlds: her world of Panem, and our world that could one day change into something very much like it. To many of the readers of our world, she falls short. To the people of Panem, who cannot see her innermost thoughts, she is a hero, a symbol, something more than a mere girl – or, depending on their particular perspectives, a complete and utter enigma, particularly in light of her actions at the end of the war. Sitting outside of Katniss’s world, we privileged readers see into the very core of her experience. We know better. We know that she’s just a teenage girl.

Too often, we forget that bravery isn’t the absence of fear and doubt – it’s the ability to overcome it, or at least to live with it while you do what must be done. And heroism? We don’t get to define that for ourselves. Others will decide whether or not we’re heroic, and those of us who end up with that label may very well feel unworthy of it. We may be unworthy of it. But, in the end, we don’t get to make that call. Neither does Katniss. The Hunger Games and its sequels show us a heroine from her own perspective. In that, the books succeed brilliantly, and I can only hope that the movies ultimately do so as well. Because I don’t love Katniss Everdeen because she’s a hero – I love her because she’s a human being who does the best she can with what she’s handed, who tries to do whatever good she can in the time that she’s been given. She doesn’t always succeed. But she tries. And that’s what counts. That’s what ultimately leads her to play a central part in the creation of a new future for all of Panem.

So try not to be too harsh on poor Katniss, alright? She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Fangirl Fridays: Rose Red

I know, I know. Technically this is a Fangirl Saturday post. Blame Katie! I was totally going to post last night, but then she invited me over to watch America’s Next Top Model (which is as hilariously awful as ever, but Ashley and Sophie are too cute) and I ended up sticking around for an encore of the Walking Dead season finale and by the time I got home, I was exhausted. Clearly all her fault.

Anyway. I mentioned in my first Fangirl Fridays post that the changes to Wonder Girl, a.k.a. Cassie Sandsmark, caused me to hit my wall and stop reading DC Comics. What I didn’t say at the time was this: I was pretty much heartbroken. I’d seen too much shit coming out of my favorite comics lately, and I was totally burnt out. Even though there were still some series that were going strong, series I still enjoyed, I turned my back on comic books altogether for a while. But slowly, ever so slowly, I’ve been dipping my toe back into the comic book world. Catching up on series I missed. And Fables was at the top of my list.

If I went into all the reasons why I love Fables, we’d probably be here all day. But, unsurprisingly, I’m an especially big fan of all the amazing female characters in the series, each of them strong and capable in their own ways, each of them unique individuals with their own voices. From Snow White to Cinderella to Beauty to Frau Totenkinder…I love them all. But the one I love most is Rose Red – because of all the women in the series, and (with two notable exceptions) of all the characters of either sex in the series, Rose has grown and changed the most.


Rose Red, as described by Snow White

While perhaps not one of the main characters, Rose is a central figure from the very first issue of Fables – when her apartment is found trashed and covered in blood, and Fabletown’s sheriff, Bigby Wolf, is called in to her investigate her apparent murder. Thus, when we first ‘meet’ Rose, she doesn’t get to speak for herself – rather, she’s described by others, most especially her big sister, Snow White, Fabletown’s deputy mayor. In Snow White’s eyes, Rose is the black sheep of the family, and has been since before the fables fled to “our” world and established their settlement in New York City. She’s an unrepentant wild child, a party girl, a troublemaker. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Jack (of beanstalk climbing, giant killing fame) describes her in much the same way. She’s his lover, his partner in crime, and even the people who view her most sympathetically wouldn’t exactly describe her as an angel. It eventually comes out that Rose faked her own death, with Jack’s help, and naturally they’re both punished for it. In Rose’s case, that means moving upstate for a period of hard labor on the Farm…and that’s where her life begins to change.

The Farm, you see, is where they keep the fables who can’t pass for human at all. Beast (as in Beauty’s husband) is threatened with life on the Farm a few times when his curse becomes too much to bear and he can’t stop transforming into a monster over and over again. And the Farm’s current residents include all the animal fables that are unable to assume human form, as well as a whole society of miniature people, a dragon, some giants…you get the picture. It’s completely closed off from the outside world, protected by its remote location and a whole mess of spells to distract the “Mundys,” no one is allowed to leave except under very select circumstances, and the whole place is pretty much managed by the human fables without any real input from their non-human counterparts. If this sounds rather unfair, remember that, because it becomes important.

Rose's ignorance in action.

When Rose first heads up to the farm, escorted by her sister, she clearly views the whole experience as the punishment it is, and she’s not terribly kind to the non-human fables she meets. Indeed, she’s clearly ignorant and frequently obnoxious. Then it turns out that the Farm is on the point of open rebellion, led by none other than Goldilocks, who still lives with the Three Bears and has become a violent political radical. When Rose ultimately chooses to join the revolution, it’s a bit of a shock – but, unsurprisingly, she throws herself into the fight with her usual careless, rebellious glee, and soon she and her sister are at war yet again. But there’s another twist yet to come: it turns out at the very end that Rose joined the rebellion to keep Snow White safe, and that she ultimately played a key role in bringing those responsible to justice. By the end of the arc, Rose wholeheartedly accepts her place on the Farm…and, moreover, she rises to become its administrator, working with all the resident fables to make their lives better.

Don’t be fooled, though: Rose isn’t exactly perfect from this point on. And, honestly, that’s kind of what I love about her. She screws up. She makes some serious mistakes. While she proves herself to be a competent administrator, her relationship with her sister remains strained and her personal life is kind of a mess. In later issues, she’s put through the emotional wringer, and she ultimately retreats into herself completely, slowly but steadily self-destructing, pining for everything she’s lost.

Rose and Snow in a nutshell - but there's a lot more to it than that.

But in the end, with a little outside help, she turns things around. A trip down memory lane reminds her how her feud with Snow White got started – and shows her exactly what they once were to one another, and could be again. I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that the story of Rose Red and Snow White is fascinating, heartbreaking, and powerful, and Rose’s decision to embrace their sisterhood once more feels like a real moment of triumph. So, too, does her decision to rejoin the world, to fight off her grief and sorrow and self-pity and take a stand in one of Fabletown’s darkest hours. She doesn’t save the day – not all on her lonesome – but she retakes the reins of leadership just when she’s needed most, and that decision impacts everything to come.

In fact, in the most recent issues, Rose’s life has changed again: again, without spoiling anything, she’s accepted new responsibilities and seized a vast new destiny. For good or ill, she’s becoming something more than a minor character in Snow White’s tale, a footnote in the fables’ tumultuous history. She’s becoming more than herself – or perhaps she’s becoming the person she was meant to be all along. I’m sure Rose has many trials ahead of her. But she’s already come so far, been to Hell and back and returned in triumph. Her story’s far from over. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Rose Red, taking control and returning in triumph.

Fangirl Fridays: Commander Shepard, SSV Normandy

If you follow basically anyone connected to Mass Effect on Twitter (by which I mean writers, developers, community managers, fans, voice actors…literally anyone), you probably already know that today is FemShep Friday. See, a while back, BioWare promised us a Mass Effect 3 trailer focused specifically on the female version of Commander Shepard, the protagonist of the series. This was pretty huge news, because despite the female Commander Shepard’s large and vocal fan base (most of whom affectionately refer to her as, you guessed it, FemShep), most of the promotional videos and images use the default male Shepard. But BioWare has finally started recognizing FemShep’s many ardent fans, and for the third and final entry in the Mass Effect trilogy, they’re giving her a little more of the spotlight. The Collector’s Edition of the game will feature both male and female Shepards on the box art, for example, and a prominent Facebook poll allowed the fans to select the female Shepard’s appearance in the game’s promo art (more on that later). The highly anticipated FemShep trailer was the latest piece of the puzzle, and it just went online today.

I’ve played a hell of a lot of Mass Effect over the past couple of years, and with one exception (a male Shepard I created to romance Ashley and later Tali), I’ve chosen the female Shepard every time. That’s probably not a huge surprise to anyone who knows me. Given the choice, I will almost always choose to play a female character. I empathize more readily with female characters and strongly prefer to take on that kind of role. But there’s something special about FemShep.

Commander Chloe Shepard, Renegade Spectre

Maybe it’s the fact that she’s a total badass, no matter how you play her. You expect that with the cold, ferocious, trigger-happy Renegade options, but even Paragon Shepard is courageous, uncompromising, and dedicated to her mission. Her compassion is a strength, not a weakness. (It is generally accepted among fans that anyone who doesn’t hug Tali during a certain sequence in Mass Effect 2 – you’ll know it when you see it – is an utter monster. I agree. It’s not a moment of emotional vulnerability, it’s a moment of strength for someone who truly needs it right then and there.) It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s voiced by Jennifer Hale, a truly talented voice actress who goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a Shepard who feels vital, complex, and real. No offense to Mark Meer, who voices the male Shepard, but FemShep steals the show in any scene because Jennifer Hale is just that good. If I wasn’t already inclined to play female characters, I still would have rolled up a FemShep the first time I saw a single clip of her, because her work on this game is so incredibly amazing. Whenever I actually get around to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic for real, I think I’m going to have to roll up a female Republic Trooper just to hear her voice again. And I am not normally a tank at all – not by choice.

I call it "The Shepard Shuffle".

But enough about my massive crush on Jennifer Hale – let’s get back to FemShep. Because there’s a hell of a lot more to like. Like the fact that there is almost complete gender equality in the Mass Effect universe. I can think of one NPC in ME2 that even makes a gender-related crack, and you can shut him down HARD when he does. Ashley Williams? She’s a straight-up Marine who’s also a beautiful woman and first shows up in pink armor, and no one gives her crap about it. (And you can get that same pink armor for the male characters as well, by the way.) And FemShep? She does everything the male Shepard does, certain romance options aside. She can knock back ridiculous amounts of liquor. She can hurl bad guy after bad guy to the floor. She can headbutt a krogan. She even does the same dorky little shuffling dance at various nightclubs in the game, which I absolutely adore. In ME2, you can (with certain DLC) get a formal outfit for FemShep that consists of a black dress and heels – but she keeps walking like a soldier while wearing them. She’s clearly uncomfortable and it’s awesome. The BioWare team could have come up with a bunch of titillating animations full of booty-shaking and swinging hips and mincing around in heels, but they didn’t. They recognized that they were creating a soldier, first and foremost. Someone who has spent her adult life in the military, someone who isn’t always great with social niceties, someone who almost certainly did not put a lot of emphasis on her physical appearance or sexual body language. Oh, she can speak pretty smoothly, sure. She can even flirt. But she is the dorkiest dancer ever, and I love it. It’s adorable.

And that vision of Shepard’s personality bleeds into character creation as well. Sure, you can kind of overdo it with the makeup (and they did overdo the makeup in that trailer), but other than that, the player is offered a selection of short, efficient hairstyles that all make sense for an active soldier. No pigtails or Farrah Fawcett hair here. That might, admittedly, have more to do with the limitations of the graphics engine (and a desire on the part of the animators to avoid dealing with long, freely swinging hair) than anything, but it’s still a nice touch. There’s also a broad selection of facial scars, which you don’t tend to find on your average character creation screen.

Ohhh, Edward...I mean Thane...

The truth is that Shepard can’t help being a badass career soldier. Case in point: a while back, I rolled up a female Shepard just to romance Thane, the one male love interest I had any interest in. Since I tend to be more interested in lesbian romances (obviously) and didn’t really expect to enjoy this playthrough quite as much, I decided my poor, straight, throwaway Shepard would be named Bella and act like a total Paragon Mary Sue. (I think I owe Courtney Stanton the credit for that idea.) But I quickly found it was totally impossible to ignore or dismiss Shepard’s pure awesomeness. Even when she was playing nice, speaking diplomatically, choosing the goody-two-shoes option each and every time, she was brave and bright and occasionally sassy. She still faced her enemies without fear. Jennifer Hale’s voice still brought her to life, bringing depth and meaning to the most straightforward dialogue. I ended up playing well past the point where Bella consummated her relationship with Thane, finishing all the side missions and running through all the DLC. I’ll probably bring her back for ME3, just to see how her story ends.

This is not to say that FemShep is perfect. The level of customization available to the player certainly isn’t. The various options in character creation are pretty white-centric, for example – you can give Shepard darker skin tones, but there’s not a lot of variation in her facial structure. You can’t change her body at all; she’ll always be a fairly slender, fit young woman. Certainly an active soldier would be fit, but it would be nice if you could have a stockier Shepard, or a taller or shorter one. The makeup in that trailer up above is pretty ridiculous, and I don’t love how they’ve made Shepard look younger than before. She’s a grown woman and an experienced soldier who’s lived through the events of two fairly epic adventures – adventures that probably ate up at least a couple years of her life. She doesn’t need to look like a dewy-eyed twenty-something.

And, of course, I’m still annoyed at the lack of same-sex romance options. Unless you hack (and effectively break) the game, you have no same-sex romance options as a male Shepard, and you can only romance asari (who only have one biological sex and only seem to have female gender identities, though that hasn’t been explored in depth) or human or alien men as a female Shepard. We’ve been promised more same-sex romance options for both Shepards in ME3, but we’ve been promised those options before and they’ve been cut each time. Personally, I’m rooting for a Shepard/Tali romance – when Tali tells you in ME2 that she would happily share her suit environment with you (an intimate gesture among quarians), that’s not just subtext, that’s text. And Jennifer Hale reads more than a few lines in conversations with female crewmates and NPCs in a distinctively flirty way. It’s past time those potential flirtations got some follow-through.

This may seem slightly hypocritical – a couple paragraphs ago, I lauded Mass Effect for limiting player choices in certain ways, giving Shepard’s history and personality weight and meaning regardless of the player’s actions. Now I’m complaining that these options are too limited. But the fact of the matter is that the Mass Effect team’s decisions have, to some extent, ended up excluding people who already face exclusion and oppression in real life. A whole lot of us play games like Mass Effect to escape this grim reality – but the Mass Effect series has, thus far, failed to embrace everyone who wishes to escape.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still obsessed with the series, and I’m still psyched for the next installment. Bella, Chloe and Michael Shepard are all waiting in the wings, and I’ll be starting another runthrough soon to reconstruct my gay Paragon Shepard, Moira (who was sadly lost when my previous computer crashed and I was unable to recover the save files). I love Mass Effect, and I love FemShep. I just think there’s room for improvement – and I sincerely hope BioWare seizes the opportunity.

Fangirl Fridays: Claudia Donovan, Warehouse 13

A vaguely cartoonish statue of a slender (though slightly busty) young white woman with short brown hair, dressed in blue sneakers, jeans, a blue top, and a belted, cropped dark gray jacket. She has gray gloves on both hands, and her right hand is resting on her hip, while her left hand is resting on a pair of brass goggles set on top of her head.

My new best friend, animated Claudia Donovan.

I should begin this post by saying that my little sister, Alanya Divine, is basically the best sister ever. Though we fought like cats and dogs when we were kids, we’ve become genuine friends in the last decade or so, and she’s bailed me out of a few real messes. She’s an incredibly talented jewelry maker, she’s painted some amazing pieces (two of which occupy places of honor on my bedroom walls), and of course she’s given me my favorite niece, Elizabeth, who is pretty much perfect in every way, though she needs to hug her freaking aunt more often. I love her dearly, and I owe her a great deal.

You may be wondering why I’m talking about my sister in a Fangirl Fridays post. Well, I am a big fan of my sister, but I’m actually here to talk about one of my favorite female characters on television right now. The two are just somewhat related. See, late last year, I found out about the Claudia Donovan Animated Maquette from Quantum Mechanix. I’m an enormous fan of Warehouse 13, and of Claudia Donovan in particular, so when I saw that little statue, I pretty much had the classic geek reaction: IT MUST BE MINE!

But money’s been tight lately (so, by the way, if anyone’s looking to employ a geeky, snarky redhead with three years of game QA experience and a small talent for writing, I’m free), and there was no way I was going to scrape together the spare cash for that statue before the preorders closed. Luckily, I mentioned it to my sister, and probably went a little overboard in my gushing over the character, and as it happened, she had wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas anyway, so…

Needless to say, it arrived on Tuesday.

Claudia’s taken up residence on my TV shelf, directly opposite Tali (who is herself worthy of a Fangirl Fridays post at some point), and in honor of her arrival, I thought I’d talk a bit about why I love her so very much.

I was a pretty big fan of Warehouse 13 from the moment it started airing on (sigh) Syfy. Though there were some initial complaints that the concept strayed too close to Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23, I think the show moved quickly to distinguish itself from the SJG-created game setting/meme, and both owe as much to the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the conspiracy theories surrounding Roswell and Area 51 as anything. The cast, including veteran TV character actor Saul Rubinek, was full of intriguing and delightfully quirky characters, and the premise – that figures throughout history had invested their creations with strange and often dangerous powers, and it fell to the small team affiliated with Warehouse 13 (itself the heir to a dozen previous Warehouses around the world, going all the way back to ancient Egypt) to collect, neutralize and preserve them: to “snag, bag, and tag ’em,” as the show’s most prominent catchphrase goes.

But while I enjoyed the show immensely, something seemed to be missing. Artie Nielsen, Saul Rubinek’s character, was wrapped in mystery and often distant from the main characters, former Secret Service agents Myka Bering and Peter Lattimer. The recurring characters of Leena the psychic innkeeper and the eternally enigmatic Mrs. Frederic, director of Warehouse 13 (played by the unforgettable C.C.H. Pounder), were little better. As for Myka and Pete, they soon became a dynamic duo, and their explorations of the bizarre world of Warehouse 13 mirrored the viewer’s own journey, but there seemed to be little tying them to the rest of the cast.

And then, just a few episodes in, it all began to change. WARNING: spoilers for the first season follow.

An LED lightboard spelling out two words in red letters: KNOCK KNOCK.

Knock knock, Artie.

The first few episodes of the series included a tantalizing subplot revolving around an unseen hacker who was trying to infiltrate the Warehouse’s computer systems. At the end of the third episode, these attacks culminated in a terrifying all-out assault in which the hacker briefly assumed control of the mainframe. As Artie scrambled to lock the intruder out, the mainframe abruptly lit up with a simple yet enigmatic message, repeated over and over again: KNOCK KNOCK.

It didn’t take long for the hacker to reveal herself. In the very next episode, Claudia Donovan, a figure from Artie’s shrouded past, managed to get inside the Warehouse itself – and, worse, she managed to abduct Artie himself. As Myka and Pete tried to track her down and save their boss, Claudia confronted Artie over his role in the disappearance of her older brother several years ago. Forced to face his guilt and shame over the whole affair, Artie soon agreed to help Claudia with a seemingly far-fetched plan to rescue her brother from his predicament. Once Myka and Pete were on the same page, he and Claudia managed to use an array of artifacts from the Warehouse to locate and retrieve her lost brother – and while Joshua Donovan eased his way back into the world around him, Claudia fearlessly accepted the consequences of her crimes against the Warehouse and stepped forward to face the music.

It was clear from the start that those consequences could very well be dire: Mrs. Frederic herself made it very clear that Artie could either hire Claudia or dispose of her. Artie chose the former, and offered Claudia a job as his assistant. Though initially tasked with cataloging artifacts, organizing files and beefing up the mainframe’s security, her boredom with these tasks soon led her to pursue various side projects, with and without Artie’s blessing. Though she was already clearly a bright young woman, the true scope of her intelligence was revealed only in later episodes, as she showed a distinct talent for her own unique brand of superscience, redesigning artifacts to serve a variety of esoteric purposes. We are talking about a girl who not only understood the principles behind a holographic projector built by Alexander Graham Bell, but successfully transformed it into a 3D imaging device capable of creating a composite hologram out of disparate 2D digital images. And a girl who literally invented a suit to transform the wearer into a superhero. Claudia has some truly insane skills.

That’s far from the only reason why I love her, though it’s a start.

A young white woman with short brown hair, photographed from the chest up, wearing a battered dark gray denim jacket. There is a chain holding two interlocking rings around her neck, and an AV Club button on her label. Her right arm is raised and rests upon the drawer of a large old-fashioned card catalog.

Claudia Donovan, Badass Scientist

The fact of the matter is that Claudia is a tremendously fun character. She’s snarky, funny, cheerful, genuinely enthusiastic about her job, and openly affectionate with her friends. In the last few seasons, she has rapidly become the glue that holds Warehouse 13 together – a surrogate daughter to Artie, a surrogate little sister to Myka, an occasional partner in crime to Pete, and one of the few people to truly stand up to Mrs. Frederic’s machinations. When a new agent joined the team, she was the first person to welcome him with open arms, and soon formed a close friendship with him as well. Her brief fling with Douglas Fargo in the course of a crossover with Eureka was adorable, hilarious and authentic (and made for a nice change from her previous romantic subplot, which was a bit dull and overly convoluted). As an unabashed geek, she’s the perfect avatar for the show’s core audience. Brave, loving, brilliant and fierce, she is one of the best female characters on (sigh) Syfy right now, and possibly one of the best female characters on TV, period (along with Leslie Knope and the late lamented Veronica Mars, of course). She’s not perfect. She certainly makes her share of mistakes. But she is nevertheless a wonderful role model. I would be thrilled if my niece, upon her inevitable discovery of Warehouse 13, decided she wanted to be Claudia Donovan grew up. Hell, I want to be Claudia Donovan when I grow up.

Of course, it helps that Claudia is brought to life by Allison Scagliotti, an adorable and all-around awesome young actress who has stood up with numerous other celebrities in support of the NOH8 Campaign. She’s a comic book fan, she loves Joan Jett (which demonstrates her exquisite taste), and she’s got some serious pipes of her own, as demonstrated by her memorable cover of The PixiesWhere Is My Mind? on a recent episode of Warehouse 13. I admit that I know her mainly as Claudia Donovan (though I did see her guest appearance as Jayna of the Wonder Twins on Smallville), but I was swift to follow her on Twitter and I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen of her work outside the show.

If you’re not watching Warehouse 13, you should be. It’s a fun show with some truly terrific characters (and I could write a whole other post on the relationship between Myka and recurring character H.G. Wells – yes, THE H.G. Wells, but not quite the one you expect), some epic plotlines and some brilliant ideas. There are a lot of reasons to tune in. But it’s really worth watching for Claudia Donovan alone. I can hardly wait to see her adventures continue – but at least I have a truly awesome little Claudia statue to keep me company in the meantime.

(Seriously. I have the best sister.)