Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
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Despite being utterly unlike anything else I like in theme or type (it’s a White House drama (you might think that’s obvious from the title, but if so you’re probably American – I’ve still never heard of the West Wing outside of this series)), it’s absolutely brilliant. One thing about it goes some way to explaining the anomaly, though – it’s a fantasy. I imagine people who keep up with politics could have a nasty experience trying to swallow its picture of a government in which a near-perfect tension between pure democracy and educated liberalism decides policy, and the people in power are all heartbreakingly good-willed and astonishingly talented. To call it arrogant for that is like accusing Star Trek of exaggerating our space-travel capabilities. Not a documentary! Fiction is where they tell you a story and, while knowing the story isn’t true, you follow the plot and maybe enjoy it. Where did we get this idea that art’s supposed to just record what things are like? That’s a talentless, menial task (says a journalist); art should be fantasy, it should use imagination to show how things could be and get people excited at the idea. Beyond entertainment, that’s its only task, and it’s a much loftier and more important calling than commenting on how things really are.
The thing that sticks with me from The West Wing is the culture of highly qualified people working incredibly hard out of dedication to what they do – not why they’re doing it. Sam and Toby are relentlessly perfectionist about their own and each other’s writing because they love writing and couldn’t bear to see bad writing used, not because of a sense of duty to their country. Writer Aaron Sorkin clearly models them on himself, and the fact that he works in entertainment while they run the country implies no difference in their passion and determination. He wrote virtually every episode of the show himself, right up to the end of series four (when it mysteriously lost all its wit and heart), and – let’s be honest here – frequently took drugs to do it. I’m not the same at all, of course, but occasionally I catch myself thinking like this – using my spare time to rework something sub-par even though I’m sure it would have been accepted. The profound thing about the West Wing is that it paints a fantasy so admirable it actually inspires you to improve yourself. It ingrains you with the idea that a thing is worth doing well at virtually any cost.
The characters talk as fast as air-traffic controllers, only the jargon is not so much jargon as a mix of brilliantly argued moral points and hilarious stupidity. The political situations are eerily like recent real ones, and the action taken is a compelling compromise between liberal and what people actually believe in: the Democrats are in power, and president Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen, incidentally) is a particularly left wing (and underlyingly geeky) one. Every issue is discussed with a thoroughness and fairness (not to mention articulacy and, an unavoidably recurring word, intelligence) that impresses even me, a sceptic philosopher derisive of the attempts of any other discipline to even argue coherently, let alone exhibit any kind of rational intelligence. The arguments for the ‘other side’ are alarmingly persuasive, and a couple of times it’s genuinely changed my stance on things.
But the issues are very much secondary to the characters, for me – there are perhaps five who aren’t fantastic and compelling and vividly human, so to do the others full justice, I will list ten of them by first name in descending order of greatness: Toby, Josh, Will, Sam, Donna, Margaret, Leo, CJ, Charlie. Detailing what I like so much about each of them would be a mammoth (though strangely tempting) task, so I’ll just skip over some highlights: Toby is just fantastic all the time – grouchy, brilliant, and absurdly restrained when he’s happy; Josh and Donna’s relationship is a horribly touching combination of superficial spite masking genuine affection; Margaret’s perfect deadpan conversations with her perpetually frowning boss Leo.
Series Notes: the first two series are relentlessly brilliant, with several of the best ever episodes in the second; but then the third starts off with three or four… not bad episodes as such, just a bit grim. It’s all struggle and hostility, whereas no other episodes before that had ever lost their good humour and multi-facetedness. Shortly into the series, though, it gets great again, and stays at the old stellar standard. Then the fourth series… wow. It’s like The West Wing Plus: everything about it is even better, and the energy and pace of it is completely exhilerating. As for the finalÃƒÂ©s, the first series’ was fantastic, the next two weren’t really cliff-hangers or even very interesting, but the fourth is another explosive one, taking four long-running plot-lines to breaking point and leaving them there, and also featuring two remarkable firsts: one of the characters running (it’s not usually a very athletic programme); and a white ending screen (every other episode has a black one).
Or, it would be if that was actually the last episode. I later discovered that the fourth series, inexplicably, has a twenty-third episode, which utterly breaks the cliffhanger and leaves the series at a boring stalemate, and doesn’t have the fade to white. After that, Sorkin no longer writes the show, and while it seems superficially similar, the heart is gone from it. Series five, as far as I could muster the interest to watch, focused on dramatic global events, turning it into a political thriller rather than a personal drama set within the political arena. I haven’t watched much of series six, again because I dislike what little I have: my problem with that one stemming from the characters. They were delicate things as Sorkin crafted them, more human and believable than we’re used to on TV, and in other writers’ comparitively clumsy hands they break. Their subtle internal logic has gone, and their actions become inconsistent – just slightly, way less than on any other show, but it ruins the illusion nonetheless.
Series seven really perks up. Nothing like as good as a Sorkin series, but because it’s mostly new characters, and in a new environment, starting something new rather than trying to continue what was started in Sorkin’s episodes, it feels like a different show with a few familiar faces, and the mere-mortal writing is easier to swallow. It never got terribly exciting, and there were only a few touching or funny moments, but it was a nice way to go out.
(Donna is pressing Leo for official word on the news that the president crashed his* bicycle)
Leo: He was swerving to avoid a tree.
Donna: And what happened?
Leo: He was unsuccessful.**
* Actually it was Leo’s bike, but I’m not usually a trivia person. So I won’t tell you how much it cost or what metal it was made of.
** I tell this to some people and they don’t laugh. It’s not possible that they might have a higher standard of humour than me, so maybe they just don’t get it: the usual form of an explanation of an accident starting with ‘he swerved to avoid an x’ would finish ‘and hit a y’ (where x is a fast-moving object somewhere where it shouldn’t have been, and y is the kind of thing you would normally be able to easily avoid, like a tree), but in this case the president, being a dork, just cycled straight into a tree, under no unusual circumstance. The humour lies in the way Leo starts the explanation in a way that sounds acceptable, Donna notices that he’s used the tree as the ‘x’, which is what she knows the president hit, so presses him to see how he’s going to get out of naming a ‘y’ without contradicting the fact that it was a tree he hit, and his answer is funny. Yes, part of my explanation of why it’s funny is “It’s funny.”
Christian Right: Mr President – if our children can buy pornography on any street corner for five dollars, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?
Christian Right: Really?
Jed: I do think five dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography, though.
(Leo and Jed are approaching a plane whose engine is roaring loudly. Leo has just finished a phone conversation with Bruno and Hess)
Leo: I just got off with Bruno and Hess.
Jed: I’m sorry?
Leo: I said I just got off with Bruno and Hess.
Jed: You didn’t say ‘Michigan sucks’?
Leo: No sir.
Jed: I thought you said ‘Michigan sucks’.
Leo: I’m standing very close to the engine, so it may have sounded like I said ‘Notre Dame is going to get the ass-kicking they so richly deserve’.
(Donna has finally found Josh a flight that doesn’t involve a change at Atlanta and booked him on it)
Josh: Cancel it.
Josh: I need a layover in Atlanta. I need to get there around an hour before an eight o’clock flight would take off.
Donna: That would be around seven.
Josh: Well, I haven’t done the math.
CJ: Duchamp was the father of Dadaism.
Toby: I know.
CJ: The dadda of Dada!
Toby: It’s like there’s nothing you can do about a joke like that – you see it coming, and you just have to stand there.
Leo: I think your wife’s not going to like it.
Toby: My ex-wife. No, she’s not. Why do you call her my wife?
Leo: It bothers you.
Toby: Everything bothers me; you pick that?
Josh: Leo, ask me how long a Martian day is.
Leo: No, I don’t think I will.
Sam: I need you to tell me everything you can about the superconducting supercollider.
Physicist: How much time do you have?
Sam: About ten minutes.
Physicist: If you pay close attention and stay very, very quiet I can teach you how to spell it.
(Some women protested against Abbey Bartlet by turning up to one of her speeches in aprons and with rolling pins)
Sam: Why were there rolling pins?
CJ: Brenda Swetland: At this moment you’re not licensed to practise medicine, correct? A. Bartlet: At this moment I’m just a wife and mother.
Sam: I don’t see it.
CJ: You’ve got to want it.
Sam: Oh. I see it.
Sam: What’re we doing?
CJ: Well, I wanted my office to issue a statement saying “You’re annoying, shut up,” but Bruno said to wave at it, and he’s right.
Jed: Toby, why are you smiling?
Toby: Happiness is my default state, sir.
(Toby is reading what Sam’s typing)
Toby: That’s good… good… okay… Sam, you’re going to come to a verb soon, right?
Sam: Okay, you know what this is called?
Toby: Bad writing?
Toby: I’m not coming in the car?
Jed: No, you know why? Because you made fun of the guacamole.
Toby: I didn’t!
Jed: I could tell you were thinking it.
Toby: Fair enough.
(Toby is trying to come up with a statement for the press secretary to give in defence of their nomination for attorney general)
Toby: He’s tough on crime, fair on justice, say that. On no account say that. What is that? He’s tough on crime, fair on justice, wears a moustache, sings a song? What’s happening to me?
Josh: Was it a good game?
Sam: You know what I’d do if- no, it wasn’t a good game. You know what I’d do if I had a hockey team?
Sam: I’d hire a sumo wrestler. I’d give him a uniform, transportation, five-hundred bucks a week to sit in the goal, eat a ham sandwich and enjoy the game. My team’d never get scored on.
Josh: Your team would get scored on constantly.
Sam: Yeah, but we’d sell a few tickets.
Josh: Yeah, because sumo wrestling always sells out in hockey towns.
Sam: My idea’s totally inviable?
Josh: Well, you’re a democrat.
Donna: (talking about a Chinese satelite) It was in what’s called a degrading orbital path, and it’s now dropped off their radar, suggesting it’s started a rapid descent towards Earth’s atmosphere.
Donna: It’s not! What’s the matter with you people?
Charlie: What did I do?
Donna: A thing the size of a garbage truck is going to be in a two-thousand mile-an-hour freefall and no-one knows where it’s going to hit!
Charlie: I’m rooting for Zurich. I’ve had it up to here with the Swiss.
Toby: I need you to back up Albie Duncan.
Andy: Is he crazy?
Toby: No. No, no. No. A little bit.
Toby: He’s Albie Duncan, he was in the Eisenhower State Department, he’s brilliant, he’s respected; if he’s crazy, I don’t want to be sane.
Andy: You’re not.
Josh: I’m getting subpoena’d again.
Delores: Oh I’m sorry dear. D’you want a cookie?
Senator At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: Okay, I haven’t chaired in a while; what do we do next?
Agency Director At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: Now’s when we usually start drinking.
Other Senator At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: Actually there is one thing I’d like to talk about before we start.
Senator At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: If you’re going to try and get me to fund that idiot-ass airplane that can’t fly…
Other Senator At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: It can fly.
Senator At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: Yeah, it can fly, it just can’t land.
Federal Judge At Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting: That’s a small price to pay for being able to fly.
Clips: hammer.avi (15MB) cat.avi (5MB)
Graham: Season 5 is a bit poor, I agree, due to the loss of Aaron Sorkin, writer of every single god damned episode up until that point. But season 6 really picks up again, and there are some truly excellent episodes throughout the season. It's obvious that they're trying to shake things up, messing with some of the character dynamics, but as season 6 moves into the race for the Democratic party nominee it all just gets better and better.
Tom Francis: Interesting. I shall investigate!
Tom EG: I got into this on the strength of Tom's really excellent little write-up here, and I've just got up to the first episode of season 4. Already I can see what you're talking about. The first episode is by far the funniest in ages - worth it for the part where they realise about the timezones and Toby and Josh go absolutely spaz. I bought S5 for Ã‚Â£10 in Virgin's "megasale" thing yesterday when I was supposed to be covering the riots over Ã‚Â£50 PS2s (didn't happen), so I'm actually quite excited about not going out for the next while.
Tom Hardy: Series Five was limp. They even threw in that Godawful fake documentary episode in order to pat Allison Janney on the back for her Emmy. It had good points, but felt like the writers were flailing around to recapture the Sorkin magic. But Series Six is, pretty much from the word go, far better. There's one amazingly stupid appointment made fairly early on, but even that pays off by the end of the series, and as it moves further away from the West Wing itself, it becomes pure gold again. Jimmy Smits ftw.
Brian McCandliss: You write that "the people in power are all heartbreakingly good-willed and astonishingly talented. To call it arrogant for that is like accusing Star Trek of exaggerating our space-travel capabilities."
I beg to differ: Star Trek spoke of advancements in current space-travel abilities; meanwhile I don't think of benevolent dictatorship as an improvement of current politics, so much as a pretentious lie that's as old as Ceasar and as honest as Adolf.
Brian McCandliss: Oh yes-- such representations were the common defense of aristocracy, i.e rule by the power-elite who supposedly knew better what was good for everyone; sadly, the self-believing "best and brightest" commonly aspire to a return to such jungle-despotism-- as do the egocentric creators of this series, seething with arrogance and vainglory that Jefferson prayed would never match what he saw in France.
Indeed, every line voiced by Martin Sheen seems to echo with "Let them eat cake."
Brian McCandliss: P.S. Is there a Guillotine in the house? :D
Jason L: WOW YOU HAVE A LARGE BRAIN PENIS. Look at the thesaurus on that thing!
Every episode of a retelling of the life of Louis XVI would surely revolve around his attempts to muddle through crises by persuading and driving bargains with hundreds of other people under a strict legal system and the ever-looming spectre of two public election cycles.