H2O: Just Add Water (Season One)

H2O: Just Add Water (UK DVD Cover)

H2O: Just Add Water is a mermaid series for teens and tweens, which ran for three seasons between 2006 and 2010*. Part 1 (this section) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (over here) reviews season two. Part 3 (over there) deals with season three, wider themes/issues and the upcoming spinoff series, Secret of Mako Island.

(Due to covering three seasons, there are some inevitable spoilers and a few stand-alone episodes are discussed in more detail. However, I’ve avoided discussing the season finales and there will still be a lot of surprises.)

The Modern Mermaid

Early mermaid legends were very male-centric. It was about the man being rescued by the mermaids or being lured to his death. Either way, it was a tale revolving around human men, where mermaids played a side role. When stories turned around to being from the mermaid’s perspective, the male focus stayed. Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was driven by her attraction to a human man and was willing to give up being a mermaid for him. She wasn’t allowed to have needs and desires outside of that.

There were some early examples which subverted the trend. Splash, a 1984 romantic comedy, had a happy-ever-after that didn’t require the mermaid giving up her tail (though the writers of the TV movie sequel were clearly uncomfortable with that, and tried to reverse the original story). But it’s taken longer to see a full shift to a story where being a mermaid, and the friendships between mermaids/girls, is the central focus.

An example of the female-centric approach is teen movie Aquamarine. Though Aqua believes she’ll win the day by getting a boy to fall in love with her, it’s actually the friendships she forms with the girls that are the important things (as Aqua eventually realises). Such an approach can also include main male characters. The novel Above World (Jenn Reese) has two viewpoint characters – a merboy and mergirl – but it doesn’t become all about the boy. Both characters have important roles in the quest. The mergirl is not an accessory for the merboy (or vice versa).

This is not a universal shift though, with many stories still focusing on the mermaid willing to give up everything for a man/boy, with no focus on female friendship or her own needs. Stories with merboys and mermen as main characters can easily shift into this, such as Legacy Lost (Anna Banks), where the mergirl is there to be beautiful and die tragically, and the story focuses on the merboy’s pain. This is on a level with the old sailor stories, where it was never really about the mermaids.

H2O: Just Add Water is an example of taking the story back to the mermaids. The central conflict is the girls dealing with being mermaids, with a focus on their friendship. They date and are friends with boys, but they don’t exist simply to be part of the boys’ stories.

Review: Season One

Plot Overview

Cleo (Phoebe Tonkin), Rikki (Cariba Heine) and Emma (Claire Holt) are three 15-year-old girls living on the coast of Australia. After getting lost on Mako Island, they fall down into a cave with a pool. The only way out is to swim, but as they do so, the moon comes over the pool and the water bubbles.

The next day, each girl carries out her usual routine. Seconds after they get wet, they turn into mermaids. It isn’t long before they discover they have other powers. Cleo can shape water, Emma can freeze it and Rikki can boil it.

Initially, they try to keep this a secret from everyone, but Cleo’s best friend Lewis (Angus McLaren) finds out. He agrees to help the girls hide their secret and tries to use science to help them, with mixed success.

Much of the series deals with the basic conflict of learning what it means to be a mermaid and how to deal with everyday life. Emma has to give up competitive swimming, which has been her life since she was little. Cleo has to overcome her fear of water and accept she can’t be an ordinary girl. And Rikki just thinks it’s awesome, which is awesome in itself… she’s a much needed counter to the other two girls, confronting them directly for whining when they’re talking about how terrible it is to get special magical powers.

Antagonists

The main antagonist is Zane, a boy the same age as the girls. He’s the local bully, but it’s quickly apparent this is a shield for covering up a poor relationship with his father. He has moments of genuine charm. This rounding out of his character makes him a lot more interesting, as he’s both hateable and likable at the same time. He has the potential to be both a villain and an ally.

A few more infrequent antagonists appear. The least developed is Miriam – she’s a rather stereotypical mean girl. Others include a marine biologist, who gets a look at a cell sample from the girls, and Zane’s father, who intends to build on Mako Island.

I generally liked the characterisation, as the two adult antagonists also had multiple sides to them. Miriam’s shallowness wasn’t ideal, but she also wasn’t a primary antagonist.

What I wasn’t fond of was the girls’ reaction to the biologist, Doctor Denman. Cleo doesn’t believe Denman is really a scientist due to being blonde and pretty. Though the other girls do give Cleo looks, and Emma has checked out Denman’s research, this isn’t behaviour that has any real consequence. Rikki latter joins in criticising Denman’s appearance.

Though this sort of casual internalised misogyny does happen among teens, it’s something I dislike seeing presented as perfectly okay. It would have been nice if someone (and Rikki would have been a good candidate, as she previously criticised the beauty pageant) had made a snarky remark, or otherwise reacted in a way that showed smiting your rival’s looks isn’t ideal. There was plenty of other stuff they could have criticised Denman over.

Allies

Emma comes from a stable family and gets advice from her mother and father. Her parents are shown as a strong partnership, rather than one dominating the other. This is in contrast to Cleo’s family, where her father dominates and mother is often quiet and worried in the background. In both cases, parents provide someone the girls can talk to. It’s nice not to see an over-reliance on parent/child arguments or parents who behave like they’re children and need looking after.

Outside of family, there’s Miss Chatham, a former mermaid from the 1950s. I particularly liked the girls having an older woman to help guide them. It not only highlighted mermaids supporting each other across generations, but that the girls in the ’50s were not so different. The underlying problems they faced were much like the modern mermaids.

The biggest ally, though, is Lewis. As Cleo’s best friend, he’s around a lot of time and does what he can to help. This is the area where the series could have failed, by making it into Lewis’s story – some writers seem to struggle not to do this whenever they have a male character in the group. Overall, this doesn’t happen. Lewis gets his own subplots and plays his part, but he’s one of the group rather than leading the group.

The Siren Effect – Episode Comments

The episode with the biggest potential for failure was about sirens. Cleo turns into one, and her singing causes all the teenaged boys in the area to gather around her.

This theme is often used in a way that promotes rape culture. The girl/woman loses control and the boys/men attack her. This is shown as her fault for being so irresistible (the boys/men couldn’t help themselves, etc). Though a children’s programme will handle this in a more innocent way, the eventual outcome would be boys grabbing, or trying to kiss, the irresistible girl and it all being portrayed as her fault.

Refreshingly, it didn’t go there. Cleo remains in control of her abilities and it never felt like she was at risk (not from the boys anyway). She does initiate contact with one boy, but again, she’s in control.

Overall Views

It was a strong first season, with characters I cared about and antagonists that had more going on than being evil because they were evil. The realities of having to avoid all water were handled well, down to Cleo bribing her sister to wash the dishes. Not being able to get wet in public would impact a lot of things (and they’re lucky they don’t live in England, given the amount of rain here).

Due to using physical tails rather than CGI, the show didn’t have to hold back on underwater shots. One of the lures of such a series is seeing the mermaids getting to be mermaids, so it was a good production decision.

There were some uncomfortable moments of misogyny (such as the criticism of Doctor Denman’s appearance). On the whole though, the season had more female-positive stuff than negative. It was very much the mermaids’ story.

There was a lack of diversity in some areas, such as racial / ethnic and sexualities, but that’ll be discussed more in part three, taking all three seasons into account.

* The version I borrowed is the German one, which has all three seasons (it has the option to switch between dubbed German and original English, so isn’t any different other than the language on the credits).

Story in Penumbra

I don’t usually post two story announcements in a row. At least, not unless I’m slacking on my posting and haven’t written a content post inbetween. But this time, I have two things out within days of each other, so I have an excuse.

I have a story out in the dream issue of Penumbra eMag (by Musa Publishing). “The Road to the Beach” was one of the stories I wrote during last year’s NaNoWriMo and the first to make it out into the world. It’s also the featured story for this issue. Yay!

Penumbra is a subscription magazine, so this one’s not free to read.

Link: Penumbra, Volume 1 Issue 2, August 2012 (Dreams)

The Secret World Review

Last Thursday, a day before the headstart for preorderers for The Secret World, someone brought me a preorder and lifetime subscription. Up until then, I’d avoided learning too much about it, as I can’t afford new MMOs. So the night before the headstart, it was time to cram. Here are the results of my early gameplay, with pictures (click for larger versions).

Setting and Story

Secret World is a near future horror/urban fantasy game, where all the legends are true and the end of the world is approaching. Three secret societies – the Templars (based in Europe), the Illuminati (based in North America) and the Dragon (based in East Asia) look to investigate what’s going on and try to stop it. In the process of getting a bit of power for themselves, of course.

After an incident where a glowing bee flies into your mouth while sleeping, stuff happens that varies on what secret society you’ve chosen. As a Templar, a woman visited me and sent me to see a puppet man in the park. At this point the stories converge, as everyone goes to the combat tutorial – a flashback to an incident in Tokoyo, where a member of each secret socity is working together to control an evilmutantzombiething outbreak in a subway station.

Once all that’s done, I visited the head of the Templars* (the man in the foreground – I’m in the background) and picked up my first abilities.

A man in a suit speaks as my character looks on

Meeting the boss

There’s a lot of story thrown at you in the introduction, so it’s worth making sure all the graphics options are set before you create your first character. Also switch on subtitles if you need it (the game has voice acting for most dialogue). I didn’t, so didn’t get subtitles for the first parts of the intro.

After all the introduction is done, Kingsmouth is the main area where everyone goes. Zombies have invaded and the town is hiding all sorts of dark things from their past. Kingsmouth is where the depth of the storytelling really comes out. There are numerous plotlines coming together here. More than enough to keep the game going for some time.

A woman armed with pistols in a misty forest

Kingsmouth forest

The game world is beautiful to look at (in a rotting zombie sort of way) and the storylines of the missions are polished. There are a few missions that break when everyone’s trying to do them, but overall the number of bugged missions is down on other game releases. Though some missions are simple (like killing certain numbers of something), it’s hard to progress without thinking. Some require puzzles to be solved** or instructions to be followed (rather than clicking every interactable object… you have to click the right one). The focus of the game is on enjoying the story and solving puzzles, rather than trying to powergame to some form of endgame content.

This is the strongest area of the game…

Characters

… and the player character creation is the biggest weakness of the release. There are very few body options. No body sliders, so you can’t change height and weight. There are a few face options, but no way to make the faces older or younger. Colour choices for skin, hair and eyes are limited (though there are options allowing you to create different races). All hair styles have straight hair (not an issue for my character, but it will be for some).

A character creation screen showing head options

Character creation

After creation, you can buy clothes for your character, though again, the selection is limited and a lot of the colours don’t match. I ended up using the leather Templar jacket I got as a perk, with a mixture of leather items in reds and browns.

Names will become an increasing issue in the future. All characters have to have a unique nickname*** (unique across the whole game). Their first and last name do not need to be unique. Already, a lot of names are random letters that sound like words. It’s difficult to get a name that means something.

These limits aren’t placed on the NPCs, who come in a variety of sizes, ages, hairstyles and clothings. I also heard beta had more options available for players. My understanding is they’re working on it, but it is a clear weakness in the game at release. Being able to adequately customise characters is important.

Game Mechanics

This isn’t a level based game. Characters earn skill and ability points, which can be spent freely. There’s no limit to this, so the longer you play, the more skills you’ll pick up. That means no need to delete and recreate characters if you don’t like your skills. Just replay a few easier missions and you’ll soon have the points to train some different skills.

On that note, most missions can be replayed, so no one will be stuck killing random monsters to progress. There’s a timeout before you can do the mission again, but by the time you’ve gone through the missions in an area, plenty of them will be repeatable.

For those like me who are completionist about missions, the ones you’ve done are marked with a tick, so you can see at-a-glance if it’s new or not.

Portryal Thoughts

Women

My first impressions of the website brought to mind the discussions on urban fantasy covers. The issue in urban fantasy is women tend to be hyper-sexualised on covers. They’re always wearing revealing outfits, whether the character in the book does or not. They stand in poses that’d give most people back ache, if they can pull the poses at all.

Secret World’s site doesn’t do that. Most of the women are standing in practical poses that emphasise strength (something that only tends to happen for men on urban fantasy covers). One woman is in a sexualised pose, but it’s mildly so… it’s the sort of pose a woman might use, without needing to be a contortionist. She’s also wearing a lot more than the average urban fantasy heroine.

A woman in Templar uniform, with Dragon and Illuminati people behind her

Website art with strong poses

In the game itself, it’s interesting to see women cast in roles like the battle-hardened sheriff, protecting the last survivors.

All this is notable, because for previous titles, Funcom did have its moment of, “Woohoo, we’re making adult games! We can have naked women and make them fondle their own breasts!!!” So it’s good to see them improving on that score. This isn’t to say none of the portrayal of female characters have any problems, but there is an improvement. I live in hopes urban fantasy might make it too someday.

Race and culture

Unlike many Western games, it has acknowledged that the changes will be happening all over the world. It’s a positive sign that rather than a token mention of stuff happening elsewhere, players can go to those places and take part in what’s going on. How well those locations have been rendered isn’t something I can judge, as I’ve never been to Seoul or Tokyo for example.

So far, it looks like racial diversity matches the area. A lot of Dragons are East Asian (and I presume Seoul is mainly Korean people, given that it’s Seoul, but I’ve not been there in the game). London has a mixture of people, including the Templars being run by a Black British man. On the other side, Kingsmouth is very white, which doesn’t seem out of place for a small town of its sort.

My main complaint is the lack of this diversity in character creation. There should be some non-straight hairstyles, and more clothing that isn’t Northern European in origin. The NPCs have it, but the players don’t.

Other stuff

There are a mixture of ages and weights among NPCs, though it’s low on people with physical disabilities. Mental illness is interesting, as a lot of the infections spreading cause it. The survivors include many people who’d be labelled as eccentric, and may be considered to have pre-existing mental disabilities or illnesses. But in this context, it makes them more likely to survive strange compulsions to walk into the ocean and drown. It’s a logical extension of the idea, as if an attack is designed to work on a neurotypical brain, it may fail when someone is atypical.

Overview

Overall, I’m enjoying the game and the storyline. I like games where the gameplay is the content, rather than having to level doing nothing much until an endgame I have little interest in. However, the character customisation needs a lot of work.

For anyone interested in trying it out, it should be noted it is an adult game and does have adult scenes (my understanding is there’s some sexual content in the Dragon intro and some torture in the Illuminati intro… but I’ve not had time to try those yet). It is also a horror game, so expect blood, slime and people transforming into tentacle monsters. None of this is all-the-time. There are breaks from the horror and the adult content isn’t crammed into every cut scene. But it is there, and it might be triggering for some people.

* Though NPCs have voice narration, the player characters don’t. This means your character spends a good deal of time staring silently and intently at other people. No one seems to mind though. I suppose compared to a zombie, being a bit unnerving is fine.

** One puzzle that comes up a few times is figuring out computer passwords from the password hint. Fortunately for players, none of the characters in this game have any idea how to create secure passwords. The name of your wife? Really?

*** The name filter (which does filter against bad language, even though both players and NPCs can swear all they want in chat) rather humorously blocks unicorn and penumbra, but happily allowed someone to call their character Bollocks.

Featherbrains – John Yeoman (author), Quentin Blake (illustrator)

First Published: 25th February, 1993
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Chapter Book
Available: Out of print

Featherbrains is the story of two battery hens, Flossie and Bessie. When they escape their cages, they find themselves in the outside world. A friendly jackdaw watches out for them as they explore.

This is a children’s chapter book. The story is light-hearted and there are quirky illustrations by Quentin Blake. At the same time, it introduces the serious issue of animal welfare in farming at a level that a young child can understand. It’s not a favourite and I don’t think I’d seek it out (unless specifically needing a book on battery hens), but it’s also not bad.