Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)

The Memory Eater – Matthew Hance (editor)

Memory Eater Cover - Cartoon head with pink bird eating the exposed brain

First Published: 19th June, 2012
Genre: Science Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Myra R. Taylor; John W. Otte; Ken Liu; Matthew Hance; Joe DiBuduo; Kate Robinson; Mike Kozlowski; j l mo; Lisa Martinez; Nicholas Conley; Wesley Gray; Bob Simms; Lisamarie Lamb; Lauren Kocher; Nina Pelletier; Kim Charles Younkin; Holly Day; Alex Shvartsman; Cassie Davies; Chad Jones; Justin Swapp; DL Thurston; Vivian Davenport; Lauren C. Teffeau; Kathie Huddleston
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The anthology is based on the premise that unwanted memories can be erased by a machine. Themed anthologies can suffer from the stories being too samey, and that was a big problem here. I read the first couple of stories, but after that, I skipped and picked a few at random from the rest. I’d hoped to see more of a range of situations, but the ones I chose all read as though they were set in near-future America, and focused on a heterosexual relationship problem. One story had a gay man being murdered for getting in the way of a different sex relationship, which is a negative trope I’d rather not ever see again, especially in an anthology with a heterosexual focus.

It’s possible there are some standouts in the ones I didn’t read, but I had no motivation to give the rest of the stories a chance.

When I first reviewed this, I said the stories were anonymous. Author names and bios are in a list at the back, but who wrote which story isn’t identified in the bios or on the stories. This was unfortunate as a reader (as I do like to know who authored a story, for better or worse) and bad for the authors themselves. I later realised there was a table of contents, but the book didn’t open to that page and it wasn’t the built-in table of contents Kindle recognises. All round, not a good way to format an anthology.

On the plus side, I didn’t see any issues in the editing and each story was illustrated. If you’re a fan of the themes I’ve mentioned, this might be for you.

Animal Behaviour in The Dinosaur Project

The Dinosaur Project (DVD Cover)

I love watching dinosaur films. As long as there are pretty dinosaurs, I’m not too picky about the script, acting or anything else. There is one thing I’m a stickler for though: realistic animal behaviour.

I’ve complained before about King Kong‘s handling of dinosaurs, where they go after the humans as snacks above all else (including their personal safety). Even Jurassic Park had issues, as the predatory dinosaurs were a little over-interested in eating people. The velociraptors were intelligent social animals who had been raised by humans… and the audience is supposed to accept that they have no emotional attachment to any human. The same goes for T-rex, who was intelligent enough to figure out how to take out the fence, but went after cars she saw every day, and knew contained her mini-rex friends who regularly brought food. “Because they’re dinosaurs” isn’t a reason*.

The dinosaurs also have a handy tendency to congregate in large mixed-species groups anytime the characters look out over the park.

When I watched The Dinosaur Project, I knew nothing about it, other than it had dinosaurs on the cover. It’s a relatively low budget production, using the self-filmed style made popular by The Blair Witch Project. Given all that, it was a surprise on the animal behaviour front.

The story follows a British team heading to the Congo in search of Mokele Mbembe. They’re assigned a conservationist, whose role is to guide them through the jungle and make sure they don’t damage any wildlife or habitats**. Unsurprisingly from the title, they find more than Mokele Mbembe.

The first species they meet is clearly an eats-people variety***, but does so due to having prior success at hunting humans. Later on, the humans outnumber them and resist, so the animals back off. In the real world, a show of resistance is usually enough to drive off wild predators, at least temporarily. It’s nice to see it happening in a film. If anything in this sequence, it’s one of the humans who does something mind-bogglingly stupid from an animal behaviour perspective, not the predators.

There’s also an example of intelligent predators, who don’t automatically view humans as food. Instead, they’re curious and a little cautious****. They can tell humans apart*****, which becomes important when not all the humans turn out to be nice.

But the thing that really stands out is most of the dinosaurs stay away from the humans. They’re heard in the distance, but most have no reason to get close. I liked that the face-to-face encounters were a limited range of species. These are wild animals who’ve had little contact with humans, and have a previous history of trying to stay away from humans******. This will likely be a point of criticism for the film, as people expect the dinosaurs to pose, but for me, sometimes it’s nice to see a little more realism.

My main complaint is true of most of the lost world genre, in that it sticks a little too closely to the fossil record. Continued evolution is mentioned (which is more than most), but I look forward to the day I pick up a film that has created all-new dinosaurs, with radically different behaviours based on their new environment. Though at the end of the day, it had dinosaurs eating sweets and people, and that’s good enough to cover most issues.

* Consider that plenty of intelligent predators are kept in captivity. Big cats and wolves are common examples. The majority of these animals aren’t aggressive towards their keepers, because they accept these humans as part of the family. It’s the less intelligent predators that cause most issues, as they may not be able to learn that humans are friends, not food. Intelligent dinosaurs are in the same league as mammals, birds and cephalopods, so would be expected to behave more like a tiger and less like a shark.

(Not that sharks are like the film version either. They don’t attack anything that moves and do tend to avoid people. But they’re also not that smart, so don’t expect a great white to have snuggly feelings about you being one of the family.)

** Though not the main topic of the post, I did like this nod to anti-colonialism. Unlike classics in the British explorer genre, their guide is not there to lead them wherever they want to go. She’s there to make sure they get in and out with as little damage caused as possible. I would’ve liked to see more character development time for her, but it has to be said, character development isn’t a strong point of this film as a whole.

*** The first species got my classification ponderings going, because they fly like pterosaurs, but those heads look very dinosaury. My best guess is they may be intended as early pterosaurs (the fossil record isn’t good for early pterosaurs and their ancestors, which leaves it open to interpretation).

**** Though not technically a dinosaur, the handling of terror birds in Prehistoric Park (a fake documentary program where they travel back in time to rescue soon-to-be-extinct animals) hit this one. Because humans were unfamiliar, the terror bird was curious… and after they started feeding it, grew actively friendly. In general, Prehistoric Park‘s handling of animal behaviour beats films hands down, but in fairness, it was written with that in mind.

***** Back to the Jurassic Park raptors, it would’ve come across far more realistically if they’d avoided/ignored most of the humans, and focused in on hunting down the main keeper (as he’s the one they associated as keeping them captive, and who wanted them dead). Telling individuals apart is an important skill for social animals, and does extend to how they view other animals (including humans). Why bother with a human stranger? They’re more trouble than they’re worth.

****** The reason they’re not staying away in the film is a spoiler, but if you’d like to know: ~~ spoiler warning: highlight to read ~~ The conservationist believes they’re being forced into contact with humans due to deforestation. ~~ spoiler end ~~

H2O: Just Add Water (Season Two)

H2O: Just Add Water (Australian 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 (over here) considers the series in the context of other mermaid media and reviews season one. Part 2 (this section) 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.)

Review: Season Two

Plot Overview

The girls (Cleo, Rikki and Emma) have settled into their lives as mermaids. This is thrown off when they gain additional powers (over weather elements – wind for Cleo, lightning for Rikki and snow for Emma), but they soon learn to handle them.

Their personal lives are another matter. Cleo is dealing with her parent’s divorce and confused about her relationship with Lewis. Things get complicated for Rikki when her ex-boyfriend reappears. Emma has continuing issues hiding things from her family, and there’s friction when she meets riding instructor Ash.

Whilst this is going on, a new girl at school – Charlotte – takes a shine to Lewis. Cleo takes an instant dislike to Charlotte as she still has feelings for Lewis, and thus a love triangle is born.

The season is slow to get going, but after a lot of floundering, we find out some more about the 1950s mermaids and the final conflict becomes apparent.

Antagonists

Charlotte is not instantly obvious as an antagonist. She’s intelligent, artistic and is initially friendly. But there are early hints that she’s self-centred and manipulative. When the focus starts to slip away from her, a smile and the right comment switches things around so she gets her way. When she organises a party for Lewis, it’s clearly what she wants… his preferences don’t factor into it.

That said, being a bit manipulative doesn’t make a person instantly hateable. Charlotte’s motives for her interest in Mako Island are sympathetic. It’s understandable that the girls don’t want Charlotte finding anything out, as she might expose them, but it’s also understandable why Charlotte wants to know.

One plus side is that criticisms of Charlotte are based on her behaviour and motives. Cleo drew away from the appearance slams used in the first season, and no one else jumps on that wagon either. Charlotte’s heavier than the other girls, yet there’s a lack of classic fat stereotypes – she doesn’t overeat, she’s not unfit and she doesn’t hate herself. Her issues with the girls are not connected to her looks*.

There weren’t as many minor antagonists this time around. Nate, Zane’s best friend, was the main one. He took a similar role to Miriam, as the shallow antagonist who causes minor issues here and there. There’s never anything deeper there.

Allies

Lewis continues to be the biggest ally for the girls, though this is tested due to the love triangle (Charlotte doesn’t like Lewis hanging out with the girls). In the first season, Lewis had his moments of being a little over-protective and clingy. He goes all out in the early part of the second season… and get slapped for it. This behaviour initially causes Cleo to dump him. Later, when he tries to overrule a decision the girls have made, they go for it anyway and prove him wrong. Afterwards, he admits they were right.

After endless stories where overprotectiveness is shown as desirable, and girls who go against the wishes of men/boys always have it blow up in their face (should’ve listened to the menfolk!), it’s nice to see the reverse. Lewis does a whole bunch of maturing towards realising people in relationships need to be equals and don’t need to be in each other’s space 24/7.

A new edition is Max, an elderly man who was friends with the ’50s mermaids (in a similar role to Lewis).

Class Issues

Rikki’s home is shown for the first time. It wasn’t a surprise that she lived in the trailer park, as there’d been hints, but this time it was on-screen.

It’s common for poor people to be shown as universally bad, outside of the poor young protagonist who is trying to rise above it. Their parents will be abusive, greedy and a waste of space. H2O didn’t go down that route, which was heartening to see. Rikki’s dad obviously cares about his daughter and they have a close relationship. He’s not poor because he’s lazy and evil. He’s poor because his job doesn’t pay well and there’s nothing he can do about it (which is the reality for most poor people).

Rikki is hesitant to bring her friends home, due to what they might think. Some of Rikki’s differences in attitude to money were clear in this season too. She doesn’t like people giving her money and gifts, seeing it as charity**. This is in comparison to rich boy Zane, who throws money and gifts around, because it’s never been something he had to worry about.

Irresistible – Episode Comments

One episode introduces a scent which mesmerises the girls. They’ll do anything the wearer says, and don’t remember any of it once out of the scent’s range. Though presented in a tween-friendly mermaid magic way, it’s a clear analogue to using alcohol or drugs to control girls. Though some of the scenarios are played for comedy, the boys take the threat seriously and the girls are clearly upset afterwards. They don’t blame themselves, which sounds like a small thing, but too often themes like this end up with the girls thinking it was their fault.

I had mixed feelings on this one. It’s a little twee for the serious nature of the subject, but it’s also not a bad first introduction to it either. The blame is placed where it’s due and the overall conclusion is it isn’t acceptable.

Overall Views

This season was weaker than the first. There were some fun stand-alone stories (sea fungus!), it was good to see Rikki’s home life and I liked Max. But the main storyline took too long to get going. It floundered around in love triangle land and some episodes hardly had any mermaiding. Once the season finale got going, it was a lot stronger, but it was a bit of a slog getting there at times.

Originally, two seasons were planned, so this would have been the end. The two main storylines are ended in a satisfying way. The girls are left at a point where things are stable. The gaps in the ’50s story are filled in by Max. Of course, it didn’t end there, as a third season was produced, but the writers had to polish things off as though there wasn’t going to be another season.

* On the other hand, fan comments can be a scary, scary place. There are a lot of criticisms of Charlotte’s weight, saying she’s fat and ugly, and they can’t imagine why anyone would want to date her. This ties in to my comments on season one, about using appearance criticisms against female antagonists. It happens so often, people internalise it as normal behaviour. The people who criticise a fictional character based on appearance rather than behaviour are going to be treating real people in exactly the same way.

One series can’t change the tide, but it doesn’t mean they have to add to it.

** I’ve had problems trying to explain this in the science fiction and fantasy writing world. It’s a lot harder to apply for a grant for conventions and courses when you’ve been raised with less money. Money is a big deal. Not being able to support yourself is a big deal. So accepting money, especially for something that isn’t life-or-death, is a lot harder than it might be for someone where money has never been an issue (and therefore isn’t viewed as being as important). This tends to get dismissed as ‘silly’, when it’s an issue that does need to be considered, because the people who most need grants can be the least likely to apply. Telling them they’re stupid and failing to understand why doesn’t help.

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).