Saturday, 24 October 2015

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Vole

Okay, so there are some anomalies to the “it’s mainly the female supporting characters who die in Series 2” pattern I’ve identified, but I insist nonetheless that it’s there.

Vole’s death happens entirely off-screen and is implied to be the result of the hardship of winter.  Mr. Field-Mouse shows up and announces that his friend has been found dead.  There's not a lot else that I can really say about this one.

HORROR FACTOR: 2. Following on from his mother’s death in the previous episode, and from Mrs. Field-Mouse's at the start of the series, Vole’s death certainly seems a lot more subdued.  We only hear about it second-hand, and we can assume that he died more-or-less peacefully.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 5. Honestly, I find this one a bit difficult to score in terms of nobility - it just happens, and that's it.  I did say when I started that I award an instant 10 to any animal who dies of old age, although I'm still not certain where I should be placing deaths from other kinds of natural causes (they happen so rarely in the world of Farthing Wood that it's seldom an issue).  For now, I'm just going to give it 5 as an act of compromise and call it a day.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 4. Despite the subdued and off-screen nature of this particular death, I find that I do get a slight lump in my throat later on in the episode, when Fox acknowledges that "the mice and voles are gone."


Oh, but maybe Vole wasn’t dead after all.  Keen-eyed viewers may have spotted him rejoicing with the other animals at the end of the episode in question.

(It's not even the only weird thing going on in this scene.  Weasel here looks to be about the same size as Badger.  As per events going on around the same time involving Scarface, she should also be avoiding the Farthing animals altogether at this point.)

Also noteworthy that Mr. Field-Mouse makes his last appearance in the same episode.  After this he doesn’t get so much as a mention again, so it’s probably fair to presume that he goes a similar route to Vole.  I will not grant him proper inclusion in this retrospective, however, given that he was never officially “killed off”…he just disappears.  I’m pretty sure this happens to the shrews at some point in the series too, but I forget where.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Young Blue Foxes (x2)

I was in two minds as to whether or not I would cover these deaths as part of my retrospective.  When I started, I hadn't anticipated devoting an entry to every single nameless extra who perishes in the series, wanting to focus more upon the demises of actual established characters.  This wasn't much of an issue for Series 1, but in Series 2 it becomes slightly more problematic, as there are a number of shocking and fairly plot-significant ends for creatures who otherwise have zero presence within the show.  In the end I relented and decided that I would cover these deaths too.  I am unlikely, however, to devote entries to random prey animals who show up merely to be fodder for the predators (eg: the pheasants killed by Bold later on in the series) - I'm honestly not that much of a completist.

Scarface and his family suffer quite a few losses throughout Series 2, all of which seem to involve the Farthing foxes in some way...which does go a little toward making their ongoing dislike of Fox seem somewhat understandable.  This particular mishap certainly isn't Fox's fault, but the fact that the swift-thinking Fox is here able to profit from what is a terrible tragedy for the blue foxes is obviously not going to soothe tensions between the two clans.

With food resources in White Deer Park still scarce for the winter, Badger suggests that the animals venture out into some of the neighbouring farms and houses and scavenge amongst the humans' supplies.  Unfortunately, Scarface's family have had the very same idea, and Fox and Vixen arrive at a local farm to find that the blue foxes are already in the process of trying to pull off a chicken heist.  Two of Scarface's children (a son and a daughter) are seen fleeing from the farm with dead chickens in their mouths.  A human is then heard firing two gunshots from off-screen, and the young blue foxes are both hit and killed instantly.  Fox and Vixen are both horrified, but Fox spies an opportunity, and he and Vixen are able to move in quickly, grab the chickens from the dead foxes and flee before the human can get to them.  From a distance, Scarface and his mate, Lady Blue, are revealed to be watching.  Lady Blue is mournful at the deaths of her children, although Scarface seems far more aggrieved that his arch-rival has managed to make off with their bounty.

I recall being pretty shocked by this sequence the first time it aired, in part because I mistakenly thought that the two foxes who died actually were Scarface and Lady Blue.  I was greatly taken back that the main villains of the series would apparently have been killed off so abruptly, and it was only when they were subsequently revealed to be watching from the bushes that I realised that it wasn't them.  In my defence, you don't get a particularly good look at the two unfortunate young foxes, although with hindsight it does seem obvious from the go that this isn't Scarface or his Lady.

It's also at times like this that I wish I still had a copy of the Colin Dann novels to hand, for, although I do recall this being based on an occurrence in the books, I can't recall if the two foxes who died therein were ever explicitly revealed to be related to Scarface.  A little help here?

HORROR FACTOR: 7. The deaths themselves technically occur off-screen, but manage to be fairly startling in their abruptness, and we do get quite a generous serving of blood in the aftermath (even if the colouration seems a tad off).

NOBILITY FACTOR: 7. Paid the price for their thievery, but all in an effort to provide food for their family.  At least the Farthing foxes were able to benefit.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 1. It's somewhat hard to shed tears for these characters as we don't even know who they were, though Lady Blue's comments do at least indicate that their loss will be felt by someone.


Sunday, 18 October 2015

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Mrs. Vole

See what I mean about the Mesdames having worse luck than the Messrs in Series 2?

Something that the White Stag (the head animal at White Deer Park) did in an attempt to address the growing tensions between the blue foxes and the newly-arrived Farthing foxes was to set aside an area of the park as "Farthing Land".  The blue foxes would be forbidden to hunt there and Fox, in exchange, was likewise obliged not to hunt on their land.  This didn’t work out too brilliantly in practice, however.  Not only were the red foxes severely limited in their food supply that winter (most of the animals who hung around Farthing Land were Farthing animals, after all), but Scarface wasn’t exactly inclined to honour such restrictions if he thought that he could get away with it.  Mrs. Vole was the first victim of his debauchery, and she wouldn’t be the last.

When winter sets in and food becomes particularly scarce, the smaller animals’ trust in the Farthing predators begins to crumble.  If anything could drive the carnivores among them into disregarding the Oath, it’s extreme hunger, right?  (Kestrel’s earlier misadventure with Mrs Field-Mouse wasn’t exactly brilliant PR on that front.)  So when Mrs. Vole suddenly goes missing, Vole’s immediate assumption is that Fox, who was nearby when she had last been seen, is responsible.

Fortunately for Fox, Scarface's devouring of Mrs. Vole did not go unwitnessed - Weasel was lurking in the shadows at the time.  With Weasel able to vouch for Fox, a potential uprising amongst the Farthing animals is swiftly averted.

HORROR FACTOR: 7. Scarface grabs and mauls Mrs. Vole onscreen in a fairly violent (albeit bloodless) manner.  It’s somewhat mitigated, however, by the unintentionally hilarious close-up shot of Mrs. Vole screaming right before hand.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 2. I can’t really apply the same criteria here for Scarface as I did the butcher bird in Series 1, given that Scarface knowingly violated the White Stag’s laws in eating Mrs. Vole.  And seriously, who wants their final legacy to be providing nourishment for an evil shit like that?

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 2.  This particular death is played more for shock than tears.


Saturday, 17 October 2015

Farthing Wood Deaths Revisited: Series 2 - Mrs. Field-Mouse

We're into Series 2 of The Animals of Farthing Wood, and whereas Series 1 waited until the third episode before it started killing off characters, here the carnage commences almost immediately.

Note that, with the location formerly known as Farthing Wood far behind them, the animals were now considered to be "of Farthing Wood" purely in spirit - Series 1 concluded with them reflecting upon how much they had been through together on their journey, and deciding that they would continue to honour the Oath and retain their inter-species friendships, even if they did now plan on going their separate ways.  At the start of Series 2, Fox naturally assumes that they will no longer require his leadership and is looking forward to settling down with Vixen, but it doesn’t take long for things to go off the rails.

Series 2 was actually an amalgam of three different Farthing Wood novels – In The Grip of Winter, Fox’s Feud and The Fox Cub Bold.  All things considered, I think that they did a pretty good job of making the series flow convincingly as a singular story, the key focus being Fox’s rivalry with Scarface, an antagonistic blue fox who was accustomed to throwing his weight around at White Deer Park, and saw Fox’s arrival as an immediate challenge.  The “blue” foxes were frankly a bit of an oddity – I’m assuming that they were actually intended to be silver foxes, a melanistic variation of the red fox – though I believe that this was more a case of the TV series making everything neatly colour-coded (in the book, if I recall correctly, Scarface and his family were ordinary red foxes).  I’m also pretty sure that silver foxes don’t live in large wolf-like packs, as depicted here, but I’m willing to let that go.

Life’s full of cruel ironies sometimes, and no Farthing animal experienced this harder than Mrs. Field-Mouse, who survived the long trek to White Deer Park against the odds, only to be done in shortly after arrival, by one of her own travelling companions at that.  The animals may have decided to extend the bounds of the Oath and remain friends within White Deer Park, but this didn’t always work out in practice.  Case in point - Kestrel catches, kills and devours Mrs. Field-Mouse in the first episode of Series 2, all on account of mistaken identity.  She only later realises her error, when she has an angry and tearful Mr. Field-Mouse to contend with.  “How embarrassing!” Kestrel exclaims, at least fifty times throughout the remainder of the episode.

With this death, we also see the start of a long and frankly rather irritating pattern throughout Series 2 - which is to say, if you’re a minor character AND a Mrs, then you’re basically fucked.  As my coverage of Series 2 continues, you'll notice that it is largely the female characters who'll wind up in these pages, at least where the supporting cast is concerned.  This may even have come from the original Colin Dann novels – not only were nearly all of the important characters male therein, but I do seem to recall that he had an overwhelming preference for killing off female characters over males.

HORROR FACTOR: 9. Certainly one of the more disturbingly-executed deaths that the series had to offer.  We see things from a screaming Mrs. Field-Mouse’s perspective as Kestrel swoops on her, followed by an ominous flash and the screen going eerily red.

NOBILITY FACTOR: 3. Nourishing a friend technically is helping them, although it hardly fits the definition of “Mutual Protection”.

TEAR-JERKER FACTOR: 2. Mr. Field-Mouse’s sorrow aside, this death is more toe-curling than anything else.


Friday, 9 October 2015

Devil In The Room (aka those scary dolphins)

I had my first encounter with sleep paralysis at age twenty-two, having fallen asleep on the sofa while watching the movie Clue (which is not intended as a slight against the movie, mind – I was tired and had seen it before anyway).  I recall suddenly being aware of the fact that I was apparently awake but unable to move my body – and, since my face was pressed up against a cushion at the time, I immediately became very panic-striken that if I did not move my mouth away and take a deep breath shortly then I was certainly going to suffocate.  Somewhere in the background I think I could just about make out the sounds of Tim Curry and co trying to work out who sat where or whatnot, although it came through slightly muffled.

Thankfully, I did already have a limited understanding of what sleep paralysis was at the time, having heard from one or two other people who’d had experiences with it.  So, once I'd regained control of my body and had time to recover from my shock, I was able to make some degree of sense of what had happened.  Otherwise I’m certain that I would have been a heck of a lot more freaked out.

Since then, I’ve had sleep paralysis on a number of occasions, and the sensation of being suffocated has been a recurring feature.  So much so that I now make it a nightly precaution of mine never to sleep on my front, or to lie with my mouth under the covers, as doing so has the potential to accentuate the experience, if not actually cause it.  Incidentally, one of my very worst sleep paralysis experiences followed soon after eating a halloumi salad - coincidence, or might there be some truth to that old adage about cheese being a bringer of nightmares?  I'll leave that to the neurobiologists to decide.

Technically speaking, sleep paralysis is not, in itself, anything to fear.  It's really just a case of our wonderful bodies doing vital things that we tend to take for granted and occasionally getting it wrong. During REM sleep (the stage of sleep in which you have all of your best dreams) the brain induces a state of paralysis in order to prevent you from acting out any of the activities in your dreams (doing so has the potential to be extremely disastrous). Sometimes the various stages of sleep get a little ahead of themselves, and sleep paralysis is the result of entering a state of waking (or semi-waking) consciousness while that bodily paralysis is still active.  In the absence of such knowledge, however, I could see how people might be inclined to interpret it as something altogether more sinister - hence, ideas about demonic possession, alien abduction, evil dolphin-men (we'll get to that one shortly).

All things considered, I'll concede that my experiences with sleep paralysis have never been all that terrifying.  Oh sure, the sensation of being unable to open one's mouth when one desperately wants to take in a deep breath is an entirely unpleasant one, but that's about as far as the horror ever goes for me.  I certainly don't recall ever sensing that there was any kind of unnatural presence in the room with me.  Within the past few months, I had a somewhat different sleep paralysis experience that seemed to collide with a dream in which someone was pinning me down (by the mouth, naturally) and I felt a peculiar sensation, as if my body was levitating - but again, the only terror I recall feeling came entirely from the apparent loss of control of my breathing.  Not the sensation that there was someone else there doing this to me - I think that I took it for granted all along that that much wasn't real.  Nevertheless, the "difficulty breathing" is apparently enough to place me in with the 5% described in Carla MacKinnon's short film Devil In The Room - the ones who get stuck with the "associated symptoms" of sleep paralysis and have a particularly nightmarish time of it.

Devil In The Room is an eight-minute documentary that examines sleep paralysis, juxtaposing the underlying science with the raw experience, and touching upon various legends from different cultures that are thought to have had their origins within the phenomenon – the Amazonian boto and the Zulu tokolosche being two given examples. I caught it at the Leeds International Film Festival in 2013, and it struck an instant chord with me, in part due to my own personal experiences in the subject, but also the film’s quirky aesthetics, which include a blend of live action, projection mapping and Quay brothers-esque stop-motion animation.  The intention is to represent the various states of consciousness and the different realities that sleep paralysis can potentially bring together, but it also adds a distinct feeling of playfulness to its depiction of the otherworldliness.  The film walks a fine line between hair-raising eeriness and whimsical eccentricity, and the stop-motion boto and tokolosche have a quaint charm in their grotesqueness.  In fact, "charming" is a word which I feel oddly compelled to apply in summarising the general tone of MacKinnon's short - it's a strangely disarming piece about a notoriously unpleasant (if otherwise quite harmless) bodily phenomenon, one which mixes elements of camp (the overtly spookhouse tones of its voice-over narration), delectable grotesqueness (the film's aesthetics) and tongue-in-cheek humour (the entire end-credits sequence), and the resulting film plays as a curious kind of love letter (or love/hate letter, at any rate) to the sleep paralysis experience, and to its far-reaching impact across human history and culture.

Having already understood the science behind sleep paralysis, the real fascination for me here was learning about those creatures from different cultures that potentially have some connection to the phenomenon.   It’s a testament to the kind of rich and wonderful lore that develops from human efforts to rationalise the inexplicable, and it’s particularly fascinating when it applies to something as universal as sleep paralysis.  It's thanks to this film that I learned about the folklore surrounding the Amazon river dolphin, or boto, which has captivated me ever since.  It doesn't say so in this film, but apparently he, much like the tokolosche, makes a habit of seducing and impregnating human females.  The description of a shape-shifting dolphin that uses a hat to disguise its blowhole actually did sound somewhat familiar to me at the time, and eventually I remembered that The Wild Thornberrys (a Klasky Csupo cartoon about a family of globe-trotting naturalists, for those not in the know) had based an episode upon this very legend, albeit an entirely chaste version that also made no mention of sleep paralysis.  (According to The Wild Thornberrys' version of the story, another thing that a boto cannot change along with its appearance is its dietary habits - so if you find yourself dining at the same table as a man who insists upon keeping his hat on and orders from the fish menu, be very wary about looking him in the eyes).

Devil In The Room contains plenty of rational dialogue upon the nature of sleep paralysis, and while the film does not seek to put itself at odds with this approach, it nevertheless concludes on an extremely unsettling (albeit deliberately camp) note, with the assertion that, whenever you find yourself in the midst of such an experience, all of this reasoning will be of little consolation to you.  And fair enough.  If I wake to find myself unable to move and with the sensation that I’m being suffocated, you can bet that I’ll be going into a panic there and then, no matter how assured I am in general about the benign realities of sleep paralysis. Such is one of the key contradictions of the phenomenon, upon which MacKinnon lavishes so much affection - the nature by which it momentarily tricks us into thinking that something extraordinarily horrific is occurring, out of something so terribly mundane.

Be sure to check out Carla MacKinnon’s website The Sleep Paralysis Project, which contains more detailed information about sleep paralysis, including why you may experience the kind of associated symptoms that you do.

Note that you don’t have to be in a state of sleep paralysis to experience freaky hallucinations as you drift in and out of sleep.  Far scarier than any of my sleep paralysis experiences was the hypnagogic hallucination I once had in which a spider the size of a springer spaniel suddenly shot across my ceiling as I was drifting off to sleep.  I’m extremely grateful that, in that instance, I was able to make it a light switch in less than two seconds flat.