The microphone on the iPod Touch is better than I expected, actually.
All righty. I’m going to start talking about Faction Paradox, and while the audios may not be the simplest jumping in point… tough. Honestly, this is what I want to talk about, and if I spend a lot of time explaining the background, I’ll never get to the bits I’m interested in. I’ll try to explain any important bits as I go, but honestly: it is possible to jump in and pick it up as you go along. I did.
“The Egyptians used to believe that a sarcophagus was a doorway to another world.” — Merytra
We open with a flashback to a battle in the Crusades, and are introduced to Merytra who is, at first glance, a rather inexplicable female General from Rome. In short order she’s captured and meets Sutekh, who identifies her as a ringer from the Great Houses. Sidebar: If you’re familiar with Doctor Who, you can interpret “Great Houses” as “Timelords.” If not, just substitute “a superior group of alien meddlers with their own agenda”; it doesn’t matter at this point. Sutekh is also a Doctor Who character, but all you need to know is that he’s the Egyptian God, also known as Set. He’s not the least bit nice. Or sane. A decent knowledge of Egyptian mythology will add some levels, particularly in later episodes, but is no more crucial than familiarity with Doctor Who. Sutekh tortures Merytra into becoming his slave and one of the Mal’akh (semi-vampiric monsters, basically). Sorry to frontload all the exposition; it actually is explained more smoothly within the audios.
Cut to 1764. We meet some Brits in Naples who belong to a secret society of occult meddlers, basically. They’ll be popping up throughout the rest of the audios, so here’s their intro: there’s Pennerton, the stuffy one in charge of providing and eliciting exposition. There’s Finton, the poet, who’s sort of the comedy sidekick, although he gains depth as we go on. And there’s Marne, who’s the competent one who actually knows stuff. They’re worried about a mysterious beastie who’s been found in the area and is being exhibited as a curiosity by a local mayor.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way: it’s a terrible shame about the mayor, Don Escuro. I’m not sure if it’s the actor, or if it was meant to be the comedy relief or what, but it’s played as a caricature with a Italian accent that’s distracting and just…bad. Every time he thinks he’s about to be killed, you kind of hope he’s right. Although he does call Merytra “strega” when he’s mad at her, which, y’know, wins a point from me. If you try out the audios, I feel obliged to note that yes, he’s annoying. He’s only in the first disk, but he is the weak point.
Once we’ve met everyone and laid out the premise, things get moving. The Brits, worried that the beast is one of the Mal’akh, decide to contact (or, in fact, “summon”) members of an even more secret society they’ve heard of called Faction Paradox. Cue the introduction of Justine. I want to stress that the Faction is not a group of do-gooders — this isn’t like calling in the Doctor. Justine is extremely pragmatic, and isn’t interested in helping the men with their concerns until Marne offers to provide some Faction tech he knows about in exchange for her help. Justine finally agrees, so she collects her own comedy sidekick, Eliza, and they and the Brits go monster-hunting. Meanwhile Merytra and her Mal’akh army have freed the “ape” and kidnapped Don Escuro. As Merytra is rallying the troops, the Brits, Justine, and Eliza turn up. And this is when I was officially charmed, as the men chat amongst themselves on the sidelines while Justine confronts Merytra.
Pennerton: “We shouldn’t be here.”
Finton: “Well, we’ve got the torches. Those things are scared of fire, remember?”
Pennerton: “So we’re told. But look at them — some of those monstrosities are carrying torches as well, and they don’t look scared!”
Marne: “Must be ceremonial. Some way of proving their bravery.”
Pennerton: “Marne! They are monsters; they don’t need to prove their bravery!”
Well, I giggled. And since we’re about halfway through the episode, it’s time for a fight, where there’s also this:
Pennerton: “It’s no good, we can’t hurt them!”
Finton: “We are annoying them, though!”
Thanks to Justine’s weaponry, Merytra and the Mal’akh flee. Justine gives chase and confronts Merytra, and we’re due for a third act twist. In fact, there’s another twist hiding in plain sight here, but you won’t get that till later episodes. This is one of the things I’ve liked so much about the series — they are most definitely worth listening to more than once. Merytra cues up a flashback to a visit she paid to the realm of the gods… and that’s when we first meet Julian Glover’s Upuat, who is one of my favorite characters in the series. Upuat and Sutekh are having a chat as they watch the triumphal procession of Osiris:
Sutekh: [seething, as is his wont] “I have done more to protect this court than any other! I alone have kept Ra from the serpents of the Great Houses! Without me this dynasty would have been brought to nothing.”
Upuat: “Ooooh, do you want a parade of your own?”
It’s all in the delivery, I guess. But I emailed the producer to say there should be an Upuat spin-off where he just wanders the universe being sardonic about everything. Throughout the rest of the series, I was delighted every time he appeared. (I think he’s charming in the same way Lorne was in the early seasons of Angel. He pops in, offers up a plot point while making fun of the characters, and then wanders off.)
Anyway. It should be noted, in fairness, that the flashback doesn’t explain much within just this episode — while it’s setting something up for later, within the episode it just establishes that Sutekh is a sulky bitch, and we already knew that. Eliza hangs a lantern on that by noting that she’s still confused, and then the Brits arrive to interrupt the conversation. Merytra takes advantage of this to escape, and then Justine gets testy with Marne. She says that she’s dealt with the immediate threat, and demands payment, so he leads her to Pompeii.
Inside a cave there is what Marne believes is a cache of Faction Paradox equipment. Marne figures out (another spoiler in plain sight) how to open a door that’s been marked with Egyptian symbols. They enter a cavern containing a huge black tree. Within its roots are Faction Remembrance Tanks — these are used to spawn new members. Only they’re broken and empty. They find some equipment within the tree, and while fumbling about, they set off an automated message. Which is another good bit — the system “learns” to speak by reading the minds of the people in the cave, and begins speaking in their voices. But it’s the 18th Century, so the Brits have never heard their voices in recordings before, which sets up another good joke. And that’s when the characters first learn who the baddie here is. Merytra has gone on about “The Dark God” but no names have been mentioned until the machine goes on about praising Sutekh. Which is when Justine smashes the hell out of it.
There’s a bit of exposition to establish that the Osirian Court (the Egyptian gods) operate on a completely separate timeline from the Great Houses and, well, everyone else. Eliza says, “Their past keeps overlapping with our future.” This will be mentioned again, because it’s important. The characters learn that after the Faction was destroyed, the Great Houses also were battling with the Osirian Court. And thus, both sides were meddling during the Crusades — turns out humans aren’t the only ones with a penchant for getting sucked into wars around the Mediterranean. Eventually a truce was declared, and as part of the deal, Sutekh destroyed the Faction’s cache.
Justine starts flipping out about the way the her “family” has been used as a bargaining chip just as Merytra arrives with the remains of her Mal’akh troops. Time for the finale…
Merytra, exhausted, has a failsafe plan. She opens the sarcophagus of doooooom and prepares to make a sacrifice to open it as a portal to her leader. Justine confronts her again, but then at Merytra’s order, the Mal’akh set themselves on fire, sacrificing themselves. A direct gateway to the Osirian court is opened, and Justine and the others watch helplessly as…
…Nothing happens. Justine points out that the war Merytra is still waging ended centuries ago — nobody’s waiting on the other end of the tunnel to come through. Phew! Everything seems to be wrapped up nicely. Except that’s when Justine has had enough. See, the Faction was nearly destroyed (backstory again, sorry) and learning that Sutekh is responsible for the destruction of what could be its last remaining “children” makes Justine go all Hulk Smash.
Justine: “I’m going to fulfill my duties to Faction Paradox. I’m going to kill Sutekh. I’d advice you not to follow me.”
And she enters the portal. The end.
Comments & Quibbles:
The thing I love is that on the one hand, the story is wrapped up at the end of the disk. So if you do want to just get a taste, you can. But there’s also quite a cliff-hanger — although the immediate threat has been dealt with, Justine’s out for vengeance at the end. Seriously, one of the many things I agree with Lawrence Miles about is that season-long arcs are officially overrated now. Serials are underrated.
My plot-y quibbles are:
- Why exactly is Don Escuro held prisoner for so long? It’s basically misdirection — which is fine, but on review it would be nice if there was some internal reason for it. There’s a throw-away “Your blood was only meant for the feeding” but that doesn’t seem to justify the amount of bother involved.
- As noted, Merytra’s flashback doesn’t make much sense within the context of the episode.
- This is another thing that only jumps out after hearing the rest of the series, but: if Sutekh was responsible for the desecration of the Faction’s cache, it’s odd that the Eye of Horus is left on the door.
I should say a bit more about the casting. There is the noted exception of Don Escuro (and I am tempted to think that was just a bad decision on everyone’s part) but the rest of the cast is entertaining and distinctive. Given that these are audios, that’s important — obviously you need to use stereotypes a bit to establish that Finton is the dreamy poet and so on, but I had no problem telling who was who, and I’m the one who confuses characters’ names even when I can see them.
On reread, my recap does some disservice to the audio simply because there is so much being set up. And since I’m excited about getting to the good bits, I’m dumping it all out when it’s actually worked in pretty smoothly. So for the record: in addition to telling a story in itself, and setting up some plotlines for the next 5 disks, this episode has the same problem a TV pilot does when you need to establish a large cast of characters. Justine is basically the heroine of the series, but Eliza, Marne, Finton, Pennerton, Merytra, Sutekh, and of course Upuat are all recurring characters as well. And without bogging down the story they each get enough time to establish who they are — you know within a few lines you know that Eliza is “modern” and snarky, and that Pennerton is officious and stuffy, and so on.
And just to explain a bit more about why I enjoyed this series so much, and why I’ve been re-re-re-listening to it… I think there are a few plotshifts in the course of the series where you can sort of feel the writer rethinking where the story should go. I’m okay with that. Each of the disks individually are interesting and entertaining, and they build upon each other. Volume 6, which I can’t wait to talk about, is frankly astonishing. And again, this reminds me of Angel… I think over the course of the 5 seasons, you can see the writers experimenting and learning what the show will support, and what it won’t. Some of the failures were interesting to me, even if I didn’t think they worked as intended. (Some of them were just terrible, of course.) Anyway: I think in the course of the Magic Bullet audios you can see the same kind of experimentation happening — only it’s over the course of 6 hours, not 110. So yes, I’m extremely willing to forgive some dropped threads in exchange for the rest.