Tony Talks #1: PLEX and Sex

Sex Education, servers, writing books and more...

In the previous WordPress incarnation of my blogging, I would routinely do sporadic ‘Tony Talks’ pieces in which my ramblings were more personalised, generic and less structured, and it’s something I’m keen to retain for The Substack Era.

If the whole point of using Substack, embracing the idea of a newsletter approach, is to connect more directly with all of you, then I think there needs to be a balance between the ‘official’ content, as it were—things like the 2000 In Film or Scene by Scene projects—and chatter about what’s going through my brain, what I’ve been watching etc… a process that will no doubt be fluid and without a definitive schedule.

First and foremost, I’m still figuring out if Substack is the right medium for me. I feel like it is but there is still the necessity to farm out all of my content to social media and Facebook groups etc… which doesn’t feel much different from WordPress, plus there is the issue of content being available and visible. Substack isn’t designed to show everything as clearly in perpetuity as an actual website would be, so partly I’m imagining my WordPress space will allow me to store links to content produced on here, although part of me then thinks… why not just keep using WordPress?

The answer to that comes down to ease and presentation. Substack is a far more elegant looking space where WordPress can be clunky and blocky. It gives you greater power to manipulate your text and images but I’ve never been entirely happy with how ajblackwriter.com *looks* and to change that, the cost is upwards of £170 a year (paid at once) which I’m not sure I want to pay anymore. Substack is free. Substack allows you to provide paid for content if that’s a road you want to go down. Substack is a bit more direct in how it connects to the reader. So there are lots of positives. I just need to figure out how I keep my writing visible for anyone not simply following the newsletter or tracking my social media. If anyone has any wisdom or advice when it comes to this, do let me know!

Beyond all this mulling over where I write and how I write, I have also been attempting to, in truth, write a bit *less* lately, so I can knuckle down and dig into my second book, which is due July. In many respects, it’s a version of the Trek FM podcast I co-founded, Primitive Culture, exploring cultural history and Star Trek from WW2 to the present day, so its pretty expansive and while I’ve known the structure of the book for a while, actually digging a trench and busting out the words has been a tall order given how much I’ve focused on the easy wins of reviews & articles these past few months. I need really to devote the first half of 2020 to prioritising my contracted work.

It helps that Star Trek fever is everywhere right now thanks to the Picard show. That makes it easier to get the brain into the Star Trek headspace. I know the franchise very well and don’t always need to be rewatching to write about it, but there is naturally research required. Lots of reading, lots of thinking, bits of watching. Already within the structure, aspects are changing and morphing - one topic I imagined would be bigger turns out to be smaller or vice versa. I challenge anyone to write a non-fiction book of analysis and come out with exactly the same plan they went in with. That was a hard lesson I learned on Myth-Building in Modern Media, my first book, and it’s one I’m applying on Book II.

Where *is* Book I, I hear you ask, and yep… I wish it was with you by now too. The original plan was December 2019 but it seems to have shifted to June 2020. I go mainly by Amazon product dates at this stage. These things take time. The publisher, McFarland, are an absolute machine for pumping out content, so it’s understandable these things take time given what they have on their plate. There were also a few nips & tucks I had to do last summer which no doubt delayed the process a bit. But I’m very excited for it to be out there, given I finished it well over a year ago now and it feels like an age since I was planning and writing it. I’m just pleased I get to do another and, yes, I do know what I want Book III to be but… that’s for the future.

Aside from writing, anyway, in the present Mrs Black and I have been blasting through TV, as we usually do. For ages, she has been desperately encouraging me to watch Grace & Frankie, the Netflix comedy about two octogenarians who become friends when their secretly gay husbands leave them for each other, starring Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin. I remember enjoying it in the background when she was watching Season 5 last year so in advance of Season 6, I relented. It was a wise choice. It’s such a charming show. Yes, it’s a fable filled with people who don’t look remotely their age living in beautiful surroundings, and yes it’s basically Friends if old Rachel moved in with old Phoebe (it’s partly by the same creator), but damn if it isn’t relaxing and fun. Not always laugh out loud funny or dramatically strong, but it’s consistently entertaining and filled with wonderful actors enjoying every minute.

Talking of charming TV, we also finished Season 2 of Netflix’s Sex Education this week. That was a real breakout hit last year, with Asa Butterfield (who I’ve never liked in anything else) as a sexually uptight teenager who dispenses sex advice to his horny schoolmates for money, based on the work of his calm, open sex therapist mother (played with classy, post-X-Files grace by Gillian Anderson, who will almost certainly be a Dame by the time she’s 60). It worked because it was a fantasy version of high school - British kids in beautiful country surroundings (the Wye Valley in the summer, as it happens, which is about as gorgeous a place as anywhere on Earth) modelled after 80’s John Hughes American high school settings. The Breakfast Club with tits and added swears, basically, and able to remarkably balance hugely frank sex talk with a deft sweetness and teenage angst which burns off the screen. It’s one of the best cast TV shows in many years, heavily built on unknown’s.

Season 2 had some big boots to fill, as a result, and I wasn’t sure it was going to succeed in the first half, whereby creator Laurie Nunn & fellow writers worked to re-establish the status quo and remind us of the characters and where they were, but the second half of the season is easily on a par with the first year. That same, deep pathos mixed together with big laughs and some beautiful writing and performances are all there. Butterfield’s Otis & Emma Mackey’s Maeve is an unrequited love that part of me never wants to stop, less we break the spell between the two of them. It’s one of the most well-defined and achingly sad relationships on TV in a long time. The great thing about Sex Education is that almost everyone—from Otis even down to the wife of the Basil Fawlty-esque headmaster—are on a journey, and the show doesn’t leave any of them behind.

If you haven’t seen it yet, or you’re put off by how juvenile trailers might make it look, honestly give it a try. There is more affecting drama and laugh out loud comedy in Sex Education’s first 16 episodes than some shows manage in 160.

Next up is still TBD. We tend to watch TV together for the most part and I watch films more in isolation, so we try and sync up what we’re watching so we can both enjoy it. I’m sharking for us to travel to America so we can watch The Mandalorian Season 1 but she’s unsure. Having just read the Stephen King novel of The Outsider (pick it up, it’s great), I’m waiting for them all to drop so I can binge them at once, I suspect. May do the same with Avenue 5, the new Armando Iannucci show, which we’re taping. There’s also the very daft sounding COBRA and the very daft looking October Faction we may have a run at. Otherwise I may keep banging the drum that we start watching The X-Files or Babylon-5, which she has never fully seen and I am jonesing to find an excuse to rewatch. One day, dear wife, one day…

It might help if I can digitise them on Plex, the software server I have been playing with lately. I’ve just bought a player that will hopefully allow me to burn my blurays and DVD’s via my MacBook and make them accessible streaming wise. Have you used Plex? I’m hearing lots of talk about how it is being seen as a manual, bespoke way of building your own personalised streaming platform, given the dream of a unified streaming service hosting everything is just getting further and further away from reality as content providers, as always, try to lock up and monetise everything. I suspect it might be a difficult, laborious process but it could be worth the effort.

Anyhow, let me know what you think and what you’ve been watching or reading. Comments are open below so don’t be a stranger!