This week, rather unexpectedly, saw the drop of an extra Sandman episode on Netflix. Though it’s billed as a singular gift, it’s actually two stories – distinct in subject, tone and presentation, but each rather delightful and based on shorter, diversionary tales from Neil Gaiman’s original Vertigo/DC comics run of The Sandman.
Dream of a Thousand Cats is an animated tale featuring the true history of our ‘furry friends’ in this world. A young kitten (Rosie Day) is escorted by a neighbourhood feline (David Gyashi) to a meeting from a passing prophet (voiced by Killing Eve‘s Sandra Oh) who is spreading the word on felines’ once and future kingdom and what can be done to retrieve those days of glory. We are treated to a tale of when cats were large animals and the rulers of the world and when humans were small and play-things for their masters. But one man rose up and spread the word that humans should be more powerful and slowly, but surely, his words spread to others. When there far more than just him speaking, perhaps a thousand wanting things to change, the world shifted. It was not a revolution but a reordering, now cats had never been in control and it was the world and history of human mastery with cats reduced to the play-things and outwardly grateful pets. The prophet explains that all it will take for the universe to once again re-order itself and its history, is for around a thousand cats to believe and remember… and that is her mission, to travel the world, recruiting such dreams and thoughts from the felines she meets… and hoping that some day it will be enough.
As with all great fairy-tales and mythology it has a soft-focus and a sharper message, a lovingly-animated exterior and a darker and less forgiving one within. Those familiar with the Warrior Cats’ books by Erin Hunter may see it as an extension of her framework but with far more nuance and a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the last frame. Additional voices are provided by David Tennant, Georgia Tennant, Michael Sheen, Anna Lundberg, James McAvoy, Diane Morgan, Nonso Anozie with Gaiman himself essaying the Skull Crow – but it’s a mark of the production’s all-around excellence that though the cadences are familiar you’re not generally listening for who they are behind the scenes, rather noting how well they fit the characters.
Calliope returns us to live-action and a partial segue from the series episodic beats. Arthur Darvill plays Richard Madoc, a writer who has had a majorly successful first novel but has found it hard to come up with a follow-up. Desperate times lead to desperate acts and he seeks out a veteran literary wordsmith named Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi) who has offered his help as part of a fateful exchange. The reason for Fry’s own success is locked in his cellar: it is the Greek goddess Calliope, the Muse who presides over eloquence and epic poetry and who is tied to him through a loophole control. Erasmus once promised her her freedom in return for inspiration but has since held and exploited for decades. Now an older man, he is willing to pass it on to Madoc. Madoc considers himself a good man but is desperate for a return to literary form and tells Calliope that he will let her go if he can have just one more successful book… but just like Fry he becomes colder and more cruel as Calliope pulls at her metaphorical chains. Calliope seems doomed to remain at his side and even the Crones don’t seem to be able to offer her any advice, except perhaps reaching out to her old love Morpheus, the Sadman of Dreams, with whom she shared a marriage, a son and a difficult parting of the ways. However, he is gone from his realm and apparently lost. Later, when Calliope senses he has escaped his earthly prison (as we saw in the main run) she considers asking him for one more favour…
Like some dark, gothic fable, a Faustian pact with a sideline look at how innate power and desperation can pollute and excuse horrible actions, Calliope is a charming yet savage attack of the darker aspects of the human soul and it paces itself well. It brushes against the sandman universe but its success is down to the central performances. Melissanthi Mahut, in the title role, holds the screen and Darvill (yet another of the Doctor Who connections throughout this double-bill) plays both the desperate and corrupted aspects of his role well. There are alterations from the colder and more vengeful source material comics – subtle but important and ones that infer Madoc’s methods rather than show them and later to actively empower Calliope as more than a tragic tool. Running to about 2/3 of a normal episode length, the story is perfectly paced and yet fits into the meandering pantheon of stories and diversions to date.
It’s interesting that this unexpected yet very welcome gift to viewers wasn’t saved until a landmark time such as Christmas – both feeling the tug of a more shadowed underlay to that magical time – but Gaiman has confirmed that we won’t have any more entries until the second season returns, hopefully some time early in 2024. It should prove well worth waiting for…
- Production Design / VFX10