Saturday, June 29, 2013

#RIPreader | Reader's death march nearly over ...

Feedly's not quite a replacement, but it looks like it's going to have to suffice. Crossed the 300,000 read mark this morning in Reader and I guess now's as good a time as any to change my default browser open landing page.


So long, Reader. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blogger/G+ commenting bug?

It'll probably turn out to be a problem with the template I'm using or something, but I could've sworn this was working when the feature was activated. The moral of the story is, just because my post may say it has no comments, that may not be the case. Witness:

Please don't be shy, join the conversation.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Face of Evil - "The nose could be a shade more aquiline, and the noble proportion of the brow hasn't been perfectly executed. Still, we mustn't complain."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Face of Evil - Details

Season 14, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #89) | Previous - Next | Index

Raises the question, which faces would you have carved on Mount Doctormore?

This story is so firmly in the atheist/secularist tradition, perhaps the epitome of it in Doctor Who, there's no way I can't love it. Moreso even than "Planet of Fire," "Face of Evil" celebrates freethought and shows how dangerous and ridiculous theocrats look in leadership roles. And it goes one step further, in a way that I think is especially progressive for its time (one step forward, though Leela's leotard may be two steps back), because faulting religion in the abstract for being irrational is easy, but showing how it goes beyond irrationality to warp character when wielded by authoritarian males to assert domination over women is really driving it home. Pointing out how religion is illogical is an abstract exercise, but showing how religion, when wielded by those in power outside of their personal sphere of self-realization, is the domain of craven fools, that's hitting them where it hurts. It is significant, I think, that the story opens with Leela being judged by a group of men. She is expelled from the tribe for thinking independently and having the courage to speak her mind. Nothing drives the priest class crazy quite so much as an independent woman, eh?

It wasn't going to be easy to replace Sarah Jane in the TARDIS and in the hearts of fans, nobody could, but this was exactly the right way to make the transition. Leela is brash, bold, and ... in that leather leotard, oh my, there's no way not to notice she's sexy. Now that raises some questions about the male gaze and whether we're watching a truly progressive, humanist narrative, or whether we've got the germ of the idea wrapped in a more palatable package for a regressive audience?

Our introduction to Leela in those first few scenes is perfectly executed; once she and the Doctor meet, to some degree, this story for me became marking time until she joins him in the TARDIS as a companion and they depart. We've seen in the first few minutes that she's the bright spot in a backwards culture, one that was retarded in its development, we learn, by a schizophrenic computer (as good a stand-in as any for a God figure in the story), we really know all we need to know to embrace this new companion and want to see her get a chance to explore the bigger universe.

Well, "marking time," is putting it too strongly, there's certainly fun to be had as the story advances and we learn more about the roots of the cultural divided, and what's on the other side of the cliff face. Anthropologists and linguists might have some fun breaking down how well, or not, the writer and production team incorporated elements like the linguistic shift from 'Survey Team' to 'Sevateem' and 'Technician' to 'Tesh', and the evolution of the Sevateem's ritualistic hand motions, similar to crossing themselves, but descended from the checkpoints on a space suit. And I think the costume department should get some credit for how brilliantly they realized a cargo cult aesthetic.

What is it with religious leaders and funny hats?

Why doesn't the Doctor realize sooner where he is?
Some dubious editing, scene transitions were especially jarring at points.
The Tesh sure do a lot of elaborate bowing. There's one scene in particular that feels like it takes minutes to accomplish what should have taken seconds, but was prolonged by introductory and departing bowing ceremonies.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Ambassadors of Death - "Doctor, are you trying to force me to shoot you?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Ambassadors of Death - Details

Season 7, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #53) | Previous - Next | Index

These boots are made for riding in Bessie.
If you asked me out of blue whether seven episodes stories were ever a good idea for Doctor Who, I probably would've said something like, "No. They have too many structural problems and tend drag." Most, I think, would agree that every one of them could stand some tightening up; but, Season 7 is entirely comprised of seven-parters and it's one of my favorites of the entire series, Nü or Classic. "Ambassadors" is generally considered the weakest link of the season -- a judgment I'm not sure I support -- but, if it is, that's just goes to show what a great season it is.

Pertwee's Doctor could peg the needle on the Imperious-O-Meter from time to time. It's painful to watch when he's taking that tone with Jo, for example -- "The Dæmons" is still fresh in mind after a recent re-watch, and that was one where I found the Doctor a bit much. Here though, when his temper flares, it's directed a person in a position of authority and is, if not warranted, at least understandable.

Liz, white pimp hat and all, and the Brigadier get to carry parts of the story and both shine when given the opportunity. But as long as I'm fixating on Liz's fashion statements, let's take a second to acknowledge how marvelously 1970 this all is. Watching this story you can't help but be struck by all the beards and knee-high boots. When the Doctor's outfit is the most tasteful bit of civilian garb on display, you know you're living in interesting times.

But the meat of the story, and what makes this more than a charmingly acted science-y adventure runabout with shootouts and a menacing shadow organization as the villain, is that it's a crushing indictment of xenophobia. The titular ambassadors are just that, ambassadors. They're not out to conquer the world, they just want to open diplomatic relations, but have fallen afoul of a fear-mongering military man and his greedy cronies. The aliens may be ugly as all get out once the helmets come off, and fatal to the touch, but that's not their fault. They just are what they are. Because of communication challenges, appearance, and physical incompatibility at a pretty fundamental level, we can forgive an initial reaction of fear, but the Doctor brings out the best in the people of science and character who are the backbone the space agency and of UNIT. All that difference can be overcome, if we're open-minded and willing to be explorers.

In the closing scene, when the General Carrington is arrested he stops to plead his case to the Doctor: "I had to do what I did. It was my moral duty. You do understand, don't you?" Pertwee delivers the response with a perfect balance of sadness, exasperation, and compassion as the weak, fearful man is lead away: "Yes, General. I understand." The Doctor is done at this point. He leaves Liz to help tidy up the loose ends and stalks away. One can hardly blame him; after having to talk to Carrington, I'd want to avoid humanity for a while, too.

There's a thing in the titles this story does that I don't think I've seen any others do: when putting the name up, it starts with "The Ambassadors" and let's that sit for a second before popping "Of Death" in underneath it. Gimmicky? Maybe. It's a little bit of experimental flair I adore though. At the start of each episode I would read along with dramatic announcer voice to make my son laugh, "The Ambassadors ... of DEATH!" It caught me off guard the first time, but I did it the next six times and it killed.

Can't help but wonder (1) what whoever wrote the "transmigration of object" line was thinking with that whole mind-boggling bit of silliness, and (2) if the Doctor can make objects disappear and reappear from thin air moments later, why he doesn't do it more often? That's a neat little trick and would surely come in handy. Transmigration of object, my ass. That kind of nonsense we shouldn't have to strain our suspension of disbelief for.

Now watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How To Read A Poem

FUNNY WOMEN #102: How To Read A Poem - The

J.J. Abrams has made Star Trek into poetry. Suck it, haters.
To fully understand poetry, familiarize yourself with the elements of a poem, such as meter, which is 3.28 feet. Scan the poem, ideally in Photoshop, so you can correct the color balance and add lens flares, etc. Look for any images (from the French images). Images include trees, flowers, moonlight; in some cases all three. Circle each image and write “image” in the margin, so you won’t forget them, as to make them memorable. There are similes and metaphors also (you learned about these in third grade and can disregard them). Some poems rhyme–these are what’s known as old-timey poems.

The Hand of Fear - "Careful, that's not as 'armless as it looks."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Hand of Fear - Details

Season 14, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #87) | Previous - Next | Index

It would've been tragic had this been the last
outfit we saw Sarah Jane wear in Doctor Who.
Watching this story again, I'm struck by how much it looks like Tom Baker dropped in a Pertwee era story: we've got a quarry, some stock footage airplanes, and filming inside a giant industrial plant, even Sarah Jane, all very familiar from the last Doctor's era although we're into Tom Baker's third series. However, it's all about to change. Well, we haven't seen our last quarry, but this is Sarah Jane's farewell and that feels as much like the end of an era as anything.

The Doctor, perhaps unconsciously reacting to Sarah's Andy Pandy overalls leads them directly in quarry that, oddly enough is not masquerading as an alien world this time, is actually a working quarry where blasting is about to begin. Nearly buried in rubble, the Doctor and Sarah Jane escape with their lives ... and with something else as well -- Sarah's got a hold of Eldrad's stony hand, released after millions of years from rock where it fell when Eldrad was destroyed by his own people. Luckily for Eldrad, there's a nuclear facility nearby with all the radiation he -- or she, for the moment -- needs to regenerate.

When conventional weapons ordered by the plant's director fail to kill Eldrad, the Doctor gets a chance to try conversation and diplomacy. His compassion is exploited, but Eldrad's return was foreseen by his people and his plans are foiled. In a final indignity, the Doctor and Sarah trip him with a scarf, sending him plummeting to, what we assume is, his final doom.

It's all competently done and, apart from the usual episode 3 looping (Evacuate the plant! OK, problem solved, everybody come back. Here we go again, everybody evacuate! ... ) the story moves along in a successful execution of the formula we're familiar with, except a little faster than normal ...

That's because there's some business at the end which sets up the next story, "The Deadly Assassin". It's sad stuff for those of us that adore Elisabeth Sladen though, because this is where the Doctor is called back to Gallifrey, and he can't bring Sarah Jane with him. It's heartbreaking partly because it's so understated: he explains the call means he's got go, asks her not to forget him until they meet again, and she's shown the door. It's a different feeling watching now, knowing that she'll partner up with Three again in "The Five Doctors", Ten will meet her again in "School Reunion," and that eventually she'll even get her own show. Of course, the real, unalterable heartbreak now comes in due to our having lost Elisabeth Sladen and any chance of seeing our Sarah Jane again except by travelling back in time, watching these old shows and reliving those moments where we can catch the little smiles like the one that after that "armless" pun.

The Sun Makers - "Then the people should rise up and slaughter their oppressors!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Sun Makers - Details

Season 15, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #95) | Previous - Next | Index

Leela. Classic.
Some of these classic series stories I haven't seen in ages so I  come to them with the memory of an overall impression, maybe of a specific scene or line that stuck with me, but sometimes barely even that. "The Sun Makers" I remembered chiefly for its villains: Hade's sycophancy and the diminutive Collector's speech patterns -- and, of course, his being flushed at the end, toilet humor never being lost on the young. Reading about the episode before re-watching it, I was geared up to go into full socialist labor union advocacy mode but it tricked me a bit when it turned out to be as much about the pains of paying taxes to a soulless bureaucracy. That subversion of expectations was fun in itself, however. A dyed-in-the-wool lefty myself, I thought this episode would appeal on one level, but it probably did even more so in a way that I'd find myself encamped with more conservative-minded, anti-tax viewers. Nobody likes an unfair system, after all. That's the stuff revolutions are made of -- fact that should be lost on the regressive buffoons currently running North Carolina, where the slavering over the possibility of cutting taxes for the wealthy and increasing them on the poor can be heard from outside the capital from mountains shore. (A rare opportunity to make, or force, a connection between my watching of Doctor Who and my interest in progressive politics at the local level -- I couldn't pass it up.)

It's possible to read about the misadventures of Robert Homes with the UK's Inland Revenue Service, and there are in-jokes for residents of that green and pleasant land that will sail over the heads of us Yanks, but I'm taking an onscreen, universalist approach where we note that we're going to cruise past some Easter eggs, but can leave them for the obsessives without missing the bigger picture.

I'd argue that this episode can best be understood not from a Marxist or anti-tax perspective, but from a higher level theory of justice which, of course, means the Rawlsian perspective. Clearly, if we couldn't control our original position within Pluto's oligarchy, we'd want no part of it. Just about any society looks great if you elect to be born wealthy and powerful within it, but take a chance on being born into a laboring family in this Plutocracy, or any other, and suddenly it looks like a pretty lousy set up. This is the perspective anti-tax zealots who whine about paying for things they don't get to hold in their grubbly little hands and, even worse, whine about having to pay for the things they do enjoy the benefit of, consistently fail to consider.

The Collector and the Doctor.
In "The Sun Makers," the Doctor sides with the workers and foments rebellion over their oligarchical overlords. Good for him. I wonder though if, while we can appreciate the Doctor's sympathies and efforts,  there isn't a slight want of creativity on the production side. I don't have a problem with sci-fi that clearly sides with labor against capital, but as long as we're introducing sentient fungii as the chief villains and throwing a bunch of extra suns into orbit around Pluto, maybe there's an opportunity to explore Rawls's thought experiment by giving the workers an option other than armed conflict and to illustrate dramatically how the process of taking a step back and asking what a just society should look like and how the different personalities involved would create it in the utopian condition where we could make a clean break from the past, reorganize society based reasoned ideals, and then drop everyone back into it and let it function like an experiment.

Having said all that, I should probably remind myself that Doctor Who got pretty awful late in the classic run when it got more experimental and explicitly philosophical, so it may be a lucky thing it didn't aim any higher in terms of being any deeper. So, take my criticism, as always, with a grain of salt, and we can be glad enough that the show took up the themes at all, perhaps inspiring the younger viewers to do the exploration on their own ...

Image of the Fendahl - "Your ancestors have a talent for self-destruction that borders on genius."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Image of the Fendahl - Details

Season 15, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #94) | Previous - Next | Index

I'll go on the record to say that, much as I love the Gothic horror themed episodes, their effective end (at least, hiatus) with the winding down of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era's "The Image of the Fendahl" is probably a good thing. Not because I don't like them, I do, very much so. If pressed, I would call the run from "Robot" to "Fendahl" the pinnacle of the classic series. And yet, change is inevitable and necessary. For all the lamenting that this was the end of an era, I'm rather of the opinion we'd had enough of that particular good thing. Unfortunately, the change we needed and the change we got were a bit of an Obama-esque let down in part, I'd argue, because we can sense the presence of John Nathan-Turner who, at this stage at least, wanted to be involved in the show but will be actively sabotaging it as the show-runner in a few years time.

Side note: the actress who plays Thea -- the unfortunate scientist who is possessed by the Fendahl -- is Benedict Cumberbatch's mother. As Sherlock Holmes for the BBC and Khan in the much-maligned, but nonetheless entertaining popcorn movie Star Trek: Into Darkness, Cumberbatch is about as big a star in nerd circles as you can find these days, so finding he's got a genetic link to Doctor Who is nerdily satisfying.

The main thing I like about this story though is that for all the covens, glowing skulls, pentagrams, mystical charms crafted by a tarot card reading woman who knows "the old ways", this story is rooted in science and the theory of evolution. All that mystical mumbo-jumbo is ultimately tied back to alien interference with humanity. (Oh, and there's an offhand reference to a dog named "Leakey". Nice touch.) Having just watched "The Dæmons" it's impossible not to notice certain similarities between the stories, not the least of which is a strong supporting performance by an actress, Martha Tyler this time around,  playing an English village's local witch, with charm and humor. "The Dæmons" may be the more beloved in fandom, but I slightly prefer this story. To break it down to some constituent elements: I found Tom Baker's performance more charming here than Pertwee's; Louise Jameson's Leela more appealing than Katy Manning's Jo Grant; the villains roughly of a par in execution, but their defeat slightly less daft here; although Pertwee's story had a more full realization of the town in which it was set and hade one of the more fun turns by Roger Delgado as the Master going for it, so it's by no means an uneven match when we look at them side-by-side.

The eyes of the Fendahl get a bit of tribute later in "Fires of Pompeii" where the Sisterhood painted eyes on the back of their hands instead of over their closed eyes, but I think there's an acknowledgment there that "Fendahl" created distinctive and effective look.

Wanda Ventham (Benedict Cumberbatch's mum) pioneers the painted over eyes look later seen in ... 
... in "Fires of Pompeii"
One last observation, it seems virtually every story I've watched recently gets compared to, or is seen as having drawn influence from Quartermass and the Pit. Anyone out there familiar with that and able to weigh in on whether it's truly worth searching out and trying watch?

What is a poem? #philosophy

What is a poem? | OUPblog

We are invited to notice what we do when we read something as a poem. Perhaps we scrutinize it for an implied theme (“it’s really about temptation and forgiveness”, for instance); a poem is never “just to say” what it says. 

Ted Williams debunking the Seeing the Laces myth.

The Truth About Ted Williams' Amazing Vision - Esquire

“Shit, no,” Williams barked. “You’re readin’ all these sportswriters. Jesus. Listen, that ball looked like a pea to me comin’ in there once in a while. Hell, no, I couldn’t see the laces.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Dæmons - "A rationalist, existentialist priest indeed!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Daemons - Details

Season 8, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #59) | Previous - Next | Index

Azal in defeat.
To a large extent, I grew up with Jon Pertwee and have a genuine fondness for his Doctor and the stories of that era. Tom Baker was the Doctor I saw first, but between Connecticut and Massachusetts Public TV of the late 70s early 80s, I saw all the Pertwee stories alongside the Bakers. I think it was CPTV 24 that showed episodes every weekday at 6pm for a while, while one of the Massachusetts stations, probably channel 57, showed entire stories on Saturday nights. It was a great time to be a young Doctor Who fan!

Anyways, "The Dæmons" is one I first saw episodically over the course of a week, at a time when I went to my grandparents' after school and my mom would pick me up after work. My grandfather watched with me, though I can't say for sure that he actually liked the show, probably too "liberal" for him even during the Pertwee-era, but he at least tolerated it. I do recall this story in particular ruffled his religious sensibilities; as a deacon in the Congregationalist church, he wasn't thrilled that I was disdainful of religion even as a kid, and I don't think he approved of the Master impersonating a vicar to manipulate the townspeople. While there was a degree of discomfort in watching this with him, it was also kind of a mischievous thrill to watch a show where the vicar was evil, the religious townsfolk were suckers, the other character with a supernatural belief system, Miss Hawthorne, was a self-professed witch, and the Doctor had no patience for any of the superstitious mumbo-jumbo, trumping everyone with science from the get-go.

Hawthorne and the Master, it turns out, are the most interesting dynamic in this story for me. The  female witch and the male magister, playing out a conflict between the sexes as old as time. One of my favorite scenes in this story comes early, where Hawthorne barges her way through a henchman to insist on a chat with Mr. Magister (The Master) and resists his hypnotic suggestion to just trust him and shut up, drawing on her own mental strength to resist the patriarchal authority figure. Good for her! Of course, she still a bit of a loon, and the Doctor will later demonstrate the efficacy of science over magic in practice, after being a bit of an inarticulate buffoon himself in trying to convince her with argument:
HAWTHORNE: You're being deliberately obtuse. We're dealing with the supernatural, the occult, magic.
DOCTOR: Science.
DOCTOR: Science, Miss Hawthorne. 
He's right, of course, just not particularly eloquent about it.

As for the rest of the characters, The Doctor, while he does get to ride a motorcycle and drive around in Bessie to showcase his Action Dandy credentials, is not exactly as likable a character in this episode as I like to remember him. He's a bit bossy and brusque with Jo, imperious with several of the other characters, and only really has that twinkle in his eye in the scene where he's trying to talk his way out of being burned at the maypole by the townsfolk with the help of Damaris. Jo is fine, and plays an important role in the episode, but it's pretty much either to assist, care for, or be scolded by the Doctor until she saves him and the world at the end. (Will come back to this when I list my nitpicks.) Benton and Yates have a bit more than usual to do in this one and yet only Benton distinguishes himself in any way as having any charm -- these guys work best in supporting roles, Yates especially not being a character it's much fun to watch leading the action. (Not that he's terrible, just ... unremarkable.)

The other representative of the scientific mindset in this story is Professor Horner, as curmudgeonly and arrogant example of the Professor-type, but at least fun to watch issue his put downs. It's a strange tension to have the scientists shown to be correct and reasonable in their assessment of the facts, but for the genuinely likable personalities to be the more superstitiously-minded ones in Hawthorne and Jo.

The Master flatters Azal. Heavy metal style.
The story in this one moves along decently, never really bogging down, and even daring to be a bit unusual in having one of the cliffhangers be one where it's the Master who is in peril. It's a strange sort of cliffhanger, for the defeat of the villain to be the event we are supposed to left wondering how it will be avoided. It's a tacit acknowledgement that we view the Master as a character we want defeated, but able to come back and wreak his brand of havoc again. But even though it's suitably atmospheric, has strong supporting characters, and taking some chances, it doesn't come together in a wholly satisfying way.

This is one of the most popular and acclaimed stories of the Pertwee years and it certainly has elements that justify that appraisal, but I consider it a lesser story when compared to even "The Time Warrior."

Bok, the chap with the wings.

For one thing, the whole concept of the Dæmons as villains is a bit klunky. OK, they are the horned gods and demons that pop up throughout human history, but it's because they're running a series of experiments in human progress? And worse, they're somehow responsible for all the great leaps forward and cultural highpoints in human history? Come again? This idea of alien intervention in human development can work in science fiction, but it doesn't here; it demeans humans in this case, implying we'd all be ape-like savages still if it weren't for the intervention. And besides, isn't it the Jagaroth doing this throughout human history? Or the Fendahl? The Silence? It's later examples leaping to mind because those are stories I've watch recently, but the end result is the Ancient Astronaut trope, and the All Myths Are True, They're Just Aliens trope are so over-worked in Doctor Who continuity that each instance becomes an irritant. We could accept it in one or two stories, but not when humans are little more than pawns in successive waves of alien invasions and experiments.

And back to Jo saving the day ... it feels like an ending purloined from Star Trek, where Kirk defeats a super-computer with a Logic Bomb that blows its mind. It doesn't generally work dramatically when the mind blown is the super-computer's, but when the same illogical behavior is the key to the defeat of the baddie, it's really odd when that baddie is not a super-computer, but is a twenty foot tall horned goat demon alien that's been studying humanity for millennia. One imagines they would have seen some illogical behavior in all that time, so it wouldn't be that surprising when Jo bravely tries to sacrifice herself to save the Doctor. It feels more like the writers needing an ending and, having written themselves in a corner where no ending that makes sense presents itself, they just borrowed one from another series regardless how little sense it made in the context of the story they were telling.

A final complaint that's not so much a complaint as a lament, perhaps ... there's no TARDIS in this story. Not even a mention. I know it's the Pertwee-era and the TARDIS has been minimized by design, but Doctor Who without the TARDIS is like a chocolate chip cookie with no chocolate chips in it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Go home, Rick Perry. You're drunk.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Americans have no right to freedom from religion | The Raw Story

Shorter Rick Perry: "Here's how freedom works, I shove
Christianity down your throat just like the Constitution intended." 
“I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state,” Perry said. “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.” ... “So, challenges to these freedoms that we enjoy can come in a lot of different ways,” the state senator [Nichols] continued. “They can come in very large ways like the war on terror or our freedoms can be taken away in small ways like the removal of a Christmas tree from a classroom.”
There's right pair of muddle-headed chumps for you. Good grief.

Clearly, somebody needs to explain why it's called "The Establishment Clause" to Perry. And this other pair of clown shoes, Nichols, he's right about one thing: the war on terror is a challenge to our freedoms. But, you can be certain that's not what he meant to say; he was trying to say 'terror is a threat to our freedom,' but he couldn't even make that banal point without sliding into incoherence.


It's Robert's Fault

'Six-Gun Gorilla' #1: The Comic *I* Should Be Reading This Week

'Six-Gun Gorilla' #1: The Comic You Should Be Reading This Week | UPROXX

I'm really not a comic book guy. I've made half-hearted attempts to be at various times and have a few issues of The Green Hornet, some Doctor Who stuff, a few trade paperbacks of essentials like The Watchmen and Love and Rockets as a result. It's unlikely I'll end up actually reading Six-Gun Gorilla, but knowing it exists, and has that cover, that is satisfying in and of itself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jackie Chan: The Musical

Jackie Chan to Stage Musical Based on His Life - The Hollywood Reporter

The international action star and renowned martial artist says he is currently writing a stage adaptation of his best-selling memoir I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action, which will chronicle the lives of his parents, his early education at the Peking Opera School and his rise to stardom through music.
Yes. By all means, yes.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The War Games - "Ah, they were all obeying orders, Zoe. That's the military mind."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The War Games - Details

Season 6, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #50) | Previous - Next | Index

The Doctor realizes where they've landed. Sort of.

This is one of the few I hadn't see before undertaking to write about each available TV story, a significant gap in my viewership finally filled! Before watching, I read, among other things, Philip Sandifer's "Tied to One Planet" post and The AV Club reviews of episodes 1-5 & 6-10, so I'll attempt to restrict myself to discussing aspects of the story not already exhaustively discussed an analysed by those guys -- they're good reading for background though, and highly recommended. Given the quality of those other writers, I expect you'll find the important stuff is already covered, allowing to me to take this in a direction in a slightly different direction.

The early episodes of "The War Games" are an excuse to consider something other than introduction of the Time Lords and the changes in store for the series. We have a pretty straightforward moral question to wrestle with. Sandifer discusses how, despite the milieu of historical conflicts (M*A*S*H was ostensibly about Korea, after all), we are to understand this story in the context of its time. To be anti-war in 1969 meant, for practical purposes, to be opposed to the Vietnam War. And yet, there's a timeless, universal struggle played out that applies to all wars: the duty of the soldier with regard to orders when those orders are immoral or insane. The mind control spectacles utilized by the Generals in this story take the moral culpability off the characters who are directly hypnotized, but they in turn relay the orders down the chain of command and it's at the point where we have soldiers who are not brainwashed that we find Carstairs and the others faced with carrying out the dubious orders of their leaders.

Alien generals with mind control spex.
World War I, where the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe (apparently) land, is a significant choice for establishing the story. We see the insanity of warfare as practiced by infantry who, ordered to advance 30 yards must try do so in the face of a hail of bullets and a cloud of poison gas. What kind of courage does it take to to obey the order to charge into No Man's Land? What kind of mind could issue the order?  Here, it's where we find individuals with some measure of influence and greater access to information about the war that the questions become more subtle and fascinating. When an alien with mind control spex tells you to do something, your culpability is absolved, but what what does it say that this maladaptive strategic mindset that waged this sort of warfare in the real forests of France and Belgium in 1914 without use of mind control? The generals and officers who relayed those orders had legitimate positional authority, but how did that suffice? What does it say about humanity that all it took was that sort of authority have those orders obeyed? What this story makes one want to learn more about is the nature of authority itself, which leads us back to ... do you hear the drum roll every time I get ready to say ... philosophy!

I'll spare you, for now -- since I need to read up myself before attempting it -- an analysis through the lens of Hegel, Weber, and Nietzsche -- the philosophers I think are going to give us the most accessible and intriguing touchstones for framing an understanding of the rights and obligations soldiers, officers, and civilian leadership in general, and how the actions of the characters in this story might best be understood in that light. Suffice it to say, as we have ample headline news swirling around whistle-blowers and leakers to highlight the importance, and dangers of, making independent moral judgments in the context of a chain of command. (Should we distinguish between the bravery and commitment to serving their country displayed by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and that of Alvin C. York and Rodger Young?)

Setting aside the intellectually exciting aspect of the story until this post is revised and expanded, we can finally let ourselves geek out a bit over what "The War Games" gets to in its conclusion ... the introduction of the Doctors' people, the Time Lords. For six seasons, viewers of Doctor Who knew their hero was time travelling alien who could regenerate to fend off impending death, but now we've been shown the glimmer of something of new, the culture from which the Doctor emerged, their self-perceived role in the universe, and also that regeneration be a punishment imposed on one of their own. (And, hey, what happened to the War Chief? He was shot but, since a Time Lord, couldn't he regenerate as well?)

Troughton gurns as the regeneration begins ...
From the perspective of someone who just wants to be entertained and enjoy a Doctor Who story, I think we have to admit "The War Games" drags on longer than is, strictly speaking, necessary, and the Time Lords we meet aren't exactly dynamic and exciting characters. Our pleasure here stems from seeing transitional and transformational moments in the history of the series. Also, in watching Patrick Troughton's Doctor petulantly resist the fate to which he has resigned himself. Pertwee's Doctor is going to very different sort character, in very different circumstances. Our clownish scamp is going to transform into a patrician dandy, but this by no means represents an undoing of the Troughton years and a reversion to the Hartnellian mode ... Pertwee will be unlike either of his predecessors but their influence will still be there. The change isn't just about getting glammed up (to twist a bit of Sandifer's language) and colorized, but I think it's important to remember that Pertwee's Doctor comes on the scene a punished, imprisoned, and broken Time Lord. His exile to Earth isn't only accomplished by dumping him there with a disabled TARDIS, the Time Lords wiped his mind of the knowledge he needed to actually make it work. Pertwee may appear more competent and self-possessed than his predecessors, but his chafing at his exile should remind us that he's compensating for being, in a sense, partially lobotomized.

But all that's getting ahead of "The War Games," because we leave off with Patrick Troughton's Doctor being broken down and don't see the final product of his regeneration. Zoe and Jamie are sent back with most of their memories of the Doctor erased, which is actually a rather traumatic for us, the viewers, precisely because the characters don't know what's been taken from them, but we know. And we know the Doctor knows. I suspect the fate of Donna Noble is in large part RTD's recognition that there's a great deal to unpack from Troughton's wistful final moments where his Doctor realizes that the bond he shared with those companions is severed irreparably, and he's going to carry the memories of their adventures alone.

Maxwell's impending closure kills a dream ...

An End for Maxwell’s, Club That Altered Music Scene, and Hoboken -

Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's via NYCtaper

So on Monday, when Maxwell’s co-owner and public face, Todd Abramson, announced that the club would close after 35 years, the grieving was accompanied by a general amazement that Maxwell’s had lasted this long — one of the last vestiges of the arty scene it fostered, the rest mostly pushed out of Hoboken by decades of breakneck development, Manhattanesque rents, an explosion of frattish bars and wave after wave of newcomers, few of them inclined to plunk down $8 to see a band called Prawn.
It was by no means settled, but this was looking to be the year. The Year. This was the year I was going to pilgrimage to Hoboken for Yo La Tengo's annual run at Maxwell's. (The timing of Thanksgiving and a planned family vacation were complicating advance planning for this haj but at least a few days still looked a like a real possibility.)

We shouldn't live with regret. Let this be a lesson to you, my young friends: don't wait until it's too late to check off those bucket list items. There's no guarantee you, or they, will be there to do them when it's convenient.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Who's Next?

After four years as the Time Lord on the BBC One show, viewers will see Smith's Doctor regenerate in the 2013 Christmas special.

The 30-year-old actor said working on the show had been "the most brilliant experience".

Doctor Who marks its 50th anniversary in November with a special episode, which Smith has already filmed.

The BBC said Smith's "spectacular exit" was yet to be revealed and would be "kept tightly under wraps".
Oi, I'm rushed by events. I'd planned to write up a detailed post with a casting wishlist for Matt Smith's replacement to be out ahead of the change, but now I feel like I should throw up something to get me started in response to the not-exactly-shocking but unexpected news.

Technically, some sort of appreciation for Matt's performance should probably come first, but since we've still got the 50th anniversary and x-mas specials ahead, let's save that for after his run is properly done. He's done a great job and has a couple big opportunities to really put a bow (tie) on it.

Anyways, here's my first draft, off-the-cuff, list of U.K. actors whose agents I think should be getting calls today ...

Olivia Williams

via tumblr
Every regeneration prompts the speculation that we might see a female Doctor. I'm all for it. Olivia Williams has the acting chops to be an absolutely brilliant Doctor. She also has the genre cred having starred in Dollhouse. 

She's got a couple movies in pre-production, but I'm hoping that doesn't mean she wouldn't have room for another commitment.

Peter Capaldi

Peter Capalidi would be a coup, in my book. He's got amazing range, can be as vulnerable as a bunny rabbit, pant-pissingly funny, or pant-wettingly vicious as the situation demands. There's plenty of precedence for actors moving on from guest roles to starring roles (Karen Gillan, Catherine Tate, Colin Baker, Nicholas Courtney) so he's got that guest-starring turn in "Fires of Pompeii" going for him. 

I see he's going to be playing Cardinal Richelieu in an upcoming Three Musketeers series, but surely that wouldn't be enough to prevent this from happening?

Anthony Head

IMDB | Twitter ]

via tumblr
Like Capaldi, he's guest-starred already. He's got even more Whedonverse experiences than Olivia Williams. He was considered for the role of the Eighth Doctor, so he shouldn't be outside the realm of possibility. Like my other choices so far though, he's over 40 and one cynically supposes age will play against all of them now that Doctor Who is a hit with the younger crowd as well as those of us old enough to have watched the Classic Series as it was broadcast. (Funny to think that if they tried to cast Tennant now, he probably couldn't get the role either for the same reason. Or, maybe it's not so crazy to think they could cast a bit older again?)

Chiwetel Ejiofor

[ IMBD ]

Back to the Whedonverse for this selection. Ejiofor also has genre cred from Children of Men. If I'm not mistaken, his name came up as a possibility for one of the previous incarnations during the New Series era. He did an episode of Canterbury Tales with John "The Master" Simm a while back, and Billie Piper had that series on her CV before joining Doctor Who, so there might be some connections there that could work to his favor. 

These are probably actors that are already too famous to get the part. I knew Eccleston before his casting from Shallow Grave but would never have guessed he'd be a candidate, never mind the ace bit of casting he turned out to be. Tennant and Smith I had to google to find out what they'd done before, so I suspect that's what's going to happen again. Which, hey, they've done a fabulous job so far, so I'll just watch with interest to see what they do and not get bent out of shape my none of my picks are selected.

Update 1
Smack my head I can't believe I forgot, hadn't considered, or was simply unaware of these names:

  • Russel Brand (Daft manic intelligence!)
  • Gillian Anderson (I didn't realize she hails from London.)
  • Ruth Wilson (Talented actress with a slightly alien appearance.)
  • Tilda Swinton (As suggested by +Tom Ferguson  -- the more I think about this, the more it occludes the possibility it could be anyone else!) 
  • Sanjeev Bhaskar (Looked him up after seeing him suggested on a comment thread and after checking out some interviews and clips, he strikes me as having a balance of intelligence and humor that would suit the role perfectly.)
  • Angela Bassett (Another suggestion culled from the same thread as above. She won me over, permanently, in Strange Days. Like Swinton, and perhaps all the others, I wonder if she's already too famous to really be a consideration.)

Update 2
Somebody must have asked Sheikie for his opinion ...

Update 3
Doctor Who's next

Doctor Who (1996) - "I always dress for the occasion."

Doctor Who (film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Overall Series Story #159*

Like McGann's Eight, we need to calm down, take a deep breath before proceeding.
Image via the comment thread on this LJ

Not to put too fine a point on it, I hated this back in May of 1996. Apart from the gorgeous TARDIS interior and Paul McGann's soft-spoken but vivacious Doctor, everything else about it felt wrong. The acting, apart from McGann's, was dubious at best. Eric Roberts's Master wavered erratically from vampin'-n-campin' to T2-styled villain. The companions had a few moments, but were generally undistinguished. While some of the scenes were charming and the direction felt competent, the New Year's Party at the end was subject to fish-eyed weirdness that felt cheap, rushed, and claustrophobic, not at all conveying the impending doom in an effective way.

Having watched it a few more times over the years, I've softened on it a bit, and can at least say I'd rather watch it again than the likes of the execrable "Dragonfire." (Despite this, I felt like it was good on the producers to include Sylvester McCoy and not deprive of us the regeneration scene, as RTD so cruelly did in "Rose.")

I find myself in a situation similar to how I felt trying to find something worth saying about "The Sontaran Experiment," I don't really want to try to add anything to what's already been said about the story itself, this one has had enough written about it already and I'm not sure anyone, least of all myself, can tease anything more out of it. Maybe by playing Devil's Advocate and pointing out there are a few scenes where McGann seems a little over his head and hams it up like he's got no idea what else to do? But my heart's not in it. I agree with the general consensus that McGann would have been a fine Doctor given time to grow into the role and make it his own.

A more interesting topic here is how this got made at all. Philip Segal's quest to bring Doctor Who to America is a heck of a story, and it's plain to see with that behind-the-scenes glimpse how too many parties had input resulting in a conflicted production. ("The Seven Year Hitch" mini-documentary on the DVD highlights that it is remarkable this TV movie was not worse than it was.)

Interesting, too, is how Leonard Nimoy came very close to directing second unit work for the aborted feature film that had Donald Sutherland attached to play the Doctor at one point. I can suggest getting hold of the DVD to watch it, but I don't want to get to deep into the behind-the-scenes stuff I'm only capable of summarizing one 15 minute or so documentary about.

This story does raise interesting questions about how to understand the concept of canon as fans of a genre show with fifty years of sometimes conflicting and irreconcilable history on TV, never mind all the novels and comics. For better or worse, this story is considered canon, and as such, there's no getting away from the revelation that the Doctor is half-human on his mother's side. Taken separately, maybe you can explain away the Doctor's claim that he's half-human and the Master's determination by investigation of the Doctor's retinal pattern of the same, but taken together I don't see an out here.

Of course, by even looking for an out, I'm revealing my bias against this development. The Doctor doesn't need to be half-human to be a character he is. I'm inclined to towards the belief he works better as a pure alien presence. So the other way undo this (alleged) mistake is to figure out a way to wriggle out from under the weight of canon without destroying the organic continuity of the series. Who owns the canon? Who has the authority to determine canonicity? Can parts of the same story be canon, and other parts not, or is it implicit in the concept of canon that only distinct stories as whole units can be canon? Can we conceive and make a coherent a concept of canonicity that allows for material that can be canonical in a first draft sense? We might call that a pre-retconned element, pregnant with a remake that will assume the mantle of its canonicity? Is the concept of canon even useful? Or is it a necessary bulwark against cognitive dissonance?

These blog posts about Doctor Who stories are, in a corner of my mind, first drafts of essays about topics that I think Doctor Who illuminates and can serve as a contextual framework for a more wide-ranging examination of: humanism, secularism, justice (or 'social justice', and perhaps whether there's a worthwhile distinction between the two terms), aesthetics, and morality ... the things that have the primary concerns of this blog since its inception. Now, admittedly, these posts are rather slight and I've got my work cut out for me if I'm going to craft them into something as ambitious as what I've go in mind ...

But before I do that, I'd like to obsess over nitpicks for a moment and question why Eleven seemingly forgot he was ginger as he was clearly shown to be in the picture at the top of this post? Are we to chalk that up to post-regeneration confusion or is it a slip in canonical knowledge? *makes the Hartnell "Hmm?!" sound*

* Some sources consider this story #156. Problematic numbering given the 7th Doctor story "Ghost Light" is numbered 157 on the DVD release. 
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