Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Minor Kerfuffle Over Minor Threat Ts

"Dischord doesn't make T-shirts," MacKaye clarifies in a phone call. But Minor Threat is another story. Because so many bootlegged Minor Threat shirts are constantly floating around the universe, MacKaye decided the band had to do something about it. The solution: Get another company to oversee their official shirts, and when a bootleg crops up, let them deal with it. "It's fucking absurd the amount of bootlegs are out there," MacKaye says, and "my time is better spent doing other things."
"It's not a political thing for me," MacKaye says. "I just don't give a fuck about T-shirts."
I would hand Ian MacKaye $28 for a Minor Threat T-Shirt if he scrawled "Minor Threat" & drew a black sheep on a Hanes Beefy-T. I'd probably pay a lot more that $28 for that. Urban Outfitters can get bent. Not one thin dime.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beast Below - "This is the sound none of you wanted to hear."

The Beast Below (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 5, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #204)

Moffat is good at these Kipling via Heinlein-esque bits of verse. Compare:
We pray for one last landing / On the globe that gave us birth / Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies / And the cool, green hills of Earth.
In bed above we're deep asleep / While greater love lies further deep / The dream must end, / The world must know / We all depend on the beast below.
It may be corny, but I guess I'm a sucker for it. We'll see much more of this from Moffat in episodes to come.

The key phrase in Moffat's verse for this story is "greater love." It's about the Star Whale and, therefore -- since Amy's insight is that the Doctor is a kind of Star Whale himself, and it's that insight that allows her to deduce that having the Queen press the 'Abdicate' button won't kill them all -- it's about the Doctor as well.

While I simply adore significant threads of it, I'm not crazy about large chunks of this episode. The Smilers feel like going to well for the uncanny horror of the mechanical toy at least one time too many, the several Star Wars references feel trite and forced, the badass Queen wielding blasters and cracking wise feels like an overworked trope (prescient, in this case, of Series 7's Cleopatra), and, more importantly, I think it's cynical to imply that no more than 1% of the population on that starship every hit the 'Protest' button. It may seem like a nitpick, because I think I would have been OK with a number like 20%, still a minority, but I think it seriously understates our sense of how many people in a total population would be more concerned with justice and fairness than willing to accept a society based on torture.

The ending though, the ending gets it very, very right and is miles better than the rest of the story. Structurally though, it just topples the rest of it. It works to the extent it's a parable about the Doctor, but it fails to the extent it's actually about how societies do this, how everyone is complicit in the existence of sweatshops, slave labor, and wars of aggression but doesn't want to admit it. To tack a happy ending on to a story like that by effectively saying, well, all those slaves would've been willing to do the work anyways, is jarring. Works for the Doctor story, fails dramatically as social commentary. Two very good stories converged here on an ending that only worked for one of them.

But for the one where it did work, oh man, it was very, very good. It's a telling of the story of the Doctor that shows him to be old, and terribly alone, yet forged by all that he's seen and done into a man who's deeply compassionate. His mercurial nature is also put to good use here. He's ready to bring Amy home at one point and so justifiably angry when fumes, "Nobody talk to me. Nobody human has anything to say to me today!" Yet, he's let his anger get the best of him and it takes Amy to recognize the kindness of the beast below. She really earned her stripes in a crucible.

Making the case for full employment

A country that has made its self-definition utterly dependent on the ubiquity of paying work now has an insufficient number of jobs. This is not short-term economic cyclicality; labor-force participation has dropped, fairly steadily, for decades. Capital-biased technological change contracts industry after industry. The most powerful, most profitable companies now employ a tiny fraction of the workers that similarly sized enterprises once did. The biggest employers, like Wal-Mart, provide insufficient wages and hours to give employees access to middle-class existence. The problem is not merely those who are entirely unemployed but also those who need more hours or higher wages and can’t get them. And all these people desperate to work or for more work undermine the bargaining power of those currently employed. Who asks for a raise when there are 50,000 young graduates who will do your job for two-thirds of what you make now? Who complains about discrimination, harassment, and other workplace immiseration when relief for employers is a round of pink slips away? This is what an employment crisis means. The unemployed suffer, and their suffering causes the employed to suffer. Each person’s precarity is instrumental in another’s. 
It is hard to overstate: This country, in its current condition, has no other option but something close to full employment.
Gerry Canavan

Remembrance of the Daleks - "And didn't we have trouble with the prototype."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Remembrance of the Daleks - Details

Season 25, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #152)

Here's the thing, you really need to be desensitized to the awful title graphics, cheap video production, and awful synthesizer music in order to get past how ugly and dated the show is in the late 80s. It is off-putting, to say the least. I have to admit that I've not always been able to do that. Compounding the problem is the fact many to most of the Sixth and Seventh Doctor stories are utter disasters, so when one transcends, if you're already prejudiced against it, you're liable to miss it. In my defense, the preceding story is one of those train wrecks where, I think, things had gotten so bad there could be no reasonable expectation of quality in anything that followed. The show was already dead, it just hadn't shambled to its grave yet.

But, the production team attempted -- and pulled off! -- something really audacious here. Well, pulled off with caveats, but that they didn't logic bomb us all into a headsplosion is a minor miracle.

Ace realizes the young man she's been flirting with is not from a nice family.
OK, I guess I need to step back and explain this just a bit. This story is set the morning after the First Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara have departed in the TARDIS to start their (and our) adventures together. The Doctor had left behind an incredibly powerful piece of Time Lord technology as a trap the Daleks -- when I said the production team was being audacious, this is what I meant, they're retconning right around the edges the first story and positioning the Doctor as a quite a different character than he was in "An Unearthly Child" -- and now we're back to see the trap sprung. Two Dalek factions are battling for the tech, a bit of stellar manipulation hardware that can send a star supernova, and there are humans caught in the crossfire.

That's where the Doctor and Ace arrive, just in time to fall in with the military (not UNIT, but UNIT-esque) and start blowing stuff up. (It takes a little too long, but to our great relief, Ace's ghetto blaster is blown up later -- that's one source of the terrible music that plagues the soundtrack of the story eliminated. It's a shame the jukebox from the cafe isn't used throughout.) The Doctor is actually remarkably competent in combating the Daleks, fitting the hints we're getting that he's, if not older, then wiser and more involved in the creation of Time Lord society and technology than we'd been led to believe all along. Hobnobbing with the Omegas and Rassilons back when the Gallifreyans developed time travel, he was.

And Ace, she's running around supplying the Doctor with Nitro-9, beating up a Dalek with the Baseball Bat of Omega, and, beyond just being the muscle and logistics, she's also tasked with explaining to the ladies of notUNIT that the Daleks are basically involved in a race war, a poignant scene considering her dismay at finding the "No Coloureds" sign in the window of the boarding house run by her would-be suitor's mother. Sophie Aldred, in another surprise, is not terrible here; she's miles better than she was in her first story but still the length of a couple football fields short of a touchdown. At she's at least in the same city as the field the rest of the team is playing on. You couldn't say that about her introductory story. She's got to do a lot of the lifting in this one playing against the handsome (if a bit of a bit of a fish) young crypto-fascist sergeant who's secretly in league the xenophobic businessman who is serving one of the Dalek factions that are after the Hand of Omega. She gets by. Nobody's saying she got overlooked for an Emmy, or BAFTA, or whatever, but she got by.

It works here. Nearly all of it. The retconning, a task I, frankly, would never have trusted JNT to oversee, works better than anyone could have reasonably predicted, though it clearly doesn't fit with what we knew, or thought we knew, about Hartnell's Doctor. Let's not get too hung up on continuity and canonicity though. The surprisingly adept handling of the racial themes is, if nothing else a relief. (I guess it's hard to mess up a relatively straightforward "racists are despicable fools" message but this is the JNT era and they found plenty of ways to screw up.) Even the use of the little girl as the Dalek battle computer works; pillaging horror movie tropes again there, something Doctor Who has long been reasonably good at doing. The Special Weapons Dalek is pretty wicked, much more impressive than the garden variety Daleks who appear to teetering and constantly on the verge of falling over when required to move.

Not sure why the Doctor, when Davros is revealed, remarks that's he's discarded the last vestiges of his human form when Davros is not human to begin with. If he meant "humanoid," he seems to be overlooking the fact he's talking to a head, not just a wired-up blob. Sure, it's the gnarly old three-eyed Davros head, but still, it's recognizably humanoid. Lazy and sloppy, that's all that is.

So here I am not consigning a post-Davison story to the scrap heap. I'm as surprised as you are.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Eleventh Hour - "Everything's going to be fine."

The Eleventh Hour (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 5, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #203) | Previous - Next | Index

"Hello. I'm the Doctor. Basically ... run."
Hip deep in "Trial of a Time Lord" at the moment, so taking a break while waiting on the next disc to come to revisit the beginning of Matt Smith's run. I don't know about you, but for me, the lingering image from this story is that moment when Eleven steps through the projected image of the Ten and symbolically emerges as the new Doctor. (The definite article, as it were.) Yes, there's the famous fish fingers and custard moment and, of course, it's also largely about meeting Amelia Pond ... but all that other stuff takes a back seat to that moment, that (none too subtle but oh so effective moment) where Matt Smith assumes the mantle and owns it.

Or, is that Moffat's moment? I mean, sure it's Matt that steps through and adjusts his bow tie, but this is the beginning of the Moffat era as well, not just the Smith, and the former is going to outlast the latter, and in terms of redefining the series, it's the questions about Moffat's vision that, I think, will give fandom more to chew on (and disagree over) than the generally well-liked, if not quite as much as Tennant, Matt Smith.

For instance, there's a weird sort of tension on display where the story feels more like a fable or a fairly tale than a science fiction show, but not a fable for kids. It's a got a kid in it, sure, but she grows up pretty quick (in screen time) to a rather attractive young lady with a dubious job.  Is the show going to become too ... fantastic, in the being made of the elements of fantasy sense ... and is it too sexy for younger audience? Not that I've got a problem with Amy Pond's short skirt, but her job -- kissogram?! -- and her skipping out with the mysterious young bloke the night before her wedding, her psychiatric treatment, are these signs that she's a bit cracked? Perhaps a result of being disappointed by the Doctor as a young girl? Or being orphaned and left in a house with a dangerous alien prison escapee all those years? Are we supposed to be wondering if she's damaged? And then wondering if the Doctor is supposed to be fixing her? And, if so, isn't that a bit sexist/paternalistic? Just need competent fella to come along and straighten out the mixed-up little girl?

Cracks start appearing, the Pandorica and the Silence are mentioned/prophesied by Prisoner Zero.
Amy, she's going to be just fine. Sure it gets a bit rough, she gets put through the ringer and zapped back in time and all, but you know what I mean. She remains feisty.  With benefit of hindsight -- having seen the Doctor's tomb and knowing that he leaves behind a scar, not a body -- we can reflect on the damage the Doctor does just by being the Doctor, by traveling through time trying to fix things but sometimes mucking up before setting things right, or resetting the whole universe and whatnot. (And, because I've been watching "Trial of a Timelord," I can't help but think the Valeyard was such a rubbish fool. If he'd wanted to build a case against the Doctor from the vantage point of his existence, he could have made a much more credible case just from the history that was available up to the time of the Sixth.) Anyways, Moffat's much more interested in the unintended consequences and the price of the magic.

There's that wonderful moment in "Pyramids of Mars" where Four tells Sarah she just doesn't understand the burden it is to be a Time Lord who walks in eternity no less, and I wonder if maybe the best part of the Moffat vision of the show is we grok that pretty thoroughly thanks to him; but, if it's maybe not also to detriment of the legacy he's leaving that (1) we pretty much got that in spades from Davies's run already, and (2) that Four had Sarah Jane behind him, rolling her eyes and mocking him, and Amy and Clara aren't his "best friend"s in quite the same way.

Sarah Jane wasn't a perfectly designed character, in fact, the more I read About Time the more some obvious oddities that'd escaped my notice leap out. I'll credit Lis Sladen's endearing portrayal for my glossing over them rather than chalk it up to my own blockheadedness. Please don't read this as "Oh, it was so much better back in my day, these new companions can't hold a candle blah, blah, blah," because I really do think we've had an extraordinary run of talented actresses playing intriguing characters that have had much more to do than the classic series companions did. It's just that I'm also concerned about how pointed and well-argued some of the feminist critiques of the Moffat era in particular, are. The show feels much more professional, competent, and serious this time around. Not that it's without whimsy, certainly not, just that it takes itself, and its mission of being whimsical, a bit more seriously.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

@LettersOfNote Marks the Birth Anniversary of Rosalind Franklin

I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world ...
More on Rosalind Franklin ...

She's also the subject of today's google doodle.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

To read while waiting for the next "Eruditorum" volume ... #doctorwho

Next To Read: About Time #doctorwho
About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who 1975-1979

If I'm eventually going to (revise, drastically, and expand, greatly) my posts into a book, need to start by knowing all the things.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Colony in Space - "Come on, Doctor. This is no time for philosophising."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Colony in Space - Details

Season 8, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #58) | Previous - Next | Index

It doesn't bode well for a story that I know I've seen, even though it would have been around thirty years ago (I still gasp every time I have to write something like because I swear I don't feel that old!), that even after reading up on it and checking out the google image search results I couldn't remember a thing about it. You'd think with how crazy that little priest class alien in the underground city looks at least that would've stuck in mind. I thought maybe the distinctive costume worn by the Master when impersonating the Adjudicator looked familiar, but that memory could've just been from scanning through other image searches as I've been blogging about the stories.

While I can't say it's a classic, it's got enough going on to make it an enjoyable watch despite some evidence that Hulke, or someone involved in the story writing/editing process was asleep at the wheel. It's problematic enough when a character delivers a line this about the planet they've colonized: "There's no animal life, just a few birds and insects;" but, it gets worse when just a moment later we learn the colonists have a truce with the native humanoids, after skirmishing with them upon their arrival. For a supposedly empty planet, that's a lot of life-forms to be dismissive of.  Luckily, that sloppiness is early and things tighten up a bit as the story progresses. For a six-parter, this one actually stays pretty fresh as we learn more and more about all the parties involved.

What Hulke does well in this story is present layers of conflict. We start with colonists struggling to survive on an alien world where their crops keep failing, then introducing a more immediate, physical threat in the apparent arrival of some rapacious megafauna, then revealing the presence of a mining concern out to drive the colonists off the planet, then letting us know the "Primitives" are actually the descendants of an advanced civilization, and finally bringing the Master into the mix in search of a doomsday weapon developed by that ancient civilization. Revealing in the opening scene that the Master and the doomsday weapon were eventually going to pop up was dubious plotting, but it seems once the production team had decided the Doctor was going to be sent on assignment as a break from his exile by the Time Lords, they felt they had to explain that up front. I would have preferred they'd handle that differently, not giving away the "surprises" (the presence of the Master is Season 8 is never a true surprise, but still) but instead having the TARDIS start working and whisk the Doctor and Jo away unexpectedly, and only after wrapping up the action revealing that the Time Lords were behind it ... but hindsight is 20/20, isn't it?  Having the colonists divided over how to deal with the intrusion of the mining outfit worked well, as did making one of the crew of the miners at least have a conscience, so each camp had internal drama rather than just being homogeneous groups opposed to one another.

The layer of conflict that works least well for me is having the Time Lords basically using the Doctor as a pawn to check the advances of the Master, as they did in Terror of the Autons to kick off the season. It reduces the Doctor to being an agent, instead of taking on trouble on his own terms, and it also makes the Time Lords not very interesting. If they're so numerous, not hampered by being a renegade on the run, why can't they just deal with the Master themselves. That it's a non-interference policy doesn't wash, since by manipulating the Doctor, they are interfering anyways, and if they're just not up to it, well how are they up to maintaining their civilization? This sort of bureaucratic police agency function cheapens them; without satisfactory explanation for why they act as they do, they just feel like a device and quickly become tiresome, when they should be adding an air of mysterious depth.

Back on the positive side of the scale, this is Jo's first time in the TARDIS, and her first off Earth adventure; it's always fun to see those firsts. Manning portrays Jo as both rationally and understandably afraid, but also curious and adventuresome. It helps us warm to this Doctor that he is both patient and encouraging with his young companion, reassuring her as they step out into the unknown together.

Glaring stupidities fixed, a bit of judicious rewriting for dramatic effect (and to remove a reference or two the Doctor casually mentioning offhand that if the local animals prove problematic to colonizing efforts, they can simply be destroyed -- unexpectedly callous and inhumane commentary for his character), and this one's got all the elements a first a rate story. Certainly worth checking out, though despite its flaws.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Quatermass (1979): Testing the Boundaries of My Tolerance for Dated, Questionably-Acted British Sci-Fi of the 1970s

Quatermass (TV serial) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

MacCorkindale as Kapp and Mills as Quatermass try to talk to a leader of the "Planet People"
Tried watching the 1979 Quatermass with John Mills and Simon ("Manimal") MacCorkindale last night. I think I'll wait until Quatermass and the Pit is available through netflix before I try anything like that again. That was ... rough going. If I didn't have a Doctor Who sitting on top of the TV waiting to be watched, I might have given this another episode to hook me -- it had some glimmers of promise -- but I'm going to focus on the one show for the foreseeable future and hold off on the deeper research into that particular genre.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Carnival of Monsters - "By Jiminy, the old fellow's got some pluck!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Carnival of Monsters - Details

Season 10, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #66)

Pick up this DVD, look at the cover, turn it over and look at the back, and you could be forgiven for thinking, "Good grief, this isn't going to go well."  But you'd be wrong. Seriously, if you can just get past those gaudy costumes on the Lurmans and the low budget monsters, this one is great fun; it's one of Robert Holmes's best stories, really it is.

Consider what they've done with so little: we have a palace intrigue story on an alien world, layered over a bit of class and racial struggle, mixing with an ethical examination of keeping animals in captivity, with a 1920s period piece looped in, while slyly presenting a criticism of the act of watch television, and made it all come together and work despite less than successful wigs and awful CSO effects. And how many writers would bother to sprinkle in a bit of Polari for added depth?

If I were a chef, I'd make an analogy to how dangerous it is to mix so many different ingredients in one dish, when working in an understaffed kitchen with cheap pots and pans, if you don't get the thing exactly right, the end result will be an inedible hash. But I'm no chef and I'm not sure that comes close to explaining how disastrously wrong this production could've gone.

Philip Sandifer makes a case for this being perhaps the finest story of the Pertwee era and with the bloom still fresh on the rose I'm rather inclinded to agree with him. I've argued time and again that Doctor Who needn't tell sweeping epics and be about saving the universe in order to be interesting. In fact, the more it does that, the less it means each time. It's stories like these where they work hard to deliver drama with smaller stakes where the brilliant premise of the show, one of the main the reasons it has survived these fifty years, shines through and shows its resilience. It can be any number of different sorts of story forms in sequence, or even at once, and work.

Well, it can when the likes of Robert Holmes are at the top of their game.

It doesn't hurt either that Pertwee and Manning are both very good together, and apart. With the repetition necessitated by the looping of time aboard the SS Bernice things could get tiresome, but Manning delivers her lines with such charm, a simple "It's all right. I know the routine," conveys both a world-weary cynicism and brimming sense of humor. Pertwee gets to put up his dukes and seems to relish chance to engage in some fisticuffs. Major Daly calls it when he declares: "By Jiminy, the old fellow's got some pluck!" Yes. Yes he does.

Trained by John L. Sullivan. Queensbury rules, natch.
(And, yes, that's Ian Marter pre-Harry Sullivan with his back to us.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Five Doctors - "It's reassuring to know that my future is in safe hands."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Five Doctors - Details

1983 20th Anniversary Special (Overall Series Story #130*) | Previous - Next | Index

If it's all the same to you, I'd like to have my cake and eat it too with this story. On a lot of levels, it's really not very successful. The motive of the main villain for instance, makes no sense. He wants immortality, so cooks up an elaborate, self-defeating plot to obtain it -- one worthy of the Master himself -- but effectively reveals he can grant immortality to the Master in order to buy his services. Whuuuuuhhh?? In terms of canon, it makes no sense for Two to recognize that Jamie and Zoe aren't real because they recognize the Brigadier, but for him to know they would be wiped of their memories of their travels together since he went directly from that happening into his regeneration. (Let's not get into all that Season 6b theorizing, I know it's generally considered canonical, and it would explain at least this part of "The Five Doctors," but I'm sticking to televised material here. Because. That's why.)

The n of Rassilon
Why don't Susan and her grandfather talk about her life since they last met even a little? Doesn't the Brigadier seem young for retirement? You can check the various guides and write-ups of this story for probably dozens of other reason it just doesn't make sense. But it's a special that was made to celebrate the 20th anniversary and bring a bunch of old friends back together, mix in a bunch of baddies, and end with everybody happily sent back as if it never happened. Well, except for Borusa.

It's in that spirit, as a special that's constructed to be fan service that I think we best enjoy it, and I'm willing to go along for that ride. Who but the most cold-hearted could not enjoy seeing Sarah Jane again? Hmm?  (And why didn't Hurdall do the First's trademark "Hmm?" Really seems inexcusable.) The characters may not be exactly true to form, but they're at least as close as the waxworks Tom Baker used in the publicity photos is to an actual picture of Tom Baker to pass. For fan who hasn't obsessively watched and re-watched every story, this is a great way to let them see the history of the show to that point, and for that dedicated fan, it's a chance to see those old friends again, even if only for a moment, as in the case of Caroline John, Frazier Hines, and the other cameos.

Could this have been better? Certainly. Is it problematic for canon? Definitely? But does it celebrate the series, and let us celebrate it if we don't ask it to be something it's not? Yes, I think it does. Watching it with my son this morning, I loved that he enjoyed it even more than I loved that I still enjoy it. I can't deny criticism of it is fair and warranted, but I'm having my cake and it tastes sweet.

* #130, if you count Shada. Some sources count this as Story #129. It's also sometimes referenced as the last story of the 20th season, though it aired after 20 ended and before 21 began.

Frontios - "I got this one cheap because the walk's not quite right ... And then there's the accent ..."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Frontios - Details

Season 21, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #133) | Previous - Next | Index

Ugh. There are parts of this that work, but on the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Or, there are a couple of parts so deleterious they tank the enterprise. Which is a shame, because the arc of the Plantagenet character within the story is sort of rare in the series: we don't often see an unlikable character learn and grow in the course of a story, so when it happens it's novel and redemptive.

Brazen, Plantagenet, Five, and Turlough after a meteor storm attack.
So what kills this one? It's not the stiffness of the Tractator costumes, nor the acting of any of the cast -- which is generally good here, nor the strange (estranged) relation to continuity wherein this story doesn't seem to quite jibe with any version of humanity's future history offered before or after ... these are among the usual the suspects in unsuccessful stories, but not this time. This time, it's the absolutely incomprehensible reaction of not only the Doctor but especially Turlough and Tegan to the apparent destruction of the TARDIS and Turlough's 'race memory' (sorry, parapsychologists, but this is the wrong approach to give a character a motivation an audience of rational beings can buy into) of the Tractators and the way it reduces him to a sniveling, (literally!) slobbering mess. I don't blame Mark Strickson for playing his scenes the way he did, I blame Bidmead for writing it into the story to begin with -- there was no way any actor could've made anything but hash of that mess, so might as well go into full scenery-chewing mode and give'em what they want.

It's possible to argue, I think, that the Doctor was saying he thought the TARDIS was destroyed, but really knew there was a chance it was still recoverable, but even if you can somehow make that case on slim evidence, I don't see how you can explain Turlough and Tegan basically shrugging it off, never even allowing them a moment to react to the fact they think they are stuck for the rest of their lives on that meteor-bombarded planet. There is nothing we've ever seen to that point about Tegan's character that indicates she would accept the destruction of the TARDIS, and her hopes of ever getting home being dashed, with anything like the nonchalance she displays here. So we sit there, completely taken out of the story, wondering what went wrong. Were they supposed to show some clue the characters didn't really believe the TARDIS was destroyed? Did something get edited out by mistake to make the story fit the runtime? Did the characters undergo so life-altering experience we didn't see that would make their reactions comprehensible? If these are the kinds of questions we're asking ourselves, the story is doomed as a piece of entertainment.*

While they're looking at Frontios, I suspect more than a few eyes are
drawn to the illicit glimpse of Tegan's bra. Eyes on the screen, sailor!
It's tough to grade out a story like this. It was a rewrite away from being a highlight of the season, but instead it's a frustrating failure that I couldn't recommend anyone watch except as a way to learn from easily avoidable mistakes.

* Sadly, the production has a tragic backstory that certainly couldn't have helped anyone involved feel good about it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Terror of the Autons - "Vicious, complicated, and inefficient. Typical of your way of thinking."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Terror of the Autons - Details

Series 8, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #55) | Previous - Next | Index

Enter the Master.

Roger Delgado has a well-deserved place of honor in hearts of Doctor Who fans and relishing the opportunity to watch the story in which he was introduced for the first time in years. (Seriously, it's probably been a quarter century since the last time I watched this one.) In addition to Delgado's debut, I have fond memories of the chair that eats that guy, the crazy little attack troll doll, and the inroduction of the Doctor's new assistant, Jo Grant. And, of course, since it's an Auton story, that means Pertwee gets to crank the gurning up to 11!

Here's Sandifer's capsule review:
The series is pulling itself apart at the seams as it tries to decide if it’s a gaudy, glam rock spectacle or a serious-minded action adventure show.1 But in the course of that comes this, a story where the contrasts between the two approaches end up balancing perfectly to produce something quite remarkable. It falters frequently - neither the Master nor the Doctor quite work in it - but when it’s on its game, and it is more often than it isn’t, it’s absolutely phenomenal. 8/10
That bit about the two main characters not quite working, I disagree. Look, there's a fundamental flaw in the Master's character, that is to say, in the concept of the Master as a character (certainly the character's character flaws are numerous!) though it's the kind of flaw I think fans could debate whether it's a feature or a bug, as it were. His plans are always overly-complex and byzantine, and as much as he wants power and to destroy the Doctor in getting it, you can't help but sense he doesn't really want the power as much as he wants to fight for it, and he doesn't want to destroy the Doctor as much as he wants to be in the act of destroying the Doctor, so if his plans ever came to fruition, he'd be sort of purposeless. The introduction of the Master also changes the Doctor a little, and establishes that while he and the Master act like mortal enemies, it's really quite a fraternal rivalry they're engaged in. It's a strange relationship that will echo through the years and into the new series under RTD.

The Master is often explained as a Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, but that comparison doesn't really work, even if it's the inspiration for his character because, though we may think of Moriarty as being a significant rival for Holmes, it's not in the Conan Doyle stories where we actually see them square off. Except for one scene in "The Adventure of the Final Problem" where Holmes vividly relates to Watson Moriarty's visit to Baker St., we mostly just hear about Moriarty in vague, sweeping terms about their titanic struggles against one another. Moriarty was designed (allegedly) to kill off Holmes -- though if Conan Doyle were serious about that, one suspects he wouldn't have left himself the out of not producing a body or having the death witnessed -- yet the Master can never destroy the Doctor; he's designed to be a recurring character, not the annihilation of the series. Moriarty lives large in the world of Holmes thanks to movies and non-canonical stories, but he's really barely there. A more apt parallel might be to think of the Master as Blofeld to the Doctor's Bond.

While watching this one I was struck by what was probably rather obvious to everyone else, but I'd not noticed until now -- Rose is very much like a second coming of Jo Grant. Nine faces off against the Nestene in his debut, in an earthbound story, where meets a lovely young lady who at first might not seem like she's got the brains to be companion material, but eventually turns out to be quite brilliant in her own way. There's more than a little physical resemblance between Katy Manning and Billie Piper as well. RTD really was mining and reinventing the classic series back in 2005.

Finally, as I mentioned in the comments and am chagrined I forgot to include when first publishing this post, at some point we're going to have to have an uncomfortable discussion about race and the classic series. The inclusion of yet another mute black strongman (shades of Toberman) spoils what's otherwise a guiltless pleasure. Yes, it was another era and we'd lose a lot of babies if we threw out all the bathwater of the last century's casual racism. This is far from the most egregious case of dehumanizing a non-white character in popular entertainment of the post-MLK, Jr. era, but it's also important to remember that there were people who knew better, and should have known better, who presented this kind of stuff long after the point by which society had been confronted with its racist attitudes. At some point, and I don't know where we draw the line, only unreconstructed bigots continued to perpetrate these sorts of borderline white supremacist portrayals of the non-white characters in their productions.

I'm planning to watch "The Talons of Weng Chiang" again soon and am going to have to acknowledge the weird Orientalism of that story, while at the same time confessing that has been since first viewing, and remains to this day, one of my absolute favorites of the entire run, classic and new, of the series.

1. For more about the competing aesthetic dynamics of the series during the Pertwee years, the Glam v. the Action, check out TARDIS Eruditorum - An Unauthorized Critical History of Doctor Who Volume 3: Jon Pertwee.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The more you call your history "epic," the less I believe you.

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot | LibraryThing

Scanning the wall of new releases at my local library I came across Max Boot's Invisible Armies and was intrigued enough to pick it up and flip through it a bit. There were a few caution flags: the blurbs on the back, the title itself, the humblebragging prologue ... but the subject matter was interesting and it promised to be informative about conflicts and guerrilla leaders I'm not overly familiar with, so I checked it out and dove in even though I'd never heard of the author.

Shorter Boot: "My book will engross and instruct you with well-chosen,
well-told stories because I write like the awesomesauce!"
As I noted in my review, I wasn't overly impressed with this approach to the material, but I was willing to go along for the ride because the subject was indeed interesting and, to his credit, I think his stories were well-chosen. His point that history is tends to focus on regular warfare, battles between different color uniforms, but give short-shrift to the guerrilla warfare around the edges of the glam conflicts that are often equally important is well-taken, but I kept looking for a him to share some insight that was something more than obvious. He clearly knows his stuff, but the conclusions he draws from the historical record, beyond observing that groups without the resources to wage regular war tend to resort to the same sorts of irregular warfare, are dubious. Downright insulting, actually.

Name some groups that practice or practiced terrorism (a slippery term, but we can use a definition like Boot's own: violence perpetrated by non-state groups against civilian and military personnel for a political aim) and I'll wager at the top of such a list might be al Qaeda and other Islamic groups, the IRA if you want to go back to the Troubles, and others found on the NCTC (National Counter Terrorism Center) list. Look over your list and the NCTC's and notice how many are religious in nature or are involved in conflicts that are largely attributable to disagreements about the correct way to be superstitious. Then consider this statement:

"[Modern terrorism] has been made possible by the spread of four phenomena: destructive
and portable weaponry, the mass media, literacy, and secular ideologies."
I don't mean to imply all terrorists are religiously motivated; nationalism, racism (the KKK), anti-colonialism, and a host of not explicity religious -isms can, and have, been the motivation for terrorist acts. But for Mr. Boot to list four phenomena that contributed to the rise of modern terrorism and include "secular" ideologies yet not include religious fundamentalism, especially after writing about a number of religiously motivated terrorist groups, smells like the ideological baggage of a water carrier for a brand of discredited conservatism.

It's not easy to make me stop reading a book I've started but that sort of intellectual dishonesty will do it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Seeds of Doom - "What do you do for an encore, Doctor?" "I win."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Seeds of Doom - Details

Season 13, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #85) | Previous - Next | Index

Four is very shouty and runs around with a pistol in hand more than you'd expect in this one. Of course, as Sarah Jane points out, he'd never use it. "But they don't know that." It's a strong story in terms of building tension, energetic performances, and use settings to keep things interesting. It moves from the stately home of an eccentric (at first, by the end we realize he's utterly mad) plant enthusiast, to Antarctica, and back again for the big finish. That kind of globe-hopping and variety is welcome and appreciated.

Also, it's hard to go wrong with Four and Sarah in any story, and apart from the UNIT personnel suffering by the lack of familiar faces (this is another where Courtney wasn't available to play the Brigadier, so we get some stiff in the leadership role), the supporting cast is quite good. We've got the mercenary Scorpy running around being as menacing as human in the run of the series, and Chase, whom Scorpy serves, is a memorable villain. Memorable, but problematic in a couple ways.

The Antarctic base is actually a great setting in this story.

Chase is a sick twist, a Bond-style villain as megalomaniacal as they come, but his character, specifically his fanatical tree-hugging mentatlity valuing plant life over human life is puzzling. At first his screed against bonsai makes one wonder if he's having a lark, but no, he's deadly serious and we have to wonder: why this villain and this type of alien invasion? Is Chase just a necessary human agent for the Krynoid, and written to be a deranged plant lover to make his affinity for his would-be plant overlords somehow plausible? If so, well it's all just a bit too silly. Or, is he meant to be a representation of a foolish ecowarrior mentality and the Krynoids plants to highlight how that kind of insanity could destroy human civilization. If so, well then it's worse than just silly, it's reactionary and regressive. I suppose it's possible it's all just a mush of stuff developed by committee with no holistic vision guiding the thing, in which case, it's unpalatable thematic mush.

Chase has Sarah in his clutches for a bit of experimentation.

If we don't question the whys and wherefores of Chase, but just accept him for the villain he is, then I think we've still got to overcome his methods as being questionable in the context of the show. Four people are thrown in the hopper of Chase's composter in this story, and two of them, including Chase himself, wind up plant food. That's pretty grisly. Now, mercifully, no attempt is made to spray blood all over or be otherwise graphic about it, but that sort of grisly end feels more horrific than is, strictly speaking, necessary for what is still a show for kids.

Scorby menaces the Doctor. Who doesn't seem to mind.

Is it hypocritical to be tolerant of seeing Daleks blast people to irradiated skeletons in other stories but not to be OK with henchmen and villains being dispatched by a meat-grinder here, where we don't even see the grinding happen? I'd argue the former is more fantastical, and the viewer understands that the Daleks, the agents of the destruction, are inhuman monsters, but in this story the violence is engineered by a human -- sure, he's a nasty villain, but that he relishes the horrific nature of that sort of death also introduces an element of torture that less cartoonish than the the other sorts of deaths we tend to see in Doctor Who, so there's a difference in degree and a difference in kind between the two sorts of deaths.

That all said, this is Hinchcliffe-era gothic horror though, so we expect the situations and the deaths to be more frightening. I saw this as kid and wasn't scarred for life or rendered psychopathic by exposure to it, so I'm not arguing it's inexcusable. My kids are seven as I write this and I can't say I'd be eager for them to watch it, because I'm not sure how they'd react or how we'd discuss the sort of violence depicted in this story. With a twelve-year-old it's probably different and the discussion about depictions of violence is probably easier to have.

That's one thing that makes the series fascinating though. It's ostensibly a kids' show, but it's so much more clever than most, and yet while adults can and do enjoy it, it's clearly not a show that's for adults. To call it a "family show" would also seem to miss the mark, although that's probably more a problem with how we think of that label than with the show which, I think, is truly one that is balanced in such a way that kids to grandparents can enjoy it. Indeed, some of my fondest memories of watching the show are of being middle-school aged watching it on Saturday nights with my late grandmother, our weekly ritual. We watched all the Pertwee, Baker, and Davison eras together ... even some of the Colin Baker era, although neither of us enjoyed the show very much at that point.

So, despite my reservations about it's appropriateness for the youngest of fans, for all the ways this one does work well it's essential viewing from one of the series' best seasons.

Kinda / Snakedance - "An apple a day keeps the ... "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Snakedance - Details

Season 20, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #125) | Previous - Next | Index

So here's what I thought I would do, watch "Kinda," then "Snakedance," as broadcast order would dictate, but the latter would suffer, perhaps unfairly, from being the second Tegan-and-the-Snake story and not get a fair shake; so, I elected to re-watch "Snakedance" first as I make my way through the classic series and see if stands on its own merits. Since I don't really remember a thing about it or "Kinda" except how ridiculous the snake(s) looked in one (or both) of them, it's nearly as good as starting fresh. (I last saw them when they were broadcast on my local PBS station back in the early 1980s. I read an impassioned blogpost recently (that I'll try to find again and link here) defending "Snakedance" (or "Kinda," not sure now which) as an underappreciated bit of genius, one of the best stories of the classic series. I found this hard to believe based on my scant memories, but the bloke who wrote the post really had put a lot of thought into it -- more than I put into skimming it, since I'm not sure which he was even reviewing -- but enough to persuade me to bump both these stories up in the queue.

And, now that I've watched them both, while I can't praise either as highly as some, I did find them much more satisfying than I remembered. Of course, I didn't really remember them at all, and what I did remember was not being fond of either, so that's not saying much. But, it is saying something. The biggest problems with "Snakedance": Nyssa's clownishly garish outfit which she apparently was trying to seduce the Doctor with in the opening scene on the TARDIS -- really that was entirely awkward; and, the inflatable snake -- here I think it's the director's responsibility to recognize when something looks completely rubbish and a different approach is needed, so we'll hang that prop failure making it to screen on Fiona Cunningham (but recognize she did a pretty outstanding job otherwise!); finally, that the guest stars all outshone the regular cast.

That last is a particularly weird and humbling thing for a fan to have to admit. In this story, the garish, buffoon brigade that is the TARDIS crew basically comes rumbling, bumbling, stumbling into an otherwise plausible, well-realized world populated with characters that are quickly as established by talented actors, and our regulars come across as the equivalent of the Keystone Kops dropped into an episode of Law & Order by comparison. Martin Clunes (Doc Martin), Colette O'Neil, and John Carson basically dominate this episode. I often argue one of Doctor Who's great strengths is the flexibility offered by the format that allows it to be (or, more accurately I suppose, borrow tropes from) a sci-fi adventure, a detective/mystery, a historical, a science-fantasy, an epic, a comedy, or a drama, whatever it wants to be to tell the story it wants to tell. But, for it to work, the cast have to be up to playing in and against those genres, like Tennant and Tate could. If they're not, well then you end up with an uncomfortable pastiche, and we're dangerously close to that here.

OK, that Keystone Kops crack was a bit harsh; Davison does have his moments in this one, displaying genuine concern and compassion for Tegan, even as he's forcing her face psychological terrors. And Janet Fielding actually does a much better job playing possessed and terrified than we might have thought she had the ability to carry off. Poor Sarah Sutton isn't given very much worth doing, and is forced to do it in the aforementioned travesty of a get-up, which utterly undermines anything she might have actually accomplished -- the conflicting stripes and patterns of her blouse/jumper/skorts contraption having the effect of causing the viewer to avert his/her eyes, or endure what feels like a series of disorienting, vertigo-inducing minor strokes.

Much of the praise for this story focuses, rightly, on how it's trying to incorporate some rather heady ideas and focusing on problem solving rather than mindless action. However, this one is actually a little more fun to read about when it comes to it's use of Buddhist elements than it is to actually watch in action.

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Kinda - Details

Season 19, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #119) | Previous - Next | Index

So, having watched "Snakedance" first, how does "Kinda" fare when viewed as if a prequel, instead of the episode that got a sequel? Well, quite alright, actually. In fact, while the writer and production team prefer the second story, as I learned watching the DVD special features, I found "Kinda" the more satisfying story overall. The supporting cast isn't quite as good as it is in "Snakedance" but mad Hindle, the Kipling-esque Sanders, and the scientist Todd are better integrated in the story, interacting more with Doctor and Adric -- the Doctor and Todd and actually becoming quite chummy -- making it feel more like a cohesive whole; in "Snakedance" the supporting characters, for the most part, have their best moments with each other, making the Doctor more of a gadfly circling around the edges of a story in which he isn't particularly well embedded.

I don't think it's a factor in my preference for this story, but I should confess I watched it using the CGI effects improvement option of the DVD, so the snake looks miles better than it did in the broadcast version. That's one thing that's worked pretty well when I've seen it done as a special feature of the DVDs, and while it's certainly different from using animation to fill in missing scenes (which has also been done well on some DVD releases), I tend to think it's not a violation of the original but a true enhancement when used judiciously.

I mentioned above, perhaps unfairly, that Janet Fielding played possessed Tegan better than we might have expected given her -- and she's said this about herself, so I don't feel too bad echoing it -- limited acting chops. In "Kinda", I think he did well in the dreamscape, showing that while she may be a bit rough around the edges, she was by no means the least accomplished actor to play a companion. Tegan's status as an unwilling companion trying to get home by design makes her sort of an unsympathetic figure, because who wouldn't want to travel in the TARDIS?! That she was also a bit loud and butted heads with the Doctor worked against her character's likability as well, so it's to Ms. Fielding's credit that she managed to overcome that and win over the fans that she did to Tegan's corner.

My recommendation to the fan who isn't a completist, or to the younger fan seeking out episodes of the classic series to watch for the first time, would be to make "Kinda" one of the Davison era stories to seek out first, and to maybe leave "Snakedance" for later when you're running out of episodes to watch.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dear RSS subscribers (AKA Reader Refugees) ...

I'm guessing you've already migrated to feedly or digg or something else that imported your feeds but, just in case you're still shopping for another reader or using one that doesn't import, you can find my feed here:

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