Monday, September 30, 2013

Father's Day - "You were there for us all the time. Someone I could really rely on." "That's not me. "

Father's Day (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 1, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #163)

On paper, this is a story that should have tore me down and become my instant favorite. It's good. It's a move in the right direction after the misstep that was "The Long Game." And yet, while I can't point to this or that and say, "That was the wrong way to go about it," or, "The (actor/director/writer) messed up here and blew the (scene/tone of the story/theme) here," I can only say I liked this one, not that I loved it.

We learn as the story openst that Rose grew up with romantic vision of her father based on Jackie's description of him, and she longed for that connection to her dad. Understandable. When you're a kid, your dad is, sort of by definition, the greatest guy in the world and, provided he's not one of those abusive monsters, any time you lose you imagine would have been best time you possibly could have had. So, we came about it different ways, but as a tyke I had a similar sense of lost time with that idealized dad. The way Rose wants to connect, and then makes the decision to interfere to save him, even though she should know better, I get that.

Rose fixes history so she can there be for her dad in the end.
Rose, taking advantage of the time travel gig, decides to take matters into her own hands, save her dad, and rewrite this little bit of history. It's a decision that unleashes dragon-reaper-chronovore-ish flying, people-chomping (for no good reason and in apparent conflict with the problem they were there to rectify?) CGI creatures that trap a wedding party in a church. The solution the Doctor devises to escape the church had something to do with a cell-phone battery which I won't try to explain lest that be seen as colluding in the representation that it made sense. It all goes wrong anyways and dragon-reapers eat the Doctor so, of course, we know that's getting undone right quick. Pete has figured out what Rose has done, and that he needs to repair the damage by undoing it. He turns out to have the paternal instinct, if not the temperament, sacrificing himself to set things right.

My failure to connect with this story is not in keeping with the critical or popular assessment. It's well-acted, well-written (that's Paul Cornell for you) -- well, except for the cell-phone battery charging the TARDIS key leading to the predictable climax-- and rightly considered one of the stronger episodes of the Eccleston series. That I'm not quite as enamored with it is probably more to do with me than with the story itself.

See, Five? This is how you react to the TARDIS's apparent destruction.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Long Game - "Is a slave a slave if he doesn't know he's enslaved?" "Yes."

The Long Game (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 1, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #162)

Well, here it is. The first stone clunker of the new series. (But it's not Suki's fault!)

Now, when I say "clunker," I don't mean to say it's awful. It drives. It gets us from point A to point B; it even has its charms. But it doesn't come together like it should. It's the one with Simon Pegg in it and he's largely wasted. It's politics are in the right place -- I wanted to like it much more than I did for that reason ... but still, it leaves me a cold.

Dodgy acting and unlikable characters undermine this one in ways I can't quite get over. The first thing is Adam shouldn't have come aboard at the end of "Dalek," based on what we saw of him there and he does nothing to redeem himself here. It's not because he's smarmy and unlikable -- there's a way to make that work -- he's just ... extraneous. We didn't need another flirt-partner for Rose. We didn't need carry in a bungler to advance the plot. Everything he put in motion could've been accomplished with the rest of the cast as it was constituted. And what would've been a stretch wasn't needed to begin with.

Adam. What a tool.
Adam's presence takes away from the one excellent supporting turn from a guest star ... and that, unpredictably, at least by me, was Anna Maxwell-Martin as Suki/Eva who really should have been our hook into this episode. I would've de-monstered it and had Simon Pegg play The Editor/the Jagrafess all-in-one instead of going for a CGI ceiling monster. Had we seen more of Suki vs. The Editor, her tragic fate would've been much more meaningful.

Pegg could've, should've, handled all the villainy. CGI not needed.
The argument of the story, that we are stunted as a civilization when the institutions we rely on to give us accurate information about the world fail us, is so right, it's frustrating to see it get jumbled in with Adam's simple greed and opportunism. Pegg could've given us all this in a more nuanced Editor, and it would've been so great to see Suki, Rose, and the Doctor work it out, showing up the way the Cathicas of the world willfully ignore the obvious. The Adam character and plot functions should have been rolled into Cathica. Preferably a Cathica played by an actress attempting to chew the scenery a little less to show how eager the character is. (Cathica, and her portrayal, are redeemed a bit at the end; Christine Adams seems more comfortable playing her coolly resolved to finally fight the power than she did playing her as the suck-up.)

Just as the Great and Bountiful Human Empire will recover once past a rough patch, so too will our series. "Father's Day" won't set us completely back on track, but it'll be a step in the right direction ...

Oh snap.

The Invasion of Time - "Anyone who likes Jelly Babies can't be all bad."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Invasion of Time - Details

Season 15, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #97) | Previous - Next | Index

Are all Gallifreyans Time Lords? Are all Time Lords Gallifreyan? Does every TARDIS have a swimming pool? When did Leela decide to get married and remain on Gallifrey? This was the best plan the Doctor could come up with to protect Gallifrey from the Vardan invasion, really? (And the Vardans themselves ... ~shakes head ruefully~)

Lots of questions and the answers are less than satisfying. What should be a memorable and meaningful story featuring the departure of a companion, being shown parts of the TARDIS we've never seen before, the return of the Sontarans, being exposed to more of Gallifreyan culture ought not to feel so ill-conceived and slight. I understand there was a problem with the serial that was originally planned for this slot in Season 15, forcing the production to team to slap something together very quickly, which makes the decision to take on such meaty parts of the mythology so extraordinarily unwise.

Unfortunately, this is one where Baker's charm and performance is strikingly uneven. He's his usual anarchic, playful self at times, but in some scenes he seems out-of-sorts, almost as if he's not sure how to play the scene or didn't really want to. There were times watching this one where I wondered if he was ill, suffering from the flu or something. His bearing and appearance in the costume are even a little off here, it looks too big for him, like he's lost in it, too deep in the shadow of the brim of his hat, and chin deep in the collar and scarf.

Bow to the Sash of Rassilon
And, of course, we have to acknowledge the odd decision to break the fourth wall, twice, in the most egregious way since "The Daleks' Master Plan." Having recently watched Hartnell toast the viewing audience with holiday well-wishes, I'm not as condemnatory of Baker's remarking to the camera that the even the sonic screwdriver can't get him out of this one, as he does in one cliffhanger. Though I was knocked on my heels a bit by his crazed, lingering, direct-into-the-camera smile at the end of the final episode. The thing is, while they are plainly Baker breaking convention, we can at least imagine that the Doctor was talking to himself in the first instance and was having a bit of a manic reaction to Leela and K-9 Mark 1 leaving him in the second, the camera just happening to be pointed directly at his face.  The scenes could have still played out the same way if they'd been filmed from a different angle. (It's a stretch, I know, but my point is Hartnell's toast simply could not be imagined the same way.)

It's problematic, yet watchable. Has a few nice touches among all the baffling decisions that beg for it be retconned away. It's watchable, but not essential.

The inspiration for Clint Eastwood's chair routine at the 2012 RNC?
Leaving some stray observations and remarks here as I head out to enjoy the waning daylight hours of this gorgeous Saturday afternoon ...

If you're playing Artifacts of Rassilon bingo, this one calls out the Rod, Sash, Crown and Key. (Look elsewhere for the Tomb, Seal, Ring, Coronet, Black Scrolls, Harp, Gauntlet, and Star to fill your card.)

Did the Wachowskis ever acknowledge the debt The Matrix owes to (among other things) DW?

Boy, this story loves to transition with a quick cut from someone saying something to someone contradicting that statement. It's funny once or twice, an obvious crutch after that.

Andred really should have taken his gloves off before fishing around for keys. The scene where he fumbles with a bunch of keys to try in the TARDIS door with those bulky gloves on feels like it drags on while we wonder why he didn't just take the silly things off ...

The idea of Gallifrey have a Citadel full of elites and a wasteland filled with barbarians could have been interesting. It's a shame it's not.

Back at the pool ...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Web Planet - "He’s quite cute, isn’t he, when he’s like this?" "Well, I haven’t noticed it before, my dear, but since you mention it, no I don’t think so. "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Web Planet - Details

Season 2, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #13) | Previous - Next | Index

Sandwiched between "The Romans" and "The Crusade," two relatively straightforward takes on the historical motif that take place not that far, again relatively speaking, from each other in terms of time and geography -- though having very different tones and inspirations -- we have the bugnut, way out dancing moths vs. spider-controlled, electronic-humming giant ants epic set on a planet so weirdly lunar we literally can't see it clearly. So let's see if we can open a mouth-hole in this story and let it speak light to us.

This is not a story, I think, anyone mixes up with another story. Over the long history of the show, especially when the show reuses motifs and formulas, it's very easy to let the stories jumble to together. Scenes, characters, plots even of entire episodes are recalled as part of one instead of another. Tellingly, when a commenter on a recent write-up recalled part of the "The Chase" as part of the "The Dalek's Master Plan," I didn't catch it straightaway even though I had only watched the latter a few days earlier, and have only read about and watched excerpts from the former. It's happened to me with stories from other eras as well. There's a reason the phrase "bog standard" is so commonly seen in reviews of the stories across the blogosphere. Regardless of what you may think about how successfully the Menoptra, Optra, and Zarbi are realized on-screen, you won't forget them.

And that's something. It's not enough on its own, so luckily there's more to recommend to this story than just "it's so freaking nuts you'll not forget it." It's daring and different, stylized and lyrical, and yes, to acknowledge some handicaps up front, it's 1960s Doctor Who so it's not fooling anybody. It's also First Doctor era, so Hartnell flubs lines left and right and leaves us scratching our heads wondering if half of his affectations aren't just covering for the fact he's forgotten the script and is filling until one of the other actors steps in to rescue him.

Back on the plus side of the ledger: it's creepy, genuinely and successfully creepy. Barbara, Vicky, and even the Doctor all fall under the mind-controlling influence of the Animus at some point; when the characters we know and have grown fond of are effectively zombified, we are horrified. The idea of the wings of the Menoptra being torn off to keep them enslaved in the Crater of Needles is also unnerving, despite their costuming.

It may be that you have to be willing to play along, to accept the limitations and make allowances to enjoy it; but, I don't give credit for ambition if the execution isn't there. This story worked for me in a way I didn't really expect it to based on what I'd read about it. Barbara and Vicky in particular had a some fun scenes, doing more than just getting kidnapped and screaming at monsters, they showed their cleverness, courage, and even pass the Bechdel test. As much as I enjoyed the Rose era (which I'm dipping into concurrently with these older stories) the fact that so many of her stories were about, or had scenes which played off her relationship status -- with the Doctor, and Mickey, and Jack, and Adam -- it's to the credit of these early seasons that, when they get the female companions right, they make them so likable. (Of course, there's tons of valid criticism of how the female companions are portrayed throughout the classic series; so, any praise on that front is couched in the understanding that much of the time they are there to move the plot by getting kidnapped or being otherwise frightened and imperiled.) The way the Menoptra acknowledge they really aren't very good at war but must try to win their planet back is touching. So, too, are their interactions with the Optra, who were left behind to skulk in dark caves to avoid the Zarbi, losing their wings from lack of use over the generations.

The end, when the Menoptra talk about how they'll sing and tell the story of how the TARDIS crew for their children feels like it's laying the groundwork for the legend of the Doctor across time and space that we'll hear so much about later.

Don't be afraid to give this one a chance. You'll read a lot trashing of it if you make the rounds of the review sites but don't be dissuaded.

Oh, and if you wear glasses, don't be fooled by the smudged lens effect used in the filming of this one. I must've taken my spex off to clean them a half-dozen times before it sank in that the blurriness was deliberate and not something that'd clear up with a lens wipe on my end.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Daleks' Master Plan - "It was ... a terrible waste."

The Doctor could use that convenient robe as a disguise.
The dilemma in writing about this story is there's kind of a lot going on and some it is interesting in the context of the show's history, but much of it really isn't. Some of it we wish was more relevant to the show's history (more of Paul Butterworth's Meddling Monk would've been welcome); much of it we should probably be glad really isn't that relevant. The format of a throwing everything up to and including the kitchen sink into a long, meandering story to basically crank out hours worth of undistinguished product being an example of the latter.

That we're mostly relying on reconstruction here makes things a bit difficult; but, at least we have three episodes intact. And all the audio. Sadly, Katarina's and Sara's deaths aren't completely accessible to us. However, it may be a small mercy that much of the puzzling and bizarre episode 7 isn't viewable as broadcast -- you must have to be British and appreciate the xmas pantomime tradition to appreciate and accept it for it what it is -- but what is should mute the critical whining about Tom Baker's fourth wall breaking comment in "The Invasion of Time," which is a far less egregious violation, if we call either that, than Hartnell toasting the viewers at home with a sip of champagne. Yes, that happened.

"A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!"
So here's the thing, I took a bunch of notes while watching this one but reading back over them and comparing them to what's already been mentioned in the Discontinuity Guide and the usual round of websites, I find that I don't have a piercing new insight. Nor have I discovered a conclusive argument for or against Sara having companion status. So, I've skinned the notes down to a few bullet point observations and we'll wrap this up and put a bow on it quick. I've got "The Web Planet" and "The Invasion of Time" (speaking of the fourth wall breaking stories) waiting for first watch and re-watch, respectively. Let's start with the pressing question ...

... the neck. Not in half. 
Should you make watching this a priority?  Well, it does feature the first companion death. And the second, if you count Sara Kingdom, which I do. It's a Dalek epic. (If we use the term "epic" extremely loosely.) It's got the first return of a villain, if we want to call the Monk a villain, which I'm not sure we do. However, before we lean too far towards answering that question in the affirmative, we should decide what to make it a priority against, because I don't think we make it a priority over anything but the weakest of stories across the history of the series. It's so long, and so much of it is missing, that what we have to sit through to get to the interesting stuff may not be, strictly speaking, worth it -- unless we're being completist. It's not as easy as saying, "Just watch the three available episodes," because they don't cover some of the moments that do make this one worth watching at all. Basically, I think you could be forgiven for skimming through the highlights of this one, assigning a complete watch the same level of urgency you would taking the time to watch every extra on a DVD release.

What follows are some stray observations extracted from the notes I took while watching. (Bold episode names indicate the ones for which we have the full video and audio vs. a reconstruction:

The Nightmare Begins
Hooray, it's Nicholas Courtney playing Bret Vyon! Pieces being set in place. Bret and his unlucky buddy, the Daleks, Mavic Chen the Guardian of the Solar System and a traitor, the Doctor, Steven, and Katarina. The board is set. It's going to have to move quicker or twelve episodes of this could get pretty tedious. 
Day of Armageddon
Yeah, getting tedious -- and it's only episode 2! These representatives of the different species are not very impressive. Mavic Chen (who has the 'futuristic' habit of holding his pen in a manner completely impractical for writing), Vampire Teeth, Whispering Dalek Bumps, Convenient Robe, and the others -- can't be bothered to match them to their real names and the galaxies (?!) they represent. These clowns are pretty cavalier with the MacGuffin; hard to believe they are the rules of anything, never mind vast areas of the universe. Oh man, Katarina is irritating. I wonder if the decision to kill her off was based on the realization that combination of character and actress just wasn't working?
Devil's Planet 
Dropped int to a prison planet this looks, feels, smells, and tastes like filler. All these jungles on all these planets look the same. 
The Traitors 
Dalek Supreme is ruthless. No tolerance for failure. He orders the pursuit ship destroyed.
Katarina sacrifices herself. "I hope she reaches that place of perfection," the Doctor says. What?! "I shall always remember her as one of the daughters of the gods." By all means, he should be humbled and respectful of her memory but this isn't sitting well with me. 
Counter Plot
There's a long way to go ...  
Coronas of the Sun
Invisible creatures sure do save budget. Shake some plants and there you go, monsters on the cheap. 
The Feast of Steven 
Meets up with Charlie Chaplin! And Bing Crosby. Title cards? Fourth wall breaking Happy Christmas toast?! The Doctor recognizes an actor who played a in "The Crusade" and makes reference to that character. Not sure what any of this had to do with anything? This is possibly the single strangest episode of Doctor Who ever.
Another species close to achieving time travel? At this time, only the Daleks and the Doctor's people are known to have time travel. That one of these throwaway cultures is on the verge of it makes us wonder how it isn't more prevalent.
Cricket interlude? Another WTF moment.
The Monk is back. That's something. 
Golden Death
How has Mavic Chen survived this long? I'm surprised the Daleks put up with him. A welcome trip to ancient Egypt. These spear-hurling Egyptians aren't much of an opponent for squadron of Daleks. Hardly seems fair. 
Escape Switch 
Well, at least there's the Monk. Surely Mavic Chen is going to get it soon? 
The Abandoned Planet
Fun to watch Jean Marsh here twenty some years before she'd return for "Battlefield." 
The Destruction of Time
I'm not sure if it was intended or not, but to show the Doctor being weakened and ageing less slowly than Sara is a nice way to show how long-lived he is relative to humans. His ageing doesn't seem to be undone, that's a nice touch, too. Whew. We're done. The whole thing feels very haphazard, disjointed, downright strange. To kill not one, but two companions, for the first time in the series, and to have it be in story that features a random throwaway Christmas panto seems almost unconscionable. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Franzen on PC v. Mac, utility v. design, and the what the Bezosification of the world is doing to humanity ...

Jonathan Franzen: what's wrong with the modern world:

image via Frank Wedekind -- click for more (en espanol)

The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I'm enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces' birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.
Mixed feelings about the overall theme. Seems spot-on in places, veers towards (and then away from) conservative bleating about progress destroying humanity. Suspect we'll all agree it's a well-written piece. If nothing else it makes me want to read Karl Kraus.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The TARDIS and Cyberman in that newly discovered Van Gogh painting?

There’s something that looks a whole lot like the TARDIS in that newly discovered Van Gogh painting | TV | Great Job, Internet! | The A.V. Club:

Though the piece is titled “Sunset At Montmajour” and the structure in the background is likely Mountmajour Abbey, it still bears a striking resemblance to the TARDIS — a ridiculous coincidence, since the Doctor visited Van Gogh back in a 2010 episode ...
Is that a Cyberman waving to us just in what I'll call the top right corner of the lower left quadrant? Squint, and you can't miss it.

Squint harder ...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Dalek - "You would make a good Dalek."

Dalek (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 1, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #161)

Yeah, not so much. Hang around a bit and see how many of you there are ...
A single, dying Dalek is imprisoned in wealthy and immensely powerful industrialist's underground collection. Tortured and alone, it sends a signal to find more of its own kind. The signal attracts the TARDIS instead.

Don't touch the Dal... 
The conflict between the Dalek struggling for its freedom, in existential crisis thanks to the contamination of Rose's DNA (huh?), and the Doctor trying to save everyone from the Dalek reveals that one can't live with change. The other can.

If you're a fan of the wilderness years audio dramas, there's a level of this not entirely accessible to the casual fan. This story is based on "Jubilee," and makes canon sort of complicated if, like me, you're treating what's broadcast as the canon, such as it is, with the original novels, changes introduced in the novelizations, and original audiobooks as non-canonical. There's an insightful and compelling Sandifer post about this story because of course there is. That's the one you're going to want to read to understand how the Dalek is narrative collapse and get your fix of how this fits in the tangle of classic series, wilderness years, and new series synthesis of all that's come before in the act of coming into its own.

Following my M.O., I'm going to stick with letting the folks who already said it so well have have their say where I don't have any significant disagreement. This is another one of those instances where I sincerely recommend anyone that might be reading this follow the links if they're into the deeper analysis. No need to reinvent the wheel.

I will say I've watched this four or five times since it was on TV and I'm still amazed how briskly it moves. There are several calm, talky scenes, punctuated by bits of extreme peril and (cartoonish) violence. The story never flags; it's tone and pace are almost perfectly executed.

If we're going to nitpick, there are a few things that come off a bit flat or jar us out of being completely absorbed in the story: Corey Johnson as Van Statten (a modern-day Harrison Chase) feels like he's out of the Jeremy Piven School of Bro Acting; and, we're told the Dalek killed hundreds of staff in the bunker, but we didn't see that many people -- like the death toll was inflated or not enough extras were roped into the production; and there's Adam, who just doesn't fit; and the music sometimes works at cross-purposes to the story. That last is a recurring problem in this season and one that becomes only more glaring upon re-watch.

Bringing back old monsters is a dicey proposition, and the way it undid much of the JN-T era, on top of just bringing back the Autons in "Rose" makes it especially risky. But this episode is brilliant and, had it been the last Dalek story, probably would've left them in better shape than they are now, which is to say, wildly over-used.

On its own, without foreknowledge that thousands of Daleks will be seen in short order, and without getting mired in stuff like whether that's the exact right Cyberman head in the display case, this story is engaging and satisfying despite its a discernible accretion of wrong notes.

Writing this in the long gap between the 2013 season finale and 50th anniversary event, this story highlights the dangers of delving too far into an explanation or presentation of the Time War, a complex, paradox-rich element of the mythology that, as Sandifer puts it "[is] crap. It’s unfilmable and untellable." Any account of it is bound to be unsatisfying, and it worries me that the John Hurt (not-)Doctor story brings us to the brink again (think about how close we came to getting bogged down in the return of Gallifrey) of burdening the series with Time War silliness. The Time War works as an awful thing that happened in the Doctor's past, a source of pain, loss, and guilt for him, but it's the kind of thing only the borderline annoying fan can enjoy -- the one with encyclopedic knowledge of the continuity that strikes us as only being possible for the Sheldon Coopers and Abeds of the world. (I say "borderline annoying" because that fan is the one who can and will explain, at length, what it's all about because there's no concise, interesting way to relay the jumble of contradictions and the framework of conjecture involved in telling the whole of it in something like a coherent manner. We can admire them for grokking something so implausible and riddled with contradiction while, at the same time, being glad we're not putting *that* much energy into reconciling it all.) The 50th anniversary and Christmas specials are still ahead of us as I write this, so here's hoping that all turns out to be satisfying and doesn't force the introduction of Capaldi to happen during, or immediately after, a polarizing deep-dive into roots of the Doctor's agony over his(/not his?) role in the [insert overly dramatic music cue here] Time War.

How we mourn ...

Sarah Silverman's Touching Tribute to Her Dog

Duck and Ms. Silverman

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Romans - "You know, I am so constantly outwitting the opposition, I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of ... the gentle art of fisticuffs."

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

Season 2, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #12) | Previous - Next | Index

Coach of the Montana Mauler in action via Doctor Who GIFs
Pertwee's Doctor wasn't the only one with some hand-to-hand combat skill.
Watching "Aliens of London / World War Three" with a 7-year-old seemed to have a positive effect on the overall enjoyment factor of watching a story I didn't rave about when it was new; so, being skeptical that "The Romans" has much going for it based on what I've read, I'm enlisting the kiddos to watch this one with their Dear Old Dad to see if it has goofy charms that will elicit some laughter.

And, well, not so much. The Doctor, Vicki, and Barbara's part of the story owes as much to the stage production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which hadn't yet been made into a movie) as it does to actual history, though the bawdiness was toned down for the family tea-time viewership. Not completely though. Nero's pursuit of Barbara seems to delight in the same sexist creepery, but there's only a mild level of attempted sexual assault and the murders are bloodless, even played for laughs so it's all still within our tolerances for family viewing. Well, if we have Addams Family viewing habits, I suppose. Occasionally the humor worked, probably more for me than for the kids, though they got a few chuckles out of it.

Nero has a new favorite slave in Barbara.
Ian, on the other hand, is in a story more like Ben Hur; he makes a buddy on a slave galley and, after their ship is wrecked in a storm, they make their way to Rome where they eventually end up gladiators fighting for Nero. The special effects were game effort, but never did a storm look so much like people having buckets of water tossed at them, and you could be forgiven for thinking the arena looked about the size of a living room. Still, we make allowances.

Vicki is charming and, if we're blunt, a vast improvement over Susan. Barbara and Ian have some charming moments in this one. And, of course, Barbara is kidnapped and stalwart Ian is doggedly heroic in going to rescue her.

Nero's casual cruelty, Barbara's enslavement, the stabbings and poisonings don't quite ruin this one ... but, there were two moments where this had me grinding my teeth. There's a cross-stroking scene where the kind conspirator, Tavius, who hired the man the Doctor ended up impersonating to come to Rome to kill Caesar Nero, fingers his Christian jewelry as he watches Ian and Barbara escaping. Yes, yes, the good Christian saves the day. One imagines the intent was to have kids doing an arts and crafts project about the wicked pagans and the noble Christians of 1st century Rome in Sunday School the day after the conclusion of the story was broadcast. Gack.

Worse still was the Doctor's self-satisfied cackling as he watched Rome burn and took delight in Vicki wanting him to get credit for inspiring Nero to have it done. How many people died and how many more lost their homes in the Great Fire? Hundreds? Thousands? In any event, more than zero on both counts. You have to forget the history, not easy since you're watching a historical, and imagine the Great Fire of Rome in the Doctor Who universe was a harmless conflagration in order to not find the Doctor a repellent sociopath in that scene.

Look at those Romans burning alive. It's lovely that I had a part in that, isn't it, my child? Hmm?

Because one mode of exploration is interrogating what you think you know ...

Kim Stanley Robinson: The map is not the territory. - Slate Magazine

Kim Stanley Robinson in the Sierras

So, is this exploring? Maybe not. Maybe the only real exploring left is in the interior of Europa, or the clouds of Saturn, or on the surface of Venus, or the far side of the universe. Certainly there is exploration of this sort left, into the truly unknown—though by the time we get to these places in person, we’ll know them well too. They will be mapped. But here’s my point: If it’s unknown to you, then aren’t you exploring?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Aliens of London / World War Three - "Your body is magnificent."

Aliens of London (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 1, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #160a)

The Doctor, meaning well, brings Rose home thinking he's got her back after night has passed since they left. Problem: Rose was gone a year, her mum has been freaking out and having Mickey questioned by the police, so when she strolls in like the teenager (she is) who forgot to check in before crashing at a friend's for the night it is profoundly uncomfortable. Jackie hauls off and slaps the Doctor who, for not being able to read a clock, frankly had it coming.

There's not much time for recriminations and excuses though. Saved by the bell, as it were, an alien ship crashes into Big Ben and splashes into the Thames in broad daylight. Suddenly, everyone's got something else to deal with. How society deals with it is a bit cynically portrayed, perhaps. Maybe the bulk of humanity really is the crass and shallow though.

We meet Harriet Jones, getting blown off for her appointment. The bigwigs are rolling in to deal with the crises while everyone seems to be unsure where the P.M. is. (Dead, in a closet, it turns out.) And those bigwigs, they're scheming aliens wearing human skinsuits with a pressure valve defect.

Is it juvenile to laugh at all the farting (sorry for using that word!) before we know why all the gathering officials seem to be unable to control their sphincters?  Maybe. But in a moment of crisis when the guy everyone is looking to as a leader lets an utterly indiscreet toot rip and announces, "Blimey!" well, if that's not funny then I don't know what is.

Alien autopsies: always a hoax.
The Doctor's investigation moves into full swing as he checks in on the autopsy of the pilot of the alien craft. Poor wee piggie in a jumpsuit. (This must be a bit of a nod to Mr. Sin, right?) Jackie's mention on a 911 call triggers a computer monitoring program that knows what to do when the words "Doctor" and "blue box" are overheard in the same call. This gets the Doctor into Downing St. and Jackie and Mickey into some trouble.

Nine seems to be having the time of his life. He's witnessing history, and he's being consulted as an expert so he can show off a bit for Rose. Eccleston's Doctor may never be what you'd call light-hearted, but he's enjoying himself so much here we can't help but smile with him and his crooked grins.  Even his jibes at Rickey ... errr, Mickey ... are more petulant than mean.

I think the key takeaway here is just that this one is a bit of fun. It's got just enough depth and menace to keep it being weightless fluff, but not so much we're jolted out of the spirit of the romp.

World War Three (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 1, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #160b)

We rejoin our heroes barricaded in a steel-reinforced room inside 10 Downing St. Slitheen outside and no escape route. From their safe, but isolated position, the Doctor rings Rickey ... errr, Mickey ... and guides him through some seriously suspect web security to arrange for a missile strike to stop the Slitheen from initiating WWIII.

Seriously suspect. The password is "buffalo." That's it. Figure that out and you too can initiate missile attack on any site in the world. Oi.

But, I did like how the news dutifully reported that Britain had given the "proof-positive" the U.N. needed before they would release the nuclear codes to launch an attack against the (non-existent) alien mother ship. That was mockery the news agencies and our governments richly deserved. We are, after all, still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as I write this in 2013 ... ten freaking years on a ginned-up in casus belli for Iraq and twelve years into a doomed, profoundly unwise mission in Afghanistan. We needed to do more naming and shaming.

Harriet Jones is so full of promise here. A shame she pisses off Ten later.

All in all, I enjoyed this much more on this re-watch with my kids than I did back it when it was new, before they were born. The farting makes much more sense in this one than the belching rubbish bin in "Rose" did, and my kids laughed their little butts off. I, of course, merely cocked an eyebrow and archly declared such silliness to0 childish for my sophisticated wit. (Kidding, I laughed with them. The Highbrow Family, that's us.)

This held up really well. The incidental music probably never seemed subtle or spot-on, and is certainly now a bit much. The verdict of history will be, if it's not already, that it sounds a bit dated and hokey. But, that's a nitpick. Good, snarky fun to be had here.

A welcome sight in my kindle this morning ...

And, I trust, when the UPS guy comes later today ...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Marco Polo - "What does he think it is? A potting shed, or something?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Marco Polo - Details

Season 1, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #4) | Previous - Next | Index

"Marco Polo" is the first of the lost stories, so for this one I'm relying on telesnaps and transcript reading to try to get an idea of what it was like. The presentation on the DVD breezes by ... I didn't time it, but I think it wasn't much more than a half hour long. That's an awful lot of boiling down for a 7-part story. And, based on reading the transcript, it needed it.

Polo duels the treacherous Tegana.
I had high expectations based on near universal praise for this one, but wasn't impressed out of the gate. The first episode feels a bit clunky (reading the transcript) and, if we're being frank, dumb. The second most annoying thing is that the Doctor has altitude sickness, is cranky, and remains this way through pretty much the entire story. Later he's ill because of thirst and exhaustion, but even Marco Polo uses one if his journal entries to complain about what an annoying old fart this guy is. Even more annoying is the plot device that kicks this thing off: the TARDIS blows a fuse and loses lights, water, and heat. Really? We just saw in the previous story how a broken spring in a switch on the console nearly led to its destruction; for it to blow a fuse and be utterly disable again suggests such a poor, fragile design never could have handled trans-dimensional engineering and time travel. This is the kind of malarkey we expect from cheap off-campus apartments run by unscrupulous property management firms, not from one of the most amazing machines in the universe.

Sure, we can imagine it's more due to the Doctor having stolen it and not knowing what the heck he's doing, but then we have Susan trying to explain her hep modern slang to a 13th century teenager, Ping-Cho (mercifully not an Anglo in yellowface -- like all the other Asian charcters) she explains "fab" this way: "Well, it's, it means wonderful! It's a verb we often use on Earth." OK, yes, the definition is fine, but it's an adjective, not a verb. And, she's on Earth, talking to an Earth girl, so why does she feel the need to say it's word often used on Earth? One silly thing we can gloss over, a second is irritating, a third following immediately on the second, now we're just wondering how nobody from writer, to script editor, to director, to the actor delivering the line didn't put their foot down and say, "This is easily fixed, let's not have the character say things that are obviously wrong and make no sense."

One of the ostensible aims of the show at this point is to be educational, so misidentifying parts of speech seems like an especially egregious error. (They do better with origins of the word "assassin" later, thankfully.) A bit after explaining "fab," Susan will tell Ping Cho she's "never seen a moonlit night." Good grief, she's sixteen and is a traveler in space and time who's been living on Earth for several months ... and we're supposed to believe she's never seen a moonlit night?  Maybe she means she's never been camping away from the lights of a city. OK ... but it seems improbable for a girl who's seen the metallic seas of Venus to have never seen a moonlit night.

The above was all in the broadcast story, but judiciously excised from the telesnap version on the DVD, so not only is the pace improved, but the the remainder is more focused and less silly. It's going to make grading this one tough because the transcript tells me this was way too long and probably boring. If I'm grading only the telesnaps, a much leaner product, then those concerns largely go away.

Where this gets intriguing is in the story of sixteen-year-old Ping Cho being sent off to marry a seventy-five-year-old man. The TARDIS crew's revulsion at the thought, and their efforts on her behalf later, speak well for the characters and for the show. Luckily, for her, the old creep drinks some quicksilver and sulfur (?!) to give himself some youthful energy ... dies of it, which seemed a far more likely outcome than any sort of re-invigoration.

Reading the script, I think I'm going to need the telesnaps or some help figuring out what this scene is about:
(Susan enters)
SUSAN: Ping-Cho?
POLO: Shh. She's gone to bed.
SUSAN: Oh, well, I'll go too then. Goodnight.
POLO: Goodnight, Susan. Sleep well. Now, what was I about to do? Ah yes.
IAN: Ouch.

In "The Daleks" it seemed they were implying Barbara took a Thal lover. Based only on the above, we may have our answer as to why she and Ian aren't hooking up? (Ian and Marco were playing chess when we last saw them, so it must be that Polo just captured Ian's Queen or something. Not, I assume, a spanking or ... )

It wouldn't be a First Doctor story if either Susan or Barbara didn't get kidnapped at least once. Barbara goes first. But there's plenty to go around. Susan will delay their escape by getting captured by Tegana later. Again the telesnaps drastically cut the story, so we don't see Barbara's misadventures in the caves with Tegana's cohorts.

The Doctor, Polo (background), and Kublai Khan (played, of course, by an Anglo actor).
It's more of an in-passing thing, and not significant like it will be later when Buddhists play an important role as characters, or later when Buddhist thought starts to inform the stories. Everyone seems to think the Buddhist monks will figure out how to get the TARDIS to work without the Doctor's co-operation and Marco Polo claims to have seen Buddhists levitate objects. I trust that was some sort of illusion that he was tricked by and not someone involved in the production thinking Buddhist monks had magical powers.

In case anyone hasn't experience a telesnap recreation, here's forty seconds or so of a sample from this story. Apologies for the shaky, hand-held quality of the video- it's just me pointing my phone's camera the screen. I'd recommend the telesnaps as the best way to enjoy this story, at least compared to reading the transcript, if it's one you're going to check out. There's always the Target novelization or the Loose Cannon reconstruction to try, but I'm trying not to lean on the novelizations since they often altered the story not just by cutting fat, but by adding fixes to problems with the stories as they were broadcast. My first try at watching a reconstruction ("Power of the Daleks") left me cold; I prefer watching the audio with just the pictures instead of seeing someone's mouth stitched into a still and awkwardly animated. (That reconstruction must've been a fan effort unrelated to Loose Cannon productions.) The Loose Cannon reconstruction is more similar to what's on the DVD. It also seems to be edited, but I think it's twice as long as the DVD version. Until this story gets a full, official animation release by the BBC, I'll stick with what's on the DVD release. That said, I expect I'm going to use the Loose Cannon reproductions for some of the missing stories where there isn't a DVD release yet.

Stray Thoughts:

I would't want a straight historical every season, necessarily, but I honestly wouldn't mind more of the straight historical, as opposed to the ones where there are aliens lurking about causing trouble around history we recognize as being real, or real-ish. The problem is how do you have a plot in recognizable history without introducing ahistorical elements for the Doctor to remove without relying on simple stories of kidnappings, losing the TARDIS and having to find it while not breaking history?  Separate the Doctor from the companion, or everyone from the TARDIS and then figure out how to get everyone back together can work once or twice, but it isn't scalable. It'd be a blast to see the Doctor in Philadelphia, 1776, banging around pubs with Ben Franklin, but what could he do there besides observe or ward off alien intervention?

My first thought is the way to incorporate historical sight-seeing is to do it as an aside. So the TARDIS phone rings while the Doctor's doing some work at Hull House and the subsequent adventure, where-/whenever it might be, involves a conflict that we could see him resolve based on something he learned from talking to Jane Addams and observing her work in the community.

Anyways, the historicals we'll get are more likely to be along the lines of "Robot of Sherwood" or "The Shakespeare Code" for the foreseeable future ...

Looking 32,000 Years into the Past: Q&A With Author Kim Stanley Robinson | LiveScience

The Chauvet Cave — that discovery was, like, 1995, and coffee table books appeared about 1999. The Herzog movie was in 2011 or 2010 and when I decided to do the people who painted that cave, it clarified a lot of things. It meant it was south France, it meant it was 32,000 years ago, it meant it was full-on Ice Age, and that the Neanderthals were still alive, some of them at least. It gave me my focus.
I became convinced that they probably were living as comfortably as possible, given the state of their knowledge about medicine and the universe. It became really interesting to think about how they didn't have writing, that this is a crucial technology that actually changes consciousness. Without it they were different from us in terms of how they transmitted their information from one generation to the next. It would become really important to teach master [to] apprentice. It would be really important to memorize things, to have a really talking culture so that their language would be Shakespearean — a very sophisticated talking culture, because they didn't have writing.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Warriors of the Deep - "There should have been another way."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Warriors of the Deep - Details

Season 21, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #131) | Previous - Next | Index

Ingrid Pitt going to kung-fu the sh!t out of a pantomime horse.
Widely reviled and, personally, utterly forgotten save for one detail ("Why do their heads light up when they talk? So we can tell which one is speaking?" I remember wondering), this story poses a challenge to the viewer: is it really as bad as everyone says it is?  First, let's see exactly how bad everyone, in fact, says it is.
"Warriors of the Deep: Correctly investigated for being unfit for transmission. There’s a school of thought that says this could have worked with better effects, but there’s a school of thought that thinks climate change isn’t real too, so really, who cares about that? Absolutely nothing about this story comes even remotely close to working. A misconceived disaster, and yet another example of John Nathan-Turner having no sense that maybe you should avoid putting a complete piece of crap out as a season premiere (See also the premieres of Seasons 18, 20, 22, 24, and 26.) ... 1/10"
"The Myrka menaces the Doctor and Tegan.
Sue: What’s it waiting for? Is it having a little dance?
The Doctor throws an ammunition magazine at the Myrka and the blast disorientates the beast.
Tegan: It’s blinded!
Sue: They should have blinded the audience. That would have been more merciful."
Wood/Miles (About Time, Vol. 5):
" ... [T]his is a story in which nobody [involved in the production] is communicating with anyone else and everyone's run out of ideas anyway. The result is a production that's off-the-case in almost every way, from the steaming great cock-ups (Myrka) to the small details ... The performances are among the worst in the series' history, with nobody except Davison sounding as if they understand why they're here at all."
So, pretty bad. Sure, there are some tepid defenders out there, mostly pointing to the script being not all that bad and the high level concept as having potential. I'm pretty sure the best way to watch this one will be drunk off the rails. So, while the DVD warns me about the evils of piracy and shows the usual previews, I'm throwing back a couple shots and pouring myself a giant, high-octane glass of cold adult beverage.

That done, let me get this off my chest: don't let her fighting the Myrka be how you remember the late, great Ingrid Pitt. Google her if you don't know what I'm talking about. She's got an interesting bit of career overlap with Kate ("The Rani") O'Mara out there in the early 1970s. (Hint: it involves Hammer Studios, not -- as I'm sure you could've deduced from the GIF at the top of this post -- Shaw Bros.)

The samurai helmets on the Sea Devils would have looked better if they could've
figured out how to keep their heads from tipping side to side erratically.
For all the bellyaching about this one, I don't think it's all that bad. Look, it's not good and, yes, there's some embarrassing stuff going on here, but if I were in a sparring mood I'd say anyone who grades "Dragonfire" out higher than this is either a fool or has a hidden agenda. (Which, upon writing, I find myself distractedly wondering if Nowhere Man is on Prime or otherwise legally available to watch online ... ) The unis worn by the sea base crew look like they were looted from the dumpster behind the studio where a Michael Jackson video was shot, and the makeup looks like something a 5-year-old would do to herself after sneaking into mommy's makeup bag; but, it's not like it's that much worse than other 80s era stories. This story takes a lot of heat for cocking up the Silurians and Sea Devils, which it does, but if you're going to bang it for the costumes coming apart at the seams and not being tucked in properly, then you've got  to admit the Pertwee era stories had the same problems. The thing that actually irritated me more than that stuff, which I'm pretty much inured to at this point, was the jokey bit where the Doctor and Turlough try and fail to slide a door open, only to have Tegan come in behind them and slide it the other way.

Let's get to it, shall we Turlough?

It could have been a funny moment if the set design had made it even slightly ambiguous which way the door opened, but it wasn't at all unclear, so all it did was make the Doctor and Turlough look like complete idiots.

Never, in the history of TV, has the interior of an underwater sea base looked less like the interior of an underwater sea base, but it looked more like an underwater sea base than the CSO caves in "Underworld" looked like caves. The Myrka was every bit the disaster they all say it was, but so was the giant rat in "Talons". Now, both those stories had other things going for them, that this one doesn't; but, I felt like the participants in this one were trying, doing the best they could under the circumstances. The stories that piss me off are the ones where not only does everything looked shoddy, but there's active contempt for the viewer combined with unbearable pretensions -- again, I'm going to pile on "Dragonfire" because that's the one that sticks in mind as being unforgivably awful.

Would I try to defend this one if I were stone sober? Maybe not so much, but when it was unintentionally funny (which it does better than it does 'intentionally funny') it was entertaining. So it can at least be entertaining to a drunk person. There are stories about which that can't be said.

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