Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Time Monster - "It was the daisiest daisy I'd ever seen."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Time Monster - Details

Season 9, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #64) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Doctor Who Gifs
(Where it's pointed out this clearly inspired "The Lodger")
Started drafting this post focused on the gizmos and gadgets -- time detectors, speedy Bessie, and whatnot (as the GIFs still reflect) -- and how this story, and this era, occasionally tip too far away from the core of what makes Doctor Who such great fun. Replacing the joy of exploring time and space in a (science sufficiently advanced it appears to us) magical blue box with a reliance on the Doctor driving up in Bessie to reverse the polarity and rig up a spinny-thing was a series-level miscalculation that hung over the production from its implementation in Series 7.  However, I'm going to let the spinny, silly things speak for themselves, and not rehash the observations about how the 70s were obsessed with von Däniken, ancient aliens, Atlantis, cryptids, Pyramid Power, and all kinds of hokum that would never fly with today's more sophisticated viewers of Finding Bigfoot and Ghost Hunters and ... oh, never mind.

Instead, I want to focus on just two scenes that are, if not brilliant and marvelous, have admirable aims and keep the spirit of the show alive despite the format having tied one hand behind the series's back. The other alternative approach would be to tackle the well-intentioned, I think, but groanworthy attempts to work in feminist characters railing against sexism. Letts, Dicks, and co. may have aimed for education about, and acceptance of, the Women's Liberation movement, but are so patronizing in the effort, I wince just remember some of the dialogue.

The more significant of the two is the scene after Jo executes the Time Ram and the TARDISes of the Doctor and the Master find themselves in Kronos's realm. This scene highlights the compassionate nature of the Doctor -- and is well in-tune with where Moffat has put Twelve, as opposed to how that aspect of his character took a beating at times under RTD (think of the Family of Blood) - while serving as a case-in-point for Clara's pointed barb when Missy/the Master's fate is in the Doctor's hands again in the cemetery scene near the end of "Death in Heaven". Here, the Doctor asks Kronos to spare the Master from a punishment of eternal torment. The series doesn't always endorse this position, or take the position that it is always wrong to kill, but notice how the Doctor here doesn't ask for the Master to receive only a swift death; he'd rather the Master go free than even suffer that more merciful, though final, sanction. When it comes to thinking about defense and punishment. We may need the lesson of Three more today (more than ever) than even Twelve's more position -- one that is more nuanced, perhaps, but ultimately includes the death penalty.

The other is the scene where the Doctor tells Jo the story of his blackest day, the day that was also the best day of his life. If the story of how the Doctor, as a young boy, sought the advice of hermit is a direct lift from a kōan, it's not one I could find in a few minutes of searching. But, the elements of his tale are a direct lift from that tradition. Hermits on mountains being questioned by a student seeking understanding, and that student receiving confusing or paradoxical replies to test their progress on the path to enlightenment, are common to many kōans. In his case, the Doctor went up the mountain miserable, for unspecified reasons (maybe because his friend was exposed to the Untempered Schism and went mad? or because someone grabbed his ankle from under his bed in the night?), and received the unexpected wisdom of a Gallifreyan hermit.

Here's the dialogue, courtesy of Chrissie's Transcripts:
DOCTOR: I felt like that once when I was young. It was the blackest day of my life.
JO: Why?
DOCTOR: Ah, well, that's another story. I'll tell you about it one day. The point is, that day was not only my blackest, it was also my best.
JO: Well, what do you mean?
DOCTOR: Well, when I was a little boy, we used to live in a house that was perched halfway up the top of a mountain. And behind our house, there sat under a tree an old man, a hermit, a monk. He'd lived under this tree for half his lifetime, so they said, and he'd learned the secret of life. So, when my black day came, I went and asked him to help me.
JO: And he told you the secret? Well, what was it?
DOCTOR: Well, I'm coming to that, Jo, in my own time. Ah, I'll never forget what it was like up there. All bleak and cold, it was. A few bare rocks with some weeds sprouting from them and some pathetic little patches of sludgy snow. It was just grey. Grey, grey, grey. Well, the tree the old man sat under, that was ancient and twisted and the old man himself was, he was as brittle and as dry as a leaf in the autumn.
JO: But what did he say?
DOCTOR: Nothing, not a word. He just sat there, silently, expressionless, and he listened whilst I poured out my troubles to him. I was too unhappy even for tears, I remember. And when I'd finished, he lifted a skeletal hand and he pointed. Do you know what he pointed at?
JO: No.
DOCTOR: A flower. One of those little weeds. Just like a daisy, it was. Well, I looked at it for a moment and suddenly I saw it through his eyes. It was simply glowing with life, like a perfectly cut jewel. And the colours? Well, the colours were deeper and richer than you could possibly imagine. Yes, that was the daisiest daisy I'd ever seen.
JO: And that was the secret of life? A daisy? Honestly, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Yes, I laughed too when I first heard it. So, later, I got up and I ran down that mountain and I found that the rocks weren't grey at all, but they were red, brown and purple and gold. And those pathetic little patches of sludgy snow, they were shining white. Shining white in the sunlight. You still frightened, Jo?
JO: No, not as much as I was. 
"The Time Monster" is more than a little bonkers. It's heavily padded to reach six episodes. It's science and philosophy are all over the place, and Atlantis is not well-realized. At the same time, it lays more than a little ground work for aspects of the show that we accept as commonplace now, but were firsts here. Tat Wood points out several of these in About Time, not the least is in introduction of the idea the TARDIS travels in a time vortex and spins on its axis as it travels. It's also the first appearance of voluptuous Hammer horror star Ingrid Pitt in DW. She'll be back in "Warriors of the Deep," but she's more recognizably in her element here as Queen Galleia.

Odds and Ends

The time detector is quite the phallic symbol. "Jo, I've built a time detector. Hold it in your lap. It vibrates a bit. And mind the whirly bit at the tip, it's very sensitive." (Not an actual quote.)  More like an Ingrid Pitt detector, if you ask me.

It's a time detector. Why? What did you think it was?
I've been linking these BBC official site pages for the classic series, this is first time I've com across the archived page note? Hmmm... I'd hate for all these classic series posts to end up with dead links because the BBC got away from their documentation of these older shows.

Benton gets the advanced space time theory in this one. Then is turned into a baby. Baby Benton. There is a distinct vibe of Early 1970s sitcom about this one. Like a sci-fi Three's Company.

With "Last Christmas" fresh in mind, I feel like I left something out if I didn't at least mention that this one starts with the Doctor having a precog-ish dream featuring, some reason a volcano. I can't make any sense of it, but there you have it.

Friday, December 26, 2014

You can't trust Fox News. Ever.

I've said it before and will say it again. If you're a network not operating in the public interest, especially if you're operating against it, you should lose your license. It's one thing to make mistakes, it's another entirely to deliberately misinform.

Last Christmas - "There's a horror movie called Alien? That's really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you."

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

xmas 2014 (Overall Series Story #257) | Previous - Next | Index

*** SPOILERS ***

The Christmas Special is a strange beast. Its producers, or their bosses, deciding to tie one hand behind their backs and encumber the show with a very special message of hope and goodwill towards men while not gagging on the requisite Santa-is-real-even-though-he's-not instruction for children to Believe. The structure of Doctor Who's production schedule also means that these Specials aren't just asides, they're season cappers, or starters, for the most part, and tend to feature regenerations, new companions, and other significant events that give these particular shows what we might argue is undue weight. I mean, we get about 13 episodes a year, and one of them is sort of always dealing with this theme (or baggage), so a remarkably high percentage of all new series DW is set at Christmas. I'd argue it was time to take Christmases off, except this one was so good it seems it can be done without being done to death.

What better way to take on the Christmas Special than to shove Alien and Inception down its throat? Rather like spitefully shoving a tangerine down the gaping maw of a Christmas stocking. (I'm rolling with critical consensus of citations here despite the fact we could tick off The Thing, Miracle on 34th Street [both on Shona's Christmas Itinerary, so we're on firm ground there],  "Amy's Choice", Brazil, The Matrix, at least a few snowbound Base Under Siege episodes from both the new and classic series, and Star Trek: Generations as other likely sources/influences.) If you have to tell a Christmas story, might as well have a surprise underneath the de rigeur bows and ribbons.

Moffat is making explicit, again (in a way that strikes me as reckless -- though possibly brilliant) that his version of Doctor Who is a dream archetype, a story built on the self-awareness we feel upon exiting a dream that we're in a dream, but one we didn't recognize as a dream while it was happening, and the subsequent need to interrogate reality when we awaken to determine whether we're still dreaming. If we even can. It's a bold choice for how to make television, one that flirts with metaphysics, if not exactly practicing it, while it messes around with critical theory. It's an especially bold choice for a family show built to draw huge ratings after the family has spent the day practicing capitalist excess and non-ironic sentimentality.

For many, "Last Christmas" may be too much of a good, or bad, thing. There are valid criticisms to be leveled against it, though I admit I'm not particularly motivated to make them. Moffat's reiteration of monsters that are depended on how we perceive, or don't perceive, them can legitimately all be considered variations on the Weeping Angels. They work because that idea is so effective for TV. But, to keep drawing from that well may suggest you're a One Trick Pony.

So Clara's staying. Which may be good news because Jenna Coleman is great; but, again, Moff can't keep drawing us back to the same well. The tension around the notion she may or may not be leaving practically every episode grows tiresome. Though, I keep coming back to how talented an actress Jenna Coleman is, and how there's still plenty of room for her character to grow. The call has gone up from all corners of the internet to have Shona join the crew, and I'll be surprised if we don't see her again, which raises the possibility of a new dynamic in the TARDIS with two young companions who don't need to have a romantic relationship to make them interesting, together and apart. (Yellow flags: she's got a Dave she's working on forgiving, which could make for challenges passing the Bechdel Test if she does return; and, her itinerary also left the door open for her to have Daddy issues, which I don't trust Moffat to handle well.)

Speaking of Shona, did anyone not love her dance moves as mental distractions as she made her way through the infirmary?

Me, I loved it. My son did as well. He was proud that he figured out before the reveal who the sleepers in the infirmary were, and he couldn't wait to cop some of Shona's moves. My daughter, who's more skeptical of the show in general, also enjoyed this one, so it was a crowd-pleaser in our house at least. (The poll at Gallifrey Base shows it seems to have hit the right notes for most. There are, of course, the usual lot of Worst. Episode. Ever. scrooges, but very few of them present any compelling reasons for being so down on this particular story.)

Odds and Ends:

No call back to Eleven mentioning he knew Santa as "Jeff." Mercifully, no other allusion to having the last room at the inn that silent night as Ten made in one of his specials -- escapes me at the moment which that was ...

Dreams being a chance to travel time and space harkens back to the conference call in "The Name of the Doctor". And, in "Doomsday", Ten was able to guide Rose to alternate universe Bad Wolf Bay by calling to her in a dream.

A redditor pointed out one of Santa's elves was sporting a Red Ryder BB gun.

Nick Frost was pitch perfect as Santa. Wow. He did as much as anyone to sell me on scenes that could have gone so, so wrong. That was a casting coup.

[edit] This comment over on TARDIS Eruditorum points to one of those things I hate about the obvious ... missing it.

[edit] Here's another possible inspiration: Matthew over at Tea with Morbius recalls an X-Files episode with a very similar structure.

Did I imagine it or does Frost's Santa break the Fourth Wall as blatantly as we've seen since the Christmas episode of "The Daleks' Master Plan" by saying "Peter, shut up!"?  I couldn't believe it and wonder as I write this if that wasn't something that happened in a dream. The way my temple hurts I can't be certain ...

How did this one go over in your house? Let me know in the comments!  Also, if I've missed anything.

And, I'd be remiss if I didn't wish you all a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to come!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

On Civility ...

NYT Weighs in on Civility and the Salaita Case | Corey Robin
[I]ntentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. 

GWAR cover "West End Girls" / "People Who Died"

GWAR covers Pet Shop Boys | A.V. Undercover | The A.V. Club

How to care for introverts

How to care for introverts:

1. Respect their need for privacy.
2. Never embarrass them in public.
3. Let them observe first in new situations.
4. Give them time to think; don't demand instant answers.
5. Don't interrupt them.
6. Give them advance notice of expected changes in their lives.
7. Give them 15 minute warnings to finish whatever they are doing.
8. Reprimand them privately.
9. Teach them new skills privately.
10. Enable them to find one best friend who has similar interests & abilities.
11. Don't push them to make lots of friends.
12. Respect their introversion; don't try to remake them into extroverts.
Sounds about right.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dark Water / Death in Heaven - "Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?"

Dark Water (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 11 (Overall Series Story #256a) | Previous - Next | Index

Where to start? (Start with the big hitter, my internal editor says, lead with the episode's best moment, then dance around it's other triumphs, acknowledge the wobbly bits -- there are always a few -- then circle back and close the loop ... ) But, if we're going to start with the best bit, then we have to know what the best bit is, and can you really know before the story's over? Well, I've got a pretty good idea, and I'll come to it shortly, but let's first be clear about what the best bit of the first half of the story was, on its own terms, and make sure we're not confusing any of the other razzle-dazzle for the singular best bit.

So, yes, Missy is the Master and that's not exactly surprising, but perhaps we're surprised Moffat didn't pull a double-plus red-herring on us. Missy was, we all speculated, either going to be a character we'd met before -- and the Master was the leading candidate in that category, probably favored by just a few points over River -- or she was going to be a new character we didn't fully appreciate the cleverness of yet. The reveal is not the best thing about this episode though.

Missy snogging the Doctor and then putting his hand on her chest, which turns out to mean so much more with benefit of hindsight -- the heteronormalized realization of digital reams of slash fiction -- is gobsmacking. Still not the best thing about this episode.

The death of Danny Pink was a shock. And Clara's reaction to it was ominous. That was all so well executed, it propelled us into the story like no other open has yet. But it wasn't the best thing about this episode.

Missy/the Master's engineering of a race of Cybermen is exactly the sort of thing we'd expect of the Master we knew. Delgado's Master, or Simms' Master, it's big, unnecessarily complex (they needed to be stored in Dark Water?) and unspeakably cruel. It is, of course, not the best thing about this episode though. Even though the echoing of "The Invasion" and "The Tomb of the Cybermen" is delightful fan service that, I'm certain, works perfectly well for those who haven't yet caught up to those classic stories, it too is not the best thing about this episode.

Missy telling humanity to "Bring out your dead," is the best assimilation of Monty Python into the series since John Cleese did art criticism of the TARDIS as an installation. Even that wasn't the best thing about this episode.

Danny Pink meeting up with the young boy he killed while serving was devastating, but there was something even more powerful and dramatic.

The best thing about this episode is the line I lead with in the title of this post. Really, it's the whole sequence that starts with Clara turning on her chipper voice when the Doctor answers her call and ends with him telling her to buck up before leaving the TARDIS after they've landed in the Nethersphere. But it is especially that line:
Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
That is heart-breakingly beautiful writing. And Capaldi delivers it so matter-of-factly, with such understated glory. It's perfect. It is not only the best thing in this episode, it may be the best thing in Doctor Who since ... well, ever?

That's a brasher claim than I'm accustomed to making, and I'll sleep on it, but flush from watching the episode twice, I'm feeling pretty good about it.

Let's back up though. Luck of the draw, I just finished watching the "The Time Monster," and am still drafting that post as I write this one, so a few things in this story resonated that much more for me on account of it being fresh. "The Time Monster" is a Master story, and a goofy one, where he, once again, gets himself in over his head by trying to control a being far more powerful than he himself is. (You'd think he'd learn ... and it remains to be seen whether she's got her army of Cybermen under her control in this one.) It's not only the Master though that ties the older story to this one. "TTM" starts with the Doctor dreaming of a volcano, and this story prominently features another dream sequence with a volcano. It's Clara's dream this time, but it feels more than just coincidence that dream imagery haunts this story. "TTM" also has the scene where the Doctor, trapped in an Atlantean dungeon with Jo Grant, shares a story from his boyhood -- and the Doctor's boyhood featured prominently this season in "Listen" -- about his blackest day. That language echoes in Capaldi's Doctor telling Clara this is their darkest day, their blackest hour. Pertwee's Doctor, telling Jo about his blackest day, relates what is essentially a redressed Zen koan, firmly placing the Doctor in the Buddhist tradition. It's a lyrical moment that even the too-coy-by-half scripting ("It was the daisiest daisy...") and the ludicrous wig they put on Katy Manning can't cheapen.

It's that tradition Capaldi, I believe, is channeling when he explains to Clara that "Go to hell" wasn't curse he leveled at her, but instead an answer to the question of what they were going to do. This Doctor's response to being betrayed by his companion is very like Three's inability to leave the Master to be tormented by Kronos at the end of "TTM". (I'll save the rest of my thoughts on that for that write up, got to leave something to cover there.)

That line may be the most compassionate the Doctor has uttered in any of his incarnations. I often wonder what it is about Doctor Who that it is so appealing to the alienated, the odd, the misfit. I don't say this to be cruel or judgmental; I plant my flag firmly in that territory. But if you've been to cons, or even just gone to the theater for a DW event, you can't help but notice the demographic. Not to say all DW fans are stereotypical nerds and outcasts, but not even Star Trek conventions are as nerdstrong. The compassion, the injunction to have a brave heart and to be compassionate, even while being odd, is just the right message to appeal to the broadest cross-section of society. Across the LGBTQ+ and allies rainbow straight through to religious fundamentalists.

Anyone who has ever felt betrayed, and perhaps more importantly, anyone who has ever been selfish, and put themselves ahead of a friend at some point, and struggled with their conscience, has an ally and a champion in the Doctor. "Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?" He's weird and gawky, he comes across as cold and arrogant, but he always has Clara's back. She knew it in "Deep Breath," though she had to be reminded here. (Her, "Fair enough," may even be better line reading than Capaldi's of his line. Anyone complaining that Clara isn't a developed a character, or has no emotional arc, at this point simply is not paying attention.)  He cares so much. And we love him for it because we need that much care, we all do. And we all aspire to it, or know we ought to, even if we've ever pulled a Clara.

I'm looking forward to "Death in Heaven," but I don't think it's going to be possible to surpass what's already been accomplished. I'll come back at some point and revise this post to include some nitpicks and acknowledge the wobbly bits. But, for now, I just want to think about what a great line that was.

Notes to self for future revisions:

  1. Skepticism promoted as necessary tool for thinking about the problem. (That there is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of after-life here, need to sort out whether Moffat is fully convinced of the correctness of the Doctor's reliance on it. It *is* required, and "So ... an idiot, then," was such a great line, I should have included it in the things that could be confused for being the best thing about this episode.
  2. I've left much of the soldiering theme aside since "The Caretaker" but this is probably the place to talk more about Danny Pink and his experience in combat ... and what it means in the centenary year of the start of WWI, with the final episode airing on the eve of Remembrance Day. (We've seen the Doctor pin a poppy on his lapel before, after all ...  )

Death in Heaven (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 12 (Overall Series Story #256b) | Previous - Next | Index


Stomp, stomp, stomp. That's the sound of Moffat marching us directly into the let down we knew was coming but hoped we'd be spared this time. Not that the episode was a complete failure; it had several moments of genius mixed in. The problem is those moments mixed into an overwrought mess of a story, the whole of which was less than its best parts.

When we remember this story, I suspect it'll be mostly for Michelle Gomez's fantastic turn as the Master. (Here's hoping that wasn't the last we've seen of her!) She pulls Simms's full camp interpretation through Mary Poppins and somehow makes that cohere into a genuinely villainous iteration of the classic that can withstand the Master's twice-baked, Goldberg Machine planning instinct and keep us engaged in a character that, by all rights, ought to collapse under the weight of its own silliness. (I'm over pining for the Derek Jacobi Master that could have been, we finally got an heir Roger Delgado could be proud of.)

We should be remembering it, based on how this season was constructed, for the arc of Danny Pink and how his fate intertwined with the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, as each of them wrestled with their own roles in all this adventuring. That resolution though was undercut by endings falling mostly flat. No fault of the actors here, they all did everything they could, it was the paces they were put through that derailed the story.

At this point, after all they've been through, they all needed to know they could stop lying to one another. Yes, the line about hugs hiding faces was poignant, but Clara and the Doctor should be living up to the friendship they profess and being honest with each other. Honest about matters of fact and honest about their feelings about the state of affairs. It was here, in the cafe where they hugged farewell, that the failure to learn and the failure to trust just fell flat. Dramatically, the scene didn't work either because we never believed this was really farewell. If anyone didn't suspect we were being set up again, then the appearance of Santa Claus and his announced that this had to be set right quickly settled the matter.

(So, yeah, when we write about this this, we have to deal with the fact Nick Frost, a casting coup, has been brought in to play a character who apparently believes, and has powers to back up that belief, that he is Santa Claus.


But, that's the beat that's been established. In new Who, the Xmas specials are set up by things like Santa Claus or the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS.)

The ending was a low point -- the cafe ending, I mean, Santa interrupting the credit roll is something bizarre we'll have to wait and see about -- an off-key way to end the episode and the season, but it was exceeded in manipulative hokiness by the opening scene. Clara rattling off a bunch of continuity trivia to 'prove' to the Cybermen she's the Doctor, followed by her eyes replacing the Doctor's in the opening titles was a joke taken too far. I'm not against that sort of mixing of narrative and the formality of title sequences on principle, it's that it was done in the spirit of overselling an obvious ruse that rubs me the wrong way.

Bringing back Osgood to have Missy kill her also didn't sit right. Not because she was a likable character, one that I don't think I was alone in anticipating seeing more of, those sorts of characters are fair game and her murder by Missy sets the stage for as cold a glare as we've seen from the Doctor, effectively foreshadowing his resolve at the end to kill her despite their long, complicated history. Osgood's death, along with Seb getting deleted when he indulged in a moment of squee, felt a like cold-blooded rebuke of fandom's tendencies towards cosplay and ... well, squee. Which is odd, because I've never had the sense Moffat is anything but appreciative and respectful of fandom. The conclusion I'm leaping to is this is Moffat poking us in the eye with the intent to follow up later with a moral or lesson that'll be meant to guide fandom towards a deeper appreciation of the character than parroting "Bowties are cool."

I could be way off-base here an have to eat my words later, this may not be his intent at all, but it looks that way to me. If it is, I don't think it's needed. I think fandom is just fine the way it is. (Yes, I was one of those voices saying 'watch all these young'uns bail because Capaldi is old and grey,' which was criticism based on some less-than-generous assumptions about younger fans, especially the Hunger Games demographic that probably could be pinned on some self-aggrandizing assumptions about my silver-haired, grew-up-with-Tom-Baker, had-a-long-scarf-before-many-of-you-were-even-born fan credentials.)

Going to go a step further and predict that we are definitely going to meet Kate's other daughter, Osgood's 'prettier' sister, at some point, and I expect she's also going to be played by Ingrid Oliver (though we shouldn't be surprised if Lorna Watson is in line for the role to make use of both halves of the duo) in order to highlight the insecurities that inhibited Osgood and led her to hide behind big glasses and less-than-fashionable hair to go with her long scarf, bow tie, and red Converse. Dangerous business, trying to predict what Moffat's got in mind, but I don't think the Zygon making a point about wishing it could have taken on her sister's appearance instead of hers, Kate introducing herself to the Cybermen as "mother of two," and Missy's manipulation of Osgood by banging on her insecurities and desire to please the Doctor were all for nothing. It's whether they're part of a judgment on fandom that says, "You're doing it wrong," that concerns me. Unless, of course, it's more nuanced and affirming and we end up mourning Osgood while appreciating her sister in a way I'm not anticipating.

Osgood's death may turn out to not be the stumble I think it is, but I don't see how they could possibly bring Cyber Brigadier back to fix the mess that was made of raising him from the dead. Look, I'm a tremendous fan of the character and the actor who played him. (One of my dogs is named Brigadier for that very reason.) Again, it's not that I'm averse to paying tribute in the context of the show as a rule, it's the execution here in the context of this specific story. Kate was thrown out of the plane so she could be saved by her dad, and the Doctor could salute his old friend -- these two things both felt forced. Together, the effect is one of emotional manipulation, in an episode where we've got too much of that going on already.

Complicating matters is how this loving tribute to the Brigadier, one of only two human corpses capable of resisting Cyber programming, fits in with the overall theme of appreciating soldiers while remaining skeptical of militarism. Pink is devastating in his critique of the Doctor as the general who orders others to do the dirty work, and the narrative rewards Pink with a hero's end. He delivers a speech to rouse the troops (who don't need it, because they can't disobey their orders), promises the civilians that will sleep safely tonight thanks to his sacrifice, and then keeps his word. Yes, he suffers, but he gets to ease his conscience by bringing back the boy he killed when he served in the Middle East. Clearly, Pink is meant to be a model of heroism. But the Brigadier is one of those military types he, and the Doctor, are mistrustful and contemptuous of. A nuanced appreciation of the Brigadier would have held him accountable for his attempted genocide of the Silurians, a more bloody-handed old General than the Doctor, not presented him as one of the two humans with enough love in his heart to overcome Cyber programming.

The effect of this is to clump the acknowledged evils of the military mindset in with the tough decisions the Doctor makes (an individual, influencing people on an individual level) and excuse them both as being morally equivalent, as if we need to leave with murderous military bureaucracies to enjoy freedom from tyranny. This is a deeply cynical and defeatist attitude about human nature. Yes, we do need soldiers, because the world is horribly messed up. The Nazis and today's religious extremists attempting to impose their warped view of what makes a just society on the ravaged populations of the Middle East are expressions of fundamental flaws in our political systems on top of our imperfect understanding of history. Madmen and their armies have to be stopped. The problem is we need heroes to change minds, not only blow them apart. There's a fundamental imbalance, reflected in Doctor Who, in the heroes we recognize. Remembrance Day/Veterans Day and Memorial Day honor those who served, and fell, in armed conflict with foreign enemies, but we owe the freedoms we enjoy as much to civil rights advocates, labor organizers, and the efforts of scientists, researchers, and medical professionals as we do to soldiers. Any chance we'll see a Labor Day special one of these years?

Doctor Who, at its best, celebrates humanist values, takes joy in exploration, and teaches empathy. There's some of that here, but it gets lost in the shuffle, overridden by the pressing need to stop the Cybermen. "Pain is a gift. Without the capacity for pain, we can't feel the hurt we inflict." The Doctor is spot on here. But in this case we're up against the clock. The Doctor needs to turn on Danny's inhibitor so doesn't feel pain, in order to get the information he needs (but should have figured out, honestly) about Missy's plans. Cyber Danny points out the problem here, all the speechifying is meaningless in the face of the need. But the message was too important to gloss over and a more effective drama would have found a way to preserve that.

Odds and ends:

  • Cyber Zombie Brigadier flew away at the end. To self-destruct? Or is he, like Jenny, still out there somewhere?
  • The clock in the cafe calls to mind this season's clock-themed opening titles animation.
  • Moffat loves to make mirrors. The Doctor is offered armies twice in this episode. First the humans (improbably) make if C-in-C of all the armies of the world, then Missy attempts to give him the army of Cybermen. 
  • The dialogue was a bit rushed when the Doctor and Osgood were talking about Missy aboard the plane, but I gather he offered to show her all of time and space, making it all the more devastating that she dies instead of becoming a companion.
  • "Hang on a second. The President? We don't want Americans bombing [or "bobbing"?] around the place. They'll only start praying." Snort laughed.
  • The news broadcasts in the background at one point discuss how the Cybermen are flying this time, and that's new, so people remember them from "The Invasion" or from the events that led up to the Battle of Canary Wharf. And yet the first response to them emerging from St. Paul's this time is to take selfies with them? Srsly?
  • Was shocked by the A.V. Club's A- rating and several other generally positive reviews for this episode. I was decidedly underwhelmed and expected more, harsher criticism. If not along my usual WTF doesn't anybody take Labor Day seriously?! lines, then for how goofy it ended up being overall. After watching it again though, I found myself enjoying it more, rather than less. Once I made it through all my eyebrow raising reactions and I-would-have-done-that-differently moments of the first viewing, it grew on me a little. Still wish

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In the Forest of the Night - "There are wonders here."

In the Forest of the Night - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 10 (Overall Series Story #255) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Beat That For a Date

If last week celebrated Banksy, this week, we knew we were in for at least a bit of a cap tip to William Blake when we saw the previews, which included a tiger, and put it all together with the title.

THE TYGER (from Songs Of Experience)
     By William Blake 
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Here's the thing, I'm no Blake scholar, and I'm liable to come precariously close to sounding a fool trying to put the pieces together, but here goes. If it were only the title, and there were no other links to Blake or his works, then we'd say "In the Forest of the Night" was a cap tip and nothing more. But Clara and the Doctor encounter a tiger in the forest. And there's the Doctor's monologue about an acorn planted in 1795. (Because I went googling around trying to brush up in advance of this episode, I had 1794 in mind as the publication date of Songs of Innocence and Experience.) That acorn in 1795 being the tree in the middle of London in the present, in time to save the Earth, and that tree being a sort of time traveler by having a little bit of 1795 in it ... that's, effectively, Doctor Who arguing for saving the world by looking to William Blake. As sure as I'm only nibbling around the edges of the significance, I've a pretty fair idea where to turn for guidance ... and where not to *koff* reddit.

Sure enough, as much as the vast bulk of fandom seems to have loathed this story, our man Dr. Sandifer thought it fantastic. I've done the whinging about the science, recently, and over time where the classic series went apeshit bungling it, but what Doctor Who is doing these days, and especially this week, is something completely different from science fiction -- this is not extrapolating from current knowledge and theory to some future we can use to look more deeply at our lives, our society now. This is science fantasy (and maybe just fantasy), pulling from old myths to tell a fable. All that fairy tale stuff that was getting to be a bit much when Eleven was our Doctor, it's never gone away, and the fairy (or faerie) is very much at the heart of this story's plea that humanity be less fearful and more trusting.

One of the other connections to Blake, and one I couldn't have made without reading around, was that Blake's writings were inspired his visions and voices he heard. In the story, we've got Maebh hearing voices, and (sonic screwdriver wavey-wandy) receiving a vision in a clearing in the forest. Give her her tablets so she stops hearing the voices, that's how everyone -- save the Doctor -- responds to her. But we're forced to compare her to Blake here and wonder, would the world have been better off if Blake had been treated by the physicians of his day to quiet the voices he heard?

Now, here's where I worry about DW possibly getting in over its head. In some cases, we do want to help people not hear voices the rest of us don't hear. Whether they are able to articulate a plea for help or not, when the voices tell people to harm themselves or others, I'm not against society saying that person needs the best available help we can offer to prevent harm. A facile reading of this story might yield the conclusion we shouldn't treat mental disorders. I'm not sure that's the correct reading; if it is, I'm inclined to say that's not a tenable position. Acknowledging we're not very good at it, we should at least try be trying to get better.

Time and again while writing these posts, I've lauded those stories where we're reminded to have brave hearts, to approach the world with compassion and trust. This story is clearly, explicitly, and in full knowledge of its agenda, saying that this is what Doctor Who is, this is why the story is being told: To save us from the fearful side of our nature so we don't destroy ourselves and the world.

It may not seem like it, but I don't only write about Doctor Who on this blog. One of the other great influences on my imaginative life is the collected work of Kim Stanley Robinson. Apart from writing brilliant novels and stories, Mr. Robinson makes some fairly pointed arguments in interviews and in his public speaking. One of the arguments he makes frequently is about our future on Earth -- and it may seem to be in stark contrast to the visions of the future he puts to paper: he acknowledges that our technology almost certainly will continue to make tremendous, rapid progress, but the constraints of the laws of the physics, confine humanity to our solar system. Forever. And, within our solar system, there is no other planet on which we can expect to live and thrive apart from the one we're on.

When he writes about terraforming Mars, he's writing science fiction. It's sci-fi with a useful lens to turn towards our activities on Earth. We are terraforming the Earth, but we are doing so in a way that it is going to render it hostile to our continued existence because we refuse to grow up and deal with the effects of human-driven climate change. We must find a way to deliberately, reasonably, shape our society (our governments' policies, our lives) so that we can continue to live on Earth. I'm straining here to draw two parallels between disparate styles of storytelling, two narratives that are informed by different ways of looking at history and storytelling, and offering two different (but, crucially, not incompatible) solutions. Stan's embraces the scientific method, suggest we act based on reason, conduct experiments, be bold in the quest for solutions, but remain clear-eyed and honest with ourselves about what it's going to take to effect change. Doctor Who is asking us to embrace a more imaginative, fantastical worldview and to live bravely with each other's mad genius, to trust one another to do what's best. I see one trying to open our minds so our hearts can be guided with wisdom, the other trying to embolden our hearts, so when we find the wisdom, we're ready to pursue the path it shows us.

So the question is, does Doctor Who do the latter well? I take it as a premise that the ends are good, so the question is about the means. Do these sorts of fairy tale inspired stories, un-moored from science fiction and the usual rigors the genre entails, fit the aim of the story? And, if we say they do, are the elements of the story put together coherently, executed well enough to lead the viewer down the path the storyteller intends to take us?

Yes, I think stories like "Kill the Moon" and this one using storytelling techniques that suit the moral of the stories. It's in the execution that the stumbles occur. But, they're stumbles don't take us off the path. TV as a story-telling medium has been around long enough that we've gotten pretty good, as viewers, at identifying when constraints of format and budget have forced attempts at hand-waving keep the narrative on track, and under the 45 or so minutes allotted. That's not to excuse them, only to say certain flaws are understandable.

The haters are getting this one wrong though. They're missing the thematic forest for the problems with the trees. And, yes, there are problems with the trees. Conceded. The science of trees springing up to protect the world from a solar flare, then disappearing in puff of fireflies is, of course, no science at all. And if you're trying to put it in that box, then of course it's not going to fit. We don't criticize fantasy literature for using magic; criticizing DW for magicking up the science is misunderstanding what mode of storytelling it is using and applying the wrong standards to judging it. Or, they're getting it and dismissing the thematic elements as inadequate. But if you opine that this was the worst Doctor Who story since "Fear Her," without so much as mentioning Blake in the reasons for your assessment, then I'm afraid you haven't tried hard enough.

(Oh, and there's another reference that clicked on third watch which I haven't seen anyone else mention yet, but I think firmly cements this as a faerie story. Maebh Arden sounds like a name that means something, one chosen for a reason, but the pronunciation obscured what I now think was. Mercutio's speech in Romeo and Juliet: "O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you ..." Maebh is a variant of the Irish name Medb, which I've seen as possible source of Shakespeare's naming of his faerie Queen Mab, who has the power to craft dreams for sleeping humans. A forest popping up and covering the world, filled with wolves and tigers, and little girls in red jackets running from those wolves, who are in turn running from a tiger, feels very much like a sort of dream logic. Maebh is the key to this story, the one who delivers the message to humanity that the trees, of which she had first dreamt, must be preserved. Now, the last name I'm not able to place, but I hear Arden and think of the Ardennes, the site of WWI and II battles in the forests of Belgium where the British Empire sent tens of thousands of men to die.)

Having just finished reading Master & Commander, I've had at least some exposure to how Admiral Nelson fits in the British psyche. The statue that the forest tumbles, nearly crushing the Doctor and Clara, that's of Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar, for which the square is named. Wonder why the camera panned down to show the statues left arm broken off? Nelson lost an arm in a naval battle. It may not speak to the international audience quite so directly, but I expect this was picked up on by the British audience and resonated in a way it simply couldn't for us outside England.

Got to admit I thought it was an odd decision to let the camera drift down and linger on the statue's broken arm on first watch, it wasn't until I decided it must have been done for a reason that I went to check on why. But that's back to my point that I find so much of the lambasting this episode has taken frustrating, because so much of it is so glib. It's so obvious, the redditors moan, this is a terrible episode. But reasons either aren't offered, or when offered are often either wrong (the Doctor didn't "do nothing," as so many have complained -- now whether setting Maebh up to make the call to the whole world worked dramatically or not, that's fair to criticize, but I think we were supposed to imagine the planned defoliation campaign would have undercut the trees' ability to absorb the shock of the solar flare), or focused more on ticky-tack complaints that don't bear the weight of the condemnation. Child actors are what they are. Some are better than others. This lot are not the worst I've ever seen. Nor are they the best. Maebh's arm-waving while running looked, well, like a child actor told to wave her arms around while running, not like she was trying to brush away little faeries she didn't understand. But, I don't blame the young actress for that. A better to film that should have been found, perhaps by showing us her perspective and cutting it against what everyone else saw?

The harshest critics of "In the Forest of the Night," based on what I've seen (again, that's mostly on reddit or at gallifreybase) aren't demonstrating that they've tried to dig in to why the story has tried to weave Blake, faerie elements, and an apparent tearing down of the idols of Empire, into story based on dream logic. "There wasn't enough technobabble to make the trees scientifically plausible," strikes me as saying the same thing as, "We weren't spoon fed enough of the story that we could make any sense of it by simply recalling trivia from past episodes."

Not all the criticism can be easily dismissed, I don't mean to imply that, only that the hatred of this episode doesn't look like it tried very hard to find meaning in the symbols, or address the mode of story telling as appropriate or not for the moral.

One thing we all seem to agree on though ... how about that preview for next week?!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Douchebag The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For?

Douchebag: The White Racial Slur We’ve All Been Waiting For — Human Parts — Medium

Douching is not only an anti-feminist practice pushed by male corporations on women using shame and insecurity as a weapon, but it is almost certainly dangerous to a woman’s health. And therein we find the link between the medical appliance, the outdated practice of feminine hygiene, and the white men we recognize today as “douchebags.” They are both, it bears repeating, useless, sexist tools.
It's a well-argued case for using "douchebag" to mean the blinkered, entitled fool who mansplains that his white male privilege ring should be kissed in every circumstance, while denying the ring exists.

That said, I'm not entirely comfortable with the article ... though I guess it may be my "liberal guilt" insisting that the proper authority for what the proper designation of this specific sort of asshole is should not be a white male professor?

Meanwhile, in post-racial NC ...

Bias in the Box | VQR Online:


“We have this whole system that has been corrupted by decades of admitted inequality and unfairness when it comes to the management of cases involving African-American defendants,” says Bryan Stevenson, a New York University Law School professor and founder of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, who was one of several national figures who applauded the North Carolina reform. “A lot of the bias and discrimination that people perpetrate in these systems is the kind that we perpetrate because we’re not actually aware of what it means to be biased and discriminatory. It’s not overt. I’m not saying anybody hates African Americans. I’m not saying they want to see lynching. They have undeveloped understandings of the ways racial bias manifests itself and plays out in the system of justice. They’ve thought very little about it.”
They're encouraged to think very little about it. In fact, they're encouraged to be dismissive of the idea it's even possible. Ask Bill O'Reilly.

It's hard to have a productive discussion about a problem almost nobody wants to admit, or is even capable of admitting, is a problem in the first place. Harder still when the moneyed interests that do know there's a problem don't see it as a problem, but as the natural order of things.

Everybody recognizes the apoplectic face of white supremacist thinking when they see it. When it's upstanding citizens in suits and ties, educated professionals, and otherwise non-threatening, reasonable-looking folks lying to themselves first, and then to society at large, about their ideology ... it becomes invisible to the people who aren't direct victims of it. The devil doesn't exist, so it's no trick us being convinced he doesn't. But evil is real, and its greatest trick is hiding in plain sight, in the blind spots we all have -- the ones illusionists know how to exploit. No devils, but bad, bad men.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Flatline - "What are you a doctor of?" "Of lies."

Flatline (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #254) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Capaldi or else


Well, for those of us open to it, we (sort of) got our female Doctor tonight. Clara made an excellent Doctor; did goodness really have nothing to do with it? Is this more Moffat slight of hand? We were told we were getting a darker Doctor, but is it a darker Clara we're really seeing? At the end there, Missy seemed to be putting her stamp of approval on that idea.

It's saying something that the episode that had the stink of "Fear Her" (people trapped in drawings, the drab council estate setting) on it yields the following as my biggest complaint: Missy is monitoring Clara on an effing iPad?! That's the tech they're using in the Nethersphere, is it? Look, it's one thing for Clara to have an android phone, she's a contemporary human. Missy is a powerful enough entity to bring the dead back to life (apparently) and insert Clara into the Doctor's (apparently) while running a ... whatever a Nethersphere is. And the tech she uses is an iPad? That took me straight out of an episode I'd enjoyed tremendously to that point and made me think Apple greased the right palms to get that in there.

(I'm not even saying there's no place for product placement. A character drinking a Diet Coke, or taking a Tylenol for a headache doesn't have to be a distraction -- done right it's less of a distraction than some poorly designed fake brand-a-like, or the obvious attempt to hide a brand -- but having an iPad be part of some presumably futuristic, presumably alien villain's tech is pretty low.)

Apart from that, this one successfully shook off the taint of "Fear Her" by scrubbing itself through some "Web of Fear" tunnels and 2D to 3D conceptualization I'd probably be able to make a clever Flatland allusion to, if I were doing better on my reading -- it's on my kindle, I just haven't gotten round to it and with the latest Sandifer book out and already getting overdue notices for the copy of Master and Commander I've got out from the library it's still a few weeks off at least -- but instead have to make do with a reference to the aesthetic of A-Ha's "Take on Me" video.

So, this is the first Doctor Who set in Bristol and guess who's from Bristol: Banksy. I may be thick and have the cultural awareness of someone who comes up with an A-Ha video when they need cultural touchstone for discussing 2D creatures, but even I can spot when DW is celebrating a graffiti artist by putting a graffiti artist character with a similar name in a story set in that famous artist's home town and giving the character based on the artist a crucial part in saving the day. This is much more satisfying to watch then the sledgehammer Look At This Effing Genius And Give Him His Due approach that's been employed a bit too often by DW in the past. (Looking at you, "Vincent and the Doctor," for one ... )

Speaking of sledghammers, the Doctor passing Clara one from inside his tiny TARDIS inside her purse is one of my favorite comedic moments of the season so far.

This continues the streak of there not being a single episode yet this season that I didn't enjoy. There've been a few rough moments, sure, and I'm not putting this one up there with the all-time gems, but it's a solid entry with an intriguing monster and the Rigsy-as-Banksy tribute thing worked for me, so I'm still on the Series 8 Is Shaping Up To Be The Best Series Of Who Ever So Don't Tank It With A Shite Arc Resolution Moffat Train.

Speaking of trains, this new writer, who's penned the last two stories, should we suspect he's got a thing for trains?

Stray Observation:

Hmm. This may not be the first time Banksy has inspired Doctor Who?

Revenge of the Cybermen - "Who's the homicidal maniac?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Revenge of the Cybermen - Details

Season 12, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #79) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Mira-Sophia
Oft-maligned, not without cause, but an enjoyable watch nonetheless. Yes, we have to acknowledge this is not a well-thought story. Why the Vogans, knowing that gold is kryptonite to Cybermen, don't use the gold that is literally underfoot when it comes time to fight Cybermen instead of sticking with their useless firearms, which are only effective for killing one another, is beyond me. And, oh yeah, when you're being invaded by Cybermen, maybe you deal with them before getting back to shooting at one another? Priorities.

We also never really get the sense Vorus or Kellman were properly called out and held accountable for the murder of all those people on Nerva Beacon. Sure, they both end up dead, but Kellman gets a redemptive death saving Harry during the rockfall and Vorus is only shot when he tries to fire his rocket before the agreed upon time. Vorus, had he exercised a little patience, was still expected to be a political force in the upcoming Vogan elections, despite being a mass murderer.

Harry, I'm afraid, doesn't come across very well in this one either. His blundering nearly kills the Doctor a couple times over, and he's ditzy enough that he can't remember what the Cybermen are called?  No wonder Sarah is so impatient with him throughout. He's written out at the end of the next story, "Terror of the Zygons," so perhaps this was laying the groundwork for making sure he wouldn't be missed. It's a shame, Ian Marter had great screen presence and didn't need to be written out like a third wheel.

Anyways, with all plot holes and unsatisfying character arcs, there's ample reason to be down on this story, yet I'm not and I'm trying to give credible reasons why I still enjoy it, but it comes down to surface-level pleasures that ignore the problems. The Vogans are interesting looking and I actually like the fact that one of them has a cold for no plot-significant reason; the location filming in Wookey Hole gives this story great atmosphere (as well as some genuinely chilling -- Lis Sladen's near drowning -- and goofy anecdotes); and the Cybermen are back for the first time since "The Invasion" seven years earlier. They won't be seen again until "Earthshock" seven years later. (There's a Seven Year Cyber Itch joke in there somewhere ...) The Cybermen are a bit of a joke and the Doctor skewers them for it. I love that one of the series' iconic monsters are basically perennial losers and have to hear it when they come 'round making trouble. "You've no home planet, no influence, nothing. You're just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship," the Doctor tells the Cyber Leader. And he's right. And that's OK.

When the episodes are in tatters, at least the cliffhangers are well done. When they get those right, it erases some of the bad taste of the silly bits in between. Crucially, Tom Baker's in fine form with that infectious smile and plenty of opportunities to needle the baddies. Sometimes, even when things go wrong, you get lucky and it works out anyways. For instance, it's not meant to be funny, but the cyber neck massage the Doctor gets from that Cyber Leader when he returns to try to rescue Sara from the beacon is one of those moments you've got to rewind and watch again to revel in.

Following "Genesis of the Daleks," and sharing superficial similarities -- two opposing factions each trying to destroy the other from their fortified positions, one side having a bit of a civil war, the return of an iconic foe, a rushed attempt to get a giant rocket ready to solve things once and for all -- this one was bound to suffer by comparison. Not helping this story's reputation, I suspect, are some lingering hard feelings about it being the first to come out on VHS, so we all watched the shit out of it and really had to face up to it not being coherent while wishing a better a story had been chosen as the first home video release. If Tom Baker doesn't look like he's having fun, then this probably slips below the line and become unwatchable, even for me. And maybe that's all there is to it, I like this story because it's Tom Baker, my first Doctor, and he's on form so the failures can be largely glossed over.

Left overs:

What is it, anyways, with Cyberman stories and planets/asteroids drifting around the solar system?

That Vogan crest sure looks familiar ...

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Claws of Axos - "I suppose you can take the normal precautions against nuclear blast, like, er, sticky tape on the windows and that sort of thing."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Claws of Axos - Details

Season 8, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #57) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Greyhound One
The Axons are as shiny as Marc Bolan in concert. It may be dead of winter but Jo Grant looks like she's ready to be a dancer on Top of the Pops. The early 1970s are glam and Doctor Who is right there with it. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

As a rule, that's probably for the best. However, when "Into the Dalek" got trippy as the fantastic voyagers entered the Dalek's eye stalk, I realized how much I missed these blasts of weird. If the Axons are just guys from a regular spaceship, with nothing more than generic space alien suits and wigs, this story would be OK, but it wouldn't be very memorable. It wouldn't have been terrible, about the same as any other story where the Master's in league with some alien menace out to suck the Earth dry. By going full glam though, this one becomes a spectacle on par with "The Web Planet." That's not a bad thing once and again. All trippy or glam week in and week out, then the spectacle becomes tedious.

Dr. Sandifer takes some heat for his criticism of the Letts era; but, even if you love this era, as I do, he'd be required reading in the syllabus I'd make for Doctor Who Studies 301. His analysis of Pertwee's portrayal of the Doctor in the context of his era's action hero / glam spectacle dichotomy is just one the many lenses he brings to bear that help his readers see Who with new perspective.

But enough about that, I'm setting my sights a little lower and merely want to address whether this holds up and is worth re-watching, or watching the first time if you're exploring the classic series. Had it not got all glammed up, I'd probably recommend making it a lower priority, but I give it the edge over "The Daemons" & "Colony in Space" for entertainment value among its Season 8 peers. I'm having trouble getting hold of a copy of "The Mind of Evil" to watch, so can't position it relative to that story, yet, but I think this one and "Terror of the Autons" are the S8 stories I'd spotlight.

Ratings aren't something I normally pay much attention to, unless they should ever take a nosedive in a way that fuels speculation the series might be on the verge of cancellation or hiatus but every so often they catch one's eye and the timing of my re-watch of this story right after watching "The Hungry Earth" is such an instance. "Axos" peaked with 8 million viewers when it aired it's second episode in March, 1971. The Eleventh Doctor's take on a Pertwee-era story took down about 6 million viewers (but 4.5M in the overnights) in May, 2010. Now, granted, those are BBC1-only numbers ... still, it speaks to how much things have changed. If Doctor Who is an event now, and I reckon it's safe to say it's one of the most recognized TV shows in world, how crazy is it that the 8M of roughly 56M population were watching the Master and the Axons try to suck the life out of the Earth, but as few as 4.5M of 63M were watching when Silurians made their re-appearance? As big as Who is now, imagine if it had the same place in the culture it had back in the day!  Of course, there was a lot less competition for the national (televisual) attention, but is it any wonder the show's cult took such firm root?

(Watching the extras on "The Revenge of the Cybermen" DVD, I'm reminded how difficult it was back when I first becoming a fan to see Who at all -- although for a while there it was possible to watch six out of the seven days of the week between CT and MA Public TV airings of Pertwee and Tom Baker era stories. Still, no Hartnell or Troughton to be had even when VCRs did finally start making their way into our homes. What was on was it. Miss it and you had to wait for them to cycle through all the extant episodes and start again. Kids today don't know how easy they have it. Sigh. So it appears I'm now one of those old fellers shaking his head at the coddled youth. Straight talk: I *feel* as much a fan -- that same anticipation for new, unseen story -- as I did when my favorite xmas present was the Tom Baker scarf my ol' granny knitted for me around the time the first Peter Davison episodes debuted here in the U.S.! Tempus fugit.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood - "Do you have to call them vermin? They're actually very nice!"

The Hungry Earth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 5, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #213a) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via rebloggy
My re-watch of this story took place on a kindle tablet while I flying back home from vacation more than a week ago, as I write this. Exhausted, uncomfortable, and wishing for a little more time away, these were less than ideal conditions under which to revisit a less than favorite story. Not that there aren't parts of it I enjoyed, and I think make it worth watching and talking about, but Mr. Graham, among others, has correctly assigned this story to the category of neo-liberal apologies/excuses for exploitation and oppression and it's awful hard to separate the misguided worldview Doctor Who trades in here with its better nature. He writes:
The funny thing is that, wheras the intentional Palestine allegory worked up in these episodes doesn't fit the real facts, patronises the oppressed, excuses the oppressors, etc, the accidental allegory works.  Indeed, it chimes surprisingly well witth the Silurians generally.  Every time the Silurians come back they are still squeezed out, displaced, outnumbered... and every time they are condemned when they dare to get angry about it, and exhorted by the liberal hero to stay indefinitely patient, warned that if they don't then they'll have lost the moral high ground, effectively informed that its up to them to be forebearing to the people who've stolen their world. And they never get anywhere near getting redress or restitution.
On top of the hash of a political allegory, this is one where an overprotective mother causes all sorts of trouble for her family, and the world, despite the best efforts of her partner, the Moffat-y father -- not hard to imagine a less timey-wimey Rory becoming this sort of dad in alternate future. Oh well, at least there's a C.S. Lewis-y x-mas story ahead which will apologize to motherhood for this slight ...

For all that, this is still the new series telling a Pertwee-era story with all the trappings (a drilling operation staffed with scientists and engineers, in the Welsh countryside, with Silurians, no less) in a way that gives the sun-drenched, sore-footed fan crammed into a Southwest Airlines seat at the back of the plane (where a Diet Coke and pittance of peanuts are a long ways off) something to bounce off the fond recollections of those earlier iterations of the Silurians. And, Three's attempt to broker a peace between the would-be co-habitants at the top of Earth's hierarchy.

Rory mistaken for a police detective, hustled off to investigate a corpse missing from an undisturbed grave, shrugging, and going along with it is so Rory it makes his cruel end (another end, another end to be undone) all the more cruel. He's doesn't get a heck of a lot else to do between dropping off Amy's engagement ring and getting erased by the crack in spacetime at the end of part two, but he's there being Rory, even if most backgrounded in a way that's sort of comforting.

If a trifle slow, the two part structure at work, the cliffhanger, with Amy about to be vivisected is solid enough ...

Cold Blood (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 5, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #213b) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via what culture
Amy (and Mo, though after he's had his turn) escapes the Mengelian scalpel and we're off on a suspenseless ride to find out how the Silurians are going to get screwed out of their fair share of the planet ... again, without anyone feeling too bad about the whole thing. Really, although we get to find out more about Silurian politics, see some negotiations get started -- and I do rather like that Moffat seems to be a fan of negotiated settlements, and the process of ironing out differences through conversation, think the glee of the Doctors in "The Day of the Doctor" when the Zygons and humans enter into negotiations -- all the fireworks are at the end and belong to the Series 5 arc, not to this story, as such.

Rory's erasure by the crack, and the moment in which Amy forgets him, is well-staged. As the Doctor holds Rory in Amy's mind, Rory's face dissolves into focus on his half of the screen, only to disappear in a blink when an explosion rattles the TARDIS and Amy's concentration is broken. Just like that, he's gone like he was never there. So, yeah, even though we just watched Rory die in "Amy's Choice," his death here more poignant than you might expect.

The bigger reveal is what the Doctor fished out of the crack. He unwraps a charred fragment of the TARDIS door, matches it to its current-day pristine state and we've got our first intimation of how big "The Big Bang" to come is going to be.

Connect-the-dots UNIT-era tribute, the chance to see pre-Madam Vastra Neve McIntosh in Silurian costuming, some big happenings to lead up to the Series 5 finale event (sigh), that's what we've got to hang our hats on here.

That its fatally undercut by neo-liberal assumptions about world order drags down what we might otherwise have called an solid outing. One that cleverly borrowed from the Classic Series structure and mythology in a way that could've both performed fan service, and caught up a Nu Series-only watcher to the gist of the Pertwee era without erasing the same from the headspace of the Classic Series watcher. Although, I guess it's a fair cop that squeezing out the Silurians wasn't a Nu Series invention, but actually a toned-down version of how UNIT solved the Silurian problem in their time. Forty years of perspective should have resulted in DW making better progress than this. Only what felt like a tacked-on voice over from the future did anything to address that. Too little.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express - "People with guns to their heads cannot mourn."

Mummy on the Orient Express - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #253) | Previous - Next | Index

Mummy via Hartburn
A few too many elisions for my taste -- something "The Caretaker"'s opening montage handled better -- but apart from that, this story accomplished what it needed to: it effectively wove more detail into the soldier/officer thematic arc (I say "effectively" not knowing how it's all going to play out in the end, but in terms of this story standing on its own while fitting into what we've seen of Series 8 so far, it works); it gave Capaldi and Coleman moments to shine, together and apart, likewise their characters; the mystery was intriguing and did the thing you knew it had to do -- when we hear "... on the Orient Express," we know somehow every passenger is involved, but it can't be that they all did it (unless we're persuaded they weren't in collusion first); the aesthetic supported the story, and was well-executed -- this milieu is something we expect done well, a go-to era to recreate that's in the BBC's wheelhouse; and it delivered on it's Hammer-level horror aspirations.

The first review I read of this story called it the first dud of the season, I'm not finding that review again now so I can't pick at its reasons, but that's an assessment I find unconvincing. (I loved "Kill the Moon," but I can at least understand the cases people have made it against it. They didn't tank the story for me, but for someone more science-minded, it's transgressions against everything we know about how physics explains how things work are understandably more off-putting.)

The elisions that felt like cheats were: first, Clara popping out of the TARDIS in flapper garb without so much as a flashback to the moment the Doctor came back and she decided to step into the TARDIS again was too important not to see, or at least see how the two felt about that moment. Yes, there's a distance there now -- and we'll come back to what Clara's telling herself, the Doctor, and Danny to keep seeing wonders -- so we are seeing some of the emotional fallout, but curiosity about the how of them making up enough to travel together again feels like a loose thread; and second, the how of how they got off the train before it blew up. For the latter, I suspect that was for the dramatic purpose of putting weight on the Doctor's flip remark that he may have just lied to Clara about saving everyone, to make us wonder if really he didn't, but again that felt to me like a dramatic cheat. As a viewer, knowing whether he did or didn't already and then watching him test Clara's reaction by implying he may not have would have been just as a satisfying and a less gimmicky bit of storytelling.

Clara's "addiction" to travelling. I'm not sure I'm going to like how this plays out, bad decision-making and lying yourself and others to cover for addiction sure looks like the seed of her eventual doom. Or, her recovery with Danny down the line being her character's 'out' from travelling both feel like unnecessary and ill-advised forays into a theme of addiction. Hope to be proved wrong here. The one thing that gives me hope at this point that we're not going to descend into after-school special addiction is bad moralizing is that Clara didn't register as having a mental impairment that the mummy would sense as a weakness. Of course, that could be because she didn't succumb until after getting off the phone with Danny ... ?

For Classic and Nu Series fans, the Easter Eggs here were numerous (more than I list here)  and, I thought, just the right touch of fan service without killing the momentum. Jelly Babies in his cigarette case made me smile. Wearing One's outfit. The high tech sarcophagus and the mummy teased the possibility of the mummy being the ravaged, shambling remnant of Sutekh from "Pyramids of Mars". The call back to the phone call at the end of the "The Big Bang" on the other hand not only went straight over my head. When I read reactions from folks who picked up on Eleven talking to Gus there by the reference to an ancient Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express, in space," I just rolled my eyes. Happy to admit that may be more a problem with me than with the whole resolution of that arc, I just had no patience for it and find it frustratingly incoherent, if lovingly constructed. Why would Gus being talking about a goddess when that clearly wasn't the case? Lying to make the Doctor more interested? Fine, but we shouldn't have to patch over the inconsistencies to forgive too-clever-by-half allusions.

I don't grok the complaints we read about the Doctor being too cold, too alien, too pragmatic, too much of an asshole. In every instance of his being cold in the face of death, I believed he felt it, but was doing what he saw as his duty of care in the moment. People with guns to their hands can't mourn, after all. We know the Doctor doesn't see humans as puny and insignificant, that he values life and is trying to save the lives of everyone he can, but it pains him that he can't save them all. He's not just blustering or posturing when he says he wants to step in and see the mummy so he can take it on, he means it, and when he's ready, he does it, putting his own life on the line for the passengers.

What I'm not sure how to read is his lessening aversion to contact. In the first half the season, every touch seemed to pain him, now he's shaking hands, linking arms, etc. with folks left and right. I was never sure if the aversion to touch was post-regeneration driven, or meant to signify a process of withdrawing into himself. Now that it's stopped I think either reading is possible and suggests he's fully over the regeneration pangs now, or that he's stopped (or completed) withdrawing, and is fully comfortable in his own skin again.

Stray Thoughts:

When I watch Disney shows with my kids, I often find myself distracted by how many folks are standing around in scenes as window-dressing, never uttering a line even when one of the leads interacts with them. (Watch an episode of Mighty Med, if you can stomach it, and count how many people say nothing even when engaging with one of the leads. Once you start it becomes utterly distracting.) I've concluded that's Disney cost-cutting, not having to pay extras as actors by ensuring they don't do any line reading.  This episode made we wonder if the CGI train and city at the end made it necessary to cut costs by having a bunch of scientists stand around and contribute nothing to the investigation.

There's an interesting observation in the AV Club review of this story that rang true for me but hadn't bubbled up from my subconscious yet: " ... this season in general and this episode in particular feel like what the 80s production team were trying to pull off with Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor but did not have the skill or the vision to pull off". I don't go on and on every week about how brilliantly I think Capaldi is playing the Doctor, how he's weaving elements of past incarnations into his own, in part because I think it goes without saying, and partly because I'm conscious of the fact that if I say "OMG you guys Capaldi is fantastic in this one" every week, it loses its punch. The deviousness of Seven, the aristocratic arrogance of One, the monologuing and absurdist humor of Four, are all there, but as part of a coherent whole, a whole new Doctor we are still getting to know. To the extent he's Six though wasn't apparent to me, but puts his performance in the context of a production team doing what might have seemed both inadvisable and impossible, executing on the vision of an tremendously intelligent, brash Doctor that can rub viewers the wrong way yet still be recognized as a good man.

Frank Skinner & Foxes. I see myself as a litmus test here of whether these are stunt-casting distractions or instances of celebrity being successfully integrated into the Doctor Who story in which they're playing a role. I've heard of Foxes, but (I'm old) couldn't pick her out of a crowd before this episode. If I'd heard of Skinner, I've forgotten about it and where I may have seen him before. The singer in the train fit the atmosphere and I was impressed with how she sounded, not knowing she was celeb cameo, so if it bothered you, I take that to mean you couldn't shut off your "Look, it's Foxes, that's distracting!" knee-jerk reaction. (Is that rude of me to say? I'm prepared to accept criticism of my responses and reactions, I think the rest of you should be as well.) Ditto with Skinner, his Chief Engineer stood out from the rest of the cast, but if any failing there, it's that there were too many non-speaking characters churning through the scenes, and only Maisie and the Captain apart from Skinner's Perkins even got a chance to approach three-dimensionality.

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