Sunday, March 23, 2014

Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks - "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and maybe the odd pig slave Dalek mutant hybrid, too."

Daleks in Manhattan (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #186a)

via songfortenreprise
More a 'period piece' than a 'historical' this feels like it should be in the BBC's wheelhouse ... except it's set in Manhattan so we get the likes of Tallulah who, from the get-go, we suspect is a British actress playing the film and TV version of what we expect the early 1930s showgirl to look and sound like. There's some context in which that could work, but "Daleks in Manhattan" isn't it -- a Depression-era version of Muppets Take Manhattan might have been where that character works in the 2000s. Off on a tangent, thinking about Doctor Who doing a 1930s period comedy set in Manhattan, I can't help remember another of my favorite series that visited this milieu when Jeeves and Wooster and came to 1930s Manhattan in Fry and Laurie's adaptation of the classic Wodehouse stories. The crossover potential for Doctor Who / Jeeves and Wooster strikes me as a missed opportunity here.

As a progressive who thinks FDR, warts and all, is our greatest President since Lincoln, I find myself again in the position of wanting to like the message of the story more than I actually did. The Central Park Hooverville was a real place and the handling of themes of inequality is something I'm always going to be watching for in any TV show. (Yes, even in Jeeves and Wooster.) The Doctor is clearly on the side of the workers against the Diagorases of the world, yet inequality isn't the enemy here. The Daleks are and they're not stand-ins for capitalism. The Daleks are more about racial purity, xenophobia, and fascism, all things that a 1930s period piece could leverage thematically, but they aren't used in those contexts here, at least not in a dramatically satisfying way. Where the tone goes wrong for me is in the depiction of Hooverville as a rough-and-tumble community held together by the wisdom of Solomon ... in that the leader of the community is named Solomon and he splits a loaf of bread to settle a conflict between hungry residents. Race, one of our most crippling social constructs, is depicted as a non-factor in this story. Solomon is a black man who is loved and respected by the mixed ethnicity community he is leads which is great and a positive message about diversity and unity in the face of injustice but is also a glib dismissal of how successfully capital has used cultural fears and prejudice to divide labor -- and continues to do so to this day.

There's never only one way to tell a story, but the elements of this one look like a better foundation for a different kind of story than the one we got about the Cult of Skaro, divided against itself, trying to reconcile it's ideals of racial purity with the necessity of adapting to survive.

The location filming makes this one look pretty good although Manhattan feels a bit empty beyond the characters in this story. We never feel like we're part of a densely populated city. Part of that is Hooverville being in a park, so there's a distance around the encampment that prevents us seeing the city streets, and much of the action taking place in sewers, Diagoras's offices, the Daleks' lab, and backstage at the theater. We see the city from up high, but don't get much interaction with it at street level.

When Eleven comes back with Amy and Rory, we have some of the same disconnects, spending time in Central Park, in locations without crowds and in eerie locations like the Winter Quay hotel. One of the things about Manhattan when you visit is how you are almost always in a crowd, the feeling of being present in sea of humanity is so much a part of the city that these stories where the characters all pretty much deal only with each other feel surreal. At least in this one the Statue of Liberty stays still instead of lumbering about the city menacing rooftops.

Evolution of the Daleks (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 3, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #186b)

Dalek Sec brought low.
Via Doctor Who Gifs
I spent most of the first half of this post talking about how the tone and themes of the story weren't quite working for me, despite having some appeal to my personal politics and interest in both the location and historical period; so, we didn't talk about Pig Slaves, Dalek Sec's hybridization, the Cult of Skaro's plans for humanity, or how the Doctor and Martha interact with the other characters. Let's just talk about this one as a straight-up Doctor v. Daleks story for a bit and see how it works on that level.

The Cult of Skaro are intriguing and, if the series is going to personalize Daleks at all -- perhaps not a valid path for the Daleks as a species -- this was probably as good a way as any to do it. Caan and the others turning against Sec is about the only thing that works in this story. But, by the end, Sec is dead and Caan alone has escaped, so whatever this story accomplished on that front is disposed of and all we're left with pretty much what we started with: the Cult of Skaro on the loose and the door left open for more Dalekmania down the line.

The tiresome dynamic of Martha pining for the Doctor is trotted out again. I've complained about this before and will simply remark again that deliberately sabotaging the Martha character in this way never worked for me.

Once Hooverville is destroyed and Solomon and Sec exterminated, all that's left to do is thwart the Daleks' plans to use gamma radiation to fuse Dalek DNA into their B-movie plot that we know will fail and are just watching to see how the heroes save the day. As an example of Doctor Who crashes into the genre of its choice, the comic book inspired B-movie turns out to be one that just doesn't come together in a satisfying way. In that sort of mash-up, the Doctor's best fit is in the mad scientist role, where he can be brilliant and eccentric and dangerous, but invert the trope by being the hero. What this story does instead is put him in the spot normally occupied by the straightforward hero and twist that by showing he can have compassion for even the Daleks, by offering Dalek Caan an out, even after all that has happened, if only Caan would take him up on it instead of Emergency Temporal Shifting out.

I re-watched this story a couple weeks ago and have been dawdling about writing about it, but found that even though "The Space Museum," which I finished this morning, is less accomplished TV, it's uneven because it can't live up to its ideals, where this story is just muddled through and through with no "high concept" for it to shoot for. The dippy 60s one was far easier to write about and, while no means a classic and from an era when the Doctor is a very different sort of character than he is nowadays, felt more worth watching to understand the series as a whole than this two-part Dalek spectacle.

The Space Museum - COMPUTER: "For what purpose are the arms needed?" VICKI: "Revolution."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Space Museum - Details

Season 2, Story 7 (Overall Series Story # 15) | Previous - Next | Index

Can the future be changed? The Doctor told us in "The Aztecs" that history couldn't. Not one line. But for a time traveler, what is history and what is the future? Is it history once you've seen it? If nothing can be changed, what's the point of doing anything? And just like that "The Space Museum," has us engaged in questions of free will and determinism (philosophy's most enduring false dichotomy?) and whether there's anything anybody can do to make society better. Can the TARDIS crew change the future they've been shown, where they're embalmed and on display in a podunk space museum nobody visits? Can the Xerons (defeatist sulkers) overthrow the Moroks (the Empire of Morons) and make some sort of social progress?

The importance of the questions is obscured by what losers the Moroks are, and how the Xerons are even bigger losers, not to mention how klunky this story is across about three quarters of its run time, but the questions are raised and, for at least one episode and tiny bits of the others, are intriguingly presented. Of course, this being early Doctor Who, it's distractingly cheap looking -- is that painted backdrop of mountains in the distance supposed to be convincing? did the actors have to stand so close to it so their shadows draw attention to how unrealistic it looks on screen? -- and features knock-the-wind-out-of-you-awful expository dialogue delivered by guys in ludicrous wigs among its multiple failures. (Dig the Converse sneakers on the Xeron revolutionaries.)

If all this story did, if all Doctor Who ever did, was raise interesting questions and then trip all over itself trying to shoehorn them into produced-on-a-couple-of-quid-stories where the characters are captured, escape, are re-captured, then get lucky and stumble off to their next adventure, then we wouldn't be watching it today. For all "The Space Museum" gets wrong, it gets just enough right to keep us watching and to justify the show's existence for another week. The first episode is the highlight, and you could be forgive for wanting to fast forward to the last few minutes of the fourth episode to see how it turns out, but then you'd miss Vicki spurring the hapless Xerons on to revolution and outwitting the Moroks rubbish security computer at the armory. You'd miss the Doctor having a bit of fun with the Governor by showing the him mental image of himself in Victorian-era men's one-piece bathing suit. (Think Newman in that Seinfeld episode where Jerry runs afoul of the pool cleaner at his gym.) "The Space Museum" has a twinkle in its eye that no amount of flimsy sets dubiously acted aliens with dodgy eyebrows can suppress.

Better still, beyond sneaky charm, it's got the right answer to the question of whether the future can be changed. Are the Xerons doomed to subjugation under the heel of the hapless Moroks? No. Is progress possible if the disaffected youth can ever bring themselves to do more than get together in coffeehouses and whinge about what a hash of things the current leadership is making? Yes. And it's not a powerful alien wizard with a magic box that makes it possible (which doesn't say much for the Doctor), it's a plucky young girl with her head together and the desire to change things that makes it possible. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I like that Vicki.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The God Complex - "I was blogging. Next thing, this."

The God Complex (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki

Series 6, Story 11 (Overall Series Story #226)

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Minotaur who..oo..oooaaahhh?!
I made this part of a double feature with its classic series forebear, "The Horns of Nimon," and found each one enhanced my appreciation of the other. Where the classic series showed us a society victimized by its greed and gullibility (expressed as religiosity), the new series does something rather more personal as it looks at the faith of individuals. "The God Complex" is, as I mentioned in my review of "Nimon" is better television. "Complex" is more successful in creating an atmosphere, executing on its premise, and crafting characters with some depth beyond bearing placards declaring I'm-the-brutal-compulsive-liar, I'm-the-opportunist-megalomaniac, etc. Matt Smith is no Tom Baker, and Karen Gillan is no Lalla Ward, but they're no slouches either -- though Gillan has less to do as Amy Pond/Williams (for an intriguing discussion about the use of names in this episode in particular, and the Moffat era as a whole, check the comments on Sandifer's post about Moffat-era feminism) even though her loss of faith in the Doctor is the crux of this story.

Where the classic series sets up individuals as broad caricatures to make what you might call a political point, the new series eschews the broader societal view to take a closer look at the personal faith of more fully realized characters. The gambler believes in luck, the Muslim has a more traditional religious faith, Amy believes in the Doctor (the fairy tale Raggedy Man of her youth) ... only Rory, it seems, doesn't have a personal superstition and can't be food for the Minotaur. Even the Doctor has a door, Room 11, of course, with someone or something in it. (He says "Who else could it be?" when he opens the door, but we learned in "The Time of the Doctor" that he saw the crack in time, so maybe he was referring to the Time Lords.) So, it would seem the Doctor has some kind of faith but, based on his response to Amy's question about Time Lords pray to and his earlier skirting of the issue in "The Satan Pit," he may not quite know himself what it is.

Since you're reading this on a blog, it probably shouldn't surprise you that I bristled a bit at one of the 'deeper characterizations' here being of a young man with a stammer who was a conspiratorialist blogger and whose greatest fear was of girls. No stereotyping there, eh? Oh well, at least Rory is tacitly acknowledged to be most self-actualized person in the story, so the show's consistent presentation of Rory as the best man in the TARDIS is, at least in part, an endorsement of a superstition-free mindset.

The aesthetic of this story owes more than a little to Kubrick's The Shining, but it's no mere rip-off. Scenes like the one where the Doctor first tries to talk to the Minotaur,where mirrors and water are used to disorient and obscure, work quite well. On the other hand, "that brutal gorilla" we see in Lucy's room I trust was clearly a man in a cheap gorilla suit for a reason; if it was supposed to evoke a more realistic gorillla (not sure how Lucy's book depicted that gorilla, and therefore what shape her fear should take), then it was a terrible failure -- as bad as any dodgy bit of "Nimon".

This was the first good-bye we said to Amy and Rory, knowing full well it wasn't really good-bye, but the way things turned out in Series 7, I almost wish this was their last episode ...

Wired for cognitive dissonance, we're all a mess.

On Hypocrisy | Harper's Magazine

Tartuffe, the hypocrite.
Via Wikipedia

Here’s the good news from Kurzban, if you can call it that: we’re all hypocrites. We’re hard-wired for it, in much the same way we’re hard-wired for self-deception and other forms of cognitive dissonance. In his straightforward and elegant book, Kurzban explains how contemporary neuroscience regards the structure, psychology, and evolutionary benefits of hypocrisy. Briefly, the self, as Nietzsche once helpfully described it, is a kind of oligarchy wherein different sets of beliefs can be entertained (and even committed to, cherished, defended) depending on the needs of the self in different situations. A brutal tyrant can still be a loving father, because those roles require different and incompatible belief sets.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Horns of Nimon - "K9, sometimes I think I'm wasted just rushing around the universe saving planets from destruction. With a talent like mine, I might have been a great slow bowler."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Horns of Nimon - Details

Season 17, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #108) | Previous - Next | Index

The Nimon (via Doctor Who on tumblr)
This is an unjustly maligned story. It's not one of the greats; but; it is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. I rather enjoyed it.

It helps if you're inclined to like the old series Doctor Who style of dealing with skeptical themes, where the the consequences of being greedy, power-hungry, and deliberately credulous with regard to the intentions of those who are superficially aligned with you (but have something you want and only ask for some small tribute in return) play out at a societal, as opposed to a personal, level. That mode of storytelling usually features a high priest of sorts who has monopolized access to the creature with greater technology and is using his positional authority to sell a bill of goods to those under him in the social order. The high priest is out to amass power and has fooled himself into thinking he's got the edge on the god figure who wields the powers he wants by dint of his own deviousness, but has failed to account for how devious his god is in turn.

The Nimon are species of space-faring parasites who send one of their own ahead to act as a power broker deity on some planet to get a foothold on it so they can transport there en masse once they've exhausted the resources on the planet they last successfully duped into serving them. It's a clever idea and effectively skewers the mindset of those who can be conned into serving their interests making use of religiosity of their fellow citizens.

The issue with using the planetary level is, on Doctor Who's budget, you end up with a ham in robes making bombastic speeches to a group of old blokes playing the political leaders of the planet who, in this case, appear to be a bunch of extras rounded up off the streets with the promise of a hot meal, scrubbed up, put in ridiculous costumes, then instructed to repeat the last word of every sentence shouted at them with their fists in the air. Some good chuckles to be had watching the individuals in those scenes who seem to be looking around distractedly until they realize it's their turn to repeat some gibberish alien name, then go back to looking like they're not exactly sure where they are or if they're really going to get a bowl of soup for this.

Lalla Ward as Romana is wonderful here, showing again that they could've spun her off into her own show basically doing what the Doctor does, and Tom Baker is his usual charismatic self. Sure the production values let the show down a bit, the CSO curtain effect everybody passes through to get into the Nimons' labyrinth is a mess, and the view from space that is supposed to remind the Doctor of a printed circuit board looks nothing like a printed circuit board, so it's confusing if we're supposed to think that's the complex or if the maze bit is underground out of sight? We expect this sort of thing though and don't let it detract too much from experience. (Having that other guy voice K9 instead of John Leeson was, for me, more of a distraction.) The actor who plays Soldeed, the high priest figure of this story, may have taken the been a little over the top, but the Nimon are at least interesting looking. It helps here to imagine the gaps in the costume are meant to suggest that the top bit may be a clever helmet they are wearing that hints at their true appearance by it's size and shape, but is concealing something even more frightful underneath.

The new series puts a slow bowler's spin on this story and gives us a Minotaur (a cousin species of the Nimons, we are told) who also oversees a complex where the corridors can be manipulated and folks are brought in to be fed upon. In the new series it's handled at a much more personal level and the role of religiosity is narrowed down to a question of personal faith, depoliticizing the story and making it less of a polemic. "The Horns of Nimon" and "The God Complex" are great examples of how the show has changed from Classic series to New, while retaining its core essence. The new series is better television: it looks better, sounds better, has better dialogue and characterization, and is all around more on par with the quality of other television being produced in its era, but the roots of what the new show is, and why it bothers connecting the Minotaur of the modern era to the Nimon of the classic, are on display.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Case For Columbo

The Case For Columbo

 Columbo via the toast

And do not allow yourself to believe for even one second that there are not deeply classist, capitalist reasons Sherlock abounds in this day and age of ours, while Columbo does not. Sherlock is more often than not nowadays played as relatively young and good-looking, self-aggrandizing and mercurial and aristocratic, a troubled genius too good for the idiotic plebes that surround him; Columbo is blue-collar and humble. Real Marxists love Columbo.
The issue I have with the post linked and quoted here is with regard to what it has to say about Doctor Who.
The answer, of course, is to turn Columbo into America’s Doctor Who (but, you know, good): reboot it every five to ten years with an entirely new detective, a bit more gently grizzled than the detective who came before, but always with the same trench coat and glass eye.
Despite our deep disagreement about Doctor Who, I otherwise endorse the opinions expressed.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

For #VeronicaMarsMovie, I will learn how to use VOD through my cable company ...

Movie review: Veronica Mars returns to dark, witty life

veronica mars
The plot brings back most of the characters, while also reviving the show's class warfare theme (which feels even more timely now than it did in the mid-'00s), but the film doesn't just feel like a double-length episode of the series. The scope feels bigger, the look is richer, and the focus on who Veronica is and why she's so good at this job goes much deeper than the show usually did.
If it only felt like a double-length episode, I'd be OK with that -- since I plan to watch it at home on TV anyways. But, Sepinwall is one of the better critics out there, so his enthusiasm for this deeper, richer film experience is encouraging.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Rescue - "And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it. Apart from all that, well you’ll be amongst friends. Hmm?"

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

Season 2, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #11) | Previous - Next | Index

Susan left at the end of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," and her absence is keenly felt here, at least by the Doctor. He naps through their landing on planet Dido, mistakenly calls for Susan to open the doors, then decides after a quick look outside that he'll go back to finish his nap while Ian and Barbara explore. This odd behavior prompts Ian, in rare moment of callousness, to tell Barbara he suspects that the Doctor might be going soft-headed -- doing so with a rather ungallant pantomime of a person suffering from dementia. The crew of the TARDIS seems out of sorts and are going to have to get it together if they're going to save Vicki ...

Somewhat surprisingly for an otherwise slight two-parter this story pulled in high viewership, higher than the Dalek epic it followed, and highest (according to the DVD extra feature "Mounting The Rescue") until the Tom Baker years. Ratings aren't something I'm normally interested in, but in this case it caught me off-guard and leads me to think this must have been an event in terms of the show's run, an event in the sense that people wanted to see how the show would handle the replacement of a regular even more than how the Daleks' invasion of our planet would be thwarted. It speaks, I suspect, to the show's place in the culture where change to the cast is bigger news than anything about the stories as they play out on screen. The Daleks may be the monster that made the show a hit, and captured the public imagination, but the ratings for this one suggest they were never bigger than the show itself. We're well used to changes of companions and Doctors by now, but it's worth remembering this was the first major change to the show's cast and that it worked so well showed that the series had legs. With the benefit of hindsight, we don't have to worry that the first regeneration and second regeneration didn't draw as many viewers, so maybe it suggests that once significant change was weathered, even the change from one Doctor to another wouldn't be so disruptive that it would draw eyes looking to see a train wreck.

Certainly the transparent mystery wasn't the pull here nor the Koquillion outfit Bennett wears, although it's a fine bit of design it's got nothing on the Daleks. (What does?) That this is a tightly-paced story may helped keep viewers from drifting away, and it certainly helps the present-day viewer sitting down to watch the DVD in one shot. None of the 'get captured, escape, get captured again, escape again ...' run around here. If Ian weren't a bit unlikable and Barbara a little too quick-on-the-trigger when she encounters Vicki's pet, I'd say this would be an ideal episode to introduce someone new to the Hartnell era to -- after "An Unearthly Child" but before asking them to sit through a seven-parter like "The Daleks".

One last thing to note about "The Rescue," it's another story where the Doctor is lucky to survive. Bennett has the better of him after being unmasked and looks like he's going to get it away it until it's suddenly revealed that a few of planet's natives survived the genocidal bombing Bennett perpetrated to conceal his earlier murder of one his crewmates. Those two Didoans show up just in time to save the Doctor from being throttled to death (or, regeneration) and deal with Bennett themselves. The Doctor did at least figure out on his own that Bennett was Koquillion, so he wasn't mentally incompetent (as Ian might have feared) before he was physically overpowered.

This story's brevity is a strength, Maureen O'Brien's Vicki is a strong addition to the crew, and we're set up well for future ... unfortunately the momentum this one could have delivered was sapped a bit by the odd follow-up, this story's production-mate, "The Romans".

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