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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Kill the Moon - "No, that was me allowing you to make a choice about your own future. That was me respecting you."

Kill the Moon - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #252) | Previous - Next | Index

Actually, Courtney, if you could keep it up ... 
Last time out, I wondered if a white cop rousting a couple black kids had the same vibe overseas as it did here in Home of the Brave. This time, I didn't have to look very far to see if folks here in the Land of the Free, and abroad, were going to see this through the lens of the debate over a women's right to make her own choices with regard to reproduction. If we're going to try to fit this story into a position in the debate over reproductive freedom and autonomy of body, then the Doctor clearing off and leaving the choice whether to nuke the moon egg to the ladies reads like an endorsement of the pro-choice position. However, the Doctor clearly sees one choice as wrong and the other as right, so when Clara aborts the detonation, his (and the show's) position could be read as approving of the (so-called) pro-life position. I'm just not convinced either of these readings is at the heart of what this story is about.

Not to say it's not an interesting discussion, nor that it wasn't necessarily what the writer (first timer Peter Harness) may have meant for people to be reading into his script. The more compelling line of inquiry here, to me at least, is the one that looks at what's become of NASA and our space program, and questions whether we haven't stifled our spirit of exploration.

The other way I've seen this story bagged is for how it makes a hash out of its science. I've dinged stories for getting science wrong plenty before, so I've got some explaining to do about how I'm not overly concerned about the preposterous premise of the moon being an egg, nor of it being replaced by another moon egg, tribble-style. (An egg bigger, apparently, than the creature that laid it.) We've got to go to pretty fantastical lengths to get around how this story runs roughshod over conservation of mass and the biology of unicellular organisms. But, I read an article not long before "Kill the Moon" aired about how the melting of the polar ice cap is affecting the Earth's gravitational field, so even though the depiction of gravity on the moon going from Earth-normal to less than actual moon-normal because a space dragon shifted its position is in no way realistic, it at least feels like crazy leap from something I can point to as sounding fantastic, but is happening right now in the real world.  It's hokum, but it's not the worst sort of hokum. This isn't Doctor Who trying to be an educational show and getting it wrong -- it's just being fabulous.

For this story to really have won me over, it needed to a better job sticking to it's principles though. The Doctor saying 'this is humanity's decision, not mine,' worked for me. But, it felt like a cheat that he inserted Courtney and Clara into Lundvik's dilemma. Lundvik was the astronaut sent to do the job, she was the only person who properly belonged there, in the moment when the decision had to be made. It's a stronger statement, in my mind, if they all talk about it, leave her to make the final decision, then go back to get her once it's made.

If the decision whether to kill the creature or not is strictly about it being unique, and magnificent, and potentially dangerous to life on Earth, it's a cleaner, more theoretical, dilemma than the one ended up with. Courtney and Clara pointedly calling it a baby makes it about the other, real-world debate in a way that feels clumsy.

Stray Thoughts:

Courtney is going to be President of the United States when she grows up? Hmmm.

Danny's only in it for a few minutes, but his character is well served in that time. The line about getting to be so wise by having a really bad day, and his observation that you're not done with someone if they can still make you angry, make him sympathetic, and continue to point to some revelation pending about what exactly made him leave the army.

The Mexican surveyors really brought a poncho? That was remniscent of the kind broad stereotyping we saw in Troughton era.

Meanwhile, in post-racial Fuquay-Varina ...

Police pepper spray Wake County teen inside his home after he's mistaken for burglar |

Image via

FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. (WTVD) -- The parents of a Wake County high school student are outraged that police pepper-sprayed him inside their home after a neighbor mistook him for an intruder.

It happened Monday afternoon on England Avenue in Fuquay-Varina.

Click here to view the police incident report (.pdf)

Ricky and Stacy Tyler have fostered 18-year-old DeShawn Currie for about a year. The Tylers, their three young children and DeShawn moved to Fuquay-Varina in July. They said while they're still getting to know their neighbors, it's hurtful someone would assume DeShawn was a burglar just for going about his normal routine of walking home after school.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Wallace Stevens birth anniversary

Wallace Stevens | HiLobrow

 Wallace Stevens via

Stevens led what is now celebrated as a quiet personal life: though he once reportedly took a swing at Ernest Hemingway during a Key West fracas, he refused a post at Harvard after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 in order to stay in Hartford. Maybe the citizens of that dull burg better appreciated that a sidewalk ice-cream monarch is “the only emperor” in this fallen realm of ours.

A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.


CBS, ’60 Minutes,’ reject Ron Reagan’s ‘unabashed atheist’ ad - @ffrf

CBS, ’60 Minutes,’ reject Ron Reagan’s ‘unabashed atheist’ ad - Freedom From Religion Foundation

“Why are atheism and freethought still treated as socially unacceptable, even though fully a fifth of the population has no religion today?” Gaylor asked? “If anything should be socially unacceptable, it ought to be blind deference to religion.”
And yet, it's perfectly acceptable to broadcast ads that distort the records of public officials and misrepresent the positions of candidates for public office as a matter of course. Shady political organization looking to spread misinformation and attack the principles of open, fair elections? You're good. Want to ask for respect for the Constitution and promote secular values? F*ck off.

Here's the ad that CBS wouldn't run lest they offend the delicate sensibilities of their viewers:

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