Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Edge of Destruction - "As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Edge of Destruction - Details

Season 1, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #3) | Previous - Next | Index

From 1960s London, to prehistoric times, to post-apocalyptic Skaro, we've been on quite a ride through the first two stories, so it's a bit claustrophobic to be trapped inside the TARDIS for an entire story so soon. And "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" is a long way off in terms of the possibilities of what could be shown. But, it's grounding in a way, too. It shows us a little bit more than the console room, and gives us a tantalizing sense that there's more unseen, but we've still got just the barest glimpse ...

Let's put this thing in a nutshell first. The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara are knocked out, wake up a bit demented, start turning against each other, suspecting an enemy may have entered the TARDIS, or that Ian is somehow behind the current state of affairs. Then, Barbara figures out the TARDIS is trying to warn them of some danger. Although, tt's very difficult to imagine what Barbara means by her declaration: "We had time taken away from us, and now it's been given back to us because it's running out."

Susan goes berserk with a pair of shears in quite an intense(ly weird) moment.

This is a David Whitaker story, so let's see what Sandifer, Whitaker's greatest champion, has to say about this one:
... [I]t is Barbara, crucially, who understands that the TARDIS is, to some extent, sentient, and that the bizarre happenings are its version of a warning. This is, notably, something the Doctor does not grasp. He does not understand that the TARDIS is a magical box. He declares that it can't think. But it can, and in this moment, in Barbara's explanation, the TARDIS becomes a character.
It's a curious state of affairs and suggests that the Doctor doesn't know the TARDIS very well yet. We know he and Susan have had some adventures since leaving their planet, but it seems they haven't had that many. He actually doesn't even know the TARDIS console itself very well yet and has trouble finding the Fast Return switch ...
The problem, as it turns out, is that a spring has busted on a switch (which is conveniently labeled. In Sharpie.) and it's stayed on. Which is, in many ways, the full establishment of the TARDIS - on the one hand, it is a magical box that can think and communicate with its inhabitants. On the other hand, it can accidentally have a spring get stuck and proceed to nearly explode. Which is, shall we say, a bit of a design flaw. 
Inasmuch as the Doctor can be humbled, by this, at least, he is. He does not quite apologize to Ian or Barbara for nearly throwing them into deep space. But he does act graciously towards them, accepting that he needs them. And so the Doctor has his magical box, his friends, and his freedom. And with this story, the elements of Doctor Who are, by and large, in place.
So this rush job of a show, made on a shoestring, isn't just trying to give us a bit of atmosphere fill a shortage of episodes; or, if it's only trying that, it's accomplishing much more. Had this gone on for more than two episodes in the same vein, I'm sure I would have lost patience with it. But, as an interlude, it works just well enough. It also sets a precedent for more trippy stories to come. Having this in our back pocket when "The Mind Robber" comes along, for instance, helps us accept that the universe of Doctor Who is very much concerned with our minds and imagination, not only history and (its version of) hard science.

Stray Thoughts:

I wonder whatever happened to the TARDIS food machine and if the Doctor still needs two kinds of water (hot and cold?) and milk so prominent in control panel:

Let's see ... we'll need some water, some more water, and some milk. Lucky thing ...

Friday, August 30, 2013

#LaborDay Weekend Remembrance: Martyred Labor Minstrel Ella May Wiggins

Martyred labor minstrel Ella May Wiggins celebrated in North Carolina

Ella May Wiggins
Martyred labor heroes like Wiggins are the great "disappeared" in most U.S. history books because they all too clearly demonstrate the dark underside of class in the American story. Many would rather that part of the story never be told.
Not every fallen hero hits the dirt of a battlefield when a bullet strikes them down. It's not only soldiers that have fought and died for the rights and freedoms we cherish. It's easy to remember to wave the flag and post pictures to your facebook wall glorifying soldiers on Memorial Day and Veterans' Day. However, unless we also celebrate the life and struggles of the largely forgotten heroes of battles against the enemies of freedom on the home front, the soft-focus pictures of wounded warriors and waving flags during the supposedly more patriotic holidays signify an incomplete understanding of the costs that have been paid for our freedom to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How we got to be free and to live dignified lives is every bit as much, or more!, the story of labor struggles at home as it is the story of wars abroad.

To forget that is to invite widening inequality, the erosion of our standard of living, and no less than the end of our Great American Experiment.

Remember Ella May Wiggins. Remember Eugene V. Debs. Remember the victims of the Triangle Fire. Remember Albert R. Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Louis Lingg, the leaders of the Eight Hour Day National Strike of 1886, executed in Chicago on ginned-up charges of having organized the Haymarket bombing.  Remember the martyrs of Blair Mountain. Remember "Big Bill" Haywood, and Samuel Gompers, too.


Enter to win a signed copy of "Happy Utopia Day, Joe McCarthy"

Win A Book | Happy Utopia Day Joe McCarthy

You may be seeing the ad above in the right-hand sidebar of my blog, or not, so in case you aren't (or are and hadn't acted on it yet), I just want to draw your attention to the chance to win a signed copy of Happy Utopia Day, Joe McCarthy, by J.T. Lundy. I just entered and am happy to throw a little support Mr. Lundy's way. I'm about to check out one of his recent radio interviews, have read the first chapter, and have been looking over his twitter feed; I like what I see so far and hope I can persuade you to take a look as well.

The Daleks - "But, my dear child, don't you realise what I've done? A few simple tools ... A superior brain."

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

Season 1, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #2) | Previous - Next | Index

Get y'r mercury hee-ah!

The Doctor is still a bit pissed about having Ian and Barbara aboard and isn't above sabotaging the TARDIS to force the others into agreeing to explore the city they've spotted on the unknown planet upon which they've found themselves. Devious, he is. And reckless. He doesn't know it yet, or what it even signifies, but it's Skaro. Well, it is his ship and the urge to explore is natural, if not always well-considered ... and it seems they do really need that mercury now to repair the doohickey. (They don't, of course, we'll learn later, as the effects of radiation sickness are beginning to wear them down, that they didn't need to go looking for it after all.)

The Daleks still via Cathode Ray Tube
That awkward moment ...
But what you really want to know about this story, is whether or not it's Dalek-y enough, right? Episode 1 ends with an eyestalk's view down the length of a plunger arm, Barbara screaming at the other end. It's our first taste ... we're about to meet our first Dalek. Episode 1, up to that point is basically establishing that the Doctor is a jerk and letting the characters start to explore Skaro. It's fine, but we know we're being built up to a reveal.

A few minutes into the second episode a squadron of Daleks capture Ian, Susan, and the Doctor and we finally see and hear them. From this point on, yes, this story is Dalek-y enough. They're the first go at the Daleks though, so let's keep in mind they are limited, know it, and are still learning about their limitations. These are not yet the Daleks that will menace the universe and dog the Doctor throughout time and space. Ace could take one of these Daleks with her un-Doctored baseball bat.

Ian is the first to truly suffer as a result of their travelling when he's zapped by a Dalek and his legs are temporarily paralyzed. Sure, we saw gruesome death in "An Unearthly Child," but it was a caveman bashing another caveman's head in; this is the first time the danger seems very real for the companions. The radiation sickness adds another layer of peril, so the clock is ticking when Susan is allowed by the Daleks to venture out (being the only one capable of walking at this point)  to get some medicine. She's so frightened and anxious it's really uncomfortable to watch her lurch through the petrified forest, sobbing and gasping. It's here that we're introduced to the Thals and we've got all the bricks of the world-building in place, the story and properly get moving.

The Thals though, they are kind of dippy. Dressed liked Flash Gordon rejects, vaguely Aryan, they're not the kind of heroes it's easy to root for against the more intriguing, albeit evil, Daleks. We don't want the Daleks to prevail, of course, but Terry Nation doesn't seem to want us to be pulling too hard for the Thals either. This undermines the drama a bit, as we really only care about TARDIS crew, not so much whether they help the Thals survive.

Ian is remarkable ... even after getting paralyzed from the waist down, and having to send Susan out to take on a mission he knows he should be doing, he can he soldiers on. As soon as he is able, he starts doing all the dirty work, like climbing in a Dalek casing and trying to pass as a Dalek. Whenever's there's something dangerous that needs doing, he's the one who's ready to put his life on line to get it done. First to jump the chasm as he leads a Thal party through the dangerous mountain route to attack the Dalek city from the rear, there's never any doubt he's the natural leader of any group he's in ... except of course, he defers to the Doctor as the leader of the TARDIS. The Doctor may not be most sterling character, the most fit, but he's brains of the outfit and the owner of the ship they travel in, so Ian, ever so British, I suppose, fits himself into the hierarchy where he belongs, the loyal lieutenant.

This is where I think the show feels the most British to we Americans. In an alternate-reality American Who show, I think Ian would have displaced the Doctor as the lead character. (And the show would have ended after three seasons ... ) But he's so likable, this guy. So determined and unflappable. Here in the early going, even if we think he may be a bit of a square, we really hope he's the guy who saves the day and we've no doubt that, if anyone can, he can.

And he becomes even more sympathetic when it seems Barbara has totally got eyes for one of the strapping young Thals. Why not Ian?!  When Barbara kisses that one guy at the end (I'm skipping over a lot here and remind you to read the plot description if that's what you're after from the link at the top of the page) I think we're all a bit shocked and wonder if, off-screen, our Barbara didn't take a lover! Good for her, if so, but "Keep steadfast Ian in mind," we want to whisper in her ear ...

And yes, the Daleks do talk about extermination and it is wonderful:
DOCTOR: That's sheer murder.
DALEK 1: No, extermination.
Because, you don't 'murder' vermin.

Stray Thoughts:

It's going to take a full post, or series of posts, to talk about canon, ret-conning, and what we are to make of all the different versions of history we see over the course of the series. No Kaleds or Davros mentioned or implied in this story so, make this fit in with "Genesis of the Daleks" however you think best. There is no right answer.

Terry Nation gets the credit for the Daleks, but there's an argument to be made for their design (not his doing at all, we credit Ray Cusick for that) being every bit as integral to their iconic status, and therefore the survival and success of the series in the early years.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

They were qualified in one way: sufficient ideological purity to qualify for cronyism-based raises.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory says a pair of 24-year-old campaign staffers landed senior-level jobs in his administration because they were the most qualified applicants, beating out older candidates. 
But the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where Matthew McKillip and Ricky Diaz got big promotions and raises after only a few weeks of government service, has been unable to provide any evidence their positions were ever advertised to other potential applicants or that other candidates were considered.
Bad enough. But for McCrory to come out and lie about there being other candidates considered and these two being the "most qualified," makes this more than just a brush-fire scandal, it's turning into the kind of scandal where we should really be talking about recall or impeachment. He's either lying glibly without being aware of the facts, or he's lying deliberately and thoughtfully knowing full well what a scumbag move that is. Either way, he shouldn't be Governor.
The taxpayer-supported salaries for McKillip and Diaz are about three times the starting salary for North Carolina public school teachers, who received no raises in the $20.6 billion state budget signed by McCrory. The budget also eliminated a program that rewards teachers for earning master's degrees. 
Earlier this month, AP reported the names of five other young Republican staffers who got state government jobs with current annual salaries ranging from $52,000 to $78,000.
Your tax dollars hard at work rewarding Young Republican Knob Shiners. I hope all you Republican voters are happy with the governance you've inflicted on the rest of us. I'm sure you must be thrilled the taxes you pay are being used to line the pockets of McCrory's lap dogs.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Coming Soon: 'Shaman,' By Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review: 'Shaman,' By Kim Stanley Robinson : NPR

As you can hear, Robinson keeps stylization of the language to a minimum, without stooping too low, so that the story itself can break free of the page and linger in the mind — which worked for me. Maybe it's because the world he creates feels so authentic and complete, but for several nights running, something happened to me that's never happened to me before, in all the years I've been reading novels. I dreamed I was living in Loon's world, traveling in the same tribe, along streams and rivers, through forest and over hills in an ancient state of mind.
I've got a few more Doctor Who posts to flesh out in the next five days, then I'll be shifting gears to reading, re-reading, and going on and on about Shaman. New Kim Stanley Robinson! 5 days ...

An Unearthly Child - "You don't deserve any explanations. You pushed your way in here uninvited and unwelcome. "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - An Unearthly Child - Details

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

The music, that brilliant theme, plays over the distinctive opening titles and it keeps playing as we follow a bobby into a scrap yard ... finally fading away only as we are given our first glimpse of the TARDIS. Fifty years later, we have the benefit of knowing how this all turns out, and is still in the process of turning out, but fifty years ago, just a day after the world saw the assassination of the American President, did this look as an intriguing and daft as I suspect it must've? You and I know that's the TARDIS, but when first broadcast, we're lingering a long while on shot of a police call box in a junkyard, aren't we? (How sharp and crisply new it looks here, not junky at all! That prop will get hammered pretty hard over the years and look pretty rough by the time we Americans first start getting hooked on this show some fifteen years later ... )

Having been introduced to the TARDIS, next we meet Susan at school, where she's been the topic of discussion between her history and science teachers, as she jams out to some twangy surf guitar rock on her transistor radio. She's got quite distinctive features and, in the context of a show we know is science fiction where we know already she's brilliant and odd, seems quite ... unearthly. If only she'd remained this intriguing a character instead of devolving to an hysterical screamer in the second episode. But in the first episode, I think it's safe to say it looks like it's going to be an interesting show if she's a main character.

As we are shown how brilliant she is, and how she seems to have knowledge of the future, the show also introduces the first of its many puzzling pseudo-scientific goofs with Susan's insistence on the need to use a fifth dimension to solve a problem. Now, sure, I'm aware there's some pretty exotic physics theorizing about dimensions beyond the three spatial and one temporal we're accustomed to hearing about -- eleven dimensions, or more, may be needed to make the math work out -- but to blithely assert the fifth dimension is space is, well, patently silly. For a show that ostensibly is out to inform as it entertains, it certainly has some interesting ideas about how to establish its credibility.

The DVD I have includes the original "pilot" that wasn't aired, and the reshot version that did air, which has some minor differences. The Doctor's costume is changed from a modern suit jacket and tie to his Edwardian-style costume. Gone, too, is the allusion to Susan being born in the 49th century.

The broadcast version feels a little simplified, and changes the manner in which Ian and Barbara end up getting kidnapped and hauled off ... and Susan threatens to stay saying she'd rather stay than go with the Doctor in the TARDIS -- a rather dramatic difference that strikes a wrong note for the viewer. Ian and Barbara getting knocked out upon take off is more silly looking: they just lie down, instead of it appearing the time travel effect knocked them out.

The interior of the TARDIS is more visually distinctive and has a niftier design than it has later, more objets d'art and chairs strewn about. It'll get starker over time and lose some of that character. However, those fabric walls with the painted roundels are not very convincing.

The un-aired pilot version has very somewhat different dialogue -- mercifully absent is the allusion to the "Red Indian" and their "savage mind," that creeps into the final version. Really could have done without that. In the original version, the Doctor asks Susan to consider what might have happened if Napoleon had knowledge of futuristic technology ... why that got removed and we got a needlessly racist bit of dialogue instead is a question, I guess, for the late David Whitaker, the script editor. I'm not aware if he was ever asked about it (a google search turned up no relevant results that I could find) so I guess we can only lament the unfortunate precedent of racial insensitivity that will crop up periodically throughout the run of the series.

Enter the Doctor. Shifty, crotchety, and clearly dissembling, he's a prickly character in the unaired pilot, somewhat more impish in the reshoot. We are, I think, frankly astonished that this character is at the heart of a show that will endure fifty years (inclusive of the Wilderness Years) and be an international sensation in its fiftieth year, perhaps more popular than ever. To some extent, I think we have to look beyond the Doctor himself to explain that, because this Doctor is no James Bond. He's much closer to Quatermass, from what I can tell, and unless you're British, or a hardcore Whovian, you're probably wondering who Quatermass is and if I haven't dropped an 'r' by mistake? (I haven't.) It's the TARDIS that makes this something more, and the brilliant decision later to introduce the phenomenon of regeneration, that give this thing legs. In the short run, I'd argue based on what I've seen so far it's actually Ian & Barbara who provide the likability quotient that give fans someone to root for and admire.

So much of it though, even here in its infancy, feels like Doctor Who: from that opening theme, to the TARDIS itself, the shock of the bigger on the inside -- it's remarkable how much is recognizably our show even at this early stage. That so much of that initial vision survives to this day is testament to the imagination and peculiar genius of producers Verity Lambert and Sidney Newman, script editor David Whitaker, Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainger who performed and arranged the theme music, the designers, and William Hartnell in bringing the character to life. I'll not always have kind words for his performances, nor for the way the character is written through much of Hartnell's tenure, but there's no denying he brings a certain brittle charm that allows him to walk the character through some unlikable actions in a way that suggests he's alien, not evil. Different, not defective. His Doctor is cowardly, imperious, and even ruthless, ready to kill the wounded Za to expedite his return to the TARDIS. And yet, we keep watching.

It's the first episode that gives us the glimmerings of the compelling, fascinating show to come. The three that follow are a bit tedious and underwhelming caveman tribal politics and barbarism. The one thing, for me at least, that sticks in mind about the latter three episodes is the brutality of the fight between Za and his caveman rival. That's a fight that ends with a large rock being lifted by Za as his foe lies beaten at his feet. We don't see the rock come down, but we see the horrified reactions of the TARDIS gang and we know that, no matter what anybody says, this is not a kids' show. Or, at least, not only a kids' show.

Stray Thoughts:

Worth remembering that there's no mention of Gallifrey by name, nothing about the Doctor having two hearts and the ability to regenerate. There's something to be said for leaving blank spaces and open doors in your pilot. Not nailing down every specific leaves room to grow and adapt.

Totter's Lane and Coal Hill School will be seen again. "Remembrance of the Daleks," will bring Sylvester McCoy's Doctor and Ace back the morning after the Doctor and Susan take Ian and Barbara with them to clean up some retconned in business about some Time Lord tech left behind by the Doctor. Clara will end up teaching at Coal Hill School -- and if we don't get some idea about what Ian and Barbara got up to after they left the TARDIS since we're spending time at the school again, I'm going to be a little peeved -- so we'll see the locale again a few times, including the beginning of the 50th Anniversary Special, "The Day of the Doctor."  "Attack of the Cybermen" will find the TARDIS back at Totter's Lane, too.

We call this "An Unearthly Child" now and do so referring to pilot episode and the caveman story that follows; but, when it aired, each episode had a name, not a number. This all gets mushed together as one story now, but it was a different experience for those watching at the time.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Underworld - "Pacified? Who did it, hmm? Who did it? I'll kill them. I'll kill them! It was him, wasn't it?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Underworld - Details

Season 15, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #96) | Previous - Next | Index

What strikes us about this story? Well, unfortunately, it's primarily the disastrous CSO-effects that serve as the tunnels in the core of the planet forming around P7E. They look awful, and there's a lot of running around in those distractingly unreal looking tunnels. They don't make the story unwatchable, but they are certainly distracting.

Not everyone agrees, but I think they look cool.
The other things you're like to recall about this one, the nifty steampunky-looking Seers that serve the Oracle. So yeah, it's another megalomaniac computer wreaking havoc on the humanoid survivors of a (sort of) shipwreck. If that sounds familiar it's because we met Leela of the Sevateem under very similar circumstances in "The Face of Evil."

Gentleman of a certain age will remember from watching this as hormone-awash youngsters, fondly I'll wager, Leela's light tan leather outfit and the cleavage it revealed. Look, I'm not proud of how easily manipulated I was (am) by the cynical exploitation practiced by the producers of that era's Doctor Who in foisting that skimpy outfit on Louise Jameson. But they accomplished what they set out to do. When Leela gets hit with the pacifier ray and comes over a little moon-eyed for Orfe (Orfe, Orpheus ... get it? Ugh.) it's very much flirting with the gothic trope of the nubile female that falls under a spell that causes her to lose her inhibitions. Basically, I'm saying I wouldn't be at all surprised if this a polarizing story along gender lines.

They lounge like this a couple times. Not good for dramatic pacing.
But easy on the eyes. O__O
A bigger problem than the sexual politics and the dodgy effects is that large stretches of this one are just boring. Again and again through the tunnels. Here we go again all sitting around waiting for the ship to crash or explode. Here's a scene where the Doctor is fidgeting with some controls to try the reverse the airflow ("Whatever blows can be sucked," he says. Really.) in a tunnel that's being fumigated ... we watch him turn some knobs, push some buttons ... seconds tick by, he's still trying, getting sleepy ... will he succeed or not ... we're still watching ... almost done?  And then comes the cliffhanger music and credits. So the next episode can back up a couple minutes before he starts doing the HVAC work and we can watch it all again. That probably isn't so bad when you've waited a week between episodes but I'm watching the DVD in Play All mode and need to make liberal use of the FF button.

Watch this one for Tom Baker doing his thing, he's devastating funny several times throughout, but don't watch it for the story. And be ready to think, "They really thought they could get away with that?" when you seen the caves of the Underworld. This one's not as bad as the worst reviews make it out to be, but even the positive reviews acknowledge it's not going to be anybody's favorite.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Rachel Maddow continues to shine the a national spotlight on the terrible governance we're enduring here in NC

Rachel Maddow: Dark chapter in North Carolina voting success story:

Rachel Maddow reports on North Carolina's success in improving voter turnout and ease of voting through the 2008 election and the sudden change in direction (and ruling party) when wealthy Republican backer, Art Pope, turned the tide in 2010 allowing a Republican take-over of the state government and a wave of regressive legislation, including voter suppression.

A Knight is Technically an Aristocrat So Ben Affleck Suits the Role Just Fine

Wondermark | A Knight is Technically an Aristocrat:

click to see original image full size at wondermark
This is one of those things that reads brilliantly at first glance but perhaps dissolves a bit when we consider that Bruce Wayne also has does considerable charitable work through the Wayne Foundation or whatever. "He does both," the uber-fan declares icily, "Your argument is invalid. Good day, sir."

But, wait, let's consider Bruce Wayne's charitable work helping widows and orphans. Strikes me there are two main problems with it: first, he's obviously not giving it his all, or seriously committed to it, else he wouldn't be spending all that money on the Bat Cave, the Batmobiles, all that tech need to support his battling super-villains lifestyle; and, secondly, perhaps more insidiously, he's doing it as Bruce Wayne, indolent scion of wealth, irresponsible playboy. The message he sends by doing this work as that character is that the work of providing the social safety net and caring for most vulnerable members of society is properly left to the whims of the Titans of Industry. To give or not to give, subject to the pangs of conscience and convenience ... the real business of that lot is maintaining their wealth and punishing transgressors of the established social order.

What Gotham needs is an authentic Bruce Wayne: a man who was lucky enough to inherit a fortune, but unlucky enough to lose his parents to violence. His intelligence, resources, and passion for justice should have made him a serious, credible agent for societal good. He could be the public face of civic engagement dedicated to engineering a just society built on the greatest defense human rights and liberties have against thieves, the greedy, and those who would use force to take what they want: the rule of law.

By all means, rather than talking about what our heroes could look like, what would make them worth emulating and worth aspiring to, let's instead debate whether Ben Affleck is a good fit for the role in the next shitty franchise movie. "Does he have the gravitas to play The Dark Knight?"

Spare me. That'll be a debate worth having about the movie where Bruce Wayne puts on his big boy pants and takes on the real problems of society. Like a man, not a stunted man-child living a Libertarian fantasy.

Related: "Batman: Plutocrat"

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Antoinette Tuff displayed grace and courage; makes Wayne LaPierre look like a pantwetting coward by comparison.

Listen: 911 call from Georgia school shooting. How a staffer saved lives — MSNBC

Continuing the highlight tour of last night's MSNBC line up, this was the story that made humanity look good after seeing (yet another) example of how Republican elections board officials make us all look bad.

The NC GOP's contempt for democracy and the citizens of NC is incredible.

If only it were as surprising as it is despicable.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

"There was discussion by the board." Sounds innocuous absent of context. In context ... shameful. Our NC GOP at work.

Defining A Hole Presents A Philosophical Quandry (Especially When U R Doing It Wrong)

OK, so I only heard part of this on my commute home yesterday, and probably am being injudicious by spouting off, but here's the snippet that made me change stations because I couldn't abide listening to such straight up bad philosophy:
PALCA: Now, this is a problem, especially for philosophers who think the world is made out of things, a philosophy known as materialism.
COHEN: A materialist would be inclined to say that there aren't really any holes at all. There are no such things as holes. They're merely perforated objects.
PALCA: But since he's not a materialist philosopher, Cohen sees a problem with this perspective.
COHEN: Suppose you ask what a perforated object is. Aren't you inclined to say it's just an object with a hole in it? And there you are. Holes have come back.
Paging Wittgenstein! Is there a Wittgenstein-literate philosopher in the house?

There surely wasn't one on NPR when we needed one yesterday. These folks were going on talking about holes in the ground, holes in radio programming, donut holes, pie holes, all manner of holes as if just calling a bunch of things "holes" implied the word signifies phenomena or properties of things that all were of a kind. You're not doing philosophy, I'd argue, if you're just using the language lazily and pretending the resulting confusion has philosophical significance. What Cohen was doing in the conversation sounded a lot more like intellectual dishonesty and deliberate obfuscation than what I think of as philosophy.

Look, I'm not saying there isn't an interesting discussion to be had about what people mean when they say the word "hole" in different contexts, clearly there's some interesting concepts to wrap your head around there, but what I heard wasn't that conversation.

It's either an extremely dial-twisted intuition pump, or just funny. Or both.

Brain in a Vat
A: Brain in Vat Trolley Driver becomes a Dice Man.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Talons of Weng Chiang - "Budding lotus of the dawn, despicable Chang has other ideas."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Talons of Weng Chiang - Details

Series 14, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #91) | Previous - Next | Index

Four matches wits with Magnus Greel.
OK, here goes. I've been both dreading and dying to write about this one. Dying to because it is, and has been, my single favorite story since it debuted. But to admit this is your favorite episode is to take a position, whether you want to or not, on whether this story is too racist to be tolerated, or not. I don't want to dance around the topic though I would if I felt like I could and get away with it. So let's get the hard part over with.

The case against "Talons," as I see it, is largely based on the following points:
  1. An Anglo actor plays Li H'sen Chang and makes a "One of us is yellow" joke while speaking heavily fake-Chinese accented English
  2. The British characters make stereotypically racist remarks about the Chinese characters
  3. All the Chinese characters are villains (and some of the henchmen are also Anglo playing Chinese)
  4. The Doctor refers to the Chinese as "little men"
Here's the defense that is meant to cover all the points above: it was the time, it's not significantly more racist than anything else produced in the mid- to late-70s. There's a degree to which I think we can accept this defense, much like we don't dismiss the Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee era stories for their problematic use of non-white actors, usually black. (See "Terror of the Autons," & "Tomb of the Cybermen," for example.) Sure, from a position of white male privilege, it's pretty easy to say, "That's just how privileged white males depicted other groups back then, let's not make too much of it."

A litmus test I'd suggest for whether this story is too racist to tolerate is: if you had Chinese house guests coming over, say business associates, or someone else you may not know well, and who doesn't know you well, on whom you want to make a good impression, would you feel comfortable if they went over to your DVD collection and pulled this story, and not being familiar with it, and asked you what it was about, suggesting maybe you could all watch it together after dinner? Or would you have hidden it away beforehand to prevent having to talk about it? And, if you would hide it away to avoid the issue, can you still argue there's nothing wrong with owning it, watching it, and enjoying it today?

Does the "it's a product of the times" defense help us with our litmus test? I'm skeptical.

I'd like to attempt a more robust defense that would leave us in a position to be comfortable leaving our DVDs out and willing to talk about and watch the story with any house guest, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference or what have you.

Let's imagine if Li H'sen Chang had been played by James Hong instead of John Bennett and we didn't have to deal with that issue. If all the Asian characters had been played by Asian actors, I think issue 1 above largely disappears as a problem. So, to start, we've got to acknowledge that having Anglo actors play in blackface, yellowface, or anyface is not something we can really tolerate now except when its done to draw attention to itself. It's not something we're just going to play along with.* But it's a thing that happened. So do we not watch this for that reason? Well, I think we needn't throw this particular baby out with the bathwater, but I think this is the extent to which our "that's how they did it then" can cover us: watching in company we can be confident feel the same way. I'm not so sure it's a defense we should expect our hypothetical Chinese house guests to accept a face value.

Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles offer a defense that considers how Chang behaves on stage for Victorian era audience, conforming to the to their stereotypes of Chinese culture. They also point out that Jago and Litefoot, and the London police are as stereotypically British as the Chinese are stereotypically Chinese, so to some degree what's happening here is the story is playing with the all the available stock characters, offering none as "real" people. They view this as a parody of British imperialist fiction, not an example of it. This is a stronger defense and one that I feel nearly gets us there.

There's a defense, of sorts, that also takes into account the fact this isn't just casual racism. It's something a little more self-aware. Sue puts it this way in the Adventures with the Wife in Space's write up: "OK, this is more complicated than I first thought. Now we have anti-racist jibes delivered by actor who is 'yellowed-up.' This is going to be tricky … " That was in response to Chang's remark at the police station, after the Doctor has asked if he's seen Chang before. Chang says, "I understand we all look the same." This isn't so much a claim that there isn't something racist going on here, as an observation that something more complex than we might garner at first glance may be. And, once we're in the territory where we need to stop and unravel what's happening, and really think we about it, we're not watching something that's just out to score cheap points with xenophobes by picking on a minority group.

If this story had been about a gang of West Indians, where all the henchmen were black, or Anglos in blackface, and the Li H'Sen Chang character equivalent was an Anglo actor, would I be as inclined to be forgiving?  No. But I think there's a reason there's a difference. I think we need to remember that 1977 the Cold War era and Britain was only a few years removed from fighting with the U.S. against the North Vietnamese and, by extension, China. It's not an excuse, it's merely a factor to consider in understanding why some forms of racism were more "acceptable" at the time, than others. It would never occur to anyone, I think to put a white actor in black face for a story set in the late 1800s, but the recent history of conflict in Asia at the time this story was produced I think warps the mindset of those involved in a way that we don't condone, but can understand in context.

As for all the Chinese being villains, I think the defense there is as simple as this being a story about a gang of murderers working for an evil dictator from the far future. Since the fugitive future despot arrived in China, it only makes sense for the story that the gang is a Tong. And, it's as complex as Li H'sen Chang, the most evil of the Chinese characters ultimately being a somewhat sympathetic figure, one whose evil actions we can at least understand. Also, he's played by an Anglo actor, so the most evil Chinese character isn't even Chinese. Sort of. (The other most evil characters, Magnus Greel AKA Weng Chiang & Mr. Sin are also not actually Chinese. Greel is Anglo, played by an Anglo, pretending to be a Chinese god. Mr. Sin is played by Deep Roy, and Indian actor, playing a doll animated by by cerebral cortex of a pig and some fancy circuit boards, so he's not really Chinese in any meaningful way.)

So the short answer is, yes, I would leave my DVD out, and I would watch it with Chinese guests ... but I would want to talk about what we were about to see first and prepare them for what was to come, in case they weren't familiar with the depictions of Asians in Western movies and TV going back to the days of Charlie Chan & Fu Manchu, and how a costume pseudo-historical set in the Victorian era made during the post-Vietnam Cold War era was going to be, frankly, bonkers. I think I could do this because I've seen how Anglos are portrayed in some Chinese movies of that era (think of the pompous Anglo villains some Jackie Chan's movies, for example) so there's a parity of stereotyping we could use as a starting point for the discussion. It's not a straight equivalency; we need to acknowledge the difference between how a people who've been on the receiving end of imperial aggression might stereotype the aggressors versus how the aggressors stereotype the peoples they interfered with, but it's still a discussion I think reasonable people can have.

The last bit I don't think anyone has found a satisfactory defense for yet is how the Doctor himself makes cracks like "We were attacked by this little man and four other little men," and later when Mr. Sin and a bunch of coolies show up to menace him at Greel's command he remarks, "Life's full of little surprises." Again characterizing the Chinese as little people. My defense here is admittedly a bit weak, but I can only observe that at 6'3" Tom Baker is taller than nearly everyone in every scene he's in. The problem, of course, is that the Doctor only ever cracks like this here, when the folks who are littler than him are Chinese. Mr. Sin's presence -- he has, after all, been masquerading as a ventriloquist's dummy -- perhaps could be seen as the point of the second jibe. But it's a stretch. Had Hartnell, Troughton, or McGann (all under 5'9") delivered these lines, we'd be unable to take this tack. As it is, I'm leaning towards saying they're disconcerting, but not terribly egregious. Indefensible, but, hopefully not unforgivable.

OK, after all that, I'm going to proceed as if we're OK with the defense even though I fully expect to have to come back and make it more compelling, or abandon parts of it, and talk about why I love this story outside of casual racism. The problem is, this story is so popular, and so well-loved, that it's difficult to shower any praise on it that hasn't already been done.

For starters, it just looks awesome. It doesn't look cheap and stupid and polystyrene and CSO. This, this is something the BBC seems to be able to do in its sleep: the gaslit dark alleys, the Victorian homes, the Sherlockianisms. It all works so well.

Litefoot makes Leela feel at home.
Tom Baker is absolutely at the top of his game here. He's perfect. Louise Jameson, too. She's so great doing Leela as Eliza Doolittle; I'm always a little surprised when she talks about "The Sun Makers" as her favorite story for Leela when she's so good in this one. All the cast, really, even Bennett with the prosthetics over his eyes (*groans*) brings a strange, unexpected nobility to the role. He's trying so hard, but he just can't do his evil (fake) god's will quite right. And, of course, Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter as Jago and Litefoot are fabulous.

I know the giant sewer rat is a disaster, but it's a funny disaster. It doesn't bother me in the slightest when everything else looks so good.

I don't care how bad the rat looked.
Leela more than made up for it.
Mr. Sin, the Peking Homunculus, is great and creepy. His little pig snorting is priceless.

Even apart from the sort of casual racism, there are flaws, things we could nitpick at here for not exactly making sense, but on the whole this is writer Robert Holmes at his finest and tightest. Also near his edgiest. I mean, how many family shows could get away with these: we have a scene in the coroner's office where the Doctor and Litefoot discuss autopsy results over the corpse in question; young women are being hunted for their 'life essence'; Leela is soaked in her clingy, nearly transparent undergarments, making a part of the female breast not normally seen in family programming plainly visible; Chang dies in a drug-induced stupor in an opium den; and a wizened crone oversees the fishing of a bloated corpse from the Thames, making remarks like, "On my oath, you wouldn't want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an 'orse sick, that would." Sex, exploitation, drugs, gruesome death, flying axes, and nunchucks -- what other show with these elements can you watch with the whole family?! (Holmes will go too far, in my opinion, with "The Two Doctors," but here he manages astound us with how he can dance on the line between transgressive questionable taste and being a sick twist.)

This is the rarest of  six-parters, one that I wish could have been even longer. I didn't want it to end. But when it does end, it's also the end of Hinchcliffe's run as producer. We'll ease into the Graham Williams era with the excellent "Horror of Fang Rock," but the Williams era is more problematic on the whole, though certainly not so much as JNT's, but Hinchcliffe went out with a story that may be the pinnacle of the classic series; there are still many highlights to come, but it's after this that the failures start to take on the appearance of coffin nails. It takes a lot of them to seal the fate of show in the twelve odd years it has left after this, but it never feels like it's got sustained upward trajectory again.

* Which has got me wondering if we really do still accept this after all, because we don't seem to have an issue with gay actors playing straight and straight actors playing gay. Or do we? I may be missing the pulse of public sentiment on this, but isn't a bit odd for straight actors to play gay roles when there are plenty of gay actors who could play them more convincingly? Or would that be typecasting?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Crusade - "You stupid butcher! Can you think of nothing else but killing, hmm?"

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

Season 2, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #14) Previous - Next | Index

The Doctor reassures Vicki in a rare moment of sweetness.
How strange this must have been, following "The Web Planet" to immediately step into a rather straightforward historical costume drama with no alien baddies, no weirdness (well, the relationship of Richard the Lionheart to his sister Joanna is often remarked upon, though played well down from where Julian Glover and Jean Marsh originally intended -- whether it was Verity Lambert, as Ms. Marsh recalled in one of the extras on the "Battlefield" DVD or William Hartnell upon reading the script, as is other times claimed, or both, who demanded the incestuous aspect be dropped, I'm not quite certain), and no renegade Time Lords out to manipulate Earth's history for their own ends.

This is an enjoyably Shakespeare-tinged historical adventure, with outstanding performances from Julian Glover as Richard and Jean Marsh as Joanna. I'd have watched it all the way through even if it hadn't been a Doctor Who story, which, if we're honest, it barely is. Well, at the time I would've done; not sure I'd have made the effort read the scripts and listen to the audio for the missing episodes if it weren't Doctor Who, but I'm glad I did, and largely on the strength of the guest cast, both Crusader and Saracen.

If we separate the layers and look at what our intrepid travelers are doing in this story, it largely boils down to by-the-numbers plot devices: Barbara gets kidnapped (is abucted from her abductors, escapes, is re-captured, escapes, is re-captured ... poor Barbara is really just for Ian to come rescue again), Ian is doggedly determined to rescue her, Vicki pretends to be Victor so they can send up the Shakespearean practice of men playing women (or so people can show how smart they are by pointing out they're doing a send up) and the Doctor putters around not really doing anything but stealing some clothes and getting involved in courtly intrigue just to have something to do. Although, in this story, it at least it's fun to watch him steal clothes and insert himself into Richard's planning, and he gets to deliver that "You stupid butcher!" line so at least we can praise him for being pacifist. The more interesting story here revolves around Richard's decision to marry his sister off to Saladin's brother to try to bring an end to their conflict.

The historicals nowadays are more about the Doctor Who universe invading our history, so Pompeii has lava monster aliens under Vesuvius, there are alien witches swirling around Shakespeare, an alien werewolf in Victorian-era Scotland, alien ghosts for Dickens to meet, alien wasp to menace Agatha Christie, etc. Sure there are exceptions, "Black Orchid" leaps to mind, but the "straight" historical (because they're not really "straight" even when there aren't aliens behind the whole thing) doesn't get much play after this story and I think that's because we mostly want to see Doctor Who doing history, not history doing Doctor Who. No matter how well the latter can work, it's more of a stretch for the series because in this sort of story the Doctor is constrained by historical events and can't change anything, he's just got to solve puzzles, as it were, to extricate himself and his companions from the mess he's gotten them into. Or, Ian does. Sir Ian, we should say, though he's too modest to want anyone talking about it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Keys of Marinus - "Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Keys of Marinus - Details

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

Compare this excerpt from a post about this story:
All the same, The Keys of Marinus is fantastic for the sheer amount of weird stuff it introduces to the show. None of it is major canon or ever returns, but you get a planet with a glass beach and acid sea, monsters in fantastic rubber gimp suits called the Voord, mind controlling brains with eyestalks, killer vegetables that psychically scream, snow wolves, robotic knights with plastic capes, and a courtroom drama that out-hams Phoenix Wright. All in just under two and a half hours. It is with this episode, in other words, that Doctor Who becomes completely barmy. This culminates in the final episode, where the audience is treated to the spectacle of a man in awkwardly tight rubber shouting "My power is absolute!" ...
 ... This, much more than the aberration of Marco Polo, feels like the first episode of Doctor Who we've seen - the first time all the parts of the show are there and firing, if not on all cylinders. 
To this capsule review:
The Keys of Marinus: Unwatchable - everything that’s wrong with a Terry Nation script at one time. 1/10
"Now, here we have," you might think, "two reviewers with rather different opinions about this story." The odd thing is, these are both by the same guy. And it's Philip Sandifer, who is one of the most accomplished and erudite writers about Doctor Who out there.

So how's a schlub like yours truly going to be coherent about this thing? Toss a coin. Heads means focus on the positive and try to be a more successful defense attorney than the Doctor was; tails and we'll pile on whatever its faults are.

Tails it is. But I won't be mean-spirited. After all, it's not entirely unwatchable. I watched it all. My wife was like, "Why are you doing this to yourself?" But I did it and I can tell you it's not the worst story in Doctor Who's Hall of Shame. I just want to criticize one thing, because I think on its own it shows what train wreck this story was. The Doctor name drops Pyrrho in this story while suggesting to his adversary, the prosecutor, in Ian's murder trial (you're guilty 'til proved innocent on Marinus) that he might want to try doing some philosophy and applying a little skepticism to his worldview. Which, OK, great. Except that in this part of the story what was needed was some guidance in jurisprudence, about which the Doctor was mum. (Given the state of the Gallifreyan legal code and criminal justice system, maybe that was for the best though.) But the bigger problem is when the Doctor needed to be asking challenging questions, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and trying to get someone to open their mind to other possibilities, he was completely negligent.

Here's what I'm on about: the whole of this story is about a quest to assemble the five keys needed to activate the mind control computer operated by Arbitan. The phrase "mind control computer" should be throwing some red flags, right? Because maybe solving your society's problems by simply brainwashing everyone into acting in proscribed manner is ... umm ... problematic? Nope, not to the Doctor, at least not yet. So here's what the Doctor does when he finds this guy holding down the fort on his mind control computer about to be overrun by hostile gimp-suited, knife-wielding killers: he says, "See y'all later, we're outta here." (Paraphrasing a bit there.) But the TARDIS crew is prevented from leaving by a force field and accept Arbitan's terms, they'll go collect his keys from all over the planet and let him do his thing. The Doctor, who has met Pyrrho and must have some interest in philosophy, has nothing to say about this state of affairs except to huff that he doesn't appreciate being blackmailed. He's not exactly a man of ideas, this Doctor.

So they do the job. It's a miracle they survive, because they're nearly killed every step of the way and only avoid becoming slaves of brains with eye-stalks in episode 2 because Barbara's mind control device slips off her head. If the baddies had invented glue, the Doctor's adventures would have ended on Marinus. It goes on like this with only dumb luck and occasionally Barbara's cleverness or Ian's dogged determination getting them through it all. Also, Hartnell had a couple weeks of vacation during filming, so the Doctor doesn't appear in two of the episodes to screw things up.

And screw up, be a fool, and get nothing right is all he does when he's in the story. The Doctor here is not someone I'd want to travel through time and space with. Ian and Barbara, OK, they seem to have their wits about them, but the Doctor and Susan are a pair of null nodes in this story. The Doctor's an amoral bungler; Susan's a screamer who's chief talent seems to be getting kidnapped. (It doesn't help that they must've been out of time and couldn't reshoot when Hartnell flubbed his lines. It's sometimes quite sad to see how they really didn't do the elderly gentleman any favors when it came to letting him demonstrate some competence.)

Did I mention how uncomfortable the scene where Ian leaves Barbara in the cabin of a clearly untrustworthy lone trapper is? It's uncomfortable before the villain actually tries to rape Barbara, it's jaw-dropping bad once he locks the cabin door and tells her no one is going to come to rescue her. But I said I'd focus on the one thing, the Doctor's utter worthlessness, so let's not dwell on how disturbing this scene is in a family show.

Now, at the very end, the Doctor does mention during his farewells that it's probably for the best the whole planetary mind control scheme didn't come to fruition: " ... I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that." Not sure why he felt like he needed to include the bit about machines being perfectly fine at making laws? What machines? Maybe that's how Gallifrey ended up letting "Trial of a Time Lord" happen? Anyways, at least someone recognized there should probably be some acknowledgment of what a rubbish idea Arbitan's plan was in the first place.

Stray Thoughts:

If it weren't for "The Genesis of the Daleks" down the line, I might be lamenting the fact Terry Nation ever wrote anything after "The Daleks" for Doctor Who. But, you take the bad with the good. The idea of going to planet and bouncing from continent to continent having adventures is a fine one -- sci-fi in general, and Doctor Who in particular, does a pretty poor job making planets into anything more than monocultures. The execution is where this story is lacking.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Faceless Ones - "The intelligence of Earth people is comparable only to that of animals on our planet."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Faceless Ones - Details

Season 4, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #35) | Previous - Next | Index

I'm working on my Lost in Time DVD collection so here again I'm writing about a story where only two episodes still exist intact. I read the script for the missing episodes to fill in the blanks. Watched this one shortly after "The Moonbase," so that's the one freshest in my mind for comparison. This story is quite different but, I think, of a similar (relatively high) quality.

Where "The Moonbase" was studio-bound, "The Faceless Ones" is shot largely on location at an airport -- so indoor and outdoor location shooting give it a markedly different feel from much of the series to this point. The Doctor is also in a much different position in this one with regard to how he relates to the human authorities: here he's basically an undocumented alien (pun intended) who has a very difficult time being taken seriously, where in "Moonbase" he could deflect questions about his provenance more easily because they needed a doctor and he was able to make himself (sort of) useful. Both stories I think are indicative of how strong the series is at this time in its history; these are not "classics" or particularly well-loved, as far as I can tell, but they're solidly entertaining. Where the science is dodgy, its not overly distracting, and there aren't any bad scenes or episodes that make you roll your eyes.

In "Moonbase," it felt like Jamie was a third wheel but the better companion for this Doctor, and here we are a few stories later witnessing Ben and Polly, not to put too fine a point on it, getting shown the door. Rather ignominiously, they aren't even in it much, disappearing (or in Polly's case being dopplegangered so she's not even really there) for much of the story.

This story may, dare I say it, benefit from having missing episodes. Not that I don't want them all back, it's just that it certainly didn't need to be a six-parter (apparently it became one for budgetary reasons), so only having two to watch minimized the effect of the padding. Since I was reading 4 of the 6 episodes, it went by pretty quickly, and alternating reading and watching minimized the ennui that might have set in had I been doing all of one or the other.

What we do get see here is the TARDIS landing on an runway at Gatwick Airport, and the gang immediately scattering to avoid arrest. (Nice footwork, Ben.) Polly witnesses an unsual murder in the hangar of Chameleon Tours while she's hiding from the airport cops and thus kicks off an investigation into what exactly Capt. Blade and his henchmen are hiding. That hundreds of people over several months have gone missing after sending a single postcard upon (allegedly) arriving in European vacation spots has resulted in only one precocious young lady (who takes a shine to our Jamie straightaway) coming to look for her missing brother strikes the viewer as wildly improbable. Perhaps the others weren't particularly close to their families ... and didn't have any friends. Anyways, the filming in and around the airport give this one a great sense of place and make it feel very rooted in 'the real world'. (Later, when the series shoots at Heathrow, it's not going to be quite as effective.)

In a move that feels remarkably modern, and shows how deep Nine's roots go in that moment where he tries to work something out with the Nestene in "Rose," the Doctor doesn't arrange for the aliens (who were pretty murderous along the way) to be blown up, he negotiates with them, and in return for the recover of the missing youths, offers to help them solve the dilemma that had seeking human bodies to assume in the first place. He demonstrates an understanding and (perhaps superhuman) amount of compassion for the baddies who were acting, however immorally, in response to an existential threat to their species. The nature of that threat was poorly explained; something to do with a "catastrophe in space" robbing them of their identities, so they had to assume the identities of others to survive ... which makes no sense to me at all. But, glossing over that, the actual resolution to what had been a suspenseful story is surprisingly satisfying.

I didn't realize it while watching, but since I noted her presence in "Image of the Fendahl," I'll quickly point out that Benedict Cumberbatch's mum is also in this one. She'll be back one more time, so I'll try to keep an eye out for her and not to forget to mention it again when I get to "Time and the Rani." If nothing else, there's your worthless trivia for the day.

Doctor Who goggled

Doctor Who - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia | goggles

I contributed (very slightly, it was nearly complete before I arrived) to the TARDIS on on Doctor Who wikipedia page. In case it's gone before long, here's how it looked ...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Moonbase - "There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things ..."

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

Season 4, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #33) | Previous - Next | Index

Only episodes 2 and 4 of this story have survived intact, but we've got the audio, the script, the novelization, and some degree of reconstruction we can lean on for episodes 1 and 3.  I elected to watch my DVD version, which just shows a single snapshot while the audio plays for the ones with no video, and to follow along with the script for the brief descriptions of what's happening around the dialogue. It's less than ideal, of course, but considering how much of the Troughton era is lost, and still lacking animated reconstruction, it's better than nothing.

Perhaps the most striking thing about "The Moonbase" that we can see, is how effectively it uses the black-and-white broadcast medium. Sure, the hats look dopey, you can see the strings lowering the model ships (going to guess paper plate-based construction), but the starkness suits the moonbase setting so well and the design of the control room, with its big dome window showing the barren moonscape outside looks great. The Cybermen are striking in contrast to the empty black of space as they set up their laser cannon to take shots at the base. Very effective.

As has been keyed in upon by Sandifer, we can look to this story as turning point in the series, not the least of which is for the iconic quote (a portion of which is GIFed at the top of the post), but also for being the template for a number of Base Under Siege stories to come.

It's also the return of the Cybermen, only the second baddie (after the Daleks, natch) to make a return. I've not seen "The Tenth Planet" yet, but you can tell from the photos they've changed a bit since their first appearance, looking much more like robots than guys with ski masks on.

The Doctor has Polly, Ben, and Jamie traveling with him in this one, but Jamie gets knocked out early in the first episode and spends much of the time in a bed in sick bay mistaking a Cyberman for the Phantom Piper that appears to MacCrimmons before they die in his family lore. You can tell this mix of companions isn't going to work though; Jamie's going to be a bit of a third wheel if Ben sticks around. Ben and Polly served an important role, bridging first and second Doctors and providing continuity for the viewers, but they feel more like Hartnell companions somehow, a more natural fit (as mod, young Londoners) for the more grandfatherly Hartnell Doctor to play against than this younger, more active Doctor*. Troughton was only twelve years younger than Hartnell, but I'd say he looked like he was twenty years younger.

The science in this one is dodgy, as it is in most Doctor Who stories, but perhaps slightly less than typically dodgy for this era of the show. The international crew of the moonbase is, unsurprisingly, all white, all male ... but at least they have accents and wear t-shirts with their national flags emblazoned across their chests. And, the French crewmen conveniently wears a jaunty little scarf/neckerchief so it's obvious he's très French even when he's not speaking.

There's a little too much of the 'Jamie sees the Piper, moans about not wanting the Piper to take him, it's a Cyberman, it leaves with a body other than Jamie's after feinting as if it would grab his, Polly walks in just in time to see the Cyberman leaving and screams so everyone comes running' going on here. Maybe it only happens two or three times, but once was enough.

If the full video is truly lost forever, I hope this one gets a decent animated remake at some point. Well, I hope they all do, but this is one I'd watch again sooner if it did.

* Whoops. In my write-up of "The War Machines," I said Ben and Polly were more like Troughton companions than Hartnell's. So, apparently, whichever Doctor I see them with, I think they *must* have been a better fit with the other guy. Because they're rubbish with the one I'm watching at the moment. Which is to say, they're rubbish.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Battlefield - "No, my blood and thunder days are long past."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Battlefield - Details

Season 26, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #156)

My first time watching this story. Won't be able to say that too many times during this project. The process goes something like this: read the write-up on the BBC site; check to see if Sandifer or the A.V. Club have written it up; scan the tumblr gifs to see if anybody's had any fun with it; since it's a McCoy, hunt through google for a passionate defender to see if anybody has made a outsider argument that holds any sort of promise ...

This quick survey has me a bit nervous. While I'm delighted to see the Brigadier again, everything I'm reading makes me suspect this is one of those stories that tries to do too much with too many characters (transdimensional Arthurian mythology characters so, of course, The Doctor is/will be Merlin) while looking and sounding like crap that was cheap and dated when it was new and had no chance to age well. Sandifer's defense seems largely based on the fact the novelization does things the show couldn't get around too, but I'm not reading or reviewing the novel, so that's not going to be much help to me. The folks defending it are also the folks who rate "The Curse of Fenric" as a classic. I've tried to watch it twice and just didn't see it; quite the opposite, I found it unbearably tedious. However, I'm going to be going back and trying to approach that one with an open mind later, so maybe "Battlefield" will be the stepping stone that gets me over the hump on "Fenric"?  It did, after all, take three tries before I could abide "Remembrance of the Daleks" (also written by Ben Aaronovitch, who penned this story) and actually became fond of it. Which means I've been broken down and am wearing the tinfoil hat that makes it possible for me to receive only the correct signals, or I was being too harsh and letting the awful production values distract from development of the mythology.

And now that I've watched it, I liked it more than I thought it would, if less than a lot. Let's start with the things that made me cringe: the incidental music, this era is terrible for it; having Ace go racist on Shou Yuing who is in the story apparently just for Ace to have someone to befriend, then call a "yellow, slant-eyed ..." before stopping and realizing Morgaine is using mental tricks to turn them against each so they'll fight and step outside the circle of protection with Excalibur. Look, if that was supposed to be a lesson in "racism is wedge powerful people use to divide the little people who would oppose their plans to become even more powerful," it needed to be better done, because it came off as just a casual slur thrown in the heat of the moment. I've recently read one reviewer's complaint about "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" where he wrote that he would feel obliged to hide his DVD away if he had guests of East Asian descent over to his house. I have to admit, I think I'd have an easier time watching "Talons" with my Chinese friends than sitting through the scene just described. "Talons" certainly is problematic, and I've put off watching it to write about for that very reason -- I love it, but I'm not sure I should. It feels much like if we were to watch a new play today about the making of a Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan movie set in the 1930s. We know it's about a specific cultural moment, when imperial Britain had certain attitudes about "the Orient", and certain attitudes about itself, but both are ridiculous caricatures. 

The problem with "Battlefield" and that moment of racist name-calling is the overall story is just far too silly to bear the weight of what may, or may not, be a moment where we're supposed to reflect on racial tensions and who benefits from them in our capitalist society. The story is not just too silly to bear that burden, it's too silly to be a self-respecting narrative of nothing but let's just have some fun with the Arthur legends. I've ranted this rant before, but a story needs to at least make sense within itself, the internal logic needs to be consistent enough to not make the viewer wonder, "Why are the characters doing this, when it seems to directly contradict what they were doing in the last scene?" If we're doing that, it can still work, if we're watching something that's about the nature of storytelling itself, where it's intended for the viewer to think about why the story they're watching is constructed the way it is, because it has something to say at that meta level. This one doesn't.

So, all that said, why do I still kind of like this story, warts and all? Well, for one, it's helping me get over my loathing of the Ace character. I really want to like her, because I've grown very fond of Sophie Aldred through all the watching of supplemental materials and seeing more of her interviews recently. (I have this same problem with the sixth and seventh Doctors. I'm not exactly fond of either, but both Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are, by all accounts and everything I've seen of them, absolutely delightful human beings who had the misfortune to get cast as the Doctor when the show was of wildly uneven quality and constantly in production chaos of one sort or other.) Apart from having to spit the "yellow, slant-eyed" slur, Sophie Aldred is much more fun to watch as Ace here than she was in the execrable "Dragonfire". Between this and "Remembrance of the Daleks," I'm starting to see why she has fans. I don't remember having these relatively warm fuzzy feelings after watching "Ghost Light" and "Fenric" so it remains to be seen (from my perspective) if her debut was just an unfortunate anomaly.

The (old) Brig and 7 share a moment.
There are those who've argued the Brigadier should have died nobly in his conflict with the Destroyer, that it would have given his character great closure and cemented his legacy. I disagree with that sentiment completely. If the Brigadier had died here, I think we'd be saying, "Wow, they brought Nicholas Courtney back just to kill the Brigadier off in this mess?" He gets most of the good lines in this story and gets to go back home to retiring life with Doris, which seems fair enough for the old soldier. 

The flirty interplay between the blonde-wigged Ancelyn and the new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, may not have been progressive as late as the mid-80s, but at least it wasn't regressive, and the two actors really seem to be enjoying themselves in their roles. 

The (new) Brig, Bambera, and Anceyln roll like thunder into battle.
It's also great casting to bring back Jean Marsh (most notable in Who lore for having played Sara Kingdom in "The Daleks' Master Plan") to play Morgaine here. It's a vampy role and a character who makes precious little sense, but she does her best to sell it and likewise seems to be having a great time back in the fold. 

So, despite its numerous faults and the fact I really can't say it's that well-made a story, this ends up being, for the time being, my second favorite McCoy-era story. It's only the third I've watched since deciding to write up my feelings about every televised story, so there's room for that to change, but what I know or remember about the others makes it a longshot to be unseated.

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