Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lesson in Hollywood, from Uma Thurman

When you're eighteen, you play Venus.

When you're forty, you play Medusa.

That is all.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Geeky Blog Post

[image 1]

Single word conveying exasperation. Witty statement. (1)

[image 2]

Point-by-point analysis of how image 1 is simply Missing . The. Point., starting with the tips of the guy's wings. Witty statement. Briefly bring math in to this. Assert that image 1 is incapable of appearing realistic on screen. Rational acceptance that the vagaries of prime-time television can't allow for the kind of literal translation one would expect. (2) Point out, however, that they've been doing this kind of crap before. For, like, ten years. Supporting example. And another, because seriously, that painted-on mask wasn't fooling anyone. What if it rained?

Summary of argument. Conclusion. Labored invocation of an even more obscure figure in popular culture (3). Witty statement.

  1. Footnote
  2. Second footnote, reminding us this isn't the first time the character's been handled poorly. Remember those Baby Ruth commercials?
  3. Probably Zatanna, because really.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Essential Viewing

So, you've got through David Tennant's swansong and are eager for more 'Who?' Can't wait 'till Spring to see it turned up to 11? Want to bone up on your classic series knowledge? My recommendations for the best serial for each of the seven classic Doctors is below. Where possible I've included a clip of the episode, although in the case of One, Five and Seven, they're fan-made trailers.

First: The Aztecs—“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line!” Most people who grew up with First Doctor stories say his fourth story, “Marco Polo” is his best, but that one got chucked in the bin. To save space, the BBC wiped dozens of Dr Who stories from the Sixties (Syndication hadn’t been invented yet) and “Polo” as one of the casualties. However, as historical adventures go, you can’t get much better than “The Aztecs,” which sees The Doctor’s companion Barbara trying to steer the course of Aztec society away from human sacrifice, only to cement it. It was the beginning of a kind of waxing and waning when it came to what you could do with history, but as a story and as an example of what the series could do even with a limited budget, it’s stellar.

Second: The Tomb of the Cybermen—The story behind this serial is almost as cool as the story within it. Though lost from the BBC archives, a print of “Tomb” was found almost twenty-five years later in a basement in a Hong Kong BBC affiliate studio. The story is the second to feature the Cybermen, and easily the strongest story they’ve been in. Troughton’s Doctor plays to his strengths here, pretending to be a buffoon while playing a group of archaeologists against each other, all to buy enough time to stop the Cybermen from awakening from their frozen tombs and slaughtering them all.

Third: The Sea Devils—Does what Pertwee’s era does best. Monsters, The Master, and a plot to take over the world. The Sea Devils are an offshoot of an ancient race of reptiles that lived on Earth millions of years ago, then escaped underground when catastrophe threatened. Now they’re back. Except they’re not all bad. They’re being manipulated by The Doctor’s opposite number, The
Master, played by the incomparable Roger Delgado.

(The guy with this clip disabled embedding. It's here: )

Fourth: City of Death—Tom Baker’s era on the program can be separated in two: the brooding, gothic-horror inspired tales of his early run (such as “Pyramids of Mars” and “The Brain of Morbius”) and the more Star Wars-flavored space opera of the latter end, like “The Ribos Operation” and “City of Death.” Both, incidentally, wear Douglas Adams’ fingerprints all over them, which is why “City” remains my favorite of the Baker era. Adams was script editor for Doctor Who in 1979 before going on to some other sci fi series no one’s ever heard of. “City” brims with Adams wit and flair for language and shows off Baker at his zany, weird best.

Fifth: The Caves of Androzani—It’s kind of a tragedy that Peter Davison’s far and away best serial would be his last in the role, but “Caves” is a classic, one of the all-time greats of the whole series. “Caves” remains an object lesson: rather than being about galaxies exploding or timelines erasing, reality bombs or Dalek armies, this serial manages to ratchet up the tension by placing just two people in danger, The Doctor and his companion Peri, who has been poisoned and is slowly dying.

Sixth: The Mark of the Rani—By the time Colin Baker assumed the role, things had gotten a bit stale. Baker hardly has a good serial to call his own and struggled under the demands of a role that shifted underneath his feet by the time he got it. “Mark” has a lot of classic Who elements—historical setting, bad guys mucking about with time, mindless drone henchfolk—enough to become rote, but Baker, in this serial at least, invests it with enough verve and joy to compensate. It wasn’t until much later with the audio plays, that we got a full idea of what we missed from this era.

Seventh: The Curse of Fenric—By the Seventh Doctor’s era, things were changing again, and “Curse” was meant to be a sign of things to come. Sylvester McCoy had first been charged with portraying the character as a blundering fool, but his portrayal of the character darkened in Season 26, becoming much more the manipulator, willing to place his friends in danger in order to achieve a greater goal.

He Will Knock Four Times

Where to start? I finally watched the Dr Who New Year's Special yesterday, and like everyone else, I was half keeping my eye out for that last minute. For our first glimpse of The New Guy, Matt Smith.

So let me get that out of the way first:

So there's that, then. He still looks too young to even shave, and his first few lines didn't do much to dispel the off-put feeling I felt when his casting was announced. Still. Back in time.

Part 1 of "The End of Time" was a tremendous letdown at first because it didn't follow up on what "Waters of Mars" was promising, that somehow The Master's return was linked to Ten screwing with history like, well, The Master. Instead we get some bizarrely over-the-top cliched prophecy bullshit, and wild overacting from Simm. I miss Roger Delgado.

It was all lead-up to this, though. Part 2 was a vast improvement, with more of those quiet moments Davies does well when he's not threatening the Universe in some bizarrely new convoluted fashion.

For those of you who aren't as rabid as I am, Timothy Dalton plays Rassilon here. Rassilon is basically Time Lord Jesus. In the classic show he sort of originated their entire society millions of years ago, and every other damn thing is the Staff of Rassilon or the Key of Rassilon or the Coffee Mug of Rassilon. He showed up once in the classic series as a talking mummified corpse; the Time Lords must have brought him back to lead the fight, or something.

And speaking of Time Lords, I don't know who that lady Claire Bloom was playing was. The most obvious answer is she was The Doctor's Mum, or Susan (his grand-daughter) or Romana (the only Time Lord other than Susan to travel with him). Lucky thing that she managed to switch from her red robes to a smart white suit number when traveling across time-locked whoozits.

I'd always figured they'd come back in some form or another (Davies doesn't like to let anything lie) but was pleasantly surprised when it was just to grumble around and threaten the Universe in, again, some draconian and excruciating way. The Doctor as re-envisioned by Davies has been personified by his survivor's guilt, and that's explored more in depth here, rather than being absolved by some McGuffin.

Far and away, however, the best bit of "Part Two" was the end. Just like The Ninth Doctor's tenure, we're given a whole bait-and-switch through this episode. We expect the four knocks to come from The Master, and they don't. We expect Wilf to somehow save Ten, by taking up arms (even though we know this is the end) and he doesn't. We expect a lot of sound and fury (because this is Russel T. Davies) and we get that (again: Russel T. Davies) but it's not the sound and fury and universe-ending peril that does Ten in.

In really the only good scene in Part 1, (a quiet scene, note) he explains the stakes to Wilf, and to the audience. The Doctor is functionally immortal. He's got thirteen lives (though I'm sure if the show remains as popular as it is right now, they'll find a way around that). He's died more times than Gary Coleman's career, so it's hard to imagine the stakes here. So Ten lays them out. He's not going to walk away from this, someone else is. Someone else with his name and his memories but not him. A new man in the way they've all been new men.

The best Doctor send-off of the classic series was the Fifth, in "The Caves of Androzani." There's good reason for it. Rather than galaxies exploding or the Cybermen turning everyone's brains in to rice pudding, "Caves" is all about The Doctor racing against time to save his friend. Just one person, just one life. And in what I'd unabashedly say is the most affecting scene of the series, The Doctor does what he does best. He jumps in, feet first, and saves somebody.

Tennant's resignation to his fate is the series' most affecting moment because it's the series'--and the Doctor's--most human. We're about to be separated from him (again) and unlike the byzantine reasons he gets separated from his companions (walls of the universe, Time Lord Metacrisis) this is a human one. He doesn't want to go, but the man he's become, the man he's worked all his life to become, won't let him go any other way.

And this is where Tennant really shines. Drop the overpresent musical score, no growling Time Lords or shrieking Daleks or scene-chewing Masters, just him, and old man, and a locked room.

And then we get a series of goodbyes long enough to make you think The Doctor had fought Sauron or something, which would feel self-indulgent if it didn't feel earned. And then he changes, his last words being what anyone's last words would be. "I don't want to go." It's a grounded moment, a human moment, and in a show like this--a bull loose in the china-shop of physics--that human moment is critical. It grounds us, reminds us, and sends off this character with whom we've spent all this time in a proper fashion. Allons-y.

Looking back:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Way-Back Machine

Full Disclosure: I have not seen the 2010 New Year's Day Dr Who special, "The End of Time, Pt. Two." It's on its wholly legitimate way to me right now. So I'm sitting here, studiously avoiding spoilers for the next few hours or so, and I'm thinking, what with this being a milestone and all, the passing of David Tennant's--an actor who has become as synonymous with the role as anybody--era, that I'd take a little trip in time of my own and go back and revisit that first glimpse I had of that blue box on the TV screen.

Oh, and happy 2010.

If you grew up in the United States in the 1970's, you got first exposed to Dr Who through that great medium of PBS, which brought us other such gems as Red Dwarf, Are You Being Served? and Blackadder from the British Isles. I didn't. I grew up in the Eighties, and despite the fact that two of the aforementioned shows also came from the Eighties, the PBS affiliate in my home state didn't carry Who by the time I was of the impressionable age for it to be most appropriate. I can't imagine how I would have grown up if it did, how terribly it would have exacerbated my wanderlust.

What I did have were the Target novelizations, all in a rack, in the Westmoor Elementary school library. They existed in this no-man's land between describing the show to someone who'd never seen it and seeming to rely on an insider's knowledge of the show's internal logic.

Still. What fun.

I didn't actually see an episode of Doctor Who until I was fifteen, when it made its ill-fated landing on these shores. Short version: The BBC serial was canceled in 1989, after 26 years and a progressively dwindling rate of return. Almost immediately there was interest in reviving it in some form, frequently distilling to the form of a big-budget Hollywood picture. Steven Spielberg's name was dropped. Animations were tested for a new, less clunky version of the Daleks, called Spider Daleks. We didn't see them, but you can find about 6 seconds of the footage on YouTube.

These big-screen dreams never materialized, and Doctor Who floundered in Hollywood until a script got optioned for a pilot. It aired on Fox in March of 1996. And then it died. I want to say that it died because it was a bit crap (which it was) but this is TV and the two are hardly ever connected, unless conversely. No, it died because of poor marketing and, if memory serves, because it was put up against Roseanne, a heavy-hitter of the time.

So no Who for me. Despite this, and despite the fact that the pilot was a huge clunker in terms of plotting, pacing, and (as I would understand later) betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding about how this hero should be presented, the thing stayed in the back of my head for a few years, until I got to college.

College was where I met Tom Baker.

Well. I say "met" but that's rubbish. What I mean to say is that it was in college where I rediscovered Doctor Who, specifically Tom Baker's mid-1970's run, specifically in these VHS collected editions of his stories. Starting with "The Robots of Death."

That's The Doctor explaining--as well as he can to his assistant Leela and to the audience--how his time machine works. The whole "Robots of Death" serial is fantastic. Here's a show ostensibly aimed at children and, apart from all the deaths in it, Baker's Doctor goes on to casually explain the whole theory of the uncanny valley and why all robots are slightly creepy, when he's not dealing with some demento who takes to robots like Buffalo Bill took to attractive young ladies.

I was hooked. Here was a guy who could go anywhere. Past, present, future, anywhere in the universe. And that to me was his gift. Not his sonic screwdriver or his two hearts, or any of the other alien gifts that came with the package. Here's a guy who just went, who carried on his boots the dust of a thousand worlds and times. Plus: Leela. Total babe. And Romana. Both of her.

I didn't get back in to it 'till 2006 and the BBC revival on the SciFi channel. I remembered why I got hooked in the first place. I tracked down all the Baker serials, then Pertwee, Troughton, Hartnell, the other Baker, Davison & McCoy. I devoured them voraciously. And even the rubbish episodes--of which there are quite many--couldn't diminish that first promise, that if you turned the right street corner, stepped in to the right box, that you could go anywhere.

See you in the future.