Deep Breath

Change isn’t hard. Doctor Who depends on it. If you count the very first story, in which viewers in 1963 had to get used to an eccentric, cranky old professor whose first adventure took him to prehistoric Earth and saw him apparently willing to murder a caveman if it would help him and his friends, we’ve had to learn to accept twelve different alien faces. So a regeneration story by now is something the show has mastered — done eleven times already in different ways, many of them wildly successful. It was a radical move in 1966, but today it’s old hat.

Wearing the old hat, or more often the old coat, is old hat too. Still, it’s surprising to think back and realize that only once before in the program’s entire history has the new Doctor spent his first half hour of post-regenerative trauma impersonating his previous self. Erratic behavior, yes; lapses into coma, yes; bad jokes, amnesia, yes, yes, and once even an attempted murder, but only once before have they tried (and it seems so obvious if you think about it) to bridge the gap by having the personalities overlap. And even then, because they weren’t sure when they wrote it what the new actor was going to be like, it was a complete accident.

I don’t think it’s an accident here. For the first half hour or so, Peter Capaldi does Matt Smith. Or more accurately, Steven Moffat is writing for Matt Smith. The jokes aren’t Capaldi jokes, they’re Smith jokes. I’m not saying Capaldi shouldn’t flirt, but he definitely should not flirt with dinosaurs. I’m not saying Capaldi shouldn’t do wacky, I’m saying he can’t, or at least he doesn’t. The lines don’t work. And as a result, we have the dizzying, awful feeling that Clara has, that the floor’s dropped from under us. He’s not only not the same man, he’s the wrong man. A stranger’s wearing his shirt and his manner and neither fit. Which means we have only a lizard, a potato, a teacher, and — well, okay, a housemaid slash ninja to save Victorian London from whatever is capable of incinerating a dinosaur and making it look like an accident.

Just about everyone you know who saw “The Eleventh Hour” will tell you they were sold on Matt Smith by “fish fingers and custard.” Steven Moffat can sell you a new Doctor if he wants to, and he doesn’t need 80 minutes to do it. So I don’t think he wanted to. The Smithisms are deliberate. They set up a palpable switchover about the time the new Doctor discovers he’s Scottish and can really complain about things now. It’s the same time the new Doctor discovers he’s willing to swap a tramp’s most useful possession, his source of warmth, for something the tramp will have trouble selling and will never need, a means of telling time. Maybe something the Eleventh Doctor would do. But probably not.

It just gets better from there. For all the worry about how Clara and the new Doctor would work together, they mesh perfectly, by not meshing at all. They make good partners-in-crime; it’s the friendship part that’s tough. Last time we had a prickly new Doctor argue with his companion a lot, it was just unpleasant, but Moffat has written sitcoms, which are nothing but pleasant arguments. Either because she’s no longer a mystery, or because we’ve had a year of her not quite working perfectly, or just because of the new comfortable discomfort, Clara really starts to sing from the restaurant scene onward, and Coleman turns in some of her best acting for the show yet. I’m not entirely convinced that she’s the egomaniac control freak the Doctor thinks he sees; to me this seems like more of a Moffatism, characters diagnosing each other with psychological disorders they don’t actually demonstrate, the way we had “psychopath” defined last season as “a warm, affectionate person who enjoys doing somewhat daring things.” Here she’s just brave, quick on her feet, sure of herself, able to learn from her own mistakes, and, by the end of the episode, willing to adapt in big, significant ways.

And then there’s Capaldi, who just over 30 minutes in settles perhaps not into THE way he’ll play the part (as his interviews perhaps modestly disclaim) but definitely A credible approach. Unsurprisingly, he’s graver, angrier, more forceful, even more physical, yet still dryly funny. He’s a fine actor. It’s not clear he has (or, arguably, needs) the breadth Smith displayed at the best of times, but he might have a greater depth.

So, unusually for a regeneration episode, does the story. On the surface it’s a sequel to “The Girl in the Fireplace,” of course; though the Doctor himself never quite remembers where he’s met the clockwork robots before, we naturally do. Here they’re not just stealing parts for their ship, but also for themselves. They’re like brooms, says the Doctor to the head robot (who is, confusingly, dressed as the Great Intelligence) — replacing bits of themselves as they wear out, till eventually they’ve replaced every part of themselves and are no longer the same broom.

Which is basically what the Doctor’s done. He’s replaced his face, his voice, his hair, his body, his clothes, his personality, and even some of the lighting and furniture in his TARDIS. The blue box remains basically the same, and that’s about it; the screwdriver only dates back one face ago. Is he the same broom? Or just sweeping the same floors? Certainly the manner of the sweeping has changed. There aren’t many moments in Doctor Who‘s history that feel like the scene where he pours two drinks and confesses to the head robot, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m going to have to kill you.” Or the one where it’s implied that this may very well be exactly what he’s done.

Then there’s that coda. “Missy.” Look, I have no inside information, so this isn’t a spoiler, and Moffat’s notorious for leading us down the garden path on these things, but I can’t help thinking of another recurring character in Doctor Who who was also introduced in the classic show’s eighth season and later made a habit of being listed in the credits using eccentric but obvious aliases. Nor can I help thinking of all the hoo-hah about the Doctor being a woman this time, and how thanks to “The Doctor’s Wife” it’s now canon that Time Lords can change sex when they regenerate. I’m just saying.

Oh, and that one time the Doctor acted like his previous incarnation for about half the story? “Spearhead from Space” — the transition from the Second Doctor, on whom Matt Smith reportedly based his own portrayal, to the Third Doctor, on whom Peter Capaldi has apparently based his costume. I’m just saying.

I’ve only scratched the surface here — talked as little as possible about the increasingly forced comedy and even more forced profundity of the Paternoster Gang, implied very little about the Doctor’s redefinition of his relationship with Clara, touched not at all on the intriguing talk of “promised lands” and “heavens” (which the Doctor wants to reach but doesn’t believe in), not even mentioned that lovely phone call at the end. (Not one word of complaint about the worst theme tune revision in the new series, though the graphics are all right.) In a 76-minute story (certainly at least tied with “Day of the Doctor” for the longest unbroken Doctor Who episode), there’s bound to be more than one bucketful in the well.

So here we are at the start of a new cycle of regenerations. The Twelfth Doctor is really the First Doctor. In a way we’re back to basics. In a way it’s a brand new broom.

Pilot season: The Tudors, Clone Wars, The Wire

At one point in my life I would have been up for pretty much anything involving Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but even then it wasn’t because I was impressed with his acting ability. Not much has changed apart from my priorities: he still looks good, I suppose, and he still has all the subtlety and depth of a chartreuse single-ply paper towel. Based on the first episode I’m at a loss to find any good reasons to watch this. I don’t really like any of the characters — even Thomas Becket, whom I used to admire for his principles, now seems a bit of a sanctimonious prick. I’d watch it for the history, if I had any hunch that it was accurate (and I welcome assurances that it is). Otherwise this is most likely to be little more than a fictionalized orgy of over-entitled royals and nobles mistreating their servants and squabbling over territory, and I can get all that plus dragons and the undead in Game of Thrones. The only promising element is Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, and though we know her days are numbered, they’ve got to be fun while they last.

There are only so many animated shows I can get into these days. Since one of them is Adventure Time, I don’t think this is just the snobbery of age. But whenever I hear about how grown-up and “dark” a cartoon is, especially one based on a comic-book or sci-fi premise, I take it with a grain of salt. Even the supposedly innovative animated Batman stuff just looks, sounds, and feels depressingly styleless and bland to me. The animated Hellboy movies I’ve seen have the same problem: with all the inky blackness and strange rhythms of Mike Mignola’s art and dialogue sanded off, there’s little to capture my imagination. So I was interested in Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars, but it had the same problem as his Samurai Jack: all style, no substance. All of that, plus having watched that other pilot with the kidnapped Hutt, weighed heavily against this winning me over. To be fair, there are a lot of good choices in the first proper episode of this: it stars Yoda (the best part of the prequels), it makes him the focus of the action, and it intersperses said action with Yoda’s surprisingly moving leadership and counseling. I’d say it actually does a good job of developing his character. The problem is basic: I don’t really care. The battle droids continue to be almost unbelievably dopey, to the point where even though they’re designed to be cannon fodder that can be destroyed with no qualms of conscience, you end up feeling sorry for them anyway (one actually screams something like “I was about to retire!” as it’s blown to bits). And I find that I just don’t have much investment in learning more about the Star Wars universe these days. If I had to watch a geeky cartoon, or if nothing better were on, sure, I could probably get into this. I’m willing to believe it gets really interesting later on. But for the moment there are too many other things to choose from with a lot more to offer. Such as…

What can I say about this show that hasn’t been said? It was as good as I’d been led to believe: smart, neither condescending nor full of itself, with characters who are compelling without pandering, about something important that should matter to all of us. How could I not watch it? I don’t know how realistic it all is, but it does a good job of faking it to a sheltered guy like me who has no way of verifying any of it. The structure of the first episode is super tight without being in your face; I’m sure a lot of people must have talked at the time about the way the detective’s story and the acquitted kid’s story run in parallel, almost scene for scene. About the worst thing I can say about it is that I have a sneaking suspicion a lot of white people watched it voyeuristically — either confirming racist beliefs about urban black culture, or patting themselves on the back for “educating” themselves. But I also suspect that this show is too smart and self-aware to let viewers of any background and motivation become complacent. Along with Luther, this is the one I’m likely to finish.

Pilot season: The League, The Tomorrow People, Luther

Now that I’ve gotten my girlfriend hooked on Community, I’ve stopped watching it at the gym and started watching it with her. That’s good — if nothing else, it’s slowing us down so that the limited quantity of episodes that are left will last that much longer — but it means I need to find different TV to catch up on while I continue fighting my biology and my appetite. So I’ve bought the pilot episodes of six shows on Google Play and am checking them out one by one. Here are the first three shows you’ve probably already watched that are brand new to me this week.

My impression from the first episode is that this is a show about a group of schlubby straight men who either don’t realize that they want to bang each other, or are too afraid to. This concept could be kind of hot, if the men were kind of hot, but they’re not, so it’s not. They are also obsessed with a game that is basically Dungeons & Dragons, except that its outcome is entirely determined by the choices other men make in the game they’re playing. I was told that this would be entertaining even though I don’t like sports, and that made sense to me in theory. In practice I find that its entertainment value depends on how entertaining I find sports fans, and it turns out the answer is I don’t. If I want to watch Nick Kroll, and I do, I’m evidently going to have to find some way to watch The Kroll Show.

I dug the original Tomorrow People when I was a kid, but let’s be honest, it’s not a show that’s aged well. I’m watching it on DVD, and it’s slow going, because as much as I enjoy the concept — kids finding out they have special paranormal powers that set them apart from the rest of humanity — the execution is all dirt-cheap special effects and rather wooden scripts and acting. There are kids’ shows that hold up today (like Doctor Who, for the most part) and there are kids’ shows that don’t. So in theory I’m fine with seeing this remade. In practice, though it’s much more watchable (aimed at an older audience, decent budget, decent acting and dialogue), it’s lost some of its kitschy charisma in the transition (not to mention the original’s peerless theme song). The cast is visually bland, the protagonists unlikeable, and the subtexty vibe of the original with a slightly lost gang of misfits “coming out” (see also X2) is buried under the (yawn) pecs and cheekbones. Still, the ending caught me by surprise, and I’m just interested enough to think this might be fun to watch on the elliptical.

“Hide” is one of my favorite 21st century Doctor Who stories, while “The Rings of Akhaten”…isn’t. And since Neil Cross wrote both of them, it’s hard to tell which way this is going to go for me. So far this seems pretty middle-of-the-road stuff as detective TV goes. Luther’s a tough but brilliant detective who tends to cross lines and get too involved with his cases? Stop the press! I can see, too, how Cross and Moffat might have started working together, because both are running detective shows where “ordinary” cases are boring and apparently motiveless geniuses who commit crimes simply to enjoy cat-and-mouse games with the police are interesting. Moffat has the advantage of reinventing a legend, while Cross has to create an original character who’s a regular person with flaws and a temper and people he cares about. Still, Idris Elba is at least as charismatic as Benedict Cumberbatch, if perhaps a little more (unintentionally?) enigmatic. This is well-made stuff, and I’ll probably watch more of it at some point, but an hour hasn’t been enough to convince me I need to see how it all turns out.

That’s it for now. Next up: The Tudors, Clone Wars, and — yes, I know, I’ve still never seen it! — The Wire.

Way Beyond Blue

The really remarkable thing about Blue is the Warmest Colour is that it turned out so beautifully given the conditions under which it was reportedly made:

[Director Abdellatif Kechiche] was always searching, because he didn’t really know what he wanted. We spent weeks shooting scenes. Even crossing the street was difficult. In the first scene where we cross paths and it’s love at first sight, it’s only about thirty seconds long, but we spent the whole day shooting it—over 100 takes. By the end of it, I remember I was dizzy and couldn’t even sit. And by the end of it, [Kechiche] burst into a rage because after 100 takes I walked by Adele and laughed a little bit, because we had been walking by each other doing this stare-down scene all day. It was so, so funny. And [Kechiche] became so crazy that he picked up the little monitor he was viewing it through and threw it into the street, screaming, “I can’t work under these conditions!”

And that’s the least upsetting story at that link. I don’t get as angry about men who put beautiful women in their films or even men who seem to be playing out their fantasies through their scripts using actors as puppets as I do about men who are truly abusive to the actresses in their films. If you can’t get a great performance from the great performer you hired without putting them through torture — unless they’ve asked for it — you’re not a great director.

I still think this is a very good film, but I’m giving the credit for that to its cast.

Blue is the Warmest Colour

One of the things I most appreciated about Blue is the Warmest Colour — about all of the last three films I saw, actually, so Under the Skin and Jodorowsky’s Dune as well — was the sense in all three of intention over cliché. This is probably old hat to people who regularly watch more foreign, arty, and highbrow films than I do, but the films all avoided the kinds of hyperbolic incident and melodrama that a steady diet of (mostly) mainstream American film has led me to expect as normal, just the way you make a movie. With few exceptions, all three kept an even keel and a deliberate hand, telling their very different stories (documentary, romance, reverse science fiction horror alien weirdness) in a way where each scene seemed expressive rather than stupidly extreme. For example, in Blue I kept waiting for something capital-A Awful to happen — someone gets kicked out of the house or disowned for being a lesbian, someone throws a lamp at someone else sending them to the hospital, someone gets raped — and the absence of it seemed not only merciful but respectful toward its characters and the reality of life. It felt honest, not because such things don’t happen in real life, but because they drown out the rest of the story in their intensity, narrow the range of reactions we’re allowed to have (either unalloyed compassion or cynicism, i.e. you either complain about being manipulated or you let it happen), and distance us from what becomes, in its density of tragedy, obviously just a movie.

I’m not a native French speaker — I have enough to recognize a lot of the words in the dialogue, but not enough that I’d be able to follow it without subtitles. So I can’t speak to the verbal acting, but it sounded natural to me, and the conversations taking place mostly seemed natural, with a few exceptions (in particular the confrontation between Adèle and her friends about whether she’s a lesbian seemed forced, compressed from the way it would normally play out, perhaps for time — one of the film’s few melodramatic moments). The film spends time listening to its characters’ thoughts on philosophy, art, and literature without seeming intent on underlining every single word as significant; the thoughts are relevant, but they’re not edited for pithiness and highlighted in chartreuse. It’s a long film, at three hours, but the pacing seems generous and not self-indulgent; willing to let us live with our protagonists, not just be shoved through a ruthlessly guided tour of the museum exhibits of their lives.

I suspect this sort of thing is one reason cinephiles enjoy foreign film. Another is probably the nudity — and really, why not? I’m not opposed to violence in movies, but I’m definitely of the camp that would, any day, prefer gratuitous sex on screen than gratuitous violence, and considers it healthier. All three of the films I mentioned are so un-American as to show penises, and two of them show erections. This seems admirably equitable, though there’s no doubt that both Under the Skin and Blue are more eager to linger on the female nudity. It’s a bit of a surprise that it’s the Hollywood star, Scarlett Johansson, who has the most “unusual” body — undeniably beautiful, but (and perhaps because) it’s not idealized or (ironically) mannequin-thin. Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos have the kinds of bodies we’ve come to expect to see on screen, and we see a lot of them. I think it’s artistically justified to feature the kind of extended sex scenes this film has become notorious for; the characters’ physical passion for one another is part of the story, and the actresses play the emotional passion of the scenes as well, such that one ought instead to call them “extended love scenes.” That said, though I myself am not a lesbian (disqualified by sex, among other things), I did wonder unprompted whether the scenes were realistic. At the very least, Adèle seems to be a quick study — if she, seemingly inexperienced with women, has anything to learn from Emma, we move past those unseen moments and into a time when they seem immediately to know each other’s bodies unprompted. Some of the things they do together seem inspired more by porn and popular myth than the reality of lesbian sex, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that these were two straight actresses being directed by a man (and furthermore that they weren’t as comfortable with these scenes as they appear). Of course this is okay, except insofar as they should at least have asked a woman who’s had sex with women whether the depiction is at all true to life. More importantly, while these scenes are passionate, they aren’t especially illuminating; we learn that these two have great sex, but we see very little of the specific emotions each is feeling moment to moment or, apart from a comment about how Adèle’s parents think she and Emma are in separate beds, the time and place in which they’re doing it and what considerations come into play. I’m not the one to say it’s problematic — I would leave that to those with more at stake in the matter — but I don’t know if it works as it should have, and easily could have.

Ultimately I enjoyed the film, sad as it was, but I did feel — perhaps in contradiction to my earlier point — that its trajectory was never in doubt. It didn’t surprise me, as Under the Skin did. Maybe this is inevitable, since it’s a story about humans and not bizarre body-snatching doppelgangers, and since all love stories are the same: they meet, they fall in love, they fight, they fall out of love, they meet again, they get back together or they part for good, the end. And as far as films seem to think, all gay love stories are even more the same: closet case meets out-and-confident, one of them may or may not be bisexual, do we tell our parents or hide it?, are you ashamed of me?, all the familiar tropes are there, including the intimidating gay bar with its leeringly forward denizens (seriously?). I knew what we’d see from start to finish, with only (!) the script, performances, and cinematography making it a decidedly worthwhile experience.

But what we tend to forget, when we’ve seen enough of these movies, is that we have yet to move out of a world where they’re relevant. There’s some young girl (or guy) out there who will watch this with her best friend and slowly or suddenly recognize herself in it, who has no more of a clue at that point than anyone what women do together in bed but knows she wants to do it, who sees that this film is based on a story that knows her, knows what she loves and how she loves. There’s a generation for whom this might very well be their coming-out film, the one they fondly remember as the one that first reflected who they were. Even if it were a terrible film — and it absolutely is not — it would be worthwhile for that alone.

Under the Skin

I was about 75% of the way through Under the Skin the novel when I decided I couldn’t wait and needed to see the film. I was spellbound by it, though one scene toward the end bothered me because it seemed gratuitous. And then I finished the book and found that it contains a similar scene (though the scenes don’t end the same way). So there are some common threads between book and movie, but on the whole they’re as different as two stories can be. The bones of the premise are the same, the change that happens to the protagonist (“Isserley,” in the book; no one has a name in the movie) is roughly equivalent, and both end with the same imagery. Apart from that, they diverge in terms of plot, incident, theme, tone, setting, and of course verbosity. The book’s very interior, as books can be; the movie lives at the furthest extreme of exteriority.

The book concerns itself with questions about the difference between humans and animals and how we treat each of them; about the way we work (or don’t) and the role of class resentment and distrust in maintaining the status quo; about denial and repression; and about how making connections can save us and kill us. Apart from this last, the film has different interests: to the extent they’re decipherable, they seem to deal with the difference between manufactured and genuine humanity and the way in which utter amorality and budding compassion can both, in a sense, cut through the superficial and get to the heart of reality.

The book is almost too straightforward in expressing its themes, but it’s so vividly and soberly imagined, crafted with such attention to detail, and so generous to its characters that it turns a potential punchline or Twilight Zone-esque twist into a gradual, inevitable realization. It works very well, stumbling only a little toward the end, and would be my choice if I had to recommend one of the two. But the film is so remarkable in its way, so fascinatingly alien and opaque, reducing almost all its dialogue to the dull murmur of a foreign language one speaks but does not comprehend without effort, that it’s not to be missed.

Reading and Watching, April 2014

Ohhhh, it’s been a while. I’ve spent the last few months either onstage or writing sketch comedy instead of writing about Doctor Who. Which is healthy, I think. I do have a couple of Who-related posts I’m drafting, just for fun, as well as a music project I’m really excited about. Right now I’m thinking the music thing will not be hosted here, but I’ll post pointers to it from here at the very least. So to the two people who are still subscribed to this site in some way: I’m still alive, for now, and still writing, for now, and there’s stuff in the works.

To tide you over, and maybe push that costume down the page (it’s not growing on me — hopefully I just need to see it in action), here are some short notes on the stuff I’ve been consuming over the past few months.

Let’s start with comics, just because. I’m super excited about Saga, the latest acclaimed series from Bryan K. Vaughan (who wrote Ex Machina and Runaways, which I liked, and Y: The Last Man, which I generally didn’t) and Fiona Staples. The art is fantastic, and the story is wonderfully all over the place, centering on two soldiers on opposing sides of a war who fall in love and have a baby and are running for their lives. The “all over the place” part is that the fantasy world they’re in is the most freewheeling, imaginative one I’ve seen in a long time. Android noblemen with TVs for heads, amphibious tabloid reporters, feline lie detectors, just the right amount of magic, plus a ghost babysitter who’s minus a pelvis and legs. Done right, this kind of no-rules fantasy world is the most fun you can have in fiction, and so far this series has me hooked. Meanwhile I’m souring on superheroes. I picked up an issue of She-Hulk just because the art was cute, but I’m not sure it’s worth $3-$4 a month. And Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman…I’m trying, but let’s be honest, it’s really Brian Azzarello’s Greek Gods, Oh, and Some Amazon Without a Personality. I’m giving it till the end of the third volume to get better and then I’m cutting my golden lasso loose.

Bookwise, I’ve got about ten going at once, which is even easier to do with a Kindle than it was with real books. The last one I finished was Grasshopper Jungle by an Andrew Smith who didn’t write “Full Circle.” Instead he wrote the apocalypse as told by Kurt Vonnegut after an all-night William S. Burroughs bender, which is a terrible description, so forget it. It’s actually also one of a handful of books I’ve read that pretty much nails what it’s like to be a bisexual guy, not just the interior conflicts but also the effect it has on your relationships and the way you feel about yourself. It’s good shit. I liked it. I’m just starting Under the Skin, which I might or might not finish before I see the movie.

Speaking of movies, I finally gave Sucker Punch a chance and was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it’s great art, but I agree with Philip Sandifer that it’s way better than the cheesecakey cover would make it appear. I’m not and hope never to be in the business of deciding whether something is feminist or not, but if you are, you might find it’s not a no-brainer.

Then I watched Scarface, certainly not a feminist movie. I don’t know if it’s great art — again, I think probably not — but it was fun to watch. Pacino’s quite good, though his Cuban accent seemed kinda cartoony most of the time; I kept trying to squint and imagine an actual Cuban in the role. It doesn’t help that he’s so famous, because every time a gangster crosses him you just want to reach out and slap them and go, “This is Al Pacino, doofus! If you’re not on his side by the end of the scene, you’re dead meat!” And poor Manny. I knew he was doomed, but at least he lasted longer than I expected.

TVwise I’m trying (so, so late) to get into Community. The first episode was okay. I’ve heard you have to get through the first season before it starts to get really great. Why do you hear that so often? It’s not like it’s impossible to be great out of the gate — Arrested Development did it, Dead Like Me did it, the new Battlestar Galactica, even the new Doctor Who. Which brings us to my Who viewing, which mainly has been the Fourth Doctor snoozefest Underworld, and the First Doctor’s regeneration story, The Tenth Planet. I’d never seen the latter before, though I’d read the novelisation. It’s way more Troughtonesque than Hartnellish. It’s pretty good for the time. The Cybermen are super weird in it, and while the ways in which they’re weird are often laughable, they could do worse than being that weird again.

Capaldi’s Costume


It’s not bad. My first reaction was that it was somehow both too fussy and too plain, and definitely too much like a costume. The purple jacket from season 7B was getting to be a little much already, and this is in the same self-conscious vein. But then I saw the images juxtaposing Capaldi and Jon Pertwee, and those make it very clear what they were going for. If Tennant was Davisonesque and Smith was the best mix of Baker and Troughton there could ever be, Capaldi can very easily be Pertwee.

Shoes: A+
Pants: C
Jacket: B-
Shirt: A
Cardigan: WTF?

It’s going to be an interesting season. I still haven’t decided if I want to write about it or not. I might just try enjoying it and reacting to it, rather than critiquing it. We’ll see.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

When I was a kid, I loved The Hobbit and read it over and over. The Lord of the Rings, apart from isolated moments (mostly Shelob and the destruction of the ring at Mount Doom), bored the pants off me — I dragged myself through it once (I used to say that I’d moved my eyes over every page) and that’s it. When the Peter Jackson films were announced, I decided I wanted to try rereading the novels before seeing them, and was surprised to find them quite entertaining. All the stuff with the humans that had made The Two Towers such a slog for me as a kid was suddenly the most interesting part. The films weren’t that bad, though I did find them a little too serious in mood. To my mind, the bits with the hobbits should have lightened things up a bit, but Jackson chose to play up the burden of the ring rather than present Sam and Frodo as I saw them: ordinary, life-sized characters against a backdrop of myth, people who liked the comforts of home and a good meal and feet up by the fire but who had been drawn into a story too large for them. On the whole, though, I enjoyed them well enough.

So I had high hopes for the three films that would somehow stretch the book I’d preferred as a child (and which I have not reread as an adult) into a similar epic. I didn’t love An Unexpected Journey, though; it wasn’t terrible, but some of the scenes felt wrong to me. The dwarves were too heroic, and Bilbo too stoic, to square with what I’d remembered. I’d been one of maybe three people in the world not to be thoroughly enchanted with Andy Serkis’s Gollum (a big part of the problem being that he sounds far too much like Gurgi and Glomer), but the riddle scene could have saved the first movie all by itself for me if Martin Freeman had sold it to me. Unfortunately either Jackson or Freeman has decided that Bilbo is only ever mildly discomfited, never actually afraid, and as agreeable and competent as I find Martin Freeman in other stuff, he barely makes an impression on me in this role.

All of which is a probably unnecessary preamble to my main point, which is that I found The Desolation of Smaug utterly stultifying, a complete waste of time. It wasn’t just the intromission of Legolas and Thauriel and their juvenile, poorly written plot thread. The whole thing was just unwatchable. Of the few parts I enjoyed even a little, only Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, and a few moments in Mirkwood (the dwarves’ disorientation and the spider peril) come to mind. Benedict Cumberbatch is wasted as Smaug (who, like Khan, has been scripted and directed so generically that it hardly matters who’s playing him), and his CGI form somehow manages to be as dull and obvious as possible. Between Cumberbatch’s generic villain delivery and Freeman’s asking-for-a-promotion-on-The-Office minimal panic, the confrontation between dragon and hobbit is as snooze-inducing as the riddle game had been. And the less said about the dwarves’ daffy battle with the dragon, the better.

This is a film that features some dramatic technical achievement hitched to a shocking lack of imagination — the very best in cinematic talent used to bring a plodding, obvious vision to what can barely be called life. Where the film presents scenes that are actually in the book, it tries too hard to present what we expect to see based on decades of taking these books as a template for countless imitative high fantasy sagas, rather than putting an ounce of thought into coming up with something that would seem as fresh and exotic and thrilling to us now as those elements did back then. Where the film presents new or imported material, it flounders and resorts to cliché. Or it drafts Stephen Fry to play an embarrassingly superfluous role.

I know I’m going to sit through the last film. I’ve come this far, and even though we’re at the point in The Hobbit where I started to get bored even while reading it, I’m hopeful that there’s surely something that made Peter Jackson think it would be worth devoting another 2 or 3 hours to this part of the story. But this time I might have to wait until I can watch it in my living room.

If you’d like more reasons to dislike the Jackson Hobbit, meander over to “Peter Jackson’s Violent Betrayal of Tolkien”. I agree with pretty much every word.

The Time of the Doctor

This Christmas, the time of one of my favorite Doctors drew to a slightly disappointing close, with a potentially moving elegy buried beneath an avalanche of eh. But let’s have one more go at picking apart yet another overstuffed Moffat finale, five minutes at a time, and see if we can focus on the good bits.

0:00 – 5:00
Handles is, of course, one of the good bits. We’ve had a cuddly Sontaran and a cuddly Silurian, so naturally now we have to have a cuddly Cyberman (still waiting on the cuddly Dalek, unless you count Oswin). He talks and thinks like K9, which is quite welcome.

This opening was actually quite promising, full of the jokey stuff Moffat does best. “How those Cyber-evenings must fly.” “It’s a roller coaster, this phone call.” “Yeah, I [invented a boyfriend] once. And there’s no easy way to get rid of an android.” Brilliant.

Later we’ll discover that the message is from the Time Lords. So why can’t the Doctor translate it? Why, for that matter, can’t he recognize Dalek or Cyberman ships when he sees them?

And this is still my favorite title sequence of the new series. Maybe ever.

5:01 – 10:00
This bit about the Doctor being naked to go to church is almost funny, but not quite. You can just hear Moffat thinking, “I’m going to have a much harder time doing this joke with Capaldi naked, so I’d better pull the trigger on it now.” It feels a little desperate, but at least it leads to a reprise of the joke in “The End of Time” where elderly women fancy the Doctor.

Cooking a baby in the TARDIS led to a pseudo-Time Lady who was eventually turned into the Doctor’s assassin, so hey, why should cooking a turkey be any less safe, right?

Interesting that where RTD had space-cops (the Shadow Proclamation), Moffat has a space-church-army (the Papal Mainframe).

There’s a theory floating about that Tasha Lem is supposed to be River Song, but the scene just before the ten-minute mark suggests that either she’s never met this Doctor before (hence predating the Alex Kingston version) or her relationship with him is such that he believes she’s never met this Doctor before (hence…I have no idea). I’m calling: no relation.

10:01 – 15:00
Love the spitting-out-the-wine bit one more time.

Love this bit with the Silence, too. They haven’t been my favorite monsters, but this is a nice use of sound and editing to make this one super-creepy. The Angels…a little less super-creepy, but nice attempt.

15:01 – 20:00
It’s quite a good wig, isn’t it? Some more very good quips, well-written by Moffat, well-delivered by Smith. I love the idea of the town where no one can lie, and I love the people he meets who explain it to him.

Interesting that this crack has been haunting the Eleventh Doctor since his incarnation. I missed it the first time round, but this is apparently what was in his room in “The God Complex.” Is it the crack he was afraid of, or the people on the other side? Presumably the former, since at the time he thought those people destroyed, but it’s interesting to have some sort of answer to the question.

The Doctor “nicked [the Seal of the High Council of Gallifrey] off the Master, in the Death Zone” in “The Five Doctors,” all the way back in 1983. There’s your pub quiz sorted.

20:01 – 25:00
The repetition of “Doctor who?” never fails to sound embarrassing. I really hope this is the last time we have to hear it.

25:01 – 30:00
I quite like the idea of immobilizing Weeping Angels with mirrors. It’s surprising we haven’t seen it before now. Why is the wooden Cyberman infringing Dalek copyright on verbs ending in “-ate”?

And why is the Doctor aging? Is it something that happens to him only when he’s been away from the TARDIS, experiencing consecutive time for long periods? He got through 300 years leading up to “The Impossible Astronaut” with barely a laugh line, so there must be something different here.

“Cool is not cool!”

30:01 – 35:00
Here’s the heart of the episode: “a town that needs me to stick around.” This is something that this incarnation of the Doctor in particular has been averse to. In “Vincent and the Doctor” he’s appalled by time passing very slowly in the right order; in “The Power of Three” he can barely sit on a couch thirty seconds waiting for a cube to hatch. I never got the sense that he was waiting to be needed, or waiting to find somewhere to settle down. But maybe for some people that’s how it is; settling down is what happens when they’re thinking that any minute the TARDIS is going to come back. And after a while, they feel as though it’s where they were always meant to be.

And here’s the regeneration limit made official for the new series: it’s 13 lives and out, just like in the classic series, and yes, both John Hurt and Rose’s human Doctor count.

35:01 – 40:00
I don’t really understand why you’d want to forget that you’d confessed. Seems more likely you’d want your confessor to forget what you’d told them. But now we know who blew up the TARDIS, and why there are so many different takes on “silence will fall”: religious sectarianism. Same as it ever was.

And the Daleks know who the Doctor is again. Looks like we got about as much mileage out of the “forgetting the Doctor” setup as we did out of the candy-colored Daleks (i.e. none). How did they kill Tasha several times? Even if she were River Song (talking about herself — “they engineered a psychopath to kill you”), didn’t she shed all her regenerations in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? Is she another Time Lord, and if so, who is she and where did she come from?

40:01 – 45:00
And if she’s not River Song, what does the line “you’ve been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life” refer to? Does the Doctor just have a thing for psychopathic women? Clara seems to think so.

45:01 – 50:00
I like this moment, where Clara’s gran declines to tell the funny anecdote about the pigeon and tells the touching story instead, just after saying how she prefers the crackers with jokes to the ones with poems. It’s contradictory and quite beautiful.

Here’s Tasha flying the TARDIS. More evidence for the River Song hypothesis. I suppose you could also apply it to Romana, or even the Rani, but who wants to go there? I don’t. Can’t there be more than three women in the universe who can fly TARDISes?

I’ve seen some people complaining about the old age makeup. I think it’s pretty effective, myself.

“Talk very fast, hope something good happens, take the credit. That’s generally how it works.”

50:01 – 55:00
I’m not sure I like the idea of the Time Lords coming back at all — generally I like that Gallifrey is no longer in this universe, since lost is almost as good as destroyed for keeping them from causing trouble by returning and being underwhelming. And I’m really not sure I like Clara praying to them and asking them to help “if you love him.” But maybe they help because they know there’s only one person she would talk about this way, and because they know they’re going to need him, and he’s no use to them dead.

It’s a nicely understated way to reboot him: just a little orange snowball through the crack in the universe, and we’re away. However mixed my feelings about this story might be, I do appreciate its restraint in comparison to, say, “The End of Time.”

55:01 – 60:00
…well, restraint in most respects. Regeneration energy as a weapon of mass destruction is a bit of a stretch, and it was fairly silly back in “The End of Time” when it just acted to demolish the TARDIS interior. But this is a pretty momentous regeneration — the start of a whole new cycle — and the breaking of a few rules is gonna be par for the course.

But at least this Doctor faces death with dignity. Having lived for centuries probably helps you do that; we don’t know how long the Tenth Doctor was around for, but it was probably less than 600-plus years.

Lovely cameo by Amy. One of the nicest moments of the episode. I’m really going to miss him, and now I’m really going to miss her too.

60:01 – 61:06
And in a blink, he’s Peter Capaldi. I would love to say that this was a memorable entrance, but instead it’s a briefer reprise of Matt Smith’s first few moments: a comment about changed body parts (the rather forced “kidneys” bit) and then “we’re crashing.” I would have liked to see something a bit more interesting from a brand new Doctor with a rebooted regeneration cycle, something to make me look forward to the new season, but then I didn’t like Matt Smith until the first five minutes of “The Eleventh Hour” either, so there’s plenty of time.

I liked this episode better the second time around. I didn’t love it, and I wish it had been weighed down less by wrapping up leftover questions (and raising new ones in the form of Tasha Lem), but it did its job, and gave Matt Smith a quietly heroic exit. Perhaps no exit could have done justice to a Doctor this lovable. But everything changes, even if it’s always too soon.