doctor who: approaching the finale

I love the internet and the people who post things on it. Thanks to these diligent souls I’m now ahead of the Sci-Fi Channel and all the way up through episode 11 of seas 4 of Dr. Who (“Turn Left”).

I’m a fan of the new series now, even though I still think it’s only intermittently good. The first episode this season I thoroughly enjoyed was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and the two-parter that’s currently airing (“Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”) was even better. And then there was “Midnight,” which looked like it would be a stinker and ended up a slice of modern drama Sartre might have appreciated. It’s hard to believe this is the team behind that dopey “Adipose” stuff and the episode where the Empire State Building was architected by Daleks.

And I have to admit, I’ve really come to appreciate Donna. What she lacked initially in charm and youthful beauty compared to Rose and Martha she’s made up in character and sheer force of personality. The other two seem pretty shallow now in comparison. I don’t know who the companion’s going to be next season, but I find myself kind of hoping it’s not Rose again. I’d settle for someone new, but the bar has been raised.

The melodrama and scale of the finale are going to be a bit of a drag — you get desensitized to the whole world being at stake, ALL THE TIME. But I still can’t wait to see what happens. And thanks to the internet and my indifference to video quality, I’ll have to wait less than a week.

serenity

Well, I finished up the last three episodes of Firefly Tuesday night, and they weren’t that bad, though as Aimeric warned me, one of them was a fairly ordinary western set in a ramshackle whorehouse (approximately 60% sexier than a high-class bordello from what little we saw of it). I thought the last episode, “Objects in Space,” was going to be my favorite until the scary bounty hunter started in with some zany woo-woo Joss Whedon dialogue and the dramatic tension whooshed out the airlock. Oh, and we were set up for River to do something spectacular and violent, but there was no real payoff because she just did something clever instead. That would have been fine if the series had continued for one or two more seasons (the “‘verse” isn’t fleshed out enough for more than that) and the show’s secrets had unfolded gradually and naturally.

But of course it was cancelled, and Whedon had to rush his ending with this movie. We find out some things we basically already knew — that River had been extensively altered by the government to be a psychic living weapon — and some things we didn’t know, like where the Reavers came from, and why the government is so keen to get River back. Those last couple secrets are unfortunately a bit anticlimactic and only one of them is even faintly plausible. Perhaps the problem is that we know so little about the Alliance government — except that it must be bad because it does mean experiments on people and because Our Hero Mal fought against it on the yee-haw side of the Civil Star Wars. It’s never been clear what kind of regime this is — dictatorship? oligarchy? plutocracy? or just a corrupt republic like we have in the US of A? — so it’s hard to guess what’s at stake for this government if its secrets get out. People buy fewer Oaty Bars? There’s another Civil Star War in which the Rebels lose again? A “candidate for change” gets some votes?

And doesn’t it seem a little out of character for Mal to stake so much on this? It does, which is why in every other scene someone is talking about strength of belief, why the enigmatic Shepherd Book (whose past may now remain a secret forever, unless the series is revived, and maybe even then) has to pound into Mal’s skull the idea of “believing in River” — because Mal now has to do something stupid, profitless, incredibly dangerous, and completely against his nature, not to mention sort of pointless. Even today the media has a lot less power than we imagine; one conspiracy theory from a disreputable source is just a drop of oil in the ocean.

What happens is SO out of character, in fact, that Mal has to threaten his crew to get them to go along with it. This is incredibly clumsy writing for a show that prided itself on being about people and relationships. The latter don’t get their due either; I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are deaths in this movie and none of them are visibly mourned. Yes, we see their graves, but that’s not mourning. It just rings hollow.

I had some other minor complaints, like how Mal could hold his own for more than a minute in unarmed combat against a master assassin, or why the master assassin AND the scary bounty hunter from “Objects in Space” are both black and both ultimately diffident in bizarrely inconsistent characterizations. But what it comes down to is that the pacing and — I’ll admit it — pretty solid writing of the TV series didn’t quite work in this film. It’s too bad, because in a lot of ways this is better TV (and it’s HELLA better sci-fi) than the new Doctor Who, and even if you don’t like a person, you can’t always enjoy seeing them give themselves a wedgie. It’s sad.

When I heard Battlestar Galactica was going to wrap up this season, I was scared that it would end up like this: a rush job that didn’t and couldn’t do justice to the measured development you get with a solid TV series. It still might, but BSG has the luxury of 900-odd minutes to wrap up, and Firefly had only about 115. Serenity didn’t totally suck, but it sure didn’t blow me away.

firefly

After dismissing the show pretty quickly (my sister failed to get me into it, and then I failed to get her into Battlestar Galactica), I’m finally getting back around to working through Firefly. I have 3 or 4 episodes to go and then I can watch Serenity and be done. It’s never going to be my favorite show, and it’s definitely not “the best science fiction series ever” as I’ve seen some otherwise intelligent people soberly claim, but I’m not hating it.

It’s very clever, the “space western” angle. A lot of science fiction shows have their foundations in more traditional genres — Star Trek’s a naval exploration thing, Star Wars is a samurai movie, Battlestar Galactica is “Wagon Train to the stars” and also based partly on the Book of Mormon if I understand correctly, and Blake’s 7 (the classic low-budget British series this show closely resembles) is “The Dirty Dozen” crossed with pirates. I can’t remember any of them wearing their underpinnings so nakedly, and it’s kind of admirable.

It’s not that enjoyable, though — probably just because I don’t really like Westerns or slide guitar or country fried theme songs. So a little dust and tumbleweeds and six-shooting and fiddling and hoeing down goes a long way. It’s best when it’s sprinkling flavor on the space thieving action, and kind of a drag when we’re soaking in it.

The more I watch, the more I miss Blake’s 7, which was mainly lacking in budget and warmth, but had the same premise: a small group of thieves and rogues and rebels travel the galaxy pulling off heists and guerrilla operations, staying one step ahead of authorities and bounty hunters. We have Blake and Mal, basically good leaders on the wrong side of the law; Zoe and Dayna, women of color handy with guns; Avon and Jayne, selfish and ruthless antiheroes (though one’s a computer genius and the other’s a brute); Wash and Tarrant, boyish, feckless pilots; Cally and River, troubled psychics.

Oddly, though the characters in Firefly are better developed, more sympathetic, and often better acted, I still don’t like most of them as much as Joss Whedon wants me to.

Wash is a dork, just annoying on every level. Zoe’s the kind of dull Amazon you get when an actress is too aware that she’s supposed to be playing a Strong Woman but doesn’t really inhabit a character. Kaylee’s cute in a Sanrio kind of way, but the jaunty downhome syntax the writers insist on putting in her mouth comes out sounding false. I can’t stand preachers in real life, and I don’t like this Preacher any better. And then there’s the Ren Faire hooker with a tea set of gold, the “Companion” who somehow manages to be thoroughly unsexy, the least titillating element of the show, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a funny thing about professional sex: the more respectable you try to make it seem, the less appealing it becomes.

So that leaves Simon and River, who fortunately bring a thread of mystery and gravity to the whole affair. River’s psychotic breaks can be kind of melodramatic, but I’m interested in their story and I mostly don’t mind watching them. Mal’s pretty watchable too, the sort of captain who cuts Gordian knots with a single unerring gunshot, and that’s all right with me. My favorite character on the show, however, is Jayne, partly because I love the Id on every show (see also: Eric Cartman, Bender), and partly because Jayne’s Avon-like amorality is fascinating and funny in a way that the all-for-one-and-one-for-all crew’s camaraderie isn’t.

So I feel about this the way I feel about Buffy: it’s massively overrated, maybe half as good as it’s cracked up to be, but since it’s cracked up to be pretty damn good, it’s still halfway decent. If only the incidental country music would stop!

doctor who: human nature

Utterly.

Brilliant.

Made up 200% for that Dalek trash. This is easily the best episode they’ve done to date and probably one of the best in the entire series, going back to 1963. Why they waited till the third season to mine this vein is a mystery; maybe they needed the character to be fully established before they could hide him within himself.

That hiding — it’s a bit far-fetched, of course. But once you race past the fantasy science you’re good to go. It’s all a bit Seventh Doctor, but that’s only natural considering the source material, and though I was never very fond of that whole “make him a mystery again” idea (it culminated in some truly awful bullshit like that whole Lungbarrow thing) it’s fine here and it fits.

It’s a pleasure to see Martha doing this instead of Ace, who was never a favorite of mine. And to see the girl from Spaced, a brilliant comic actress, in such an adroit dramatic role, is icing on the cake.

The series can decline from here and circle the drain if that’s how it’s to be. This alone was worth it.

Why didn’t I buy Paul Cornell’s novel back in the day? Now the damn thing is out of print and sells for twice the cover price, at least.

doctor who: evolution of the daleks

Funny how all it takes is one dog of a two-parter like this to puncture my swelling enthusiasm for this show. You’d think they could knock those out of the park, since they have the equivalent of four of the old-school episodes to develop the story and don’t have to rush it out in 45 minutes, but I guess when it’s as full of dumb, far-fetched ideas as this one, it doesn’t matter how long you have.

I can’t fault the ambition: it takes balls for an English company to do a story set in Manhattan in the 1930s. The accents weren’t as awful as I thought they’d be, though the boy from Tennessee couldn’t even stay consistent and Solomon was so obviously not a New Yorker.

But the plot was dopey from the start. Why pigs? Why not just docile humans? I guess the answer is that they were test runs for Dalek Sec’s transformation, but I never bought that any Dalek would ever do something like that, and I certainly never bought the resulting alteration of his personality. It just seems like a story idea someone thought would be cool, not one that made a lick of sense.

I mean, remember, they won the “Time War,” right? It wiped out most of them, but their main obstacle to survival is the Doctor. It’s not that they’re “not human enough.” Obviously I don’t agree with the Dalek philosophy, but there’s no way Sec’s experiment would advance it. We’d have to believe he had some secret motivation, but as far as I can see none was offered.

Fortunately this story did contain one element I like about the new season: every episode so far has featured at least a cameo by a super cute guy. They seem to either die or be turned into pigs pretty quickly, though, which kind of takes the fun away. And the story also contained almost all the elements I hate about the new series:

1. The Doctor’s magic wand sonic screwdriver. On the one hand, it makes sense for a guy like him to carry around a universal tool, a sort of super-Swiss-Army-knife. On the other, it doesn’t make sense that he can do freaking ANYTHING with it. It’s far more omnipotent than it was in the old series, and even then they destroyed it so that the Doctor would have to solve problems with his wits like everyone else. The thing needs limitations, badly.

2. Science that seems more like magic, which I guess is the same problem. The Daleks’ “genetic” techniques; gamma radiation delivered as a lightning strike (did I miss something there?); the Doctor’s ability to rig up a DNA testing machine out of some stage lights and the inside of a 1930s portable radio; it’s all, not to put too fine a point on it, pure bullshit. Of course the old show was never about hard SF either but at least they usually tried to make it seem vaguely possible. It’s obvious this lot just care about telling a fanciful story, which is good on some levels but when the motivations don’t make sense either, what’s the point?

3. The Doctor’s nigh-invulnerability. So far this season he’s had his blood drained (through a straw…don’t get me started), nearly asphyxiated, been voodooed by space witches (DON’T get me started), and now electrocuted by an obviously lethal dose of gamma radiation (see #2), and he just seems to get up and keep going with no explanation at all. In the past he would have mumbled something about a respiratory bypass system, or he would have freaking regenerated, but something tells me this Doctor could have survived a fall off the Empire State Building with nothing but a single tear falling on his cheek to revive him. Kind of relieves the tension when you know your main character can survive anything.

4. Martha mooning over the Doctor. Somehow it seemed natural with Rose; she seemed to have a few boundaries, or something. Martha’s fallen for him with one kiss and they’re hammering the romantic tension way too hard. So far I haven’t seen much about her that’s remarkable, and her family isn’t really in the picture so she doesn’t even have that dimension to keep her interesting.

I don’t know if I’m going to keep the DVD set I ordered. I certainly never want to watch this story again.

the new who review

I’ll probably end up posting more commentary on encyclops.com soon, but okay, okay, I finally have warmed to the new Dr. Who.

I still think the plotting has a tendency toward great setups with incredibly stupid endings, but I’ve really begun to enjoy it. I’ve gotten through the first two seasons now and am a few episodes into the third, all of which I liked so much (except for some seriously uncalled-for scenery-chewing by the Racnoss Empress) that I’ve ordered the third season from Amazon rather than watching borrowed copies. I’ll probably get the other two eventually.

I miss Rose, and I miss the characters associated with her, Jackie, Mickey, and even her alternate-universe dad. I thought the romance angle was questionable at first but it got to the point where I didn’t mind at all and kind of liked it. I wasn’t sure how I’d warm to Martha, but so far she’s just fine, if a little nondescript. She carries on the fine-booty tradition from Rose, too, which was never part of the appeal of the show for me before (well, almost never).

I can see why people liked Chris Eccleston. He was entertaining, and he didn’t look like an explosion in a fabric store, which must have helped to broaden the show’s appeal along with the slightly improved effects budget. And when he said he was gonna fuck somebody up, you believed he meant it. This was really a new thing for the Doctor, who in the past usually seemed to get through everything by the skin of his teeth. He carried off that “alien” quality well, and the edge we’d never associated with the character before.

I guess what bothered me about him was that he just didn’t quite seem like the same guy, even taking into account his post-traumatic stress. His leather-jacket-and-jeans outfit seemed more like the production team’s choice than the Doctor’s. His catchphrase “Fantastic!” really wasn’t. Something about him just didn’t fit. He could have been the Doctor’s little brother, maybe, but not quite the Doctor I grew up watching. It wasn’t too jarring; any sufficiently nerdy fan (me, for instance) could easily justify all of the choices made. But it distanced me a bit from the show — that and some of the lamer stories.

Some of the second season stories seemed even lamer, which killed my interest in the show for a while despite the fact that the new Doctor, David Tennant, was in my opinion perfect casting. In place of the catchphrase, we now had a motormouth comedian, which at first seemed corny but quickly became endearing, and his look and manner seemed a lot more the Doctor to me. But the great setup / weak ending thing was driving me nuts.

The finale to the second season was probably what hooked me again, though. It’s hard to believe any Doctor Who writing team could have pulled off a story with Daleks and Cybermen, but they did, and even though there’s a lot of disbelief to suspend in the resolution (and along the way: you mean to tell me that there were Cybermen and Daleks all over the world and we didn’t see them shoot anyone outside the Torchwood building?), it’s entertaining enough that I just didn’t care.

And it didn’t hurt that over the course of the season, Tennant just kept shining. I’m not ready to say I like him even better than Tom Baker. But I’m getting there.

So here’s hoping the strong (if perennially implausible) stories that started off this season continued; otherwise I’m going to be very disappointed in my reinvestment in one of my biggest, geekiest childhood obsessions.