Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Christmas Carol Moffatized

There is a school of thought that goes out of its way to excuse the garish excesses of Doctor Who Christmas specials on grounds that they are, well, Christmas specials. These are the same apologetic members who have indulged the worst of the Russell Davies era, an overabundance of silliness, visual chaos, and Disneyesque non-narratives. In their heart of hearts I suspect some of them confess the truth: that The Runaway Bride (2006), Voyage of the Damned (2007), The Next Doctor (2008), and The End of Time (2009) are so bloody awful they could turn a saint into a scrooge, quite amusingly, the opposite of their intended effect.

Steven Moffat, however, is not Russell Davies, and the special he has served up this year is a gem. Gone is the usual cacophony and in its place a brilliant spin on a splendid classic, with plenty of soul. Though I tend to think Scrooge gets a bum rap, and I'm certainly no fan of the holiday season, there's something about A Christmas Carol I've always found endearing. It has little to do with Christmas per se, about which Scrooge's opinions actually have considerable merit. Dickens' story, at heart, is about a bitter man who wants to be happy but can't do so without taking a hard look behind, beside, and in front of him. That's a story for any season -- and one that happens to work perfectly in a Doctor Who context. Our Time Lord hero fills the roles of the ghosts of past and future, while sidekick Amy Pond appears as a hologram shade of the present, and between the two of them, with a little help from a dying woman, they manage to liberate a tormented man. That in the process they save over 4000 people from dying at this man's whim is almost ancillary.

The tormented Scrooge character is Kazran Sardick, an industrial overlord who despises all forms of good will, played brilliantly by Michael Gambon who channels even a bit of Albert Spica. Kazran is that grim (if not quite as oafish and vulgar), and I dare say this is Gambon's best performance since the infamous one in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. For him, unlike Spica, there is redemption in sight, though at serious emotional cost as he comes to terms with himself and the scars left by an abusive father.

As for the Doctor, he's in top form, and at his most scheming. Frankly he hasn't been this manipulative since The Curse of Fenric, when he used Ace as a pawn and put her through sheer emotional hell. Though he tried to save as many people as possible in carrying out his personal vendetta against Fenric, there is no reason why he couldn't simply have taken the flask he trapped Fenric in and dumped it in a black hole like he did with the deity-skull in Image of the Fendahl. Likewise, in A Christmas Carol, there's no reason he couldn't have gone back in time to prevent the Starliner from taking off in the first place instead of jumping through hoops to rewrite a man's life on the slim hope that he'll change his mind. As in the Fenric classic, there's a part of me that thinks the Doctor is getting off on using people as pawns, rewriting their lives, as Kazran rightly charges, "to suit himself".

Then there is Abigail, fated to die, who hit me rather hard with her transcendent singing. Never mind the absurdity of sharks being lullabied; I was almost as smitten as the young Kazran, and have to agree with Doug Chaplin, who writes:
"I never thought I would be moved by seeing a woman singing 'In the bleak mid-winter' to calm a hungry Jaws-style Doctor-chasing shark lost in the fog. For a scene that on every rational level ought to have been ludicrous, it was astonishingly affecting. In a sense that stands as a paradigmatic miniature of the whole project. This episode manages both more powerfully and more naturally the kind of emotional payload that Moffatt strained after (rather ineffectually, I thought) in The Beast Below."
That, incidentally, is a good comparison. While The Beast Below was decent (I gave it 3 stars), it was undercut by a lack of emotional payoff (unlike Abigail in A Christmas Carol, none of the kids who fall to the beast actually die) and a true sense of menace (after the opening scene, the Smilers weren't terribly threatening). Kazran is menacing on multiple levels. Not only will he let thousands of people die because he doesn't care enough to pull a switch, but there is a personal menace owing to inner demons. His transformation on account of Abigail, engineered by a master-manipulating Doctor, is so convincing, and I'm not sure whether that owes more to Michael Gambon's brilliant acting talents or the amazing script. Both are in full force as we see Kazran's nastiness crumble and give way to joy and inner peace, and he and Abigail share her last day of life together. In this sense, A Christmas Carol is a character piece -- a welcome change from the alien invasions of other Christmas episodes -- a lot like Dalek, Father's Day, Amy's Choice, and Vincent and the Doctor. That's pretty classic company, and Moffat's special is classic indeed.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Overview of all Doctor Who Christmas Specials

The Christmas Invasion -- 3 ½
The Runaway Bride -- 1
Voyage of the Damned -- 1
The Next Doctor -- 1
The End of Time -- 1
A Christmas Carol -- 4 ½

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dexter: The Eight Seasons Ranked

Post updated here.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Films

Before reviewing the films, I need to be upfront: Tolkien had it right about his friend's wonderland. Narnia is a horrendous mishmash of a fantasy world, a hodgepodge, a sophomoric blend of different myths -- Norse dwarves, Greek centaurs and fauns, Santa Claus + Christ -- its over-arching Christian allegory betraying a woeful lack of imagination. In my youth I just couldn't stand the Pevensie kids, but even then I was aware of Lewis' creative laziness. The books didn't come with maps, and even if they had, the world was too superficial and underdeveloped to appreciate. Narnia had nothing on the richly textured places I was inhabiting as a teen -- Middle-Earth, The Land, Earthsea, Pern. It was an afterthought, forgotten as soon as I put the books down.

So I'm surprised to be enjoying the film adaptations. They're not Lord of the Rings by any means, but impressive all things considered -- certainly better than the Harry Potter films (two of which I slept through), and I'd take them over a train wreck like Willow any day. Andrew Adamson and Michael Apted have made Narnia entertaining enough that I can forget why I hate the place.

For the most part anyway. The Pevensie kids are still insufferable snots, except for Lucy who's impossible not to love. In the books she drew no sympathy from me when she was ridiculed and disbelieved, but now I feel for her. Her character dominates differently on screen, in contrast to her bratty siblings. Oppositely, the White Witch is a frightening piece of work, played very convincingly by Tilda Swinton. With Lewis' witch I could only imagine a caricature, but Swinton's incarnation is anything but (I was glad to see an evil witch with blond hair for a change), oozing fascist ice with glares and intonations. And the CGI Aslan looks like the real thing; Liam Neeson's voice was made for it.

The climactic battle between the forces of Aslan and the White Witch, described by Lewis in the space of two paragraphs, is appropriately drawn out, more gritty than you might expect in a PG film, and it doesn't hurt that CGI works wonders these days with arial views and other effects. Though if you've seen the vastly superior Lord of the Rings films (which were PG-13), this stuff is pretty substandard. Where The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really triumphs is in the parallel "passion" climax, where Aslan allows himself to be humiliated and killed for Edmund's treachery. It's rather intense (for kids), and while the Christian allegory is intrusive, the emotional power makes up for it.

The second film is even better -- much better, in fact -- for its darker tone, less obvious biblical allegory, and the way it pushes more envelopes in a PG context. Adamson takes more liberties with Lewis' text to good effect. There's a particularly chilling scene where Caspian is tempted by the shade of the White Witch; and the business of Lucy seeing Aslan but having a hard time convincing the others is handled much better. There were gratuitous rip-offs of the Lord of the Rings films, but strangely enough they didn't bother me, probably because they were just so spectacular. Jackson's flood at the ford was superseded with a vengeance, and the Huorns were also outdone in a climactic tree-attack. I should say that Aslan's How was my favorite set piece: antiquated, dark, and haunting as hell.

The dark moments in the first film don't compare to those in the second, as noted by a reviewer: "Times are dark in Narnia, and that's reflected in Prince Caspian's almost shocking violence. I don't remember huge amounts of mayhem being visited upon humans in the first film, so the fact that this movie's comic relief is a throat-slitting mouse should tell you how much the ante has been upped." For a children's film Caspian is pervasively violent. The battles go on and on, though of course that's the story: the Narnians are fighting to take back their home from invaders. (With regards to Reepicheep: he delighted me to no end. It's of course ridiculous -- even in the context of a children's fantasy -- that a mouse wielding a sword the size of a needle could decimate human warriors left and right. But no matter, the scene in the woods where he kills Caspian's pursuers is hilarious.) Less magic, more savagery, less fate, more uncertainty -- especially without Aslan around for guidance until the very end -- makes the second film dramatically superior.

Many critics disagree with me and favor the first film, though the The New Republic is a refreshing exception:
"In technical terms, Prince Caspian is an improvement on its predecessor in almost every sense. Yet, like the book on which it is based, it lacks much in the way of deeper resonance. It is a considerably sharper entertainment than the first film, but little in it aspires to do more than entertain... The dialogue is crisper, the sets and staging more spectacular, the pace more lively (despite one or two plot twists too many), and the action sequences far more riveting. It may still lack the narrative depth and complexity of Jackson's Tolkien films, but those are difficult qualities to conjure in a film whose cast is made up almost entirely of teenagers and talking animals... The final act is more satisfying, too, striking an elegiac note of opportunities past, friends departed, dreams outgrown. Prince Caspian may be less full of innocent wonder than its predecessor, but it is a smarter, better film. Like its young stars, the Narnia franchise has, for better and worse, grown up."
Perhaps it's the "deeper resonance" of the first film that holds it back slightly. Perhaps Lewis should have been striving for plain story value all along. I'd rather take Aslan at face value, on his own terms as a primitive lion-deity, instead of a "supposition" of what Christ might look like in a child's fairy land.

Speaking of which, Aslan has always been a curious Christ-figure. He approves warfare and even glorifies it. This is a crusader's deity whose subjects are ever ready to take up the sword and kick ass. There's not much about turning the other cheek in Narnia, moments of warrior-mercy notwithstanding (like Peter and Caspian refusing to slay Miraz). Don't get me wrong: that's not a complaint (my complaint is not about the kind of Christ-figure Aslan is, only that he's a Christ-figure to begin with). I've made clear in my series on the medieval crusades that the crusaders have been overly maligned, and that Jesus' words themselves were pressed into a warrior mindset. I just find it curious that Lewis chose to fashion a Christ-figure for children in this image. It's hard to get a lion out of a lamb.

Which segues perfectly into the third film, which if faithful to the book would have at least given us a glimpse of the "Lamb of God". At the end of Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian and the kids come to Aslan's country and are confronted with a bleating sheep who invites them to a meal of cooked fish, obviously calling to mind Christ and his disciples in Jn 21. The lamb then turns into Aslan, who tells a despairing Lucy that she can never return to Narnia and must learn to know him by his name in her own world (i.e. Jesus). The same happens in the film, but without Aslan first appearing as a sheep, no doubt to tone down the Christian imagery for popular consumption. But the fact remains that only in the book of Revelation is Christ depicted as a feline warrior -- "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" (Rev 5:5) -- the lamb being the more abundant symbol (Jn 1:29,36; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 13:8).

In any case, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader takes as many liberties with the text as Prince Caspian, though not half as wisely. Of the seven books, this was one I actually liked, for the same reason I adore The One Tree in the Thomas Covenant series. Sea voyages to exotic lands carry an introspective power that makes epic battles seem trivial. Gone are bad-asses like the White Witch and Lord Miraz; here you don't need them. The film, however, offers the pointless substitute of a malevolent green mist that whisks people away and enslaves them. Caspian's quest for the seven lords has become a quest for their seven swords, which must be placed on Aslan's table to banish the mist -- cheesy to say the least. It's faithful to the book's theme of fear and temptation, but in a way that tells more than shows, and the action-packed injections dilute the effect and make the island visits seem rushed. The final scene in Aslan's country is admittedly grand, emotional, and -- blasphemous as this comparison sounds -- reminiscent of the Grey Havens.

So despite my hard feelings for the books, the films are mostly impressive and allow me to suspend most of my dislike for Lewis' creation. The second film is an outstanding adaptation of an uninspired book; the first is is also impressive; the third is a botch of a powerful story as Lewis told it. Using the 5-star system:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe -- 3 ½
Prince Caspian -- 4 ½
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader -- 2 ½

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Top 20 U2 Songs

The American Songwriter compiled what he considers to be The Top 20 U2 Songs, but you know these lists, they always cry for clearance. Here are my own essential 20 U2 songs, rated in descending order, which in some combination make their way onto playlists and CDs -- like the one I burned this weekend. Note that in many cases I prefer a live version over the original studio (or put them on equal standing). There's nothing from Zooropa or Pop (the band's nadir period), nor much from the most recent albums. Songs from Boy, War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can't Leave Behind reign supreme here.

1. Ultraviolet (Studio, 1991, or Live, Sheffield, 2009)
2. Bad (Studio, 1984)
3. Where the Streets Have No Name (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
4. The Fly (Studio, 1991, or Live, Boston, 2001)
5. Drowning Man (Studio, 1983)
6. Until the End of the World (Studio, 1991)
7. Kite (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
8. With or Without You (Live, Denver, 1987)
9. Beautiful Day (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
10. New Year's Day (Studio, 1983)
11. Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
12. Red Hill Mining Town (Studio, 1987)
13. Out of Control (Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
14. City of Blinding Lights (Studio, 2004)
15. A Sort of Homecoming (Live, London, 1985)
16. Mysterious Ways (Studio, 1991)
17. Sunday Bloody Sunday (Live, Denver, 1987, or Live, Slane Castle, 2001)
18. Pride (Studio, 1984)
19. Running to Stand Still (Studio, 1987, or Live, Tempe, 1987)
20. All I Want is You (Studio, 1987, or Live, Slane Castle, 2001)

I was quite pleased to see Red Hill Mining Town in The American Songwriter's choices. Along with Drowning Man, Ultraviolet, and A Sort of Homecoming, they are terribly underrated songs, almost never played live, and I don't know why.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Deane Galbraith's Biblical Studies Carnival

The monthly carnivals have been falling off my radar over the last year, but Deane Galbraith's November roundup is mighty impressive, and not just because he awards The Busybody the #2 slot in "the top 30 biblioblogs worth reading for November 2010". Deane has canvassed quite a lot of material, and it's the best carnival I've seen in a long time.