Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People

Clone and android stories were something of a common recurrence in the classic period, for convenient budgetary reasons no doubt, but they still relied on additional villains to supply the scares. In Terror of the Zygons, it was the Zygons themselves using replicant bays to transform themselves into exact look-alikes of captive humans; in The Android Invasion, the Kraals were the ones pulling strings behind the scenes; in The Horror of Fang Rock, the Rutons assumed the human forms of their victims for purposes of infiltration; and The Androids of Tara was carried on the back of the fiendishly diabolical Count Grendel. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People takes the more daring approach of allowing clones to stand on their own, but with their flesh phase-shifting often enough to remind us that they're really "monsters", and in almost-Jenny's case she even transforms into a copycat creature out of The Lazarus Experiment. It all works pretty well in the context of doppelgangers who know and feel everything their human originators do, forcing critical questions about the sanctity of life.

These questions, however, blindside us to what's really going on. There is a dark manipulative side to the Doctor at work before the story even begins, as he acts with a plan up his sleeve instead of blundering blindly into a situation and doing his best to sort it out. When the TARDIS is "caught" in a solar tsunami, of all things, it is being hurled deliberately to a time and place that will allow the Doctor to learn how to destroy Amy, whom he suspects is rather less than she seems. That in the process he shows himself to be concerned with fair play to both humans and their enemies does not effect this conclusion; in the end he callously blasts almost-Amy to smithereens. The audience is invited to ask -- though few reviewers ask it -- whether his moral outrage over the murder of almost-Buzzer can be taken seriously. This isn't a complaint on my part, mind you, for it's a wonderful hypocrisy, so typical of the Seventh Doctor who also used companions as pawns to suit his ends.

In any case, this is a decent enough story saturated with homage: the isolated monastery setting, an acid-mining operation using slave labor, base-under-siege suspense, and running down corridors. Add to this Tom Baker's shockingly intrusive voice asking after jelly-babies and you've got a classic-Who stew. The cliffhanger is predictable though effective, and gives Matt Smith a golden opportunity to have fun with himself throughout the second part. Lines like "I'm starting to get a sense of how impressive it is to hang out with me," and the effortless manner in which he and his almost-twin finish each others' sentences, oddly complement the way he faced off his TARDIS persona in The Doctor's Wife. Season six seems to involve a sub-theme of the Doctor being forced to interact with himself in curious ways.

Amy speaks for the audience when she wonders if the almost-Doctor will be the one to die two hundred years later at the hands of the astronaut, but that would be a cheap ploy. The doppelganger ultimately (if again predictably) sacrifices himself for the benefit of others, and I pray the remarks about molecular memory surviving aren't a forecast. But if the Doctor's twin is too predictable, the two almost-Jennifers compensate with enough surprises to keep us on edge. As much as I can't stand Rory, I feel for him as he's crushed by Jennifer's death, and I never saw the second ganger coming. His performance is believable, and let's be frank, given his Auton baggage and pathetic beta male personality, he and a beast like almost-Jennifer are made for each other. Amy certainly deserves better than a child of his, if that's in fact what she's carrying. Which leads me neatly onto...

The fluctuating pregnancy. It would be a dereliction of duty to avoid talking about this cliffhanger, which has fans in every corner of the web nattering like magpies, even to the detraction of the actual story. That it's a joltingly fantastic scene cannot be denied -- like Rory's death at the end of The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, but even more so -- and points to an imminent pay-off with the eye-patch woman. But it pays off the story at hand too, for Amy has been almost all along this season, which nicely accounts for her bonding with the almost-Doctor thinking he's the real one, for naturally, to almost-her, he was. This goes a long way in ameliorating the non-surprise of who the real Doctor was (I saw the swap coming right away), and has us holding out hope for the fate of her real self, and child, in the mid-season finale. Push.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Doctor's Wife

I approached The Doctor's Wife with caution. Billed in advance as an enigmatic love story which would tap into the roots of Doctor Who while remaining faithful to the spirit of the new series, I wondered if Neil Gaiman bit off more than he could chew; and the episode title so reminiscent of the fourth season's atrocious The Doctor's Daughter didn't inspire confidence. On the other hand, Gaiman is an outstanding innovator of dark fantasy, and I suspected that if anyone could pull off a story like this, it would be he. As things turn out, The Doctor's Wife is a splendid achievement, and one of the best stories of the new series, certainly the best so far this season.

A note first, about the plot: the premise that drives The Doctor's Wife isn't terribly solid. It takes place on a junkyard wasteland outside the universe, where the preserved cries of dead Time Lords have been calling out to any of their own kind who will come for rescue. As noted by Doug Chaplin, the Gallifreyans at the height of their power would hardly have failed to be aware of this and take action against kidnappers of their own race. But a plot hole like this is fairly invisible in the context of a Doctor Who fairy tale. The Girl in the Fireplace had even more ludicrous plot holes and lapses in logic, but you never hear anyone complain about them, because the kind of story it is allows for more leniency. (Oppositely, the whacking inconsistencies in a story like Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways stand out so embarrassingly to bring it down a notch.) Fans are notoriously fickle about these things, of course, but in my view, the problem spotted by Chaplin doesn't intrude on the integrity of the story. One could easily chalk it up to some kind of barrier field erected by House that rendered his scrap dominion impervious to Gallifreyan penetration, long since discarded after the Time War.

The Doctor's Wife is so many things condensed into a 45-minute drama that it's a wonder it doesn't feel rushed. The "wife" is the essence of the TARDIS poured into a human being, giving it voice, and its (her) scenes with the Doctor are critical to the story's success. Idris is a great character, constantly speaking out of tense as she lives moments of the Doctor's life in non-linear fashion, and insisting on an equal playing field by telling the Doctor that it was she in fact who stole him, not the other way around. In a perfectly geeky way, the TARDIS gives him what no other "woman" can (not even River Song, I'll wager), constant adventure, which he gives her back in turn. The ending is rather predictable, but only in the way stories like Father's Day and The Girl in the Fireplace are predictable, with that sense of tragic inevitability that plays so authentically: the Doctor needs his real TARDIS back; Idris has to die. This is the first time Matt Smith has reached an emotional pitch that brought me to tears: when he says good-bye, and Idris corrects him by saying "No, I wanted to say hello", and they both start breaking down, I was doing the same.

Special mention must be made of House, the asteroid voiced by Michael Sheen. There is only one voice in the history of the program oozing more frightening malevolence, that of Gabriel Woolf, whose Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars gave me nightmares as a kid and whose Satan in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit made me relive them as an adult. The right voice for this omnipresent villain is as crucial as Idris' character, and Sheen's pays dividends; when he suddenly possesses Auntie and Uncle and speaks through them simultaneously, it feels like a throw-back to The Impossible Planet in more ways than one, since an Ood is present in this story too, and who again works the diabolical will as a pawn.

As if all this weren't enough, I still haven't mentioned the best scenes, which involve Amy and Rory trapped inside the darkened TARDIS infested by House, who torments them with his voice out of hell. Here we're treated to old-fashioned running down corridors, and a tasty look at other parts of the TARDIS, including the "old control room" from the Davies period, which in turn is a throw back to the famous secondary control room with ornate wood panels introduced in The Masque of Mandragora. So chilling is it when House asks Amy and Rory, "Why shouldn't I kill you?", and then proceeds to brutally fuck with their minds, shutting them off from each other, then rejoining them in horrific ways. I particularly enjoyed it when Amy turned a corner and stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of hate phrases covering the walls, "KILL AMY - DIE AMY - HATE AMY," scrawled by Rory who has withered to a skeletal corpse, which topped even the earlier confrontation with his two-thousand year old self bellowing furiously at her for leaving him.

In sum, The Doctor's Wife does what classic Who used to do perfectly, papering over plot holes with so much style they don’t matter, and serving up serious dread, making kids and all of us happy to be terrified. It also does what the new series has been doing so well when on top of its game, in portraying the triumph of the soul. Neil Gaiman is the new Paul Cornell, and I can only hope he returns to pen more scripts in the future.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Best Characters in A Song of Ice and Fire

George Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is popular for many reasons, but mostly for the amazing characters. After spending thousands of pages inside their heads, you feel like they're part of your family, and none can really be called protagonists or villains. Most are capable of vile treacheries one moment and tender mercies the next. But who are the best? Here are my ten favorites, in descending order.

1. Arya Stark. As far as I'm concerned, her journey has been the most arduous of the three wargs. She may not be a cripple like Bran, or battling undead armies like Jon, but she's been out of enough frying pans and into as many fires just trying to survive. And now that she's an assassin in training, I can't wait to see this little bad-ass released on Westeros when she graduates as a full-fledged Faceless One.

2. Tyrion Lannister. If Ned Stark's honor was his downfall as the King's Hand, then the dwarf's cunning is his salvation, even if it's short-lived when his father comes to town and runs him down. His mummer trial completely cements my adoration for him when he tells his sea of accusers that he wished he really had killed Joffrey, and indeed that he wished he had enough poison for them all. Here's another one (like Arya) who flees east and will surely return bearing vengeful gifts.

3. Aeron Greyjoy. The prophet-priest of the Drowned God is grim and cheerless in a very entertaining way -- I love his homiletical stings. He clearly has no intention of letting Euron keep his kingship, insisting that "captains raised Euron up, but the common folk will tear him down", but I could easily see Aeron bringing his godless brother down single-handedly. I'm not sure that Ironborn baptisms are for me, however, (being drowned and then having the sea water pounded out of you), as some don't survive the blessed ritual.

4. Samwell Tarly. A secret hero of mine, and how could he not be as Castle Black's librarian? He's actually the most courageous character of the series, precisely because he's such a coward. And let's face it, most of us are more like Samwell than we'd care to admit. Arya may be my #1 choice, but if I were thrown into the world of Westeros, I have no delusions that I'd be anything like her. I would behave like Ser Piggy -- cringe every time someone took out a sword and hide away in a room full of books. But what he does for Ghilly is precious, and his manipulation of Cotter Pyke and Denys Mallister brilliant.

5. Sandor Clegane. I have a soft spot in my heart for abused people with self-loathing issues, especially when they have a soft spot in turn for others. In the Hound's case, it's vulnerable girls. Though he has an impossible time showing it, he cares about Sansa and Arya, though he is capable of killing either given the right trigger. I love the way he's so contemptuous of everyone but himself, in the way only self-hating loners are, and it will be interesting to see what happens to him in solitude on the Quiet Isle.

6. Bran Stark. Paralyzed legs and a broken back do not a fun life make, and I can well sympathize with Bran's desire to lose himself in Summer completely. Crippled heroes are fairly unconventional, and you have to love a kid who's willing to be lugged around on the shoulders of a giant retard, and keep his chin up even further when his home and people are destroyed by treachery.

7. Olenna Tyrell. The tiny old shrew known as The Queen of Thorns is the most underrated character of the series. It's almost as if James Clavell wrote the chapter in which she and the Tyrell ladies question Sansa about the Joffrey; the hennish preliminaries are a riot. Olenna holds forth on the oafishness of men, slamming her ladies with dismissive rejoinders, interrupting everyone left and right. This woman's tongue is as lethal as Valyrian steel, and I'm not sure Aegon the Conqueror himself could have stood up to her. It's fitting that she's the one guilty of the regicide for which Tyrion is blamed. She only gets one full chapter, but a very memorable one.

8. Jaqen H'ghar. I'm going out on a limb with this guy, since his agenda is so unclear. He's bad and dangerous, no question, but quite colorful (literally and figuratively) and bound by the assassin's code of honor that compels him to murder people at Arya's whim after she saves his life. I love the way he takes to affectionately calling her an "evil child" after she outfoxes him (by requiring that he assassinate himself unless he helps subdue the garrison of Harrenhall), and I can't help suspect that these two are bound to hook up again at some point.

9. Jon Snow. A favorite of many readers, and after Ned Stark the character with the most integrity. He functions as the story's everyman (someone we easily identify with even when placed in extraordinary circumstances) and thus is a bit more traditional and less tasty than other characters on this list, but I do like the way he's able to rise to the challenge of being a double agent, and the endearing way he takes things to heart.

10. Daenerys Targaryen. Another fan favorite for obvious reasons, but as with Jon, not high on my list for being traditional in many ways (royal child in exile who comes into her own against the odds). But she has to make the cut for being the mother of dragons, after all, and for her heart, and for strong ideas about justice. I just wish she had a bit more of the Targaryen madness, though that could be on the way in later volumes.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Curse of the Black Spot

The Curse of the Black Spot has a lot going for it, and a lot not, that it ends up feeling like one of the most disjointed episodes of the new series. On the plus side, it's a base under siege drama calling to mind a classic like The Horror of Fang Rock, and one of the best stories from the Russell Davies period, Midnight. For a while it harkens back to the Hinchcliffe era in terms of style, as a period piece with a distinct gothic horror feel, but then completely shifts in emphasis and tone to become an unremarkable morality lesson.

The regulars are on their usual form, with Amy in particular getting fun things to do, as she swashbuckles her way to save the Doctor from walking the plank. So amusing is this scene, and an obvious throw back to Tom Baker's Doctor, who frequently found himself in a hard way for appearing out of nowhere in the midst of suspicious tragedies. When he exasperatedly demands at gunpoint, "more laughter, guys", and the pirates begin chuckling at his imminent demise, it's hard not to do the same. The genius of this is that Amy doesn't know jack about sword-wielding, but doesn't have to, as it takes only a single drop of blood to make one prey for the Siren. All the pirates are genuinely terrified of her, as if she were lighting a match in a room full of gasoline.

The period feel to the story is effective as usual in Doctor Who, and the script exploits this by creating an air of mystery and intense claustrophobia, as the Doctor investigates how and why the Siren appears. Everything takes place at night and in grim isolation. The Doctor is a diligent but fallible sleuth, convincing us that water is the danger until it becomes clear that any reflective surface poses a threat. Indeed, his theories are repeatedly shown up wrong, to the extent that he has to tell people to "disregard all of his theories up to this point", which is grandly hilarious and a far cry from the all-knowing tenth Doctor. The Siren itself is well realized, with alternating sea green and fiery orange glows, depending on her ire. With a nautical demon picking off crew members one by one, all the ingredients necessary for a solid Who story are present; then, with 15 minutes remaining, everything changes.

Though the word isn't used, hyperspace is the punchline, this final act reminiscent of The Stones of Blood which saw the Doctor propelled away from druidical blood sacrifice and onto a spaceship where he had to play the lawyer to stop his execution. In The Curse of the Black Spot, blood is also at issue, but the shift to alternative space less satisfying, as we get a monster that simply isn't. The Siren is really an automated medical doctor that whisks people off at the first sign of injury in order to heal them, as benign as The Beast Below, with the result that (wait for it) everyone lives -- pirates, Toby, and Rory all. The draining away of suspense is compensated for to an extent by the intriguing locale, but at the same time, no one can accuse Stephen Thompson of being the most competent writer. It's not clear how the Doctor, Amy, and Captain Avery are able to wake up and roam freely aboard this spaceship while everyone else lies comatose and immobilized on tables. Nor do I buy the captain's turning from a greedy, murderous pirate to a concerned, responsible father. He cared more about hiding a jeweled crown than his son's life, and his sudden altruism is inexplicable. On top of this, we get Rory almost dying, and while this played well in the contexts of Amy's Choice and Cold Blood, it's by now a tiresome gimmick. It would be churlish to fault the "miracle day for everyone" theme too much, for as with The Beast Below, it is much the point, involving a misconstrued creature. But last year Moffat was able to milk a philosophical purpose out of his beast that mitigated the comedown of a non-villain, and the starwhale at least killed adults if not children.

Ultimately this story feels disjointed, and is saddled with a creature that doesn't deliver, but it does have features that on whole make it enjoyable.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Cynical about Philippians 3

Mark Nanos has written a sequel paper to the one on gentile dogs and hallucinating exegetes, and it's now up on his site. It's called "'Judaizers'? 'Pagan' Cults? Cynics?: Reconceptualizing the Concerns of Paul's Audience from the Polemics in Philippians 3:2, 18-19", and the pdf is here.

Mark continues to insist that Paul wasn't opposing Jewish rivals or customs in Philip 3, but rather local pagans and their influences. "In the face of competing non-Jewish pagan communal alternatives on offer in Philippi with which his (primarily if not exclusively) non-Jewish addressees are tempted to identify (seek status and goods), Paul seeks to persuade them to instead identify with Paul's Jewish norms because they are followers of Christ." I don't quite agree with this, but it's vintage Nanos, well worth reading, and I may comment more later.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

If I've complained too loudly about invasion-of-earth season openers which plagued the Russell Davies era, this story smashes the formula to smithereens. For one, it's scary: the Silence are as terrifying as the Autons and Adipose are laughable. Two, it's lengthy, the first two-parter to launch a season. Three, it doesn't find the Doctor fending off an alien invasion, but rather leading a revolution, for the aliens are already well ensconced and in control. Four, no time is wasted bringing out the big guns: the Doctor is killed seven minutes into the story, and while we can almost guarantee this will be undone by the end of the season, the message is loud and clear. Moffat isn't messing around. He's giving it to RTD fandom right up the ass and down the craw. The Eleventh Hour may have proven he can do something good with fluff, but now he's bidding the fluff adieu, and indeed treating the premiere like a finale. It makes me wonder what the real finale will be like.

The Moffat trappings are evident everywhere, from little child in jeopardy, to creatures you shouldn't look away from, to deadly forces clothed in astronaut gear, to abandoned gothic structure with large shared bedrooms, to despairing voices crying pitifully from one-way electronic devices, and some critics have charged that he's just recycling The Empty Child, Blink, and Silence in the Library. It would be disingenuous to retort that Moffat does this all so well that the self-plagiarism doesn't matter. Truthfully, the formula is getting old. But I won't pretend to dislike the execution. The best scenes come with Dr. Renford at the orphanage, as we find there are thankfully no children in this thrice-damned place whose walls are smeared with red warnings, "GET OUT", "LEAVE NOW", and kept by a mentally absent doctor. I actually find this institution more disturbing than the hospital in The Empty Child, and so whilst Moffat is clearly riffing himself, he is arguably improving on at least some of his material... but he can only get away with this for so long.

He is also creative as ever, which ends up saving a terribly rushed final act, and one that sees the Doctor heaping verbal diarrhea on the supposedly fearsome Silence who just stand around staring back at him. Indeed, his motormouth tactics hark back, alarmingly, to the atrocious technobabble climax of Journey's End, but there are thankfully no deus ex machinas here; the Doctor brilliantly uses the power of suggestion against the hypnotic wielders, who end up ordering their own execution over TV. And there is the added gem that the moon-landing video contains footage we never remember seeing -- and which further explains the pause in Armstrong's "and one giant leap", as if something is interfering with his memory. On whole, it's not the best resolution I could have hoped for, but at least logical, unlike the telepathic miracles which brought down Last of the Time Lords.

Richard Nixon is of course a highlight, and Moffat deserves a gold star for using a widely despised president to help save the world. It's amusing when he justifies the Doctor's breaking and entering of Apollo 11 with the quip, "I’m sure he had a very good reason for that," and outright hilarious when the Doctor advises him to record everything that happens in the Oval Office. He resembles the real Tricky Dick about as much as Churchill did in Victory of the Daleks, which is to say, so close and yet so far, but no matter. The scenes in the Oval Office are enjoyable, and Amy's encounter with Silence down the hall in the bathroom utterly terrifying.

The Doctor's decision to mercilessly wipe out the Silence is consistent with his moral compass, though at first blush it contradicts his peaceful approach in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. But the Silurians are true natives to Earth, having just as much claim to the planet as humans, whereas the Silence came as invaders, even if the invasion is long past (since "the wheel and the fire"). That he uses humanity to wipe them out shows he is still at home being a revolutionary from time to time, though he is crueler than usual, not giving the Silence any chance to flee, perhaps on account of the fact that they (like the weeping angels) are just too dangerous to play fair ball with.

If The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon plays like a finale in terms of drama, it insists on what it really is by throwing down puzzles and leaving them unresolved. Amy espies a mysterious woman with an eye-patch in the abandoned orphanage; Amy is pregnant or not; the girl inside the astronaut suit may be her daughter, or River's, and is apparently a Time Lord; the Silence needed a spacesuit for the girl, but it's not clear why; for that matter, it's still not even clear who the Silence are, and whilst they've spelled their own destruction, it's a sure bet they'll be back this year. As for River Song, we've been promised an account of her this season, but for now we only get a kiss: the first for the Doctor, the last for her. A full stage has been set for season six, which could really take us anywhere.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.