Friday, December 16, 2011

The Wedding of River Song

I have, on the whole, loved the sixth season of Doctor Who, but I've come to the conclusion that Steven Moffat has exhausted his genius. The handwriting was on the wall by the mid-season fiasco, where zany dialogue and unwieldy plot twists were supplanting character development and good storytelling. If Russell Davies (never the best writer to begin with) got worse with melodramatic cheese and go-nowhere plotting, Moffat is getting buried under the onus of his own cleverness. I hoped that for the single-episode finale he would pull out all the stops and write a brutally economical resolution to River Song, but he achieved this artificially at best. The thread launched in a fantastic season-opener, and continued in a mid-season disaster, lands results somewhere in-between, and confirm that Moffat never really had a plan with River Song.

Leaving aside the business of her mother's identity, River simply did not evolve into the darker character foreshadowed repeatedly since her debut in season four. The Doctor thus has not been subjected to the heartbreak of his love turning into someone who despises him, which would have been knock-down drama. In Let's Kill Hitler she went from hating and trying to kill him at the moment they meet, to saving him in the blink of an eye, inexplicably deciding that she loves this man for no reason at all. Of course, we've been promised that she really does kill him, so that couldn't be the real murder attempt, which we in fact get now: the astronaut-assassin at Lake Silencio is none other than she. But even this turns out a cheat, because she shoots him against her will, at the Doctor's command so that time can resume its course. River, in other words, wants desperately to save the Doctor, not destroy him, at the expense of everyone else in the universe locked in a moment of time. That doesn't make her dark, just astronomically selfish, and frankly unbelievable.

At the same time, there are things to admire in The Wedding of River Song. The Doctor's determination to die is compelling, and the way all of time and history occurs at once shouts Moffat at his best. We get to see Charles Dickens interviewed on the BBC, knights on horseback sharing the London streets with automobiles, steam trains barreling out of the Gherkin and into the Pyramids, and then plenty of arial eye-candy -- balloon minis, pterodactyls, all blending together in perpetual anachronism. The Silence also help redeem the story's shortcomings, as they remain truly horrifying creatures, perched in ceilings like vampiric parasites -- the scene where the Doctor and Churchill look up to a nest of them made my heart skip a beat even knowing what was coming.

The return of Amy and Rory was a given, and trivializes Amy's departure at the end of The God Complex, though to be fair, they are different people in the alternate timeline. Rory doesn't even recognize the Doctor, and Amy is a commander in charge of keeping watch over the Silence, until they break free of their aquarium prison and unleash hell. Amy, for her part, gets in some cold-blooded murder, killing Madame Kovarian with her own eye-patch -- a wonderful moment for her character, alternate or not -- and Rory puts in some inspiring moments with his trademark loyalty and willingness to endure torment to get the right thing done.

As for the Doctor, he's in tolerable form for a sixth-season Moffat script. Unlike his opening and mid-season performances, this one isn't so hyper-manic, and his quip comes in moderation as he is weighed down by the gravitas of his imminent demise. Except of course that he doesn't die, because he's been clever in the way that only Moffat can write him: instead of sacrificing himself, he forces River to shoot the Teselecta disguised as him. This may be a nimble twist but is glaringly problematic. Even if the Silence are stupid enough to be fooled by sleight-of-hand, time itself is not, and we're left with the absurdity of the Doctor getting around the fixed point of his death by simply playing magician. This is where Moffat's desperate games have caught up with him. There's no denying the cleverness to the Teselecta, but cleverness, unfortunately, is all The Wedding of River Song leaves us with.

The best part of this finale is actually Dorium Maldovar. The talking head is a perverse bit of fun who entertains me to no end, and a fitting mouthpiece for killjoy prophecies. He tells the Doctor that on the fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, a question will be asked, a question that must never be answered, which he finally bellows out in the closing scene: "Doctor WHO?", promising fundamental identity issues next season. All of the Doctor's scenes with Dorium are great, not least their exasperating trades in the TARDIS where Dorium's head is upside down. Best of all is the Doctor's end resolution: "I got too big, Dorium; I got too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows." I literally got the chills listening to Matt Smith deliver this vow. Whilst Moffat has done much to scale back the Doctor's ubiquitous savior-image from the Davies era, River Song's call for universal support was alarmingly Last of the Time Lords, and I am with the legions of fans who are applauding the Doctor's return to his classic role as an unknown traveler.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Closing Time

Indeed for Doctor Who, if this story is to be taken as exemplary. Thankfully it's not; like The Lodger it's a single steaming manure-pile in a season of roses, and repeats the prequel's embarrassing sitcom strategy. The Doctor wants to play at being human so looks up his friend Craig. Once again, he ends up helping Craig with his personal problems, this time his insecurity as a father, while Craig in turn helps him see the good behind his taking on human companions. As before, people think they're gay, and I really wish they were, so we could at least get some base entertainment out of this horrible pairing. Gareth Roberts evidently had one great story in him, but after The Shakespeare Code has been determined to kill his reputation with astonishingly bad throwaways.

Closing Time actually reminds of Journey's End, which was not only atrocious, but went out of its way to be atrocious, as if Russell Davies reached a point where his bankruptcy of ideas caused him to throw up his hands and decide to not only not pay us off, but un-pay us off with mockeries and betrayals. Roberts isn't quite as vindictive, aiming instead for the plain preposterous -- the highest plane of it, in fact, seen in the new series. Craig, on the verge of being made into a Cyber Controller, hears his infant son crying at a distance, and his paternal love swells to such epic proportions that the influx of emotion causes the Cybermen's heads to explode along with their ship. Not only is this the same ridiculous ending as The Lodger's, it's worse for making horses' asses out of the Cybermen, and is the umpteenth time that evil has been literally defeated by love. Whether that's lowest-common-denominator marketing or sentimental incompetence I'm not sure, but I certainly expect better out of Moffat, who should have fired Gareth Roberts last season. At least Night Terrors involved a traumatized kid's nightmares owing to parental neglect, in which the triumph of love theme was much the point, and Victory of the Daleks could also get away with it since the android was trying to recall its own feelings when it was human.

River Song's wedding had best move mountains. I'm not surprised the editors tacked on the segue into the finale -- it's the only half-decent thing about this episode.

Rating: 1 star out of 5.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The God Complex

The God Complex is a perfect swan song for Amy Pond, not only for trailing her most harrowing experience in The Girl Who Waited, but by putting her childlike faith in the Doctor finally to rest. It does this in a simple but effective story about a beast who feeds off corrupted faith in a haunted hotel, and like the story that precedes it is one of the best of the season.

The hotel is a glaring homage to The Shining, with clashing decor, endless hallways, and staircases shot Vertigo-style. There's even a clown in one of the rooms, posturing deliberately out of Kubrick's film. The concept of this building is bloody fantastic, a playhouse of horrors where each room contains the worst fears of one individual, that when confronted causes insanity and a sudden perverse devotion to the minotaur who stalks the corridors like a psycho out of a B-slasher. It's also an active maze, meaning the halls randomly shift, which conveniently foils the Doctor's rescue of the hotel prisoners when his TARDIS becomes lost -- we've seen this sort of device used before in The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit and 42. The hotel is in fact the true antagonist of the story, rather than the minotaur itself, but a 45-minute episode doesn't really allow its full potential to be unleashed.

The minotaur works fairly well, if a bit cheesy, and it's a nice touch that it's related to the Nimon of the Tom Baker years. Since the beast succeeds by perverting faith, his captives must have some belief system to begin with. That lets Rory off the hook, but not Amy, who of course still believes in the Doctor in her innocent Amelia-like way, despite all the hell he's put her through the past two seasons, and also the way her trust in him has already been somewhat crushed in stories like Amy's Choice. When she and the Doctor see what's inside her room, the Doctor proceeds at once to destroy her faith in him, which not only saves her from the beast but severs its food supply and gives it space to die (a resolution that requires we don't look too closely). His demolishing of her faith is the crux of the story, and many critics have drawn the parallel to The Curse of Fenric, where the Doctor's victory also depended on shattering the faith of his companion. The difference is that the Seventh Doctor relied on psychological bullying to tear Ace down, while the Eleventh builds Amy up more positively, significantly by admitting she was right from the beginning: "I'm not a hero, just a madman in a box". While I honestly prefer McCoy's mean-spirited strategy, Smith's acting here is quite good, conveying impressions that he is weighed down by the way he uses human companions to assuage his loneliness and have inferiors around to "worship" him and feed his ego.

As for what's inside the Doctor's room (appropriately #11), it's a cop-out that we don't get to see what so horrifies him, though it's not hard to guess. The ring of the cloister bell is a TARDIS tip-off, perhaps pointing to the Doctor's eternal fear of losing it, without which he would be near powerless, and for that matter there would hardly be any Doctor Who. Amusingly, this could almost stand as a meta-fear of the audience; what else is the greatest terror of any Who-fan? Meanwhile the guest actors do well for their parts and allow us to ride the thrill of more traditional horrors. The weeping angels make an unexpected appearance, and we initially assume they are for Amy given the terror she endured in Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone. There's a gorilla for the prologue victim that's a bit on the embarrassing side, but the ventriloquist dummies that laugh maniacally are downright chilling.

The epilogue is simply beautiful. Even if this is the new series, where farewells are preordained cop-outs -- it's a sure bet that Amy and Rory will be back at some point, for the finale at least -- I haven't seen a companion departure so moving since Sarah Jane Smith in The Hand of Fear. Sarah's exit set the standard by which all other companion departures are judged. The only one who came close to topping it, fittingly, was Toby Whithouse in School Reunion, with a second farewell to Sarah decades after her return. Fans might object to me ranking these above the departure of Rose Tyler, and part of me agrees; Doomsday is an unrivaled tear-jerker. But I ultimately put Rose in a class by herself on account of the exceptional (if unrealized) romance between her and the Doctor. Amy's farewell, like Sarah's in the '70s, delivers so much in simple gestures and looks that speak volumes. There's a real feel in the closing scene that the Doctor and Amy have have become best friends and find it enormously painful to part company.

In sum, The God Complex is a terrific episode that falls short of the highest greatness only for a slightly cheesy creature and the feeling that a diabolical monstrosity like the hotel fits within a wider context of something larger than a story on its own right.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Girl Who Waited

If The Girl Who Waited wields sentimentality like old-Amy does a sword, the emotions on display ring true, and it's impossible not to be moved during the scenes between her and Rory. The ending is fairly predictable, but only in the way that tragedy always is, and in this sense reminds of Pete Tyler's fate in Father's Day. Comparing Tom MacRae to Paul Cornell might seem blasphemous, but I should remind that he was responsible for the undervalued Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, which was a sequel of sorts to Father's Day, and which frankly I thought just as powerful. All bets were off in the parallel-Earth story, as we got to see familiar characters die (Jackie), others confounded by "relatives" they never knew (Pete), and a long-time favorite choosing exile when he finally realizes that his girlfriend will always choose the Doctor over him (Mickey). The Girl Who Waited does something a bit different as a parallel-character story, but allows MacRae to cover another "What if?" scenario with returns almost as great.

The story is minimalist in every way the Cybermen epic was maximalist. There are no characters aside from the three leads; the Two Streams Facility has been cleaned out by plague. White sterilized rooms are balanced by lush topiaries and gardens, adding up to a weird futuristic look which aligns perfectly with its purpose: to allow infected people to live out their few hours in a quicker time stream, while their loved ones can observe them effectively living a life from the slower one. Whether this is merciful or morbid depends on one's point of view, and Rory's human one stands, I think, for most of ours. I would be sickened to watch a friend or family member grow old fast, and not be able to physically interact. Yet the Doctor counters with (what is to a Time Lord) common sense: "Why? At least you're not watching them die."

Time Lord quip isn't appropriate here, however. The simple press of a wrong button costs Amy half her life: lagging behind the Doctor and Rory, she walks into the same room but in quickened time, and ends up spending 36 years waiting for them to rescue her. This puts her in her fifties by the time Rory manages to locate her only hours later in his timeline, and she's pissed to say the least, bitter and battle-worn, an empty shell of her former self. She's spent all these years in survivalist mode, with nothing more to look forward to than fending off "benign" androids programmed to administer lethal cures, since as an alien she would be poisoned by their antidotes. With the Doctor remaining in the TARDIS and communicating to Rory via a looking glass that accesses alternate timelines, the dilemma becomes one of how to rescue the younger Amy out of the past so that she never has to grow old in this horrifying life of isolation. And of course, when the solution presents itself, she naturally doesn't want to go through with it. To save her past self would mean killing her present self, which no living creature willingly accepts.

This warrior-Amy in her fifties turns out to be a great character and critical to the story's success. We haven't enjoyed the spectacle of a TARDIS companion kicking ass so professionally since the days of Leela, and it gives Karen Gillam a chance to show off new acting skills. The Doctor is also in fine form, unloosing his dark manipulative side, and unlike Rory we're not fooled by his promise that he can save both Amy's by resolving the paradox of them co-existing in the same time stream. There is a slight problem with Rory here, however, that he would want to save old-Amy as much as "his" Amy. Let alone for a moment calling into question the sanity of any man who would want to be saddled with two wives, one of them old enough to be his mother, it just doesn't play authentically. More natural would be Rory aghast by the thought and willing to do what it takes to make the horrible mistake cease to be. And this would have worked wonders for the story, making old-Amy's heartbreak even worse and putting Rory in touch with a darker side he constantly slams the Doctor for. Even so, his desperate attempt to save both Amy's works despite the problems, and the emotional farewell through the doors of the TARDIS is a kind of scene we haven't seen since Rose went wreck in Doomsday.

The Girl Who Waited is completely defined by its title. Amy's tragedy from The Eleventh Hour is repeated, but infinitely worse, hinting at a full circle with her story arc. In fact her swan song is just around the corner. This episode exposes the Doctor's destructive nature as she faithfully, eternally, waits on him; the next one demolishes that childlike faith altogether.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Damages: The Five Seasons

Damages is a high-stakes litigation thriller, but don't fear the clichés. Hardly any action takes place in the courtroom, and despite the flashforward technique it's impossible to predict the end games. There are no righteous melodramas, no cheap victories. Suspense is wrung out of depositions, bickering strategy sessions, and complex relationships, particularly that between the two female leads. For whatever reason I always imagined Glenn Close as being someone like Patty Hewes in real life: cold and ruthless, champion of the oppressed, mostly for prestige, but also because she (like her protégée Ellen Parsons) despises corporate bullies, even though she's an outrageous bully herself. She demeans her subordinates, fires people on a whim, divorces her husband, disowns her son, and has his girlfriend thrown in jail. And for desert she tries having her favorite employee Ellen killed. I love Patty Hewes.

If her character is too colorful to be true, her lawsuits are based entirely on real-world events. Season 1 is inspired by the Enron and WorldCom scandal of '02, season 2 by toxic dumping and price-fixing on Wall Street, and season 3 by Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme in '09. Season 4 then moves out of white collar crime into the Afghan war, the demon now being a private military contracting firm working with the CIA to perform illegal extraction activities and torture, getting soldiers killed on dangerous missions with no payout benefits for their families. It's a very dark season, and in some ways my favorite, though nothing can top the tight and relentless suspense of season 1. Finally, season 5 takes its inspiration from Julian Assange's whistleblower website WikiLeaks, devoted to exposing corporate and government fraud. In an eerie way, the fraud victims of seasons 1 and 3 resonate loudly in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the 1% can join the 99% at a moment's notice.

The dramas are character driven, with fair ball played to the good and bad guys, though of course there really are no good guys when dealing with high-profile lawyers, least of all Patty Hewes; co-protagonist Ellen Parsons is the one we're meant to identify with, though my favorite character is actually Tom Shayes. As for the corporate assholes being sued, they are truly assholes, yet sympathetic (with the exception of toxic-dumper Walter Kendrick in season 2, whose character really isn't fleshed out enough). We get to know their families and are pulled in by pathetic attempts to justify themselves and make good out of foul behavior. Ted Danson has become legendary as Arthur Frobischer (season 1), the billionaire who kills his company, dumps his stock, and leaves all his employees destitute. Campbell Scott is just as convincing as Joe Tobin (season 3), who initially despises his father's criminal activities only to get sucked in after his suicide, and "do as he must" for the family. There's a not-so-subtle Godfather theme running through season 3, with Tobin a tragically realized Michael Corleone; I could never have imagined he'd have what it takes to murder Tom Shayes in the final episode by drowning him in a toilet bowl. John Goodman is flawless as Howard Erickson (season 4), the private military contractor who is willing to have his own men tortured and killed to keep things quiet; inwardly tormented, he desperately tries to convince himself of the lesser-of-evils through religion and scripture. For that matter, the CIA stooge played by Dylan Baker is also as much sympathetic as despicable, having, as we learn in the end, launched an illegal operation for no other purpose than to rescue his own son fathered on an Afgani woman, then murdering his fellow soldiers in the field when they refuse to extract a 12-year old. As for Ryan Philippe (season 5), some think he was miscast, but I thought he made a perfect Channing McClaren, the self-absorbed computer geek who protects corporate whistleblowers, until one of his clients is exposed and murdered.

Each season escalates the bizarre relationship between Patty and Ellen, who maintain a guarded respect without ever really trusting each other, especially after Patty tries to have Ellen killed in season 1. Some have charged that Ellen's willingness to have anything to do with Patty after this undermines the show's credibility, but the unlikely relationship is the whole point, and is handled believably in its dramatic context. There's a difference, after all, between hyper-realistic and unrealistic. An example of the latter would be Luke and Laura from General Hospital, still rated the #1 soap opera romance of all time, but fundamentally incredible: Laura is raped by Luke and falls in love with him. That's evidently an appealing fantasy to many women (according to a study in '04, 52% of all Harlequin romance novels published that year involved the plot of a heroine falling in love with her rapist and transforming him into a more decent man), but Ellen Parsons is no Laura Spencer equivalent. She does not bond with Patty so soon after being almost murdered. She's driven by revenge to take Patty down throughout the entire second season, and even when she is able to transcend herself by forgiving Patty, it's as much a self-serving forgiveness as a self-empowering one -- and she certainly never goes back to work for her. In seasons 3 and 4 she allies herself with her former boss to exploit the resources of Hewes Associates for her own gain, partly out of respect for Patty's goals which align with her own, but also because she now has a certain power over Patty knowing her worst secret. As the show writers have said, there is something mythic about the power of forgiveness and what it does to people in unforgivable cases, and that's really, as I see it, the key to Damages's success. Without it, it would be a just another legal thriller.

Indeed, this is why seasons 3 and 4 are so compelling: there is a constant subtext to everything Patty and Ellen do in the wake of the failed murder and abandoned revenge. They never speak of the ugliness again, but it hangs between them surreally as they use each other for their own ambitions. They oddly like each other for all their contempt. I knew things were going too smoothly in their season-4 team up against High Star, however, and Patty's betrayal in the final episode was inevitable when Ellen tried throwing the case and cutting a deal to save the life of a soldier. Where season 3 ended on uncertainty ("Tell me, Patty, is everything worth it?"), season 4's epilogue points ahead to renewed conflict, as Patty, on rotten ice, extends a hand of partnership to Ellen, only to have it spat back for her treachery.

Season 2 is somewhat an anomaly. As mentioned, the corporate villain is too one-dimensional, partly due to lazy writing, but also because there wasn't room enough to flesh him out. The season is all over the map. The toxic-dumping storyline is supplemented by that of the William Hurt character who murdered his wife; he also happens to be (wait for it) the father of Patty's 17-year old son. Then there are dangling threads from the previous season, with way too many returning characters. Much as I love Ted Danson's performance, bringing back Arthur Frobischer was a mistake, and I didn't buy him hiring Patty who so vindictively destroyed him a year before. Nor did I like the romance between Ellen and Wes -- the dirty cop planted in her grief therapy sessions to get close to her -- not so much because the concept was bad, but because Timothy Olyphant can't act his way out of a bag. No, the most engaging plot of season 2 is the one we didn't get enough of: Ellen's revenge on Patty. Even here there's a problem, however, because while obviously understandable, Ellen's fury and decision to work with the feds to bring Patty down is perhaps too believable, and thus less interesting. It's the volatile alliances of the other seasons that sell Damages so well, though there are some admittedly tense moments when Patty suspects Ellen of being a mole. That being said, the wrap-up to season 2 is brilliant, and I really thought Ellen shot Patty. All seasons use the flash-forward technique to paint a puzzle of imminent catastrophes, but season 2's piecing is the most clever.

With the resurrection of Ellen's intent to bring Patty down in season 5, I was worried it would copy the errors of season 2, but it turned a great payoff and kept things tense and unpredictable. The bottle-episode (seven) is actually my favorite of the series, in which Patty takes the opportunity to fuck with Ellen's mind, claiming she never tried to have her killed. Damages has always been about the divide between perception and reality, and even if the reality on this point is clear to us, Ellen suddenly harbors a real doubt as Patty throws her the bone of Pete, who "may have acted on his own". Patty's explanation for her season-2 confession, forced at gunpoint, seems oddly plausible in this light, and she certainly has nothing to lose by this last-ditch attempt to mess with her protege, who intends to expose Patty's crimes when they finish the McClaren case. As for the finale, it was everything I hoped for, landing the unexpected shocker of Patty's son getting killed, and wonderful closure on the dock, with Patty, astonishingly even by this point, gloating over how she manipulated Ellen into evil choices in the McClaren case -- which of course don't hold a candle to her own evils. Ellen's ultimate decision to let go of her need for vengeance, and for a career which has killed her integrity, is reached after so much patient plotting, and holds believably to Damages' mythic theme of forgiveness.

Season 1 -- 5 stars
Season 2 -- 3 stars
Season 3 -- 4 ½ stars
Season 4 -- 4 ½ stars
Season 5 -- 4 ½ stars

Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Vivisection of N.T. Wright

Richard Fellows has a sharp post against Wright on the subject of supposed gay marriages, or committed gay relationships as we know them, in antiquity. Well worth checking out. As is too often the case, Wright's claims aren't based on a careful assessment of evidence, but on neo-orthodox views draped in rhetoric.