Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Caretaker - "Frankly, you should all be in a constant state of panic."

The Caretaker (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #251) | Previous - Next | Index


GIFS via tumblr's I'm the kind of girl who likes to dream a lotGIFS via tumblr's I'm the kind of girl who likes to dream a lotGIFS via tumblr's I'm the kind of girl who likes to dream a lot

Jotted a lot of quick notes while watching the second time through, but for the most part they were things I'd normally tack on to one of these posts in the Stray Thoughts section at the end.  At first, I took this as an indication that while funny, mostly charming, and giving the characters some depth, this story was slight and primarily functional -- the characters need to stand in certain relation to each other for drama that will happen later, so this is the episode that introduces Danny to the Doctor and the Doctor to Danny and gets the whole issue of soldiers out in the open to be dealt with. The Schoolbox Spritzer was just enough of a threat to serve its purpose and was dealt with cursorily. The Doctor needed to be at Coal Hill, so a threat was put nearby. Missy and the Nethersphere have been drifting out of our attention, so the Kotex Grifter dispatches a patrolman to bring them back into focus.

There were comedic scenes that worked quite well, for me at least, and enough nods to the classic series to keep the obsessives satisfied with threads to pull and similarities to analyze. While every episode is guaranteed to be at least one fan's least favorite ever, my sense of the general response to this one is positive; most, myself included, finding it continues the season's run of generally strong outings without an obvious faceplant. While the monster of the week is handily discharged, and the focus is on character, I don't think it's exactly fair to label this one as slight.

A post about the craft of criticism at Siris this week has been lingering at front-of-mind, tapping at me to answer the questions it raises:
If we strip away all irrelevancies, all purely arbitrary and irrational criteria, there is nothing about a work itself that can be assessed except these three things:
(1) Are the ends sought genuinely good?
(2) Are the means appropriate to the end?
(3) Are the means used in a way to achieve the end well?
The difficulty is identifying with confidence the ends of a particular episode of a TV series before the larger story of which it is a part has concluded. We don't generally consider it wise to review novels chapter by chapter before we've got to the end of the book; likewise, until we can locate an episode within the complete story of the series (by which I mean season, not the 50+ year series) we can't really be sure we know the the storyteller/showrunner's ends, in part because we haven't seen justice, or injustice, meted out to all the characters yet.

Brandon goes on to write in his post:
If you cannot identify what the author is trying to do, your opinion about the work is of no importance at all. It does not matter whether you were bored. It does not matter whether you have ideas about how you think it should have been written. It does not matter whether you hated it. It does not matter whether you liked it. If you don't know what the author is doing, or if you've misunderstood what the author is doing, your judgment is about you, and says nothing about the work itself.
So, yes, I can tell you I laughed out loud a few times and we can argue about whether the scene where the Doctor's deep cover operation is revealed to Clara is genuinely funny or not. When the Doctor tells Clara "Deep cover. Deep cover," and shuts the door on her, I laughed. I could go so far as to say, "if you didn't think Capaldi played that perfectly and weren't at least chuckling a little on the inside, then you have no sense of humor." But should you take that as just being about me and my sense of humor? (And for a comedic work, can we ever get from this conception of criticism to a determination whether the means are used well towards achieving an end if we can't agree on what's funny?

The end of this season (Series 8) as far as I can tell, is to challenge us to think about what it means to be a good person, a hero, and whether the two are necessarily entangled. So anything I have to say about this story, and the others in the season, should be judged, I suppose, in light of whether I'm getting that right. Now, that's not the only end I think Moffat & co. have in mind, but I think it's the primary one.

If that is one of the ends, is it a worthy end?

Yes. I don't think you can go wrong creating entertainment that asks people to interrogate their notions of what it means to be virtuous.

Are the means appropriate to the end? The means: our hero, the Doctor, a grumpy, conflicted alien trying to protect innocent people, but also putting people in harm's way to accomplish his ends; Clara, a teacher, a hero in her own right, who loves the Doctor, but love loves Mr. Pink and has been withholding information, and outright lying when need be, to accomplish her ends; Mr. Pink, who love loves Clara and, now that he's found out about the Doctor, finds he's got to deal with whatever internal conflicts he's got about having been a soldier while reconciling Clara and the Doctor's companionship in light of their adventuring; the presence of agents in the universe that will harm others to accomplish their ends; a mysterious group of agents with extraordinary powers, resources, and unknown ends, but who are presenting themselves to some of those who die around the Doctor's adventuring as a supernatural force that rewards people with a heavenly after-life in the Promised Land; the Doctor Who continuity is a means; the TARDIS itself; the plot of each episode is a means; and, since we're talking about television, each directorial decision, each actor's choice in how to play a scene, each special effect, each editing decision, the use of music, all the myriad decisions that go into making a story for TV on top of what's written in the script, are a means of telling the story.

Yes, generally, to all of the above. It remains to be seen what Missy and the Nethersphere are all about; we may yet throw our hands up at the end and curse Moffat. But, for now, that means feels thematically appropriate.

Do the means achieve the end?

We have to re-frame this, I think, to consider this episode in the context we know it now. The story isn't complete and additional chapters will address the larger ends. The question for this episode is: did it entertain on its own, while maintaining or increasing interest in the larger story (we think) we're being told?

Hmm. I was entertained but, like a joke, do we have any criteria by which we can ever truly say it was entertaining such that we could prove to a person who wasn't that their not being entertained was a failure on their part, not of the story?  Well, I suspect that anyone who wasn't entertained wanted this story to be something other than it was -- perhaps a greater emphasis on the Clorox Twister, it's motivations/programming and the conflict it was engaged in, more people killed, greater peril to the Doctor and the kids at Coal Hill, more pew-pewing and Danny doing acrobatic combat -- and it's hard to see how that would've been a more effective way to set up grudging respect and unresolved conflict between Danny and the Doctor, for instance.

Let's get to the Stray Thoughts and I'll come back and do a massive re-write on this one after the season ends and/or I realize I need to re-think my assumptions about what we're watching:P

  • Love seeing snippets of other adventures and being reminded that the characters are up to more than what we see each week. It makes the DW universe feel bigger and more vibrant.
  • Two teachers, one male one female, a disruptive young lady, and a crankly old man with a TARDIS, sound familiar? The unacknowledged ghost of "An Unearthly Child" haunts this story in strange ways. Young Courtney the disruptive influence is not another Susan, but it sure looks like Twelve may see her that way. If Clara maps to Barbara, she's got a head start on Danny mapping to Ian. 
  • How can the Doctor go to Coal Hill School and show no sign he's given a thought to Susan, Ian, or Barbara? Well, he's Twelve, so we can imagine he's really that focused on what he's doing and is indifferent to his own history here. For us though, isn't it disturbing how it's like "An Unearthly Child" and "Remembrance of the Daleks" never happened for him? (Although, if he meets Ian, and has to explain regeneration, and that he's a Time Lord, and answer awkward questions like, "How did Susan get on after we left her? What do you mean you only saw her again briefly?!") 
  • I'm guessing many of us subtitled this one "Groundskeeper Willie Dresses Like a Ghostbuster"
  • So this bit: the white cop strolls up to two black kids and asks them why they aren't at school. I don't know if it only plays this way in America, but it felt like Ferguson, MO was about to break out in East London. Without checking the filming schedules, I'm sure this must have been in the can before Ferguson, but it was a tense moment. Can't help but wonder if viewers in the U.K. got a similar vibe?  (Twelve later asking Courtney if she didn't need to be off shoplifting somewhere was an uncomfortable moment as well. Again, as an American, I wonder if that just says more about our culture than about about whether that scene wasn't an unfortunate bit of writing.)
  • Twelve's evident delight when he thinks Clara's beau is a guy in a bow-tie with a bit too much jaw and unfortunate hair is borderline twee, but he needed a dash of that, didn't he?  
  • "Artron emissions"? Nerd alert!
  • Samuel Anderson is doing a brilliant job in his portrayal of Danny. "He's your space dad?!" Again, I was laughing. This is, far and away, the best Gareth Roberts has done writing.
  • Danny calling Twelve out as an officer (an aristocrat) and their class conflict worked really well for me. A powerful scene. We don't know Danny's trauma, but here are two former soldiers, as it were, trying to rile each other up and, perhaps, playing with fire by pushing the other to a dark place they might not want to have dredged up. That may have been my favorite scene of the season so far.
  • Twelve whistling "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" while Clara makes some schoolkids clean up a mess they've made. Hah!
  • Couldn't make out what Courtney was saying under her breath to Clara, and didn't pick up "Ozzie loves the Squaddie" meaning anything until second watch. Ozzie = Ms. Oswald ... Squaddie = Mr. Pink ... yeah, I was slow on the uptake there.
  • The scene where Danny tells Clara the Doctor needs to know he's good enough for her carried some paternalist baggage, the old suitor asking the maid's father for her hand, as if she were property. Or, maybe it didn't and Clara is going to do what she wants, with whom, regardless. 
  • So, Courtney is going to get another ride in the TARDIS? Are we sure this is a good idea? I thought Eleven taking Clara's charges on a trip was unwise and didn't sit right. Here I am again thinking this is a child, with a family and a life who is too young to make a decision like whether or not she should go off adventuring through time and space ... but am I applying too much real world thinking to a family show where having a younger character for younger viewers to identify with overrides normal reasoning?
  • I know, I know ... Skovox Blitzer. But I'll forget again in a week and be struggling to remember what it was called. 

What did I miss or get wrong?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Kim Stanley Robinson to consult on Red Mars adaptation!

image via wikipedia
Spike TV is adding another original scripted series to its slate, and has partnered with “Game of Thrones” co-executive producer Vince Gerardis to develop “Red Mars,” based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy of novels.
Trying not to get my hopes up. This was supposed to happen on the Sci-Fi Channel with James Cameron attached a few years back. Can't say I'm excited that it's for Spike; but, if Mr. Gerardis can see that it gets as fair an adaptation as Martin's Game of Thrones, then I'll be beyond thrilled.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Dominators - "Just act stupid. Do you think you can manage that? "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Dominators - Details

Season 6, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #44) | Previous - Next | Index

This sums up the experience of watching "The Dominators" as well as anything.
Image via The Nixon Tapes

I watched it beginning to end because that's what I do. If you want to say you've watched every bit of Doctor Who made for TV, you'll have to do the same. If that's not one of your goals, then don't do it.

The things you'll read over and over about this one are: it's boring, it's reactionary, the Quarks were a pathetic attempt by profit-minded writers to cash in on a successor for the Daleks after Terry Nation locked them up in the movies, the Dulcians' garb looks ridiculous, the Dominators' only slightly better. Correct on all counts. So, what else is there to say?

Sandifer: "If I sound pissed off at this story, it's because I am. It is an overt attack on the ethical foundations of Doctor Who. Not only is it an attack on the entire ethos that underlies the Doctor as a character, it's an attempt to twist and pervert the show away from what it is and towards something ugly, cruel, and just plain unpleasant. The sheer sickening stench of this story is enough to turn one off the program entirely. Especially coming off of the long turgid slog of pointless and cynical bases under siege we've seen over the last year."

Graham: "I'm very tempted to feel that everything else about the story is so bad it goes all the way round and comes out at good again. The Quarks are so ridiculous they become charming, the Dominators are so extravagantly unpleasant and stupid that they become an unwittingly great pisstake of all fascists (using the term loosely, in the manner of Rik from The Young Ones), the Dulcians are so hilariously rubbish they become endearing, the plot is so aimless and repetitious that it starts to look like a deliberate tactic to make a statement about the futility of all action. So bad it's good? It's almost so bad it's Sartre!"

Looking for a contrarian opinion? Matthew Celestis offers one: "[The Dulcians] A boring bunch of tedious pacifists. True. Which makes it fun to watch them getting slaughtered by the Dominators. Not the most edifying entertainment, but you can't say it makes viewing a dull experience."

I'd argue instead that where it's not dull, it's because Jamie and Cully seem to be having fun picking off the Quarks, and the squabbling between the two Dominators shows a species that calls themselves "Dominators" aren't happy unless they're dominating someone all the time, even if it's one of their own.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Time Heist - "You'll be old and full of regret for the things you can't change."

Time Heist - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #250) | Previous - Next | Index

Another pained reaction to being touched?
Image via debatchery

Fond of this episode without loving it, I wonder if any of the little bits that feel like they've got significance actually do, or if the Doctor just twinged his shoulder crawling around vents and that's why he's wincing after Saibra's hug ...

When we think of the heist movie, we are generally looking for a solution to a how question: how will this crew get it done? How will their allegiance to one another hold up once they have the booty? How will they adapt when things, as they invariably do, happen to the carefully laid plan?

"Time Heist" puts a spin on the usual questions and drops us into the heist scenario wondering: Why are they robbing the bank? Who's behind the whole thing? And then it proceeds to answer the questions after the plot beats we associate with the caper drama. On the whole, it works well. It looks great -- though some of the corridor running reminds us of the classic series tricks used to make the same corridor serve as different corridors. Here, instead of numbers on the wall incrementing up, or the camera shooting from the left instead of the right, the corridor instead are lit with different colors. (In this big, gorgeous bank, it feels like we may be spending a little more time than the viewer might prefer looking a plain corridor red, plain corridor blue, and plain corridor yellow.)

The assembling of a team having the skills needed to get the job done feels like an appropriate tip to any number of heist flicks -- the Ocean's movies, for example -- and Clara's choice of a date suit contributes to the a slow motion shot of the crew walking that could be considered a little Reservoir Dogs. These are nods of which I approve.

Image via AV Club
Much like the way "Hide" represented itself as a ghost story, only to turn out to be a different genre, "Time Heist" announces itself as being one sort of story, only pull a little sleight-of-hand and turn out to be another. The Doctor tells us outright: this was a rescue mission. So, once revealed, how do we feel about the rescue mission? Well, we can see why it's important to the Doctor. The Teller is another creature who is (not exactly) the last of its kind, so we can understand the Doctor's heartfelt desire to rescue it from that fate. But ... even though its motivations for serving as the guard dog of the bank is explained by its duty to do whatever it takes to save the last female its species, it still feels like a bit of a cheat that it gets to wander off into the sunset with the lady after, you know, sucking the brains out of a bunch of folks. Criminals, granted ... but this bank is for the super-wealthy, the wealthiest people in the universe in fact, so it's not that much of a stretch to imagine much of that wealth is ill-gotten, and that there might be very good reasons for thieves to try to get at it.

And that, that more than anything, is why I think I don't like this one quite as much as I'd like to ... this is a story produced in an age of historic wealth and income equality, in the wake of a vast, criminal activity by bankers and financiers which (we are told) necessitated massive bailouts of financial institutions in order to prevent a worldwide financial collapse. So, two weeks after a story about Robin Hood that seemed more concerned with getting all metatextual about story-telling and heroism than with addressing rapacious plutocracy, we have a story where the villain is a banker, sitting on her immense fortune, but who suffers pangs of conscience in the end and calls in the Doctor assuage her guilt over abusing two individuals she personally held in bondage.

We're dancing around structural, societal problems that grind swaths of humanity down into lives of struggle and debasement and addressing instead an individuals guilt over unambiguously evil actions directly against other individuals. Lost is the understanding that "white collar" crime and corruption by crisply dressed elites results in violence and suffering on wide scale, and should be dealt with. Crimes of violence by one individual against another individual are easy to prosecute; I want to see the Doctor pursue justice on a scale more appropriate to its sci-fi trappings.

Stray Thoughts:

There's a heist sequence in "The Planet of the Dead", and Davros engineered one of the all-time cosmic heists when he stole the Earth, among other planets, back at the end of Series Four. But those stories aren't really in the heist genre. "Planet" dips its toe into it, and Lady de Souza was the right sort of character, but after the opening, that's all dropped. It was a stretch to even link "The Stolen Earth" the genre at all.

Going back to the classic series, The Key to Time sequence, Season 16, could almost be seen as series of heists, but really only "The Ribos Operation" even comes close to having a heist movie vibe. And not that close, really.

The Doctor hating the Architect has shades of Eleven in "Amy's Choice," so if we weren't already pretty certain the Doctor was the the Architect, his announced hatred of that guy made it a lock.

Again with the cracks about Clara trying to dress up for a date ...

I keep reading how much everyone loves Psi and Saibra and wants to see them again. I get it, but I didn't think either were all *that* interesting. This may be widespread sub-conscious acknowledgment that the novelty is wearing off the Paternoster gang's collection of One Trick Ponies and we want something more, if not from them, than from a new set of recurring characters.

Great point in this comment by John Peacock on Sandifer's post about this story: "Last week's episode seemed very much to be adhering to dream logic, whereas this weeks was game logic: apart from the movement from level to level collecting things that aid in the task, closing in on the final boss (literally), and at least one elision point was highlighted (They enter a vent and there's an explicit visual effect and they are at the next level). I wonder if this ties in with the sense in Robot of Sherwood that they had materialised in story-space rather than actual medieval England."

"Robot of Sherwood" felt like a conscious nod towards "The Mind Robber" to me, but I saw this one being like "Robot of Sherwood" in that it's another missed opportunity to channel the post-Occupy zeitgeist. (That is the zeitgeist, right? It's not just me?) Having it pointed out that it's also another foray into a narrative logic that calls attention to the story as fiction, as opposed to a realist mode of storytelling forces back to front of mind that moment where Robin tells the Doctor they are each just as real as the other. No, I don't think we're leading towards a reveal that Clara is the Master of the Land of Fiction, but again it feels like that's deliberately being dangled as a possibility to prompt us to at least think about the series in the context of the art of storytelling.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Frontier In Space - "Got a trouble maker, have we?" "That's what I'm in for."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Frontier In Space - Details

Season 10, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #67)

"Frontier In Space" is a six-parter that runs directly into "Planet of the Daleks," also a six-parter. I'm a little concerned about my ability to handle what is, effectively, a twelve part epic in a timely fashion with the way work-life balance is tipping back towards work and my desire to stay on top the Series 8 stories as they come out. Since I mushed "Kinda" and "Snakedance" into one post when they're not quite so closely tied together, at least not in sequence, I leaned towards taking on "Frontier," then putting its write-up on ice until I can get to "Planet of the Daleks" so they could go out together. Watching his right after "Listen" though, I wanted to strike while the iron was still hot, so "Planet" will get its re-watch later and its own post.

What struck me about "Frontier" was, while quite a different beast than "Listen," it is linked thematically, and by a few particulars, in a way that resonated powerfully with the investigation of fear that ran through "Genesis of the Daleks," back through "An Unearthly Child," and into "Listen."

On the surface, "Frontier" could hardly be less like "Listen." The former is a political space opera with Ogrons raiding Human and Draconian ships to drive a wedge between the two uncomfortable allies. The Ogrons, brutish mercenaries we last saw in "Day of the Daleks," are revealed to be in the employ of the Master, who expects to step into the galactic power vacuum he's hoping to create by turning the two empires against one another -- with a little help from his "employers". (The Ogrons are a giveaway, to us if not the Doctor, what force stands behind the Master.) Ogron raiding parties strike all over the galaxy, boarding ships and bursting into government offices. We meet the President of Earth, her belligerent general, the Draconian royal family, political prisoners plotting escape from a lunar penal colony, the colony's corrupt staff, and on and on. The latter is a claustrophobic character piece that tracks the Doctor, Clara, Danny Pink, Orson Pink, and a monster that may or may not even be real, through a handful of locations.

The Master reads "The War of the Worlds"
Image via I Am Not a Politician, I'm a Spy
What they have in common though is an injunction not let fear overrule our better natures. The Master has provided the Ogrons with a device that makes them look to their victims like that which they fear most, so humans think they are being attacked by Draconians, and vice versa. Both sides of the alliance want to keep the peace, but have political realities to manage, and those realities include fearful warmongers in positions of power. Fear is what allows the Master, and the Daleks, to manipulate the powerful empires they seek to displace. The Doctor recognizes this, and with Jo's help -- the Master can't get over on her! -- ultimately helps sustain the alliance and bring the more bellicose members of the two sides into common cause.

Watching "Frontier," there were two times I snapped my finger, pointed at the screen, and thought, 'Moffat had this in mind when writing "Listen"': the first was seeing the Doctor get knocked out and his forehead bloodied -- when it happened in "Listen," I thought, 'we almost never see him actually cut in a scuffle', so when it happened again in "Frontier" it felt like a deliberate repetition; but, I might not have even remembered the thought if the second thing hadn't happened, the Doctor using the TARDIS's telepathic interface on the center console, which Clara uses in "Listen."

Maybe I'm noticing coincidental similarities and it's just my pattern recognition heuristics running hot, but this is a perfect example of what I'd hoped would happen when I decided to do this complete series re-watch non-sequentially, that bouncing back and forth between classic and new series stories would spark recognition of similarities or differences around thematic elements that I might otherwise not recall if fully immersed in one era.

Here's a nifty bit of casting: the news anchor reporting on reaction to another presumed Draconian attack on an Earth cargo ship, he's played by the same actor, Louis Mahoney, who played the aged police officer Sally Sparrow spends a rainy afternoon with in "Blink"!

Image via Doctor Who Randomness

Image via Doctor Who Randomness
A few of the props used in the is production are decidedly unfuturistic looking. The sippy cups used by the prisoners of the lunar penal colony for one. The chairs outfitted with seatbelts for the various space ships look like they came right off the showroom floor of a local furniture gallery.

On sad note, this is the last appearance of Roger Delgado as the Master. He died in a car crash a few months after this story aired while working on location in Turkey.

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