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THE STRANGER (1964): Australia’s first sci-fi show now online

An interesting piece of lost science fiction television history has recently resurfaced. The Australian Broadcasting Company has restored and re-released Australia’s first homemade SF series, The Stranger, starring Ron Haddrick as a mysterious, seemingly amnesiac man who calls himself Adam and ingratiates himself with uncanny ease to an Australian schoolmaster named Walsh and his teenage children, who subsequently discover he’s actually an alien scouting a new home for his people, a small group of refugees from a dead planet. The show had two 6-episode seasons, aired a year apart but telling one continuous story, and in the second season the story opens up considerably as the authorities and the world learn of the aliens’ existence and respond with predictable fear and mistrust, with hardline factions on both sides threatening to escalate the situation to violence.

There’s a good article about the show on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s site, and the entire series is available to US audiences on YouTube here:

The Stranger (1964)

The show has been compared to Doctor Who, and it does have a few similarities — it’s a children’s SF show with a (mostly) benevolent alien as its title character, and it’s shot in a similar way, recorded mostly in continuous takes as if live, with occasional flubbed lines and visible mikes as a result. But it’s a more grounded series, going for scientific credibility in most respects (aside from the humanlike appearance of the aliens), and telling a first-contact story that engages intelligently with the question of how humanity would react to alien contact, and works as a timeless (and currently quite timely) allegory about how we treat immigrants and refugees. Given that message, I wonder if there’s an ulterior motive to the decision to release this series for free viewing to American audiences now. If so, I approve.

Overall, I like the series. Haddrick is effective in the lead, reminding me of a cross between Martin Landau and Sherlock Holmes. His “Adam Suisse” strikes a good balance of amiability, otherness, and occasional menace when it’s called for. The story is effective, though very slow-paced, taking two episodes before revealing any overt science fiction elements. Yet in other ways it seems to rush through the plot; in early episode 2, it’s supposedly been just over a week since Adam started teaching at the lead characters’ school, yet the kids are talking about how he “always” goes bush-walking (Aussie for nature walks, I guess) on his days off.

It seems to me that the first season must have been quite popular, since in season 2 it appears to have gotten a major budget upgrade. There’s a lot more location shooting and action, as well as the story opening up to a much more epic scale. The aliens’ asteroid home Soshuniss (their language is incredibly heavy on sibilants) is represented in season 1 by a very Doctor Who-ish cave set, nothing but bare rock walls, but in season 2 there’s an elaborate high-tech command center plus an exterior ship-landing scene in a quarry. Okay, an SF show shooting in a quarry doesn’t scream high-budget, but overall the last half feels much more cinematic than the first, with some terrific location shooting at the Parkes Observatory in the outback, including a really suspenseful (if slightly gratuitous) chase sequence across the dish of its big radio telescope in the penultimate episode, compellingly vertiginous because the actors (and stuntmen in long shots, no doubt) are actually up there for real. I’m amazed the observatory allowed it. They were also allowed to shoot the finale on the steps of Sydney’s Town Hall and film inside the actual Prime Minister’s office.

Additionally, although the Soshuniss saucers were not a particularly impressive design, there were some pretty clever forced-perspective shots of them landing and taking off. There was one night shot that credibly appeared as if a full-sized saucer was landing on the lawn in the background between two actors in the foreground, but then I noticed a slight wobble in the “landed” saucer that revealed it was actually a model hanging on wires close to the camera. Aside from that wobble, though, it was a convincing illusion. They even made it look as though the pilot stepped out of the saucer — presumably the actor was on a ladder in the distance behind the foreground model. (This is why I love pre-CGI effects. The results are imperfect, but the various tricks they used to create the illusions were ingenious.)

The story got pretty suspenseful too, following the Doctor Who-ish formula of an ideally peaceful situation being sabotaged by fearful and militaristic factions on both sides, plus a devious billionaire trying to exploit the situation for profit and adding further complications. Although I feel that after all that buildup of danger and threats and ultimatums, the whole thing ended up being resolved a bit too easily and happily in the final part. There were also some ambiguities the show never really confronted, like Adam’s willingness to use his species’ hypnotic power over humans to achieve his ends and his sympathy toward the more hardline faction of his people in season 2. It’s understandable that he was willing to do whatever it took to save his people, and gray areas in a lead character can be good, but it often came off more as inconsistent writing.

All in all, though, this was a pretty good show, allowing for the occasional clumsiness of mid-’60s TV production. I do think a few of the actors had a tougher time with that kind of acting than others, fumbling a fair number of their lines (like when Owen Weingott’s Professor Mayer was commiserating with Walsh about his kids and said “I have a teejaner back home myself”). So it could’ve done with better casting in some cases and some improvement to the story pacing.

Overall, The Stranger is an effective series that handles the premise of first contact and the reaction to alien refugees in a plausible way, both scientifically and socially, and the second half is quite impressive from a production standpoint as well. I’m glad we got to see this, and I recommend it.

DOCTOR WHO’s “Smile” seems a bit familiar… (Mild spoilers)

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately — again. I’ve been distracted by stuff including a hard drive crash, although I’ve gone back to the previous, potentially unstable hard drive and it’s working okay for now.

Anyway, I’m liking the new season of Doctor Who so far; Bill is a fun companion, she and the Doctor have a good relationship developing, and it seems like Moffat may be going for a classic-Who formula of having each story lead directly into the next one, one of several homages this season seems to have to the very first season of the original show. (“The Pilot” was basically an inversion of “An Unearthly Child,” with a student learning about her mysterious teacher instead of the other way around.)

But it’s a different parallel that struck me when watching the second episode, “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, this past weekend. Okay, so this is a story where the Doctor and Bill go to a human colony world, only to find that the colonists sent a swarm of robots on ahead to build their colony for them so it’d be all ready when they arrived — but during the interim, the robots underwent evolution in their behavior and were no longer following their expected directives. And that led to a debate about whether to fight them or learn to coexist with them.

And that reminded me of the second story I ever got published, “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” from the December 2000 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. That story, which I talk about a bit on my Original Short Fiction page, was about self-replicating “auxons” rather than nanobots, and the premise was more along the lines that the auxons had become essentially a new order of animal in the colony world’s ecosystem. So the robots weren’t a threat to the human colonists as in “Smile,” but rather posed a threat of extinction to the world’s native life, creating a dilemma over whether they should be destroyed or have their own right to exist protected.  It’s a story I’ve always been pretty proud of, and I’m hoping I can get it back into print in some form soon.

I doubt very much that Frank Cottrell-Boyce ever read my old story or was inspired by it in any way, but it’s nice to see a science fiction concept show up somewhere and realize that I did it first. Although my own story was inspired by Roger Zelazny’s “Last of the Wild Ones,” about self-driving cars that had gone rogue due to a computer virus and roamed the plains like wild horses or bison. (Which is a sequel to an earlier story called “Devil Car,” which I don’t think I ever read.)

Thoughts on Toho’s DOGORA and KING KONG ESCAPES (spoilers)

February 9, 2016 1 comment

Here are a couple of standalone kaiju films I’ve managed to track down over the past year or so, bracketing the Frankenstein duology I covered in my previous post. I’d been saving these until I could add one or two more films to the post, but the Frankenstein reviews turned out long enough that it made more sense to post them in pairs.

Dogora the Space Monster (Uchuu Daikaiju Dogora) was the film Ishiro Honda made in 1964 between the classic Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — just before the era when Godzilla films started to grow more kid-oriented and whimsical, but also just a year before the dark and moody Frankenstein Conquers the WorldDogora tends toward the latter route, mostly striking a pretty serious tone, but it’s kind of an odd one too.

Nominally, Dogora is about the mysterious attacks of a mutated amoeba-like monster living in Earth orbit, able to suck things up into the sky with antigravity powers. But mostly it’s a crime caper about international diamond thieves. One such gang (the film’s featured villains) finds a diamond heist interrupted by something that levitates them, then absconds with the diamonds after they flee. Police inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki) investigates the home of crystallographer Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), where Komai gets into a fight with American Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham, who would later play the Seatopian king in Godzilla vs. Megalon), himself a suspected jewel thief. The film mostly follows the interplay of Komai, Jackson, and the gang as they compete for various diamond hauls, occasionally finding themselves interrupted as Dogora comes down from space to suck up coal and diamonds as its energy source. Munakata’s assistant, who’s also Komai’s love interest, conveniently has a brother in the space agency, so they end up advising the military on Dogora, with Komai occasionally touching base with them in between clashing with Jackson and the gang. About a third of the way in, Jackson reveals that he’s actually an international insurance investigator, a “diamond G-man” as he puts it, although he continues to behave in a suspicious manner and seems to be playing Komai as much as he’s playing the thieves. So Komai follows him when he follows the gang to Kyushu (Japan’s southernmost island), which naturally comes under attack by Dogora.

Eventually the military gets lucky when Munakata learns that a swarm of wasps was able to hurt Dogora, turning parts of it into crystal that rain down on the city. So they concoct a huge batch of wasp venom to use as a chemical weapon in Dogora’s next attack. But the cops and crooks have their own concerns. The gangsters’ moll, the sultry, sexy Hamako (Akiko Wakabayashi, later to appear in the Bond film You Only Live Twice), absconds with the diamonds that Jackson had in a safe-deposit box, leading the gang to hunt her down for double-crossing them, and Komai and Jackson (after barely escaping a dynamite deathtrap) chase the gangsters down in turn — with the overhead battle with Dogora interrupting their gunfight and having a rather decisive, err, impact on its outcome.

Structurally, this is a weird movie. It’s like Honda wanted to do a straight-up crime caper, but was obligated to put in a monster because that’s what people expected from him. The Dogora side of the story, despite providing the title, is very much secondary to the cops-and-robbers plot, largely going on in the background as the crime drama unfolds. But it provides an interesting look at the psychology of the people who live in the universe of Toho’s monster movies. (The characters do talk about monsters without much disbelief when they first begin to realize that one is responsible for all the diamond “thefts” around the world, implying that the film is in the same universe as the other kaiju films.) After a decade dealing with monsters of all sorts, they’ve grown blase about it; they just leave the monster-fighting to the military and the scientists while they go about their own affairs. It’s interesting to see a kaiju movie that’s mainly about the people who aren’t involved in fighting the kaiju, who don’t even particularly care about it except when it gets in the way of their own goals.

Although, really, you’d think they would care more. Knowing that there’s a giant space amoeba-squid with the power to suck diamonds up into the sky, these people would logically try to lay low and avoid anything to do with diamonds until the problem had been resolved. Maybe the crooks were just too greedy to think straight, and the heroes too ploddingly fixated on their duties to see the bigger picture. Even though Komai was in contact with the people who were dealing with Dogora.

Still, it’s also a pretty fresh and impressively made kaiju movie, with some really creative visual effects from Eiji Tsuburaya’s team. Dogora is a nifty departure from all the stuntmen in rubber lizard suits stomping down buildings. It’s eerie and alien, frequently unseen — which was probably due to budget limitations, given the rather more elaborate monster attack scenes shown in the production art on the DVD, but works well at creating a sense of mystery. The visuals of mounds of coal and various structures being sucked skyward by antigravity are a fresh and novel approach to kaiju destruction scenes, and well-made (generally relying on reverse filming). There’s also some rather beautiful use of cloud tank effects, dyes swirling in water with the Dogora puppet waving its tentacles within the cloud. There are also some shots of explosions going off inside the cloud that remind me of some of the Mutara Nebula shots from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I believe cloud tank effects were pretty innovative for 1964, and not just in Japan. This is impressive work, although some of the action is confusing in the last third of the movie.

Unusually for an American actor in a kaiju film, Robert Dunham was fluent in Japanese (he was a former U.S. Marine who’d been living in Japan since he served there years earlier), and thus he speaks Japanese in his own undubbed voice throughout, except once or twice when Jackson lapses into English briefly in moments of surprise or emotion. He even pronounces “New York” and other Western city names the Japanese way. Oddly, though, the other characters use “Mark” as though it were his surname — even though none of them are on friendly terms with him, except for Komai toward the end. It’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t aware of American name order; maybe they just found “Mark” (or “Maaku”) easier to pronounce than “Jackson.” Anyway, apparently Toho was hoping to spin Jackson off into a series, but it never came to pass. Just as well; aside from his fluency in the language, Dunham isn’t all that interesting an actor. I wonder if these other films would’ve been kaiju movies or just caper movies. With this film as the source, it could’ve gone either way.

King Kong Escapes was a 1967 co-production of Toho and the American Rankin-Bass studio (producers of all those badly done stop-motion holiday specials in the ’70s and an early animated version of The Hobbit), loosely based on The King Kong Show, a cartoon that R-B coproduced with Toei (now known for Super Sentai/Power Rangers) in the first instance of an American cartoon being produced in Japan. This was Ishiro Honda’s next kaiju film after War of the Gargantuas, since the previous two Godzilla films (Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla) had been directed by Jun Fukuda; however, Honda would return to Godzilla with his next film, Destroy All Monsters.

King Kong Escapes is not really in continuity with Kong’s earlier appearance in King Kong vs. Godzilla; there, Kong was blown up to 45 meters/148 feet to match Godzilla’s size, but here he’s a mere 18 meters/60 feet, closer to his size in his US film appearances (though still nearly 3 times larger than the ’33 original). Also, the name of Kong’s home island is changed from Faro to Mondo.

The film goes for a James Bond flavor in its villainy. We open at the Arctic base of the villain (Eisei Amamoto, dubbed by Paul Frees in the English version), whose name, amusingly enough, is Dr. Who. With his white hair, black cloak, and fur hat in the outdoors scenes, he actually looks a bit like a Japanese version of William Hartnell’s Doctor, albeit with a rather Capaldi-esque set of attack eyebrows. He’s working with, I kid you not, Madame Piranha (Mie Hama, a recent veteran of You Only Live Twice and of King Kong vs. Godzilla before that). She’s an agent of an unnamed Asian country with ambitions for conquest, and she’s hired Dr. Who to dig up the powerful, radioactive Element X in order to turn her country into a nuclear superpower. (But not an ultra-superpower — that’s Chemical X!) For some reason, his idea of the perfect digging tool is Mechani-Kong, a robotic replica of King Kong. Yes, Kong got a robot double seven years before Godzilla! But M-K is overwhelmed by the radiation of the element before it can get far.

Luckily for the villains, our heroes have stopped in at Kong’s island. The lead, played by Rhodes Reason, is a UN submarine commander named Carl Nelson — a name that evokes both Carl Denham from the original King Kong and the Denham-like villain Clark Nelson from Mothra, although he’s based more on Admiral Nelson from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Reason did his lines in English, and although IMDb claims his lines were dubbed by British actor David de Keyser (who’s actually done voice work in Doctor Who), the 2005 edition from Netflix definitely features Reason’s own voice. Anyway, he’s partnered with his first mate Jiro Nomura (perennial Toho lead actor Akira Takarada) and the designated Fay Wray, nurse Susan Watson (Linda Miller, an American model living in Japan, whose only other film credit was the MGM/Toei co-production The Green Slime). After they witness a rubber-suit re-enactment of Kong’s death match with the T. rex (here played by the kaiju Gorosaurus, who would return blown up to Godzilla size in Destroy All Monsters), they find that Kong’s weakness for pretty blondes is intact, and Susan’s able to make him do as she asks. Which leads Dr. Who, who turns out to be Nelson’s arch-nemesis, to arrange to kidnap Nelson, Susan, and Jiro and make her control Kong. Although this happens before he undertakes an interim plan to control Kong with hypnosis. Dr. Who makes an unconvincing attempt to bluff Nelson into cooperation by threatening to kill Jiro and Susan, even though Susan’s the one he needs alive; logically he should’ve threatened the men to get her cooperation, but that would’ve required actually giving a woman agency, and we can’t have that, I guess. Mme. Piranha has some agency at first, I guess, but her attempt to seduce Nelson into cooperation leads her to do a near-instantaneous flip-flop to the good guys’ side, actually saying “I’m sorry my country was so wrong.”

Anyway, Kong lives up to the title by escaping, and Dr. Who sends Mechani-Kong after him, the chase coincidentally but inevitably ending up in Tokyo, where our heroes (helped to escape by Piranha) warn the authorities not to make Kong angry by shooting at him, because they wouldn’t like him when — no, wait, that’s someone else. But just when Susan’s gotten Kong calmed down, Mechani-Kong crashes in and grabs her, and Kong chases it up Tokyo Tower for the climactic confrontation. Which, I have to say, makes far more sense as a King Kong ’33 homage than the 45-meter Kong’s attempt to climb the 65-meter Diet Building in KKvG. Since it’s a Japanese film, it’s up to Jiro to save the girl while Nelson stands by watching; and then it’s up to Kong to go after Dr. Who and, err, force him to regenerate.

I wouldn’t call this a great film, but I like it better than the previous couple of Godzilla films from Jun Fukuda. (Ebirah was actually another Rankin-Bass project that started out as a King Kong film before being switched to Godzilla.) It’s in a fairly light vein, much like those films, but somewhat older-skewing, with a fair amount of deadly gunplay.  It feels more like a spiritual sequel to Honda’s Frankenstein duology, though it’s goofier than either of those. The War of the Gargantuas changed the caveman-like title character of Frankenstein Conquers the World into the Sasquatch-like Sanda; this film takes it a step further, from giant caveman to giant ape-man to pure giant ape. And just as Sanda was more unambiguously benevolent and less tragic than Frankenstein, so King Kong is an even friendlier monster (with an inexplicably keen grasp of English, or Japanese, vocabulary, given how easily he can be ordered around) who gets a happier ending. But happy or not, it was a definitive ending. This is the last Toho-produced film outside of the Godzilla and Mothra series to feature a heroic kaiju.

THE FACE OF THE UNKNOWN is done!

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Hey, all. I’m still here. I’ve been kind of preoccupied with a few things this month, mainly finishing up Star Trek: The Original Series: The Face of the Unknown, which I’ve just sent off to my editor. I think it’s turned out very well, especially considering that I had all those computer problems delaying me over the past few months. Fortunately the writing went smoothly for the most part; I actually finished the first draft early, but then I realized there were some additional story threads I needed to add, and it’s taken me until last night to get those sorted out.

As for my computer, it’s been working quite smoothly so far. I’ve got just about everything up and running as it should, and I haven’t had any trouble since I finished reinstalling stuff on the replacement hard drive. I’m thinking I should look into getting a backup drive that I can clone or image my drive to on a regular basis, so that it would be easier to restore if something else goes wrong. But I’ve never really figured out how to do backups beyond just copying my documents onto removable media. (Which used to mean whole boxes full of floppy disks, and now means a tiny plastic stick in my pocket. We live in the future!)

I’ve also been working my way through a rewatch of classic Doctor Who, as I mentioned before. I’m getting near the end of the William Hartnell era now, which means I’m going to be watching a lot of reconstructions of missing episodes for a while. Though I am getting the DVD of the restored “The Tenth Planet” through interlibrary loan. I’ve only just figured out how to extend my search to other Ohio libraries and request materials from them, which has let me track down some things I could never find otherwise. That also includes some of the non-Godzilla kaiju films I’ve been looking for, so you can expect the return of my Toho review series in the near future. (Sorry it didn’t occur to me to do Doctor Who reviews. I don’t think I’d have the time anyway.)

Now that I’m done with my Trek novel, I’m hoping to spend the next month or so working on original short fiction, hopefully including at least one new Hub story. Although I’ve already been delayed getting to that by my computer problems, so I hope nothing else comes up to divert me.

In the more immediate term, I should probably go for a walk today. We’re getting a spell of unseasonably warm weather hereabouts, after a bitter cold snap last week. Although in this age of climate change, we’ll probably have to throw out our past ideas of what’s unseasonable.

Speaking of which, I should probably take my car in for some maintenance soon. Over the past month, it’s had trouble getting started in cold weather — that is, the engine starts, but the car initially resists moving when I step on the gas. The first time it happened, I thought something must be obstructing the wheels, but nothing was. The resistance to acceleration gradually subsides, though it takes a couple of blocks to get back to normal. I figure some kind of lubricant must be depleted or in need of changing, though it seems to work okay in warmer weather or after a short enough interval of non-use. (I generally only drive once or twice a week.)

Latest thoughts on fall SFTV

November 7, 2015 3 comments

Continuing my irregular series…

Updates:

Doctor Who has gotten stronger since the first couple of episodes this season. The stories have gone to interesting places and handled them well. The Zygon 2-parter currently underway has done a remarkable job bringing depth and complexity to a race I always saw as rather goofy before.

Minority Report has also gotten stronger as it’s moved beyond case-of-the-week stuff and delved more into the past and present of the three Precogs. The worldbuilding is still a mixed bag, though — sometimes there are some nice bits of plausible prediction (sea level rise, vat-grown meats), but sometimes the world is too similar to the present (e.g. no improvements in firearm safety in households with children). There are only a few episodes left now; FOX has already decided to end the show at episode 10, which was already planned as a midseason finale of sorts. I hope it isn’t too much of a cliffhanger.

Sleepy Hollow has been pretty solid — not as good as season 1, but not as frustrating or uneven as season 2. However, the constant shoehorning in of Betsy Ross, Colonial Superspy is irritating and the actress hasn’t gotten any better.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been puttering along just fine, with one exceptional showing in “4,722 Hours.” It’s a reminder that, for all that we celebrate serialization these days, the standalone stories are often the most memorable ones.

I’m still watching Blindspot, but I’m not quite sure why. I don’t really care about any of the cast other than Jaimie Alexander and Ashley Johnson. And it’s way too gunplay-driven for my tastes. But I am still vaguely curious about the mystery. Some viewers, myself included, are starting to suspect that this is a stealth time-travel show, since that seems the only way to explain the foreknowledge of whoever’s behind Jane’s tattoos.

The Flash and Arrow have been solidly fun so far, even though they’ve mostly been busy setting up the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow spinoff. But The Flash has introduced the multiverse and Jay Garrick, which certainly opens a lot of possibilities. And last week’s Arrow did something rather marvelous, which was to bring back the star of last season’s cancelled NBC series Constantine (based on a DC/Vertigo comic) and retroactively fold his show into the Arrowverse, as well as leaving the door open for his return in the future. The last time anything like that was done, I think, was when Homicide‘s Detective Munch was added to the cast of Law & Order: SVU. There was also that episode of Diagnosis: Murder in the ’80s (or early ’90s?) that was a sequel to an episode of Mannix from the ’70s. Not quite the same thing there, though.

But the big premiere from DC and Greg Berlanti is CBS’s Supergirl, which I am absolutely loving. Melissa Benoist is marvelously charming and likeable, and she brings enormous warmth and credibility to the character of Kara/Supergirl. She has a personality that reminds me of Lindsay Wagner from The Bionic Woman, along with a gushing charm and ready smile that are evocative of Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman. I’m glad we’re past the point where a female heroine has to be all tough and cold and aggressive to be seen as strong. Supergirl is unapologetically girlish and adorable, but the fights she gets into are intense and no-holds-barred, and the show is perfectly matter-of-fact about both, recognizing that there need be no contradiction there.

As for the rest of the cast, Mehcad Brooks is pretty good as James Olsen — not what you expect from Jimmy Olsen, but that’s the point, since he’s grown out of the cub-reporter years and is a grown man now. The rest of the cast is mostly okay, but I feel that David Harewood’s performance suffers a bit from being saddled with an American accent, and Chyler Leigh is a bit bland as Alex.

I like it that the show makes no apologies about being feminist. That’s not a dirty word, and it’s good that the show embraces it. At least, I hope it gets to continue to embrace it. I remember the ’70s Wonder Woman pilot having a front-and-center feminist message that got totally quashed after just a few episodes. Hopefully we’ve gained some ground since then. I hear a lot of fanboy whining about how they changed Jimmy Olsen or whatever, but I also hear a lot of people saying how excited they are to have a superhero show they can watch with their daughters, and that is so much more important.

I also love it that Kara is spending more time in Supergirl attire than in street clothes, something I don’t think we’ve seen in a live-action superhero show since Adam West hung up his cowl (except maybe for some Power Rangers episodes). I’m also really impressed with the Supergirl costume. People like to make fun of superhero capes and tights and trunks, but I just can’t see it. To me, it’s not silly-looking at all, because it’s Superman’s costume, and that makes it a cultural icon, a symbol of truth, justice, and the neverending battle against corruption and prejudice. Granted, some attempts to realize it in live action have been better than others. But when they get it right, it looks to me like something that should be worn with pride. And Colleen Atwood’s version of the Supergirl costume gets it right. I think Benoist looks very classy in it.

I also love how much time Supergirl spends in the air. This is like the anti-Smallville. That show promised “No flights, no tights,” because those things were seen at the time as goofy and embarrassing. But these days, the culture has embraced superheroes, so this show gives us flights and tights all the time, and it’s wonderful.

(One thing bugs me, though. Supergirl has earrings. Not clip-ons, but studs. How the heck did Kara pierce her ears? Heat vision? For that matter, why don’t the piercings instantly heal up after being made? Although I gather there are such things as adhesive or magnetic earrings.)

It’s interesting that this shares something in common with the ’84 Supergirl movie, aside from Helen Slater’s presence. Both stories are about Kara becoming Supergirl in order to fix a problem that she herself inadvertently caused — sending the Omegahedron to Earth in the movie, bringing Fort Rozz to Earth here. (Although I suspect that there’s a deeper story behind just how the fort got out of the Phantom Zone.)

I like it that there’s a clearly defined melodic theme, though episode 2 seemed to use a different one (or a different part of the same one?) than the pilot. It’s not one of the best Super-person themes in the history of the franchise — it doesn’t hold a candle to the Goldsmith Supergirl theme from the movie — but it’s appropriate for a superhero, especially a Super-hero, to have a clear fanfare like this. Most Superman-related shows have had strong themes for the hero, though this is something Smallville totally dropped the ball on until late in its run, because it went with Mark Snow’s atmospheric droning instead of something with actual melody, and then it just copied John Williams’s Superman theme, which just didn’t fit with the rest of the music. (Although later composer Louis Febre did finally concoct a decent heroic theme for Clark in the last couple of seasons.)

One last side note: People may notice that I haven’t said anything yet about the news that CBS is producing a new Star Trek series. This is because we hardly know anything about it yet, so the sensible thing is to wait and see. It’s not necessary to fill the voids in our knowledge with rampant speculation just so we have something to base an opinion on. There’s nothing wrong with having no opinion at all.

Well, I will say that every single time a new Star Trek project has been announced, it’s immediately provoked doom-and-gloom reactions from fandom. And here’s an item from Starlog #117 in which the TOS cast responds to the news that TNG is being made:

https://archive.org/stream/starlog_m…ge/n8/mode/1up

Shatner and Nimoy were skeptical, Kelley didn’t understand the idea, and Doohan pretty much called it a fraud. Nichols and Koenig sounded open-minded… and Takei was pitching a Captain Sulu series even then.  But of course, we all know how TNG turned out. So any opinions or assumptions at this point are hardly worth the effort.

Search engine terms of note

This is interesting… In checking my blog’s statistics page, I see that on the list of search engine terms that led online searchers here to Written Worlds,  there were two hits for “fan art for only superhuman.” I was intrigued to think that two people might be looking for Only Superhuman fan art, but I realized it was probably a single search that led to two different pages here, most likely the posts containing my sketches of Emerald Blair and Psyche Thorne. Still, it’s nice to know that someone out there is interested in OS fan art. Unfortunately, I did the same search myself and found nothing that fit the description. That’s a pity, since I’d love it if there were fan artists out there invested enough in the Green Blaze’s world to undertake some artwork. (Feel free to consider that an invitation.)

On the other hand, one of the search terms on today’s list is “only superhuman torrent.” I’m disappointed in you, whoever you are. I made little enough profit from this book as it is — I need whatever I can get.

The overwhelmingly dominant search terms that people use to find WW are things like “doctor who last words,” “first words of new doctor,” “last words of the [nth] doctor,” and so on, all leading to what I thought was a fairly random, frivolous compilation of The Doctor’s first and last lines, but which has turned out to be by far the most popular post in the history of my blog. I also get surprisingly many search terms leading folks to my “How to dismember a recliner chair” post, which is really not an advice column of any sort. But aside from the Doctor Who post, the most frequent category of searches leading here are those pertaining to Mission: Impossible. I’ve even come across the occasional searches like “mission impossible christopher bennett review [episode title]” — there are people out there actively searching for my M:I reviews by name. That’s gratifying. (And yes, I’ll be completing that series with my reviews of the movies in the days ahead.) And people sometimes search for Written Worlds by name, which is also nice.

Here are some more unusual ones I find in the list:

“re-atomizing human body by medbeds” — Hm. Must be a reference to my Elysium review, in which I did mention the term “medbed,” which is the term I use in the Only Superhuman universe for what Larry Niven called an autodoc. I’m surprised someone else would search for it by that term. Maybe a fan of my work? Or is the term in more general use than I’m aware of?

“anamated cartoon hot hensei girls in bikinis showing their bodies” — Ummm. Oh…kay, I have no idea how that led someone to my blog. “Hot composition girls?” That’s what “hensei” means. Kind of hard to search for Japanese cartoon porn if you don’t even know how to spell it.

“dune books in chronological order” — I don’t think I ever talked about those books here.

“karolina wydra eye” and “karolina wydra eye pupil” — I seem to have gotten things like this a few times that I know of, no doubt connecting to my Europa Report review. Not sure who’s so fascinated by her eye, though.

“how was your drive home” — Err, thanks for asking, but who would ask that of Google?

“teacher at aloha johnson” — No idea.

“acts 6:2 why does the holman use financial rather than wait on tables” — Did a human being type that?

“lesbian scene from massion impossible” — If only, man. If only.

New Sherlock Holmes essay on Locus Roundtable; Publication date revealed for “Butterfly’s Wing”

Announcements about two things what I wrote:

First, the editor of Locus Roundtable, the blog of the Locus Online webzine, invited me to write a column for him on whatever subject I wanted, and I submitted an essay comparing the two current Sherlock Holmes television series, “The Problem with Sherlock in a Post-Elementary World.” Its publication is a bit delayed so it’s not as timely as it was when I first conceived it, but at least it’s finally out there. Since I neglected to mention it in the essay itself, I want to thank fellow local author and Holmes expert Dan Andriacco for offering some useful information about Holmes’s screen history which I mentioned in the article.

Second, the folks at Buzzy Mag have informed me of the publication date for my novelette “The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing,” which I announced back in April. The story is scheduled to go out on November 14, 2014. It’s already been through the first stage of editing, and I feel that editor Laura Anne Gilman’s story notes have helped me improve the tale considerably.

Note: “The Doctors’ first and last lines” now updated

The most popular post on this blog seems to be my 2011 list of the first and last lines of each incarnation of Doctor Who‘s lead character, and the recent anniversary and Christmas specials have revealed several more regenerations. So I’ve updated my list accordingly, and it’s now as comprehensive and up-to-date as I can currently get it:

The Doctors’ first and last lines? (Doctor Who) — UPDATED December 2013

 

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Reflecting on AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME (spoilers)

December 8, 2013 1 comment

I haven’t posted anything here about the recent Doctor Who anniversary productions; I never seem to have gotten into the habit of discussing current TV on the blog, since I mainly do that on sites like the The TrekBBS and Tor.com. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed all of it — the wonderful return of Paul McGann in the short ‘The Night of the Doctor,” the anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” which tied off a lot of continuity threads quite beautifully and had me jumping off the couch in amazement a few times, the Internet comedy film The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot in which the surviving classic Doctors who weren’t in the special get their turn in the sun… and the biopic An Adventure in Space and Time wherein writer Mark Gatiss lovingly recreates the spirit (if not the factual details) of the formative years of Doctor Who and William Hartnell’s tenure in the role. Yesterday on the TrekBBS I made an observation about the ending of that film that’s been quite well-received by the other posters, so I felt it was worth reposting here. Naturally there are spoilers.

The discussion was about the final scene of the film, in which Hartnell (played by David Bradley) is about to film his final scene as the Doctor, and he looks over and sees the current Doctor, Matt Smith, standing across the TARDIS console and smiling at him. Several people felt that was an odd moment, saying that it took them out of the movie or that it didn’t make sense within Hartnell’s point of view. Some said maybe he should’ve seen a montage of all the future Doctors, or something. But here’s the thought I had about what the meaning of that concluding shot was:

It’s occurred to me that the shot of Smith at the end wasn’t really meant to represent Hartnell’s POV. Smith was standing in for us, the modern audience, looking back at Hartnell from our POV. I mean, this is really a pretty sad movie. Hartnell finally finds a role he loves, a professional family where he feels he belongs, but everyone leaves him and then he gets too ill to continue and they kick him out and his career withers and then he dies young and it’s all very sad. So I think that final moment reflected our wish as fans — and Mark Gatiss’s wish as the writer — that we could go back and communicate with Hartnell and tell him that what he started would leave a legacy stretching forward 50 years and more, and that he would always be remembered and cherished. To let him know, as it were, that there should be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties, because Doctor Who had gone forward in all its beliefs and proven to him that he was not mistaken in his.

Thoughts on DOCTOR WHO: LOST IN TIME

I’ve just belatedly finished watching the Doctor Who: Lost in Time: The Hartnell Years DVD I have out from Netflix.  I’ve already watched the first of the two Patrick Troughton discs, but then I learned about the Hartnell one and figured I should see that right away, because it should’ve come first (Hartnell, of course, was the original Doctor, Troughton the Second Doctor).  Anyway, the set is a compilation of the surviving fragments of DW serials that were erased by the BBC back when they did that sort of thing.  The Hartnell disc contains one complete story, “The Crusade,” though only the first and third episodes survive and the other two are only in reconstructed audio form (without even any production clips or text descriptions).  I tried reading the relevant portions of the novelization as I listened, so I’d know what was going on, but it didn’t work well; even though the novelization was by the same person who wrote the episodes, David Whitaker, it substantially restructured the story and the dialogue so I couldn’t really follow along.

Still, “The Crusade” is a very impressive serial, surely one of the finest DW serials of its day if not in general, and it’s a shame the whole thing doesn’t survive.  It’s one of the pure historical adventures that they did roughly every other serial in the Hartnell era, with the Doctor and his companions encountering King Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin during the Third Crusade.  Whitaker’s writing for the historical figures in the story is borderline-Shakespearean, not quite iambic pentameter but very elegant and poetic and clever.  And the actors, including Julian Glover as Richard, Jean Marsh as his sister Joanna, and Bernard Kay as Saladin, are definitely Shakespearean in their training and performance.  It’s a delight to watch, not just for the classy performances and beautiful language, but the richly drawn characters and intense drama among them.  It’s such a striking departure from the clunkiness of a lot of the more sci-fi-oriented serials of early DW.  In fact, the downside of “The Crusade” is that it becomes a lot less interesting when the focus turns away from these grand historical figures and their worldshaking concerns to the more petty escapades of the Doctor and his companions, which by necessity unfold on the periphery of historical events.  It’s like we’re getting to see scenes from an unwritten Shakespeare play about Richard I, but then we don’t get to see the final act because we have to focus on the Doctor and companions getting reunited and back to the TARDIS.  It’s kind of a letdown.  But it’s still an impressive serial overall.

The drawback with “The Crusade,” of course, is that it features Arab/Mideastern characters played by white actors in makeup, and there are plenty of Orientalist stereotypes on display, such as the evil emir who abducts Barbara and the desert bandit who tries to kill Ian.   Saladin himself is written and portrayed as a nuanced, dignified figure (and Richard as a flawed, often petulant man), yet the makeup on Bernard Kay, the dark face paint and angular eyebrows, makes him look more like a 1960s Klingon than a believable Salah ad-Din.  (One nice touch is that when the actors say “Saladin,” they emphasize the third syllable so that it does sound a lot like “Salah ad-Din.”)

The DVD also contains the only three surviving episodes of the 12-part epic “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and the final episode of the rather silly “The Celestial Toymaker.”  It’s a shame that so much is missing, but we do get to see surviving footage of Adrienne Hill as Katarina, the first companion to die (though she was only in 3-4 episodes in all); Nicholas Courtney (the future Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) in his first DW role as Bret Vyon; and Jean Marsh (again) as Bret’s sister Sara Kingdom, the second companion to die (though she was only in this storyline so it’s questionable whether she was officially a companion).  It’s good to be able to see these characters in action after only reading about them before.  The villain, Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), is not so impressive, however.  The concept of his makeup design was interesting; he was evidently conceived as a man of the year 4000, a mix of all modern ethnic types — he had tightly curled blond hair, dark skin, and epicanthic eyes.  Unfortunately the makeup was no more convincing than Saladin’s, and it still comes off as an Orientalist stereotype, or at best kind of silly-looking.  There’s also a council of alien villains who are kind of bizarre, but interestingly differentiated by body language as well as makeup — one walks with his arms stuck out to the sides, one has a peculiar bouncing gait, etc.  Some are a bit silly in execution, but still, I’m surprised none of the books or audios have followed up on any of these races.

Not much to say about the “Toymaker” episode.  Judging by the novelization and other stuff I’ve read, the serial was rather weak and fraught with problems; it was caught in the transition between script editors and producers and thus went through several very different drafts, and it was written in such a way as to cover up Hartnell’s absence (probably due to his increasing illness by this stage) through the rather silly expedient of having the titular Toymaker, a godlike trickster anticipating Star Trek‘s Q, render the Doctor invisible and inaudible except for a badly double-exposed hand to  move the pieces on a game board.  It’s really only notable in that the Toymaker was played by Michael Gough, the future Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batman films.

Some of the best stuff is in the special features, especially the compilation of “off-screen” footage (meaning footage obtained by pointing a film camera at a TV screen) which includes fragments from various episodes.  The compilation includes several key departures that I’m glad to have seen.  First is a portion of one of the missing “Daleks’ Master Plan” episodes, specifically the very intense moments leading up to Katarina’s self-sacrifice; the actual moment itself is lost, but the buildup is powerful stuff, knowing what’s going to happen.  There’s also a portion of “The Savages” with companion Steven deciding to leave the Doctor and saying his goodbyes — and, most importantly, the last moments of “The Tenth Planet” leading up to the Doctor’s first regeneration!  It’s remarkable to finally get to see that pivotal moment in TV history, the very first time the Doctor regenerated (or “renewed himself,” as I think it was called at the time).

I wish they’d make more complete sets of these.  I gather that every missing episode of Doctor Who has been fully reconstructed in audio, thanks to fans tape-recording the show off the air.  And I’ve seen reconstructions using production photos or stills taken from TV (“telesnaps”).  I gather there have been audio CD releases of all the missing episodes with narration added, but I’d like to see video reconstructions with the complete soundtracks, stills, surviving film fragments, and text descriptions as needed — to get as close to the original experience as possible.

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Is it bigger on the inside…?

Here is what I saw on the way to the grocery store today: A compact, blue, boxy Honda with a license plate reading TARD1S.  Neat!  Unfortunately, I was too far behind the car at the red light to take a picture of it or shout “Allons-y!” at the driver or something.  But it’s always nice to see random acts of geekery in the real world.

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The Doctors’ first and last lines? (Doctor Who) — UPDATED December 2017

Just for the heck of it, I’ve decided I wanted to make a list of the first and last lines uttered onscreen by each of the incarnations of the Doctor in Doctor Who.  (For those who don’t know, the Doctor can escape death by regenerating his/her body and mind — i.e. being recast with a new actor.)  Usually these will be their actual first and last lines — the first words uttered after a regeneration and the last words spoken before the next regeneration.  Exceptions are marked with asterisks.

NOTE: The original list has been updated with new information from the surviving clip of “The Tenth Planet” as well as from the 50th-anniversary stories “The Name of the Doctor,” “The Night of the Doctor,” and “The Day of the Doctor” and the Christmas specials “The Time of the Doctor” and “Twice Upon a Time.” There are spoilers here.

First Doctor (William Hartnell):

  • First* (in-story, from “The Name of the Doctor” flashback): “Yes, what is it? What do you want?”
  • First* heard onscreen (from “An Unearthly Child”): “What are you doing here?”
  • Last* (from “The Tenth Planet”): “Ah, yes! Thank you. It’s good. Keep warm.”
  • Last (in-story, from “Twice Upon a Time”): “Well then, here we go — the long way round.”

Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton):

  • First: “Slower! Slower! Concentrate on one thing. One thing!”
  • Last: “No! Stop, you’re making me giddy! No, you can’t do this to me! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

(Unless you buy into the “Season 6B” theory that he had further adventures after “The War Games,” including “The Two Doctors,” in which case his last* words onscreen were: “Do try and keep out of my way in future and in past, there’s a good fellow. The time continuum should be big enough for the both of us.  Just.”)

Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee):

  • First: “Unnh… Shoes, must find my shoes. Unhand me, madam.”
  • Last: “A tear, Sarah Jane? No, don’t cry. While there’s life there’s…”

Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker):

  • First:  (mumbling) “Typical Sontaran attitude… Stop, Linx… (mumble) course of human history…” (clear) “I tell you, Brigadier, there’s nothing to worry about. The brontosaurus is large and placid… And stupid! If the square on the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square on the other two sides, why is a mouse when it spins? Never did know the answer to that one.”  (Other characters spoke in between these, but it constitutes a running monologue and is too fun not to include in full.)
  • Last: “It’s the end. But the moment has been prepared for.”

Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison):

  • First: “I… Oh.”  First coherent words: “Ah. You’ve come to help me find the Zero Room. Welcome aboard. I’m the Doctor. Or will be if this regeneration works out.”
  • Last: “I might regenerate.  I don’t know.  Feels different this time…” (Montage of memories, then finally) “Adric?”

Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker):

  •  First: “You were expecting someone else?”
  • Last*: “Ohh… carrot juice?  Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” (You had to be there)

Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy):

  • First: “Oh no, Mel.”
  • Last: “Timing malfunction! The Master, he’s out there! He’s out there… I know… I’ve got to stop… him…”

(Those were his last words in the 1996 movie where he regenerated. But I can’t resist mentioning his last* words spoken in the original series: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning. And the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice.  And somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!”)

Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann):

  • First (in-story): “Who am I?  Who am I?!”
  • First* heard onscreen (opening narration of film): “It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy the Master was finally put on trial.”
  • Last: “That sounds better. Now where shall we go?” “Physician, heal thyself.”

War Doctor (John Hurt):

  • First: “Doctor no more.”
  • Last: “Yes… Of course, I suppose it makes sense. Wearing a bit thin. I hope the ears are a bit less conspicuous this time.” (They won’t be.)

Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston):

  • First*: “Run.”
  • Last: “Rose… before I go, I just wanna tell you, you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!”

Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) — first incarnation:

  • First: “Hello!  Okay–ooh.  New teeth. That’s weird. So, where was I? Oh, that’s right. Barcelona!”
  • Last: “I’m sorry, it’s too late. I’m regenerating.”

(“The Time of the Doctor” has now established that the Doctor’s “abortive” regeneration in “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” actually counts as a full regeneration despite the Doctor retaining his previous form and personality. Thus I’m counting Tennant as two consecutive Doctors, just for the sake of being absurdly thorough.)

Tenth Doctor — second incarnation:

  • First: “Now then. Where were we?”
  • Last: “I don’t want to go!”

Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith):

  • First: “Legs! I’ve still got legs!! Good. Arms, hands. Ooh, fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears? Yes. Eyes: two. Nose… eh, I’ve had worse. Chin – blimey! Hair… I’m a girl! No! No! I’m not a girl! And still not ginger! There’s something else. Something… important, I’m… I’m-I’m… Ha-ha! Crashing! Geronimo!!
  • Last (possibly, per “The Impossible Astronaut”): “I’m sorry.” Last: “We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people, all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day. I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” (Wordlessly, ceremoniously removes bow tie, drops it to floor.) (Final exhalation which could be a whispered “Hey.”)

Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi):

  • First: “Kidneys! I’ve got new kidneys! I don’t like the colour. …We’re probably crashing! Ohh! Stay calm. Just one question: Do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”
  • Last: “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind. Doctor… I let you go.”

Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whittaker):

  • First: “Oh, brilliant!”

 

Sources:

http://www.chakoteya.net/DoctorWho/

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Doctor_Who

http://dwtpscripts.tripod.com/index.html (set browser to block all pop-ups from this one, or every click will trigger an ad)

http://hassleinbooks.blogspot.com/2013/11/doctor-who-retro-review-serial-029the.html

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Belated review: DOCTOR WHO: “The Doctor’s Wife” (SPOILERS)

Spoilers ahead for Doctor Who: “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman:

Oh my gosh, this was several dozen kinds of awesome. Cancel the Best Dramatic Presentations Hugo nominations for 2011, we have a pre-emptive winner.

True, a lot of the appeal to this was the loads of continuity porn. No episode of the modern series has been so steeped in Doctor Who history and mythology, such a loving tribute to the series’ past (though some Sarah Jane Adventures episodes have come close). The telepathic distress cubes were a callback all the way to 1969’s “The War Games.” The pocket universe was like E-Space from the Fourth Doctor’s final season. The concept of “deleting” TARDIS rooms and converting their mass into thrust comes from “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s debut. The makeshift console room the Doctor builds recalls the look of the consoles from the classic series (though I’ve since learned that it was actually based on the winning entry in a contest held by Blue Peter, the long-running BBC children’s show that often cross-promotes Doctor Who). The Eye of Orion is a vacation spot from “The Five Doctors” anniversary special. There are references to the Russell T. Davies years like the Time War, the Ood, Rift energy (could this be the other end of the Cardiff Rift from Torchwood?  Idris is a Welsh name…), and the RTD-era console room. Even the junkyard setting, as Gaiman explained in interviews, was a callback to the very first Doctor Who episode, where we first encountered the TARDIS in a scrapyard. And so much of the interaction between the Doctor and “TARDIS Idris” (as the closed captioning spoilerifically called her) was an examination of their long history together, complete with incredibly fanwanky references like the “Pull to Open” sign on the door. (Although that’s a bit of an error, because that sign is actually referring to the police telephone that’s in the compartment behind the sign. So the “Pull to Open” instruction refers to the smaller door that the sign is printed on, not to the main doors of the police box. I think it is true, however, that real police box doors open outward.)

And yet Neil Gaiman shows that building a story on the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, a lot of great fiction builds on the past. Tons of literature invokes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the Bible, great figures from history, etc. Much of Gaiman’s canon of work is rooted in mythology and folklore. Here he’s using the mythology and lore of Doctor Who in the same way, and really, what’s the difference? What matters is what an author does with that material. In lesser hands, it can be merely imitation, relying solely on the thrill of recognition as a substitute for using a reference meaningfully. (There was a ton of this in Smallville‘s series finale, for example.) But a skilled author can draw on that history and lore and find something new to say about it, some unrealized potential that’s been latent all along. And that’s what Gaiman did here. The relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS has been a background thread in Doctor Who almost from the beginning, but it’s never been the heart of a story before. And actually giving the TARDIS a voice, letting us relate to her as a character and learn how she thinks of things, was a revelation.

I love the symmetry of it, the way Gaiman takes the familiar mythology and reflects it and shows it to us in a whole new way. The central myth of the Doctor is that he stole the TARDIS and ran away with it to have adventures. Hearing the TARDIS say that she chose him, that she stole him and considers him to be hers, is remarkable, and rather beautiful. And the most thrilling thing of all was hearing her confirm outright what I have suspected for decades: that the reason the TARDIS always lands the Doctor in the middle of trouble is because she was taking him where he needed to be. I’ve long thought that the TARDIS was guiding the Doctor, taking this Time Lord who started out arrogant and self-absorbed and placing him in situations that would stimulate his latent heroism. After all, the more the Doctor embraced an actively heroic role, the more the TARDIS went where he wanted it to. And what has me absolutely stoked is that Neil Gaiman thought the same way I did! Well, more or less, apparently.

Plus we got the nearly unprecedented situation of the TARDIS becoming a threat, being taken over by a malevolent force. The TARDIS has almost always been the safe haven against a universe of enemies, and here it became the enemy while its spirit was ejected into the outside world. How ironic that this story where the TARDIS is no longer itself is the first time in the new series that a story has really explored the TARDIS — its internal layout, its functions and operations, its capabilities. It’s astonishing that this new version of the show has been around for six years and we’ve never had a story about the TARDIS until now. The original series built up so much mythology about its inner workings and we often got to see its corridors, bedrooms, and the like. I’m glad that’s finally been reintroduced here, and I hope the fact that they invested in building the corridor sets for this episode means that we’ll see more of them, and hopefully other parts of the TARDIS interior, in the future.

Even some of the throwaway references are revelatory. With one passing statement about the Corsair, we have an answer to a question Whovians have been debating for decades: Can Time Lords change sex when they regenerate? True, the Doctor’s offhand statements can’t always be trusted (like in his Sarah Jane Adventures appearance when he claims Time Lords can regenerate 507 times but is pretty clearly just trying to shut Clyde up), but he seemed unlikely to be exaggerating here. I guess this opens the door for a potential female Doctor in the future.

The one thing that bugs me is how easily Amy and Rory were separated. They should’ve kept holding hands, especially after the first time they were cut off by the closing doors.  (And how come the TARDIS has sliding doors in the corridors now? Did the Doctor become a Trekkie since the original series?)

Interesting coincidence: House was voiced by Michael Sheen, who appeared in Frost/Nixon as David Frost — and this is just two weeks after the Doctor told President Nixon “Say hello to David Frost for me.”

By the way, I strongly recommend watching this episode more than once. There are a lot of lines that are more meaningful when you know what future event they’re referring to.

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Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith — RIP Elisabeth Sladen

I’m shocked and saddened by the news that Elisabeth Sladen, Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who and its spinoffs K9 and Company and The Sarah Jane Adventures, has suddenly died of cancer at the age of 63.  It’s hard to believe she could be gone.  She was such a vital, strong, engaging screen presence, seemingly as youthful in her 60s as she was in her 30s, but with more poise and wisdom.  I found her fascinating to watch, a warm, captivating lead, and the news of her passing feels like losing a friend.

It’s hard for me to imagine the Doctor Who universe without her, and I think I’ve realized why.  It’s more than just the pivotal role she’s come to play in the franchise these past few years.  Sarah Jane was my first Doctor Who companion.  In fact, she was the first Doctor Who character whose face I saw onscreen, and the second whose voice I heard.  When my PBS station began running the show back in the ’80s, they began with the most popular Doctor, Tom Baker, and his debut story, “Robot.”  And the first face we see in that episode (after a still of Baker’s face in the opening titles) is that of Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane watches the Doctor begin to regenerate.  Sarah went on to share the companion role with Harry Sullivan (the late Ian Marter) that first season, but continued on her own for several more years.  At the time, I didn’t really appreciate her as much as some companions I discovered later (my favorite to this day is Katy Manning as Jo Grant), but still, she was the person who taught me what a “companion” to the Doctor was, a key component of my earliest experiences with Doctor Who.  And since seeing Sladen’s triumphant return in the modern Doctor Who, I’ve gained a new appreciation for how strong and exceptional a companion she was, the first female companion to be treated as an equal partner to the Doctor (though it took a couple of years for her to really come into her own, to go from having strident speeches about women’s equality stuck  in her mouth by the writers to actually showing her equality through her character and actions).  And that was reportedly due to Sladen herself campaigning for the role to be written better.  As io9 put it in their lovely tribute article, “In many ways, she paved the way for all of the show’s more intelligent, resourceful companions in the 21st Century.”

But it was in The Sarah Jane Adventures that Sladen truly shone.  Her greater maturity and experience made her a stronger actress, a more compelling presence, and in many ways a more striking and beautiful woman.  She’d begun a whole new career as something more than a former companion of the Doctor, as a heroine and world-savior in her own right, and it feels like she was just getting started.

Although I guess there are worse things than going out at the top of your game.  But you will be missed, Lis Sladen.  Goodbye.

Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 2

Well, with Time Lord and Picard, since there’s only one this time, but I’m following the precedent of my earlier post on the 1980 Derek Jacobi/Patrick Stewart Hamlet, which was loaded with Doctor Who cast members, many of whom played members of the Doctor’s race.  This time, in the 2009 production which made its American debut on Great Performances last night, the Tenth Doctor himself, David Tennant, played the Prince of Denmark, with Sir Patrick Stewart reprising his 1980 role of King Claudius, this time doubling as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.

Tennant’s the only Time Lord this time out, though overall this production has nearly as many Who-universe veterans as the 1980 version.  John Woodvine, who is the Player King here (fittingly, for he played Claudius in a 1970 production of Hamlet), was the Marshal in 1979’s “The Armageddon Factor” (the Who debut of Lalla Ward, who was Ophelia in the 1980 production).  Roderick Smith (Voltemand, one of the ambassadors to Norway) was Cruikshank in “The Invisible Enemy” in 1977, while Andrea Harris (Cornelia, this production’s version of Cornelius, the other ambassador) was Suzanne in the new series’ “The Stolen Earth” 31 years later.  Reynaldo, the servant whom Polonius sends to spy on his son Laertes, is played by David Ajala, who just recently appeared as Peter in “The Beast Below” (and who was a bounty hunter in The Dark Knight).  Robert Curtis, who plays the soldier Francisco at the opening (and is credited on IMDb as Fortinbras, though that character’s appearance at the end is not in the version aired on PBS), played a “Security Man” in “Prisoner of the Judoon” in the Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures.  And Zoe Thorne, who has a nonspeaking role here as a lady-in-waiting, has ironically done two voice-only roles in DW, the Gelth voice in “The Unquiet Dead” and the Toclafane voice in “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords.”  Meanwhile, Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius) lacks Whovian experience, but he was Naboo Governor Sio Bibble in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

This production is not as complete as the 1980 version, with a number of things cut out, including most of the Fortinbras subplot and the entire explanation of how Hamlet escaped his exile and death sentence (so that the revelation that “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead” is without context or explanation).  More on the cuts later.  The play is updated to a modern-ish setting, maybe c. 1980 give or take, but with a more multiethnic cast than would be expected from that era.  Elsinore is interpreted as an oppressive place filled with surveillance cameras, an extension of the play’s themes of secrets and spying.  An interesting idea, but I found the cuts to the security cameras’ POV to be distracting and gimmicky, and the ubiquity of surveillance devices makes all the hiding behind arrases seem rather redundant.

But what about the Doctor and the Captain?  They’re the ones we came to see, right?  Well, David Tennant was, and I can hear his Doctor saying the word in my head, “Brilliant.”  As usual.  He ran the full gamut here as only he can.  When first we meet Tennant’s young prince, he’s sullen, subdued, hair slicked back so you hardly recognize him, teetering on the edge of heart-wrenching despair.  His usual manic energy is completely buried.  But when the visitation from his father’s spirit (whose armor is constantly smoldering, cleverly suggesting his sins being “burnt and purg’d away”) overwhelms him, Tennant outdoes even Jacobi’s mania.  From then on, he runs the whole gamut.  Mostly he’s more naturalistic and subdued than Jacobi was, or than Tennant’s Doctor was, but when he’s feigning madness (or maybe not entirely feigning it, at some points), he pulls out all his comedy stops, even indulging in some Jim Carrey-esque mugging that I could’ve done without.  Sometimes, shades of the Doctor peeked out, but even when he was at his most manic, he didn’t quite use the same speech rhythms and mannerisms that his Doctor had.  Overall, a richly layered and dynamic performance, as energetic and compelling as you’d expect from David Tennant.

So how was he in the soliloquies?  Pretty good, but it’s hard to judge fully, since at least two of them, “To be or not to be” and “How all occasions do inform against me,” have been cut down!  The former goes right from “whips and scorns of time” to “But that the dread…”, and the latter skips right from “Even for an eggshell” to “From this time forth.”  It’s rather startling that even an abridged production of Hamlet would abridge the soliloquies, especially “To be or not to be,” which is probably (as Tennant pointed out in the behind-the-scenes featurette at the end) the most famous piece of literary writing in the entire English language.  It borders on blasphemy.  Anyway, what there was of the soliloquies was handled well, though Tennant doesn’t agree with my interpretation of “Thus conscience does make cowards…” any more than Jacobi did (see my earlier review).  I guess my take is an unusual one.  Tennant’s soliloquies are generally more subdued than Jacobi’s, though his “How all occasions…” isn’t as flat; though quiet, it has more of the building frustration beneath the surface that it should have.  As with the Jacobi version, the soliloquies (and Polonius’s asides) were directed to the camera, but somehow it seemed more natural here, maybe because I’m more used to it now or maybe because of the modern dress.

In my review of the 1980 production, I expressed some disappointment at the 40-year-old Patrick Stewart’s performance as Claudius, which I found superficial and rushed, more of a recitation of memorized speeches than a thoughtful interpretation of their meaning.  I expected that the far more experienced Sir Patrick of today (though I don’t think he’d been knighted yet when this was produced) would bring far more to it.  And boy, was I right.  The 2009 Claudius is the diametric opposite of the 1980 Claudius.  Stewart takes his time and brings meaning and weight to every line.  His range and his intensity are so much greater now, and so is the believability of his characterization.

If anything, he’s too good for the role.  It’s ironic to see him playing both Hamlet Sr.’s ghost and his brother Claudius, given how both Hamlet and the Ghost lament at how much less of a man Claudius is than his  brother, lacking the old king’s looks, intelligence, charisma, etc.  But Sir Patrick’s Claudius here is so commanding and impressive that, aside from the whole assassination business, it doesn’t really seem like such a bad thing that he’s the king.

The one thing I didn’t care for in Sir Patrick’s performance here was his very last moment, a bit of business that Sir Patrick apparently did in the stage production as well.  The text of the play in Act V, Sc. II is unclear on the action when Hamlet tells Claudius “Drink this potion!” followed by “[King Dies.]”  It’s often interpreted as Hamlet pouring the drink down Claudius’s throat.  Here, Hamlet has Claudius at the point of the poisoned foil, and of course Claudius has been cut already by the same foil and is doomed anyway.  Hamlet puts the goblet in Claudius’s hand and demands that he drink it.  Claudius considers what to do for a moment, then shrugs, takes the drink, and dies.  It’s an interesting interpretation, I guess; is it because he’s dying anyway and wants it to be quicker, or is it that he feels guilty and fairly defeated and decides to go out like an “antique Roman”?  But the problem is that Sir Patrick’s shrug is just too broad.  It gave the moment an incongruously comical effect.  I think he could’ve conveyed the same acquiescence with a subtler expression or gesture.

Ophelia here is Mariah Gale, who gives a much better performance than Lalla Ward did in 1980.  Her Ophelia comes off stronger and more assertive, which somewhat mollifies her submissive actions and mental fragility in the text, even if it clashes with them a bit.  She’s not quite as weepy and hopeless in the first few acts.  And when Polonius’s death drives her mad, it’s a more self-possessed madness with genuine rage and accusation behind it.  Indeed, Gale’s performance makes me wonder if this Ophelia was pulling a Hamlet, feigning her lunacy in order to get people off their guard while she sought answers.

Hey, there’s an interesting thought.  What if Ophelia was getting too close to the truth… and Gertrude wanted to protect Hamlet from exposure… and she met Ophelia out by the willow by the brook and pushed her in?  If so, she certainly managed her coverup more cleanly than Claudius did.

My reaction to Penny Downie as Gertrude isn’t too different from how I described Claire Bloom’s 1980 performance — solid, not a standout, notable for a distractingly plunging neckline.  But I think Bloom gave a clearer sense of Gertrude’s allegiances, having her choose to protect Hamlet and not tell Claudius that Hamlet knows of his crime.  Here, I’m not sure if those lines were cut or not, but I didn’t notice the same clarity.  Gertrude seemed to be equally devoted to both men and didn’t show any clear choice between them — except at the end, where Downie’s expressions show that Gertrude realizes the goblet is poisoned and chooses to drink anyway, perhaps to protect her son and expose Claudius.

Davies’ Polonius is solid, suitably pompous and dissipated, but not quite as charming as Eric Porter’s 1980 version.  Peter De Jersey as Horatio is merely okay, not the most sympathetic Horatio I’ve seen.  Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger isn’t the showstopper the character should be.  But John Woodvine is outstanding as the Player King.  The 1980 production chose to go with an actor less impressive and accomplished than the leads, so that Hamlet’s soliloquy about the Player’s brilliance came off as incongruous.   Here, they made a wise choice of casting a highly accomplished RSC veteran in this role, and Woodvine’s recitation of Priam’s slaughter is superb, befitting Hamlet’s awe.

One other thing still bothers me, but that’s about the play itself, not the interpretation.  I mean, it all kind of loses focus in the last act or so.  It starts out as this thriller concentrating on Hamlet and Claudius, and it’s kind of a whodunnit, or rather a “did he do it?”  We have the Ghost’s accusation of murder most foul, but Hamlet isn’t just going to go off and kill a monarch on the word of an apparition that might be satanic, so he basically invents Lt. Columbo, adopting a flaky persona to get people off their guard while he investigates and gathers evidence against his prime suspect.  Okay, so when he accidentally kills Polonius, that admittedly changes the game.  And yeah, I can see how Laertes’ desire for vengeance grows out of that, and how Claudius is using Laertes as a pawn to get Hamlet killed, once his England gambit failed.  But the last act is all over the place.  First Hamlet and Laertes are at each other’s throats over Ophelia’s grave, but then nobody finds it odd that the very next thing the King does is to arrange a swordfight between them?  Where’s Admiral Ackbar when you need him?  And the whole Hamlet-vs.-Claudius throughline of the play is kind of lost in the chaos, almost a sidebar rather than the climactic confrontation you’d expect.  It reminds me of modern movies, where a strong story in the first two acts is often lost beneath obligatory action and spectacle in the final act.  But then, Shakespeare was probably subject to a lot of the same creative pressures.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff thrown into Hamlet that distracts from the core story — minor characters who have their bits and then vanish, pieces of business that have nothing to do with anything else.  It feels like Shakespeare was keeping his whole repertory company in mind and writing in scenes that played to all their strengths.  Maybe the regular Globe-going audience got to know these players and wanted to see their favorites have their moments, so WS made a point of writing in cameo scenes that let them do their schticks.  Heck, it’s not like he expected this to be great literature that would be remembered and studied for centuries.

So that’s the second Patrick Stewart/Time Lord Hamlet.  Is it better than the first?  Hard to say.  Jacobi and Tennant are both brilliant Hamlets in their own distinctive ways.  I’d say Tennant’s style was more modern, a lot of his delivery more convincing and natural, and he avoided the few flaws in Jacobi’s performance.  He mugged and goofed around a bit too much, but so did Jacobi.  But in terms of which performer is the most compelling to watch and listen to, it’s a tossup.  Maybe Jacobi has the edge in the listening department and Tennant in the watching department.  As for Sir Patrick, he’s immeasurably better here than he was 29 years earlier, and he’s in two roles.  Plus we have the far superior interpretations of Ophelia by Mariah Gale and the Player King by John Woodvine.  So in terms of performances, I’d give this one the edge by a good margin.  But the modern setting doesn’t always work, and the editing is misjudged; too many significant parts were cut out, and some unnecessary parts were left in.  (For instance, given the removal of Fortinbras from the bulk of the play, the whole “ambassadors to Norway” bit served no purpose.)  Still, I’d say both are definitely worth seeing, as much for their contrasts in interpretation as for their individual merits.

So am I the only one who, after Hamlet died, kept expecting him to regenerate?  “The rest… is silence.  I don’t want to go!”

Hamlet with Time Lords and Picard, Version 1

February 12, 2010 1 comment

Like many US fans of SF and Shakespeare, I’m looking forward to seeing PBS’s April 28 broadcast (on Great Performances at 8 PM Eastern) of Hamlet starring Doctor Who‘s David Tennant as the melancholy Dane and Sir Patrick Stewart as both Claudius and the Ghost.  But I recently learned that Stewart has played Claudius before, in a 1980 production that was part of the BBC’s The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series.  I remember seeing that version, starring Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, when it first aired on PBS; in fact, it’s the first time I ever saw Jacobi.  But at the time, I didn’t know who Patrick Stewart was yet.

So I decided to rent the DVD from Netflix, not just because of Stewart, but because it has a whole passel of cast members who have appeared in Doctor Who previously or subsequently.  (In 1980, I’d never even heard of Doctor Who.)   Jacobi (Hamlet) was Professor Yana/The Master in “Utopia.”  Claire Bloom (Gertrude) just recently appeared in “The End of Time” as an unnamed Time Lady.  Ophelia was Lalla Ward, who at the time of this production was appearing as the second Romana (and was teased by Stewart for slumming in a sci-fi production — little did he know).   Geoffrey Beevers (Third Player/Lucianus) was the Master in “The Keeper of Traken.”  That’s four Time Lords in the same production (or technically three, since Beevers and Jacobi played essentially the same character — even just two if you want to think Bloom was playing Romana in “The End of Time”).

As for non-Gallifreyan Doctor Who vets, Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern) was Dymond in “The Nightmare of Eden.”  Emrys James (the Player King) was Aukon in “State of Decay.”  Stuart Fell, a fight arranger and stunt performer for Doctor Who, was one of the Players (presumably the acrobat).  Peter Benson, the Second Gravedigger, was Bor in “Terminus” (no, I don’t remember who Bor was either).   Also, the music was by longtime DW composer Dudley Simpson.  (Meanwhile, Polonius was Eric Porter, who was Professor Moriarty in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series.  Not SF, but worthy of note nonetheless.)

It’s an interesting adaptation.  When they say “Complete,” they mean it.  It’s the whole play, three and a half hours’ worth, nothing abridged.  Jacobi’s Hamlet is more manic than melancholy, full of bitter humor and youthful passion.  As always, his voice, his delivery, is marvelous to listen to.  If anything, he’s a little too broad; when he advises the Players to “o’erstep not the modesty of nature,” i.e. to avoid overacting and deliver their lines naturalistically, it comes off as rather ironic given how over-the-top Jacobi’s performance gets.  It’s still a lot of fun to watch and listen to, though.

I was actually kind of disappointed in Patrick Stewart’s performance.  He had the same fantastic, declamatory voice — indeed, it’s amazing how little his voice has changed in 30 years, unlike Jacobi’s, which has grown deeper and fuller with age — but his delivery wasn’t what I would’ve hoped for.  The main thing that stands out about his performance was how quickly he talked, as if he were in a hurry.  In Claudius’ more contemplative moments, such as Act III Sc. iii when he prays, Stewart gave a somewhat more solemn performance, but most of the time Claudius came off as pompous and shallow, so his moments of guilt and repentance seemed incongruous.  It was the work of a Patrick Stewart who was much less experienced, only 40 years old — ironically, 2 years younger than the actor playing his adopted son, Hamlet.  It will be interesting to compare this to his performance as Claudius in the 2009 production.

Lalla Ward was also disappointing as Ophelia, though that was more a directorial problem, I think.  She mostly gave a rather one-note weepy performance, which seemed incongruous with the tone of the first two acts.  I mean, it’s interesting — poor Polonius goes through his entire tenure in the play mistakenly believing he’s in a romantic comedy rather than a tragedy.  He’s convinced that Hamlet’s madness is a young man’s distraction from love, and is spinning madcap schemes and hiding behind arrases in hopes of bringing his daughter and the king’s son together.  And it’s that terminal lack of genre-savviness that puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, spying on a man he thinks is lovestruck but is really vengeance-crazed, and gets him killed.  I think it would be a better fit if Ophelia were played the same way — concerned for Hamlet, naturally, but not in this sobbing, despairing way, not this soon in the play.  If she’s played light early on, it makes it more shocking to see her sunk into madness later on.  Instead, Ward’s Ophelia is so tediously lachrymose that it’s refreshing when she goes looney-tunes and finally seems to be enjoying herself.

As for the other Whovian players, Ms. Bloom is solid as Gertrude but not really a standout.  I remember that when I saw this back in 1980, the main thing I was noticing was her plunging neckline.  I was 12 at the time, and just starting to be aware of such things.  James isn’t nearly as impressive as the Player King as Hamlet’s dialogue would have it, Beevers’ role is too brief to register, and Bateman… well, the dude’s Guildenstern, what do you want?

Although, surprisingly, one of the real standouts in the cast is Rosenkrantz, played by Jonathan Hyde.  He takes this famously superficial role (whose interchangeability with Guildenstern is played up in the stage business) and turns it into one of the most memorable performances in the show.  Eric Porter is also quite good as an addled, long-winded, but likeable Polonius.  Robert Swann is an effectively level-headed and sympathetic Horatio; this performance remains my mental image of the role to this day.

This is the first time I’ve seen or read Hamlet in quite some years, at least at full length, and I’m noticing some things I’d either forgotten or never realized.  For instance, the fact that Hamlet, Horatio, Rosey and Guildy are pretty much college students who’ve come home for the funeral and wedding.  That would make them fairly young — although the First Gravedigger’s speech seems to peg Hamlet’s age as 30.  And Ophelia, being unmarried, would probably have to be pretty young too.  The youth of the characters would explain a lot about their actions and reactions.

I also noticed some interesting hints about the ideas of death that existed at the time.  The Ghost said that since he was murdered, sent to death with no “reck’ning made” (by which he apparently meant last rites), his sins were unabsolved and he had to bear them with him.  I guess that’s why he was “doomed for a certain term to walk the night” until his sins were purged — he was in Purgatory.  But Hamlet refused to kill Claudius at prayer because that was an act of purification and would send him to Heaven with his sins cleansed from his soul, but if he killed him at some more sinful activity, he’d go straight to “the other place.”  It sounds like there was a pretty complicated set of rules for how this was supposed to work.

I was interested to see how Jacobi would interpret “To be or not to be.”  Back in 12th grade, I performed that before my English class, and I put a lot of thought into how to interpret its lines.  I was pleased to see that most of Jacobi’s interpretations meshed with my own.  Although he diverged here and there.  For instance, he treated “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…” as a continuation of the previous thought about how “the dread of something after death” makes people afraid of it.  I see it differently, as the start of a new thought: Hamlet is speaking of himself, realizing that he’s just talked himself out of resolving to commit suicide, and is disgusted by his inability to commit to an action.  “Look at me.  Listen to what I’ve just been saying.  That’s how thinking makes cowards of us all.”  (“Conscience” in that context meant reflection, consideration.)

I also didn’t agree with Jacobi’s interpretation of the “How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy.  It should’ve been Hamlet building himself up to a righteous fury, deciding that it was time to stop dilly-dallying and harden himself to the task of vengeance once and for all.  It should’ve been an escalating slow burn, culminating in an impassioned “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!”  Instead, Jacobi just did the whole thing in a quiet, thoughtful tone and only hardened it in the final couplet.

In general, the directorial choice of having Jacobi deliver the soliloquies straight to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, was a little awkward, but I guess the soliloquy is such an intrinsically unnatural and theatrical conceit that it’s justified.  It’s presumably how the actors in Shakespeare’s time would’ve delivered the speeches, directly to the audience.

Still, overall, I’ve seen Hamlet’s soliloquies handled worse.  I’ve seen actors treat them as merely recitations, delivering them in a single invariant tone throughout, rather than really interpreting the meaning and feeling behind the lines (and yes, I’m looking at you, Kenneth Branagh).  Jacobi mostly did a really good job getting the meaning across.  The performances here overall were pretty effective at seeming more like characters speaking from the heart rather than actors reciting really long poetic passages (though Patrick Stewart came closer to a “reciting” performance than most).  That’s not easy for modern performers to do with Shakespeare.

So that’s the first Patrick Stewart/Time Lord Hamlet.  A shame the second is still nearly 11 weeks away.  Not only am I eager to see what an older, wiser Sir Patrick can bring to Claudius, but  I’m really looking forward to seeing what David Tennant does with Hamlet.  I used to think Tennant was too manic for the role, but he proved in this last year as the Doctor that he can do melancholy brilliantly.  And as Jacobi proved, there’s certainly room for mania and frantic wit in Hamlet.  One thing’s for sure, it won’t be dull.

Doctor Who: The End of Time and the end of Tennant

Reposting my thoughts on the finale of David Tennant’s and Russell T. Davies’ tenure on Doctor Who, originally posted on the ExIsle BBS (SPOILERS AHEAD):

Part 1:

Um. Well. If RTD wanted to convince us to be grateful that his tenure on the show is ending, he’s succeeded. Because this has just confirmed what “The Waters of Mars” suggested: that he’s totally gone off the rails. This had some good character moments — the Doctor and the Master, the Doctor and Wilfrid — but for the most part it’s just a total mess.

The Ood: Hurry, Doctor! You must race in your time machine to try to stop something that happened thousands of years ago before it’s too late, because it’s happening right now!

Then we get a cult that’s resurrecting the Master, and Lucy’s totally shocked and horrified, except oh wait, it turns out she has her own countercult that’s been arranging counterplans, and boom!

Which turns the Master into… into the thing that made me say “What the hell?!” to the TV. A jabbering cannibal who turns into a walking x-ray and jumps like the Hulk?? Huh? How is that the Master? The Master is a suave, brilliant, ruthless manipulator. He conquers and destroys with his wits and technology, the dark reflection of the Doctor. This… man-eating electric Skeletor flea-man was just the worst idea in the history of the modern show, and yes, I’m talking about the same show that gave us the Absorbaloff and cute walking fat. It was stupid-looking, it was random and gratuitous, and it was a discredit to the character.

And what’s with all the heavy-handed Obama references? Why drag reality into something that’s always been so blissfully unconnected to it? Especially with such a simplistic bit of wish fulfillment as “one speech by the President will solve all the world’s economic problems.” That’s a shallow and inappropriate representation of a man who’s always stressed that only a great deal of hard work and cooperation will bring us out of the current crisis. And given how cavalierly RTD had a previous president of the US assassinated by the Master a couple of seasons ago, I’d just as soon he avoided dealing with the real POTUS. (Not to mention the questions raised about the chronology of events, since that fictional president would’ve had to be elected in 2008, given that the modern show’s “present day” has always been a year ahead of airing. Was Obama his running mate in this reality?) Also, though RTD seemed to intend it as a tribute to Obama judging from his interview comments, juxtaposing the Obama references to scenes of a powerful middle-aged black man with his own book about the future (Naismith) doing something that was probably evil seemed more like a veiled dig. So if he did mean it positively, it backfired. (Okay, Naismith turned out to mean well, more or less, but he didn’t convey that impression overall.)

Oh, and an invisible Claire Bloom turning up to tell Wilfrid that he’s at the center of coincidence because he keeps running into the Doctor? Didn’t we already go through this with Donna last season? Couldn’t it be that Wilf just keeps running into him because Donna was destined to?

And… turning everyone on Earth into the Master? What a silly plot. And like just about everything else about RTD’s Master, it’s out of character. Sure, he’s a pathological narcissist, but he wants to rule over others, to have people he can dominate and feel superior to. The one thing he could absolutely never sanction is a world full of his equals. A planet full of Masters wouldn’t be applauding each other and giving each other the thumbs-up; they’d be fighting for dominance and killing each other off within moments. (Not to mention, if it’s a genetic change, why do they all have their hair dyed the same as him?)

As for the final revelation, the return of the Time Lords, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’d be good to have the Time Lords back in the Whoniverse. And it would definitely make the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era a fresh start, free from the defining baggage of the RTD era’s Doctor. But is that a good thing, to push such a huge reset button and pretty much reduce all the character’s angst and guilt over the past five years to a misunderstanding? Isn’t that a little too easy? Although we’ll have to see how it plays out next week, I guess.

All in all, a real disappointment. Though I guess in a way I’m glad that “The Waters of Mars” had already lowered my expectations.

Part 2:

Well, this was much better than Part 1. Less of the Master’s stupid skull-face and jumping around and eating people, no gratuitous and insultingly oversimplistic attempts to be topical by namedropping President Obama, and a lot more drama and emotion and poignancy and high stakes. Getting to see the Time Lords again — and learning why the Doctor destroyed them as well as the Daleks — was a great payoff to RTD’s five years. And I’m glad they didn’t hit the reset button; the Time Lords are still gone from the universe, and the Doctor still has to live with the knowledge of that and his part in it.

The Doctor’s interactions with the Master were terrific. The Master was so much better handled here than in Part 1, with more emphasis on his friend/enemy relationship with the Doctor. I loved the climax, the Master echoing the Doctor’s “Get out of the way.” Essentially, they spared each other. True, the Master was mainly motivated by revenge against the Time Lord President, but he could’ve let the Doctor get caught in the crossfire. Instead, he said “Get out of the way.” And that was a wonderful moment.

Overall, the use of the gun as a plot device was excellent. The Doctor’s adamant refusal to wield a gun under any circumstances, even to save Earth from the Master — and then as soon as he learns the Time Lords are coming back, he grabs it without hesitation. Which tells us in a very dramatic way just how high the stakes are. That’s really good writing.

And I love the climax. I love it that the Doctor survived saving the universe… but then gave his life to save one ordinary man. His friend. That’s terrific stuff. I’m reminded of what the io9 columnist said in rating the past regenerations, that her (?) favorite was “The Caves of Androzani,” largely because the stakes for the Doctor were so personal, more about saving a friend than saving the universe.

I did find it odd that the Doctor had so much time to wrap up loose ends before regenerating. But then I remembered — in “Planet of the Spiders,” the Third Doctor “died” from the same cause, radiation overdose, and he was lost in the time vortex for some time before the TARDIS found its way back to UNIT HQ. So I guess it’s consistent, aside from his insta-healing from his wounds happening at the start of the process. And I guess RTD had to say all his goodbyes as well, give closure to all his characters. I wish there’d been more of Sarah Jane, though. And I find it hard to believe Luke, the smartest human on Earth, would be so careless crossing the street.

The episode did have its flaws. For one thing, I still don’t buy that all those Masters would be willing to take orders from anyone, even another Master. But the main fault was how Donna’s returning memory was handled. If the Doctor had put this “defense mechanism” in her head to keep her from burning to death, why was he so adamant that she couldn’t be reminded even a little bit ever? The “defense mechanism” is a retcon and a copout.

It puzzled me that the Doctor addressed the Time Lord President as “Rassilon.” Rassilon was the founder of Time Lord society, and he died ages ago. Maybe this guy’s just named after him. Although the Time Lords resurrected the Master to fight in the Time War; maybe they resurrected Rassilon to lead them. And then he went totally bugnuts.

And I guessed that Claire Bloom, the woman in Wilf’s visions, would turn out to be one of the two abstaining Time Ladies with their faces covered. But we never got to find out who she was beyond that. But I have a suspicion or two. The moment when she showed her face to the Doctor was accompanied by the music cue that’s always been jokingly referred to as “Flavia’s Theme,” described by RTD as Chancellor Flavia (from one or two of the original series’ later Gallifrey episodes) singing out from the time vortex. So maybe that was Flavia? My other suspicion is that maybe it was the Doctor’s mother. Then again, it could’ve been Romana. Maybe it’s for the best that we get to keep speculating and form our own opinions.

One thing that struck me was just how insular this story was for something so epic. All the Time Lord stuff was so static, taking place with the Time Lords either sitting around a table and talking or just standing there in white light and talking to the Doctor and the Master. It would’ve been nice to have it be more expansive, or at least to have the Time Lords move around the room somewhat. Basically they just stood there so they’d remain conveniently clustered targets for the Master’s climactic attack. Which is contrived and made the preceding scenes too rigid and motionless.

So… the regeneration. I’m not keen on it happening when the Doctor’s alone. Maybe if he’d had someone with him at the critical moment, he would’ve been more at peace with it. I’m not sure I like him going out on such a regretful note. I’m not sure it’s right that this Doctor ended up so lonely at the end of his tenure despite the fact that he was more overtly and expressively loved by more people than any previous Doctor. But then, maybe that’s why he was so reluctant to end this incarnation. Still, he should’ve had someone with him. At the very least, so the new Doctor would have someone to play off of rather than talking to himself.

Having the regeneration trash the whole console room and send the TARDIS into a tailspin is a bit hard to justify; it’s never done that before. Naturally it’s being done to set up the changes in the TARDIS in the new season, the reworking of both the interior sets and the police-box exterior prop. But the show has never previously needed an excuse for a change in the TARDIS’s appearance, and this particular excuse is rather inexplicable.

As for the Eleventh Doctor, it’s too early to judge him, but he seems okay so far. Although I’m a bit uneasy with what I saw in the preview clip that’s been released.  SPOILERS:

He seems much more physically combative than past Doctors — punching a guy out, attempting to bludgeon a Dalek, even firing a gun. I’m not comfortable with that. Also, it seems they’re making “Geronimo!” his catchphrase, and I don’t particularly care for that, either the specific phrase or the notion that each Doctor needs his own distinctive catchphrase. I just thought of “Fantastic” and “Allons-y” as individual quirks of the past two Doctors, but now it seems they’re consciously trying to give Eleven a catchphrase from the word go, and that feels contrived.

Pity he’s still not ginger, though. Maybe next time.

_______

So… what am I hoping to see from Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who?

  • More travels in space and time, fewer stories on present-day Earth.
  • Fewer massive alien invasions of present-day Earth.
  • No more newscaster montages.
  • A bit less melodrama. I approve of the deeper character writing of RTD’s series, but it doesn’t have to be so over-the-top.
  • More vintage aliens, especially Ice Warriors.
  • More new menaces worth bringing back on a recurring basis without being goofy. No more Slitheen, please, please.
  • More old-series companions, especially Zoe, Jo, or Benton.
  • Maybe a larger entourage of companions, so we can have developing character arcs without needing to hang around present-day London all the time.
  • More companions who aren’t from present-day Earth.
  • A “Four Doctors” special with McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant joining Smith.
  • Fewer characters named Smith and/or Jones. Sarah Jane being the exception.
  • Season finales that don’t involve destroying the universe.
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