Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Antonioni too...Dead at 94

The bad news just keeps coming for film lovers. From the Boston Globe:

"Michelangelo Antonioni, cinema’s poet of postwar alienation, died yesterday at his home in Rome. He was 94. Mr. Antonioni had been in declining health since suffering a stroke in 1985.

...The Italian films that made him an international figure — “Il Grido” (“The Outcry,” 1958), “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), “L’Eclisse” (“The Eclipse,” 1964) and “Red Desert” (1965) — became synonymous with emotional alienation, people left empty by material success, irredeemably isolated. Increasingly, Mr. Antonioni’s films became glacial in their detachment, self-consuming in their evocations of entropy."

So while you're at Netflix this week adding Bermgan's Persona to your queue, also add another great film: Blow Up (1966).

Monday, July 30, 2007

The House Between: The Vincenzo Diaries

A little update: The House Between: Year Two is in post-production right now.

I've cut together a preliminary teaser trailer (which I can't show yet - hah!), and completed some spfx experimentation for a battle royale that occurs in Episode 4. I'll be meeting with my DP, Rick Coulter, on August 10th, to go over his footage from the shoot. After I meet my next book deadline (September 1), I begin editing the episodes at full speed.


But, as work continues, I thought I might draw everyone's attention to The House Between discussion board, and - in particular - several new entries from Professor Vincenzo (Theresa's mentor...). These are excerpts from the book, Twenty Years on the Frontier of Death: The Death Experience and Shifting Death Iconography, and these entries fit into the overall "puzzle" of The House Between. They are rife with clues about many of the series' deeper mysteries, if you take the time to sift through them.

There are three chapter excerpts available at present. Please log-in and join us there. Happy reading.

Ingmar Bergman, Dead at 89

From the AP:

STOCKHOLM, Sweden - Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, an iconoclastic filmmaker widely regarded as one of the great masters of modern cinema, died Monday, the president of his foundation said. He was 89.

"It's an unbelievable loss for Sweden, but even more so internationally," Astrid Soderbergh Widding, president of The Ingmar Bergman Foundation, which administers the directors' archives, told The Associated Press.

...Through more than 50 films, Bergman's vision encompassed all the extremes of his beloved Sweden: the claustrophobic gloom of unending winter nights, the gentle merriment of glowing summer evenings and the bleak magnificence of the island where he spent his last years.

Bergman, who approached difficult subjects such as plague and madness with inventive technique and carefully honed writing, became one of the towering figures of serious filmmaking.

He was "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera," Woody Allen said in a 70th birthday tribute in 1988...

As with any cinema artist, the best way to remember Bergman is to watch his films. If you get the chance, check out two of my personal favorites: The Virgin Spring (1958) - which was unofficially re-made as Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972), and Persona (1966).

Friday, July 27, 2007

STAR WARS BLOGGING: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Part I)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I began blogging the Star Wars movies as a sort of experiment. Obviously, there's been a huge interruption since I blogged Attack of the Clones. But now it's time. Onto Episode III. To recap, over a year ago, while undergoing a family health crisis, my wife and I undertook the task of watching all six Star Wars films in sequential order, meaning 1 to 6, from The Phantom Menace to Return of the Jedi. My goal in this experiment was to gaze at all the Star Wars films with an unjaundiced, objective eye.

In other words, I didn't want to carry my dislike of CGI or anger with Lucas over "Greedo shoots first" (in the 1997 edition of A New Hope) into this deliberate retrospective. Instead, I wanted to see what the films genuinely offered, free of "expectations." I wanted to be open to the saga and its epic tapestry, not limited by own pre-conceptions as a critic and fan. If that's possible.

Here's what I saw: At the risk of angering the faithful, those whose hearts have burned with a love of the original trilogy for nearly 30 years, I discovered - to my utter astonishment - that all six Star Wars films are of roughly equivalent quality. Special effects had advanced, but in general, all the films are remarkably good, and despite the approximately fifteen year span separating the Originals from the Prequels, they all feel distinctly of "a piece." There's thematic and stylistic consistency. This was a revelation to me, because my knee jerk reaction had been that the prequels kinda sucked...

By way of a comparison, consider the variability of the Star Trek films. Now I love Star Trek even more than Star Wars, but those movies? Whew! You've got your outstanding ones (Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country), your controversial ones (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), your mainstream, popular ones (The Voyage Home, First Contact) and you've got the ones that disappointed the hell out of you but which you love anyway (The Final Frontier, Generations, Insurrection). And then you've got the one that is absolute crap (Nemesis) and you can't redeem no matter how hard you try. However, no matter which Star Trek films you ultimately prefer, and I enjoy watching all of them from time to time, one can't really believably make the claim that in toto, they're of "a piece." Each has a different look, tone and feel than the previous installment. Even on a production level this is true: remember how the bridge of the Klingon bird of prey changed from Search to Spock to Voyage Home?

But Star Wars is, I believe, determinedly different. As much as I'm a Trekker (and boy am I a Trekker!), the Star Wars films are more consistent internally from chapter to chapter and that makes them, I believe, intrinsically artistic and worthy of study. Also, viewing George Lucas's saga this time, I was struck by how the director subtly employs production design to make thematic points, particularly in his rendering of the Galactic Republic as a 1930s art-deco America, before the march of fascism in Europe and World War II. The Phantom Menace and the early films evidence this amazing "golden age" feeling, and one quite at odds with the grim, gray, utilitarian world of a dominant tyrannical Empire that we see in A New Hope. If you're not looking for this change, your first instinct will be to complain that the prequels don't look precisely like the original. Well that's right, they don't. Because the galaxy has "evolved" or devolved after the turbulent political changes, but the consistency is there because we can chart that change. What's new and gleaming in the prequels is trashed, old, mottled and scarred in the Original Trilogy. The world of "beautiful" spaceships has given way to the world of utilitarian ones; there is no place for art (or creativity or individuality) in the lock-step world of the Empire. Reflective silver surfaces have given way to flat battleship gray.

As I wrote above, I have delayed writing this post for some time. Why? Because I feel that my reading of the film, though authentic and I believe accurate, will anger some people. You see, I've come to the conclusion that of the sixth films, Revenge of the Sith is not only my favorite Star Wars film, it's also the best -- and the one that speaks most clearly about the ultimate themes of the film series. Yep, and that includes The Empire Strikes Back. So I wanted to take my time and explain why I feel this way, not just dash off a quick, easy review. Also, what I conclude about Revenge of the Sith today will anger some readers because I see it very much in terms of political conditions today. If that bothers you, please read no further.

So anyway, after that lengthy, rambling pre-amble, let me get at it. This post is about the "politics" of the Star Wars saga, particularly this film. I'll get to other aspects of the film in the days ahead. (I have too many thoughts about this film, and this saga, to confine them to one post. Sorry!)

Revenge of the Sith finds the Galactic Republic embroiled in a Civil War with Separatists. Indeed, "War" is the very first word that appears in the film (on that famous yellow crawl...). Chancellor Palpatine (in office long past his term...) has been captured by the Separatists, and after an incredible space battle, Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker board the craft of General Grievous and Count Dooku to rescue him. During the mission, Anakin slips towards the Dark Side by letting his vengeance get the better of him (an act of murder urged on by Palpatine).

Meanwhile, Amidala reveals that she is with child, and this revelation terrifies Anakin, for he has been experiencing terrible visions (like the one about his mother, in Attack of the Clones.) He fears that Amidala will die in childbirth and feels impotent to prevent this grim fate. Angry and feeling powerless Anakin seeks out the tutelage of Palpatine, who tells him that there are ways to save Amidala, if only he explores the Dark Side of the Force.

Eventually, feeling he has no option, Anakin succumbs. He betrays the Jedi Order but in doing so, no longer remains the man that Amidala loved. On opposite sides of the war now, Obi Wan and Anakin duel, and Obi Wan wins, leaving a hobbled, burned Anakin to die on the side of a volcano. While the Galaxy slips into darkness and an Empire is born, Amidala dies of a broken heart after giving birth to the twins, Luke and Leia. Anakin survives, but is now more machine than man, locked into a mechanical suit - a cage - and re-named Darth Vader.

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." To me, that is the essential idea at the heart of Revenge of the Sith, both in terms of the Republic, and on a more personal level, Anakin himself. And, in the tradition of all great art, it is a message that relates directly to the time we live in.

What has happened in the Republic? Well, to face a "grave and gathering" threat (the Separatist movement), the Senate has voted for the creation of a "standing" clone army to fight evil renegade Count Dooku. In one thousand years of life (and presumably having vanquished other threats), the Republic has not required such an army, but rather has been safeguarded by the noble protectors of peace, The Jedi Knight. The first chip away at individual liberty in the Republic thus occurs when the Senate sacrifices the principles it has honored for so long, and puts a huge military force under the control of one man, the Chancellor. Then, by appealing to the Senate's sense of patriotism, the Chancellor is given further "Emergency Powers." He remains in office well past his appointed term, and then - claiming an assassination attempt - alters the structure of the Republic in the name of security. Now, he tells the Senate to "thunderous applause," it shall be a strong and safe Empire...but committed to peace. This is how, as Amidala says, democracies die.

There are a number of interesting factors about this set-up that relate directly to America in the last several years (the time the prequels were made and released). The first thing to consider is this: we saw in Phantom Menace exactly how an Emperor began his ascent, chipping away at democracy a piece at a time. A Dark Lord and his allies, using the technicalities of the law removed the Supreme Chancellor (Valorum) from office, consequently gaining power for themselves. They did so by claiming that the Senate's bureaucracy had swelled to unmanageable and non-functional levels (i.e. they want small, effective government) and that Valorum himself was a weak man beset by scandal. The antidote was a self-described "strong leader," someone who could rally the Senate and get it to work again - someone like, say, Palpatine. In other words, a man was chosen to replace a flawed leader, a man who could restore "honor and dignity" to the Republic.

In real world terms, this is precisely like the Republican-led House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1999, and then having George W. Bush - a cowboy-like "maverick" from Texas - running on a conservative platform (meaning he would cut through the red tape of bureaucracy). Tellingly, he promised indeed to "restore honor and dignity" to high office. Now, I know people may quibble with this assessment since it casts one party in a "good" light and the other "dark," but this is unquestionably what happened in American politics circa 1999-2001. One party attempted to bring down a leader of the other party, and then in the next election, beat the party in authority by promising strength, honor, and security and highlighting the malfeasance of the former head of state. If Clinton had been a Republican and the impeachment managers in the House of Representatives were democrats, I'd be making exactly same argument, only with parties flipped. I'm not trying to be partisan, here. Really, stay with me.

Now consider what Americans have said is "okay" to in the name of preserving their safety and security since the attacks of 2001. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a sweeping bill called the Patriot Act, which among other things, gave the U.S. government new powers to peek into the private lives of Americans without even necessarily alerting the watched that it was happening. The U.S. government has now asserted, in the name of national security, that is has the right to wiretap Americans without first getting a court order to do so. The War on Terror - an endless war (or at least longer than World War II...) has been the excuse for this. The legal argument for this seizing of power is called the "Unitary Executive."


By any other name, a Unitary Executive is an Emperor. Whether it be Hillary Clinton next time around or George W. Bush today, it's a dangerous precedent. The danger is not in ceding authority to a Republican, per se, or a democrat, but rather in centralizing the power of a democracy within one individual, rather than several co-equal branches. To take this out of the realm of Earthly politics (though Lucas has stated explicitly that he wrote Star Wars as a response to the law-breaking and power consolidation he saw during the Nixon Administration), Star Wars is about what occurs when one powerful person (in this case, Palpatine) attempts to scare free people into surrendering their liberties. He succeeds in that quest in Revenge of the Sith. A democracy is transformed into tyranny.

I know people will complain about me equating our current President with the Emperor. I reiterate: if Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore, or friggin Mickey Mouse attempted to subvert the Constitution in the exact same fashion, I would complain as mightily and as loudly. And textually, I really don't know how people can say that Lucas isn't referring to current events with this film.

To wit: on November 6, 2001, George Bush announced to the world: "You are either with us or against us" in this war on terrorism. In May 2005, George Lucas explicitly put the following words into Anakin Skywalker's mouth: "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." And Obi-Wan's rebuttal? "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." To quote George Tenet, this is a slam dunk case. I would argue that there is no other appropriate way to read this remark except as an explicit rebuke of our country's current "black-and-white" thinking.

I know, somebody's going to say, but John - you liberal surrender monkey, don't you think we should fight terror? I bet you love Osama Bin Laden!

To which I would respond, there's nothing "liberal" about believing in the rule of law and an adequate separation of powers in the United States...or in the Galactic Republic. That's a "strict construction" of what the Constitution states. Contrarily, it's the "activist" position to believe that our Constitution permits a "Unitary Executive" who can operate above the law and claim "Executive Privilege" to cover his malfeasance.. But for the metaphor to hold, one has to understand that the Emperor's war on the Separatists is the same as our "War on Terror." And I believe it is. Remember, Count Dooku and Palpatine were in league all along to foster this war. Did that happen in our time, as well?

Consider that Donald Rumsfeld, the previous Secretary of Defense, was President Reagan’s personal emissary to Saddam Hussein former dictator of Iraq, to open diplomatic relations with that country in December of 1983. In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld, again visited with Saddam Hussein of Iraq. His second trip coincided with the release of a United Nations report condemning the dictator for using deadly nerve and mustard gas on Iranian troops. Yet In 2003, Donald Rumseld planned and executed the invasion of Iraq because Hussein had used chemical weapons before and might do so again. Yes, indeed, the dictator had done so during Rumsfeld's previous assignment! How had a "friend" one day become a "foe" on another? So sure, Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator. But he was in 1984 too, when the American government happily did business with him. We didn't invade then, did we? So, like Star Wars, there is a "history" of alliance between the Republic's government and the Republic's enemies (the Separatists). Going even further, Osama Bin Laden was our "pal" in the 1980s too, fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and aided and abetted in that endeavor by Reagan's CIA. So while George W. Bush is the "Emperor," I believe, Count Dooku is either Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein: a useful fool who is a friend when we need a friend and an enemy when we need an enemy. In the end, his aggression is simply a cover for one man (and one ideology) to seize power domestically.

What is clever and artistic about this metaphor is not merely that it is timely (and frightening), but that Lucas tells his story not merely in terms of sweeping galactic governments, but in personal, individual terms. Anakin goes through the same journey personally that the Republic citizenry undergoes on a wide scale. Consider that he too is "terrorized," or rather, the victim of a terrible attack. Not necessarily by the Separatists, but by the Sand People on Tatooine. They kill his Mother. That loss hurts him deeply, and he has his revenge against the agents who hurt him. But then Anakin begins experiencing visions that he will also lose his beloved wife. So, like the Republic itself, Anakin willingly exchanges freedom and liberty for safety and security. He surrenders his golden ideals and turns to the Dark Side because he fears more "attacks," he fears the loss of his family. Thus Anakin is a follower. Might as well be a clone.

Anakin is prone to this weakness early, as we can tell from his discussion on Naboo with Amidala in Attack of the Clones; when he notes that a Dictatorship would make things easier, and thus prove preferable to democracy. Indeed it would be easier, which is why some Americans so gladly accept the idea of a Unitary Executive. George Bush, after all, is the man who has explicitly stated "freedom should have limits," and also on no less than three occasions that a dictatorship is simpler than democracy.

"You don't get everything you want. A dictatorship would be a lot easier," Bush stated as Governor of Texas (Governing Magazine, 7/98). "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator," Bush said on CNN.com, December 18, 2000. Finally, there's this: "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," Bush was quoted as saying in Business Week, July 30, 2001. Note that all three of these remarks came before Attack of the Clones. Then ponder on just how closely Anakin's remarks in that film mirror these statements. Intentional or not, all these remarks are undeniably creepy: a fond wistfulness espousing the good qualities of tyranny? And didn't September 11, 2001 provide just the excuse to push a democracy towards tyranny? Coincidence or Darth Cheney? You decide.

For all his skills as a pilot and a warrior, Anakin is a weak-minded individual who would rather follow than lead; rather cede individual power and freedom to a dictatorship than make the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with a democracy. Again - Anakin is a metaphor for the American populace. When attacked, the first thing we do is scream for the government to protect us. We allow the Patriot Act to pass, and don't complain. We allow habeas corpus to be suspended...and we don't complain. We permit the Geneva Conventions to be violated...and we say nothing. We essentially become mindless, quivering "robots,' victims of politically-timed "Terror Alerts." When the government says jump, we automatically respond: "how high?' In other words, we all become Darth Vader: a mechanical shell of our former selves, one now caged. What remains appears humanoid, but functions mechanically and automatically; doing what is ordered.

And when does Darth Vader/Anakin finally reject the Emperor? When his family is threatened...again. When it once more becomes a personal matter for him. He turns on his master not because it is the right thing to do, not for the ideals of democracy, but because he has been ordered to murder his son. I fear this is also true of America. We will not rise up against tyranny until it affects us personally; until we are asked to sacrifice something personal...our families or homes. So the journey of Darth Vader is the journey of us. Anakin/Vader is explicitly a reminder of what happens to citizens when they cease to be rational; when they become so fearful that they trade away liberty for safety. In the end, even those who think they are safe, will suffer under the tyranny (as Return of the Jedi informs us.)

The War on Terror, like the War on the Separatists, we are told by Lucas, is nothing short of a power grab. It happened in Rome "a long time ago" and it almost happened with Nixon in the 1970s. And make no mistake, it is happening now. Ask yourself this question: do you really believe that Bush is consolidating all this governmental power only to leave office in 18 months? Search your feelings, Luke. Do you really believe that Bush has asserted his right as a Unitary Executive only to give it all up (and hand the reins of this massively expanded presidential power over to Hillary Clinton) in 2009? Or will the next terrorist attack be the one that cancels the presidential election and turns a heroic savior, Bush into the ugly Emperor of the Star Wars series? Already we are being set-up for it. Director of Homeland Security Chertoff's gut tells him another attack is coming, and suddenly we're hearing how Al-Qaeda is resurgent. So the only question is: how will you respond when the next terrorist attack comes? Will your fear "consume" you like it consumed Anakin? Or will you take up light saber and join the rebel alliance?

What remains so commendable about Star Wars, and in particular Revenge of the Sith is that George Lucas has given us a story about our times, but he has done so utilizing the language of mythology. There is no "Abu-Ghraib" episode; there is no "post September 11" mentality. There is no obvious metaphor for Islam and sleeper cells (spelled C-Y-L-O-N). On the contrary, Lucas has shown us that a galaxy far, far away holds much in common with what has occurred in human history; and what is happening now. It's all vetted on a symbolic level, not an obvious one.

Consider that the Star Wars films are about - over and over again - man's battle against the "dark side." Unlike many fans who respond to the films on a somewhat superficial level, I don't see that battle necessarily as occurring with light sabers, blasters and spaceships, but rather inside the human soul. First Anakin, then Luke Skywalker is tempted to fall before darkness, to give in to hate and fear. The father does so; the son does not. But the movies repeat these themes (from one trilogy to the next), because that's humanity's constant battle. I can apply that battle to George W. Bush and our War on Terror, and you can see how so much of it fits together, but you can also apply the films to other historical periods and cultures. That's why Star Wars resonates so much on a simple storytelling level. It's not just about "here and now," but rather man's perpetual struggle to fend off despotism. What's really sad (if rewarding artistically..) is that the tale of democracy compromised tracks so clearly and easily with our times.

Next on sw blogging: Fitting the Star Wars series together; how the films connect; and where they don't connect.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dr. Who: Love & Monsters/Fear Her

And now for something completely different...

"Love and Monsters" is an odd little Doctor Who story, one told from the perspective of a young outsider in London, a strange and off-putting bloke named Elton. He has memories of the Doctor from his childhood, and has set about to make a documentary about the Time Lord with the help of his girlfriend Ursula. As the story progresses, Elton is our intrepid narrator, revealing how he and a group of friends came under the thrall of a nasty absorbothingie alien, and how, eventually, the Doctor showed up to save the day.

This is one of those "quirky" episodes of a sci-fi series (and you've sometimes seen them on The X-Files and Millennium under the name "Jose Chung..."), when writers and actors loosen the reins a little bit and do something daring if jokey; slightly off-format and somewhat campy. As for this episode itself, I think it would too have benefited from the presence of the late Charles Nelson Reilly. Still, Dr. Who is fortunate it possesses that ever-convenient "elastic" format which creates so much wiggle room, because this doesn't feel quite as off-format as many X-Files "funny" episodes, for instance.

My overall impression of this episode is that it is indeed funny; but not quite so funny as it believes it is. I'd say that roughly 75 percent of the material works out pretty well. There are some laugh-out-loud funny lines, particularly Elton's revelation about his life love with Ursula, but some other moments are honestly cringe-worthy. Early on, for instance, there's a chase involving the Doctor, Rose, an alien, and red and blue buckets. The way it is staged suggests all the inherent wit of a Scooby Doo cartoon. It's a bit over-the-top for my taste, but the episode is redeemed by the framework device: we're seeing all this through Elton's eyes. Thus, it is forgivable (but still not funny.)

In toto, the series emerges unscathed from "Love and Monsters," especially after a final-act "recovered memory" that reveals something new about Elton. I truly enjoyed the bit about how a life intersecting the Doctor's is one filled with both salvation and damnation. Such good touches keep the story from feeling wholly inconsequential. Whereas the design of the monster (an Absorbatrix) leaves something to be desired. As does the silliness of the climax.

Kathryn really loved this episode, and said that it was quirky moments like the ones I've described that make her enjoy the new show so much. As for me, it will likely surprise no one that I'm a bit more of a traditionalist in terms of my taste: I prefer the epic, life-or-death installments to goofy piffles like this. I understand what is being done here; I understand the device (the world seen through the lens of Elton...), but this isn't generally how I like my Dr. Who served up. I didn't hate it; it's interesting.

One more thing: I had to wonder about the final flashback, one that revealed the Doctor's presence in Elton's life at a very young age. You'll notice it was the same Doctor (meaning incarnation Ten, David Tennant). But this is not an adventure we've seen before, was it? (Or did I miss something?) So, where was Rose? And why didn't Elton remember her too? And don't even tell me that this vision comes from Ten's future, because it's clear in the text of the screenplay that the Doctor recognizes Elton; that they've met before.

Okay that's my beef. This episode will never be a favorite, but I do appreciate that the series is stretching it's muscles and attempting something new. I imagine there are quite a few people out there like Kathryn who totally fell in love with "Love and Monsters." I'm not one of them, but to each his own. However, if this new Doctor Who is good at anything (and it is good at many things...), then it should likely be commended for the overall balance of the various episodes. The comical "Love and Monsters" follows an episode about Satan escaping from a black hole after possessing and murdering people.

Good time to lighten up, no?

The next story of the second season, "Fear Her," was another one I feared I would hate as soon as it began. It's the story of a London in the Year 2012 as children begin to disappear off one particular street. The Doctor and Rose investigate the disappearances (and this is very X-Files-ish) and learn that a little girl named Chloe Webber has been "drawing" the missing children. Have they become trapped in her childish pictures?

This is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone too. Suspicion mounts on the street outside (like "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street") and for a while it seems that everybody is at the whim of a monstrous little child, a la "It's a Good Life."

The story takes another twist, however when the Doctor determines that little Chloe Webber has joined with an alien child, an "Isolus," which fears loneliness above all else. Unfortunately, it comes from a very large family (approximately 4 billion-strong...) and so would like to cause many, many more disappearances on Earth (and did I mention the 2012 Olympics are about to start?). Since the idea of the Doctor's loneliness is so much at play this season as both context and sub-text (in "Girl in the Fireplace" and "Doomsday" among other shows), this seems like a pretty nifty and appropriate alien to meet, one who helps explore the Doctor's character. I could, however, do without the evil abusive-father-in-the-closet monster, which reminded me of Cameron's Closet (1989).

I don't like to be reminded of Cameron's Closet - ever. So this was not a good thing. I also don't think the plot point involving the dead abusive father really added anything to the story overall, except to inject a (false) sense of menace that the episode didn't really require. I feared the episode was going to be overly sentimental, but it didn't succumb to the worst maudlin instincts. Again, the episode is good, not great.

Kathryn also loved "Fear Her," but then I fear that my Kathryn has developed quite the crush on this particular Doctor; whom she says she likes now as much as Tom Baker. "He's adorable," she swoons, "he's hot," she enthuses.

*Sigh.* I've lost my wife to a Time Lord...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

You Know Who...

An ancient evil awakens...

The new Doctor Who's second season serves up an epic two-parter with the outstanding and riveting entries "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit." I suppose the Cyberman two-parter qualifies as epic too, yet these entries are superior to that fine accomplishment. Meaning, of course, that this BBC series just keeps getting better and better (save for the occasional hiccup like the dreadful "The Idiot's Lantern.")

In "The Impossible Planet" the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper) end up in a small research base on a most unusual world. The dead planet hangs in orbit around a voracious, all-consuming black hole. Before the Doctor and Rose's eyes, whole solar systems are crushed and destroyed. Amazingly, however, the planet sustains that orbit and isn't drawn in itself: clearly an impossibility beyond the laws of physics as we understand them. And what holds the planet in place against the unending appetite of the black hole? Well, the human scientists stationed there - a colorful bunch of "We are the World" interracial/mixed-sex folk - have pinpointed an alien power source ten miles beneath the surface of the dead world and are drilling to the cavern below, even as our protagonists arrive.

That's an inventive enough set-up; and to this the episode adds a race of unique (and scary-looking...) alien servants for the humans called The Ood. The Ood are a hive mind race. On one hand they seem like simpletons; on the other hand, there's some reason to believe that they are being influenced by something Evil...especially when one of the Ood manservants starts spouting Biblical terminology to Rose and warns about "The Beast in the Pit."

What then follows this set-up is an extremely suspenseful, thought-provoking and ingenious meditation on the nature of Evil. Essentially, this is not new territory for science fiction; or even for Doctor Who. Over the years, we have seen Gods/Devils imprisoned behind great barriers at the center of the galaxy in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ("what does God need with a starship?") , and the Doctor confronting aliens that are the source of man's myth in serials as diverse as the Pertwee era "The Daemons" (which gets a reference here - nice!) and the Baker-era "Pyramids of Mars." What makes this two-parter special, however, is its discussion of faith, Evil, and the Devil, and, particularly some wonderful story flourishes that expose a side of the Doctor-Rose relationship that has thus far remained beneath the surface, unexcavated.

On the former front, there's a terrific sequence wherein the Doctor must face the abyss (and the abyss faces him...). Our favorite Time Lord lowers himself into a bottomless pit - one that he feels powerfully drawn to - and as he goes down into perpetual blackness, he discusses with a human scientist, Ida, her concept of faith. And then - delightfully - his idea of faith. I may be misremembering (26 years of serials is a lot of territory to cover...), but I don't know that I've ever heard the Time Lord explain his notion of "faith" before, and it's nothing short of delightful that the series writers seize that opportunity here. (This fits in, I think, with the trend of making the Doctor more emotional, more humanized.) How does the Doctor feel about belief in a higher power? About the Devil? This episode gives some nice hints and not in a heavy-handed sort of way. Instead the conversation is intimate..and fascinating.

The best part of this sequence, however, involves the Doctor's eventual understanding that he - in rejecting certain beliefs - is as rigid as and as wrong-headed, perhaps, as those who believe in God and the Devil with all their hearts and without question. Because an idea (in this case, a pre-universe existence...) does not fit in with his beliefs; his "rules," he has rejected them outright. This is simply great philosophical stuff, and without taking any potshots, I again must state that Doctor Who is the only science fiction series on television these days countenancing such issues. That it does so intelligently and often humorously is to the series' credit.

But there are other wonderful character and story moments in this episode as well. There's a great joke about ventilation shafts (a sci-fi TV convention I wrote about at length in my Analytical Guide to Battlestar Galactica), and a chase scene in a vent maze perhaps inspired by Aliens (1986), but - honestly - no less effective in execution. But much more significant than that - and I know I will face some argument here - I believe that this is the episode (or rather, two parter...) that best dramatizes (without overt explanation) why the Doctor (he of many traveling companions) feels so strongly about Rose Tyler. To wit: there's a terrific moment when the Doctor is down in the cavern by the Satan Pit Trap Door - 10 miles away - and up above, Rose and the crew are being attacked by the Ood, who are now, essentially the legion of Satan. Everyone is panicking, getting hysterical (including Rose), and the Doctor very calmly, very rationally - and very cogently - says a few simple words about humanity and his perception of humanity that buoy Rose. She takes those words, the words of her friend, and runs with them. She takes charge of the situation above while the Doctor deals with the danger below and there is much unspoken going on here. Something about deep friendship; about not letting your friend down (on either side); and much more. I can't precisely put a finger on it, but the moment felt right and true and even revelatory. It's as though the Doctor said those words knowing that Rose would find the better angels of her nature and rise to the challenge. Why could he say those words to her? Why did he know they would work? Would they have worked with Mel? With Peri? With Adric? With...etc. etc.

This moment is followed up later - in a climactic moment - by an instant that, again, felt fresh and revelatory for Doctor Who. Rose and the Doctor are still separated, but each one fighting the Prince of Lies independently. They can't communicate with each other. But Rose and the Doctor - though separated - each trust each other to "get it," to figure out the "trap" on their own, and survive. Again, I must add, they are unable to aid each other. The Doctor can't rush in to the rescue. All he can do is trust in (have faith in, as he states, ) what he knows of Rose's "character:" that she will figure out all the angles. This relationship touch is beautifully handled and for those who rightly ask why Rose is such a special companion that the Doctor might fall in love with her, I believe we find much evidence of the answer in this two-parter. It's a spark of insight; a spark of kinship, but even that doesn't get to the heart of it.

The Doctor is an enigma. We don't know by what (presumably alien) criteria he selects his myriad traveling companions. Could be a combination of luck, opportunity, gut feeling, instinct. Who knows (literally). He certainly doesn't interview for the position of Companion, or Tegan and Turlough and a few others wouldn't have made the cut, methinks. Given series history, I never expect for the series to come right out and say "The Doctor thinks Rose is special because...," but "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" - more than any serial I've watched thus far - demonstrates why he feels strongly for her; and why she is, indeed, extraordinary. Listen, I love Leela and Sarah Jane Smith as much as the next fan boy and can argue their merits and talents till Kathryn drags me away from keyboard kicking and screaming, but "The Impossible Planet" and "Satan's Pit" gets something very right in the writing and acting and execution. Without explanation, it SHOWS us why Rose and the Doctor are kindred spirits. Again, it's something you have to work your way around; something between the actors and between the lines. It's about magic personal chemistry, perhaps, but more concretely it's about the kind of trust you can only truly share with a soul mate. I said to Kathryn after I watched it, if we were faced with that very situation (and this sort of thing happens all the time to us, I assure you...), I would have "faith" in her abilities too; that she would figure it all out. And she would. She said the same for me, but honestly, in that scenario, I'd worry more about me figuring it out than her!

Anyway that's what love is. And yeah, I've had other girlfriends (and Kathryn other boyfriends that she dated before), and who we got on with rather well. But how many of those also-rans did we trust like this...to totally and completely understand a situation and - without guidance or discussion or debate - arrive at the one solution necessary to "resolve" a crisis, whether a a simple family issue, a job problem, or an incursion into our galaxy by a giant horned, fire-breathing Lucifer? Outwardly, perhaps, Rose does not seem extraordinary. Not by herself, arguably, but in conjunction with the Doctor. How many of us feel that way? That in combination with the one person we love, we form something "better" and "stronger" than what we can be individually? Also, it's wonderful that the Rose/Doctor relationship fits into the resolution of the crisis here, because it stands in strong counterpoint to the Ood. The Doctor and Rose form a unit, a hive mind, of a sort, that operates well, even over vast distances. The Ood, by contrast, cannot beat the Devil because they lack the individuality that goes into the Doctor/Rose cathexis. They lack imagination, humanity, drive and more perhaps. So they are susceptible to the call of Evil where the Doctor and Rose are not.

You can tick off all the elements that make this two-parter a wonderful Doctor Who installment. There's the thrilling, breakneck pace (this show barrels like a freight train, even at two parts), an inventive and fascinating location (a planet in orbit of a deadly black hole), a great villain (hard to beat Satan on that front.), a fascinating science fiction premise (the susceptibility of a hive mind to demonic Possession), a theme that involves not just Doctor Who's universe, but which says something to all of us human critters (about the nature of evil - that the Devil is most powerful as an "idea"). And then on top of that, it has great character fireworks, and a rock 'em sock 'em climax that brings everything together in emotional fashion

This remark will be written off by some as unnecessary hyperbole, but what the hell? This is the best science fiction series on contemporary television.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Back in the TARDIS - More Random Who Thoughts

Still watching Doctor Who round these parts (the first Tennant season), and still getting a kick out of the program. I raved about "Tooth and Claw" last week, but frankly one of the later episodes - "Girl in the Fireplace" - is about a million times superior to that good entry. This makes it an extraordinary Dr. Who episode all around. There's a charming, whimsical and sad side to this adventure, which finds our Time Lord and companions (Rose and Mickey) landing aboard a malfunctioning spaceship in the 51st century. The ship's droids, lacking the spare parts needed to repair the ship, set about traveling through time to get organic bits and pieces from human history. Naturally (or unnaturally...) this requires the droids to open time windows to France in 1727 AD. It's a creative story idea, with a finely deployed sense of the gruesome and macabre. In one creepy moment, Mickey learns that the damaged ship runs on a beating human heart. All it lacks now is a human brain to run the master computer...

I don't know that there's been a finer, more lyrical hour of science fiction on television in the last few years (certainly not on Lost; nor on Battlestar Galactica), and this episode features a great mind-meld sequence in which the Doctor attempts to scan the brain of a beautifully and extraordinary French woman, Reinette (a potential love interest) but shockingly has his own brain scanned by her instead. This intimate scene is beautifully-written and performed, and as is increasingly typical of this new Doctor Who, ends with a personal revelation about the Time Lord's life. I'll also go out on a limb here and state that a tale about human emotion (in this case, a rather tragic love story) is always superior to a story about space politics (Battlestar Galactica) or paranoia (Battlestar Galactica) space combat (Battlestar Galactica) or red-glowing-spine-sex (Battlestar Galactica).

Watching "Girl in the Fireplace" (and "School Reunion" before it), I came to comprehend the reasons why this season of Dr. Who could easily prove a controversial one for longtime fans. The producers and writers have taken the daring and different approach of "personalizing" (or, dare I say "humanizing") our favorite Gallifreyan. Now, there will be those long-standing Whovians who blanch at this more intimate approach, because for many years, the Doctor has been "above" such probing - and human - psychoanalysis. He's been a mystery wrapped in an enigma traveling in a TARDIS. However - and this is a big "however" - there is certainly precedent for the "humanizing" story approach. Go back to the William Hartnell years, or even some Patrick Troughton episodes in the 1960s and there are indeed moments like the ones we've seen in David Tennant's first season. In some of those early Who stories (such as "The Aztecs"), the Doctor is more fallible (and Tennant's Doctor is nothing if not fallible...) and occasionally - very human-seeming. He didn't always know all the answers; he sometimes made mistakes, and at times he evidenced fear, not superiority ("The War Games" comes to mind on the fear front).

So the storytelling approach here is both valid and true to Who history. The only question that remains pertinent then, is: do you like it? Do you prefer this approach? I must admit, I feel this is indeed the right approach for our 21st century age. We don't want our superheroes (and the Doctor is, in a sense, a superhero) infallible anymore. Go back to some of the later, diffident Who years of the 1980s and you see that Sylvester McCoy's Doctor was an infallible, cosmic puppet-master. Always in control of the situation; always operating on a secret agenda within an agenda. It seemed he landed the TARDIs somewhere by accident, but instead had a very specific (and intended...) role to fill. "Silver Nemesis" and "Curse of Fenric" come to mind in terms of this story idea. Before McCoy, Colin Baker took the Doctor's arrogance and "alienness" (particularly in his fashion sense...) to such heights that some Who aficionados blanched. I'm not saying the approach of the McCoy or Colin Baker years were bad; only that they suited that time; much as this approach suits this time. It's apples and oranges, I guess. (Ask yourself: would Daniel Craig have worked as a James Bond in the 1970s and early 1980s...in Moonraker and Octopussy? Would Roger Moore have been right for Casino Royale?). It's a variation of the same dilemma.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Rose. I understand from some of the comments on this blog that she's not as popular, perhaps, as I earlier believed. I'm only half-way through the season, but she hasn't yet worn out her welcome with me. Her antics, as they've been called, do tend to make trouble, and yet I see this as the new series' method of making the companion role more three-dimensional in the past (Mel, anyone? Nyssa?). Rose's stubbornness and independent-thinking, in particular, provide the lead-in to a number of stories. She pushes and pouts when the Doctor says lay off; she probes and explores when the Doctor just wants to leave. I rather like this approach, and it makes Rose authentically an "equal," more than a sidekick. When I recall how this series started, in "Rose," I remember thinking that there had been a definite shift; that the companion had taken center stage (and again, consider whether or not this is true to Who history by recalling Hartnell and his companions, Barbara and Ian.). Again, it's a valid and interesting choice, and I rather like Rose. She's smart, sexy and in her own way, a rebel just like the Doctor. That's why they make good companions, I suppose. Unlike the Doctor - and this is where tension is generated, it seems - she has other concerns; namely family of origin. Whereas the Doctor, "the lonely little boy," makes no mention of his family, Rose is always attempting to reconnect with her father. She perpetually (or at least in two serials...) tries to reconnect with the father she lost. This is her Persian flaw...she just can't let it go, and given the opportunity to experience the Dad she lost, she's going to take it. I like the stubbornness, and think it's a good match for the Doctor's own. I also enjoy the fact that she is not of one those whiners who wants to go home, or who is constantly screaming in the face of danger. She is there for the ride, and I find her refreshing. And fetching.

The new series' two part episode "Rise of the Cybermen" and "Age of Steel" also dramatize the new, more intimate nature of this update. Here, the TARDIS lands (er, crashes...) on a parallel Earth where a paralyzed tycoon, John Lumic, is preparing for a global coup with the creation of his unemotional metallic soldiers, the Cybermen. The Cybermen have always been my favorite Who villain. They're so strong as villains, in fact, that Star Trek stole them (j'accuse!) and renamed them the Borg; but that's another story. No, the Cybermen are fascinating and perpetually terrifying because they personify the dangers of progress (particularly technological progress). They're a reminder to the ambitious that there is no free lunch; that perhaps our species can attain immortality but the price is the human soul. The all-time best Who serial, in my opinion, is the Troughton era horror classic, "Tomb of the Cybermen" (which has a hell of a lot in common with many Borg episodes of TNG...), but "Age of Steel" does an excellent job of capturing (or re-capturing, as the case may be...) the essential horror of the Cyberman. It's a very personal horror: the horror of losing one's identity to the machine. The horror of seeing one's individuality sublimated to the will of the circuit. There are many ways that a Dr. Who story might express this horror, but I can't think of a finer - or more personal - statement than what we see here.

There's a moment in the episode, and it's almost a throwaway, when the Doctor disables a Cyberman and knocks out its emotional inhibitor. The Cyberman begins talking, and reveals that it is a woman named Sally Phelan, and that this is the eve of her wedding. She says - with confusion - that her fiance shouldn't see her on the night before their wedding, that's it bad luck. This isn't merely heartwrenching, but the writers have found that perfect "human touch," that joy of our species - love - and shown how technology has wreaked havoc with it. This woman has seen her physical body sawed and chopped up and her brain 'grafted' to a mechanical juggernaut, and yet her fragile human brain is still thinking about the wedding; about her husband to be; about a future that - tragically - can never be. The moment is perfect because Sally here is talking about her appearance; about how she looks; about body image and well - how she looks now, transformed is terrifying and inhuman. She's been turned into a machine but the fragile pound of thinking flesh inside the metal casing still wants to get married. Still wants a human life. Still holds out hope for love.

I will maintain to my dying day that modern Star Trek:The Next Generation (and then Voyager) took a great concept (Cybermen/Borg) and then went in absolutely the wrong direction with it. Or more bluntly, the worst direction with it. The horror of the Borg/Cybermen is not that they kill or destroy or blast starships to ribbons, it is that they assimilate mankind and take what they want without thought, without recrimination, without remorse. Identity is sacrificed; humanity is lost; memories are stolen and co-opted. It is - indeed - a form of rape, or more accurately, soul rape. The best episodes of all versions of Star Trek concern identity (think "The Enemy Within" or even, jeez - "Datalore.") So it was a colossal mistake to humanize and individualize the Borg in TNG episodes such as "I Borg" and then - adding insult to injury - create a nonsensical individual leader villain-type with her own personality in The Borg Queen. I love how the Borg Queen looks, but I loathe what she represents. What made the Borg scary, and what makes the Cybermen scary, is that they are totally different from us. They are a hive; a group-entity. Individuality is quashed. Emotions are flattened. If you have a Borg Queen wanting to take a human (Picard) as her mate/King, all that good stuff (all that fearsome stuff...) gets lost. Which is why it is delightful that the new Doctor Who doesn't take that route. The series "humanizes" the terror of the Cybermen in an appropriate way - in the transforming of Jackie Tyler and Sally Phelan (and apparently 6,500 other Londoners...) into Cybermen, but it doesn't make the mistake of humanizing the Cybermen themselves, of granting them immortality or a leader with a unique personality (I don't think the Cyber Controller qualifies, frankly). They remain as terrifying and anonymous as before; and in some ways, more so through several fine story touches. I also love the ghoulish (and disgusting) imagery of the Cyberman factory: the plumes of smoke from the incineration chambers, and so forth.

Finally, the last Doctor Who episode I've watched thus far is called "The Idiot's Lantern," and I'll confess readily, it's the stinker of the season (at least so far). It's the worst episode since "The Christmas Invasion." It's about an alien called "The Wire" taking over London's television sets and feeding on viewers just in time for the coronation of a new Queen in 1957. That sounds like a pretty promising premise, and I was expecting a scathing critique of television, and even Empire (especially since "Tooth and Claw" boasts a cheeky attitude towards royalty and Empire), but none of that is present. This is a simply dreadful by-the-numbers episode that doesn't make sense on any sort of narrative level. After watching, ask yourself why the viewers' lose their faces when getting eaten by the Wire. And then ask how they get them back. It makes little sense (though there is an explanation briefly offered). Like "The Christmas Invasion" (which featured murderous Santa Claus androids and a killer Christmas Tree), "The Idiot's Lantern" features some great and truly memorable images: particularly the faces of the "devoured" appearing on black and white television sets, but these powerful images don't serve the narrative beyond their creative ingenuity. Why does the Wire keep the faces? How do they pop up on individual television sets? Is each television a repository for one face? If you're eating faces, why keep 'em around so they can come back and taunt you one day? This episode just doesn't make the grade.

I think this episode also crystallized for me some of the reasons why Tennant is a disappointment for some viewers. He has a terrible, terrible acting moment in the midst of "The Idiot's Lantern." Rose has lost her face to The Wire, and the Doctor demonstrates anger and warns a police inspector that he is mad, mad, mad and they will all rue the day he was roused to such momentous anger. This character moment comes off not as powerful or ominous, but laughable. The Doctor can be many things, but red-faced with hysterical, screeching anger? He's seen companions in jeopardy before (shall I count the times?) but this over-the-top expression of concern just comes off as ridiculous. And I think that's because Tennant - at least so far as I've watched in the series - clearly lacks gravitas or a dark side. Although he is undeniably cute (and my wife Kathryn marvels over his great ass...) and Tennant is good with so many facets of the Doctor's personality (unexpected delight, sarcasm, wit, etc.), the actor lacks the sense of menace that has characterized some of the best Doctors over the years. Pertwee and Eccleston had a sense of physicality - machismo even. Patrick Troughton and Sylvester McCoy had a gentleness about them but also a sense of mystery. You sensed that if you crossed them, the consequences would be dire. And they did it without yelling like schoolgirls. Tom Baker had a charming way of cracking a joke and seeming totally unrattled in the face of great odds -- he was frequently impertinent and spoke truth to power (and I am reminded of his confrontation with the God Sutekh here....). Tennant's tendency (so far) to grow shrill, loud and bug-eyed when angry is exactly the wrong choice for this incarnation of the Time Lord. It makes the character appear whiny and petulant. He says early on that he is the "kind of man" who doesn't give more than "one warning." That's supposed to be dark and ominous and foreboding, but the sentiment is undercut by his playing of many emotional moments, frankly.

Again, I hasten to add that I'm not done watching all the episodes; but I guess I feel that Tennant is often quite good and occasionally rather bad in the role. This is not entirely unexpected: the series is still trying to figure out what works and what doesn't work with this incarnation of the Time Lord. Of the episodes I've watched, I'd say that three are very, very good ("School Reunion," "Rise of the Cybermen" "The Age of Steel"), two are darn outstanding ("Tooth and Claw" and "Girl in the Fireplace"), one is mediocre ("Christmas Invasion") and one is authentically horrible ("The Idiot's Lantern"). That isn't a bad batting average, when you think about it.

And I'm still watching...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Doctor Is In...

Well, thanks to Netflix, I'm finally getting around to a viewing of Doctor Who, Season Two. I had heard a lot about it over the last year from fans and friends alike. Mostly positive things; but I still wasn't certain how I would respond to David Tennant as the latest regeneration of my favorite time lord (following the departure of Christopher Eccleston).

The first episode I watched, "The Christmas Invasion," did little to assuage my fears. In this story, a race of alien invaders called the Sycorax attack Earth on Christmas Day. I won't complain that this is yet another Whovian invasion-of-Earth story (which I once calculated compromises a whopping 26 percent of the original series..) because every Doctor must broach "his" invasion tale in his own way (like every James Bond must go through his paces). Besides, the story was borderline inventive in spots, particularly the aspects regarding alien "blood control" of all A-positive people on Earth. Disappointingly, the Doctor was sidelined for a good part of the tale, still recovering from his latest regeneration. When he did return to full health, it took our hero about five minutes to defeat the straw men Sycorax (who arrive in a very cool and very menacing spaceship). I don't remember the Doctor being quite *that* powerful that he could defeat aliens in such short order.

And frankly, I thought Tennant was a little over-the-top in these climactic scenes. It wasn't all his fault. It was written that way: as though the writers wanted to establish in a very, very brief amount of time that the Doctor was still funny, still charismatic, still smart, still a fighter, still our champion, and on and on. I understand fully and completely the need and desire to accomplish all that with a new lead actor. But I guess the upshot is that I still had some doubts about Tennant as Time Lord. I discussed the episode with my wife Kathryn, who loved it, and I attempted to clarify my feelings. Ultimately, I felt "The Christmas Invasion" was fun, fast-moving (it really moves at a breakneck pace...) but somehow more deliberately and overtly campy than I remember the original Doctor Who series being. I laughed out loud two or three times during the episode, but it was silly humor that undercut the seriousness of the situation at points. I love the scene with the malevolent Christmas Tree on the attack but I'm not convinced it really fits with the Sycorax narrative. It is a great image, and a great scene, however.

The second episode "New Earth," I watched with the same level of anxiety, though I found much more to enjoy and appreciate in this installment. There's a delightful body-switching subplot that is legitimately funny (especially in a scene set in an elevator shaft...), and overall the episode is an interesting (and ingenious...) variation of the Night of the Living Dead ethos. The episode occurs in a futuristic hospital facility on New Earth (in the amusingly-named New, New York City) and involves the age old "science-gone-awry' concept. In this instance, the physicians at the hospital (a race of sentient cat people...) have overreached in their desire to cure human diseases and have created a whole race of "plague people." In short order, these plague people are on the loose and with one gnarly touch, they can infect you with every disease known to man. Again, the pace of the episode is breakneck, the science fiction concepts are strong, and there's a lot of humor. I liked this show a lot; and especially the enigmatic material about the million-year old Face of Boe.

And Tennant was growing on me.

By the end of "Tooth and Claw," the third episode I watched, all my trepidations and reservations had begun to disappear. The series was winning me over. This is a great - even classic - episode. Again, I had what I suppose are snobbish reservations when I saw the preview trailer. A Doctor Who episode about a werewolf? Oh boy! How lame! But this impression was flat-out wrong. The episode (by Russell T. Davies) was brilliant, original and totally inventive, involving a werewolf cult in 1879 that is attempting to replace Queen Victoria and usher in The Empire of the Wolf. I loved the isolated setting (a rural mansion...), admired the discussions about mythology vs. science and history (involving the arrival of the monstrous "werewolf" on Earth), and in particular dug the surprise ending, which I won't reveal here, but which fans of the Royal Family will no doubt enjoy.

The next Who episode was "School Reunion" and by golly, now I'm hooked and absolutely in love with this show. This episode involves the return of two beloved companions from series history, the "tin dog" K-9 and journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) from the early Tom Baker (Fourth Incarnation) years. This episode managed to put an entirely fresh spin on the Doctor/companion relationship and reveal new aspects of it. For perhaps the first time, the audience can understand why the Doctor chooses to live how he does. I must admit, I unexpectedly found myself moved by this story. I may have even shed a tear or two, especially at the end. In terms of story, this tale pits the Doctor against a fascinating enemy called the Krillitane (given human face by Rupert Giles, Anthony Stewart Head), which "assimilates" the best qualities of all the races it conquers. Here, the Krillitane stratagem is beautifully explained, and one senses the Doctor is even tempted at one point, to sign on. At least until dependable (and still gorgeous Sarah Jane) reminds him of the "human" side of the equation. Great stuff. Perhaps it was in this episode that I fully accepted Tennant as the Doctor. When the episode started, I realized I wasn't seeing Tennant anymore, but rather a character I loved. A character with humor, and importantly - history.

I'm looking forward to the next episode, "The Girl in the Fireplace." When do the Cybermen show up? I can't wait.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Theme Song of the Week # 5: Dr. Who (circa 1974)

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 63 Talking Freddy Krueger (Matchbox) (1987)


Have you ever seen a dream walking? Well, if not...he's your boyfriend now.

Yes, this is Matchbox's classic eighteen inch tall sleep demon, Freddy Kreuger, as seen in the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street film series of the mid 1980s and early 1990s (1984 - 1991). This figure whose "arms and legs are poseable" and who comes with a "surface" that is "washable"(!) scared up some benjamins twenty years ago. Yes, it's been that long.

"Each time you pull Freddy's string," the back of the box declares, "..he has a special message just for you." Or, As Freddy puts it himself on the box, "Pull my string to hear me talk and make me pose...IF YOU DARE!" Yikes!

Among Freddy's bon mots should you choose to pull those strings: "Hi, I'm Freddy," "Watch out...Freddy's back," "Welcome to Elm Street," "Let's Be Friends," "Pleasant Dreams" and "Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha." Hmmm. I'm disappointed that he doesn't say some of his more notable movie one-liners such as "I'm Your Boyfriend Now!" or "I'm the Brains and You're The Brawn" or "I don't believe in fairy tales" or "What a Rush!" Ah well...

Historically, I always get a kick out of it when toy makers try to cash in a horror movie craze. After all, horror movies are (or were...) generally rated R and so toys based on them inevitably have the effect of scaring children. When Alien came out in 1979, Kenner released a line of Alien figures and games, and then had to remove them from toy store shelves because little tykes were terrorized and ran out of the store without getting parents to open their wallets. The same thing happened with Freddy Krueger merchandise in the late 1980s. "Pleasant Dreams" is exactly what kids WOULDN'T have after playing with their own Freddy doll. The box stipulates this toy is "not suitable for children under 3 years."

Really? You think? He's a mass murderer, and possible child-molester who slices opens teenagers and then eats their souls. May I suggest a more appropriate ad-line for the box: "Slicing and dicing his way into your children's hearts!"

As for me, I was a misguided teenager finishing up high school during the height of the Freddy craze, so I still have my Talking Freddy Krueger Doll, my Freddy Quick Change from MAXX FX, my Freddy finger-knives glove and a Freddy latex mask. I will soon be terrorizing my 9 month old son with these items. And then I will soon be living on the streets after my wife kicks my ass.

Friday, July 06, 2007

TV REVIEW: Flight of the Conchords

Imagine the 1960s hit TV series The Monkees - only with a lower (much lower…) IQ and deadpan dialogue-delivery - and you can begin to conceive of the hilarious new Flight of The Conchords, a summer comedy series from HBO which in its ingenuity and numerous laughs almost makes up for the horror that was last year’s travesty, Lucky Louie. Almost...

In Flight of the Conchords, two very-low key band mates and dolts from New Zealand, Jemaine (Jemaine Clement) and Bret (Bret McKenzie) attempt to make it big in America, particularly the New York City music scene.

They are aided - or perhaps hindered - in their professional endeavors by a daft agent who insists on calling attendance at their three-person band meetings, fellow New Zealander and paranoiac, Murray (Rhys Darby).

The band – the so-called Flight of the Conchords – also boasts a rabid “fan base,” or more accurately, a rabid fan: the looney-tunes, crazy-eyed stalker named Mel (Kristen Schaal). Mel hangs around outside Jemaine and Bret’s apartment at odd hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of her favorite stars. She even attended one of their gigs that got canceled (at the Aquarium, of all places). But what makes Mel even funnier – outside her constant attempts to have sex with the boys – is the fact that she’s married and well into her thirties and that she drags her clueless (or perhaps merely uninterested) husband on the stalking field trips.

Remember how on that cult-classic The Monkees, audiences would follow the band around on its daily life travails, as well as gigs, and how each episode featured a clever, often avant-garde music video? That is essentially the structure for Flight of The Conchords as well. Only here the boys are not particularly talented or handsome or intelligent or quick-witted. Also, they live in near-squalor and hang literally on the edge of poverty. In one episode, their only meal comes from Bret’s dumpster diving.

In addition, the music videos found in this series are as stylish and ridiculous as anything featured on The Monkees forty years ago. But now - in a splendid subtextual comment on the times we live in - they are not forward-looking, but backwards gazing, essentially pastiches of different established “pop” forms. In one episode, “Mugged,” the boys go hip-hop with predictably silly results. Jemaine’s hip-hop name is “Hip-hop-o-potamus” while Bret goes by the handle “Rhymenoceros.” Bret ends up rapping about his Nana’s tea parties (?) and Jemaine gets tongue-tied and simply makes incoherent sounds till it is Bret's turn to sing again.

It is during these inventive music video segments – and there are two such sequences per thirty minute episode – that this comedy series truly comes to vivid and hysterical life. In the premiere episode, “Sally,” for instance, Jemaine attempts to woo a pretty girl at a friend’s party (the aforementioned Sally) with his bizarre dance moves and unintentionally stupid vocals. Because Jemaine is an idiot, his “love song” lyrics include such non-compliments as “you could be a part-time model” (just don’t give up your normal job…) and “you could be a high class prostitute.”

The second music video in the same episode, which frankly had me on the floor, is a futuristic techno-Devo piece concerning malevolent robots who have murdered the human race. Sung in mechanical “robot” style by the deadpan boys, the lyrics suggest the far future date of the “year 2000” and a robot revolution in the “mid nineties.” The song posits a “binary solo” using only zeroes and ones, and then suggests that in the future there will be only one kind of robot dance.

Well, two, if you don’t forget the “robo-boogie.” I must also mention that this very funny composition is sung in complete robot regalia (down to robot nipples) and recorded for the band's music video using...a cell phone camera.

In the second episode, “Bret Gives Up The Dream” there’s a spot-on accurate satire of 1980s pop music entitled “Inner City Pressure” that finds Jemaine and Bret lamenting their economic woes while soulfully pacing an urban setting. This segment features typical 1980s music video gags like breaking the fourth-wall, time-lapse photography, transparent singers and the like. Best of all, it makes heavy use of a synthesizer.

Yet it isn’t just the stylistics that make these moments very funny, it is surely those ridiculous and stupid lyrics. In this case, one might think a musical wordsmith would find difficulty getting the term “muesli” or “secondhand underpants” into a rhyme, but these simple-minded guys accomplish that feat and much more with ridiculous ease, and it never seems out of character or inauthentic.

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the two stars of this oddly addictive comedy, come from a popular stand-up act and in the first three episodes of their sitcom, one can find some of their best stand-up material worked into the plots (including a ludicrous reggae sex anthem called “Boom.”) On one hand, it is nice to see this funny material re-purposed for television but on the other, it’s a little worrisome that only a few episodes in, the creators of the series have resorted to recycling old material. Hopefully that doesn’t indicate that the creative well-spring of the Flight of the Conchords is running dry.

A little bit of Extras, particularly in the very amusing bits about Murray, the pro-New Zealand idiot manager; a little bit The Monkees in its story-telling parameters, Flight of the Conchords is wholly entertaining and drop dead funny. It gives one hope that a post-Sopranos HBO is still a place worth visiting. I recommend the series wholeheartedly, particularly if you have a silly streak.



Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy July 4th!


Celebrate your independence today. And no, I don't mean you, Scooter Libby.


Buck Rogers: "Happy Birthday, Buck!"

In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns...