Friday, December 01, 2023

40 Years Later: Scarface (1983)

What does the American Dream mean to you?  And how far would you go to pursue that dream? 

More to the point, when does someone else's relentless pursuit of the American Dream become a nightmare for the rest of us?

In other words, when does the personal journey from "rags to riches" become so consuming, so vital, so paramount that it actually destroys the social contract, threatens the larger sense of community, and leaves accepted morality shattered, in pieces on the ground?

And -- importantly -- have we reached that point in America yet?

These still-relevant questions beat restlessly inside the turbulent, angry heart of Brian De Palma's radical, firebrand gangster movie Scarface (1983), a film that today has become virtually synonymous with the excesses of the 1980s and, in particular, the beginning of the "greed is good" era in American culture. This De Palma film continues to be germane in 2023 because -- to a very large and therefor disturbing extent -- we still live in Montana's culture. And in some senses, it is worse than ever.

Scarface is a remake of the beloved 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name (though subtitled "The Shame of a Nation"). Yet De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone have not slavishly re-fashioned a classic film with their 1983 version of the material. 

Instead, they have created a fiery, subversive, original commentary on their times, the 1980s. Although their title character is a gangster and drug dealer named Tony Montana (Al Pacino), De Palma and Stone take great pains to contextualize Montana as something else entirely: a modern, 1980s business man. Accordingly, Scarface is virtually brimming with pointed references to capitalism, communism, and the milieu of big business. With capitalism-gone-wild as their deliberate subtext, De Palma and Stone reveal how excessive greed eventually separates the film's grasping protagonist from his friends, family, and from his culture, even. 

Tony Montana's excesses become so...excessive, in fact, that his gold-plate home decorations would likely cause even Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski to blush. The neon production design of the film is extraordinary and effective because it strengthens and supports the notion that Tony observes no limits. Not in his personal appetites, not in his material wants, and certainly not in his morality, though, in his defense, he does not allow an innocent child to die late in the film during a bombing mission. Perhaps because that child makes him think of the child he and Elvira have never been able to conceive.

But when one taboo is broken during the blazing rise to "success," the film seems to advise us, it's impossible to respect any significant boundary. Thus Tony exhibits and nurtures sexual longing for his own biological sister, Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastriantonio), and covets her to the point of murder. 

Nope, the boundary of family is not sacrosanct to Montana

Tony also kills his boss, Lopez (Robert Loggia), essentially, for possession of his boss's girlfriend, Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Montana eventually proves disloyal even to those who rose up with him to the top, like his doomed best friend Manny (Steven Bauer). 

In the end, the film makes a literal comment about Tony's all-consuming selfishness and over-sized ego: Montana is shot and killed in his extravagant upstairs foyer because there is literally no one left to watch his back. 

His murderer -- a shadowy assassin in sun-glasses -- sneaks up behind him, unnoticed, undetected. The Mannys, the Elviras, the Ginas, the Angels, etc., are all long gone and can't warn him of the danger. Montana's desire to be the one on top has, in fact, left him dangerously vulnerable and alone.

De Palma's film, as critic Vincent Canby noted in The New York Times, "is a relentlessly bitter, satirical tale of greed, in which all supposedly decent emotions are sent up for the possible ways in which they can be perverted." 

Indeed, Tony's ego is the great destroyer here: ripping apart friendships; forever paranoid; always bullying and out-sized. He thinks highly of himself and lowly of everybody else. All that matters is his self-glorification (and here, that glorification takes the form of material wealth). 

"The Biggest Problem? What To Do With All The Fucking Cash

Scarface is dominated by allusions and references to capitalism. First, Montana is introduced as a militant political refugee who fought against Castro in Cuba. 

But in fact, he boasts no real political beliefs except he doesn't want "anyone" telling him "what to do," a quality of a communist state, he perceives. Tony even says he would "kill a communist for fun," when offered an "opportunity" to rise through the ranks while incarcerated in "Freedom town," a make-shift community for detainees from the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980. 

But again, Montana's views are convenient: he's against communism because it restricts his personal freedom to rise to the top. He wants to be rich, so it's a personal not ideological thing. After leaving the camp, Montana takes a job as a dish-washer at a small food stand in Miami (underneath a sign for a fancy restaurant called Little Havana). From his perch at the kitchen sink, Tony watches gorgeous women and well-dressed men line up in expensive cars and attend a ritzy club. Right there and then, he settles on a life of crime. He wants the proverbial American Dream and he doesn't want to wait for it

He and Manny thus leave their "honest" but low-paying jobs to work for a cocaine dealer named Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham). In the world of drug dealing, says Omar's Boss, Frankie, the biggest problem is what to do with all the cash. And he's right. Once ensconced as a thug for Frank Lopez, Montana graduates to the glitzy world of 550 dollar suits ("so you can look real sharp") and 40,000 dollar Porsches. His appetites only grow and grow. In particular, Montana has his eye on Elvira, Frankie's girlfriend. But Tony knows he is not yet ready to claim his golden-haired trophy wife. "In this country, you gotta make the money first," he tells Manny. "Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." 

That's as terse and bitter a description, perhaps, of the the pathway to success in the contemporary U.S. as has yet been written. 

At one point, Montana -- now a murderer for money and a purveyor of soul-stealing drugs -- makes a pilgrimage to the modest home of his honest, work-a-day mother. He brags to her "You son made it, Mama. He's a success." 

What's important to Tony is clear: his image: the car he drives, the suits he wears, the cash he can throw around (he gives Gina a thousand dollars...); even the fear he can engender in enemies and underlings. Tony knows he is a murderer, but lies to his mother and claims to be a political "organizer." Montana's mom sees through him quickly: "He's a bum. He was a bum then, and he's a bum now." 

Also illuminating is the scene in which Tony and Elvira discuss what will be the terms of their marital union. It's a cold-hearted negotiation, not a romantic proposal. "You like children?" Tony asks. "As long as there's a nurse," she replies." It might as well be spelled out in contract boilerplate. There's no romance, no love, no joy in the courting: just an agreement for a mutually beneficial material partnership.

But Scarface finds its most critical voice of crony capitalism in the quick advancement by Tony to drug lord through --- essentially -- murderous attrition. Omar gets killed, and Tony moves up. Then Tony kills Frank, and he moves up again. All the while, Tony says things like "we gotta expand. The whole operation. Distribution." Or "Here's the Land of Opportunity." 

He's thus talking legitimate "business jargon" in an illegitimate, murderous business, but that's okay: America gives Tony its tacit permission to keep on climbing the business ladder. After killing Frank, Tony spies the Goodyear Blimp in the sky above. Emblazoned on the side, in huge letters is the legend "The World is Yours." This becomes Tony's mantra; his permission to take his personal quest for power and wealth far beyond "the limits" that most Americans observe. The slogan later appears in Tony's extravagant hall entrance, on a statue.

Amusingly, De Palma even stages a montage of Tony's monetary extravagance to the Paul Engemann-performed tune "Push it to the Limit." Again, that might as well be the mission statement of crony capitalism. Grab whatever you can get now, while the gettin's good. 

Or, as sung in the lyrics: "Hit the wheel and double the stakes; throttle wide open like a bat out of hell and you crash the gates." 

Interestingly, the police do almost nab Montana. Not on murder charges. Not on conspiracy to commit murder. And not on drug running. Nope, they nearly catch him on charges of tax evasion. What is it with some wealthy capitalists that they can't pay their fair share of taxes? It's laughable: the super rich complaining about paying taxes which benefit the community at large. Taxes pay for libraries, roads, social services, unemployment benefits, utilities, schools for children, firefighters and policemen...and for our standing army (support the troops, but not with your wallet!). Yet the super rich like Tony -- who may have acted unscrupulously to get his money-- behave like they earned it merely by "hard work." That's one of the biggest unchallenged lies in the on-going argument for crony capitalism in this country. that rich got there honestly; and that the poor are somehow lazy or undeserving simply because they didn't "push it to the limit."

In an essay entitled "The American Dream in Film," author Ray Jones writes: "De Palma presents America as a corrupt and mercenary land in which opportunity is available to those who are prepared to go further for success Go further in the sense that they, like Montana, are prepared to kill and literally dispose of the competition. De Palma was critical of America and presented the view that to be successful in a corrupt world, to fulfil their goals and manifest destiny, characters would have to become corrupt as well. This theme was presented to some extent in Hawks’ 1932 version of Scarface, which had the tagline “Shame of a Nation”. Yet, De Palma went further in his criticism and the tagline to the video of Scarface tellingly claims “He loved the American Dream with a vengeance.”

Don't Underestimate The Other Guy's Greed: Tony the Tiger 

So what does "the limit" look like when you're in the drug-dealing/100-billion-dollar-a-year business? De Palma's Scarface shows us in gaudy, lurid detail. In the neon and pastel pink Miami of the 1980s, it's a world of golden-plated bedrooms (with bubble baths built right into the floor), monogrammed leather chairs, wall-sized portraits of the happy Montanas...and piles and piles of snow white cocaine on demand.

Why, Tony has even captured a tiger and leashed it on his estate. The ultimate decadence. An animal leashed and trapped merely to prove a visual reminder of Tony's wealth and dominance. The tiger is an important symbol in Scarface. Historically, a tiger is s symbol of strength and power, inspiring respect and fear. That's what Tony is...a tiger. That's how he sees himself: Tony the Tiger. Unlike his pet, however, he is not caged or leashed by society's rules. He is the predator loosed in America, free to roam, to feed, to sate his material appetites. He doesn't believe he'll ever go down, but of course, he does. He makes enemies with people who are higher up the ladder than he is. 

I don't know how well this comparison will hold up for you, but in the past I often found it illuminating. I sometimes term Scarface the Dawn of the Dead of gangster movies. 

By that I mean that both Dawn of the Dead and Scarface are epic master-works (clocking in at over two-hours, each), both are critical of the changes in the American pop culture -- towards overt, unbridled materialism in the late 1970s-early 1980s -- and both are extremely violent; though intelligently so. 

The violence in Scarface, like that featured in Dawn of the Dead, is brutal, gruesome, and hard-to-stomach in its first half, and then just rather numbing and de-sensitizing in the second half. In both films, the audience comes to view violence and death as part of the inevitable landscape of the characters, whether they are fighting zombies or drug dealers. Both are genre films that overturn genre conventions to make socially valuable points. 

And there's one shot in Scarface, I believe, that best represents or symbolizes the film: a Colombian drug dealer opens a suitcase, and stashed inside are two bags of to a chain saw. Drugs and violence, side-by-side.

I think that perhaps the saddest thing about Scarface is that much of today's culture has taken on Tony Montana as some kind of hero or role model. 

Like the weirdos who get off on owning the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead, these people seem to think that Tony's immoral quest for the American dream is something to be emulated and championed. They will tell you, in all sincerity, that it was the breaking of Tony's second rule ("don't get high on your own supply") that resulted in his downfall.

That's kind of ignoring the whole murdering-to-get-rich-quick thing, isn't it?

Watching Scarface 40 years later,I can't help but wonder if maybe it's time we got a new American Dream.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary: "The Doctor's Wife" (Smith)

The TARDIS intercepts a Time Lord “communication cube” (first seen in “The War Games”), and the Doctor (Matt Smith) is jubilant because it means another survivor of his race could be alive out there somewhere.
With Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) in tow, The Doctor follows the cube’s trail outside the universe itself, to a pocket universe.
There, unfortunately, a trap awaits them all. 
A dark force that consumes TARDISes has been luring Time Lords to a junkyard planet for generations.  The same dark force assumes control of the Doctor’s TARDIS, but deposits the ship’s soul (or consciousness) inside a humanoid woman, Idris.  
Then, the beast strands the Doctor on the planet, and heads back into the proper universe…to wreak havoc.
Now, the Doctor must team with Idris (Suranne Jones) -- the very soul of the TARDIS -- to build a “junk” TARDIS, escape from the pocket universe, and rescue Amy and Rory from the sinister and sadistic alien intelligence now controlling their every breath…

With over two-hundred stories already in its roster, Doctor Who continues to surprise and delight with the remarkable, emotionally-affecting, and unexpected “The Doctor’s Wife.”  Here, in the modern days of Matt Smith’s Era, the series turns every standing franchise precept upside-down and provides an entirely fresh perspective on the Whoniverse.  

The tale’s premise, in brief, is that the TARDIS Matrix gets put inside a human body and can suddenly tell the Doctor’s story from its own unique perspective.

The TARDIS stole the Doctor, not vice-versa, for example. 

And she doesn’t like the strays (the companions…) the Doctor brings home, except perhaps for the pretty one…Rory. 

The greatest revelation of all, however, is that the TARDIS never takes the Doctor where he wants to go. She takes him where he needs to go (hence the title, “The Doctor’s Wife,” no doubt).  

This one throwaway comment puts the entirety of the Doctor’s history in a new and illuminating perspective  The Doctor needed to go to Skaro and that creepy petrified forest and dead city in the original “The Daleks,” in other words.  It wasn’t some mistake of fate…it was the knowing, guiding hand of the TARDIS.

Given this revelation, I would be fascinated to learn how the TARDIS feels about the Doctor’s span in the Time War, as the War Doctor. How would the Doctor’s wife parse that service, I wonder?  Did the TARDIS also serve the cause?

"The Doctor's Wife" is also heart-breaking because the Doctor finally meets his match -- in terms of intellect, intelligence, stubbornness, and knowledge of the universe at large -- and then realizes he can’t be with Idris.  She must return to the TARDIS's "body," and, once more, the Doctor is alone.

After the Doctor himself, the TARDIS may be the most beloved “figure” in all of Doctor Who history, and to feature an episode that explains the universe -- and the Doctor’s own history -- from the ship’s perspective is nothing less than a brilliant conceit.  But to further parse the TARDIS as the Doctor’s wife -- his true north, whether he knows it or not -- is even more audacious.  

But what I truly love about this story is that it fits in beautifully with the Matt Smith Era's overriding theme: renewal of spirit.  

The Doctor is very old now -- perhaps senile, even -- and yet in the era of the Eleventh Doctor, he is constantly learning something new about himself and the universe.  

He hasn’t seen it all.  

He is no longer quite so world-weary.  

The universe still has the capacity to surprise him (and in turn, surprise us).  

What the Doctor really knows now is that he knows almost nothing at all.    

The TARDIS isn’t just a machine (even an intelligent machine…), it’s his wife, and so forth.

The old dog -- and, yes, the Eleventh Doctor often acknowledges his age -- can still learn new tricks (like how to be a husband), and still be changed (positively) during his travels.  I love that concept, and I love that it has been applied to Doctor Who. Smith's exuberant, manic, mile-a-minute approach to the character represents a consistent tour-de-force. Like Patrick Troughton, he is a brilliant physical comedian, but also an actor who can handle the dramatic scenes with unrelenting, heart-breaking honesty.

I was not expecting to like Matt Smith as The Doctor. But I have been won over.

Indeed, I have friends that are long time Doctor Who fans who actually refuse to watch the series because of his casting in the role.  

Well, it’s their loss. 

And what a loss.  

Matt Smith demonstrates beautifully the principle exemplified by William Hartnell: that the Doctor is an an individual -- and an alien -- of incomprehensible contradictions. If Hartnell is the young one, with the physicality of an old man, then Matt Smith is the book-end Doctor: the old soul in the young body. And the actor pulls off this conceit so beautifully.  He makes it look easy, but it must be exhausting.

I realize it is a controversial thing to say, but Doctor Who has never been better -- never more magical or more heartfelt -- than it has been during the span of this Eleventh Doctor (especially during the Amy Pond, Rory era..) 

Something new and remarkable has been added to this old show's creative mix: a sense of wonder.  Yes, that sense of was implied in the old stories, but the production design could never fully or adequately depict it.   

Here, we have the perfect blend of magical worlds -- well-visualized -- with a magical character.

The Doctor is not supposed to be magical, you say? 

Well, the Doctor has been a cranky old man on the run, a Loki-like force of disorder, a physically-athletic “Venusian karate” expert, a master chess-man, a war veteran, and an emotionally-isolated sensitive. He has been seen as senile, arrogant, cunning, deceitful, and sad.  

Why can’t he be a vehicle for wonder too?  

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary: "The Girl in the Fireplace" (Tennant)

When The TARDIS lands on a derelict vessel deep in space, The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose Tyler (Billie Tyler) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) investigate the situation, and discover a time door aboard the craft leading to eighteenth century Paris, on Earth.
There, the Doctor spies a young girl, Reinette in her bedroom, and realizes she is in danger from a strange Clockwork Man automaton.  He saves her from it, but the young girl imagines it all a bad dream, and fantasizes the Doctor as a protector and imaginary friend. 
Since time on each side of the fireplace flows differently, when the Doctor next attempts to save Reinette (Sophia Myles) from a clockwork android, she is an adult, and remembers him from her childhood dreams. The Doctor also soon realizes that she is soon to become the infamous mistress of King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour.
While the Doctor interfaces with 1700s France, Rose and Mickey discover that the clockwork androids are using surgically-removed body parts from the (dead) starship crew to repair the vessel’s massive damage.  The Doctor fears that the androids have set their sights on the one human brain they believe can power the ship’s computer: Reinette’s.
The Doctor attempts to save Reinette from a fate worse than death, but recognizes a kindred spirit in her, and begins to grow close to her…

In general, I’m not a big fan of stories in which The Doctor falls in love with a human being.  
For one thing, such a love affair doesn’t seem likely given the vast differences between species.  In “Rose,” for instance, the Doctor refers to humans, in a fit of rage, as “apes.”   This descriptor suggests how the character views the distance between his race, the Time Lords, and the human race.
Humans don’t fall in apes, and if the metaphor holds, Time Lords shouldn’t fall in love with humans, either.  
After all, how many apes -- even the most intelligent apes -- have you felt the desire to be involved in a physical romance with?
I’ve always considered it a bridge too far in terms of fan service to suggest that the Doctor might fall in love with and engage in a sexual relationship with a human, given the apparent -- and acknowledged -- gulf between species.  
I’m absolutely okay with Amy Pond and Martha Jone being hot for the Doctor, since he appears human (and also attractive), and since their desires for physical love go unrequited.  The Doctor rejects their attempts to become intimate with him.  
But otherwise, frankly, it starts to get icky.  
Already in the new series, we’ve seen the beloved Sarah Jane Smith ret-conned so as suggest she was always in love with the Doctor (“School Reunion”), an idea that feels cheap given the great and sturdy friendship the two characters actually shared during the eras of the Third and Fourth Doctor.  
I enjoy tremendously the sentimentality and nostalgia of “School Reunion,” but the idea that Sarah is a spurned “ex” who must come to terms with her displacement in the Doctor’s romantic life for a younger model (Rose) is an absolute disservice to Elisabeth Sladen’s strong character, who -- for many fans -- remains a 1970s feminist icon.  Does anyone else remember her discussion of female power in “Monster of Peladon?”
Of course, Rose obviously falls in love with the Doctor during her time with him in the TARDIS too, and has those feelings reciprocated even though a physical relationship never resulted until a human clone of the Doctor came into the picture.   
In the long run, I feel that this kind of material doesn't serve the characters, or the series itself.

Yet sometimes -- as is abundantly the case with “The Girl in the Fireplace" -- a romance in the Doctor’s life is necessary, dramatically-speaking, because it reflects or suggests something crucial about the Doctor’s non-human nature (and not merely that he would romance an ape, given half the chance.)
“The Girl in the Fireplace” is a beautiful tale not because it is about a tragic, and unfulfilled love affair, but because it exemplifies the very nature of the Doctor’s existence in a way that his relationship with the companions simply cannot, given the limitations of our human viewpoint.  
The Doctor views time differently than we do, and lives an extended life-span by our standards.  So his time with Rose, or Donna, or Martha, is but a blip.  They age and die, and he is still young.   The Doctor tells us this many times.  We know it intellectually, but on a week-to-week basis, we don't really see it.  We see them together, not separated by time.
However, that very idea -- of being separated by fast-moving time and a long life-span  -- is expressed beautifully with the concept of the Time Door in this episode.  The Doctor appears in Reinette’s life when she is young.  But literally every time he sees her again, she is older…and different.  When he returns for her the final time, she is dead.  
She is gone, in other words, in the blink of an eye, a least by the Doctor’s (and audience's...) perspective
We see the companions in every adventure and so, in essence, we are on “their” time, and don’t experience their travels by the Doctor’s  perspective.  The magic of “The Girl in the Fireplace” (and also “The Eleventh Hour” and “The Girl Who Waited”) is that the writer has found a way for us to viscerally experience the Doctor’s life; as a man alone who out-lives all those around him.  He barely has time to make a move before it is too late.  Time robs him of his friends and companions.
Thus, the romance angle in "The Girl in the Fireplace" is actually a symbol for something other than physical love. It is a representation of the fleeting connection between the Doctor and any soul who isn’t a Time Lord.  
The Doctor wants to connect, but just when that connection gets interesting, the other person in the relationship grows old and dies.  
People complain a great deal about Moffat’s stories, and his stewardship of Doctor Who, but I admire his work because he writes emotional stories that help us experience what it might be like to be an ageless time traveler.  
Instead of focusing just on the fact that one can travel anywhere and anywhere, his work permits audiences to see that there are drawbacks too.  We learn that the Doctor visits other worlds, meets many people, and helps lots more.  But in the end, every day, he is alone, a solitary figure.  
This is a perspective we might have intuited in the classic series and even felt on occasion (like the Third Doctor's sad goodbye to Jo, in "The Green Death"), but in Tennant's era (under Davies stewardship),  it is the dominant theme, the story behind all the stories.  And no story captures that theme better than this one, penned by Moffat.
David Tennant, the tenth iteration of the Doctor, is especially strong in dealing with this sort of material.  He plays the most sensitive of all Doctors, and can express mourning, loneliness, and regret beautifully.  This makes sense in terms of the character’s overall “arc.”  He is a little further away from the guilt of the Time War than Eccleston’s incarnation, but growing ever more aware of how “alone” he is as the last time lord.   
Tennant is not my favorite Doctor -- I would vote for Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, or to my complete and utter surprise, Matt Smith – but I like and admire Tennant's incarnation tremendously, and feel he is a great Doctor.  It is difficult to imagine a different actor pulling off a story like “The Girl in the Fireplace” or “Human Nature,” but Tennant is the right Doctor at the right time.  You can see in every performance his longing to connect, and his reluctance to connect. 
In the final analysis, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a great Doctor Who story because it makes us feel the Doctor’s agony at being alone, and even share his viewpoint of human life going by at warp speed.  

Also, the Clockwork robots are magnificent and diabolical villains in terms of their appearance.  In some way, they are perfect monsters for Doctor Who: they drive the story from point to point, but don’t get in the way of character development.  And they’re scary as hell.
But I really picked us this story because it reveals best the Tennant Doctor.  
He is a man who wants to connect, but sees connection shut down at every juncture ("The Girl in the Fireplace," "Doomsday," "Human Nature.")  He is so shattered by this fact that by the end of his era, he is loudly embracing his alone-ness, and calling himself "Time Lord Victorious."  
Because of Tennant's remarkable performances -- and humanity -- you can see how that destroys him inside.

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary: "Rose" (Eccleston)

A young woman in London, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), unexpectedly discovers strange, living mannequins inhabiting the basement of the metropolitan department store where she works.  Rose is rescued from the hostile ambulatory creatures by a strange man who calls himself The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

After the Doctor blows up the store, thus destroying the mannequin threat, Rose becomes obsessed with him, and learns that the mysterious man has appeared again and again, throughout human history, in times leading up to disaster or strife.  He was present at the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and at the launching of the Titanic in 1912.

When she encounters the Doctor once more, Rose learns that he is an alien -- and a veteran of some cosmic war – who is hunting the master of those mannequins, or Autons: a giant being known as the Nestene Consciousness.  The Nestene, recovering from the same war, is planning to transform the Earth into one of its “protein” planets in direct violation of the Shadow Proclamations, and the Doctor is determined to stop it.

When the Doctor is captured by the Autons during a confrontation with the Nestene Consciousness, Rose comes to the rescue, and realizes that she possesses value beyond being a mere “shop-girl.”  

When the Doctor reveals his spaceship and time machine, the TARDIS, Rose decides to travel with him…

Doctor Who (2005 - ) made a triumphant return to television in the War on Terror Age, and the changes and updates to the series format reflect this historical context.  For the first time in his history, the Doctor is now a veteran, having served in the devastating Time War which destroyed Gallifrey and vast swaths of the galaxy. 

The other global innovation since 1989 that “Rose” reflects in terms of drama is the Internet.   Rose Tyler performs the equivalent of a Google Search in this episode to learn more about the Doctor, and she promptly discovers that there are web-sites devoted to the mysterious character. She is then able to track down a web master and get the skinny about him.  A discovery that once would have required a trip to the library and a table filled with dusty old books is instead a lightning-fast journey on the information super-highway.  In some ways, this aspect of the episode is a metaphor for the more pacey, more tech savvy new Who: It veritably races from discovery to discovery, and (delightfully) challenges the viewer to keep up.

Beyond these New Millennium touches, “Rose” -- again delightfully -- adopts a fresh stance in Doctor Who history: it dramatizes its tale from the perspective of the companion, not the Doctor. 

We start this journey not with the Doctor landing the TARDIS in 2005 London, but with Rose waking up to the blaring of her alarm clock, and preparing to go to (joyless…) work at the shop.  The focus is thus on an “earthly” life giving way to a galactic one, and it is a remarkable re-vamp.  In many ways, this episode functions as a kind of Doctor Who fan’s “wish fulfillment” story.  It thrives on the notion of living one’s life, day–by-day, hour-by-hour, only to be plucked out of that monotonous routine and obscurity by a character who is God-like, and who sees the value in you that mainstream society, for whatever reason, simply can’t recognize.  We all believe we’re worthy of being the Doctor’s companion, don’t we?

The invitation to travel with the Doctor is the invitation, indeed, of a life-time (or many lifetimes…), and there’s such rampant joy and energy in this premiere episode of the re-vamped series precisely because it recognizes that fact.  

In short order, Rose becomes one of the most beloved companions in Doctor Who history, and this fact has much to do not only with Billie Tyler’s wonderful, charismatic performances in the role, but the fact that her character is expressly the audience’s surrogate, asking the questions we would ask, taking the journey we might hope to take.

Looking back at the series premiere with so many years of hindsight, it’s clear too that “Rose” features a surfeit of dodgy CGI special effects. And the scene with an Auton version of Mickey (Noel Clarke) sharing dinner at a restaurant with an oblivious Rose is absolutely cringe-inducing.  It sets too jokey a tone, it seems on retrospect.  We recognize from a distance -- and not even knowing Mickey very well -- that something is wrong with him, both in terms of appearance and demeanor.  How could Rose -- at close-up range, and having a long relationship with the same man -- not know that something weird has happened?

Nonetheless, this premiere episode works marvelously because it keys in on that basic human desire to live a fuller life, to see things no one else has seen, and to be recognized as special.  “Rose” is really about yearning, especially the yearning felt by young people to find a place in a world that seems to want to limit them to many unappealing or unattractive options.  

Christopher Eccleston probably does not get enough credit for his re-invention of the Doctor as a man who feels “tremendous guilt” over what he has done (in terms of combat in the Time War).  He delivers an amazing monologue in this story, wherein he describes how he can feel the very turn of the Earth’s orbit.

Imagine for a moment being that sensitive to life, to the cosmos, to change, and then imagine that you are called upon to destroy such life.  It’s practically heart-breaking.  

Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is occasionally prickly and rude, but again, the Doctor isn’t human, is he?  Why do we expect him to observe our social graces?  This incarnation carries a tremendous moral burden, it is plain, and that alone makes him different from the Doctors we knew in the classic series.   Eccleston’s incarnation is the first post-War Doctor, we now know, and must contend with being alone, and having no one to whom he can confess his sins.  I have always felt that The Doctor befriended Rose in the first place because he knew she would make him confront his actions, and help him to understand or contextualize them.  She reminds him that there is good in him, and that “the promise” of his name – to be a healer – can live again.  

In terms of internal logistics, “Rose” does raise some questions.  At one point, the Ninth Doctor looks in the mirror at Rose’s apartment and seems to see himself for the first time, as if he has just regenerated.  

Yet later in the episode, we see images and artwork that suggests this incarnation of the Doctor -- Eccleston’s -- was also present at the launch of the Titanic, the eruption of Krakatoa, and the Kennedy Assassination.  

How could he have experienced all these previous adventures if he just regenerated into this new form?  

The obvious answer is that these are Eccleston adventures “yet to come” (meaning that they follow “Rose” in terms of series chronology, but simultaneously occur in older historical time periods).  Yet we also now know -- since Rose traveled with this Doctor right up through his next regeneration -- that this is not the case.  We never got an adventure at Krakatoa, Dallas in 1963, or aboard the HMS Titanic.

This scene could have been improved in two ways. 

First, we could have seen that it was a different incarnation of the Doctor in that art work and imagery (one of the previous eight).  Such a change would have the added bonus of letting long-time fans know that this is a continuation and not a re-boot.

Or secondly, imagine Rose’s surprise if she instead found an artist’s rendering of herself, standing next to the Doctor at Krakatoa, before she ever traveled with him.  That would have made for an incredibly dramatic moment, I think, and added to Rose’s sense of paranoia.

As it stands, these references to past Ninth Doctor adventures are a bit confusing, especially given the facts we know of the Eccleston Era.

Finally, I love that author and producer Russell Davies finds time in “Rose” to demonstrate the Doctor’s core decency.  He has the opportunity to destroy the Nestene Consciousness, but states instead “I’m not here to kill it.  I have to give it a chance.”  In other words, he is re-establishing his moral high ground. At the time (2005), we took this to be a re-assertion of the Doctor’s long-standing goodness.  Now, we might view it as a return to the promise he knowingly broke as The War Doctor.

There have been many episodes of the new Who that are much, much better than “Rose,” but it seems churlish to complain about the quality of the inaugural installment, since it launched the series brilliantly, and is far, far better than any classic Doctor Who episodes/productions we got in the 1980s or 1990s. 

The kernels of greatness are here, and a new generation fell in love with Time Lord because of that

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary: "Curse of Fenric" (McCoy)

At the height of World War II, strange monsters emerge from the waters of Maiden’s Point.  

After their arrival, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) informs his teenage companion, Ace (Sophie Aldred)  that a nearby church is built on old Viking graves, and that some form of “evil” was once buried there.

When a blind scientist translates the rune-stones carved by those Vikings, however, the Ancient Evil awakens.  The Doctor -- who dealt with that evil, called Fenric, some seventeen centuries earlier -- must now stop it again. 

But Fenric is stronger than ever before and has summoned a blood-eating monster from Earth’s distant future, the Haemovore, to aid him.  

Now, the Haemovore begins turning humans into vampires, and threatens the very course of human history…

The Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who started with absolute ignominy.  His first story “Time and the Rani” is one of the worst and most embarrassing titles you’ll find in the entire Doctor Who catalog. After that debacle, the series then moved around aimlessly for a time, before finally settling upon a new idea for his tenure.  

And that new idea was a really great, really inventive one, because it intimated that the Doctor was not just some renegade Time Lord, but something else…something mysterious.  

He was a cosmic chess-player -- God Himself? -- battling for ownership of the universe.  This new, Seventh Doctor was a master manipulator too, heading knowingly into danger, and knowingly into situations that would help his companion, Ace (Sophie Aldred) grow as a human being. 

McCoy was downright masterful at appearing jovial and avuncular, but then, suddenly, showcasing this dark, cunning side. So all of the sudden -- and to quote a warning sign in "The Curse of Fenric" -- there were suddenly "dangerous undercurrents" again in Doctor Who.

While it is true that the production values, writing, and direction on the series were worse than ever during McCoy's reign, this new “lens” at the very least permitted audiences to parse the Doctor and his journeys in a new and inventive fashion.  

Sometimes, the new template didn’t work at all.  I will live happily the rest of my days if I never have to sit through “Ghost Light” again. 

But sometimes, the template worked absolutely brilliantly, as is surely the case in “Curse of Fenric.” I consider many serials of the McCoy Era absolutely unwatchable, but this serial --warts and all -- qualifies as a series masterpiece and high point of the Seventh Doctor's span. 

We learn in “The Curse of Fenric” that ages ago the Doctor played against Evil Itself in a game of chess.  

The Doctor won and sent Evil back to the shadow realms. But after generations, Evil has returned to take over the world.  What we get then in “Curse of Fenric” is a Manichean battle between the Doctor and his opposite, a battle between a force of light and the force of darkness.  I love the imagery that this game of chess evokes.  The notion of the Doctor on a desert plain, carving chess pieces out of bone is both mysterious and magical, and so the question is raised: Doctor Who?  

Is he a messiah? Mankind’s savior? An elemental force of good, as I noted above?  

A story like “The Curse of Fenric” succeeds because it gives us a new perspective on the entire series.  The Doctor’s “aimless” wandering is suddenly not so aimless at all.   Each time he lands the TARDIS, he is landing on a different chess board square, tipping over one of Evil's "players" or "pawns" if he is successful.

“Curse of Fenric” bristles with powerful ideas, and one of the most powerful involves a secular definition of faith.  

The Doctor reports that the Haemovores can be stopped by the power of complete faith.  Faith is not defined, however, as a belief in God, but rather boldly and unconventionally, as a total belief in anything an individual finds meaningful on a personal basis.  One Russian soldier repels the vampires with his unswerving belief in Marxism, for example.  

Touchingly, Ace uses her love for and faith in the Doctor to hold back the Haemovores.  

I love "Curse of Fenric's" notion, that “faith” can apply to something beyond the symbols of Christianity or organized religion.  Unwavering human belief -- in family, in friends, even in ideology -- is a powerful weapon, this serial suggests.

“The Curse of Fenric” is also wonderful in terms of Ace’s development as a character.  The Doctor has led her to this junction in time and space for a specific reason, and that reason is stunning.  The episode’s moment of catharsis -- when Ace dives into the waters of Maiden’s Point to cleanse herself of hatred (and self-hatred) -- is absolutely remarkable.  The moment is as touching as any in Doctor Who history.

Honestly, I can’t say very positive things about almost any Sylvester McCoy Era serials besides this one, but “The Curse of Fenric” gets to me each time I watch it.  If, somehow, the rest of the Seventh Doctor’s Era had been this good, perhaps Doctor Who would not have been canceled in 1989.

Doctor Who 60th Anniversary: "The Mark of the Rani" (Colin Baker)

The Doctor (Colin Baker) and his companion, Peri (Nicola Bryant) arrive in the small village of Killingworth  at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England, and soon learn that two renegade Time Lords are already there making mischief: the Master (Anthony Ainley) and the beautiful but dangerous The Rani (Kate O’Mara).

Unlike the Master, however -- whose strategies are based on his desire to dominate other life forms -- The Rani is on a mission of mercy...of sorts.  

To save the people of a planet she rules, she requires a chemical compound found only in human brains.  

Without this chemical, however, humans cannot rest, and quickly go insane, or psychotic.  The Doctor learns that the Rani has been draining humans for centuries, during the Trojan War, the Dark Ages, the American War of Independence, and now, finally in the Luddite Rebellion. 

The Doctor must save the humans, and also foil the Master’s secret plan to accelerate Earth’s technological development.…

The long, steep decline in quality of 1980s Doctor Who continues unabated from the Peter Davison Era to the Colin Baker Era.  

In terms of this decline, I’m not referring to the lead performances (or any of the performances, really…) but rather the series’ ever-more cheap visual palette, and the series writers’ jaw-dropping inability to dramatize a tale in anything approaching coherent fashion.  

Both trends reach their nadir in the dreadful Sylvester McCoy Era, a span in which the serials are, in my opinion, virtually unwatchable. 

Colin Baker remains a controversial Doctor, to this day, though I rather enjoy his performances in the role.  His patchwork jacket is atrocious, of course, but the actor nonetheless seems intent on reminding us of a crucial idea that had been lost by the Davison Era: The Doctor is an alien, and is not going to respond to crises like a typical human would. 

We saw this concept play out a bit in Hartnell’s era, and also some during Tom Baker’s tenure.  Traveling 180 degrees away from Davison’s underplaying, Baker made the Doctor big, broad, pompous, arrogant, and sometimes downright inhuman. 

This approach also applied to his fashion sense, it’s true.

But I very much like the idea of the Doctor as an alien whose motives and responses aren't always transparent, or conventionally "human." He isn't always going to be a "thoughtful friend" or "chum" to those he travels with.  This doesn't mean that he doesn't love them.  Only that.he comes from a different culture, a different background, and a different set of expectations in terms of civility and the social graces.

Frankly, I have never understood fully the energetic animosity towards Colin Baker’s regeneration. I chalk it up to the fact that many fans were set in their ways by the time it occurred.  Fans didn’t want to see an alien Doctor who might prove unpredictable…and choke a companion, for instance, in a fit of post-regeneration rage.  They didn’t want surprises.   They wanted the same-old, same-old, and were sorry not to get it.  

Still, Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor is memorable, and could have been fantastic given better stories, better sets, better monsters, and better direction.  I would make the same argument about McCoy’s Doctor. These actors aren’t to blame for the rottenness of their tenures.  The shoddiness of the storytelling and the shoddiness of the production are the culprits.  Watching serials of this era, I long for the black-and-white days of Hartnell and Troughton.  

Somehow, the monsters looked so much better 1963 - 1969 than they do circa 1983 - 1989...

“The Mark of the Rani,” however, is one of the better Colin Baker Era serials. It introduces a fascinating (and sexy...) new Time Lord character in Kate O’Mara’s the Rani.  In fact, she is a sort of three dimensional version of the Master character.  She may do evil, but she doesn’t do it (at least in this serial...) for evil’s sake.  She’s a bit more nuanced than that, and so is a welcome addition to Gallifreyan ranks. In some ways she is like the Doctor, but has simply selected another race (rather than humans...) to defend.

The Master, by this time in Who history, had also, frankly, become a troublesome or over-exposed character.  How many times has the Doctor foiled his plans?  How many times has he crafted a new strategy and knowingly attracted the Doctor to those plans, only to lose again?  

The Master is the universe's greatest moustache-twirling masochist, that's for sure.

The writers' over-reliance on the character of the Master, and his utterly cartoon-like nature make the character yet a further drag on the series' creativity during this span.  And again, I must stress that I'm not slagging the actor, Anthony Ainley, only the dramatic use to which the character was put.

The Rani, however, is a good antagonist, and I also enjoy the old-fashioned cliff-hangers of this particular serial.  The Doctor gets strapped to a mine car and almost pushed down a shaft at one point, and the staging of the incident is amusing in a Perils of Pauline kind of way. 

The story is a good one too in that it attempts to explain outbreaks of violence and madness throughout human history.  

Of course, I’m not sure how the Luddites would feel if they  were to witness their portrayal here as psychotic lunatics.  The Revolution, which occurred in the 1810s, was all about the fact that people were losing their livelihoods to automation, and to the advances of “men of science” like George Stephenson (1781 – 1848).   

Those workers had legitimate reasons for worry about the nature of technological "progress," and so to simply write them off as psychotic lunatics is a bit uncharitable.  But Doctor Who doesn't play favorites, either. Apparently, the American Revolution is also the byproduct of this same mental madness, according to "The Mark of the Rani."

But the bottom line is that this is a solid, unassuming serial, with some nice flourishes.  The location shooting (at Ironbridge Gorge) is impressive here, and I also love the weird qualities of the Rani's TARDIS.  The central column boasts a gyroscope, and for some reason, there are jars of dinosaur embryos all over the room.  It's a weird touch in a relatively straight-forward and enjoyable serial.

40 Years Later: Scarface (1983)

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