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Doctor Who: Byronic Reconstruction and Dickish characters

I’ve read three words, over and over again, with respect to the current season of Doctor Who, “Deconstruction of heroism.” Granted, I skipped the Robin Hood episode – on the grounds that I didn’t like the Star Trek TNG Robin Hood episode, so why would I like this one? Never the less, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there’s any such deconstruction happening in the current season. All I’m seeing are some dubious people running around while tired ideas emerge from the Steven Moffat half-bakery.

Now if that’s what the audience wants out of Doctor Who, then fine, all the power to them. However, I fail to see why critics are offering up a sideways literary interpretation of the series instead of having the good sense to call out the show on its drivel.

Deconstructing the hero? Fah. The Doctor is the very definition of the Byronic hero. All of the Doctor’s 21st century incarnations are charming, enigmatic, sophisticated, cynical, jaded, passionate, intelligent, and ultimately convinced that their own personal philosophy should trump all other considerations. Capaldi’s Doctor is no exception to this. He’s not being written as a deconstruction of this archetype so much as he’s a celebration of it.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead, let’s talk about Clara, the biggest dick Doctor Who has ever seen. Why do I think Clara is a dick who needs to get hit by a bus at the earliest opportunity? Because of the way she treats Danny Pink.

Twice in the series – and both in episodes written by Moffat himself – I’ve witnessed Clara giving Danny the gears about being a soldier. Being the sort of person who thinks that most modern military ventures are oppressive follies, I wouldn’t mind if the series wanted to engage in a meaningful dialogue about Western imperialism. Since we’re working with a show about time travel, there’s a real opportunity to tell a story or two along those lines. For example, the Doctor could take Clara to Carthage right before Scipio and the Romans show up to burn the city to the ground. Of course, that’s not how Doctor Who rolls. This is a series that is only concerned with showing the audience the winning side of history. Okay, fine, most people don’t have a sense of history beyond the end of their nose, why should I expect more from Doctor Who than I do of anybody else? Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear that Steven Moffat is taking issue with soldiers in this season and he’s using Clara as the voice of his outrage.

Would that the execution matched the concept driving this inquisition. We’re introduced to Danny Pink as a person who suffers from his past. While he might not have full-on PTSD, he’s certainly haunted by his time as a soldier. Whatever his actions were, be they valiant or cowardly, they haunt him in a real way. Kudos to the Moffat and company for getting me to connect with a Doctor Who character without having to destroy the universe. At the same time, I guess we’re not supposed to care about him too much since Clara – who has less depth in two seasons than Danny has in two minutes – comes along and takes a massive steamer on Danny, reducing his personal trauma to one single, shitty line: “So you kill people then cry about it?”

You might not be able to hear it, but I’m giving Steven Moffat a sarcastic slow clap for one of the worst bits of dialogue I have ever heard.

I am the least patriotic person I know, but even I have enough basic humanity in me to know that you don’t presume to talk to a former soldier about killing. You certainly don’t imply that said soldier is a murderer for their actions. If this faux-pas proved a one-off I’d be inclined to let it go. Instead, Clara does it again in Listen, again accusing Danny of being some sort of baby-killing monster.

Granted, the dialogue is meant to convey that Clara doesn’t get it. However, Clara is just an avatar of whoever is writing her, in both cases Steven Moffat, and that tells me that perhaps he doesn’t get it. If he does, then he’s groping for a message like the Neolithic humans in 2001 fumbled for a bone to use as a club. The subsequent skull smash is Clara’s callous interactions with Danny reducing his emotional pain, and the pain of thousands of real people, to a snide one-liner. Yet, somehow, we’re still supposed to see Clara as the Doctor’s moral compass? No, I think not. The Doctor is better off measuring himself against a Dalek.

Thus do we return to the title of this piece. Whatever deconstruction may be happening – and I think there is very little – is taking a back seat to framing Clara as an utterly intolerable person while also reinforcing the Doctor’s role as the classic Byronic hero.  So remind me again, why am I to care about a show featuring horrible people amid plots  that are best summarized as ‘people running about as bait-and-switch things happen’?

I await your trolling.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Name of the Doctor

Oh, Moffat. You just can’t resist the temptation to mess with the universe itself in a season finale, can you? Granted, RTD loved to put a gun to the head of creation with his finales as well. Nevertheless, it has become something of a fixture in Moffat-era Doctor Who to watch the stars winking out of existence as a means of telegraphing the stakes of the conflict at hand. And to be perfectly blunt, it has become a lazy and tired routine. I like it not.

An ongoing story reaches a point of diminishing returns when it keeps going to the well of nullifying the cosmos. Perhaps it is time to roll things back to the scope we saw during the Battle of Canary Wharf. The consequences there were big, but the danger was real enough that it threatened individuals rather than abstractions of life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite my misgivings, The Name of the Doctor does offer all the elements of a Moffat finale, if you are into that sort of thing:  a magic place, Trenzalore, a magic doodad, The Doctor’s grave, and a magic bad guy, The Great Intelligence. Said Intelligence wants to break into the Doctor’s grave so that he might “find peace” by dispersing himself into the entirety of the Doctor’s time stream. Apparently Time Lords have THE WORST and most problematic decomposition. It’s typical to what I’ve come to expect from recent Doctor Who; the ideas are very fascinating and high concept, but they never quite manage to be as meaningful in their execution. Temporal instability as a unique consequence of the Doctor’s death would have been fine as a plot device. As presented, it’s means to a retcon as well as a waste of third act on a villain who has presumably been behind everything for the last three years.

Would that the Great Intelligence had some motivations akin to what we saw in The Bells of St. John or even The Snowmen. Also, does anybody else remember when the TARDIS got hijacked without explanation? Instead of using this foe to unify the last three seasons of long-arc storytelling, he is reduced to a banal desire to kill the Doctor. Then it’s all Matt Smith writhing about amid the usual “Oh god the whole of the universe is going to die because the Doctor is just that important” exposition. When the actual conflict does lurch into motion, it does so seemingly as a convenience to exploring who Clara is as the impossible girl.

The answer to this season’s (un)question further left me annoyed. Over the course of this year modern Earth Clara has had zero character development. She is as bland as a baked potato absent fixings, always doing what the Doctor says. She is oddly sensible in the face of terror. She is quite flawless in that she never seems to precipitate any conflict whatsoever. For example, Clara would never create a big ass paradox a la Rose in Father’s Day. After half a season I would kill for her to channel some of Adric’s twerpishness or Leela’s stab-now talk-later attitude. All Clara does is bring out the compulsive side to the Doctor, thus facilitating some really questionable ethical decisions on the part of Eleven. Keeping all this in mind, I am not going to be receptive to Clara being retroactively installed as the most important part of the Doctor’s life, arguably more important than the TARDIS itself. It might work for some, but for me she’s just another Mary-Sue.

In terms of a cool factor though, watching Jenna Louise Coleman interacting with William Hartnell buries the needle. In fact, it’s almost a little too cool. Because when we witness Time Lord Clara recommending the TARDIS to One it further accentuates how bland prime-Clara is as a character. Dalek Clara, Barmaid/Governess Clara, and Time Lord Clara all have more story to them than babysitter Clara. Should I really be caring more about the Claras scattered throughout space-time than I do the one in the box?

On that very practical note, The Name of the Doctor should invite a conversation on the limits of a showrunner’s power. By what right does Moffat insert himself into the series pre-existing history? Certainly I could make a case for this gambit as clever big-arc story-telling, but I could just as easily make a case for Moffat being a narcissist who overplayed his contribution to the series. The series one rule of time travel, never crossing over your own timeline, should be more than an answer to temporal paradoxes. Keeping the Doctor far from his own history ensures that current showrunners aren’t elevating their tenure beyond its place within Doctor Who’s canon.

Amid all this disappointment, some elements of the episode proved quite smart. In so much as the last two years have built toward the looming dread of the Doctor’s name said aloud, the Name of the Doctor reminds the audience of the dangers in taking things literally. It’s not the name that has power, it is the actions committed in the name of the Doctor which prove to be of significant consequence. Enter John Hurt as the Doctor.

John Hurt as the Doctor, not the Valeyard, the Beast, or the Oncoming Storm. The Doctor, who did what he did in the name of peace and sanity, but not the name of the Doctor. Remember when Tennant talked about the Face of Boe as being textbook enigmatic? I think Hurt and Smith, along with some help from Moffat’s pen, just set a new high watermark.

Set aside the liquid awesome that will be Tennant and Smith vs Hurt (likely as a stand-in for what should have been Christopher Eccleston), this pending battle could actually be a meaningful conflict for the Doctor and Doctor Who. The Doctor’s MO is to run. He doesn’t do endings (thank you River Song for once again showing up to remind us of that), and he can’t handle mortality in himself or others. If Hurt is indeed Nine, or some lost 8.5 regeneration of the Doctor, the one who fought the Time War before regenerating into Eccleston, then it puts the series in a place where the Doctor will have to stop running and confront himself. This doesn’t preclude a big conflict, but it demands resolution on a personal level. The Doctor will have to grow from whatever happens during the story with John Hurt as the Doctor. How often have we seen that in recent years? More often than not the meta-story has been to reboot the universe as a means of maintaining the status quo.

In the end, The Name of the Doctor counts less a bookend to a season and more as a tease of things to come. A weakly written, if well performed, main conflict writes River Song out of the series, seemingly for good this time, but quickly fills the Mary Sue gap in taking Clara from zero to infinity. The episode only shines as a vehicle for introducing the next big thing. John Hurt’s reveal, and the potential for teasing out more of the Time War – assuming the history text in the TARDIS was a Chekhov’s book – has me genuinely excited to see what comes next. For the record, Doctor Who hasn’t got me excited for its future since RTD was running things. In the meantime we can start the debate on why Strax, Jenny, and Vastra need a spinoff that is somewhere between the Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.

Yeah, I said Torchwood. You want to make something of it?


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TV Review: Doctor Who – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

On a very fundamental level, I am not predisposed to enjoy an episode like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Try as I might, I don’t see the narrative value in story telling that pushes a reset button at the start of the fifth act only to spend its remaining few minutes doing jazz hands in anticipation of laurels. Even if the reset is planned from the first act, as it likely was in this episode, the need to invoke a modified “it was all a dream” trope shows me that the conflict at the core of the story was simply too impossible to manage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to identify the actual conflict in this episode.

Part of the reason why I think this episode felt so haphazard has to do with the multiple conflicts in play, none of which managed to stand out as the thing which binds the rest together. The episode just moves from one thing to the next, seemingly absent a meaningful endgame.

Journey could have very easily been a “Humans are their own worst enemies” episode. The Venture Van Halen Van Baalen Brothers posses the greed, avarice, and short-sightedness which Doctor Who so often uses to juxtapose the inherent weakness of humanity against the seeming infallibility of the Doctor. The fact that the VB Bros. end up in the TARDIS opens the door to another potential conflict: The Doctor is destructively obsessive.

Consider for a moment that the toxic fumes and insta-death fuel leak within the TARDIS get cleaned up in a matter of seconds. The Doctor didn’t really need the Van Baalen brothers to find Clara. Yet, Eleven threatens to blow them up if they don’t help him. Why does he do this? Does he want to protect Clara, or is he just interested in solving the puzzle of her true nature? Interesting as this question is, it becomes a moot point with the reset button business. The dickish Doctor who all but killed killed two of the Van Baalen brothers becomes a hiccup of timey-wimey story telling.

What about the TARDIS then? We’re meant to believe that the TARDIS doesn’t “like” Clara, albeit through some very clumsy exposition.

 

When the TARDIS failed to let Clara in during the Rings of Akhaten, I didn’t see malevolence; I saw the Doctor not giving Clara a TARDIS key. But suppose we work with the malevolent TARDIS theory for now, except then we’d have to ignore the fact that the artificial labyrinth the TARDIS created within the episode was meant to protect Clara. Even the Doctor says that the out of sync console room is the safest place on the ship, and that’s exactly where the TARDIS led a woman she purportedly dislikes. So much for that conflict. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is snarling at the Van Baalen brothers, crying out to the fake-android-cyborg brother, and Matt Smith is walking around with his, “Oh shit” face on the whole time. So perhaps the conflict is going to be about the TARDIS turned Mr. House on the invading salvage team? Well only for about five minutes because then the XCOM Alien Abduction sound effect (if you’re going to borrow sound effects, don’t borrow from 2012′s Game of the Year) is going to play in place of the standard cloister bell to signal that the TARDIS is going to die.

Great! The now there is a conflict we can all get behind. The last vestige of Gallifrey, a machine that was old when the Doctor stole it 900 years ago, is coming apart at the seams. For an instant I dared to hope that the death of the TARDIS might extend to the 50th anniversary story. If we take Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife as canon, then the TARDIS is more than just a time machine; it is the infinite union of time and space. Something going wrong there could certainly hand wave Tennant and Smith together. Moreover, the audience has a huge emotional attachment to the TARDIS and its death could raise the stakes without putting a gun to the head of the universe. But instead of killing the TARDIS, Stephen Thompson – who is also credited with writing the atrocious Curse of the Black Spot – kills the TARDIS to let Smith and Coleman walk through the time frozen shrapnel of its exploded core.

Is it a cool visual effect? Absolutely? But is it great story telling? Not if the only way out is to call a mulligan on everything that happened in the story and cancel out any potential growth in the main characters or meta-story.

While I’ll offer no quarter to this story as a narrative nightmare, it does shine as an interesting archeological dig into Doctor Who’s internal mythos. The episode very much delivers on its promise to be a journey to the centre of the TARDIS. Along the way we see the much talked about swimming pool and a library which oozes, literally, Time Lord history. There are vanishing walls and West Wing style camera shots of people walking around infinite hallways.

The problem with archeology is that it can often be difficult to craft a narrative around a collection of artefacts. Doing so requires external sources, background research, and inferences which allow for some benefit of doubt. It is on that last point, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS falls to pieces. I’m not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an episode which invokes a reset button to solve the story’s problems. Either by accident or design, such a resolution is lazy. Fun as the tidbits of Doctor who history are, up to and including the ghost voice of Chris Eccleston, they don’t end up contributing to the story as anything other than fan service. As a critic I don’t see why I should forge what remains into something cohesive; such is the task of the writer, not the audience.

Bottom line: It’s a pretty episode, it’s a fun episode, it’s even a nice nod to the series’ long running history, but at best it’s a narrative hot mess and at worst it’s self-congratulatory navel gazing.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Bells of St. John

For want of a new episode of Spartacus this week, I thought it only fitting to put together a few words on the return of Doctor Who. As is ever the case with Doctor Who’s revival, I expect The Bells of St. John rung true for as many viewers as they sounded discordant. For me, the episode was a beacon of hope amid a seventh season mired in the heavy handed pathos associated with the departure of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) as the Doctor’s companions.

In broad strokes, I saw The Bells of St. John as a much improved version of the 2006 episode, The Idiot’s Lantern. In the aforementioned Mark Gatiss episode, a one-off alien calling herself “The Wire” – she looks nothing like Omar – uses television to suck the souls of people in 1950s London. “The Wire’s” endgame is to employ cheap televisions and the pending broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation as a way of eating all of England’s essence. So, television makes zombies out of people, how timely.

The Bells of St. John, written by Steven Moffat, works along similar lines as The Idiot’s Lantern while adding a few more culturally resonant layers to the story. It begins with an almost Torchwood-esque warning from a stranger about something living in the world’s wireless networks. In the pre-credit scene we witness people connecting to wireless networks with seemingly alien identifiers. When a person signs on to one of these mystery networks they become a target for surveillance and a potential consciousness download into a human data cloud. The Doctor stumbles upon this mystery when Clara (Jenna Lousie Coleman) calls the TARDIS’ public call phone, thinking she has reached tech support – hence the Bells of St. John.

Wocka wocka.

Prediction: River Song gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number. Apply handwavium as necessary for effective suspension of disbelief.

Despite the convenience of the Doctor’s reunion with the third iteration of Clara “Oswald for the win” Oswald, this is a reasonably clever episode.

Buried beneath the idea of brain hacking people through wireless networks is a poignant discussion on privacy in the digital age. Though one mis-click puts us in no immediate danger of getting our brains downloaded like so many cheap Cylons, the idea of free wireless networks acting as malicious entry points into a person’s computer is quite conceivable. This potential breach in a seemingly safe digital space becomes a conceptual seed from which the episode’s broad fiction grows. Such an approach gives the mid-season premiere a measure of speculative fiction legitimacy. Yes, there’s a bit of jargon and obligatory sonic screwdriviering, but standing just to the left and right therein is a decent bit of storytelling. Maybe it’s not the best spec-fic in the world, but it’s certainly a demarcation from the science = magic = hand waving = ‘shut up and accept it’ methodology I’ve come to expect from recent Who entries.

Further, I continue to be impressed with Clara as the Doctor’s sidekick. One of my wish-list characteristics for post-Pond companions is a broadening of the “Ubiquitous Earth Girl” template. Classic Doctor Who offers no shortage of extraterrestrials joining the Doctor in his adventures; whereas the revived series has always played it safe in terms of using the companions as contemporary gateways into an alien universe. Even though Clara mk. 3 is of modern London, her past iterations have been a Victorian nanny and an assimilated Dalek. She’s still somewhat an UEG, but I’m willing to let it slide in this case if only because she is more than a dough eyed girl who falls in love with/runs away with the Doctor.

It’s also worth mentioning that Clara is the first companion in recent history that has done anything better than the Doctor on the first try. Even though her hacking skills are the product of a partial upload into the human consciousness cloud, she still manages to outdo the Doctor. It will be interesting to see if this singular talent branches further into the writing.

My concern emerging out of this episode is the reveal of the “client” behind the human aggregation firm as the Great Intelligence. Though I enjoy the call backs to classic Who, I’m somewhat worried about how this portents the broader trajectory of the season. Moffat’s long-game writing has burned us in the past with telegraphed endings and ultimately pointless gimmicks half-resolved through the magic of Deus ex Machina. I’m a little too suspicious to write off witnessing the Great Intelligence in both the Christmas Special and the mid-season premiere as random chance.

Theory: The Great Intelligence has been manipulating Eleven since his regeneration. The cracks in the universe, the Silence, the alternate Doctor of Amy’s Choice, and everything else has been calculated to make the Doctor ask the ultimate question on the Fields of Trenzalore as a means of turning all life in the universe into pure thought, upon which the Great Intelligence will assimilate us into some massive gestalt…or something.

This may not be a bad way to go. Life, the very thing the Doctor holds most precious, could become his ultimate undoing.

My verdict: In a season which has been hit-and-miss, at best, The Bells of St. John is equally satisfying as a piece of short and long-term story telling. The allegory resonates within a culture that is both obsessed with its own digital privacy and concerned, at least on the fringes of tech culture, with the physical implications of wi-fi on the health of humanity. Freed of the Ponds and their perpetual drama/bungling as plot devices, I have hope that Steven Moffat is going to do something extra special with the remainder of this season.


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First Impressions of a Web Series that is Legally Distinct from Anything Owned by Sony or NBC

Travis Richey is known on the internet as the creator of the Sesame Street spoof Smiley Town, the roommate comedy Robot, Ninja and Gay Guy, and the internet parody 2 Hot Guys in the Shower. However, fans of the NBC series Community will probably recognize him by another name, Inspector Spacetime. Back in February Richey launched a kickstarter campaign to fund a web series charting the adventures of the Community created Doctor Who send up. One business day after he came on my podcast to promote the project, then known as Inspector Spacetime: The Web Series, Sony and NBC lawyered up. Rather than bowing to corporate tyranny, Richey gave the Inspector a different coat and officially changed the name of his project to Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveller Who Can Also Travel Through Time.

After months of fan supported work, the Inspector’s first web adventure, Boyish the Extraordinary, has gone live. And if the entire series is as sharply written as the premiere episode then we are all in for a treat.

 

As a series taking some level of inspiration from the ephemera of Community’s screw-ball comedy, it would be easy to expect the same from UWSAASTWCATTT. Yet the tone of this series draws much more from Douglas Adams than it does Dan Harmon. The story is set on “Second New Old Earth 7”, which is described as a planet that came to be recognized as the pinnacle of human culture and civilization by the time we got up to the 42nd copy of Old Earth. Viewers familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will no doubt revel in the absurdist exposition, while anybody who hasn’t read the book will probably be as temporarily confused as the Inspector’s associate Piper (Carrie Keranen).

Despite having fun with Douglas Adams’ style, Richey and co-writer Eric Loya have not neglected the Inspector’s origins as a Doctor Who parody. Piper’s name is an obvious nod to actress Billie Piper who played Rose Tyler, companion to the ninth and tenth Doctor. There’s a sign in the background of the episode’s first scene that in true Steven Moffat fashion demands, “No Spoilers.” Though Community saw the Inspector square off against the Dalek inspired Blorgons, this episode changes the antagonist to the creatively distinct, yet Cyberman derivative, “Circuit Chaps”. As clever as these ideas are, it is the BOOTH, the Inspector’s means of conveyance, which almost steals the episode. Though only a set piece, the special effects which usher the BOOTH into the frame are some of the best that I have ever seen in a web production. Truly Mr. Richey has mobilized some fantastic post-production talent for this project.

Now we must ask who is Boyish the Extraordinary? (Travis may have left a few hints during the podcast, but the sign said no spoilers, so I won’t say) And will he be so easily hand waved out of the story as the Circuit Chaps? (Probably not since his name is in the title).

UWSAASTWCATTT releases new episodes on Mondays. Kudos to Travis Richey and team for a fantastic start.

The Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveller Who Can also Travel Through Time is written by Travis Richey and Eric Loya. It stars Travis Richey and Carrie Keranen. The first season is directed by Vincent Talenti.


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Television Review: Asylum of the Daleks

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the last seven years of Doctor Who, the first two seasons of Torchwood, as well as one big spoiler for anybody who hasn’t seen the second series of Sherlock. It’s also long, really long. About triple the length of one of my average posts. You’ve been warned.

First off, it’s good. It’s not great, it’s far from perfect, but compared to Victory of the Daleks, Asylum is a fine story so long as you don’t pay too much attention to the Ponds’ emotional drama and Amy’s subsequent descent into Dalek induced madness. There are also Dalek zombies, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them.

Now for the details.

The Problem with Dalek stories

One of the key problems in telling a good Dalek story is that the stakes often become a little too high. Any good Whovian knows that even a handful of Daleks could conquer an entire planet. A Dalek warship, stuffed to the gunwales with ten thousand hate filled Daleks, is a threat to an entire galaxy. Ten thousand ships filled with as many Daleks is enough to jeopardize all of creation. And even when the Daleks get cast into (insert hand wavey, timey wimey, spacey wasey McGuffin of choice) one Dalek always manages to survive to start things all over again; it is the Dalek circle of life. So when Mark Gatiss let one Dalek survive in Victory of the Daleks, which then went on to resurrected a team of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Daleks, who then escaped the Doctor, I was sceptical. Not wary so much of Gatiss and Moffat per se, but because of the legacy of the latter’s predecessor.

When Russell T. Davies was showrunner he had a tendency to try and increase the stakes with each season. Steven Moffat did the same thing at the end of series five, though not with half the emotional intensity and panache of RTD; reboot the universe, my ass. If ever there was a “Holy shit I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have no exit strategy” moment, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was it.

Prior to screening Asylum, my fear was that a reborn Dalek race under Moffat, whose track record as a writer is much stronger on Sherlock than it is on Doctor Who, would yield absurdly high stakes story telling requiring complex and ultimately unsatisfying gimmickry as a means of solving narrative problems. To put it another way, the last time we had a non-God Emperor of Dune style (transitional story telling soft on plot heavy on exposition) Dalek episode, the Daleks nearly undid all creation. If Moffat played along similar lines he’d have to reboot the universe, again.

For now, this fear has proven unfounded. However, I reserve the right to bring the issue up again if, as I suspect, the Daleks emerge at the end of the season to threaten all life everywhere with some nefarious plot. So while Asylum has its faults, it does offer a third way when it comes to telling Dalek stories without going whole hog on the “universe hangs in the balance” narratives.

How Moffat fixed the Daleks

Rather than focusing on the cosmic consequences of a fully realized Dalek race, complete with a new Emperor (cool), a functioning parliament (wait, what?) and borg-like assimilation technology (I could call derivative bullshit here, but I guess eye-stalks out the forehead are better than pig slaves), Asylum gives the doctor a task. Much like when the Time Lords sent the fourth Doctor to paradox the Daleks out of existence by messing with their Kaled progenitors, the Daleks teleport Eleven to a colony where they house the insane of their kind. What begins as the Daleks pitting their greatest foe (who is now called The Predator in lieu of The Oncoming Storm) against the worst of their own quickly turns into a damsel in distress story.

 

The key to the narrative, aside from not asking questions about how Daleks reproduce in such great numbers (the answer of course can be found in the most kinky Hentai ever made), build ships, and other such plot holes, is similar to the Wellesian silver bullet found in the series one episode, Dalek. Namely, the quality of being human is what defeats the Daleks. Asylum asks and answers what it means to be, Human, Time Lord, and even Dalek. Though now squid like in natural appearance, the Daleks were once a humanoid species, indistinguishable (largely for budget reasons) from humanity. Thus the Daleks have human emotions and motivations.

Generally, Dalek psychology is driven by two things: belief in the Dalek race as superior to all others and an unabashed hatred for anything that isn’t Dalek. Clearly though, the Daleks are softening on the definition of what it is to be a Dalek. Why else would an automated Dalek sanatorium give Oswin a full Dalek conversion? After all, these are not cybermen seeking to upgrade the cosmos. As evidenced in Dalek, Evolution of the Daleks, and even Victory of the Daleks, to be less than 100% Dalek is to be worthy of extermination. But its best not to dwell too much on that point or else things start to fall apart.

 

Though Dalek in body Oswin manages to hold on to her humanity, as witnessed in her letters to mom and penchant for baking. Thus she is able to turn the Daleks against themselves.

The Doctor-Dalek paradigm

What of the Doctor, though? When the Dalek parliament sends Rory, Amy, and the Doctor to the Dalek asylum, they give the intrepid trio wrist bands to prevent their assimilation into, foreshadowing alert, Dalek drones. Naturally, Amy loses her thing that keeps the Screamers away anti-Dalekification device during an attack from zombie Dalek drones. I hope whoever came up with that idea in the writer’s room took a victory lap or two.

Shortly after their Romero-esque escape, the Doctor rescues Amy from a descent into conversion induced madness. Knowing its only a matter of time before Amy is fully converted, the Doctor tells Amy to hold on to her fear and her love, human qualities that the Dalek nano-probes will try to purge from her mind before converting her body. Rory, suspecting he loves his wife more than she loves him, offers to give Amy his wrist band, assuming he can retain his humanity longer than she can. Only after the Ponds share a moment of maudlin heart break followed by honesty, wherein we learn that Amy is barren and Rory wants more children, do we find out the Doctor snuck his wrist band on to Amy. So why didn’t the Doctor transform?

Because in some ways the Doctor is already a Dalek. As my friend J.M. Frey so often says, the Doctor is not a hero in the traditional sense; he is Chiron, the trainer of heroes. While the classical allusion certainly holds, we must not forget that the Doctor is also The Oncoming Storm. In that, he is Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. We know from The End of Time, that when the Doctor used “the moment” – the ultimate weapon of mass destruction – he affected not only the Daleks and Time Lords, but a myriad of other races as well. Yet these races were not simply killed, but condemned to eternally repeat the nightmarish hellscape of events that constituted the Time War in a “Time Locked” portion of space-time. Since then, Nine, Ten and Eleven have all demonstrated the capacity to be driven by hate, the Dalek hallmark.

In the year 200,100, Nine was so raw with hatred that he was willing to use another weapon of mass destruction and accept the Earth as collateral damage when the Daleks invaded Satellite Five. Turn Left shows us an alternate reality of Ten whose hate would have led to his death during the Racnoss invasion. Eleven is less so motivated by raw hate but similarly Dalek in his own way. Where Nine and Ten had passion, Eleven is colder and more calculating than the other two. He lies, deceives, and manipulates his best friends to suit his own ends. The Cult of Skaro, the Daleks made to think like their enemies, mirror Eleven despite being introduced at the end of series two. But no matter the incarnation the Daleks can always see themselves in the Doctor. The mad Dalek Emperor, Dalek Sec, Davros, they all knew the post Time War Doctor’s capacity for hate and capriciousness because it was reflected in themselves.

Thus do we return to humanity. Because this Dalek side to the Doctor, also known as “the Time Lord victorious”, isn’t what saves the day in Asylum of the Daleks. It is Oswin’s refusal to be Dalek, her ability to be better than the Doctor. Barricaded in the sanctuary of her mind, she records letters to her mother, bakes failed soufflés, and escapes into the refuge of classical music to drown out the Dalek part of her brain that screams, “Let us in”. What is her reward for this fortitude? Oswin becomes another person willing to go to their death in order to save the Doctor. It is in Oswin’s “death” that Asylum shows the Doctor’s true power: not his TARDIS, nor Time Lord physiology, but his ability inspire/manipulate others into self-sacrifice. How many people have died to give the Doctor his nine hundred and some years? Just like the Daleks, others die and he keeps living. One Time Lord survives. Now, as a warped parting gift, Oswin has made it so the Doctor’s worst foes no longer recognize him.

Stop and consider this for a moment. The Daleks are now beholden to nobody. They do not fear The Oncoming Storm. What horrors could a restored Dalek empire perpetrate without having to factor for a blue box? Moreover, the Doctor may have been all laughs and smiles as he made his escape from the Dalek Parliment, but now he is alone in a way that the series has never before presented. He is anonymous. The lonely god who goes to museums to keep score is a stranger to the species that forced him to condemn every other Time Lord and countless others to an eternity of hell within the Time War. Nine once asked the broken Dalek of Dalek “What is the point of you?” Now we can ask what is the point of the Doctor if his foes don’t know to fear him. Is he still a god? Or is humanity more than just a one off for this episode?

 

Motherhood and tantrums

One of last seasons’ recurring themes connected to the strength of motherhood. Nowhere was this idea more overwrought and tired than in 2011’s Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe. I’ll gladly accept any allegations of cynicism that people would care to toss my way, but the idea that a mother’s love can guide something through the time vortex, while successfully re-writing her own history, was just too damn much for me. Asylum walks a very narrow tightrope in its themes of motherhood. On the one hand, part of Oswin’s effort to maintain her humanity comes through letters to her mother. In so much as I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to assume the Daleks would bother assimilating a human (EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE) I’m fine with this mother motif in play. Where things get a little too hammy is with the Ponds and their reproductive challenges. Silence induced sterility? Really? Of all the things that could have happened between part four and five of Pond Life that’s where Moffat went? Never mind the fact that the Ponds already have a daughter. Apparently Rory wanted another child so badly he prompted Amy to do the hardest thing in her life and “give Rory up.” When did the Ponds turn into Gwen and Rhys? No, cancel that. Rhys and Gwen had real people problems. Granted the girl who waited and the lonely centurion have always had a tumultuous relationship, but setting a very good Dalek story against the schmaltz of two characters whose days are numbered on the series seemed a waste of effort.

Another matter of motherly outrage connects to spoilers. Last year Steven Moffat put himself on the pop culture radar for a few choice rants directed against people who perpetrate spoilers. He called those who engage in such activities vandals, and in concept I agree with him. Going out of your way to ruin something for somebody is rather classless act. Yet Moffat himself is near unto a spoiler in his Doctor Who writing. Case in point, by the time we got to Let’s Kill Hitler in series six, it was painfully obvious how the long arc would resolve itself. Just like the anti-Dalek bracelets, a writer does not introduce a piece of technology if they don’t plan on using it for something later.

This season’s big to do came in the form of announcing Jenna Louise Coleman as the new mid-season companion, only to bring her into the first episode. To some it might seem anti-climatic. To my eyes, it appears that Mr. Moffat has Reichenbach’d himself in the most low stakes away imaginable. We know Oswin didn’t really sacrifice herself to save the Doctor and the Ponds, just as we know that Sherlock isn’t really dead. Now the only thing the audience has to look forward to figuring out the type of trickery Moffat and company will invoke to bring Oswin into the TARDIS in a plausible way i.e. she was controlling that Dalek shell from another location, or the Daleks made a clone of her per Dalek operating order 5532-13-A. I know, it’s not a spoiler when it comes from within the series itself. But when it comes to Doctor Who, Steven Moffat doesn’t exactly play his cards close to his chest – certainly not in the same way that he does with Sherlock. Nor is Moffat bound by the rules of reality in Doctor Who as he is in Sherlock. While figuring out how Sherlock survived the fall constitutes detective work on the part of the audience and the writer, rationalizing Oswin’s return is nothing more than a study in candy coated bullshit.

Then again, we must not forget rule #1 – The Doctor Lies (and by extension so does Steven Moffat).

It would be a shakeup of RTD proportions if Oswin actually stayed dead and Coleman’s role in the show was just a one off akin to Kylie Minogue’s in Voyage of the Damned. If so, Steven Moffat will have perpetrated the biggest sleight of hand casting maneuver in the history of Doctor Who, if not television itself. The man would go down in entertainment history with the likes of Orson Welles for making dupes of Whovians around the world. Alas, such a maneuver is probably not meant to be, so I shall say no more on this particular long shot bet.

While we’re talking about the new girl

Considering that Jenna Louise Coleman is, almost certainly, going to be joining the Doctor for the second half of this series, I think it fair to devote a few words to initial impressions of her character. The short version is that Oswin seems just a little too awesome.

By virtue of her Dalek conversion, Oswin is capable of doing things that the Doctor can not. Beyond a raw talent for clever computer hacking, she has the constitution to maintain her humanity despite Dalek conversion. Not to mix genres but even Captain Picard could not resist assimilation by the Borg. Who is this Oswin girl that she can stare down the enemy that brings the best of Doctor Who to despair?

 

Oswin also finds the time to have a flirt with Rory and the Doctor. Through a quick narrative info dump she manages to frame herself as a character with the sexual forthrightness and flexibility of Captain Jack Harkness. Nor should we forget that she demonstrates courage and self-sacrifice in the finest tradition of the heroic epic.

Don’t mistake my observations for criticisms; none of the things that make up Oswin’s character are ill traits. But where’s the catch? Also, didn’t we already a have an equally impossibly awesome character in the form of River Song? Hell, Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother is a better rounded character than what we know of River and what we’ve seen of Oswin.

Even within canon other characters demonstrate their obvious flaws. The Doctor is perpetually guilty, angry, and forever trying to find absolution for his past. Amy has her short temper. Rory is the little man called to do great things. The Master is vainglorious. Donna is Icarus; she flew higher than any human ever could, but in becoming the Doctor-Donna lost it all. Martha was a tedious fan girl. Rose was naive. Jack, well I’d need another three thousand words to properly inventory and categorize all of Captain Jack Harkness’ issues. I could start with his adopting a dead lover’s name and persona before another ex-lover buried him alive for a couple of millennia wherein he was constantly dying and resurrecting. How about this: Jack has problems connecting with people.

Yes, Oswin will have half a season to develop as a character. And I’ll also concede it’s not fair to the writers to judge a character based on first impressions alone. However I will be watching very closely to see if Oswin becomes anything other than a younger version of River Song.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, Asylum of the Daleks, is a great episode as long as a viewer is willing to accede to the notion that the Doctor was so preoccupied with the Silence that he let the mortal enemies of all life everywhere develop to the point where they would move from the Dalek Emperor’s absolute monarchy into a what appears to be a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature. Square yourself with that bit of cognitive dissonance and the rest of the story, even with the Pond drama, unfolds as a very strong Dalek adventure. Further kudos to Steven Moffat for writing an episode that actually lets a critical viewer make some connections to the Dalek stories of the previous showrunner, even if indirectly. So much of Moffat’s writing has been working within a Fawlty Towers framework where he is almost pathological in not mentioning the war anything Russell T. Davies worked with.

Now we just need to get rid of the Ponds, who by all rights should have been written out during the Christmas special.


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The Tripods Trilogy: How Well Has it Aged?

One of the best teachers I ever had introduced me and my eighth grade classmates to the BBC’s TV adaptation of John Christopher’s (aka Samuel Youd) The Tripods Trilogy. It was 1994. I was thirteen years old, the same age as series protagonist Will Parker, and for thirty minutes every other Friday afternoon I was in hog heaven. I didn’t actually read the trilogy until I was in the first year of university. Alas as a young adult I was loath to read anything so labeled.

More recently I impulse bought myself an e-book edition of the trilogy. Out of sheer curiosity I read the forward wherein the editor, or associate publisher, or somebody with a title, claimed that “despite a revival in the 80s, Christopher’s work has fallen out of favour over recent years.”

Fallen out of favour? When did the world of post-apocalyptic YA fiction turn into the Roman Senate? As a cultural icon, I doubt The Tripods Trilogy is able to boast the same sort of success as The Hunger Games. But to accuse something of falling out of favour implies an inherent weakness within the text, something I had no memory of from my initial read through. After re-reading the trilogy I find little that would fit the bill of a novel that has “fallen out of favour”. In fairness, it does have a few problems that would probably preclude a resurgence to the top of the best seller list. Yet as a story that was written prior to the Apollo moon landing, The White Mountains, The City of Lead and Gold, and The Pool of Fire hold up surprisingly well.

Weaknesses

A Particular Eurocentrism

The story of The Tripods Trilogy is the story of two English boys’ journey into manhood set against freeing the world, as represented by Western Europe, from alien invaders known to most humans as the tripods. North America, Asia, and Africa are mentioned within the three books, but the primary characters are all identified as either English, German, or French. Point in fact, I don’t think there’s a single non-white speaking character in the series.

Rubbish Female Characters

The three books that encompass the original Tripods trilogy are stories about boys, for boys. The only female character of any substance within the story appears in the first novel as Will’s love interest. Though unlike Will, who resists “capping”, the process through which the tripods remove all curiosity, rebellion, and creativity from humanity by means of a cybernetic skull cap, Elosie welcomes the experience. For her thoughtless devotion to the tripods, her utter inability to logic or reason, she is rewarded with death and embalming within the Masters’, the aliens who control the tripods, gallery of beauty.

Even the scant colony of “Free Men” within the French Alps is a boys only environment. Though the Free Men send out scouts to recruit rebellious lads before they are capped on their fourteenth birthday, the thought never occurs to this resistance group that females might be useful to the cause.

Strengths

Plausible Science and Alien Aliens

When Will infiltrates one of the three cities that the Masters use to control the Earth, he is confronted with an environment that is utterly alien to him. In his capacity as a personal slave to a Master, Will struggles against unnatural heat and humidity, increased gravity that kills most slaves within five years, a toxic atmosphere, and bizarre architecture. In their own right, the Masters are more alien than most Star Trek aliens. Christopher did a brilliant job creating an antagonist that is utterly incompatible with terrestrial life in both biology and culture.

Moral Ambiguity

After losing Eloise to the tripods, Will never doubts the righteousness of his quest to free the Earth from the Masters. That steadfast belief in the cause, however, allows readers to see some of the realities of Will’s world. At age thirteen, Will was recruited to leave home and join with a bunch of rebels living in the mountains. There he and other boys his age were trained to infiltrate the Masters’ cities and conduct covert reconnaissance. Once that was done Will and his friends set about creating resistance cells across the world as part of a plan to decentralize and expand the resistance. Will Parker might be a hero, but he is also a fully mobilized child soldier. While the older free men plan, it is the boys who go out into the world and actively oppose the Masters. Say what you will about teenage death matches, but I think John Christopher has Suzanne Collins beat when it comes to making teens do questionable things.

A Flawed Protagonist

Will is often described as being too small for his size and prone to fits of impulsive behavior. Indeed, his lack of forethought is a consist theme throughout the trilogy. One such occurrence results in Will having to kill someone in cold blood to maintain his cover as a “capped” servant of the tripods. The aftermath of that kill very nearly results in the death of a friend. Even when the stakes are lower, Will’s inability to keep calm and think often leads to missions going astray. Although events generally work out well for Will, he’s not the sort of flawless character that one might expect from mid-century YA.

An Interesting Relationship with Religion

The Masters’ greatest strength is their ability to manipulate the human mind. In England and France the tripods are venerated and honoured. When Will travels East into what is presumably modern Turkey, he’s confronted with a tripod cult where all adherents “pause three times a day to pray to the glory tripods.” Perhaps this isn’t a strength, per se, so much as another indication of the novel’s Eurocentric tendencies. However, it is interesting to see one of the best ways humanity has for controlling itself supplanted by an alien other.

Accessible Language

As texts get older, so too do they grow apart from English as it is spoken today. When I compared 1000 words from The Hunger Games to a 1000 words from The White Mountains both had comparable Flesch-Kincaid grade levels: 7.5 for The White Mountains and 6.0 for The Hunger Games. Leaving the statistics aside though, there’s little within the mechanics and style of The White Mountains, or any other books in the Tripods Trology, that would confound a modern reader. Though set at the dawn of the 22nd century, the level of technology within the story, save for the triopds and the Masters’ city, is mostly medieval. That said there’s almost a fantasy element to the story which lends itself to creating a world that is set apart from linear time. As a text anchored in history but driven by science fiction, there’s little in the way of a cultural gap that makes the novels feel like something that is feeling its age.

The Bottom Line

There are some aspects of The Tripods Trilogy that are very telling about the point in which the story was written. There’s no room for women in what is largely a male dominated world. Islam is arguably reduced to an outgrowth of the alien “other”, where people in Christian dominated Western Europe are seen to be less oddly devoted in their beliefs. Yet as an alien invasion story, the writing makes the reader complicit in embracing Will’s transformation into a soldier. To reject this change, and the resistance of the Free Men, is to embrace the Masters’ plan for human subjugation and extermination. In that sense, The Tripods Trilogy is wholly clever and still very much in tune with modern YA lit and contemporary issues.


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Shaftoe’s Rants: Down with Time Lords?

The Short Version: I don’t think Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat likes Time Lords.

The Long Version: Series writer and show runner Steven Moffat recently told the BBC that Doctor Who’s most iconic villains, the Daleks, won’t be making a screen appearance any time soon.

““We thought it was about time to give them a rest.”

Moffat does raise a bit of a valid point.  The cybernetic children of the planet Skaro are the most regularly defeated enemy in the Doctor Who universe.  However, to this Whovian, there seems to be a larger issue at hand.  In short, I don’t think that Mr. Moffat particularly cares for Time Lords or Time Lord mythology.

I know, it’s an odd accusation to make of a Doctor Who show runner but hear me out.

Since Moffat took over he’s seemingly done everything he can to distance The Doctor from his Time Lord roots.  Consider Moffat’s first episode with Matt Smith as The Doctor.  In The Eleventh Hour, The Doctor wrote off the Time War, the death of his species and the deaths of countless others as “a bad day”.  From that episode onward everything remotely complex gets written off as wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey or spacey-wasey.  Setting aside the fact that this is an oh-so-convenient way to toss causality out the window, it also kills any need for The Doctor to draw upon the wisdom that comes with being a 900-year-old time traveller.  Hell, even his foes don’t seem to care that The Doctor is a Time Lord.  Kindly note, I’m okay with ignoring The Doctor’s lineage when the bad guys are as Torchwood-esque as The Silence – stupid name great concept.

Perhaps this lack of Time Lord flavour is a response to an abundance of Tennant/Eccleston sad face whenever anybody brought up Time Lords or the Time War under Russell T. Davies’ tenure.  On the other hand, Moffat may not want to deal with more practical issue of Time Lord chapeaus which make Princess Beatrix’s head ornamentation seem tasteful.  With the notable exception of Neil Gaiman’s episode The Doctor’s Wife (which was fantastic because I think it was the first time we got to see Matt Smith as a Time Lord, not simply a madman with a blue box) Moffat and the other writers don’t really seem to care about the Doctor as Time Lord.

So how does all of this connect to the fact that the Daleks are going into the vault?  Quite simply, the Daleks and the Timelords are foils for each other.  You can’t have Daleks without Time Lords as each is an essential part of the other’s mythology.  Unless the next Dalek episode undoes the seemingly bona fide resurrection of the Daleks (Victory of the Daleks), an act which would once again make the Doctor a genocidal murderer – although I’m sure they would ethicy-wethicky their way out of any moral quagmire as not to scare the children (sigh) – the Time Lords must come back, in spirit if not in body, to balance the equation.  Given Moffat’s apparent disdain for things Time Lord, that seems unlikely.

Therefore, Moffat’s decision is not just about letting the Daleks rest.  It speaks to an apparent bracketing of his plot arcs from the larger Time Lord/Doctor Who mythology.  I for one like Time Lord mythology.  Consider that one of Matt Smith’s best performances as the Doctor was in Neil Gaiman’s episode.  For just a moment that story let Smith show the audience a little of the hurt that comes with being the last of your kind.  If we are being honest though, Suranne Jones (Idris) was so fantastic as to steal that episode and deposit it in her Swiss bank account.  Either way, Doctor Who needs more writing of that calibre.  Keep the Daleks and Time Lords on ice if we must, minimize references to Gallifrey if necessary, but remember that The Doctor has two hearts and occasionally letting him be a lonely alien won’t ruin the show.

Your thoughts?

Update:  Leave it to Steven Moffat to do exactly what I said he wasn’t going to do.  Ah well, at least I got in a good hat joke.  For fear of spoilers, I’ll skip the details on how Moffat stymied my theory.  It is enough to say that Time Lord mythology is a marginally relevant to the plot of A Good Man Goes to War. Still, I’m not willing to admit that I’m totally wrong on this point.  I’ll save the explanations for my upcoming podcast with Doctor Who scholar J. M. Frey.

 

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Television Review: Outcasts

Summary Judgement:  Outcasts is an intriguing series that is as much a political drama as it is a post-apocalyptic survival narrative.

Produced by: BBC Wales and BBC America

Starring:  Liam Cunningham, Hermione Norris, Daniel Mays, Ashley Walters, Amy Manson, Eric Mabius and Jamie Bamber

Outcasts, a co-production between BBC Wales and BBC America, is a very different take on the traditional “end of the world” story.  Set on the Earth-like planet of Carpathia, a mere three decades in the future, the story centers on humanity’s attempt to survive the death of our home world.  While the presence of Jamie Bamber in the cast and the show’s survival theme will no doubt invite comparisons to Battlestar Galactica, Outcasts seems to have more in common with The West Wing than it does BSG.

Pairing politics with the end of the world is a brave thing, perhaps as brave as pairing space operas and westerns – and we all know that can turn out very well if it’s done properly.  Despite writing this review only two episodes into the series, which incidentally puts me one quarter of the way through the show’s first season, I think it’s safe to say that the overall concept works.  For readers who are old enough to remember the last time a network tried to do something like this you can rest assured that Outcasts isn’t Earth 2. Ah Earth 2, memories of Clancy Brown and Debrah Farentino bickering like mom and dad on a road trip from hell still haunt my darkest nightmares.

To tell its grand tale, Outcasts begins in the middle of a larger narrative, or as we called it back in English class, in medias res. The first episode sees a well-established colony on Carpathia dealing with the implications of a weapons ban while awaiting the arrival of the ninth refugee transport inbound from a cold and uninhabitable Earth.  As a mildly enlightened member of the television watching masses, I enjoy the fact that the writers are content to let me gradually figure out the back-story.  The problem with this style of writing is that it assumes that your audience has the patience to let the story unfold around them.  While I’m not an expert on television audiences, I’m going to take Outcast’s dwindling ratings to mean that more people want the instant gratification of exposition than they do the self-actualization that comes through paying attention to a thoughtful narrative progression.  To Outcasts’ benefit, two sixty-minute episodes have left me feeling fully versed in the essential back-story as well as emotionally attached to all the characters.  But if you’re one of those people who can’t watch something without asking, “Who’s that? What’s his name? Why did she do that?” then Outcasts probably isn’t the show for you; perhaps I can recommend something in a CSI: Miami flavour that might be to your liking.

Despite its setting, Outcasts is remarkably accessible.  A piece of dialogue from the first episode best encapsulates Outcasts’ enduring motif.  Carpathia’s President, Richard Tate (Liam Cunningham) asks the captain of the ninth refugee transport what he expected to find on Carpathia.  The captain answers, “A society of human beings with everything that involves.”  That idea is at the very core of Outcasts.  The show is as much a piece of anthropology as it is a drama.  Tate has to balance civil liberties against the necessity of procreation to preserve the species.  Similarly, Stella Isen (Hermione Norris), the head of Protection and Security, has to maintain order in a democratic society that is so obviously fragile that, as a viewer, you can’t help but wonder if a police state might be a better way to ensure humanity’s survival.  Meanwhile we see Protection and Security officers going about their duties, ne’er-do-wells within the colony getting high off medical supplies, a powerful bureaucrat turning into a religious demagogue and a growing schism between colonists who live “behind the fence” and the quasi-military “expeditionists” who dedicate their lives to exploring Carpathia’s untamed wilderness.  If that wasn’t enough, each of these characters are damaged individuals, having lost family members in Earth’s evacuation.  How often does a television show have the courage to do all of the above, in addition to killing off characters in the first episode?

While I understand some of the criticisms concerning Outcasts, most notably the idea that the show isn’t building tension, I don’t think they hold up under closer scrutiny.  The first two episodes have excellent individual plots as well as serve to establish a greater story arc for the series.  Furthermore, the character acting is excellent across the board.  Given the inevitable BSG comparisons, I’ll concede that Outcasts doesn’t have the looming dread/anticipation of Cylons around every corner.  Given that this story primarily explores the ability of people to live with each other in a society, essentially probing the idea that we are inherently too violent to survive ourselves, let alone another planet, I don’t think you need a Cylonesque antagonist. If we consider that Ron Moore et al regularly said the Cylons were used to show humanity as its own worst enemy, inserting something Cylonish into Outcasts would be tragically redundant.

With the BBC moving Outcasts into its Sunday night “death slot” I fear that Outcasts won’t live to see a second season.  However, if you have the means, you should defiantly invest some time in this show while it lasts.

Overall score: +3.5

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TV Reviews: Doctor Who – Matt Smith’s First Episode

Produced by: BBC / BBC Wales

Starring: Matt Smith and Karen Gillan

Summary Judgement:  If you’ve managed to avoid watching Doctor Who over the last 40 years, now is a great time to start.  If you’re like me, somebody who only got serious about the show with Christopher Eccelston and David Tennant, you may be a bit disappointed.

Right then, Doctor Who Season 31, that’s right, 31 seasons, where have you been?  Alternatively, this could be Doctor Who Season 5 or 6 depending on how you want to keep score.  Whichever way you cut it, the longest running science fiction show in the history of the known universe is back for another season.  I suppose I’m happy about this.  As a child, I loved watching Doctor Who for hours at a stretch when it was on public television.  Furthermore, the Doctor Who theme turned me on to electronic music.  However, I can only call myself a proper Doctor Who fan since 2005 when the show reemerged from its nine year hiatus.  On that note, I have a few reservations about this season.

Before proceeding farther, a word on Time Lord physiology for the benefit of those ignorant of such details.  Although The Doctor looks human, he is in fact the last member of an ancient and enigmatic race called the Time Lords.  Yes, this is important so keep reading.  As the species’ name suggests, these beings had infinite command over time and space.  The Doctor, no that’s not his real name, it’s the title he picked for himself upon graduating from his Time Lord Ph.D. program, travels about time and space in space ship that looks like a 1950s police box.  From time to time he comes to Earth to pick up new travelling companions or to save the planet from its various and sundry extraterrestrial foes.

Early on in the show it was decided that replacing the actor who plays The Doctor would be handled by a maguffin called “regeneration”.  Whenever a Time Lord is mortally wounded he or she “regenerates” into a new person: same character, different quirks and personality traits.  Most recently The Doctor was portrayed by BAFTA (That’s the British Emmy) winning actor David Tennant.  I will gladly forefit a measure of impartiality to say that David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.  Hopefully Tennant doesn’t turn into a post-Doctor Who paraody of himself, doomed to live out his years signing autographs for inappeasable nerds like yours truly.  However, with acting skills like these, I think Tennant will land on his feet.

-Always brings a tear to my eye.

So out with the old and in with Matt Smith, the youngest person to ever play The Doctor.  Smith’s arrival in the show produces some mixed reactions.  Smith’s first episode, written by recently promoted head writer Steven Moffat, has a fantastic story that is classic Doctor Who.  We’re also introduced to the Doctor’s new travelling companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan).  The story features some running, some aliens, a bit of intrigue and a nice resolution that brings The Doctor and Amy together.  Another feather in Moffat’s cap is that he has dropped some hints about story arcs that are going to develop this season.  How to impress Adam 101: Carry the plot from one episode to the next.  For those taking bets on the season’s culminating big bad wolf, I’ll put even money on Daleks or Cybermen, three to one on the Sontarans and ten to one on The Master.

Without a doubt, this season represents the best possible time for a newbie to jump aboard the bandwagon.  At the same time, the Eccleston/Tennant iterations of The Doctor explored the character’s inner demons.  Much of this turmoil, including the Doctor’s guilt/shame for surviving a war which saw multiple species, including his own, destroyed, seems to have evaporated with Tennant’s regeneration into Smith.  Smith seems to be a character absolutely unburdened by any of The Doctor’s past issues.  Hopefully Moffat has the sense to allow for some further exploration of The Doctor’s darker side.  Although BBC press releases describing Smith’s Doctor as “the nutty professor”, do not fill me with hope.

After watching Smith’s first episode as The Doctor, I can’t help but wonder if the BBC has stacked the deck against him. How can anybody expect a relative neophyte actor to live up to David Tennant’s acting legacy?  Smith will definitely need some time to develop The Doctor into his own character.  Right now, it seems like the rookie is doing a piss-poor David Tennant impression more than he is making the character his own.  I mean, changing Tennant’s catch phrase of “Allons-y”, something that developed organically, into “Geronimo” seemed like a bit of a ham handed gimmick.  Naturally, I’ll give Smith and Moffat some time rework the role.  Then again, what if Smith is just a transitional Doctor? Since David Tennant was much beloved as The Doctor, people will naturally grumble about whoever follows.  So why not pick somebody unremarkable for the short term so that when the next actor comes in to play The Doctor he won’t seem that bad by comparison.  I know, I’ll probably end up eating crow on this one, but time will tell.

I’ll wrap up on a fanboy note.  The layout of the TARDIS often changes with each Doctor.  Sometimes they are subtle changes, other times they are distinctive reinventions (often due to budget windfalls at the BBC).  Smith’s TARDIS seems like it was designed by a mental patient armed solely with crap he picked up from Sanford and Son’s junk yard.  Yes, I know it is a petty complaint; again, I’m an implacable nerd.  My sincere and honest hope is that the quirky and absurd nature of The Doctor’s time machine will not be wholly reflected in The Doctor’s personality.  Matt Smith has the potential to bring a unique energy to the character, but let’s not forget that after 900 years, The Doctor has some baggage.

In sum, not a bad first start to the new series.  Matt Smith is going to need to take the training wheels off the TARDIS if he wants to live up to the legacy that has been left to him.

Overall Score: 77%

Oh and I hate the new version of the Doctor Who theme.  Again, I’m a relentless nerd and thus prone to fanboy outrage.