David Tennant Archive

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On Kilgrave and the Monster Inside All of Us

I’m currently seven episodes into Marvel’s Jessica Jones. At this point, I think Jessica Jones stands alone within the MCU as being something that is both profoundly meta and effortlessly didactic. Rather than getting into all of that, I want to talk about Kilgrave. More specifically, I want to talk about Kilgrave’s powers.

At first blush, Kilgrave’s power to compel anyone to do anything seems almost subdued. Within the pages of the Marvel universe and the MCU, there are beings blessed/cursed with much more grandiose abilities. Likewise, mind control is far from an original ability. Professor Xavier, for one, could reduce anyone on the planet to a meat puppet. Of course, Charles Xavier would never use his mutant gifts on something as crass as cheating at poker. Xavier is a paragon beyond the reach of mere mortals.

In contrast, I’ve seen Kilgrave use his powers to make money, skip the bill at restaurants, kill people, torture people, rape people and general shape the world around him. The thing that makes him, in my estimation, a stand-out villain within the MCU, a place where so many antagonists are little more than the opposite of the person headlining the movie/series, is the fact that Kilgrave’s powers would probably turn anyone into Kilgrave.

Think about yourself for a moment, dear reader. Are you a good person? Do you generally adhere to some sort of moral or personal code in your daily life? Now consider where that code comes from. Do your behaviors stem from a moral core that provides an immutable right way to live your life? Alternatively, are you good because you recognize, on either a conscious or unconscious level, that civil society depends on a social contract where individual needs are subordinate to a collective good?

In other words, what percentage of your interaction with society is governed by your fear of punishment? Now suppose something (e.g. Kilgrave powers) stripped away your obligation to said social contract. What if you were free to revert to a state of nature, a place of absolute freedom, while everyone else was still bound to a social contract? Would such freedom change you?

For all the good we think we have inside of us, Kilgrave’s ability to compel anyone to do anything, filtered through a personal lens, forces us to consider where our good natures come from. How could any person (other than Batman) resist using his powers? How many compromises could a person make to their self-identified good nature while using his abilities? When would a person cross the Rubicon between man and monster? When would the monster begin seeing themselves as a god?

Would you, gentle reader, Kilgrave a misogynist into a feminist? Given the chance, would you tell Donald Trump to go home and retire from public and private life? Would you use the power to talk yourself into a dream job? I’d probably do all three. And even after running headlong into Jessica Jones’ central ethos – that any act of coercion is a violation – I could probably come up with some way to rationalize my actions. And with each rationalization, I, a generally good person, take another step to becoming Kilgrave.

Kilgrave can then be seen as a meaningful example of what might happen to a normal person if they were given god-like powers. Arguably, none of the Avengers meet my definition of being normal. The unique circumstances that make them who they are (e.g. war hero, billionaire, royalty) prepare them for the responsibility that comes with being empowered beyond mere mortals. Also, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdoch may have powers, but they are hardly the equals of the Avengers in raw ability, and their early childhood is likewise a product of a heroic archetype. When I say normal, I mean someone born outside of the confines of Mr. Campbell’s monomyth.

Kilgrave powers speak to the common person because they can be applied in such utterly banal ways. Jessica Jones hints at this in the way Kilgrave uses his abilities to always get what he wants to eat. Imagine what would become of a person if they won every argument about where to go for supper, what to say on the office Christmas card, and who should take out the garbage? If a person never had to compromise, how long would it take before things like compassion and empathy atrophied? How long could a person be eternally right before the people who would dare to contradict them became tiresome pests? In such a mental place, tolerance and understanding become acts of largess rather than fundamental patterns of behavior.

On the opposite side of the coin, how long could a person use their Kilgrave powers before they created an existential void for themselves? Think here of Homer Simpson when he became the Chosen One. Would absolute power over others lead to isolation and alienation? While there’s a chance this distance from other people might make a person with Kilgrave powers cling to their humanity, it might also encourage them to use their abilities in the pursuit of new ways to fill the void.

Notwithstanding the old Wargames maxim that the only way to win is not to play, I don’t see how a person could use Kilgrave’s powers without progressively surrendering the behavioral constructions that make coexisting with other people possible. Courtesy, manners, and etiquette go out the window when a person can act like the most boorish of French monarchs absent any real consequence.

As superhero antagonists go, Kilgrave is something far removed from the likes of Doctor Doom, Whiplash, Loki, or Ronan the Accuser. Unlike most of the MCU’s rogues’ gallery, Kilgrave is not a foil for the protagonist. Rather, he is a foil for the audience. He exists to remind us of what we would become if we woke up with his powers. He is why we can never be Batman. It doesn’t matter who Kilgrave was before his powers, because we, as humans, are not uncompromising enough to wield them without becoming monsters. Only the truly saintly among us can look in the mirror and not see a Kilgrave waiting for his day in the sun.


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TV Review: The Day of the Doctor

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary has come and gone. In its wake, Steven Moffat has left the series with the biggest game changer it has seen since its return to air in 2005. Though I am loathed to open up a discussion on if it’s the best episode ever, I will say that it’s easy to make a case for Day of the Doctor as Moffat’s best episode. While there are a number of things this story does well to get there, there is one thing that enables everything else: Moffat comes to terms with Russell T. Davies’ contribution to the series.

Moffat’s stewardship over Doctor Who, especially during his first year as show runner, reflects a pattern of putting RTD’s influences in a box and, like an Argosian king, tossing that box into the sea. At one point, Matt Smith’s Doctor wrote off the entirety of Time War as a bad day. It seemed like only Neil Gaiman’s The Doctors Wife celebrated Doctor Who as science fiction and not a “dark fairy tale,” where paradoxes, unexplained plot holes, and hand waving are the word of the day. Sufficed to say, The Day of the Doctor opening on the final day of the Time War and the wholesale destruction wrought upon Gallifrey during the Dalek siege constituted a significant change in tone. It wasn’t only a narrative shift, but an aural return to the dread inducing quality of Murray Gold’s RTD era Who soundtrack, particularly The Dark and Endless Dalek Night. In a single act the episode embraces the long arc of the Doctor that Moffat largely ignored since David Tennant’s departure from the series. Does it work? Hell yes. Was it missing Christopher Eccleston? Without a doubt.

The episode frames the triad of Doctors as War Doctor (John Hurt), the Doctor who regrets (David Tennant), and the Doctor who forgets (Matt Smith). Make no mistake, the approach works well. Yet, Eccleston’s refusal to come back to the series for Day of the Doctor precludes doing anything substantial with what I’m calling, the Doctor who hurts. Granted, Moffat and company can hardly be blamed for this reality. Still it is hard not imagine how the mixture of wry exasperation and exhaustion seen in John Hurt’s Doctor could have mixed with the open wounds of Eccleston’s Doctor. Just imagine War Doctor viewing his future self as the last Timelord meeting the last Dalek in all creation. Counting the children on Gallifrey certainly defined the stakes of using the Moment, but even a flashback to the scene of Eccleston and the last Dalek would have made the decision all the more personal for  Hurt – possibly giving him a bit more agency in the decision not to use the Moment rather than having Smith suddenly decide to change the past.

Except Smith didn’t change the past, and that’s probably why this episode works as well as it does. While I’ll gladly write off most of what Moffat does with Doctor Who’s mythos as uninspired and boring, the man knows how to have fun with asynchronous story telling. Make no mistake, a genuine sense of fun, rather than the forced fun of something like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, is what separates this episode from some of Moffat’s other works.In fact, The Day of the Doctor’s best time travel moment is a sonic screwdriver gag that almost feels like it would have been at home in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

This brings us to Smith, Tennant, and Hurt coming full circle on the Doctor’s decision, or lack thereof, to use the Moment. The revision is clever in so much that it isn’t a revision. Rather, the peaceful solution to the Time War is a variation of what Moffat did with The Name of the Doctor. Therein, the audience assumed a literal meaning to the episode’s title, and Moffat had fun with alternate meanings to words. The results were divisive to say the least. This time, he came at the audience’s presumptions about established canon and offered a little timey-wimey sleight of hand. Despite the fact that I hate narrative gimmicks, I’m not going to complain about this one. Simply because Gallifrey hidden away rather than destroyed is exactly what the series needs.

The last three seasons of Doctor Who were, at least in my view, a failed experiment in long-form story telling. We knew there was something big and bad out there, but didn’t get a great sense of who it was, what it wanted, or how the Doctor was involved in any consistent way. How can the hero have a journey if the audience is unclear on the quest? I don’t think he can. Which is why Doctor Who staggered from one episode to the next with all the consistency and focus of Robin Williams’ stand up routine before he got on the wagon.

Ending The Day of the Doctor with Smith’s monologue about going home gives the Doctor a Silver Surfer like quality. Rather than being a god-like figure who needs clever earth girls to direct him on a quest to nowhere – and serve as a moral compass – the Doctor now posesses an internal purpose, four lifetimes in the making, independent of whoever is in the TARDIS. More importantly, it grounds Moffat into a certain trajectory with his long-form story telling. I expect Moffat will approach the Doctor finding Gallifrey with his usual bag tricks, but there’s no escaping the gauntlet he’s thrown at his own feet in terms of an objective.

For all these positive points, it’s equally hard to overlook the fact that The Day of the Doctor did a shoddy job in wrapping up the obvious subplot about a Zygon invasion of Earth. The episode cuts away from double blind negotiations between U.N.I.T. and the Zygon commander, leaving the audience to assume that everything gets worked out for the best. Or perhaps the negotiations break down into a Torchwood-esque blood bath, and as per Gwen Cooper’s Children of Earth sentiments the Doctor couldn’t stand to look at humanity. Either way, I’m calling that one a party foul.

Yes, I just invoked Torchwood, and I don’t apologize for it.

That aside, there’s really not a lot to complain about within this episode, even for an implacable nerd like myself. It brought together the best of RTD’s dark and grown-up Doctor Who with Moffat’s ability to have fun and do clever things with time travel. The temporal paradoxes were kept to a minimum, save for the fact that I don’t see how all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor – and Peter Capaldi – could have arrived at the Time War. I suppose the Moment had something to do with that. Tom Baker showing up in the penultimate scene nicely bridged classic and nu-Who to the extent that I suspect that Elisabeth Sladen – were she alive – and not Billie Piper, would have been tapped as the Moment’s interface. It would have offered a nice symmetry as Four and Sarah Jane were on scene for the start of the Time War – I think – in Genesis of the Daleks and now we see him once more at its true end.

All in all, The Day of the Doctor is an episode befitting the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

Stray thoughts

- Conceivably the Doctor used the Moment to time lock the events of the war without burning the universe. Does that mean all the worlds in the Time War, like Skaro, are hidden as well?

- Considering the above, could the Master and Rasillon are still alive on Gallifrey?