Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Bit of a Who S5 Post-Mortem: How Moffat's Who Differs from RTD's

There's a spoiler below for the season finale, premiering tonight in the US, so if you're a US-based viewer, beware.

Is Star Wars SF or fantasy? Most people would say the former. I usually say it's high fantasy with spaceships, but really, in the minds of most people, that's a distinction without a difference.

So what about Doctor Who? Was it SF during RTD's tenure? Is it now Fantasy? Does it matter?

Yes, yes, and not sure.

"Not sure" because although a significant paradigm shift has clearly occurred under Moffat -- a shift we would never see in a US franchise at this point, as it represents considerable risk for the network -- after watching the whole season, I think the jury is still out on whether it was for the best.

RTD's Who was informed heavily by alien invasion and first contact tropes dating from 50s B-movies and 80s genre films. Flying saucers were overhead wreaking havoc all the time. Aliens possessed or masqueraded as people regularly, always with nefarious, conquest-related intent, and we invariably got those TV montages detailing the reactions of the global media. None of this stuff happened in secret. On the contrary, it was writ large. We were in Downing Street many times, in the UN, on the tarmac with the President of the United States debarking Air Force One, etc. That RTD was almost never concerned with exploring political ramifications is understandable (albeit consistently disappointing to me) when you consider that neither were many of the B-films from which he took inspiration. Political ramifications weren't typically the point.

And of course the Doctor and his companion visited a lot of alien planets and cultures during S1-4.

We can pretty comfortably call all of this SF rather than fantasy, even the farting grotesques in their "Edgar suits."

Moffat's season, by contrast, was about the crack in a little girl's bedroom wall and how it transformed her life. This is what Moffat means when he says he sees the show as "dark fairy tales" about "the things that live under your bed."

Is it still a show about a guy with a time traveling spaceship? Of course. Are there still alien baddies? Of course, but look at how the references have shifted. The show is no longer informed by Alien or Aliens, The Abyss, War of the Worlds, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, et al, but by Indiana Jones (i.e., River's scenes at the start of both the Angels and Pandorica two parters), The Time-Travelers Wife (again, River), and the stories of Alan Moore circa 2000 AD and Neil Gaiman (who, of course, will write one of next season's episodes).

And look at the shift in how the show presents its aliens and monsters -- from cities in flames and mustache-twirling heavies with paper-thin motivations (i.e., Davros) to the weightier morality plays and political allegories of this season, i.e., "Vampires in Venice," the Silurian episodes, and the (under-appreciated) Starwhale episode.

Were these episodes always successful? Not at all, but I do think they were more ambitious than many of the RTD episodes, and that these differences in approach are significant in terms of the paradigm shift affected by Moffat.

Note that I'm trying like crazy to avoid making a quality remark here. And failing. So fuck it. Here's some more: I often thought RTD's era could have been a little more challenging, the heavies a little more multi-faceted -- again, see Davros' hysterical monologuing about "The. Reality. BOMB!!!" -- but I also feel that Moffat could offer us more bang for our buck. His Doctor is such a wimp. And Amy hasn't turned out to be as interesting or three-dimensional a character as I thought she'd be. Furthermore, Karen Gillan seems to have a single line reading she deploys for all occasions, and it's pissing me off. As the season wore on, I started to feel like Moffat had thrown out too much of RTD's approach. Maybe I'm just impossible to please. Then again, maybe there are occasions when a little US-style network interference works in a show's favor. I do think there has to be a happy medium here, and I hope next season, which promises to reveal the off-camera heavy lurking around the margins of this season's arc, is more successful at striking it.

In any case, it seems clear that Doctor Who was but is no longer a show about alien invasion. (It doesn't seem like the people of Earth even remember all the alien invasions of the RTD era. Moffat is much more interested in presenting a 2010 that is recognizable and relatable to our own real 2010, as opposed to RTD's contemporary reality, where the Earth has been regularly invaded by Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, et al, for years and famous people are seen cracking wise about it on late night chat shows. They're so over it. Incidentally, now that Amy's family has been restored, I hope Moffat develops the town, and her family, into significant supporting players because I felt the absence of that anchor, one of the best features of all of RTD's seasons, this year.)

Equally clear is that Dctor Who is now but didn't used to be a show about time travel, by which I mean that, although there was obviously plenty of time travel during S1-4, it was presented in a fairly straight-forward, easy-to-follow way.

RTD was always reluctant to go down the temporal rabbit-hole.

Moffat's show, on the other hand, lives down there, and that's laudable. It's clear that what interests him is the idea that things "don't always happen to [the Doctor] in the right order." His season consistently challenged the conventions of linear storytelling in a way RTD's seasons--with the exception of Moffat's own episodes--never did, having effect precede cause with River, with the cracks and their attendant paradoxes, with messages sent back and forth across history, etc.

Personally, I file all this timey-wimey stuff under fantasy (and under "fascinating"), though obviously time travel doesn't have to be fantasy any more than space ships have to be SF. It depends on how these things are contextualized in the story.

I'd be interested to hear other opinions of the season...

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Iron Man 2

A fine sequel! Iron Man 2 may not raise the bar the way The Dark Knight did, but the strengths of the first film -- the superb actors and inspired casting, the snappy repartee, the overall tone and style -- are all here, and in greater helpings. And it's consistently funny, which is perhaps the main thing that sets it apart from its brethren. Iron Man 2 is superhero movie dressed up as a screwball comedy. It turns serious when it needs to, but thankfully without the melodramatic mustache twirling and catch phrases you expect from the genre. (The plot appropriately centers on proliferation of the iron man tech.) The set-pieces are all good but these were the least interesting parts of the movie, which is to its credit. The high-caliber cast of actors at the top of their game is what elevates Iron Man 2 to a whole other level. Same as last time in that regard.

Don Cheadle was great. (Terrence who?) I did feel like they could have dug a little deeper on the Stark/Rhodey friendship and falling out, but the acting more than makes up for it. I love that he declined to return the war machine suit in the end. Surely just coincidence that this provided Marvel Studios with a contingency if Downey Jr ended up saying "no" to The Avengers. The exchange at the end where Fury tells him they want Iron Man but not Stark serves the same purpose. He's saying they want him, not his b*llsh*t--which has been on spectacular display throughout the film--but phrased in a way that gives them wiggle room to substitute Cheadle in The Avengers, if need be. (Downey Jr did eventually sign up.)

Sam Rockwell -- Brilliant, as expected. Hammer is a perfectly executed high-powered corporate douchebag. I love how they transitioned him at the end from an adversary for Tony to an adversary for Pepper.

Mickey Rourke is fully transformed. A really impressive performance. Whiplash could have been an embarrassing choice. Instead, he's genuinely menacing. He never rants and is never campy, even with the bird, which plays as an oddly touching, humanizing element. Very well done.

Gwyneth Paltrow is wisely given more to do this time. The chemistry with Downey Jr is crackling, and the script smartly deals with her screwball promotion from Girl Friday to CEO by having Bill O'Reilly angrily questioning her qualifications on FOX News. Pepper takes it all in stride, because she's a superhero, too. She even gets in another memorable jab at the reporter Tony slept with in the first film.

The supporting cast is equally great. Scarlet Johansson is a welcome addition, more than holding her own with Downey Jr, Paltrow and Favreau, and she kicks ass impressively. She should get more to do next time. And if that next time is in Joss Whedon's Avengers, that would be spiffy.

The wonderful Clark Gregg is dryly amusing as Agent Colson. The gag with Captain America's shield is piss your pants funny. John Slattery, as Tony's father, was a nice touch, though I expected him to chain smoke. He'll reportedly reprise the part in Captain America, as Gregg will Colson in Thor. Favreau himself is more prominent as Happy Hogan, this time, and has several memorable scenes with Johansson. But it's Gary Shandling who steals the show with his constipated senator, forced to grin (through his teeth) for the cameras as he pins a medal on Tony a bit too enthusiastically. "Oops! A little prick is always so annoying, isn't it?" More of him next time, please!

Sam Jackson's Fury did strike me as a little too ... happy. I always think of Fury as an impatient, take-no-prisoners/brook-no-b*llsh*t type. But this is a nitpick, certainly, and the movie is so entertaining that it doesn't deserve to be nitpicked.

The movie gets a little bogged down towards the latter part of the second act as we wait for Tony to confide in someone, anyone that the suit is killing him and get over his daddy issues. But really, so what? This isn't a nitpick, but the film has earned so much good will by this point that it really doesn't detract from my enjoyment. The pace picks up again after daddy saves his life from beyond the grave and everything comes together for a highly satisfying final act.

All in all, I think I liked it a little bit better than the first one.

Late in the second act, Colson gets called away to New Mexico. In the after-credits tease, we find him standing at the edge of a crater in the desert reporting back to Nick Fury, "we found it." The "it" at the bottom of the crater is Thor's hammer. The geeks remaining in the theater squeed while their girlfriends (and boyfriends) rolled their eyes and continued tapping impatiently on their iphones.

Bring on the God of Thunder (written by my buddy Zack and his partner Ash, directed by Kenneth Branagh) next summer, and the one-two punch of Captain America and The Avengers, in May and July, 2012, respectively. Iron Man 3 in 2013?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doctor Who 5X04 "The Time of Angels" by Steven Moffat

“The Time of Angels’” opening sequence tells us we don’t know jack about River Song, the character introduced so memorably in last season’s Moffat-penned “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead” two-parter, and played by the wonderful Alex Kingston (ER, Moll Flanders). Yes, she’s an archaeologist/adventurer cut from the mold of Indiana Jones. And yes, she may well be the Doctor’s wife (in his future/her past), but this teaser reframes her as a classic femme fatale, to boot, right down to her 1940s-era costume, hair & make-up, a stylistic masterstroke.

We meet her very much as we usually meet Indy -- at the conclusion of a caper. It's the 51st century. River has broken into a vault on the Star Liner Byzantium, the crash of which she alluded to in her appearance last season. But the caper appears to have gone wrong. After burning some hieroglyphs into the cover of a metal box (for reasons unknown), she's retreating empty handed. She ends up cornered by the bad guy—Alastair—and his armed goons at an airlock door.

"Wait til she runs," he tells the goons. "Don't make it look like an execution."

So why is River Song smiling?

“Sorry, Alastair,” she says, oozing confidence and sex appeal. “I needed to see what was in your vault.” He wishes. He knows that hallucinogenic lipstick is her calling card. Perhaps he knows all too well.

But before he can take his revenge, she plays her hole card, ordering up an emergency extraction across 12 millennia of space and time! There’s clearly no question in her mind that the TARDIS will be waiting for her on the other side of that airlock. After all, she’s left The Doctor a message he’s sure to see, a message in Old High Gallifreyan, the lost language of his forebears. (Does she know this language in her professional capacity or is she, herself, an Old High Gallifreyan? Sure, she died in her last appearance... no regeneration... but she specifically told the Doctor that his plan, which she ended up implementing herself, would "kill you dead, and don't think you'll regenerate." If she was a Gallifreyan, the same would go for her.)

In a museum circa AD17,100, the Doctor and Amy Pond contemplate the Gallifreyan hieroglyphs on the same box. “There were days," he begins, solemnly. "There were many days these words could burn stars, and raise up empires, and topple gods.”

“What does this say?” asks Amy.

It says, “hello, sweetie.” :)

Cut to surveillance video from the 51st Century. River looks dead at the camera and winks at us – at him. How could he not love her? She’s wooing him across time and space.

“Do you even know what's in your hold?" River asks Alastair. "Because I'll tell you something: this ship won't reach its destination." She looks at her watch. "Like I said on the dance floor, you might want to find something to hang onto.” Music swells as River blows Alastair a kiss, trips the airlock, and hurtles through space right into The Doctor’s waiting arms. “Follow that ship!” she orders.

Cue title sequence, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: has this show ever been better?

The answer is: hell fucking no.

And if there’s any doubt on that score, the immensely entertaining chase sequence that follows should settle it, as River schools The Doctor on how to properly drive and park the TARDIS with her high heels dangling from the console monitor. Surely, this is the sci-fi equivalent of leaving her pantyhose to dry on his shower rack.

Safe to say, the Doctor is not amused. “Come along, Pond,” he harrumphs. “Let’s have a look.” But as soon as River steps out of the TARDIS, he bars the door, intent on fleeing.

“Why?” demands Amy.

“Because she’s the future, my future.”

“Can you run away from that?” asks Amy, sensibly, and without a trace of irony.

“I can run away from anything I like. Time is not the boss of me.” But intimacy issues are, it seems. Luckily, "Pond" isn’t about to let him do a runner, despite the fact that she's in the middle of one of her own. She knows how to push his buttons, too, albeit in a way that puffs him up. “You promised me a planet," implores the protege. "Five minutes.”

“Five minutes. That’s all. Because I’m telling you now, that woman is not dragging me into anything!”


The scene outside is catastrophic. The Byzantium has crashed into a long-abandoned alien temple.

River wastes no time dropping the other shoe: “There’s a thing in the belly of that ship that can’t ever die.” She looks at Amy, smug, knowing she’s got him. “Now, he’s listening.”

And so they compare diaries--"Have we done The Bone Meadows?"--and we meet River’s team, a band of 51st century Christian Soldiers led by Father Octavian, Bishop 2nd class. Amy: “You’re letting people call you ‘sir.’ You never do that.” For the first time, she’s seeing the side of The Doctor that worked for UNIT. The professor becomes the officer.

“A weeping angel, Amy, is the deadliest, most malevolent, most powerful lifeform evolution has ever produced. And right now one of them is trapped inside that wreckage. And I’m supposed to climb in after it with a screwdriver and a torch, and assuming I survive the radiation long enough and assuming the whole ship doesn’t explode in my face, do something incredibly clever which I haven’t actually thought of yet. That’s my day. That’s what I’m up to. Any questions?”

Well, one. “Is River Song your wife?’ Amy Pond keeps her eye on the ball. She continues to be The One Who Asks Smart Questions.

Incidentally, Christian Soldiers to fight (Weeping) Angels… Very good. And of course, these warrior-priests are not quite trust-worthy. Neither is Doctor Song.

Octavian: “He doesn’t know yet, does he, who & what you are.”

“It’s too early in his time stream,” River admits.

“Well, make sure he doesn’t work it out or he’s not gonna help us.”

“I won’t let you down. Believe you me, I have no intention of going back to prison.”

River's connection to the Doctor has been made more complicated, more enigmatic—and potentially more sinister—than it seemed last season. But that was Professor Song at the end of her life, her relationship with The Doctor fully matured. This is Doctor Song, who is far more Temple of Doom than Last Crusade.

Is Doctor Song genuinely in love with him yet, or is she just waiting to plant a big, wet hallucinogenic lipstick kiss on him?

Or is it--deliciously--a bit of both?

“You’re so his wife,” Amy concludes.

“Amy, Amy, Amy. This is The Doctor we’re talking about. Do you really think it could be something that simple?” Amy thinks it can, yes, and ultimately she’s right – we watched River sacrifice her life so The Doctor could live rather than let him do the same for her – but at this moment? Their relationship is anything but simple, as befits the early days of a time-crossed romance.

By the way, what did she really inject Amy with? And how creepy was all that stone dust coming out of Amy's eye?

I haven't said much about the plot, because -- fantastically -- the characters and relationships are by far the most compelling thing here. (It was rare to be able to say that during RTD's tenure.) But the plot itself is well-executed and suspenseful. The Angels remain genuinely creepy and very effective, perhaps even moreso here than in "Blink." The kids must have been watching from behind the couch.

For sure, the Angels are the best recurring baddies the show has by miles. They make the Daleks look like The Wombles. (Though maybe the Daleks do that all by themselves.)

So, basically, another homerun. That’s two so far, and a stand-up triple with the very cool, 2000AD-esque "Beast Below." I didn’t care for the Dalek ep, but that’s not unusual for me. Still, three out of four so far is nothin' to sneeze at, and a better gold-to-crap ratio than I ever expected during the first four seasons.

Next week: Part 2. Can't wait!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Doctor Who 5X01: "The Eleventh Hour" by Steven Moffat

I loved it. If this is what new head writer Steven Moffat has in store (and I trust that it is, since he wrote by far the best episodes of the first four series, including arguably the best Who episode ever, "Blink"), then bring on the Moffat Era!

Matt Smith is a winner, taking ownership over the role more or less instantly. Smith's Doctor is not a sea-change from Tennant's -- both are lonely, skinny, manic, floppy haired genius adventurers who have vowed to protect the earth and its people come what may, and in nerd-chic costumes, no less.

Clearly, for this modern era, that's the Beeb's conception of the character, no matter who plays him, and I think that's reasonable. (I mean, what's really changeable there, given the realities of the business?)

But within those parameters, Smith's Doctor is distinctive from Tennant's (and Eccleston's) in a number of interesting ways. Tennant's Doctor (as River Song noted in Moffat's "Silence in the Library") was always so young at heart -- as distinct from world-weary Eccleston -- but Smith is simultaneously Peter Pan and stodgy old Oxford professor, a contradiction that Smith nails seemingly effortlessly and with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It's an outstanding performance.

Which is not to detract from Karen Gillan, who is by far the best female lead they've had in the modern era. She's got the pluck and snark of Sally Sparrow (Moffat's brilliant "Blink") and a deep, timey-wimey relationship with the Doctor reminiscent of Madame du Pompadour (Moffat's "Girl in the Fireplace"). The chemistry between the two is crackling -- I can't imagine either of these roles better cast. Smith pushes -- and Gillan pushes back. Their sharp, screwball banter is pure gold.

Of course, snappy dialogue is one of Moffat's strengths, and the episode is filled with it. Smith's weary, "Get a girlfriend, Jeff" was laugh-out-loud funny -- the best line in the episode -- but there was also, "your friend. Not him [i.e., Rory]. The good looking one."

Jeff's Gran: "I like Patrick Moore." Doctor: "I'll get you his number, but watch out -- He's a devil."

"You're Scotish -- Fry something." And upon eating the bacon: "Are you trying to poison me?"

"Turn around and look." Amy: "Why?" "Because it will change your life."

"I'm not afraid." "No, you're not afraid of anything, so you know what I think? That must be one hell of a scary crack in your wall." Delicious and creepy, perfectly capturing the dark fairy tale vibe Moffat is going for.

The new supporting cast -- Rory, Jeff, Jeff's gran, and the town as a whole -- was well-sketched. (Jeff's Gran in particular got in a number of great lines in her couple of scenes.) Rory (Amy's boyfriend -- presumably fiance by the end of the episode) is very reminiscent of "Blink's" Larry Nightingale, an affable (and probably nerdly) slob.

Anchoring the show to a country village seems like a particularly good idea after the RTD era's sharp focus on London.

Orphan Amy appears to have been adopted not just by her unseen Aunt, but by the endearingly quirky townspeople, all of whom know about her lifelong obsession with this "imaginary" Doctor character.

It feels like the village is a shade of GIlmore Girls' Star's Hollow. (Ironic, if that's the case, that Amy's boyfriend is called Rory...)

And of course, the new TARDIS set is magnificent.

The ending, with the two of them taking off for adventure, was a genuine thrill, as was the (unsurprising but still effective) revelation that tomorrow is Amy's wedding day.

A few things felt a bit off... It was a bit catch-phrase-y for my taste, but hopefully that will fall by the wayside once the new show establishes its ratings dominance (which it's well on the way to doing with 8.45M viewers and a 37% share).

The introduction of the season's arc element (re: the cracks in the skin of the universe, silence falling, "the Pandorica" opening) was the one thing in the episode that felt a bit perfunctory.

And though I liked the music in the episode, the one thing I honestly did not care for was the new opening, especially the new version of the theme.

Still, those are nitpicks. All in all: homerun.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Trailer Is Here

And it rocks.
star trek trailer from SPOCKBOY on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yet More Trek Porn

Check out the saucer section, visible in the bottom half of the viewscreen. *Suh-weeeet*

More here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The First Lost Season 5 Promo