Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Doctor Who, "Mummy on the Orient Express"

(I was out of town for over a week, missing both “Mummy” and “Flatline,” which is why this is later than usual. I wrote it not having seen “Flatline.”)

It’s “one last trip” for Clara in the TARDIS, and the Doctor takes her to the Orient Express - in space. Unsurprisingly, the trip turns deadly when, one by one, the passengers and crew die at the hand of a mummy only the condemned can see, exactly 66 seconds before his or her death. With Clara trapped in a storeroom, the Doctor tries to rally other passengers to determine what the mummy is and how to defeat it, using each victim as an opportunity to learn more.

The episode provided the chance for the cast to appear in 1920s period costume. Clara is cute in a flapper dress. The Doctor takes a cigarette case out of his coat pocket, opens the case, and slides it to a gentleman… only to reveal Jelly Babies strapped in the case. Very cute. Sure, we’ve seen the “historical model of transportation in space” bit before, with the Titanic in “Voyage of the Damned,” and we’ve seen 1920s costume in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and we’ve seen murderous mummies before in “Pyramids of Mars,” but combining these elements with the cranky Twelfth Doctor was a delight. The revelation that the mummy is actually a soldier with defective gear from a long-ended war fits in with the season-long arc of the Doctor’s dislike for soldiers (including Danny Pink).

We also see Clara’s character continue to develop, and in a surprising way. During the episode, the Doctor asks that she lie to Masie, a passenger, to induce her to come to the Doctor’s makeshift lab. While Clara appears very uncomfortable doing so, by the end of the episode she has become far more comfortable lying. After she talks with Danny - who asks her if she’s had her last trip and has left the Doctor for good - she first lies to Danny, saying she has, and then lies to the Doctor, saying that Danny is fine with her continuing to travel in the TARDIS. One suspects those lies will boomerang back to Clara later in the season.

The Doctor also changes a bit, explaining to Clara at the end that he didn’t know if he could save Masie and was unwilling to give her false hope. While we see his practical side - the Doctor would dispassionately use as many deaths as necessary to understand and stop the mummy - we also get a hint that he still cares about saving lives.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Doctor Who, "Kill the Moon"

In this week’s episode, still on Earth, Clara is chiding the Doctor for not telling 15-year-old Courtney - “Disruptive Influence,” who created her own “spillage” in the TARDIS last week - that she’s “special.” Exasperated, the Doctor abruptly takes Clara and Courtney to the moon, circa 2049. The three discover that the moon has much higher gravity than it should, and that three astronauts in a U.S. Space Shuttle have arrived with 100 nuclear bombs to destroy the moon before the higher gravity wreaks havoc on Earth.

After two of the astronauts are killed by spider-like creatures that the Doctor determines are very large bacteria (in a hilarious scene, Courtney uses anti-bacterial spray on one, stopping it in its tracks), and the Doctor uncovers amniotic fluid in a crevasse, he concludes that the moon is actually incubating a huge creature that is about to hatch. If the moon fractures when the creature hatches chunks of the moon could fall on Earth with devastating consequences. If they detonate the bombs, they will kill the creature, which may be the only one of its kind. As the surviving American astronaut and Clara debate what they should do, and ask the Doctor his plan, the Doctor tells them that it’s their planet and their decision to make, then leaves in the TARDIS.

At the last moment, Clara stops the detonation sequence, allowing the creature to hatch. The Doctor returns, takes all three to Earth, where they watch the creature fly off and the shell harmlessly disintegrate into the atmosphere. Later, in the TARDIS, Clara is furious with the Doctor for abandoning them and allowing them to come so close to making the wrong decision. She tells him not to return and storms out, later comforted by Danny.

Where to start in thinking about this one? The science is more of a mess than usual, so one has to simply go with the narrative flow and not consider the details too much. (For example, how much extra mass would be necessary to create an Earth-like gravity on the moon? Wouldn’t someone have noticed this well before 2049? Don’t bacteria need an atmosphere to survive?) I was more bothered by the Doctor once again taking a child into the TARDIS and into danger. Didn’t the Eleventh Doctor learn (in “Nightmare in Silver”) that no good ever comes of this? And as amusing as Courtney has been in small doses, she can’t carry an episode, and merely comes across like an immature brat, unwilling to stay and help, sulking in the TARDIS, and unable to keep from touching things.

When deciding what to do about the creature, Clara finds a way to poll humanity, which firmly wants the crew to detonate the nuclear bombs and save Earth. Instead, Clara, having asked the question in the first place, ignores their desires and stops the detonation. On instinct? Surely she knows better than any human other than the Doctor’s former companions how dangerous the universe can be. But, of course, in the context of the story her decision is the “right” one.

The Doctor surely knew about much of what would transpire - otherwise, his choice of this moment in 2049 to take Courtney is too much of a coincidence. We can infer that his purposes were twofold: first, to not merely tell Courtney that she’s special but to allow her to do something special; and, second, to give to Clara control over the outcome, trusting that Clara would do the right thing and, in so doing, help propel humanity to the stars.

Did this work? In the context of the episode, the first one did - Courtney seems happier with herself - while the second one didn’t - Clara is very angry with the Doctor. But this is backward: Courtney didn’t actually do anything special, she was merely an observer to an historic moment. (And no one will believe her if she tells them.) Conversely, Clara actually did make the decision with the Doctor nowhere around. For better or worse, she chose the outcome. Yet she complained to the Doctor that he was patronizing her. I don’t see that.

In sum, this was a difficult episode, and not an entirely successful one, although I liked the themes contained in it. I look forward to reading/hearing some of the other commentary on the episode. (I try to write these based only on my reactions to the episode.) One point that keeps coming back to me over the course of this season is that this is a very adult season of Doctor Who, in part because the Twelfth Doctor isn’t an easy person to like, in part because Clara has some difficult parts of her personality, but in large part because of the issues and interpersonal conflicts that keep arising. Doctor Who for adults might not always be easy viewing, but it’s proving to be very interesting viewing.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Outlasted Another Neighbor

My latest neighbor appears to have departed. People come and go in Second Life; that’s nothing new. But I continue to wonder about what drives some folk to invest time (over three months), energy (finding and siting at least two houses), and money (rent on a not-insubstantial parcel), only to abandon it.

Mayfair 10 2 2014 001
Yup, an empty parcel

At this point, though, I’m not surprised. Then again, there are days when I wonder why I hang on to my place.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Doctor Who, "The Caretaker"

Series 8 is turning out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the new series of Doctor Who, and “The Caretaker” earned its place in this season’s episodes. I didn’t care for the episode particularly, but only because its predecessors are that good; in contrast, “The Caretaker” seems a little more ordinary, with at least one plot element that doesn’t ring true; I’ll get to that in a bit.

The opening montage is brilliant: Clara and the Doctor are seen in several adventures, and after each she returns to a date with Danny Pink. But Danny isn’t blind to Clara’s condition after each of these adventures: after one she is sunburned, while after another she’s wet and smelling of fish. This sets up the premise of the episode well. Clara’s life with the Doctor can no longer be kept separate from her relationship with Danny.

The Doctor appears at Coal Hill School as the caretaker - a maintenance man - much to Clara’s chagrin. He needs to pass as human for a few days in order to catch a monster. (Shades of “The Lodger”!) The monster in this episode, a battle machine from another time and place that the Doctor must remove before it destroys Earth, is incidental to the plot, merely a MacGuffin here.

When the Doctor finally meets Danny, who is introduced as someone mechanically competent because he is an ex-soldier, the Doctor’s prejudice against the military rears itself, and he immediately takes a dislike to Danny. The Doctor can’t believe that Danny is a math teacher, insisting that he must each Physical Education. Instead, the Doctor believes that the History teacher, who bears a passing resemblance to the Eleventh Doctor (complete with bow tie!), is Clara’s boyfriend, despite obvious clues (including graffiti that reads “Ozzie loves the squaddie”).

When the inevitable happens, and Danny disrupts the Doctor’s efforts to send the monster through time, he realizes that Clara and the Doctor know one another and that Clara has been lying to him about their relationship. In a comical moment, Danny assumes that Clara is an alien, sputtering “I thought you said you were from Blackpool!"

The Doctor’s dislike of soldiers comes to the fore in this episode. He tells Clara, “You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me.” But Danny turns it around on him, accusing him off being an “officer,” and goads the Doctor until he orders Danny to leave the TARDIS, barking the command just like an officer. Inevitably, we also see that sometimes a soldier is necessary to save the day, and the Doctor grudgingly accepts Clara’s relationship with Danny.

The episode is filled with clever lines and wonderful moments with Capaldi’s alien Doctor. (At one point he asks a girl if her name really is “disruptive influence.”) Clara is comically caught between her men, trying to maintain her Earth-bound relationship with Danny while trying to help the Doctor and keep her relationship with the Doctor a secret from Danny, and failing with both men. However, the thing that never clicked for me was the Clara/Danny relationship. Several episodes ago, when the two were meeting awkwardly for the first time, or having their disastrous first date, it was easy to believe that the two were starting out as a couple, getting to know one another. In “The Caretaker,” we’re supposed to believe that the two are well into their relationship, time having passed on Earth since they first met, yet the couple still seems very much at the beginning of a relationship. When Clara blurts out “Because I love him” to the Doctor in front of Danny, it seems forced.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beyond the Rim

An update from my mid-May post in which I confessed to starting to watch Babylon 5. I made it through: five seasons and 111 episodes of Babylon 5, from the pilot/prequel “The Gathering” to “Sleeping in Light." I enjoyed the series immensely. The overall story arc(s) of the Shadow war, the Narn-Centauri war, and the tensions between Earth’s fascist regime and Babylon 5 (and the alien races) were all interesting. Contained within those longer plots were smaller story lines and a great deal of character development. To paraphrase The Incomparable podcast devoted to the series, in Babylon 5 actions have consequences for the characters as well as the story, and actions often lead to characters reassessing their views. Consistent with that, no major character is purely good or evil; shades of gray abound. Even the “big bad,” the Shadows, turn out to be something less than the embodiment of evil that we initially think they are, and the “angels,” the Vorlons, have their own agenda and, indeed, don’t speak with one voice.

As I had been warned, Season 5 itself was a bit of a mixed bag. When the series was threatened with cancellation after Season 4, creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski wrapped up the conflict with Earth at the end of Season 4, leading to the lack of a big story arc in Season 5 when the show was ultimately picked up. As a result, Season 5 has some minor story lines (the conflict with the telepaths, issues with the Centauri, attempts to hold the Alliance together) and a lot of filler, including, it seemed to me, the last three episodes.

That problem aside, I thought the series worked much better than any of the Star Trek series, all of which had a fairly static universe through which the main characters traveled, but no actions were ever truly consequential – partly the result of self-contained episodes written by a host of writers, rather than the series-long story arc of B5, written primarily by Strazinski.

As a completist, I bought the movies and the short-lived spin-off series Crusade. While I don’t have high expectations for either, I’ll give them a shot.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Doctor Who, "Time Heist"

After the creepy “Listen,” one might expect lighter fare for this week’s episode, and a title like “Time Heist” doesn’t do anything to dissuade one from that view. A sendup of bank robbery caper films such as The Lavender Hill Mob and Ocean’s Eleven (and the music seemed to have a hint of Mission: Impossible at one point), the Doctor and Clara find themselves inside the most impregnable bank in the universe - think of it as an interstellar Gringott’s - with two strangers. They’re all on a mission for “the Architect,” the mysterious mastermind of the operation. Yet all four have had portions of their memories wiped (by the memory worms we saw in “The Snowmen”) so they can’t remember how they got there, or why they would agree to participate in the mad scheme.

We get just a hint of the Clara/Danny relationship - the Doctor once again lands the TARDIS in Clara’s bedroom, and she’s about to go for dinner with Danny (she’s really wearing that on a date?), but for the most part the episode was firmly focused on the adventure.

I guessed the identity of the Architect fairly early, the monster had an unfortunate resemblance to the Minotaur from “The Horns of Nimon,” and the ending had more than a passing similarity to that of “Hide.” Quibbles aside, though, the episode was quite a romp, with a plot that twists time around until my head hurts (I think the plot created a paradox). I quite liked the fact that the two fellow robbers were bribed to be there with the thing that “mattered most” to each, and Capaldi was once again masterful.

This season is shaping up to be one of the best. Let’s hope that continues next week.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Doctor Who, "Listen"

(Hard to do this one without spoilers, so warning, massive spoilers below.)

The fourth episode of the season, “Listen,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat , is an unusual affair, very creepy, partly slapstick, and assuredly timey-wimey. I’m not yet sure what I think about it. At times, the episode seemed a little disjointed – perhaps intentionally so? At other times, we get more of the Clara-Danny Pink relationship and even some insight into the Doctor’s character, in addition to a plot that feeds off the childhood fear of something under the bed.

The episode starts with the Doctor musing to himself: what if there’s something so good at hiding that it only manifests itself when it wants to, something that is always with you, and that it’s the prickling you feel at the back of your neck, or the sensation that there’s something under the bed, ready to grab you by the ankle when you set your feet on the floor? We then cut to Clara and Danny, out on a date that quickly becomes disastrous. Clara storms out and returns home, only to find her way into her bedroom partially blocked by the TARDIS. The Doctor plugs Clara into the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits to move along Clara’s time line, but Clara is still thinking about her date and they arrive in Danny’s past, where young Mr. Pink encounters something underneath the blankets. From there, the Doctor returns Clara to the restaurant, where she tries to salvage the date, but once again things go wrong, culminating in the entrance of a man in a space suit. He turns out to be Danny’s great-grandson, an errant time traveler stranded at the end of the universe until the TARDIS rescues him. As if that weren’t enough, Clara’s next effort to use the telepathic circuits leads to a barn, presumably on Gallifrey, where Clara comforts a frightened boy – the Doctor as a child? – telling him that his fear isn’t a weakness but a strength.

There was a great deal to like about the episode, from the apparently star-crossed relationship between Clara and Danny – his inadvertent double entendres (“We can move straight to extras”) were particularly funny – to the realization that the barn with the young Doctor is the same barn that the War Doctor used for the Moment, to Clara telling the young Doctor that “fear is a superpower,” which the Doctor then echoes to young Danny. The episode had a number of straight-out funny moments, including the Doctor’s “bedtime story” to young Danny: “Once upon a time…goodnight,” as the Doctor touches Danny on the forehead, causing him to fall asleep instantly. The Doctor explains to Clara that the TARDIS is in the bedroom “In case you came home with your date,” as though the bedroom wouldn’t be in use in such a situation. And I loved the use of the toy soldier: in young Danny’s room, Clara uses toy soldiers to “protect” Danny from any monsters under the bed. When Danny observes that the one Clara designates as the leader is broken, and carries no gun, Clara replies that he’s obviously the leader, as he’s “so brave he doesn’t need a gun,” while later in the episode Clara gives the same toy soldier to the young Doctor.

I’m not a huge fan of the continual insults the Doctor heaps on Clara. (“You’ve taken your makeup off.” “No I haven’t.” “You must have missed a spot.”) I know this Doctor is more alien, less in touch with the social niceties that humans observe, but after a while it just sounds cruel.

My biggest problem with the episode is that there’s no real payoff to the main plot. The monsters under the bed aren’t real and, in fact, the dream that everyone has about monsters under the bed may just have been the result of the Doctor’s experience as a child.

Every piece I’ve read or podcast I’ve listened to about this season has commented on what an outstanding job Peter Capaldi has done in his role, and how, given a meatier role, Jenna Coleman has had a chance to shine, and I agree. Capaldi’s Doctor is curmudgeonly and funny, often simultaneously, and his conflicted nature – “Am I a good man?” – brings a welcome bit of soul-searching to the part. He has a much healthier contempt for humans (to wit: this episode’s line about “puny brains”) than his predecessor.  I thought Coleman, freed from the need to be the Impossible Girl and the endless banter with Eleven, has been outstanding this season.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Doctor Who, "Robot of Sherwood"

(Huh. Looks like I wrote this and forgot to post it. Oops.)

A dazzling but very meta episode, “Robot of Sherwood” turns the usual Doctor Who historical inside-out and meditates on what it means to be a hero.

The Doctor asks Clara where she wants to go, and Clara decides she wants to meet Robin Hood. Although the Doctor is adamant that Robin is a fictional character, he sets the TARDIS for Nottingham in 1190, whereupon they meet… Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. Eventually the group meets the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, whose henchmen turn out to be… well, the title says it, doesn’t it? Robin, Clara, and the Doctor are taken to a dungeon, whereupon the two men engage in a hilarious game of one-upmanship until Clara shushes them both. Naturally, there are escapes, evil plans, aliens, and derring-do, along with a casual insertion of this season’s story arc, the Promised Land.

The Doctor “deduces” that Robin must also be a robot, part of the Sheriff’s scheme to use the peasant population as slave labor in order to give the captives hope. The Sheriff points out how silly that idea is, so Robin must be real. Or is he? The episode never resolves that with any certainty. But Robin seems content when the Doctor tells him that only the legend, and not the man, is known to the future, and Robin points out how similar he and the Doctor are, both men trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances. This is part of an ongoing theme to the season - this incarnation of the Doctor doubts himself and questions whether he really is a force for good. As Clara did in the previous episode, here Robin says it’s the intent and attempt that makes the hero, not necessarily the outcome.

The episode is very light-hearted, from the bantering between Robin and the Doctor (and their constant efforts to belittle the other) to the archery match between Robin and the Sheriff (and, ultimately, the Doctor) - at one point the Doctor’s arrow caroms off a chest plate and onto the target. Clara has less to do in this episode than in the first two, serving mainly as the damsel in distress for Robin and as potential consort material for the Sheriff. And the resolution of the main plot seemed a little…thin even for the usual Doctor Who hand-waving. Nonetheless, it was a fun episode, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun, especially for Time Lords who have, in the past, occasionally taken themselves a bit too seriously.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Slightly Confused Rabbit

No, the title isn’t a metaphor. I came home from work, went to retrieve the trash can from the bottom of the driveway, only to see something start to cross the driveway. At first I thought it might be a chipmunk, but as I got closer I could see it was a baby rabbit.

2014 09 15 Baby bunny

(I tried getting some other object in the picture to show the size of the rabbit, but couldn’t manage it.)

The confused thing would run/hop a few steps, then stop, and finally came to what seemed like a permanent halt in the middle of the driveway. This didn’t seem like such a safe place, as two other houses share the driveway, so I tried to shoo the creature to the grass on one side or the other. No dice. I ended up grabbing a pair of outdoor gloves, picking him(?) up, and depositing the wriggling rabbit on the grass. Whereupon he made his way back to the driveway again. Okay, fine. I picked him up and moved him to the other side of the driveway, where he wandered about for a bit.

I went back inside, firmly refusing to think that a rabbit that size would make a nice snack for the hawks in the area...

Friday, September 12, 2014

Farewell to Macworld

I was working up to writing about something else - my approach to writing is akin to turning around the Queen Mary II; nothing happens quickly - when I saw the news that Macworld had discontinued its print edition and laid off much of its editorial staff. It's certainly a sad time for the talented people there who are looking for work, several of whom had just returned from a final hurrah at Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. It's also something of a sad time for me. I subscribed to Macworld years ago, when I had the original Macintosh, and re-subscribed in 2010 or so when I finally ditched my Windows PC for a MacBook. The magazine's sibling, PC World, discontinued its print edition some months back, and at the time I wondered if Macworld's print days were numbered. 

But here's the thing: much as I am happy to get a lot of my information from the Internet, which can provide news faster and cheaper than can print, I like magazines. They're the thing you can turn to sitting on the sofa with ten minutes to kill. You can refer back to them. You can use them in Internet dead zones, like much of the underground portion of the DC Metro. They're easy to stuff into a bag and carry for just such an emergency, and short articles mean not having to remember where you are in the plot, unlike carrying an emergency novel. I subscribe to a half-dozen magazines, and I used to buy a lot of single issues on the newsstand if something caught my eye. Not only are there fewer places to buy magazines these days, but the selection at, say, Barnes & Noble continually shrinks. Some hang on because a computer monitor doesn't do justice to the pictures: Scotland, and its siblingWhisky, are basically porn for Scottish scenery and booze, and wouldn't be the same in an on-line edition.

At any rate, print magazines seem to be a dying breed, and we're worse off for it.