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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

New York City and the 9/11 Museum

Over Labor Day weekend I made one of my periodic pilgrimages to New York City. Although Fountain Pen Hospital is closed on weekends and holidays, and Art Brown’s is now closed permanently, I found other things to occupy my find beyond frittering away money on more pens.

One purpose of the trip was to visit the 9/11 Museum, located near the site of the World Trade Center towers and close to the Freedom Tower - or, as I like to call it, The Finger.

2014 08 30 Freedom Tower
The Finger, er, Freedom Tower

On the actual footprint of the towers stands the 9/11 memorial, an elegant pair of waterfalls.

2014 08 30 WTC Memorial
The 9/11 memorial

The museum is built into what was once the PATH station for the WTC site, and lies almost entirely underground. A good bit of the space is devoted to how the WTC towers were built, using cutting-edge construction techniques, including the first self-elevating cranes. The remainder of the space is dedicated to the events of September 11, 2001 and to the victims of the two terrorist attacks on the towers (the other was the bombing in 1993, which claimed six lives and injured over a thousand more). It’s a somber reminder of the evil in the world.

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum retaining wall
Retaining wall

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum antenna
Antenna

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum trident
One of the steel tridents from the facade of the building

2014 08 31 Central Park formal garden
Flowers in the Central Park formal garden, off 104th St.

2014 08 31 Sin Will Find You Out
Sin Will Find You Out

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Doctor Who, "Into the Dalek"

The second episode of the season starts with a bang - a fighter spaceship destroyed by Daleks, as the Doctor rescues one of the two occupants a moment beforehand. Before you know it, the Doctor has agreed to be miniaturized and sent inside a damaged Dalek. Shades of “Fantastic Voyage”! Meanwhile, Clara is introduced to and immediately hits on Danny Pink, a new teacher at the Coal Hill school and a former soldier.

There’s a lot going on in the episode, from the Doctor’s question to Clara: “Am I a good man?” to the efforts of the miniaturized crew first to repair the Dalek and then to convince the Dalek that it need not seek only to exterminate life. Add to that the budding romance between Clara and Danny, a brief reappearance of Missy and “heaven” from the previous episode, the Doctor’s unhappiness with soldiers (and, implicitly, how that will affect his reaction to Danny), and what goodness means in a universe filled with morally gray choices, and one can see that no episode can possibly do justice to everything.

What gives way in “Into the Dalek” is the plot. Doctor Who gets away with a great deal of faux science through appeals to jargon and offhanded witty remarks. That works when the rest of the plot is solid, but here the jargon and witty remarks merely underscore the Ghost in the Machine nature of the story: our tiny heroes climb upward through the Dalek casing, to the cerebral cortex, where Clara pushes some buttons that - presto! - reveal suppressed memories and the Doctor talks to the Dalek as though the latter is an errant schoolboy. Things don’t work out as planned, but work out well enough that there will be an episode next week.

That’s not to say there weren’t some excellent moments in the episode. Danny initially rejects Clara’s offer of a date, and we see his after-the-fact response that he realizes he should have made - only to find that Clara has been listening all along. “How much of that have you heard?” he asks. “More than you would like,” she replies, a grin on her face. At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor carries two coffees - which turn out to be the coffees that he went to fetch in Glasgow at the end of “Deep Breath,” only it’s now three weeks later for Clara. He continues to make rude remarks about Clara’s appearance, but cares enough that he returns her to the school only 30 seconds after she left - in time for Danny to wonder how she changed clothes that quickly.

An interesting, if not entirely successful, sophomore outing for the Twelfth Doctor.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Take a "Deep Breath": Reflections on Doctor Who, Series 8

It seems as though it’s been ages since Trenzalore. Decades at the very least, possibly centuries. Of course there were other adventures along the way: televised ones, with older Doctors and 1970s styles and 1980s music; audio ones, with small casts and loud noises; print ones, with sexual escapades, expansive worlds, and levels of violence that could never have made it onto the small screen. Still, we wanted a new adventure, with a new Doctor. As it turned out, we got our wish on Saturday night , a mere eight months after “The Time of the Doctor.” Was it really just last Christmas we said goodbye to Eleven and started to anticipate Twelve?

Previews showed a dinosaur menacing the Houses of Parliament, and “Deep Breath” got that McGuffin out of the way early on. While earlier regenerations showed the new Doctor picking up exactly where the old one left off, here we have a presumably small gap between the end of “Time” (where Twelve asks Clara, “Do you know how to fly this thing?”) and “Deep Breath.” As Victorian London marvels at the dinosaur, the creature coughs up a familiar blue box and a slightly manic Doctor explains he seems to have flown the TARDIS into the mouth of the beast, dragging it with him to the nineteenth century.

But this episode is not about extinct animals. Rather, it’s about meeting the new Doctor and, in particular, about the changed relationship between Clara and the Doctor. The regeneration trauma is mercifully short: unlike Ten, who spent most of his premiere episode lying in bed before some restorative tea perked him up, Twelve starts out unable to remember basic things, including Clara’s name, ends up taking a nap for a short while, then sets out in his night shirt seemingly back to himself. He is more short-tempered than Eleven, less tolerant of the foibles of humans (but, thank goodness, he doesn’t attempt to strangle his companion, like a certain other recently-regenerated Doctor we know!), but ultimately the same man as before. (At one point, he comments that he has “made mistakes” in the past that he intends to put right. How intriguing!)

Clara mopes about, mourning the loss of “her” Doctor, the playful puppy-like Eleven, until Madame Vastra sets her straight. With the help of an old friend in an unexpected cameo later in the episode, Clara realizes that this man *is* the Doctor, strange face and all, and that he needs her help, not her whining, in this unsettled time for him.

Lest I create the impression that the episode was too serious, jokes were plentiful. I particularly liked how the Doctor thought everyone else sounded very strange until he realized that he’s Scottish. An annoyed Doctor complained that he was on the “planet of pudding brains,” and at one point confused Strax with one of the Seven Dwarves. At one point, the Doctor says to Clara that he was “not your boyfriend.” Clara says, “I never said you were,” to which the Doctor replies, “I didn’t say it was your mistake.”

The implication that Time Lords have some control over their appearance – hinted at in “Night of the Doctor,” when the Sisterhood of Karn gives Eight his choice of elixirs, and as far back as “The War Games,” when the Time Lords force Two’s regeneration and offer a choice of faces – becomes more explicit here. He chose a more serious face – an older (and wiser?) face possibly for a more serious time.

The episode even had a plot of sorts, bringing back the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The control robot found people from whom to harvest body parts in order to keep the robots going as they searched for “paradise.” I’m not sure how successful that particular plot was, but it clearly sets up a story arc for later in the season. (Who built these robots, anyway? We’ve had two episodes in which they behave in murderous fashion. Would you want to be on a spaceship with these guys?) We also got a hint that we will eventually discover who gave Clara the telephone number of the TARDIS in “The Bells of St. John” last season.

In all, the episode gave viewers a great deal to appreciate and to anticipate – the new Doctor, the changed interplay between the Doctor and Clara. The script gave both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman much to work with, and they didn’t disappoint. Like Clara, viewers might take some time to adjust to the new face in the TARDIS before coming to the realization that, when it comes right down to it, this is the same Doctor we’ve always known.