Archive for September 2012

Doctor Who's Power of Three and the Brigadier Problem

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By now, you've seen (and probably loved, I know I did) The Power of Three. Apart from Darth Vader-Shakri. But I digress!

Disclaimer: I love the Brigadier, but I believe that any sort of love is predicated on recognizing him for who he was, not who he wasn't.

I truly believe that it's a wonderful gesture from Steven Moffat to have a Lethbridge-Stewart in an episode featuring the Doctor stuck on Earth. This is the kind of subtle fanservice that both throws a bone to old fans like me and doesn't interrupt the flow of nu-Who.

So I almost hate to be churlish. Almost. While I liked Kate Stewart as her own character, she never quite rang true as a spawn of that Lethbridge-Stewart (though I freely admit to tearing up at the reveal).

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Let's start with a little history. Who is the Brigadier? Just a guest character until the Doctor was stranded on Earth for three seasons, his character existed to problematize the idea of the old-school British hero. You know the type - the manly man saving damsels in distress and pulling out his revolver at every sign of trouble.

They make him full-time as a sort of companion-foil to the Doctor. When he ran UNIT, he and his men were violent thorns in the Doctor's efforts to keep peace in the Universe. (I use the word "men" pointedly. There were no women in his inner circle.). He stands at odds with the Doctors in almost every way, and their relationship remains mostly testy until he retires.

The show made a lot of hay from the Doctor's (and his better companions') tendency to poke fun at the Brig's jingoism, anti-intellectualism, and general sexism. Kate says he valued science. Really, he's a man who only values science insofar as it helps him to kill things more efficiently.

But when it comes to Kate, it's the sexism that's most relevant. Revisionist fans may choose to ignore it, but the Brigadier was pretty much an old-school misogynist. He said something like the following (though this is by far the most egregious) to pretty much every one of the Doctor's female companions, all of whom had to lock him up, throw him out of cars, or generally just run away in order to do their job of being awesome:

BRIGADIER: "Well, you're a young woman. This is a job for my men."
ISOBEL: "Well, of all the bigoted, anti-feminist, cretinous remarks..."
BRIGADIER: "This is no job for a girl like you. Now that's final."

Cue Isobel and Zoe running off and saving the day.

Or my personal favorite, to his wife who's gone off for a joyride with Ace (btw, if there's a better euphemism for "I'm in love with a girl", I don't know what it is):

"But what about supper!"

This clip is a great example of what I mean by his "old-school" sexism. He remains loveable because we know his attitudes are a product of the culture he grew up in. He can't help himself really, and he does better himself in certain respects over time (though never when it comes to women).

Brigadier: Oh, dear. Women. Not really my field.
The Doctor: Don't worry, Brigadier. People will be shooting at you soon.

Nicholas Courtney did a great job of bringing humanity to a character that was already a relic even in the 1970s. I raise his flaws not to say I didn't love him, merely to say that he was flawed.

That said, it's impossible to believe that he even supported Kate having a career, let alone a career at UNIT. She would have had to fight tooth and nail to prove herself, and probably more than once. Someone who grew up that way would not break down at the first sign of trouble. She could not have reached her current title without a whole lot of strong will and self-belief.

But she actually tears up when the cubes become a tiny bit threatening. Maybe we can explain this away by a combination of fear of the invasion and relief that the Doctor's there to help. But I don't know.

I hope she comes back though, nonetheless.


Sylvia Plath Annotates the Great Gatsby

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Screen shot 2012 09 16 at 12 46 59 PMTwo things I adore in this world are Sylvia Plath and F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Kate Beaton, above*) - I choose the word "things" carefully as both are human ideas shrouded in fairly impenetrable (and self-created) mystique. Both have moments where they maximise the worst clich├ęs about themselves.

The page below, drawn from Sylvia Plath's own copy of The Great Gatsby, (the entire book is available at the University of South Carolina) demonstrates the worst of Sylvia's Plathisms.

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Reading this, I had a sudden vision of Plath thumbing through classic novels and trolling them, taking long whiffs of Virginia Slims and expelling "Oh, l'ennui" onto countless pages of text that mirror Plath's youthful view of herself as described in The Bell Jar.

*Main image credited to Kate Beaton's magnificent Hark! A Vagrant! I've bought a copy of her book, and so should you.

A Town Called Mercy, Or, The Doctor Grapples with Universal Human Rights

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A Town Called Mercy may be the finest episode of nu-Who to date.

As in School Reunion, Toby Whithouse takes full advantage of the meta-concept that he Doctor may be the protagonist of this show called Doctor Who, but within the narrative universe, he's really just a minor character. All that business about being The Oncoming Storm really doesn't affect the day-to-day lives of, well, anyone in the universe.

It's an ambitious concept for the show to deal with, which may be why the revived show has previously limited the question to the Doctor's impact on his human (and very mortal) companions.

A Town Called Mercy grapples with a particularly messy issue - is the Doctor really a hero, or is he the intergalactic equivalent of the IMF, an arbiter of "correct behavior" with a worldview and a mission statement that refuses to adapt to cultural differences?

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Thankfully, Whithouse doesn't feel the need to answer that question fully - he takes the decisions out of the Doctor's hands. Each of the key players actually make their own choices. Isaac chooses to protect Jex, the Gunslinger has moral heft to guide his own mission, and Jex decides to face his greatest fear - his guilt.

The central moral quandary leads us to one of the most wonderful conversations ever between a Doctor and his companion. Amy finally proves that maybe, just maybe, she actually knows him a little better than everyone else.

I love how their dialogue mirrors a famous scene from Genesis of the Daleks (below). My, how the tables have turned, eh Doctor? (watch clip from :48 to go straight to the scene in question).

The Marvellous Mrs. Pond

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Speaking of Amy, the writers have finally figured her out. I wrote last year that she wasn't a character with any clear reason for being, lacking real desires or motivations. But now she feels like a more defined character.

There's two explanations for this:

  1. The writers intended all along that she wouldn't become her own character until she made a life without a Doctor, to make a facile point.
  2. The writers realized that her reactions to having and losing her baby were inadequate and unrealistic, so they've written in hints of severe post-partum trauma. This trauma allows her to be more empathetic, and yes, more ferocious.

Either way, she now feels like a living, breathing human being, instead of a sassy Scottish china doll. She's still clumsy and childish but now we know that these traits are external manifestations of deep-set emotional pain.

So that was long-winded, eh? I'm genuinely excited to see what comes next. Steven Moffat's era finally seems to be living up to its initial promise.

Doctor Who and the Asylum of the Daleks

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Welcome back! Apologies for lateness, but I just got back from India after a wedding and a funeral, and attached emotions thereof. But onward and geronimo! As always, don't read if you haven't seen it.

Once you get past the supremely irritating Omg!RelationshipTroubles!, Asylum of the Daleks proves to be the strongest outing of the series since the midseason finale last season (the plastic clones, if you recall).

The writers have finally embraced (or at least recognized) the fact that through repetition, they've neutralized any sense of terror that the Daleks once elicited. Really, once an apron-clad Dalek offers you tea, there's no going back. Now they're the "most terrifying creatures in the universe, except when they're working as housemaids, emoting on Broadway (truly, a Dalek attempting an American accent must be the most terrifying thing a viewer can see), and blathering on about Eggs--Eggs--Eggs."

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For the Daleks to continue to be villains that are even interesting, let alone scary, the writers really need to play around with the concept. Whether they're successful or not's a different matter, but at least they're trying.

The very concept of an asylum for the Daleks never really lived up to its potential (or any real definition, for that matter). It provided a suitably creepy framework for the ultimate Human Dalek (Oswyn-lek), but the setting wasn't developed properly (I assume this is a matter of time. This story could easily have been a two-parter). After all this, I have no idea what it actually means to be an insane Dalek. You turn them on, they start shooting. Same old Eggs-terminators.

But who could help but smile at the references to Classic Who adventures with the Daleks? The City of Exxilons is a particular favorite of mine. Basically, it's the Daleks vs. the insanely creepy Exxilons versus a massive puzzle labyrinth. Also, Sarah has a mullet:

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Business in the front, party in the back. But I digress.

Asylum of the Daleks also provided us with a surprise appearance by Jenna-Louise Coleman, recently announced to be the new companion. While I emitted a heartfelt MEH at the casting of another teenage white girl character, she totally won me over in this episode. That said, she's dead. Who knows what the real companion will be like?

And speaking of dead, why didn't the Doctor try to save Oswyn-lek? Again and again, she proves that she can exert her will over the Dalekness that attempts to control her, even at the end. These aren't the angst-filled self-recriminations of the lone ranger in Dalek, Oswyn-lek is completely, genuinely human, with all the hopes, dreams, laughter and failure of any other non-Dalek being.

I love these little moments that reveal that even the Doctor, with all his worldliness (universliness?) has moments of prejudice that he simply can't put aside. It's these little nuggets that make him seem more human, and the more complicated hero that Moffat has sort of hinted at throughout his era, but has told us about rather than shown.

Tell me, what did you think about the episode? Play along in the comments!

The Devil in Silver, or, Randle McMurphy Grows Up A Little

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The most enjoyable novels flirt with their weaknesses openly, forcing you to confront their arrhythmias until a) you're Stockholm Syndrome-d into acceptance or b) you cease to notice them, as the mosquito bite turns from a sharp pain to an ongoing itch.

It's been a while since I've read a novel as weirdly imperfect as The Devil in Silver. LaValle's tale of a man stuck in a mental institution (rightly or wrongly, we're never quite sure) pays tribute to its antecedents and builds upon them. He carefully constructs the institution as a real place that we can navigate in our heads, which only adds to our empathetic sense of entrapment.

Unlike one Randle McMurphy, Pepper's not the King of this castle; he's a prisoner in a rundown hospital that feels like a dystopian space station, where visions of sterility become marred by the filthiest barbed wire. It comes as no surprise that here there be monsters.

72 hours more, he repeats, ad infinitum, just 72 hours.

Time passes in strange ways and characters move in and out, though most live on past their brief appearances. Each of Pepper's institution-mates come heartbreakingly to life.they don't exist merely to justify his existence; their hopes and disappointments are real.

And yet. And yet. As I mentioned, LaValle crafts a wire straight to our empathy sensors. But he lacks confidence in his craft. At some point in the novel, he starts to include interludes from news articles on institutional abuses and other horrors. He's unsatisfied with the visceral power of the story, and hits us over the head. Luckily, these interludes are easy to ignore. And even while they leave our heads scratching, they highlight the success of the rest of the novel.

The Devil in Silver's the first novel I've read in some time that makes spending time inside the head of a middle-aged white man seem worth it. It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that Lavalle is only one of those things.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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