Monday, December 31, 2018

The Moclan's Relief

The second season of The Orville premièred last night, just barely qualifying as a 2018 season, with a low key, entertaining relationship comedy episode. Most of the humour fell flat for me but there were still a lot of jokes that did land, particularly the cold open. An episode that seems at first like it's going to be about Bortus ends up being a rumination on the conflict between logic and emotion in relationships, expounded through the dubious choices and opinions of the show's characters. It was certainly nice to see them all again.

Spoilers after the screenshot

I guess this was the episode that was originally intended to be the finale of the first season and the big guest star teased turned out not to be Patrick Stewart, as many people assumed--Stewart's been on most of Seth MacFarlane's other shows, it seemed obvious he'd be on MacFarlane's Star Trek: The Next Generation homage show. Instead, we got Jason Alexander as the easy going bartender with rhinoceros horns. His appearance was brief but good, hopefully we'll see him regularly as the show's Guinan.

Ed (Seth MacFarlane), after not ending up getting back together with Kelly (Adrianne Palicki), is depressed and drinking a lot. Alara (Halston Sage) joins him at the bar and the two talk about how much they have in common, the biggest hint so far of a possible relationship between Ed and Alara, something I'm in no hurry to see, as much as I like both characters. I have nothing against people having relationships with big age disparities but the way their chemistry's been developed so far he feels a lot like her dad. Fortunately, the scene ended with the one laugh I got from the episode's central-ish plot; Bortus (Peter Macon) interrupts them essentially to say they need to stop the ship so he can get out and pee. Of course, there's more to it--Bortus' species, the Moclans, only urinate once a year so they have a big ceremony when they do. His deadpan exposition, the alarmed and confused reactions of Ed and Alara, and the crescendoing stinger with a fade to black just about killed me.

After this, I was done with Bortus' ceremonial piss. I didn't laugh at Gordon (Scott Grimes) and LaMarr's (J. Lee) comments in the conference room or Ed struggling to fine polite euphemisms in conversation. I did enjoy Gordon's attempts to learn from LaMarr how to flirt with women. The bit with the jacket zippers was funny as was the dating simulator.

There are three other plots going on in this episode--there's Ed poorly adjusting to Kelly's new boyfriend, Cassius (Chris Johnson); there's Alara dealing with her blind date with Dann (Mike Henry) and its fallout; and there's Claire (Penny Johnson Jerald) dealing with her kids and her oddly evolving relationship with the artificial lifeform, Isaac (Mark Jackson).

MacFarlane doesn't write the dynamic between Claire, her kids, and Isaac nearly as well as Brannon Braga but her eldest child, Marcus (BJ Tanner), falling under the influence of a problem classmate does have a very Jake Sisco and Nog feel to it. After Marcus and his friend hack into a replicator to get a bottle of vodka, arguments result and Claire turns to Isaac for advice. His idea that she punish Marcus by giving him a dangerous amount of vodka was too much of a sitcom cliche for me but with Isaac's other pieces of brutal advice the point is made that Claire, while angry in the moment with Isaac, ultimately appreciates his candour and logic. I wonder if they're heading in the same direction as the fourth season TNG episode "In Theory".

Meanwhile, Dann does not appreciate Alara's brutal honesty when it comes to his bad poetry and Ed has to explain to Cassius that when your girlfriend's upset one of the worst things you can do is tell her to calm down. "A woman can't really love a man unless he's part dope," Ed explains in his infinite wisdom, apparently indicating Cassius should've been supportive of Kelly's feelings rather that pointing out her flawed logic. As though Ed himself has never needed illogical emotional support. But what was Kelly so upset about?

Ed had done a "drive by"--he'd taken a shuttlecraft out and flew past her quarters to find out who her new boyfriend was. I had two stages of reaction to this--when Cassius more or less defends Ed's behaviour as bad but understandable, I was amazed. How could you excuse Ed spying into Kelly's personal quarters? But then I thought about the term "drive by" and imagined an ex-boyfriend driving by a girlfriend's house and seeing her with her boyfriend through an open window. That seemed to fit the tone of the discussion better--bad behaviour but not horrendous. I found myself wondering why Ed flying by in a shuttlecraft looking in from the outside of a viewport seemed worse than a car driving by a house. I guess it's because I infer more of an expectation of privacy on Kelly's part, though maybe I shouldn't. It's not like that apparent black void is really empty of any eyes, and come to think of it, it's not unreasonable to expect there are sensors capable of simply looking in on the various portholes--this feels like I'm overthinking it.

Anyway, it was a decent episode. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season and hopefully some more Brannon Braga episodes.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Wedged in the Time Corridor

Those of us in the U.S. who watch classic Doctor Who via BritBox have for some time wondered at the mysterious absence of several Dalek related serials from the otherwise complete collection. The series, aside from many no longer in existence First and Second Doctor serials, was in tact up until the 80s Doctors--most of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctor Dalek serials were inexplicably absent. I assume it was related in some way to the late Dalek creator Terry Nation's estate which still apparently owns the Daleks and is rumoured to be difficult to negotiate with. Well, this past Halloween, just as mysteriously as they were previously excluded, BritBox made all those Dalek episodes available to paying customers. I didn't realise it until last night. So I thought it fitting to watch Resurrection of the Daleks to celebrate, a Fifth Doctor serial from 1984.

According to the TARDIS Doctor Who Wiki, writer Eric Saward was "unsatisfied with the story," contending later "it was too frantic, with too many ideas." Indeed, a lot is going on--the Doctor (Peter Davison), and his companions, Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson), are caught in a "Time Corridor"--something never very clearly defined--and wind up in London in 1984. There are zombie police shooting at men from the future; the Daleks are involved; there's a "Supreme Dalek" now; they're trying to break Davros (Terry Molloy) out of prison to come up with a cure for some kind of virus deadly to Daleks; there's some British military unit that dresses suspiciously like UNIT but they aren't UNIT--all this in only two 45 minute episodes (a departure from the usual 25 minute episode format necessitated by an Olympics broadcast).

This is also Tegan's final story. I always liked how she departed--just freaked out and unable to cope anymore. Realistically, this should happen to a lot of companions.* It's hard to blame her, too; she suffers a head injury in this serial and watches as the military officers caring for her turn into Dalek zombies. She also sees an extraordinary number of casualties in this episode, including an innocent bystander with a metal detector who the cops chasing her shoot apparently out of pure sadism. And she has to do everything in a micro-mini skirt and heels.

I, for one, will always appreciate that.

Turlough, meanwhile, ends up sneaking about the Dalek ship and the prison station that held Davros. He watches as most of the personnel get exterminated or zombified but teams up with one guard (Jim Findley) and teaches him how to be more ruthless and cunning. I do like Turlough.

I also liked the plot thread with the woman in charge of the prison, Osborn (Sneh Gupta), who ends up in a miniature horror drama as one of her subordinates gets half his face melted off. She gets caught between him, a terrifying figure plaintively begging for help, and a line of Daleks blowing open the wall.

The Doctor is himself forced to extraordinarily violent methods. Despite his distaste for guns, he's compelled to use several in this episode, not for the first or the last time.

Of course, sometimes it's necessary, it would be stupid if the Doctor refused to use a gun under any circumstances. He uses an Earth pistol and several laser pistols in this one. He almost accidentally shoots a cat, mistaking it for one of the Daleks slithering about without their robot shells.

You do get the sense of a chaotic and deadly situation throughout this serial but the clutter does prevent some of the dread from really setting in. Though personally, I only find the Daleks truly eerie in their first two, First Doctor serials. But Resurrection of the Daleks is a good frantic bit of television.

*But Tegan does eventually reunite with the Doctor in a 2006 audio play called The Gathering.

Twitter Sonnet #1190

A single bean was keeping Earth afloat.
A muscle made the mustard stronger stuff.
Buffets abound aboard the butter boat.
Successful people wore a collar ruff.
Appraising eyes were watching 'neath the stair.
A whisper cut the candle late to-night.
The little flames became the watching pair.
A magnet shifts the lamp from dark to light.
Opinions lightly fell on silver plates.
Discretion carries phones across the lawn.
A foyer's patient presence ever waits.
A cough informs the sun about the dawn.
The footless heels ascend the mountain slope.
A spiral wheel contends the spokes'll cope.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Inescapable Domain of Babies

Life would be easier if pregnancies always went according to plan, especially when there's a rigid morality at play regarding that sort of thing. 1960's Home from the Hill is about a small southern town where everyone's biggest problem in life seems to involve a man, usually town patriarch Wade Hunnicutt, getting a woman pregnant and then not claiming the child. A unusual drama film for director Vincente Minnelli, the film improves a lot at the halfway point. The logic of its plot is noticeably weak on several points but a great cast and a general epic feeling conjured by Minnelli compensate.

The film opens with a guy trying to kill Wade (Robert Mitchum) for sleeping with his wife. Wade is mad for being shot at but for the most part takes it with Robert Mitchum's trademark equanimity, seemingly content in his public identity as a rake.

And why should he be worried? He's not the mayor but the landlord, seemingly, of the whole little Texas town. Tenants pay him rent and he owns mortgages on the factories. He lives in a big house where his wife, Hannah, hasn't been on friendly terms with him in years, fixing him with an invariable angry glare whenever he walks in the room.

Played by the versatile Eleanor Parker, she looks pretty young for Mitchum but in fact he was only five years older than her. I was even more surprised to learn she was seventeen years older than George Hamilton, who plays her son. In the south, in the 50s, that's downright plausible.

Hamilton plays Theron Hunnicutt, a late blooming mamma's boy who starts the movie off finally coming out from under his mother's wing to beg Wade to teach him the manly art of hunting. To assist him, Wade assigns his best lackey, the cool and independent Rafe (George Peppard).

If this movie succeeds in anything it's in making Rafe come off as a great guy. His improbably good character and tragic past are brought down to Earth by an unassuming performance by Peppard. There's a scene I loved where Rafe asks a girl out at the behest of Theron, who's too timid to do it himself.

Libby (Luana Patten) is scrubbing vigorously on a windshield with a wet sponge under a blooming tree when Rafe approaches from behind, sweaty from work, tipping his ragged hat. It's all perfectly innocent, folks. Of all the tragedy in the film, the idea that Libby's going to go out with dweeby Theron instead of Rafe may be the most poignant.

But her father (Everett Sloane, who's always Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane for me when I see him) actually won't let her date Theron because of Wade's reputation. When Hannah finally lets the oblivious Theron in on what everyone else seems to know, he's outraged and refuses to live in the big house any longer, going to work in a factory to earn his own way but it's a factory which, inevitably, Wade owns a stake in.

It's a story of old class privilege colliding with the practical struggles of life and temptations of youth with a heavy dose of melodramatic karma thrown in. Theron never seems quite conscious of the fact that he ends up doing something very similar to what Wade's notorious for, mostly because the plot goes through an improbable contortion to get there, forcing characters not to say things to each other they realistically would've said. But for all that, the sordid spectacle of the film is fun, nicely counterbalanced by Mitchum and Peppard giving such natural, understated performances. Parker goes for the quivering voiced southern matriarch a bit too broadly (see her in Woman in White or Caged, she can be great) and Hamilton, while excelling as a childish wimp, doesn't quite make the transition to manliness the movie seems to think he does. But mainly this is a good movie.

The title comes from a beautiful poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that doesn't really fit the story:


Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Becoming You or Yuu

To-day brought the final episode of the yuri anime series Yagate kimi ni naru (やがて君になる) (aka Bloom into You), a show that started strong and didn't end badly though there was a marked decrease in quality as the series progressed. Mostly in terms of animation but also in terms of backgrounds; the studio, Troyca, clearly seems to have been suffering from some budget issues. But I was still happy to stick around for the ending of this story of two girls and their difficulties defining their relationship. Though by four or five episodes into the thirteen episode series it became clear more of the focus was going to be on one of the girls, Touko, and her struggle to define her own identity.

Most of the show's characters are members of the student council and the series began through the perspective of transfer student, Yuu (Hisako Kanemoto), joining the council. Yuu's troubled by her inability to fall in love with people and she thinks she finds a sympathetic ear for this problem in the student council president, the beautiful, popular, and aloof Touko (Minako Kotobuki). But then Touko confesses her love for Yuu.

In the first few episodes, Yuu and Touko's relationship is established as one where Yuu kindly allows Touko to indulge in her passion for Yuu under the understanding that Yuu will never return the affections. They go on dates, lie in bed together, hold hands, and even kiss. There's a sense Yuu develops a kind of affection for Touko but she still doesn't understand why Touko is so comfortable using the word "love"*.

Yuu seems to feel a certain responsibility for Touko as she gets to know the student council leader better than anyone else and comes to appreciate some of her anxieties which are hidden from everyone by Touko's carefully maintained persona. We learn Touko had an elder sister who died years ago and that Touko has spent her time in high school trying to become more like her deceased sister in an attempt to honour her memory.

Touko decides she'll resurrect a tradition last observed by the student council when her sister was president and proposes that the group write and perform a play. A cute supporting character, Kanou (Konomi Kohara), who's obsessed with nudibranchs, writes the play which centres on a character who has eerie similarities to Touko.

The latter portion of the series follows the characters as they work on the play and Touko's anxiety as she finds playing the lead role forces her to ask questions about herself. The tone of the series stays relatively low key for a romantic anime series, something I really liked, though maybe it's not surprising considering the show began with Yuu complaining about how over the top manga can be. I wish more time had been spent contrasting Touko's different personae but there is a sweetness in scenes where Yuu allows Touko to be vulnerable when they're alone together, even as the show nicely leaves some ambiguity as to whether Touko is simply using the context of a romantic relationship to indulge in repressed feelings. Either way, it becomes clear the two are very healthy for each other especially as Yuu grows more comfortable in the idea that what she has and wants aren't necessarily fireworks.

The final episode certainly would've benefited from a bigger animation budget, particularly a scene where the two girls are splashed by a dolphin at a theme park called Aqua World. The moment is shown entirely in stills. I wonder if there'll be additional animation in the blu-ray.

*Actually "好き" or "suki" which means "like" but this is a term with more sensitive cultural meaning in Japan when used between two people so it's translated in this case as "love".

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Important Life Of

Monty Python's Life of Brian is easily one of the most brilliant movies ever made. And it's on NetFlix now, you should watch it. I did. I've seen it lots of times, of course, but not recently. In spite of being my favourite Monty Python movie, I've never owned it on DVD or Blu-Ray. I bought Holy Grail and Meaning of Life on occasions when I was specifically in the mood for those movies, and had been meaning to get the Criterion release of Brian, but somehow or another never did. Then NetFlix made it impossible to refuse and I finally saw it again after I don't know how many years. The years have not diminished it, in fact many have commented on how it seems to have a new life in the context of modern times. This is, of course, a sign of the movie's brilliance, that its ideas continue to resonate.

Some say it's gone from being a movie that pissed off conservatives to a being a movie that pisses off liberals but the truth is it's always pissed off everyone, really. Or anyway, its offensiveness has never been limited to one political persuasion. The reason is that its fundamental, operative motives aren't really directed at any ideology. The energy underlying every scene in the film is generated by the same thing that informed every sketch on Flying Circus. It's a simple idea but one with ominous implications; people are silly.

What we see in Life of Brian is that every human endeavour, from the largest to the smallest, is vulnerable to human error. One of the more controversial scenes recently is the meeting of a group of left-wing radicals called the People's Front of Judea (or is that the Judea People's Front?) determined to overthrow the Romans. One of them, Stan (Eric Idle), wants to be called Loretta despite having previously identified as a man. Of course, this 1979 film doesn't use the Transfriendly conceptualising of the terms current to-day and makes the mistake of having Stan express the desire to become a woman rather than saying that she's always been a woman. Nevermind that someone experiencing gender dysphoria might not express it in words properly, either. In a recent interview, Eric Idle has expressed respect for the character and said he played Stan/Loretta fully committed to what the character believed (though he still gets the terminology wrong). But he'd probably be better of not bothering. In any case, the point of the scene isn't that it's funny this guy wants to be a woman, the point is that, in their struggle against tyranny, Loretta wants the right to be pregnant to be a central issue, regardless of the fact that it's physically impossible for her to ever be pregnant. This is only one issue of a number that renders the little group an ineffective bureaucracy rather than an effective foe of Rome. "Bernie or Bust" people might sympathise.

The genius of the film isn't in any attempt to skewer religion or government but in its tone. The Pythons excelled at producing work that could be both totally ridiculous while being devastatingly credible at the same time. Among the thousands gathered to hear Christ's Sermon on the Mount, it makes sense that some on the edge of the crowd can't make out what he's saying, so we get the famous "Blessed are the cheesemakers" line. But the scene's brilliance doesn't stop there as a petty brawl is slowly built up between the fringe spectators. A man played by Michael Palin is trying to listen, is irritated by some innocent comments from his wife and is bothered by comments from Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother (Terry Jones). We see how Palin's character is soon ready to come to blows over a few idle insults and we can see his anger is fuelled by things completely unrelated to the actual subject matter of the insults.

Another of Palin's best characters in the film is a bearded man chained to the wall of a dungeon cell who, seeing Brian thrown in with him and spat on, says, "You lucky bastard!" This is one of my favourite running gags. No matter how bad Brian's situation, there's always someone ready to tell him he hasn't earned the right to be miserable. Palin chained to the wall maintains a lunatic devotion to the strong arm leadership of the Romans, a myopic arrogance that reappears in other characters for trivial or enormous effect.

None of this would work so well if it weren't for the finely tuned talents of the writers and performers. Everything seems to work effortlessly and the viewer can't help but recognise humanity in all this silliness.

Twitter Sonnet #1189

The time was etched in lands on diamond globes.
The strangled tinsel yields a metal bud.
An emperor dissolved in wisdom's robes.
The pilot's blinded by a cluttered HUD.
Repeated steps have sealed the waters twice.
A sock of diamonds changed for mugs of tears.
A blizzard starts with floating plastic ice.
The din was lost as quick as frozen ears.
The empty cloud resembled many whales.
A rolling mist engulfed the evening grit.
The boneless hands would twist in heavy gales.
The table cards direct where creatures sit.
A foot became a hill at arming length.
The ground returns the to roots the flora strength.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Weathered Bat

When I was a teenager in the 90s, one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons was "Homer at the Bat", an episode from 1992 many consider a classic. Certainly I think it crossed a bridge of absurdist humour that influenced both The Simpsons and other animated comedy series from then on. I watched it again a few days ago, for the first time in at least twenty years, but I found myself able to anticipate most of the punchlines anyway, the legacy of my well worn VHS tape. My appreciation for the episode has diminished, though, quite against my will. I found myself wanting to laugh more than I was, and I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as the less surreal episodes I've seen recently in my re-watch of the series. Maybe The Simpsons itself and many of its imitators have run surrealist humour into the ground. Maybe it's the difference in my personal taste, maybe humour based on human behaviour just ages better, I'm not sure.

The episode's roughly divided into two acts; I used to prefer the second, now I like the first better, in which Homer (Dan Castellaneta) deploys his secret weapon, the "Wonder Bat", in the company softball game. I love how matter of factly Homer tells the story of crafting the bat, running for shelter under the tallest tree he could find during a thunderstorm, holding a piece of sheet metal over his head as he ran.

The second act involves a series of ringers, professional baseball players, voiced by their real life counterparts, being brought onto the team by Homer's boss, Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer). As a kid I used to love the sequence where each ringer inexplicably meets with some misfortune that prevents him from playing, from Ken Griffey Jr. who contracts gigantism from drinking Mr. Burns' performance tonic, to Jose Canseco who's guilted into saving all of a woman's prize possessions from a burning house. This is still the only context in which I'm familiar with any of these sports figures, by the way.

I still admire the inventiveness of it, particularly poor Steve Sax randomly becoming a scapegoat for the local police, but it all lacked the punch it used to for me. Maybe it was just my mood. Maybe alcohol would help. But I liked "Bart the Lover" and "Lisa the Greek" a lot more in recent viewings than I did when I was a kid. I tend to think adults are more interested in stories of kids confronting serious issues than kids are.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Sky Demons of Christmas

Happy Christmas, everyone. This morning and yesterday I've been watching various Christmas movies and shows; Donald Duck cartoons as usual, among other things. I've been in the mood for anime lately, probably because it's been a year now since my last Japanese class, so yesterday I watched the second Tenchi Muyo movie, Daughter of Darkness from 1997. It was also another example of a Christmas demon who isn't Krampus, following up from watching the Russian Christmas devil film, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the previous day. Daughter of Darkness is also wonderfully weird and silly with an odd undercurrent of deadly serious perversion.

An alien demon named Yuzuha (Yo Inoue) decides to get revenge on Tenchi's alien grandfather for seemingly rejecting her affections, thousands of years ago, by tricking Tenchi (Masami Kikuchi) into sleeping with his own daughter. Tenchi's still a young virginal fellow so there's a mystery as to how the young woman who shows up, Mayuka (Junk Iwao), can be Tenchi's daughter, especially since the two seem to be about the same age.

Most of the movie is set during summer, in fact the Japanese title is 真夏のイブ, "Midsummer Eve". There's a festival, called Startica, on the homeworld of Tenchi's grandfather and the demon that happens to resemble both Christmas and the Japanese midsummer festival. The film is bookended by very Christmasy scenes, though, the climactic battle involving Christmas toys shooting knives from their bellies and deadly tree garland tentacles.

Well, it's someone's idea of Christmas.

Usually Tenchi Muyo is more effective in its domestic comedy scenes involving Tenchi's embarrassment as he deals with his harem of aliens and monsters. Usually plotlines dealing with cosmic conflict are less interesting but the best episodes successfully combine the two elements, as this one does. Among Tenchi's harem, the former space pirate, Ryoko (Ai Orikasa), is generally the most popular, with good reason. With all of the slapstick fighting, there's always a chance Ryoko might go too far, as she does here when she tries to murder Mayuka. There's always an effective tension with Ryoko for this reason and it gives a lot more emotional weight to her affection for Tenchi. Her psychological obstacles are more interesting than her rival's, Ayeka's (Yumi Takada), business with her royal family.

The writers seem to have learned from the early episodes what works because the demon's motivation, being unable to deal with rejection, and taking revenge too far past a place where she can plausibly be forgiven, is like a more extreme version of Ryoko's story. At just under an hour, Daughter of Darkness is a very short movie but good, its action sequences almost as good as its comedy.

Anyway, here's wishing everyone a good Christmas, humans, demons, and aliens, too.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Devil's Holiday

English speaking countries are just catching on to associating Christmas with devils, though maybe the Krampus fad was killed by the recent film. In many other countries, devils have been a part of Christmas films for decades, one example being 1961's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka ("Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки"), also known as The Night Before Christmas. This cute and inventive Soviet fantasy film doesn't even feature Santa Claus but it does feature a dark, hairy, mischievous devil who's a lot creepier than I think he was even intended to be.

The young village blacksmith, Chub (Aleksandr Khvylya), is kind of in love, or mainly irritated by, the beautiful Oksana (Lyudmyla Myznikova), whom he spies on so he can disapprove of her looking in the mirror so much.

She's a coquette and joins her friends in mocking him, telling him she'll never marry him unless he can bring her shoes like the Tsarina's. He's so irritated by her he swears he'll never exert himself for her sake, but he goes looking for a devil to help him anyway.

Meanwhile, there is a devil (Georgi Millyar) who's sleeping with a local woman, Solokha (Lyudmila Khityaeva), behind her husband's back. She's also having affairs with two other men but none of them do the goofy little dance the devil does to win her over.

Soon Chub's destiny will collide with that of Solokha's demoniac paramour in ways no-one ever thought possible.

Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, the movie has that free ranging sort of fantasy plot that feels like a myth. It also has some really sweet visuals and is a lot of fun.

Twitter Sonnet #1188

The explanation drowned behind the bath.
A buried train awaits a flying ship.
The crystal planets broke for noisy wrath.
The talent stayed beyond the telly blip.
The living stripes were something red and white.
A garland binds the needles lightly round.
It's never quite the plain and simple sight.
A ringing song was never merely sound.
The squirming sacks contained the present time.
The passing antlers snagged the sheets of rain.
For magic, hooves were turned to hands to climb.
There's things in sleighs no longer still or sane.
The laughing elves were only clocks with cake.
The roots of growing trees will crack the lake.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Late Lamented Great Intelligence

I thought last night I might give another chance to one of the Doctor Who Christmas specials I didn't like so much the first time I watched it but I just couldn't help myself. I had to watch 2012's "The Snowmen" again. I love this one more every time I watch it. The only real flaws I see in it are that it has too many good things, making it feel a bit cluttered; it's too short; and it has modern Who's chronic problem with dopey looped dialogue--the worst offender in this case being an awkwardly inserted line about a whole family crying on Christmas Eve, though a close runner up is a needlessly expository line from Vastra to establish that the Doctor is bringing Clara into the house with the TARDIS. But otherwise I just marvel that an episode with so many independently good elements works together so well in a single unified atmosphere. There are so many, I thought I'd rank the top ten.

10. Strax

My general feeling about Strax (Dan Starkey) is that his broad comedy takes too much away from Jenny and Vastra, not giving them time to develop their chemistry, but that doesn't stop his broad comedy from making me laugh from time to time, nowhere more so than in "The Snowmen". His double act routine with the Doctor over the Memory Worm while the bemused Clara looks on is great, especially layered with his typical alien warrior misinterpretations.

9. The Evil Ice Governess

What a perfect nightmare for a couple Victorian children, and a bit of a mischievous Mary Poppins subversion as the brilliant, comforting new governess, trying to pluck up the kids' spirits with her storytelling, is unsettled by the sudden appearance of the ice demon in place of the Doctor. Her eerie parroting of the Doctor's Punch impression, "That's the way to do it!" is a nice creepy cherry on top of the nightmare sundae.

8. The Great Intelligence

A menace from the Second Doctor era returns, now played (most of the time) by Ian McKellen. Even knowing he's the Great Intelligence doesn't detract from the unsettling moment when the Doctor realises the entity isn't simply a reflection of Simeon's psyche.

7. The Memory Worm

A delightful bit of comedy with Strax earlier serves both as introduction for and misdirection from the device the Doctor ultimately uses to foil Simeon. That's one of the advantages of having so many things in one episode; it's easier for the audience to forget about wondering what's up the Doctor's sleeve.

6. Dr. Simeon

Richard E. Grant plays the twisted scientist who was seduced as a child by a weird, flattering, reflecting phantasm, and he's clearly remained psychologically a child. In his later appearances, when he's simply the Great Intelligence inhabiting the body, it's a different performance. Grant creates a Dr. Simeon who's always speaking through clenched teeth, barely restraining a constant hatred for humanity, his isolation a dark reflection of the Doctor's withdrawn state at the beginning of the episode.

5. Jenny Flint and Madame Vastra

The spin-off everyone wanted but the BBC didn't consider proper (so we got the boring Class instead), the somehow both anachronistic and pitch-perfectly Victorian detective duo of the human Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and the Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) were finally introduced in their element with this special after their promising appearance in the previous season. Now they have a whole setting and profession to go along with their glamour. It's a shame they were never given the chance to really breathe on their own but we can take some consolation in the fact that they will be appearing, along with Strax, in a series of their own audio plays starting next year.

4. Clara, the Class Deviant

After the brief, tragic appearance of another of her incarnations at the beginning of the season, we're finally introduced to the Doctor's new companion, Clara (Jenna Louis Coleman), properly. Or are we? Clara's story is bound up with the Doctor's long life, a bit like River Song, but the concept is appropriate since this whole 2012/2013 season is a prelude to the 50th anniversary special. It makes sense that the Doctor's new companion would in some way be involved with his whole history. Still, it's less satisfying when we finally learn the truth than it is when it's still a mystery. She's more intriguing and complex than River because at first she seems only to be aware of her strange nature on a subconscious level and yet it manifests in her life. This Victorian Clara leads a double life as a barmaid and a governess, switching attire and accent when she goes from one life to another, like a microcosm of this character who somehow exists on multiple points in the timeline. Jenna Coleman, one of the most intensely pretty of the Doctor's companions, also establishes herself as a sharp performer, conveying the intelligence that makes her eager pursuit of weirdness and challenge so believable.

3. The Sullen Doctor

It's a joy watching Matt Smith bring his Eleventh Doctor slowly out of his funk he's been in since the loss of his previous companions. We first see him grumpily walking right past Clara and the sinister snowman but one question after another slowly pulls him along until the delightful moment when he realises he'd put on a bowtie without even thinking about it. His emotional state is wonderfully reflected in the TARDIS being kept up in a cloud where he goes to be alone and brood all the time; it provides a great "in" for Clara too as she discovers these elements and gets her first impression of the Doctor through them. This episode works as a nice introduction for people who've never seen the show.

2. The Vertigo Romance Stuff

I don't know if Steven Moffat was consciously influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo--it was voted the best movie of all time the same year "The Snowmen" came out--but a lot of the elements are there; the male protagonist, suffering from a loss of self-esteem following his failure to save someone else, falls in love with a woman at the centre of a sinister mystery only to watch as she falls to her death--but then there's more to it than meets the eye. The Doctor is never subject to the same level of deception and manipulation as James Stewart's character in Vertigo, but there is something of the same dynamic at play, particularly with the emphasis on Clara's shifting identity and how her identity relates to the Doctor. Considering this, her ultimate fate in the Twelfth Doctor era takes on a new resonance. But aside from all that, it's refreshing to see a companion just through caution to the wind and kiss the Doctor as Clara does in "The Snowmen".

1. Everyone can Act

This is a bit of a retroactive virtue. At the time, we had no reason to expect the Bradley Walshes and the Mandip Gills who populate the show now. But even if not everyone's Laurence Olivier, there's at least a basic level of competence in every member of the cast. It may be this more than everything that makes all the many elements of "The Snowmen" work in concert so well.