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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (3/11/12) 9:51pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Doctor Who [5x10-5x13] [spoilers], Doctor Who: City of Death, Doctor Who: The Caves of Androgavi, Angel [2x01-2x10] [spoilers], Angel [5x14-5x16] [spoilers]
Books:  Rainbows End

Doctor Who [5x10-5x13] [spoilers]
... and with that, I finish all of the new Who available on netflix streaming.  All in all, it wasn't a bad finish for season five.  "Vincent and the Doctor" was another neat little exercises in hagiography.  Ostensibly, it was about tracking down a 'Krafayis', but really it was about spending forty-two minutes saying, "Hey!  Isn't Van Gogh neat!"  Not much depth there, but it wasn't the embarrassment that "The Shakespeare Code" amounted to.

I thought "The Lodger" was the strongest episode of the bunch, and the one where I was the most impressed with Matt Smith.  Smith seems to have a better command of light comedy than Tennant had.  And while Tennant could certainly hold his own in something like "Love and Monsters", Matt Smith takes much more *delight* in acting silly for its own sake.  On the other hand, it may have more to do with the character than the actor -- after imbuing the Tenth Doctor with so much tragic regret, it might have been impossible to put that character into something as silly as a romantic comedy with evil upstairs aliens.

And then there was the two-part finale, which to my eyes, had one really good thing and one really bad thing.  The good thing was the clever temporal backtrack through the entire fifth season.  I'm a sucker for Moffat's time-travel puzzle-boxes, and this one, complete with an explanation of a glaring continuity error in "Flesh and Stone" that Moffat completely slipped past me, was a lot of fun.  And I find that, in a finale, anything that brings you back through what you've seen so far will have a welcome emotional weight to it.  (See also:  the final flashback in season one of LOST.)

On the other hand, I got so thoroughly lost in the "we're starting another big bang" section, that I sort of checked out.  (Part of my brain absently remembered 'the second big bang' in one of the best episodes of Red Dwarf.)  It hit such a high point of gobbledygook, for such a sustained period of time, that I just couldn't follow any of it and couldn't engage with what I was watching.  I feel like even Doctor Who is sparing in its technobabble -- yes, there's a magic whatsit and it needs to be reconfobulated, but they *get past that* really fast and ground the scene in something relatable:  he has to lobotomize the star whale, or leave it to live in constant pain.  "The Big Bang" left me confused as to, to paraphrase the limerick, "Who's doing what, and with which, and to whom?"  So all I had to hold onto was technobabble, which rarely-if-ever stands up to close attention.

And ending it on a massive universal reboot?  That irked me.  Again, I get that Doctor Who isn't exactly The Wire in terms of its reverence for continuity, but it looks like now they've given themselves a universal out for ignoring any piece of Whovian lore they like.  "Oh, well, um... that works differently in this reconstructed universe."  It's like the world adds up to less, now that any element of it might could have disappeared in the reboot.  It could turn out to be the worst, Perfect Strangers kind of 'hitting the reset button', where none of the storylines they've built up prior to this really matter any more, because Pandorica.

That said, Moffat's first season was perfectly competent, and while he hasn't yet had any stunners like "Human Nature" or "Blink" under his watch as a showrunner, I'm sure he can get there in season six -- which I won't be seeing for quite a while, I imagine.

Doctor Who:  City of Death
After finishing up all the new Who I had available, I decided to ratchet back to some old-school serials.  City of Death is a well-loved Fourth Doctor adventure, one heavily rewritten by none other than Douglas Adams.  So I figured I'd give it a try.

My first surprise was that the only scene I remember seeing of the Fourth Doctor -- or, indeed, any 'old school' Doctor -- was the scene where he writes a message in Leonardo's workshop, which it turns out is a pivotal scene in City of Death.  It's kind of like the rule that any time you watch a show precisely twice, it seems ridiculously likely that the second time you watch the show, you're going to see a rerun of the first episode you watched.

I was mainly surprised at how slow it went.  Television, especially drama, just went much, much slower in the 70s.  Doctor Who is not quite at the level of guy-gets-into-car, stock-footage-of-driving, establishing-shot-of-warehouse, guy-gets-out-of-car, guy-walks-up-to-warehouse, but it takes its time.  And it's not nearly as focussed as the new Who episodes.  Under Davies and Moffat, pretty much every episode introduces a threat at the start and then operates on a horror-movie schedule, as the threat picks off more and more innocents, and finally gets the Doctor into hot water, only to be overcome at the last minute.  The Doctor, in new Who does very little that's not directly related to stopping an evil <x> from doing <y>.

It should come as no surprise that Douglas Adams is much more dilatory.  They show up in France.  They look around.  They get caught up in a robbery.  They poke around to see what the robbers are up to.  They get accosted by a policeman.  They have more run-ins with the robbers.  Throughout this, it's unclear where any of this might be leading to, nor is there any sense of impending threat.  We're just wandering around the world of this pecuilar art thief.

Sure, it eventually gets around to being a threat to all of humanity, but it takes a very circuitous route to get there -- oh, he's stealing the Mona Lisa... so he can sell multiple copies of it... and use the money to finance a time machine... to rescue a splinter of him from proto-Earth... and in so doing, prevent life from starting on Earth.  Whew.  And mind you, all of this exposition is laid out very late in the game.

That said, the Fourth Doctor is such a strong character that I mostly paid attention to him, and how he handled each new scenario he ran into.  But it was a serious adjustment from watching the new series, which comprise elegant stories of the "you will get pissed off if you never find out how this turns out" variety.

Doctor Who:  The Caves of Androzani
If City of Death was the serial where I could forgive the dilatory storyline just because the main character was so much fun, The Caves of Androzani was one where the story just got away from me completely.  I say this knowing full well that Doctor Who fans voted it the best story in Doctor Who history.  I'm perfectly willing to accept that I'm just plain wrong in my opinion.

But with Caves... well, I know there was gun-running, and some melange-like substance, and political corruption, and human-simulating androids.  Most of the time, the show made me feel old, like I needed a grandkid around to ask, "Wait, who are they shooting at?  Is he a robot?  Why did that politician just kill the president?" and so on.  And for all that, there's the same feeling that sequences just moved much slower in television before, say, the late 90s.  One chase sequence bounces back between the Doctor running and the gunmen chasing him maybe seven times.  Gunmen shoot.  Davison runs.  Gunmen shoot.  Davison runs.  And on and on and on it goes.

I enjoyed the Fifth Doctor as a character, with Davison bringing some of the light urbanity I associated with (say) his take on Albert Campion to the role.  On the other hand, Peri Brown, while she takes the prize for eye candy, I felt like I didn't know her that well from this serial.  I just knew that she shouted a lot, had a distractingly uneven American accent, and got kidnapped a lot.  Of course the villain obsesses on her because she's gorgeous -- character-wise, they don't show us much else that's going on with her.

And even the death of the Fifth Doctor didn't hit me that hard.  Other Doctors perished while saving the world, or the universe, even.  But it seems like Five died because he stepped in something he shouldn't have while investigating a domestic political squabble.  It seems like such a... small thing to die of.  And of course, I hadn't seen the character elsewhere, so I wasn't invested in him as much as other viewers must be.

But again, this series is renowned by Who fans, so maybe I just wasn't paying good enough attention.

Angel [5x14-5x16] [spoilers]
I've gotten back to watching Angel as preparation for playing Wesley in the Highball's presentation of "Smile Time" in April.  So first off, I watched "Smile Time", a Ben Edlund episode that many consider one of the best of Angel.  In a way, all you need to say about this episode is "Angel gets turned into a puppet."  That pretty much sums it up -- the angst-y, brood-y, guilt-drenched tone of the Buffy spin-off gets smashed into the world of Sesame Street-esque children's television.  Wikipedia smartly points out that this not only sends up children's shows (even Peter Jackson has mined comedy gold out of inappropriate kid's-show puppets), but it parodies Angel itself, as the Angstiest Show Ever contends with brightly-colored, cheery-sounding demon puppets.

So mostly, it's just hilarious, with a couple of touching love stories percolating outside the main plot.  (And the early scene where Wesley rips into Angel for not hitting on Nina, when it's really about Wesley feeling piney over Fred, is an absolute blast to act.)

Then I was assigned to watch the following two episodes, presumably because my life hasn't yet included enough 'sobbing like a colicky baby' time.  Yes, it's a cliché that, in the Whedonverse, when two characters fall in love and happily pair off, one of them will die soon, and violently.  (I fear for Simon and Kaylee, post-Serenity.)  I have some misgivings about this habit, as it feels like it's a storytelling choice that comes from a fearful place on the writers' part -- as in, "Oh no, I don't know how to tell engaging stories about a couple that's together," or, "Oh no, Moonlighting went to the dogs when Maddie and Dave paired off," or "Oh no, our  advertising-friendly teenager demographic won't relate to grown-ups in long-term relationships."  It's endemic to all of TV and film, and prevalent throughout genre TV, but few showrunners demonstrate this with such spectacular regularity as Joss.  It's like, outside of Wash and Zoë, he just doesn't care about couplehood -- which is odd, since that's where most of us spend most of our lives.  So you have two people about to enter a relationship and deal with all the problems on the *other* side of that divide, and... nope, nope, nope.  We won't go there.  Kill one of 'em off, please.  Or remove the soul from one of them.  We'll leave the married couples to fat-guy-hot-wife sitcoms, Friday Night Lights, How I Met Your Mother, and Cougar Town.[1]

Okay, mini-rant about genre TV over.

All of that said, Joss is pretty much the best at this plot gambit.  I can think of episodes of (say) LOST or of Ron Moore'sBattlestar Galactica that don't have a fraction of the impact of Fred's death.  For one thing, Whedon doesn't just use this technique to pick off characters that don't work, or who have become narratively inconvenient.  Instead, he typically picks the audience's favorite character -- a relatively friendly and down-to-earth type that you'd have to be churlish to hate.  And, unlike other shows, Whedon doesn't do any sort of ominous buildup (though granted, finding yourself in a happy relationship on one of his shows has sort of become ominous in and of itself).  Instead, it's more like mind-that-bus-what-bus-splat.  And finally, he usually spends at least an episode or two dealing with the emotional fallout, with sporadic callbacks down the line.  Granted, that's still unrealistic (someone close to you dies, and you're reeling from that for far longer than a week or two), but it's more than most shows do.  Most shows, it's "major character dies; funeral at the end of an episode; occasional callbacks later in the series."

So he makes sure the blow is a surprise, he makes sure the blow counts, and he makes sure the blow really has time to land.[2]

And in this case, it felt oddly relatable.  Not in the details -- oh, a magical demon whatsit has used Fred for something something something -- but in the sense that, if Buffy was a show about being a teenager, Angel is a show about being a grown-up.  And if you live long enough, eventually someone you love is going to die of something really awful.  And you'll feel powerless and miserable, and the best you'll manage is to provide some comfort as you watch it happen.  When death came for Joyce on Buffy, it felt more like another mind-that-bus sort of death.  But with Fred dying, well, *that's* how it feels.

So, yeah, tough to watch, that.

Angel [2x01-2x10] [spoilers]
After "Shells", I figured I'd go easy on myself and pick up where I originally left off on Angel.  I don't know if I have too much to say about this batch of episodes, though.  "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" is a great little time-skipping episode (between this and "Out of Gas", I'm wondering if nonchronological narration is just something Minear is especially good at).  "Guise Will Be Guise" is one of the few light-comedy Angel episodes, and it's actually delightfully funny.  And I was satisfied with the arc of Angel trying to redeem Darla -- and of course failing, because really, what would the writers do with a redeemed and human Darla?  And the end of "Reunion", with Angel locking the Wolfram & Hart lawyers up with Drusilla and Darla, then firing his staff -- was a bold, wonderful move.  If you're going to have Angel go dark, then by all means *go there*.

Beyond that, though, it felt like the show had a fair amount of just-good-enough material.  "Judgment" just sort of plodded through its situation-of-the-week without really grabbing me, and there are other episodes in the run that have left my memory completely.  Without the clear monster-as-metaphor-for-high-school-problem thing that Buffy has going for it, I often find myself a bit bored with whatever the latest Mysterious Supernatural Thing is.

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge [audiobook]
This is a 2006 near-future novel about an old poet who recovers from Alzheimer's only to get caught up in a conspiracy involving mind-control technology.

Like most near-future sci-fi, this book isn't really *about* its plot or its characters.  Really, it's about the world that it depicts.  In this case, it's a world of ubiquitous computing and more specifically ubiquitous augmented reality.  Nearly everyone has contacts that will put overlays on whatever they see.  You make a gesture, and your wearable computers switch your view to, say, give you access to wikipedia entries regarding every object you can see.  It's a world of 3-D telepresence, and massively crowdsourced engineering, and other such aspects of the future that, like William Gibson jokes, are already here, but just haven't been universally distributed yet.

The book is definitely engaging on the level of giving you the feeling of being dropped into the world of 2025.  It sets up a good plot -- setting a whole slew of characters on a collision course with a conpsiracy to develop complicated mind-control technology -- which results in some exciting moments here and there.  And the characters are sketched in well enough to keep the plot going and give you some viewpoints onto the fancy new technology.  But again, the story isn't really the draw here.  Take away all the techno-details, and there really wouldn't be anything worthwhile left.

So, if you're intrigued by the future of technology, this should be worth your time.

For next time:  I'm watching a smattering of Angel episodes as continued prep for the Highball show.

[1] Yeah, I know, I'm oversimplifying.  And Buffy did have a long-term relationship with Riley -- like most things concerning Riley, I have trouble remembering that.
[2] Add your own fellatio joke here.

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