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

Tuesday (10/22/13) 4:04am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed many weeks, as has regrettably become the norm for me lately.]

TV:  Spartacus [1x09-1x13] [spoilers], Doctor Who [7x01-7x10] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Spartacus [1x09-1x13] [spoilers]
This time around, I finished the first season of this Starz show about the gladiator who led a slave rebellion against Rome.

Sometime towards the end of the season, I joked about how this felt like "the classical Rome playset for Fiasco."  Fiasco is a storytelling game, one that starts by very patiently setting up the relationships between pairs of characters.  Once all that is set up, it creates a story in which something, for one of those characters, goes horribly wrong.  And once that happens, because all of these relationships are in place, the disaster will inexorably drag all of the characters -- even the ones who weren't directly involved -- into its orbit.  And from this point on, none of the characters have a complete picture of what's happening in the story -- they only really know two other people in the story world, and they see seemingly random things take place as all of these disparate people react to the last thing that happened.  And since these are people operating on almost no information in a crisis situation, they tend to make bad decisions that make the crisis steadily worse.

Spartacus is the first TV show I've seen in a while that seems to function using that same mechanic.  As the first season of Spartacus gathers momentum, it spends a lot of time nailing down lots of interrelationships.  Ah, Crixus wants revenge against Spartacus for besting him in combat, while Lucretia wants Crixus to love her and to keep their relationship secret, while Crixus wants Ashur ejected from the ludus for being generally shifty, and Crixus wants the honorable Doctore to respect him, and son on and so on and so on.  And so the episodes go on, patiently producing little ropes that tie all these characters together.  So once things start going wrong in the story -- say, when Batiatus is slighted by the Capuan magistrate -- there's a chain reaction, as everyone in the ludus winds up responding to the fiasco.

And, like in the game, these are characters with poor impulse control.  So once things start to go really wrong in the ludus, the body count begins to escalate.  And as the characters keep doing really bad things, it's perfectly natural that they should have more and more *secrets* to keep from each other -- and many of those secrets are along the lines of "I know you killed <x>, and we both know that <y> will kill you as revenge if they ever find out."

The first half of the season felt kind of deliberate and discursive.  Now Spartacus is learning that he really is stuck here in Rome, and has to consider his old life finished.  Now Spartacus is going to The Pit, and learning what the world of illegal gladiator fights is like.  Now Spartacus is learning a valuable lesson about teamwork when fighting in the arena.  And so on.  And again, they focus on *all* the characters, to the point that Spartacus himself can all but drop out of the story for couple of episodes, as we continue to explore his world.

But in the second half, the season has accumulated so many connections between characters, so much bloodshed, and so very many secrets that it starts to feel like a jack-in-the-box that's been cranked to its penultimate note and left there.  You're waiting for something to set everything off: oh, now he'll reveal this secret to her, now she'll go off and try to kill him, now he'll reveal what he knew about this other guy -- given all this, it makes perfect sense that the series finale is called "Kill Them All".

It reminds me of the frequent improv direction to have an attitude towards the other characters in your scene, and want things from them.  If you get that 'filter' in place, you can immediately know what that character does next in the scene.  And once *you* do something, all the other performers, who have nurtured similar attitudes, can react to *you*.  And so the story goes, ricocheting from one character to the next.

There are other things to like about Spartacus.  Its queerly heightened diction grows on me more and more -- yes, some people would mock its apparent pretentiousnes, but those are people who don't love language and who are probably no fun at parties.  Any show that includes a line like "The fear in your eyes betrays the lie on your tongue" is a show that revels in dialog and delights in putting words together.

Ashur, as a villain, continues to have schemes that don't seem completely impossible.  His final framing of Solonius does require a bit of lucky timing, but you sense that if those exact circumstances -- Solonius holding the knife as the city guard walked in -- hadn't fallen Ashur's way, Ashur would have found another way to get the job done.  He had Solonius's trust, he had a nearly-dead magistrate in a sewer, he had a trusting son looking for said magistrate -- it's not rocket science.

There are a few things to dislike about the show.  A 90s-style grunge-rock electric guitar keeps intruding its way into the soundtrack -- go away, 90s electric guitar, you don't belong here and nobody thinks you're cool.  The story, while it's wonderfully constructed, doesn't really feel like it's *about* something yet.  It's fumbling towards something about the nature of slavery or freedom, but for now, it feels kind of shallow -- entertaining, but not really connected to anything bigger than itself.

But those are just minor quibbles on what is in all other ways a very solid, three-star show.  And the endpoint it chooses for season one -- with Spartacus leading the slaves of the ludus into the streets of Capua -- is perfect.  Yes, the story of the ludus is over.  The story of the rebellion has begun.

Doctor Who [7x01-7x10] [spoilers]
Yes, I'm *finally* getting around to watching the most recent series of everyone's favorite BBC sci-fi show.

I'd like to stay positive here, so I'll start out by talking about "Hide".

Years ago, I read science-fiction scripts for the Austin Film Festival's screenplay contest.  Unless you had a strong constitution or a serene sense of gallows humor, that was trying work.  The scripts were so bad, and often so bad in the same ways, that it was a wonderful and rare feeling to a script and see within the first page: holy crap.  This person actually knows how to write.  It was a breathtaking thing.  Every time it happened, it felt like the sun had just come out.

That's kind of how "Hide" felt.  This is odd, because "Hide" doesn't have a big splashy opening.  Instead, you see a couple, in a big, spooky house, working with boxy electronic equipment.  Some really lovely set and costume design let you know that it's the mid-70s[1], and the script deftly gives the actors a few moments to demonstrate that these characters are in love, but are both too fumbly and nervous to ever express it to each other.

And that's it for how it starts.

Even when nothing had happened yet, I was completely on board for this episode.  It had a setting (1970s, big scary house), it had a genre (haunted-house stories), it had characters (the two ghost-chasers), who had a relationship (mutual crushes) and an objective (spot the ghost!)... all of that, right out of the gate.

At that point, even if the rest of the episode adds nothing, you're still alright -- just hold on to those characters and follow them on their journey.

Then the Doctor shows up, and Clara announces that they're "ghost-busters" (like she's speak-singing the Ray Parker, Jr. song), and the episode hits its first sour note.


Season seven really doesn't know what to do with its companions.  One of the reasons "Hide" is such a strong episode is that it clears the companion out of the way for long stretches of it, and instead focuses on secondary characters: the adorable couple investigating the house, the mysterious creature haunting the home, even the monsters lurking in the shadows.

Clara, so far, feels like a non-character.  She shows up in "Asylum of the Daleks" as a sort of Mary Sue, so very clever and so very sassy and so very pretty that the Doctor, well, just doesn't know what to make of her, he's so surprised and impressed.  Then for "Hide", all of her agency and brilliance is gone -- it's as if we've grindingly shifted gears and now, instead of the hypercompetent Mary Sue, we've got the Useless Screamy Girl from countless horror movies.  (Really, it's a wonder Clara never gets abducted by the monster.)

Instead of being a person with a consistent personality, or character flaws, or strong objectives, Clara seems to be a personification of one of these puzzle-boxes that Moffat likes constructing.  His habit of building odd time-travel paradoxes served him brilliantly in "Blink" and moderately well in his stewardship of series five and six.  But the weakness with cleverly constructing time-travel puzzles is that they don't necessarily *mean* anything emotionally.

And that's how I feel about Clara at this point.  I know that there is a strange paradox surrounding her.  I imagine the convenient "hacker" augmentation she gained in "The Bells of St. John" will somehow dovetail around to her odd hacking ability in "The Asylum of the Daleks".  I have faith that everything I've seen will notch together very cleverly when Moffat finally reveals what's going on.  But beyond a certain idle intellectual curiosity about the puzzle, I don't think I'll care about her.  (It doesn't help that, so far, the Doctor only cares about Clara because she presents an odd intellectual mystery.)

I find it intriguing that the show mishandled Amy and Rory in sort of the opposite way.  With the series-six puzzle-box unravelled, there was no longer a big question surrounding the companions, so instead all they could do was try to tell emotional stories about them.

The problem was, they'd kind of run out of stories to *tell* for Amy and Rory.  For those companions, the big question for me eventually became "will these two people stay together?"  And after "The Pandorica Opens" -- after centurion!Rory waits around for two millennia for Pandorica!Amy -- that question is pretty much settled.  The personal questions we've raised about these characters have been answered.  The unresolved issues they have had, have reached some kind of closure.  So then series six served as large-scale detour, as we loop through time and space exploring the story of River Song.

And then series seven takes a different tack, with a set of episodes that seem desperate to *invent* new stories for Amy and Rory.  Of particular note, we discover that -- surprise! -- Rory has always really really wanted children (and apparently did a perfect job of hiding that in all of his dialog ever on the show).  And we discover that -- surprise! -- Amy feels awful about not being able to bear more children (again, good job keeping that secret up 'til now).  And we also find that Rory has a bad relationship with his dad.  And so on -- Doctor Who invents long-standing personal problems for these people, just so that the episode can neatly resolve those problems, so in turn it won't feel like the episode is completely pointless.

But it doesn't work: we've seen these characters all along.  We know these personal crises were conjured out of thin air.  The problems don't feel convincing, and the stories don't have any weight.  And moreover, the "crisis of the week" stories don't add up to any overall narrative, other than "finding a few more stories to tell with Amy and Rory".  When the show finally disposes of them (after the messy and confusing plot curlicues of "The Angels Take Manhattan"), it feels sad, but long overdue.

But I want to stay positive -- so let's go back to "Hide".  I love how the use their genre in "Hide".  It has that giddy feeling you associate with something like The Princess Bride or Shaun of the Dead -- or, among television shows, Community or The Middleman -- that the people involved genuinely love the genre that they're playing with.  A freaky ghost appearing in a lightning flash in an old manor house?  Yes, please!

"Hide" is one of *many* genre exercises that season seven does.  "A Town Called Mercy" gives us a western.  "The Angels Take Manhattan" goes into film noir.  "The Cold War" is a Hunt for Red October-style sub thriller.  But honestly, none of those others really settle into their genre the way that "Hide" does.  You never feel like the people involved in "A Town Called Mercy" loved westerns.  "The Cold War" never settles into the creepy claustrophobia of a sub thriller[2], or the rah-rah techno-fetishism of any Tom Clancy novel.  And clearly, no one involved in "The Angels Take Manhattan" ever actually watched any actual noir movie.  (Fun fact: very few noirs have voiceover.  Hell, most lack detectives.)

Instead, it just feels like they just tasked random writers with "write a story in genre <x>" and ran with whatever they came up with.  I have to wonder if they were playing with many American genres as another sop to their newfound American audience.[3]

But here I am, going negative again, so I'll reiterate: "Hide" clearly loves ghost stories and loves that it gets to tell a ghost story.

Finally, you'll notice that "Hide" is fairly self-contained.  In fact, most of the episodes of series seven feel self-contained.  Didn't the Doctor lose two of his dearest friends just a few weeks ago?  Shouldn't that have some... sort of... lingering... no?  No effect?  Well, okay then.  As far as I can tell, the only think tying this season together is the abiding mystery of what Clara is.  And honestly, all that means, story-wise is that the Doctor occasionally gives Clara the side-eye, asks Clara what she really is, and Clara says, "I dunno."

We get a couple of scenes of that in "Hide", but not enough to mess with the flow of the story.

So really, if there's one takeaway from all this, it's that "Hide" is really good.  (See?  Still being positive!)

This coming week, I'll keep watching QI, Orphan Black, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and hopefully I'll have things to say about all three of them.

[1] I wonder if we've just gotten better at depicting recent historical periods in television.  We've certainly seen more of it in recent years, with shows like Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men on our side of the pond, and shows like The Hour and Call the Midwife on theirs.  (Side note: it amuses me to note that this 'historical' episode takes place over a decade *after* the Doctor Who premiered.)
[2] The story takes place on what must be the most spacious sub in history.
[3] In other news: so many fake American accents.  Ow ow ow ow ow.

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