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Trash Culture After Dark: The Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

Before The Good Place, we had The Devil in Miss Jones, which similarly took a skewed and satirical look at the grotesque absurdities in traditional western Christian views of the afterlife and eternal punishment. The key difference is that The Devil in Miss Jones doesn’t so much present quirky yet profound explorations into the philosophy of ethics as it has lots and lots of hardcore sex.

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The Devil in Miss Jones is a movie that only could have happened during the porno chic era of 1970s America. What’s porno chic? My dear naive reader, porno chic is a very weird bubble in American cinematic history when hardcore porn aimed for more than flimsy excuses for sex in lieu of plots or half-baked parodies of popular films, and in turn they were released in mainstream theaters and got serious attention from film critics. In fact, The Devil in Miss Jones got a three-star rating from none other than Roger Ebert himself!

That’s right. Ebert thought slasher movies spelled the end of Western civilization, but gave the thumbs up to a movie where a good chunk of the second act involves a woman learning about the joys of oral sex. Go figure.

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Well, to be fair, maybe it’s not all that surprising. While there’s no mistaking The Devil in Miss Jones for a movie that isn’t deliberately trying to stoke a hetero libido, it is also an undeniably thoughtful film, especially by the standards of the hardcore pornography of today. For starters, it has a bona fide story. One that arguably has a point beyond being a reason for serving up nudity and sex, even.

Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Justine Jones (Georgina Spelvin). She did “everything she was taught” and tried successfully to live a decent, moral, and dull life, but at the terrible cost of suppressing her appetite for intimacy. Unable to bear the contradiction between her desires and her morality, however, she winds up slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Her soul winds up in a cosmic waiting room where a being calling himself Mr. Abaca (John Clemens) tells Justine apologetically that she was a shoe-in for Heaven, but her suicide, which Mr. Abaca calls her “accident”, was her one unforgivable sin. Disqualified from Heaven by her suicide but too pure for Hell, Justine Jones only has an eternity in Limbo to look forward to.

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Angry at this injustice, Justine jumps on Mr. Abaca’s suggestion that she can return to Earth for a time to indulge in the sins she denied herself her entire life. He directs her to a demonic man only called “the Teacher” (Harry Reems), who instructs her in sex and breaks through what’s left of her inhibitions. Once she’s ready, she’s sent to Earth to enjoy herself. Unfortunately, she only has a little while to experiment with her newfound freedom, and, in the end, the price is quite steep. After bringing her back to eternity’s lobby, Mr. Abaca grimly tells her now she has earned her place in Hell. While Mr. Abaca tries to assure her that all the stuff about fire and pitchforks is just “a myth”, Justine finds the reality of damnation is possibly even worse for her: she’s stuck in a room with a madman obsessed with catching flies who refuses to even consider making love to her, no matter how much she pleads.

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Beyond even having an actual story, there is actual artistry in the filmaking. The soundtrack is quite good, whether it’s conveying the sterile boredom of Justine Jones’ existence or Justine’s growing love of decadence under the Teacher’s guidance. There are also more than a few frankly very well-done shots that did indeed deserve a few stars from the United States’ most famous film critic, including the lingering images of Justine’s suicide and the grim, claustrophobic horror of Justine’s final fate. Even some of the sex scenes, while more or less de rigeur for a ’70s porn (there’s even the requisite threeway), convey a sense that they’re meant to be about more than just titillation. Plus there’s a scene involving Georgina Spelvina and a snake that’s not at all as bad as your perverted imagination might think…although it does speak as much to Georgina’s guts as a pornographic actress as to the perverted genius of the filmmakers.

At the core, I think the argument for the merits of The Devil in Mrs. Jones rests on two *ahem* tent poles. The first is that, as someone of different sexual preferences than the intended audience of the film, I was still intrigued by it, even though admittedly the sex scenes that comprised most of the movie’s middle got tedious for me. The second is that it’s impossible to imagine the story and atmosphere of this movie getting pulled off by a movie that didn’t have hardcore sex scenes. The grimy, frantic eroticism just perfectly builds up to the bleak conclusion and its depiction of a moralistic universe fundamentally hostile to the reality of human nature and desire. Hell, I’d go as far as to say this movie does prove porn can indeed be art.

But, unfortunately, instead of the timeline where porno chic got to thrive and evolve, we’re in the timeline where people are wasting hours fiercely and endlessly debating the sexual morality of the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” of all things. I think I know how poor Justine Jones must feel.

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Uncategorized

Shark Week Special: Street Sharks

I made the mistake of vowing that once Discovery Channel’s Shark Week rolled around, I would return to the jawsome world of the Street Sharks. This was a mistake. Not just because the show itself you might say really bites, but because it’s hard to say anything about the show without using its own level of puns like this is a fintastrophe. In fact, as I watched it, I just wanted to go to the beach and freaking drown myself. 

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Let’s move on.

I’ve talked a lot about how kids have it good these days as far as animation goes. There’s still some stinkers out there, of course, but it’s become almost expected for even kids’ animated shows to have such fancy things as “character arcs” and “ongoing stories”. Such luxuries were largely unknown to the children of my generation, and even then shows like Street Sharks were the nadir of an already low-down trend.

Still, I thought about seeing if my hazy memories of the show were unfairly distorted, and picked out an episode that seemed like it would explore the potential of the show’s premise, “To Shark Or Not To Shark” (yes, every single episode title is a pun). See, the one thing that genuinely made the premise of Street Sharks stand out is that the sharks are supposed to be not only outcasts, but also genuine fugitives, while their archenemy Dr. Paradigm was a well-respected professor. This might have been an interesting take on the ancient “Don’t judge a book by its cover” moral if Dr. Paradigm wasn’t a sinister-looking man who went around in freakish body armor, but again I digress.

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I wanted to give this episode a chance in particular because 1) it spotlights one of the two Street Sharks with an actual tangible character trait, Streex, who is vain, which you can tell because he looks at a mirror and brushes his fin like he would hair because I guess it actually affects his appearance somehow (the other one is Ripster, whose personality trait is “leaderish”) and 2) it has like a solid premise for a cartoon with inhuman protagonists. They get a chance to become a normal human at the cost of their powers and ability to effectively fight evil. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did it. All the various iterations of “X-Men” did it probably 123,000 times, give or take a hundred. It’s a pretty stock plot, but it’s tailor-made for a series about fugitive heroes. Let’s see how they did!

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Let it never be said I can’t give a subtle hint.

Anyway, I honestly made a little checklist of things that I would consider basic to a story like this. Nothing out of the ordinary that would make something like this stand out, much less be an inspirational classic (although it is a shame we never got a groundbreaking episode of Street Sharks scripted by Maurice Sendak). It’s just for what I, as a writer myself, would consider the bare minimum for a story like this.

Streeks does something that really hits home how much he’s lost by being a humanoid shark, i.e. he frightens a bunch of children he’s trying to rescue, an old girlfriend is disgusted with him, etc.

The episode does that…kind of? The Street Sharks’ requisite human buddy, Bends, invites Streeks and…er, the brown Street Shark to check out a car he’s worked on that will be presented at a mall car show. It’s a car that can use most liquids as a fuel, even sugar water, so naturally it’s just to show off at a crappy mall. Anyway, there’s this supermodel who is stuck up and also French (you might think this is so très banal but by being snooty and French she already has more dimensions than most Street Sharks characters) who thinks the Sharks are in Halloween costumes. And they have trouble fitting into the car.

This is enough motivation for Streeks to decide to stop being the city’s only defender against a mad scientist who wants to mutate its entire human population.

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Yes, they use this exact reaction shot at two very different points in the episode. Seriously, this show makes DiC look like a golden age Disney animated film.

It turns out the opportunity to change back to human is a trap laid out by the antagonist.

Okay, this one the show actually did fully do, but even then it’s a bit off. If you go by what we see in this episode, apparently Dr. Paradigm’s plan was to:

1) Find out (somehow) that the Street Sharks were going to a mall during its off-hours.
2) Send two of his bungling henchmen to check out the car (which of course is his real objective in all this), bringing attention to his interest in the car to the Street Sharks, and to awkwardly mention to Streeks that Dr. Paradigm has invented a way to completely reverse geneslamming, while at the same time hoping that Streeks will not start a fight and instead not only believe them, but follow them back to Dr. Paradigm’s lair.
3) Assume that Streeks and the rest of the sharks will be stupid enough to just take the untested scientific formula devised by their archenemy.
4) Also assume that they will believe the information you dropped that the change back to human isn’t permanent unless the formula is drunk a second time within the span of eight hours (and they should, because you’re not lying about it to trick them into permanently becoming human for some reason).
5) Act on your plan before the eight-hour window has passed, trusting that the Sharks won’t let themselves revert back to superhuman beast-men who can effortlessly defeat you and your minions to stop you.
6) Profit!

Dr. Paradigm, you may be unmatched when it comes to making buff aquatic furries, but you really need to take some villainous scheme of the week lessons from, say, Cobra Commander.

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The protagonists are divided over whether or not they should use the “cure”, but ultimately decide to sacrifice returning to a normal life for the greater good.

Kind of, except…not really.

I mean, there’s about a few seconds of dialogue where one of the Street Sharks talks about returning to college and normal life and Ripster shows his leadership skills by saying this is a “bad idea”…but still they’re all convinced in a matter of seconds. The French model (who honestly had no idea who the Street Sharks were before she came to town; you’d think someone would have brought up the whole “fugitive shark men” thing) also returns. But rather than becoming a symbol of what Streeks can have if he goes back to being human, she gives him a tiny bit of encouragement when he rescues her from a fire started by the hench-goons and disappears from the story.

The ex-Sharks discover that Dr. Paradigm is planning to use the car able to use anything as fuel as a means by which he could cover the city with an exhaust that will mutate all the city’s human inhabitants into aquatic half-humans. They do split up, with Streeks wanting to stay human and the others deciding to attempt to stop Dr. Paradigm even though they will stay human for a matter of hours. However, when the other sharks get captured by Dr. Paradigm and he sends his goons to finish Streeks off, he pretty much makes the choice to embrace sharkdom out of necessity more than anything.

So, yeah, there’s really no sacrifice, unless not being able to fit comfortably in most car seats counts.

To hammer this non-point in, we get the last words of wisdom from Streeks after his epic adventure that forced him to mildly inconvenience himself:

“Do you miss being a human?”
“Well, there are great things about being human, but there are great things about being a shark!”

Wisdom worthy of Socrates.

Overall, my assessment is that this episode does less than the bare minimum of what a normal animated series, even in the creative wasteland of ’80s and ’90s animation, would normally do with a similar premise. But, in a way, isn’t that kind of commitment to eschewing all standards of quality what makes Street Sharks stand out from among all the other cartoons that existed only to sell toys? Well, that and its catering to the minority of gay male aquatic furries.

 

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Doctor Who Write-Ups, Uncategorized

The Second Doctor (1967-1969)

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In the timey-wimey ball that is “Doctor Who” continuity, it gets forgotten that originally Patrick Troughton was supposed to just be a younger version of William Hartnell, and not just the same being with a similar yet notably different personality (although, weirdly enough, the way Patrick Troughton’s introduction is handled on screen much better reflects the idea of Time Lord regeneration than just rejuvenation). Plus, throughout his tenure, Troughton still played it like the latter. While Hartnell’s once irascible Doctor softened up over the seasons, Troughton’s interpretation is still a striking contrast. He shares the First Doctor’s commitment to justice and contempt for tyranny (and, really, authority in general), intellectual cockiness, and the benevolence of an eccentric uncle. Yet he is also gentler, more impish, more bumbling, and apparently more timorous, but with well-played hidden depths that kept viewers wondering how much certain aspects of his persona were played up to trick his enemies into misjudging a brilliant and even occasionally ruthless mind. Not to disparage William Hartnell and the First Doctor by any means, but I do think a case can be made that Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor simultaneously showed how funny and how complex and mysterious the character could be.

Unfortunately, the Second Doctor era is more than a bit more monotone than the madcap, genre-busting First Doctor era. Early on, the show abandoned the pure historicals, a loss that would stay with the TV show even into its contemporary run (although, as people as nerdy about “Who” as I am have made me aware, they have been revived to a small extent by Big Finish). In fact, the Second Doctor era would drift away from historical settings altogether in favor of adventures on present-day Earth or a vague distant future. More specifically, the Second Doctor just couldn’t stop spending his time in bases under siege by monsters.

Personally, as I slowly went through the Second Doctor serials, I did miss the headier mix of genres and backdrops from the First Doctor era, a difference given more of an impact by the fact that the Second Doctor era kept the serial format of the series all the way through. It’s still a classic era, though, despite whatever flaws you might find with the format and less diversity in the types of stories told, with what the vast majority of fans recognize as one of the greatest companion teams – Zoe and Jamie. The relationship between the Doctor and Jamie, no doubt tapping into Patrick Troughton’s real-life friendship with Jamie’s portrayer Frazer Hines, really is a wonderful foundation stone for this period of the franchise. Even so, Zoe fits in the dynamic perfectly, forming what I think a lot of people would agree is the most distinctive TARDIS crew since Barbara, Ian, and Susan were on board.

Must Sees/Best Introductions to the Era

The Mind Robber – This was a welcome return to the downright randomness of the First Doctor era. As a result, it rather does stick out from the entire tenure of the Second Doctor, but, like the BBC itself. I would include this show in any list of the top episodes of the entire classic series. It is tremendously odd and goofy, even by “Who” standards, but the strangeness does enhance the creativity on display and give a lot of material for the Second Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie to play off of.

The Seeds of Death – It’s easy to write this off as the “the Doctor versus foam” serial, but, dare I say it, this probably is one of the most suspenseful and intimidating threats the Doctor faces in the whole black-and-white era. I’ve made no secret of my impression that probably the biggest hurdle to newcomers and fans of the modern series when it comes to getting into the ’60s episodes is the serial format. Despite that, this comes closest to transcending the problems of stretched-out and repetitious plots, with a more rigorous pace and more meaningful side plots. It’s just both a good sci-fi/action adventure and a nice Second Doctor tale.

The Moonbase – The first of the “under siege by monsters” episodes, this one’s also easily my favorite. I think this might be a controversial choice, since as far as Second Doctor confrontations with the Cybermen go, people tend to prefer Tomb of the Cybermen. However, I prefer this one as it really does capture the feel what would become a favorite “Doctor Who” trope – people trapped and desperate in an enclosed area with the Doctor doing his best to save them from a mysterious threat – in a way that feels true to the black-and-white period of the show while also predicting some of the best elements of the franchise today.

The Macra Terror – If you can get past the fact that most of the footage to this one is lost, it’s worth giving a try and is far from an unworthy introduction to the Second Doctor. After all, it still has some totally unsubtle yet poignant and timeless social commentary mixed with some classic character moments from the Doctor, so what more could you need? (Well, besides the actual footage for this serial, but anyway…).

The Evil of the Daleks – I was a little reluctant to list this one since it does show off the most egregious sins of the serial format. The story is terribly bloated with subplots and even characters who just go absolutely nowhere. But it’s also the very rare story from this era that casts some moral ambiguity on the Doctor’s actions, its portrayal of the Daleks is genuinely sobering, and, like “Doctor Who” at its best, it deftly merges sci-fi and Victorian tropes. It may not have been the “last Dalek story” like originally intended, but it definitely is one of the best.

The War Games (the last episode) – Okay, I’m cheating a little bit, but there is such a difference between the last episode of The War Games and the other parts of the serial. The final episode is just epic, pushing the fundamentals of the entire show in a way that hadn’t been done since the very beginning and showing the Doctor genuinely terrified and unsure for the first time ever. The War Games as a whole definitely has more than its fair share of moments and the mixture of time periods was a welcome change to all the futuristic and alien settings the Second Doctor has gone through, but it also makes its own argument for all the reasons why ditching the serial format with the coming of the Third Doctor. So, honestly, I can’t fault anyone for skipping the four and a half hours that are ultimately at best just prelude to one of the best and most memorable regeneration moments of the character’s history.

Choice Quote

The Doctor: Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.

First Words…

Slower. Slower. Concentrate on one thing. One thing! It’s over. It’s over.

…and Last Words

What are you doing? No! Stop! You’re making me giddy! No, you can’t do this to me! No! No! No! No! No! No!

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Doctor Who Write-Ups, Uncategorized

Doctor Who – War Games (1969)

warchiefThe TARDIS materializes in the middle of a muddy field covered in barbed wire. The Doctor quickly deduces that they landed right in the middle of a World War I battlefield. They run into a cheerful aristocratic woman serving as a battlefield medic, Lady Jennifer Buckingham, but before they could finish proper introductions they’re rounded up by German soldiers, only to then be “rescued” by the British. Unfortunately, when the Doctor tries to sneak back to the TARDIS which is near the German line, the British officers suspect he’s a spy. The TARDIS crew are sent to a French chateau being used as a British base and the tender mercies of General Smythe, who immediately orders them to be tried for espionage and, in Jamie’s case, desertion His fellow two judges, who met the Doctor and his companions, are inclined to let them off, but Smythe is able to effortlessly hypnotize them into agreeing with his judgment: executing Jamie and the Doctor and sending Zoe off to a prison to serve out a sentence of hard labor. That night, Zoe takes advantage of the fact that, as a woman, she’s entrusted to Buckingham’s care instead of sent to the cells with the men to sneak away while Buckinghman sleeps. She manages to get the cell keys from Smythe’s apartments, but also notices an odd device hidden behind a painting. Unfortunately, she’s too late to save the Doctor from being taken to be shot at dawn. Luckily, a soldier  shooting at the chateau inadvertently gives the Doctor and Zoe a chance to escape.

The soldier is caught and is shoved into the same cell as Jamie, who recognizes the man as a redcoat English soldier from his own time. Also Buckingham and a Lt. Carstairs start putting their notes together and noticing they have both huge gaps in their memory and vague recollections of being surrounded by sudden mist. Plus they begin to question the court martial and its verdict. The Doctor bluffs his way into the military prison and tries to save Jamie who had just made his own escape, but in the end they are recaptured and the redcoat is fatally shot. Luckily, by this point Carstairs and Buckingham know something is up and sneak the Doctor and the TARDIS crew out of camp in an ambulance. General Smythe tries to kill them all with a barrage, but the ambulance reaches a similar mist to what Buckingham and Carstairs encountered before. They seem to find themselves on a peaceful field, but suddenly they run smack into a Roman legion.

The Doctor and the others flee back into what the Doctor terms the 1917 “time zone”, where he correctly guesses they can find a map to all the different time zones in General Smythe’s safe. On the map, there’s a Roman zone, a World War I zone, an American Civil War zone, and a black gap in the center. Unfortunately, while on their way to investigate the center, they’re captured by Germans, landing them back in the literal crosshairs. They manage to escape, but not before the fact that they’re time travelers is reported back to the man responsible for the entire situation, the Master – I mean, the War Chief. Meanwhile the road to the center takes the Doctor and his crew into the American Civil War zone, where they run out of gas while escaping the Confederate Army and where Carstairs is captured. As they try to rest in an abandoned barn, however, they’re started to see a TARDIS-like ship, a SIDRAT, materialize with Union and Confederate troops disembarking. As the Doctor and Zoe go inside to investigate, the SIDRAT vanishes, leaving Jamie and Buckingham stranded.

Inside the ship, Zoe and the Doctor catch on quickly to the SIDRAT’s purpose: abducting hypnotized soldiers from across human history from before the end of World War I and transporting them to their proper time zones. The Doctor decides to wait until the ship returns to its home base. Jamie and Buckingham fare worse, ending up prisoners of the Confederacy. They’re rescued by a black soldier, Harper, who directs them to a safe spot but, unfortunately, he is captured for his trouble. The Confederate general tries to hypnotize him, but realizes that the soldier is immune since he is part of what he calls “the Resistance.” Back at the center of the time zones, Zoe and the Doctor are surprised to see that the mysterious base resembles a university. They join a lecture where the topic being discussed is how to perfect the brainwashing process – and the lecturer is ready to demonstrate on none other than Carstairs. The Doctor and Zoe can only watch as Carstairs goes back to believing that he is in a World War I military camp. Afterward, the Doctor gets up and plays the part of the obnoxious student to trick the lecturer into demonstrating  how to reverse the process. And before they can reach the Resistance, Confederate soldiers catch Buckingham and Jamie and bring them back to the barn where Harper is also being held. This time, though, they don’t have to wait long for rescue. The Resistance apparently followed their captors and dispatches them easily. Back at the base, before the Doctor and Zoe can leave the lecture hall, they run into the War Chief. The Doctor and the War Chief recognize each other, much to the Doctor’s own horror.

While Jamie uncovers a communications kiosk hidden inside the barn, Zoe is captured and hypnotized into answering questions about the Resistance and the Doctor. Meanwhile the Doctor, who is still on the run, manages to trick the lecturer into un-brainwashing Carstairs. Together they rescue Zoe, who remembers from the interrogation details about members of the various resistance groups across the zones. Back in the Civil War zone, the Confederate general, who like the other zones’ generals is working for the War Chief, manages to trigger an emergency alarm before being overpowered by the Resistance. The base’s guards are defeated, but not before they kill Harper. Jamie and three of the Resistance members hijack the SIDRAT the guard arrived in and are teleported back to the base. Trouble is stirring at the villains’ headquarters, though, as the base’s security chief sees the Doctor’s appearance as proof that the War Chief is planning to betray their race on behalf of his own people, the Time Lords. Realizing that one of his SIDRATs was taken over by the Resistance, the War Chief goes behind the security chief’s back to have the base’s guards ambush and capture kill Jamie and his comrades while the Doctor, Zoe, and Carstairs watch helplessly from a hiding spot and have to flee.

The security chief interrogates Jamie using the hypnotic machine and learns everything about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but tells the War Chief he learned nothing. However, the War Chief manages to get out of the security chief that he suspects him. The War Chief dares the security chief to take his suspicions to their superior, the War Lord. Elsewhere in the base, the Doctor, Zoe, and Carstairs save the members of the Resistance who accompanied Jamie and manage to take over the base’s controls, sending back Zoe and the Resistance members to recruit all the different Resistance cells across all the zones.  Unfortunately, when the Doctor, Jamie, and Carstairs try to hide out from guards in the SIDRAT, the War Chief manipulates the dimensional controls outside the SIDRAT to threaten to crush them unless they surrender. An exhausted Doctor crawls out of the SIDRAT with a white flag.

Of course, it’s all a ruse. The Doctor takes advantage of the War Chief’s posturing to throw down a World War I-era gas bomb, giving him enough time to mess with the exterior controls and completely hijack the SIDRAT, but their grand escape only leads them back to being captured by General Smythe in the 1917 zone. Zoe along with the  Resistance army quickly come to the rescue and kill General Smythe.  Back at the base, the leader of the whole operation, the War Lord, shows up for an inspection and ends up doing damage control. He sends the whole combined forces fighting in the World War I simulation to wipe out the Resistance, but the Doctor figures out how to use the hidden controls in General Smythe’s chambers to put a time barrier around the chateau. The Resistance and the Doctor hatch a scheme to use the tech taken from the base to deprogram soldiers. Their plotting is interrupted when a SIDRAT appears and the security chief abducts the Doctor.

The Doctor easily resists the security chief’s interrogation machine until the War Chief steps in. Alone, the War Chief tries to commiserate with the Doctor, since they are both Time Lords who fled Gallifrey. He also admits that they chose to experiment with humans since they are purportedly the most vicious species in the galaxy, which the Doctor denies, but the War Chief declares it’s all for the greater good of bringing peace and order and that he intends to depose the War Lord once the experiments are concluded. Before the Doctor can react, the War Chief saves the Doctor in his own way by convincing the War Lord that the Doctor agreed to help them as a fellow rogue Time Lord. Afraid that the War Lord might follow through with his musings that they simply nuke the entire planet and leave, the Doctor plays along. Back in the zones, Resistance cells from other zones, including the Mexican Revolution and the Crimean War zones, are brought together with Zoe and Jamie’s help and launch attacks in all the zones, emptying the base of most of the guards. At the War Lord’s orders, the Doctor contacts Jamie and Zoe, claiming he’s taken control of the SIDRATs and that he needs all the Resistance leaders to come to the base. As soon as they arrive, however, the Doctor sics the guards on everyone.

As Jamie, Zoe, and the resistance leaders are taken away to be brainwashed, the Doctor coaxes some information out of a trusting War Chief: while the SIDRATs are improvements on TARDISes in that they can be controlled remotely, a side effect of the technology is that the SIDRATs have a very short lifespan. So the War Chief desperately needs both the Doctor’s help and his TARDIS. On the other hand, the War Lord is suspicious of the Doctor’s heel turn, but the Doctor convinces him that he’s needed to improve their SIDRATs. Still, the War Lord tests his loyalty by ordering him to brainwash the prisoners, which gives the security chief an opportunity to get his rival the War Lord’s bestie killed by handing him over to an enraged Resistance. The War Chief intervenes and supervises as the Doctor begins “processing” the prisoners. While he’s gone, though, the security chief finds evidence of the War Chief’s plans to betray the War Lord and has him arrested. As he’s taken away, though, the Doctor has the War Chief drafted into the Resistance. The War Chief leads the Resistance to the base’s armory, giving them the means to take over the base. In the midst of the coup, the War Chief kills the security chief to “settle” his “personal debt”. The Doctor furiously demands that the War Chief send back everyone, but he confesses that only two of the SIDRATs are still functional. Both the Doctor and the War Chief realize that the only way to return the humans home is to call “them” in. The War Chief pleads, saying, “They’ll show no mercy”. While the Doctor mentally pieces together a box he says will serve as a distress call to the Time Lords, the War Chief tries to escape, only to run into the War Lord who promptly has him killed. The delay is just long enough that the Resistance, who were in pursuit of the War Chief, captures the War Lord. A nervous Doctor gets ready to send the signal, but tries to bid farewell to Zoe and Jamie, telling them the Time Lords will take them back to their rightful times along with the others. Zoe and Jamie refuse. The Doctor tries to take off in the TARDIS, but just as they’re within a few feet of the TARDIS, time suddenly slows down with the Doctor screaming, “We must get away.”

The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie manage to get inside the TARDIS and the Doctor prepares to take off. Zoe and Jamie are confused and disturbed about why the Doctor is so terrified of his own people and why he left his planet in the first place. He answers, “I was bored”, and that while the Time Lords only want to observe and record events, the Doctor yearned to see the universe firsthand. Unfortunately, his tendency to meddle went against the Time Lord ethos and made him a criminal in their eyes. The Doctor tries to escape by going to various planets, but a voice echoes in the TARDIS, demanding that the Doctor submit to his trial. Losing total control of the TARDIS, the Doctor finds that they landed on Gallifrey and sadly resigns himself to his fate. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe are brought before a courtroom-style setting where three Time Lords are presiding over accusations against the War Lord. Outside the court, though, a SIDRAT appears and the War Lord’s guards save their boss, kidnap the Doctor and his companions, and try to hijack the TARDIS. However, the Time Lords simply and casually thwart the attempt and pass sentence: total dematerialization for the War Lord and his guards. Now it’s time for the Doctor’s own trial. While Zoe and Jamie are held behind a force field outside the courtroom, the Doctor is charged with violating the law of non-interference. The Doctor turns around the trial, claiming that he fought evil while the Time Lords themselves are guilty of “failing to use their great powers to help those in need.” The Time Lords admit that the Doctor’s defense raised issues that need consideration. One of the Time Lords reluctantly agrees to let Zoe and Jamie say goodbye to the Doctor before they’re returned. They soon notice that the force field blocking Doctor’s cell has been left down, allowing them a chance to escape – or so it seemed. Finally, the Doctor somberly says farewell, already knowing that the Time Lords will erase all their memories of their adventures except their initial encounters with the Doctor. After reassuring the Doctor that Jamie and Zoe are alright, the Time Lords concede that the Doctor had a point about combating evil in the universe. To kill two birds with one stone, the Time Lords decide to let the Doctor protect the Earth, a planet they’ve noticed he’s particularly fond of, as part of his punishment in exile. When he protests that he’s too well-known on Earth, the Time Lords agree to change his appearance, despite the Doctor’s frantic protests.

Choice Quotes

The Doctor (on the Time Lords): “I suspect they’ll make me listen to a long, boring speech about being a good boy. They – they like making speeches.”

Zoe: “Doctor, will we ever meet again?”
The Doctor: “Again? Zoe, you and I both know time is relative, isn’t it?”

Continuity Notes

Ooh, boy. In terms of importance, this is the most significant bunch of episodes in the history of the entire franchise, even more so than the first episode of the 2005 show. There’s a lot established here that would become the foundations of the character and his world. You could even go so far as to say that this is the second start to the series, as we learn more about not only the Doctor’s origins, but his character and motivations (and arguably more than the classic series or the 2005 series have revealed since). But War Games is also hugely important for what it meant for “Doctor Who” in terms of the production.

First, the obvious—this is the end of the Second Doctor era (although not the last Second Doctor story presented in the television series). But it was also the finale for the entire original black-and-white, serial incarnation of the show. From here on, the show would be in color and episodic. In other words, the show became “modern”. For me, the show becoming episodic means if I continue with this writing the summaries won’t be such a pain anymore!

The other really big thing is this is the first time the audience sees Gallifrey, although it’s never named in this serial, and the first time we learn the name of the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, although it’s still a matter of some contention among diehard fans whether or not Time Lords refers to the entire species or it’s a rank given to select Gallifreyans. Honestly, the franchise has paid less attention to the distinction than the fans do.

Here is where the Doctor first admits that he stole the TARDIS and that he left Gallifrey because he was “bored.” The Doctor also claims that he and all Time Lords live forever “barring accidents”. This bit is contradicted later on when we find that Time Lords can indeed die from old age, but to them “old age” is something like 12,000 years, so by human standards they do practically live forever.

Okay, now strap yourself in because we’re going to tackle the issue of what exactly happens to the Second Doctor. And you’ll probably need a graduate degree in Whoology to follow along.

For starters, the idea that the Doctor regenerates in this episode is entirely retroactive. Like how the Second Doctor was originally just supposed to be the First Doctor at a younger age, the Second Doctor is explicitly said to be just changing his appearance here. Weirdly, regeneration makes more sense, which the writers must have realized down the road, because as soon as we get to the Third Doctor it’s clear his personality radically changed too, but, unlike the First Doctor’s “regeneration”, it’s impossible to say that regeneration is what’s happening on screen. Of course, that didn’t stop fans from trying or from the BBC as labelling this as a regeneration story. At any rate, maybe the biggest problem later continuity creates, if you can get past the “regeneration is clearly not what’s happening” here hurdle, is that it makes the Time Lords’ actions toward the Doctor much darker than the story intended. At best they’re executing him in a way, at worst they’re chopping centuries off his overall lifespan. Then there’s the fact that Patrick Troughton ages in later stories and that the Doctor is working for the Time Lords in both the stories he appears in later in the television stories, among other things.

The Discontinuity Guide — the White Guardian bless it — got around that with the “Season 6b” theory. In it, the Doctor’s sentence of exile was delayed so he could serve under the auspices of the Time Lords’ secret investigative organization, the Celestial Intervention Agency, and that his regeneration wasn’t caused by the Time Lords, but unknown circumstances. It still doesn’t jibe at all with what we see on screen, but it’s a clever patch job that got quasi-official recognition when Terrance Dicks himself, the co-writer of War Games, referenced the theory in the Past Doctor Adventures novel Players.

Another, albeit very minor, bit of continuity weirdness is that the War Lord’s race is never actually named in this story. The canonical name of the War Lord’s species — which is, well, War Lords — seems to have come along in the episodes’ 1979 novelization.

Outside all that, this is the first and only appearance of the War Chief, the second Time Lord foe the Doctor faces in the show. If the sculpted beard and the Nehru jacket were familiar, well, it’s probably not a coincidence that the writer who would go on to create the Master, Terrance Dicks, co-wrote this. Plus, just like the Master, the War Chief has a past history with the Doctor. I’m not quite sure if there are real world reasons or Dicks thought it worked better in story to have a new character, but, really, you almost could count this as the sort-of-first appearance of the Master. In fact, various Who novelizations, including ones written by Dicks, played around with the idea that the War Chief and the Master are the same Time Lord under different titles, but it’s far from canonical, even in the spin-off media.

There’s a minor point here, too. This is the very first time the Doctor uses the adorably lazy alias, “John Smith”.

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As you can tell from the length of the “Continuity Notes” section, it’s easy to overlook the actual story given how monumental War Games is in the franchise’s and the character’s history. After all, War Games was the last story before what was one of the biggest reworkings of a television show in history. Even though the show goes on for another two decades, War Games can still be seen as an epic finale to the first era of Doctor Who.

Luckily, though, the story holds up to this legacy. Sure, it has problems, many of them rooted in the show’s use of the serial format. The plot is stretched thinner than it should be, which is a problem especially because War Games is ten episodes long, with the Doctor and the companions running through the same perils and getting caught by the same villains multiple times. There’s also some ways the show didn’t age well in ways that are not surprising given the time it was made but which also ruins some potential. The character Harper, who is genuinely a black American Civil War Union soldier, is killed off at a point where he doesn’t serve as much more than a plot device. There’s no attempt to actually make a commentary or present a more complex character here even though all the pieces are right there. Also Lady Jennifer Buckingham is basically chivalrously shut out of the story by Jamie, even though she had the potential to be an interesting female heroine like Zoe. And the less said about the portrayal of a Mexican guerrilla leader, the better, although there is a rather cute moment where Zoe recruits the guerrilla leader into the Resistance but, because of his sexism, Zoe has to talk through Jamie.

It was also a bit too campy for me, even by the expectations I had as someone who’s watched all of ‘60s Doctor Who, that the villains were all named “security chief” and “War Chief” and “War Lord”. It doesn’t help that there really isn’t a reason for the War Lord to be in the story. Pretty much everything he does could have been done by the War Chief, who is a more interesting villain because of his personal history with the Doctor anyway.

But besides these problems, this is a worthy send-off to one of the most celebrated Doctor and companion teams, Zoe and Jamie. The mash-up of historical settings and a high-tech alien threat is carried off perfectly and is a nice encapsulation of what the show’s about and has the potential to be. The War Chief is also a pretty good if a tad underutilized villain, which explains why he gets “reincarnated” as the Master. There’s a certain subtle solidarity between him and the Doctor as unrooted renegade Time Lords even when they’re in conflict that makes him one of the less one-dimensional villains of the whole black-and-white period of the show.

But the real gem here is the tenth episode. The Doctor is victorious as always, but he is terrified at the mere prospect of running into representatives of his own species. It’s a tour de force performance by Patrick Troughton, whose fear is palpable and convincing and thus is as disconcerting for the viewer as it is for the audience. True, the Second Doctor has had plenty of moments where he’s fearful and even cowardly (at least seemingly so) before, but this is unprecedented. The Doctor, who has faced down armies with flinching, is completely unraveling and we don’t know exactly why.

Then the Time Lords show up. They do act benevolently, but at the exact same time they are frightening in a way that justifies the Doctor’s anxiety. For all his incredible intelligence and abilities, the Doctor is truly helpless before them. And even though they are kind and compassionate toward Zoe and Jamie, their efficient brutality toward the War Lord and the detached way they go about handling the Doctor are sobering. It’s a characterization that’s difficult to pull off, which is probably why it doesn’t last (that the 2005 series has basically reduced the Time Lords to a bunch of bungling bureaucrats whom the Doctor can defy with impunity, embracing a decline in characterization from the original series rather than fixing it, is an issue for me, but that’s a whole other conversation).

The heart of the story is actually not in the Doctor finally returning to Gallifrey, but in his farewell to Zoe and Jamie. There is a genuine sense of bittersweetness that wasn’t there even when the first companions—Susan, Ian, and Barbara—left the TARDIS. The Doctor knows they’re returning safely to their normal lives, but that not only will he never see them again (season 6b aside), but that they will forget practically all of their adventures together. Now ‘60s Doctor Who was capable of more darkness and tragedy than modern audiences would assume, but this is, I would argue, where the dramatic potential for this one-time kids’ educational show and its premise and universe really gets realized, if only briefly.

Join me again as a say a fond farewell to the Second Doctor and get ready to reverse the polarity!

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer Were Held At Gunpoint by Neo-Nazis

Even the better and more generally liked sitcoms tend not to age well, especially since many social situations that would have provided fodder for an entire episode in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s can nowadays be resolved with a smartphone. On the flipside, there are many scenarios made possible by social media and other relatively recent new developments that would have been incomprehensible even just a decade ago. This is exactly why Seinfeld Today was such a hit on Twitter. Technology has created as much a gap of lived experience between now and then as there was between people living in the ’90s and old movies and shows depicting people having to talk to phone operators and share a single phone line with multiple people in the same apartment building.

But history moves in strange currents and sometimes social trends and political developments can make a piece of art from many years ago more uncannily relevant than it was even at the time it was first seen. So it is with the “Seinfeld” episode “The Limo”, which is also, incidentally, one of my favorite comedic pieces of all time.

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It’s one of those “Seinfeld” episodes that take place mostly or entirely within a mundane setting, in this case, a (spoilers) limo. But it’s also written by Larry Charles, a writer famous (or notorious) for penning or co-writing some of the show’s darkest turns, including Kramer being suspected of being a serial killer (and being pursued by a cop taken right out of a police procedural of the era and hilariously misplaced in an otherwise typical “Seinfeld” episode), Elaine being threatened by a mentally ill stalker whom she has to ward off with pepper spray, and Elaine’s hunky boyfriend nearly dying in a mountain climbing accident accidentally caused by George. Plus, Charles wrote the show’s only known episode that made it far enough in the production process it was partially filmed and was table read, “The Bet”, yet was never close to fully filmed, much less broadcast. In fact, the episode’s director and half the main cast more or less revolted against doing it, something even Charles himself admitted in an interview was “understandable”. How controversial would it have been? Well, it had a b-plot about Elaine buying a handgun and, at one point, threatening Jerry by asking him if he wanted a bullet “in the Kennedy” while pointing the gun to her head or “in the McKinley” while moving it toward her stomach.

Needless to say, given my own dark sense of humor…yes, I wish that episode was made, and, yes, I spent about 20 minutes trying to find if there was a script online (alas, no dice).

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Anyway, true to form, Larry Charles made “The Limo” a horrific series of upping antes with a plot that could fairly easily be repurposed for a drama series. George arrives at the airport to pick up Jerry…barely, that is, because his car just broke down. Stressed out even by his usual standards, George is susceptible to his own crazy idea: to go up to a limo driver waiting for an airplane passenger named “O’Brien” and pretend that he is the would-be limo passenger, whom Jerry knows is stranded in an airport in Chicago. Things seem to go without a hitch, especially when they find out the limo is embarking for Madison Square Garden, which leads Jerry to assume they’re also getting tickets to a big basketball game in the bargain.

Unfortunately, before too long they find out their driver is picking up two passengers, a woman oddly enthusiastic about O’Brien and a slightly paranoid man. From them, George and Jerry learn that O’Brien is a well-known author and speaker, one scheduled to give a speech at a gathering at Madison Square Garden. Next Jerry and George find out O’Brien is well-known yet his face is unknown even to his fans because he’s a prominent Neo-Nazi making his public debut after a career so far spent in seclusion (the moment of this revelation remains a favorite of mine — the woman shows “O’Brien” a copy of his speech. George, reading: “And the Jews steal our money through the Zionist-occupied government and use the black man to bring drugs into our oppressed white-minority communities.” And Jerry’s nonchalant reaction: “You’re not going to open with that, are you?”) Oh, and the Neo-Nazis are packing serious heat.

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Needless to say, the jig is up once Elaine and Kramer, who were invited along back when George and Jerry still thought O’Brien was just some rich guy going to a Nicks game, finally tip the Neo-Nazis’ suspicions over and lead to them all having to plead for their lives at gunpoint. Forced out into a swarm of angry protesters, though, everyone seems to ultimately get out unscathed – except, of course, poor, helpless George, who winds up on an “interview” on  TV and identified before all of New York City as the leader of the Aryan Union.

I’m a bit biased, because not only am I a long-time fan of the show, but a fan of this one episode. It’s got that perfect mixture of real-world darkness and pure farce that I can’t help but personally be a mark for. If I had to lodge any negative criticism, it’s that more isn’t done with Kramer and especially Elaine (especially considering that, if I had to have a fictional avatar, it would be an amalgam of Elaine and George, if such a thing is imaginable). Nonetheless, even Elaine gets her moments. An easily missed one is when the quartet are all simultaneously trying to convince the Neo-Nazis not to kill them and Elaine blurts out, “I would never do anything to upset a Nazi!” Or when Elaine excitedly waves to her social justice-conscious (and very confused) boyfriend Dan from the limo, even as he’s part of the mob attacking the limo. Is it a believable reaction? No. Is it nonetheless something I would probably do in real life in a similar situation? Oh, God, yes.

But, of course, such claustrophobic stories as this rely on strong character moments. It’s delightful to watch George show himself as a great liar while his neuroticism shines through (his being terrified about whether or not this was a good idea back when everything seemed okay if uncertain giving way to his absolute insistence that the plan was “a good jig” even when everything is definitely going very, very downhill is classic George) as is Jerry’s compulsion to make little wisecracks and gags even when it threatens to expose himself as an impostor to two violent bigots. Also the bedrock of the episode is Jerry and George just bickering back and forth, bouncing around bad ideas for escape. (George: “They can’t shoot us in the city!” Jerry: “No, no one’s ever been shot in the city.”) It’s yet another reason I wish all of Larry David (“Seinfeld”‘s co-creator who inspired George’s character more than anyone else) and Jerry Seinfeld’s pre-fame conversations were recorded for posterity.

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But to return to my original point before I just mindlessly share every joke from the episode, it’s kind of obvious for reasons I don’t spell out about why “The Limo”, which aired in 1992, might seem more relevant 26 years later. Of course, “The Limo” doesn’t explore the issue of Neo-Nazism with any depth, humorous or otherwise, nor is Jerry and George’s Jewishness really called attention to except at the edges. To be honest, though, I have a hard time believing any network sitcom today would even have such a premise for an episode. In any case, like many of Larry Charles’ other darker plots, both the humor and the discomfort spring from the same place: the idea that, just beneath the surface of our everyday social dilemmas and interactions, something threatening could lie. That’s an observation that was true then, but in some ways is even more true today. At least, I think the other lesson that can be gleamed from “The Limo” is also important for today’s world – that sometimes the best way to counter fascists, even when they’re pointing guns with you, is with humor and a well-developed sense of the absurd.

 

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Non-Nostalgia Reviews, Uncategorized

Non-Nostalgia Review: The War Master: Only The Good

This might shock you regular readers of this blog, but I am a pretty big Who fan, to the point that I’m familiar with not just the TV show, but with the radio plays put out by Big Finish (which, rather delightfully, were recently given at least semi-canonical status by the show itself!). Plus I have very strong opinions about the “Who was the best showrunner of the modern series?” debate, but fortunately for you we’re here for something rather different. Here’s my thoughts on probably one of Big Finish’s most anticipated titles, springing out of their closer arrangement with the BBC that allowed them to work with storylines and characters from the modern series…

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Let me state the obvious: if you’re not already at least a casual fan of the TV show, this ain’t for you. Even the title, “The War Master”, is not really comprehensible unless you have some familiarity with the show’s continuity, and not just the fact that one of the show’s longest-running villains is called the Master. This definitely is no gateway, but it’s not intended to be. Instead, it’s a salve for those of us who wanted to see more of the great Sir Derek Jacobi performing as the Doctor’s greatest frenemy, the Master, for more than the six minutes we got in “Utopia”. Luckily, more than that, it’s a great addition to the “Doctor Who” canon in its own right, which fleshes out the Master in a way that fits neatly with both the “classic” and modern series interpretations of the character.

After a run-in with the Daleks and managing to recover his lost TARDIS, the Master is ordered by the Time Lords to perform an undercover mission on the planet Arcking, an entire planet that’s serving as a battlefield hospital in the Time War. If there is such a thing as an interplanetary Geneva Convention in the Doctor Who universe, the Daleks wouldn’t give a damn about it anyway, so why hasn’t Arcking been blasted into oblivion? Well, some unknown power that can effortlessly defy even the entire Dalek armada is protecting the planet, and the Time Lords want to find out if they can harness it. While pretending to be a benevolent doctor, the Master runs into a young, brilliant engineer named Cole, whom he soon enlists as his own companion and encourages him to play hero even in the midst of the most tragic catastrophes of the Time War. See, even the Master is disgusted with the Time War and, like the Doctor, he has a plan for ending it. It’s just, unlike his childhood friend, he doesn’t really get hung up on the question of whether the ends justify the means…

In a way, it’s a shame that we probably won’t get to see Derek Jacobi play the Master on the TV show again. But one of the strong points of Big Finish is that, freed from the limitations of a special effects budget, you can steer the story almost anywhere. So, Big Finish has stories like “…ish”, a Sixth Doctor adventure where the Doctor and his companion Peri face off against a renegade, murderous bit of language, or an Eighth Doctor story, “Scherzo”, where both the Doctor and his companion Charlie spend most of the time completely blinded by a bright light. The four interlinked stories that make up this “mini-series”, Only the Good, don’t get that experimental by a longshot, but it’s still hard to imagine it playing out on the show, unless the BBC miraculously multiplied its budget by ten. It’s an epic that spans from a war-torn city of amphibious beings to a suburban (literal) death-trap, with lively voice acting, especially from Nerys Hughes, who gets a delicious role that…well, I can’t talk about without spoilers.

The one issue with the scripting is that the overall story takes a while to actually get going. The first installment, “Beneath the Viscoid”, is more of a prelude, having little to do with the overall arc of the mini-series but setting up the Master’s personality, how he fits in the Time War, and just how dire the situation is. Still, it doesn’t fit in the narrative that well, and sets up the expectation that Only the Good will be a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive tale, albeit one with different cooks stirring the pot. In fact, you could probably skip “Beneath the Viscoid” and still be able to follow the rest of it.

But this is, admittedly, nitpicking. Honestly, this is one of Big Finish’s best offerings, and indeed an excellent Doctor Who tale even by the standards of the TV show at its best. Partially, it’s because this isn’t just a Master story, but a story about the Master. It actually makes an effort to build on both his past and future characterization. People dissatisfied with the more unhinged Masters portrayed by Sims and Gomez (and, for that matter, Big Finish’s own McQueen) might be pleased that Jacobi more resembles the cool if still murderous Master of the old series. At the same time, though, the writers pick up on the modern series’ exploration of the question of whether or not the Master is more capable of heroic selflessness than he’d ever admit.

As you might expect, though, the main draw is Derek Jacobi’s layered and downright brilliant take on the Master, which builds so much more than the precious little time he got on screen and showing that not giving him more time was one of the show’s biggest blunders. Jacobi’s Master is, on the surface, a reserved, eccentric, if slightly irascible man, but you don’t have to scratch far to find a sadist who can hold a really nasty, deadly grudge. Without getting into spoilers, it even makes Only the Good worth at least a second listen, as you listen knowing what the Master has in mind. Much like how thanks to Big Finish the Eighth Doctor, who “officially” only appeared in the TV movie and a brief special, The Night of the Doctor, became a fan favorite, I’m sure Jacobi will become one of the best Masters despite being fated to barely even an episode-long tenure.

Anyway, let me close off with just one quick, mild spoiler that might satisfy the curiosity of some of you: no, Only the Good doesn’t even refer to the “the Master was driven mad by a drumbeat inside his head” retcon (as if you’d need another reason to like Only the Good).

 

 

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Uncategorized

Overthinking It: Marcy Rhoades and the Paradox of Reagan Feminism

If you’ve been a long-time reader, you might have picked up that one of my favorite sitcoms is Married…With Children. Watching it as a kid shaped not only my dark and naughty sense of humor, but also, much like The Simpsons, it gave me invaluable lessons about cynicism and hypocrisy, preparing me for a world where people who try to push prudery upon the world might be perverts in private and where those who hold fast to noble ideals might have more than a bit of a sadistic streak. And in the show’s universe, no character better taught those lessons better than Marcy Rhoades D’Arcy.

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Marcy has a reputation as a straw feminist in a show that tends to be more remembered for Al Bundy’s NO MA’AM club and for an audience audibly leering at Kelly Bundy’s skimpy outfits than for biting social satire. It’s a view that’s simultaneously fair and unfair. Al Bundy has had the same appeal to people who don’t get the joke as Archie Bunker from All in the Family, and in our current era, when questions of gender are more politically fraught now than they have been since arguably the 1960s, more than a few of the jokes (like when Bud Bundy says he’d rather be a man than a cook in one episode) have more of a bitter taste than they probably would have when their episodes first aired. That said, the show was much more clever with its commentary about than it’s usually given credit for. If you peek behind the curtain, it shouldn’t be too surprising. The show’s creators, Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt, were both men, but out of the 15 writers who wrote more than 17 episodes for the show throughout its entire run, eight were women, a majority of episode directors were women, and the show also had eight female producers, including Katherine Green, who was an executive producer along with Moye and Leavitt for most of the show’s run. Compare that to another hit comedy of the era, The Simpsons, which only had one regular female scriptwriter out of thirteen scriptwriters through the period roughly lining up with Married…with Children’s run, or even to The Golden Girls, which throughout its entire history had four women out of the fourteen scriptwriters who wrote for more than ten episodes.

I don’t think there’s a better example of the show’s commentary about politics, class, and gender than one of history’s greatest annoying sitcom neighbors, Marcy. Played to perfection by Amanda Bearse, who herself was an out-lesbian and ended up in the show’s later seasons being a frequent director on crew, Marcy was indeed a feminist. However, she was also a Republican, something that tends to be unknown by both the show’s detractors and Al Bundy’s unironic admirers. But wait, you may be asking, my hypothetical reader who is too wrapped up in the contemporary political wars, a character who is both Republican and feminist? I’ll explain, but first, let’s try to capture the essence of Marcy Rhoades, later Marcy D’Arcy.

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At first, Marcy along with her husband Steve Rhoades is part of a naïve, newlywed couple, in contrast to the long-married and bitter Bundy couple. The joke was to contrast the progressive idealism of the Rhoades with the ugly reality of the Bundys. However, by at least the end of the first season, the characters were evolving beyond the original concept. The difference was no longer the span of their marriages. The Bundys were working-class and militantly apolitical, beyond Al Bundy’s broad distaste for feminism and vague hatred of France, while the Rhoades were an upper middle-class couple that worked in banking and clearly identified as feminists and social progressives while also holding conservative ideas. This wasn’t something just made up for comedic convenience or to serve as a foil for the Bundys. The Rhoades, especially Marcy, represented something of the ‘80s and ‘90s that the audience would have recognized: the Reagan-era feminist.

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Like her sitcom feminist predecessor, Maude Findlay, Marcy is cosmopolitan and intellectual. She enjoys going to Moroccan restaurants and watching PBS pledge drives and hates sports. Also her feminist bona fides are impeccable, even if in the show they mostly come across in her opposition to Al Bundy, who is, in her words, “a cheap, sexist, primitive throwback of a human being.” She encourages Peg Bundy to get a job in more than one episode, much to Peg’s chagrin, and encourages her husband to be a more gentle and modern man, telling Steve on one occasion with disappointment that “under that sensitive, caring façade, you’re nothing but a…a man.” One time, she is proud that Steve got a promotion, but admits that she hoped a woman would get it instead. However, just under Marcy’s post-1960s liberalism, there’s the sort of primitive impulses that she urges her husband to oppress. First, she has a violent streak, vowing to hunt down a neighborhood peeper, smash his toes with a hammer, and then “turn the hammer around…” Second, even though she disapproves of pornography and smut – to the point she even reacts to a male strip joint as “immoral” and “degrading” – she has a rich and rather perverse sex life. She nearly gets arrested when she role-plays as a prostitute getting picked up by a sailor played by Steve, lusts after high school football players in a game (“Spike me, baby. Spike me”), it’s strongly implied that she and Steve engage in S&M (“Oh, Steve. I’ve been bad”), she objectifies television fitness guru Jim Jupiter alongside Peg on a regular basis, and she rents movies with titles like “Judy’s Big Date.” One episode even has Marcy losing her wedding ring down the pants of a stripper at the aforementioned male strip club (which Peggy dragged her to, naturally).

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Marcy’s little hypocrisies are part of the show’s humor but also what makes her a relatable character, but then there’s Marcy’s brand of feminism. She’s a feminist, but she also savors her upper middle-class lifestyle. If anything that’s an understatement. When her marriage with Steve is on the rocks, in no small part because Steve has gone full Pamela Anderson and has embraced animal rights activism to the cost of his economic lifestyle, she yearns for the older Steve who was “money-grubbing” and “would step on an old lady for a dollar.” The joke here is Marcy represents the compromises many feminists made with the conservative “greed is good” decade, finding ways to reconcile their struggle for egalitarianism and progress in gender with their acceptance of the inequality in income and class. She’s an exaggerated representation, as all representations of real-life types would be in a comedy like Married…With Children, but there is something to the woman who disdains the Bundys’ crude and self-indulgent worldview yet is delighted when her husband promises they will “punch up some of our old classmates credit ratings on the computer and make love by the flickering ashes of their lives.”

But does this mean she’s a feminist and a Republican? Well, yes. It’s canon. In one episode, when reminiscing about her youth in the 1960s, one of the things Marcy remembers with fondness is Young Republican meetings. But the clincher is the seventh season episode “Al On The Rocks.” Peg has exiled her children Kelly and Bundy out into a freezing Chicago night so that they don’t endanger the ill-fated Seven with their cold germs. Bud begs Marcy for help, but she shrugs and says, “I can’t. I’m a Republican.”

So there you have it. Marcy was more than just an obnoxious neighbor, but also the embodiment of the uneasy yet still sustainable truce some individuals hold between social and cultural progressivism and views that border on economic Darwinism. Thankfully that’s no longer a readily identifiable type today, right?

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