Holidays

My Favorite Christmas Special: It’s a Bundyful Life

I swear I ain’t got nothing against Christmas, but I do have a lot of animosity toward Christmas entertainment.  It’s not just the saccharine yet vague moralizing, although that is part of it (especially when I’m subjected to traditional Christmas music), but how all the things that really define most people’s Christmases are ignored or at least whitewashed with a sugary paste.  You know, things like the orgy of consumerism in the name of a holiday supposedly commemorating the birth of a man who urged his followers to give away all of their possessions, or being forced to spend your time off work or school with people you’re connected to only through accidents of biology.

That’s not to say I can’t enjoy a Christmas special that is more on the puppies and rainbows side, like A Charlie Brown Christmas (although even that dealt with Christmas-time consumerism), but…I have to say, my own favorite Christmas special of all time was from Married…with Children, an epic two-parter titled “It’s a Bundyful Life.”

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At least it does start off happy, with eternally cursed working man Al Bundy achieving a rare victory where, thanks to setting up a special Christmas club account at the bank, he can actually adequately provide for his family.  “So in addition to our annual Christmas feast at Denny’s, this year we’re getting presents,” he gloats.  Maybe in the United States’ current economy such jokes have a little too much bite in them, but I always liked the North Korean-style level of poverty that became more and more part of the show’s humor.  It just helps the image of the Bundys’ existence as the Dark Mirror Universe version of pretty much every late 20th century happy middle-class family sitcom.  Helping that image is that neighbor Marcy, distressed that her husband has ditched her for the entire holiday for his overnurturing mother, comes to the Bundys for sympathy.  When Al mocks her as always, Peg expresses some…less than shining sympathy.  “Do you know how many people with lives a lot better than hers commit suicide this time of year?”  Peg asks Al.  Indeed, this is what my loved ones have to remind themselves of.

Peg advises her to have fun at her office party, which happens to be at Al’s bank, even without her husband around.  Unfortunately, when Al is late, Marcy had already taken Peg’s advice too far and we end up with Evidence #7818 as to why Married…with Children’s Marcy Rhodes deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest characters in American sitcom history.

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More than just an obvious take on It’s a Wonderful Life, “It’s a Bundyful Life” is a riff on the age-old sitcom trope of where the beleaguered patriarch of the family just can’t fulfill the materialistic desires of his family, but the family get their presents at the end regardless, or they discover “the true meaning of Christmas” (hint: it actually isn’t Jesus), or they find something else that gives them perspective like a stray dog or a homeless family.  It is, after all, what The Simpsons did with their first televised episode, and they were more straightforward about it than you might expect.  What I love about this special is that it doesn’t even hint at the slightest possibility that sentimentalism could win out over materialism.   As Kelly wisely puts it, “Christmas without presents is like Thanksgiving without pizza.”   The closest the Bundy family comes to a kind moment is when they decide to reciprocate Al’s upcoming gift-giving by “regifting” his own possessions (in a rare moment of mental clarity, Kelly decides to wrap up Al’s toothbrush, since he never uses it).   Meanwhile Al is either genuinely terrified of how his wife and children might retaliate, or afraid of failing even the smallest crumb of responsibility as the Bundys’ breadwinner, or both.  “Daddy is not stupid enough to really believe that you love him,” Peg admonishes her children when they try to curry gift-giving favor with Al.

Of course, the situation does call for a whacky sitcom plan.  This being Married…With Children, Al’s zany scheme involves starting a fake day care business and keeping the children imprisoned.  It does make you ponder Bud and Kelly’s upbringing.  

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Of course, like almost all money-making sitcom schemes it doesn’t work , but the whole episode is just a stretched-out set up to Part 2 – blatantly so, which is the big flaw with the special.  This does,, however, allow the second part to jump right to business.  Al shocks himself while trying to fix some Christmas lights (the eternal bane of clumsy American dads) and meets his reluctant, and indeed outright horrified, guardian angel, played by Sam Kinison.

For those of you who were not culturally conditioned in the ’90s, Sam Kinison was a Pentecostal preacher-turned-comedian who, tragically, died of a car accident in 1992.  He tends to get confused with Bobcat Goldthwait, because…well, they have similar heights and builds, and their distinctiveness comes from voice quirks, I guess.  Detractors to Sam Kenniston might say that his style was his enraged shouting and screeching, but honestly he had a working class aura that perfectly fits the gritty and militantly anti-suburbanite feel of Married…With Children to a ‘T’ standing for ‘trash.’

itsabundyfullifealandsam

From this point on, the show is actually surprisingly faithful if succinct in its retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life.  Al was never born and Peg married a businessman named Norman Jablonski, but (okay, they just didn’t want to or couldn’t build a new set, what do you expect) they live in the same house and Bud and Kelly were still conceived the way they are in reality – more or less.  Actually, everything is reversed.  Peg is a strict but loving mother who actually enjoys cooking, Kelly is a chaste poet and college student, and Bud is old-fashioned and chivalric.  They don’t demand anything for Christmas, but Norman does promise that they will be moving into a mansion.  Hey, it’s still the ’90s, so upgrading from a two-floor house in the Chicago suburbs to a mansion isn’t completely unbelievable.

And maybe I’m reading way too much into what is just an episode of a notoriously crass sitcom, the lowest of all entertainment genres (at least until reality TV became commonplace), but I don’t think the joke is completely that this is a mirror universe of the Bundys (or the Bundys are the mirror universe version of the Jablonskis).   Peg Wanker Jablonski is chained to her stove and her kids’ schedules in a way Peg Bundy would find disgusting.  Kelly is (she’ll admit) “frigid” and completely unwilling to indulge in the pleasures of the life limiting how much even as a poet she can be said to truly live.  Finally, Bud, instead of futilely objectifying women, now holds them up as fragile beings whose honor has to be constantly defended, which subjects them to as much objectification but precludes Bud from perhaps ever having a sexual relationship with them even more than his original peeping tom ways.    In sum, the Jablonskis are far more successful and more loving toward each other than the Bundys, but they’re also much less free in the purest, most libertine sense.

Hey, if by chance you’re writing your PhD dissertation on Married…with Children, feel free to cite me!

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Anyway, Al comes to a slightly more simple conclusion than I did.  “Look at them.  They’re happy.  Not a care in the world.  You think I want that to happen after all they put me through?  I want to live!”  he tells Sam.  Thus we see Al deciding to choose life out of spite.

I don’t know about you all, but that’s a far more valuable moral than even anything the original It’s a Wonderful Life had to offer.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Nightmare Cafe (1992)

Apologies (again) for going off the radar.  As always, summer is a busy time for me, and it hit harder than I expected this time.  I can’t promise I’ll be able to update regularly, since I’ll be out of the country for most of next month and I have no idea if I’ll have regular WiFi access in that time, but I’ll do what I can.

In the meantime…

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Somehow “All Nightmare” Cafe seems the more intimidating name.

Nightmare Cafe is one of the reasons I’m in this (non-paying) business.  I vaguely remember watching an episode way back when I was a lil’ trash culture anthropologist.  I’m not exactly sure why, but the memory of the show stuck with me, probably because even then I was into horror so the title stuck out for me.   These are the kinds of cultural memories that I feel compelled to pursue, in hopes of unearthing some buried gem.  The fact that both Wes Craven (albeit only at the margins) and Robert Englund were involved really made it worth revisitng for me.  So, bottom line, I really wanted to like it, but there’s only so much that Englund playing a thinly disguised Satan named “Blackie”…

I could watch a 3 hour film that's just Englund playing the Devil.

I could watch a 3 hour film that’s just Englund playing the Devil.

Information online about the show is scarce, but from what I pieced together Craven originally wanted to make an anthology series, but decided – with or without studio interference – to have regular characters who interact with the plot.  See, the titular “Nightmare Cafe” is some kind of sentient cosmic being in place form that is dedicated to punishing or rewarding (of course, in the show’s short six-episode run, we see a lot more of the former) individuals.  The cafe’s spokesman is Englund’s character, Blackie, who is strongly implied to be Satan – but not the Prince of Darkness Satan, rather the Old Testament Satan of the Book of Job fame, whose job is to test the morals and ethics of humanity.  The first episode has Blackie test and ultimately enlist as its cook and waitress  two lost souls, a security guard tempted into allowing something unethical to take place in order to save his job, Frank, and a woman who committed suicide out of frustrated love, Fay.  All of this is set up in the first episode, and the show does take a dark turn by making it clear that, no, the two leads do technically die.  However, it’s here that the first show takes its first misstep by resolving everything that went wrong in Fay and Frank’s lives immediately.  Of course, this is long before X-Filesstyle long-term story arcs became all the craze, but I like to think that even to audiences in 1992 Fay and Mark’s lack of a real story arc looked like a lost opportunity.

But, first, what the show has going for it:  it has a pretty good premise.  Granted it might have worked better as the anthology series Craven envisioned, with the cafe and maybe Blackie as the only recurring elements, but it’s a pretty open-ended concept that could allow for all kinds of tales.  Yet most of the episodes, including the pilot, seem to be aiming for a retro hardboiled detective/film noir vibe, albeit one that’s smoothed down for the uptight sensibilities of early ’90s network TV.  And honestly, while I think the show could have worked if the cafe and Blackie were the only supernatural elements in most episodes, it’s just not that interesting, especially since the cafe itself usually winds up feeling extraneous, a guest star in its own show.

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Have I mentioned how awesome Robert Englund is, though?

The big exception was the sixth and last episode to air, “Aliens Ate My Lunch.”  It’s…well, saying it’s tongue in cheek is kind of an understatement.  The cafe teleports (oh yeah, the cafe can teleport anywhere) to a rural community where aliens have been allegedly stealing cows.  Blackie (in one of the episode’s few truly funny sequences, because, you know, Robert Englund) sets up a sleazy tabloid reporter Harry Tambor to cover the story.  Frank’s also revealed to be a huge admirer of Harry because…well, I guess they have to get the main cast invested in the story somehow.  That’s really where the show messed up its premise.  Almost every  story ended up personally involving Fay and Frank in some way;  one story involves Fay’s sister, one has a woman Frank has fallen for, another has the cafe teleport to Frank’s hometown…Frank and Fay just weren’t meant to be much more than just the audience’s connection to the cafe, and it simply feels awkward to see them instead carry the narrative.

Anyway, I forgot to mention, there’s a trope of little people with broad eastern European accents.  Now I’m the sort of person who rolls their eyes at every “progressive” blog post that complains about Game of Thrones for depicting a medieval-style fantasy society that treats women much like real world medieval societies, or will even defend a genocide or rape joke (as long as it’s in “good bad taste”, of course), but there’s just something off about this one, especially since most of the “humor” from these scenes can be summed up as, “They’re little people…with eastern European accents!”  Just imagine Homer Simpson saying that while bellowing laughter and you’ll know what I mean.

It's a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

It’s a twofer of vaguely uncomfortable stereotypes!

Well, the plot is that Harry enlists the trope into helping him fake a UFO sighting.  It’s really at this point that you realize that they could have done this whole story without any of the show’s principals, and then you notice that this show that’s ostensibly about the power of karma and second chances for the deserving has a story about midgets helping a tabloid reporter con a bunch of farmers into thinking a UFO has been kidnapping their cows.  To be fair, things speed up and the Nightmare Cafe clique get dragged into the plot when they’re all menaced by a lynch mob led by the most ludicrously corrupt rural sheriff this side of Boss Hogg.  You can get why the cafe inevitably punishes the triggerhappy, jerkass sheriff, but it punishes Harry too, for some reason.  I mean, sure, he tried to deceive an entire community (for no reason at all, since he already had the story about the very real cattle disappearances, but whatever), but what else did he do?  Make a career out of writing “Batboy Impregnates Paris Hilton” style articles?  Does that really call upon the cosmic intervention of this all-powerful cafe?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

What karmic retribution would await a nitpicking nerd?

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being too uptight about what’s obviously meant to be an intergalactic farce.  After all, the little people turn out to be the real aliens (come on, if you didn’t see that one coming, then you don’t watch enough TV!).  Plus the missing cows are okay, their organs not at all removed and dissected to help further some alien plan to invade Earth, and are returned, since they just wanted to go to Mars, or something.  The cafe torments the sheriff and Harry a bit, and the episode – and the series – closes out with a couple of hints about the nature of the cafe and Blackie and the revelation that Fay and Frank can both die (again), all of which, of course, will never be followed up on.

“Aliens Ate My Lunch” managed to simultaneously be a revelation of the show’s potential and an explanation as to why it failed.  On the plus side, it did do a much better job of showing the premise”s potential than the earlier episodes and their fixation on genre formula.  In the negative column, the whole affair is just a hodgepodge of creaky gags and the mildly surreal, which just all seems to hang loosely from the entire framework of the show.  All six episodes are up on YouTube, so I still encourage people to watch because, hey, you got nothing to lose but time.

Still, I have to admit, if you want to see Robert Englund as the Devil, I have to recommend instead the gloriously goofy “Damn Bundys” episode from “Married With Children”‘s last season.  

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who: The Highlanders (1967)

After the TARDIS appears in the Scottish Highlands, the Doctor stumbles across a decapitated corpse. On the body is a note carrying a cryptic message, “There can be only one.”

Sorry.

Actually, the TARDIS lands in the middle of the the Battle of Culloden, where the Jacobites supporting the Stuart claimant to the British throne, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” have been decisively defeated by Loyalist troops defending the reigning king, George II. When a cannonball lands nearby, the Doctor immediately wants to leave, but Polly and Ben, thinking (for some reason) they might be in present-day England, insist on exploring. Unfortunately, when the Doctor tries on and then throws down a Jacobean cap, he attracts the attention of fleeing Scottish rebels who think they’re Loyalists and kidnap them. The Doctor is taken to a deserted college, where he’s enlisted in tending to the severely wounded Laird Colin McLaren alongside the laird’s daughter Kristy and piper Jamie McCrimmon. While Polly and Kristy are away getting water, a contingent of British troops investigate the cottage and arrest its inhabitants. Even though the Doctor claims to be a traveling German doctor, “Doktor von Wer,” he is condemned to be hung as traitors along with the laird and Jamie. Polly tries to distract the soldiers, and she and Kristy are chased by the group’s commander, Lt. Ffinch, who has heard a rumor that Prince Charles was disguised as a woman. After a few adventures, Polly and Kristy are able to elude Ffinch and his men.

The Doctor and the others are “saved” by a government official, Grey, who is heading an illegal scheme to round up any surviving Jacobites and sell them as slaves in the Americas. Although most of the prisoners believe Grey’s claims that they will be sold to be indentured servants, the Doctor, Jamie, Ben, and the laird work out the truth. Disguised alternatively as Doktor von Wer and as a scullery maid, the Doctor slips away and manages to set up a plan with Polly and Kristy. While the Doctor distracts Grey and his men with a story about Jamie being a disguised Bonnie Prince Charlie, Kirsty and Polly manage to sneak weapons in to the Jacobites, who revolt and commandeer the ship Grey planned to use to deport them to America. The laird, Kirsty, and the other Jacobeans decide to set out for France. Only Jamie, who out of gratitude promises to help the Doctor, Ben, and Polly find the TARDIS no matter what, is left behind.

The Doctor and his companions take Grey hostage to insure their safety while they look for the TARDIS. Grey escapes, though, and tries to have them arrested by Ffinch and his men at the cottage where they ran into Jamie and the others in the first place. However, Ffinch, who has actually befriended Polly, believes the Doctor’s accusation that Grey has been selling prisoners of war into slavery. The deal is clinched when Grey is unable to produce the contracts of indentured servitude he tricked the Jacobites into signing, because the Doctor stole them. Ffinch has Grey arrested and leaves the Doctor, Ben, and Polly in peace. Later they find the TARDIS and invite Jamie to join them. Once Jamie sees the TARDIS, he very reluctantly goes in.

Choice Quotes

Polly: Doctor, you don’t want us to think you’re afraid, do you?
Doctor: Why not?

Continuity Notes

This is the last of the “pure” historicals for the classic series – with  the exception of the somewhat oddball Fifth Doctor story, “Black Orchid” – and, so far, for the 2005 series as well.

Also it’s the first appearance of new companion Jamie McCrimmon, who, after so many short-term companions, will stick around for three years.

Comments

While I’m sad that this will be the last “pure” historical, it was at least something of a high point of the tradition to end on. It’s still not as strong a serial as the classics “Marco Polo” or “The Aztecs,” but it has the sort of attention on character detail that’s been largely lacking for the past few historicals. Also it does a good job of further fleshing out the character of the second Doctor, whose obsession with hats actually ends up becoming a major plot point.

The problem is that, unlike the best historicals, it still doesn’t really do anything with the time travel angle, lacking the kind of theme or playing with the implications of time travel that defined the best of the First Doctor historicals. Nor does it really exploit the specific setting and period. Despite the unique backdrop, it is pretty much interchangeable apart from the introduction of Jamie. You could have done more or less the same plot with the Roman invasion of Gaul, a civil war in China, or, well, any story involving a war and a disenfranchised population. That’s not to say there aren’t any good details thrown in, but it does feel like a lot more could have been done here.  Still, it’s good that, despite the bad experience the showrunners had with Katrina, they were willing to experiment with having another person from (according to the audience’s perspective) the past, something else the 2005 series needs to be more open to attempt.  It’s telling that, despite not in TV producer’s logic being a character a modern audience “could relate to”, Jamie still is one of the more memorable and long-lasting companions from the classic series.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Life With Lucy

The first two Forsaken installments were about things I really like, so I think it’s past time that I focus on something that isn’t all that good, and arguably deserves to be known as truly Forsaken.  I’m talking about…

…the Lucille Ball sitcom you may not have heard of, Life with Lucy from 1986!

I Love Lucy is usually the go-to reference for anyone wanting to invoke television’s “golden age.” It’s also a testimony to the enduring power of Lucille Ball;  in ironic contrast to the retrograde gender politics of I Love Lucy and the very fact that the premise was centered around a woman who just can’t break into entertainment, Lucille Ball exercised a degree of clout in the industry that’s unimaginable for any woman even today.  And that influence came in no small part from Lucille’s own fantastic instincts for what audiences would like.  While today she is mostly known for  I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu also helped bring Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show to the small screen.  Besides her behind-the-scenes victories, Lucille also headed a couple of pretty successful sitcoms post-I Love Lucy:  The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy.  By any standard, she had a great run, but that perfect record was spoiled by her last project, Life with Lucy.  

Generic ’80s Sitcom Family Life with Lucy

Now you’re probably already comparing it with other projects made by celebrities at the end of their careers:  Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother, Mae West in Sextette, and – hell, let’s not be sexist – Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Luckily for Lucille Ball, Life with Lucy is nowhere near the tragicomical catastrophe that Sextette was.  At least Lucille Ball didn’t have to be guided around the set by stage hands like the mostly blind Mae West.  But one can’t really get away with honestly describing Life with Lucy as a misunderstood triumph either…

Problem#1 is that the entire show is really not even a standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom with Lucille Ball injected into it;  it’s just Lucille Ball with a flimsy standard-issue Reagan era family sitcom built around her.  The entire premise is that Lucy has inherited co-ownership of a hardware store from her late husband.  Since her co-owner Curtis (played by Gale Gordon, who was Lucy’s co-star in her last two sitcoms) happens to also be the father of her daughter’s husband,  they all end up moving in together with their children and grandchildren.  Naturally, the uptight Curtis quickly gets frustrated with Lucy’s well-meaning but inept attempts to run the store.  So basically it is just like I Love Lucy, but with a hardware store instead of a band.  Intrigued?!

You can already hear the “harrumph harrumph.”

The characters – or maybe I should say “characters” – drag an already lackluster premise further down.  Granted I am talking mostly about the pilot, but you never get the sense that the family is anything more than set-pieces for Lucy and Gale Gordon to act around and occasionally react to.  The father’s entire personality is Constantly Mildly Befuddled and the mother’s characteristics are as much of a mystery as Atlantis with just about as much of a chance of being discovered.  Worst of all, the show gives us not one, but two obnoxious cute kids who apart from their genders are completely interchangeable.  Sure, we’re still not anywhere near toxic Full House levels, but it’s still a lot to cope with from a pre-Michelle Tanner sitcom.

Even the name of the actor playing the dad is generic!

Problem #2:  You know the “hip grandparent who’s more with what the kids are doing than the boring middle-aged parents” cliche?  Depending on your age, probably not, because The Simpsons mocked that trope so brutally with the mere presence of Abe Simpson that it collapsed into a quantum singularity and vanished from pop culture existence (well, more or less, maybe).   Well, it’s in full force here, culminating in Lucy, sporting jogging gear and a brick-sized mid-’80s headset, breaking out into a dance for no reason aside from a possible “mixing booze with pills” situation.

“I’m hauling ass to Lollapalooza!”

And that brings up to problem #3.   I said before Lucille Ball really isn’t as badly aged as Mae West in Sextette, and I meant that.  Plus  Betty White among others have, of course, shown once and for all that someone in their 80s can still hold up to the demands of being in a TV show’s regular cast, but the type of physical comedy that Lucy still obviously wants to make the centerpiece of this show…well, it’s not painful to watch her go through the motions by any stretch, but it doesn’t exactly come across as well-advised for Lucille Ball personally either.  Even then, that’s nothing compared to another issue coming out of Lucille Ball’s physical characteristics at the time this show was filmed.  See, a lifetime of smoking had made Lucille Ball’s voice sound like this…

On the show, one of Lucy’s characteristics is that she’s a health nut – between the jogging and the health drinks (which, of course, taste bad and is the set-up for something like five minutes of jokes) – and she strongly objects to other people smoking.  Now maybe it was deliberate, an attempt by the real-life Lucille Ball to atone for her lifestyle, which is possible considering that Lucille Ball was given massive creative control over this show, but even if it was it comes off as more than a tad disconcerting, hearing a woman with a voice so raspy it would take decades to perfect lecture her employer on the evils of smoking.

Admittedly, once we’re introduced to the set pieces and Lucy gets to show off a character trait here and there, the show does pick up a bit, but it does so by just giving us I Love Lucy:  Lucy Goes to a Hardware Store.  It doesn’t help that Lucy and Bob get into a lengthy exposition fest over a giant fire extinguisher…

If you were raised in a bio-dome you may not have seen this joke coming…

For all the poor writing and the rather desperate attempt to call down the spirit of I Love Lucy, Life with Lucy isn’t…terrible, mostly because even in less than optimal conditions first-rate talents like Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon can still shine through.  Still, in its own way it’s as tragic as other doomed comeback attempts by talents in the twilight of their careers.  After decades of starring in hits, this show proved to be Lucille’s only major flop, getting cancelled before the first season was even finished, which devastated her and depending on who you ask contributed to her death three years later.

It’s especially tragic because Lucille Ball may actually have had one more hit in her.  With the Reagan era family sitcom already slipping away into the cultural void and the way being paved for the late 80s/early 90s sitcom revolution, perhaps her fourth sitcom would have made more of an impression if it had a more daring – or even just a slightly more distinctive – premise.  After all, that very thing worked for Bea Arthur and Betty White just one year before with the Golden Girls.  As it turned out, however, even the all-mighty power of nostalgia couldn’t save Lucy and her legendary entertainment instincts from the slow death of a decrepit genre.

 

 

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Tenth Planet (1967)

It’s 1986, and the release of “Crocodile Dundee” isn’t the only thing that’s noteworthy. An international space agency has just launched the “Zeus IV” rocket on a routine mission from its base in Antarctica. Afterward the base’s crew are shocked when they spot the Doctor, Ben, and Polly sightseeing the wasteland of Antarctica. They have them brought to the base and detained. The official in charge of the base, General Cutler, wants to interrogate the Doctor, but is distracted by the mission Zeus IV is on, especially once the crew on board spot a brand new yet strangely “familiar” planet that’s near Venus and the ship suffers an abrupt and unexplained loss of power. The Doctor proves his credentials by accurately predicting exactly what the scientists will discover: a planet that resembles Earth, but Cutler is still hostile and skeptical. While the base’s crewmen investigate the TARDIS outside, they are killed by a group of cyborgs who then disguise themselves with the crewmen’s coats.

The Doctor tries to warn the scientists about the danger the crew of Zeus IV are in and about invaders from the twin Earth, but they’re too busy trying to save the ship to listen or notice as the disguised cyborgs effortlessly take over the base. One of the cyborgs explains that his race are the Cybermen. They come from Mondas, a planet that shared Earth’s orbit millions of years ago but some cataclysm caused it to drift into deep space. In order to survive, the surviving human-like Mondasians, the Cybermen’s ancestors, had to use “spare parts for their bodies.” Another improvement made by the Cybermen was in removing all emotions. By threatening to break off all contact with Zeus IV, the Cybermen force the base’s scientists to tell the space agency that nothing unusual is happening at the base even though knowledge of the existence of Mondas has become public and power across Earth is slowly being drained. Ben tries to grab a gun and attack the Cybermen, but only ends up locked in a room. The crew can only talk to the crew of Zeus IV as the ship is pulled into Mondas’ orbit and explodes. The Cybermen coolly explain that what happened to Zeus IV is also happening all over the Earth; Mondas, which has been dying, is draining Earth’s energy, but before the Earth dies the Cybermen will “save” humanity by bringing them to Mondas and converting them into Cybermen. Meanwhile Ben manages to use the equipment in his prison to devise a makeshift weapon which, to his horror, he uses to kill a Cyberman. Still, Ben hands the weapon to General Cutler, who uses it to kill the Cybermen and take back control of the base. Cutler gets into contact with the international space agency in Geneva and learns that they just sent his son on a mission to save the doomed Zeus IV.

The Doctor becomes severely ill, so ill he becomes unconscious. Meanwhile Cutler plans to use the Z-Bomb, a literal “doomsday weapon,” on Mondas, now that a Cybermen invasion force seems to have been launched from Mondas. Even though Cutler’s superiors and one of the base’s scientists, Dr. Barclay, are concerned that blowing up Mondas with the Z-Bomb will cause a wave of radiation that would kill much of Earth’s population and Ben tells Cutler that the Doctor was certain that Mondas would absorb too much energy and become destroyed, Cutler is determined to see Mondas obliterated. Polly convinces Barclay to turn against Cutler and he then tells Ben how to sabotage the Z-Bomb. When the bomb fails to launch, Cutler immediately blames the Doctor, Barclay, and the others. A conscious but still ill Doctor appears and defends Polly and Ben. After one more broadcast reveals that his son’s ship is almost out of power and is drifting toward Mondas, Cutler goes insane and threatens to murder the Doctor. Suddenly Cybermen invade the base again and, when Cutler tries to attack, he is killed. The Doctor tries to warn the Cybermen that Mondas is doomed and offers to let them live on Earth. As a guarantee the Cybermen take Polly hostage and promise to return her once the Z-Bomb is taken underground by Ben and Barclay. The Doctor figures out that the Cybermen really want to use the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth in order to save Mondas and manages to warn Barclay and Ben about the Cybermen’s real intentions.

Ben figures out that the Cybermen are reluctant to handle the Z-Bomb themselves because they are vulnerable to radiation and tries to threaten the Cybermen with the bomb. In retaliation, the Cybermen take the Doctor hostage. Ben and Barclay use radiation rods taken from the base’s energy core as a weapon against the Cybermen and get a front row seat as Mondas literally disintegrates. This has the handy side effect of killing all the Cybermen on Earth. Ben rescues Polly and the Doctor, who has fallen unconscious again, from the Cybermen’s ship. The Doctor desperately demands that Polly and Ben take him back to the TARDIS “at once.” Polly and Ben are locked out of the TARDIS, but a very weak Doctor barely manages to open the doors. As soon as they reach the console, the Doctor collapses on the floor and his body flashes with light as the TARDIS teleports, leaving behind a younger and seemingly new man.

Continuity Notes

There are a couple of big ones here; the biggest is that we have William Hartnell, who originated the role, leaving the show and the first regeneration, which is probably the ultimate example of television necessity becoming a major plot point. Naturally the showrunners had no inkling that “Doctor Who” would keep running until the year depicted in the serial and beyond, but they knew they at least had to find a way to work in the Doctor’s replacement. According to interviews, the original idea was that Mondas’ energy drain on Earth had the side effect of causing the Doctor to revert back to youth, but once we had a third Doctor it was retroactively declared that the Doctor regenerated here as well. This does leave open the question of why exactly the Doctor needs to regenerate in this case. Despite the old suggestion, which isn’t conveyed clearly at all on screen, that Mondas itself is the culprit, the usual fan explanation seems to be that the First Doctor simply needed to regenerate due to old age.

The other big one is that it’s the first appearance of the Cybermen, who are undoubtedly second only to the Master and the Daleks in the Doctor’s rogues gallery.

Like quite a few things in this episode, it isn’t made clear, but if you squint your eyes you might see the writers hinting that the Doctor was involved in whatever event threw Mondas out of orbit. At the least you could argue that the episodes show that the Doctor encountered the Cybermen or their Mondasian predecessors before.

Choice Quotes

The Doctor: “I don’t like your tone, sir!”
Cutler: “And I don’t like your face. Or your hair.”
The Doctor: “Hmph!”

Sign of the Times

Once he realizes that he’s in 1986, Ben asks if people have been to the moon yet. Unfortunately, the answer he gets suggests that expeditions to the moon happen frequently.

During the tense scene where Cutler tries to get the Z-Bomb launched against Mondas, Polly helpfully offers to make coffee for everyone.

Days of Future Past

First off, in 1986 there is a fully functional space base in Antarctica, capable of sending ships to at least the moon. Also there is an international space agency with its headquarters in Geneva. Plus, given that the head of the space agency is Russian and is working well with General Cutler, who is American, the Cold War is apparently long over.

The Last Words of the First Doctor

The Doctor: It’s over, it’s all over. That’s what you said. No, but it isn’t all over. It’s far from being all over! […] I must get back to the TARDIS…immediately! […] I must go now.
Ben: Don’t you want to go back and say goodbye or anything?
Doctor: No, no, I must go at once.
Ben (handing the Doctor his cloak): Oh well. Better wear this or you’ll catch your death of cold.
Doctor: Oh yes. I forgot…keep warm.

Comments

To be honest I never really liked the Cybermen. They just seemed like a reiteration of the emotionless, psychotically pragmatic Daleks. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with these episodes. Somehow the Cybermen are more effective in their most primitive form in ’60s sci-fi glory, with simply distorted and silly yet vaguely menacing voices, still recognizably human mouths and eyes, surgical bandages wrapped around their heads instead of sleek helmets, and unrecognizable, chaotic mounds of metal and plastic on their chests. It really drives home the idea of these as designer cyborgs, created not methodically but by a desperate people looking down at darkly slim odds of basic survival. Also I have to admit they got quite a nice introduction. When Polly asks them why they don’t care about the lives on Zeus IV, one Cyberman simply retorts that “there are people dying all over your world right now and you do not care about them.”

As for the story itself, it is sublimely ridiculous, even by ’60s “Doctor Who” standards, from digging up the old idea of there being a Counter-Earth to the weird idea that Mondas is somehow draining power from Earth to the unexplained plot holes (like how and why Mondas came back into Earth’s orbit in the first place). Admittedly it’s a bit much, especially if you have a low tolerance for camp, but the whole serial just captures the very essence of a ’60s sci-fi film so well it almost feels like you’re watching something that came out of a young Roger Corman’s studio. The impression is definitely sealed by the inclusion of General Cutler, who represents one of sci-fi’s most beloved tropes, the barking military man. The fact that he’s basically a bundle of American stereotypes naturally makes him even more fun to watch. I simply enjoyed this one, and it probably does the best job of tapping into a cinematic atmosphere since “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”

Now I just have to talk about the First Doctor’s final appearance (well, sort of, but we’ll get to all that). I plan to write up a retrospective on the First Doctor era, but I have to say I am disappointed that William Hartnell didn’t get more of a send-off. I suppose, if the stories about Hartnell’s health problems are true, it was inevitable, and a quiet, subtle close to the First Doctor’s era does fit it best. However, Hartnell’s Doctor always worked best when he was facing off against a rival mastermind, as in “The Time Meddler,” “The Celestial Toymaker,” or, in a way, “Marco Polo,” or when simply poking around and getting into trouble in some alien or historical milieu. In action-oriented stories of alien invasions like this, which seem to belong more to the Pewtree era or even to the coming Troughton era, Hartnell was a bit more out of place. So while it is nice that the Hartnell took a bow on a strong note, especially after a couple of mostly lacking seasons, it did leave me with the feeling that the “real” end of Hartnell’s time on the show had already long passed. Nonetheless, even if it is mostly from hindsight, there was something rather sad, and very appropriate, in the First Doctor’s muddled last words.

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The Forsaken

The Forsaken: The Edge

Out of all the performers and artists out there whose careers stalled badly after a certain point or who never seemed to get as large of a following as they deserve, Julie Brown (not to be confused with “Downtown” Julie Brown) has always been at the top of my list.

Sure, maybe her shtick had an expiration date on it, since it initially depended a lot on the ’80s’ own nostalgia craze for the ’50s and on mocking the late ’80s/early ’90s phenomenon of the “rock bimbo,” but even in her heyday she didn’t seem to get the credit she deserved.  Although we’re now pretty much in a post-Madonna world (sorry, older gay readers, but deep in your hearts you know it’s true), Medusa: Dare to be Truthful is still one of the greatest works of pop culture satire ever, if just for the song “Party in my Pants.”   Since then, sadly, her career has been marked by projects that did not make as much of a mark as her first big show, Just Say Julie!  That includes the 1993-1994 sketch comedy, The Edge.

Even more than Julie Brown spearheading the show, “The Edge” is known for being full of soon-to-bes. The show’s initial producer David Mirkin was between producing cult hit Get a Life and his historic run as the showrunner for The Simpsons, Wayne Knight was about to get a career boost from playing Jerry Seinfeld’s eternal nemesis NewmanTom Kenney would go on to be the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, and, well…

Yes, the star of Leprechaun!

Besides its notable future star cast, The Edge had other ways to set it about from the ur-American sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live,  like the fact that every episode began with the entire cast being killed.  Over the course of the show’s run, the cast had been set on fire, sucked into a vortex to Hell, shot with arrows, shot with a gun, and of course, decapitation:

But even with making a recurring gag out of the brutal homicide of the entire cast, was The Edge really edgey?  Yes and no.  Like most FOX offerings of the early ’90s, The Edge was, even more than SNL, ready and willing to not only seize the lowest common denominator, but do so with pride and aplomb;  a kind of meta-sleaze, if you will.  Also The Edge is generally faster paced with more overlap between its skits, which gives it a fundamentally different feel from SNL.  Yet it just didn’t go the lengths of David Mirkin’s cult hit Get a Life or later skit comedies like The State and Mr. Show.

 You do get pretty dark skits like the “Armed family,” featuring a family encouraged by their patriarch to gun down anyone that looks at them crosseyed, including a car full of teenagers who try to pass them.

But like with too many attempts at “morbid” humor the “morbid” element becomes the entire joke.  The other kind of skits that fall flat are the ones that are a little too SNL-like and come across as one of 30 Rock‘s parodies of comedy skits, like Cracklin’ Crotch, the cowboy with…a cracklin’ crotch!

It’s a cliche to say that a sketch comedy is a mixed bag, but it’s a cliche for a reason, and The Edge is…a mixed bag, so there’s good to be had as well.  A recurring skit has Julie Brown and Jennifer Aniston play a couple of rock groupies (for a very thinly disguised Guns N’ Roses) and it’s funnier than you’d think what is essentially a series of “dumb bimbo” jokes would be.  Then there’s a parody of “heartwarming” made-for-TV movies with Kevin Nealon portraying a man who received an ass-transplant from a baboon.

Another episode has a fast series of clips titled “People Not Connected 2 Reality”, with a nerdy pizza guy calling Madonna and Claudia Scheffer for dates and a New Jersey yuppie trying to bribe an IRS agent with a $20 bill.  My personal favorite, though, is their special sweeps episode, where morally outraged newscasters show the very lingering shots of half-naked women that they decry, all while being watched by three housewives who nervously chow down on phallic fruits and vegetables as they plot counting T&A shots from Basic Instinct.

When The Edge gets it right, it really gets it right, but the show is uneven even by sketch comedy standards.  Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for fans of Julie Brown or David Mirkin’s work on Get a Life and The Simpsons.  As far as I know there aren’t any fan-made DVDs circulating (emphasis on as far as I know), but there are some full episodes posted on YouTube, just not all 18 episodes from the show’s one and only season.  What is out there, though, is definitely worth sampling.

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Smugglers (1967)

The Doctor is furious when Polly and Ben show up in the TARDIS and tries to explain to them that they’re now stuck with him indefinitely because he still can’t control where the TARDIS lands. They end up somewhere on the shore of Cornwall. Although they’re shocked to be so far out of London, they still don’t believe the Doctor when he tells them that they still don’t know when they are. They go to a church where a man threatens them with a blunderbuss. From the man’s clothes, the Doctor deduces that they are in the seventeenth century. They learn that he’s a churchwarden named Joseph and he’s afraid of a pirate crew that served under a man named Avery. Unfortunately, they also learn that the TARDIS will be submerged in the tide. In gratitude to the Doctor for fixing his dislocated finger, Joseph gives him a strange clue, telling him that the “Deadman’s secret key” is “Smallwood, Ringword, Gurney.” After they leave for the local inn to wait out the tide, Joseph, who was a pirate himself under Avery, is killed by men sent by Samuel Pike, Avery’s successor as captain and who is after Avery’s hidden treasure. Pike’s goons had seen the Doctor and the others and suspect that Joseph sold the secret of Avery’s treasure to them. The pirates abduct the Doctor and wound Ben. Worse, the local squire ends up arresting Polly and Ben on suspicion of Joseph’s murder.

The Doctor manages to charm Pike out of some charitable treatment, as Polly and Ben use twentieth-century technology to convince their jailer that they serve a warlock and escape. After doing their own investigation at the scene of Joseph’s murder, Polly tries to present evidence they found to the squire, only to stumble across Pike and the squire, who has been running a smuggling ring, making a business deal. Meanwhile in the church Ben comes across Josiah Blake, a government revenue agent, but before they can leave the squire shows up with Polly. When the squire accuses Ben and Polly of working for Pike, Blake, who came to investigate reports that the squire was corrupt to begin with, pretends to believe him and takes the Doctor’s companions into his custody. After escaping from the ship, the Doctor comes across Ben, Polly, and Blake, who leaves to get a militia for help. The Doctor figures out that Joseph’s clue referred to names in the local graveyard, but one of Pike’s men, who wants the treasure for himself, arrives and forces the Doctor to tell him the clue. Pike shows up and dispatches the traitor, and tells the Doctor that if he doesn’t help him find the treasure he’ll start massacring the locals. Just as the treasure is found, Blake’s militia appears and successfully fights the pirate crew. Blake and the squire, who was of course betrayed by Pike, defeat and kill Pike. As the battle wraps up, the Doctor, Polly, and Ben slip away back to the TARDIS. After the TARDIS teleports again, the Doctor announces that they’ve arrived at the “coldest place in the world.”

Continuity Notes

Actually a production note, but regardless it’s worth pointing out that this is the first “Doctor Who” episode to be filmed on location. The interior shots were still done at the London studio, but the exterior shots were actually filmed in Cornwall.

This is also, as the penultimate serial in Hartnell’s run, the last regular serial to star the First Doctor from beginning to the very end.

Comments

When I started off with the recaps, the historicals quickly became the episodes I looked forward to watching the most. Now I anticipate them with a little dread. I think I’ve said before that I do wish the 2005 series would bring back the “pure” historicals, but seeing their decline during the First Doctor era I can understand why the production crew did away with them in the first place and why there hasn’t been a revival in all the decades the show has been on. To be fair, if you’ve been following along with me, you’d probably agree that the problems aren’t entirely inherent to the historicals; since the original production team and supporting cast left, there have been other wider drops in quality as well. Overall the rich and surprisingly complex writing in the early episodes has largely vanished. The hints at backstory, attempts at world-building, and in-depth characterizations of even secondary characters that made the early First Doctor era such a pleasure are mostly if not entirely gone, and that has especially damaged the historicals, which once exhibited the sturdiest scripts.

However, while “The Smugglers” doesn’t live up to the strong, early historicals like “The Aztecs”, it does represent a small leap in the right direction. Even though the story is built on broad cliches, it doesn’t aim for mostly comedy like “The Romans” and isn’t as egregious as “The Gunslingers.” There’s even a couple of nice nods to the historical backdrop, like Polly having to pretend she’s a man all throughout the story and Ben constantly getting in trouble for lacking reverence toward authority. Also the story is nicely paced, even though it does get obvious that the showrunners didn’t quite know how to make the story entertaining without some action scenes. Since like so many of the later First Doctor episodes the episodes only exist on tape, stills, and seconds of footage recorded for Australian censors, it is hard to tell how effective the action was, though.

The one thing the better or at least the more entertaining historicals had in common was that they always had a broader plot or theme that worked in the premise of the show. “The Aztecs” brought up the question of changing history, “Marco Polo” had the Doctor and crew have to maneuver to get the TARDIS away from actual historical figures, and “The Reign of Terror” was built around the idea of time travelers stuck in a volatile period of time. Unlike those, by the final scene, “The Smugglers” is just a paint-by-numbers pirate story with the Doctor and his companions filling the role of the usual protagonists. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Doctor popping up in a completely different genre, and in fact some brilliant episodes come out of that sort of thing, but – and maybe this is just personal taste – I think the writers had a tough assignment in making a pirate story interesting.

Speaking of the Doctor, these episodes are known in “Who” lore as the episodes that convinced the showrunners that Hartnell’s health was bad enough that he could not be relied on to carry the role of the Doctor much further. Despite that, Hartnell, as is usual with the historicals, puts in a good performance that hits its heights when the Doctor plays up the role of a seventeenth century gentleman and tries to get on the good side of Pike. There are still a few hints, however, like Hartnell looking exhausted in the last scenes of the episodes (which was covered with a bit of dialogue from Polly) and the fact that the scene where the Doctor is dragged out of the inn by the pirates doesn’t feature Hartnell at all but a dummy poorly disguised as Hartnell.

“The Smugglers” is by no means a must-see, but, like with “The War Machines,” there are small signs that the production crew is finally hitting the mark once again. While it’s good that the First Doctor era is ending with an uptick, it’s a shame that we’re not wrapping up with the same level of quality we saw in the days of Barbara, Ian, and Susan – or will we?

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 3, “Homer’s Odyssey”

Well, it didn’t take them that long before they made a reference to the Odyssey.  

Now I did say that I didn’t want these write-ups to be “reviews” in the strict sense, mostly because I’m more interested in exploring The Simpsons as a cultural phenomenon (but also because I think I suck at reviewing comedy, although in my defense it is one of the hardest elements of entertainment to explain).  However, I should say off the bat that this episode was strange to watch, because – even more so than with the last two episodes of the first season – the jokes were few and far between.  I should add right away that I think this was deliberate, and in a lot of ways the whole episode felt like more of a quasi-dramatic American sitcom than any I’ve watched yet, just with the occasional touches of the surreal made possible by the wonderful possibilities of animation.  In fact, “Homer’s Odyssey” is interesting to watch just because it contains within it a couple of potential “alternate universe” Simpsons series “in utero” – one that had a more realistic and even a dramatic bent, and one that would have been a working-class comedy like Roseanne except centered around a lazy but well-meaning father instead of a hard-working but cynical mother.

“Homer’s Odyssey” gives the viewer a familiar sight:  Homer goofing off at work to the point that he causes a hazardous accident right in front of Bart and his class during a field trip.  From there, though, it’s strange waters.  Homer doesn’t launch a zany scheme or a bizarre career change;  instead he’s so depressed that he’s failed the family and that Marge had to return to her job as a rollerskating waitress that he plans to commit suicide (although he intends to do so in simultaneously the most impractical, hilarious, and painful way imaginable).   When Marge and the kids rush to save him from a watery grave, Homer ends up rescuing them from a dangerous intersection.  This launches him into a crusade to get the town council to set up a stop sign at the intersection, which they do casually and with great apathy, but that doesn’t stop Homer from taking it as a life-affirming triumph.  From then on, Homer dedicates himself as Springfield’s number one safety advocate, finally leading him to confront his former employers at the nuclear power plant.  Mr. Burns gives Homer the diabolical choice of either remaining an unemployed and broke hero of principle or accepting a paying job as the nuclear plant’s chief safety inspector which would nonetheless force Homer to betray his newfound principles.  Much of his own surprise, Homer is stunned by the ethical dilemma, but decides to accept on the rationale that he could actually be a force for safety competence at the plant (which is not what happens in the slightest, but I digress).

We don’t get as scathing and thorough a look at the world of adult employment in the same way we got a look at institutionalized education in “Bart the Genius”, but regardless the episode does touch on a lot of things about modern America.  I said I suck at reviewing comedy, and maybe that’s true, yet I like to think I know enough to realize that comedy is about telling the truth, especially the truths we don’t like to think about.  In the opening act, we already see Bart punished after being set up by the “good, smart kids” Sheri and Teri  (I do wish they were developed more;  I kind of like the idea of them as malevolent versions of Lisa Simpson).  Then Bart, Sherri, Terri and the rest of their class are herded into the nuclear power plant to watch a very thinly veiled propaganda film that cheerfully explains with a friendly cartoon character why the existence of nuclear waste isn’t a big deal.  Homer does deserve to get fired, but in a society where one is defined mostly by their job and their paycheck he is so destroyed as a person he sets out to kill himself.   Another sitcom or drama would have been more explicit about Homer failing his responsibility as a “brreadwinner.”  Maybe it’s meant to be subtle, or lines making it more explicit were cut at some point, but in the end it makes it more depressing and real – especially the point that it’s not the job that’s important and validating to Americans like Homer, but just being able to claim that they get a paycheck at all.  Then there’s Mr. Burns, who makes his debut as Springfield’s leading plutocrat.  Now Mr. Burns hasn’t quite “crossed the line into supervillainy” yet by trying to block out the sun, but he shows no regard whatsoever to actually improving his plant’s safety record;  he only cares about getting the public off his back, even if it means putting the guy who by his own admission  “caused more accidents around here than any other employee and a few doozies nobody else ever found out about.”

However, there are gentler and kinder ideas here too.  Homer’s despair is very sincere, but so is his later enthusiasm for improving the community.  When Mr. Burns plays Mephistopheles by getting Homer to trade in his heroism for a steady income, Homer actually hesitates when Burns orders him to tell his supporters that the plant is safe (when Burns points out that he’s about to turn down a better-paying job for his principles, Homer admits it’s a little “far-fetched”).  There isn’t really a moral here;  it’s pretty obvious even here, and without knowledge of the episodes to come, that Homer is going to revert back to his doughnut-inhaling, accident-prone self.  Hell, he knows this.  And yet we do end knowing that Homer for all his flaws is a fundamentally well-meaning person, and the sense that maybe there is more to life than just wading through a job you can barely stand to just occasionally pick up a paycheck.  It’s that balance between cynicism and optimism that will drive the episodes that come, even here in the first season where Moe’s tavern looks completely different and where Mr. Smiths is black.

Favorite Lines and Gags 

Is the “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” sticky notepad on the Simpsons’ refrigerator a They Might Be Giants reference?  Or vice versa?

Mr. Burns to Homer:  “You’re not as stupid as you look. Or sound.  Or our best testing indicates.”

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Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Ark (1966)

Dodo frustrates Stephen by being clueless to an almost surreal degree, hopping out of the TARDIS without hesitation into a jungle and thinking she can just hop on a bus back to London. The Doctor actually agrees with Dodo – at least insofar as he thinks they actually are still on Earth somewhere. Dodo, who is at least knowledgeable about animals, notes that the jungle is filled with different species from across the world while the Doctor discovers that there is no sky but a metal roof. The mystery unravels when the Doctor and the others are taken to a group of humans by alien beings, the Monoids. They are told that the ship is a futuristic Ark, taking the human race and samples of all its species away from an Earth that’s slowly being destroyed by an expanding sun to a new world much like Earth, a journey that will take 700 years. The Monoids are an alien race that migrated to Earth long ago from their own dying world and “offered” to become servants in exchange for their new home. Most of the human population has been reduced to a microscopic state and placed in stasis until the ship finally arrives at the new planet, while the humans left active are Guardians, who, along with their descendants, are expected to protect the ship. After figuring out the Guardians’ understanding of time, the Doctor deduces that they’ve wound up 10,000,000 years past the twentieth century.

While most of the Guardians are willing to trust the Doctor and the others, things quickly become tense when a cold Dodo has spreads to the Guardians and the Monoids, who have no resistance because the common cold had been wiped out for millennia. When the chief Guardian is struck down by the illness, the deputy chief, Zentos, has the Doctor and the others arrested and puts them on trial. Zentos accuses them of being sent from the planet they are traveling toward, Rathusis, to sabotage the mission. His paranoid arguments win the day and the Doctor and the others are sentenced to be ejected into space. However, the chief Guardian intervenes and, seeing that Steven is also sick, orders that the Doctor be given a chance to cure the illness but only if he uses Steven as his test subject. The Doctor essentially reinvents the flu vaccine, which stops the plague and of course allows the TARDIS crew to leave as heroes.

However, next they end up landing again in the Ark’s jungle. Dodo finds that a statue the Guardians had started when they left, which was intended to portray a human being, instead depicts a Monoid. They determine that they’ve ended up about 700 years from where they left and that the Guardians are now serving the Monoids. Soon enough, they are captured by the Monoids, who explain that there was a revolution. The Monoid leader, believing that the Doctor was the same one who came centuries ago, goes further and tells them that the flu virus mutated and weakened the Guardians enough for the Monoids to take over. The Monoids force the Doctor and Dodo to go as an advance scout to Rathusis, to see if the Rathusians are hostile. Meanwhile a Guardian discovers that the Monoids are planning to destroy the Ark, with the entire human race inside, once they have a chance to leave the ship with their own people. On Rathusis, the Doctor figures out that the Rathusians are incorporeal beings who welcomed human settlement to the point they actually built cities for them. The Monoid keeping the Doctor and Dodo at gun’s length is killed by the Rathusians, who are needless to say unimpressed by the Monoid’s attitude. Although the Rathusians are concerned, the Doctor convinces them to wait a day for a Guardian uprising against the Monoids before they take “defensive measures.”

Back on the Arc, Steven helps head a Guardian effort to find and defuse the bomb. Luckily, a civil war between the Monoids – those who want to stay on Rathusis despite the danger versus those who want to take the Ark and move on – gives the Guardians a chance to discover that the bomb was hidden in the Monoid statue. The Rathusians are able to remove the statue without causing any harm to the Ark itself. Even after all the trouble, the Rathusians still allow the human race and the Monoids to settle the planet, on condition that they make peace. The Doctor agrees, concluding that the Monoid revolt was driven by resentment at how they were treated like servants by the original Guardians. Later, as the TARDIS flies off, the Doctor disappears, even though Steven and Dodo can still hear his voice, and warns, “This is some form of attack!”

Our Future History

According to this serial, the Earth will be destroyed by the expansion of the sun into a red giant sometime around 10,002,000 AD. Current scientific theory instead posits that this will happen 5 billion years from now (I have no idea if the show’s estimation reflected the state of astronomical theory at the time or if it was a misunderstanding by the writers). The 2005 series episode, “The End of the World,” which likewise takes place at the time the Earth is to be consumed by an expanding sun, reconciles itself with contemporary research into stellar life-cycles by having the year stated to be circa 5 billion AD. The inconsistency between not only the years but the two serial’s similar but largely incompatible premises was actually addressed and explained by Paul Cornell, who basically said, “It was the Time War!”

The Guardians hint that there are other times when at least significant numbers of the human race had to evacuate the Earth. Interestingly enough, this can be taken as a “reference” to the plot of “The Ark in Space”, where humanity in the far future has been driven off Earth by massive solar flare activity, as well as the 2005 series episode “The Beast Below,” which is centered around a similar (and possibly the very same) event as “The Ark in Space.”

They also refer to something called the “Primal War”, during which a great deal of past scientific history was lost.

Continuity Notes

The idea that the Doctor and the others can transmit foreign diseases to other planets and times is brought up, but dismissed fairly quickly without explaining why it shouldn’t have been a concern in the past – or much of a concern in the future.

I’d also argue that this is the first serial that hints that the TARDIS isn’t teleporting at random at all, but is deliberately leading the Doctor to times and places in need of intervention, which has always been my pet theory (and finally spelled out in the 2005 series’ episode “The Doctor’s Wife”!).

Comments

Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but unlike seemingly every other Whovian familiar with the First Doctor era, I kind of like Dodo, especially the fact that she spends most of this serial wearing a medieval tunic absconded from the Doctor’s wardrobe. I have to admit I have a soft spot for ridiculously absent-minded characters, being a ridiculously absent-minded character myself, and I would argue in a court of law that the scenes of her reacting to the TARDIS and what it does with a perfect lack of comprehension are actually amusing. Still, even I have to admit that the problem with her is clear, that she’s basically a comic relief character shoved into a starring role. Also it’s a little too obvious that she’s an attempt to make the show appeal to the mod generation, which I can only guess would make her much more grating if I was even halfway familiar with the slang she constantly uses (incidentally, would this make her the Poochie of “Doctor Who”?). On that note, maybe this is me being much too fannish again, but I can’t be the only one who thinks it was out of character for the Doctor to constantly complain about and be so prudish about Dodo’s slang. This is the Doctor who freely admitted to being a Beatles fan, after all…

As for the serial itself, it has a good, fresh premise, both in the Doctor and the companions facing some very nasty consequences from unlimited space-time travel (even if the long-term implications are brushed aside in basically a three-sentence conversation) and in the TARDIS’ crew getting to see how events they helped trigger unfold. The problem is that it actually might have been a better, or at least more unique, serial if we had only the first plot and it had been stretched out to the length of the serial. The second half is basically a recycled version of the plot of “Galaxy 4”: the Doctor encounters tyrannical aliens and gains help from another set of aliens who are at first thought to be hostile but are actually endlessly benevolent (it’s really surprising to see the Doctor happily leave the last survivors of the human and Monoid races in the hands of powerful, bodiless beings who just give him their word that their interests are entirely selfless apart from just seeing bodied creatures running around again; would this have been considered a bit of a plot hole even then or have we become so jaded since 1966?). It all just feels so rote, and while the Doctor gives a speech in the end, pointing out that the Monoids were seeking revenge for the servile status humans had inflicted on them before, it’s too little and too late to inject some complexity and ambiguity into the story.

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"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: The Stolen Earth

Welcome to the first edition of “I Don’t Hate the Russell T. Davies Era, But…Or Thoughts on the ‘New’ Series.”

I’ve had a couple of people actually ask me, based on my write-ups of the classic series, what my thoughts on the “new” series are. In sum, I think the show’s been consistently putting out A+ work, taking the best of the “classic” series and combining it with new elements and approaches. Now there are episodes I didn’t like and some seasons I prefer over others, but that’s natural and I would still say that even when the show is “off” it’s still one of the better programs out there. I decided to give some of my thoughts on the “new” series and, inspired by the lovely Diamanda Hagan’s Twatty Who Reviews, I’m focusing on the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era, particularly how it wrapped up. I don’t have any plans to start writing about all or even most “new” Who episodes, and definitely not with the level of detail I’ve been writing up the classic series, so this won’t be an open-ended feature.

Now I should probably make clear that, as much as fandoms like to draw lines in the sand, I’m not here to bash Russell T. Davies and exalt Steven Moffat. I will admit that I have come to generally prefer the episodes produced under Steven Moffat’s regime for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever write off the entire Christopher Eccleston/David Tenant era. For one thing, there very likely wouldn’t even be a new Doctor Who series if not for Davies, or at the very least we would have ended up with something like the ill-advised reboot FOX and the BBC had in mind during the late ’90s. For another, variety is one of the things that has kept Doctor Who going after all these years, and even if I just happen to really like Steven Moffat’s take on the Doctor Who mythos doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that Davies had some very different interpretations – and likely enough whoever follows Moffat will as well. Third, Russell T. Davies is actually a very good writer – a great one, even. As evidence, I present “Midnight,” an extremely effective and downright brilliant story that managed to use minimal effects and setting to breathtaking effect. I’d go as far as to say that it should be included in any top 10 Doctor Who episode list and taught in screenwriting classes. And even when I’ve been unhappy with the episodes he penned, I’ve always found something to like – well, except with “The End of Time”, but we’ll get there.

The problem is that Davies kept underestimating his audience. If you keep in mind the fact that he did keep the excellent “Midnight” on the back burner for years because he thought the audience would completely reject it, it’s a fair assessment, and really I always thought Davies’ vision of the Doctor was more akin to American superheroes than to what the Doctor was in the classic series. Now it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with a fresh take and certainly I’m sure there are lit grad students who can show how the Doctor and, say, the Green Lantern really do come out of the same giant cultural well, but I genuinely do believe there was a disconnect between Davies and the show itself, which really came out in his grand season closers and especially in the sagas that finished his run.

I was just going to write on “The End of Time”, but I figured I should instead start with “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” Honestly, I could always use the excuse to push out more content. However, I also don’t think it’s fair to write on “The End of Time” until I tackle the rest of the huge “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic, especially since the last time I watched most of it was when they first became available to Americans. Let me also point out that I think the season with Donna Noble was the best of the David Tennant seasons. Not only did Catherine Tate just seem to have better chemistry with David Tennant than, yes, even Billie Piper, but there was just something about the Tenth Doctor’s character that made him traveling across space and time with a cynical, embittered office temp so natural. I’ll say more about it later, but that’s why it irks me so much that Davies turned the last season and the final specials with Tennant into a nostalgia fest for his own run. There are only six episodes where Donna and the Doctor are together for most of the story and where Donna doesn’t have to share the spotlight with past companions of the Tenth Doctor. Yes, she does get her own adventure with “Turn Left,” but she still gets pushed aside in her own finale (and really she gets pushed aside hard, but we’ll get to that). So, anyway, with this long, rambling preamble out of the way, let’s get cracking with “The Stolen Earth.”

I’ll give this to Davies: he knows how to lay out one hell of a hook. Right after the events of “Turn Left” (or, well, really the largely non-events…wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff), the Doctor and Donna arrive on Earth looking for the catastrophe they were warned about. Seeing nothing, they return to the TARDIS, but as is usually the case the Doctor has lousy timing. As soon as they step back on the TARDIS, they discover that the Earth has instantly disappeared without a trace. The Doctor does the unthinkable: seek help from intergalactic authorities, in this case the Shadow Proclamation. Meanwhile, his allies on Earth, including Rose who has returned from the parallel universe, find themselves facing a familiar threat of apocalyptic proportions.

I admit, though, the first time I watched it I was less impressed with the premise and more annoyed that we were getting yet another big event storyline about an alien invasion in present-day London. When Donna’s granddad, Wilfred, shouted, “It’s the aliens again!”, I was all like, “Oh my God, you said it.” As the saying goes, if your own characters are complaining about the plot… And if it wasn’t contemporary London, then it would have been Victorian London or a distant future so like contemporary London it might as well have been contemporary London. I know despite its success Doctor Who doesn’t have the biggest budgets, but did Davies believe viewers’ brains would melt if they didn’t have stories that took place in their own day and time? You’d almost think they weren’t watching a show about a man who can travel anywhere and anywhen.

Okay, okay, there were things I liked, then and now. I always love throwaway weirdness in my genre fiction, like bees being an alien race (“Not all of them!” the Doctor obnoxiously corrects) and the Daleks’ hiding the Earth and their base “one second” out of sync with the rest of the universe. Also, being a huge pedantic nerd, I also appreciated that they actually filled in a plot hole of sorts with the old ’60s serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” That serial never really gave us a good explanation for why the Daleks invaded the Earth; we get a reference to it here from the Tenth Doctor: “Someone tried to move the Earth once, a long time ago…” So hooray for filling decades-old plot holes. Plus, as usual, the Tenth Doctor is a lot of fun, when he’s not apparently pining after Rose (er, but more about that later). Also the solution that the Doctor’s ex-companions use to help the Doctor find Earth, basically getting every phone in Britain and Ireland to call the TARDIS, is a rather fun way of working the Doctor’s special relationship with the UK (and Ireland, maybe?) into the show, and a hell of a lot less cheesy than the “Doctor defeats The Master with the power of hope and faith!” resolution in “The Last of the Time Lords.” Speaking of which, I also liked the denouement the character of Harriet Jones got. She was always treated as more of a joke than I would have liked, but I appreciated that she was presented as heroic and silly up until the end, and that she could have great respect for the Doctor while still claiming that his strong ethical objection to her past actions is, well, completely wrong. On a similar note, how awesome was it to see Wilfred take on a Dalek with a paint gun? It doesn’t work, but still! And finally…Davros is back!

While I was sick of the Daleks by this point, it was good to have back another villain from the classic series and see once again everyone’s favorite cold yet short-tempered sociopathic scientist.

So looking at the big picture I should have loved this episode, and there was really a lot I liked about it. But for all that, though, the same old flaws we always see with Davies’ epics crop up again, and having watched the series from the beginning it was all getting much too tiresome. For starters, Rose is shoehorned into this story with a jackhammer. To be brutally honest, there’s just no logical place for her here, at least no place that isn’t already occupied by Donna. It’s Donna who’s shown fearing for the safety of her family and it’s Donna who should be having the reaction of shock and horror when she thinks the Doctor has been killed near the end. In fact, I would have preferred it if Donna was the only companion in this story, but at least Martha and Jack are given things to do. Besides a couple of bad-ass movements involving Rose running around with a really big gun, she really doesn’t do anything, a fact that the character herself complains about when she finds herself literally excluded from an Internet conference with the Doctor and the other ex-companions (seriously) and whines, “I was here first!” I’m sure many people, including myself, shouted “Oh, nobody cares!” at their screens.

Now I was going to put this off until next time but let me assure you…I don’t dislike Rose and I find the fan-rage directed at her extremely silly.  Billie Piper did more than a fine job with the character and even the idea of giving her a crush on the Doctor wasn’t a bad one, at least at first. The mistake wasn’t so much keeping it ambiguous, but implying that the Doctor returned her feelings. Yes, yes, the Third Doctor had feelings for Jo, but still at worst the Doctor should have seen her like a human would see the romantic potential of a chimp; at the very best their relationship would have been as likely and productive as that of a 30th century person and someone from the Bronze Age. It’s the reason why I liked the way Steven Moffat handled a companion crush through the Eleventh Doctor and Amy. The Doctor is confused and more than a little horrified, which would be a human’s ideal reaction if a dolphin tried to seduce them. Also, guess what, Amy’s feelings and relationship with the Doctor actually changed and evolved. Just saying.

Anyway, I’m sure more words have been spent on Rose and the Doctor than have been used to talk about Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the past century, and I’m starting to get into things better left for later, so let’s stop at the end of the episode, with the Doctor regenerating as a result of a Dalek attack; Jack, Rose, and Donna cowering in a corner of the TARDIS; and Martha off to activate a mysterious device designed by UNIT. Those of us familiar with Davies’ series closers already knew to brace ourselves for another round of “Oops, I’ve written myself into a corner,” but hey, at least we’d get more Davros!

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