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The Force Awakens: So it Begins

Well, this holiday season was the big one all of geek culture was waiting for: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens has come!

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It was probably inevitable in what I grouchily refer to as the Age of the Remake, where Hollywood et al can barely seem to make anything that isn’t an adaptation, a remake or a sequel of something that came out twenty-plus years ago.

This particular instance was made more than usually unpalatable for me because the man at the helm is the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams. Apart from a general feeling that this is too much power for one nerd to hold, I’m still ticked off at him for building his resume for this job by running roughshod over my favourite franchise and effectively turning into a mindless Star Wars knockoff.

Let it not be said, however, that I buy into the age old Star Trek vs. Star Wars rivalry. I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan; Empire Strikes Back has been one of my favourite movies since before I was school-age. That said, I’ve never had the kind of personal loyalty to the franchise that I have to Star Trek. Not because there’s anything wrong with Star Wars. It’s just that Star Wars doesn’t have the mission or message that Trek does. Star Trek was here to tell us something really important about our potential for the future, albeit I’m beginning to think I’m the only one who noticed. Star Wars invited us on an epic and soulful whiz-bang space adventure, simple as that. And if that’s the bar they want to set, then I will concede that the Force Awakens more than delivers.

As the new plan came to light, mixed feelings arose in the fandom. The one that ticked off a lot of people is that, to develop a story for a new wave of Star Wars, they decided to chuck out the entire post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe canon and start from scratch. People who have invested themselves in experiencing the licensed comics and books were understandably left with a feeling of having the rug pulled out from under them. As someone who is only broadly aware of it, it seems to me that the EU has grown so vast, complex and detailed, that to successfully integrate all of it would be impractical.

Thirty years after the downfall of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, the new Republic is engaged in a proxy struggle against the First Order, what remains of the Galactic Empire. Rey, an orphaned battlefield scavenger, is pulled into an urgent mission by Finn, a Stormtrooper of the First Order who has deserted. Joining forces with heroes of the semi-legendary battle against the Empire, they have to evade capture by the fanatical disciple of the Dark Side Kylo Ren to bring the Resistance a droid, BB-8, who carries a map that will show them their great hope: the whereabouts of the missing Jedi Luke Skywalker. At the same time, the First Order have built yet another planet-destroying superweapon that must be destroyed for the Republic to survive and preserve the ancient Jedi ways.

A few people I know complained that the plot is basically just a retread of the very first Star Wars movie, and there is something in that. The fact that their opposition is basically an Even More Powerful version of the Death Star is certainly a clue. A lost droid with a secret mission is another one. The desert planet setting (oddly not Tatooine as I assumed) and the fact that our heroine – who even dresses a bit like Luke Skywalker in his farm boy days – meets a mentor figure are all very clearly revisiting the basic plot of Episode IV. All that said, it never crosses the line into straight-up ripoff territory in the same way that Star Trek: Into Darkness did.

Thorough worldbuilding has never been a strong point of Star Wars. George Lucas’ judgement about when to explain things and when to leave them ambiguous was shaky at best. This movie is no different, though at the stronger end of normal for the franchise. We see an inhabited planet get blown up, but it isn’t clear which one, nor is it dwelt on much, rather like Alderaan back in the day. The exact political or strategic situation is really fuzzy: is the Republic in direct conflict with the First Order? And if so why do you need a Resistance? And why does the Resistance include people who became top generals in the Rebel Alliance? Shouldn’t they be in the regular military? Star Wars allows a lot of latitude to not worry about this sort of thing, but it still makes the story universe seem a bit unpolished. The movie has a very interesting set of scenes where we see what it’s like to view the world when you’re sensitive to the Force, but the actual rules of the Force, what it makes you capable of and how much of your ability is talent and how much is training remain eternally ill-defined.

More irritating to me is that there are so many incidental encounters, supporting characters and other elements that, I am forced to assume are going to be significant in the movie-a-year Marvel-style cinematic saga that Star Wars is apparently now to become. Knowing that and seeing all these possible hints makes this movie feel less like an experience to be had and more like homework for an experience that hasn’t happened yet. This was the thing about Lost that always got on my nerves: the whole story seems to be trading on the promise of something awesome coming later rather than focusing on its own merits.

And merits the story does indeed have. I’d agree that the movie is a retread of Episode IV, but it is one in the same way that Star Trek: the Next Generation is a retread of the Original Star Trek, or that BioShock: Infinite is of BioShock, or that the Second World War was of the First. It’s a generational echo, a chance for a new group of people to undertake a similar cause in their own way.

The story pulls a bit of fast one by setting up a main character who it turns out isn’t actually the main character; he’s a bit more analogous Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy. The characters have personal struggles and traumas of various sorts, and it’s fascinating how we have two Hero’s Journey stories running together and mutually supporting. Finn and Rey’s refusal of the call phase is a bit more than just a formality as it is for Luke in Episode IV. Rey’s loner lifestyle gives way to her becoming part of a team and a circle of friends without her losing her personal indepedence or a turning into a cookie-cutter love interest.

Finn’s defection to free agency is probably going to transition into his joining the Resistance in a later movie, but oddly for playing the long game, his arc seems more rushed even than the others, and they all feel rushed. His defection seems to come with no particular precedent – it’s even noted he never had a single discipline problem prior to that – and he goes through the opening steps of the Hero’s Journey at an especially breakneck pace. He clearly has a lot to do later in the series. He’s a good guy with a good heart and although he’s somewhat the comic relief, it’s never to the point of disrespecting him, because he’s honestly out of his depth, being neither an ace pilot nor a potential Jedi like most Star Wars protagonists.

Abrams has proven that he’s really good at building a character arc in the context of television series, like Lost and Fringe. But it feels like he panics and rushes things when he’s limited to the runtime of a movie. It can be done: Joss Whedon’s Avengers can stand on its own as a character piece even if you haven’t seen Thor or Iron Man. It might even have been worthwile for Abrams to go full Peter Jackson and make a three hour mega-movie if it allowed a bit more modest pacing.

Overall, the new crop of heroes are perhaps my favourite thing in the movie: they aren’t supermen – or even all men – or aces or destined saviours – although there’s an element of Arthurian imagery with Rey. They’re regular people with complimentary skills and talents, and there’s less of a sense of living up to a pre-ordained destiny, as in the other two trilogies, than of just trying to be a good person and make your way in the world. Er, galaxy.

As for the returning champions like Han Solo and Leia, contrary to what I feared given Abrams’ history with Star Trek, the movie honours their contribution to the franchise. Although Solo’s character seems to have had a bit of the old reset button, and the way he enters the story’s a tad contrived, the old guard have arcs of their own. They don’t take over the story and turn it into fanfiction, nor are they in there just as a fanservice bribe, nor as comic relief to make fun of the franchise. To Rey and Finn, these people are practically folk legends, and yet they relate to them as people and learn and grow from their influence.

All this is set neatly against the villain Kylo Ren. It kept occurring to me that Rey and Ren are like opposite sides of a fandom argument on a comment thread. While Rey is enriched by her encounter with history and yet remains her own person, Ren is consumed by it. He’s basically the worst gatekeeper-type fanboy. He’s obssessed with being a Dark Side badass. He worships Darth Vader’s memory as the ultimate master of the Dark Side, to the point of wearing a ripoff of Vader’s mask for no other apparent reason. His lightsabre appears to be both oversized and overpowered – it gives off heatwaves and deals a lot more damage than normal – and punches his own open wounds to show off how tough he is. Despite all these trappings, the untrained Rey gives him a run for his money; he lacks Vader’s imposing stoicism – indeed he has almost no self-control at all – and doesn’t appear to know how to use the old Sith standby of Force Lightning. It all goes to make him both scary and loathsome. The fact that he’s pitted against a group of gender and race-diverse protagonists of the kind that the whitebread macho fanboys railed against gives it a rather grimly satisfying symbolism. Really, every franchise should do something like this, just to sort out the Reys and Finns from the Kylos in their midst…

Overall, I really enjoyed the Force Awakens. It walks a fine line between doing something new and riffing on the classic that gives you a reasonable amount of both. It’s cheesy and maybe shallow, but Star Wars was always cheesy and shallow, and it was epic regardless. The characters are really fascinating, the special effects are awesome, the connection with the original trilogy is touching, the music is superb and the dialogue, the butt of many a joke at Star Wars’ expense, has improved a good deal. Abrams has also reined in his lens flare fetish a bit. My main concern is whether the revived franchise will be able to maintain a sense of momentum going forward. We’ve already escalated to a Mega-Badass-Super-Death Star™, and I’m not sure where we can go from here.

However, for the first time in a while, I can honestly say, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Happy New Year, and may the Force be with you.

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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Movie

 

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Saturday Supplemental: On the Future of Star Trek

So it’s been announced that 2017 will see the arrival a new Star Trek series. And as a lifelong fan of Star Trek, and a supporter of its original message of an idealistic vision of humanity’s future, I’m dreading it.

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Star Trek was great, but also had singificant flaws. I think ultimate root of my problem with J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation is that Star Trek has not only abandoned its mission statement, but seems to think that several of its flaws are actually selling points. Although geek culture has become mainstream in the new millennium, Star Trek fandom, so I believe, is still regarded as a bit of a joke in some quarters, including among some of the fans themselves. I’m therefore concerned that what could be a fanstastic new progressive sci-fi series will end up, like the movies, concerned more with retro self-parody.

The Mary Sue recently compiled an excellent list of things the new Star Trek is going to have to start doing in order to maintain its relevance in this era of television. io9 has produced a couple of them. Not wishing to accentuate the negative, I nonetheless want to point out some of the things that I believe were holding Star Trek back that, if it is to be great again, it needs to stop doing.

5. Don’t Keep Falling Back on Rubber Forehead Aliens.

By the TNG-era Star Trek shows, the standard method for making a character appear alien was to glue some rubber prosthetic to their foreheads. The Klingons were the vanguard of this technique, but it was the go-to method for most alien characters. Sometimes it was relatively subtle, like the nasal ridges that mark out Bajorans. Other aliens like the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar have almost their entire heads covered with prosthetic.

On the face of it (har har) this was a reasonable way to do it. It’s relatively cheap, you can crank out a zillion of them at a time, and it still leaves the actors with some ability to emote.

There are a couple of big problems, though. For one thing, it isn’t very scientific that right-on-the-money humanoids would be this ubiquitous. For another thing, some of the designs are so arbitrary and token that they just look goofy – somebody even mentioned in-universe once that Cardassians all appear to have cutlery glued to their heads.

More troublingly, looking at a lot of episodes, you start to realize that how sympathetic and relatable the aliens are is sometimes in direct proportion to how much they resemble Anglo-Saxons! This is a really unfortunate habit for Trek of all franchises to have fallen into. The good news is that, if the creators are willing to really give Star Trek a place in modern media, as opposed to making it a parody of itself, there are lots of ways around this. CGI now allows a lot more possibilities for relatively small expense, not to mention less agony for the actors. And the idea that ‘relatable’ must mean ‘human-looking’ was firmly discredited by one of Trek’s later contemporaries: Farscape. Farscape’s aliens were in many cases Jim Henson puppets, and Pilot and Rygel were principle characters with legitimately emotional performances.

That’s not to say they should go back and un-rubber-forehead the Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans or anyone else, but if they want to build something new in Star Trek and not just circle the drain a few more times, this is a good way to go.

4. Chuck out the Holodeck and Transporter Malfunction Plots

Within the fandom this has to be one of the biggest jokes going. The Holodecks go catastrophicaly wrong so often that there ought to have been a massive recall on them at some point. Futurama had a dig at this once; it’s the only joke at Star Trek’s expense that’s ever made me laugh. Some of these episodes were legitimately good, like TNG’s “Emergence” or DS9’s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but there were too many of them for it not to seem absurd and tiresome after a while.

The transporters don’t go wrong as often but they still did it to excess. As before, some of them were alright. Again, nothing this basic and common to the universe should go awry this badly, this often and still be in use. I’d almost be willing to see them chuck out the transporters entirely, or do what Enterprise did and only use them in emergencies. The reason the transporters were introduced at all was because it was too expensive in the 60s to do a landing sequence effect every week, and today it’s easy as pie.

There’s a bigger issue here involving excessive amounts of plot-important but meaningless technobabble, not unlike Doctor Who, but in Star Trek’s case it’s usually just a bit irritating at worst, except particularly in regards to holodecks and transporters. Deal with that, and much else can likely be forgiven.

3. No More Bridge Bunnies

This isn’t neccessarily the biggest flaw in Trek but it is the one that most gets on my nerves. Gene Roddenberry was a great and progressive person, by most accounts a very nice chap, and ahead of his time in many ways. At the same time, however, he was a massive chauvinist. And it showed.

The ubiquitous miniskirts on the Original Series are the least of it at this point. Counsellor Troi, a commissioned Starfleet officer in TNG, spends most of the series bumming around the bridge in what looks like a stripper’s pyjama onesie. I can understand Troi wanting to be approachable despite her rank to, say, a nervous newbie on the Enterprise. She’s basically a non-denominational chaplain after all. But how anyone could concentrate on her advice is beyond me. DS9 mostly kept this habit mercifully in the background with Quark’s barmaids, which at least made some kind of sense. Voyager restrained itself for a while but then gave up and introduced Seven of Nine in her boobtastic unitard. Eye candy was apparently so desperately important that it overrode such trivial considerations as the oxygen supply to Jeri Ryan’s brain.

The absolute nadir was, naturally, Enterprise and T’Pol. T’Pol had no excuse. She was an officer, with scientific and tactical specialities, from a highly formal culture and yet arses around the ship in a freaking castuit. Vulcans don’t care about sex appeal and every other non-Starfleet Vulcan ever has worn robes. That’s not even touching on the contrived situations where she strips for no good reason.

And for me, this is one of the biggest obstacles to Star Trek being respected as a social commentary platform, or even just as a show: it’s a damned hypocrite! You can’t have an all-inclusive diverse vision of humanity’s future and then plaster it with male-gaze eye candy. It makes your message look clueless, or worse, like you don’t actually mean it.

So, if Star Trek is to be regarded in the wider world as anything but a sweaty male nerd’s delusion of intellectualism, you have two choices: either get rid of the eye candy or make it equal opportunity. Not saying I want the second one, but you can either play fair or not play at all. Them’s your options.

2. Don’t Throw the Word ‘Logic’ Around

From the word ‘go,’ Star Trek has been famous for juxtaposing a highly passionate or emotional character with a cool, highly rational one. Kirk and Spock, Riker and Data, Kira and Odo, Paris and Tuvok, B’Lenna and Seven of Nine, Archer and T’Pol, to name a few possible dichotomies you could make in the casts.

The thing of it is, that the scenarios that pit passion against logic are oftentimes horribly oversimplified, and tend to be delivered in favour of the passion-driven character and very condescendingly to the rational character. Data getting lectured about chess by Troi is one instance I’ve always remembered, since playing chess illogically is basically impossible. The poker metaphor used in other episodes, like “the Corbomite Maneuver” works rather better, and when Dr. McCoy tried to call Spock out, Spock could usually throw it right back at him.

The accumulating evidence leads me to conclude that a lot of writers don’t know what ‘logical’ actually means. Because in Star Trek, it far too often translates as simpleminded, naive, or even callous.

So the writers of a new series are going to really have to up their game in writing how a strictly non-emotional thinker would see the world, and make sure that each side of the coin actually represents a legitimate point of view.

You can also subvert it sometimes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might want to take a page from Steven Moffat. The reason “Scandal in Belgravia” is my favourite episode of Sherlock despite its very dodgy gender politics is that in the end, the cold-emotionless-rational guy wins precisely because he’s the cold-emotionless-rational guy!

It also pays to consider that Vulcans and similar races oughtn’t be all the same. There can be more than one kind of logic or perspective, something which Star Trek’s been inconsistent at demonstrating with its ‘Planet of Hats’ monolithism.

1. Don’t be Cavalier about Worldbuilding

This is a tough one because it encompasses a lot of Star Trek’s myriad little flaws, but they are so many that it becomes the key issue Trek needs to deal with. Star Trek has always suffered from chronic ‘depending on the writer’ syndrome. In an age where consistent canon and long-running story arcs are the rule, this is a vice it can’t afford anymore.

Starfleet protocol is a big one. Assume for the moment that Starfleet has a military structure, whatever else it might be, and several questions arise. Why is Riker, as ship’s executive, allowed to flirt and even have flings with personnel under his supervision? You can’t even do that in non-military hierarchies. Why do the most senior personnel always go down to the dangerous planets first? Related to that, why does Starfleet only seem to have officers and precisely one enlisted specialist: Chief O’Brien? Why do officers never salute or stand to attention? How big is Starfleet? For that matter, what is Starfleet’s exact role? They talk up exploration but they do a lot more than that.

In general, it would be nice if they would let the protocol inform the story, rather than bending protocol to serve the story. Sisko’s standing in the fleet in DS9 doesn’t make sense except on the basis that he’s the hero and therefore must be in charge. If they’d promoted him to flag rank, or the Defiant had had to play a crucial but supporting role, that would have worked. Including more enlisted types, or to borrow a phrase from TNG, more regular “Lower Deck” characters would help this one a lot, too.

Some of the rules, like the Prime Directive, are never more than summarized, so they mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Some rules are just plain forgotten about, leading to many examples of how Star Trek started chasing its own tail in later years. TNG did a number of episodes about the rights and status of artificial intelligence, some setting legal precedent in-universe, only for Voyager to tackle the exact same ones, as if nobody in the Federation had learned a damn thing the first go round.

The society behind Starfleet is seldom shown. We know that the Federation doesn’t use money, but what do they do instead? How does day-to-day life work? How much autonomy do Federation member worlds have? This is a big problem inasmuch as we never get a clear sense of what our heroes stand for except in general, idealistic terms. They’re pretty good terms, mind, but I think Star Trek would be made much more compelling if it became a comprehensive model of a future society. Politcally high risk – the writers might fear being denounced as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – but potentially high rewards. We also have to consider the possibility that some of them just flat-out don’t work and have to be retconned, like the replicators that by rights should render all mining, agriculture and manufacturing obsolete.

I said earlier that other races in Trek occasionally threatened to get monolithic. On the flipside, though, sometimes they were quite inconsistent. For some reason, the Klingon attitude to suicide sticks out at me; in some episodes it’s acceptable, in others it’s absolutely taboo. This isn’t differing attitudes between Klingons, it’s the same Klingon saying different things.

Another issue is scope: Star Trek is the posterboy for the Trope that science fiction writers have no sense of scale. This was actually the one thing about Into Darkness that every Trekkie seemed to catch: given the travel time from Earth, you’d think the Klingon Empire started at Pluto. The TNG two-parter “Unification” had the Romulans trying to invade Vulcan even though Vulcan is nowhere near Romulus. It’d be like if the Nazis had tried to invade just Las Vegas but no other part of the USA along the way. If they had a stronger sense of astrography, as in Honor Harrington, then it would define the Trek universe much better and open up interesting options for strategy in the stories.

The biggest one for me personally is the battles. I’ve said before that combat should not be the focus of Star Trek storytelling. The trouble is that when it did come up, it was stilted as hell and inconsistent. TNG was especially bad for this. If the plot needed the Enterprise to win, they’d usually mop the floor with the other side in three shots. If the plot required our heroes to lose, they would promptly lose fifty IQ points and the ship would magically turn into glass and cardboard. The battle in Star Trek: Generations was particularly exasperating for this reason.

Never mind being accessible to the masses, this sort of thing frustrates the most loyal Trekkies, and it’s not something they can afford in the current age if it wants to stand tall beside today’s television epics.

Of course, you have to wonder, depending on how much reworking the Trek verse needs to avoid all this, and to do the things the Mary Sue or io9 called for, would it still be Star Trek? But then that leaves me back where I started. If Star Trek can’t function beyond these parameters, then it’s gone as far as it can go, and you might as well make a new, original series. Which would be best? I don’t know, but if Star Trek is going to become a province of the nothing-but-remakes culture we live in now, it had better make it worthwhile.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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Day of the Doctor: A Day of Disservice

It probably speaks volumes about the 1960s, the number of intellectual properties having 50th anniversaries these days. James Bond just had one, Star Trek’s is a few years off. And speaking of Star Trek, we’ve just rung in 50 years of Trek’s counterpart from across the pond, Doctor Who, celebrated by way of the television special “Day of the Doctor.”

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Mr. Hurt, always a pleasure to see you, but how did you get in here?

Since the 2005 reboot of the classic British sci-fi adventure series, the series has been operating under an overarching backstory: the Doctor is the sole survivor of his people, the Time Lords, having been forced to resort to drastic means to defeat their enemies in the Great Time War, the Daleks, defeating them (although heaven knows that hasn’t slowed them down any) but taking the Time Lords with them. The Doctor’s character arc across his last three (four?) incarnations has been driven in part by trying to come to terms with and atone for that act.

Now we flash back to that moment. When the Doctor is preparing the intelligent weapon of mass destruction to do the deed, he is invited by the weapon’s consciousness to encounter two of his future selves (the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith) to help him learn the impact on himself of this action.

The other two Doctors are each engaged in their own adventures. Eleven and his companion Clara are studying a mysterious painting that depicts his lost homeworld of Gallifrey. Ten is romancing Queen Elizabeth I, who he suspects (partly correctly) of being an alien impostor.

The three Doctors are thrown together, and have to fight a plot by the Zygons, a long-ago enemy of the Doctor whose world was collateral damage in the Time War, to seize the Earth by invading it through time travel, and capture the 21st Century British government’s stash of dangerous alien salvage.

At the end of it, the three Doctors return to the moment of the end of the Time War, and come up with a new solution to preserve Gallifrey, albeit at the cost of making it vanish to places unknown, with the combined effort of all the Doctors, past, present and future, and letting the war-era Doctor rediscover who he is, was, and will be. The Doctor has a new quest to rediscover his homeworld, and new hope after long years of loneliness.

“Day of the Doctor” was played up as being a supreme, game-changing moment for the character, and for the show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, formerly a principle writer for the show and also creator of Sherlock.

Now, full disclosure, I followed the series up til the first few episodes of Smith’s run, and much else that I’ve learned about the show on Moffat’s watch is second-hand from friends and critics, and what I can extrapolate from the Russell T. Davies’ era and episodes written by Moffat during that time. That said, “Day of the Doctor” regrettably seems to confirm a lot of the objections raised about the show under Moffat’s tenure.

If my plot summary above seems a bit vague and jumbled, it’s reflective of my own attempts to follow what’s going on. The great motto of modern Doctor Who is ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey,’ for the occasions when the mental acrobatics of keeping track of time travel begin to get hard to process. Actually, in fairness, the plot isn’t that intricate. It’s more a case of being unable to see the trees for the forest, you might say.

Modern Who was, naturally, brought about and fostered by fans. That in itself is no indictment, but it does carry an element of risk: that the creators’ adoration for their source material will override their good judgement with regards to storytelling. This is, after all, where the stereotypical low-grade image of fanfiction springs from.

And unfortunately this impulse, poorly-restrained, is evident here, and I’ve noticed in places during Tennant’s run, and increasingly through what I’ve seen of Smith: the characters don’t talk like people speaking to other people. They talk like all the dialogue – all of it – was written as potential material for trailers.

Ten at one point runs across what he thinks is an alien in disguise (it turns out to be a harmless bunny rabbit) and declares himself thusly:

“Whatever you’ve got planned, forget it. I’m The Doctor. I’m 904 years-old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness…”

I know this was meant as a comedic aside, but really, who talks like that? Certainly not the Doctor I know.

Over the course of episodes I’ve seen prior to this, the Doctor has become increasingly boastful about his own epicness, when other characters aren’t proselytizing it instead. John Hurt, as the inexplicable ‘War Doctor’ ends with speaking to his future selves as ‘great men,’ and as charming as they are, I feel like the writer’s opinion of them is a lot higher than their portrayal justifies. It may just be that an elder and venerable actor like John Hurt speaking with such breathtaken admiration to two actors decades younger than himself cannot ring true. While the crossover episodes have a tradition of comic banter between Doctors, I felt like too much time was spent with the three of them sniping at each other at the expense of stuff actually happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Tennant and Smith are great actors and excellent Doctors. Not for no reason did Tennant supplant Tom Baker as everybody’s default image of Doctor Who. But as my Dad observed, a lot of the show seems to be trading on the character’s history to make Tennant and Smith look like the thing the Doctor was always destined to be, which comes across as a bit pompous – something Smith’s first episode did as well, actually.

That said, I do like that the writers make an effort to honour the heritage of the series – contrast to J.J. Abrams’ rendition of Star Trek which spends most of its time making fun of its heritage. This would have been a lot more successful perhaps if the involvement of other Doctors besides Smith, Tennant and Hurt wasn’t so slapdash. Given the short featurette “Night of the Doctor” that preceded it, clearly Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor, who was the one in the Time War) was available. Eccleston (9th) wasn’t, and Tom Baker (4th) appears (which caused me no small amount of glee, since he’s my favourite), and 1-3 are all dead of course, but the others get thrown in somewhat offhandedly, I thought.

And of course the number of them has been causing no end of confusion. This is the thing that really gets on my nerves: Classic Doctor Who, much like the Original Star Trek, was basically a set of characters and a scenario on which you could hang any story that could be adapted to them. The new series has been trying to make it into the kind of multi-episode plot arcs that are expected of television shows today. Which is fine, in principle. Where it runs into trouble, though, is that to run a story like that, especially a sci-fi/fantasy one, you need a canon. Rules. Limits. Doctor Who in its original format had a couple of them, one of which, established as far back as 1980 (Baker’s second-to-last serial the “Keeper of Traken,” if you’re interested) is that Time Lords like the Doctor regenerate 12 times, adding up to 13 lives, and we’ve somehow had another one squeezed in with no acknowledgement of this tradition, and quite of a lot of waffling from the creators about where they’re going with this. But then again, they waffle about where they’re going with everything!

The new series also established that the Time War is ‘time-locked’ making it virtually impossible to time travel into it. And yet, one convenient gadget and some timey-wimey dialogue and poof, suddenly the rules evaporate…

John Hurt is one of my favourite actors, and performs marvelously here, but there’s no reason for him to be here in the first place. Paul McGann would have made more sense, and this way the canon is thrown into disorder for no particular reason, although one suspects it’s because too much money is being made by this series to bear the thought of letting it have an endpoint or closure of any kind. And as thrilled as I was to see Tom Baker again, how did he get there?

Furthermore, the sudden evaporation of the time lock and the conjuration of not one, but two Deus Ex Machina (Machinae? Machinas?) to get around the terrible choice that has, I repeat, informed the Doctor’s character for this entire series, is just careless messing around, not taking the storytelling seriously in the name of making the Doctor look cool.

It’s often joked about Steven Moffat that he keeps killing characters off and then bringing them back again. Now he’s done that with the whole of Gallifrey. How can a series maintain its dramatic tension, its thematic backbone, when a quick burst of technobabble and a convenient gadget put an end to hard choices, to consequences?

I had fun watching “Day of the Doctor:” I’m as attracted to the idea of the Doctor, as moved to hope and joy by that wheezy old lurching sound the TARDIS makes as any other fan. I squealed like a little girl when I heard Tom’s voice, and it was nifty to see the Zygons again. But the series has become the very worst of fanfiction: fawning over the character takes priority over a good or even coherent story, engaging characters, or strong themes.

The finale – the Doctor being given a new direction, a redemption, and an ultimate purpose – is a compelling one, but it’s brought about carelessly. The dialogue is the characters addressing the audience more than each other, the hazy clues and foreshadowing are more frustrating than interesting, and the storytelling is neglected in the interest of inducing as many shallow squees as possible.

A lot of this seems to be representative of the decay of the series at large. Unlike Star Trek, however, I wouldn’t argue that it has expended itself and should be wrapped up. The formula is a lot more open-ended than Trek’s, with endless possibilities. It’s just a pity that it seems to have limited its horizons to showing off and goofing around, under a curtain of constant hype.

Doctor Who has done much to deserve such a long history as it has enjoyed, and I hold out hope for its future.

Or past. This timey-wimey stuff is pretty hard to fathom.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Television

 

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