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AniMaytion Month: Rock and Rule/Strange Frame

Last year about this time I spent some posts focusing on works of science fiction, and this spring I’m kind of doing it again by default, except that this month, my particular interest is in animated productions.

And, in addition to that, I find myself in the position of having recently encountered two animated features that are, at best, cult classics in terms of notoriety, and both of them involve people in a post-apocalyptic scenario saving those they love through the power of rock and roll.

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Chronologically, the first one is 1983’s Rock and Rule, produced by Canada’s Nelvana Studio – the first English animated film produced entirely in this country, I gather. In a time after global war has left the world populated by animalistic humanoid mutants, Angel and Omar are a couple who dream of making it big as musicians. Angel has a real talent but Omar is selfish and insecure about his own success and they quarrel over exposure for their own songs. Angel is sought out by Mok, a sorcerous former superstar who tempts Angel with going solo. Mok has been searching for a special voice that will enable him to achieve a new kind of power – a horrible demon summoned from beyond. However, I would never have known this movie existed if it hadn’t turned up in the YouTube suggestions while I was watching the other one…

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In 2012, an award-garnering indie film called Strange Frame: Love and Sax came out completely under most radars. Centuries after the polluted Earth has been abandoned and humanity has colonized the rest of the Solar System, hereditary debt bondage and genetic engineering to make you better at a given job are the norm. Parker, a runaway middle-class saxophonist on Ganymede falls in with a debt-slave rebel, Naia. The two become a couple and form a subversive band. When Naia catches the eye of a recruiter for a big music producer, Parker finds herself turfed out as Naia becomes a brainwashed, sanitized superstar. Joining up with the crew of a DIY spaceship, Parker formulates a plan to defy the big fame machine, recover her beloved and get away from it all.

First off, it should be made clear that neither of these movies is meant for kids. I gather that it was a popular misconception that Ralph Bakshi made Rock and Rule; the use of rotoscoping does give that impression, I suppose. The movie sure isn’t shy about suggestive clothing – club dancers wearing the bare (ha, ha) minimum, the villain half-naked in a robe and Angel forced into an outfit on par with the Princess Leia slave bikini – and there’s a scene of Omar and Angel making out very energetically. Strange Frame meanwhile takes place in a Blade Runner-esque grungy future where fetishistic clothing is commonplace and Parker and Naia have sex two or three times in the run of the story – it’s not pornographic by any means but it is still pretty steamy. Plus the monster Mok summons in Rock and Rule is fundamentally disturbing.

Rock and Rule‘s voice cast aren’t big names, as far as I know, except for Catherine O’Hara in one scene. That said, the singing voices are quite big. Well, to be honest, the only one I knew was Iggy Pop, and that’s only because of the time he was on Deep Space Nine. He and one Lou Reed lend their voices to musical numbers by the villainous Mok, the singer Robin Zander does Omar and Deborah Harry does Angel’s singing.

Strange Frame, by contrast, first caught my eye precisely because of its cast: Parker, the heroine and narrator is voiced by Claudia Black, late of Farscape and Mass Effect 2, Naia is played by Tara Strong, Grenman, the captain of the DIY ship – the delightfully named Lone Mango – is Ron Glass, and Chat, the band’s drummer, is Alan Tudyk. Given the general look of the thing, two Firefly and one Farscape actors make perfect sense, really. Cree Summer, Tim Curry as the villain, and George Takei as the villain’s overseer round off one heck of an ensemble.

I can certainly understand why somebody thought that Rock and Rule was Bakshi’s doing. You can tell from how they move that the characters are rotoscoped over live performers at least some of the time, and the attention to detail is pretty impressive. Whoever was animating Mok’s face certainly cared about their work. It’s got more movement in it than some whole characters. It seems to be set in the far future with a new civilization having arisen long after the old one. Omar and Angel make out in a car that looks abandoned in a sort of campsite, the nearby big city is called Nuke York and features such as Mok’s airship, his power plant base and the hovering-shuttle transit system suggest islands of advanced technology in a sea of used future – Blade Runner again splattered across Mad Max, as it were. What’s kind of weird is the halfhearted way the characters are made to look like animals. If TV Tropes is to be believed, most of the main characters are meant to look like dogs, but they resemble dogs to about the same extent that Arthur resembles an aardvark. Angel just looks like a regular gal with a button nose if you don’t look too close. Mok is supposedly meant to be a cat, but I don’t see it at all. He looks like Count Dracula as played by Steven Tyler. Overall, the effect isn’t ‘these are cartoon anthropomorphic animals’ so much as ‘these are humans but something about them is weirding me out.’ That said, the animators pushed the boat out on the demon. It doesn’t stick with cliched demon imagery. Instead it goes the Eldritch Abomination route of depicting something that seems unused to having a physical form, and is in a constant state of hideous flux.

Strange Frame‘s animation is made in a style of stop motion with paper cutouts. It incorporates bits of old live-action movies and CGI-distorted live images for some of the backgrounds and vehicles. The character design is eclectic to say the least. The various genetically engineered persons create a colourful cast. Reesa, Grenman’s first mate, looks more like a hybrid of monkey and bat than a human; the three ‘Muses’ who advise Parker include a catgirl and a lady with ram’s horns; Atem, the band’s bassist looks like a werewolf and Chat the drummer has four arms. Parker is easily the most normal-looking. The grungy, orange-tinted scenery, megacity setting, corporatocratic society and whacky-tending-to-racy clothing styles evoke Blade Runner, Transmetropolitan, or Warhammer 40K Hive Worlds. The way ancient spare parts get used to build ships, and how some ships are built using hollowed-out asteroids as hulls was particularly nifty. The combination of digital and physical media – or appearance thereof – is reminiscent of the Neil Gaiman movie Mirrormask.

Neither film is a musical exactly, but music is nonetheless a key part of the story. Rock and Rule is, as I said, a bit of an all-stars lineup of its time. Lou Reed’s villain song for Mok is fun enough. The original Canadian version and American redub of this movie are apparently markedly different, because I found a standalone clip of Iggy Pop’s contribution, but in the original version’s upload I watched, it’s barely audible above the sound effects of our heroes dashing to the rescue. I’m innately wary of any story where somebody’s voice or talent is supposed to be earth-shattering, especially when it’s as literal as here, because it’s hard to find a real talent that lives up to that much hype. But to my pleasant surprise, Angel’s song, ‘Send Love Through’ – later reworked by Deborah Harry into the single ‘Maybe For Sure’ – is written and performed so well that you really could believe that it has the power ascribed to it. Certainly, it’s now been stuck in my head for over a week.

Music in Strange Frame is superb. The songs of Naia’s that get spotlighted are catchy, especially the one she composes in the first act. The only disappointing thing is that you feel like you’re only hearing portions of them. Strange Frame doesn’t seem to have a soundtrack album. The background music is also catchy as hell, with Jazz, electronic and other influences evident. The saxophone’s presence, as Parker’s instrument, gives the music real drive and emotion. The big chase scene at the end is especially good. The sci-fi sound effects are first rate, too. As before, some of the busier scenes might make it hard to notice what’s going on. According to the Wikipedia page there’s a Roger Waters song in the movie, but don’t ask me where.

Rock and Rule‘s story is, if nothing else, pretty original in concept, and the way that a quarrelsome couple can come together to vanquish evil through song is oddly moving, if a little cheesy. The only drawback is that the characters evolve by the flick of a switch, rather than gradually. Omar is hot-headed and selfish, storming off in a huff when Mok seeks out Angel’s solo talent, but we don’t really see enough of their life to know why she puts up with him. I think the relationship is meant to be seen as passionate but creatively fractious, but without enough context it almost looks abusive. It still drives a theme of your loved ones and your art being more important than your ego. Omar pulls a big damn heroes moment more because it looks cool in the movie than because it seems true to the character, while their other two bandmates actually make a rescue effort we get to witness. And that doesn’t actually accomplish much, except to get their drummer, somewhat an audience surrogate, into position. Omar’s character arc, such as it is, is served by Angel, despite her nominally being the main character. She doesn’t really have an arc. She doesn’t fall for Mok’s enticements of solo success, he kidnaps her. She stays much the same. Though it is cool that she’s a positive example to those around her, and she’s an active and intelligent character, it does seem like she’s doing a lot of the emotional labour here. Mok is a villain I like. Complex he ain’t, but cunning, grandiose, petty and diabolical, and the theme of fundamental goodness drives his downfall as well as the demon’s. But the plot has a sense of being rushed from point to point.

Strange Frame‘s plot is a lot better organized, with Parker’s narration keeping you on top of things. That said, some of the plot is communicated visually without being spelled out, but it comes across more as ‘we want you to interpret this’ rather than Rock and Rule‘s ‘we don’t have time to explain this properly’ vibe. Exactly how the villains’ evil plot works is a little unclear. They make an android duplicate of Naia but still keep her squirrelled away in stasis – I interpreted it as using the android as a conduit for her talent while locking away her rebellious personality. The other bandmates kind of fall by the wayside with little ceremony. In contrast to the sense that large chunks of plot and character are missing in Rock and Rule, Strange Frame seems to have a lot of plot elements that don’t go anywhere. I gather the original plan was to make a series out of it, and there are threads tending to indicate that. The parallel narrative with the AI installed on the Lone Mango barely interacts with everything else. It sort of reminded me of that ‘castaway’ metaplot thing in Watchmen. While the villain is vanquished, his overseers, represented by the voice of George Takei, are never seen, named, nor called to account. The rescue plan seems to go a little too easily, and the big chase scene seems oddly unimaginative, albeit visually enjoyable. That said, the ending, while open-ended, is positive and satisfying, and the movie defies the increasingly infamous Dead Lesbian trope!

It might be obvious by now that I like Strange Frame more than Rock and Rule. Strange Frame‘s dialogue and voice acting are excellent, funny, heartbreaking, and clever. I had to laugh at Claudia Black bringing us a whole new set of sci-fi fake swear words after her tenure on Farscape. The story’s better constructed, and the characters are more varied and interesting, with almost everybody in it a person of colour (when they look human) a sexual minority, or both. I like the setting, a future civilization spanning the Solar System, like the Expanse or Cowboy Bebop. I like the artistry of the animation, which is quite unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’m not saying I don’t like Rock and Rule. Apart from its Canadian background, it’s still an great archetypal story, however haphazard, and its animation style gets me in the nostalgia somewhat. The imagery is quite imaginative. Despite the comparisons to Bakshi, I actually thought some of the scenery was akin to Studio Ghibli’s style. It’s just that if I had a choice of which one to push to friends, Strange Frame would be – and indeed, is – first in line. I recommend it first for story, characters, voice acting, progressivism and general weirdness. Rock and Rule‘s weirdness seems more unintentional than Strange Frame‘s. For music though, for me, it’s a dead heat, I’m glad to say, and it feeds this weird fascination I have with stories about fictional bands I was previously feeding on a diet of Jem and the Holograms.

You can rent Strange Frame on YouTube and Rock and Rule has been running the bootleg circuit so long I don’t think anyone cares anymore, so it too will pop up on YouTube time and time again, so check them both out, if you like.

Meanwhile, in the interest in getting that song out of my head, here it is in a fan-edited video so you all have to hear it too…

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2017 in animation, Movie

 

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Star Trek: Vanguard: Too Little, Too Late

It is difficult to overstate how much of a Trekkie I was as a kid. For kids these days, they start with Harry Potter and work their way through Percy Jackson and the others. For me, as soon as I was done with Redwall I made a beeline for Star Trek novels.

The Star Trek television series has spun off into a vast range of novels and comics, telling further adventures of the various crews, telling new stories in the same universe, and in a few cases performing crazy inter-fandom crossovers, including with Doctor Who and X-Men. Really, I couldn’t make this up…

Unlike the Star Wars Expanded Universe, however, Star Trek licensed materials aren’t integrated into one enormous canon – thank heavens – so one can read any of them and not have to worry overmuch about some key detail that was in some other book you know nothing about.

But I’d gone off them years ago. Indeed, as I’ve said before, the current state of Trek has often left me feeling that the whole franchise has had its day and should be laid to rest.

That said, my curiosity was piqued when this article regarding a particular recent Trek novel series happened by, in which the writer, David Mack, eloquently defended his inclusion of a lesbian relationship in the text.

Star Trek made its mark in large part from social commentary, especially in the Original Series. But as popular sensibilities progressed, Trek did an inconsistent job of keeping pace. By the time that LGBT rights arose as the next important social cause the franchise seemed to lose its nerve, and only a halfhearted handful of episodes addressed it, and there were no gay main characters in any series.

So I was intrigued to investigate this work that might have outdone the shows.

The first book in the series

Star Trek: Vanguard is a hexology taking place in the Taurus Reach – or the Gonmog Sector or the Shedai Sector depending on who you’re talking to – an unexplored region of space bordered by the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Assembly. The Federation and the Klingons are in a tense race to claim as many new planets as possible. The Tholians, meanwhile, are getting leery at both but also don’t seem to want to claim the region themselves. They fear something in the Taurus Reach, an ancient power from their earliest history, which explorations by the Klingons and the Federation threatens to unleash.

One of the things that originally put me off Star Trek novels was the matter of voice: I’ve read few that, to my taste, convincingly capture the mode of speech of the characters. A lot of the time, all of the characters ‘sound’ the same, and just dispense exposition to each other.

The Vanguard series takes place, mostly, on Starbase 47, or Vanguard Station, the space station that is Starfleet’s main post in the Taurus Reach. The crew of the Enterprise only appears briefly to ‘hand off’ the story to a new crop of characters, giving the authors freedom to invent new voices.

Vanguard is duly populated by a huge cast: Commodore Reyes, the conflicted and secretive commander, his girlfriend and local Starfleet legal eagle, the genially cantakerous Doctor Fisher and his colleague Dr. M’Benga (a one-off character in the Original Series) and the eccentric but sagely Federation ambassador, an alien named Jetanien. There’s also the cold but deeply conflicted Vulcan intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander T’Prynn, and the assets she runs in the Taurus Reach: Tim Pennington, the hapless journalist, crusty old smuggler Cervantes Quinn, and Lurqal, known to most as diplomatic attache Anna Sandesjo, a deep cover Klingon spy, who is T’Prynn’s double agent, and her lover. There’s also an Orion crimelord, the ambassadors of the Klingons and the Tholians, a Starfleet archaeologist in charge of chasing down the the mystery of the Reach, and the crews of the starships stationed at Vanguard, and the local Klingon and Tholian commanders who they tangle with out in space. Oh, and the Romulan ship which got a couple of chapters spent on it and then went away again…

The book format allows for a much greater variety of aliens than the shoestring budget of the Original Star Trek. Ambassador Jetanien is the most alien of the main characters, described as somewhat birdlike. While the lack of an EU canon means that every writer has a different way of doing this, the books do a respectable job of lending some nuance to the traditionally somewhat one-note races like the Klingons. They also seem to go out of their way to make the human crew as diverse as possible. The range of starships is also more diverse.

The fact that the action has as much to do with negotiation and investigation as with blowing stuff up is very Star Trek. At times it almost reads like procedural fiction. The story of peril on the frontiers of discovery is classic Trek, and the hidden danger somewhat Lovecraftian.

The character drama is what it’s mostly about. The overriding theme that jumps out at me is the impact of responsibility on one’s personal health and morals: it threatens to break some characters, like Reyes and T’Prynn, but elevates others, like Quinn and Pennington. Their suffering, their thought processes, all make the story go.

Regrettably, while it has much thematic and storytelling merit, it also suffers from a number of drawbacks. A lot of them are fairly normal Star Trek ones. The starship du jour in Trek is always the only one in the area. You’d think that Vanguard, given what a hot potato it is, would have more starships on hand. I think it wouldn’t have killed them to sit down and some up with some numbers to explain why Starfleet is always this stretched.

Given the fact that canon isn’t all that big a deal, I also found it faintly annoying that they felt the need (taking their cue, I believe, from a late episode of Enterprise) to spend any length of time contriving an in-Universe explanation for the change in appearance of the Klingons between the Original Series and the rest of the franchise. Don’t bother. We fans know it was just because of how little money the show had, and the limits in the technology. Just pick which look you want to use. It’s fine, we’ll go with it…

The other specifically Star Trek problem it has is being subject to many hands. The first and third books are written by David Mack, but the second was written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Mack’s writing style, while prone to purple prose at times (‘the sting of love’ and similar phrasing), is much clearer. I can barely remember anything about the middle book, Summon the Thunder, because the prose was so thick. Similarly, I sometimes had to cast odd looks at the editing. One remark is made about not being ‘oblivious of peril’ whereas I usually see it as ‘oblivious to peril.’ You also usually type a ship’s name in italics, as in starship Enterprise, but in these books they persist in writing it Starship Enterprise, as if that were the full name. You wouldn’t write Aircraft Carrier Lexington or Battleship Potemkin. Okay, bad example…

Having gotten halfway through the series though, most of all it seems too dense. There’s actually too many characters, and in a few cases some are introduced, given backgrounds and relationships and then have nothing done with them, as in the case of the Romulan crew who show up for a few chapters and then evaporate again. In a lot more cases, they needed to try harder to pick distinctive, punchy names so I don’t lose track of who’s who. Some of them are way more interesting than others for me, but whichever ones you favour, it’s difficult to get enough of those ones, and when some of them don’t seem to go anywhere, it stretches one’s patience. Say what you want about David Weber or Jim Butcher, they may bang on a bit but stuff can usually be counted on to happen.

As far as the character drama goes, my gripes with that might be partly my own fault. The publicity arising from including a same-sex couple led me to think it would be a main part of the story, and I probably got myself excited about it.

No, not like that! Still, it is hard not to get cynical about the fact that if a male sci-fi writer – and I do not except myself in this – is going to break with the herd and put in a same-sex relationship, he chooses a lesbian one. It might be thought safer, or maybe writing attraction to a woman, even in another woman character, is easier for a hetero male writer. Then again, arguably Star Trek’s greatest weakness was that it could never reconcile its mandate of social commentary with its fondness for cleavage.
Part of T’Prynn’s background is a condition, rooted in a sort of telepathic injury, that denies her the “release of Pon Farr,” the Vulcan mating cycle, and the resulting emotional turmoil (Vulcans are all cool and logical, of course, but it is something they have to work at) is part of what drives her shared passion with Lurqal. When it was first introduced in the TOS episode Amok Time, Pon Farr happened to male Vulcans, but that gradually got retconned in the name of sexy fanservice.

For what it’s worth though, it isn’t belaboured for titillation. The story cuts tastefully away when things are about to get steamy. There’s some pillow talk and commitment angst between T’Prynn and Lurqal, but the story isn’t littered with explicit love scenes.

But for my money, the relationship isn’t explored much either. We don’t learn how they met, or how their relationship evolved, or what it is exactly that they see in each other. Call me crazy, but I was hoping for an actual love story. I was particularly looking forward to a study in the interplay between love and logic in the Vulcan psyche. I freely admit that I would have been drawn to the sexy aspects, but even that would have been better for being portrayed respectfully between well-written and interesting characters.

The worst of it is, just as their personal and professional relationships reach a crisis, out of the blue, a SPOILER happens: Lurqal is killed off.

It was disappointing because the character development they’d had until then seemed suddenly for nought. But it also played into a dynamic that it disappointed me to see the writers succumb to: Tropers call it the ‘Bury Your Gays’ cliche. The way gay couples, for whatever reason, are seldom allowed happy endings, or indeed lives: Silhouette and her girlfriend in Watchmen, Tara and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrrell in Game of Thrones, or the lesbian couple in that one episode of House, where they had to sacrifice one newborn baby to save the other, and of course the hetero couple’s baby is the one that lives, the pattern is alarmingly consistent.

Like I once said about the ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ dynamic, it isn’t that this one instance is objectionable (although I think it is) so much as that the regularity with which it happens is…really quite creepy. You were doing so well there for a while, Mr. Mack.

I suspect that I won’t be seeking out the rest of the series. They have so much going on, but it all turns into white noise. If they’d streamlined the subplots, and maybe got one writer committed to the whole thing, it would have been much more accessible and engaging. In the end, it’s trying to be a political thriller, a military sci-fi, a buddy comedy and a star-crossed romance all at once and doesn’t do any of them justice. The dialogue is pretty decent, the mystery intriguing, the characters well-written, but they’re crowded in too tight, and the one thing that set the story apart in terms of pushing old boundaries ends up fizzling out.

Star Trek, it was nice to meet up for old time’s sake, but the fire’s just gone out…

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Book

 

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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.

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From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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