Asylum of the Daleks: Doctor Who?

Excellent kick-off to the new season of doctor who last night, including a fascinating new depth to the Daleks and a wonderful stand-alone story about some of the Doctor’s companions.

For my review, I’m first going to get the most obvious and objectionable part of the ongoing tale of the Ponds out of the way: Amy needs plots that have nothing to do with her vagina. I’m usually a defender of Moffat’s women, but even I have to admit that this is getting ridiculous. Most of women’s lives have nothing to do with their sexuality and childbearing abilities, as Oswin demonstrates in the same episode. Amy needs new stuff, and she needs it ASAP.

Now that that’s said, I’m going to focus on a far more interesting aspect of the episode: the construction of masculinity. This is a boy’s show, but unlike many boy’s shows it takes conflicting ideas of masculinity seriously.

The Doctor is at his most broody-asshole-hero in this episode, snapping at the desperate woman who called him and even been a bit mean to the Ponds. The reason for this is not immediately clear, until you realize that this is what being in hiding has done to our Doctor. He’s been without companions for a ridiculous amount of time. He’s escaped all the consequences of his actions, which have been borne instead by the people he loves. He’s wandering around the universe and, by necessity, avoiding all connections with anyone in order to maintain his cover.

Losing your connection with people is the theme of this episode. The Daleks are the ultimate in connected, sharing a telepathic web that links all their minds, but at the same time each is utterly alone, trapped in their individual shells. In contrast, each of the three humans in the episode falls back on their real, broken connections with the people they love in order to stay themselves. Oswin and her mother, Amy and Rory, all have to hold on to each other to maintain their senses of self.

The Doctor is now the free ultra-masculine hero, but unlike Oswin, Rory, and Amy, he seems profoundly unhappy. He is still capable of love, but he is casting it off as dangerous, as a burden. It’s just him and the TARDIS now, with no strays, and it’s in danger of making him as isolated as the Daleks.

The Doctor may rejoice in his anonymity, dancing around chanting the show’s title, but the more people who forget him, the more creatures and races who lose him, who lose that part of themselves to which the Doctor is essential, the more the Doctor is in danger of losing the part of himself that is human. If he’s not more careful, we’re going to lose him.

Don’t End up in the Garden of Bones

GoT: Don’t End up in the Garden of Bones

            So, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are confused about the unifying theme of this episode, and I’d like throw in my reading: the whole episode boils down to Tyrion’s line about Sansa that she “may yet survive us all.”

            This episode is about what people will do to stay alive, and if anything they can do will help save them. Almost scene involved a character facing a deadly situation, in which they had only one way out and usually didn’t know what it was. Sansa couldn’t get Joffery to stop hurting her, but she could follow Tyrion and stick to the party line. Ros could either sadistically torture a particularly vulnerable-looking prostitute or be sadistically tortured herself. Petyr could shut up about love or Cat could stab him (great scene).

            In a lot of cases, the characters had no idea what they could do to escape, like when Dany tried desperately to figure out how to get into Qarth, or didn’t even realize they needed to look out. Renly had no idea he was bargaining for his life, and no one in Harrenhal knew anything about anything, much less how to avoid getting killed.

            Which brings us to the agonizing soul of tonight’s episode, the little people. The high lords and ladies are playing at their games, and occasionally they get captured by the enemy or threatened with Joffery, but they all live largely in comfort, and widows can even get the bones of their husbands returned. Not so for the nameless commoners, who are viciously tortured for information without even knowing why, or the random soldiers like the crippled boy, whose enemy never knew his name or bore him any hate, but who will never walk again. The gray haired woman in Harrenhal represented all these people for me, with her thousand-yard stare and her utter resignation to her fate, to the fate of all those she loves. Most of the people dying in these battles at court and in the field have no names and no luxury of choice.

Spoiler discussions:

            So I love that they added in the prostitute scene and I think it was totally essential, although I’ll never ever watch it again. I think it’s a really good show-don’t-tell setup for Joffery’s eventual fate at the hands of Margery’s aunt, and solidifies that long term plot in a way the tv show really needed.

            Also, I think all the additions work really well here to flesh out non POV characters, like Robb and Jeyne’s story (I can’t remember—did she have any lines?), Tywin (Yes, I laughed, I couldn’t believe it), and Littlefinger (I always wondered in the book why he didn’t try to get Cat after she was widowed).

            Finally, I’d like to applaud the choice to not make Qarth incredibly racist. I don’t quite remember if the people in Qarth were as Orientalized as the people in Meereen, but it was an easy trap to fall into and I’m pleased they sidestepped it. 

A Short Story About Love Review–COME ON

This week on Fringe, Olivia Dunham responded to the attacks of fans by completely throwing out her personality, history, and life for a man. Yay?

First off, having his Olivia back may be enough for Peter, but it sure as hell isn’t for me. I don’t watch the show for this one relationship, I watch it for a web of interesting relationships in both universes, whose histories I have followed to the point of obsession. I watch a show to see the characters at their best and their worst, and to follow them along the road. Not just to see if Peter and Olivia finally get married.

Of course it makes sense in the show’s internal logic that Peter can’t go back, that there is no back home. We’ve spent a whole season re-writing the chronology, for God’s sake—we’re not just going to go back to normal. But his immediate acceptance of this, and Olivia’s choice to just let her old self go, imply that the only thing they need is each other. The concept of “home” is only their love for each other. This is romantic and all, I’ll admit, but it’s not realistic.

Olivia has been working in Fringe for four years. She has a series of relationships with dozens of people, a whole different set of responsibilities and connections than our Olivia. She has a family, she has a past, and she NEEDS to know them. She can’t just forget everything she knows about her life! Peter’s job is based on his scientific abilities, which he can use in any universe or timeline. Olivia’s job is based on her ability to make connections, to see patterns, to analyze situations. How the hell is she going to do that in a whole different universe?

Let’s have a quick example, shall we? In the LAST EPISODE, Olivia gained control of the situation by figuring out that Nina wasn’t really Nina. She did this by testing fake Nina’s memory. What would have happened if she really had no way of knowing that? She probably would have found a way out of it, but she can’t exactly count on getting lucky, can she?

In the end, the relationships of Fringe’s characters, and the continuity of the show, have been essentialized into a single romantic relationship. Again, this makes sense in the show’s internal logic, but it’s incredibly disrespectful to the characters, particularly Olivia, and annoying as hell to the viewers.

Why I Won’t Be Going to See The Hunger Games

Now, I adored the novels, even parts of the ending. I loved Katniss and rooted for her as much as anyone. And I’ll take a craze centered around her over one around Edward Cullen any day. But the part of the novel that enchanted me the most, that made me just fall on the floor in the first book, was its fascinating metaphor for the voyeuristic entertainment experience. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Hunger Games themselves are fully televised. Every moment of them is broadcast across the country, and much like in reality television, fan favorites develop, theories are advanced, and the real people involved become lost in the characters they project.

But the most fascinating part of this is that the things which thrill the grotesque instigators of the games are also the sections that thrill the readers. Everyone who devoured those books like I did (all three in 24 hours—I had a TON of fun) did so for the same reason that the almost cannibalistic, and deeply inhuman masses within the novel did. The twists and turns of the arena, the sudden deaths of non-favorite characters, all designed for the pleasure of the watching public were also designed for the voyeuristic pleasure of the readers.

The main romance of the first novel, between Peeta and Katniss, is deliberately fashioned by Katniss to win the support of the viewing public. “Intimate” moments were televised nationally, and thus, any reader like me who felt at all touched by that relationship was metaphorically part of the audience, the depraved bloodthirsty stooges of the Capitol.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. This is the reason that I was truly upset at the resolution of the central love triangle. The development of the relationship between Peeta and Katniss was constructed by the two of them in order to please the viewing public. Thus, I felt uncomfortable when the book demanded a large emotional investment in them on my part, and when Katniss chose Peeta in the end I was extremely unsettled because this marked the point at which the part Katniss performed, the fake part of her, became the same thing as Katniss herself. Katniss’s decision in that triangle was the point at which the Capitol beat her, because not only her actions were dictated by them, but her self.

Because of this aspect of voyeurism, which I felt was a powerful commentary on modern entertainment and even reading as a rather bloodthirsty voyeuristic experience, I find the idea of making a Hunger Games movie somewhat grotesque. The entire point of the first book is that entertainment focused on the suffering of others, experience emotionally but from a safe distance, is not as harmless as it looks. The experience of watching, the fandom that develops in the capitol, and the decision to turn on the games each day, are the most direct examples the readers get of the inhumanity of the Capitol citizens. So putting that same experience on our television screens, so that we can get voyeuristic pleasure out of it in the same way that they do, except that our version is (this time) fiction, is an ugly example of a meta moment when reality and fiction run headlong into each other. I’m not saying that anyone who goes to see these movies is as bad as the villains, or is a bloodthirsty spectator; what I’m saying is that the entire marketing campaign, the existence of this movie at all, and the anticipation of this movie are all predicated on missing the central voyeuristic theme of the books. The important and fascinating critique is being lost, the metaphor is veering uncomfortably close to the truth, and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

Irene Adler: A Holmesian Balancing Act

“This is your heart, and you should never let it rule your head.”

In the new Sherlock series, Irene Adler is not a one-dimensional femme fatale who is eventually so reduced as to require saving by the male hero, is not a sexist portrayal of a damsel in distress. She is a unique player in the game, the only character who is able to find a balance between her heart and her head, and though this balance costs her one victory, it gives her the ability to influence others and win what the show deems a far more important victory: that of the heart.

Irene is the principal antagonist of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” but due to the mere handful of episodes the show gets every year the center of every episode must be Sherlock. The essential story of the show is not that of a series of mysteries, but of the humanization of Sherlock Holmes. When we were introduced to Sherlock, he declared himself a “high-functioning sociopath,” was baffled as to why someone would be upset over their child’s death years later, and was so obsessed with his games that he was willing to play the taxi driver’s game. Sherlock and his brother both scorned emotions, friendship, sentiment, right up through this episode, but the fact remains that this detachment from their bodies, from their hearts, keeps these two from being whole people. To be a machine, rather than a man, is not something to aspire to. As Lestrade says in the pilot “Sherlock Holmes is a great man, and one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.” To be a complete person, everyone must find a balance between their emotions and their reason, even Sherlock Holmes, which is how he may yet become a “good man.”

Sherlock is on some level aware of this, which is why he has never attempted to sever his connection to John Watson. John is nowhere near as intelligent as Sherlock, but he understands people on an emotional level that Sherlock just doesn’t comprehend. Sherlock’s journey thus far has been towards understanding that no one, not even he, can live without love, and his teacher has been John Watson, whose effect comes through clearly in this episode in which Sherlock makes jokes, laughs, and even offers his first sincere apology. But John has taken him as far along the spectrum of emotions vs. intelligence as he can, has “softened” Sherlock enough for Irene Adler to start slamming her way in.

Sherlock and Mycroft are solidly at the intelligence end of the spectrum, whereas John is solidly at the emotional end. Irene Adler stands balanced in the middle, and has learned to use this balance to her advantage. Her sexuality is a weapon, one she uses without for a moment surrendering her intelligence. She can make a fool out of Sherlock Holmes wearing nothing but a borrowed coat, can hide herself from his deductive skills wearing only makeup and heels. She is present in both her body and her mind, whereas Sherlock exists solely in his mind. It is easy to forget that Sherlock was naked in public just a few scenes before Adler walks in starkers, because Sherlock was so embarrassed by his nudity that he surrendered to Mycroft’s demands rather than be exposed. Irene is so unembarrassed by her sexuality that she leaves Sherlock Holmes speechless.

Irene’s presence highlights where each of the characters falls on the spectrum of emotions/sexuality and intelligence. Her first “death” shows how detached the Holmes brothers are, as they discuss the weakness of caring in a morgue. It also shows how Sherlock has begun to move on the spectrum, as he is clearly deeply affected by both her death and her resurrection. Her hyper-sexualized characterization brings the question of Sherlock’s sexuality, or lack thereof, to the forefront, showing how disconnected from an essential part of being human he is. Her emotional portrayal also shows how emotional Watson is, when during Irene and Watson’s conversation Watson’s concern for Sherlock is constantly at the forefront, and he and Irene exchange not a word about anything except their mutual relationships with Sherlock. It is even through her actions in sending her phone to Sherlock that Sherlock’s love for Mrs. Hudson becomes obvious. And finally, the climactic scene in which she loses one game clearly illustrates both Sherlock’s and Irene’s strengths and weaknesses.

Irene is finally brought down by her balancing act, by the emotions which she embraces as a source of power equal to her intelligence. She was able to manipulate emotions Sherlock didn’t even know he had in order to gain information about the jumbo jet bomb, and her phone was filled with information gained through the use of her own and others’ sexuality. Irene turned that emotional power, with a little help from Moriarty, into a weapon to use in the game of intelligence, but it was that emotional power which proved her downfall on two levels.

The emotions she brought to the surface in Sherlock gave him the key to his deduction. Earlier in the episode, Sherlock’s deductive power was given an essential push by the emotions raised in him when the CIA spooks threatened to shoot John. At the end of the episode, a similar emotional nudge is used to fuel him when Irene mentions Moriarty, raising a different emotion in Sherlock: that of envy and fury. With that, he is finally able to figure out Irene’s password.

Using Sherlock’s name as a password was both a sentimental and clever choice on Irene’s part, as she was clearly counting on Sherlock not having the emotional intelligence to figure out that she would choose something so obvious. If he had not used her pulse and pupils to read her heart, she would have won easily. But her whimsical sentiment for Sherlock led to her downfall, as his realization of her attachment led him to what he called her weak spot: her heart. He found the chink in her armor, and as he scorned all love and connection he used it to beat her.

But that was only one game: the game of wits and cleverness. Irene was playing at both ends of the spectrum, and though she lost at the game of intelligence, in the world of the show that is not the important game. After all, while many people live perfectly happy lives without being geniuses, who would truly want to live without love? In the game of emotions, sentiment, attachment, Irene won hands down. She broke through Sherlock’s emotional armor, making him for perhaps the first time in his life act on sentiment, rather than reason, in saving her life at the end of the episode. She won at the game that really matters, and her victory was far longer lasting than his, as she will eventually be able to regain her position but her effect on the other characters will never be erased.

Irene Adler is what Sherlock, Mycroft, Moriarty, and even Watson can never be: a truly whole person, who lives both in her body and mind, in her heart and her head, in the privacy that Sherlock and Moriarty embrace and in the world that Mycroft usually rules. She is a whole person, and Sherlock recognizes this, perhaps even envies her for reveling in that which he has never been able to understand. That is what makes her the woman, the only one who matters. She shows Sherlock what he has been missing locked inside his head, and brings him closer to real, powerful emotions than he has ever been. Who would truly want to live without caring about anyone? Not even Sherlock Holmes, it seems.

One final note: I though the issue of Irene’s sexuality was cleared up when Watson said “I’m not gay” and she replied “Well I am–not I suppose.”

Why Season 4 of Fringe is Leaving Me Cold

I’ll be up front: my Fringe credentials are very new. I only got addicted a few weeks ago, and though I’ve now seen every episode, my understanding of the show has evolved rapidly, and I’m not used to slow payoffs.

That said, I really feel that this season of Fringe has done something I do not like with its removal of Peter. The idea seems to have been to re-imagine the show, to do interesting things with characters we’ve come to know and love over three years spent. The characters have different personalities, different hopes, different relationships, but they remain our characters.

That’s the idea, at least. In practice, Peter’s attitude, that these people are simply not our people, that our people are off safe and normal somewhere, seems to apply pretty well. These aren’t the characters we’ve come to know and love—not anymore. Formative events in their lives, such as Walter’s kidnapping of Peter and Olivia’s standoff with her Stepfather, played out radically differently for these characters, altering them to their core. It’s not putting the characters we’ve come to know in new situations, it’s turning them into completely new characters.

It also puts the viewer back into the same spot they were in the pilot, with little understanding of who the characters are and where they are coming from. We no longer know the details of their past we spent years learning about, we no longer understand their reactions to the events unfolding in front of them in context. We no neither their long-term nor short-term histories, which I feel is a hugely off-putting alienation of faithful viewers.

For example, we spent several episodes watching alternate Broyles bond with our Olivia, and the drama of that plot was powerful and brilliant. The sight of Broyles’s charred and mutlitated corpse, and the understanding of his sacrifice, made a huge impact both on the characters and the viewers. Now, he’s suddenly alive and back in his same old position, and we followed and enjoyed all that drama only to have it handwaved away.

This brings me to the aspect of the show’s “rebooting” that positively offends me: it’s lazy storytelling. It’s the same thing that happened when Alias did a 2-year time skip between seasons;  it’s an excuse to for the writers to do whatever the hell they want to the characters without having to do the legwork of character development and plot. The continuity has been entirely disposed of, to the point where Peter, the only character who remembers the whole show, has stopped complaining about the differences between seasons 3 and 4 and is just trying to go home. Here’s hoping he makes it and the show goes with him.

A continuity-based show like Fringe depends on the devotion of viewers, on willingness to tune in every single week and then to remember the things you watched, sometimes all the way back to the first few episodes. When it dumps its continuity likes this, and re-writes entire characters whenever it feels like it, it alienates the viewer. Continuity draws a viewer in, but radical discontinuity like this is pushes them away.

Watching this season of Fringe, I no longer feel a connection to the characters. I no longer worry when someone’s in peril, because I have no emotional investment in the situation. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Walter, but that hinges solely on John Noble’s stunning portrayal. Aside from Walter’s better scenes, the only things this year that have gotten a real reaction from me are the times when I realizes just how far this world is from the one of 9 episodes ago, as when Olivia considers sending Walter back to Sinclair’s. This from a woman who in Season 2 categorically assured Walter she would never send him back.

The idea of Peter’s removal seems to be that the core of these character’s relationships with each other has been removed. Well, with their emotional investment in each other has gone this viewers emotional investment in them.

X Files Pilot Review

“Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?”

It could be a scene out of a Victorian ghost story. A girl in a long white nightdress tumbles through a dark forest, terrified of what’s following her. As she falls to the ground, the wind begins to whirl around her, and light begins to shine, brighter and brighter. A dark man stalks towards her as the wind hurls leaves in a circle, and girl and man vanish as the light overwhelms them.

So begins the X-files, the classic paranormal drama of the 90s. The show went far, far beyond its origins, becoming virtually unrecognizable by its end. It is thus easy to forget that it all started with a brilliant piece of television, a pilot episode that promised that the Truth is out there, and it will be revealed.

The town in Oregon, the zip code where the laws of physics don’t apply, is “based on documented events” and deeply creepy. As each reveal comes, one on top of the other, Mulder and Scully are perfect representations of the audience’s dual fascination and fear, as Mulder runs around with a camera and Scully freaks out about mosquito bites. Every single one of the town’s inhabitants seems to be hiding some desperate secret, a secret which has cost the lives of four members of the class of 1989. Little things, innocuous things that in most scenarios would be bits of everyday life, take on terrifying significance, from nosebleeds to turbulence to dirt in the woods.

The directing is fantastic, giving the whole episode the feeling of reality, a vaguely documentarian air. The camera becomes a character, zooming in and out on the characters, the bodies, and the alien spaceship. It too is affected by lost time, as the screen changes color and the scene cuts straight out. The viewer is given a sense of participation, of involvement.

The plotting is perfectly executed, attaining a beautiful balance between answers and questions that, in later years, the X files would have so much difficulty reaching. We know that aliens probably kidnapped kids, we know why they kidnapped them, how, and have some idea of what happened to them. At the same time, specifics are elusive, and the smoking man’s pentagon connection tantalizingly dangled in front of us. The box, one of thousands, labeled simply “evidence” offers spectacular possibilities.

Of course, this is the pilot episode for two classic characters as well. First introduced is Scully, a dinky but strong woman sitting before three old white men using her to spy on a fellow agent. She is carefully set apart from these men, smiling at their frowns, openly revealing that her parents think the FBI is an act of rebellion to men who don’t even speak. We are given her measure at the same time we are introduced to Mulder, by reputation only. We are told that he will be brilliant and a bit crazy, but through Gillian Anderson’s acting, we know that he’s the good kind of crazy.

When Mulder arrives on the scene, he stands in stark contrast to the buisnesslike atmosphere of the ground level FBI. He’s having the time of his life, cracking jokes to a woman he’s well aware has been sent to spy on him by unknown forces. Duchovny imbues Mulder with delight at every turn, whether he’s teasing Scully about her thesis or the existence of UFOs, or calculating how many minutes of time have vanished from reality. Things that freak the viewers, and Scully for that matter, make him jump around like a little boy. And his joy is infectious—it seems that half the time he turns his back, Scully is grinning at him.

The character development that takes place in these 48 minutes is astounding, as we are exposed to Mulder and Scully at their strongest and at their most vulnerable. Scully is forced to question beliefs she once took for granted, and is so overwhelmed she even thinks for a few minutes that she may be an abductee. At the same time, she holds her own arguing with Mulder, demanding proof and searching for answers. It is their desire for answers, their desperate need to know the truth, which makes the bond between these characters so instantly believable. Scully may have been sent to spy, but Mulder trusts her instantly because he recognizes in her that same drive. Mulder’s vulnerability too is revealed, his desperation to find out what he’s not supposed to know, to connect the pieces of his life that he’s forgotten and to find his sister. The motel scenes are beautifully acted and written, beginning a partnership that would become the stuff of TV legends.

I usually hate pilot episodes, preferring to skip to the point at which the show had matured enough to know what the hell they were doing. But this episode is simply brilliant, a classic piece of creepy television that proves that, though there were many missteps (Fight the Future, anyone?) this was a damn fine show, and one of the best.