Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"It's Professor Song, sir. She's doing it again. Packing."

Because I love the resignation of River's guards. They're just used to it by now. She's gonna hide the lipstick; they're gonna get hallucinogened -- and she's gonna get out. There's just no way around it.


So I have in my possession one of the most wonderful things in the universe: the first half of season 6 of Doctor Who. Are we doing episode reviews? Yes, we are! Will there be spoilers? Most likely. Read with caution. I did see someone blogging at who claimed to have written a spoiler-free review of the new Torchwood series and I didn't even give it the time of day. I don't see how it's possible without saying. "There's Torchwood. This is Jack. And this is Gwen. And over there's Rhys. And some things happened. And it was cool." Yeaaaaah -- we all know that already.

In any case, lets proceed: The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon. No plot outline here -- I don't think I could do it if I tried! ("So...the Doctor dies -- and then he's still alive. And there's this kid -- but it isn't really a kid -- but it might be! And these things, but you can't remember you've seen them when you've seen them...")

I think the phrase I'm looking for here, the words that just totally encapsulate my reaction to this episode -- and, indeed, the season 2-parter opening -- are "Gblagh? Hnghg? What -- what -- what?" Said in my best David Tennant voice, of course.

Everything about Astronaut and Moon is slightly --- off. The colors, the feel, the music, the story -- everything's weird. And not in a, "Well, it's okay; blame the Angels" kinda way but in a, "Lets start out by shooting the Doctor in the chest!" kinda way.

May I point out: I was not okay with that. Yes, I really do stand by what I said earlier: the Doctor should stop at 12 -- or 13, depending on how you want to count -- there should be no jiggling about with original series canon in this respect -- but that didn't mean I wanted to watch him get shot three times at point-blank range! By someone who may or may not be Amy's child. Or River's, for that matter! (Anyone else feel slightly nauseated after watching this one? or do I just have a sympathetic tummy?)

My gut reaction to both Astronaut and Moon, is that nothing feels real. It feels like a freakin' fever dream: the colors are hypersaturated (check that lakeside picnic scene!) or totally drained (Oval Office, anyone?); the music is funky (electric guitar?); and nothing seems to quite hook together in the right order (so many things I can't count but we can start with the Doctor, move on to River, then to Amy's "pregnancy"...) And what's with the woman in the wall? I really thought I had maybe imagined that until I watched the show the second time around and realised, no, no, it really was as bad as I had thought.

You know what I really love about this season opener? Apart from Canton Everett Delaware III, that is? It's unsettling -- it's really quite scary and not just because the Silence are a little freaky (does anyone really believe that this is the Silence as in "Silence will fall"? 'Cause I don't.) The Doctor doesn't seem to know what's going on; River is increasingly off her game and preoccupied; and...I'm not sure we have the same Amy all the time. Or that our time-line is even contingous all the time; I do not think that things necessarily lead one to another here. Or, if they do, that Thing 2 is the same Thing 2 Thing 1 originally started out with. If you get my drift.

I remember saying when I was writing about season 5 at one point that I thought the entire story (or stories?) was taking place in Amy's head. Obviously, with shows like The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, this is literally true: Amy's memories are responsible for how the world is (when her memories have been used to create it) and for recreating it when the universe is gone. And I feel it's true again here. It all seems to be about Amy or -- headache-inducing possibility -- Amy's child? Or is it River's child? And, really, I have to put my money on the table here: if either of these women end up reduced to being important because of their kid? I am gonna kill something. And it won't be them. Of all the tropes in SFF, I think I hate that one the most. It really makes me taste metal and want to kick something. Hard.

So I'm going to decide that that's not what's happening here because I don't want to buy trouble.

And there are so many lovely things happening here like the fucked-up orphanage with the crazy Southern dude leaving himself helpful notes all over the walls, but totally unable to act upon them because the Silence keep springing out of the woodwork and screwing his memory all to hell. Again. Some more.

There's CED III, too. I had my doubts when I heard Mark Sheppard was going to be around in season 6 -- I mean, yeah, he had a good hat, but -- was Firefly street cred really going to see him through? Oh, totally -- man had a ball and I had a ball watching him do it. I love his delight -- what I think is both Sheppard's and Delaware's -- in getting to be one of the TARDIS crew. And I think he and Captain Jack will get along just dandy if and when they ever meet up. :)

Last but not least: what the fuck is up with the little girl? I have gone through the list of possible Time Lords so many times in my head, I can't tell you. I know John Simm said he would come back to do a regeneration sequence for the Master, so I'm fairly certain we're not looking at the Master mark....14 or whatever the hell he's up to now. The Rani? Whoa. That would be...whoa -- but -- also kind of -- meh? Lets face it -- and I love Kate O'Mara -- the Rani never had the same charisma as the Master. Surely not the Meddling Monk, for heaven's sake! I know RTD brought back the Macra, but that really would be hauling out an oldie-but-goodie. So -- a new villain? a new good guy?

What puzzles me -- along with a number of other things -- is whether or not we're meant to think the astronaut in some way has stolen regeneration energy from the Doctor? Because as far as I know, that hasn't ever happened before and can't really be explained in canonical terms. I suppose...perhaps Moffat is planning to improvise wildly on the "Time Lord metacrisis" concept?

Interesting stuff anyway! A fascinatingly dark opening to the season.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Darkness on Monday

I recently had the energy to pick up and read Stephen King's latest volume of short stories, Full Dark, No Stars. The collection won the 2010 Stoker award -- Joe Hill tweeted very nicely about that -- and I'd read other good reviews of the collection and thought it was probably time I got around to it.

In my opinion, King is almost always better in short than long with the possible exception of the Dark Tower series and even there he starts to suffer from verbal diarrhea more than once. Man just can't stop once he gets started.

I'm not saying that this collection is the exception -- the four long-ish stories in it ("1922," "Big Driver," "Fair Extension," and "A Good Marriage") are pretty good. Solid King, you might say; there are all his old familiar tropes: man kills wife; woman kills attacker; deal with the devil; horrible discovery in family. There's nothing here that you haven't seen before if you've read more than one King novel or previous collection of short fiction.

What caught my attention and prompted this post is King's insistence, and that of several reviewers I read, that these were his "darkest" short stories. In his afterword, he specifically describes them as such, talking about how dark and serious and disturbing they are.

I read the volume at a go one hot Sunday afternoon, read the afterword, and sat there thinking, 'Dark? Dark? Mr. King, sir -- what is this dark of which you speak?'

Sure, the stories are vintage King as described above but I don't know if, in all fairness, I would describe any of them as being darker than, say, "Dolan's Cadillac," "You Know They Got A Hell of A Band," or "Home Delivery" from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Or "The Raft" or "The Mist" in Skeleton Crew. Or "The Road Virus Heads North" in Everything's Eventual.

And then I started to wonder about what I mean when I said "dark" and what King might mean -- and then I decided not to worry about that because trying to figure out what someone else means when they use a word is pretty much a mug's game unless they're standing right in front of you and you can ask them. I'm not going to trudge all the way up to Bangor just to bang on the man's door and ask him an obscure question about the afterword to his latest book.

What I do know is that none of the stories in Full Dark had the same feeling of menace, of inevitable doom, and of bleakness that I think make the stories I named above so genuinely dark and threatening. Take "The Road Virus Heads North," for example -- it's a pretty basic "purchase a haunted/possessed item -- purchase the haunter/possessor" story. A man stops at a yard sale, is struck by the painting of a young man in a muscle car heading north over the Tobin Bridge from Boston, and buys it. As he takes it further north with him towards his home, the painting begins to change. It becomes clear to the reader, if not the poor sumph of a narrator, that he's being followed. Perhaps even hunted. I find "The Road Virus" terrifying -- every time I read it, the inevitability of the narrator's pretty ghastly demise is still frightening. The doom he manages to avert from some of the others along the path of the Virus is awful -- the implacability of the antagonist quite real.

And check out "Home Delivery," man! Woman alone on island facing birth of first child after the descent of the zombie apocalypse. Bad enough? Oh, did I mention her husband drowned recently? Yeahhhhhh -- think that one, through. And keep your knitting needles handy. What I like about "Home Delivery" is the common-sense approach of the character to an unbelievable situation; yes, it approaches the pragmatism of the narrator in "Big Driver" (once she gets done being traumatized) but "Big Driver" then descends into a straightforward rape revenge drama. Pretty rote, once you figure out what's going on. "Home Delivery" takes you on a hell of a ride, not forgetting the heaving cemetary dirt scene.

I think what these stories have in common that I didn't feel in any of the work in Full Dark is a sense of claustrophobia, fear of something awful that you can't get away from. Yes, the characters in Full Dark, in "Fair Extension" and "1922" particularly, are doomed by their actions -- but their actions are also avoidable. There's no point in any of the stories when you feel, "Aha. There's the click. The key's turned in the lock -- hell, that fucker's broken off in the lock, and here we go." It always seems reversible. There's no sense in this collection that the you can't kill the boogeyman -- in fact, in "A Good Marriage," that's exactly what the protagonist does. Yes, it's horrible; yes, her journey of discovery is wrenching; but it also doesn't feel as immediate and as clutching as, say, the fate of the teenagers on "The Raft."

None of the stores in Full Dark have that feeling. Yeah, in "1922," the narrator pretty much buys his own ticket to hell by bludgeoning his wife to death and getting his son to come in on the deal. But the rest of the story is really just an exercise in Lovecraftian inspiration and a long-drawn out version of HPL's "The Rats in the Walls" -- except not as good. (Sorry, Mr. King.) "Big Driver" is just -- well, I thought it was just bad. We don't need to go into why.

Anyway, the point of this post was not to get into trashing the stories in Full Dark -- they're worth a read, particularly in you're a King fan. I just wanted to say that I don't think they're very dark; perhaps there's just a twinkle or two in the sky -- maybe the glow of a city in the distance. That's all.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"The fish like the music."

I remember when the Doctor Who 2010/2011 Christmas special came out, I saw a headline in the Guardian that made some comment about the show "jumping the shark."

And I thought, "Ah, fuck -- they lost their grip and fumbled the special. Oh, well, after such a good season, no-one will blame them for it." And I clicked into the story -- only to discover that the end of the sentence was "...and landed perfectly." Or words to that effect.

Having been forced by the vagaries of the DVD market and the wonders of the BBC marketing division -- does anyone know if they're still employed, by the way? -- to wait a whole month (or two; I can't now remember) to see the special, I couldn't immediately take in the glories of the Guardian reviewer's commentary.

Now having seen the special several times, I have to say: I absolutely, whole-heartedly, and 100% concur.

And, to coin a phrase, "Spoilers." Not really huge gigantic brain-sucking ones, but still. 

Not to belabor my point but, short of the Runaway Bride, this may be my favorite of the Christmas specials. Yes, I love the Starship Titanic: there is Geoffrey Palmer, there is Russell Tovey, there is Kylie Minogue -- but there is also a lot of pain and, honestly, now I can't look at Midshipman Frame now in any context without seeing Captain Jack post-Children of Earth and that's just bad. We'll get to how bad that is in another post.

The Doctor Who Christmas Carol is a worrying, perfect thing. The few blog posts I have read about it are pretty much unanimous in how awesome it is, so I'm not going to spend too much time on that. It is awesome and if you happen not to agree with that verdict, you have long since stopped reading this post -- not to mention this blog, so that's all good.

I want to talk about the worrying -- and then again about the perfect. But lets hit up worrying first.

Sardik's machine that controls the sky.
I haven't seen a single commentary that talks about how disturbing the Doctor is in this story. Hello? Anyone? Anyone else out there think what he does is totally freaky and a little unokay? Lets just have a brief review, shall we? Amy and Rory, on their honeymoon, as organized by the Doctor. Their ship -- the standard super-luxurious space cruise-liner -- is crashing. The only man who can stop the ship crashing is Kazran Sardik, the self-nominated ruler of the planet who "controls the skies." The Doctor goes down to ask Sardik -- quite nicely -- to clear the cloud layer over the planet and allow the ship to land. Sardik -- not very nicely at all -- refuses.

Cue the Doctor's meddling side, apparently, because, man, does he go all out. Not satisfied with browbeating Sardik in the present -- and it is Michael Gambon after all; I love Matt Smith but even he has a little way to go before he can truly go toe-to-toe with Gambon -- the Doctor immediately travels back in Sardik's life to his boyhood and plunges into trying to rebuild the man from the ground up. Sardik's memories of the past as he remembers it and as it is being rebuilt for him by the Doctor begin to collide and reshape.

I mean, yeah, as Amy says to Sardik at one point, "He was trying to make you a better man." But what right does he have to do that? Who the hell, to coin a phrase, is he? He takes personal, by hand control of Sardik's life and, admittedly, he tries to undo or ameliorate a lot of damage. Sardik's father is abusive; his emotional life is stunted; and, as events develop, the woman he idolizes as a boy and loves as a young man, is dying, confined to a tiny metal cell in an induced cold sleep by his father. So, yeah, pretty not good all 'round -- but I don't know as the Doctor makes it a lot better.

This is very similar to what the Doctor attempts, as 10, in Waters of Mars except this time -- major point here -- he gets away with it.
Sardik and the Doctor face off.

Yes, some of what he does for Sardik is wonderful: when talking to the older Sardik, the Doctor mentions that perhaps Sardik Senior was a bit of the not-good kind of father. Perhaps Sardik Junior has an opportunity to be a different man and wouldn't that be a wonderful thing? And even when forcibly rewriting Sardik's memories, he takes him -- and Abigail; mustn't forget Abigail -- to some wonderful places, shows them glories of the universe including his own unscheduled wedding to Marilyn Monroe.

And the Doctor's original reappearance back in Sardik's memory as he recalls being a sobbing boy in his room is absolutely in keeping with the tenor of the rest of the season: don't interfere...unless there's a crying child. Sardik's line that leads into the quick TARDIS jump to the past is something the Doctor could never resist: " comes." Well, how could he ignore that? I mean, c'mon! He's been trying so hard to be good and I think that's possibly why I find what he does with Sardik's past life so disturbing: he tries so hard to be good and talk to him in the here and now and when he can't change things that way...

But on the whole -- I get uneasier and uneasier every time I watch the show. What the Doctor does is just not good and he gets away with it which is bad.

So there. I've made my point about what I feel is the "worrying" bit of Christmas Carol and we can finish by talking about what the "perfect" is which is everything else including the "worrying.". If I wasn't a little bit worried, I would think Steven Moffat wasn't doing his job (and, by the way, Moffat? We need to talk about the proposed Sherlock seasons and where you need to be putting your effort in the next few years. Just whenever you have a few minutes...).
Because you have to have snow.

Rory and Amy are great as the honeymoon couple ("Eyes off the skirt!") and I could have even done with a little more Rory -- but I feel that way a lot. I can't wait for the episode I'm sure he gets in Season 6 where he just steps up, sheds the flannel'y outside, and goes for it -- in whatever form that takes.

Abigail is a lovely, sweet, absolutely charming character. Her voice is...revelatory. The British press talked about her casting as a huge give-away but I had no idea who she was; in the promo photos, she was just the blonde lady holding a lamp. Her rendering of "In the Bleak Midwinter" is gorgeous.

The fish -- the fish are great. The fish are...just so great. They make me smile uncontrollably every time I watch the show.

The Doctor's entrance is fantastic ("My whole brain just went...what the hell!") and Matt Smith doesn't really stumble once in this -- neither does anyone else in the cast. They pick up what could have been a thin, unconvincing story with far too much schmoop and transform it into brilliant Doctor Who and a great story.

And so, as a closing thought, have a Wednesday video. If you wish to skip some great stuff about fish and fog and frozen people, skip straight to 12.30. Otherwise, just enjoy.

Doctor Who- A Christmas Carol- Part2 by root41

Monday, July 18, 2011

Short Thought: "When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race. ~H.G. Wells"

So here's your headslap moment for the day -- a little delayed, since this Boston Globe op-ed went up last week -- but, hey, a good headslap moment is good at any time, right?

Okay, fine, but last week I tweaked out my wrist and couldn't type. A little delay is only normal.

Boston Globe op-ed columnist Brian McGrory wants to ban bicycles from Boston. Why does he want to do this? Well, they annoy him. Folks on bikes -- he doesn't like 'em. Spandex, not his thing. L.L. Bean cycling outfits leave him cold. And he feels cyclists as a group are rude, inconsiderate, thoughtless people.

Isn't it good that all Boston drivers are so considerate, thoughtful, and attentive people, then.

You never walk past one -- and I walk everywhere -- who is texting while driving.

You never walk past one who has just cut off an old lady on a crosswalk in an attempt to cut off someone else for on-street parking.

You never go through a pedestrian crossing and feel a breeze on the back of your legs as someone takes an illegal right turn.

Nah. In Boston? Man, that'd never happen.

(I said it was a good headslap moment, didn't I?)

Are there rude cyclists in Boston? Sure -- of course there are, because they're people and people -- along with demonstrating a wide variety of other behaviors -- can be rude. You know what this means? There are also rude drivers in Boston -- there's a reason Massachusetts drivers have the nicknames they do in the New England area. Hint for those of you not from New England: the best one (my personal favorite) starts with "Mass" and ends with a single syllable noun easily discoverable by testing out rhymes for "mass."

And, please, Mr. McGrory, don't tell me about Boston being "designed for cars." I can only stand so much hysterical laughter once in a week and most of mine was taken up with Stargate: Atlantis/Girl Scout cookie porn. (Truly. Hilarious.)

Beacon Hill? Built for cars? Yeah, sure -- that first wave of settlers who began building around what was then an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean were totally working on spec for Chevy. Don't insult my intelligence, Mr. McGrory; it makes me grumpy. Try checking some facts past the Mass Historical Society, the State Archives, and the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections next time -- they can tell you exactly when the main roads of the city were laid out and when the city started being "designed for cars."

Tell you what, Mr. McGrory. You want to reduce traffic congestion in Boston? I thoroughly support this idea. This is a fantastic idea.

Here's how to do it.

Take a leaf from the books of London and Paris and ban private passenger vehicles from Beacon Hill, the North End, Downtown Crossing, and the financial district. I can think of a few other choice areas -- like Harvard Yard -- but those will do to start with.

Don't let taxi-cabs cruise for passengers.

And you really want to do a number on the congestion on sidewalks? Here's a nifty notion: ban baby carriages. Especially those side-by-side "I got an extra zygote!" numbers. Hey, if I want it, I have to take it with me; if my cat has to get to the vet, I -- or my partner -- have to carry her there. You bred it; you carry it. Got two? Then it looks like one fore and one aft for you: think of the noble koala bear and work up those lumbar muscles.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Fun Times

Youtube is seriously lacking in Maura O'Connell. I wanted the cut from her Austin City Limits gig, but this was the best I could do. It doesn't matter, really; ignore the back-up musicians; listen to her.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Short Thoughts: "How [Not] To Do It"

And to those of you who realised the complicated Python joke I just made: congratulations. Now go outside and get some fresh air. I'll join you momentarily.

At the library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, by Glynis Ridley. While the book sells itself nicely -- the cover is attractive; the blurbs impressive; and the subject matter highly appealing as we'll see -- why I actually picked it up is an old Beverley Nichols book on gardens -- one of many he wrote and they're all wonderful light reading if you're looking for something so English it creaks -- where he -- or possibly the character he wrote to stand in for Aldous Huxley? -- tells the story of the discovery of the bougainvillea in tropical seas.

The story involves the simultaneous discovery that the assistant of the botanist credited with the discovery of the plant was discovered to be a woman. The story as Nichols tells it -- or retells it; I don't have the book to hand -- is pleasingly vague and focussed mostly on the discovery of the plant rather than on anything to do with the young woman...although it does suggest she had a less than pleasant afternoon with the sailors on the island where the bougainvillea bloomed so plentifully.

Ridley has discovered this story, too -- why not, after all? It's a great story! Enlightenment France, botanical discovery, trans-oceanic voyages, cross-dressing -- what's not to like? Well, lots, frankly, at least in Ridley's handling.

I must say, in all fairness, I didn't finish the book. But there are reasons and I'll get there in as short a fashion as I can. To put it as briefly as possible: Ridley commits just about every version of the sin of presentism in writing history as it is possible to commit. In addition to this, with the self-announced, loudly trumpeted goal of giving Jeanne Baret, the young cross-dressing botanist, her voice and agency as an individual back, Ridley only redefines the role of victim and Baret really moves nowhere.

Admittedly, this is not entirely Ridley's fault. Baret left only questionable written evidence behind -- some papers in the botanist Commerson's collection have been tentatively reidentified as in her hand -- and no cache of letters, diaries, or notes from any point in her life, to say nothing of the climactic voyage of discovery have been found to help along the curious researcher.

Despite this, excellent biographies have been written by historians with equally shady or scattered or shadowed evidence -- Annette Gordon-Reed, anyone? To say nothing of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich -- she had more evidence, yes, but the skull-sweat needed to make it into anything useful is just staggering.

I wish I could say that Ridley had done the same kind of work in rehabilitating Baret and bringing her back to the central role she may deserve in the botanizing of French ships in the tropics. Instead, she reduces Baret to the status of a hanger-on, even falling into the fatal trap of putting unjustified words, thoughts, and emotions into her experience to justify what to Ridley seems like the obvious. Well, yes -- it is the obvious to a 21st century reader (at least, a certain type of 21st century reader), but not so much to an 18th century French peasant woman. She probably lived with a very different type of obvious and to pretend anything else is to do a radical disservice to her.

I really wanted The Discovery... to be something better than it was; when it descended to the level of imaginary psychobiography, I was done.

What Baret did -- even when seen through the lens of other contemporary diaries and accounts -- was phenomenal, even if you only consider what she did in France: moving from the countryside to Paris with her richer, better-educated lover; leaving her family behind permanently in the south; taking over housekeeping of a Paris household; bearing a child and leaving it at an orphanage at her lover's insistence -- and then the capstone experience (if you wish to see it like that) of choosing to cross-dress and accompany said lover on a massively dangerous ocean voyage with no promise of pay-off. Are you kidding me? You couldn't write a novel that good! And to reduce Baret's choices and motivation to those of "following her lover" and "rape trauma" as Ridley does is deeply disrespectful.


Rant over.

And before you go on with your day, please enjoy this lovely photo of Beverley Nichols with some of his cats.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday Fun Times

Because I feel like campiness and because I've been watching Highlander. No, I will not be blogging about it.