Sunday, April 28, 2013

New Who Reviews - "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" (And Everything Else Before It)

Yeah, I haven't done one of these for a while, but the reason (other than the fact that I've been blogging less in general) is mostly that I didn't really have much to say about the episodes since "Asylum of the Daleks".

To be perfectly honest, the first half of Series 7 was a bit of a waste in my opinion.

"Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" was fun, but mostly in a gimmicky way.

"A Town Called Mercy" was great, but I'm not going to lie, Tennant was way better than Smith at showing the ruthless, merciless of the Doctor. When Tennant did a face-heel turn, it felt surprising, but scarily believable. Like when your funny friend suddenly gets very serious and angry. Smith sometimes has a hard time being believably cold.

"The Power of Three" had an excellent build-up, but a really underwhelming payoff and a really doofy last line. That said, I liked how it forced the Doctor to stay in one place for a long time and showed how incredibly difficult that was for him. It was an interesting exploration of his character that hadn't really been explored before.

Finally, we reached "The Angels Take Manhattan" and while I personally think it was a satisfying conclusion for Amy and Rory, I also think it was one of Moffat's weakest episodes to date, mostly because paradoxes almost always make a terrible plot-device in Doctor Who, especially when you never establish their mechanics before they become important. In one episode, a paradox just releases a giant reality-destroying creature, in another episode a paradox would blow a hole in the space-time continuum the size of Belgium, and in this episode, a paradox allows them to defeat the weeping angels and jettison themselves back to their original time. See? Not terribly consistent.

Since the Christmas special, I find I have to keep reminding myself that all those episodes were part of the same series. It really doesn't feel that way to me. "The Snowmen" and the episodes since then have all felt like their own separate series. The only thread connecting them is Clara's appearance in "Asylum of the Daleks", but the rest of the first half just felt like Amy and Rory's parade of death. Now that they're gone, the series finally seems to have taken shape and feels more distinct.

"The Snowmen" wasn't particularly memorable, but I love Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, and I was pretty OK with Clara's reappearance. I think that the introduction of the Great Intelligence is promising, but more on that later.

"The Bells of St. John" was pretty good and as an IT person, I appreciated a show warning the masses about unsecured WiFi networks. It was plotted rather well and continued the Great Intelligence thing, which made me happy. Again, more on that later.

"The Rings of Akhaten" was admittedly rather hokey and cliche and sickeningly sweet, but I honestly really liked it because it felt so refreshing to have an episode that was more interested in sentiment than in acting clever.

"Cold War" was OK, but "Dalek" from the first series did something very similar far better.

"Hide" was excellent and like "Rings" (which was written by the same person) it felt very different from other recent "Doctor Who" stories. It had a very solid emotional foundation that has often been ignored since Moffat took over.

I don't think I really noticed how cold and generally over-intellectual "Doctor Who" had gotten since RTD left, but I think that's partially because RTD's run quickly became overly-emotional and almost anti-intellectual, so I was happy to change gears.

Still, it's been a few years now and it's good to see that Moffat's trying to mix things up a bit.

Which brings me to "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS".

Let me just say that I don't love this episode. I like it, but there are parts I really dislike. The subplot regarding the brothers seemed pretty forced. Why exactly did the Doctor need their help? It seems like all they did was create more conflict. I liked that we got to see more of the TARDIS, though it seems like the only times we get to see the inner workings of the TARDIS is when we're running through it at top-speed and can only have enough time to throw in one or two in-jokes for the fans. Beyond that, it was a fun episode, although I still feel like Clara hasn't established much of an identity for herself yet, probably because her identity is a very critical plot-point, which is potentially great for later on, but kind of sacrifices a certain level of investment in the here and now.

Still, the reason this episode made me feel like blogging about "Doctor Who" again is because it made me realize something about this second half of Series 7 that kind of defines its current direction.

You see, up until now, RTD and Moffat had been more than content to completely ignore Old Who. Oh sure, they might bring in a well-known adversary every season or so, but the Doctor in New Who has generally been very tight-lipped about his old escapades. He might bring up the fact that he had children, but he would be very vague and just give silent looks whenever the subject was brought up.

To get to the point, RTD and Moffat were always afraid of alienating new fans by referencing material they know next to nothing about. If they were going to bring in something from Old Who, it would be rebooted and re-contextualized to the point where it might as well be completely new. This was something they more or less admitted to, by the way. They intentionally didn't want to dig too deep into the recesses of the Doctor's ancient history because they were more interested in telling their own stories and creating their own monsters.

And that's fine, really, but one thing Old Who fans are often quick to point out is that it often seems like anything "new" they create tends to have something almost exactly like it from the already established and obscenely overly-documented canon. The sliver of effort required to take an idea and fold it into the vast well of canonical material would generally have been worth it just to throw in a little fan-service.

However, starting with "The Snowmen", the show has taken a very interesting shift towards acknowledging Old Who in almost every episode.

"The Snowmen" and "The Bells of St. John" both involve the Great Intelligence, a lesser-known villain from Old Who during the Troughton era, and he appears to be the Big Bad for the remainder of this series. In "The Rings of Akhaten", the Doctor openly and freely states that he had a granddaughter that he used to travel with, something he had always danced around in New Who. In "Cold War" we see the return of the Ice Warriors, another monster from the Troughton era (with some additional appearances in the Pertwee era). While "Hide" doesn't incorporate any direct references, its general tone and style feel incredibly different from almost any other episode in New Who, though I wouldn't say it's particularly Old Who-feeling either.

And in "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS", we have references galore, mostly through little artifacts scattered about and ghostly voices of previous doctors and companions.

More importantly, the Doctor himself feels older. From Series 5 through the mid-point in the current series, Smith's Doctor has been very bouncy and excitable. He felt surprisingly wise, but still very spry and adventurous. After the loss of Amy and Rory, however, he became a lot more crotchety. Not quite in the same way as Eccleston's Doctor. Honestly, he seems very reminiscent of Hartnell's Doctor. Deliberate, a little grouchy, a bit obstinate, and just plain old. For the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor, I don't think anyone else has ever made the character feel quite as ancient as Smith has during these past few episodes.

There's no reason to ask why there's been a sudden fondness for the good old days. We all know that this is the year of the 50th Anniversary of "Doctor Who". We have an episode bringing back the Cybermen, a finale supposedly revealing the name of the Doctor, and a special somehow bringing back Rose Tyler and Handy (the half-human Doctor clone regenerated from his hand).

Still, I find this shift in direction fairly promising. Even if the episodes haven't been terribly excellent, if there's some master plan at work, it could really pay off in a big way, particularly for some jaded old fans.

That said, I also was willing to give Moffat some rope during Series 6. His first episode was stellar, but hinged on the promise that the Doctor would die, which was one hell of a pickle that Moffat wrote himself into. I truly believed that he had already worked out his plan, but when the series ended, it was relatively clear that Moffat had no idea how he was going to write his way out of it, and so the end was a pretty massive disappointment, especially since the supposed death of the Doctor has been in no way consistent with his behavior in Series 7.

So it's entirely plausible (and even probable) that Moffat set himself up to reveal the true name of the Doctor with no real plan on how exactly he was going to handle it. I fully expect him to cop out at the end or give us something massively unsatisfying.

Then again, it's important to note that the identity of the Doctor is the one plot point that Moffat has had brewing since "Girl in the Fireplace" in Series 2. In that episode, Madame de Pompadour reads his mind and remarks on how he's hiding something behind his name. Then in Series 4's "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead", we find out that River Song knows his name and that there's only one reason she would. Much later on when the Doctor marries River, he supposedly tells her his name, but he actually just gave her a clue to make it clear that he would survive her attempted murder. Now it's clear that "Doctor Who?" is apparently the first question ever asked in the history of the universe and that its answer is somehow very dangerous. I would not be surprised if the identity of the Doctor is something that Moffat had spent a lot of time pondering as a life-long fan and eventually thought of an answer that excited and satisfied him enough to make a part of his own head-canon, and once he started getting brought in to write more and more for the show, he started leaving in bread crumbs just in case he ever got the opportunity to make it actually happen. Once he got the opportunity to act as show-runner, he decided that this would be his claim to fame and that he would dedicate his entire run to build up to the moment when he would finally reveal the Doctor's name and blow all our minds.

Or he's just making this shit up as he goes along.

I guess we'll find out in a few more weeks.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Anti-Popularity of Superman

It's common for people to dislike something that is typically perceived as popular simply because they feel that its popularity is disproportionate to how cool the thing actually is. These sorts of things can sometimes even have a bizarre sort of anti-popularity, where it almost seems more common to dislike it than to actually earnestly like it, yet it still remains fixed in popular culture in spite of this. Pop music, reality TV, Tom Cruise... all of these things that apparently a lot of people really like, but we often find ourselves wondering where these people are, because it generally seems like more people make fun of them than actually enjoy them.

Probably one of the most well-known examples of this kind of anti-popularity is Superman.

Everyone says Superman is this big iconic superhero, possibly the most popular superhero of all-time, but it's incredibly rare -- especially among actual comic book fans -- to find people who actually give a shit about him.

More often than not, people say he doesn't deserve his notoriety. That he's too boring because he has no internal conflict, no serious weakness, and he's completely overpowered. With the exception of Lex Luthor and MAYBE Zod, his rogues gallery is mostly unknown to the general public. He's just completely uninteresting when compared to heroes with less power and more personality.

And while it's rare to find people who are genuinely fans of Superman, he still somehow dominates the public consciousness. Some say it's because he was the first of his kind, that it's because he's been around for so long, or that it's because he's basically the point of reference that we judge all other superheroes on. Superman is the default and all other superheroes are essentially tweaks on his general heroic persona.

In that light, I guess it's not surprising that Warner Bros. often has a hard time making Superman movies. On the one hand, everyone knows who he is, so brand recognition is through the roof, but on the other hand, apparently no one really likes him so they often try to redefine his persona to be more accessible to general audiences. Long story short, things often dissolve into executives trying to get Superman to wear black leather.

But seeing as today is the 75th anniversary of Action Comics #1 and how the pretty cool-looking new trailer for "The Man of Steel" just came out...

...I thought this might be a good time to share my feelings on Superman.

To get right to the point, I think Superman is way more interesting than most people give him credit for. No, he isn't interesting for the same reasons that Batman or Spider-Man are interesting. He's far too powerful to be interesting in those ways, which is probably why so many writers have a hard time with him. They focus too much on trying to disempower Superman in order to get him to fit into the mold of other superhero movies.

But Superman is an empowerment fantasy through-and-through. Forcing him to be weak through kryptonite or putting Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane in danger often comes off as hackneyed. There's no way to make him interestingly disempowered.

Those kinds of stories are what movies like "Iron Man", "Captain America: The First Avenger", and "The Dark Knight" are for. Stories of (mostly) ordinary human beings discovering what is exceptional about themselves and using it to benefit the world they live in. They struggle with personal problems and have most of the same weaknesses we do. They don't need a glowing rock or an imperiled loved one to be interesting. They are inherently interesting because they are like us.

Superman is not like us. Superman cannot be like us. Superman will never be like us. Giving him kryptonite doesn't make him seem more vulnerable, it just puts the plot on pause until the kryptonite goes away. Putting his loved ones in danger just disempowers and reduces his supporting cast.

But really, Superman's limitless power isn't actually the biggest problem with his character. Plenty of superheroes are overpowered simply because audiences believe they are never truly in danger. Batman always has a plan and a gadget, Spider-Man has his spider-sense, Wolverine has a healing factor. Even if a character does die, it probably won't last for very long.

No, the sticking point most people have with Superman is that he's a boy scout. That he's lawful stupid.

And frankly, that's kind of understandable. We as human beings always bend the rules once in a while during exceptional circumstances, so when we see Superman let Lex Luthor live for the billionth time, we wonder how much trouble he would save if he made an exception just this once. That with all his power, he was wasting his potential behind moral black-and-white bullshit that few people can honestly relate to.

But that's exactly what makes Superman interesting. While most superheroes are limited in their power and devote their lives to doing everything they possibly can within the realms of their power, Superman has the opposite problem. This man can protect Metropolis, the USA, the entire planet, and even planets in other galaxies, all while still holding a steady job as a reporter. He has no limits, so he has to define those limits for himself.

He lives in a world made of cardboard, controlled by ants. If he wanted to, he could crush all of us and rule as a king and say he did it for the good of mankind. And in fact, in many stories, he does exactly that.

If Superman decides that just this one time, he'll kill Lex Luthor because he's proven to be a threat and that he can never change, then it forces him to second-guess every decision he's ever made. Why not kill ALL the supervillains? Why stop at supervillains? Why let corrupt governments exist? Why let any governments exist?

Superman has to live every day consciously deciding what he can and cannot do with his unlimited power, and his faith in humanity is so strong that he refuses to let himself be anything more than a beacon of hope for these people.

Superman isn't just an empowerment fantasy. He's a constant reminder that those with power don't merely have a responsibility to use their power for good; they have a responsibility to understand what "good" truly means. Many of us wish we have the power of superheroes, but heroes like Superman remind us what we want that power for.

I think that's why Superman tends to resonate more with the underprivileged, particularly during times of crisis. While a lot of the time we indulge in empowerment fantasies because we think it would be cool to beat up bad guys and fly around the city, we are also attracted to empowerment fantasies because many of us thirst for people with power who hold themselves to a higher standard, and we like to believe that such a person exists in all of us.

In a way, Superman reminds me of the late Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers was not exactly the most interesting person in the world, or at least not the most entertaining. I was always more of a Sesame Street and Nickelodeon kid, myself. Mr. Rogers was just a little too slow-paced for my hyperactive brain. A little too consistent. After all, the man was kind of terrifying in how perfect he was. He never lost his temper, always stood up for what he believed in, wore the same damn outfit every day, and never once complained... Legend has it that he always maintained the exact weight of 143 lbs. simply because he really liked how that arrangement of numbers matched the number of letters in each word of the phrase "I love you". He paved the way for fair use laws and convinced cold-hearted politicians to fund PBS by appealing to their better nature. This man probably could have ended wars with a stern letter. So while "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" may not have been everyone's favorite TV show (and in fact many of us might have made fun of how corny it was), pretty much everyone agreed that Mr. Rogers was basically a saint. He held himself to a high standard because he cared so much about the rest of the world. He would spend nearly every day of his life looking out to millions of children and reminding them that they were special and that they belonged to a community that loved them for who they were. Maybe it's not the most he could have done with his mega-popularity and enormous audience, but he felt it was the most important thing he could have said, so he never stopped saying it. If you asked me, that is what a Superman truly is.