TV review: “Doctor Who,” the complete series three

This review was originally posted just under four years ago (which was still a full year after their initial broadcasts). I watched a couple of episodes out of order in college that spring, then watched the rest of the season over the summer with my sisters and subsequently composed the review. This is why I sometimes make reference to earlier viewings throughout the piece.

The Doctor Who reviews are, for me, a major highlight of my livejournal account; I hope you enjoy this one.

Spoilers ahoy!

Episode 0: The Runaway Bride: The Doctor tries to figure out why Donna Noble (soon to be married) has inexplicably materialized inside the TARDIS.

Not terribly imaginative, except for the Huon radiation, and the TARDIS flying alongside the car. Admittedly, I didn’t expect Lance (the fiancé) to turn out to be a villain, but I don’t think it really added anything to the story. Also, even I had to admit that Donna was incredibly annoying. Unlike with Rose, the writers got the message and reworked her character for Season 4 (and may I say, well done) but that doesn’t do anything for this episode.

Not spectacularly bad by any means, but not particularly good, either.

Episode 1: Smith and Jones: The Doctor and new companion Martha Jones try to figure out why Martha’s hospital has been transported to the moon.

A pretty good episode, not terribly original, but more than some. The Judoon are interesting—moreso than the villain. Of course, it literally would’ve killed writer/producer Russell T. Davies to have them not kill the guy who hit one with a flower pot, which is a shame, as it would’ve made them even more interesting, and more original … for this show.

The line about “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden—except for cheap tricks” is itself a cheap trick by Davies to avoid explaining why the Doctor can do some things and not others. Which of course, just makes the joke even funnier.

Episode 2: The Shakespeare Code: The Doctor and Martha travel to see Shakespeare in 1599, only to find that he’s being manipulated by witch-like aliens.

Another fairly unoriginal episode; evil aliens trapped in another dimension, need Shakespeare to free them, etc. etc. However, the part about the Carrionites using words instead of numbers for their science is interesting even if it is likely bunk.

Shakespeare ad-libbing a “spell” to send the Carrionites back is pretty good … up until Martha drags Rowling in. Doctor Who is (usually) much better than that.

The whole interaction between the Doctor, Martha, and Shakespeare is pretty fun. When Shakespeare says he considers the line “To be or not to be” “pretentious,” it occurred to me that this whole episode was rather pretentious, what with all the quoting and “you can use that line.” Still, points for having Shakespeare realize eventually that one of the lines they quote is his own.

The episode also mentions Martha’s skin color and possible ramifications thereof, if not really addressing them. It appears that rhetorical color blindness (not to be confused with clinical color blindness) as pro-equality is an even bigger fad in Britain than in the US. I’d like to see them try to do an episode with Martha set in the American South in the 50s. Still, I suppose I should be grateful the show even has main characters who aren’t white Anglo-Saxons.
Episode 3: Gridlock: The Doctor takes Martha to New New York on the planet New Earth, where all the people they encounter are stuck in decades-long traffic.

See how much more creative and interesting we can be when we simply eliminate the villains? And what a twist to find out the people in the cars were the only ones left alive. I seriously expected it to turn out that they’d been left there for some stupid, selfish, sadistic motive on the part of the upper city’s denizens.

Also, cat-person/human couple with kittens: awesome! Screw biology, it’s sweet.

I find it kind of sad though that Russell T. Davies (a gay man) thinks that homosexuality won’t be accepted five billion years from now. Yes, I know it was only a joke (made by one half of an interspecies couple at that) but why is it even still an issue?

This brings up a problem I often have with speculative fiction: no real attempt at presenting truly alien cultures. Oh, there’s different fashions and a few “exotic” customs or quirks, but when you scratch away the surface, most future or alien societies in North Western media are infinitely less alien than most Southern and Eastern societies. This definitely holds true for Doctor Who.

Good episode, though.

Episodes 4 & 5: Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks: The Doctor discovers that the Cult of Skaro have hidden in Manhattan during the Great Depression, where they are planning to convert humans into a new Dalek army.

Me, after watching both episodes: “Well that was about eight minutes of good entertainment.”

The Daleks don’t lend themselves to originality in any case, and in the new series, they tend to be even less original than in the old. Neither episode has anything that hasn’t been done before and done much better.

The really maddening bit is that the writers are going to keep beating a dead horse by bringing the Daleks back again and again (they’ve been extinct what, five times in the new series alone?) even though they’re just covering the same old tired ground over and over and over again.

Also, has anyone else noticed that every single Dalek two-parter of the new series so far has involved the Daleks having the Doctor, his companions, and/or some other characters at their mercy (not even counting the humans they’re controlling, that I can forgive) and then deciding for whatever reason not to exterminate them? Sure they had their reasons: they needed to know about the Time War, the human-Dalek hybrid was starting feel compassion, and so on, but after a time the excuses start to get dull. If the writers can’t handle a race of creatures whose only thoughts are “Exterminate,” and “create more of us to exterminate more,” maybe they should stop writing them.

Can anyone explain to me why the Cult of Skaro, after carrying off their rebellion, didn’t just exterminate the Dalek Sec-human hybrid? Apart, of course, from the writers wanting the Daleks to do it in front of the Doctor to make the scene more dramatic. (*best mechanical voice* “Daleks do not humiliate! Daleks destroy!”)

True, the old series had a fair bit of this too, but it didn’t take itself nearly as seriously. And at least some of those Dalek stories actually showed signs of creativity and imagination.

I must admit I was surprised that Frank survived, and somewhat pleased, as I liked the character well enough, but I don’t feel like there was really any payoff with his character, which was unfortunate.

But speaking of Hooverville denizens brings me to the one part in the story which really and truly offended me. Solomon, the de facto leader of the Hooverville community dies because he tries to make peace with the Daleks, with his enemies. He dies for doing what any good leader should do.

It’s a shame. Hooverville was one of the few elements of the story that had any redeeming potential. “Daleks in Manhattan” set up some great social commentary with Solomon’s question about how they could have homeless people dying in Hooverville with the Empire State Building under construction not two miles away (even if it was heavy-handed). Of course, writer Helen Raynor quickly threw the social commentary angle overboard to focus on the Daleks. Because really, what could be more interesting or original than Daleks?

The story’s one true saving grace was Lazlo, the half-converted pig-human. Lazlo was a goner from the time he started investigating that strange noise in the teaser for the first episode, and every subsequent appearance only emphasized the fact that he was doomed. So the part where the Doctor goes into Super-Efficient Badass mode (“I am not having one more death!”) was genuinely cool and surprising. I liked Lazlo as a character, and that at least one writer had realized they didn’t have too kill off all mutants and other “unnatural” creatures created throughout the course of the story.

So the ending was actually rather good, and why I said “eight minutes of good entertainment” instead of say, two. Still, eight good minutes out of ninety. You do the math.

Episode 6: The Lazarus Experiment: Professor Lazarus tries to rejuvenate himself and winds up transforming into a terrible monster that the Doctor and Martha then have to deal with. Go figure.

Just when I thought nothing could top the unimaginative lameness of the previous two episodes, here comes “The Lazarus Experiment.” The story tries to tack in some philosophical something-or-other about the meaning of death towards the end, but it’s not worth sitting through thirty-five minutes of unoriginal, unexciting, uninteresting plot to get to.

Cast side note: Professor Lazarus (old and young) is played by Mark Gratiss, the idiot who wrote the season two episode “The Idiot’s Lantern.” Believe it or not, associating with this episode was a step up for him.

Episode 7: 42: The Doctor and Martha have 42 minutes to save a spaceship that’s falling into a star.

I watched this episode in college and had zero interest in wasting another 42 minutes on it.

The plot is again maddeningly predictable, and feels almost like someone condensed the plot of series two’s “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” two-parter (a mildly entertaining story, but nothing to write home about either) into a single episode. The premise of a sentient sun has several interesting possibilities, and it’s a bit of a shame they had to waste it on such a wretched and uninteresting plot.

And no points for guessing that Captain Whats-‘er-name (Captain McDonnell, according to Wikipedia) would have to resolve the situation with a noble sacrifice. She was a recently bereaved spouse, and a sinner in need of atonement (even though she didn’t even know what she’d done). Either of these two tropes would’ve demanded Death by Noble Sacrifice in any self-respecting Western media hack story. It was the perfect stupid, cliché ending to a stupid, cliché story.

Also according to Wikipedia, this episode was written by Chris Chibnall, who has written many of the episodes for the Doctor Who spin-off series, Torchwood. Anyone who has seen the first season of said series should be unsurprised by “42’s” performance. I was amazed to learn that of Chibnall’s four episodes in Torchwoood series one, one of those was the good one.

Episodes 8 & 9: Human Nature/The Family of Blood: The Doctor transforms himself into a human and hides himself on Earth in 1913 to escape four terrible creatures known as “The Family.”

The plot is decent, the villains are slightly more original than most on this show, and fairly interesting. One gets the feeling that the story does live up to the premise, but that an amnesia episode could’ve been much better.

I thought the Doctor vs. John Smith angle was an interesting idea, and well handled, but as my sister pointed out, in the end it came down to another excuse for angst in an already angst-ridden show. Ditto John Smith’s romance with Nurse Redfern. (Ironically enough, my sister’s two biggest complaints about the new series is that they’ve become an angst-fest and a romance (well, sexual tension)-fest. John Smith had a point: the Doctor really should have considered the possibility that he would fall in love, or at least that someone else would fall in love with him.)

I have to disagree with Nurse Redfern’s assessment that John Smith was braver than the Doctor in the end because “[the Doctor] chose to change, [John Smith] chose to die.” Quite the opposite, in fact. (Who was it who said “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”?)

Also, the Son’s line about the Doctor “being kind” by hiding himself as a human disturbs me. I think Joan Redfern had a good point about the Doctor getting so many people killed because he decided to hide in 1913 “on a whim.” However, the Son’s comments suggest that such hiding wasn’t even necessary. Is writer Paul Cornell expecting us to swallow the idea that the Doctor went to all that trouble and put all those people at risk just so he wouldn’t have to play rough with the Family?

I must compliment both actor Lauren Wilson, and the sound and stage crew for making a little girl in a pink dress—with a red balloon, no less—genuinely creepy.

As long as we’re on the subject of actors, casting Harry Lloyd as the Son was possibly the single greatest decision connected to this story. I suppose I should give a nod to the camera crew and special effects and everyone else who contributed to Lloyd’s effect, but it was Lloyd himself who provided the raw material for them to work with. That twisted smile, unfocused look, and slightly mechanical way of speaking were infinitely more alien than the makeup/prosthetic/computer graphic monsters on the show.

To round things out, it should be noted that David Tennant delivered a stand-out performance both as the genial-but-implacable Doctor and as the sensitive, frightened John Smith. Though the angst in the series may be horribly overdone, Tennant played his part to perfection. His performance deservedly won him a 2007 Constellation Award for Best Male Performance (there’s more to the title of the award, but that’s a big enough mouthful already).

This one has more to do with character than with acting, but points to Martha for grabbing the gun and getting the Family to back off at the beginning of part two. Given this show, I would’ve expected an outside save, probably deus ex machina, and almost certainly coming from the Family suddenly deciding “no, we need them alive for [insert patent nonreason here].”

Not that Freema Ageyman’s performance as Martha in these and the other episodes of the series wasn’t spot-on. If there’s one thing the new Doctor Who tends overwhelmingly to get right, it’s the acting.

One detail of the story which really bothered me was the death of the headmaster, who I believe was named Rocastle. He seemed more three-dimensional than most characters in similar roles, so killing him off was rather a let-down. My real problem, though, was the way he was killed off. I know it was sexist and childist of him to assume a little girl needed protecting from danger, but dammit, it was a good and noble sentiment. He died because he tried to get somebody he thought to be in danger out of harm’s way.

Episode 10: Blink: Sally Sparrow receives strange messages from the Doctor and Martha, who are trapped 38 years in the past.

Oh my god. Steven Moffat is a ***ing genius. A twisted, maniacal, logic-snubbing genius. (Though he can screw up. See upcoming review of series fours’ “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.”)

His depiction of time-travel is utter nonsense, and his “alien” villains scarcely less so, but they’re So. Darn. Cool.

Every single element of this episode might as well have had “awesome” at the beginning of its list of ingredients, and to give them their due, the actors and crew entirely live up to their script. Particularly noteworthy in an episode stuffed with win is the hilarious and mind-bending conversation between Sally and a recording of the Doctor in 1969, with interruptions by Martha and Larry Nightingale.

Another great moment that comes to mind is the DVD store clerk’s remarks: “Go to the police, you stupid woman! Why does nobody ever just go to the police?” (As someone who annoys the hell out of friends and family with constant chatter to the TV along similar lines, I probably found this particularly funny.)

One of the few irritants to this episode was Sally’s relationship with Larry. Don’t get me wrong, Larry was a sweet guy, and I’m glad he made it through. But even if inverting the genders is somewhat original, it still fits the cliché of the main character first meeting their love interest when said other character is naked. Like I said, small irritant.

The montage at the end, taking one last poke at the viewer, is pure conceit, but it’s so appropriate and over-the-top that the audience has to laugh along with it.

According to Wikipedia, “Blink” netted a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, a Constellation Award for Best Female Performance for episode star Carey Mulligan, and two Best Writer awards for Steven Moffat. It also lost a Nebula Award for Best Script to Pan’s Labyrinth, and having since seen Pan’s Labyrinth, I must confess I consider it an undeserved loss. (I’ll go into more detail about my thoughts on Pan’s Labyrinth in a later review.)

Episodes 11-13: Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords: The Doctor is reunited with Captain Jack Harkness and with his old enemy, the Master. When the Master succeeds in taking over modern-day Earth, it’s up to Martha to stop him.

The plot of the first episode evokes a sort of Olde Doctor Who feel, like it could’ve been a story from the original series. However, apart from Jack being Amazing (well, everybody being amazing in fact, I only noticed Jack in particular because a) he was a guest star and b) it was such a welcome change after the first season of Torchwood to see him actually in-character) it’s also fairly dull. The story really doesn’t pick up until the professor opens up his fob watch and releases his true personality.

I admit I didn’t realize what was going on until almost the last minute, even with the barrage of clues Russell T. Davies sprinkled throughout the episode. I mean, I even knew the Master was coming back, but I figured “he must not come in until the second episode.” (In my defense, I’d already seen the Master on the cover of the box set and figured out who he was, so I was expecting quite a different actor.)

I was disappointed that he killed Chantho. Not so much because I liked or disliked her character (though it’s always nice when the writers throw an actual alien in here and there), but it showed how completely the Master was divorced from Professor Yana. Admittedly, John Smith was a far cry from the Doctor, too, but in the Master’s case, the gap is much wider.

Professor Yana is an essentially decent person (despite having those drums knockin’ around in his head all his life), whereas the Master is certifiably evil. It wouldn’t’ve hurt the Master’s status as villain to leave him with a few of the professor’s more positive characteristics, such as his affection for Chantho. (Indeed, it probably would’ve improved it. If there’s one thing the myriad Dalek and Cybermen reboot episodes of the new series have illustrated, it is the utter and complete banality of evil.)

But he does kill her, though she manages to shoot him before she dies. The Master regenerates into a younger body, and promptly skives off in the TARDIS, leaving the Doctor, Martha, and Jack to die.

Episode 2 of the story, “The Sound of Drums,” picks up with the Doctor fixing Jack’s time-hopping watch in time to bring the three of them back to modern-day London. The Doctor already knew the Master would have to be there, as he’d locked the TARDIS’ coordinates, but the team is horrified to discover that the Master has been elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The new series of Doctor Who has been anything from dreadfully abysmal to amazingly awesome in terms of quality (which, to be fair, also applied to the original series). Even so, there are a few things that would, all by themselves, be sufficient reason to justify resurrecting the series. David Tennant … Steven Moffat (well, except in series four …) … “Blink” … The return of the Master is one of those things.

Maybe I just haven’t seen enough Master stories from the old series, but from what I have seen, he never came across as a Magnificent Bastard. Bastard, yes, but not very Magnificent. Then, we got the new Master/Harry Saxon, played to absolute perfection by John Simm.

The Master does all the standard iniquitous skullduggery the audience has come to expect from a card-carrying Evil Overlord (both on and off this show), but he does it with such flair and humor as to make these horribly cliché actions the epitome of art. The sequence in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, culminating in the Master gassing the entire room, is one of the greatest moments of the series. The murder of the journalist Vivien Rook wasn’t quite as good, but having the Master open the door twice to listen to her dying screams made it worthwhile.

Then there’s the scene where he’s on TV, announcing first contact with the Toclafane. At the end he puts an emphasis on mentioning “medical students,” meaning Martha. The Doctor and Martha, horrified, then pull Martha’s TV set around, only to discover that the Master has attached an explosive to the back. They escape of course, but the Master has made his point.

The phone conversation between the Doctor and the Master is another priceless moment. Tennant and Simm have great chemistry, and in this one scene, they depict the incredibly complicated relationship between the two characters, which is clearly founded as much on friendship as on enmity.

I think this scene like no other in the story-arc best expresses the relationship between the Doctor and the Master. In all the following scenes, one or the other of these antagonists clearly has the advantage between them. In this scene, while the Master has the upper hand, he’s not in full control of the situation. Both characters are in their element here: the Master in command, the Doctor on the run.

Jack, of course, continues to be awesome. He even manages to redeem Martha’s crush on the Doctor. In any other episode, the Doctor’s ironic “… like when you fancy someone, and they don’t even know you exist” line would’ve been just another spot of angst for Martha. Jack’s follow-up, “You too, huh?” makes it funny.

All-in-all, “The Sound of Drums” is the best episode of the three, hands down.

In the third episode, “Last of the Time Lords,” the Master has taken over the world with the help of the Toclafane, has Jack imprisoned, Martha’s family in servitude, and the Doctor aged and helpless (though really, he’s go to be over a thousand years old by now anyway, why should a hundred more years make so much difference?) Only Martha Jones escaped, and now, one year after the Master’s takeover, she returns to have it out with the Master, whom rumors say only she can kill.

Try as Davies and Simm might, the Master just isn’t as fun in this episode as in the last one. He’s still great, just not as good. Perhaps because this episode, set after he’s won, is a lot more grim and serious and self-important than the previous ones. The new show often takes itself way too seriously, as it most definitely does in this episode.

Then of course, there’s the implication that the Master is a wife-beater. What the f***, Davies? On ferretbrain, several of the regular contributors have pointed out that rape or attempted rape is often used as shorthand for irredeemable evil in fantasy novels. It’s a novelist’s way of signaling to the audience “This person is evil through-and-through and deserves to die.” In other words, it’s a cheap shot.

Now, since this is a family show, Davies can’t very well portray the Master as a rapist, but a spouse-abuser? That he can manage. The Master has largely escaped the tired, trite actions the writers on this show use as shorthand for characters who deserve to die (by making them hysterical, if nothing else), but even he does not come out unscathed.

I’m not saying this is a big problem, mind you, just a very annoying one. No, the big problem (one of them) is the Messiah Complex at the end. I know it would’ve been trite and cliché to have Martha tell the people she talked to “you’re the only ones who can save you,” but god dammit, it’s true.

Instead, Davies has Martha “Not an allegory at all” Jones going out into the world to spread the good news of God the Doctor to the helpless, hopeless masses. “Only the Doctor can save you. Trust in the Doctor. Believe in the Doctor.”

(I’d seriously like to see someone write a fanfic about what would happen if destroying the Paradox Machine didn’t cause a big ol’ Reset Button effect. What if everybody in the world remembered the Doctor had saved them from the Master and the Toclafane? The Doctor would leave, and Martha would either go with him or eventually die of old age. Meanwhile, in the years following the Master’s defeat, a few intelligent, white, upper-class men would found a new church of Doctor worship, claiming to know the Word of the Doctor and to interpret it for the common people. The world’s established religions would probably try to work him into their teachings as a new prophet of their faith, but the majority of ordinary people would convert to the new Church of the Doctor. Martha, if she stayed, and Sarah Jane and the Brigadier and anyone who knew the Doctor personally and still survived would try to get the truth out, but they couldn’t be everywhere, whereas belief in the Doctor would be. Within a hundred years, the Church of the Doctor would be the world’s biggest religion by an overwhelming majority.

(You could then write a story about the Doctor visiting Earth in the year 5000 say, to find it a theocratic republic or theocratic empire, where belief in the Doctor is the only state-sanctified religion in existence and all others are outlawed. Leading theologians would preach the Doctor’s hatred of homosexuality and abortion, or whatever the hot-button topics of the future are. White men, possibly with glasses, would be the dominant race and sex, as those most like the Doctor in appearance. It would be interesting to see if the next highest rank was for black women like Martha as the first Prophet of the Doctor, or if she would’ve been retconned as another white male somewhere down the line. The Doctor could then have a staple new series Angst!Fest about “What have I done?” and then try to find some way to reverse the damage. It would be interesting.)

It’s all very, very disturbing.

That said, the way they rejuvenate the Doctor and give him the upper hand over the Master is clever, and quite reasonable and logical for the show’s established science.

Getting back to the Master, he loses serious badass points for deciding, re: Martha, “No, let’s not kill her just yet.” With the Doctor, it’s understandable. With Martha, it’s plot-driven. She doesn’t even have the plot armor excuse, since she would’ve been subject to the final status quo ante like the rest of the people not on the Valiant. (And think how much more delicious angst the Doctor and Martha’s family would’ve been subject to after it was all over. “We went through the year of hell and Martha doesn’t remember a thing.” As it is, you can imagine brother Leo’s gonna have a much harder time relating to his parents and sisters for a while.)

Speaking of the reset button maneuver, I thought having the Valiant remain because it was at the “eye of the storm” was a pretty good excuse for resetting the events outside the main action while leaving events for the main characters unchanged.

There’s a small nitpicker alert for this scene, though. The Doctor says the Valiant is returning to “just after the President was killed, but before the Toclafane arrived.” But the first four Toclafane to appear were the ones to kill the President. Maybe the Valiant did return to before US President Winters was killed, but because his death took place on the Valiant, which wasn’t effected by the reset, he stayed dead. It’s not like I care about the President one way or the other, you understand (I voted for the other guy), it’s the continuity I care about.

My second biggest problem with “Last of the Time Lords” is the death of the Master. If Davies didn’t realize it when he was writing this story, he must’ve figured out when they got John Simm onto the set that they had something fantastic going here, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor’s suggestion of taking the Master with him on his adventures would’ve been infinitely more original, fun, promising, and satisfying than just killing the villain off. It would’ve opened up so many doors for future seasons. The Doctor and the Master’s unique, complicated relationship would’ve made for a wildly different and more nuanced companionship than any of the others on the show (no offense to Donna, Martha, Jack, Mickey, and any other minor companions I may be forgetting). Plus, it would’ve been so hilarious it would’ve made the show so far look merely lip-twitchingly funny.

This fate for the Master also makes the whole “Face of Boe’s last message” angle look stupid and useless. At first it seemed like “You are not alone” was a message of hope for the Doctor … which would’ve been a breath of badly needed fresh air for this show. Then, when it turned out the other was the Master, it looked more like a warning.

Now, if the Doctor had taken the Master with him, it could’ve been both. “Yeah, one of your worst enemies is going to come back and try to get you, but on the plus side, you’ll get a companion from your own race out of the deal.” As the Doctor said, in one of the most touching moments of the new series, he’d have someone to care about now.

Even if the Master had survived and escaped, it still would’ve validated the message. (It also would’ve left the Doctor feeling really conflicted, because he’s glad that he’s not the last Time Lord anymore, but on the other hand, he knows the Master’s going to cause a whole lot of trouble in the future.) But if the status quo is just going reset itself after three episodes, then all that buildup about “the Face of Boe’s final message” (which goes all the way back to the second season’s “New Earth”) was a colossal waste of time.

It also really ticks me off that with all the emphasis the new series puts on the Daleks and the Daleks are back again and the Daleks have escaped again, when they get a really interesting villain, they decide to kill him off for real in his introductory story. Next season it’s again with the frickin’ Daleks.

My sister maintains that the only reason the Master died was to meet Davies’ angst!quota. It is true that Davies (and possibly the rest of the new Doctor Who team) buys into the idea that indiscriminate angst and tragedy=quality. This notion is the driving force behind such stupendous storytelling blunders as Legacy of the Force and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, among many, many others, and it continues to permeate Western fiction like a malevolent cloud.

I’m not saying there is no merit to tragedy and sadness in fiction. What I am saying is that fiction which (like Legacy of the Force, Harry Potter, and, far too often, Doctor Who) shoves angst and tragedy into the narrative with no point other than that its’ “quality” only delivers nauseating melodrama. (Really, if the Master equates “winning” with “the Doctor suffers” he should’ve just regenerated, gone with the Doctor, and then sat back while Davies and the rest of the team proceeded to kick the stuffing out of the Doctor for the next umpteen episodes. They’ve already come through on their side.)

I think, though, that there were one or two other factors that contributed to the Master’s fate. The first being that the entertainment industry as a whole still has a very close-minded view of what can be done with villains: they can be killed off, or they can escape. True, there are exceptions, but they are in the extreme minority even today.

The other reason I would cite for this development is that Davies and his team are married to the status quo, and too codependent to see that they’re badly in need of a divorce. I can sympathize with having things planned out in advance, and with not wanting to get sidetracked, but not with being so set in your ways that you turn down a brilliant twist when it metaphorically walks up and slaps you in the face.

As a side note, I’m disappointed they didn’t further explore the whole thing with the drumming sound in the Master’s head. It’s lasted at least two body-switches (not counting regenerations) and one outright death and resurrection so far, but it never went anywhere. Pity.

A few final thoughts:

Leaving the last remnants of humanity trapped at the end of the universe with no means of escape struck me as uncharacteristically bleak for Doctor Who, new series or old. The new series is often melodramatically tragic (or is it vice-versa?) but not bleak.

Still, the Toclafane were a good twist on the fate of the humans in “Utopia.” One of those things you should expect but don’t. Glad Davies completed their story, at least.

Russell T. Davies appears to have a formula for writing female companions’ families: the mother is an incredible nag and the primary parent-figure to the character, the character’s parents are separated for one reason or another but they get back together in the character’s final episode as a full-time companion. It’ll be interesting to see how that latter formula plays out at the end of series four, as I believe the actor who played Donna’s father in “The Runaway Bride” is sadly no longer with us.

One good thing about the final episode: the Doctor’s “one thing” he had to say to the Master. Every time that came up, it featured the Doctor at something approaching his awesomest. He ought to do that more often.

Bottom Line: Despite slowness in the first episode and serious flaws in the third episode, this is the first genuinely good season finale of the new series. The Doctor is brilliant as ever, Martha is cool, the Master is diabolically funny, and Jack is refreshingly back to his uproarious self again. Good times.

Season overview: “The Runaway Bride” is so-so, and the less said about “Daleks in Manhattan”/“Evolution of the Daleks,” “The Lazarus Experiment,” and “42,” the better. That leaves nine episodes ranging in quality from pretty good to beyond excellent. So skip the bad episodes and enjoy.


TV reflection: “Torchwood” series one

Below is a slightly edited piece I wrote about the first series of the Doctor Who spin-off show Torchwood. I never wrote about any of the following seasons because, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to watch any of them.

Anyway, here’s my three sentence summary of Torchwood, series one: Life sucks (but death sucks even more). People suck. Plots suck.

The first two points are messages I have distilled from watching the first thirteen episodes of Torchwood. The third is less a message (as far as I can tell), more an observation I have made which holds for more than 92% percent of the episodes in the first season (those that had any plots at all).

It’s kind of an achievement for the writers to take a show with such an interesting, dynamic premise, and make it so utterly dull, derivative, and incoherent. (Ironically, the sole exception in series one is also the only episode which does not feature either alien or supernatural events in its main plot.) Of course, as achievements go, it’s kind of like discovering a way to make plastic bags take even longer to biodegrade—the kind we can really do without.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the show tries to be two very different things at once. From the promotional material and the lead-in of the Doctor Who two-parter “Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” I expected Torchwood to be a large, high-tech operation with near-unlimited resources and lots of high-tech, alien-detecting and–capturing equipment. Something like the setup Angel and company had after they took over the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram and Hart in Angel season five. Or better yet, like the Lower Elements Police in the Artemis Fowl series.

The LEP are a large organization charged with keeping fairy activity secret from humans, or Mud People. Fortunately for them, quite apart from their magic, they’re armed with technology at least a century ahead of ours. This gives them the ability to, for instance, hack into just about every electronic human communication system on the planet, and set off security alerts if they get a certain number of fairy-related keywords. It also gives them cool hardware like flying suits with super high-tech helmets and laserguns with nuclear batteries, and the ability, when needed, to freeze time in a given area for up to eight hours in unfrozen time. (Admittedly this is more Magitech than straight technology. Then again, so is a lot of what goes on in Torchwood.)

The point here is not that the fairies use technology as a substitute for good ol’ human (well, fairy) faculties, but that they use it to cut out the boring stuff like figuring out there’s a troll on the loose and where it is, and getting to it, and thus save the good ol’ faculties for the important stuff, like dealing with a rampaging troll, or a rogue fairy manufacturer, or an American tycoon with his hands on a piece of advanced fairy technology.

With Torchwood I didn’t necessarily expect something that big and far-reaching, but something comparable, and at a comparable level of technology and efficiency.

Instead, what I got was a shoestring operation of five people, whose primary method of investigating possible alien activity and artifacts can be summed up as “poke it and see what happens … but carefully.” Tricorders? Not a chance. Experts? Nuh-uh. Procedures? Sorry, what?

Now doing things low-tech and informally would be fine, it worked for four seasons of Angel and most of Buffy, but in Torchwood, they’ve got all this amazing equipment, some of which they even know how to work. They have the computer skills to hack into Gwen Cooper’s personal computer in episode 1 and monitor alien activity on CCTV, yet they can’t use their computers to, say, analyze how the resurrection glove works, or research what the contents of the comet in “Day One” might be, or postulate a weakness of the fairy creatures in “Small Worlds.” Technology on Torchwood is a plot device, and its usefulness is entirely plot-sensitive.

The really maddening part about all this is that the stories in series one, at least, are more conducive to a low-tech show. I can see “The Ghost Machine” working with an Angel Investigations-style operation. For Wolfram and Hart, it’d be one big waste of time.

So, basically, the stories are low-tech, while the premise and some of the unimportant background stuff is high-tech. This does not make for a cohesive narrative.

Of course, there’s also the fact that you’d have to be crazier than the villains in “Countrycide” to trust any of the Torchwood team with any technology more complicated than a cell phone. These people are hardly CSI: Cardiff. More like the Kardiff Kops.

They don’t coordinate, they don’t plan, they don’t follow any sort of procedure, and they attach more priority to assigning blame than to getting the job done. Some of their crowning moments of ineptitude so far include going into an area where several dozen people have disappeared with no plans, no preparation and no backup, and then letting somebody hijack their minivan (seriously, no alien locks? Not even a beckon call?) Other great blunders of humanity’s finest would be getting trapped in their own headquarters with a homicidal cyborg, getting trapped in their own headquarters by a deceased former colleague, and generally letting their own people compromise Torchwood and/or the Hub every other episode because they’re too caught up in their own neuroses to notice when their friends have gone completely Bursar.

It’s like Darth Dumbass Caedus all over again … and again and again and again. What made it worse in Legacy of the Force is how out of character it was for all of Jacen’s relatives to be so blind. What makes it worse in Torchwood is how in-character it is for the Torchwood team to be so blind.

And that’s probably the best set-up I’m going to get to talk about the characters in Torchwood.

Captain Jack Harkness returns, and almost makes you wish he hadn’t. The fun, light-hearted extrovert last seen marooned on Satellite 5 at the end of the first series of the new Doctor Who, has apparently transformed into a secretive, brooding introvert who makes the Tenth Doctor look like … well, like Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who. (My theory is that this is an unwritten law for all Davies’ main characters, and only twenty-six years of precedent to the contrary have saved the Tenth Doctor from being taken over completely by the Davies Sulkiness Principle. We’ll see how Sarah Jane Investigates goes, whenever I get around to watching it.)

He also has a leadership style which almost puts him on par with Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. At least Mal is competent, in his own sick and twisted way; Jack’s fun, quirky personality from Doctor Who does resurface on occasion, but not nearly enough.

Of course, it’s possible the story editors for Torchwood wanted to suggest that the 140+ years Jack lived through after The Parting of the Ways had drastically changed him. This would make sense, even if it would file under “really smart idea, people (*roll eyes*).” If so, somebody forgot to memo Davies, as Jack is (thank God) back to his jovial self again in the Doctor Who series three finale.

Gwen Cooper is … a Mary-Sue. An annoying, stupid, useless Mary-Sue. Her biggest accomplishment in episode 1 is to get someone else killed. Her biggest accomplishment in episode 2 is to get several people killed. After that it gets better, but only to the extent of Gwen not actually causing other people to die all the time. She’s still useless and annoying. And selfish. Really selfish.

She hits an all-time low when (in episode 11, “Combat”) she confesses to her boyfriend Rhys that she’s been having an affair with one of her Torchwood colleagues. This would appear at first to be a step in the right direction: Gwen owning up to her infidelities. Until she reveals that she’s laced Rhys’ drink with Retcon, and he’s going to forget everything she’s told him. Rhys points out how selfish this is of Gwen, and she replies that she knows. Again, the audience is poised to sympathize with her character, if only a little: she knows what she’s doing is wrong, and she’s sorry, but she doesn’t have the strength to stop herself. While her actions are not admirable, they are understandable, and who among us have not had similar failings in our time? And then the flickering sympathy is again snuffed out: she doesn’t just want to confide in Rhys and then make him forget, she wants him to forgive her and then forget. She demands it. She begs Rhys to forgive her not only for her unfaithfulness, but also for dodging the consequences by making him forget all about it. Because she needs him to forgive her. Gwen Cooper: graduate of the Veronica Mars School of Boyfriend Management. With honors. Even when she’s trying to save his life in “End of Days” by locking him in a cell, does she give any thought whatsoever to his emotional and psychological wellbeing? No, it’s all “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Stay here. Be good. If you don’t like it, tough. Gotta go.”

The only time her character actually works is when she’s teasing Owen about his lousy forensic skills in “Greeks Bearing Gifts.”

Owen Harper is the only consistently well-presented character on the show. He works, for the same reason that the character House works on the TV show of the same name. He’s an incredible jerk, but he’s supposed to be that way, and the writers make that clear throughout the show. Now imagine if House’s behavior were the same, but everyone on the show treated him as if he were only a little rough around the edges, except for the characters like Vogler and Tritter who are obviously villainous. That’s Jack and Gwen.

There is a key lesson for fiction writers in all this, one that even some of the most popular contemporary writers have yet to learn: It’s less important how (im)moral you characters are than how well you understand them. If you know what you’re doing, you can make the most heartless mass-murderer sympathetic, maybe even heroic. If you don’t, then your perfectly saintly character may in fact come out a grade 1 jackass.

Anyway, getting back to Owen, my sister pointed out that he’s the one character on the show who gets what he deserves. Jack and Gwen are jerks and good things happen to them. Toshiko and Ianto are nice and bad things happen to them. Owen is a jerk, and bad things happen to him. Granted, this doesn’t bear out 100% of the time, but that’s the default setting.

Owen also carries the comic relief of the show. Everybody’s funny on occasion, but Owen is the only one who’s consistently funny. And because the writers recognize he’s a jerk, they can signal the audience when he’s not being a jerk, and it’s even more touching when he shows that he can be a sweet, sensitive guy, too. The part at the end of “End of Days” where he breaks down in front of Jack (who he’d earlier shot) is one of the few genuinely touching moments of the first series.

Toshiko Sato is the show’s token black Asian character, and she adheres to many of the big Western (or at least American) stereotypes of Asians: smart, logical, and insanely good with technology (… when she bothers to use it, see above). Fortunately, on those semi-regular occasions when the writers let her come out from behind her computer, she shows that there’s a lot more to her than just the stereotypes.

She’s not just intelligent, she’s innovative. She’s also levelheaded, bighearted, and can be delightfully straightforward. In the episode where she’s given a pendant which lets her hear people’s thoughts, she picks up on a man planning to kill his ex-wife and child in a scene quite reminiscent of that Buffy episode “Earshot.” Toshiko’s response: follow the guy home, wait a suitably dramatic length of time for him to produce the shotgun and go into a pre-murder ramble, and then knock him cold with a golf club. Well done Toshiko.

Ianto Jones is a pretty fun guy … when he’s doing anything more than serving everybody coffee, which is rare. He’s very scrupulous in his duties, but I simply haven’t seen enough of his character to describe him any further. It should give the reader some idea of the horrible continuity on this show when I describe him as having an on-again-off-again dead girlfriend complex.

That just about wraps it up for characters, so let’s get back to the show’s central themes for a minute. We’ve addressed the fact that the plots suck already, and we’ll get back to it later, so that leaves us with two overall messages: “Life sucks” (death just sucks more) and “People suck.”

The reason I count “life sucks” and “death sucks” as one message is because they’re so conflated on the show. The implication of most of the episodes is that “life’s a piece of shit.” When the writers go any deeper into the philosophy of existence, they generally add “but stick with it because this is all there is.” Not even “this is all there is, so make the best of it,” just sort of “eh, life’s pretty bad, but the alternative is even worse so … yeah.” Torchwood as a whole gives the distinct impression of having been written by a group of particularly cynical nihilists.

The nihilists’ cynicism is not limited to the meaning of life, either. It extends into the human sphere, giving us an excessively negative view of human nature. Even when the people the Torchwood team interacts with aren’t actually villainous, they’re almost always selfish, spiteful, stupid, cruel, depressive, apathetic, almost as cynical as the writers, or a mixture of the above.

After a while, you start to wonder why the Torchwood team is so committed to “arming the human race for the future.” This could lead to a message about good humans like the people in Torchwood (who, in the Torchwood universe, are the exceptions to the rule) standing up for humanity because of some sort of misguided species solidarity. A very bleak message, granted, but at least it would be some attempt at explanation. However, exploring why the Torchwood team does what they do (especially if, as the show would have it, most of humanity is so unworthy of their help) would apparently be straying too far out of the writers’ depth, so they leave us with a vague “just because.”

At this point, we’re going to examine a few choice episodes in greater detail. First up, episode 9, “Random Shoes”:

The Legacy of the Force series is, in a word, awful. Horrendous, disgusting, repulsive, and otherwise offensive to the sensibilities in the extreme. Why do I begin this account of an episode of Torchwood by bringing up Legacy of the Force? Because the latter series is mostly bad in context. By itself, it’s problematic, but you have to know and love the characters and the series as a whole to appreciate the monumental vileness of Legacy of the Force.

“Random Shoes” on the other hand, requires no specific context, no overall mythos, no previously established canon to be awful. Anyone at all can turn it on and feel their brains convulse at the offensiveness of it. That’s why, with “Random Shoes,” I now have a new baseline for terrible media.

It isn’t that “Random Shoes” is objectively worse than Legacy of the Force. It’s just that Legacy of the Force is only an insult to Star Wars fans (and not even all of them); “Random Shoes” is an insult to anyone who has the misfortune to see it. I’ve never actually seen Battlefield Earth or probably any of the films on the “worst movies of all time” list, but they’re up against some steep competition here.

The idea of “Random Shoes” is that some stupid, pathetic Torchwood groupie gets hit by a car and killed. Gwen, feeling guilty about the way they all ignored this loser, decides to inform his family and investigate the circumstances of his death. Meanwhile, the loser himself is hanging around as a sort of ghost, and since he conveniently can’t remember the past week either, decides to tag along with Gwen on her investigation.

Cue forty minutes of the most boring, random crap this reviewer has ever been unwillingly subjected to. While Gwen has random, boring encounters with the loser’s family, coworkers, and friends, the kid has random, boring memories of some of the big events in his life which led him to get interested in aliens and eventually Torchwood.

In some Torchwood episodes, the plots are dull and stupid. In others, they’re incoherent. In the rest (with one exception) there is no plot. “Random Shoes” is one of the latter. It consists entirely of the kid bouncing from one memory to the other while Gwen bounces from one encounter with people who knew him to another.

“Tension” is provided by the fact that the kid himself doesn’t remember the circumstances of his death, so the audience knows there must be some big secret to it, including how he came to be a ghost. Except, the question is boring, and within five minutes the audience knows the “big secret” is going to be something lame and anticlimactic. The most you can say for “Random Shoes” is that it delivers on its promises. The photograph of shoes from the title is the prefect metaphor for the episode: pointless, inconsequential, stupid, random and, yes, boring. This isn’t “Rosebud,” and these people are nowhere near to Orson Welles.

And then we get to the final insult, the “moral of the episode” as shoved down the audience’s throat by the kid while he fades away into nothing, like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. (Another theme in Torchwood is taking a familiar convention, presenting it in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of a well-known work which also used that convention, and then utterly failing to live up to the original, let alone say something new.) In “Random Shoes,” this behavior is particularly odious, as the writer doesn’t even bother to explore her themes properly throughout the course of the story, leaving us with a load of pseudo-uplifting bullshit shoved in at the end. (Think “Love and Monsters” only worse. Much worse.)

Ironically, “Random Shoes” has what’s supposed to be the most uplifting message of the season. Bullshit aside, we are shown that the kid had been on the brink of escaping his unhealthy obsession, and he really cared about the wellbeing of that one coworker. The guilt-ridden father returns to his wife and remaining son (why Mr. Davies, I know you’ve written some pretty horrendous drivel in your time, but I never thought you’d sink so low as to associate with this crap). The younger brother didn’t really care more about TV than the life of his sibling (at least, I think we’re supposed to infer that from the funeral sequence). The friend who was giving Gwen the cold shoulder wasn’t avoiding her because he’s EEVIL, but because he felt guilty and he missed the dead guy.

In short, it’s the one episode which reverses the series’ usual message that “People suck.” It also, if you have the stomach to sit through the final “moral of the story” lecture, reverses the usual message that “Life sucks.” However, the episode as a whole is so steeped in the principle that “Plots suck” as to reduce such cheap attempts at “heartwarming” to an added insult.

Next up is the series one finale, “End of Days.” This episode, like writer Chris Chibnall’s “42” from the third season of the new Doctor Who, gives the impression of being somewhat based—mood-, style-, and plot-wise—on the Doctor Who series two two-parter “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit.” Unfortunately, neither of Chibnall’s offerings manage to duplicate even those episodes’ minimal charms.

“End of Days” could’ve been a good story, maybe even a great story, if not for a few unfortunate blunders. The biggest, in my opinion, was trying to cram it all into one episode. Abaddon, the “giant monster laying waste to the city” deserved more than the three or four minutes’ worth of attention the episode gave it. A whole episode devoted to Abaddon could’ve better established the monster’s method of killing people merely by casting its shadow over them, could’ve given the viewers a true sense of horror at the destruction it caused, and let the Torchwood team repeatedly try and fail to destroy the beast, sending Jack out on a suicide mission against it only as a last resort. As it was, Abaddon as a Monster of the Week was nothing short of pathetic, and Jack’s plan to defeat it completely ridiculous. The fact that it worked only deepens the insult.

That just about covers “End of Days,” so let’s move on to the last episode we’ll be considering in depth: “Countrycide.”

At the beginning of this essay I said that the truism “plots suck” applies to more than 92% of the episodes in Torchwood. I arrived at that figure by taking 1 divided by 13 (approximately 7.7) and then deducted that number from 100%. I did this because there was exactly one episode in the first season which broke that mold. The episode in question: “Countrycide.” (Astoundingly, this episode was also written by Chris Chibnall.)

The lame pun for a title aside, “Countrycide” is a genuinely good episode. Not a great episode except in comparison to the rest of Torchwood, but a good episode. The plot hangs together, without any of the loose ends or unanswered questions that other episodes routinely leave over. The tension is real, the character interactions meaningful, and the Monsters of the Week suitably horrific.

True, the Torchwood team descends to new depths of stupidity in letting the villagers steal their car, but at least that’s sort of expected in a horror movie. Besides, “Countrycide” is the only episode in the season when each and every character truly gets to shine (well, except Gwen, and even she isn’t as annoying in this one).

Ianto gets awesome points simply for the goofy smile he gives Evan Sherman, the cannibal leader who has Ianto and Toshiko trapped in his house. But then when Ianto gives Evan the classic TV headbutt move, giving Toshiko the chance to make a break for it, his awesomeness in this episode solidifies.

Toshiko is awesome for keeping it together when they’re trapped in the basement and scared out of their minds with worry, to the point of hiding the traces of blood she finds and trying to hide the refrigerator full of human organs from Ianto, who’s in even worse shape than she is. Then, when Ianto distracts the cannibals for her, she gives Evan quite a chase (although she was still stupid enough to try hiding at one point) and a couple good kicks, and basically doesn’t stop fighting until he overpowers her and starts choking her.

Owen has a really cool moment kicking Evan off Toshiko (after threatening to shoot him and not doing it, a tactic he apparently picked up from Jack). He’s also generally funny, as per usual.

Jack also gets an awesome rescue, busting into the cannibals’ house in a tractor and taking them all out with strategic shotgun fire (though why he used disabling shots if, as is heavily implied, he was only going to kill them anyway still escapes me).

However, if “Countrycide” neatly subverts the Torchwood convention that “plots suck,” and proves largely ambivalent towards the message that “life sucks,” it makes up for these deficiencies with an extra dose of “people suck.” If “Random Shoes” is the quintessential example of “plots suck” in Torchwood, “Countrycide” is the quintessential example of “people suck.” Which only goes to show that it matters less how bad your messages are than how bad your plot is.

I’m not saying I applaud “Countrycide”’s handling of its villains, mind you. “Because it makes me happy” is response without answer, without explanation, a total non-reason, in fact. It leaves the viewer with the feeling that, according to the episode “Some people are just evil, what can you do?” which is unhelpful at best, repulsive at worse. Even if we were to accept that some people are “wired” for evil, then how are they wired for it and why? It’s never a matter of “Just because.”

So yes, I absolutely hold “Countrycide’s” messages against it, and the fact that it blazed new trails in depicting the Torchwood team as complete idiots. I’m just saying that while these elements do detract from the episode’s success for me (as does the fact that it’s basically a mini-slasher movie, but only because that’s not my personal beverage of choice), the story is solid enough to hold up despite such problems.

So there you have it. Torchwood: Series One. Twelve episodes ranging in quality from below mediocre to utterly repulsive and one episode that’s actually good.

Of course, some people would say that I’m being too hard on Torchwood. Well I’m not, every word I just wrote is the absolute truth. But quality in fiction is highly subjective, and apparently some people thought that at least the beginning of the season had some merit, or there wouldn’t’ve been a series two. If this review still hasn’t convinced you, then I would suggest watching the first three episodes, and then deciding for yourself whether the show is worth your time. (Of course, if you give up sooner than that, I don’t blame you.)

If you do find this review convincing, remember that this only holds for series one. I’ve heard that some things, at least, do get better in series two. I have my reservations on this point, but I won’t make any commitments until I’ve actually seen it. Till then, I’ll leave you with somebody else’s review of Torchwood. I don’t agree entirely with the review, but I think on the whole, it’s got the right idea.

Double movie Review: “Inside Man” and “The Interpreter”

This is a pair of movie reviews I originally wrote over four years ago. I haven’t rewatched either of the movies since (ironically enough), so I have little to add to what I wrote at the time, except a postscript to The Interpreter which I will address at the end.

Also, be warned, this entry contains a couple major spoilers for the first movie, and massive spoilers for the second.

Inside Man:

Synopsis: An enigmatic criminal named Dalton Russell and his three compatriots hold up a New York bank, taking several of its customers and employees hostage. Detective Keith Frazier, a possible indictment for robbery hanging over his head and troubled about his love life, gets assigned the task of negotiating with the robbers. Meanwhile, bank founder Arthur Case hires Madeleine White (a professional something or other) to insure the safety and secrecy of a specific safe deposit box in the bank’s vault. As these three forces collide, the bank robbers’ actions grow stranger and stranger, and the true nature of the crime grows less and less clear.

Personal Reaction: A truly excellent movie, brilliantly envisioned, brilliantly executed. The energy of the film is palpable, thanks to a near-perfect synergy of writing, acting, effects and directing.

Clive Owen steals the show as Russell, the one around whom the rest of the action revolves. Russell is a fascinatingly complex character in his own right, and Owen plays the character to perfection. Denzel Washington’s Frazier and Jodie Foster’s White provide excellent foils for Owen’s Russell. They’re also quite engaging characters in their own right, if not as interesting as the calculating, misdirecting Russell.

The movie’s plot is a hideously complex affair, stuffed with surprise twists and brimming with uncertainty. It (almost) all hangs together, and it’s masterfully presented—just don’t expect to understand the whole thing on the first run. This is definitely a movie for multiple viewings.According to the Internet Movie Database, many of the scenes in Inside Manwere largely unscripted, with the actors ad-libbing most of their lines. This is small surprise, as the dialogue and character interactions in the movie feel a lot more natural and realistic than in most films. Thankfully, they also manage not to be repetitive and stilted, the usual fate of fiction that tries to be too realistic.Another of the film’s many strengths is the way it weaves issues such as racism (especially post-9/11 racism), corruption, and war profiteering (among others) into the fabric of its narrative. Any one of these topics could easily justify its own 2-hour movie, but that is not Inside Man’spurpose. It is a tribute to this film’s brilliance, perhaps even genius, that it manages to address meaningfully so many complex, sensitive issues without letting any of them hijack the story. That takes skill.As you might expect from such a hideously complex movie, there are several lingering questions at the end. Some of these are minor plot holes (there’s always one or two) some are probably due to having missed some vital snippet of action or dialogue, but other questions—many pertaining to the nature of right and wrong—are left up to the viewer to decide.

This may seem easy, given the constant ambiguity of right and wrong here in real life, but I can assure you as a fiction writer and critic that it is not. The fiction writer is the final authority over their creation, and a story is a very definitive medium to work with. It’s very hard not to take a standpoint on an issue.

All that said, there is one question about the film that still bugs me. In the beginning dialogue of the film (repeated near the end) Dalton Russell says that aside from the money, he pulled the bank robbery “because he could.” However, there appears to be one other reason: to destroy a man who (apparently) has spent sixty years trying to atone for crimes.

Remember what I said about it being hard for a creator not to take a moral stand on an aspect of their movie: well this is one of those times. Inside Man heavily implies that Russell and Frazier are right to ruin Case, who seems genuinely sincere in his remorse for aiding the Nazis and his attempts to make amends. Intriguing.

Also, while it’s easy to thrill at Russell’s genius in formulating and executing his plan, it’s also hard to ignore that it would never have worked in real life. His strategy hinges on two very difficult tactics: insuring that nobody actually dies, while at the same time convincing the police and the hostages that he was all too willing to kill.

The second part of that strategy is vital, because if the feds didn’t believe he was a threat, they wouldn’t give him the time he needed to execute his plan. However, it also means that the police would be much more likely to shoot to kill. In that situation, one mistake can be fatal.

Russell and his people know the game and they don’t make a mistake. The police don’t know the game, and think they have a group of crazed killers on their hands, but they don’t make a mistake, either.

In real life, when Russell or his associate was forcing out one of the hostages dressed like the bank robbers, some nervous cop would’ve thought they were both bank robbers and opened fire, either despite or before Frazier’s warnings to the contrary. After that, it’s 50/50 whether Russell or the hostage would’ve been hit, with a 90% chance that whichever of them went down wouldn’t be getting up again. Ever.

And mind you, this is just the most obvious problem. There are literally an infinite number of outside variables that could’ve led to just one mistake, an infinite number of variable that no one, no matter how clever, could control for. And one mistake is all it takes.

Long story short: While Russell’s plan is awesome, it stretches the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s worth it.

Bottom Line: A truly thrilling movie. The language is definitely Parental Guidance material (frequent f-bombs), and some of the violence can be upsetting to the weak-stomached or impressionable. Also, don’t try to watch it if you can’t stand really complex plots. Other than that, enjoy.

Next, The Interpreter (warning: heavy spoilers in this one):

Synopsis: United Nations Interpreter Silvia Broome stumbles upon a plot to assassinate Edmund Zuwanie, an African dictator who will soon be visiting the UN. Secret service agent Tobin Keller investigates Silvia’s report, but quickly discovers that Silvia herself is the most suspicious aspect of the affair. As the intrigue around the assassination plot grows thicker and deadlier, Tobin grows increasingly unsure of whether he should be protecting Silvia or stopping her.

Personal Reaction: It’s a good solid plot, but at times poorly executed. I knew Zuwanie would turn out to be behind the whole thing all along, because of the Law of Conservation of Villains. When Zuwanie’s enemy, Kuman-Kuman mentioned on the TV that “even a failed assassination” against Zuwanie would exonerate him, I had the whole thing worked out. Therefore, my reaction to Tobin’s big “revelation” scene was something along the lines of “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.”

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit of a snob here. I know most viewers aren’t as genre savvy as I am and probably wouldn’t have figured this all out so quickly. However, I feel that most good books and movies do better at trying to fake out the aficionados. We still probably figure out the plot, but we don’t feel like it was staringly obvious.

Even if I were inclined to let that part go, you can’t escape the fact that the plot really does rest on an intimate associate of one of Zuwanie’s greatest enemies (recently assassinated) overhearing the plot in a sound booth in the General Assembly. Not only is the coincidence of Silvia being the one to hear the plot highly suspect, but the reasons the conspirators felt the need to discuss the assassination in the General Assembly (especially at that time of night) are never made clear.

None of which precludes The Interpreter from being an excellent movie. The acting is superb, and the plot (though occasionally spotty) is exciting and engaging. The Interpreter belongs to that rare class of fiction movies which can move the audience on a deeply emotional level.

One of the most successful points in the film is the bus bombing about halfway through the movie, in which the young security agent, Doug, is killed. It was unexpected (the film downplays the “inexperienced-kid-in-a-dangerous-job-who-gets-killed” cliché), and saddening. At the same time, it wasn’t so saddening as to throw me completely out of the story.

Fiction dealing with death puts itself in a very tricky position. If the deaths are too generic or clichéd, and/or if the characters involved are too minor, the audience feels nothing. However, if the characters who die are too big, you run the very serious risk of souring the whole story. Striking the balance between minor-enough-to-let-go and major-enough-to-get-the-audience’s sympathy is no small feat, and I applaud the moviemakers in achieving this balance with Doug.(Surprise is also a key factor. I was saddened at the deaths of Simon, Xola and Phillipe, but the impact was significantly lessened by the fact that I was expecting them to die anyway.)The Interpreter’s climax perfectly illustrates the movie’s storytelling strength. The audience knows intellectually that Silvia is not going to shoot Zuwanie; that would make the preceding two hours a waste of time. And yet the tension is palpable not just on the screen but in the audience: “she’s not going to do it … is she?” We know for sure on one level that she isn’t going to kill him, and on another we are still afraid that she might. (I actually feel like they drew out the scene just a little too far, but what the heck, I’ll forgive them.)The climax also presents an interesting inversion of my father’s axiom of American movies. The plot of just about any given American movie, he says, is to give sufficient reason to justify the hero killing off the villain in the end. While this indeed what the main plot of The Interpreter is all about, the character arcs are about giving the protagonist reason not to murder the villain.

One of the big reliefs about this movie is that Silvia doesn’t get away with it simply because a) she didn’t actually cause any real harm, and more importantly b) she’s the main character. I mean, yes, I believe she’s learned her lesson and would be better off staying at the UN, but the United States and United Nations criminal justice systems aren’t nearly so enlightened. If they had let Silvia stay, it wouldn’t be because it’s the right thing to do, it would be because the filmmakers were making other characters give the main character preferentially treatment just for being the main character. It happens all the time in fiction, and it’s utterly reprehensible.

The other big relief was the total absence of a romance developing between Silvia and Tobin. I’m a sap for romance, personally, but American literature and cinema has a nasty condition of shoving romantic subplots into their stories regardless of said subplot’s appropriateness. I found the relationship which developed between Silvia and Tobin all the more beautiful and complex and meaningful precisely because it was almost entirely nonromantic.

Bottom Line: The violence in this movie means it’s not for everyone (think a little more explicit than Lord of the Rings and a little less gratuitous). On the other hand, it’s refreshing for an American movie to speak out against the common assumption that the best way to solve the problem of violent people with more violence. Plus, it’s a genuinely exciting, entertaining, and engaging movie. Go for it.

Update: After writing the above review, I began rethinking the politics of The Interpreter—the villain is an African dictator, while the heroes are mostly white Westerners who eventually bring the dictator to trial and presumably save the oppressed Africans of Matobo from their home-grown dictator. Smells a bit … neocolonial to me.