Back to Middle Earth

Fairly random thoughts on going to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the theater. Probably won’t make a whole lot of sense to people who have neither seen the movie nor read the book*, and contains spoilers for people who haven’t seen the movie (even if they have read the books).

*Or to people who haven’t seen the last two seasons of the original Doctor Who, Sherlock, and the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie.

– My companions and I saw the movie in 3d because that’s what was playing at the time we had set aside. If possible, I would urge anyone wishing to see The Hobbit to stick with 2d—unlike The Avengers the 3d adds nothing of value to the experience, and indeed sometimes either causes distraction or even worse, sabotages the visual quality of the film. It didn’t cause any major problems, thank goodness, but you’re still better off sticking with 2d.

– Overall, I found watching the movie a highly enjoyable experience. I had fun with Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and I had about as much fun with his first installment of The Hobbit.

– That said, I found An Unexpected Journey, much more superficial than its three predecessors. Partially I think this is due to the source material being so much lighter this time around, and partially due to the fact that Jackson and company had to invent a whole lot more original material in order to adapt the first fifth or so of a children’s fairytale adventure book into an epic Hollywood blockbuster than it took to adapt three epic adventure novels.

– Indeed, I think the most insightful thing I’ve yet heard about the film was a remark by one of my companions an hour or two after we left the theater: “I’ve just realized that nothing actually happened in that movie.” This is basically true. Unexpected Journey lays out the premise, introduces the characters and many of the most important conflicts, provides some character development, and throws in a bunch of exciting action sequences to keep the viewers’ attention. It also advances the plot, but at a minuscule pace, with most of the action and conflict of the story constituting digressions from the main story. Exciting and entertaining digressions, to be sure, but digressions just the same.

– Furthermore, the pacing at the beginning of the movie is pretty slow—not interminably, but it still takes approximately forty minutes of backstory and dwarvish antics before Bilbo even leaves Bag End.

– There’s also a pointless cameo by Elijah Wood, presumably to pander to fans of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Seriously, this scene does absolutely feck all other than establish that in the movie canon, Bilbo waited all the way until just before his 111th birthday party to set down his memoirs of “the incident with the dragon,” as Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf so delightfully put it. (Hope you can scribble really fast, Bilbo old boy.) Sure, it’s kind of nice to see them set up the meeting between Frodo and Gandalf from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring, but when the scene contributes absolutely nothing to this movie, you really should just grit your teeth and scrap it.

– As already alluded, while “The Lord of the Rings” was a fairly faithful adaptation of the book trilogy of the same name, An Unexpected Journey introduces a veritable dragon’s horde of changes from its own source material. As I see it, the changes perform five overall purposes (many of them closely related): to pad out a story which only covers the first fifth or so of the original book; to make that story more into a full movie than just an arbitrary amount of material ripped out of a longer work; to give the movie a feel more in line with the tone of its’ three predecessors; to create a greater sense of a grand narrative both within the story of The Hobbit and tied more closely into the events of “Lord of the Rings”; and to make the whole thing more appealing to the sensibilities of a modern movie-going viewership.

– Such changes include the orcs led by Azog the Defiler (who, in the book canon, was killed by Thorin’s cousin Dain in the backstory) chasing our heroes; the inclusion of Radagast the Brown and a more explicit exploration of the Necromancer (ret-conned into Sauron in the book The Fellowship of the Ring); and what appears to be the beginnings of the White Council subplot which eventually leads to them ousting the Necromancer from Mirkwood (this storyline was present in the book, but took place entirely off-screen, and served primarily as an excuse to remove Gandalf from the main action and prevent Bilbo and the dwarves from solving every problem they got into by Wizard Ex Machina).

– I’m of two minds about these changes. I’m not sure if changing around the Azog backstory was necessarily an improvement, and I kind of liked the idea in the book that Bilbo and company just sort of stumbled into the orcs’ (nee goblins’) stronghold and accidentally threw a spanner in their schemes rather than being hunted all along. The orcs’ dwarf hunt and the mutual enmity between Thorin and Azog worked great for the movie, but I don’t know that they necessarily made the story better, if you see what I mean. And while I was stoked to see the White Council subplot unfolding before my eyes rather than hear Gandalf relate it after the fact, and to see the Seventh Doctor as Radagast the Brown, these scenes were blatantly filler in a film mostly gone over to (very entertaining) filler.

– This brings up another issue, which is that a lot of this movie is just set up for future (and in some cases, past) installments. Noah Antwiler pointed out a couple of examples in the near hour-length reflection video he posted with his brother Miles, but even he missed a big one: those giant spiders which buzzed Radagast’s hut and then disappeared completely? We’ll be seeing more of them when the party makes it to Mirkwood in the next movie.

– On the subject of Radagast, yes, I know he was entirely extraneous to the movie, but I’m still giving him a “hell yeah!” Always great to see the Doctor back in action, although it seems that separating from Ace had a somewhat deleterious effect on his sanity (and personal grooming); on the other hand, it also seems to have smoothed away his manipulative streak, which in this setting is probably for the best.

– But just because he’s lost his companion and his TARDIS and started hitting the shrooms hard, doesn’t mean the Doctor has lost his edge. Dude goes toe-to-toe with the friggin’ Lord of the Nazgul, the Witch-King of Angmar his own self, and lives to tell the tale. He even makes off with an important clue for the White Council subplot. (“Bitch, I’m Merlin, or at least I will be, or I may be. Point being: You do not mess with Sylvester McCoy!”)

– We also get a shot of the Necromancer during this sequence and man, but splitting up with Bilbo and leaving their London flat has certainly hit him hard, though at least they’ve both landed some nice new digs. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ll probably make the exact same joke when we get to Smaug in the next movie or the one after. Blame Jackson for getting Sherlock Holmes to voice both parts.)

– While I liked seeing the first meeting of the White Council, I’m not sure it was a good idea to make the Necromancer a new, unknown threat, rather than an established problem as he was in the book—I liked the idea of the Council being proactive (“this guy’s a problem, let’s get together and clean his clock for him”) rather than reactive (“hey, some jackass has taken up residence in that old Evil Fortress in Mirkwood and is causing mischief, we should totally do something about it.”)

– In particular, I think it was a mistake to have Saruman trying to convince the rest of the Council that this Necromancer must be a petty human sorcerer, nothing to worry about, and couldn’t possibly be the dreaded Sauron. It doesn’t make him look like a brilliant master of deception, it just makes the whole Council (Saruman included) come off as somewhat inept.

– Also, was it really a good idea to portray Saruman as so transparently evil this early in the game, almost eight decades before he reveals himself (and at a time when, from what I know of the book canon, he might not yet even have gone over to the Dark Side)?

– Last point on the White Council: I don’t mind that for this initial meeting it’s contained to just the four members (Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel), in fact I think it makes a lot of sense, but I hope that Jackson realizes they can’t comprise the entire council and throws in at least a couple of extras for their next meeting.

– Getting back to a more general discussion of the changes from the book, overall I would say that I’m ambivalent. Stuff like Thorin’s hatred of the evils is a neat extension of what’s in the book, but his vendetta against Azog and his mistreatment of Bilbo, and Bilbo’s conflict over staying on versus going home (he can console himself that it least this time, it hasn’t been knocked over by workmen and then blown up by Vogons)—these things provide a form of character development which will be instantly recognizable to a contemporary movie-going audience. I don’t have a problem with these embellishments as such, but I don’t feel they greatly improved the movie, either. For these particulars and overall, I found the changes introduced in Unexpected Journey ultimately evened out, they didn’t make the experience substantially better, but they didn’t really make it any worse.

– Quick aside, in regard to Thorin’s suspicion of Bilbo—after they escaped the orc stronghold (“Goblintown” in the book) and couldn’t find the Hobbit, why did he assume Bilbo had buggered off back to the Shire, rather than the more likely assumption that he’d been recaptured and killed?

– As for Thorin’s final speech to Bilbo, listing off all the unkind things he thought about Bilbo (just after the latter saved his ass from one of Azog’s minions), well, you’d have to be comatose not to see that the punchline was going to be something along the lines of “how wrong I was.” I’m about evenly split between annoyed at how massively predictable it was, and heartened by this reconciliatory gesture from Thorin. I guess once again it evens out.

– But yeah, about Thorin: What kind of dick leaves his friends trapped in a tree, hanging on for dear life over a bottomless precipice, so he can go and pursue his own personal grudge against a one-armed orc? Your loyal followers are in deadly peril, Thorin, your vendetta can wait!

– Speaking of vendettas, it’s hard to pin down precisely how Azog feels about Thorin. Half the time he’s all “he’s mine, nobody else allowed to kill him,” while the other half he’s happy for the mountain orcs or one of his lackeys to do the job for him. This is particularly confusing in the climax, where he expresses both these tendencies in the space of five minutes—almost as if the strength of his desire to kill Thorin personally were directly related to what was most dramatically convenient at that point in the film.

– Apart from Thorin, the dwarves are still pretty interchangeable, though less so than they were in the book. Kili, for instance—the darker haired of Thorin’s young nephews—is a total badass; he’s got Legolas’ skills with a bow, and is mighty handy with a sword on top of that.

– However, that other dwarf—I forget his name—in the awful fur hat with the outrageous earflaps? Nothing against the character, you understand, but whatever costumer thought that headgear was in any way a good idea ought to be fired.

– After whisking Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarves away from Azog’s minions and their precarious tree, the eagles drop our heroes off at the Carrock. In the book, their leader tells Gandalf that they really don’t want to get involved in all this—they’ll help a brother out when he gets in a tight spot, and drop him and his friends a little further along on their journey, but other than that they’re maintaining neutrality. Whereas in the movie, you’d be forgiven for asking, “Man, we still have that far to go to get to the Lonely Mountain? As long as we’ve got these friendly eagles flying us around, couldn’t they just take us all the way there?”

– And we end with the thrush knocking a snail against the side of the mountain and the sound reverberating inside, and the dragon’s eye opening underneath a pile of treasure. It’s supposed to be all ominous and shit, but all I can imagine is Smaug lying there thinking ‘God, is that little pipsqueak ever going to shut up that racket?’

And so finishes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, first in a three-part movie adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. About a week after seeing the movie, I was talking it over with my father. He hasn’t seen it yet, but from my description, he characterized it (in reference to Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”) as “more of the same, and not as good.” This is probably as good a synopsis of Unexpected Journey as any.

In my case, though, I am—like Noah Antwiler—a “mark.” This stuff almost could’ve been made specifically for me. I loved the “Lord of the Rings” movies. I loved the Extended Editions. Unexpected Journey may not be as good, but it’s damn well good enough for me. Good enough and more. Peace out and happy freakin’ new year.

To be continued …

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

All right, time to see what if any restrictions wordpress places upon word counts, because this one’s going to be epic. When I first reviewed the fourth series of the new Doctor Who, I wrote up the first thirteen episodes (plus the Christmas special) of the regular season, then later released a follow-up covering the five special episodes which led up to Russell T Davies’ departure as show-runner and David Tennant’s departure as star. Today, we’re going to try posting my thoughts on the whole goddamn season, all nineteen episodes, in one epic post. Allons-y.

Travelers beware, here there be spoilers.

Mini-Episode: Time Crash: The Doctor’s TARDIS collides with that of a previous incarnation.

“Time Crash” is an 8-minute short episode reuniting the Tenth Doctor with actor David Tennant’s (and also this reviewer’s) favorite Doctor from the old series: the Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. It was written by the incomparable (though, sadly, not infallible) Steven Moffat.

The episode starts a little slow, with the Fifth and Tenth Doctors getting the obligatory “What? What? What?”s out of the way. But it’s fun all the same, especially when the Fifth Doctor mistakes the Tenth for a fan. (And was that a reference to “Love and Monsters” the Fifth Doctor made? Much as I dislike that episode, it’s fun to think Doctors of the previous era are familiar with concepts introduced in the present run.)

When the plot does show up, it’s pretty basic. The Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS has merged with the Fifth Doctor’s (although we only ever see the one) and the resulting paradox could blow a hole in the space-time continuum the size of … well, actually, the exact size of Belgium. That’s a bit undramatic, isn’t it, Belgium?

Actually, I think it’s all right sometimes to have something less than the entire population of the planet Earth or the universe at stake. It seems the writers on this show disagree, as it soon develops that the paradox will in fact produce a supermassive black hole. I’m still not clear on this point, but I gather that’s more than a Belgium-sized problem.

The method the Tenth Doctor uses to alleviate the crisis, matching the black hole with a supernova, is rather clever even if it is, as I suspect, scientific nonsense. And of course, Steven Moffat can’t help slipping a mind-bending (or ridiculous, if you prefer) temporal paradox into the mix. Still, it’s cool.

Furthermore, for someone whose first Doctor Who experience was with the Fifth Doctor, the ending, with David Tennant—thinly disguised in his persona of the Tenth Doctor—getting all nostalgic and telling Peter Davison what a great Doctor he was, is fanservice in its highest, purest form.

This episode also has one of the greatest quotes of the new series: “Two minutes to Belgium!”

Episode 0: Voyage of the Damned: The Doctor boards an alien cruise liner, the Titanic … which is about to crash into the planet Earth.

Sadly predictable, but for a Russell T Davies effort, not too bad. The villain’s plan is at least mildly more complex and interesting than usual Doctor Who fare.

The Doctor is particularly awesome, making a pretty badass speech about how he’s going to save them all (even though he doesn’t), and constantly outsmarting the admittedly brain-dead killer robots, to the point of tricking them into obeying him once Max Capricorn is dead, by telling Max “I’m your apprentice.”

I was pleasantly surprised that the Midshipman, Alonzo Frame made it out alive. He had “red shirt” written all over him from the moment he first appeared, and if his subsequent actions weren’t enough to seal his fate, getting shot was. Any character who doesn’t have at least grade 2 plot armor who gets an injury like that is just a dead person walking. Except that he actually did survive. Points for that, Russell. (Of course, my sister maintains that Frame was “too pretty” to get killed off. Well, maybe.) Also, this way, we get a nice little book end at the very end of the season.

The character of Rickston Slade was another nice touch. It’s very rare that Doctor Who—or any other show, for that matter—has a character that unlikable who doesn’t a) die, or b) turn out to be evil and then die. Mr. Copper makes a good point about how terrible it would be if the Doctor could choose who lived and who died. Plus, even if Slade is selfish and mean, he’s not all bad. A genuinely gray area.

I found Astrid’s death rather sad, even if it was painfully obvious. I’m of two minds about the Doctor’s failed attempt to bring her back. On the one hand, with all the times that all hope for a character seems lost, and then the Doctor produces a miracle to save them, it makes sense from a realist point of view that sometimes the miracle would fail to materialize. On the other hand, from a narrative point of view, it’s basically Russell T Davies yanking the audience’s chain, to which I can only say that we are not at all amused.

One last point. Excuse me a moment while I go back and count the number of noble sacrifices in that episode. First Foon Van Hoff, then Bannakaffalatta, and then Astrid Peth. Three noble sacrifices in 45 minutes, accounting for three-quarters of the major supporting character deaths. (Excluding the villains, that is. With villains included, then it’s four noble sacrifices, accounting for two-thirds of the supporting character deaths.) Mein Gott, Davies, get ahold of yourself.

Episode 1: Partners in Crime: The Doctor and Donna Noble separately investigate the mysterious Adipose weight-loss pills.

Another extremely predictable Davies episode, but pretty good for all that. The beginning is a bit irksome, with the Doctor and Donna constantly just missing each other, but their outrageously drawn-out, entirely pantomimed reunion halfway through the episode more than makes up for the annoyance. Yes, it’s that funny.

The whole sequence with Wilfred Mott is touching. I’m glad Davies and co. decided to bring the character (who was originally conceived as a one-off) back.

Plus, the Adipose are seriously cute. Just sayin’. (If they’d been ugly, then of course the Doctor would’ve had to kill them off.) But speaking of the Adipose, why was Miss Foster so intent on making a million of the things if a couple thousand would’ve done just as well? What real difference did it make? I can believe that there was one, but the episode never told us what it was.

And can somebody please tell me why Foster’s plan was so bad, anyway? I mean sure, she killed a woman by upping the dosage, but that was just because Davies wanted to make her evil. If she’d just gone to the public and said “Hey, I want to create these cute little Adipose lifeforms, and I can make them out of your excess fat” people the world over would’ve been clamoring at her door, and where’s the harm? Seems to me it’s a win-win situation.

On the whole, though, good episode, especially considering it was penned by Russell T Davies.

Episode 2: The Fires of Pompeii: The Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii, on the day before the volcano erupts.

Starts out good, but degenerates into just another “stop the Monster of the Week” episode in the final third.

Apparently, critics have lauded the Doctor’s “moral dilemma” which served as the episode’s premise. I disagree. “Moral dilemma” implies a choice, and from the all-important perspective of the viewer, there is no choice. It isn’t just that we know what the Doctor’s going to do because that’s how this show works. We know what he’s going to do because it’s a matter of history. So the “moral dilemma” really comes down to watching the Doctor agonize over making a decision we all know he’s going to make and how. In other words: just another excuse for even more angst.

For a second there, I thought the Doctor and Donna’s escape from the volcano might redeem at least some of that anticlimax. I expected—hoped—that they or one of the other characters would devise some clever plan for escape at the last second. That some previous, seemingly trivial detail would suddenly jump out at them and that they would use it to facilitate their escape. The best part would’ve been that—like with the series three finale—I wouldn’t’ve seen it coming.

Instead, I got another anticlimax.

Points for saving the Pompeiian family at the end. For a minute there, I actually thought the Doctor and Donna were just going to leave them to die. Better though, would’ve been for them to save the family, and some totally random Pompeiian(s). Sadly, favoritism triumphed, and so much for not choosing who lives and who dies. *sigh*

Episode 3: Planet of the Ood: The Doctor and Donna visit the homeworld of the Ood, the slave race introduced in the second series two-parter “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit”.

Pretty good episode. It finally addresses the lingering question of how a slave race like the Ood ever came to be. They obviously couldn’t’ve evolved as a slave race (unless, I suppose, there was another sentient race they evolved to be slaves to. Maybe).

I was hoping for something a bit more creative than the most obvious answer, but on the other hand, it does make for a good critique of colonialism and neocolonialism. That particular theme hits home early on, when Donna comments that “We [in the 21st century] don’t have slaves” and the Doctor rejoins by asking her where her clothes come from. For a corporate TV character, even that much of an allusion to sweatshop labor is pretty far out there. Well done.

Still, you’d think “the Circle” could’ve at least been something a little less straightforward. Something that maybe couldn’t’ve been thought of by just about any viewer in under two minutes.

I was kinda disappointed—though not at all surprised—that the Public Relations rep, Solana Mercurio got killed off, even if she did sic the security guards on the main characters (a capital offense on most shows, and Doctor Who is no exception).

Ditto Dr. Ryder, the villain’s subservient little toady who incomprehensibly reveals himself to be an abolitionist in the climactic scene, only to be promptly killed off by the villain. (Not that he wasn’t already marked for death as well.)

Last complaint: I know this is television, and they have to keep things visual, but am I the only person who got the feeling it was both ridiculous and unnecessary for the villain to transform literally into an Ood? I’m no biology major, but I think it takes more than Miracle Cola™ to affect cross-species transformation.

Episodes 4 & 5: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: Martha Jones summons the Doctor and Donna to Earth to help UNIT investigate the simultaneous deaths of over fifty people.

Writer Helen Raynor redeems her disastrous run on the previous season of Doctor Who and the first season of Torchwood with a good solid story. The plot is not the most creative Doctor Who has ever seen, but at least it’s not as blindingly obvious as most the new series has seen.

It helps, of course, that Raynor has somewhat better antagonists than the Daleks to drive her plot this time around. The Sontarans may not be the most three-dimensional recurring villains Doctor Who has ever had, but at least they’ve got more personality than “Exterminate!” or “Delete!”

The addition of smarmy genius Luke Rattigan as a foil for the Sontarans was another smart move. “This is so cool.” “Is the temperature significant?”

My biggest problem with the Sontarans, in fact, has nothing to do with the characters themselves, but rather Raynor’s insistence on having the human characters make tasteless jokes about their height. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the moral of the first Shrek movie is that it’s wrong to discriminate against people who are different from you in any way, including making jokes about their difference … unless they’re short. In that case, have a field day. Worst of all is the part where the Doctor gets into the act, despite absolutely no prior history of such prejudicial conduct.

… Yeah, yeah, I know it’s all in fun, and I’m not trying to claim it’s a big deal or anything. I just find it irritating.

Getting back to Rattigan though, he was a definite high point of the episodes. It’s rare for Doctor Who to produce a genuine gray area character, and even rarer for such a character to come off so well as Luke Rattigan. He’s your stereotypical aloof genius, looking down on humanity, coupled with the stereotypical naïve genius, easily taken in by people who know how to play him, with a bit of plain old nerd mixed in.

Except that by the end, it’s obvious that he’s really a decent young man who got caught up in his own megalomania and manipulated by the Sontarans. Rattigan is another character who, like the Master, would’ve made for an interesting companion for the Doctor, and would’ve been very distinct from all the other companions the show has had. And, as with the Master, the writers obviously realized they were in danger of making the show too good, and promptly killed off any chance of such blasphemy along with the character, making his death excessively stupid and cliché for good measure. (Word to the wise: Blowing yourself up is not doing something clever with your life.)

Of course, a character is only as good as the actor who plays them, so props to Ryan Sampson for perfectly presenting each facet of Rattigan’s personality. His defiant, sarcastic rendition of the Sontaran’s new catchphrase (“Sontar-Ha!”) just before triggering the explosive, is so badass that even his immediately subsequent demise cannot completely ruin it.

Moving on, thank you Helen Raynor for not repeating the “School Reunion” catfight with Donna and Martha. It was bad enough the first time.

It was nice to see Martha being all in-charge and professional, but she didn’t really get to do much in this story, which is a shame.

Donna, on the other hand, makes a good account of herself, skulking around the Sontaran ship and generally causing trouble. I like the way the writers have complemented her character with the Doctor’s. It reminds me of the relationship between the Seventh Doctor and Ace: each having their own, well-established strengths which they played to, without getting in each other’s way.

Donna’s mom also gets some cool points for breaking the car’s windshield in the second episode’s opener, saving Wilfred Mott from the deadly gas.

And the Doctor is, as ever, brilliant. His second best moment is when he casually disarms an unbalanced Luke Rattigan, saying (in reference to Rattigan’s firearm): “If I see one more gun …”

His very best moment is an awesome call-back to the best story of series one. The Doctor (wearing a gas mask): “Are you my mummy?”

Best moment of the story: The hilarious subversion of the “Easily exploding car” cliché; the Doctor and the red shirt take cover and the overloading ATMOS system … throws off a few sparks. Brilliant.

Episode 6: The Doctor’s Daughter: The TARDIS takes the Doctor, Donna, and Martha to the planet Messaline, where the inhabitants make a female clone of the Doctor.

After watching the trailer for this episode, I expected the worst. I was pleasantly surprised.

Jenny—the titular daughter—is indeed a Mary-Sue, but not nearly as bad a one as you would expect. And despite being a Mary-Sue, she’s actually quite likable … which, of course, only makes it worse that it’s so obvious that she’s going to die.

By the end, my sisters and I had moved beyond expecting Jenny’s death. Fully forty-five seconds before the event, I correctly predicted the precise circumstances of her death: Cobb, the grizzled human commander, not convinced by the Doctor’s plea for peace, would try to shoot him, Jenny would throw herself in front of her “father” in a noble sacrifice, take the bullet, and die.

And then she came back. Ptolemaeus speculated that Jenny would survive during Martha’s farewell scene, and says she was sure of it when the camera returned to Messaline. For myself, I was surprised. (I guess she did have “too much” of her father in her after all: he’s a survivor, too.) Also, according to Wikipedia, the original plan was for Jenny to stay dead. The person who suggested having her survive? Steven Moffat. Natch.

Cast note: Jenny was played by Georgia Moffett, daughter of actor Peter Moffett, also known by his stage name of Peter Davison. In other words, the Doctor’s daughter was played by the (Fifth) Doctor’s daughter.

The Doctor is, as ever, thoroughly badass in this episode, most memorably, this little speech to Cobb, about his war with the Hath: “Well, you need to get yourself a better dictionary. When you do, look up ‘genocide.’ You’ll find a little picture of me there, and the caption’ll read ‘Over my dead body.’”

Donna continues to establish herself as a character distinct from and equal to the Doctor in some ways, figuring out that the generations-long war between humans and Hath has in fact, only been going on for seven days. (Incidentally, nice plot twist. For once something that I didn’t actually see coming. Well done, writer Stephen Greenhorn.)

Martha’s portrayal, on the other hand, continues to disappoint. In the last two episodes, she mostly just floated around unconscious while Clone Martha set about sabotaging UNIT. In this one, she finds her way to the Source, managing to lose her Hath companion along the way. (Not that we didn’t all see that one coming.) In the realms of spectacular heroics or just plain accomplishments for these three episodes, Martha is notable for her absence. Compare that with, say, Captain Jack Harkness in the last three episodes of series three. (Admittedly, Harkness—when he’s on Doctor Who—is almost as awesome as Captain Jack Sparrow, but still.)

Incidentally, the TARDIS brings the Doctor, Donna and Martha to Messaline because of Jenny—but she only existed because the TARDIS brought them to Messaline. Temporal Paradox. Or, to put it another way, crappy sci-fi plot gimmick. You’re good, Greenhorn, but you’re not Steven Moffat.

The episode is somewhat of a letdown in that with all the attention placed on Jenny and on Martha’s escape, the war between humans and the Hath gets shoved into the background, when it really could’ve done with some further exploring.

The Doctor’s refusal to countenance genocide against the Hath is noble, even enlightened. Unfortunately, for this show it’s also incongruous. Exactly how does the Doctor know, at this point, that the Hath aren’t thoroughly evil creatures who attack other races without provocation? Like the Daleks? Or the Cybermen? Or the Sontarans, or the Rutans, or the Gelth, or the Wirrn, or the Vervoids, or the Macra, or the—and so on. The new Doctor Who tries to juggle the enlightened philosophical understanding that no race or species is inherently evil with the entertainment trope of having an entire species of thoroughly evil beings for the protagonist to destroy (and they have to be thoroughly evil, y’see, so the viewers won’t feel bad that the protagonist just committed genocide). “The Doctor’s Daughter” is one of the casualties of this inherent contradiction.

So how did the Doctor know that the Hath weren’t Always Chaotic Evil, and were no more to blame than the humans, this time? He must’ve read a partial episode summary.

Episode 7: The Unicorn and the Wasp: People in Lady Eddison’s manor are being murdered in a style reminiscent of the stories of Agatha Christie, and the only one who can help the Doctor solve the case is … Agatha Christie.

Another reasonably good episode. The plot is decent, if nothing more. Actually, I think it might’ve worked better as a straightforward Christie-esque murder mystery, without all the sci-fi stuff with psychic fluctuations and the giant wasp.

The best scene was unquestionably the affectionate send-up of the witness interrogation montage that even a casual fan like me recognizes as a staple of the detective story genre. The suspects’ narration, juxtaposed with flashbacks of what they were actually doing during the first incident are hilarious, but writer Gareth Roberts takes the entertainment a step further by wrapping up the sequence with a totally immaterial reminiscence scene from the Doctor.

I must admit I was bugged by the death of Roger Curbishley, the guy who was stabbed to death at the dinner table at the same time that Lady Eddison’s necklace was stolen. According to Wikipedia, Roger is Lady Eddison’s son. This is what I had assumed … up until his murder. But afterwards, Lady Eddison displayed hardly any distress at his death. Given the limited length of the episode, this behavior was understandable when the victims were friends and guests, but her own son? That’s just cold.

Episodes 8 & 9: Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: The population of a planetary Library has disappeared, and only a little girl on Earth can save the Doctor, Donna, and a group of archaeologists from a similar fate.

Steven Moffat, how could you?

The plot is decent, but not at all up to Moffat’s previous standards. When we got our first glimpses of Cal in therapy and communicating with the Library, I was excited to see what the explanation could be. When Dr. Moon told her “it’s all true,” I was even more intrigued. Then I found out, and my reaction was “Meh.” This time around, reality wasn’t nearly as interesting as what I had imagined.

The Vashta Nerada were another disappointment. Like Cal’s connection to the Library, the Vashta Nerada started out interesting and ended up a pronounced let-down. The initial premise was clever and quite creepy: dust-sized little creatures with appetites like piranhas that hide in shadows and—in sufficient number—make shadows of their own.

However, Moffat subsequently steamrollered this perfectly acceptable premise by having the Vashta Nerada work solely by latching onto the bodies of the various red shirts, and then by walking them around like space-suited zombies after eating them. I mean seriously, what the hell? The whole point of having killer-shadows is that shadows are formless, and that they’re everywhere. That’s what makes them scary. Concentrating them in one place and giving them a shape transforms them from the Nameless Fear to just another ho-hum monster that happens to kill people by extending shadows from its’ body—rather like Abbadon in the first season of Torchwood, another monster with reasonable potential which the episode’s writer utterly squandered.

The whole spacesuit zombies concept is also problematic in its own right. Doctor Who is generally good at presenting the humorous in the horrible, and vice-versa, but here again, “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead” strikes out. You would think that “Hey, who turned out the lights?” would be a suitable dramedy catchphrase for a spacesuit zombie. Similarly, the Library Node’s use of Donna’s face to repeat “Donna Noble has left the library, Donna Noble has been saved” should be appropriately out-of-place and eerie. Instead, they just make for what is possibly the most annoying cliffhanger in Doctor Who history. At least part of the blame for the cliffhanger’s failure should go to whatever idiot—presumably director Euros Lyn—decided to draw out the repetition of those lines for about three or four seconds past the point of highest tension and well into the timeframe of impatience and boredom.

And, of course, this wouldn’t be the New Who without an exceptionally gratuitous noble sacrifice. I wonder if Steven Moffat really thought he was fooling anybody with River Song, even though he’d painted “red shirt” all over every single thing she said, did, or thought throughout both episodes.

Which brings me to the biggest problem of all: Professor—Oh my God! Mary Sue alert! Code red! Code red!—River Song.

It is mainly because of this character that I said before and say again now: Steven Moffat, how could you?

Words utterly fail to come within a parsec of being able to describe the ghastliness of this character. One gets the impression that when writing her, Moffat was telling himself ‘Right then, let’s pull out all the stops,’ without realizing that some of those stops are necessary to keep the character from turning into a complete Mary-Sue.

River Song’s bottomless reserves of competence are bad enough—really, is there anything she can’t handle?—but her implied relationship with the Doctor is even worse. Not just a Purity Sue and God Mode Sue, but a Relationship Sue, too?

Admittedly, Rose Tyler had all three strikes against her as well. River Song in a mere two episodes, however, embodies all of the worst of Rose’s Mary-Sue qualities without any of her (minimally) counter-balancing flaws. And apart from “Journey’s End” (see below), Rose’s relationship with the Doctor can be written down to a one-way crush and some mild sexual tension. River Song’s implied relationship is a full-blown romance. He even told her his real name.

It takes a lot of character development and relationship development (not to mention the right kind of character) to create a viable romantic relationship for the Doctor (at least, one that goes beyond a crush or story-long fling, as in the First Doctor story “The Aztecs”). River Song had none of these three qualifications.

Plus, there’s just something fundamentally wrong about someone with an ordinary human lifespan having a serious relationship with the Doctor. Even Davies realized this, as the semi-finale makes painfully clear his view that the only thing keeping Rose and the Doctor apart (aside from status quo) was the Doctor’s life expectancy.

It’s a shame, really, because some of River Song’s interactions were quite clever and funny, and the idea of a character who’s met the Doctor in an unseen adventure, let alone an unseen future adventure is a rare and interesting twist. Plausibly, it should happen more often. Trust the New Who team to take a really great idea and totally overdo it. I thought Steven Moffat, at least, would know better.

Future events make her interactions with the Doctor all the more incongruous—why does she have so much trouble placing this meeting on their timeline of interactions when this is the first and only time she’s met him in a completely different body from the one he’s had in every other encounter between them (namely, Matt Smith’s).

The “everybody lives” ending is sweet—or it would be, but River Song damn near manages to ruin that, too. I have nothing in particular against the character, mind (anymore than I do with Rose), but the characterization is godawful.

The Doctor’s line to Donna about “spoilers” was good the first time, because it was funny and inconsequential. The second time, it was grim and serious and full of portent “whatever happened (well, ‘happens’) to Donna Noble?”

It’s like the inverse of the Karl Marx quote: history repeats itself, the first time as comedy, the second as tragedy. (Although the alternate translation of “comedy”: “farce” is also applicable in the latter case). As if this show hadn’t blown its quota on being grim and ominous long since.

There was also a great opportunity at the end of the second episode which Steven Moffat inexplicably missed.

When the Doctor and Donna got into the TARDIS and left the Library for the final time, with the sonic screwdriver the future Doctor lent River Song standing on the floor, I could see the following scene so clearly I almost thought it would happen. The TARDIS would dematerialize … and then rematerialize, and a noticeably older Tenth Doctor would run out, snatch up the screwdriver, run back into the TARDIS, and leave.

No, it would by no means have saved the story, but it would’ve made for a good parting scene, and taken the edge off the aura of doom and gloom and awful Mary-Sueness with a little harmless fun.

Not the worst story of the season (trust Davies to raise the bar for awful), but definitely the most disappointing.

Episode 10: Midnight: The Doctor’s sight-seeing trip to the Sapphire Waterfall on the planet Midnight is rudely interrupted by a mysterious alien force.

After the accident which takes out the cabin crew, the Doctor and his fellow passengers are trapped in their transport waiting for help to arrive. When one of the passengers becomes possessed by some sort of alien … something, the Doctor naturally takes charge, and immediately falls under the suspicion of the other sight-seers. The Doctor continues to investigate, but doesn’t get very far.

In other words, it’s like the second act of any B Monster movie. The boring second act that only serves to establish the initial situation and conflict that the writer will then develop once the next plot point comes up. I was still waiting impatiently for said plot point to arrive when the unnamed host offed herself and the possessed Mrs. Silvestry. Forty minutes of tension and no plot development.

The episode has apparently been praised for its psychological drama. Now, I have nothing against psychological dramas in theory, but when all they do is sit there and stagnate, then I have a problem.

It’s also been suggested that “Midnight” is supposed to be a deconstruction of common Doctor Who tropes: the people are suspicious of the Doctor and are a lot more mean-spirited than usual, the antagonist is never really identified or understood, and the resolution comes from a minor character whose only function beforehand had been to provide uncomic unrelief. To this I say, fair enough, but that still doesn’t excuse a story that consists entirely of filler.

And notice that “Midnight” pointedly refrains from deconstructing one of the most egregiously overused clichés of Doctor Who (especially under Davies’ tenure): the noble sacrifice. That he had to play straight. Seriously, couldn’t the host have waited five seconds for the transport’s hatch to open and then jumped out of the way?

To sum up: an utter waste of time, boring and occasionally clichéd in the worst possible way. I wanted to wrap up this episode review with “The only redeeming quality to this episode …” but the fact is, there wasn’t one.

Episode 11: Turn Left: A Chinese fortune-teller stereotype forces Donna to change the past so that she never meets the Doctor, creating a hellish parallel world.

I’m of two minds as to whether this episode is actually worse than “Midnight,” or not. Since settling the issue would require watching both episodes over again, I shall probably never know.

The idea is that some time-eating scarab beetle attaches itself to Donna’s back and takes her back to the day she decided to work for H.C. Clements. She was at an intersection, and her mother wanted her to turn right, and get a job with a photocopying company. Donna decided to turn left, instead.

Under the scarab prop’s influence, Donna turns right, takes the secretarial job at the photocopy company, and never meets the Doctor. He subsequently dies in his confrontation with the Racnoss from “The Runaway Bride,” because Donna is not there to beg him to leave.

Umm … it’s been a while since I saw “Runaway Bride,” but wasn’t Donna the whole reason the Doctor got embroiled with the Racnoss in the first place? How could things have gone down exactly the same way up to the point where she convinces him to leave?

And in the original episode, the commandos who took out the Racnoss’ Giant Spiderweb of Doom were on orders from “Mr. Saxon”—i.e., the Master. Only, the Doctor never lived long enough to go forward in time and awaken the Master from his disguise, as is made obvious when the Master doesn’t cause the end of the world later in the story. So who called in the army this time, and how did they know about the Doctor?

From there, we are treated to a succession of scenarios in which all of the earth-based events of the past two seasons take place and cause an incredible amount of death and suffering (not least from the maddeningly ceaseless melodrama)—but inexplicably fail to destroy the planet. Wait, what?

The villain in “Smith and Jones” modified an MRI so that it would destroy all life on the moon and on the half of the Earth facing the moon, and if the Judoon had returned the hospital to Earth, it should’ve destroyed the entire planet. Well, the human exposition generator on the TV did say Sarah Jane Smith was there to take over, so maybe she somehow stopped it.

Similarly, in her own exposition speech, Rose explains that Gwen Cooper and Ianto Jones kamikazed the Sontaran’s Evil Green Gas from “The Poison Sky” and Jack … did something which made the Sontaran warship go away.

But Max Capricorn’s plan in “Voyage of the Damned” explicitly called for the Titanic to destroy the entire planet, not just London. So what stopped him?

For that matter, since the Doctor and Donna never went back in time to Pompeii, what stopped the Pyroviles from wiping out humanity thousands of years in the past? Never mind, best not to get me started on time and causality in Doctor Who.

I think what really ticked me off about this episode is that while all this incredible, tragic stuff is happening around her and all the Doctor’s other companions (from the new series) and their companions are getting killed trying to save humanity, our intrepid main character is … doing nothing. She reacts, but she doesn’t step forward and accomplish anything.

This makes sense, as without the Doctor, there’s nothing much Donna can actually do, but because Davies concentrates so hard on all of the disasters that are happening to Earth, and how they’re effecting Donna’s life, he doesn’t have any time left over for the people who are actually taking action.

Even so, “Turn Left” could’ve been a story about Donna and family valiantly coping under the enormous stresses of a country slowly disintegrating under constant attack. Such survivalist fiction can show viewers how even under the worst of circumstances, human beings can survive and even thrive. It wouldn’t be at all appropriate for Doctor Who, mind you, but at least it would’ve shown Donna being proactive. Unfortunately, all the attention on the various calamities faced by the Doctor (though not Sarah Jane Smith or Torchwood Three, interestingly) cuts out any time for that sort of nonsense. The few times Donna is given a chance to take a proactive measure in the first half hour of the show, she either declines, or immediately gets shot down.

When she finally does get to do something proactive, it’s only after a ten minute scene of gratuitous exposition, melodrama, angst, and Rose, which could’ve been covered in the space of two minutes.

The resolution was surprisingly decent. Clever, even, although this being Doctor Who, I should’ve known Davies would find a way to factor in a noble sacrifice somehow.

Actually, though, this might be the one case where the noble sacrifice resolution is justified: it makes sense, and the whole idea is to hit the reset button anyway, so why not? It might even justify all the stuff about “You’re going to die” (though not the accompanying angst)—if they’d constrained it to just the episode and not included it in two of the season’s three two-parters as well.

However, a fairly okay ending does not make up for forty-five minutes of inaction and all-encompassing melodrama. Another scene which springs all-too-vividly to mind is the one where Donna is in the hotel bathroom hearing the scarab on her back clacking its pincers. Again, Davies takes a scene which should’ve been thirty seconds at most and drags it out interminably, pointing out that the thing is still on her back, which he’s already established, and building up tension for an event which everyone who’s been watching the show already knows all about—the Titanic crashing into Buckingham Palace and destroying London.

Then, at the end we get, wait for it … more melodrama, with the Doctor seeing “Bad Wolf” written everywhere, and telling Donna that it means “The end of the world,” to which I can only say “again?”

Bad episode. Really bad.

Episodes 12 & 13: The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: The planet Earth has completely disappeared, with the Doctor and Donna unable to find it.

The plot to this story, while not very creative, is by far the most complex the new series has ever seen. It’s also extremely dense, with a cast list that has to be seen to be believed.

Basically, it’s all the fault of the Daleks (big surprise). Davies retcons yet another loophole to bring back Davros, the Dalek’s creator (again) who used his own tissue to grow yet another vast army of Daleks out in the middle of nowhere (yet again). Dalek Caan—who fished Davros out of the Time War—got a God’s eye glimpse of the time stream, went mad (well, madder) and started spewing annoying prophecy-nonsense.

Davros and the Supreme Dalek have stolen twenty-four planets from the “present” and two planets and one moon from the “past” to create a giant generator in the middle of nowhere, with which to power a deathray capable of wiping out the entire multiverse. One of the planets they take is, naturally Earth. Really, if these cosmic genocidal maniacs could get over their Earth obsession for five minutes they could’ve destroyed the universe forty years ago. Come on, you know the only reason the Doctor got involved—heck, the only reason he realized there was anything wrong—is because his favorite planet was one of the ones to disappear.

UNIT, Torchwood, and Sarah Jane and her alien computer all try to cope with the situation, while the Daleks come down for a little light exterminating of the populace, and gather subjects for their “Reality Bomb” deathray. (Apparently, none of the inhabitants of the other twenty-six planets were suitable, as we never see any of them in either episode.) I’ve read that Davies considered having the Daleks raze New York city, but decided against it because then he’d have to deal with the consequences of the city being destroyed. What the hell? Freaking Daleks in millions of flying saucers attacked people all over the world! The Earth got transported halfway across the universe. And this is after the Sycorax nearly killing half the population and the Battle of Canary Wharf and the entire planet’s atmosphere turning into poison gas? You can sweep all that under the rug, but not destroying New York City? Is there any logic to this decision at all?

Despite being on Earth at the time, the TARDIS inexplicably remained behind when the planet was taken (hasn’t something like this happened before and the TARDIS went along with the landscape?). The Doctor, unable to figure out the disappearance himself, seeks help from the Shadow Proclamation. Viewers who’ve been hearing occasional references to the Shadow Proclamation and had their imagination piqued by both the edgy name and vague nature of said organization are in for a letdown. Before the TARDIS arrives, the Doctor describes the Shadow Proclamation as a glorified intergalactic police force, and when they actually get there, we find that it’s staffed almost entirely by Judoon—the thick, bloody-minded, painfully by-the-book police rhinos from “Smith and Jones.” These are the universe’s elite defenders? I’d almost rather take my chances with Torchwood Three. I mean, if the Judoon are an intergalactic police force, then how come with all the threats to large sections of the universe the Doctor has faced in the new series alone, their only previous appearance was to arrest a blood-sucker who’d drained some alien princess or other?

It was a good joke at the end of the sequence where the Shadow Architect (who looks like an older, uncool version of Susan from Hogfather) was telling the Doctor he would lead the forces of the Shadow Proclamation against the planet hijackers. The Doctor’s answer (make an excuse to get back in the TARDIS and skive off) was highly titillating, especially since it hearkens back to the Fifth Doctor’s response to being named Time Lord President at the end of “The Five Doctors.”

Of course, the Shadow Proclamation doesn’t give up after one little hitch. The Doctor’s brilliant and all, but it’s not like he’s the only person in the universe who could possibly find the stolen planets or lead the Shadow Proclamation against the Daleks. Sure, they lose a few hours, but eventually they arrive in the Medusa Cascade just in time to engage the Dalek fleet. A truly massive space battle ensues, with Dalek and Proclamation ships blowing up by the dozens. The ground battle is a little less plausible, but it does give the production team the opportunity to prove definitively that even the Judoon don’t look nearly as ridiculous in combat as the Daleks.

You know, I think this is what the first and second season finales of the new series lacked; why they never seemed really epic, despite the huge number of baddies. Aside from about a dozen or so to menace the Doctor and the other main characters directly, all the villainous hordes did in those episodes was sit around and maybe kill a few dozen people. The resolutions basically came down to one character waving a magic wand and all the villains disappearing in a puff of smoke. A one-sided slaughter just isn’t that epic … but a pitched battle between two massive forces, that’s different.

Maybe that’s why the series three finale did a better job of feeling epic. It, at least, gave all the unimportant other people something to do, even if it was just stand around chanting “Jesus” “Doctor.”

Of course, the Daleks quickly gain the upper hand, because armored rhino shock troops will never be a match for armored pepperpots with rayguns, and it’s up to the Doctor and his companions to sabotage the Daleks’ secret weapon and win the day for the Proclamation forces.

Wait, did I daydream all that? I did, didn’t I? *sigh*

Yes, in point of fact, the Shadow Proclamation never comes up again in either episode.

Well that’s just pointless. All this sequence accomplishes is to get the Doctor to figure halfway to where the Earth and the other planets are. The Doctor might as well have gone to some space observatory he knows to help him find the Earth. It would’ve been more plausible, showed the viewers that yes, the Doctor actually has contacts other than those on Earth and Gallifrey, and maintained the illusion of the Shadow Proclamation’s mystery—not to mention basic competence.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: yes, the resolution does basically come down to someone waving a magic wand and destroying all the Daleks at once and yes, it is epic only its utter and complete failure to be a truly epic climax.

Other things about the story which had way too much build-up in the preceding season were the characters’ obsession with the bees’ disappearance, and mentions of the Medusa Cascade. The former was only useful in getting the main character in the right place so that the plot could move forward, and the latter was just the region of space the story happened to take place in. Neither had any interesting properties that affected the plot in any way thereafter. What a letdown.

The idea of the twenty-six planets and one moon being “half a second out of phase” with the rest of the universe was pretty clever though. So was the idea of the Time War being “time-locked,” as it offers a vague but plausible (if extremely belated) explanation of why no time traveler can seem to enter the Time War. It still doesn’t explain why no one runs into a Time Lord or a Dalek on a timeline before they enter the Time War, though.

Anyway, back on Earth, Rose has shown up to save Donna’s mum and grandfather from a Dalek, whine about not being invited into the conversation among Earth’s finest—all former companions of the Doctor and their cronies—whine about how she was the Doctor’s companion before Martha (as if he hadn’t had several dozen before her), and generally annoy the hell out of the audience. At least the scene where she rescued Sylvia Noble and Wilfred Mott was pretty good. I’d almost believed Davies could be lame enough to let a Dalek get blinded with a paintgun. Not quite. Wikipedia informs me that this sequence, and the line “Wanna trade?” were both the ideas of actor Bernard Cribbins (Wilf). Go figure.

While Rose is closed out of the discussion, ex-Prime Minister Harriet Jones recruits the assistance of the Cardiff Hub and Sarah Jane Smith’s supercomputer Mr. Smith to boost a signal through Martha’s phone to the Doctor. Of course, if the Doctor can hear it, so can the pepperpot menace, and they can trace it back to the router: Harriet Jones’ home. With predictable results.

Wikipedia has described Harriet Jones’ arc on Doctor Who as introduction, conflict with the Doctor, and redemption. This suggests Davies and the writing staff disapprove of her actions in “The Christmas Invasion,” which makes sense. However, I like that they allow her to hold onto her conviction that she made the right choice, even though they disagree with her.

Of course, this being Doctor Who—especially Davies’ reimagined Doctor Who—redemption = death. These being the Daleks, they recognize that they are about to enter a plot scene, and so after blowing a hole in the side of Harriet’s house, they politely wait for her to finish transmitting control of the Doctor Distress Call to Jack at the Hub before coming in after her. These being the Daleks, they detect that Harriet is an important character and so politely wait for her to repeat the “Harriet Jones [insert job title here]” gag and make a pithy speech before getting around to exterminating her, instead of just trundling in and exterminating her on the spot like they do to extras.

Honestly, I still don’t know whether the joke was good, or really lame and overdone. The noble sacrifice angle, though, that’s just overdone. Really, really overdone.

Eventually, the Doctor and Donna arrive on-planet, just in time for the Doctor to get hit by a Dalek deathray. Despite the fact that these blasts have been shown to cause instant death in all previous circumstances and factors like where the victim is hit or whether they have multiple hearts have never been hinted to make any sort of difference, the Doctor is only mostly killed. He begins to regenerate, but manages to cycle the energy through his severed hand from “The Christmas Invasion,” thus healing himself without transforming. O-kay, a little dicey, but it’s nothing compared to surviving the deathray, so I’ll let that part slide.

The Doctor, Donna, Jack and Rose then take the TARDIS to the evil pepperpots’ lair, which they call the Crucible, while various other companions make their way by different routes. Donna lags behind and gets shut inside the TARDIS after the rest of the crew enters the Crucible for a little repartee with the Supreme Dalek.

The TARDIS—which has withstood the assaults of everything from crowbars to demi-gods—instantly loses all its protective shielding when the Daleks poke it with an electromagnetic Treknobabble stick or other, and gets tossed into the Crucible’s power generator.

Even without its shields, the TARDIS manages to resist what we must assume is unimaginable heat long enough for Donna to touch the Doctor’s hand and provoke it to grow into a complete new Doctor. So along with everything else this series has neglected to mention for the past forty-five years, Time Lords are starfish? *sigh*, Okay.

Anyway, the new Doctor manages to teleport the TARDIS out of the Core at the exact moment the Daleks calculate it would be utterly destroyed. Logically, this should mean that the TARDIS was mostly destroyed already, but in fact the damage to it is purely superficial. What a difference a split-second makes.

The Supreme Dalek, meanwhile, has the Doctor and his other companions thrown in the Vault with Davros. Incidentally, what the hell is up with these motherfrakking Daleks and their motherfrakking Capital Nouns? The Crucible, the Vault, the Core, the Time of Testing, the Reality Bomb and I’m probably missing a couple at that.

More epic scenes of the Doctor and Davros sniping at each other follow, in which the latter goes into the obligatory “explaining the plan to destroy the entire universe” sequence, and introduces the prophetic-but-deranged Dalek Caan.

Davros also taunts the Doctor, asking “How many have died in your name?” Cue a succession of flashbacks to several of the people who have died in the past four seasons. Thank you so much, Davies, for reminding me of so many of the stupidest, suckiest moments the new series has had (these people are experts at “how you absolutely should not go about killing off minor characters”). Also, the first three or four characters died under the Ninth Doctor’s tenure, but none of the characters revisited were from the old series. It’s almost as if all of the characters from the First through Eighth Doctor eras never existed … or just don’t matter.

I will give Davies a slight tip of the hat though for including Jenny in that awful montage. Jenny came back in the end, but this is the Doctor’s flashback, and he doesn’t know she survived.

Martha and Jack both make separate attempts to foil Davros’ plans, but both are thwarted by the Supreme Pepperpot, who transports them and the rest of the Doctor’s companions to the Vault. Just as the evil nozzle-faces are about to activate the Reality Bomb, Donna and the Tenth Doctor Mark II arrive on the scene.

By the by, this marks the end of the “Osterhagen Key” subplot, which had an awful lot of buildup in episode 12 and the first half of episode 13, only to go absolutely nowhere. All the trouble Martha went through and all the moaning people made about how horrible it was, and the Daleks just transport her away at the last second, and so much for that angle.

Look, if you’re going to have something as big and terrible as that for no other reason than to get the character in a certain place at a certain time and doing a certain thing, for Zark’s sake don’t build it up so much. Sarah Jane’s Warp Star got at most 60 seconds of introduction, so it didn’t matter that there was no real payoff there. But in retrospect, it makes all that running around Martha did up to this point and all the agonizing she and those other characters went through into a colossal waste. (Though I must admit that it did serve as an excuse to give us Daleks speaking German, which was hilarious.)

In fact, apart from providing a cell phone for the Doctor Distress Call, I don’t think Martha contributed to the plot at all. Yeesh, she’s really in a rut. If only Project Indigo had transported her to the Doctor as I’d originally thought, instead of just her mum’s house.

Sarah Jane fares no better. Her alien computer boosts the Doctor Distress Call, she goes out in the street, almost gets killed by Daleks, only to be rescued by Jackie and Mickey. She does convince them to get rid of their guns so the Daleks will capture them instead of killing them (remember, the Daleks are gathering subjects for the Reality Bomb), but that isn’t much. After dodging the Daleks, she, Micky, and Jackie meet up with Jack. Sarah gives him the Warp Star, which if broken would’ve destroyed the whole Crucible, but as with the Osterhagen Key, they lose their chance when the Supreme Dalek has them beamed into the Vault and takes them prisoner. After which they all sit around until rescued by Donna and the Doctor Mk. II and taken home.

The others didn’t do that much more, but Rose did save Wilf and Donna’s mum, Jackie and Micky saved Sarah Jane from those two Daleks in the street, and Jack took out the Dalek that almost killed the Doctor, blasted the Supreme Pepperpot to space dust, and was generally awesome, as per usual. (Usual for Doctor Who that is, as opposed to Torchwood.)

It turns out that Donna uploaded some Time Lord intelligence from the hand which grew into the Mk. II, thus creating the “Doctor-Donna,” and explaining why Donna Noble is so important to the fate of the universe. You know, that really ticks me off. On the old show, a companion didn’t have to be “special” to be a worthy sidekick to the Doctor, didn’t have to be immortal, or a wandering prophet, or so integral to the timestream that the Earth would be doomed to hell without their interference, or bloody Rose Mary-Sue Tyler. On the old show, being human was special enough.

On the new show, though, you’re either a Very Special Human or you’re a minor character, easily brushed aside. I can sympathize with David Brin when he rants about elitism in popular culture.

Anyway, with her newfound cranial power, Donna pulls a few switches and shorts out the Reality Bomb a second before it discharges. Another few switches are sufficient to wipe out the entire plunger-wielding army (like I said, magic wand). A couple more send all the planets except Earth back where they came from, and set the Crucible on fire with destruction imminent.

The Doctors gather all the companions back into the TARDIS, which they’ll then use to haul the Earth back home like a tugboat. The original Doctor stays behind to offer to take Davros with them. This would actually have been a pretty good twist—it could even have excused Davros’ otherwise superfluous presence in this story—setting up a situation that’s very new to Doctor Who, or fiction in general, for that matter. Naturally, though, it only happens so that the Doctor gets to put up a token offer of help—the type the villain always turns down. However, unlike the Master, we never actually see Davros die, which leads me to conclude they’re probably already planning how they’re going to bring the overacting little twerp back again in a season or two.

The Doctor then drops his companions off back on Earth. Mickey, much to my surprise, decides to stay in the series’ main dimension, saying that there’s “nothing for him” in the other one, certainly not Rose. I liked this development: it made sense, and it spoke to some level of maturity, a willingness on Davies’ part to point out that yes, sometimes people don’t get happily paired off for reasons other than that one of them is dead, or they’re trapped in two different dimensions or something.

Of course, this being Davies-style Doctor Who, it was too good to last. The Doctor leaves Jackie and Rose behind in the other-dimension … along with the Mk. II. (Well of course, if they weren’t going to kill him off, they at least had to put him on a bus. Can’t have another Doctor running around upsetting the status quo.) And that’s when we find out that yes, Mary-Sue Tyler does get happily paired off with her One True Love: the Doctor.

Oh my god, this totally proves that Rose is the greatest companion ever and that all the Doctor’s companions from the old series were nothing compared to her, nothing, nothing, you hear me! The self-indulgent arrogance of this conceit revolts me. Shame on you, Russell T Davies; Doctor Who is not your plaything and your characters don’t mean more to the Doctor than all the others in the show’s history just because they’re yours.

The only thing Davies got right—one of the many things Steven Moffat got wrong with River Song—is pointing out that the Doctor’s lifespan would be a barrier to him having a relationship with a human. The Mk. II, being grown from a mixture of the Doctor’s and Donna’s DNA, is human though, so that’s that problem solved *gag*. (This also means that I can legitimately view this pairing as Rose/Male-Donna instead of Rose/Doctor, which admittedly isn’t that great either, but still better than thinking that the Doctor and Rose were ever “True Loves.” I also maintain that Rose and the Mk. II broke up on amicable terms within three years and never got together again.)

This leaves only the Doctor and Donna in the TARDIS, at which point, the Doctor reveals that Donna’s mind is deteriorating due to her absorbtion of alien Time Lord intelligence, like a toned down version of Rose at the end of “The Parting of the Ways.”

The cure: suppress the alien intelligence by wiping all Donna’s memories of the Doctor, aliens, and everything else connected to her new intellect. Wait? What the hell? The Time Lord brainpower Donna absorbed is already there isn’t it? Her mind is already altered, just because she’s lost her memories doesn’t put it back. Brain tumors don’t go away because you forget about them.

Elementary logic notwithstanding, the trick works, and Donna is saved, at the cost of two years’ worth of memories. If anything comes up to trigger her memories, her magically deactivated Time Lord brainpower will reactivate, overload Donna’s mind and possibly her body, and in either case kill her. Donna is saved, but the person who she became because of her time with the Doctor—very different from the person she was beforehand—has “died.”

I didn’t mention this earlier, but throughout the second episode, Caan goes on giggling about “the Doctor and his children of Time … and one of them will die.” This was stupid for three big reasons: first, because no one in the episode realizes that if one will die, logically the rest will live, which implies that Davros’ plan was doomed in any case (the viewers know this of course, but the characters aren’t supposed to). Second, because if it hadn’t been for the prophecy, the Supreme Dalek would’ve just killed the Doctor and co., so the only reason there could be a prophecy they’d survive was because there’s a prophecy that says they will … God how I hate predestination paradoxes. Third, because the vagueness of the phrase “one of them” suggests there’s some kind of mystery; you could almost surmise that the viewer is supposed to be guessing about “who’s going to get it,” even though the writing team has been dropping hints like anvils (heavy, cartoonish, immature, and excessively painful) since at least “Forest of the Dead.” (Caan also apparently doesn’t count Jack getting killed and coming back as “dying,” but that I can forgive.)

Furthermore, I would argue that all this clumsy foreshadowing was ultimately counter-productive, as it undermines the impact of this sequence. If this development had been sprung on the audience without warning, it would’ve been truly powerful (though still marred by the squicky mind-rape stuff). But the excessive buildup to this event leaves it looking anti-climactic and diluted. It reduces what could’ve been a fairly tragic plot twist into a cop-out. Davies’ overgenerous hand with the Ominous Foreshadowing has finally turned around and bitten him in the rear.

And that’s basically it, the Doctor mopes back to the TARDIS, sulks a bit, and the episode ends. Wow. I don’t think I’ve seen such a gloomy season finale since … the last two series’ season finales. God I hope Steven Moffat tries to branch out a little bit when he takes over the show.

Despite all the many, many weaknesses pointed out above, both these episodes have their moments. The characters (with one or two notable exceptions) range from fairly cool to flat-out awesome. The plot, though riddled with holes, is pretty good for a Davies effort. The visuals are pretty spectacular. On the whole it’s more maddening than endearing, but there’s just a few too many genuinely good aspects to write the whole thing off.

Couple last thoughts. While I can’t fault Davies for trying to be progressive when it comes to diversity, if he had to hire a music director with ADD, he should’ve at least had a sound editor check their work first. Don’t get me wrong, the individual motifs are pretty good, but the score as a whole is all over the place, skipping from one theme to a second to a third like a deranged kangaroo on a pogo stick. Just watch the four-and-a-half minute opening sequence when we go from Sarah Jane’s crew to Jack’s to Martha to Rose in quick succession. And the transitions—such as from Davros’ subdued and chime-heavy motif to pumping “A-Team in action” music—can be quite jarring.

Speaking of pumping music, though, brings up another point. Remember the series one, two, and three finales? Remember all the high power music used to evoke feelings like “oh my god, what they’re doing right now is so cool” and “oh my god, something really bad is happening/about to happen”? Remember how it sometimes felt like the sound director was going a bit overboard with that, and you occasionally found yourself asking “really, does this scene need quite this much dramatizing?”

Turns out in those episodes, the sound director was restraining her/him- or itself. This time around, that overdramatized “action/foreboding” music takes up roughly 50% of the score. At least in “The Stolen Earth.” By the time “Journey’s End” went into production, the sound editor or someone must’ve caught up with the music director, given them their meds, and gotten them to ease up a little. The score is relatively subtle, and no longer gives the impression that soundtrack itself is on LSD. Or maybe it’s just that I rewatched the episodes to bring you this portion of the review, and did more skipping around going through “Journey’s End.” Either way, it’s not exactly John Williams.

The over-the-top music may not have entirely been the director’s fault, either. Remember how the new series just oozes melodrama, especially in the finales? There again, we were getting off lightly. In “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End,” everything is overblown and over-exaggerated to the point of farce.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the actors, either. I mean, the guy playing Davros—possibly realizing that his character was completely superfluous to the plot—decided to make up for it by upstaging the rest of the cast … put together. If you can find clips on Youtube, check out his immortal delivery of such lines as “Active the Reality Bomb!” and the all-time classic (read: cliché) “Nothing can stop me now!”

Apart from him, though, I think the cast all delivered fine performances, and I wouldn’t accuse any of them of overacting. But an actor can only do so much with the lines and scenarios they’re given. What actor could’ve saved such sequences as the whole Osterhagen Key subplot (“take this key,” “I can’t,” “you know what to do, for the sake of the human race” and so on. And on. And on. And on and on and on …) or for that matter Project Indigo (“don’t do it, it’s too dangerous!”) or the Doctor figuring out what the Reality Bomb does (“no Davros, you can’t!” um, hello, this is the creator of the Daleks you’re talking to) or Donna’s farewell (“I don’t want to go back, please don’t make me go back”) or really any of Dalek Caan’s lines, what with all his giggling and babble about fire and destruction and the Doctor and “seeing” his soul (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and his children of time and one of them will die, tee-hee, or … you get the idea. I’m no big fan of 300, but whenever I ponder these two episodes, I can’t help but hear Gerard Butler roaring “This. Is. MELODRAMA!” Hopefully Russel T Davies will take his retirement from executive producer/head writer on Doctor Who as an opportunity to re-enroll in film school.

Finally, let’s tally the number of noble sacrifices over the course of the season, shall we? We have from “Voyage of the Dead”: Foon Van Hoff, Bannakaffalatta, and Astrid Peth; from “The Poison Sky” we have Luke Rattigan; in “The Doctor’s Daughter” there’s Jenny (she got better) and Martha’s Hath friend (it didn’t); “Forest of the Dead” had River Song (she sorta got better); the host in “Midnight”; the alternate Donna in “Turn Left”; and Harriet Jones in “The Stolen Earth.” Ten characters in fourteen episodes, and that’s without including villains and any red shirts who may’ve slipped my mind. Ten.

I mean, I know that according to Davies’ blood contract with the Adversary he has to write the stupidest, most cliché noble sacrifices in every non-kids show he produces or he loses his funny, but you’d think he could at least have held out for only one per season. I’m sure the esteemed Mephistopheles wouldn’t’ve objected too much.

Unfortunately, I suspect this overuse of the noble sacrifice is going to be one tradition Steven Moffat will continue after Davies passes him the torch. C’est la vie, I suppose.

Episode 14: The Next Doctor: The TARDIS lands in London, Christmas Eve, 1851, where the Doctor receives help in battling the Cybermen from an unexpected source … the Next Doctor.

Well, as it turns out, he’s not actually the Next Doctor. He’s a Victorian mathematician named Jackson Lake, who stumbled on a Cyberman “infostamp” containing information about the Doctor. I have to credit Davies for giving Lake a reason for assuming the Doctor persona beyond simply being overwhelmed by alien information. Having the true cause for his memory loss and new persona being a known and documented human phenomenon is a nice touch. It’s using speculative fiction elements to build upon reality, rather than to replace it entirely. Also props for putting the big reveal mid-way through the story instead of during the last ten minutes.

On the other hand, the reason Lake first entered his fugue state and the “something taken” foreshadowed earlier in the episode is, in a word, cliché. “Something terrible happens to Lake in the backstory,” Davies says to himself as he hunches over his computer, furiously typing out the episode’s script. “What could it be, what could it be, what could it be—I’ve got it! He had a wife, and the Cybermen killed her! [Doing his best David Tennant impression] Brilliant!”

“But I can’t leave it at that,” Davies continues. “I want to give him at least a semi-happy ending. So first I’ll have him find out he’s lost something, and that will make him sad, but then I’ll have him find something which will make him happy. Now what …? Oh, I know, I know!” he says, really wishing at this point that he had a co-writer whom he could nudge in the ribs for emphasis, “how about, get this, he loses his wife but, wait for it … it turns out he had a son! Pretty good, innit?”

It’s not just that Davies brandishes the clichés as if they were the Grand Theory of Everything (for those of you who know even less of physics than I do, that’s the one we don’t have yet), what’s really starting to grate me is that he’s so homonormative.

Perhaps an analogy would be helpful at this point. There is a branch of (mostly white and economically advantaged) feminism which simply aims to shatter the glass ceiling and put (white, privileged) women on an equal footing with (white, privileged) men. This branch of feminism is remarkable not only for being dismissive of, if not hostile towards women of color, queer women, disabled women etc., but also for insisting that women’s liberation means acting exactly like a stereotypical man, despite the fact that said gender role is extremely toxic to men and women (not to mention those around them). The exemplar of this idea of feminism would probably be Margaret Thatcher, and if that isn’t enough to make you run screaming, I don’t know what would.

Homonormativity is like this conservative brand of feminism in that it merely seeks to insert homosexuals into the already existing dominant discourse of human relationships. Homonormativity wholeheartedly embraces the 1950s ideal of the bourgeois nuclear family, with the sole stipulation that the loving couple not necessarily be different sexes. Davies takes things one step further by acknowledging that they need not necessarily be the same skin color, either.

Davies’ obsession with (slightly modified) nuclear family values is starkly evident throughout the series. The only important things in a person’s life are their children and significant others, in that order. Thus, Lake has a son, ergo he has something to live for. The Doctor has neither children nor significant other, ergo he (and a sizable fraction of the fatalities on this show) has nothing to live for.

I’m hardly a Biblical scholar, but this whole sequence strongly reminds me of something I once heard about the Book of Job. As best I recall, when the Christians began writing their version of the Bible, Job’s story either had a downer ending or the ending had been lost. Whatever the case, what it didn’t have was a happy ending, and the Christians didn’t like that. It was a story about a man keeping faith in God even through the worst adversity (including the loss of his beloved family): it had to have a happy ending to fit in their simple-minded, black-and-white worldview. So they wrote him one. And since the Christians had less imagination on the subject than a patch of duckweed, what they came up with was that in the end, Job gets another family.

This sort of resolution has always struck me as a cop-out, in addition to being stuck in the narrow-minded “nuclear family = happiness” rut, and “The Next Doctor” did nothing to change that impression.

Other minor irritants. The Cybershades: What was the point with them, again? And a related question: why do all Cybermen in the New Who have to be from an alternate dimension, suddenly? Surely the originals should be around somewhere, too?

I’m glad Lake survived (I was worried about that), but a little disappointed that he didn’t end up doing anything for the climax except act as the Doctor’s cheerleader.

Speaking of the climax, the CyberKing raged through London like something you’d get if you crossbred Godzilla and the Iron Giant, and yet this event has zero consequences on recorded history? Keep in mind that Davies reputedly cut the destruction of New York city from the previous story because he’d have to deal with the consequences. I’ll never understand how that man’s mind works. (Apparently, this story created a plot hole so massive, Steven Moffat constructed an entire season-long story-arc around the need to close it.)

Wikipedia informs me that after the episode wrapped up, Davies came up with a better resolution than what they’d shot. Instead of disappearing in a shred of fabric (talk about special effects failure) Ms. Hartigan would’ve survived, but the CyberKing still would’ve been falling. The Doctor wouldn’t’ve had the dimension transporter, instead he’d have called on Ms. Hartigan, begging her to “save them [the people of London]” and she would’ve dimension-shifted the CyberKing. I agree, that would’ve been better, even with the addition of yet another noble sacrifice.

The CyberKing itself was not as original as it might’ve been, but considering the episode was written by Davies, it was all right.

I thought using the infostamps to take out the Cybermen was a little too easy. I mean, it was cool the first time, but after that, it degenerated into a way of easily subduing a previously formidable and difficult-to-kill monster. Look, Davies, if you can’t handle writing enemies which are hard to kill and impossible to reason with (a difficult proposition I know) the answer isn’t “Deus Ex Machina an easy way to kill them,” the answer is: “Don’t write them at all.”

Last I’d like to address Rosita, Lake’s companion. Since there’s so much in this episode about the Doctor and Lake and a subplot about Miss Hartigan to boot, it’s not surprising that Rosita fades into the background. I’m prepared to accept that there is no more than the unavoidable, everyday levels of sexism and racism at work in the fact that except for saving the Doctor and Lake near the beginning of the episode, she functions completely as a plot device (and a back-burner plot device, at that).

What really bugs me is this line from Davies describing Rosita as “probably cleverer than the two of them [the Doctors] put together” (once again, credit Wikipedia for the quote). This smacks just a little too much of the patronizing compliments that clueless-but-well-meaning white males sometimes show their black or female (or, in this case, black female) characters. “No really, she’s actually the most intelligent one in the bunch.”

The problem here is really one of race and gender, but it can be nicely addressed by invoking one of the cardinal guidelines to good writing: “If she’s really cleverer than the Doctor and Lake, show us, don’t tell us.”

Still a pretty good episode, though, and it gets serious points for the ending. After all the mopey Christmas specials following mopey season finales, a nice plain feel-good moment comes as a refreshing change. The Doctor really had no good reason to refuse Lake’s offer to dinner, but he’s all emo now anyway, and it just makes it better that, as the Doctor himself points out, Lake actually convinced him to change his mind. Thanks for that much, Davies.

Episode 15: Planet of the Dead: The Doctor and a half dozen innocent bystanders are sucked through an inter-dimensional vortex to a planet whose entire population has recently been wiped out.

This episode was … okay. It didn’t shine, it didn’t suck, it was okay.

From the start I suspected some kind of Space Locusts, and so you can imagine my disappointment to learn that, yes, co-writers Davies and Gareth Roberts had gone with the most obvious explanation after all. Still, I must admit the stuff about the Space Locusts flying several times around a planet to generate wormholes and digesting metal to produce an exoskeleton to survive the trip through the wormholes was pretty cool.

I feel like Davies and Roberts were trying to do something really interesting with this episode’s companion, Lady Christina De Souza. I’m sure her being a high-class jewel thief was supposed to make her interesting and unique, but that whole angle never seemed quite to crystallize; although it was crucial to the plot, I didn’t get the sense of payoff. Consequently, her character didn’t click for me: she was just another guest, nothing special.

It’s always nice to see UNIT return, just to remind everybody that Earth does have its own homegrown defenders—defenders who, unlike Torchwood Three, have at least a modicum of competence—even if they still need the Doctor holding their hand the whole way. That said, I found Captain Erisa Magambo (a returning character from “Turn Left,” according to Wikipedia) and Malcolm Taylor necessary but dull. Again, I feel like there should have been a payoff to the scene where Erisa pulls her gun on Malcolm, ordering him to close the wormhole with the Doctor and his companions trapped on the other side and he refuses—there should’ve been a payoff, but there wasn’t. Not really.

The climax was just weird and not especially well-handled. First, the Doctor flew the bus (more on that in a minute) through the wormhole, with the stingray-like Space Locusts licking at his heels. Twenty seconds after the bus exits the wormhole, the first three Space Locusts come out. Twenty seconds after that, Malcolm closes the wormhole, with not one more Space Locust having made it through. Anybody got a Magic Bullet-esque conspiracy theory involving the velocity of Space Locusts to explain that one?

The other problem with the climax was that it was a nonclimax. The bus gets through and flies around a bit, UNIT fights the three Space Locusts, Malcolm has a little trouble closing the wormhole, the bus flies around a bit more, Malcolm closes the wormhole, UNIT takes out the last Space Locust—whoops, all over.

Then we have another interlude of angsty, melodramatic foreshadowing: “Your song is ending, sir. It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then Doctor … oh, but then … he will knock four times.” Knock four times? What the heck is that supposed to be? It isn’t clever, it isn’t mysterious, it isn’t eerie, it isn’t tricky, it isn’t melodramatic, it isn’t even weird, it isn’t anything.

While I wasn’t particularly invested in any of the cast for this episode, I’m glad they all made it. Well, except for the bus driver and the two aliens. I suppose the driver’s death was a necessary plot point for getting UNIT involved. Still, you’d think the Doctor would’ve figured out by now to warn his companions against doing something dangerous while he’s explaining what’s going on, instead of waiting around for one of the redshirts-of-the-week to demonstrate for him. (“We came through a wormhole over there, but don’t try going back through if you value your life—we only survived because the bus was there to protect us.” There, was that so hard?)

I also feel like one of the stranded aliens could’ve survived, and the Doctor would’ve then taken it home in the TARDIS. Sure, this would’ve complicated the ending, but by the exact same token, it would’ve made the ending more original.

I also think it’s ridiculous that when the Doctor meets his most enthusiastic companion in decades, he refuses to take her with him because of his companions’ habit of wandering off after a while. It feels like as the new series goes on, the in-universe reasons the Doctor has for inviting people to be his companions or refusing them are becoming more and more arbitrary.

I was worried there for a minute that he actually was just going to leave Christina to be arrested, although how she knew to go for the bus instead of the TARDIS when he freed her, I’ll never understand. “The girl will fly,” I thought that bit of foreshadowing could easily mean something good—and it did. Speaking of which, flying bus? Seriously cool.

… Like I said, the episode as a whole was okay, no more, no less.

Episode 16: The Waters of Mars: The Doctor visits Bowie Base, the first human colony on Mars … on the very day history records its mysterious destruction.

Now, if you really must set up a “changing a historical disaster” dilemma, this is probably the best way to go about it: making the “historical disaster” in question fictional at least leaves the suggestion of ambiguity about the outcome.

On the other hand, the Doctor’s central conflict in the story essentially boils down to agonizing about whether or not to intervene and save the humans on Bowie Base, deciding not to, then changing his mind at the last minute and charging in for a dramatic rescue.

Unfortunately, by that time most of the crew is already dead, including the Token Black (Casualty #2) and the German woman, Steffi Ehrlich. Okay, it’s sexist of me to feel her death harder than the others, especially since she had no characterization to speak of, but there you are. I also wish the Geek had made it, I liked him.

Speaking of which, though, it seems to me there’s something just a little bit skeevy about the last couple infections. The first three I’ll forgive because they were so unexpected, but for the last three we have Steffi, Ed Gold, and the Geek. Of the three, Ed and the Geek were both infected fairly quickly, and were very matter-of-fact and stoic about it when it happened, (remarkably so, in the latter case).

Steffi’s infection on the other hand, was drawn out, and I can’t help but find it significant that she was the only one to scream her head off before the end came. A very natural reaction, and yet one that none of the male characters succumb to?

On the positive side, I was glad that the Russian guy, Yuri Kerenski, survived at least. (Also appreciated his casual mention of his brother’s husband earlier in the episode—gay marriage, it’s no big deal.) Glad Mia—the Token Asian—survived too, even if she had as little character development as Steffi. (Being “only 27” does not count.)

But speaking of questionable gender dynamics, why did Adelaide tell Yuri to look after Mia at the end? All right, maybe she just told it to the one who didn’t panic right away, but why was Mia rather than Yuri the one to panic like that in the first place?

The monsters in this episode are humans infected with some sort of virus in the planet’s water. This turns them into zombielike creatures with craters for mouths and the unique ability to violate the Conservation of Matter by generating larger quantities of infected water than the human body can contain, and yet still manage to maintain their physical forms.

Despite their limitless supply of water to draw upon, they never really generated it in Biblical amounts, contrary to my expectations. When they needed to open doors, they merely short-circuited them, rather than summoning up a thousand-ton wave and letting pressure do the rest, which would’ve been a lot more impressive. Instead, they got a lucky break on cheap circuitry.

The flood-monsters get shoved aside towards the end to fuel the Doctor’s Great Moral Embuggerance, which rather precluded Davies and co-writer Phil Ford from doing anything at all interesting with them.

At the last, Bowie Base has been overrun, two thirds of the crew are dead or infected, and their escape ship has been destroyed to prevent the infection from reaching Earth. It is at this point that the Doctor goes into Badass Overdrive, and says “you know what? Screw you, destiny. Screw you, history. Screw you, rules. Screw you, bloody angst and melodrama; I’m going to go save those people!”

And he does, although how he managed to get himself and three others spread out across a big room into the TARDIS in the two second interval between the latter’s arrival and the destruction of Bowie Base is anyone’s guess.

So the Doctor returns to Earth with Adelaide, Yuri and Mia. The latter two bugger off, and the Doctor exults at no longer being the butt monkey of destiny, angst, and melodrama.

However, at hearing this, angst and melodrama blow their tops and decide to stick it to the Doctor big time, by having Adelaide accuse him of megalomania (to paraphrase their conversation: “Who decides what’s right and wrong?” “I do.”) and endangering all of history (as her death was supposedly a cosmic Big Deal) and promptly offs herself just to spite him (add one to the noble sacrifice tally).

Let me pause here to go off on a little tangent. I would be the first to argue that a being with power over time and space such as the Doctor’s would’ve been corrupted by it long since. Realistically, it makes sense that the Doctor would be succumbing to megalomania, now if not before.

But so fecking what? The Doctor’s not a realistic character anyway, psychologically or otherwise, and furthermore, this “I am Time Lord, Master of the Universe, my Word is Law” curve ball came completely out of nowhere. I mean what the hell, Davies? The Doctor was only asserting his right not to be ruled by your tiresome melodramatics, and you not only had to shove that melodrama right back down his (and my) throat, you also had to vilify him for it? Pillock.

The only good thing I can say about this whole megalomania mess is that it gets shot right back into nowhere after Adelaide commits hari-kiri, with the Doctor collapsing to his knees saying “I’ve gone too far,” so at least we won’t have to deal with that nonsense in the next two episodes.

While he’s on the ground, the Doctor hallucinates an Ood standing several feet away, a vision which promptly vanishes, just to disabuse the audience of any silly ideas that it might actually do something in this episode. The Doctor then reenters the TARDIS and is off again.

All right, so I’ve lambasted “The Waters of Mars” quite a bit, and deservedly so. The beginning and middle were a lot of waiting around for all the characters to die even though I didn’t want them to and waiting for the Doctor to do something finally, and the ending was pure angst!fest punctuated by yet more melodrama and some of the worst character continuity I’ve seen this side of “Legacy of the Force.”

On the other hand, it did have its good points. Specifically, it had main supporting character Adelaide Brooke. I don’t have to explain why she’s awesome: the Doctor will do it for me. “Because you wouldn’t shoot Andy Stone when you had the chance”; because she saw a Dalek during the events of “Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” and wanted to follow it, “but not for revenge.” Before the Doctor’s Rage Against the Melodrama, Adelaide stops him from leaving the base and forces him to confess the fate of Bowie One, that she and everyone aboard will die … except the Doctor. “Why, Doctor? What’s going to save you?” “… Captain Adelaide Brooke.”

Oh, there’s also the part, mid-Badass Overdrive when the infected Andy Stone pounds three times on the hatchway to the room where the survivors are holed up. The Doctor announces “Three’s all you get!” and promptly electrocutes Stone. A scenario which is guaranteed to be infinitely better than whatever idiot excess that “knock four times” rubbish actually refers to.

One last thing. What on Mars did the Doctor think he was doing there when the crew first captured him, offering a defense as weak as “out here, my word is all you’ve got”? And why on Mars didn’t Adelaide toss him in the brig (or whatever) when he made an argument that balmy? Letting him go after that isn’t compassion, it’s dereliction of duty.

While not up to even the modest standard set by the previous two specials, this episode is entirely watchable and entertaining … at least until the final scene with the Doctor’s out-of-character power-trip and the Revenge of the Angst. Even with the ending factored in, “The Waters of Mars” isn’t anywhere near as bad as, say, “Midnight,” or “Turn Left.”

Episodes 17 & 18: The End of Time: Again? Didn’t we just leave this party? Face it, people, this shtick is getting old.

“The End of Time, Part One” opens with a pretentious—forgive me, I meant to say portentous—narrator yakking away about the Doctor, Christmas Day, and Dire Things To Come. Yeah, whatever.

The Doctor himself—thankfully showing little sign of Post Melodramatic Stress Disorder—returns to the Ood homeworld to ask what the hell that projection was about. He gets taken to the Ood elders who spout some suitably vague imprecations about Earth and Dire Things to Come. They also show him an image of Anthony Ainley—possibly the best-known actor to play the Master in the old series—indulging in a therapeutic villainous chuckle.

At which point, the Doctor hightails it back to the TARDIS, and sets the coordinates for Earth, England, 2009. Somehow, despite the fact that he’s using a frickin’ time machine he manages to arrive too late. Best not to ask.

Meanwhile, Lucy Saxon—the Master’s ex—has been kidnapped by a cabal of fanatics awaiting the Second Coming of the Master. And like present day Christian Zionists, they’re determined to help the future along. They have the ring left behind after the Master died, and a couple miracle life potions. Add some biometric data from Lucy Saxon’s lips, and the payment of their own life force, and we’ve got all the ingredients for a good ol’ resurrection.

Incredibly, Lucy Saxon anticipated this eventuality, and somehow acquired an anti-life potion, just to muck things up. The result is that everyone in the chamber dies, except for the Master, who comes back partially, but occasionally shifts into a glowing blue skeleton to illustrate his imperfect resurrection. He’s also come back with the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and generate Sith Lightning from his hands. Best not to ask.

Apart from life force and body continuity, the biggest thing the Master somehow lost in the whole resurrection process was undoubtedly his sense of fun. The light-hearted psychopath who played fun and games with his victims all through “The Sound of Drums”/“Last of the Time Lords,” has been replaced by a solemn, ravenous little psychopath who barely cracks a smile, let alone a joke. Wonderful.

That night, the Doctor confronts the Master in a construction site. Their meeting is cut short, though, by the arrival of a squad of the Emperor’s best troops, complete with helicopter. They grab the Master, and try their durndest to shoot down the Doctor. Fortunately, like all evil minions, these stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn from the inside—or, in this case, a grown man in floodlights. And this despite being armed with machine guns.

Eventually, the Doctor falls down, but shows no signs of bullet wounds, and neither dies nor regenerates, so buggered if I know what happened to him.

Whatever it was, it buys the stormtroopers enough time to spirit the Master away to their employer, Joshua Naismith. Naismith and his daughter, Abigail are the only black people (heck, the only people of color) to appear in this story, and the fact that they’re villains can lead to unfortunate implications. On the other hand, they don’t really get much development, serving mostly as a plot device to introduce some important technology. Whether this is better or worse than casting them as major villains I leave to the reader’s judgment.

The Naismiths want the Master—who they know as ex-Prime Minister Harold Saxon—to help them fix a bit of alien technology dubbed the Immortality Gate which (supposedly) does exactly what it says on the tin. Joshua Naismith intends for his daughter to live forever. Naturally, the Master has other ideas.

One component of the Immortality Gate is a set of two isolation chambers, one of which must be occupied at all times for the machine to work. But I doubt that will have any bearing on the rest of the story.

The Doctor, meanwhile, enlists the aid of Wilfred Mott, Donna Noble’s grandfather, to find the Master. Wilf has been experiencing visitations by a predictably cryptic older woman who warns him of Dire Things to Come and says the Doctor will need to “take up arms,” so he’d better pack his revolver.

Wilf shows the Doctor a picture of Naismith Sr., and the Doctor recognizes Naismith from his séance with the Ood. Accordingly, the duo take the TARDIS to the Naismith Estate, where they run across two spiky green alien technicians who are there to salvage the Immortality Gate. They explain that the Gate is a medical device, intended to “mend” entire planets. Shove a living organism into the Gate, and it will “mend” the rest of the planet to match that template.

The Doctor and Wilf arrive in the main chamber of the Naismith Estate just in time to fail to prevent the Master from destroying his straitjacket with Sith Lightning and long-jumping into the Gate. The Doctor shoves Wilf into one of the isolation chambers—the only structure in the entire world shielded from the Gate’s “healing radiation.”

The Gate proceeds to “mend” humanity, a process which causes the head of every single human being on Earth to swivel madly à la The Exorcist. It’s hilariously bad.

When the heads stop shaking each and every one of them has turned into the Master’s. Apparently, the Gate in its infinite medical wisdom transforms all its patients into exact duplicates of the template, rather than copying the template’s species information like the nanogenes in “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances.” Best not to ask.

The only humans unaffected on the entire planet are Wilf (in the isolation chamber), and Donna, who was apparently protected by her Time Lord brain chemistry. You know, the chemistry which the Doctor apparently neutralized in “Journey’s End” by suppressing Donna’s memories—on the principle that “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” I guess—and would therefore presumably not come into effect unless she remembered about her time with the Doctor, at which point it would reactivate and melt her brain? Best not to ask.

The Masters too are—odd, to say the least. They don’t share one mind, or even anticipate each other’s thoughts as you might expect. Furthermore, despite all being the same person, they give and take orders according to what station their body’s previous owner held in life, all of them answering to the original. The original Master is still dying—some medical technology, eh?

At this point, that pompous narrator starts shooting off his mouth again about the Doctor, the end of humanity, and how all this is just the beginning. Because on this day, everything changes. On this day, the Time Lords return. This day will see the end of time.

By now, the narrator is revealed to be the Time Lord President, raising the question of exactly why he felt the need to go over all these events in the first place, and why in the past tense. The President then steps into the grand council of the Time Lords—which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Senate chamber in the Star Wars prequels—and announces their return.

Time for a couple flashbacks. The Time War is drawing to a close, and the signs indicate the Doctor will choose to kill all the Time Lords and all the Daleks. The President is none too pleased with this scenario, and vaporizes a subordinate with a metal glove reminiscent of … (actually, I’m not sure what) when she appears to question his judgment.

The prophets inform the President that only two Time Lords will survive the end of the Time War: the Doctor and the Master. And another word keeps popping up as well: Earth.

The President hatches a plan: they’ll send a signal of four beats (the beating of a Time Lord’s heart, apparently, although which one we never discover) through the Time Vortex into the Master’s eight-year-old brain. That’s right: the Lord President’s plan begins with creating the Time Lords’ greatest single foe—or second greatest, when they get the Doctor on their bad side. Brilliant.

When the Master overwrites the entire human race with himself, the Time Lords’ signal is amplified by 6.2 billion, and he can use humanity’s communication technology to track the signal. However, he needs a little help along the way, so the President removes a diamond from his scepter and throws it through the Time Vortex to Earth.

Donna, meanwhile, begins to have flashbacks to her time with the Doctor upon seeing her mother and fiancé Shaun Temple transform into the Master, and exhibits all the signs of death by resurgent Time Lord brain chemistry. Fortunately, Donna is saved by the arrival of the end credits to “The End of Time, Part One.” When “The End of Time, Part Two” rolls around, Donna is still shaken by this new development, but no longer in immediate danger.

She calls Wilf on his cell phone. For some unfathomable reason, the Master has the Doctor and Wilf tied to a couple chairs in Casa Naismith, and is shocked to find someone calling Wilf, since everyone else in the world is supposed to be him. Well, what if this was the only way they could figure out to contact him, eh? He quickly discovers though that it isn’t him, and is uber-pissed that someone besides Wilf survived the conversion process. Wilf yells at Donna to run, just as the Master orders all copies to apprehend her.

Donna escapes the house, only to be cornered on the street by a group of about a dozen Masters. As they converge on Donna, she begins to experience flashbacks again, and this time, there are no end credits to save her.

Instead, she emits a burst of energy which conveniently knocks out all the Masters in the area and herself, and simultaneously resuppresses Donna’s memories. The Doctor explains this is a little self-defense mechanism he set up when he rewired Donna’s brain in “Journey’s End.” One wonders how he could have possibly foreseen an eventuality even remotely similar to this one. One also wonders why the Master doesn’t simply call up a few more copies who were outside the blast radius and have them bring Donna in. Best not to ask.

Donna’s part in the story is now effectively over. The spiky green aliens’ is not, as they choose this moment to knock out the Master, free Wilf, and skive off with the Doctor. Since they don’t bother to release him from his chair restraints, and since their flight includes going down a staircase, the Doctor pronounces this “Worst. Rescue. Ever!”

The aliens use their hidden transporter to escape with the Doctor and Wilf to their orbiting salvage ship. A Master copy in stormtrooper armor proceeds to blast the device in Naismith Mansion, so now, at least, they can’t get back. Aboard the salvage vessel, the Doctor deactivates all power so they’ll be safe from detection and attack by the US Star Wars program, but in the process insures their inability to escape Earth orbit.

We then get treated to a tiresome sequence of the Doctor despairing and moping, and Wilf trying to cheer him up. Wilf also tries multiple times to press his revolver on the Doctor, and is refused each time. During the course of the conversation, the Doctor reveals that if the template (i.e. the original Master) dies, all the “mended” human beings will revert back to their original states. One wonders what medical applications that setup could possibly have for anybody. Best not to ask.

At this point, the ship picks up a general broadcast by the Master, announcing his discovery of a diamond called a Whitepoint Star on Earth, and his intention to hook it up to the Immortality Gate. The Doctor informs Wilf that there’s only one planet in the universe where Whitepoint Stars can be found: Gallifrey. Now he takes Wilf’s gun.

With a flick of a couple controls the Doctor deus ex machinas the ship working again, and takes it back to chez Naismith. On the way, the ship gets attacked by cruise missiles, and Wilf and the male spiky green alien have to fend them off using the vessel’s anti-asteroid lasers, much like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo operating the Millennium Falcon’s gun turrets in Star Wars: A New Hope. The ship also passes over Bad Wolf Bay.

One of the missiles does hit the ship, but only manages to take out a huge window in the cockpit. This turns out to be a blessing for the Doctor, who proceeds to hurl himself out the now open window. And what clever trick, you may ask, does the Doctor employ to survive falling at least a couple hundred feet and through the skylight of Naismith Mansion? No trick and certainly no cleverness, just Plot Armor. Needless to say, Davies staunchly refuses to let the laws of physics call the Doctor’s bluff. (The Fourth Doctor in Logopolis wasn’t so lucky.)

The Master has already hooked the Whitepoint Star up to the Immortality Gate, and as the Doctor watches in horror, the Time Lord President begins to materialize, flanked by several other members of the council, including the two members who voted against leaving the Time War, and were subsequently forced to cover their faces in shame by the President. Worse still, the Doctor points out that the woman in “Planet of the Dead” said “it is returning,” not “he” or “they.” It’s not just the Time Lord council which is returning—it’s Gallifrey, with the rest of the Time War soon to follow. (Interestingly enough, while the President and his lackeys—who are coming from Gallifrey—appear before the Doctor and the Master on Earth, Gallifrey itself appears in the planet’s orbit. Best not to ask.)

The Master thinks he can use the Immortality Gate to overwrite all the Time Lords with his own personality, just as he did to the human race, but with a contemptuous wave of his death glove, the President instead restores every single human being on Earth to their original body, living the Master with only his dying template.

The humans in Naismith Mansion, are understandably confused and terrified to discover themselves in Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab with all hell about to descend upon them, and vacate the premises. The technician in Isolation Chamber #2 would dearly love to escape with them, and is kindly accommodated by Wilf—don’t ask me how he got out of the ship—who enters Chamber #1 so the technician may escape Cahmber #2. But I’m sure this sequence will be of no relevance to the overall plot.

The Master having been easily neutralized, the President proceeds to reveal his grand design. To end the horrors of the Time War, the Time Lords will detonate their own reality bomb and wipe out the whole universe. The President’s escape plan? The Time Lords will transform into beings of pure thought, and with no physical bodies to be destroyed, will survive the universal Holocaust. No word on whether this is a realistic aspiration, or just another manifestation of the Time Lords’ collective megalomania.

This was why the Doctor chose to end the Time War by committing double genocide: to prevent the Time Lords from wiping out all life in the universe. (One of the lessons of history compiled by Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: 25 Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea is that as a war drags on, each side grows more like what it accuses the other side of being in terms of monstrosity. That certainly applies to the Time Lords.)

The Doctor still has Wilf’s gun, which he points first at the President—who points out that killing him won’t stop the Time War from returning—then at the Master, who realizes that he’s the link keeping the window to the Time War open. No more Master, and the window snaps shut, sending all the Time Lords back to perish in the Time War.

Then the Doctor points back at the President for some reason, and we go through a little back-and-forth before one of the two naysayer Time Lords takes her hands away from her face to reveal herself as the Mysterious Woman who talked to Wilf. Her identity is intentionally left ambiguous, but the production staff are privately of the opinion that she’s the Doctor’s Mum.

This revelation somehow galvanizes the Doctor to action. He turns to point the gun once again at the Master and tells him “Get out of the way.” The Master acquiescing, the Doctor proceeds to shoot the control panel behind him—the one housing the Whitepoint Star.

The Gate begins to fail, and Gallifrey, the Time Lords, and the Time War return to their terrible conclusion, safely behind a Time Lock. The President brandishes his glove, saying that while he may die, the Doctor will as well, to which the Doctor replies “I know.”

At this point, however, the Master tells the Doctor “Get out of the way,” and marches forward, blasting the President repeatedly with Sith Lightning. The Master continues forward into the white light surrounding the President, the Doctor’s Mum, and the other Time Lords, and vanishes along with them into the Time War. You just had to get in that one last noble sacrifice, didn’t you, Davies? (Well, actually, second last …)

Not sure what I really think of all that. Now that they’ve brought him back, I suppose they’ll be resurrecting the Master (still as John Simm) in another season or two. While this is hopeful, it’s ridiculous the number of ways Davies and the New Who team have produced to bring back canonically dead (by their own design no less) characters, ex cathedra from their respective bums. If there are plans—or even vague notions—to bring the Master back again at some point in the future, you’d think someone would come up with the bright idea of not making him so quite definitively dead in the first place.

I suspect that if and when he does come back, the Master will be closer to the somber, moody version of this special than the fun-loving psychopath of “Utopia”/“The Sound of Drums”/“Last of the Time Lords,” which will be a disappointment. Also, I’m really growing sick of the writers holding out the false hope of the Master becoming the Doctor’s companion—a choice which, even with this new brooding Master, would be even more awesome than Jack Harkness as a full-time companion—and then snatching it away with a “nah-ah-ah.” Ye Gods, people, can you really not see that you’re shooting yourselves in the foot here?

Almost finished, intellectual, don’t lose it now, old chap.

Right, sorry. In short, the Master, the Time Lords, Gallifrey and everything else lost in the Time War go back into the jack-in-the-box, leaving the Doctor lying on the floor in Naismith Mansion, still very much alive and barely injured from his several-hundred-foot fall into the building. Cue obligatory moment of hope and celebration when the Doctor realizes he’s survived, followed by obligatory moment of shock and dread when he hears … a knocking sound. I’ll leave it to you to guess how many times the knock is repeated.

It’s Wilf, still trapped in Isolation Chamber #1 and unable to get out. Worse, the Doctor discovers that due to all the various shenanigans of the past several minutes, the Gate has overloaded and is about to dump an obscene amount of deadly radiation into the isolation chamber.

Wilf, trooper that he is, tells the Doctor to leave him to his fate. Instead, the Doctor pitches a hissy fit which serves only to prolong the inevitable and bring the entire viewership together in a spontaneous rendition of that famous Monty Python quote: “Get on with it!”

Finally, the Doctor does what absolutely everybody knew he was going to do anyway—especially since the whole announcement that this would be David Tennant’s last story—dashing into Chamber #2 and slapping the button to unlock the door on Wilf’s side.

The radiation kindly floods all into Chamber #2 rather than both at once. Wilf stumbles out as the Doctor gets the full bombardment.

The radiation blitzkrieg comes to an end and the isolation chamber conveniently loses power. The Doctor retains enough lightness of tone to remark that “Of course, now it chooses to stop working.” At this point, we begin what must be the longest regeneration in all of Time Lord history. The regeneration energy heals the scars he picked up falling through the skylight, but other than that has no visible effect until the very end.

The Doctor leaves Wilf and heads into the TARDIS “to get my reward.” From the following two scenes, I concluded that said “reward” consisted of saving every single companion he’s had on the new series—or someone related to them—from Death by Gratuitous Plot Contrivance.

First, he disrupts the aim of a Sontaran who was about to blast Martha and Micky. In the process, we learn the two of them are married now. Wait—what? What happened to Martha’s previous fiancé, Tom Miligan, or whatever? And not that I totally object to the pairing, but way to pair off the only two black people of consequence on the show, Davies.

The Doctor then pulls Luke Smith—Sarah Jane’s adopted son—out of the street, which he had absentmindedly wandered into despite the speeding car bearing right down on him. Kids, eh?

Next, the Doctor visits Mos Eisely Cantina The Outlander Club from Attack of the Clones an anonymous space bar populated by members of all the major alien races introduced on the new show. One of the bar’s two human occupants is Jack Harkness who—thank goodness—can’t be killed, forcing Davies to break from pattern. Instead he has the Doctor slip Jack a note, informing his friend that the bar’s other human occupant is named Alonso. That’s right, Alonso Frame, the Midshipman from Voyage of the Damned. Told you we’d be getting back to him. The Doctor leaves just as Jack begins to put the moves on Midshipman Frame.

The Doctor follows this up by attending a book signing by the great-granddaughter of Joan Redfern, the woman whom he (as John Smith) fell in love with in “Human Nature”/“Family of Blood.” Why, out of all the possible generations he could visit, the Doctor just so happens to choose the one represented in the very early 21st Century never comes up. Best not to ask.

Penultimately, the Doctor watches Donna’s wedding to Shaun Temple. He gives Wilf—who earlier informed the Doctor of their poor financial situation—a present for the couple: a lottery ticket. The Doctor being a Time Lord and all … yeah, you get the picture.

Last of all, the Doctor stops in on a certain peroxide blonde and her similarly yellow-haried mother, who are apparently on their way back from a party of some sort. Jackie continues on but Rose stops to exchange “hellos” and “Happy New Years” with the Doctor. Upon being informed that this is New Year’s day, 2005, the Doctor tells Rose he thinks she’s in for a great year.

Good choice merely having the Doctor visit Rose earlier on in her personal timeline, rather than breaking down the dimensional walls yet again. She’s obviously still Davies’ special snowflake, but her appearance here was infinitely less annoying than I’d envisioned when ptolemaeus informed me they were bringing Rose back yet again.

The Ood from “Waters of Mars” reappears at this point, and commences singing the Doctor to his rest with a melancholy wail which Davies might as well have lifted straight out of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

The Doctor makes his way—slowly for maximum melodrama—back to the TARDIS and finally begins to exhibit signs of regeneration energy. In fact, the energy seems to determined to make up for lost time and proceeds to trash the TARDIS’ console room. What? Since when has a regeneration ever damaged the surrounding area? How convenient that this previously unknown phenomenon chooses to manifest at a time when the Doctor is alone, for once.

Oh, and the Tenth Doctor’s last words: “I don’t want to go.” Understandable, but compared with the awesome final speech Davies gave Christopher Eccleston, it lacks a certain je ne c’est quoi

As the inside of the TARDIS burns, the Tenth Doctor regenerates into the Eleventh, Matt Smith. My first reaction was negative: ‘Crikey, but he looks weird.’ Then I watched and listened to him a bit more and … I don’t know, he started to grow on me. He’s still pretty weird, but I can see him as being the right sort of weird to play the Doctor. He also reminds me a little of a young Peter Davison, which doesn’t hurt at all. (Seeing as how Steven Moffat’s taking over the series now, and how the Fifth Doctor is his favorite as well, maybe I’m not the only one reminded of Davison.)

The Eleventh Doctor goes through the usual checking-out-the-new-body routine, before discovering that his console room is still on fire and his TARDIS is about to crash back to Earth, a discovery which he greets with a surprising degree of giddiness. The end.

According to Wikipedia, after writing “I don’t want to go” for David Tennant, Davies turned the script over to Steven Moffat to finish up. Not that there was that much to write, but it’s a nice way to pass the torch. Consequently, however, my last point here goes to Moffat, rather than Davies: when it comes to catchphrases, “Geronimo” is infinitely less cool than “Alons-y.” You are not starting out on the best possible foot here.

So that’s it, “The End of Time.” While hardly the first Doctor Who story to feature an all-white cast, it does bear the dubious honor of being the only story in the new series to have an all-male main cast. Come to think about it, I believe it may be the first story with an all-male cast in the entire history of the show. (No, wait, I tell a lie. I do seem to recall a one-shot episode, “Mission to the Unknown” way back in William Hartnell’s run in the 1960s. Way to do the Time Warp, Davies.)

On the other hand, I give him props for giving the Doctor an over-forty companion for this story who actually survives. That’s a step up from the last special. More points for a plot which is significantly less predictable than mentor mortality in a coming-of-age flick. Sure, the execution was often laughable, but the premise was pretty good—especially for this show—with some pretty neat ideas. But enough with the praise, let’s get back to criticizing.

In my discussion of “The Stolen Earth”/“Journey’s End,” I offered a possible reason why the finales on this show have failed to be epic, despite Davies’ obvious efforts. After watching “The End of Time” I have an alternate proposal: in order to be truly epic, a story needs to have epic consequences. Part of what makes a story epic is the knowledge that after this, nothing is ever going to be the same.

By contrast, the only change to the status quo to come out of any of the finales (including this special as an honorary finale) has been the arrival or departure of this or that companion, or the Doctor’s regeneration. But companions drop in and out of this show and back in again like a confused guest with short-term memory loss, and the regeneration sequence has been a Doctor Who staple since Patrick Troughton took over the show from Hartnell back in ‘66. Each and every finale in the new series has promised epic changes to the status quo, and each and every finale has backed down when it comes to delivering on its promises. Ergo, not epic.

On the other hand, all throughout “The End of Time,” I was reminded of a conversation I had with my mother and my sisters one time when we were driving ptolemaeus to the airport. Somehow, we got to talking about the Pirates of the Caribbean series (back when it was only a trilogy), and ptolemaeus said that the second two—as opposed to the first movie—“weren’t even trying to entertain us.” This seemed so counterintuitive that I had to ask what she thought they were trying to do. Her answer: “They were trying to be epic.”

Obviously, ptolemaeus and I have two very different interpretations of the word “entertain.” What she means is that the second two Pirates movies were trying to be solemn and introspective and deep and meaningful and the like. Whereas Curse of the Black Pearl was all fun and carefree and joyful and about having a jolly good time. She cited the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film and Star Trek|| as two recent examples of other movies which were more about having fun than being solemn and meaningful.

Not that having something important to say is a bad thing. Terry Pratchett often has something to say, Tolkien certainly did, and Melina Marchetta. Can you imagine On the Jellicoe Road as a just-for-fun comedy? It’d be awful. And as you may recall, one of my main criticisms of Star Trek|| was that—unlike every other incarnation of Star Trek ever—it had nothing important to say.

At the same time, I think Star Trek|| and Sherlock Holmes are the exceptions to a trend in Western culture towards obsessing over depth and meaning and tragedy as paragons of artistic quality. It’s what sank the Star Wars Expanded Universe, as I frequently lament. And of course, the plunge in quality of the Harry Potter series can be traced to the precise moment J. K. Rowling started taking herself ultra seriously and decided she was writing something horribly important and meaningful.

I’ve known for a long time that Davies has that particular Kool-Aid running on tap, but it wasn’t until after that conversation with ptolemaeus that I realized the precise nature of the problem. This show would be exponentially better if they spaced all the angst and melodrama and instead focused primarily on having fun. Think about it: the best parts of this show have always been when they let loose and had a blast. The worst have always been when the tried to be Serious and Meaningful.

Admittedly, this essential misunderstanding did not originate with Davies. The old series had its fair share of pomposity and melodrama, but just because other people have made the same mistake previously in no way excuses Davies and company for making it as well.

And I’m not saying they’d have to be apolitical. Just because the examples I’ve given above didn’t have much to say for themselves doesn’t mean you can’t have messages in light entertainment. You can get your point across without beating people over the head with it.

One of the things I’ve always liked about the way Davies has handled homosexuality on this show is precisely the way he keeps it low-key. We have Yuri’s casual reference to his brother’s husband, and even the cat-creature’s homophobia in Gridlock is mostly played for laughs. The first example especially reinforces the point that homosexuality (and by extension, all sexualities outside the heteronormative) are no big deal.

I found this laid-back approach to social commentary infinitely more meaningful and intelligent than the tankerloads of angst and melodrama saturating the new series. (With the occasional exception of e.g. “The Girl in the Fireplace.”)

Jack Harkness is perhaps the epitome of the point. On Doctor Who, he’s just about the greatest thing ever: the life of the party, even when facing imminent death. His omnisexuality is just another facet of his personality and—coupled with his flirtatious manner—serves to make him even more entertaining.

On Torchwood, where he bears the burden of main character, he’s harsh, moody, and generally a stick in the mud, with barely a trace of his original character to be seen. It’s awful.

Unfortunately, I rather suspect Steven Moffat has had a few too many goes at the Kool-Aid as well and will likely continue Doctor Who’s fine tradition of pretentious Meaningfulness. Wonderful.

Overall, this season represented a downslide from the moderate standards set by series three. The eight minute mini-episode at the very beginning was by far the best of the bunch, and not only did series four fail to contain any episodes of comparable quality to series three’s “Blink,” but the ratio of bad episodes to good (or just adequate) episodes is higher. And furthermore, that’s before we factor in the five special episodes, of which the best was merely pretty good. Tune in next time to see if Steven Moffat does any better with series five.

An Unwholesome Vendetta

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you had a lovely Winter Solstice, and remembered to replace your Mayan calendars yesterday.

Today, I’m talking about V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Llyod, which I read and promptly reviewed some three years ago, now. Here’s my review, spoilers included.

Let’s start with the story itself, shall we? The plot is good enough, concerning a rather poncy terrorist in a Guy Fawkes mask and his crusade to bring down a brutal fascist regime in near-future England, killing an awful lot of nominally deserving people along the way. (As a side note, the fascist group in question is known as “Norsefire,” but it’s only named once within the story and I—lazy reader that I am—completely missed the first “r,” leading to a wildly different interpretation. Hilarity ensued.)

The story is compelling, engrossing, and well-plotted, and it’s difficult to pull yourself away in the middle. The characters are beautifully presented and eminently believable. Even the fascist leader is depicted as human and understandable, even if his beliefs are monstrous.

There are many moving sequences, and a couple that just make you shake your head and admire Alan Moore’s writing talent, such as V’s conversation with the statue of justice, and his video address to the people of England, assuming the persona of a company manager and framing human history (the good and the bad) in terms of workers’ performance. Other highlights would be the end of Valerie’s prison letter, and Eric Finch’s drug-induced vision of all the Norsefire regime’s victims. “Oh Jesus, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed your voices and your walk, your food, your clothes, your dyed pink hair. My friends … there at the carnival, the gay pride marches. Say you saw beyond my uniform. Please say you knew I cared. I … Wait … Please don’t leave me. We treated you so badly, all the hateful things we printed, did and said … but please, please don’t despise us, we were stupid. We were kids. We didn’t know. Come back. Oh please come back. I love you.” (I start tearing up just writing this.)

The sexual politics are frankly scary, though. In the first chapter of the first act, our anti-hero rescues a young woman named Evey Hammond from the fascist police, and spirits her away to his underground mansion and part-time funhouse, the Shadow Gallery. Like new housemates everywhere they then go into a protracted period of negotiating the details of their living arrangements: who will do which chores, whether its okay to use each other’s toothpaste, what time is quiet time, and whether the new resident will assist her landlord in his political and personal assassinations. (Answer: Only once, and only because he doesn’t tell her what he’s going to do beforehand.)

After that little incident, Evey insists she will not help V to kill someone ever again. She still doesn’t break her lease, as she has nowhere else to go.

Eventually V turns her loose to fend for herself. She subsequently wanders London for a while, finds an apartment and a lover, loses said lover in a spat of gang squabbling, and gets captured by the London Gestapo just as she’s preparing to shoot the man responsible for her lover’s murder.

In prison, Evey’s jailers shave her head and subject her to various other enhanced interrogation techniques. She draws strength from Valerie’s journal, though, and when the Gestapo offer to reduce her sentence from execution to three years of imprisonment at the cost of her integrity she refuses.

… At which point, she and the reader discover that she was not, in fact, captured and tortured by the Gestapo, but by V. True freedom requires that we conquer our fear of death, and with Evey, V recreated the circumstances under which he himself became free—and psychologically damaged for life, but we won’t go into that.

After this, Evey goes back to living with V. Practically the very next thing we see her do is kiss V on the mouth of his Guy Fawkes mask and thank him for freeing her. It becomes obvious as the story moves forward that she’s fallen in love with him.

Wait, what? He tortures her and then she falls in love with him? This scenario is what turned my sister off of the movie, and it isn’t any better in the original.

I read a conversation on Occasional Superheroine a while ago about disturbing gender politics in Alan Moore’s work. This is the first book of his that I’ve read, but if any of the rest of his stuff is anything like this, you can count me disturbed. Very, very disturbed.

Aside from torturing his young female protégé, V also seems determined not to put the lie to the terrorist label affixed to him by the government. He blows up buildings (we’re never even told if they’re inhabited or not) assassinates several people in-comic, more in the backstory, and shows no compunction against killing other employees of the Norsefire government. Even for someone who advocates “justified violence,” V’s actions clearly go far beyond “necessary” and usually end up somewhere around “you’ve got to be shitting me.”

And, as with Firefly, one gets the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that the text fully supports its protagonist’s brutality. To be fair, the book does point out some of the harm V’s violence causes, and how not all of his victims were horrible people who presumably deserved it. But it doesn’t really give the impression that he should’ve or could’ve done things any differently.

The story’s attitude towards V’s apparent obsession with getting the one-up on Robespierre could best be summarized as: “Sure, it may be bad, but it’s necessary to achieve the greater good. Yes, he has to be punished for it, but after that we’re set.”

This “It’s bad but it’s necessary” idea is an historically pervasive one. Personally, I incline more to the school of thought which posits that if you’re to have any hope of creating a better world, you must employ means which are not incompatible with your ends. I believe history will bear me out on this point. (Speaking of Robespierre, if offing the guy behind the “liberatory violence” was all you needed to break the cycle of violence, the French Revolution would’ve had a very different ending.)

Also, I would’ve appreciated a bit more (read: any) exploration of exactly how V’s violence squares with his anarchist ideals. Check me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t anarchy all about freedom and self-determination and not having some authoritarian git making decisions about your life without your full participation (voting between two or three authoritarian gits =/= full participation in the decision-making process)? And not just “you” personally, but everybody? The logical corollary being that you don’t get to make decisions about anybody else’s life without their full participation? Such as whether you will or will not kidnap, torture, and/or murder them?

If you take that attitude, then Evey does better in this regard. When V offers to show the guy who murdered Evey’s lover his U.S. Army impression, Evey declines. (Harper, the man in question, gets offed by proxy later in the story. Because by golly, if Disney’s taught us anything, it’s that a hero killing a villain is bad, but a villain surviving is even worse.)

Evey makes this decision because she’s a good person. Which is good for her, but it’s a blithering stupid way to run a society. The strong implication is that if she hadn’t been feeling so enlightened, V really would have killed the guy.

As best I understand the theory of anarchy, Evey’s freedom to kill Harper or have him killed must be matched by her responsibility not to do it. Evey must be held responsible not to kill Harper whether or not she’s in a forgiving mood. Otherwise, the whole thing comes crashing down. As Simone de Beauvoir said: “A freedom which is interested only in denying freedom must be denied.” This is not at all the sense one gets from the comic.

And V for Vendetta‘s somewhat dubious relationship with anarchy doesn’t end there. It makes some very good arguments for the desirability of anarchy. When it comes to making a strong argument for the practicality of anarchy though, the story gives up and buggers off for a pint.

V for Vendetta does not show its readers anarchy in action. Now, Moore may argue the whole point of anarchy is that it’s not about any one person’s vision, so that him trying to depict what an anarchist society would look like would be counter-productive. Fair enough. But I’m not talking about “after the revolution.” Many anarchists, I believe, while remaining silent or vague about what a future of anarchy might look like, would still be able and more than willing to point out anarchist trends in society right now.

V for Vendetta eschews such unrefined methods, and opts to deliver its message through the admittedly eloquent speeches of a superpowered clandestine operative who works in secrecy and has taken upon himself the job of waging a one-terrorist war on the fascist regime. He’s also accountable only to himself and his own moral judgment.

Admittedly, this “one man against the world, fighting for the good of humanity” is a romantic image, and an old one. It’s an individualistic image, and a specific kind of individualism. It’s not individualist in the way that anarchy is individualist, but in the way that say, capitalism or despotism is individualist. It’s one lone person taking upon himself the power to make decisions about everybody else’s lives, without their consent or even consultation. It’s not just the Norsefire officials who have no say in what V does, whose freedom he is overriding; it is the common, everyday folk of England whose freedom he claims to be promoting.

Alan Moore has criticized the V for Vendetta movie for downplaying the story’s anarchist message. Ironically, despite its other flaws (many of them carried over from the original) the movie did a somewhat better job than Moore and Lloyd of showing anarchy in action, with Londoners facing down the Gestapo and standing together in solidarity as 10 Downing Street burns. Sure, V is still the murderous, self-appointed Messiah who directs their actions and orchestrates the events, but at least the common people (you know, the ones anarchy is supposed to empower) have a bit more to do in the movie.

If Evey-as-V were to give her lovely pro-anarchy speech to the Londoners in V for Vendetta: The Movie, one could actually come away with the impression that they might pull it off. The useless, selfish slobs in the comic? Not so much.

In closing, I guess I would recommend V for Vendetta for a good story, and one which deals with questions and issues you aren’t likely to find in more mainstream literature. It’s a good read if you can get past the very serious flaws I’ve explored above. If you can’t, I wouldn’t blame you.

Say goodnight, Evey.

Book review: “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown

A couple of years ago I listened to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code on audiobook to see what all the fuss was about. On the one hand, consensus on the internet seems to be that Brown’s story is shallow, his prose horrendous, and his book at best a guilty pleasure. On the other, Donald Maass cites The Da Vinci Code in his “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” as having several strengths writers can learn from.* So my expectations going into the book were somewhat mixed.

*On the third hand, Maass also cites Left Behind in that workbook, so he’s not infallible. On the fourth hand, to be fair, I really should actually readLeft Behind before making judgments about its quality. Just because the theology is terrible and some people on the internet say the writing is awful, I can’t know for sure until I’ve seen for myself.

The following post contains major spoilers for The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code tells the story of American symbologist Robert Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu, as they struggle to solve a puzzle left them by Sophie’s recently-murdered grandfather, Jacques Saunière. Hounded by the French police, and followed by Saunière’s real killer, Langdon and Sophie must unravel a series of puzzles which will lead them to uncovering the greatest secret in history.

This was a good book, and I’m not ashamed to say it. In fact, I’ll go even further: The Da Vinci Code is somewhere between a good book and a great book. At least, it’s somewhere between a good story and a great story.

I know what people say about Brown’s prose, but that’s the sort of thing I can usually skip over, especially when I’m listening to the story on audio. I’ve taken a look at some criticism of The Da Vinci Code’s writing since I read it, and yeah, it’s pretty bad. Hilariously so if you have the right mindset, maddeningly so if you don’t. However, I still maintain that if, like me, you can get past the wretched prose, you’re in for a very good story.

Dan Brown takes a plot that could easily be cliché and dull, and plays it well. Ever found yourself saying “There’s a good story—maybe even a great story—in there, if only the author had brought out its potential”? Brown does exactly that.

The plot is fun and gripping, but what’s a good plot without good characters? Langdon and Sophie are engaging enough, reasonably good thriller heroes. But I often find that a much better indicator of a story’s quality is the way it treats its supporting cast and its villains, and it is here that Brown truly breaks the mold.

A less talented author would simply have depicted Silas and probably Bishop Aringarosa as religious fanatics, trying to hold onto their church, and the power that it represents, at whatever cost. Brown does not succumb to this shortcut. Instead, he presents Silas’ and Aringarosa’s devotion to Jesus’ doctrines of love and pacifism, and Silas’ struggle to reconcile that pacifism with his own use of violence to protect the church—and the greater good it represents, to him.

Brown, while not necessarily agreeing with the Catholic Church, is at least sympathetic and understanding, pointing out that the terrible things it did and does make sense to the church, if not to its victims.

Best of all is his treatment of Sir Leigh Teabing, the Teacher. Personally, I never saw his status as the main villain coming, which is another testament to Brown’s storytelling skill. I had Teabing written off as the lovable, quirky side character who I would be very upset about when he inevitably died sometime later. Rather like Talaan from Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die.

Boy, was I wrong. At the moment of the reveal, though, my heart sank. As soon as I found out that Teabing was the Teacher, I knew it would also turn out that everything I’d known about him had been a lie, that the delightful, eccentric old man I’d grown so fond of over the past half dozen cassettes had been only an act, a mask to disguise Teabing’s own petty, selfish desire for power (via the Holy Grail). Happens even in good murder-mysteries. All. The. Time.

Wrong again. Turns out, he was almost exactly as advertised. True, he was willing to be much more ruthless in the pursuit of what he considers the greater good than I expected, but the character we saw up to the reveal was pretty much the character as he truly was. By the end of the final confrontation, I actually felt kinda bad for the guy—hey, I’ve sympathized with “heroes” who were a lot less noble in pursuing their goals.

Brown does equally well characterizing his police characters, Bezu Fache and Lieutenant Collet.

I don’t know whether to call foul on Brown for his presentation of Fache in the book’s second half: it’s like Brown wants to use him as a red herring, but also wants to cover his ass by providing the alternate explanation before the reveal. When I first listened to the book, I thought he was trying to keep people guessing in scenes which did not include Fache personally, but had given up and all but admitted that Fache was the Teacher in the ones which did include him, which really ticked me off. Now, of course, I know that was all a smokescreen, but I still feel that practically telling the audience “Fache is the Teacher” (while still leaving enough wiggle room to back out of it after the reveal) in some scenes, and then acting like “no you’re still supposed to be guessing” in others is not playing fair with the reader. This is annoying, but I hardly think it ruins the story.

I have a few other quibbles with the book, as I’m sure everyone does with practically any story, but I don’t think they’re worth going into here.

The last point I’m going to address is the alternate history Brown presents in the book. It’s improbable, but it makes for a pretty good story. I’m given to understand that Brown has claimed that all the historical information in the book is accurate, even going so far as to put a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of the book (which didn’t make it into the audio version). It’s at this point that he oversteps himself, as much of that information is inaccurate or at least hotly disputed. To my knowledge, Brown has cited no further evidence to back up his assertions. While this certainly does not speak well of Brown, I do not see that it detracts from the quality of the book itself.

More serious in that regard is the fact that one of his more villainous characters, Silas, is also an albino. As already mentioned, he’s not a card-carrying evil albino—in fact, I found him quite sympathetic—but that doesn’t necessarily make his presentation a-ok. I’ve heard there may be other issues concerning the depiction of the Catholic Church (or at least Opus Dei) and a couple European nationalities, and I could completely believe it, but I’m afraid I’m not in a good position to make an informed call on any of that.

Still a wonderfully engaging read, sometimes thought-provoking, always entertaining. If you can get by the lamentable prose, The Da Vinci Code is a fair good treat.

Since writing this initial piece, I have also read (read: listened to) both the original Angels and Demons and the second sequel, The Lost Symbol, and some of Brown’s charm has worn off as a result. First, the folks at ferretbrain pointed out some really awful racial politics in the first book which I confess to missing completely when I first read it, but which I cannot at all disagree with. In this regard, at least, Brown appears to have improved with time, in that Silas in Da Vinci is a lot more sympathetic than the Arabic assassin in Angels, while the villain in Symbol is straight Caucasian. Progress, of a sort.

I’ve also found that once you read one Dan Brown book, spotting the villain before the reveal becomes easier and easier. I figured out the one in Angels midway through, and I had the one in Symbol nailed down as soon as his backstory was introduced. With each additional book, I grow decreasingly impressed with Brown’s powers of misdirection.

His characterization is also less impressive to me now. Both Angels and Symbol have some pretty neat characterization, but I wouldn’t throw around words like “spectacular” in that regard. The sympathetic villain in Angels is pretty interesting, but not, for me, as enjoyable as Teabing in Da Vinci, while Moloch in Symbol is just a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

Symbol also bugged me in a number of other ways. Much of the story was still pretty exciting, but a substantial amount of it was dreary, irritating, and at one point even sickening (an over-detailed description of Moloch drowning a supporting character from the victim’s point-of-view).

I still have some fondness for the series, but I wouldn’t call either Angels and Demons or The Lost Symbol a great story, and I probably wouldn’t call them good stories either, which makes me seriously question my original assessment of The Da Vinci Code. But, since I’m not going to go back and re-read it any time soon, this is where my thoughts remain for the present. Later, everyone.

Read this book!: On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

I originally listened to this book on audio in 2009, after reading this glowing review by Kyra Smith of Ferretbrain, who, if anything, understates its merits. I’ve read it twice more since then, and am midway into my fourth read-through. The following is an update of one of a couple of draft reviews I wrote for the book after my first reading three years ago.

On the Jellicoe Road (title shortened in the US and UK to Jellicoe Road for reasons as yet incomprehensible) is the story of Taylor Markham, a student at the Jellicoe School (grades 7-12), a couple hundred kilometers from Sydney, Australia. Taylor has just been chosen to head the Jellicoe students in their annual territory wars with residents of the town of Jellicoe and the cadets who visit every year for wilderness training.

Taylor, however, has enough problems already, what with the pain and confusion surrounding several mysterious events in her past, the recent disappearance of her long-time caretaker Hannah, and the appearance in her dreams of a young boy in a tree who keeps trying to tell her something dire. The discovery that the leader of the cadets this year is the very boy who betrayed her three years earlier complicates the situation even further.

Interspersed with Taylor’s narrative is that of five friends who lived in the area twenty years earlier, brought together by a horrible tragedy on the Jellicoe Road. Their lives, their secrets, their triumphs and their downfalls will shape the fates of Taylor and those she cares about in the strangest and most surprising ways.

The story is extremely complicated, but in the end, all the loose plot threads come together in a rich, majestic tapestry with nary a fray or broken seem in sight.

I will admit that towards the end, I was beginning to figure out several of the book’s secrets before they were revealed, and at least once got mightily annoyed at Taylor for not making a particular connection much sooner. Still, it’s all good, and even at the very end, Marchetta still managed to throw some completely unexpected and deeply satisfying twists my way.

This is a book that you read and then reread and then reread again for good measure, first because there’s no way you’ll pick out all the pertinent details on the first run, and second because the story is so utterly captivating.

The characterization in <i>On the Jellicoe Road</i> is marvelous. Taylor is more than a little messed up (unsurprising, given her history), and often treats the people around her less kindly than they deserve. And yet she does care deeply about other people, and one of the great pleasures of the book is in watching her relationships with the other characters (and theirs with each other) mature and evolve as they grow closer together. Plus, she’s just a lot of fun, and even her more anti-social behavior (like that of the titular character on House) is usually entertaining.

The supporting cast is equally wonderful. They’re so good, in fact, that I can’t pick out just one or two favorites among them, and if I tried to summarize them all I’d 1) be here all night, and 2) spoil an awful lot of the book.

Another thing I should mention is that the story is deeply, incredibly, heartbreakingly sad. But, in a good way.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve ranted about the use of pain and tragedy in fiction as a shortcut to quality. And even when the tragic elements are appropriate to the world the author has created, they often feel unnecessary, only there to spur the protagonist to get off her/his/its butt and get to work already, or to pull the observers’ heartstrings, or to fill the authors’ angst quota.

It therefore came as something of a shock for me, upon reading On the Jellicoe Road to (re-)discover that tragedy can work to make a story better, in the right hands. The hands of Melina Marchetta, for example.

The copious amounts of pain and suffering and loss highlight moments of joy and connection and forgiveness, which are also in plentiful supply. This bittersweet mood runs through the entire book, and the epilogue is unbearably poignant.

I should throw in a word of warning here. While the tragic elements do enhance the story, they might be overwhelming to people (especially young people) who have not already been desensitized to tragedy in fiction. Sad books are not for everyone, so I would encourage anyone thinking of picking up this book to consider carefully whether they can handle this level of intensity before proceeding.

Which is not to say it’s all grim and gloomy. Those elements are omnipresent, and grow more prominent as the story progresses, but as already mentioned, there’s also great happiness and wonder. Additionally, the book is often very funny, with Taylor’s first person narration providing many entertaining observation, and plenty of witty banter among the various characters.

There are occasional flubs and missteps, and I find many of the political viewpoints which crop up highly suspect, but all these concerns are exponentially surpassed by the mastery of the plot, the richness of characterization, and the heartbreakingly beautiful emotional core of the story. All these elements and more make On the Jellicoe Road a towering literary achievement. With the sole caveat of emotional intensity, I give this book my highest possible recommendation.

Star Trek (2009): Good Movie or Great Movie?

I originally wrote this piece about a week after I saw the Star Trek reboot with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto three years ago. For the purpose of this essay, I follow Athena Andreadis’ example and refer to it as Star Trek||.

Oh, and there will be spoilers.

I suppose I should start by explaining that I consider myself a moderate Trek fan. I’ve seen every movie except the first, and watched a lot of episodes from every series to date (well, not so many from the original series, but a couple). My favorite incarnation would probably be The Next Generation, but I find I’m more a fan of the mythos and the optimistic, progressive-minded spirit of Star Trek than a given ship, situation, or cast of characters.

Anyway, back to Star Trek||. What you have to understand is that Star Trek|| is first and foremost an action movie in a science fiction setting. This should be obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie. I’m going to give my impressions of the film purely as an action movie, and then tackle some other issues. I have an awful lot to say about Star Trek||, but I’ve committed to stick just to the main points, and maybe one or two important details.

Often times, when mulling over my reaction to a particular book, movie, or TV episode, I find myself wanting to imitate the Nostalgia Critic reviewing JJ Abrams’ previous feature film, Cloverfield. This is one of those times. “This movie was … okay. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was okay.”

It has all the standard tropes of the action movie/young adult drama: the expendable starship commander bravely sacrificing his life by crashing his ship into the enemy’s; the flirtatious young hero trying to make time with the female lead despite repeatedly getting the cold shoulder; the love triangle; the dead mother/father and accompanying angst; and the literal cliffhangers. (Seriously, Kirk must find hanging over a cliff by his fingers downright monotonous by the end of the movie.) Oh, and the virtuous hero magnanimously offering to save the villain, which the villain of course refuses, allowing the hero to blow up the villain and everyone else aboard his ship with a clear conscience.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do anything new in terms of premise, plot, characterization, social commentary, concept, even the special effects and action sequences. As one review points out, there isn’t even a clever “What you fail to realize is that my ship is trailing mines” twist at the end. It’s a well-executed derivative work.

But what about the Trek angle? Star Trek, after all, has a rich and multifaceted history and background, with a vast array of interesting aspects for a new project to draw on. Can the Trek angle raise Star Trek|| above the level of mediocrity?

First, I count myself fortunate that I’m not a bigger fan of the original series, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager, as the movie handily obliterates that whole timeline, leaving it non-canon.

Beyond that, the movie didn’t really feel like Star Trek to me. Sure, the characters were there from the original series, and on the whole they were very good (DeForest Kelley and James Doohan can rest easy knowing their legacies are in excellent hands), but that’s it, and for me, it’s not enough.

A couple weeks before I saw the movie, my sister ptolemaeus sent me a satirical news story from the Onion about how Trek fans hate Star Trek|| because it cuts out all the dull diplomacy and astropolitical stuff and goes right to the action. At that point I started to get a little worried about the new Trek.

Because exploring concepts of physics, morality, philosophy, politics, identity, even the meaning of life and death—these have all been integral to my Star Trek experience.

Now, admittedly, old Trek often went overboard with the intellectual side and many times made a right cock-up trying to get its messages across. (Today’s headlines: Leading media analysts discover some episodes of old Trek series actually sucked!) But a lot of it was also very good; and good or bad, a spirit of thoughtfulness and inquiry has always been at the core of Star Trek.

As I’ve already pointed out though, Star Trek|| nuked all that along with most of the franchise’s continuity. The red matter was an interesting conceit with some real potential (even if it’s scientific bunk), but in the movie it got reduced to Plot MegaCoupon. They might’ve done some interesting things with the characters—if they hadn’t taken their entire characterization and background for their two leads off the shelves of “What’s Cliché,” and “What’s Trendy in the Late 00s.”

And then there’s the characters themselves. Forty years ago, Gene Roddenberry and the crew of the original Star Trek did something extraordinary, something radically progressive. They put a woman—and a black woman at that—on the bridge of the starship Enterprise.

You have to remember that this was at the height of the black-led freedom movement*, and before the second wave feminist movement. The civil rights acts were passed just a few year earlier. When Kirk and Uhura shared a kiss, it was the first ever interracial kiss (between fictional characters) on American television.

*As movement historian Vincent Harding so delightfully puts it.
This was also in the middle of the Cold War with Russia and the war on Vietnam, and Roddenberry and co. put a Russian nationalist and an East Asian (who was only later retconned as Japanese) on the Enterprise bridge as well.

Few shows at the time were doing any one of those things in terms of race or gender. Doing all of them at once was truly astounding.

What happened? Forty years of progress happened. In 2009, even the most reactionary movie or TV show will have a token female and a token racial minority. Not that they’ll necessarily do anything, any more than Uhura did on the old show or in the new movie, but like Uhura, they’ll be there.

That’s right, Uhura didn’t really do anything in this movie—making her unique among the main cast. (She’s the only member of the Enterprise crew who does not appear even once in the Wikipedia plot summary—because she’s that superfluous to the story.) Heck, even Captain Pike and Kirk senior were awesome. Uhura was just the useless token female with all the familiar aspects thereof, including the love interest role.

Of the other female speaking parts, Spock’s mother is just a plot device to provide Spock with angst. Kirk’s Mom could’ve had a really interesting relationship with him—if she hadn’t disappeared entirely as soon as he was born. Even in the scene where her son got his promotion to captain of the Enterprise, Winona Kirk was conspicuous by her absence.

Which just leaves Uhura’s roommate, a character who—ah, who am I kidding? She wasn’t a character, she was just a cinematic device, nine parts fanservice, one part dialogue generator. (No offense to the actor; best of luck getting a better part on your next gig, kid.)

Star Trek itself has grown more conservative over the years, culminating in Star Trek: Enterprise, which was about as progressive for 2001 as the original series would be. But you’d think with a big-screen, big-budget, big-hype reboot of the franchise, it would be a perfect time to update the cast and recreate the good ol’ social progressiveness of Star Trek for the 21st Century. Imagine an Enterprise with at least four out of seven main characters female (including captain and first officer) and four out of seven people of color. Imagine two Iraqis on the senior crew, or Iranians or Afghans or, dare I suggest, Palestinians. Heck, as long as they’re rebooting the franchise, why not ditch the “outgrown those silly superstitions” idea and make them Muslims? Now that would be more in line with the spirit of Star Trek.

Instead, we got a thoroughly mindless action movie that was about as mentally engaging as, say, the first live action Transformers movie—and not quite as good at it. I don’t have a problem with mindless entertainment, it’s just that the whole point of Star Trek has always been that it is mentally engaging. Until now, anyway.

Now, as ptolemaeus pointed out, if they did as I suggested, they’d probably alienate a lot of old Trek fans who would say “new characters, new continuity, new story, why did you bother making it a Star Trek movie in the first place?” They have to hold onto enough Trek to please the old fans, while sufficiently distancing themselves from it to draw in new ones.

There is merit to this argument, but I have a few counterpoints. Returning to the original cast was the easiest, not the only way they could’ve retained a sufficiently “Trekish” element. They could’ve included a Lieutenant George Kirk or Christopher Pike as part of the main cast. Or they could’ve had John De Lancie be the one to send Leonard Nimoy back in time to change history—which would’ve had the benefit of giving them a chance to reprise their hilarious “Spock Vs. Q” sketch on the big screen.

Doesn’t hold up? Well, maybe not. But then, this is just some stuff I pulled out of thin air in a couple of minutes. I’m not paid millions of dollars to put in the energy to work hard on this stuff over a matter of days or weeks or even months. If I were, I guarantee I could do better.

But even if you do believe ptolemaeus’ argument that they really couldn’t’ve done anything better without making a movie that most Trek fans (though not necessarily me) would denounce, or one that wouldn’t draw in new audiences, that’s just an explanation, an excuse. It doesn’t make the movie any more Trek, it’s just a rationalization for why they couldn’t make it Trek. (In which case, why bother making it a Star Trek movie in the first place?)

Maybe the sequel will be better both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the thoughtfulness that characterizes a real Star Trek movie. Again, that doesn’t change the fact that this movie did not feel—to me—anything like Star Trek, or the fact that despite enjoying Star Trek|| as an action flick, I felt 0 compulsion to see it again in theaters. (And I’m the kind of person who usually goes for multiple viewings.)

Sadly, Star Trek||, unlike all of its predecessors in the franchise, does not boldly go where no one has gone before.

Had enough yet? If not, here are some other reviews that I found most interesting, and which spoke to my experience of the movie (good and bad) in many ways. Don’t forget to read the discussions in the comments threads:

By Arthur B of Ferretbrain: “Star Trek: the Awesome Generation”

By Niall of Vectoreditors: “2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions”

By Sady Doyle in the Guardian: “Star Trek: warp factor sex”

By Abigail Nussbaum: “Star Trek”

By Adam Roberts: “Star Trek (2009)”

By Athena Andreadis: “Reflections on the New Star Trek”

By Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: “Highly Illogical”

By Marc Bain in Newsweek: “Enterprise Ethics”

By Mary Johnson on Livejournal: “On Militarism and Tribalism in the Movies”

By Sophia Mihic in Counterpunch: “Star Trek and the Continuing Mission of American Imperialism”

By Chuck Sonnenburg of SFDebris: “Star Trek”