TV review: Doctor Who the complete series five

I’m back with the long awaited (or, at least, long-delayed) write-up of Doctor Who series five. Note that, coming off of the series four review, I am including the Christmas special “A Christmas Carol” at the end of this series instead of the beginning of the next one. After Russell T. Davies left the show, Wikipedia stopped recording production codes for the Christmas specials, making any identification of them with one or another season somewhat more arbitrary. Also, starting with “A Christmas Carol,” the specials stop feeling less like prologues to the upcoming series than epilogues to the previous one. This became even more pronounced in series six and seven, where the time frame between the end of the previous season finale and the special was substantially decreased, while the time between the special and the following season’s premier was increased.

Anyway, series starred Matt Smith as the Doctor, and Karen Gillan as companion Amy Pond, with Steven Moffat as the show’s new producer and head writer. In short, this series is great, though not universally so.

Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour: In his first adventure, the Eleventh Doctor meets Amelia “Amy” Pond and confronts an invisible piranha-headed snake … From Space!

This episode picks up where “The End of Time” left off, with the Eleventh Doctor—who no longer reminds me of Peter Davison—crash-landing to Earth with the TARDIS cockpit on fire for no adequately explained reason (thus giving Moffat an excuse to redesign the TARDIS’ control room).

He finds himself in the back yard of Amelia Pond, a seven-year-old white Scottish gel with red hair who has just been praying to Santa Claus to send somebody to fix the crack in her bedroom wall. The Doctor invites himself into Amelia’s home and insists she provide him food. There follows an overly drawn-out and excessively unfunny sequence following the formula of the Doctor saying “I’m hungry. I want X. I love X.” [eats X. “Humorous” reaction shot of the Doctor expressing dislike for X.] Fortunately, Amelia has no parents and her aunt is out for the evening, so no danger of waking up any adults with these antics.

The Doctor eventually realizes he needs to stabilize the TARDIS and slips back in, telling Amelia he’ll be back in five minutes. Annoyingly enough, Moffat tries to generate an atmosphere of confusion and suspense when the Doctor returns in broad daylight to find no sign of Amelia, only a nineteen-year-old white redhead in a police uniform. At least Amelia (now “Amy”) clues the Doctor in ten minutes later, instead of putting it off until the climax.

The plot revolves around “Prisoner Zero,” a piranha-headed space snake which deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for hilariously bad CGI. Prisoner Zero escaped from its prison through the crack in Amy’s wall—really a crack in reality itself—and is fleeing its Atraxi captors, who threaten to destroy the “Earthling residence” (i.e. the planet) if it doesn’t surrender.

With the help of Amy, her friend Rory Williams, and a couple clever tricks, the Doctor delivers Prisoner Zero up to the Atraxi, then tells them to back off and not mess with his planet. As part of this process, he provokes the Atraxi to project pictures of all ten previous Doctors in sequence before breaking through the Tennant hologram (subtle). This inaugurates a theme under Moffat’s tenure of directly referencing actors from the original run, often pictorially.

The Doctor dips back into the TARDIS for another “just one moment” before asking Amy if she’d like to knock about time and space as his companion for a while. Amy agrees, informing him acerbically that this “just one moment” had taken two years. She specifically does not inform him she’s scheduled to get married the following day.

Thus concludes the first episode of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. The plot is good—not great, nowhere close to Moffat’s best, but good—and the episode in general is shot through with excellent characterization and comedy (food humor aside).

Amy Pond in particular comes across as a more well-developed and complex character than most of Davies’ creations (*coughRoseTylercough*), and even the minor characters have sparks of originality which make them feel more true-to-life than most of those populating the Davies era. Being from the US, I first thought Moffat had invented kissograms as a kid-friendly version of party strippers for Amy’s profession, but it appears to be legit. Still not sure where Moffat’s going with that, or if there’s anything just a little sketchy about it, but oh well.

The other thing about Moffat’s plots is that they tend to be more sophisticated and complex than Davies’. Many many plots from the Davies era were insultingly straightforward and predictable, and (worse) the writers often tried to string observers along. Aside from one or two instances such as the “reveal” about Amy’s identity, Moffat avoids this trap, and often manages to generate plot twists the observer genuinely does not see coming, or feels clever (rather than patronized) when they spot beforehand.

Episode 2: The Beast Below: The Doctor takes Amy far into the future, where Britain has deteriorated into a brutal police state orbiting Earth.

The setting for this episode references “The Ark in Space,” a story from the old run in which the Earth has been rendered temporarily uninhabitable, forcing humanity to wait this spot of unpleasantness out in orbital space stations, which for some reason they segregated by nationality.

The Doctor starts getting creepy vibes the moment the TARDIS arrives aboard Starship UK, and heads out to investigate, warning Amy not to wander off, which she promptly does. She finds her way to a voting booth, where the computer recognizes her as Britain’s oldest resident by several thousand years. It plays her a short video, after which she’s given the option either to “protest” (if one percent of the population does so, British society will abandon its current program and “face the consequences”) or “forget” (accept the status quo). Amy votes to forget, first giving herself a message to get the Doctor the hell off this ship.

As an aside, may I point out that this set-up neatly encapsulates just about everything wrong with US-style “democracy”? As much as ordinary citizens are involved, it is locked away all by themselves in a little room, cut off from the rest of humanity; their votes only one small voice howling in the wilderness; and their options limited to an unpleasant binary handed down to them from on high (Obama or Romney?). There’s no room for participation, for creativity, for well-informed people to come together as equals and collaborate on alternative solutions which no individual or ministerial cabinet could come up with on its own.</rant>

The Doctor meanwhile has discovered another investigator, Liz 10, who it eventually transpires is none other than Her Majesty Elizabeth X, hereditary monarch of Britain. As Liz 10 is obviously of mixed race (Afro-Caucasian I think) it would seem that in Moffat’s imagined future, the British royal family has no problems interbreeding with peoples of color. Nice touch.

By this time, the monarchy has once again become the primary source of governing authority in Britain (talk about a dystopia). Liz 10 reveals, however, that there are strange things going on aboard Starship UK which even she doesn’t understand. She’s familiar with the Doctor from her family history, and she wants his help to solve the mystery.

But first, the Doctor has to rush off after Amy. He finds her still in the voting booth, takes in the situation at a glance, and immediately hits the “protest” button, dropping them both into a slimy, trash-filled cave far below. The Doctor deduces that the cave is, in fact, a mouth, and gives the owner a spot of indigestion to set himself and Amy free.

They find their way to the ship’s navigation center, soon joined by Liz 10, following her own leads. There, the controller explains the situation: the creature which nearly ate Amy and the Doctor was not attacking—it was captured by the Brits when they ran out of time for building an engine to escape the solar flares. Instead, they forced a passing space whale to tow Starship UK on its back: a process which causes the creature unimaginable pain.

The controller offers Liz 10 two choices: “abdicate” (let the creature go free, and the people of Britain “face the consequences”) or “forget” (accept the status quo). The Doctor instead proposes to give the space whale an electro-lobotomy, which will leave its body alive to fly the ship, but its brain dead, unable to experience the pain. He also tells Amy he’s going to give her the push for trying to protect him from making this decision.

Amy however, has an epiphany involving a thirty-second series of looped flashbacks (though the solution was obvious from the first run-through) and slaps Liz 10’s hand down on the “abdicate” button. The stunned controller reports the navigation system is still working perfectly—in fact, it’s working better than it did before. Amy replies “Of course it is, now you’ve stopped torturing the pilot.”

The space whale had heard the British children screaming in terror at the solar flares and rushed in to save them. Even after being forcibly turned into the UK’s main transportation, it still wouldn’t eat the children sent down its feeding chutes. Amy worked out the truth by thinking about what a very old and very sad creature would do if it was the last of its kind with no other pressing business (gee, that sounds kinda familiar …).

The space whale forgives a few centuries of torture in order to save the children of a species much unlike its own. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of the still-popular idea in Western fiction that the descendants of enslaved and colonized peoples are supposed to sacrifice themselves for the more “normal” (white, Anglo-Saxon, human/humanoid) protagonists. But what the heck, it’s still touching.

With everything now set right, Amy and the Doctor leave Starship UK … just as a strange crack opens on the starship’s side …

Another exceedingly good episode, about on par with the previous one, with a slightly more complex and sophisticated plot. Amy continues to grow as a character, establishing herself as a companion who (like Donna Noble) complements the Doctor’s unique characteristics with her own, demonstrating how they both bring their own distinct skill sets—and neuroses—to the partnership.

Episode 3: Victory of the Daleks: The Doctor and Amy visit Winston Churchill during the Blitz of 1940/41, only to discover an inventor working for Churchill has created a range of super-advanced weaponry to fight the Nazis … including a contingent of Daleks.

Of course, it’s all a hoax. It turns out Dr. Bracewell is an android invented by the Daleks as part of a ruse to lure the Doctor onto their space ship, which survived the previous Dalek holocaust … somehow. The Daleks have with them a “Progenator Device” containing “pure Dalek DNA” with which to rebuild their race. Only one of them dropped the keys down the drain, and now they can’t get the thing open. They trick the Doctor into identifying himself and them, which convinces the Progenator Device of their bona fides and it gets cooking on a fresh batch of new and improved Daleks.

The process completes, and with suitably ominous music playing in the background, out roll five of the most terrible, most horrifying, most menacing … color-coded giant pepperpots you have ever seen.

Seriously, look at the picture and (keeping in mind these are supposed to be the most fearsome creatures in the multiverse), tell me it isn’t the funniest thing you’ve seen in months.

Image

They look like a giant salt set, for pity’s sake.

(Also, since the Daleks are actually little sea star/jellyfish-creatures living inside the pepperpot armor, why would using “pure Dalek DNA” change the appearance of the armor at all?)

The original Daleks acknowledge their inferiority to these (*mmph*) “improved” new Daleks and submit themselves to extermination.

The new Daleks activate a satellite dish which lights up all of London like a beacon for the Nazis to bomb into the carbon age. Dr. Bracewell deploys a tractor beam to shoot three British Spitfires (equipped with Dalek rayguns) into space to take out the satellite. Basically, this whole episode is one big excuse for Doctor Who to reenact any given dogfight scene from Star Wars with World War II fighter planes, right down to the red and green laser fire. Since those scenes from Star Wars were based on World War II dogfights, I guess this sorta brings things full circle.

The Daleks take out two Spitfires, but the third destroys the satellite dish. The Doctor tells the pilot to destroy the Dalek ship (which he can do, apparently), but the Daleks threaten to activate a bomb in Dr. Bracewell which will destroy the whole Earth.

The Doctor now must choose to annihilate the Daleks and risk destroying the planet, or ensure Earth’s safety at the cost of letting the Daleks go. This dilemma would be more meaningful if there was even an iota of a chance of the writing team not bringing the Daleks back in any case somewhere down the line.

The Doctor calls off the surviving Spitfire, but the Daleks activate the bomb anyway and fly off cackling, while the Doctor uses their transmat device to return to the planet. He finds Dr. Bracewell at two minutes to Belgium, and reasons that the only way to defuse him is to convince him that he’s actually human. I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.

Dr. Bracewell has, as part of his body’s hardware, an explosive which takes up the majority of his torso. And the way to defuse it is to convince him that Androids Are People Too. This is stupidity on the order of “If you don’t remember your brain is terminally deformed, it can’t hurt you.”

Inexplicably, the trick works and the day is saved. The Doctor once again refuses to help Churchill with the war effort (which, come to think of it, he wouldn’t have done so if it were any other species, or if the conflict were post-2010). Instead, he gives a rousing speech to the tune of “buck up, old chap, there’s bad days ahead, but you’ll see them through and do well.” He then leaves Churchill to his pressing business of oppressing colonized Indians, massacring German soldiers and civilians, and pointedly ignoring the plight of Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust. What a great guy.

The Doctor and Amy find Dr. Bracewell, avert him from killing himself, and then go through an unfunny sequence of not-so-subtly hinting that yes, they’re absolutely going to take him into custody … right after a five minute coffee break. Or fifteen minutes. Better make it half an hour. *sigh* Why can’t they just tell the guy to beat it and get off with his girlfriend?

After Dr. Bracewell finally takes the hint and makes himself scarce, the Doctor and Amy leave in the TARDIS. And a crack opens in the wall behind them.

So in the end, the Daleks’ “victory” consists entirely of managing to avoid getting blasted into extinction for the fifth time running. Considering their track record on the new show so far, I suppose that’s fair enough.

This episode is worse than the first two, but what else can you expect from a Dalek episode? The villains are a joke, as is the plot, the plot holes are enormous, the “dilemma” is pointless and old hat (“Parting of the Ways,” anyone?), and the reverential treatment of an historical figure who, y’know, also had some serious downsides is a little sickening.

That said, as mindless fun, “Victory of the Daleks” delivers. The action, though intellectually insulting, is exciting and fun, the Doctor and Amy are awesome, and Dr. Bracewell’s story is stupid but sweet. I would rate it a good episode, just not an intelligent episode.

Episodes 4 & 5: The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: The Doctor, Amy, and a small militia are trapped on a deserted planet with a Weeping Angel. Worse yet, their companion for this venture is that Queen of insufferable Mary Sues, (*shudder*) River Song.

Yes, the annoyingly smug and omni-competent archaeologist is back. Through some complicated machinations, she sends the Doctor a message to pick her up, comes aboard the TARDIS, and proceeds to show up the Doctor completely because she’s River Song, bitches. She lands the TARDIS with ease, avoiding the customary “rrr”-ing sound when it re-materializes, which she explains was only ever due to the Doctor leaving the parking brake on. Kark that, and kark you River Song, and kark you Moffat. The Doctor’s been at this for centuries, and no way the TARDIS’ signature materialization sound is due to a damn parking brake.

On the planet, River Song introduces the Doctor and Amy to Father Octavian and his force of a dozen or so clerics. In the future, the church organizes and equips itself just like a modern army. A nice bit of world-building there, though one wonders what terrible threat prompted the church to take this direction.

River Song and the soldiers of God lead Amy and the Doctor to a crashed ship, the Byzantium, in which there is imprisoned a single Weeping Angel. Amy enters a viewing room running a feed to a security cam of the prisoner, while River Song and the Doctor pull out a book of Weeping Angel cryptozoology.

At this point Moffat starts pulling new Weeping Angel traits and powers out of his ass. Suddenly, now, even just the image of an Angel can become a pseudo-Angel, and while it’s important to look at them, you must not look them in the eyes (it’s always the eyes, isn’t it?)

And then there’s Amy locked in the viewing room with a video of a Weeping Angel, which quickly spawns an Angel hologram. Amy looks at it, but can’t keep her eyes open forever, and with every blink, it draws closer. Eventually Amy, being made of awesome and all, realizes the feed is on repeat, and pauses it at the moment it loops back, so the screen shows only static, and the image of the Angel winks out of existence. The bad news is Amy (of course) looked the image in the eye.

Nothing immediately happens to her, and the rest of the party is busy worrying about the actual physical Angel, which has escaped into some nearby ruins.

The church militia throw out a gravity globe so they can float down into the ruins. While they poke about, three of the clerics get lured off into the shadows where something nasty happens to them off-screen. The last of these is Bob, a nervous kid to whom the Doctor had recently promised he’d get everyone out all right.

Eventually, the Doctor and River Song realize the scattered statues around them are, in fact, dormant Angels, and the radiation from the Byzantium is reviving them.

Everyone flees, except Amy, whose arm is turning to stone. The Doctor unfreezes her by telling her essentially “You’re not turning to stone, snap out of it.” On the surface, this is similar to the two of them talking Dr. Bracewell out of blowing up by convincing him he’s human. I’ll let this instance slide though, as the effects of Weeping Angel-possession are less well-defined than the effects of an explosive installed in a robot’s chest cavity.

The Doctor, Amy, River Song and the surviving militia exit the ruins, but with nowhere left to run, and the defrosting Angels hot on their heels. The Doctor gets a call from Bob, who says he found the first two clerics dead; the Angel snapped their necks. The Doctor asks-

Wait a minute! Snapped their necks? You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Unfortunately, no. Along with throwing in a bunch of poorly-conceived additional powers, Moffat in these episodes throws out one of the Angels’ two signature traits (and essentially throws the other one out a little later). Instead of feeding off people’s “potential energy” by sending them back in time, the Angels now just kill them. Moffat does have the Doctor spew some bullshit about the Angels never killing people except for narrative convenience (apparently, they can turn the corpses into Angels … somehow), but he’s really reaching here, and it shows. Not once in either episode does he include a single time-travel kill (which could make for no end of interesting twists) even just as a nod to one of the Angel’s biggest defining characteristics.

*deep breath* Anyway, the Doctor asks Bob how he escaped, and Bob replies “I didn’t. The Angel killed me, too.” This is clearly a device of Moffat’s to allow communication between the Doctor and a non-speaking enemy. It’s a neat idea, and well executed, with the entertaining juxtaposition of Bob’s subservient, self-effacing manner being used for the voice of the villain. On the other hand, I wish Moffat had found or created another non-speaking enemy rather than using this trick for the Angels, whom I’ve always felt never needed and possibly never understood the concept of human speech.

Bob informs the Doctor that he’s in a trap. The Doctor responds that there is one thing you never ever ever put in a trap, “And that’s me.” As defining moments go, it’s pretty damn awesome. Unfortunately, I feel it could’ve defined Christopher Eccleston and certainly David Tennant just as easily—perhaps more easily, in the latter case. We never really get a proper definition for the Eleventh Doctor in particular anywhere in this series, which is a shame.

Wow, that was a lot of long tangents, wasn’t it? I’ll try to cut down on those in future. Operative word: “try.”

After making his speech, the Doctor shoots out the gravity globe and the resulting updraft carries everyone back to the Byzantium.

However, the Angels are still after them and the lights inside are (of course) failing. They make it to the control room where the Doctor discovers a crack in the ceiling. He also notices Amy is counting down from ten, ‘cos of looking into the holo-Angel’s eyes. At the end of the countdown she’ll turn into an Angel … or something. The solution is for Amy to shut her eyes until they can find some way to cure her.

The party then splits up. Team A, consisting of Amy and the four surviving clerics wait in a nearby hydroponics forest with eyes open for Angels (all except Amy). Team B—the Doctor, River Song, and Octavian—travel through the forest to the flight deck to do … something which presently escapes my mind.

More and more light starts pouring out of the crack, and two of Amy’s protectors go back to investigate. They don’t return, and a few minutes later, Cleric Marco sends Cleric Pedro out to have a look at that strange light. When Amy reminds him what happened to the other two, he asks “what other two?”

Pedro doesn’t return either, and Amy starts getting worried about him. Cleric Marco gets confused, telling Amy there was never any Cleric Pedro on this mission. He also tells her to sit tight, as he’s got to go see what’s up with this mysterious light coming from the next room. Amy tries to stop him, but gives up far too quickly for someone who’s just seen three men vanish with no explanation and her companion suddenly not remembering them.

Marco leaves her with a communicator to stay in contact, but (of course) his signal cuts out when he gets too close to the crack.

Team B reaches the flight deck, but not before an Angel sneaks up and gets Father Octavian in a neck lock, with no room to wriggle free. Octavian and the Doctor go through the obligatory “leave me!” “I can’t!” “Think of the mission!” scene, with the Doctor finally relenting. In the process, Octavian reveals that before this mission, River Song had been locked in a Stormcage for killing a man, a good man. Foreshadowing!

The Doctor leaves, Octavian dies, and so much for the supporting cast.

On the flight deck, the Doctor and River Song realize they need Amy, stat. Two problems: 1) Amy can’t open her eyes, and 2) she’s surrounded by Weeping Angels.

Normally, this would translate into Amy being history—literally—but the Doctor explains that the Angels are still scared, and will stay in statue mode if Amy can just make them think she’s got her eyes opened.

In other words, turning into stone is a voluntary process. This directly contradicts David Tennant’s explanation in “Blink”:

They don’t exist when they’re being observed. The moment they are seen by any other living creature, they freeze into rock. No choice, it’s a fact of their biology. In the sight of any living thing they literally turn to stone.

Apparently, that was then and this is now. The Doctor tells Amy she’ll be all right if the Angels think she’s looking at them, and she should walk as if she had her eyes open—he’ll give her directions over the communicator.

If you can get past Moffat crapping all over the continuity of a superior story—no small feat—this is actually a brilliant little scene; subdued, but shot through with tension. Amy having to walk normally with Weeping Angels all around her, knowing that if she missteps or if she opens her eyes even a flicker, she’s done for.

The director milks the setup for all its worth, with Amy slowly, slowly navigating around the Angels, and several close calls. The camera lingers on one Angel in particular as its’ stone head starts to turn towards her.

… That’s right, we see one of the statues move its head. This despite the fact that, according to “Blink,” the Angels are only stone when people are looking at them, when they’re, you know, immobile; when they’re moving, they “don’t exist,” so it would be literally impossible to see an Angel moving as a stone. By this point, Moffat has blown everything he originally wrote about the Angels and how they work out the airlock and is just doing whatever-the-hell he wants with them.

So yeah, the Weeping Angel (In Name Only) starts to move, but River Song saves Amy with the flight deck’s newly-repaired teleporter.

The Angels (In Name Only) lay siege to the flight deck, and Dead Bob informs the Doctor they’re scared of the crack. Incidentally, there’s a plot hole here concerning the Angels’ (In Name Only) motivation. Before the Doctor and company reached the control room, the Angels (In Name Only) seemed hell-bent on getting to the crack to feed on all the yummy time energy pouring out of it. After they entered the forest, the Angels (In Name Only) seemed intent on getting away from the crack for fear of being sucked in, with no explanation of what exactly changed their minds.

For whatever reason, the Angels (In Name Only) want to seal the crack now, which would require throwing a large space-time distortion into it. Something about the size of the Doctor. Or the Angels collectively. And since they’ve pretty much destroyed the Byzantium‘s artificial gravity by this point, all the survivors have to do is hang on while the Angels (In Name Only) fall into the crack and close it up. Ha-ha, toasted. Even the Angel (In Name Only) in Amy’s eyes is gone, making them safe to open again.

They return to the TARDIS and the militia’s ship, where some random clerics happen to be waiting to take River Song back to her Stormcage. The Doctor asks if it’s true she killed a man and she replies yes, “the best man I’ve ever known.” Really, Moffat couldn’t be any more obvious if he flashed the words “By the way, it’s the Doctor!” in bright neon over the screen. When I first saw this episode, I held out some slight hope this was misdirection on his part, and he was setting us up for a twist—no such luck.

The Doctor asks River Song something else pertaining to her past and his future, and she chides him, saying “spoilers.” While we were watching this, ptolemaeus pointed out that with River Song, Steven Moffat has accomplished the incredible feat of making time-travel irritating. Congratulations, Moffat.

The militia take River Song away, while the Doctor explains to Amy that when Clerics Marco, Pedro, and the others got too close to the crack, they were erased from existence, had never existed. The only reason Amy remembers them is because she’s a time-traveler.

The two return to Amy’s house back on Earth, where the Doctor discovers Amy is set to marry Rory the following day, 26 June, 2010 (the original airdate of the “The Big Bang”). Amy, however, is feeling frisky and attempts to seduce the Doctor, brushing aside an objection about relationships by saying “I wasn’t thinking of anything that long-term” (prompting ptolemaues to remark that even when she’s following the tired new series companion cliché of having the hots for the Doctor, Amy is awesome).

The Doctor deflects Amy’s attentions, having just realized something important. Aboard the Byzantium, he managed to pinpoint the date of the explosion which created the cracks in time: 26 June, 2010. Now he knows there’s something special about Amy, and it’s back to the TARDIS for the next adventure.

Apart from stripping away a lot of what made the Weeping Angels unique and interesting adversaries, these episodes suffer from their inclusion of River Song. Every time she takes center stage, she manages to infuriate with either her I’m-too-perfect Mary Sue manner, her melodramatic foreshadowing, or both.

The Weeping Angel stuff is a quibble (though a major quibble in my book), but River Song’s presence really brings the quality down. Which is a shame, because the rest of the two-parter is pretty good. Clever and tense and exciting and funny and all those good things one associates with Doctor Who, especially under Moffat. The scenes with Amy mentioned above achieve a level of awesomeness which actually manage to rival “Blink.”

The best way to look at “The Time of Angels”/“Flesh and Stone” is as two good-to-great episodes frequently interspersed with massive amounts of suck. Make of that what you will.

Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice: The Doctor takes Amy and Rory on a romantic getaway to sixteenth century Venice … which, unfortunately, is infested by vampires.

The Doctor brings the fiancés together by gatecrashing Rory’s bachelor party and practically kidnapping him into the TARDIS. He brings them to Venice, where the mysterious Calvierri family have set up a “school” for young women of the city. Of course, they’re actually vampires, and are replacing the “students’” blood with some other liquid.

Amy infiltrates the school and almost undergoes the process, but escapes with the help of another young woman, Isabella, whom the Calvierri then execute.

The Doctor works out that the Calvierri and the girls they’ve managed to transform aren’t actually vampires—they’re an aquatic species from the planet Saturnyne (which sounds suspiciously like a pun) wearing perception filters. There’s some suitably nonsensical Treknobabble to explain why they exhibit vampire-like tendencies—although their aversion to sunlight is unevenly treated throughout the episode.

The Calvierri fled their homeworld through a crack in time and while they brought a couple thousand males, they only had one matriarch with them, so they’ve been converting young women to breed. The other Calvierri students have been fully turned, and Isabella’s father Guido blows them and himself up when Signora Calvierri sends them after the Doctor and his companions. (Maybe she should’ve sent some of the males, seeing as how they’re more expendable from a utilitarian perspective.)

The Calvierri’s breeding stock has been wiped out, but they still intend to sink all of Venice, which will help them continue their race … somehow. The Doctor sends Amy and Rory back to the TARDIS while he confronts Signora Calvierri, but they get accosted along the way by the Signora’s son, Francesco.

Rory, poor dear that he is, tries to protect Amy from Francesco, an expert swordsman, armed with only a broom. He’s well on the way to getting himself diced when Amy pulls out a mirror and redirects the sunlight to vaporize Francesco.

Meanwhile, the Doctor short-circuits the Calvierri’s storm machine in a move reminiscent of the one he pulled in “Evolution of the Daleks.” The defeated Signora Calvierri throws herself into the pool of aqua-monsters. The little beasties don’t recognize her with her perception filter on, and quickly turn her into fish chow.

Venice is saved, and Rory agrees to continue traveling with Amy and the Doctor for a while. Awww.

This story is fairly good, with none of the high points of the previous two, but none of the lows, either.

Rory is adorable, your classic lovable loser, emphasis on “lovable”; he’s complete pants when it comes to … just about everything, but he’s sweet and well-meaning and self-aware enough to realize he’s a bit rubbish, and own up to it. His and Amy’s interactions are cute, and their awkward “where-is-our-relationship-now?” thing is more interesting and original than most romantic tension subplots.

However, after watching this episode, I began to suspect Steven Moffat is a little less racially sensitive than Russell T Davies. Davies is hardly a paragon of racial equality, but he did seem to put some thought into having one token recurring character of color starting with the very first episode of the new show.

Whereas, in “Vampires of Venice,” Guido and Isabella, two rare supporting characters of color, both die, a fate which was uncommon for characters in their position even during the Davies era. In the two previous episodes (written by Moffat himself), the two black clerics die first and are passed up as “voice of the monster” in favor of the very white Cleric Bob, and dark-skinned Cleric Pedro plays second fiddle to light-skinned Cleric Marco. To date, Moffat has created zero recurring characters of color, unless you consider a thirty-second cameo by Liz 10 in “The Pandorica Opens” sufficient grounds to award her recurring character status, which I personally don’t.

Episode 7: Amy’s Choice: Amy, Rory, and the Doctor are presented with two alternate situations, one a dream, one reality, and both containing a deadly danger. Die in the dream world and you wake up—die in reality and you, well, die. That’s why it’s called “reality.”

The first possible world is Earth, five years in the future. Amy and Rory are married and living in the country, Amy in the final stages of pregnancy, and Rory sporting a ragged squirrel-tail haircut which in an ideal world would carry a three-month minimum sentence. The Doctor has stopped in for a visit, just in time to discover that all the old people in the village are really blood-sucking aliens.

In the second scenario, they’re all still in the TARDIS, falling towards a star which radiates cold instead of heat.

Crap physics notwithstanding, it’s obvious from the structure of the show that the latter world is the real one, which undermines the whole “questioning reality” premise, unfortunately.

They pass between these worlds by involuntarily falling asleep, signaled by the sound of birds chattering. Each time they wake up, Amy insists the world they’re in must be the real one. Rory, by contrast, believes the first world is the real one, while the Doctor thinks it’s the second. Hmm, I wonder why that might be?

This, of course, is why it’s Amy’s choice. Towards the end of the episode, Rory cuts off his awful hair accessory, but then gets killed by the blood-suckers. Amy decides this isn’t the reality she wants, and crashes a truck along with the Doctor to return to the TARDIS.

Making your decision based on wanting to live in the reality where Rory is still alive is sweet, but it’s also incredibly stupid. Ptolemaues has defended this action by arguing that they were never going to work it out by reason. While this is true, I would point out 1), that Amy doesn’t know she’s in a story, her options constrained by narrative causality and 2), it would’ve been more original and made for a better story if they had been able to sort dream from reality using cleverness rather than blind luck.

In fact, what would’ve been really smart would be for the Doctor and Amy to wait for the next time they fell asleep. If they were in the dream world, they’d find Rory already woken up. If not, well then he wouldn’t be there, would he, on account of being dead? Or maybe he would, and the Doctor and Amy would have to sort out whether it was because he was actually alive, or because he’d been incorporated into their dream.

Instead, they all wake up back in the TARDIS, and escape the star. However, the Doctor initiates an explosion in the TARDIS’ main reactor, because “a star that radiates cold? Don’t make me laugh.”

And so yes, the episode ends with the utterly predictable twist that “surprise, they were both the dream world.” Though since the reality they wake up to is functionally identical to Dream World 2 (minus the star), I can hardly see the point.

This story is massively disappointing. Writer Simon Nye wastes an effing awesome premise on a tiresomely dull and cliché ending. Beyond which, the episode is so packed that he never has the chance to develop either dream world properly. The blood-sucking aliens in World 1 are rushed through without getting a chance to engage the audience properly, while the danger in World 2 is just “we’re slowly freezing to death,” which you can’t develop much.

The dynamics between our three main characters are as fun and interesting as ever, but the rest of the episode fails to hold up. I wouldn’t exactly recommend against “Amy’s Choice,” (the character dynamics are wonderful), but it is a bad episode.

Episodes 8 & 9: The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood: The Doctor, Amy, and Rory visit the Earth ten years in the future, where a drilling operation has disturbed something deep below the Earth’s surface.

As the trio step out of the TARDIS, they see Amy and Rory in a future timeline standing on a far-off hill, and give them a wave. Doubtless this will be important later on.

They then meet the operators of the aforementioned drill, Dr. Nasreen Chaudry and a man named Tony Mack. The latter’s son-in-law, Mo, has recently disappeared into a chasm which unexpectedly opened under his feet. Soon enough, Amy suffers the same fate, and the others are forced to evacuate.

The Doctor, Rory, Nasreen, and Tony take refuge in the house of Tony’s daughter, Ambrose. Tony’s grandson Elliot runs back for his headphones, which the Doctor, standing not three feet away from him inexplicably fails to dissuade him from, or even register concern over.

Naturally, Elliot is captured in the ensuing monster attack. In the same attack, Tony is poisoned, but on the plus side, the Doctor captures one of the monsters in question. She turns out to be a Silurian, whom the Doctor refers to as homo-reptilias, which, I’m told, is about as linguistically inaccurate as the Silurian period is archaeologically unlikely. Although the name doesn’t ultimately stick, for the remainder of this review I shall refer to them as reptilians.

The Doctor leaves the reptilian warrior—Alaya—with Rory, Tony, and Ambrose, while he and Nasreen take the TARDIS to the underground cavern she came from.

The back story to the reptilians is that during the last global climate crisis, they went into stasis until the planet became habitable again. Now it has done so, various groups of reptilians keep popping out of stasis and demanding their planet back from the dirty apes which have since taken it over. Interestingly enough, none of the apes in question—not even the ones in government and business, or religious reactionaries—seem to have much problem at the thought of sharing the Earth with the reptilians until the latter start causing trouble. Just one more sign that the Earth of Doctor Who is far different from our own.

Alaya’s city was disturbed by Nasreen and Tony’s drilling, and she was one of the first reptilians to awaken from stasis. Alaya’s sister Restac, military leader of the reptilian complex, is presently in charge; she plans to wipe out the apes and resettle the surface.

Before Restac can execute the Doctor, Nasreen, Amy, Mo and Elliot, a civilian political leader by the name of Eldane shows up and puts a stop to it. Eldane, being male, is more rational and reasonable than his subordinate, and agrees to enter into negotiations with Nasreen and Amy for peaceful coexistence.

Up on the surface, Alaya has provoked Ambrose into killing her, which she believes will cause her people to declare war on humanity. The arrival of Rory, Ambrose, Tony, and Alaya’s corpse in the reptilian town hall causes negotiations to hit an unpleasant snag. The situation deteriorates further when Restac returns to the scene with a bunch of newly awakened warriors, all set to stage a coup against Eldane.

The Doctor tries to reason with Restac, but fails. For all this story’s flaws, writer Chris Chibnall does a reasonably good job of portraying the self-serving selective morality which always accompanies armed conflict. While Ambrose displays none of the racism which drives Restac (and which many real humans would feel in a similar situation) both see their own crimes as justified to protect their own people, while condemning the crimes of the other as indicative of a fundamentally debased and morally corrupt being.

The Doctor, Eldane, and the humans beat a hasty retreat to the reptilian bio-lab. Eldane reluctantly concludes the Earth just isn’t ready for human/reptilian coexistence, and he and the Doctor set the complex to go back into hibernation for another thousand years—thus effectively punching the reset button. Eldane also floods the complex with poisonous gas, forcing Restac’s warriors either to return to hibernation or die.

Tony stays behind to be treated for Alaya’s poison, and Nasreen stays to be with Tony and to perform some anthropological field study on the reptilians.

The Doctor and the other human characters return to the chamber containing the TARDIS, where the Doctor discovers a crack in the cavern wall. He also discovers a piece of shrapnel from the explosion which caused the cracks and tucks it into his overcoat.

Before everyone can enter the TARDIS, Restac shows up. She, of course, refused to go into stasis and quickly expires from the poison gas, but not before shooting Rory, who also dies. The Doctor notices light emanating from the crack, and quickly enlists Amy’s help to heave Restac’s body into it, thus erasing her from existence.

Of course, eliminating Restac from ever having existed means that half the plot collapses, but I’ll give Chibnall a pass on the gaping plot hole in exchange for saving Rory. Or rather I would, if he had in fact written the Doctor having such a sensible idea in the first place, and I hadn’t dreamed up the whole thing.

Instead, the Doctor leaves Rory’s body to be absorbed by the crack. Inside the TARDIS, he tells Amy she has to hold onto her memories of Rory. She remembers Marco and Pedro and the others just fine, but because Rory’s part of her own life or something she can forget him even though she’s a time-traveler. Is it just me, or are the rules of this memories-of-erased-people thing getting more and more convoluted?

Of course, Amy loses her memories (angst!) and the Doctor regretfully hides her engagement ring. He then lands the TARDIS to let Ambrose, Mo, and Elliot out. Unmindful of the paradoxes, the Doctor lands them one day earlier, for absolutely no reason other than for Amy to reprise the waving-to-herself scene from the beginning, alone this time (angst!). Turns out that scene wasn’t going anywhere, after all.

Before leaving with Amy, the Doctor checks the piece of shrapnel he picked up earlier. Apart from being badly charred, it looks exactly like a piece from the door of the TARDIS. Foreshadowing! (It occurred to me that it would be cool if it was an actual real police box at the epicenter of the explosion—although a real police box in June 2010 would be anachronistic.)

The best you can say about this story is that it’s better than Chibnall’s standard, but it’s not as good as, say, “Countrycide”. The plot is bad, the Ambrose/Alaya dynamic irritatingly predictable, and as for the ending, well, you know. Again, the humor and the recurring characters are good, but the rest just isn’t worth it.

Episode 10: Vincent and the Doctor: The Doctor and Amy enlist the aid of Vincent Van Gogh to help them fight an invisible monster.

After seeing a strange creature in one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, the Doctor and Amy go back to Arles, 1890, to investigate. Turns out there’s an alien cockatrice running around killing people, which can apparently be seen only by people with synesthesia—as Van Gogh is implied to have. (I say this because it’s the closest thing I can figure to an explanation for why only Van Gogh can see it.)

Everybody runs around a bit, Van Gogh flirts with Amy, the Doctor bullies Van Gogh into painting the picture, Van Gogh kills the monster. With the A plot having dried up thirty-five minutes in, the Doctor, Amy and Van Gogh are left at loose ends. After a minute or two of hanging around and Van Gogh being bummed but resigned about the two of them leaving, the time-travelers pack him into the TARDIS and show him the museum they visited at the beginning of the episode. Screw “not tampering with the future, blah blah.”

The following sequence caps off an episode-long policy of fawning over Van Gogh (“the greatest artist who ever lived,” according to the Doctor) with a one-minute speech to Van Gogh by the exhibit curator about how totally awesome an artist Vincent Van Gogh was. Fortunately, no one at the exhibit happens to mention his suicide.

The Doctor and Amy take Van Gogh home, but Amy is disappointed to discover he still committed suicide in the end. The Doctor comforts her that even though they weren’t able to help Van Gogh overcome the bad things in his life, they did contribute to the good things.

Fawning aside and weak plot aside, this is a pretty good episode. In this case, the primary focus is obviously supposed to be the Doctor and Amy’s interactions with Van Gogh and the exploration of the latter’s character. There’s a really neat bit where Van Gogh locks himself in his room in a fit of despair when he learns the Doctor and Amy are going to leave him, just as everybody else does. And then the next morning he’s up and amiable—though hardly what you’d call cheerful—and ready to paint that cathedral.

There’s also a really poignant moment where the Doctor, Amy, and Van Gogh are hiding from the monster, and the Doctor says, “Right then, Amy, Rory,” only for Amy to ask who the heck he’s talking about.

Episode 11: The Lodger: Amy is trapped in a TARDIS unable to materialize. In order to rescue her, the Doctor must undertake his most difficult mission yet: rent a flat and pretend to be a normal bloke.

The flat in question belongs to one Craig Owens, first introduced bantering with his friend and coworker Sophie. It quickly becomes obvious that Craig is hopelessly in love with Sophie, but too shy to say anything. It doesn’t take much longer to establish that Sophie feels the same way about Craig, but hasn’t said anything either (the story of course takes place primarily from Craig’s viewpoint).

There’s also a creepy upstairs lodger who occasionally lures passersby into the upstairs room with piteous cries for help. Said passersby, of course, are never seen again.

After a half hour or so of delightful eccentricity on the Doctor’s part and quiet resentment on Craig’s (because the Doctor is so much more awesome than he is), and the upstairs lodger continuing to lure people to their deaths, Sophie gets called into the room, and after some prompting from the Doctor, Craig remembers that his flat doesn’t even have a second story. Rather than taking the time to explain the situation to Craig, the Doctor merely gives him a headbutt, which apparently is the Time Lord equivalent of a Mind Meld, as it imparts all the relevant information to Craig in an instant. Not that we’ve ever seen this particular Time Lord talent at work before or since, and I’ll be very much surprised if we ever do again.

The Doctor and Craig charge upstairs to find the entire second floor is actually a time-traveling spaceship. It has no crew, and has been trying to find a pilot to fly it home. However, the attempt has the effect of overloading the victim’s brains, killing them.

The Doctor and Craig arrive in time to save Sophie from this fate, but only because the ship now thinks it’s found the perfect pilot in the Doctor, and activates a magnetic beam to pull his hand to one of the control panels. Being a Time Lord, the Doctor isn’t in danger of his brain overloading; instead, his brain would overload the ship, producing an explosion which would wipe out the entire solar system. From this I can only conclude the ship is powered by a compressed supernova.

Before the Doctor’s hand touches the panel, Craig slaps his own hand down on another, and uses his sheer ordinariness, complacency, and indifference to travel to resist the ship’s attempts to make him its’ pilot. The Doctor encourages Craig by telling him to think of everything keeping him right where he is—the most important being, of course, Sophie.

Sophie tells Craig that she reciprocates his feelings, and the Doctor and Amy (on the phone in the TARDIS) encourage him to “kiss the girl.” “Kiss the girl”? Right, because anything female is only ever going to be the person to which these sorts of things are done, never the doer. Oh, for crying out loud.

They kiss, and the ship gives Craig up as a bad job. In fact, his incredible will to stay causes it to overload after all, but in a way which only destroys itself, not the solar system, and not until after the Doctor, Craig, and Sophie have made it to safety.

With the ship no longer causing interference, the TARDIS rematerializes, and the Doctor leaves Craig and Sophie to “destroy [their] friendship properly.” Um, if your romance is going to destroy your friendship, you’re doing something wrong.

The Doctor returns to the TARDIS, and Amy chides him that with all his matchmaking, you’d think he could hook her up with a man (sad now). But after the Doctor wanders off, Amy finds her engagement ring—now what the heck could that be?

Opinions on the quality of this episode seem directly correlated to whether you like James Corden, the actor who plays Craig, or not. Personally, I’ve never seen his previous stuff, and “The Lodger” left me monumentally ambivalent.

I’ve seen Craig accused of “douchey Nice Guy behavior,” but this is not how he came across to me. He may have romanticized Sophie, but not to the point of putting her on a pedestal. He’s clearly psyching himself up to admit his feelings to her, and would have halfway through the episode, if not for the Doctor barging in at exactly the wrong moment. For myself, I don’t see “The Lodger” as enabling Nice Guy Syndrome.

On the whole, it’s a decent episode. It’s not spectacular, and it has its share of flaws, but it’s pretty good nonetheless, with the Doctor being entertainingly weird throughout. I disliked the whole thing with Craig growing jealous over the Doctor continually upstaging him and interfering in his relationship with Sophie, but was pleasantly surprised when Craig failed to follow standard formula and do something incredibly stupid and/or mean on account of that jealousy.

Episodes 12 & 13: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: The Doctor, Amy, and (*gag*) River Song unearth the legendary prison known as the Pandorica.

The story begins with a cameo relay race in which Winston Churchill and Dr. Bracewell (“Victory of the Daleks”), find a little-known painting by Vincent Van Gogh (“Vincent and the Doctor”) called The Pandorica Opens, which depicts the TARDIS exploding. Churchill tries to phone up the Doctor about it, but can’t reach him, and gets bloody River Song instead. While this episode takes place before “The Time of Angels”/“Flesh and Stone” from her perspective, she’s already in the Stormcage, so good luck finding out how she ended up there this season.

River Song finds the painting in the collection of Liz X (“The Beast Below”), and uses it to decipher the time-space coordinates of the Pandorica. With another set of complicated maneuvers River Song directs the Doctor and Amy to England, 102 CE, where they find her hanging out with a group of Roman soldiers and masquerading as Cleopatra, over a hundred and thirty years after the latter’s death (which, to be fair, the Roman Commander eventually points out).

The Doctor and the Mary Sue determine the Pandorica is hidden below Stonehenge. They excavate and sure enough, there it is, a big black cube. Legend says that imprisoned within the Pandorica is a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior, “a nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos.” Well, with a description like that, it can only be the Doctor. (At the time, I did think how cool it’d be if the prisoner turned out to be the Black Guardian, or some other ultra-powerful enemy from the old series. No such luck.)

While they’re down there, Amy questions the Doctor about the engagement ring, and he questions her about all the inconsistencies in her life: why she can’t remember the many recent Dalek attacks, what happened to her parents, why they’re at Stonehenge surrounded by Romans with the Pandorica when the story of Pandora’s box and early invasions of England by hot Italian men were two of Amy’s favorite stories when she was younger. When you’re the Doctor, you learn never to ignore coincidences … unless you’re distracted by something else, in which case you blow them off completely.

The Doctor and company are distracted from the Pandorica by a shell of Cyberman armor which seeks to turn one of them into its new organic interface, has a head which moves independently on tentacle-wires, and menaces our heroes with risible Borg impressions. I’m sorry, but was any of this established in previous Cybermen stories?

The Cyberman shell attacks the Doctor and Amy, but gets run through before it can “assimilate” them by a random Centurion … who turns out to be Rory. After the dust has settled, the Doctor pulls Rory aside and asks him what the hell he’s doing 1) alive, and 2) in second century England. Rory confesses himself as mystified as the Doctor, saying “one minute I was dead, the next minute I woke up as a Roman soldier.”

Rory’s bummed that Amy doesn’t recognize him, but the Doctor tosses him their engagement ring and tells him to get her back.

There’s also a sequence in here where River Song enlists the aid of the Roman Commander by demonstrating her superior technology. Someone else might mistake her for a god, but she tells the Commander he’s been a soldier long enough to know there’s no such thing as gods. Excuse me, Moffat? I’m an atheist and a pacifist and I still object to that one.

Afterwards, River Song takes off in the TARDIS to follow up a lead, while the Doctor stays behind with her Vortex Manipulator. The TARDIS lands at Amy’s house on 26 June, 2010. River Song pokes around in Amy’s room and discovers, to her horror, an old picture book depicting Stonehenge and Roman soldiers exactly like the ones with the Doctor, and also a photo of Rory dressed as a Centurion for Halloween. (Wait, if Rory was erased from existence, wouldn’t pictures of him be erased as well?)

River relays her information to the Doctor and returns to the TARDIS. Meanwhile, the Centurions start walking mechanically and shooting energy blasts from their hands, revealing them to be Autons.

The Auton Centurions take the Doctor prisoner just as contingents of Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, reptilians, Judoon and other gathered forces transmat into the chamber. The Pandorica opens and whoops, it’s empty (so I was half right). The Doctor Who rogues gallery reveal they’ve banded together to prevent the end of the universe. What, including the Daleks? First of all, the Daleks don’t make alliances with “inferior” races, not under any circumstances. Second, why the frak would the Daleks care about saving the universe, considering they were the ones trying to destroy it last time we saw them?

The League of Supervillains set the whole thing up to imprison the Doctor in the Pandorica. Since the Doctor is the only one who can fly the TARDIS, and the TARDIS exploding will destroy the universe, shutting him up inside the Pandorica will prevent the explosion. With logic like that, no wonder the Doctor’s kicked their asses so many times over the years.

The Centurions place the Doctor in the Pandorica, over his protestations. Before he’s sealed inside, he manages to send a message to River Song, telling her to get the hell out of the TARDIS well the getting’s good.

The Queen of the Mary Sues needs little prompting, as the TARDIS control room is going haywire, and an ominous voice has just cut in on the PA, announcing “silence will fall.” She gets the TARDIS landed, but when she opens the door, she finds herself facing a blank wall. Ha-ha, toasted. Ka-boom!

(Is there reason to believe there are circumstances under which the explosion of one measly TARDIS would not destroy the entire universe? You’d think we’d have heard something previously if this were a standard feature.)

Rory has by now caught up with Amy, and is in the midst of trying to restore her memories when he suddenly seizes up like the other Centurions. Don’t go there, Moffat. But yes, his hand opens up to reveal the distinctive Auton gun. (Incidentally, why make Rory and the other Centurions Autons in the first place? Since we’ve already got the Daleks involved, why not just make them constructs like Dr. Bracewell?)

Speaking of Bracewell, Rory attempts to fight the situation by telling himself he’s human, “I’m Rory.” Something in this triggers Amy’s memories: “Rory Williams. My fiancé.”

Rory loses the struggle and shoots Amy in the stomach. She collapses into his arms, and the camera pulls back to show the Earth hanging in space, as one by one the stars wink out, and silence falls.

No points for guessing this marks the end of part one.

Part two, “The Big Bang” opens 1894 years later, still on Earth (which has apparently escaped the holocaust), with Amelia Pond reprising her introductory scene in “The Eleventh Hour,” only no appearance by the Doctor this time. A little later, Amelia’s aunt confronts her with a picture she drew of a night sky, moon and stars. Everybody knows there’s no such thing as stars. (Amelia’s aunt doesn’t trust that dodgy Richard Dawkins and his star cults.)

The next day, Amelia’s aunt takes the little scamp to an exhibition on the Pandorica at the London museum. The museum is filled with anachronisms, geographical oddities, and also a fossilized Dalek (ha-ha, toasted).

When they reach the Pandorica exhibit, Amelia finds a note telling her to wait until after hours. She hides, somehow managing to elude her aunt and the presumable search party. Once night has fallen and the exhibit is deserted, she touches the Pandorica which opens to reveal—ha-ha, no, it’s not the Doctor, but grown-up Amy, very much alive, and telling her “Okay kid, this is where it gets complicated.”

Rewind to 102 CE. Just as Rory is getting to the “what have I done?” phase, the Doctor appears from the future, equipped with a fez and a mop, telling him to cheer up, it’s not the end of the world. Actually, it is the end of the world, but they can fix it. The first thing to do is to get his past self out of the Pandorica, for which the Doctor lends Rory his sonic screwdriver.

Once freed, the Doctor proceeds to be an insensitive jerk to Rory, telling him he’s just a simulacrum, and he doesn’t have time to help Rory’s girlfriend right now, she’s not more important than saving the universe. Rory proclaims that she is to him, and in proprietary masculine fashion, knocks the Doctor to the ground (though the Doctor did kind of deserve it, if for no other reason than that dismissive “your girlfriend”). Turns out he was just testing Rory to make sure the latter’s personality superseded his Auton programming.

He tells Rory to place Amy’s body inside the Pandorica. It’s the perfect prison after all: you can’t escape it, even by dying. (The Pandorica would seem to share with the nanogenes from “The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances” a capability to revive people who’re Only Mostly Dead.)

With Amy safely stowed away, the Doctor sets River Song’s Vortex Manipulator to take himself and Rory forward in time to pick her up. Rory, however, elects to stay behind, over the Doctor’s protests. The Doctor zaps into the future, while Rory settles in to guard Amy and the Pandorica for the next one-thousand-nine-hundred years. Awwww.

The Doctor finds Amy and Amelia in the museum with the Pandorica. They note with regret the story of the Pandorica’s guardian, the Lone Centurion, presumed to have perished during the London Blitz. Yeah right, Moffat, pull the other one.

Their mourning is interrupted by a not-so-fossilized Dalek, regenerated by energy from the still-open Pandorica. Before it can get to the whole “Exterminate” part though, it takes one in the eye stalk and deactivates. Our heroes’ savior is, of course, Rory, now dressed as a museum security guard. One-thousand-eight-hundred-and-forty years in his Centurion getup, and only now does he decide on a change of wardrobe? On the bright side, he won’t be spending the rest of the episode in that silly Roman outfit.

The Doctor plays around with the Vortex Manipulator, going back to clue in Rory, and to nudge young Amelia in the direction of the Pandorica. However, he warns, the danger isn’t over for them. So far, they’re safe at the eye of the storm, but that eye is closing, fast. As if to demonstrate the point, Amelia disappears. Under normal circumstances, this should mean Amy disappears, too, but the time line is so out of whack at this point, even it doesn’t know what it’s doing, so she’s safe for the moment.

The Doctor is less so, as a version of him from twelve minutes in the future abruptly crashes into the staircase above them and apparently dies. The Doctor, however, has more pressing concerns just at the moment.

He directs his companions’ attention to the sky, asking them if the stars have all gone out, what’s keeping the planet illuminated (and, you know, warm)? Not the sun, but the TARDIS, which is still in the process of exploding.

The Doctor deduces River Song is trapped within the explosion in an infinite loop surrounding the moment of her death. He uses the Vortex Manipulator to get her out, and you can practically measure the episode’s plunge in quality by slapping a barometer to your TV screen.

While the Doctor and company attempt to formulate a plan of action, the bloody Dalek shows up again, having repaired itself from the previous round, and shoots the Doctor with its deathray. The Doctor promptly vanishes twelve minutes into the past.

Amy and Rory flee, while River Song stays behind to confront the Dalek with her energy pistol. And River Song is such an awesome Mary Sue opponent, she manages to make a Dalek—a freaking Dalek—beg for mercy before exterminating it. God dammit, Moffat!

The companions quickly realize the Dalek’s weakened energy blast failed to kill the Doctor, and he merely told his past self to cause a distraction. The Doctor is busy wiring the Vortex Manipulator into the Pandorica. Since the latter contains within it a prototype for everything which ever existed, and a shitload of restorative energy to boot, the Doctor figures piloting it into the heart of the exploding TARDIS will restore the universe.

Only one problem: the Pandorica and its occupant being at the center of the explosion, will not be brought back with the rest of reality.

Cue the obligatory angst and mourning as the Doctor pilots the Pandorica into the explosion and his life begins to unwind. Moffat jettisons all the tension of saving the universe in favor of a drawn-out sequence of moping over how the Doctor is going to die, even though we all know perfectly well that he isn’t.

The Doctor goes back through various events of the season, eventually ending up on the night when he first met Amy. She’s still waiting outside for him, and he puts her to bed, telling her a story about a daft old man who *ahem* “borrowed” a box that was at the same time very big and very small, ancient and brand new, and the bluest blue ever. He forgoes visiting his past ten lives, and vanishes from existence.

Amy wakes up the morning of her wedding feeling unhappy, but when her Mum and Dad ask her what’s wrong, she can’t figure out why she’s crying. She marries the restored (and fully human) Rory, but keeps getting little hints and reminders of the Doctor. When somebody mentions that old saying about weddings, Amy remembers the Doctor’s story. The power of living with a crack in time radiating into your head now manifests itself, as Amy “remembers” the Doctor and the TARDIS back into existence.

The Doctor emerges the life and soul of the party, but he doesn’t kiss Amy, he’ll leave that to Mr. Pond. Rory objects to being referred to as “Mr. Pond” since “that isn’t how it works,” but then acknowledges that yes, that’s totally how it works. He’s so adorable.

In the midst of these events, Professor Mary Sue shows up, and goes out into the garden to have another frustratingly uninformative conversation with the Doctor. Then she takes back the Vortex Manipulator and buggers off (good riddance.)

By-the-by, from the Doctor’s perspective, his interactions with River Song have been in this order: “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead” → “The Time of Angels”/“Flesh and Stone” → “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang,” whereas from her perspective, it’s the exact opposite. I’m torn between wishing Moffat would restrain himself to only inflicting River Song’s presence on us for one more story (there’ll have to be at least one), and wishing he wouldn’t make the Doctor’s and the Mary Sue’s interactions so bloody symmetrical. Come on, Moffat, you’re the grand master of playing around with time travel, mix it up a little.

The Doctor returns to the TARDIS, where Amy and Rory show up to have a word with him. The Doctor congratulates them heartily, and says it’s time to say goodbye. Amy concurs, opens up the TARDIS door and calls out “Goodbye!” before closing it again with her and Rory inside. The Doctor grins and the TARDIS dematerializes, carrying the trio off to their next adventure. (And for the Ponds, apparently, the titular big bang. Ha. Ha.)

Exactly who engineered the explosion in the first place remains a mystery for now, but at least the Doctor does reference it at the end, indicating Moffat hasn’t forgotten that angle. Someone on TV Tropes said the malevolent voice from part one sounded rather like Davros—personally, I’m holding out for a more interesting Big Bad. Apparently, we’ll learn the answer in series six.

You can clearly see Moffat taking his cues from Davies in these episodes, what with the overblown, apocalyptic storyline and all. However, in terms of story quality, he’s got Davies blown clear out of the water. The plot, as always, is intelligent and engaging, shot through with a depth and drama Davies wishes he could attain.

Moffat’s finale doesn’t require massive spaceship battles to be epic (indeed, the humongous space fleets are practically an afterthought), it manages that on the strength of the story alone. And while the universe comes back at the end, it doesn’t feel at all like a reset button ending; Rory is restored along with Amy’s parents and the rest of the universe, and Amy marries him in the end. Neither do our heroes save the day by waving a magic wand—Moffat makes them work very hard indeed to earn their happy ending.

You could make the case that where “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang” falls down, it’s because Moffat didn’t distance himself enough from Davies. Moffat’s predecessor had pretty much recycled the apocalyptic finale to death by the time he left the show, and even with Moffat’s improvements, it still feels cliché and overdone. And reducing the epic conflict inherent in saving the universe to an overly drawn-out bit of angsty melodrama around a character we all know is going to survive anyway just reeks of Davies. Tell you what, though, I’ll throw Davies a bone and give him a pass on giving the Doctor a despicable Mary Sue for a sidekick. While Davies inaugurated the practice (and even made said Mary Sue a full-time companion), in this area too, Moffat has far outstripped his predecessor.

Even with the addition of River Song and the somewhat anti-climactic ending, “The Pandorica Opens”/“The Big Bang” is an excellent story, one of the finest Doctor Who has ever seen.

Christmas Special: A Christmas Carol: Amy, Rory, and four thousand space liner passengers are trapped in the atmosphere of an unnamed planet. The Doctor must convince miserable old Kazran Sardick to release the planet’s weather controls and land the ship safely. And what better way to do so than to give nasty old Sardick a bit of Christmas spirit?

I’ve complained before about Doctor Who playing fast-and-loose with continuity, and now I suppose I should eat my words. In “A Christmas Carol,” Steven Moffat has the Doctor jumping back and forth within his own timeline (previously a major no-no) and it’s glorious. It starts when the Doctor goes back in time to Kazran’s childhood, and when they need to open a combination lock, he ducks back into the “present” to get the code from grown-up Kazran.

The plot is good, as is the friendship built between the Doctor and Kazran (played by Albus Dumbeldore from Harry Potter movies 3-7A). The high point of the episode is when grown-up Kazran says of course he’s unloved and he expects to die alone and miserable, and challenges the Doctor (as the ghost of Christmas future) to show him his future … to which the latter replies “I already am,” and steps aside to reveal young Kazran. It’s an awesome twist, and its effects in-story are appropriately earthshaking.

There’s also a really neat bit early on when Kazran dismisses a couple of petitioners as not important, and the Doctor replies that in nine hundred years of traveling space and time, he’s never met someone who wasn’t important.

The storyline with Abigail is all okay, but reeks of cheap sentimentality—she was “ill” when she entered the stasis vault. Come on, Moffat.

The ending, with Kazran and Abigail riding off for their last day together in a one-shark sleigh is pretty cute. Now some people may be skeeved by the age disparity between Kazran and Abigail. My own views on couples with substantial age disparities are … complicated. However, it’s worth noting that Abigail has less than twenty-four hours to live at this point, so it’s reasonable to assume their relationship for that final day remains strictly platonic.

“A Christmas Carol” is one of those episodes where Moffat is clearly writing at moderate form—which coming from Moffat is still pretty blinking good.

 

And so concludes Steven Moffat’s first series as executive producer/head writer for Doctor Who. In some ways, it’s too bad I abandoned a numbered scoring system, as series five would unquestionably leave all four previous series in the dust.

I do have some reservations about Moffat. Along with the aforementioned raceblindness, there’s his (non-)depiction of queerness/homosexuality (apart from a couple throwaway lines), as enumerated here. It’s a shame, especially considering who originally introduced Doctor Who fans to Captain Jack Harkness.

It appears Moffat’s administration over Doctor Who marks a (slight) step backward in terms of social justice. However, it marks several quantum leaps forward in terms of story quality, and for that I am sincerely grateful. Unfortunately, the improvements did not last long, as we’ll see in the review of series six, coming soon(ish).

 

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Book review: 1984, by George Orwell

A couple years ago, I finally got around to reading Orwell’s famous 1984, and you know something? It wasn’t that great.

Now I know it isn’t Orwell’s fault pretty much everybody who reads his book knows the ending already, but a good book should still be engaging even with the ending spoiled. 1984, on the other hand, was about 80% dull.

In fact, I found the most interesting parts were the ones where Orwell was waxing philosophical and largely ignoring the story. His point about the importance of meaningless gestures (such as not betraying those we care about, even when it doesn’t help them) was a good one, and well made. Likewise, the political analyses in Goldstein’s book were interesting, though I disagree with him on a couple important details, such as the assertion that social inequality has ever been necessary or desirable.

The concept of doublethink is particularly insightful, denoting a profound and sophisticated principle in such a way as it can be easily understood, and furthermore providing posterity with an excellent term to describe this principle in action. Though I don’t believe it ever comes up in Goldstein’s book, you can see doublethink at work in members of the upper- and middle- and even underclass’ attempts to defend the class system. Perhaps even more significantly, we can sometimes see this process at work in ourselves when we make excuses for doing something less-than-wholly justified (we’ve all been there).

But the story itself? Pretty forgettable; I wasn’t invested in either Winston or Julia, or their doomed romance. They felt more like props than interesting characters in their own right. And the plot felt more than anything like just marking time until the Ministry of Love gets its claws in the two and starts working them over.

Even the Dystopian world failed to grab me. Yes, the trilateral empire of Oceania-Eurasia-Eastasia is nightmarish in the abstract, but I never felt the visceral sense of horror that even a fictional police state should evoke. Ironically, and in defiance of the adage that an author ought to show rather than tell, I found Orwell’s Dystopia far more chilling when he describes it journalistically than when he depicts Winston navigating it as part of his everyday life.

 

My other problem with the world was that, O’Brien’s delusions notwithstanding, I don’t see this society surviving indefinitely in the real world. Despite O’Brien’s claims that the Party dictates human nature, what we see is that in fact the Party can only manipulate human nature to its own purposes (such as using people’s most primal fears to get them to betray those they love).

 

Sooner or later, some fraction of humanity always rebels at being dominated and exploited, and I don’t see any evidence that the Party is capable of either curbing or otherwise neutralizing this tendency. I can believe it’s capable of breaking any given rebel spirit just like it breaks Winston and Julia; I’ll even accept it can somehow make this change in personality permanent, though Orwell never really goes into how this works. (And thinking of real world dissidents who have endured decades of imprisonment, torture, and other abuse without capitulating makes this turn-around difficult for me to swallow without explanation.)

 

But the Party seems to me woefully unequipped to break rebellious spirits in large numbers (such as you would get in a mass uprising)*, and nothing in the book really convinces me that their control is so tight as to render mass resistance impossible.

 

*So many faces, and so few boots.

O’Brien’s other major oversight is in thinking the Party can impose stasis upon the world. If there’s anything nature abhors more than a vacuum, it’s constancy. O’Brien claims the Party controls nature, but what he means is that the Party controls human perceptions of nature. Once again, O’Brien is dead wrong in asserting that reality is entirely subjective, existing only in people’s collective consciousness. He and Winston can think he’s floating all they want, but if the floor underneath his feet is electrified, he’ll die just the same.

And the thing about nature is that it’s chaotic. It’s just going to keep throwing curve balls at humanity, and the more the Party tries to assert its own ideology over natural processes, the sooner will be the time when it gets a curve ball that it can’t believe or explain into nonexistence (e.g. asteroid impact, climate change, etc.). And then Oceania is toast.

The only way the Party could remain perpetually in control would be if it completely understood both human nature and the workings of the natural world. Knowledge that complete is well beyond human capability to attain even now, and perhaps it always will be.

Add to that, even within the internal logic of Orwell’s story, you can only believe the situation is eternal if you accept his assertion that the working class has never and can never act in its own best interests without leadership from sections of the upper or middle class. And by “accept,” I don’t mean agree with Orwell’s arguments, I mean take the assertion on blind faith, as Orwell never bothers to give even a halfhearted explanation for why the underclass is incapable of action (and, indeed, the insight necessary to inspire action); he merely has his characters state that it is so.

So from my perspective, Orwell’s Dystopian vision is fatally flawed. To be fair to him, we can find similar flaws with most everybody’s vision of a sufficiently Dystopian—or sufficiently Utopian—society. This is not to say that things can never get that bad or that good. It’s just that because each individual human’s understanding of the world is incomplete, our attempts to predict how they can become that bad or that good, and in exactly what way, are bound to be imperfect.

I also have to wonder if Orwell really agreed with O’Brien that “death is the ultimate failure.” I could believe that he doesn’t, as a major theme of the book is that Winston’s greatest failure—the one which not only defeats him but converts him—is in betraying Julia. That makes a lot more sense, but if O’Brien is wrong, well, that’s yet another hole in his argument for Oceania’s permanence.

Before I read it, I was scared of this book. I knew what it was about, and I was afraid it would horrify me, scare me, depress me. As it turns out, it just bored me.

TV review: Dollhouse season one

So in the spring of 2009, while my friends and I were concluding what was to be the last term of Antioch College*, Joss Whedon released a brand new television series called Dollhouse. And it was really, reeeeally bad.

*Meaning the institution I refer to when I say “Antioch College,” as opposed to the legal entity formally known as “Antioch College.”

My sister linked me the first two episodes, and the overall feeling they provoked in me was one of acute boredom. I probably would have stopped there, but ptolemaeus was sufficiently engaged by the show to get me to watch most of the rest of the season with her over the summer. We skipped over episodes three and four, though, and from all I’ve heard of them, I didn’t miss much. We also didn’t see episode thirteen, “Epitaph One,” because it wasn’t broadcast with the rest of the series, and by the time it was available, even ptolemaeus had lost interest.

The season never stopped being incredibly bad, but it did grow a lot more engaging, to the point where I ended up doing a write-up of some of the later episodes. For this re-post, I figured I’d go ahead and discuss all the episodes of the series that I’ve seen.

Warning: this post contains potentially triggering discussions of rape and child sexual abuse.

And as always, spoilers.

Premise:

Caroline (played by Eliza Dushku) accepts a five-year contract with a mysterious organization called the Dollhouse. This contract involves having her personality wiped and put on a hard drive, so that the Dollhouse can imprint her with … whatever personality they like.

In between missions, Caroline—now called Echo—and the other “Dolls” or “Actives” are kept in a zombielike state of emotionless obedience. Ostensibly, they have no personalities when they’re like this, but in practice, they act more like well-behaved children than robots.

Not long before the series begins, an Active called Alpha went postal and murdered or mutilated several Dolls and Dollhouse staff—deliberately leaving Echo untouched. Alpha is still at large and still very interested in Echo. (Sound familiar?)

Over the course of several missions in which Echo has essentially the same personality with different wardrobe and trappings, she begins experiencing memories of previous Engagements, of her time at the Dollhouse, and even her original personality, Caroline.

The series attempts to address themes of personal identity, slavery, human trafficking and sex work, but the discourse falls flat for numerous reasons, most prominently the utter ineptness of the delivery coupled with Whedon’s conviction that he’s writing something profound and his aversion/inability to integrate “the Dollhouse is human trafficking” with “the Dollhouse helps people out and has scantily-clad Eliza Dushku kicking evildoers’ asses” in any coherent manner.

Dollhouse recruitment policy also skews noticeably towards young, conventionally-attractive, white, and female, in that order. There’s significant potential here for social commentary about the way the Dollhouse’s biases—reflecting, as they do, contemporary US television’s biases—create a distorted picture of reality by overemphasizing some demographics at the expense of others. Unfortunately, for that to happen, the show would have to—for a start—acknowledge the distortions, and it sadly doesn’t go even that far.

I should also put a word in about the theme song. It’s not that it’s bad as such, but it’s badly out of place. It would be more appropriate coupled with one of those sad, nostalgic, slightly surreal Irish fairy tales. Or the tenth anniversary of a close friend’s death. I suppose it’s just another example of Whedon trying to make out that what he’s writing is grim and serious despite the evidence.

Episode 1: Ghost: The series begins with a conversation between Caroline and the head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), wherein the latter convinces her to sign a five-year contract to be an Active. We then cut to Echo partying with a random charming stud and saying she could do this forever, minutes before she’s taken back to the Dollhouse to have her current imprint extracted. This is played up as tragedy, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

About the first half of the episode is comprised of showing us the Dollhouse’s setup, and introducing the other major players. These include Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, who harbors misgivings about the Dollhouse’s mission and is thus the closest thing to a two-dimensional character in these early episodes; Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the amoral geek in charge of all things Dolltech and the only source of anything resembling fun or snappy dialogue for much of the season; Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a new Active whom Echo strikes up a sort-of friendship with; Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), the hard-nosed and generally suspicious head of Dollhouse security; and Dr. Claire Saunders (Whedon veteran Amy Acker), the Dollhouse medic, whose sole claim to anything approaching originality is the faint scars on her face she received during the Alpha incident.

Finally, the call comes down to have Echo brought in as a hostage negotiator. One wonders why the client couldn’t have just sprung for an actual hostage negotiator, which would probably have given you the same skill set, be much cheaper, and not be—as it turns out—so appallingly bad at the job.

First she nearly doubles the kidnappers’ ransom on her own initiative—so they can get used to playing things her way, which I somehow doubt is standard procedure for hostage negotiations. Then she bungles the trade-off so the bad guys get away with the loot and the little girl they kidnapped.

Echo freaked out because one of the women who was a template for this imprint was taken as a girl by the lead kidnapper, who killed his accomplices and systematically raped her. That girl grew up and studied hostage negotiations (because obviously, the only reason a woman could have for going into this kind of profession is to work through personal trauma) and eventually committed suicide.

Even accepting the mawkish baskstory, you’d think a technical genius like Topher would have managed to incorporate the template’s knowledge into Echo’s imprint without giving her the accompanying PTSD—or failing that, used an equally knowledgeable template without a history of trauma in the first place. Oh, and he also gave her imprint asthma for some bullshit contrived reason about having to “balance her out”—because apparently putting together a Dollhouse imprint works on the exact same principles as D&D character generation.

Adelle is ready to give up the mission as a bad job, but is convinced to give Echo’s hostage negotiator persona a second shot, because she believes the Dollhouse’s mission is to be a force for good in the world. How on earth she manages to square that belief with the Dollhouse’s use of mind-rape and treating their Actives like living furniture is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, Echo enters the kidnappers’ hideout and convinces the head kidnappers’ two accomplices that he’s planning to betray them. With their help, she rescues the girl and defeats the kidnapper, thus providing a very esoteric kind of closure for the victim strand of her personality.

Then Sierra blows in with a black ops team and kills the kidnappers. This is supposed to be all edgy and shit, but it just comes off as melodramatic.

In the closing scene, we see a naked man who is implied to be Alpha sitting in a living room watching a television broadcast of Echo.

A subplot running throughout the episode involves painfully stereotypical “maverick” FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) being convinced that the Dollhouse is real and using ethically questionable methods to get information out of small-time Russian mobster Anton Lubov (Enver Gjokaj).

The characters in this episode are dull, the plot is dull, and even the dialogue—normally Whedon’s staple—is dull. Strap in folks, we’re in for a very long ride.

Episode 2: The Target: This time around, Echo gets an engagement to go on a romantic camping trip with outdoorsman Richard Connell, but it turns out her client is harboring a deadly secret.

… Specifically, Connell’s secret is that he gets off on hunting women like animals and Echo, naturally, is the eponymous target.

Oh my god, what do I do with this character? As cartoonish as Whedon’s Straw Misogynists can get, this is the one who stands out to me as by far the most ludicrous of the bunch. As always, though, the character is played with the utmost seriousness. After I first saw this episode, I got onto a chat with ptolemaeus, saying “I wonder what the world will look like when that man [Whedon] re-discovers subtlety.”

(You have to wonder how Connell expected to escape the wrath of the Dollhouse, as they wouldn’t be too keen on a client murdering one of their Actives.)

What follows is an uninspiring game of cat and mouse through the woods, punctuated with atrocious dialogue. The crowning example would be Echo’s response to Connell’s typical cardboard villain blather about people like her having to earn their right to continued survival: “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!”

Langton attempts to intervene and help Echo, but fails—and if I remember correctly, is injured as well—leaving her to face down Connell by herself. Echo kills Connell, and this is supposed to be all empowering and shit. yawn. Because he was an Evil Misogynist, killing him entails no long-term ethical, moral, or legal consequences whatsoever.

A subplot involves flashbacks to Langton’s introduction to the Dollhouse, in the wake of Alpha’s murder spree which left Echo’s previous handler dead and Doctor Saunder’s face scarred.

There’s more boringly cliché antics between Ballard and his stereotypically skeptical colleagues and between Ballard and Lubov. We also meet Ballard’s neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie), who is set up as a romantic interest.

Episodes 3 & 4: never watched them, sorry.

Episode 5: True Believer: Echo is engaged by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to infiltrate a religious cult, which for some spurious reason requires implanting video cameras in her eyes, while making her imprint for this mission blind.

The title comes from the fact that Echo’s persona is not programmed to be an undercover agent, but an actual believer in cult leader Jonas Sparrow’s teachings. I suppose this is going by the theory that if even she doesn’t know she’s an agent, she’s less likely to get caught. Whether this is more effective than imprinting her with all the training a regular agents gets is debatable, but it does ensure she’s much less capable of defending herself when things go wrong. Oh, and because she’s not programmed to do any actual investigating, one wonders how she would’ve found the weapons’ cache if Sparrow hadn’t conveniently locked her up with it.

Okay, so the mission here is even more contrived than the hostage negotiation in episode one. Seriously, why not just send in cockroaches with cameras, instead of using Echo’s eyes?

Oh, and at least some branches of the US government are perfectly aware of the Dollhouse’s inhumane and probably illegal activities, but are happy to turn a blind eye so long as they can make use of the organization’s services. Can’t say I’m surprised, really.

Anyway, it turns out the note which implied some of the cult members were being held against their will and triggered the investigation was actually planted by the ATF agent who’s coordinating the mission with the Dollhouse. Sparrow’s an ex-crook, and the agent was convinced this whole cult thing was just a smokescreen to allow him to continue his life of crime. There’s some room to believe Sparrow really is sincere, and the guns are just a precaution—against trigger-happy law enforcement, for instance—but they’re still illegal, so trigger-happy law enforcement gets to swoop in and clear everybody out.

Certainly, Sparrow’s response to the assault, “let’s burn the building around us and trust that God’s power will protect us, just like in the Bible” makes more sense for a true blue zealot than a cynical con man.

However, during the proceedings, Echo receives a bump on the head which shorts out the cameras and restores her eyesight, which in turn gets interpreted as a miracle. Echo also decides that burning to death inside the building is not a great idea, and gets some of the cult members to start organizing an evacuation, saying the fact her eyesight is restored proves God sent her to the cult with a message, “and that message is move your ass! Go!” It’s a classic Whedon line, and I don’t know if it’s Eliza Dushku’s delivery or the line itself is just trying too hard, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work. (Also, so much for “true believer.”)

Sparrow, realizing Echo is big trouble, attempts to kill her, but is shot in the chest by Dominic. This is not precisely a rescue—Dominic has been growing concerned at Echo’s increasing propensity towards self-awareness, which he compares to Alpha’s behavior leading up to the latter’s killing spree. So he hits her in the head with the butt of his gun but for no clear reason whatsoever refrains from shooting her like he did Sparrow.

Surprise, surprise, come next morning, the building has burned down but Echo has survived, and is brought safely back to the Dollhouse, thus making Dominic officially the World’s Most Inept Assassin. What would have made for a great twist ending would’ve been a closing shot showing that Sparrow had—miraculously—survived as well, but no such luck.

This episode’s subplot involves Topher and Dr. Saunders investigating the strange behavior of a Doll named Victor, who by now has been revealed as Lubov’s true identity. Despite the fact that Dolls are supposed to be stripped of all personality when not given an imprint (and this is apparently supposed to extend to hormones), video evidence reveals that Victor has been getting hard-ons when in the communal shower with Sierra. This will become important later on. (Well, not the part about the Dollhouse staff using spy cameras to watch the Dolls while they’re in the shower, although since the staff’s hormones definitely haven’t been suppressed, you’d think it would become an issue at some point.)

Episode 6: Man in the Street: Echo is engaged by a millionaire programmer to play his deceased wife for an evening, when Ballard finally catches up with her.

Ballard finds Echo by way of the client, Joel Mynor, a not conventionally attractive man whose conventionally attractive wife supported him financially up until the day he struck it rich in the dot com bubble—the same day she died tragically in a car accident (melodramatic, yes, but tame by Whedon’s standards). Every year, Mynor engages an Active to be imprinted with his wife’s personality, take her to the luxurious home he bought for her, have a romantic dinner together, and then get freaky between the sheets because, as he says to Ballard, “It is a fantasy.”

Ballard finds Mynor’s use of brainwashed women to live out this fantasy disgusting, but Mynor has worked out that Ballard has his own less than altruistic motives for pursuing Echo, and calls him a hypocrite in turn.

Ballard goes after Echo anyway, but he also starts a relationship with Mellie, whom he’s told about his Dollhouse investigations. Seems like a sensible decision to me—stop chasing fantasy figures and see how things go with the person sitting right next to you.

Ballard catches up with Echo, but it’s been determined that he’s getting too close, and Echo has been given ninja programming to remove him as a threat. In the midst of kicking Ballard’s ass, though, Echo suddenly stops as a sleeper personality takes over, with a message for Ballard from a mysterious ally inside the Dollhouse. She informs him that the Dollhouse’s stated mission of supplying custom-made personalities for such varied purposes as hostage negotiations, bodyguarding, safe cracking, midwifery, cult-busting, and various glorified forms of prostitution is just a front, and that he needs to figure out what the Dollhouses (there are more than one) are really up to. Her original programming then takes over and she frames Ballard for shooting a fellow cop, thus adding “edgy cop on a mission gets suspended” to our list of law enforcement clichés.

Meanwhile, back at the Dollhouse, the staff discover that someone within their organization has raped Sierra. They discover this because she starts screaming bloody murder when touched by a male Doll, and of course the only possible reason she could have for doing so is rape.

Suspicion initially falls upon Victor, because of his obvious attraction to Sierra. However, it transpires that the true culprit is Sierra’s handler, Hearn. On the one hand, Whedon is really pulling his punches—not to mention his social commentary—by having the person who raped Sierra be not lovable Victor, but complete scumbag Hearn. Because only utter bastards are ever guilty of raping a woman—which is why so many rape cases hinge upon the character of the accused male rapist, rather than the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do.

On the other hand, well, Victor really is lovable, when not playing the annoying Lubov, and pulling him off the hook for abusing Sierra means we get to preserve the fun of having his character around without any unpleasant associations. Admittedly, that’s an incredibly shallow perspective to take, but heavy-handedness notwithstanding, this is a show which often takes the “safe” route when it comes to its storytelling, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to engage with it on that basis, shallow or not.

DeWitt and the rest of the staff are outraged with Hearn, which, as Dan Hemmens points out, is kind of incongruous for a bunch of human traffickers.

Hearn is the poster boy for the stereotypical male-on-female rapist: a slimy asshole with no redeeming qualities who uses his superior physical and/or institutional power to force himself upon a woman. I’m not saying this sort of thing never happens, but making this the canonical “story of rape” and vilifying the perpetrators is actually a key element of perpetuating rape culture: it ensures that perpetrators, bystanders, and even victims will have a harder time identifying rape in all other cases, such as when, e.g. a man takes advantage of a woman under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol, or spikes her drink with the express purpose of taking advantage*. The latter scenario is roughly equivalent to Dollhouse clients like Mynor hiring brainwashed Dolls like Echo into having sex with them, and is no less rape than Hearn physically overpowering Sierra. Yet Mynor—despite getting called out by Ballard—is still treated with a level of sympathy which is not afforded Hearn.

*And, of course, any instances which aren’t male-on-female.

Mynor, and Ballard, and other characters related to the Dollhouse are painted in shades of gray (dull gray), as is their behavior, whereas Hearn and his behavior are painted in stark black-and-white. The episode asks the viewer to consider whether there’s really any difference between Mynor’s treatment of Echo and Hearn’s treatment of Sierra. The problem is that with this set-up, Whedon leaves plenty of interpretive space open for viewers to arrive at an affirmative answer, especially if they’ve already been primed with rape myths such as the one outlined above.

DeWitt sends Hearn to assassinate Mellie, ostensibly because Ballard has told her too much, but in actuality to be executed by her. Mellie, it turns out, is another Doll, November, whose mission is to spy on Ballard for the Dollhouse, and also has a sleeper ninja personality for some reason or other which DeWitt activates. With Hearn dispatched, DeWitt gives the counter-phrase and November reverts back to Mellie, who’s understandably distraught by the dead guy in her living room. Ballard arrives on the scene and comforts Mellie, apparently harboring no suspicions about the improbable circumstances of Hearn’s death.

By contrast, Mynor’s ending is that Echo gets re-imprinted with the personality of his wife, and is sent back to him to complete the fantasy. Some people have seen ambiguity in this ending, but again, even ambiguity distances it from the straight-up condemnation of Hearn’s conclusion.

The episode title refers to a series of sound-bites sprinkled throughout the story from interviews with random passersby. Apparently, in the show’s universe, the existence of the Dollhouses is kept secret from the general public, but is still subject to rumor, and some journalist has been going around asking people to comment upon this semi-mythical organization.

In his breakdown of the show’s first six episodes, Dan Hemmens had a lot to say about the discursive meaning behind the various answers, which is well worth considering. Personally, though, I just found the whole thing a boring gimmick, along with—in hindsight—some pretentious foreshadowing of the post-apocalyptic world of “Epitaph One.”

Episode 7: Echoes: A psychotropic drug gets loose on a college campus—coincidentally, Echo’s old campus—killing one person and getting several others drunk.

The drug was created by the Rossum Corporation, the company which owns the Dollhouse. Topher exposits some technobabble about the drug attacking people’s memories, and the Dolls being immune because their memories are fake. DeWitt sends in the Dolls to contain the outbreak while Topher works on a cure.

Echo, meanwhile, is on an unrelated assignment, but the television set she’s working with conveniently malfunctions, cutting to news coverage of the campus psychosis outbreak. She starts having flashbacks to her original personality, and feels the overwhelming need to head over to campus and … do something undefined, leaving her “client” tied to a bed.

When she arrives on campus, Echo starts remembering how she and her old boyfriend broke into the Rossum building on campus to document the corporation’s cruelty to animals. Despite obviously being confused and disoriented and generally acting exactly as if she were under the influence of the drug running loose, she manages to recruit one of the students to help her break back into Rossum.

Dull story short, her incongruously trusting ally turns out to be the person who set loose the drug in the first place, and he broke back in to get the rest. Still not sure why he trusted Echo to get him in, but whatever. He gets captured, and the drug wears off after a few hours.

The flashbacks imply but carefully do not say that Caroline’s boyfriend was killed by Rossum security after the two of them broke in and found incriminating evidence about the Dollhouse project. (Incidentally, Rossum security is crap.) At the time, ptolemaeus guessed Echo’s “dark secret”—the reason she signed on with the Dollhouse—would eventually turn out to be something other than “I got my boyfriend killed,” though I had my doubts.

There are some cute scenes, such as when Dominic and Victor’s Imprint-of-the-Week tussle over rank. Victor settles the dispute by going “NSA, bitch; outranks lowly private security,” and Dominic curses Topher. That bit also makes for some halfway-decent if heavy-handed foreshadowing.

When Dominic gets drunk, he also apologizes to Echo for trying to kill her as she wanders bye, and it’s actually a touching moment for him.

Watching the interactions of Victor’s and Sierra’s imprints, knowing what we do about their “relationship” is fun, too. If this show focused more on the characters’ relationships, and how they enact those relationships through a host of personalities, instead of wallowing in moral complexities and similar shite, it might actually have been worth watching.

Oh, and the drug also somehow gets loose in the Dollhouse, leading to some great scenes of Topher and DeWitt getting completely plastered in Topher’s office and acting, well, like two very drunk people. (No, they do not have sex.)

Episode 8: Needs: In order to cut down the dangerously independent behavior of the Actives, Dr. Scarface Amy Acker suggests they give their most “unstable” Dolls an outing to work through their original personalities’ unfinished business.

Echo, November, Sierra and Victor—along with a blond throwaway character named Mike—wake up in their sleep pods, sporting their original personalities but suffering amnesia. The five of them try to figure out what the hell is going on (among the leading theories: alien abduction), giving us a chance to see who these people really are. Victor quickly establishes himself as the coolest of the bunch by far, because he’s funny and competent and has a refreshingly take-charge-and-get-things-done attitude. Perhaps, as Dan Hemmens has suggested, Whedon just Does Guys Better.

Our heroes quickly discover they are not alone, and decide they must try to blend in with the other Dolls. This leads to an … interesting scene where the characters realize they’re supposed to enter a communal shower. If it were me, I would have hesitated a liiittle more than they all did, but maybe I’m just particularly self-conscious. Victor goes in last and is warned by Sierra not to look at anything, which he semi-accidentally does anyway. Because only men can be pervs, women having no sex drive of their own.

Mike is soon captured and turned back into a zombie. The remaining four musketeers are shaken by this, and decide to escape the Dollhouse. This accomplished, they each set out (without consciously realizing what they’re doing) to settle their unfinished business.

At this point, I was thinking that this might be a show that I could actually enjoy watching. Yes, the “fugitives from the Evil Laboratory” scenario is awfully cliché, but at least the main characters had actual personalities which could connect to the audience and each other. It set up something both they the writers and we the viewers could work with, and I found myself actually liking the main characters.

Unfortunately, Dr. Scarface implanted them all with some device or other which pumps sleep gas into their blood streams as soon as they’ve “worked through their issues.”

So, November falls asleep standing over her daughter’s grave (oh, yeah, how very poignant).

Sierra confronts the man who had her put in the Dollhouse against her will because she refused to have sex with him, and then Victor punches him out. Victor, not Sierra. This is more or less a textbook example of Nice Guy Syndrome, and it’s not pretty, let alone empowering. Quite the opposite.

To drive the point home, Victor then gets his “issues” settled by finally making out with Sierra—their relationship is pretty sweet—and then it’s nap time for both of them.

Before they go under, Victor and Sierra also get shot at by a couple of security guards, rather like Caroline and her boyfriend when the broke into the Rossum building. Around the time I first wrote up these episodes, I realized that in the Whedonverse, security guards and police officers deploying their firearms with intent to kill against unarmed suspects is not cause for surprise, much less a formal inquiry. (This does happen in real life, but since hardly any of Whedon’s characters are young African or Latino males, he still fails the plausibility test.)

Possibly this laissez-faire attitude toward shooting at people who pose no immediate danger is related to the attitude that kicking people who pose no immediate danger into engine intakes somehow makes a character more heroic, rather than murderous and sadistic.

Echo stays in the Dollhouse, shoots up Topher’s lab, and then forces DeWitt to set all the Dolls free, over the latter’s protests that they’d be helpless in their zombie states. Apparently, Echo didn’t think to have Topher return their personalities before springing them. As soon as she has “saved” all the Dolls by leading them out into the sun, she loses consciousness, and Dollhouse security quickly recaptures the mindless Actives.

The episode ends with the revelation that before going after Topher, Echo found Agent Ballard’s phone number somewhere, and called him up to enlist his aid. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be bothered to tell him anything more specific than that the Dollhouse is somewhere in Los Angeles and that it’s underground. That’s a lot of help.

Episode 9: Spy in the House of Love: We begin with a pointless flashforward which serves no purpose whatsoever. Cut to “Twelve hours earlier” with Echo returning from an engagement in Dominatrix gear. Here we get a patent Whedon scene with Echo explaining “It’s not about the pain, it’s about trust.” 75 seconds later: “Okay, sometimes it’s about the pain.” I don’t know if it’s that Whedon’s act is getting old, or if it’s that most of his jokes are only moderately funny by themselves, and need all he other entertaining material he cut out of this series to shine properly.

The narrative follows the Dollhouse’s Four Musketeers on various engagements. There’s a bit of overlapping of stories with Echo witnessing part of a scene from another Doll’s story, which then gets shown in full when their turn is up. It made me think the writers were trying to copy that old Simpsons episode showing Homer’s, Lisa’s, and Bart’s day in sequence, with each story tying back into the other two.

The difference is that in the Simpsons episode, each jigsaw scene was important to its own story thread, and to the story thread of the other scene it joined with, and vice versa. In this episode, we could’ve cut Echo’s jigsaw scene and not lost anything in either her story or the other Musketeers’. In the Simpsons example, jigsaw scenes served to enhance the plot; in the Dollhouse example, they provided a cheap gimmick.

Anyway, the main story thread of this episode is that in the process of fixing his mind-rape chair following Echo’s attack in the previous story, Topher finds a chip which was used to implant secondary instructions into the Actives. This is apparently the device used in “Man in the Street,” to get Echo to give a message to Ballard.

While DeWitt is away on business, Dominic is in command at the Dollhouse. Topher informs Dominic of his finding, and that the device is NSA. Dominic acts suspicious of Topher (after all, he is the head programmer) and orders a lockdown of the Dollhouse. He then has Sierra programmed to infiltrate NSA HQ and find information on their mole.

Echo wanders into Topher’s lab, asking if she can help. When he says she can’t, she replies that he has a process which makes people able to do things and volunteers to be imprinted. This incredible outburst of personality raises not a single red flag for Topher, who happily imprints Echo with the persona of a spy-catcher and takes her to see Dominic. Echo reveals her intention to start her interrogations with Topher himself, which, as Dominic remarks, restores his faith in Topher’s programming skills.

Sierra escapes NSA HQ with information implicating Topher’s assistant, Ivy. Echo realizes the information was planted, and that Dominic is the real spy. Cue the Obligatory Fight Sequence between Echo and Dominic, in which Dominic is captured.

DeWitt interrogates Dominic, who claims that he wasn’t trying to bring down the Dollhouse—he was, in fact, trying to keep DeWitt from bringing it down. DeWitt has Dominic sent to “The Attic,” where he’ll be kept in a state of perpetual forgetfulness. She then promotes Langton to chief of Dollhouse security, much to the latter’s chagrin.

We wrap up with Echo meeting her new handler, Travis, who is never seen or heard of again. (Whedon should take a lesson from Rob Thomas when it comes to handling bit characters.)

There are also a couple subplots. In November’s, she gets sent back to spy on Ballard, but also carries a secret message from his ally within the Dollhouse (presumably Dominic, but possibly not) explaining that Mellie is a Doll who can’t be trusted with information about his investigation.

In Victor’s, we learn that the “Miss Lonely Hearts” he’s been assigned to several times recently is DeWitt herself, who used the “out on business” excuse for a “romantic” getaway. However, during one of the boring, shallow sequences which stand in for character development in this show, she has some sort of revelation which convinces her to end these “Miss Lonely Hearts” meetings because … no, I’m not even going to pretend I followed whatever tired, trite, incredibly bo-ring line of reasoning they cooked up for that one.

Ms. DeWitt—or may I call you Adelle?—let me get this straight: your position is that it’s unethical for a Dollhouse employee to have sex with a Doll … unless the Doll in question has been programmed to like it? Just checking.

DeWitt’s behavior in this episode highlights the show’s incoherent approach to morality. Aside from the obvious Hearn parallels, in one scene she’s defending the Dollhouse’s practices to someone (probably Langton) by saying that while yes, they do send their Dolls out to do BDSM, they never take a contract for their Actives to play the submissive. Mortal danger? Fine. Illegal activity? No problem. Having all kinds of sex with any man sporting a big enough wad of cash—or, you know, herself? Absolutely. But contracting as a submissive? No way. Because that would be wrong.

And then there’s her confrontation with Dominic, where he insists that Dollhouse technology can’t be released to the general public, that it has to be kept under control. DeWitt, assuming he means “control by the NSA” is horrified at the idea of the Dollhouse coming under the purview of “a clandestine organization with little government oversight.” Yes, she actually says that, and if there was any conscious irony there, I sure as hell missed it. Sometimes this show makes no goddamn sense.

Episode 10: Haunted: DeWitt imprints Echo with the personality of her old friend Margaret, who has recently died, and now wants to find her killer. This gives Eliza Dushku the opportunity—for the first time in the show’s history—to play a character truly distinct from all her previous roles.

It’s also the first episode in the series in which none of Echo’s old memories push through her programming. ptolemaeus suggested they finally had an episode premise which was interesting enough in its own right. My theory is the writers were so caught up with the fact that this time, Echo’s imprint was a fully-formed human, and not something cobbled together like her other personalities, they forgot she’s still Echo rather than Margaret, and her original personality is supposed to be breaking through.

The exciting premise is quickly squandered with interminable scenes of Echo-as-Margaret interacting with her husband, brother, daughter, and son, all the while failing miserably at the pretense that she is anyone other than Margaret Whats-Er-Name. (Seriously, even Little Kuriboh of Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series can’t make this sort of scenario entertaining.) This being Joss Whedon we’re dealing with, there is, of course, a scene where Margaret’s son tries to make out with Margaret-as-Echo. Dollhouse! The television series that Goes There!

Hear that? That’s the sound of ten thousand people not being impressed. Or entertained.

The investigation begins with Margaret’s ex-husband acting creepy and weird, so we know right away that he didn’t do it. Then he reveals some vaguely incriminating information about her brother, so he’s in the clear, too.

In modern mysteries, the culprit is always the person the observer is never supposed to suspect. Therefore, the “detective” character can never be shown to suspect that person either. Unfortunately, in most such mysteries, the writer doesn’t do anything to divert the viewer’s suspicion from the real perpetrator aside from keeping the “detective” off the scent. Nineteen times out of twenty, you can figure out the culprit by singling out the one potential suspect who—for whatever reason—never falls under suspicion before the reveal.

In this case, the Culprit Criteria left us with two suspects: the daughter and the son. However, there were more than enough clues lying around for me to figure out the son was responsible well in advance. Something which may have been a clue was the revelation that the son was also a Dollhouse client, because only bad people hire mind-raped human Dolls to live out their fantasies. Except when it’s good people who hire them, of course.

What really got me, though, was the part where the son revealed that as a Dollhouse client, he’d been able to figure out that Echo was his mother. There was a rather touching scene where he told her how sad he was that she was dead, and I held out hope that I might actually be witnessing a criminal experiencing contrition.

On Whedon’s shows, people only seem to feel guilty over something they’ve done if it was by accident/they didn’t know what you were doing/they’d temporarily misplaced their soul. Apparently, unless it’s a main character, Joss Whedon doesn’t believe in a person voluntarily doing something horrible and then feeling bad about it later, despite documented evidence. Margaret’s son is no exception.

Interspersed with this narrative are a number of much cuter and more entertaining snippets where Topher imprints Sierra with the personality of a spunky, gung-ho geek he can hang out with. At the end of the episode, DeWitt reveals that she knows all about Topher programming Dolls for his own use (not difficult, as the two of them were playing catch and laser tag all over the Dollhouse), saying that he needs the companionship, and that it’s only once a year—on his birthday.

It’s left ambiguous whether Topher actually has sex with Geek Sierra, and frankly, I don’t care. If this show can’t be bothered to offer a mature and coherent analysis of its characters’ morality, I don’t see why I should take up all of the slack. Topher is the only consistently fun aspect of the show, and his scenes with Sierra-the-Geek were some of the sweetest, most entertaining moments of the entire season.

On the other hand, my opinion of Hearn’s intelligence has really gone down now that I find out the only thing he would’ve had to do to get DeWitt’s approval to have sex with Sierra was to request her services as an Active.

Ballard’s story in this episode revolves around his attempts to deal with the fact that his lover, Mellie—who’s still in love with him—is a brainwashed prostitute. His strategy consists of clumsily fending off her sexual advances and other than that doing jack shit. Clearly he’s lulling her into a sense of security which, once achieved, he will do absolutely nothing about.

Then at one point she corners him, saying that whatever he wants from her, she’s prepared to go along with, and whatever they do, “it doesn’t have to mean anything.” Under the crushing force of this unassailable logic, Ballard’s resolve crumbles like soft clay and he and November-as-Mellie go into pre-coital make-out montage. Um, morality, Joss? At the end of the episode, she’s walking around the apartment talking about how awesome the sex was, and asking if he’s going to do any more hunting for Dollhouse clients today. Cut to Ballard in the shower, looking set to challenge Angel for the title of World’s Most Epic Brooder, saying “I found one.” On second thought, don’t explore the moral implications of this sequence. Just don’t.

I suppose my real problem with that whole business was not in the moral ramifications of Ballard knowingly raping November, but in trying to fathom the logic behind it. I could understand and accept (if not approve of) Ballard’s decision if the show would only address why he caved so easily. To do that, however, would necessitate exploring territory Dollhouse has avoided like the plague since day one: characterization.

The first episode, “Ghost,” introduced Ballard as the stereotypical edgy cop on a mission, nothing more. Ten episodes later, the writing team has managed—at no little effort, doubtless—to avoid even the suggestion of character development on Ballard’s part.

Since Ballard effectively has no personality other than “stop the Dollhouse” and “save Caroline,” there’s no rhyme or reason to anything he does outside the spheres of those two objectives. We can understand most of them by filling in what a normal tv character would do at this point. But this 1) still leaves Ballard an essentially two-dimensional character, 2) doesn’t mitigate the writers’ irresponsibility in presenting him as such, and 3) still leaves us lacking any sort of explanation for the present debacle.

The writers’ aversion to characterization goes beyond just Ballard. I could see how DeWitt might rationalize her double standards when it comes to Dollhouse staff sleeping with Actives, and her curious refusal to contract them out as submissives. It would provide an interesting window onto her personality—if it were ever addressed.

Langton’s in the same boat. In “Spy in the House of Love,” when Echo interrogates him about his attitude toward the Dollhouse, he says: “We’re pimps and killers.” That’s a strong statement. And it raises the question: “If you feel so vehement about what the Dollhouse does, why the frak do you keep working for it?” but no one in the show bothers to ask. (Well, Ballard does in the twelfth episode, but the matter quickly gets swept under the rug.)

This may explain why Topher is by far the best character on the show. He’s the only non-zombie with a comprehensible personality. He does what he does because he’s a computer geek who doesn’t give a care about the ethical implications of his work; he’s in it for the cool tech.

Episode 11: Briar Rose: Echo’s “Engagement” for this episode is a special mission put together by Topher, with DeWitt’s approval. Topher takes a girl named Susan (age about 10), extrapolates a best-case-scenario grownup personality for her, imprints Echo with it, and then sends Echo out to help the kid work through her trauma and become the relatively happy and stable personality Topher has created.

Susan’s trauma? Her mother died when she was six, and her mother’s boyfriend pimped her out to pedophiles. Groaning yet? I was, too, but to my inexperienced eye, episode writer Jane Espenson did a good job with an admittedly cliché Whedo theme. At one point, Echo and Susan discuss Susan’s self-blame for not escaping her tormentor, and consequent bitterness when she’s referred to as a victim. I know bugger all about the psychology of rape victims, but I do know that internalized blame is often a key factor in victimization, and I seem to recall hearing from some authority a bit more knowledgeable than pop psych that women (and men) who have been raped or sexually assaulted often blame themselves at least partially.

We don’t get to see the resolution to this storyline, as Echo gets sucked into the ultimately duller main plot before she’s done working with Susan.

Ballard, apparently still eaten up with guilt for having slept with November (again, why did you do it?), breaks up their relationship and moves out on her in the most emotionally insensitive and tactically stupid way possible. If the writers had bothered to give Ballard an actual personality, they could have shown us his internal conflict over spurning Mellie, the woman whom he loves and who loves him, and who he can’t inform isn’t the real person who belongs in her body. If they’d bothered with more careful plotting, they could also have showed Ballard struggling to push Mellie away in such a manner as not to tip off the Dollhouse that he knows she’s a Doll.

Instead, he just cuts and runs.

Mellie wanders off crying and eventually walks onto a bridge, where it’s implied she contemplates throwing herself off. Wait, she’s considering suicide because her boyfriend dumped her? Goddamn it, Joss, what kind of feminist are you?

All right, it’s been suggested to me that since the Mellie personality was specifically created to spy on Ballard, without him, she has literally been deprived of her raison d’etre. Would’ve been nice to give some suggestion of this in the episode itself, though.

Her handler snatches her before she can carry out the deed, and takes her to the Dollhouse. Ballard follows, finally discovering the Dollhouse’s location.

He then goes to see Loomis, his sole remaining contact within the FBI. Those of you playing the law enforcement clichés drinking game should take a shot every time she appears, as her sole purpose in the show is to give Ballard access to whatever information he needs this time around, despite the danger to her and her skepticism about Ballard’s crazy ideas (take another shot). Oh, and to put another tick in the Affirmative Action box, as she’s slightly darker skinned than Langton—not that either of them would be in any danger of failing the paper bag test. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned her before, this is the answer. There just wasn’t anything to mention.

There is a cute little moment when Ballard explains about how he found the Dollhouse, about walking corridors and exploring offices, at which point Loomis says incredulously “You’ve been in the Dollhouse?” Ballard: “Wrong building.” Contrary to the suspicions of many, Whedon hasn’t entirely lost his touch. Yet.

Ballard then reveals his theory that the Dollhouse is entirely underground, and completely off the energy grid, meaning it would have to be entirely self-sufficient from an energy standpoint. Using her magical data-sifting skills, Loomis discovers that the person who designed the Dollhouse to be energy efficient is a man named Stephen Kepler, played by Wash from Firefly.

Kepler, who’s basically a more paranoid, misanthropic, and drug-happy version of Topher, reluctantly assists Ballard in busting into the Dollhouse. He then gets into the computer system and starts unlocking the sleep pods so Ballard can get to Echo. It’s not quite as ridiculously easy as the above summary may suggest, but it’s close.

Kepler warns Ballard not to open the pods before they’re unlocked or “all hell breaks loose.” This, however, appears to be nothing more than a red herring to get the viewers to wonder what will happen when Ballard and Langton smash through the glass to Victor’s pod in the upcoming fight sequence.

So yeah, Langton catches Ballard trying to rescue Echo, and here we go with the fight scene. Dollhouse medstaff take Victor to be treated by Dr. Scarface, at which point, Kepler reveals himself to be Alpha, cutting up Victor’s face with a scalpel and taking the doctor hostage.

Clearly, one of the reasons for casting Alan Tudyk in this role was to throw long-time Whedon fans—who could never credit Wash as a dangerous monster—off the scent. Hell, I’d read who Alpha’s actor was on Wikipedia and even I had a hard time crediting it until this sequence. To give Tudyk his due, he plays the psychotic monster with serious multiple personality disorder admirably well. Of course, he has the advantage of being written better than almost everyone else on the show, so that helps.

Speaking of performances, I have put in a plug for Enver Gjokaj (Victor), in this episode. There’s a subplot about Sierra investigating the death of a man who turns out to be the real Stephen Kepler, and another about Alpha trying to send a message to the Dollhouse for reasons which presently escape me. Thing is, he apparently hasn’t heard about the recent regime change, and sends the message in care of Dominic, with a password that only he, Dominic, would know.

Instead of pulling the real Dominic out of long-term storage, DeWitt just has Victor imprinted with his personality. The ensuing scene is pure awesome, with Gjokaj providing such a spot-on performance, he had me wondering if they might have gotten Reed Diamond in to do the voice work.

Which leads me to another tangentially connected train of thought, which is that even discounting pre-existing characters, Victor, Sierra and even November have had multiple imprints over the course of the season, and they all had distinct personalities.

Sierra may be the best example. Over the final six episodes she plays a quarantine doctor, an NSA infiltrator, a spunky geek, a homicide investigator, and a flirtatious bounty hunter, all of them very well played (except maybe the infiltrator). Apparently, the writers’ incompetence at creating different personalities for the Actives only extend to Echo.

Anyway, Alpha lures Echo into Topher’s lab and imprints her with a personality which recognizes he’s come to rescue her, just as he said he would. The two then leave the Dollhouse together.

Episode 12: Omega: Throughout this episode, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks chronicling Alpha’s previous Dollhouse escapades. It turns out the bimbo imprint he’s given Echo is one he previously worked with in the body of Whiskey, before he played surgeon with her face.

When Echo née Caroline first arrived at the Dollhouse, he immediately became obsessed with her because … she’s played by Eliza Dushku, I guess? (When Echo first recognized Alpha as her “savior,” I thought maybe he somehow knew Caroline pre-Dollhood, which would’ve provided a much better excuse for his special interest in her over everyone else in the world.)

One day when he’s pruning bonsai, Alpha overhears a couple handlers discussing how Whiskey is overworked because she’s their #1 Doll. Alpha asks Whiskey to let Echo be #1, then leaps on her and carves her face with his shears.

Topher insists it must be due to a fragment of one of his earlier imprints and determines to scan them all, for which he needs Alpha strapped to the mind-rape chair. During Alpha’s struggles, Topher’s computer accidentally uploads all 48 of his past imprints into his head at once, and a psycho is born.

After killing his handler and the original Doc Saunders, Alpha destroys the hard drive containing his original personality. He then goes on a rampage, the aftermath of which we saw back in “The Target.”

Back in the present, Ballard has been captured and puts his incredible investigative powers at the Dollhouse’s disposal to help them find Alpha and rescue Echo. Topher explains that none of Alpha’s 48 imprints were potential killers, but apparently, nobody thought to check his original personality even for completeness’ sake.

Ballard then produces the Themehammer and proceeds to beat top Dollhouse staff and viewers alike over the head with a load of bollocks about the Human Soul and how it Goes Deeper Than Mere Programming. As has been pointed out in the comments section of Dan Hemmens’ review, this is dreamy-eyed nonsense. Human personalities can indeed be altered by the right kind of head trauma, so it’s not like the soul is somehow mystically protected, or anything.

Turns out before joining the Dollhouse, Alpha was imprisoned for attempted murder, cutting up his victim’s face in the process. Apparently, everyone at the Dollhouse was so sure their procedure affected the part of the human psyche which turns some people into monsters, they offered an attempted murderer a contract without the slightest reservation.

Ballard uses this information to locate one of Alpha’s old haunts, and he and Langton ride off to save the day.

The old haunt in question is Alpha’s current Evil Lair, where he’s rigged up an ad hoc version of Topher’s lab, complete with mind-rape chair. Alpha uploads the personality of Wendy—a young woman he and Echo kidnapped—onto a hard drive and downloads all 38 of her previous imprints into her. He expects her to become an Übermensch just like him (“Alpha, meet Omega”), and to prove herself by killing Caroline in the body of Wendy.

Unfortunately for Alpha, all but two of Echo’s personalities are indistinguishable from each other, and none of them have a hankering for mass murder. In a classic Whedon moment, she begins to take a swing at Wendy/Caroline with a heavy pipe, then spins and hits Alpha instead. Like most aspects of this show, it’s horribly executed, and the “surprise twist” must rate at least a KiloBrooks on the predictability scale.

Alpha and Echo trade a few more blows and pseudo-philosophical snipes to the long worn-out tune of domination-based, Social Darwinist morality versus tolerance-based, liberal humanist morality, none of which rise above the level of the painfully trite argument between Echo and Connell in episode two.

Echo floors Alpha, and Caroline tells her she needs to go back into her hard drive so Wendy can have her body back. During the ensuing conversation, Caroline reveals that while Wendy was forced into having her personality wiped, Caroline signed a contract. And then we get this exchange:

Echo: “I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave. Especially now that we have a black president.”
Caroline: “We have a black president? Okay, I am missing everything.”

I’ll admit I kinda appreciated the Presidential reference. Maybe it’s just that I like it when shows ostensibly set in the real world make references to stuff actually happening in the real world.

But, 1) I find it depressing that the first Obama reference they managed to slip in was all about his racial makeup, and had nothing at all to do with his policies, his personality, his actions, or anything else distinct to him. It’s about what he is, not who he is. How progressive.

Also, 2) What the crap does the president’s race have to do with whether it’s okay to contract yourself into slavery? Yeah, I get the black/slavery connection, but how is it relevant to this particular situation? At all?

Caroline’s surprise coupled with her apparent inability to guess the name of the black president in question dates her initial contract to somewhere before November 2008. Furthermore, unless she was hiding under a political rock (unlikely, given her remark in “Echoes” that yes, she does have to attend every single antiwar rally in the state) we must push this date back to November 2007, if not earlier. This would put Echo towards the end of the second year of her contract. Since the contracts are five years long, the seasons presumably cover one year, and Whedon reportedly had a five-year plan for the series, I think this scenario was headed for a massive continuity error before the show was was canceled early.

Inevitably, and rather to my annoyance, Alpha shoots Wendy dead before Echo can restore her personality. (What does it say that I like Caroline much better as played by someone other than Eliza Dushku?) For the first time putting selfishness over do-gooding, Echo forebears from seeing if she can help Wendy in favor of chasing after Alpha, who skives off with the hard drive containing Caroline’s personality.

Alpha high tails it to the top of a water tower and drops the hard drive to get Echo off his back (his motivations after Echo turns on him are very confused). Echo once more puts herself over the greater good and tries to catch the hard drive, letting Alpha escape. She misses the hard drive, only for it to drop right into the hands of Ballard, who gets to save the girl after all.

Echo returns to the Dollhouse where she gets the reset button pushed on her yet again. Langton tells DeWitt they’ve made arrangements to compensate Wendy’s family, and she remarks what cold comfort it will be for them. Dude, you’re not Melina Marchetta.

Ballard agrees to work with the Dollhouse on the condition that they terminate November’s contract with full pay. In her farewell scene, November is happy, grateful to DeWitt, and—unlike Caroline—remembers absolutely nothing about her time in the Dollhouse. Human trafficking is good because it makes its victims happy and they conveniently forget all about having been sex slaves!

Ballard is there to see November off and ask her name, Madeline, but when she asks his in return, Ballard responds, “I’m nobody.” This is treated as a poignant ending to a beautiful relationship, which Whedon aficionados are quite accustomed to by now.

For comparison, in the commentary track to the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon revealed that the reason Buffy and Spike never have sex again even after Spike’s soul is restored is that he didn’t want to “repeat that Luke and Laura ‘he raped her, they got married’” nonsense. Oh Joss, how far you’ve fallen.

There’s a subplot about Whiskey discovering she’s a Doll imprinted to replace the original Dr. Saunders. It’s all very boring and inconsequential, but it contains one overblown insensitive, and projection-heavy outburst when she’s treating Victor’s face, telling him how he’s got ugly, ugly scars now that will never go away, and she doesn’t pity him in the slightest.

I can just see Whedon, mid-season, composing a memo to the makeup department. “All right you clowns, you’ve had your little fun, but enough is enough. I’ve told you over and over I want big, ugly, highly visible scars on Ms. Acker’s face, not the pathetic little traces she’s sporting now. Her character is supposed to be disfigured, not modeling the latest in Designer Scars.”

Unfortunately, FOX studios suppressed this memo, because they’re just too small-minded to handle Joss Whedon’s revolutionary vision.
And that’s the lot. In the summer of ’09 (before “Epitaph One” came out) a friend of mine told me that Dollhouse is a bit like the first season of Torchwood: one good episode and the rest utter crap. To this day I don’t know what the “one good episode” in Dollhouse was supposed to be.

Movie reflection: Doctor Who: The TV Movie/The Enemy Within

Trapped on Earth and newly regenerated, the Doctor (Paul McGann) sets out to close the Eye of Harmony before it swallows the whole planet. Meanwhile, the Master (Eric Roberts), also on Earth, goes on the hunt, seeking to steal his old rival’s body and all his remaining regenerations.

Fifteen years after its initial broadcast, the Doctor Who TV movie—also know as The Enemy Within—was finally made available on DVD in the United States a couple years ago. Needless to say, I lost little time in ordering it from the library and watching it with my mother, KorraWP, and Noria, (ptolemaeus wasn’t interested).

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations. I’d read the synopsis and some analysis of the movie some time ago, and it sounded pretty bad. Then I sat down to watch it and it wasn’t that bad. Not great, but fairly good.

The plot is uninspired, illogical, silly, and dependent on massive coincidences. (For example: the Doctor needs an atomic clock—oh look, the local TV news just happened to announce that the city he just happened to land his TARDIS in just happens to be hosting the world’s most advanced atomic clock which just happens to have its grand opening today. And to top it off, the Doctor’s companion for this outing just happens to be on the Board of Trustees for the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research where the atomic clock is being unveiled). The TV movie is stupid fun, no doubt, but a lot of Doctor Who is stupid fun. Heck, I sat through four years of Russell T Davies—compared to that, the TV movie is nothing special.

In fact, let’s dwell on that comparison a moment, shall we? Both the new show and the TV movie often take themselves too seriously, and both are melodramatic, but the new show delivers melodrama by trying to pass off ludicrous and emotionally manipulative material as Serious Drama, whereas the movie delivers melodrama because over-the-top hijinks are fun. Only twice does the movie go for Serious Drama—and admittedly, the results in the first scene are about as tedious as most of the Serious Drama in the new show, while the second is so contrived and unsubtle in its symbolism as to attain new heights of Narm.

A lot of this comes down to a matter of personal taste, but for me a fun, pulpy adventure story without all the extraneous angst Davies and Moffat have stuffed into the new show comes as a breath of fresh air. Which is not to say that angst and real drama have no place in Doctor Who, just that for my money, it does better without those elements than when they’re overemphasized (see, for example: “Last of the Time Lords,” “The End of Time,” “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and McGann’s TV mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor”).

Maybe it’s the vantage of fifteen years and seven seasons of the new show (plus the fact that I’d read the spoilers), but I also wasn’t bothered by all the continuity issues which threw fans into a rage way back when. Oh, the Doctor is half-human, that’s pretty stupid but ehn, life goes on. Oh, the Daleks are letting the Doctor on Skaro now? Oh well, they’ll be sorting each other out again soon enough. Oh, the console room’s all different? Well, it changes again between Eight and Nine, and again between Ten and Eleven*. Oh, the Doctor’s snogging his companion now—honestly, I doubt this would’ve bothered me even before the innumerable romance arcs of the Eccleston-Tennant-Smith era.

*And incidentally, the Victorian-themed console room—complete with working fireplace if I recall correctly? Pretty fly.

And I really like the way all this material comes up off-handedly—in keeping with the general trend of the movie not wallowing in Serious Drama. If this were the new show, there would be dark hints and ridiculously cryptic clues about the Doctor’s “true nature” for one-to-three seasons, and the revelation would come with a great narrative crescendo. Whereas in the movie, the Master opens the Eye of Harmony and basically says “The Doctor is half human, how interesting,” within the first half hour.

Then there’s the scene at the San Francisco Institute, where the Doctor and Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) have been ambushed by the atomic clock’s creator just as they are plotting to steal it. The creator insistently asks the Doctor to reveal his “big secret,” so the Doctor pulls him aside and confides: “I’m half human. On my mother’s side.” F*** you, that’s hilarious.

Like I said, the TV movie is stupid fun, but it is quite fun. Paul McGann plays a suitably eccentric Doctor—I knew I was in good hands when he interrupted a line of exposition on the impending death of the Earth to exclaim, “Grace! These shoes fit perfectly!”

As far as the Master goes, I have to disagree with Nash of Radio Dead Air. Eric Roberts’ acting may be bad, but he’s still entertaining as hell, especially when he has one of the other three main characters—The Doctor, Grace, or Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso)—to play off of.

Grace Holloway and Chang Lee are not the most memorable or inventive of Doctor Who guest stars, but they’re sufficiently active and likable to help carry the story. Likable enough to provoke some sense of sorrow when they die*; and happiness when they’re resurrected. Nash scoffed at this—and it’s the sort of thing the Nostalgia Critic regularly mocks as well—but personally, I’m good with it. I had a safe and happy childhood, and even I don’t need TV to tell me that in real life, when people die they stay dead. Besides, despite the best efforts of Davies and Moffat and the like, Doctor Who is not the right medium for making profound statements about death, and it hasn’t been for a very long time, if ever. It’s a medium for fun, silly adventures, it’s what Doctor Who does best, and that spirit is undermined when sympathetic characters get Killed Off For Reals**. Again, campy adventure wins over foolhardy attempts at Serious Drama.

*And without all the tedious emotional manipulation and general angst the new show trots out whenever it kills off a character—or pretends it’s going to.
**Also known as the Vector Prime-Star by Star-Legacy of the Force Syndrome.

It’s fun just to sit back and watch as the Doctor dashes madcap about San Francisco with his astonished companion in tow; while the Master bods about deceiving Chang, menacing the Doctor, and sounding remarkably like George Clooney. (Yes, George Clooney.) It’s all so endearingly silly, and you’ve got to love the gag with the motorcycle cop accidentally driving through the TARDIS door, and you can hear the cop drive a very long way before turning around and driving right back out again. Heck, even Nash appreciated that one. (It was probably the inspiration for Clara riding a motorcycle right into the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”)

So yeah, to sum up: cute film, definitely worth a look.

TV reflection: Doctor Who episode 1: “An Unearthly Child”

My familiarity with the first twenty-six seasons of the original Doctor Who is hardly comprehensive, but it predates my interactions with the new show by several months. For the last seven or eight years I’ve been watching through the old show more or less at random. A few months before I started grad school, I finally hit the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and decided I’d share my thoughts on it. I don’t intend to make a practice out of this like I do for the new show, but I may share my thoughts about specific stories I find particularly good, particularly bad, or otherwise noteworthy. For now, “An Unearthly Child.”

This episode basically comes in three parts. In the first part, history teacher Barbara Wright and science teacher Ian Chesterton discuss one of their more peculiar pupils, fifteen-year-old Susan Foreman. Barbara convinces Ian to drive to the junkyard which corresponds to Susan’s home address and find out just exactly where her home is.

In the second part, Barbara and Ian see Susan disappear into the junkyard and try to follow her. While they cannot find Susan, they do discover a police telephone box which they cannot open, and an eccentric old man who acts very evasive about said box. He tries to get them to leave, but then Susan’s voice calls out of the police box and the door swings open, and Ian and Barbara rush in, followed by the old man.

In the final part, Susan and her grandfather attempt to explain about the TARDIS’ bigger-on-the-inside-than-it-is-on-the-outside nature and space/time travel. Susan’s grandfather just wants to get rid of the interlopers, but finally accedes to Susan’s requests to let them go—by warping them all out of the twentieth century and onto a desolate plain, where the shadow of a caveperson looks on presumably in disbelief.

I’m going to discuss “An Unearthly Child” from the perspective of someone who’s already familiar with the show and its mythology, because that’s the only way I can interact with it at this point. From that perspective, the first part, with Barbara and Ian puzzling over Susan’s alien brilliance is by far the most entertaining. The second part is fairly amusing because the Doctor clearly hasn’t got the hang of dealing with nosy people yet, and his evasions are hilariously weak and transparent; but when you get right down to it, this whole sequence is just an overly drawn-out build-up to a revelation which at this point, anyone who’d be watching the episode already knows all about. The third part is even worse, as it consists of an even more tediously drawn-out sequence establishing stuff we already know and have seen explained more entertainingly and concisely elsewhere, and a less-than-riveting buildup to a by now foregone conclusion.

One can’t blame the writer or the director or anyone else connected to the project for failing to predict what a massive hit Doctor Who would become, or for having different standards for pacing from what we consider ideal fifty years later. “An Unearthly Child” was probably a more than adequate introduction to the show at the time, but it’s long since been overtaken by material which is, if not outright better, then certainly more accessible to a modern viewer.

It’s still watchable (and better than many episodes the new series has subjected us to), but aside from a chance to see where it all began, there’s not much to recommend it.

As a matter of fact, my favorite parts of this episode are when it’s being completely stupid. When Barbara and Ian first discover the TARDIS, they put their hands to a panel on the door, and Ian exclaims, “It’s vibrating; this thing’s alive!” Gee, Einstein, is that what you say when you put your hand on the hood of your car with the engine warmed up, too?

There’s also, unfortunately, a truly cringe-worthy instance of early 1960s racism—so blunt and uncouth compared to our enlightened and sophisticated mid 2010s racism—when the Doctor compares Barbara’s and Ian’s narrow-mindedness regarding his and Susan’s and the TARDIS’ alien nature to a “primitive … red Indian” presented with a steam engine. Bad Doctor Who, bad!

Anyway, that was “An Unearthly Child.” It leads directly into a three-part story involving cavepeople, but it’s mostly a standalone story, and I have no great inclination to watch the next few episodes. Til next time.

TV analysis: Firefly

This is a slightly edited version of an essay I originally posted in 2009. My sister ptolemaeus and I had already watched the complete series, though we had not and still have not seen the movie Serenity.

I have a love/hate relationship with Firefly. In some places it’s good, in some it’s really good. In some places it’s bad, and in some it’s really, really godawful.

If the preceding two sentences weren’t sufficient warning, die-hard fans of the show should take note that the following analysis contains some pretty harsh criticism of Firefly. If you’re one of those fans who can’t stand other people voicing their dislike for certain aspects of the series, you might want to reconsider reading this essay. People who have not finished the series and don’t like having the plot given away are advised to do likewise. In short: criticism and spoiler warning (including one or two movie spoilers). Additionally: Trigger warning for discussion of rape and misogyny.

Right then, now that’s out of the way, we begin with a breakdown of the main cast, for, as I will soon demonstrate, the characterization in Firefly is integral to the bad and the good of the show.

Mal – Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Firefly fans the world over will swear bloody vengeance on me for saying this, but it has to be said: Mal is an unrepentant, insufferable, murderous asshole. He’s an authoritarian dictator who demands respect from others at all times while returning it only as he sees fit, frequently violating their personal space (in one case, over the other’s repeated objections), insulting them, and generally making it clear in no uncertain terms who’s boss around his ship. Anyone who violates his dictatorial authority can expect swift justice—and by “justice,” I mean they get punched out, thrown in the airlock, and threatened with decompression (we can argue about whether or not he really would’ve flushed Jayne, but it’s a largely moot point). And this is how he treats his friends. He threatens other people, too, and takes obvious delight in inflicting mental (telling Simon “Kaylee’s dead” before he joins the crew, when he’d previously threatened to space both Simon and River if Kaylee didn’t pull through) and physical (repeatedly “poking” Atherton Wing with a sword) pain in others. Oh, and he kicks helpless prisoners into engine intakes given half an excuse, and with no little amusement.

I think the original idea with Mal was to make him heroic but “edgy”: a bit of an asshole, but at heart a decent human being (he was apparently based off of Han Solo, after all). However, two problems arose in the execution phase. First of all, the writers took the concept “edgy” and pushed it way, way too far. Kicking helpless prisoners—even if they did just threaten you—into engine intakes isn’t “morally questionable”; it’s downright sadistic, as are many of Mal’s other actions (though to a lesser degree).

And secondly, the story implicitly supports Mal’s sadism. It lightly censures his blatant disrespect for Inara and other minor manifestations of jackassery, but the tone of the show is clearly “oh Mal, you scamp, tut-tut young master, that’s not the proper way to behave.” And when it comes to the really big stuff, like tormenting Simon and Wing, or knocking out Jayne and threatening him with the airlock, or shooting the Alliance agent in the pilot, or murdering the Russian mook in “The Train Job,” the expected mood is clearly “hey, Mal just did something incredibly cool/funny/both” not “hey, Mal just did something incredibly awful.” It’s obvious that in all of Mal’s vilest actions, the writers are 100% on his side.

Sure, Mal has a conscience, and he has his standards—he’s not a total villain. He’s supposed to be a complex character, and I suppose he is, but I can’t get past the fact that he routinely does things which are clearly villainous and which the writers just as clearly want the viewer to regard as noble (and often hysterical) simply because it’s Mal doing them.

He also has the misfortune of fulfilling the role of blunt instrument with which Whedon occasionally beats some “feminist” message over his viewers’ heads.

This tactic not only has all the grace and subtlety of a poorly lobbed half-brick, but it makes no sense from a characterization perspective. I should think even viewers who don’t see Mal’s actions as morally unconscionable can agree that Mal is not an idealist. Ever since the Battle of Serenity Valley, he hasn’t cared about grand ideals or overarching systems any more. He does everything at the personal level—the political dimension of his character his something which he constantly represses.

He has his principles (some of which, as I pointed out, are extremely messed-up) by they are purely his own code of conduct, with no connection to some greater moral framework.

So it’s all the more incongruous when he gets up on his high horse to spout Anvilicious speeches about female empowerment and women’s rights—all of which come down to either a) “you will be empowered because I say so, got that?” or b) “she’s a woman and you will respect her because it’s important to respect women, got that? Nobody gets away with disrespecting women on my watch … except me.”

Malcolm Reynolds, everybody, greatest gorram sci-fi hero of all time.

(After publishing this essay, I learned of the infamous “women are ruining science fiction with their decadent feminist agenda” article from a few years ago. I actually read the article itself on the reactionary misogynist blog where it was first published—and was completely unsurprised to find that the site’s regulars, while expressing a low regard for Whedon in general, praised Mal as an example of manliness in sci-fi.)

Zoe Alleyne Washburne. In discussing Zoe’s character, ptolemaeus once described her as basically a stereotypical male character, pretty much devoid of feminine—or even androgynous—traits. Others have since questioned this reading of Zoe’s character, though, and perhaps it’s unfair. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple years since I’ve watched the show now, so I can’t really give Zoe’s character the reassessment she deserves.

I can point out, though, that at least some people have seen her as cleaving a bit too closely to the Black Warrior Woman archetype. She certainly makes a nice black female sidekick to Mal’s white male *a-hem* “hero.”

She also occasionally shoots fleeing enemies in the back which is … a good thing?

Wash – Hoban Washburne. Wash is the Serenity‘s pilot, Zoe’s husband, and would normally be the comedy relief, too. On Joss Whedon’s shows (except Dollhouse) pretty much everyone is the comic relief, though, so Wash is more the lighthearted relief, always there to brighten the mood when things start to get too depressing (ironic considering his eventual fate).

Wash is this goofy guy who also happens to be an exceptional pilot. His marriage to Zoe is sweet but not flawlessly so. Fortunately, the series didn’t last long enough for the writers to break up their relationship, then put it back together, then break it up and put it back again ad nauseam.

Inara Serra. From what I’ve heard, back when Joss Whedon was outlining the original concept of Firefly, his wife thought it would be a great idea to include a “Hooker With a Heart of Gold” character, and thus Inara was born. She’s also supposed to be an “empowered” sex worker. Sex work is, of course, a highly controversial topic, including among feminists. Personally, I’ve grown over the years more and more towards the standpoint of being in solidarity with women (and men, and intersex adults) who choose to go into sex work. Heck, I can believe that for at least some of them, going into the business can be empowering by taking ownership of their sexuality or the like. But I have to wonder if the glamorized “Companionship” of the Firefly ‘Verse really has anything meaningful to say about sex work or sexuality or empowerment (or, for that matter, work) in the real world.

I also have a hard time regarding her as “empowered” through her sex work when Whedon makes sure every third client of Inara’s treats her like crap so that someone (usually Mal) can lay the smackdown on misogyny. (The implicit sex work stigma in said clients’ mistreatment of Inara also sits uncomfortably with the glorification of the institution of Companionship which Whedon insists on.)

And then, of course, there’s the fact that her “love interest” Mal also routinely treats her like crap—even worse than he treats his other friends and acquaintances. Their relationship is borderline abusive, and it would undoubtedly grow more so if it ever developed into a romance.

Apparently, an episode which was planned but mercifully never produced due to the series’ cancellation would have featured a group of Reavers gang-raping Inara, and would have been about how this affected Mal’s relationship with her. Blecch.

In short, Inara is hardly a great feminist role model.

Other than that, I’m ambivalent about her character; ptolemaeus found her annoyingly melodramatic, and I think I was beginning to pick up some of that the last time I watched the show.

Jayne Cobb. Jayne is something like what you’d get if you took a character like Malcolm Reynolds and wrote him honestly. Like Mal, Jayne is an utter bastard; unlike Mal, the writers point out his bastardry and make a fun spectacle of it, instead of trying to make out that it’s somehow noble, or at least no big deal. Which is probably why Jayne, as a character, kicks ass, whereas Mal sucks same.

Kaylee – Kaywinnit (according to Wikipedia, I’m not making that up) Lee Frye. Kaylee is the Serenity‘s mechanic and all-around fixit-woman, with a pleasant, spunky, almost happy-go-lucky disposition. She’s also—and I can’t help but find this significant—the only member of the Serenity‘s crew who’s an absolute coward when it comes to physical violence.

Kaylee is a very, very adorable and very, very fragile young woman. Naturally, this makes her the ideal target for every second villain the crew encounters.

In the introduction to the Women in Refrigerators website, creator Gail Simone specifically does not offer an explanation for why female characters in comics (and other media) tend to be subject to a disproportionate amount of abuse. This is a phenomenon I’d independently noticed, and formed my own conclusions on before learning about the site.

Part of it is probably that in our misogynist culture there are few things scarier than a truly empowered woman. We have this subconscious gynophobic need to depict powerful women a evil, or to subject them to some horrible trauma (often sexual) to reassert their subordinate position, or both.

But in many cases, the woman in question is not particularly empowered to begin with. Often she is particularly fragile in relation to the other characters (Lady Magadaria from the third season of the Rurouni Kenshin anime is one such character who has always stuck in my mind). In such cases, I think, a slightly different logic is at work.

In misogynist Western culture, the empowered female is perverse and unnatural. But then, we may ask, what is “natural?” Why, of course, the fragile female.

The patriarchal assumption is men = strong; women = weak. This makes women more pitiful, and so when a woman is hurt or killed, it’s considered more tragic than when the same happens to a man. (By the same logic which states that harm to a baby or child is more tragic than harm to an adult.) This is a theme explored in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and—as many of the female characters in that series point out, though not in so many words—it’s a deeply sexist one*.

*I don’t mean to make out that Wheel of Time is a particularly feminist series, but I have found this specific theme helpful in reaching a better understanding of feminist issues.

This narrative that women are more helpless and pitiful than men (and therefore that harm to them is more tragic than harm to men) continues the myth of women as Other, and also as lacking in power and agency. But it’s also strongly ingrained in Western culture. Personally, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that female suffering, real or fictional, tends to hit me harder than male suffering, and when I hear about a male (real or fictional) suffering or dying, I’ll be somewhat relieved that at least they weren’t female.

In constantly making Kaylee the villains’ target-of-choice, Joss Whedon is playing to a strongly and deeply held cultural narrative which states that a fragile young woman in danger and/or in pain is especially tragic.

Questionable feminist credentials aside, this is a cheap-shot. When writers can’t be bothered to work at getting their viewers’ sympathy, they just throw in something which viewers are culturally encoded to sympathize with, such as a young child or a fragile young woman, and then put them into danger and/or pain. It works, but it’s a cheap trick and doesn’t say anything positive about said writer’s talent.

Don’t get me wrong, Kaylee is probably my second-favorite character on the show. She’s sweet and funny and upbeat and intelligent and a very nice person. I just wish Whedon and co. didn’t make such a point of making Kaylee the weakest, most vulnerable member of the crew.

In fourteen episodes, I can list at least one (generally more than one) incredible thing (I would say awesome, but that implies a moral judgment) each of the other eight characters did, off the top of my head. The most incredible thing Kaylee ever did occurred in a flashback, and even that wasn’t too impressive when compared with her shipmates’ accomplishments.

The budding romance between Kaylee and Simon is sweet and touching. It would’ve been even sweeter if the writers didn’t have Kaylee flip her shit every time he makes a thoughtlessly rude comment—which happens with surprising frequency. He’ll say something thoughtless and insensitive and instead of taking the moral high ground about it (or just acting more mature than a ten-year-old), Kaylee flares up and chews him out as if he’d just spat in her face. He ends up an insensitive and perpetually clueless dunce (seriously, how can this guy not noticed she’s attracted to him without sustaining some kind of cranial injury?), and she like just a jerk. Even if Simon can’t recognize he’s being insensitive, she must have enough space-savvy to realize he doesn’t mean anything nasty by all those unfortunate comments, and yet she takes them as such because … um … um …

Seriously, can someone for the love of Earth-that-was tell me what the point of this scene is, and why the writers feel obligated to repeat it a dozen times in as many episodes? It isn’t funny, or clever, isn’t particularly in-character, isn’t by any stretch of the imagination necessary, so why do they keep doing it?

I’ve come up with two possibilities, and I don’t put any particular faith in either of them.

Possibility #1: they wanted sexual tension between the characters, and this was the only way they could think of to keep “tension” from blooming into full-blown romance. (We all know, of course, that any romance between main characters which springs up in the first few episodes and wasn’t intended to fail will inevitably drag the series into a creative and fiscal black hole.)

Possibility #2: it’s a lazy device the writers employ whenever they’re stuck for a way to move the plot forward. (The one thing these scenes inarguably accomplish is to put the participants in the right place physically and emotionally for the next plot point to turn up.) In other words, the plot of an episode—one vital thread of it, at least—often depends on Simon being insensitive and Kaylee being a jerk to him about it. In the technical (and slightly ableist) terminology of the industry, this is known as an “Idiot Plot.”

Shepherd Derrial Book. Book is basically the Magical Negro, a wise and mysterious older black man who (according to one of the DVD extras) often acts as the crew’s conscience, especially Mal’s. (A priest as conscience; gentle people, I give you one of the most innovative television shows of the 21st century!) He must’ve been off the clock in the pilot though, because, as he tells Inara: “I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. And I’m not even sure if I think he was wrong.”

Book is a pretty fun character—even if he is something of a racial stereotype—and it’s a shame he didn’t get more development before the series ended.

Simon Tam. Simon is the resident medic, an upper-class doctor who sacrificed his career and his lifestyle to save his sister. He’s one of the most caring people aboard the Serenity—although like the rest of the ship’s crew, he’s prone to spectacular lapses in judgment at times.

When I first saw the pilot in college, I didn’t know exactly who comprised the main cast, and I was convinced Simon was going to get himself killed in the climactic scene. When I later watched it again with ptolemaeus, she anxiously asked me if Simon was going to die. He’s the type of character writers kill off.

I think this is partially because he doesn’t have an obvious point. Oh, there’s his medical skills obviously, but character-wise and situation-wise he doesn’t seem to fit. He’s not abrasive and mean or violent and funny or kind and melodramatic or wise and mysterious or mysterious, female, and special. He doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes we’ve been set up to expect, and he doesn’t have an obvious niche in the plot line beyond introducing River. In Hollywood parlance, a character in that situation would be classified as coffin-bait. Fortunately for Simon and for the show, Whedon is occasionally capable of seeing the blindingly obvious when most writers would look right through it.

So Simon survives, and joins up with the crew. And he is awesome. Granted, you’d have to have some sort of certifiable mental condition not to figure out that you’re insulting Kaylee every other episode, but unlike Kaylee, Simon has more to do in the show than play out a 6th grader’s idea of a romance and act as damsel in distress.

After Simon survived the pilot, I expected him to fade into the background so the writers could focus on River, the more “special” (and thus less interesting) of the two. I’m still convinced that had the series continued for another six-and-a-half seasons as Whedon apparently intended, this is exactly what would have happened somewhere down the line. You can just tell River was Whedon’s and everybody else’s Golden Girl, and would eventually become a bigger focus than anyone except maybe Mal.

However, since Whedon and the rest of the creative staff wanted to drag out the River-as-Mentally-Damaged-Woman plotline—a problematic choice, but understandable given the amount of buildup they give her condition—they didn’t get around to shoving Simon out of the spotlight in favor of River before the show was canceled.

Which is kind of a good thing, because it means Simon got to be awesome all through the show. He’s clueless at times and can be a bit of a jerk, but he’s also sweet and funny and intelligent and has this fish-out-of-water complex which is quite cute.

And he’s got two more things going for him. First in that he’s heroic, but not in the way the other characters are (supposed to be). One of the greatest moments of the show is in episode 11 “Trash.” In that scene, Simon is treating jackass Jayne for injuries, and in the process reveals that he knows Jayne tried to turn Simon and River over to the Alliance authorities in a previous episode, “Ariel.” This is what he says:

No matter what you do, or say or plot, no matter how you come down on us … I will never, ever harm you. You’re on this table, you’re safe. ‘Cause I’m your medic, and however little we may like or trust each other, we’re on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemies, and more than enough of both. Now, we could circle each other and growl, sleep with one eye open, but that thought wearies me. I don’t care what you’ve done, I don’t know what you’re planning on doing, but I’m trusting you. I think you should do the same. ‘Cause I don’t see this working any other way.

Now wasn’t that cool? And a marked difference from Mal’s knock-Jayne-out-throw-him-in-the-airlock-and-threaten-to-space-him strategy. Of course, after he leaves, River has to spoil the moment by saying “Also … I can kill you with my brain.” And we’re back to using threats and violence to solve all our problems. This setting up a really good and original situation and then subverting it to make it dreary and unoriginal is a Firefly staple, by the way. In this case, the writers don’t manage to ruin the perfectly good situation they’ve set up quite as thoroughly as other times, because even if they do leave it on a threat, we can assume Simon was being sincere.

None of which is to say that Simon doesn’t also resort to violence on occasion. Probably his next two greatest moments are tackling Dobson in “Serenity” and tackling bounty hunter Jubal Early in the final episode “Objects in Space.”

What makes him all the more heroic in these scenes is that there’s no way he’d ever be able to win. It’s easy for Mal or Zoe or Jayne to jump into a fight; that’s practically the entirety of their job description. Mal in particular is safe, because he’s the main character. But Simon isn’t the main character, isn’t a good fighter, and in fact hasn’t got a snowball’s chance against any half-way decent adversary—which only makes him the more awesome charging into a hopeless battle anyway.

River Tam. In Firefly, River starts out as a straightforward damsel-in-distress, like Kaylee, only without all the characterization that makes Kaylee so likable. By the end of the show, she’s cycling between damsel-and-distress and girl-on-a-pedestal, with, unfortunately, no stopping for some actual character development in between.

… And that’s River. When she’s not crazy, damaged, and helpless, she’s an omnicompetent Mary-Sue, both of which are caricatures, not character.

So much for the cast. As you see, by going through an analysis of the main characters, we’ve identified many of the important themes in Firefly. There are still a couple, though, that I either have not addressed yet, or about which I have more to say. Kindly bear with me a little longer.

I admit the first thing which turned me off Mal wasn’t really the fault of the character. In the climactic scene of the pilot, the villainous Alliance agent Dobson has River held at gunpoint. He’s in the middle of going through the standard villain threat “Any sudden moves and I’ll-” when Mal casually walks into the hold and pulls a Dick Cheney on him.

The idea is, of course, to fake out the viewer: set up a standard situation and then subvert expectations by doing something different with it. It’s a move the Firefly team often like to pull. Unfortunately, in cases such as this one, it also has the tendency to backfire horribly.

In order for the sequence to work, Mal not only has to shoot Dobson, but the whole mood of the shot has to be casual, offhand. It has to look like they’re building up to something big and then whoops, no, all over, situation back under control.

The problem is that this makes shooting Dobson, well, casual and offhand. Admittedly, he was an asshole (they even threw in a scene of him beating on an unconscious Book, just so the audience would be more comfortable with Mal shooting him), and given the situation and the show’s implicit assumptions about the efficacy of violence, Mal’s actions were probably justified. But the casual nature of the scene sends the message that shooting Dobson isn’t just necessary, at best, it’s kinda funny; at worst, it’s no big deal. And that’s a very disturbing message.

(I suppose I should point out that although Dobson appears to be dead, and is left for such by the crew, in the series canon he isn’t actually killed off until much later. I don’t see that this detracts from my point, though.)

Sometimes the series does get a fake-out right. The episode “War Stories” had the highly dubious moral that Wash isn’t cool enough as is, and the only way for him to “make it” is to become as violent as Mal. Nevertheless, “War Stories” provided two good subversions all in one episode. In the climactic scene, Mal is duking it out with mob boss Niska’s head minion when Zoe, Wash, and Jayne arrive on the scene. When her companions are about to jump in to help their captain, Zoe tells them to stop, and invokes verbatim the old “He has do to this himself” line. To which Mal immediately responds “No he doesn’t!” So Zoe, Jayne and Wash go ahead and shoot the other guy.

The second one is even better, which is why I left it to second, even though it takes place first chronologically. It’s when Zoe picks Wash to be freed over Mal before Niska can even finish his “which of them will you choose?” speech.

In “War Stories,” it works. In “Serenity” it fails because what Mal does is horrible. Also earlier in the pilot, when he tells Simon that Kaylee’s dead. It’s a good joke on the audience—but on Simon the character, it’s downright cruel.

The all-time flop, though, would have to be the climax to “The Train Job.” Yes, it sets up Niska’s chief minion as a recurring enemy, only to remove him as a threat a moment later, but only by having the main character murder him. And as we all know, abuse and murder of helpless prisoners is the epitome of comedy.

A related Firefly staple—this one making even less sense—is to employ an inverse of this switcheroo: set up a fresh and original situation, and then subvert it and go ahead with the cliché resolution after all.

This effect is most notable in episode 13, “Heart of Gold,” in which the Serenity‘s crew comes to the aid of a brothel under attack from a cartoonishly misogynistic rancher. During the defense of the establishment, Mal hooks up with the madam, Nandi, an old friend and colleague of Inara’s. The next morning, Inara catches Mal exiting Nandi’s room, having obviously had a pleasurable night.

Whedon and his Merry Gender Neutrals are still playing coy about whether Mal knows Inara has the hots for him, but Inara clearly thinks he doesn’t, and wants to keep it that way because … something—whatever the reason, it isn’t because he treats her like [insert appropriate Chinese obscenity here].

So of course, she plays it casual, putting on a convincing performance of indifference, “It’s none of my business who you sleep with.” For a moment, they actually had me convinced. Then we cut to Inara in her own room, sobbing her eyes out.

Yes, even Space Hookers in the Future adhere to all the mainstream 21st century attitudes and foibles regarding sex and relationships. Apparently, Whedon’s aphorism that “nothing will change in the future” applies to dominant cultural mores as well as politics.

One of the great potentials of speculative fiction (one which is already woefully under-explored) is to imagine wildly different cultures from our own. Unfortunately, most of the “alien” or “futuristic” cultures in mainstream Western speculative fiction are not only less alien than most non-Western cultures, they’re less alien than most non-mainstream Western subcultures. A few Chinese curses and window-dressing not withstanding, the human culture of Firefly definitely fits this category.

This was a golden opportunity to depict something unfamiliar, something interesting, something imaginative. And something totally understandable, given the character in question’s cultural background is one of having sex with many people who are not the person she loves (i.e. Ethical Slut). But then they had to go and shoot themselves in the foot by revealing, surprise! Inara is just an overgrown and lovesick 21st century teenage girl in a futuristic setting.

Gentlebeings of all genders, I give you the greatest science fiction television series of all time.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the feminism angle or, as I like to call it, the “attempted feminism.” As we’ve already seen from our character portraits, none of the main characters in Firefly is exactly Grade A feminist material. That leaves us with Malcolm Reynolds and his ravings about how “you will be empowered or else” which never seem quite to jive with his own sexist mistreatment-bordering-on-harassment of Inara.

Whedon rounds out the feminism angle by confronting his main characters with a small army of the most laughable straw misogynists this reviewer has ever encountered. Imagine Snidely Whiplash turned flesh-and-blood and with a particular emphasis on the whole tying-women-(and women specifically)-to-the-train-tracks thing. Now imagine all that played in utter seriousness.

Atherton Wing and the rancher in “Heart of Gold” are two of the most hilariously over-the-top villains ever conceived. I’ll never understand why Whedon and his team didn’t just go the whole hog and give them ridiculously long mustaches to twirl—or at least goatees.

But not to worry; Wing gets the shit beaten out of him by Mal for treating Inara with approximately the same amount of regard for her humanity as Mal himself shows her. (According to Mal, he disrespects Inara’s job, while Wing disrespects her. In a characteristically insightful article, Dan Hemmens of ferretbrain points out exactly why this argument is utter bollocks.)

And the rancher in “Heart of Gold”? He gets righteously shot in the head by one of the brothel’s employees when he’s tied up and helpless. No, Mal is not the only person in Firefly guilty of this. The only difference I can detect is that kicking the minion into the engine was played for comedy, whereas shooting the Straw-Misogynist-of-the-Week was played for satisfaction. Since he had previously killed Nandi—have I mentioned that this show, for all its purported “innovation” contains its own share of clichés? Well, it does—since he’d killed such a sympathetic character, murdering him when he’s defenseless is considered just comeuppance. To test the validity of this idea, how do you think the writers and viewers would feel if the friends or family of one of Mal’s many victims—such as the prisoner he kicked into the engine—were to tie him up and kill him? Or any of the rest of the Serenity‘s crew, for that matter?

… Sorry, got a bit sidetracked, there. With Firefly there’s so many rants involved they tend to bleed over onto each other. Where was I again? Oh yes, strong female characters who fit at most two out of the three descriptives, random rants about female empowerment by the highly sexist protagonist, and to top it off, ludicrously characterized misogynist villains who get the stuffing beat out of them by one of the female characters or a suitable Nice Guy. This, in Whedon’s ‘Verse (and sadly, many of his viewers’) counts as cutting edge feminism.

And it only gets worse in Dollhouse (review forthcoming).

I’m not saying there aren’t people out there like the bottomless supply of Misogynists-of-the-Week Whedon has somehow tapped into. There are, although in real life their characterization is more well-rounded; there’s a lot more to their personalities than just hating women and beating up anything that gets in their way.

But more importantly, such people are a) extremely rare and b) only a symptom of a larger disease. Whether you want to call that disease patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, or something else, we’re talking about a system which runs through all manifestations of our culture, from politics to religion to family life to work to art/entertainment to language and everything else—a system which perpetuates the domination of females as a group by males as a group.

It’s a disease whose numerous symptoms have been documented on hundreds if not thousands of books, documentaries, and feminist blogs. And these everyday manifestations of sexism aren’t restricted to Cardboard Misogynists a la Wing. We all, to a certain extent, have internalized and act from this cultural narrative, this meta-myth. To a certain extent, we can’t help it. I recall reading of a study where two groups of people were shown a person holding a machine up to a young baby—a machine which promptly gave off a loud noise. The testers asked the participants to interpret the baby’s reaction. The group which had been told the baby was female thought “she” was scared; the group which had been told the baby was male concluded “he” was angry.

The lesson to draw from this is that in a sexist society, everyone is sexist to some degree, and everyone is complicit in perpetuating sexism. We all make assumptions based on sex that we can only sometimes recognize consciously, and we all act upon those subconscious assumptions.

Most Western males and many Western females don’t see it that way, though. They think of sexism as something confined to individuals, and not something deeply embedded into the cultural systems which make up out society.

White anti-racist Tim Wise has said of the 2005 movie Crash: “By presenting racism as an individual malady, rather than a social issue of great import, Crash allows white viewers to default to our preexisting understanding of the issue, rather than having to deal with the way in which every structure of American society continues to treat people of color as inferiors, be it in housing, employment, education, or criminal justice” (and the list goes on, and on, and on …)

Anyway, my point is that by presenting sexism as more-or-less the sole domain of a bottomless supply of Straw Misogynists, Whedon likewise diverts his audience’s attention from the systemic violence of patriarchy. While decrying misogyny is a step above going “Oppression? What oppression?” the Whedon Formula is hardly a shining example of feminist discourse, and in many ways—by shifting the responsibility for sexism off the mainstream population and onto those evil, evil misogynists—is even counter-productive.

Notice that I’m not accusing Whedon of being a misogynist himself, or of raping his wife, or anything melodramatic like that. No, I’m making the infinitely more blasphemous accusation that Joss Whedon is a human being, and therefore capable of making mistakes, of not saying what he intends to say, or even of having a flawed understanding of some of these issues.

I have less to say about the depiction of race on the show, beyond what I already have. However, if the backstory is really that the dominant culture of humanity is a mix of American and Chinese, why are seven out of the nine main characters white, along with 90%+ of the people with whom they interact? (And the other two main characters black?)

Multiple people have also pointed out that if Firefly is a Western, that would mean the murderous, people-eating Reavers are American Indian-analogues, and the war between the independence-minded outer worlds and the imperialist Alliance is analogous to the American civil war between the Southern slaveholding states and the Northern non-slaveholding states. Couple Unfortunate Implications there.

Bottom line: Firefly is a fairly good show, but it doesn’t live up to the hype in terms of feminism or basic storytelling, and its views on morality are often disturbing, as exemplified by its murderous, sadistic, despotic, all-around jackass of a main character. As I once remarked to ptolemaeus, I’d give a lot for a science fiction series with Joss Whedon’s talent, but with Gene Roddenberry’s heart.

That is all.

Not Exactly Arthur Conan Doyle

In the summer of 2009, I found myself in a movie theater (all right, two movie theaters) waiting to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. My parents, bless them, were still into the series somewhat, and I found it bearable for the snarking, so I went along.

So there I am, sitting through the previews and—oh my god, what the hell is that?

It was a trailer for what purported to be a live-action movie starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character, that master detective, Sherlock Holmes.

I say “purporting” because all through the preview I was listing in my head the things which were horribly, atrociously wrong: Sherlock Holmes played by the very American Robert Downey Jr.; Holmes in a sexual tension subplot with a woman; Holmes acting in general like a boorish, hedonistic cad; gratuitous generic action sequences; Holmes solving problems through violence with a distinct lack of observation and deduction; floating women in white and other indicators of a supernatural element; oh, and at the end of the preview, Watson punches Holmes. Watson’s not supposed to do that.

In short my mind quickly filed the whole movie under Things to Be Avoided Like the Plague and that would have been the end of it. However, ptolemaeus also saw the trailer, and while she agreed the movie would be bad, she was convinced it would be So Bad Its Good.

Come the 2009 winter holidays, she was so excited about Sherlock Holmes that our mom and I conspired to take her and our two sisters to the opening show Christmas Day. Even I became excited, figuring I would snark all the way through the movie and give it a devastating write-up. On the way to the theater, all we could talk about was how awful the movie was going to be.

We went into the movie and to my complete astonishment, it didn’t suck. What’s more it was actually good. It was great.

From the trailer, I had expected a derivative Hollywood adaptation which throws out practically all the source material except the names of the characters and some of the trappings in favor of a generic sex-and-violence caper.

What I got instead was … well, let’s take it from the top.

Spoilers. Natch.

The Eponymous Hero

Robert Downey Jr. certainly brings a new interpretation to Holmes, and I feel like there was a certain amount of Hollywood wrongheadedness about his performance.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle describes Holmes thusly:

All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.

Downey’s Holmes, by contrast, is highly emotional. Churlish, excitable, susceptible to petty goading, jealous of Watson’s relationship with Mary, and strongly attracted to Irene Adler, in direct opposition to Conan Doyle’s assertion that “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.”

Furthermore, while Conan Doyle’s Holmes is always cool, collected, and at least a dozen steps ahead of the audience, Downey’s is constantly behind the curve, and having to catch up. Where Conan Doyle’s Holmes is sophisticated, Downey’s is coarser, grungier, much quicker to get his hands dirty.

What the trailer completely left out was that he’s also analytical, observant, and in fact solves most of his problems through intelligence, creativity and even planning. The violence is certainly played up, but it’s fairly well grounded in the Holmesian canon and does not, in fact, overshadow the logic and deduction.

Holmes’ nigh-clairvoyant ability to analyze people and situations through small and often obscure details and his use of disguises* are prominently displayed, and far from being throw-away features to provide a vague nod in the general direction of the original canon, they are integral to the story. He observes and deducts his way through most of the plot, and the dramatic climax is notably not for his duel with the villain atop Tower Bridge, but his subsequent summation of the case.

*You can spot the first use of a disguise when Irene Adler’s mysterious associate pulls a gun on a nosy stranger—had said stranger truly been an extra, he’d have been shot dead rather than let off with a warning.

Whilst in the theater I remarked that the screenwriters must’ve arrived at this version of Holmes by reading the CliffNotes Doyle and then filled in the rest after an extended House marathon. Now that I think about it though, Downey’s Holmes is more reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow; more vulnerable and fallible than Conan Doyle’s version, but always with at least one card up his sleeve—even if it is sometimes mere improvisation.

There’s a part in the trailer where Watson exclaims “Holmes, does your depravity know no bounds?” to which Holmes replies “No.” The trailer insinuated Holmes was coming off a grossly out-of-character night of drink and debauchery, but in context it referred to Holmes paying off a fortuneteller to convince Watson that his marriage to Mary would be a nightmare, which makes somewhat more sense.

Even the romance with Irene Adler is more palatable in context. While Downey’s Holmes is not the woman-hater of the original canon, he’s closer to it than the lecherous skirt-chaser depicted in the trailer. His attraction to Irene and hers to him is clearly grounded in their mutual respect for each others’ professional talents.

A romance budding between criminal and investigator is a well-established dramatic trope, and at times Holmes’ and Irene’s relationship verged on the cliché, but on the whole I think the filmmakers pulled it off rather well.

A Brit might take issue with Downey’s accent, but I confess I quickly learned to stop worrying and just love the performance. I’m also reliably informed that, for those whose orientation swings that way, Downey’s Holmes is pretty hot stuff, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Irene Adler

Contrary to the impression made by the trailer, Rachel McAdams spends the majority of this movie fully clothed. She does employ seduction against Holmes, but it’s clearly only one tool in her bag of tricks, and not even the primary one.* She also comes equipped with a small arsenal of miniature weapons, impressive combat skills, and a flair for improvisation which nearly matches Holmes’ own.

*In fact, a reviewing of the movie trailers makes it clear that the film cut an additional scene of Irene in lingerie and acting seductive, meaning the film’s editor actually toned down the sexual objectification for the theatrical release.

Mind you, I don’t see the Irene Adler of the film defeating Holmes. For all her smarts and all her skill, Irene nearly gets herself killed twice by the villain and has to be saved by Holmes, and spends the bulk of the movie under the thumb of the Man in Shadow. She comports herself well and pulls some neat tricks, but I don’t think she lived up to her reputation. Shame.

Of course, I shouldn’t give her too much grief for pulling a Gwen Stacy Maneuver. Just as the romance side plot for the (male) main character is obligatory for any modern American action film, it is equally mandatory either to kill off the female love interest or to fake same.

Still, Rachel McAdams is a great actor and, for those of us whose orientation swings the other way, very attractive, too. Apropos of nothing, I also noticed halfway through the movie that she has two freckles on her neck which look amusingly like vampire bite marks.

Watson

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because I’m sure Jude Law delivered a fine performance, and his Watson was competent, proactive, and funny, but I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. For me, Downey’s Holmes, McAdams’ Irene Adler and even Mark Strong as the villainous Lord Blackwood rather stole the show.

Oh, on second thought, I suppose I could point out that Law plays up Watson’s military background, as part of the whole action movie motif (more on that later).

And it turns out the punching-Holmes-in-the-face incident, as well as the scene where Watson angrily lists Holmes’ flaws are both in response to Holmes’ continued meddling in Watson’s love life. It’s not quite the relationship Conan Doyle portrayed, but then, neither were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The point is that where the trailer had me expecting a highly adversarial relationship between Watson and Holmes of the type Dark Lords would do well to fear, what I got was a strong friendship of great mutual respect occasionally punctuated by open conflict—which to me is entirely in keeping with the Holmesian tradition.

There’s also all the lovely gay subtext (bordering on supratext) between Watson and Holmes. I don’t really have much to say about this, except, I guess, “have fun, guys.”

Mary Morstan also has a role, but only as a plot device to generate (sexual) tension between Holmes and Watson. Hopefully, the sequel will give her a more substantial role.

The Villains

The main antagonist of this movie is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Blackwood is not a hereditary lord, as we learn midway through the film that he’s the illegitimate son of some bigwig or other who just so happens also to be the leader of a secret society of mystics similar to the Illuminati. You know the drill, clandestine rituals involving knives and goblets, long robes and pentagrams, bones and hair, ominous biblical quotes, rinse and repeat.

Blackwood, is, of course, a practitioner of black magic, and is, of course—though never referred to as such—also Jack the Ripper. The murdered sex workers were a means of gathering power for his real goal, which is, you guessed it: take over the world. Say it with me now:

 

The movie opens with Holmes and Watson foiling the suicide of Victim #6—clearly under Blackwood’s influence—and Blackwood’s arrest. However, Blackwood is not terribly put out by being jailed, as it apparently allows him to put his real plan in motion. Blackwood is hanged, buried, busts out of his grave, then kills his father and takes over the Fauxminati. With their assistance, he plans to show Guy Fawkes how it’s done and wipe out Parliament—except for his own followers—leaving him in control of the Empire.

Needless to say, our heroes have other ideas. Blackwood’s device is disarmed and Blackwood himself, pursuing Holmes and Irene to the top of the half-constructed Tower Bridge, falls off the bridge with a chain wrapped around his neck.

Not the most memorable movie villain out there, but the relative originality of his plan and the way it unfolds put him—and the plot—well above standard action movie fair. The fact that his ultimate goal is not patently obvious from the first ten minutes speaks volumes for the plot, and Blackwood’s part in it. On the other hand, I gotta knock a few points off for the lazy “empire to last a thousand years” reference.

Blackwood is aided in his duplicitous affairs by Lord Coward of the Home Office, a high-ranking member of the Fauxmenati. From the moment I clapped eyes on him, I thought Coward looked familiar, but a perusal of Hans Matheson’s IMDB page failed to ring any bells, so perhaps I imagined it. This illusion did make Coward a more interesting character for me, and I note that he survived the movie unscathed and apparently a free man. I hope this means we’ll see more of him in the sequel.

Last we have the Man in Shadow, who employs Irene Adler and carries a miniature gun in a spring-loaded holster. At first, when Blackwood talked of greater things afoot than himself and Holmes, I thought perhaps Blackwood was just the lieutenant—“the channel,” as he identifies himself—and the MIS would prove to be the man behind the man.

It soon became clear that Blackwood was indeed the main villain and, more significantly, that he and the MIS were working somewhat at cross-purposes. With that cleared up, pegging the MIS as Professor Moriarty was elementary.

Moriarity’s involvement in the plot is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the entire movie. I daresay the filmmakers never would have gotten away with it if they weren’t writing an established character in an established fictional universe. Apart from controlling Irene Adler, Moriarity’s role is tangential to the main plot and very much behind the scenes. Fortunately, Moriarity’s reputation does the filmmakers’ work for them, allowing them to add an extra layer of significance to the story and culminating in a satisfyingly clever little sequel hook. It was a gutsy move on their part, including Moriarity in the film purely to lay the groundwork for an uncertain sequel, but as far as I’m concerned, it more than paid off.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

This is one of the few parts where the trailer was not entirely misleading. The filmmakers have significantly beefed up the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes, because the only way an American movie can be a success in the 00s is if it’s an action movie.

While the fight scenes do not exactly say “Sherlock Holmes,” they do not detract from the essential detective story nature of the film, so I’ll forgive them.

Towards the end of the trailer, Holmes is confronted with a Giant Mook wielding a comparably sized hammer. He reaches for a weapon and picks up a perfectly ordinary hammer, which looks puny in comparison. Cue a split-second of “comic” consternation as Holmes contemplates the situation, then throws the hammer, which bounces off his opponent’s chest.

When I first saw this sequence in the theater, cringing in my seat and reflecting that after this, Harry Potter would be a relief, I thought ‘Great, so now on top of everything else he’s freaking Inspector Clouseau?’

Then came the movie and what did I see? Holmes calculating the moves in a fight and identifying weak points on his opponent before the first punch has been thrown. We get treated to a similar sequence a bit later on, when Holmes is in a boxing match played out to the surprisingly apt tune of The Rocky Road to Dublin. Of course, both fights go precisely as predicted.

This is not like anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, but it’s a reasonable extension of the canon; we may imagine this is how Holmes would comport himself in a fight. In his fight with the giant Dredger he displays ingenuity and strong tactical thinking in no small measure. This degenerates by the halfway point, but given the vast amount of truly Holmesian thinking displayed throughout the rest of the movie, I’m prepared to overlook one mindless action sequence.

For reasons which remain unclear, Holmes, Watson and practically everyone else in this movie seem to be practitioners of some strange Western martial arts discipline, which is a little jarring. One wonders why they so often resort to fisticuffs rather than firearms; presumably it’s because they know that with the way they shoot when they do resort to firearms, they’ll get better results by simply whomping on their opponents.

More Things on Heaven and Earth

Among the many disservices the trailer afforded me and the movie was to portray the existence of the supernatural in this film as a done deal. Women levitate off of alters, Lord Blackwood rises from the grave, you better start believing in ghost stories, Mr. Holmes; you’re in one.

When the movie opened with Holmes and Watson foiling Blackwood’s ritual (which pointedly did not feature Victim #6 levitating), ptolemaeus confidently whispered to me that all the supernatural stuff would turn out to be a red herring. I had my doubts for a while, but as with most of her other predictions, this one proved spot-on.

Oh, the last shot of Lord Blackwood (whose final paperwork will no doubt read “Cause of Death: Poetic Justice”), and the ubiquitous crow (there’s always a bloody crow) are a clear tip of the hat to the notion of forces at work beyond our understanding. But it’s vague and not necessarily supernatural at all, whereas the specifics of black magic and ritual and humans harnessing occult forces to do things like levitate young women or boil a man alive or set another man on fire or come back from being hanged* are all debunked in the Summing Up scene. (Actually, the whole levitation thing wasn’t explained, because it never occurred in the movie itself. Make of that what you will.)

*This one likely would’ve been more impressive had Terry Pratchett not pulled a similar trick five years earlier.

I had slightly different worries when Blackwood started talking about “three more deaths” which Holmes must accept he can do nothing about. Fortunately, while Holmes indeed fails prevent the deaths, there’s no angsting about fighting fate or any of that nonsense, no agonizing about whether or not he’ll be able to prevent the prophesied fatalities when we all knew quite well he wouldn’t—in short, no yanking our chains by proffering the illusion that he might actually be able to save even one of them. The Magic Three dropped off the radar completely, only coming back ex post facto, which is probably the right way to handle deaths foretold if you absolutely must have them.

However, once you take the supernatural aspect out, you have to wonder why Blackwood specified Holmes would be unable to prevent the three deaths, but said nothing about the massacre in Parliament (which, of course, he does prevent)—or, for that matter, how Blackwood knew the American ambassador would try to shoot him and where. In hindsight, the “three more deaths” line sounds more like the filmmakers appropriating Blackwood as a mouthpiece to tell the audience what the next hour-and-a-half is going to look like, rather than Blackwood telling Holmes his plans, which seems a rather odd creative decision to me.

Style, Style, Style

This is probably the one section of the review where I don’t disparage the trailer.

The movie’s editors employed many interesting tricks for this movie, such as Holmes thinking out a fight in slow motion, followed by the fight itself in fast motion, or the sound dampening utilized when the slaughterhouse is torn apart by explosions. The use of flashbacks coupled with subtle optical cues to draw the viewers’ attention to a certain detail should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a modern mystery movie/show (Psych, for example), but the filmmakers took this trope and made it their own. As a result, Sherlock Holmes ends up a stylistically unique movie experience

In Conclusion, I Accuse …

If I were to condense this review to one short paragraph it would probably go something like this:

The trailer to Sherlock Holmes sucks royally and totally misrepresents the movie, which is actually very good and appreciably faithful to the Holmesian canon and style. It’s not Conan Doyle—any more than Rathbone and Bruce were—but a worthy adaptation in its own right, and well worth checking out.

Stay tuned for my review of the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I’ll get around to posting eventually.