Saturday, July 16, 2011

Doctor Who #2: The Daleks

The Daleks are the best known enemy on the show, and it is quite interesting that they were defined so early in the show -- the second story! I have heard many recaps and explanations of the origin of the Daleks -- but it was meaningful to see it actually take place. This is a seven episode story, so kind of long. My main reaction to this whole thing was an unexpected one -- pity for the Daleks. They are horribly mutated from their nuclear war with the Thals, and have survived by building prosthetics for themselves, and a city that is totally wheelchair accessible. To power their, uh, wheelchairs? the city has metal floors everywhere that they draw power from. So... everyone jokes that the Daleks can't deal with stairs, but that is not an oversight. They are well aware that they cannot leave the artificial world of ramps and elevators they have created. So... I know I'm supposed to hate them, but they are kind of underdogs, compared to the Thals, who somehow got through a nuclear war coming out six feet tall and blonde. Weirdly, the Daleks (formerly Dals) were once a nation of poets and philosophers, but war with the Thals somehow changed that. And if the Daleks, hovering on the edge of survival, didn't have it bad enough, the Doctor and his friends show up, and mercilessly murder them all. 

No wonder the Daleks are so pissed all the time. 

Quotes and Notes:
  • Timelords eat. 
  • The TARDIS has a machine that makes food and water when the Doctor enters certain codes. The food is some kind of futuristic candy bar that can taste like anything.
  • The Doctor sabotages the TARDIS, endangering everyone.
  • "We need drugs." Really? Anti-radiation drugs are all you need to deal with severe radiation?
  • Barbara falls for one of the Thals. It is peculiar how quickly she and Ian have adapted to this strange situation, and how little they seem interested in going home. 
  • There are "21 different holes" in the Tardis lock -- use the wrong one, and the lock fuses shut. 
  • Dilating Dalek eyes are cool. 
  • Radiation makes the Daleks stronger... they are just figuring this out now?
  • Why is the Dalek city so complicated?
  • "This is no time for morals." 
  • There are glowing lakes full of mutated creatures behind the Dalek city. Cool.
  • That whirlpool was f'ing huge. 
  • Barbara does not have appropriate footwear for a death swamp. 
  • The Doctor's binocular glasses are the coolest. 
  • Barbara's bad knot tying skills almost kill her bf.
  • The doctor discovers the Dalek city is powered by "Single Cable Static Electricity" and he plans to short out the city using the TARDIS key as a conductor. "I could always make another one."
  • The Thals are terrible rock climbers.
  • "No doubt you have other wars to fight."
  • "I was once [a pioneer] among my own people."
  • "Always search for truth. Mine is in the stars."
  • "Maybe I'll visit your grandchildren."
I'm so glad I'm watching these early episodes -- they put a new light on everything. 

Doctor Who #1: An Unearthly Child

My recent trip to the UK, and to Forbidden Planet, gave me new resolve. I'm tired of only sort-of grasping what is going on in Doctor Who. This has frustrated me since about 1977. Enough. I am going to watch every episode of Doctor Who, starting at #1, and continuing until I catch up. I know what you are going to say, though. You're going to say... "But.. a lot of the early episodes are missing... you won't be able to do it." Screw that. Yes, the BBC inexplicably has lost videotapes of 108 of the 777 episodes. But, fortunately, they have the audio recordings of every single episode, and have been kind enough to have created radio dramas out of them by adding narration to cover the visuals (and they're good, too). Combine that with photographs that exist of the missing episodes, and it's good enough for me -- it's certainly enough that I can follow the story. Because that is what is amazing about Doctor Who. It is one continuous story thread that has been told over nearly fifty years, and could easily go another fifty. It builds on itself in a significant way, making it necessary to go back to the beginning to fully understand it.

It is also well known that I have a time travel obsession and this is definitely part of that. Whatever.

These things are going to have spoilers... but seriously, 48 years is past the statute of limitations.

Okay, so -- Story #1: An Unearthly Child. 

The DVD is kind enough to include the pilot of the first episode of this four part story. To be clear, the first episode was filmed twice... Once as a pilot, and then a second time when they filmed the rest of the story. What is startling are the differences between the pilot and the "real" first episode. In the pilot, the Doctor is an incredibly mean cuss. Very rude, constantly shouting in anger -- he seems like a truly dangerous character, with really nothing likable about him. In the re-filming, his character has softened... whereas before he was intensely angry all the time, afterwards he fluctuates between a softer anger, and by being distracted by his scientific curiosity. This makes him just as rude, but not as threatening... more eccentric, less psychotic. Curiously, this bears a striking parallel to the pilot of Phineas and Ferb -- in that, Phineas is a very snarky little boy -- in all future episodes, Phineas is much more likable and thoughtful. It's as if, in both cases, the writers were concerned there wouldn't be enough conflict in the show, and so they made their protagonists want to fight the world (if the Doctor and Phineas actually are protagonists, which is not completely clear) but then they realized that this was unnecessary, and only makes them unlikable.

What is amazing is how much of the entire series is set forth in this episode -- the Police Box, the nature of the TARDIS, the broken chameleon circuit, and even the fact that the Doctor and Susan are exiles, unable to return home, though they hope to, one day. One certainly wonders who Susan is... The Doctor really has a granddaughter? This implies a lot.

Another difference between the pilot and episode 1: In the pilot, the St. John Ambulance cross is clearly visible on the door of the TARDIS. But in the re-filmed episode, it is not clearly visible: it appears to have been painted over. Interestingly, the cross seems to come and go in future episodes.

Anyway, story summary: Susan has been attending a local school, her teachers, Ian and Barbara find her an eccentric genius, but are concerned about her sporadic performance in school, so they try to meet her at home, which is a junkyard, where the meet the Doctor, and after a confrontation, the four of them enter the TARDIS, and continuing their dispute, the Doctor takes them back in time to prove he's not a liar, and they end up at approximately 100,000 BC, somewhere on earth... (somewhere that has British cavemen). They get enmeshed in a violent tribal dispute centered around the ability to make fire. Through clever tricks they eventually help the tribe and escape to the TARDIS, which takes off, and lands on what seems to be an alien planet.

Some weird things happen in the story... it would appear, at one point, that the Doctor plans to murder an injured caveman, to keep the companions from spending time helping him! Overall, though, this story really did set the template for everything that was to come... "Where are we? I want to investigate! Something's gone horribly wrong! A local dispute! We're trapped! Let's escape! We have to go back! We're recaptured! We solved a problem through our cleverness! We made it out just in time!" There's no running through corridors, but there is a lot of running through a dark forest, which is close enough.

Quotes and Notes:

  • "I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it."
  • "One day, we shall get back... one day... one day..."
  • "Your arrogance is nearly as great as your ignorance." 
  • Susan's last name is Foreman...?
  • Ian examines the door of the TARDIS: "There must be a secret lock somewhere..." when the lock is in plain view!
  • Susan was born in the 49th century. 
  • "Still a police box - Why hasn't it changed?"
  • The TARDIS has a (broken) "yearometer"
  • There is a radiation meter, as well, and the Doctor has a (short-lived) portable Geiger counter.
  • The Doctor carries a notebook, where he writes down the coordinates of everywhere they have been, among other things.
  • The TARDIS has some kind of atmospheric analyzer. 
  • "Make fire or I kill you now."

When I saw my first William Hartnell episodes, back in the 80's, I was so disappointed... the visual quality and sound quality of the episodes was so bad, I could barely follow what was going on, and further, I came in in the middle of things, not knowing who anyone was. The DVD versions are dramatically improved through digital restoration, and it's very exciting to start at the beginning, and be able to follow a fifty year story thread! It's kind of crummy that episodes are missing... but... I must admit that the scavenger hunt nature of the whole experience (Stories 1-3 are sold in a box set, Story 4 is on a hard to get CD collection, 5 and 6 are sold separately, 7-9 haven't been released, but are on the youtubes, etc...) enhances things... it almost feels like I'm going on the same imperfect, ramshackle, gappy time-travel experiences as the Doctor! So... if I can keep up my rate of two stories a week, I'll be caught up in about two years... for I show I've been watching for thirty years, that's not too bad.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Asterios Polyp

I've been meaning to write about this for a while. I think this first graphic novel by David Mazzucchelli is perhaps the best example of the power of the medium of the graphic novel that I've ever seen. It has important things to say, that couldn't be told the same way with any other medium. Even though I read it months ago, moments from it still pop up in my mind - partly because I'm going on some of the same journeys of self-realization as Asterios. And the ending, well, seals the deal. I hope to see more independent work from Mazzucchelli. Even though this is a novel targeted at an older audience, I really hope that up and coming art students are reading this. There is so much to learn from this book about how aesthetics can be used to define characters.

Our Tragic Universe

I haven't made a post for a while. Not because I haven't been finishing things (I have a big stack here of things that I hope to write about sometime) but because I haven't felt like it. It takes a kind of mental energy to do this kind of simple reflection that I don't always have available. But, this book, by Scarlett Thomas, broke that dam for me. Not only for this blog, but with some of my other writing projects, as well. Maybe because partly it is a book about writer's block. I'm not sure. I do know that this book spoke to me, though, in a deep, fundamental way.

One one level, it is a story about a writer, and her writer friends, and their broken relationships. Not crazy-dramatic broken relationships, crashing like sports cars into glass skyscrapers, but everyday broken relationships, rusting like broken down cars on the front lawn. But, these writers talk.... a lot. And they spend a lot of time philosophizing about the true nature of story, and the true nature of life and the universe, and how these might or might not be connected -- and I found that quite delightful. The story gets quite meta (you find yourself reading a book about a writer who is having trouble writing a book about a writer who is having writing a book), and then of course, since the book is a debate about the structural relationship between life and stories, and of course you know perfectly well that the lives of the people you are reading about are actually stories, from a book with blurbs on the cover, it gives Thomas the ability to play games with the reader that most books could not play, as she stretches reality to its breaking points. In some sense, this is not a novel at all, but really a philosophical discussion disguised as a novel... and of course, the characters comment on that, as well.

Reading it made me feel super smart, because it touches on so many interesting philosophical concepts that were new to me, and now I can name-drop ideas from Aristophanes, Baurdrillard, Tolstoy, Chekov, and Tipler, and sound like I know what I'm talking about. By a weird coincidence, I was in the UK most of the time I was reading it, and it takes place there.

I devoured the book -- mostly reading it on a couple of long plane rides. And that is unusual for me... I typically get a kind of reading fatigue, where I need to take breaks between chapters. The clear, simple imagery of this book, and the sparkling ideas made it hard for me to put down. I *had* to know how it was going to end... not so much that I cared about the character relationships, but I knew the ending, in itself, would be a philosophical statement about the nature of story, and of the universe. I hoped beyond hope for a clever rabbit to be pulled out of a hat at the end. I did not get that rabbit, and was at first, disappointed. Instead I got something more like a stone dropped into a pond... and the magic part is that somehow, that seemed like a magic trick in itself. The magic of making the ordinary seem like magic is a new idea for me -- and I find its ripples reverberating with me yet.

Without a doubt, Scarlett Thomas just got added to my fantasy dinner guest list!