Author Archives: B. Keller

About B. Keller

Inscrutable, disputatious lawyer-type living in the city the good Doctor first visited in “The Impossible Astronaut.”

Defense: The Crusade (1st Doctor)–Acting Greats, Shakespearean Intrigue, Strong Women

The Crusade is riveting Who that you should make time to watch. It’s Episode 14 from the second season of the First Doctor, and a four-parter. It’s on the “Lost in Time” Hartnell collection, and two of the four episodes exist in audio format only, though its easy to find the many stills stitched together in order to accompany a listen in various place online. The Crusade deserves your precious time for four reasons:

1. Character driven, actor-fueled high intrigue from start to finish. The storylines in The Crusade are bookended by two acting greats representing mortal enemies, Julian Glover as Richard, and Bernard Kay as Saladin. Just over one minute in, Julian Glover’s sonorous tones seize our attention. He was only thirty years old at the time, and the same commanding presence he’s reliably been since. The perfect choice for Richard, Coeur de Lion, or Melek-ric, as the Saracens called him. (Note that fourteen years later he appears as Scaroth with the Fourth Doctor in Douglas Adams’ The City of Death.) Interestingly, Julian Glover notes in the commentary to Episode 3 that he was hired for The Crusade just after having completed the 1960 television serial, “An Age of Kings,” which was director Peter Dews’ BAFTA-winning soap-opera style rendering of Shakespeare’s history plays. Douglas Camfield saw Glover in Age of Kings, and wanted talent like Glover and Jean Marsh in Who. A wise casting decision.

Saladin sees less screen time than Richard, but one wants more, given Kay’s superb, thoughtful and humanizing performance. He already proved his mettle as resistance fighter Carl Tyler, one of the standouts in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and here returns in a more substantial role. More on his stellar performance below.

Apart from Glover and Kay, the acting is solid in Crusade: Jacqueline Hill is luminous. (Saladin says, “her beauty lights the room”: and it’s accurate–Hill is especially good here–vibrant, assertive, demonstrating how indispensable she is to these early episodes’ success). Jean Marsh (later cast as Sara Kingdom in The Daleks’ Master Plan) is great in a significant part, playing Richard’s headstrong and politically cunning sister, Lady Joanna. Smaller but equally memorable parts include the duplicitous merchant Luigi Ferrigo (Gabor Baraker), and the colorful Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer (Reg Pritchard). The latter shines in a small role with delicious Simon Fisher-Becker-like bigness (of stage presence, not girth!). With few exceptions, nearly every role in The Crusade is linked to the complex web of illegal schemes or political maneuvering to curry favor with one of the warring sides. This complexity is a triumph of early Who writing.

2. It all begins with swashbuckling action. It throws the viewer instantly into the mix–there aren’t epic battles fought on-screen, but The Crusade hooks you immediately, outlining the greater war being fought. In the first moments, not one but two simultaneous swordfights break out involving the Doctor and Ian both on the defense. Barbara disappears, taken captive. And they realize they’ve stumbled into something big: the Doctor hears the Saracen name for King Richard, “Melek-ric.” (This stuff thrills me, and it’s great for hooking kids and adults alike on history (and science)–it starts those wonderful conversations, which Classic Who was so good at starting.)

They learn they’re in the woods outside Jaffa in the Holy Land. Barbara is a prisoner of Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. All this in the first ten minutes. If this is what Who was aspiring to with “the historicals,” I want in–bring it on. Fantastic job bringing the viewer into the action. A little slow in the beginning of Episode 4, with the dual imprisonment of Barbara and Ian and some languid dialog, particularly the hokey accent and scheme of Ian’s captor. You’ll wince at the repeated (but not necessarily inaccurate) caricature of a middle Easterner intoning those “you are my truly, truly brother” lines; but that’s quickly resolved, and it’s the exception to the rule of complexity and great writing in this four-parter.

3. Fantastic writing, every bit as good as (better than?) Moffat’s Nu-Who Scripts. David Whitaker is the writer here, and my new fave Dennis Spooner is the script editor. The Crusade is a spectacle of pacing and wonderful writing, proving Whitaker every bit as able to write captivating scenes as did Spooner in The Romans. For one example, the meeting between the Doctor and Ben Daheer, at 13 minutes into Episode One, and the following scenes, are emblematic of the rich comic turn Who took, as I’ve argued earlier, after The Romans. Watch how the subplot is revisited in Episode 2 to great comic effect. For a second example, see (approximately 20 minutes into the first episode) the quick-paced questioning of Barbara by Saladin and his brother, and her beautifully nuanced and timed responses:

Saladin: You rode into the woods?
Barbara: No.
Saphadin: You walked into it?
Barbara: Not that either.
Saladin: You arrived?
Barbara: Yes. In a box.
Saphadin: In a box? Ah, you were carried into the woods.
Barbara: Yes.

Hill’s acting sells the scene. Watch Hill’s delightful expression after that final “Yes.” Anyone that blames Who for bad acting or writing hasn’t paid attention. This scene immediately reminds one of the tightly written, and equally well acted, parley between Alex Kingston and Matt Smith in The Big Bang:

Doctor: Are you married, River?
River: Are you asking?
Doctor: Yes.
River: No.
Doctor: Hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?
River: Yes.

Continue to watch past Barbara’s “Yes,” and the scene facilely segues from comedy to discussion of life and death matters. It works. And it’s followed by another fantastic scene involving the rest of the TARDIS crew and Julian Glover’s King Richard, furious at the loss of his friends and refusing to help the Doctor and companions save Barbara from death. That’s just the first episode. So well written is The Crusade wordplay throughout that, like The Romans and The Big Bang–it’s pure joy to watch. It’s about the characters. Thus, of course, this is Who at its finest. For the opposite end of the spectrum, see my assessment of The Web Planet.

Another choice example of the stellar writing is in Episode 2, at 17:00, where another three-actor scene unfolds, “Who’s on first” style, as the Doctor is blamed by the Bazaar shopkeeper Ben Daheer for stealing clothes. Reg Pritchard as Daheer, here as in his first appearance in Episode 1, nearly steals the scene. It’s great writing, a humorous, conniving addition to the plot, and a well-used opportunity to provide some clever moments to Hartnell’s Doctor (not to mention the moral questions it poses: is it morally acceptable for the Doctor to have stolen items, for his personal use, from a thief?).

Whitaker uses Richard’s play for peace with Saladin as the basis for the most compelling scenes involving the serial’s bookend historical figures Richard and Saladin. The two never actually meet, but are always talking about each other. The writing for Glover particularly shines. See, for example, at 4:20 in Episode Two, as Richard laments how his sister receives jewels from Saladin’s brother, while both sides “armies do we both lock in deadly combat, watering the land with a rain of blood, and the noise of thunder is drowned in the shouts of dying men.” It’s Shakespearean. Richard is one of British history’s most romanticized Kings, so Whitaker’s willingness to forward the most noble reading of this episode, should be unsurprising–but it’s passionate, wonderful stuff all the same. Particularly satisfying, and a nod to what Who later becomes–where the Doctor “knows everybody that is anybody”–King Richard takes an immediate shine to the Doctor. Also notable, in Episode Two: “We dub you Sir Ian, Knight of Jaffa. Arise Sir Ian, and be valiant.”

The realpolitik wisdom-versus-ambition dialog at 13:00 in Episode 3 between Saphadin and Saladin, likewise, is tremendous; Bernard Kay’s Saladin, his expressive, haunted face, and his considered delivery of each line, conjures up the young Paul Scofield the following year in Man for All Seasons (1966). And at the beginning of Episode 4, the scene with Leicester, Richard, the Doctor, and Vicki is edge of the seat intrigue, particularly beginning at 6:12, where Richard admits to the Doctor and Vicki the political maneuvering required to keep the loyalty of men like Leicester, and maintain the support of the Church in Rome. The dialogue again is Shakespearean, directly conveying the dilemmas and court tensions faced by the king. Vicki despairs after Richard departs: “Can’t we tell” Richard that his campaign is doomed to failure? No, “history must take its course,” replies the Doctor. Whatever license Whitaker takes romanticizing Richard’s intentions, The Crusades remains satisfyingly a gripping “historical.”

4. Strong female roles. Finally, focusing on Richard’s play for a marriage-driven end to the Crusades allows not only for a broad portrayal of Richard, but also an assertive role for Jean Marsh. Richard wants to use Joanna as a bargaining chip to secure an alliance and peace. Richard dictates a letter through his scribe proposing an alliance with Saladin, promising to deliver Lady Joanna to Saladin’s brother Saphadin for marriage. Richard hopes this will secure the peace, making Richard and Saladin brothers. Joanna, though, will not be used. The Episode 3 scene where she confronts and threatens Richard, and where Richard accuses the Doctor of having leaked the plan to Joanna, is pure fireworks.

Likewise, demonstrating the evenhandedness that Whitaker applies to both sides of the conflict, Barbara’s capture by Saladin’s men, and faked rescue by El Akir, allows Whitaker to humanize Saladin. And Barbara is no potted plant, attempting three escapes. She’s given shelter by Haroun ed-Din (George Little), and if we didn’t already know El Akir was bad, we find that he kidnapped Haroun’s oldest daughter, killed his wife and son, and burned his house; the stakes are raised, as Barbara’s rescuer announces that he has vowed to kill the Emir El Akir. Haroun insists that Barbara must kill his younger daughter, then herself, if El Akir finds them. But, Barbara refuses–making good on the humanitarian instinct that failed her in The Aztecs, and despite the Doctor’s advice to not interfere with local customs. When El Akir’s men capture her, Barbara finds herself imprisoned along with Haroun’s oldest daughter in El Akir’s harem. Here, she tries, unsuccessfully, to escape the second time. While Barbara’s role is weaker than Joanna’s, she still makes her mark: she orchestrates an escape for Haroun’s younger daughter, giving herself up to El Akir’s men.

So while the scope of each of Joanna’s and Barbara’s roles are somewhat constrained by the story, neither of them “accept their fate.” Both woman are used as pawns, and neither accepts it. That’s refreshing to see, and very modern, particularly in a 1960’s period piece about the twelfth-century Crusades.

The Crusades is a fine and worthy successor to The Romans. Acquit!


Filed under Dr. Who, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, William Hartnell

Happy Pi day!

Great day to teach your kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews about pi. Challenge them to measure things and see how close they can get to the constant. My challenge to one particular little girl ended up in a flurry of 6 measurements with a tape measure, the closest of which was 3.1416. Not bad!

For more on Pi and Pi Day, as well as Pi to one million digits, see here.

And, Scientific American is offering yearlong digital subscriptions today for, appropriately, $3.14.

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Prosecution: The Web Planet–Early Who’s Weakest Hour

Last week and during my vacation, my good pal Mith and I got together for gaming, good company, and something we’d been planning for some time: we sat down for a Whoathon of epic proportions. We watched a good 24 episodes of consecutive Hartnell Who plus sundry special features, including some lost episodes and recons. We’d recommitted to watching “it all.” And “all” included, problematically for my sanity, The Web Planet. Even worse, our Whoathon started with The Web Planet. But having watched it one and a half times before (once interrupted by sheer boredom), I was well prepared for what lay ahead. My opinion didn’t change. And so, I represent the Prosecution–this one’s bad. Really bad.

So what do you need to know about Who’s 13th serial, The Web Planet? Well, primarily the three reasons it’s so bad. It’s well worth a watch if you’re a completionist as I am–there are interesting concepts explored, and some pushing of technical boundaries in making a 1965 BBC sci-fi serial. But these interesting concepts ultimately, as you’ll see, fail. In any case, watch it or no, you’ll be well suited knowing these three things about Web Planet, and moving on to the far superior 14th serial, The Crusade. And in no particular order, here are the three things you need to know.

1. An enemy needs periodic anthropomorphizing to hold the audience’s interest. Peter Jackson, in his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the risky choice to not represent the Big Bad Sauron with any human form throughout his series except in the brief prologue, showing the Big Bad fighting the alliance of Men and Elves. Rather, through the three movies Sauron was represented as a flaming eye, seated atop a large, and faraway tower in Morder. This worked so well in Lord of the Rings since there were proxy enemies aplenty: the Nazgul, Saruman, the orcs in Moria, as well as Gandalf’s (channeling Tolkien’s own words) masterful prose describing the all-too-humanlike enemy and threat Sauran once had been.

In contrast, The Web Planet’s Zarbi, the heroes’ threat through much of the serial, are actors wearing clunky, if impressively bulky, ant suits, who issue streams of repetitive (guaranteed to drive you nuts) electronic chirps that convey nothing of notable complexity. Not so much as an R2-D2-style humanizing with baleful chirrups and whirrs. Nope, these Zarbi are essentially mute drones. The Menoptera, in fact, say as much, telling us the Zarbi are little more than “cows.” How’s that for a thriller–rampaging, mind-controlled cows threaten the heroes for over two hours. And that’s what The Web Planet essentially is.

The Animus, who is revealed as the “real enemy” as the serial wears on, should be built-up so that the viewer will care. But the Animus is never given the full Sauron-treatment. That amazing scene of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, inside the rocket-ship in Episode Three of State of Decay and waxing nostalgic over childhood tales from Gallifrey of the Great Vampires, is a wonderful example of how such a disembodied enemy can be built-up simply through compelling dialog. It’s much like the scene early in Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf finally gives Frodo the full story of Sauron the Deceiver. The original crew members in State of Decay serve as chilling stand-ins and reminders of the omnipresent threat of the Great Vampire itself, just like the numerous smart, and Machiavellian, minions of Sauron. That gradual development of the “lore” of the enemy, and the notion that the minions are either zealous believers in some greater evil, or tragic and unwilling servants, gave me frissons of excitement. But there’s no such buildup here, either properly villifying the Animus, or giving us any buy-in to care about the enslaved Zarbis’ plight.

In fact, our Zarbi lack anything more than mute worker-drone “cow status.” The Animus is given little air time until the final minutes of The Web Planet. The Animus appears briefly merely as a disembodied voice in Web Planet Episode 2; only suddenly, in the final moments of The Web Planet, do we actually see the Animus. Small wonder we don’t care about the Animus, except to be thrilled that its destruction means we can finally leave the godforsaken planet Vortis.

2. Ballet moves in a sci-fi serial, generally, look like trash. I actually liked the bee-like Menoptera. After the nonsense Zarbi, the fact that the Menoptera could talk with the TARDIS crew, and had dreams and goals, was refreshing. Sadly, and tragically, given the amount of time spent developing and rehearsing their ballet-like “unique” movements, they’re mesmerizingly preposterous-looking. Their three-beat, ascending lilting sentences, with accompanying elbow waves and closing paws, are so distracting as to both sound like giant Swedish insects with speech impediments, and drown-out any substantive content in the Menopteras’ lines. The effect is all the more distracting when it’s clear that not all the Menopotera actors care enough to complete the effect: the upstart “invasion force” Menoptera that appears later in the serial does none of the bobbing or vocalizing–he merely waves his elbows and hands. His apparent recalcitrance to engage in the “Menoptera dance” jars us out of any suspension of disbelief (or catatonic state) that the serial managed to eke out of us.

So too their underground cousins the Optera: they sound and look like gruff, gutteral guys hopping around in felt outfits with big eyes and felt tentacles attached to their heads. But they don’t always hop: sometimes the actors decide to walk. And it jars us back to how spotty The Web Planet is. And the subpar triumvirate is complete with the Larvae Guns: they’re often mounted on small carts, rolling smoothly across the landscape–except when they aren’t, and the actors decide to crawl, again breaking the Vaseline-smeared ambiance.

Credit is due, though, to The Web Planet’s semi-thrilling invasion sequences: the scenes of Menoptera gliding through space down to landings on the Vortis surface are fantastic. Suspension wires are nowhere to be seen. And the fight scenes are among the best in the six-part serial. Much time was obviously spent getting these fight and landing scenes right, and it shows.

3. From there to here, from here to there, gaffes on Vortis everywhere. If Hartnell is known for “Hartnell fluffs” or line flubs when the rest of the serials sailed relatively smoothly about him, The Web Planet is famous for how nothing quite seems to work. The actors’ performances are lackluster: one scene where Ian sits on an Vortis bluff, William Russell looks almost detached and impassive while talking with the Menoptera Vrestin about his hopes for retaking its homeworld–a scene that should be filled with trademark William Russell enthusiasm. In that same scene, and all the scenes on the surface of Vortis, Vaseline is smeared on the camera’s lens filter so the scenes look “otherworldly.” Instead, it simply makes the serial look annoyingly smudged and blurry. Multiple times, the plot device of hanging a golden yoke on characters necks–including the necks of the Zarbi–fails simply because the yoke keeps falling off the characters’ necks.

Bill Hartnell sums it up:

Best quote of The Web Planet goes to the Doctor, speaking to the Animus as a creaky plastic shell descends and the disembodied voice booms at him, inviting him to step inside the shell: he dismissively gestures towards the prop, calling it a hairdryer. It sums up the entire creaky Web Planet mess for the viewer.

I, for one, was so irritated by so many of the Web Planet’s failings that I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the Isop Galaxy.



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Filed under Dr. Who, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, Uncategorized, Verdicts, William Hartnell

Defense: The Romans–Early Who’s Finest Hour

No time to mince words here: my main man Mithradates gets it exactly right when he says I’ve found I don’t have the time.

And so back to square one, regeneration-style. That is, this time it’s the same: but different. Per my original intent, I’m going to shoot at reviewing all the Who I watch. Also per that intent, I’m going to take a side–this one is on the Defense side. And, per my intent, I’m going to try to cobble together a vote between Mith and myself. But no time to waste–I’m going to push out the bare essentials, get it in the post, and let you peel back the onion yourself. My goal, as modified, is to get to you, dear reader, the essence of the episode. What to look for. The “bare necessities,” as it were. And so, onwards.

The Romans:

1. The First “Perfect” Hartnell Who Serial: I love Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and The Aztecs, but in comparison, The Romans excels in every category. It’s the first virtually perfectly paced episode of Who, and credit goes to the writer, Dennis Spooner. Dennis Spooner, who also wrote the First Doctor’s Reign of Terror (due for re-release on DVD in 2012, with two reconstructed missing episodes), went on to a well-deserved successful career writing for The Avengers, The New Avengers, Bergerac, and many other popular British television serials in the 60’s and 70’s. His early-career involvement in Who paid dividends, raising the bar in Who. The play between these three parallel plots of the Doctor and Vicki, Ian and slave Delos, and Barbara and “Caesar Nero,” is flawlessly executed. We’re treated to three great plots: The Doctor, stumbling on a murder victim and assuming the victim’s identity (with resulting hilarious plot reverberations), then becoming Nero’s bosom buddy; Ian, getting the Gladiator treatment and picking up a friend on the way; and Barbara, sold into slavery and pursued relentlessly by the Emperor. At the 2012 GallifreyOne convention, actor W. Morgan Sheppard commented that good writing such as Steven Moffat’s makes acting effortless, while bad writing makes convincing acting terribly difficult. That’s clearly the case here: for the second time, Who is graced with Spooner’s talents, and the team congeals in a way we’ve never seen before. Watch also for some great casting choices: Derek Francis as Nero and the subtle but wonderful Michael Peake as Tavius. The tying-together of the three plots in Episode 4 results in quite a few great moments of acting. Simply put, The Romans is the first nearly perfect Who story. (Caveat: haven’t seen Reign yet, but have seen or listened to all the rest.) Watch it.

And by the way: I’m a Spooner fan now. Spooner is cool.

2. Cinematography Shines: Well, except for that awfully cut stock footage of lions, it does. Note how Christopher Barry blocks the scenes, using minimal movement of the actors in relation to each other to keep the action interesting. For example, note the blocking of the actors in the villa–the Doctor in the foreground, Ian reclining behind him, neither looking at each other, but the faces of both key for to the scene’s progression. A second example: in the market scenes, Ep. 1, at about 6:30, we have the slave trader in the left foreground, and far in the distance, on the right, extras are milling back and forth to “fill out” and populate the marketplace, with good use of “crowd noise” played. It’s utterly believable, unlike, say, the Thal tribe in Daleks or the population of the Aztecs, which seemed to never go very convincingly beyond the key players themselves. Scene after scene, cut after cut, Romans is crisper and better than most of the Who before it. And watch for the three-odd live-theater-like moments where the characters break from the proceedings and stare directly at the viewer; interesting choice, and it works, given the comedic tones of Romans.

3. Great Use of Incidental Music: the incidental music seems so much better in The Romans than past episodes. I haven’t done a careful study. But perhaps because it’s historical serial, it was easier to identify “appropriate” music to set the mood. Just by way of example, the playful music during Vicki’s skip down the stone path at the beginning of Episode 1 ends clearly (unlike earlier episodes where the scene changes blurred with other scenes’ music), and the ominous music begins on the nose as the camera shot changes and we’re shown the thug sharpening his gladius. The same precision cueing is evident when we see the thug attack “the original” Maximus Petullian, and the music and camera shot glide, in unison, to reveal both the body hidden in the bushes, and the music’s end note. Again–have done no careful study, but while watching I noticed something palpably different about how The Romans uses incidental music, versus previous episodes. I think it comes down to precision cueing and good choice in music.

Bottom line: I’m thrilled more and more with each watching of The Romans. Watching from the beginning, while I loved Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and Aztecs, and see the seeds of so much later Who in those three serials, it’s The Romans that first fully, with abandon, attempts to sell me on the First Doctor and William Hartnell in his own right, in a way I was sold on Tom Baker in 1978. The Romans deserves a full acquittal.







Filed under Dr. Who, Science Fiction, Television, William Hartnell

The Maturing of Dr. Who Fandom, or, 3 Reasons GallifreyOne is a Must-See for Who Fans

When I was wee, I threw myself headlong into Doctor Who. I collected the books, watched the shows when my local stations could afford them (largely accomplished via zealous and frequent fan-run fund drives). But I ached for something more serious than the average fan ‘zine, something that could explain to my young mind why Doctor Who had lasted so long, why it was unlike any other show I’d seen, pourquoi la difference.When I started Who, it was already about fifteen years old. Next year, in 2013, Who turns fifty. Yes, the big 5-0. The longest-running science-fiction show in the world.
I remember in around 1983 finding John Tulloch’s newly published Doctor Who, The Unfolding Text, at the time the most in-depth study of Who I could find. I don’t know if it was my youth, or the turgidity of the writing (which is my vague memory of the book), but it bored me silly. Lacking anything better, my sense of Who developed entirely by self-direction, fueled by the fund drives and local PBS stations, and informed by sparse reporting in the American press.

 After Who vanished from Nebraska TV in the early 80’s at the end of the Davison era, one caught streaky, grainy VHS copies of Baker and McCoy in the local public libraries with the small local crowd of fans. There was no Twitter, no Internet communities in the modern sense of social media. Except for the lucky fans that attended the conventions (which were quite well attended even in the 80’s), in the US through the final episode of the Seventh Doctor, Survival, in 1989, Doctor Who fandom was primarily a solo activity.

After some work-induced blogging hiatus, pointed out by my bud Mithradates, a recent turn of events compels me to overcome all obstacles, throw on the blinders and earplugs, and write with a single-minded purpose: to tell the world that Doctor Who fandom is “all grown up” and waiting for you at the annual Gallifrey One conventions in LA. On a whim and by the good luck of finding that a college friend of mine had newfound passion for Who, I decided last fall halfheartedly to attend the February 17-19 convention. When I say “halfheartedly,” I mean to say that as an adult–a gamer and Who fan, but a “grownup”–I had recurring concerns that I was too old and serious to be attending a sci-fi convention.

Boy–was I wrong. After a thrilling ride this past weekend, after volunteering for and thoroughly enjoying speaking on a panel alongside some true Who luminaries, and after enjoying watching other panels and meeting lots of fellow Who fans, I’ve culled the experience down into three reasons why you, too, have to attend Gally, as Gallifrey One is colloquially known, if you want to make any sense of your passion for Who. You must attend. (You will obey me…)

Here’s the three reasons:

(1) Who is the granddaddy, the Gilbert and Sullivan of science-fiction, and Gally is THE place to fete that history. That is, for those of you unfamiliar with the topsy-turvy and quintessentially British theater duo from the Victorian era, still much loved by millions today, Who itself has similarly matured into a behemoth of a British cultural export. (Indeed, it’s said the sun never sets on Who.)

It’s evident in so many ways. Who‘s theme music has remained virtually unchanged for nearly fifty years, and is the topic of panels of music experts at Gally. Lasting from 1963 to date, Who represents a virtual history of British television–including the development of filming techniques, equipment advances, storytelling, format, and office and gender politics–Who has generally been out front, leading the field. And all this comes out in spades in the panels at Gally, from the first Director Waris Hussein sharing how persistence and savvy maneuvering overcame racism and sexism in the industry in ’63, to discussions of how the effervescent director of Let’s Kill Hitler, Richard Senior, in 2011 rose almost overnight from a lowly position to directing the crown jewel of British television. Who’s history as a much-loved work of art, but also as a cultural institution, intersect in many ways at Gally. Just about every star, director, and guest has deeply considered his or her place in both, and shares those thoughts eagerly.

(2) This maturity is present in overwhelming, voluptuous abundance in both the guests and the fans. The actors, writers, propmasters, and directors, and the attendees are steeped in Who lore in a different way than Americans are used to thinking of “fandom.” That is, the fans aren’t fanatics–they aren’t all fringe, counterculture, “instant converts” to Who. Instead, most people I met at Gally are probably better called “conneusseurs” or “lovers” of Who.

That’s not to say there aren’t hundreds, if not thousands, of young and new fans present: there are.  But the overall vibe at Gally isn’t that of, say, young fans of videogames, Game of Thrones, or Buffy, who’ve hooked up with the latest, hippest trends, and share the trait of being both the founders, and the most passionate evangelists of their own fandom. Even the new and young Who fans at Gally don’t have that vibe: they’re true believers, they’re in it for the long run and can rattle off companions’ names and lines from Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, and Delgado’s Master.

Moreover, a good portion of the Who fans at Gally (and very possibly the majority of Who fans) have literally grown up watching and absorbing the Who phenomenon for up to five decades. As with lovers of any art, a good number of the actors, directors, and fans (I’ll just use “fans” for simplicity) are already well into passing a love of Who to their children or grandchildren. I chatted with numerous fellow fans demonstrating just that: from the three lovely and diminutive fez-wearing sisters who first loved Who in the ’70s when their father was working in England, to the young brother and his physician sister, who inherited their love of Who from their elderly mother. I too was introduced to Who by my brother, and watched for years thereafter with my dad. And predominantly not repeats, as with Star Trek, or my fave The Avengers: with Who, we watched hundreds of episodes, over decades, of developing story and plotline.

The maturity is there in the panelists. There were too many thoughtful, energetic thinkers to mention, including all of the stars and directors, whose love and knowledge of the show’s history was in plain sight. Waris Hussein, Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates in the Pertwee years), and Richard Senior (Let’s Kill Hitler) were stellar: their insights were worth price of admission alone.  So too with the other guests.  Simon Guerrier, prolific (and very, very good) writer of Who novels including the excellent Pirate Loop (among other books), and my co-panelist in a panel on “Introducing New Fans to the Classic Series,” discussed why there’s no distinction between “nuWho” and “classic Who“: he explained, and I agree completely, that the current stars and directors are such passionate fans (much as with Peter Jackson and Tolkien, I might add), and the intentional continuities, mannerisms, nods and references to the old series are so common, that old and new fans are occupying the exact same space. (And the camaraderie and conversations between generations at Gally seems to indicate this is absolutely true.) And in the “More Magic of Doctor Who Music” panel (link to the audio HERE), bright Ph.D. student Michaela Schubert and doctoral candidate in music theory Emily Kausalik, who talks with infectious passion about Who, and co-panelists, took listeners on another riveting foray into what makes Who music work. One can’t leave deep, thought-provoking panels like that but feeling good about Who, and appreciating the love that goes into making Who on the front end.

And, the maturity is there in the conversations that happen, spur of the moment, in the Lobbycon, the “mini convention” that happens in the hotel lobby after hours. There, you’ll run into some of the most eloquent and thoughtful people who’ve spent time thinking about how Who works, why it works, and why it’s worth introducing others to Who. By sheer luck, I ran into io9‘s Charlie Jane Anders, who is responsible for some of the most prolific, and well-written, writing on Who that regularly catches the public’s eye. For an example, see this brilliant piece giving the public the fundamentals of Who history, published the day after this year’s Gally. That sort of writing and Who history for the masses, when I was wee, was available only in special-order books after a jaunt to the bookstore; now, it’s there, beautifully written, and just begging the public to engage in talking about Who. I also ran into Professor Derek Kompare, Associate Professor of Film and Media Arts in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, during Lobbycon, and had a great give and take about how academia views the study of topics like Who, whether Who is worth studying (it is), and what to do about it.

That sort of thinking, from smart, sensible people, is all over the place at Gally.

(3) Gallifrey One is a true labor of love. The numerous panels, the Masquerade (of Mandragora, natch), the live commentary over Who episodes (the great Richard Senior, who I’ll praise again, was excitedly leaping off the couch to explain each new scene as it rolled around), the hilariously  bawdy MST3K-style late-night showing of Creature From the Pit (Tom Baker, notoriously bawdy, would be proud!), the photographs and autographs with the stars, directors, and other guests–it all flowed from event to event with pure effortlessness, as if the dozens of volunteers were true pros.  All of that in one package, plus the omnipresent cosplay, the fantastic hotel (save for the regrettably spotty wifi), and Gally’s affable and quite evidently Who-loving Program Director, Shaun Lyon, make Gally, in my book, the Disney of conventions (rid your mind of any negative connotations that might conjure): everything is so smooth, friendly, and wonderful, you need only sit back and enjoy yourself.

And, for any Who fan when so much is on offer to enjoy: that’s the best thing in the world.

Hope to see you there next year for Who’s fiftieth!



Filed under Dr. Who, Science Fiction

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Acquittal!

Lime, J, delivers the opinion; Mithradates, J., concurs only in the result: I take issue with my colleague’s apparent willingness to overlook the massive plot holes that rip Titanic-sized logic holes in the serial for me. I also take issue with his implicit conclusion that there is a resolution to these plot holes (“We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. [But t]he rest of the series is dedicates to tracing the web of clues…”).

However, despite the fact the episode makes absolutely no sense to me, I’m compelled to acquit by my esteemed colleague’s powerful eighth point, that among the “amazing number of plot twists” we find “A new and powerful enemy–the Daleks.”. My colleague has convinced me with this irrefutable logic, and with him, we have both agreed to Acquit! Don’t miss this one!

[Additional comments by Mithradates: I think the plot hangs together a bit better than Lime implies. My understanding of the major plot point is as follows: The Thals believe the Dalek city to be dead and lifeless. And it is, to the casual visitor. The Daleks believe the surface to be lifeless. The Daleks would like to return to the surface, but they reason the radiation levels are too high to survive. So they seize upon the anti-radiation drug as an avenue to restoring their rule over all of Skaro. Unbeknownst to them, however, the radiation is something they need to survive. Now, the hole in this is that the Daleks should know their subterranean city is irradiated. After all, the Doctor finds the geiger counter that informs him that radiation levels are high within the Dalek city itself. I can only surmise that radiation levels are lower underground than at the surface; the Daleks may have reasoned that they could survive the lower levels of radiation underground (if barely -- if they started out looking like the Thals they have suffered greatly), but the higher levels on the surface would be too much. That's reading a lot into the dialogue, granted, but I think much of it is implied, at least on my viewing.]

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Full Acquittal!

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Prosecution: “The Daleks” Daleks are kinder, gentler, dumber.

“Warning shot” Daleks

Yes, the first foray to Skaro for the Doctor was where he met a kinder, gentler Dalek race. The cliffhanger scene of Episode 1 is the world’s first glimpse of a Dalek: we see only an arm-stalk and sucker point-of-view shot, closing in on a terrified Barbara, spreadeagled on a metal wall. For those of us from Who‘s future, it’s a thrilling piece of history. And, it’s precious imagining what must have run through the minds of those children who’d never seen a Dalek before–what could be threatening Barbara?!
Our second glimpse is in Episode 2. We hear the first Dalek words ever, the unimpressive: “You will move ahead of us and follow my directions. This way.” The Dalek’s eye stalk swivels a full 180 degrees to face the TARDIS crew: “Immediately!” it commands. Man, these toilet plunger dudes are bossy. It’s this scene, the command and eye-swivel, that evoked the first frisson of excitement in me, reminding me of “my” Daleks. Authoritarian, abrupt, Dalek-like is this–to me, this scene is really where the Daleks are born.

Strangely, the rules of engagement of The Daleks Daleks are even more restrictive than those of five hundred years earlier in Genesis of the Daleks. In this second-ever scene featuring Daleks, Ian doesn’t take kindly to being bossed around, and he runs. This is somewhat counter-intuitive given Ian’s character: he and Barbara are the level-headed ones. And in my experience, when being bossed around by an entirely new race, without more information, running just doesn’t seem called for. But apparently Ian’s had it with being kidnapped by the difficult Doctor, and the bossy tin pots have pushed Ian over the edge–and he runs.

Happily for Ian, these Daleks are nice: refusal to cooperate apparently requires only a temporary paralysis ray to the offender’s legs. Unlike the Daleks we know from Genesis and every other story, these Rules of Engagement require warning/nonlethal shots first. Lucky Ian.

And if Ian repeatedly disobeys the Daleks? Even luckier Ian! The Daleks warn that a second instance of disobedience will result in… Nope, you guessed wrong, not extermination–instead, permanent paralysis of the legs! Man, these Daleks are nice! But as you’ll see, kindness doesn’t survive their first serial, though after reflecting on the seven episodes I can’t quite figure out why the Daleks’ rules of engagement and strategic outlook suddenly changed. Needless to say, it works out in the end: regardless whether it makes any sense, the reflexively nasty Daleks that emerge by the end are much, much better villains.

It’s not until Episode 4, the third time the Daleks engage, that the Daleks finally progress to their storied “examination.” It’s in the run-up to the ambush of the Thals that we discover the Daleks’ intent in inviting the Thals to partake of a sample of the promised “unlimited supplies” of “fresh vegetables” and food bounty carefully laid-out in the entrance building to the Dalek city: “make no attempt to capture them–they are to be exterminated.” But this still isn’t “our” Daleks: this slaughter is entirely premeditated, well thought-out beforehand, carefully planned. So really, nowhere in The Daleks are the Daleks the knee-jerk bloodthirsty, exterminate-for-any-obstreperousness foes that we love to hate.

What exactly indicated a need to convert the Daleks we first encounter into all-death all-the-time is probably the writer’s realization that any metal-enclosed faceless race that plots the wholesale destruction of another species by pouring radiation into the atmosphere probably shouldn’t have any redeeming qualities. The writers probably realized that temporary paralysis of foes is an unrealistic (and not a tension-building) M.O. for what turned out to be, ultimately, a conscience-less species.

Slowly the Dalek history emerges. We’re on Skaro, the 12th planet in the solar system. 500 years ago a neutron war rendered the planet nearly inhabitable. Two races fought in the war, each believing the other totally annihilated: the Thals and the Dals (five centuries before, in Genesis of the Daleks, these Dals called themselves the “Kaleds”). The atmosphere now registers radiation at dangerous levels.

The Thals apparently are the least curious race in the universe, never having thought to descend down to the Dalek’s city for five centuries to discover if their adversaries were totally destroyed by the neutron war. (But they are curious enough to stalk strangers in the forest and leave nondescript and unlabeled vials of anti-radiation medicine in the off chance the strangers can figure out what the vials are for!) Susan isn’t bothered by this, gushing on about how the Thals are “perfect” and “magnificent people.”

The Thals believe themselves to be the only survivors of the neutron war, and they port around their entire history inside a small metal box. Their history appears to be stored on 16mm film reels and on artistic representations of the Thals and Daleks painted on hexagonal black slates. We’re treated to the art of what the Thals looked like pre-neutron war: basically blonde pseudo-Norse warriors. The Doctor sees, but the viewer does not, the hex art depicting what the Daleks used to look like.

Not only do the Daleks lose any chance at a conscience by the end of The Daleks, but several other tropes are set so firmly after this serial’s critical success with its 60s’ audience that The Daleks never escape them to this day: (a) the odd, misshapen archways of Dalek corridors; (b) the lovely dual-pulse throb of the Dalek control room introduced in Episode 2 is almost exactly the same as the one we hear in RTD episodes; (c) the Dalek’s penchant for circular dials and circular view screens; (d) the spastic sucker-stick movements. Yes, today’s Daleks are the epitome of throwback sci-fi.

Dangerous Doctor/Ian Ascendant

Right from the beginning, as in Unearthly Child (my review of Ep 1 here) the Doctor continues to confront Ian and Barbara. Ian blames the Doctor for “uprooting” them, and the Doctor counters, justifying his kidnapping of the two teachers, that they “barged in” to his TARDIS. And after seeing the magnificent and gleaming buildings of the city in the valley, the Doctor sabotages the TARDIS by removing the mercury from the “fluid link,” schemingly devising a plan to visit the city to find replacement mercury. Luckily, he quickly admits in the beginning of Episode 2 that he sabotaged the TARDIS so that he could investigate the fascinating gleaming city.

What’s beautiful and a great piece of acting is Ian’s reaction to this admission: “you fool you old fool,” Ian storms, “it’s time you faced up to your responsibilities. You got us here, now I’m going to make sure you get us back.” This is prelude to Edge of Destruction, where the Doctor, as I’ve discussed, turns the corner and makes Who what it is today. And it’s also a demonstration yet again that Ian and Barbara are us–the Companion as viewer.

This is becoming Ian’s hallmark: confronting the Doctor’s constantly putting the crew and others in danger without consideration of the risks. In Episode 5, Barbara realizes the crew will never be able to leave Skaro until they can recover the fluid link, which Ian accidentally left behind in the escape from the Dalek city. The Doctor hatches a plan to have the Thals attack the Daleks as a diversion so the crew can slip in and recover the fluid link. But again it’s Ian that opposes the Doctor, rejecting that a fluid link is sufficient spoils for a Thal war party that has no weapons. He explicitly tells the Doctor that he’s challenging the Doctor’s leadership of the TARDIS crew.

It’s a nuanced series of scenes, and Ian eventually adopts the Doctor’s plan, admitting to Barbara that without the fluid link, the crew will die on Skaro. Ian takes a further step and adopts the Doctor’s manipulative tactics, searching desperately for what will make the Thals fight. First, he callously threatens to destroy the entire remaining history of the Thal race–the film reels and hexagonal art pieces. But the Thals don’t bite. Second, Ian threatens to kidnap and deliver to the Daleks the pretty blonde Thal Dyoni, the prominent Thal Alydon’s love interest.

This works, and Alydon launches himself at Ian, slugging him. Alydon then gives a Henry V at Agincourt-worthy speech, calling the Thals to fight with the crew: either we die here for lack of food, or we wait for the Daleks to kill us, or we go now to the city, where there is ample food. Alydon points out that the Thals’ and crew’s interests are the same. It’s a good speech, well delivered–in fact, of the six episodes of overacted and hammy Thal characterizations, this speech is a standout. One great line: “There is no indignity in being afraid to die. There is a terrible shame in being afraid to live.”

But Ian’s turnaround rings untrue: it’s unusual and out of character that Ian’s solid moral compass would swing from principled to manipulative, a la the Doctor’s reviled tactics, so quickly. Moreover, proving pacifism wrong by threatening Alydon’s love interest smacks of simplistic plot development by the Who writers. And finally, that threatening Alydon’s love interest would not only turn around his pacifism, but make an inspiring military leader able to belt out an inspiring “join me to the death” speech, is just unbelievable. Still–the speech is great, no matter how Ian got Alydon there.

The continuity concept

On display again is the show’s early years’ serial-to-serial “continuity” concept, where each story flows seamlessly into the next. Not only does the TARDIS lurch at the end of The Daleks into the very crash that begins the next serial, Edge of Destruction, but one of the primary themes of Edge is seeded in The Daleks. Right at the beginning of Episode 1, Barbara asks Susan if there isn’t some device in the TARDIS that records their journeys. Yes, Susan says: “there’s a meter affixed to a great big bank of computers. If you feed it with the right sort of information it can take over the controls of the ship and deliver you to anyplace you want to go.” Hence as much as Barbara wants the Doctor to take them back, Susan says, the Doctor’s forgetfulness prevents him from being able to enter the “right sort” of information! Too bad Susan is always screaming, because one would think, as brilliant as she is–she reads books in Unearthly Child at inhuman speeds–that she’d be able to enter the “right sort” of data. (As I sit in the car on vacation with my kids writing this and listening to The Sensorites, I know that Susan will be taking a lead, non-screamer role in future episodes, so her early brilliance in Unearthly Child seems set to return.)

Bottom line: Ponderous, and Muddled

Overall, The Daleks is a piece of Who history that shouldn’t be missed. But it suffers a few critical flaws.

First, it’s slow moving. Whole episodes are Web Planet-painful in their long, slow, sequences in which little is said and little happens. Episode 1 is solid. Episodes 2, 3, and 4–over an hour–are just painful, and witness endless scenes of Ian rubbing his legs, the captive crew languishing in the Dalek city, and Susan’s annoying fawning over the “perfect” Aryan Thals (compare and contrast with the “master race” spouting Daleks… Is this meant to point to a flaw in Susan, or is it simply a bias in the writers? Most latter day “classic,” RTD, and Moffat Who sport a Doctor in a virtual love affair with alien life of all levels of “prettiness.”)

Episode 5 is a return to form, with the inspiring (but plotwise problematic) Alydon speech calling the Thals to war. Episode 6 is back to painful pacing with long slow scenes in the caves leading to the Dalek city and painful acting by the doughy and cowardly Thal Antodus who persistently whines, eating up way too much screen time, that he wants to return home, and eventually, and literally, drags down the expedition. Episode 7 is another mixed bag, graced by the thrilling and well paced (but idiotic and humongous plot hole) mass-test of the unknown Thal drug and later scheming to irradiate all of Skaro’s atmosphere.

Second, it makes no sense that 500 years would pass, but neither the Thals nor the Daleks have any idea that each other exist. After all, the Thals have been encamped, of all the possible places on Skaro, on the plateau directly overlooking the Dalek city.

Third, the Daleks progress from bossy and utilitarian tin pots–they explicitly reason that they will preserve the TARDIS crew because they may have some use in the future–to bloodthirsty and irrational: “the only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination” and “tomorrow we will be the master race of Skaro!”. But this progression is on a dime, and it doesn’t survive the common sense test, if applicable to tin pots from Skaro.

They turn this corner only after inexplicably mass administering the Thal’s anti-radiation drug to Sections 2 and 3 of the Dalek City. Why the Daleks would, after 500 contented years within their sealed city, run a mass trial of an unknown drug, is mystifying. Or at least, there’s no given motive. We know the atmosphere still registers radiation at dangerous levels, and started to kill the TARDIS crew. Also: why the Daleks would want to leave their city, since to move they need the static electricity delivered through their city’s generator and metal floors, equally is a motive that escapes me. I suppose they could be fickle in their philosophy, as Alydon of the Thals turns out to be, but I don’t get it. I’d think since they appeared at first to be utilitarian and somewhat logical, the solution to stopping Dalek deaths from anti-radiation drug overdoses would be to kick the habit of mass-administering unknown drugs. But that’s just me.

Some closing trivia

The first Daleks story is rife with interesting trivia. Here’s a few: (1) Ridley Scott, famed director of Blade Runner and Gladiator among others, was assigned to design the Daleks–their shape, look, and feel–but a twist of fate interfered with Scott’s schedule, leaving Raymond Cusick to take the job. How the Daleks might have looked different had that not happened! (2) The Daleks almost wasn’t produced, since, according to the first script editor David Whitaker, the Daleks themselves were seen by some in the BBC as “too childlike” and inpinging on the goal to make Who an educational show. (3) the Who writers intended the Daleks to be retired after The Daleks–only because they took England by storm did they return. As it is, the Daleks have appeared in 102 Who episodes since 1963–more than any other enemy, according to this super-handy data sheet released by xxnapoleonsolo in June 2011 (4). As Episode 3 ends we see the first ever glimpse, and the only one on screen in this serial, of what’s inside the shell: in the closing shot we see a clawed hand creep out of under the cloak the Doctor and Ian wrapped the mutant in. Funny trivia: evocative as it is, it’s just a joke shop gorilla hand smeared in grease!

Lime’s advice: The Daleks is historic, but plotwise it barely holds water. Four episodes are painfully slow, and the Ziggy Stardust Thals are burdened by some of the worst acting this side of daytime soaps. Convict!

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Lime reviews Edge of Destruction: “What’s going on here?!”

Doctor Who is about two things: (1) a really cool time-traveler and his really cool time machine; and, (2) the stand-ins for the audience, or the Companions. Edge of Destruction, in two quirky episodes, gave us the Companions, as we know them today. Here’s how, and why you must watch Edge:

1. Small budgets do wonders for artistic creativity. The 7-parter The Daleks, featuring miniatures, metal-ish Dalek corridors, explosions, and several Daleks themselves, had gone over-budget. And the production team faced another impending 7-parter, Marco Polo–a costume drama, also with miniatures and elaborate sets (and one of the “lost episodes“). Budgets were tight. Series script editor David Whitaker was tasked with writing a two-parter on the cheap.

Whitaker also faced another problem. Unearthly Child and The Daleks portrayed The Doctor as fiercely distrusting of Ian and Barbara, his “kidnapees.” If Who was to have any legs, this dynamic had to end: somehow, that plotline needed to disappear to both permit further character development, and to free up script space for more engaging and ambitious ideas.

Whitaker’s solution was a product of tight pursestrings and deference to the preceding two serials. But, it was genius. Using only the TARDIS set and the cast of four regulars, Whitaker penned an amazing two-part story. None of the cast knew of the budgetary origins of the spartan script, though Jacqueline Hill guessed–incorrectly–that the Marco Polo costumes simply weren’t ready yet.

And so the cast threw themselves into the script with gusto. As written, it risked becoming little more than an avant-garde moody-artist piece with disjointed, stilted performances. As acted, it’s very satisfying, from Ian’s dazed recovery in the beginning, to Barbara’s strong performance overall and particularly in her substantial speeches (directed at the Doctor) in both episodes, to the Doctor’s transformation from possibly malignant manipulator into the “protector of companions” we have today.

One additional note: it’s interesting that Peter Brachacki, designing the TARDIS control room, made one of those budgetary constraints calls that carried through to today’s TARDIS. He saw a 3″ piece of molded plastic with a repeating pattern of round holes. He liked it so much that he had that very same piece of plastic photographed and enlarged, and printed: it became the 2-dimensional console room walls of roundels, repeated and modified for the next half-century of Who. Now that’s cool. And, again, it was initially simply “on the cheap.”

2. Barbara vs. The Doctor, or, The Birth of the Companions. The audience is roped-in with Ian’s incredulous outburst, early in the first episode, just under ten minutes in. We’re yanked into the story because Ian’s disbelief exactly mirrors what we, the audience, are thinking: why are the regulars passed out, draped over the TARDIS console and floor? Is this performance art?

Barbara immediately takes the baton from Ian, and carries it through the remainder of Edge. She, as Ian, and as the Companions always do, is the conduit to the audience–she’s us. She immediately assumes care for the Doctor, waking and comforting him, and calms the unbalanced Susan. We cheer as she forcefully rebuts the Doctor’s unreasonable accusations against her and Ian. Her fiery rejection of the Doctor’s suspicions presage the final, seminal scenes of episode two. It must have been a recognition of Jacqueline Hill’s strong performance in rehearsals, and it was a smart move, that several of Ian’s lines were transferred to Barbara.

Finally, it’s Barbara that solves the underlying mystery: she pieces together the clues and saves the day, only moments before total annihilation. The scenes that follow witness the birth of the modern Who Companion. Barbara stares into space, hurt by the pain the Doctor inflicted on all of them; and when the Doctor formally, if stiffly, acknowledges his debt to her saving the TARDIS, Barbara flinches, and bolts from the room.

But the Doctor, in a new and significant turn of character, pursues her. He sits close to Barbara on the couch–the gap between the characters is finally physically narrowed. He explicitly admits his failings–and narrows the psychological gamp. He, in essence, tells her that by learning from Ian and Barbara, he has finally discovered himself. And so the rift from the first episodes is bridged. The Doctor now is not mistrusting, distant–but is the Doctor, grandfatherly, self-admittedly flawed, and protector of his companions. This is the birth of the Companion.

The physical closeness continues: he offers his arm, and he and Barbara walk to the console room. And the Doctor even offers his arm, or hand, to Ian–it’s hard to tell if it’s a Hartnell flub or improvisation–and they walk out to join Susan for a snowball fight. And this new dynamic is our dynamic today: Doctor as protector of companions, as grandfatherly figure. When you watch the concluding scenes of Edge, you’ll see the birth of modern Who.

3. “My machine can’t think!” The second innovation was equally a product of budget. Constrained to the TARDIS as the only set, and the regulars as sole cast, Whitaker needed dramatic tension. Whitaker’s brilliant solution was to bring the TARDIS to life: the eerie poltergeists plaguing the TARDIS, we learn, were the TARDIS itself leaving clues for the crew. The TARDIS doors open and close by themselves in response to the crew’s actions; the scanner displays the same sequence of images, repeated several times; the “fault locator” lights and warning bells activate, inexplicably, every 15 seconds; the TARDIS causes physical pain to the crew, but only when they approach certain parts of the console; the TARDIS displays misleading indicator lights on machinery that is otherwise working perfectly.

It’s the origin of the idea that the TARDIS is alive. Directly from Edge we get the power source that’s “held down” by the time rotor, the “heart of the TARDIS,” that reappears in Arc of Infinity, Terminus, Boom Town, and Parting of the Ways. We get here the first indication that the TARDIS is sentient, that the TARDIS has mind of its own, revisited en force in The Doctor’s Wife. Interestingly too, we get the first inklings of the Matrix: in Edge, just after Susan drops the bomb that she and the Doctor had, earlier than Unearthly Child, visited the planet Quinnis “in the fourth Universe,” we learn that the TARDIS records all the Doctor’s journeys. This returns in Trial of a Time Lord.

4. The Doctor’s crazy-manic love of science. It’s telling that Sydney Newman required Verity Lambert to subscribe to “New Scientist” and read it, monthly. One directive of early Who was to feature science front and center, and be educational.

Here, the Doctor’s turnaround involves a lengthy speech by Hartnell–the first such speech by the Doctor–about… science! It begins with the Doctor leaning back against the TARDIS console, the lighting strikingly altered for the scene–the Doctor lit in dramatic chiaroscuro–and the camera slowly tracking towards Hartnell (this was before the BBC had zoom lenses).

Hartnell was nervous about the speech’s length, famously forgetful of his lines. But it’s a fine performance: you can almost see hubris and the hunger for serious actor’s cred in his eyes during this soliloquy. He deserves it: it’s a memorable speech, and it conjures images of Baker’s toothy grin and wide eyes wondering at some scientific anomaly, or Tennant’s luscious drawl at a newly discovered alien species, “awwwwww, you’re beautiful!”.

Hartnell thus delivers, and we get the paradigm for future Doctors’ zealous-manic love of all things science.

5. Who trope: the unintended consequences of small actions. Whitaker had one final puzzle piece to place: if the TARDIS was the fifth cast member, what caused the chain of events? Whitaker’s answer, human, or unintentional error, was brilliant and is one of the repeating and often most successful themes in Who. The cascading consequences of small, unintended errors underlies some of Who‘s best episodes, including one of my favorites, Gridlock, but also The Doctor’s Daughter and many others.

So Edge is weird, quirky, but it’s uber-cool.

A few final observations: (1) it finally fully dawned on me in watching Edge the extra bells and whistles from the interior of Hartnell’s TARDIS that were transferred to Eleven’s: the bulky rectangular grid of square panels that disappeared in Who’s early years, reappears beautifully in Eleven’s console room. And as I’ve noted before, there’s the hanging thingie of concentric circles that’s Hartnell era, as well as the faux CRT scanner that is so steam-punk lovely. (2) first true on-screen date with the Doctor’s Wife (well, they’re going out, but before both sides realized it was a date, you know, a sorta Emma and Mr. Knightly thing going here). (3). The Daleks, the 7-parter just preceding Edge, introduced the Doctor’s longest standing enemy and gave us the words “Skaro” and “Thal.” Edge, in contrast, is the avant-garde moody art piece that gave us a sentient TARDIS and the modern Who companion. Edge: for depth of substantive impact on Who history, it’s the hands-down winner.

Who Verdict: Acquittal. Watch!


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Lime reviews Curse of the Black Spot: “Captain! What’s our next move?”

The Who Verdict on Curse of the Black Spot is in: acquittal! Spoilers follow: proceed at your peril!

1. “What made you do it? What made you turn pirate?”. Curse is, as many have noted, a Who on Splenda after the Rockstar Soda hyper-caffeinated episodes we saw in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. But that’s only in comparison. Curse is also a lovely, character-driven episode, with the character-driven elements impeccably placed to draw us in.

And the character-driven highs are held aloft by some nice tension. All before our first shot of pathos only 13 minutes into the show: (a) we lose an off-screen crew member in an already skeleton crew: (b) we lose a second crew-member on-scene and see the enemy in full glory; (c) the monster of the show, the Siren (Lily Cole), comes for Rory, and makes to attack Amy; and, (d) the crew is scared to death by a leech. The first character scene, with the little boy, is a surprising tear-jerker; barely a quarter way into this show some are calling “lite,” we care about this scraggly Captain (Hugh Bonneville) and the little boy (Oscar Lloyd).

The second dose of pathos comes half-way through the episode again with the Captain and the little boy: and again it is small, intimate, lovely, and it opens up a significant question about this relationship–reprised later in a nice moment between the Doctor and the Captain, topsides. This question is finally answered in an action scene, with most of the remaining crew members, where it all comes together. (I believe one pirate’s fate was left on the cutting room floor, but who’s counting.). And of course the answer sets up the catharsis in the episodes’ final minutes quite nicely. So again, Curse is small, but it’s tightly and coherently written. It focuses not on our time travelers, but on the Captain and the boy. (And the kid, Oscar Lloyd, simply shines–he’s fantastic. As is Hugh Bonneville. Another inspired round of casting, after Mark Sheppard last week as Canton Delaware.)

2. “Two cars parked in the same space.” But that’s not all, folks. Curse isn’t relegated to the two non-time traveling protagonists: it’s also about two cars, parked in same space–not an infrequent plotline in the Whoniverse. (See also Inferno, Battlefield, Rise of the Cybermen, inter alia.) As the Doctor explains his newfound TARDIS troubles, she “can’t see because it thinks the space doesn’t exist.”.

The Curse of the Black Spot was meant to be Series 6, Story 9. But the move to Story 3 must have worked perfectly, in Moffat’s mind, and if my hypothesis is correct about the season. Why? Foreshadowing. The idea of parallel universes will, I suspect, play large in this series. After far too much perusal of the evidence thus far spread out by the Moff, I expect parallel universes to be the key to understanding the arc.

It’s just circumstantial evidence, but circumstantial evidence is enough to convince me. I suspect the Doctor that died in The Impossible Astronaut isn’t our Doctor, but either (a) a Doctor from an alternative universe whose timeline is running the same direction as River Song, or (b) an amalgam of the Doctor and some big bad like Omega (see Arc of Infinity or the excellent audio drama Omega). Whichever one it is (or even a third), I think Beach Doc is really dead.

And that’s the simplest explanation, which in reality would be favored (don’t bother me with trivialities: this is only tv you say?): the Beach Doctor, whether amalgam Doc/baddie on a good day, or an alternative/parallel universe Doctor, needed to save the universe from the crossovers between universes, so set up the meeting and his own death to save both universes. Tragic, the more so if and when we realize what really happened.

Amy’s Choice then becomes almost a parable (more?) of what’s happening now: if they die in the dream (that is, in the the other world), you’re fine in the real world–but what happens when you cease being able to tell the difference? Don’t forget, Amy was pregnant in one of those worlds too–but now she’s both pregnant and not. And in Vampires of Venice, Rory understood the TARDIS a little, mentioning he’d studied all about FTL travel and parallel worlds. And of course Signora Calvierri, speaking of her race fleeing the Silence/Silents (but which?), spoke of cracks, some as big as the sky, and seeing through to parallel worlds. No, the roads have led to this parking lot, and the lot is now full: twice over. (I love a show with a canon big enough to encourage this sort of irresponsible but irrepressible speculation.)

I half expect that Amy is supposed to tell the Doctor about his future because that’s the only way the Silents/Silence/our Big Bad/whomever can ensure the Doctor and his future self “merge,” or to avoid the Doctor sealing off the cracks between the universes once and for all, or because it will somehow cause a greater rift, furthering our baddies’ ends (that the Silents demand that Amy tell the Doctor “what he must never know” sounds pretty portentous.) That is, I expect that first Impossible Astronaut scene, the immolation and somber sunset on the beach in memoriam to a Time Lord, will one day become more poignant. It was a pretty significant death–and perhaps (well, with Moff this is expecting a little too much) it will even close out this series or make the half-way point. I think we’ll be back on that beach.

3. “Things can suddenly change when you’re least expecting.”. The Doctor asks: “who are you, Henry Avery? …How did you end up here with rogues?”. The captain: “I’ve set my course.”. And the Doctor: “things can suddenly change when you’re least expecting,”. And I think that’s the theme of Moffat’s second series, season 6. Moffat’s grand scheme was to, I suspect, lead us to think that Season 5 was about several things–the alliance of baddies trying to trap the Doctor and ruin the universe with cracks, and the Doctor foiling their plans with River’s help by sealing the cracks and “rebooting the universe.” But as I mused before, I’m not sure that’s what it was about at all. I think that was merely prologue.

Similar to the “two cars”/two realities issue, I suspect that River will, indeed, surprise us. Her being the wife of Omega or Other is a favorite theory I’ve heard. (And who wouldn’t be thrilled by Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch emerging either as a multi-episode or recurring Omega?) River’s encounter in Impossible Astronaut with future/Beach Doctor lends some circumstantial evidence to the alternate/parallel universes theory too: in a complete turnabout, this Doctor broke out an identical “TARDIS diary” that was being completed, and he had shared experiences with River (“Jim the Fish”), indicating timelines that aren’t getting progressively further from each other, but share a common direction. If Beach Doctor was our Doctor, 200 years hence, River would scarcely know him.

But she knows him well, and they swap stories. No: unless I’m missing something, this cannot be our Doctor. Which leads me back to the alternate universes idea: she’s traveled with this other Doctor–or it’s really a Doctor-Omega/pick your baddie amalgam. Perhaps she’s a baddie too. Now that would be a change from what most expect–and a delicious one. And of course River fulfills the “prophecy” by emerging from the lake to, or being complicit in, killing the Doctor/amalgam Doctor.

(Or the little girl, Amy, or some nefarious other suited baddie, pulls the duty.)

That’s admittedly only my latest theory. But tea leaves are in support. There are also abundant alternate theories out there, each with merit: River will turn out to be our Doctor’s wife; River is Amy’s daughter (which I could see happening); & many other variations. Cheers to all of them. I’ll just say I’m licking my lips at the return of the wonderfully deep Who lore that underlaid the series for three-odd decades. It’s wonderful stuff. Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, anyone?

4. This is the second story with a “prequel,” the first being Impossible Astronaut. Unlike the first episode’s prequel, you’re missing little if you miss this one: this one is nice, but tells us little we don’t discover during the episode: primarily we learn that the ship has been becalmed for 8 days.

5. And some new and old questions: (a) The previously mentioned eerie twittering sound in the TARDIS is now joined by at least half of the roundels in a lights-out or lights-flickering state. Why? Symbols of something big happening? Signs of simple disrepair in the TARDIS? Merely Moffat’s symptom of an episode-specific rift in Curse? (b) The Doctor’s tie here is red–my understanding of one theory is that Eleven’s tie was blue in the “past” episodes.

And then there’s just the wonderful fluff. I count five: (1) we learn that in Eleven’s TARDIS, there is not only the previously mentioned swimming pool and library (the latter officially portrayed in the BBC Adventure Game TARDIS), but now we also know about a kitchen and three loos (see also the wonderful TARDIS chase scene in the Fourth Doctor story Invasion of Time); (2) Amy’s performance is stellar, from swashbuckling start to the finish, saving Rory: it has been a hard-earned trust, but from Amy’s, well frankly, shallow beginnings, we can now plainly see new depths in her feelings for Rory, the more so after last week’s “stupid face” confusion and late-episode righting. And Arthur Darvill, again, is great. (3). The finale, the pirates traipsing off to actually visit what the Doctor and Captain mused about way back when, standing on the ancient vessel and staring at the double stars–a very nice touch, when paired with the Captain/son denouement. (4) The Rat-faced creatures’ uniforms read “D.I.H.S.”. A joke? A clue? Some spin on R.O.U.S.? (5). Nice touch, VR consent form! Future of the law!

Who Verdict: acquittal!

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Lime reviews: Day of the Moon

So, I’m about to pass judgment on Day of the Moon… What’s the Who Verdict? Let me run through a few salient issues that spring to mind after watching this one twice:

1. Beautiful production values, but the energy devoted to the shock & awe surely has both benefit and cost. Who now rivals in pacing and intensity the best of Lost and 24, gripping shows in their own right. Who has never looked this good, but it has also never depended so much on CGI and visual spectacle to make its case. Plot and acting, not one-liners and flash, used to be far more leaned on as regular train-drivers. That’s all changed. Not completely, but the balance has palpably shifted. If Who doesn’t lean as heavily on the same canon and plot values it used to, one worry is that the show can continue with the same vigor, while leaning so heavily on quips and flash. We shall see. The same beloved characters and backstory are always available for the writers, so the momentum is indisputably on the show’s side.

2. Whether the love triangle (quadrangle?) and the related confusion over the Time Lord-ness of the young girl are (a) based in fact–that is, do the Doctor and Amy have a thing, or do the Doctor and River have a thing, or both?; (b) is Amy really pregnant?; or, (c) is this all based on misdirection? I’d love to dismiss all of the first options, but Moffat has proved, not least in Girl in the Fireplace, that romance and the Doctor are squarely set in Moffat’s scriptwriting boudoir. So I expect Moffat to tease us more as to the various possibilities, then tie them up one way or another.

Some or all of it may be resolved as misdirection, though. Amy may not be pregnant: as the character most directly tied to this “crack” in he wall, she could be a living link between two different universes: one where she’s pregnant, one where she’s not. Rory, after all, admitted in DOTM that sometimes he still remembers waiting, as an Auton, for Amy–sometimes he doesn’t. So perhaps he too is crossing universes. And the Doctor-River relationship may end before it starts (well we know it does, but in a different way!) River kissed the Doctor in DOTM, River being younger than we’ve yet seen her, and the Doctor was taken aback at the kiss, and River acted as if it was the first time the Doctor had been taken aback. So the next time the Doctor sees River, two possibilities: either it’s the first time River kisses the Doctor and the last time the Doctor kisses River–or we it gets drawn out. Moffat’s track record favoring hopeless and tragic situations would suggest the former… but we’ll see.

3. How important are the Silents? And is it “Silence will fall” or “Silents will fall?”. Clearly Moffat has been planting clues about the presence of the Silents in multiple episodes–one-off frightened looks by the main characters that are then shaken off and normal dialog resumed–since early in S5. But we’re told the Silents have none of their own technology. The FAUXDIS of the Lodger thus isn’t of Silent origin–where’s it from? (Could it be River’s? The Doctor mused in DOTM that he was about to find out how the Lodger FAUXDIS became abandoned, and River meets the Doctor in reverse order…) And the door to the room in the orphanage which had a small window, and then didn’t, reminded me strongly of the upstairs illusions in the Lodger. A FAUXDIS in the room? Could explain how Amy suddenly found herself in the FAUXDIS itself. But then the TARDIS materializes in the FAUXDIS? Been seen before, hasn’t it? Logopolis, The Time Monster… And the teaser for S6, Space and Time. Recursive loops do wonders for time. Wibbly wobbly, all that.

And so while the Silents were apparently present throughout S5 and are the front and center enemy of these two episodes, terrors of this magnitude in Who–recursive loops, attempts to build TARDISes, killing Time Lords to steal their regenerations, blowing up stars or the universe, and cracks in space and time–have been sins of the greatest order, reserved for the worst of enemies. Not that new enemies can’t be created, but the worst of the worst have included Omega, the Master, the Black Guardian among others. And so I suggest that the Silents are not the big bad we’re looking for. (But for an alternative view, jump over to The Edwardian Adventurer.) As a matter of fact, what better MacGuffin than a race of easily dispatched Silents to distract and please and inhabit the FAUXDIS when the real Silence is trying to simultaneously build that same FAUXDIS and possibly escape through a crack in the universe into our own Doctor’s universe? Remember, the Doctor saw nary a single death caused by a Silent, and Amy presumably forgot the one she saw: so planning all this after noticing a massive infestation and the kidnapping of Amy, to genociding the Silents out-of-existence, doesn’t strike me as the Doctor’s typical M.O. when he’s not under the influence, so to speak.

4. Unresolved matters, new mysteries, and Moffat-isms I need to itch: (a) the eye-patch lady at the door who exclaims, “she’s still dreaming.”. Who is dreaming–Amy? This smells of the little girl in Silence in the Library, doesn’t it? (b) Amy wandered into the orphanage, saw some peculiar graffiti, and confidently called the Doctor to announce that yup, the girl and the Silents had been there. That’s not an impossible narrative leap, but it smells just as probably of Silent psycho-suggestion to get the Doctor, a companion, or the TARDIS in the vicinity of Renfrew, the orphanage, the little girl, &c. (c) What’s the incessant eerie clicking sound seeming to come from the console in the TARDIS? When did it start? It appears constantly in Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, but I don’t recall it ever happening inside the TARDIS except maybe in the dream sequences of Amy’s Choice. Is it something with the TARDIS? The Silents? Just incidental creepy sounds? (d) What to make of not just one fact that most commentators note but, in conjunction, two: Amy’s on/off pregnancy; and Rory’s comment that he has a Schrodinger memory too: on being a Roman, he says “I don’t remember it all the time. It’s like this door in my head. I can keep it shut.”. (e) Humanity decided suddenly to go to the moon because the Silents needed a spacesuit? Really? (f) Was it our heroes’ idea to build the perfect prison around the TARDIS, or was it the Silents’? Because we only see the TARDIS decloak inside the prison–not dematerialize.

And this one feels big: (g) Why did River seem completely unsurprised by the FAUXDIS in Impossible Astronaut? She wasn’t phased at all, but went straight to the control panel–what did she operate at the control panel? And she quickly identified the sound from the FAUXDIS as an alarm. She almost acted as if she knew what the FAUXDIS was. How? See my musing above: is it her ship? (h) The Doctor asked for the Silents’ total surrender and wanted to drive them off earth, and was complicit in their total destruction, despite them only killing one person (in the White House loo), which Amy didn’t even remember? Really? (i) Renfrew: bow tie? (j) When the TARDIS seemed to travel from inside the “perfect prison” to Florida at about six minutes in, there was no dematerialization sound. (k) Were there too many sets of stairs in that orphanage? (l) Why did the Silence identify our heroine not as Amy, but “Amelia Pond… We do you great honor. You will bring the Silence.”?

I was wrong that the season premiere would introduce a classic “big bad” like Omega. A quick reintroduction at the end, a la the Master by RTD, would have whet the appetite for more and carried through the season. But I remain convinced: the Silents seem like bit players in a bigger game. Moffat knows that Big Bads are the stuff Who is made of. I think it’s just matter of time before we’re all bowled over by this drawn-out homage to either a new Big Bag–or the reintroduction of an oldie, but very very goodie, Big Bad. I can’t wait.

5. Regeneration Follies. I’m with the growing choir: Moffat, this one-note regeneration song is getting old. (See this brilliant post from my good friend over at Confessions of a Neo-Whovian.) Change is good, but some things: well, they must change, and not remain absolutely static. So it is with the Doctor’s regenerations up to RTD: each had slightly differed, some greatly, depending on the circumstances of death.

That is, until now: and now we get Highlander-esque, boring, shooting golden pixie dust from the sleeves and collar–each and every time. No, there need be no rhyme or reason to regeneration: there wasn’t for three decades, and it kept a healthy dose of mystery to the show, to Time Lords, and to what the next regeneration would bring, and how. It’s very odd that in wanting to nod to the show’s past repeatedly (the stream of images in Eleventh Hour, for example), this prime feature of the show–regeneration–has become a predictable and boring sequence. Mr. Moffat: bring back the uncertainty, the freshness, to regenerations to Who!

6. Finally, TIA and DOTM were unapologetic plays for the American audience. For France, City of Death gave us the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. The S6 opener was a full-on play for the nation. (a) it gave Nixon an out, surely something that will make Americans chuckle in the expansion of Nixon’s fictional boundaries from source of shame to good dramatic and comedic character. American appreciation for turning their shame goes a long way. (b) No less than the President endorses the Doctor. (c) America is called again the most powerful country. Shucks, thanks, Moffat.

And then, there was so, so much to simply love. Let me count the ways. “Zero-balance dwarf-star alloy”: pure Who technobabble–not classic or “nu,” but just plain old Who. I adore River Song. Casting Kingston was a stroke of genius, and the writing is equal parts Time Lord (see Romana) and modern heroine for our times (or baddie–my mind’s still open for what she turns out to be). I eat up the mysteries that Moffat sets up, many of which may go nowhere, but seem to lead somewhere: the very secret of past Who and Tolkienesque success. And, I love that Moffat is so possibly playing not only with modern sci-fi tropes, but also simultaneously with established Who. I’m not yet certain that Moffat sees any break in Who from classic to old–I think he’s one of the true believers in Who continuity–I have a sneaking suspicion we’re in very, very good hands.

Verdict: Full Acquittal. Watch now!


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Lime: Unearthly Child, Ep. 1

I first watched Doctor Who in or around 1977; it was a Tom Baker episode–the Fourth Doctor, teeth and curls, all that. My first introduction to the First Doctor wasn’t until The Five Doctors–and that wasn’t even the real deal, it was Richard Hurndall. The original actor, William Hartnell, died in 1975, shortly after appearing in the Third Doctor’s episode, The Three Doctors.

But there is a brief opening clip to The Five Doctors, an excerpt from a real Hartnell episode, which I instantly fell in love with back in 1983 when The Five Doctors aired. Partly because it was so, well, inscrutable. I memorized it instantly, typed it out on our trusty IBM Selectric typewriter, and read and re-read it to myself, amazed at having just seen a black and white incarnation of my Doctor saying something so mystifying. I think I’ve got it still pretty much verbatim, stored away upstairs. I trotted it out every once in awhile as a kid, to myself, when I needed inscrutable inspiration. It goes like this: “One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, and no anxieties. Just go forward in your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.”

It was never just the words, but it was the decades-long show, the angst over whether it would be continued, the exceptionalism of the character of the Doctor, and the conviction that Hartnell gave those words. All that carried through the decades and combined to make quite an impact on my young mind, an impact far greater than any of the pithy quotes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or any of the other numerous sci-fi or fantasy fare I consumed as an adolescent.

I didn’t see Unearthly Child, or any Hartnell episode, until the advent of Netflix instant streaming introduced me to Hartnell and the 2005 resurrection of the show revived my active interest in the show overall. At first viewing, with my kids, I surfed through it, preoccupied with work, letting my kids enjoy it. But scenes stuck in my mind. This was am amazing debut, aired first the day after President Kennedy’s assassination, on November 23, 1963. I ordered it again, and rewatched it with my friend Fredegar. Here’s what struck me:

First, as all the initiated know, the title song by Ron Grainer, and arranged in “electronica” by the fantastic Delia Derbyshire, is for all intents and purposes identical to the title song today, right down to the drumming and droning base beat, and the heroic soaring section that simply lifts the spirits to hear. My young son loves that part, and started singing to the old original just as he does now to Matt Smith’s title sequence. Derbyshire’s arrangement of the Grainer tune is one of the very first all-electronic television themes, and it is pure genius.

A bobby walks to, and away from, the doors of a junkyard in misty London, a junkyard whose doors read “I.M. Foreman, Scrap Merchant, 76, Totter’s Lane.”. The Grainer theme plays as the junkyard doors squeak open by invisible hands and the camera glides through the doors, swinging right to alight on the windows of a (we know to be blue) Police Public Call Box, which seems to be the source of a strange, mid-pitched hum. Our first glimpse of a prop that kids will gleefully adore for the next 60 years and counting.

And cut to the Coal Hill School, where students leave classes in a rush, and we follow a proper and attractive history teacher, Barbara Wright, leaving class and sitting down to commiserate with a fellow teacher, the dashing Colin Firth-like Ian Chesterton, about her terrible day–caused by an overly precocious student, the 15-year old Susan. And so the stage for mystery and curiosity is set: Ian agrees, Susan knows more of science than he’ll ever know, but Susan only lets her knowledge out gradually, to not embarrass him. Ian thinks Susan is a genius, and worries tongue in cheek about having to hand his class over to his student. Barbara, in contrast, wants to give Susan some guidance, has already obtained Susan’s home address–76 Totter’s Lane, which the viewer already knows to be a junkyard–and Barbara herself has now discovered, having visited the address to confront Susan’s grandfather about Susan’s suffering homework. And so Ian, with Barbara the proxies for the audience and the only characters we’ve had any extended interaction with, is drawn into the mystery. Who is the genius girl that lives in a junkyard?

Cut to the history classroom, where we first see Susan, the genius. Commentators make much of this scene: Susan, a pixie-like short-haired brunette, angular and attractive, if odd looking, dancing to 60s music, holding a radio to her ear. Ian and Barbara enter, we learn that Susan insists on reading and returning the voluminous book on the French Revolution Barbara lends her the next day: she needs no longer. Susan declines a ride home, Ian and Barbara leave, and Susan opens the book, eyes alighting with concern on some statement of fact about the Revolution exclaiming “that’s not right!”. Another mystery.

The teachers drive through the night fog and park across from the junkyard, waiting for Susan to arrive home. Ian insists the mysteries will have a simple explanation; Barbara disagrees, noting that Susan doesn’t even know how many shillings are in a pound. A third mystery. A flashback to students laughing at Susan, who shrugs off her mistake at thinking Britain had moved to a decimal system: “of course it doesn’t… It hasn’t started yet.”. Susan arrives and walks through the junkyard doors. The teachers follow her into the junkyard.

At first we see everything but the Police Box. Two mannequins. Mysterious music. Then the Police Box in the background as the two search the junkyard for Susan. And they see the Box, touch it–notice it is humming. Why is it here, instead of on the street where the public can use it to summon the police? The sound–the vibration–Ian exclaims, “it’s alive!”. And then coughing, someone is coming. They hide.

An old man, with a black Karzai hat and flowing white hair, a pale scarf and a dark coat, arch looking, enters the yard and starts to open the Police Box. Susan’s voice comes from nowhere: “There you are, grandfather!”. Ian makes his move and approaches the old man, says he’s looking for a girl, Susan Foreman. (The old man is holding a silver device–some think this is the first appearance of the famed Sonic Screwdriver.). The old man denies any knowledge defensively, distracting himself with an old painting that he’d never noticed before. Ian insists on looking inside the Police Box: the girl’s voice had to come from somewhere, and she’d totally disappeared.

But before the Doctor can turn their attention, Susan again calls from the Police Box. Ian and Barbara push themselves in, and are confronted by the blinding white and constant hum of, well, the bigger-on-the-inside TARDIS. Susan quite calm and comfortable. Hexagonal console and–as seen again now finally in the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS–the hanging concentric metallic circles on the ceiling. The roundels on the white walls. And the coatrack, and a few other sparse furnishings, including a fascinating metal clock. At the Doctor’s command, Susan operates a control on the console and closes the doors. Susan tells the teachers she indeed lives in this strange Police Box, which is bigger on the inside.

Three times in this sequence the Doctor looks straight at the camera and talks to us, the viewer, while ostensibly talking to Ian or Barbara: first, telling us that he’s not hindering us finding Susan–“if you … want to make fools of yourselves I suggest you do what you said you’d do–go and find a policeman”–muttering “insulting” after that line: second, once inside the TARDIS and in response to Ian and Barbara’s confusion, telling us “you don’t understand, so you find excuses”; third, “the point is not whether you understand, what is going to happen to you, hmmm?”

And then we learn: Susan and this Doctor are cut off from their own planet, exiles, but “one day, we shall get back.”. But the Doctor determines that Ian and Barbara now too must be exiles from their planet. They barged into the TARDIS, but now cannot leave–they will tell others about the Doctor and his ship. Even Susan refuses to help Ian and Barbara now. And so the Doctor operates some controls, the center column rises and falls, and we see London shrinking as this TARDIS falls through the wavy white feedback loop we saw first in the show’s title sequence.

In sum, the first episode of Unearthly Child is a triumph of acting, pacing, cunning camera angles, and story. And it gains richness with repeated watchings. I would be surprised if any of you could watch and not be amazed at what the BBC accomplished back in 1963 in the very first episode of Who.

And what’s more, the three quotes from Hartnell said directly to us have some bearing as we delve ever deeper into the mind of Steven Moffatt, director of the Eleventh Doctor (and writer of several RTD-era stories), and Moffat’s Grand Plan for Who. I’m mystified by that plan. Some dislike it. Many are thrilled. But what keeps all of us coming back for more in some sense relates to those three questions. If we don’t like it, we can stop watching, change the channel–abandon the mystery. If we don’t understand, well, we can explain it to ourselves however we want to–and we do. Witness the explosion of interest and talk in all things Who over the last half-decade. Finally, we come back because we want to find out what happens to our Doctor, and the characters we care about. And as Hartnell says the second half of the third one, he turns right back to Ian. Because after all, that’s what this is all about: the characters.

Thanks, William Hartnell. For all the line flubs to come, you were a fine, fine actor. Small wonder the show has lasted this long, after having you as its first leading man.


Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Disappearing Ice on Mars, According to NASA

Too exciting not to post about, NASA now believes what they thought might be ice–or salt–is, in fact, ice.  NASA’s press release is here.

Whatever the substance is, the lander has found another hard layer at the same depth in a location to the right of this trench (aka “Snow White 1″).

Enjoy the animated gif below, depicting the evaporating substance in a before-after sequence:

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Lawyers that Game: Dianne Bonfiglio, Esq., aka, Hot Chief PMS

Hot Chief PMS, aka Dianne Bonfiglio, Esq.This interview is the first of a planned series of interviews of professionals — lawyers naturally among them — that are avid, earnest, unabashed gamers. I conducted this interview back in September, but a number of issues kept it from appearing on A.O. Without further ado, here’s my interview with a remarkable attorney from Florida who happens to also be a very skilled competitive gamer. Enjoy. Lime

AO: Hot Chief, thanks for doing this interview. Just by way of introduction, I met you via a comment you left on my blog… I Googled your name, and discovered that lo, you were not only Dianne Bonfiglio, Esq., but also “Hot Chief PMS,” of the online all-female gaming clan “PMS Clan.” Since Halo is one of your forte’s and I’m a Halo addict–and an attorney–I was immediately smitten. You agreed to do an interview, and so here are a few questions: how do being an attorney and a hard-core gamer jive. First off, for the law: what type of law do you practice?

HC: Harry, thank *you* for the opportunity to speak with you! It is my pleasure. Professionally, I’ve been practicing law for about five years. I am a business major and had substantial experience in business before I entered law school in Continue reading


Filed under Entertainment, Gaming, Law, PC Gaming, Sports, Xbox 360

Obtaining a Name Change in Montana


Apparently this spurned husband didn’t take it so well when his wife entered into
a dalliance on a business trip.  William L. Managhan of the Managhan & Kortum-Managhan Law Firm, reportedly sent the following email to the entire membership of the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, detailing exactly how best to change your name in Montana:

Managhan & Kortum-Managhan Law Firm will no longer be known as such. The name is returning to Managhan Law Firm as Santana Kortum-Managhan is leaving the firm. Turns out that she was having sex with Tim McKeon of Anaconda while attending MMLP hearings in Helena. Call me silly but I no longer fill comfortable with her as my law partner or wife. Some will think this is an inappropriate announcement, but considering the small legal community in our state, I might as well preempt the roomer mill. Please address communication to William L. Managhan through Managhan Law Firm.

Managhan Law Firm PLLC

That’s a big “[sic]” for all those typos.  Whether the email is authentic or no, it’s quite a story, isn’t it.  The firm’s “Profiles” page reads “This page is currently unavailable,” lending a suspicious air of credibility to the tale.

And Mr. Managhan: if you did indeed send this out, can’t you take the time to be a real lawyer and run a spell-check before burdening us with your linguistic/romance woes and simultaneously trashing your wife’s reputation (if indeed that is you . . . hellooo?)?


See also HERE and HERE for more on the story.

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A Toxic Shroud: "China is choking on its own success” and endangering neighbors and American cities


Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley of the New York Times, on August 26th, produced an excellent story on China’s industrial success/toxic pollution nexus. The situation is dire, and China’s difficulties overcoming the Victorian England-like pollution troubles in order to host an Olympics palpable to the rest of the world are well known, and have been covered recently in similar excellent coverage in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a brief section of the NYT report:

…it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.

Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.

Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.

China is choking on its own success

And this is not merely a problem for the Chinese. Acid rain containing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from Chinese coal-fired power plants falls on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. The Journal of Geophysical Research reports that much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China.

The World Health Organization and World Bank independently found that total deaths in China due to pollution have reached 750,000 a year. Chinese experts interviewed claimed that the Western estimates “probably understate the problems.” The World Bank told the NYT that China’s environmental agency asked them to remove this number from the Spring 2007 final report, claiming the numbers could detrimentally impact “social stability.”

The question, of course, is who has the credibility and sway to either guide China toward responsible environmental policies, or model a path forward by example.


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