TV Club: Doctor Who, Kinda

“Kinda” (season 19, episodes 9-12; originally aired Feb. 1-9, 1982)

The typical Doctor Who villain is a physical, recognizable threat. You immediately know that the Daleks are dangerous and evil because they’ve got guns welded into their midsections and they’re eager to use them. Nobody expects a Dalek to conquer by winning over its enemies psychologically. “Kinda” takes a different tack: Though there’s a monster, a giant snake called the Mara, in this story evil comes from within more than without. The greatest dangers “Kinda” presents are internal ones that exploit the hidden weaknesses and flaws of the characters. It does this via two plot threads which are at times so divergent that they seem like completely unrelated stories, but which do work together as part of a larger parable. The first, centered around Tegan and the Kinda tribe, weaves Buddhist-inspired ideas about struggle against one’s own self and repressed negativity into a story about an innocent Eden-like paradise threatened by the corruption of knowledge. The second is an anti-colonialist, Heart Of Darkness-style jungle-horror story about arrogant civilized people who come to conquer a primitive world which is bigger and wilder than they can comprehend, and which instead absorbs and destroys them. In the end it’s too muddled and oblique to be entirely successful, and its poor use of the main characters leaves the story badly unfocused, but “Kinda” is an interesting experiment in something a little more psychological than usual. The story has grown on me the more I think about it, which is both good and bad—good because there’s more here to appreciate than is immediately apparent, bad because the story doesn’t really gel on the most basic level of entertainment. And I’m not really sure that it really works on that deeper level either, just that it’s thought-provoking.

Originally published Oct. 30, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Review: Terry Pratchett, Snuff

British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has spent nearly his entire career writing about the Discworld, a pancake-shaped land carried on the back of a giant cosmic turtle. Over the decades, his Discworld series has blossomed from a clever Douglas Adams-style parody of the sword-and-sorcery genre into a broad-ranging social satire that uses jokes about wizards and trolls to deliver sage observations about the human experience. Snuff is the 39th installment; this incredibly long run is made more incredible by Pratchett’s consistently high level of craftsmanship and creativity, especially his clear, warmly wise, sly prose style.

Originally published Oct. 26, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, The Talons of Weng-Chiang

“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (season 14, episodes 21-27. Originally aired Feb. 27- April 2, 1977)

Victorian London has such a longstanding appeal as a fictional setting that it’s a little surprising that Doctor Who dropped in on the era only once, in 1966′s “Evil of the Daleks,” before taking a full-fledged romp through the city of gaslights and horse-drawn coaches in season 14′s “Talons of Weng-Chiang.” But the delay turned out to be a good thing, because there’s no era of Who better suited for a Victorian tale than the horror-tinged, homage-happy sci-fi gothic period of the early Fourth Doctor years. Just as Alan Moore did in the comics with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, “Talons” gleefully pillages the vast storehouse of Victorian adventure fiction to create a dark, moody synthesis of its own. It’s suffused with atmospheric details, and is one of the best serials the show ever did. If it wasn’t for the uncomfortably racist aspects of the story, it’d be close to perfection.

It’s also a long story at six episodes, so I’ll just briefly run through the basics of the plot, to lay the groundwork for the rest of my thoughts about the story: The Doctor and his companion Leela arrive in fogbound London as tourists, intending to take in a show at the Palace Theater, but wind up instead tracking down a serial killer who’s connected to a mysteriously powerful Chinese magician, Li H’sen Chang, and his sinister ventriloquist’s dummy Mr. Sin. Assisting them are a couple of affably naive Victorian gentlemen, the raffish theater owner Henry Gordon Jago and the serious but soft-spoken coroner Dr. Litefoot. The killer is pretending to be Weng-Chiang, the so-called “Chinese god of abundance,” and his powers seem to include the ability to create gigantic carnivorous rats, to grant Chang the ability to hypnotize people, and to give Mr. Sin the ability to move and think on his own. But these are all tricks: The killer is not Weng-Chiang but a fugitive Icelandic war criminal from the far future named Magnus Greel, whose escape in an experimental time machine left him horrifyingly disfigured and in constant need of fresh victims to replenish his failing DNA. Greel is only pretending to be Chinese because he happened to land there when he fled from his own time, a masquerade that is kept up largely as a means of ensuring the loyalty of Li H’Sen Chang, who worships him as a deity come to Earth. Greel and Chang are in London in search of his missing time machine, which turns out to be (in a bit of slightly undercooked narrative convenience) a family heirloom of Litefoot’s. And it’s become dangerously unstable, so if Greel does find it and try to use it, he might blow up most of London.

Originally published Oct. 23, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Party on! The five best wild guys in film

Bartender, another round, and make it a double! In Oct. 28′s “The Rum Diary,” Johnny Depp returns to the role of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — or his alter ego, Paul Kemp. That’s great news for fans of Depp’s wild-eyed performance in the 1998 cult classic “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.”

For the infamously brilliant but unhinged Thompson, covering news and consuming booze and pills went hand-in-hand, and hallucinations of giant bats were an everyday job hazard. His fictionalized persona is one of the great loose-cannon characters in film and literary history.

Here are five guys from the movies who could tie one on with Thompson and live to tell the tale.

Originally published Oct. 21, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, Terror of the Autons

“Terror Of The Autons” (season 8, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Jan. 2-23, 1971)

It’s a law of storytelling physics, at least for the kind of serial adventure story that is Doctor Who: For every hero, there is an equal and opposite villain. Not just the run-of-the-mill bad guys who take a number and line up for a single-episode smackdown, but a true nemesis, someone who presents a genuine challenge to the hero’s abilities and also to the fundamental question of who he is. All good hero/villain pairings do this to some extent, but the emergence of a nemesis relationship is something special, even epic, and when it’s done well it resonates throughout the entire series. You know what I mean: Holmes and Moriarty. Batman and the Joker. The great rivalries.

In Doctor Who’s case, you could make a pretty good argument that prior to our Mystery Guest Villain’s debut in 1971′s “Terror Of The Autons,” the Doctor already had a perfectly serviceable epic nemesis in the Daleks. He’d clashed with them repeatedly since the beginning of the series, and the things they stood for—fear, oppression, stagnation, conformity—helped define what the Doctor stands against. Obviously, that relationship is still important, even crucial for the series today. But there was always something missing, because the Daleks are perhaps too diametrically opposed to the Doctor. The differences are starkly apparent, but the commonalities aren’t. That’s what Moriarty has over the Daleks: He’s equal and opposite, a man with the skills and temperament of Sherlock Holmes who represents the ways Holmes could have gone wrong. The other problem with the Daleks is that by the time of “Terror,” they’d grown overexposed by repeated return engagements, and had in fact been effectively killed off four seasons earlier in “Evil Of The Daleks.” So the field was open for a new nemesis.

Originally published Oct. 16, 2011 on Read the complete article.

Take two! Movie remakes we love — and hate: The Thing

Yes, the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 movie “The Thing” is coming out this week. Carpenter’s movie itself was a remake of a 1951 film, Howard Hawks’ “The Thing From Another World.” And for my money, it’s the best remake out there, of any film, ever.

Carpenter’s classic follows a group of scientists at an isolated polar base who stumble across an alien frozen in the ice — and when they wake it up, it’s not exactly friendly. “Thing From Another World” is a fine film on its own merits, still thrilling and creepy half a century later. But 1950s special-effects couldn’t possibly do justice to the novella’s villain, a frighteningly unstoppable shape-changing monster. Carpenter, along with obsessive effects wizard Rob Bottin, had the tools and the imagination to get it right. Kurt Russell makes a perfect grizzled, distrusting hero for a story about not knowing who to trust. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is wonderfully icy and subtle. And unlike a lot of horror movies, “The Thing” never falls prey to making the characters behave stupidly just to get a cheap shock — it’s remarkably well-crafted, delivering big as a gut-level scarefest and a psychological thriller.

Part of a group-written roundup originally published Oct. 11, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Invasion” (Episodes 5-8)

“The Invasion” (season 6, episodes 15-19; originally aired Nov. 2-Dec. 21, 1968)

There is a void at the heart of “The Invasion” that wasn’t completely apparent to me while watching the first half of the story last week. I’m talking about the story’s marquee villains, of course: The Cybermen, who are absent for basically the entire first four episodes of this particularly epic-length serial, turn out in the second half to be a squadron of robot MacGuffins, and not actually the story’s real antagonists. As I should have realized (especially since I’ve seen the story a couple of times before, though not for several years), “The Invasion” is really a story about Tobias Vaughn, the man who arrogantly and hubristically makes a devil’s bargain with a force he ultimately cannot control—and on the other side of the coin, it’s a groundwork-laying introduction to the UNIT era. With only minor rewriting, the Cybermen could have been replaced by any number of invading alien forces—in fact, that’s basically what happens in the next UNIT story, “Spearhead From Space.”

Alfred Hitchcock, you might remember, coined the term “MacGuffin” to refer to an element in a story that catalyzes the characters into action but isn’t necessarily an active part of the plot itself. Usually, it’s an object, like the letters of transit in Casablanca. But the Cybermen are so reactive in this story that I think they qualify as well.

The reason I forgot how little “The Invasion” is about the Cybermen, of course, is that what little screen time they do get includes several of the most iconic moments they have in the whole of Doctor Who. They have their moments here, but they are literally just moments—brief scenes that became part of the visual lore of the Cybermen across the show’s history. Some of these were themselves callbacks to earlier appearances—the awakened Cyberman bursting out of its metal container evokes a similar scene in “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” as does the moment when one of them grabs Jamie’s ankle as he climbs up from the sewer tunnels.

Originally published Oct. 9, 2011 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Invasion” (Episodes 1-4)

“The Invasion” (season 6, episodes 11-14. Originally aired Nov. 2-Dec. 21, 1968)

Doctor Who in the 1960s often made wild swings in tone from one serial to the next, but there’s few transitions quite as drastic as the one between the whimsical, surreal fantasyland of “The Mind Robber” and the stylish, modern action thriller of “The Invasion.” And the two shows were opposites in another way too: “The Mind Robber” was a side trip into a cul-de-sac, a fascinating but ultimately abandoned celebration of Doctor Who as pure childrens’-literature fantasy, which its creative staff knew was on the way out even while they were making it. But “The Invasion” was the future, in a very consciously planned way. Teaming the Doctor with the no-nonsense Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his anti-alien military taskforce UNIT, and taking place in (more-or-less) contemporary London, “The Invasion” was essentially a proof-of-concept trial run for the grittier, more grounded Earthbound stories that dominated Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s era. It’s therefore both fitting and ironic that the villains here are the Cybermen, Doctor Who’s most potent symbol of modern technology run amok, since they never actually faced off against the Third Doctor when the UNIT era became official.

Clocking in at eight parts, “The Invasion” is one of the longest stories in Who history. (And because of that, I’m splitting my writeup into two columns, with the second part coming next week.) The sheer length is undoubtedly the story’s biggest flaw, because there’s no real reason why it requires the equivalent running time of two feature films. I can’t say I was ever bored watching these first four episodes, which counts in their favor, but there’s an awful lot of contrivance, drawn-out scenes, and running back and forth between locations with one group of characters just missing the other group. A more ruthless script could have done the same thing in half the time.

Originally published Oct. 2, 2011 on Read the complete article.

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