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Movie Night

For the past 13+ months we have held a saturday movie night at the condo. With the move to Young Harris, this will be ending. For posterity, here’s the film list.

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28 June 2008 – Hitchcock’s “The Birds”
5 July – The Coen Brothers’ “Fargo”
12 July – “Singin’ in the Rain”
19 July – Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz”
26 July – Icelandic comedy “101 Reykjavik”
2 Aug – Tati’s “Playtime”
9 Aug – “Like Water for Chocolate”
16 Aug – “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (Robert Downey Jr. Appreciation Night)
23 Aug – “A Fish Called Wanda”
30 Aug – (no movie)
6 Sept – The Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski”
13 Sept – “Chaplin” (Robert Downey Jr. again; apparently we really appreciate him)
20 Sept – Pixar’s “Ratatouille”
27 Sept – ‘Shorts festival’ (episode of Spaceballs cartoon, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Red Dwarf, Snookey the Humanzee, MST3K, and a Mexican dramatic soap opera)
4 Oct – Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”
11 Oct – (no movie)
18 Oct – (no movie)
25 Oct – (no movie)
1 Nov – “Casino Royale” (Daniel Craig version)
8 Nov – Sam Newfield’s Dracula rip-off “Dead Men Walk” and “Mystery Science Theater 3000 the Movie”
15 Nov – Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera”
22 Nov – John Barrowman in “Shark Attack 3”
29 Nov – “A Muppet Christmas Carol”
6 Dec – “A Garfield Christmas” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
13 Dec – several episodes of “Invader Zim” plus as much as we could tolerate of the “Star Wars Holiday Special”
20 Dec – (no movie)
27 Dec – (no movie)
3 Jan 2009 – (no movie)
10 Jan – (no movie)
17 Jan – “Team America: World Police” and an episode of “Captain Scarlet”
24 Jan – “Moulin Rouge”
31 Jan – “O Brother Where Art Thou?”
7 Feb – “National Treasure”
13 Feb – “Eraserhead,” “Dumb and Dumber”
21 Feb – “Lone Wolf & Cub 6: White Heaven in Hell”
28 Feb – “Baby Mama”
7 Mar – David Lynch’s “Inland Empire”
14 Mar – (no movie)
21 Mar – SABU’s “Postman Blues”
29 Mar – (Marc’s Birthday) Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”
4 Apr – (no movie)
11 Apr – (no movie)
18 Apr – Tarsem’s “The Fall”
25 Apr – (no movie)
2 May – “Hot Fuzz” (again)
9 May – Hitchcock’s “Psycho”
16 May – Roger Corman night: “A Bucket of Blood” and “Little Shop of Horrors”
23 May – (no movie)
30 May – “Little Shop of Horrors” (musical version)
6 June – “Young Einstein”
13 June – “The Pillow Book”
20 June – “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” and “Commentary the Musical”
27 June – George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
4 July – (no movie)
11 July – “Scarves: Tie Into a New Look” and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday”
18 July – “Cinematic Titanic: Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks”
25 July – “SNL: The Best of Christopher Walken” and “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”
1 Aug – Sabu’s “Unlucky Monkey”

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Not really in the mood for a full blown review of this film, but I did want to share some thoughts after a couple days of percolating.

To cut right to the chase, this film is being grotesquely over-reviewed; as far as quality and enjoyment are concerned, I’m pretty confident that this belongs in the bottom tier of Pixar films, including Cars and The Incredibles.

The reasons why I say that are a bit complex (in much the same way that my reasons for hating The Incredibles are complex). The first 15 to twenty minutes of “Up” are nearly flawless. Up through the unleashing of the balloons and the first few minutes of flight, it’s truly pitch perfect. So much so, in fact, that I tend to wonder if it didn’t start as a short which they then decided to expand because it was too moody and not funny enough for a typical animated short.

Unfortunately, that’s where the film pretty much ends. Rather rapidly, our central character simply falls asleep, waking up a few seconds later only to discover that he’s already arrived at his destination! Any and all actual experiences in the air have been cut from the film; as such, the soul has been cut from it.

What replaces the ‘odd couple in an air balloon’ plot that everyone was surely expecting, is a poorly thought out swashbuckler in which realism is further and further jettisoned in favor of inexplicable fun. Talking dogs, a ‘roadrunner’ clone, the return of the old man’s childhood hero (who is inexplicably now NOT 30 years older than our old man), and the long and tedious dragging of the house across a bleak landscape. Melodrama to the hilt.

Not that this is necessarily bad. The problems are in the planning. Jennifer and I, in random discussions about the film, have found it exceedingly easy to rewrite this film and make it more coherent, pleasant, and ultimately meaningful in the way it should have been. The logic flaws provide ample opportunity to fix the film. Unfortunately those opportunities were not taken.

For example, the fact that the childhood hero should, by all rights, have been dead by this point, means they could have found his dog colony rather than him; we could still have had the menace of the talking dogs – and the clever idea of the ‘alpha’ dog – without the jarring ‘lightswitch’ evil of the childhood hero. This could further have provided a unification to the moral of the story that the journey is more important than the goal; we could have discovered recordings of the childhood hero saying how happy he was that he actually never caught the bird, but that he had lived a full and pleasant life trying. Of course, the removal of the childhood hero as villain would also remove the problem of our old man transitioning from needing a cane to being able to have a swordfight and jump off of airships in the space of 90 minutes, as though being old is simply a state of mind and not equally as much about the body breaking down; it’s a little insulting to the elderly, actually, to act as though they could be action heroes if they’d just try…

And, of course, it should go without saying that we could have had far more witty banter and sight gags while flying, rather than dragging the house along the ground for 80% of the film.

All told, this is an extremely problematic film. Though it had extraordinary potential, it desperately needed a rewrite before the starting of the animation process.

As with all Pixar films, its still entertaining enough to be worth seeing, but the coherence and meaningfulness latent in this story never comes together

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Just saw this film last night with Jenn.

Let’s not beat around the bush: this is Ben Stiller attempting to appropriate the comedic style of the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright comedies.  It is an attempt to both critique and praise a particular genre within the same film – in this case, the war epic.  As such, it does not succeed to nearly the degree of the Pegg/Wright films (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), but it is actually far smarter than it could have been.  And it has the additional merit of doing exactly the two things that it should have done, as a Hollywood appropriation of this style; 1) instead of an ensemble piece like the Pegg/Wright films, this is a full on mega-cast, and 2) rather than rather low budget work, this is a loving mockery of mega-budget spectacle films.  (While “Hot Fuzz” did this to a degree, it certainly doesn’t approach this mass of helicopter footage and explosions.)

Clearly the prize of the film is Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface role: Kirk Lazarus – an Australian method-actor who lives his roles all the way “until the commentary track is recorded,” and is, not coincidentally, also trapped in a severe identity crisis.  This role, which could have simply been inflammatory for the sake of ticket sales, winds up being an incredibly well written (and well played) little treatise on stereotyping and the fact that a self transcends such mundane things.  His continual faking of blackness, in full view of an actual black man, is priceless.  When he ‘recovers’ at the end of the film, his ultra-Australian line “who the krikey fuck is Half Squat?” brings the role full circle and leaves us in a position where his ‘true self’ is equally viewable as a stereotype.  It’s a rather unexpected defense of blackface as not so much a racial insult as simply a misguided attempt to find oneself in the trappings of another.  Not to overanalyze the thing – especially considering that this is all half-thought out rambling after a single viewing – but this is clearly the reason why the film has lasting merit.

The actual black character, Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson) is equally clever, in that he is A) a black ‘straight man,’ which is rare in and of itself and was necessary for the blackface figure to work, and B) a gay ‘straight man,’ which is a pretty clever little play on theatrical slang and was an otherwise unnecessary addition to the script.  Very good work there.

Ben Stiller’s character is problematic, and that’s where the film starts to fall apart.  His character simply isn’t as clever or complicated as Downey’s.  He is just a former action star trying in vain to regain the audience’s affection.  Though this does result in the priceless monologue from Downey about how “you never go full retarded” in a feature film and expect to win an Oscar, the continual return to his retarded “Simple Jack” character as the punchline feels a little empty.  His other clever bit of business, the attempted adoption of an Asian boy, is so underplayed that it doesn’t really help to elevate his character to the level of intelligent critique that I might have wanted from this film about filmmaking.

Jack Black’s character (Jeff Portnoy) is even less polished.  While the junkie-actor looking for a fix thing could’ve worked well, and the ‘fart joke’ comic thing could’ve been a clever Hollywood critique, it just never comes together.  The concepts were there, but the ultimate performance doesn’t seem to mean much.

Meanwhile, the other straight-man, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), is likewise underwritten.  As a minor character, one shouldn’t expect too much from him anyway, but he never gets his meaningful moment – unlike the ‘gay straight-man’ played by Jackson.

Many other side characters are half formed commentaries on Hollywood filmmaking and epic movies.  Nick Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback is a riff on author’s of famous memoirs, and Tom Cruise’s improbably good performance as Les Grossman is a well played, if mostly just silly, take on the star-producer Jerry Bruckheimer type.

Sorry to go off on a critique of individual characters, but that’s really what this film is – a collection of interesting character analyses.  The plot itself is pretty standard Ben Stiller absurdist comedy stuff…another small failing of the film when one compares it to the Pegg/Wright movies.

All in all, “Tropic Thunder” is less than the sum of its parts, but there are some really good belly laughs in here, and the high points are really quite clever.  I do recommend seeing it, and I actually recommend paying theater ticket prices for it, because I can’t imagine that it would work half as well without a crowd.

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So, I was puttering around the internet today (can one ‘putter around’ the internet?) and wound up looking over the Hugo award nominees for this year…inspired by the Dr. Who / Steven Moffat news.

Imagine my surprise when a non-profit fan vid turned up as a nominee in the “Best Dramatic Presentation – Short Form” category – alongside such things as Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Battlestar Galactica.  A fan produced ‘series’ (it’s up to three episodes completed) of further adventures of the original Star Trek crew, called “Star Trek: New Voyages” (it has since changed its name), managed to have an episode nominated – “World Enough and Time.”

So I watched it.

I have to say…well deserved.  That was without doubt the single most impressive ‘unofficially’ produced program I have ever seen.  While there were some issues with transitioning to new actors for the old parts (most ignored their own talents and tried too hard to emulate the original actors), and a few lines and ideas were a bit wobbly, the episode as a whole was quite impressive.  Though, it must be admitted, George Takei and Christina Moses carried the whole thing.

But, of course, it says quite a bit for your level of respect in the Star Trek community when you can get George Takei to reprise his role as Sulu for your episode.  That alone makes me interested in checking out the other two episodes.

Anyway…I’ll not say any more about it.  If you have some time, and are a Trek fan, I’d suggest you give it a watch.  It was quite an eye opener.  Close enough to the real thing that I am willing to forgive its faults.

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First things first – we’ve had a visit to this often not particularly humble blog from the editor and author of chapter one of this very book. Check the comments section to my overview of that chapter for his defense / counter-summary of that chapter. Some interesting things have come up, and I’ve brought up a few more coherent ideas in my response to him.

Fair warning, though…the two comments do run on a tad.

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Regarding chapter seven…I’m beginning to notice a pattern to some of these chapters; not a pattern that should necessarily have been unexpected (as the approach is quite common in media studies) but one which I had not noticed repeatedly rearing its head.

What we have in this chapter (and had in chapter 5, and to a degree in chapter 2) is ‘laundry list’ scholarship, or manifestations of the “Towards…” method of scholarly writing; articles which become basically useless as arguments themselves and instead choose to simply raise as many talking points as possible without really going into their ramifications in any sort of depth.

This chapter, much like chapter five, is packed to the rafters with interesting observations – like noticing that the Doctor as a character is a construct of various and occasionally conflicted mythological archetypes (for example, the ‘wise old man’ and the ‘Trickster’), or the observation that the absence of a clear recounting of the Doctor’s ‘origin story’ leaves him as an incomplete version of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. However, very little is done with any one of these observations.

The idea of the Doctor as “suffering from a mythic identity crisis” (the first of the two observations I just listed) comes up in a few places in the chapter, but no attempt at unifying this disparate figure is made – more and more archetypes are simply listed as though incoherence is the only trait. While it’s perfectly sensible to warn people away from being reductive, there must be something coherent about the Doctor’s archetypal schizophrenia, otherwise he would cause problems for the audience. I feel that the Doctor’s determined coherence as a rational but humanist figure despite his changing incarnations implies that there is a far more fruitful discussion to be had along these lines than is offered here. He is a combination of coherence and incoherence.

Likewise, analyses of actual myth interaction in the series are kept too brief to be of much value. Descriptions of individual episodes (“Underworld” as Jason and the Golden Fleece; “Horns of Nimon” as the Minotaur and the Labyrinth) are reduced to single paragraphs without much connecting tissue other than the apparent claim that ‘some episodes are less problematic due to not pulling mythic concepts from multiple myths simultaneously’ (that’s obviously a paraphrase).

The article is simply trying to do far too much and winds up doing almost nothing other than providing fodder for other scholars to do the heavy-lifting. It attempts a complete overview of previous analyses of the approaches to myth in Doctor Who (Tulloch, Fiske, etc.), and even an overview of approaches to myth in scholarship in general (Barthes, Campbell, etc.). This alone would be enough for an entire article – albeit a boring one (nothing like an ‘overview’ study to put one to sleep) – and yet this article also tries to do two other things: analyze the Doctor’s archetypal schizophrenia (my term, not the authors…but I like it better), and analyze the issues that arise when a rationalist hero encounters irrational tales. This is an awful lot to try to do in 15 pages. Had he chosen just one of these approaches it would have been great, but as it is it becomes just a list of potential avenues of inquiry.

Perhaps the most perfect example of the problems inherent in trying to be this far reaching is the fact that page 128 contains a simple list of episodes which include references to known myths, and yet no evidence is provided to justify any of the claims made in this list. Granted, he does return to many of these episodes, giving us justification for many of the claims, such as “Greek Myth emerges in…‘Underworld.’” However, many others remain completely unsubstantiated; for example, “[a]llusions to Biblical myth occur in…the McGann TV Movie” – a claim which I honestly am not sure what to do with. (Perhaps he means the Doctor being chained up with the spiky headgear near the end?  A cruciform crown-of-thorns sort of thing?  But I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call that a Biblical allusion – certainly not on the scale of some of the others he discusses, at any rate.)  This list of potential arguments is a microcosm for the chapter as a whole.

This is not to say that the “Towards…” approach gets us nothing, particularly here. The author winds up providing something of a list of ways in which Doctor Who as a program interacts with myth. Though they aren’t laid out this clearly in the essay, they could be summarized as: 1) the Doctor combats the mythical-irrational with logic; 2) the Doctor tends to explain away myths by grounding them in particular historical origins, even if those origins are pseudo-science or ‘aliens’; 3) despite the Doctor’s avowed rationality, ritual and magic are occasionally included as part of the program’s worldview; 4) there is potentially disconnection between science fiction’s tendency to provide logically explained worlds and the Doctor’s tendency to butt heads with mythic elements which remain unexplained (such as the Eye of Horus in “Pyramids of Mars”). (The author calls this latter an ‘aesthetic problem,’ though I’m not a big fan of using the very hazily defined term ‘aesthetic’ in scholarly analyses, especially when discussing plot threads.)  But even this attempt to provide a schematic for the chapter tends to fall apart, as virtually every one of these observations can be reduced to the same thing: rationality and irrationality are constantly placed side by side in this program.

So while this is not an egregious chapter, it doesn’t provide us with much other than a starting point. I for one wish that the entirety of the ‘overview of the work of other theorists’ section had been dropped, which would’ve at least provided the author with more space to discuss his other observations.

With all that in the bag, though, kudos on the idea of comparing the Doctor’s tendency to explain away mythic creatures as aliens to the work of author Erich von Daniken. That was brilliant.

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Having had a few days to ruminate on Chapter 1 of the book of essays on Doctor Who, and having ‘watched’ the telefilm again (by running it as background noise one day), I’m beginning to develop a counter argument that I’d like to float.

All y’all Doctor Who fans might have some input on this, unlike the previous posts which were basically just summaries of other people’s arguments and might, therefore, have been very difficult to formulate a comment about.

(P.S. Sorry about the y’all up there; it’ll never happen again.)

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Accepting the charge that the Doctor Who telefilm is ‘an excessively obvious cinema,’ to borrow a phrase, in which the viewer is repeatedly bashed over the head with information in a not particularly mysterious or even enjoyable manner…is there any way we can deal with this as an ‘artistic’ choice? Must we always resort to complaining about how abysmal the telefilm was by citing examples of ‘Doctor Who done right’ (as the author of the chapter does), or can we try to make sense of it regardless of how bad it was.

In short, I believe that the plotline of the film itself renders the ‘obviousness’ of the approach comprehensible. (This is not a defense of the film as a good film; it is simply an attempt to make sense of why the makers might have chosen the approach that they did.)

I believe that the problem in our interpretation resides in the fact that we privilege a reading of the film’s villain over a reading of the film as a whole. This is understandable, as Doctor Who is often a ‘monster of the week’ kind of show, but the telefilm is, in my estimation, overtly NOT about the Doctor doing epic battle with the Master. It is about continuities and discontinuities – about knowing oneself.

Let’s look at all the pieces.

Grace Holloway – faces the decision of whether she cares more about her moral position or the financial stability of the hospital; ultimately ‘defines herself’ by quitting. Faced with the decision of staying on Earth or leaving with the Doctor, she defines herself again, this time by choosing the status quo – reasserting her location and her life as a Doctor as a stable continuity.

Chang Lee – As a redeemable villain character, Lee must start the film rejecting continuity of lifestyle – as such, his theft of the Doctor’s “things” and his lifestyle as a power hungry little thug are perfectly reasonable examples of a life with little self-definition. He gets shot at by a rival gang – clearly his is a life of action, not repetitive motion; and action is not a desirable lifestyle choice in this plotline. However, by the time he becomes ‘good,’ he too is ‘defined’ by the continuity of his life. The Doctor takes time out to tell him, for no particular reason, “next Christmas, take a vacation and don’t be here”; couched as advice from a Time Lord, this passage tacitly reveals the city as Chang Lee’s continuity as well. Here we have a second character at least partially ‘defined’ by his penchant to remain in the same place, but this only happens after Chang Lee has ‘changed’ from a bad to a good character.

The Doctor – begins and ends in exactly the same posture: sitting in the Tardis, reading a book, listening to a record (“your kiss was a flame…”); despite the fact that he has regenerated, his life is given the appearance of repetition, while the attack by the Master is one of rupture. (Let’s disregard the fact that in the history of the show prior to the telefilm, ease and repetition were actually the ruptures in the Doctor’s life and attacks were the norm. We are trying to make sense of the telefilm on its own terms here, not in terms of the previous series. And, in terms of the telefilm, an ‘action packed‘ lifestyle is forced upon the Doctor – it is not chosen.) Additionally, the Doctor’s main plotline is in maintaining continuity of character in another sense – keeping the Master from hijacking his body.

The Master – as already alluded to, he is the one character who, at the end of the film as well as at the beginning, is not defined particularly by continuity, but by his desire to escape from same. He hijacks the bodies of others in order to prolong himself. He wants control and action not mundanity. While we must grant that his CHARACTER is continuous – the Master is still pure evil – a concern with or even a love for continuity in one’s life and an ability to define oneself is not a part of him. He actively militates against such continuities in his life. He tries to define himself via stealing parts from others.

So what we seem to have is a film about repetitiveness and continuity of personality. Not in a critical way, but in a way that says ‘what you repeatedly do is what makes you you.’

Taking this as our starting point, then, it is not particularly clear why we would expect the telefilm not to go “out of its way to explain…[the Doctor’s] strangeness through familiar models” and to ‘reveal his nature,’ and even to suck the mystery out of the theme tune and turn it into traditional Hollywood orchestral bombast. It is a fallacy to argue that the film is betraying the “mystery” of the original series because, it seems to me, the choice not to stress mystery was made consciously. If it was a ‘betrayal,’ it was a betrayal with purpose. What was the purpose? It seems to me that the ultimate decision that was made here was, in telling a story in which ‘goodness’ was identified with individuals who embraced the repetitiveness and continuities of their lives and ‘badness’ was identified with those who were untethered and/or desirous of the lives of others, it would make no sense for the Doctor to be reticent about defining HIMSELF. So what if that was a trope of the original series; if the plot of the telefilm is an exhortation to embrace one’s own mundane reality and self-definition, what purpose would it serve to have the central character be an enigma?

Now, we could of course argue that having the central character as an enigma in the center of this maelstrom of self-definition would have been an interesting and compelling image. In fact, it probably would have been much more interesting than the finished film – including the Doctor in the central theme turned the film into a one-trick pony and rendered it quite boring. However, what is important is that, from the perspective of characters embracing or rejecting self-definition, the choice to have him wander about shouting “I am a Time Lord” and “I have 13 lives and two hearts” to any passing stranger makes a certain amount of sense.

The film actually has a strange little moment that seems to support this argument. It is with an awareness of the idea of self-definition and continuity, in fact, that we can actually make sense of one of the few in-jokes in the film. When Grace enters the Tardis for the first time, she is not amazed; she is in fact completely underwhelmed by how “low-tech” it all is, and goes on to explain the fact that the Tardis is bigger on the inside by saying that “inter-dimensional transference…would explain the spatial displacement we experienced as we passed over the threshold.” The author of chapter one in the book I’ve been reading makes quite a stink over this as again destroying the ‘mystery’ of the program in the name of a rather stupid joke, but it is actually the fact that for Grace this experience IS NOT DISCONTINUOUS WITH HER EXPERIENCE that makes it funny. Even here in this tiny moment of ‘bad humor’ it is continuity of lifestyle that is the point of the joke.

—-

Jennifer has made the interesting observation also that this concept of mundanity as self-worth actually has a precedent in the series itself. The Tardis, as a rickety old police box, conceals beneath its mundane exterior a universe of interesting passages and rooms within. The Tardis itself then has some bearing on exploring further a tradition in Doctor Who not only of not judging a book by its cover, but instead cultivating a ‘boring’ cover rather than an action packed lifestyle. One’s internal world is all that matters.

This is all very loosely thought out, obviously, but there seems to be merit to the argument.

—-

There are, of course, other criticisms leveled at the film which are outside of the scope of this particular thesis, but I’d like to address one other just as an aside.

To criticize the film by saying that it “often gets Doctor Who mythology wrong” is also a bit unfounded. After all, we are talking about a ‘pilot’ episode here, no matter how much difference there might be between “An Unearthly Child” as a pilot, and the telefilm with 30 years worth of history behind it… For an author who gets into such a snit over the absence of ‘mystery’ in the telefilm pilot, he sure did rapidly reject such concepts as the Daleks being effectively the jury system of the universe. (I can only assume that his “gets…mythology wrong” was partially pointed at the intro which claimed that the Daleks not only put the Master on trial and killed him, but granted his last request to have his remains transported home by the Doctor.) This rewriting of the Daleks would have been a fascinating angle to try to explain away in a future series. I, for one, find that element to be a quite profound ‘mystery,’ and one which was not wholly unwelcome. Just because it was ‘inexplicable’ at the time of broadcast (and is even more so now that the British reboot of the series has reverted the Daleks back to a universal scourge) does not mean that it “got…[the] mythology wrong.” To say that it did is to call the filmmakers stupid. It seems more likely to me that they were making an active choice to provide fodder for discussion among the fans – ‘what have they done to the Daleks?’

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I’m going to try, really try, to not rant about this article; however, be aware that I am at this moment providing fair warning that I might not be able to contain myself when discussing this reprehensible and arrogant piece of shit.

The chapter, such as it is, can basically be separated into three sections, two of which are loosely connected arguments, the third of which (the middle section) is some coherent and interesting observations about Dr. Who itself.

Let’s start with the middle section, as it’s the only part that has even the slightest relationship to reality.

There are two distinct and very thought provoking observations about the show in this middle section. The first is that the program displayed a tendency in its first years to feature an overtly colonialist attitude. Of the many observations along this line, I find the most interesting to be that the Doctor basically starts a war on Skaro simply to gain access to a new fluid-link for his Tardis. A number of other observations echo this one, but suffice it to say that these fundamentally British interlopers (two actual Brits and two aliens living in Britain) tend to treat the world(s) as their oyster – they allow themselves to pass judgment and start trouble because their own needs are always the most important. A clear counterargument to this would be the interest that the heroic group shows in the alien species they encounter, but this is where the author’s second observation comes in: the Doctor is also effectively an embodiment of the heroic imperialist ideal. He is a sexless, genial observer who has everyone’s best interests at heart and, therefore, wields a moral authority that is overpowering. His ‘interest’ in other cultures, then, might not be a saving grace.

These are in and of themselves interesting critiques of a very British program. One could make similar observations about American programs gleefully disregarding the ‘rules’ in favor of a higher moral authority (i.e. Star Trek constantly evading its own prime directive). The observation of a seemingly culturally specific ideology within an entertainment product from said culture is a popular pastime among cultural scholars – especially those with an agenda.

However, one has to be very wary with what one tries to do with observations such as this, and that’s where this scholar, like so many others, flies way off the rails into proposing basically a dictatorship of the ‘truly liberal.’ (And, of course, the ‘truly liberal’ is effectively just an expansion to authority of the scholar’s own particular point of view.)

The final section of this absurd chapter is the most reprehensible part by far, leaping off as it does from the observation of colonialist concepts in Doctor Who and proceeding to lambaste the entirety of Doctor Who, BBC television, and Britain in general for continuing to harbor a secret love of their own Empire period. Let us take as a moot point, for a moment, the fact that subjugation of others is wrong – let us simply assume that the vast majority of human beings (at least those with any interest in this article) are aware that slavery and colonization are inappropriate ways to rule and should always be replaced with a more integrated, multicultural, democratic position. Taking this as a given, does it do any good to argue that anything which even hints at similar beliefs to those lionized by a regime which engaged in questionable activities is ipso facto a reprehensible product? Is a film that discusses life in the American South without discussing race necessarily a racist text? Is a film which continues to sing the praises of Babe Ruth as an icon of baseball without discussing the lack of integration in baseball at the time necessarily a racist text? Bringing this back to the point, is a sexless, genial, genius with everyone’s best interests at heart necessarily a colonialist hero? The answer to all of these questions is no. There is no such thing as an uncomplicated political reference. We could probably dig up any number of films made by individuals or countries who were never colonialist powers which have a distinct smell of similarity in their heroes, just as we could find a film made by Martians that seemed to be an allegory for Naziism. One cannot reduce a political position to a definition and point it out unproblematically in cinematic products. Neither can one psychoanalyze the mass-mind of an entire culture, saying that because Britain was a colonial power, and because the Doctor seems emblematic of colonialism means both that Britain is actively trying to reinforce its own position as moral authority and that all the viewers are buying this concept and being infected by latent colonialism.

The whole thing is simply wrong-headed and offensive in and of itself. Debatable ‘observations’ do not equal ‘conditions’ that can be psychoanalyzed and dealt with. Observations are no more than one interpretation of a multivalent text. No more, no less. And when one’s objection rests on the ridiculous final complaint that ‘we’ll see a Black Doctor no sooner than we’ll see David Tennant play Nelson Mandela,’ one needs to think hard about whether one’s argument is convincing or contains a positively laughable precept. For starters, to posit such a thing reveals the author’s unspoken racial double standard in his ‘anti-racist’ rant, assuming that there would be anything inherently special about a Black actor playing the Doctor while simultaneously decrying the use of race as a subjugating factor; one can’t simultaneously say ‘we need more ‘minorities’’ in a certain position while also saying ‘race doesn’t matter’ – the two are mutually exclusive positions and both must be modified to make a coherent statement about solving the problem of race relations. The assertion, therefore, also reveals the absurdity of his own definition of ‘true liberalism’ – if David Tennant playing a historically Black man is somehow the definition of a truly multi-cultural society, we may as well give up now, because I get the distinct impression that multicultural leanings are never going to outweigh the concept of historical veracity. (Perhaps instead we should talk about David Tennant playing Uncle Remus; at least then we’d be in the more reasonable realm of a fictional character to whom we’re ascribing the mandate that ‘race shouldn’t matter.’)

This is just self-righteous garbage from a utopian liberal. And that criticism should have some serious teeth coming as it does from another liberal who tends to lean towards utopian generalization.

The earlier section is significantly less objectionable, though it is also quite likely very wrong. Instead of ranting about latent colonialism, the bulk of the first several pages consists of nothing but a meandering philosophical treatise on the concept that television does to history what the speed of light does to physics. (This gets really complicated; don’t blame me if it makes little to no sense.) The starting point for this is the admittedly brilliantly-absurd attempt at correlating Doctor Who to the “both particles and waves” concept from physics. If a ‘serial’ is a ‘wave,’ because the story continues unbroken despite episodic divisions, and a ‘series’ is a ‘particle,’ because each episode must stand alone and achieve narrative closure at the end, then Doctor Who as a series of serials (four discreet stories with four episodes each, for example) is like the concept of traveling as both particles and waves.

Crazy yes. But thought provokingly crazy. However, from this odd and intriguing beginning the author proceeds to follow the example of arch pessimist Baudrillard (whose work “Simulacra and Simulation,” which I have indeed read, includes one of the most mind-numbingly depressing conclusions in the history of scholarship) and assert that television has somehow obliterated history and ushered in the era of the post-modern, because all times mingle in the now – historical dramas sit next to sitcoms set in the modern day; reruns sit next to new programs; and old footage is indistinguishable from new. Unfortunately, in order to argue such a thing (which would, admittedly, be compelling) requires that we forget a very large quantity of mitigating factors about television. 1) The audience is aware, to at least some degree, of what it is watching. Whether we rely on the idea that the viewer knows that “I Love Lucy” is not actually new, or remembers having seen this particular episode of “Doctor Who” before, or recognizes outdated cultural precepts in “Leave it to Beaver,” something about the viewer’s memory can always mitigate against the assertion that television is an un-parsable ‘present.’ 2) Television was not a perfect medium at its inception that has gone through no changes. Black and white, graininess of footage, and approach to camera positioning/mobility can all be used to date a recording to a certain extent. We cannot argue that people who watch game 3 of the 1968 World Series, then “Man vs. Wild,” then “Manimal” are going to mistake all of these shows for ‘now.’ 3) TV was not first on the scene of recording and transmitting. Any argument that “World War II was a historical event” while Vietnam was a “television event” ignores the fact that World War II was ‘televised’ on a daily basis in theatrical newsreels. This is obviously a different thing entirely, but it is at the very least evidence that we cannot compartmentalize the television as some unique perspective changing device. The operative factor of television is not the recording and broadcasting of images at all – it is the location of the device: the living-room. 4) A considerable amount of old footage is clearly marked as such at the time of rebroadcast, be it archival news footage or a rerun of a sporting event. Ask a sports fan whether or not they can tell the difference between a game currently happening and a recorded event; they will have no problem at all. Probably because it begins and ends on the hour and might even contain an overt claim that a section is being skipped ‘due to time constraints.’

Even if we disregard the many many criticisms of TV as undifferentiatable, however, would it get us anything? Even this article STARTS its argument with this attempt at turning telelvision into the boogeyman. By the end of the chapter, the idea has been completely abandoned in favor of a rant about persistent colonialism. In effect, then, the only thing such an argument seems to get us is the idea that we are now living in an era (the television era) in which we must be constantly on our guard for the reification of hated old ideologies. The only merit to the argument is one of fear – ‘oh what a dangerous time we live in.’

But can we accept even this? What of the Bible? The Koran? The Torah? Television is entirely beside the point when it comes to perpetuating dated beliefs. Literature has been doing this for a very very long time. And we need not restrict our examples to religious texts as I have done; that was simply the most expedient.

…Neo-Luddism is not a pretty thing…and this chapter is uglied up by it at every turn.

This is far and away the worst chapter in the book. And I fervently hope that it remains so. If it gets much worse than this, I will toss the book into a stump grinder. I’m perfectly willing to read analyses of Doctor Who written by people who actually don’t like the show, but they should at least be able to formulate some kind of coherent critique for their dislike. This is simply asinine – simultaneously pessimistic on the levels of human intellect and technological change.

I guess, on the bright side, the author has chosen to be a utopian thinker and feel superior rather than go the route of wrist slitting depression like Baudrillard. Kudos, I guess…

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If ever one needed an example of a scholarly train-wreck, this is it. I have never in my life encountered an ‘argument’ where almost all of the interesting analyses are moved to the footnotes and the body of the text consists of nothing but very loosely related asides.

Honestly, his ‘argument’ goes from ‘Dr. Who was structured like BBC travelogues in the sixties,’ to ‘insert shots as establishing shots,’ to ‘the Mulveyan male-gaze versus screaming women looking at male monsters,’ back to the travelogue concept of random information gathering, to the Foucaultian panopticon as villain (though the Doctor reserves the right for himself to go anywhere and see anything), back to the travelogue concept with the Doctor as question-asker rather than answer-giver, Barthes “Mythologies” and the Doctor as ‘flaneur’ (these two things are entirely unconnected), before finally ‘concluding’ with “so, the Doctor…[is] both observer and observed.”

If you found that hard to follow…congratulations; that means you are a normal, rational human being. Unlike the author of this chapter.  The ‘argument’ is nothing more than a pastiche of formal, feminist, psychoanalytic, and historiographic analyses; there is no connecting tissue here at all, nor is there a coherent thesis.  The article is more of a scholarly CV than an actual argument; ‘look at all the things I can cite’ it seems to say.

There are a number of very interesting observations scattered around in here. So many, in fact, that to try to summarize this chapter in a blog post would run on for hours. I am, therefore, grateful that the chapter exists, if only to start discussions. But for the most part, this is like taking 30 observations, throwing them in a blender, and publishing it as though you’ve done an ‘analysis.’

This is the closest scholarship gets to actual physical pain.

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This is such an interesting little film, I’ll not spoil it with too much talking. I’d just like to point out some of the thought provoking elements of the film.

  1. ‘Reality’ of the plot vs. interpretive openings – Several points of entry into the film as metaphor seem to exist regardless of the plot.  The purely social (employer/employee, friend) relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Delysia Lafosse manages to have lesbian overtones despite overt heterosexuality as a plotline.  Miss Pettigrew, despite narratively being a Christian woman (father was a clergyman), manages to seem like both a depression era British poor woman and a Jewish woman in Germany just prior to World War II.  These are only two examples; the film is working on far more levels than it’s plot.
  2. Likewise, story setting and theoretical settings blend together – The depression and the threat of the blitz (an always fertile area for metaphor) are combined with both a sentimental critique of upper-class culture as shallow, and a liberal feminist critique of culture as ‘masquerade.’  Again, the story works on multiple, even seemingly conflicting levels of interpretation.
  3. Straightforward romantic ending as critique of the urge to criticize the romantic ending? – The fact that the film is working in such a complex fashion, with a vast store of ‘mood’ and meaning seeming to trail behind it, renders the very typical romantic happy ending as both unbelievably trite and disappointing (could such a complex film really end this way) and also one laden with hidden meanings.  The latter observation leads me to…
  4. Miss Pettigrew as Rick from Casablanca? – Though the film has virtually nothing to do with the overt war-time politics of Casablance (this film is, instead, entirely about women and romance), it actually feels like a remake of Casablanca from a woman’s perspective.  This gets complicated, but by the end, Miss Pettigrew effectively sends her only friend (a veiled lesbian version of Casablanca’s heterosexual couple?) to the ‘safety’ of America (see Rick’s “maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow” speech) with her ‘true love,’ and is left to help others through the coming war (Rick was a way out; Pettigrew is wisdom from World War I).  She walks away with her own new beau, Joe Blumfield (an overtly heterosexual version of Casablanca’s perhaps gay “beautiful friendship” between Rick and Captain Renault?).  The ending of this film is so perfectly constructed as a gendered inversion of Casablanca that it can’t really be unintentional.

Other elements are equally interesting.  The film is definitely about women, but power relations (men with money and position, women with nothing but manipulation) are never foregrounded – its feminism without the bludgeon.  The easing in of wartime imagery works very well – giving the story a historical setting without destroying the possibility of counter-(allegorical)-readings.  The form of the film is likewise provocative in subtle ways: sometimes an active party goes out of focus, despite the fact that we can still glean story elements from them (see the post-cigar smoking reaction of Miss Pettigrew, for example); two emotions are also played in the same visual space but in different planes (for example, a happy Delysia Lafosse will step across the frame to reveal a displeased Miss Pettigrew in the background).

I can’t speak highly enough about this film.  It may drag a little in the middle; I can’t really tell without watching it again, knowing the ending so as to watch for the subtleties in the middle.  But otherwise this is a practically flawless, very thought provoking little ‘woman’s picture.’  Far far more than the sum of its parts.

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I’m going to combine these two chapters into a single post, as the latter is a partial elaboration and a partial critique of the former.

Chapter three, the first truly excellent chapter in the book, is a practically indisputable (in my opinion) theoretical analysis of the ways in which ‘history’ has been used as a genre over the course of Dr. Who. Approaching the shift from a ‘reception’ (spectator) perspective, history as a genre in Dr. Who is approached in terms of genre fluidity.

The basic argument starts with the old fan-made distinction between ‘pure historical’ stories (like the first season episode “The Aztecs”) and ‘pseudo-historical’ stories (think of “Time Meddler” or “War Games”). From this premise, the author proceeds to argue that ‘pure historicals’ – in which only the Doctor, his companions, and his ship are science fictional elements in an otherwise purely historical story…and in which our heroes spend the bulk of their time trying to survive – as imagined by the fans, were largely a function of the initial conception of the program. A clear focus on occasional ‘educational’ storytelling, a group dynamic for the heroes rather than the Doctor as central figure, and a clear division between the fields of science (represented by Ian) and history (Barbara), was the core of the show in its initial configuration. However, as the original companions left – leaving the Doctor as the strongest audience draw – and the original production team was replaced, the historical episodes went through a phase of ‘genre creep’ (the author’s term) in which the traits of the more sci-fi stories began to find their way into the historicals. Eventually, by the episode “Time Meddler,” there had been a complete shift to ‘pseudo-historicals’ – in which the ‘Doctor as hero’ motif plays out in a historical space that is either in need of protection from an alien menace or is a fabrication of the villains entirely. Only “The Highlanders” (second Doctor) and “Black Orchid” (fifth Doctor) functioned as ‘pure historicals’ after the show lost its original structure (Dr., Susan, Ian, Babs, and the initial production team).

Further arguments are made that the post-cancellation embrace of the ‘pure historical’ in novels and audio dramas has resulted in a hybrid form which embraces the ‘pure historical’ concept as educational, the ‘fictional history’ as equally plausible (and at times indistinguishable), and the ‘Doctor as hero.’ But he discusses this only briefly.

The only real criticism that I can offer of the chapter is also perhaps a mark of my highest praise for it. The author makes no mention of any outside scholarship, and barely even mentions any other television programs outside of Dr. Who. His treatment is one of pure isolation, which makes me wonder if he’s simply not bothering to research previously attempted approaches or if no one has attempted an analysis such as this before. Regardless, the argument here, built upon the two ideas of ‘genre creep’ and the emergence of a central hero figure in a series that outlives a number of its characters, I believe to be widely applicable to other long running television series. While most series don’t have such clear distinctions between their internal genres (unlike Dr. Who’s future/past/present split), I think we could still trace these patterns in other programs…especially fantasy and sci-fi.

Nicely done.

Chapter 4 follows this argument with a strongly grounded ‘industrial’ analysis of the transition from ‘pure historical’ to ‘pseudo historical’ between “An Unearthly Child” (1963) and “The Highlanders” (1967). (Though the chapter foregrounds a comparison between Dr. Who historicals and the Peter Watkins telefilm “Culloden,” the “Culloden” bits are easily jettisoned from this overview…and actually could have been removed entirely from the chapter without much difficulty.)

In this chapter, authorial and BBC mandate are foregrounded as the major factors in the transition from about half of the first season episodes being historical to, eventually, no historical stories at all.

Partially this acts as elaboration on Chapter 3. Interesting but tangential elements of the BBC’s approach to historicals are revealed here. For example, “Dr. Who” apparently had an ‘agreement’ not to produce historical stories set after 1600 as this was the realm of the ‘literary serials’ that would air on Sundays. (The further interesting claim that this left Dr. Who unable to “challeng[e] literary interpretations of history…instead becom[ing] dependent on them” is wonky and needs elaboration.) The bulk of the argument is designed not to discuss the shift in historical approach itself, but instead to explain the disappearance of anything remotely resembling pure historicals from the program after 1967. (This is a problematic approach, as it effectively disregards the shift laid out in the previous chapter and discusses pre-1970 and post-1970 ‘history’ as discreet types.) His argument along these lines is hazy, and seems to be poorly thought out (as the ending seems to conflict a little with the beginning. He appears to argue first that the BBC became less interested in having Dr. Who as a ‘challenge’ to viewer preconceptions and instead have it be more ‘reassuring’ (a familiar argument – as a program/character moves from ‘new’ to ‘company flagship’ it tends to become less and less envelope-pushing). Later, in an apparent turnaround, however, he seems to argue that the ‘challenge’ simply shifted away from historical stories and into either contemporary settings or into ‘base under siege’ stories (which did basically what the historicals did – using recognizable politics in an odd setting as an allegory for present day situations). Either of these arguments would work, but it’s difficult for both to be true.

There are also some helpful rephrasings of claims from Chapter 3; i.e. the shift from ‘unchangeable history’ to ‘Doctor as hero’ is described here as a move towards treating the Doctor as operating under a new philosophy of “happy-go-lucky interventionism.” (A slightly different, and perhaps slightly less accurate approach, but which has its own benefits in opening up the discussion.)

We also have, however, a few moments that seem to critique the earlier chapter. For example, it is problematic to do a genre analysis, as the previous author did, when the ‘genre’ is dominated by a small number of writers. (Siegfried Kracauer notably did this in his problematic study of German films – “From Caligari to Hitler” – when he claimed that an entire ‘group’ of films could be discussed when said group consisted solely of two films…both of which were made by Fritz Lang, no less.) This chapter brings up the valid point that there was a distinct difference between the approaches of writers Donald Cotton (“play[ed] with form to subvert audience expectations”) and Dennis Spooner (“lighthearted…and tended to exploit rather than challenge audience expectations”). Authorial difference, of course, should not be minimized in telling of the transition of a series’ approach to genre if changes in approach and changes in writing staff are contemporaneous.  This is potentially a major issue with the previous chapter’s argument about ‘genre creep.’

Again, nicely done, although this chapter is much more weakly thought out than the previous (and all the “Culloden” hoo-ha is a red-herring). The two chapters together make for an excellent study of Dr. Who’s relationship to history/genre.

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