Doctor Who: rating Peter Capaldi

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As an American, Doctor Who is not part of my culture the way it seems to be in the UK.

I first started watching it when I was maybe 8 or so, because channel 9 in New York would show episodes of this crazy, British sci-fi show on Saturday mornings. My first Doctor was Tom Baker, he of the crazy curly hair and long-ass scarf. I really dug Doctor Who back then, though it was mostly a blur.

When Doctor Who was rebooted back in 2005, I was excited. So far I haven’t been disappointed. Christopher Eccleston, one of my favorite actors, took over as the Doctor. Then came David Tennant, and next was Matt Smith. All the while, Doctor Who continued its tradition of a universe-weary hero dashing across time and space, with a human companion (typically female and star-struck) in tow. The storylines have been unevenly thrilling, heavily British, and always fun.

Smith Tennant

The new Doctor Who era has ramped up the youth and sexiness (the same hold true for the companions, mostly). In fact, Matt Smith was just in his twenties when he was signed to play the centuries-old alien. So when it was announced that Peter Capaldi (an Oscar winner, by the way) was hired as the next Doctor, everyone, including me, was thrown for a loop. Capaldi is in his late 60s. He’s gray haired and wrinkled. He is a man who has lived. And he most likely won’t be melting teenage girls hearts. Head writer Steven Moffat, in choosing Capaldi, was abandoning the rush to youth. And it makes sense, when you consider that the Doctor is really, really old (older on the inside, at least).

Capaldi

So how’s Capaldi doing?

We’re nearly at the two-episode season finale, so now’s a good a time as any to rate Calpaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor. And it’s not as easy as listing the pluses and minuses.

First, there’s the question of how the last Doctor died. Matt Smith’s Doctor lived a long, long time protecting the inhabitants of Trenzalore. He died an old man, and he wasn’t expecting another regeneration. The Doctor, as we knew him, was willing to pass on peacefully. But then he was granted more regenerations, and he came back. He wasn’t prepared for that.

And then there’s the question of his companion, Clara, played by Jenna Coleman. I’ll leave her for another post, but Clara has not been the ideal companion for Capaldi’s Doctor. She’s conflicted, she doesn’t understand what regeneration is, and she isn’t trying in the least to be supportive. She’s also one of the only companions who calls the Doctor out on his God complex. What that’s given us is a rough transition for this latest Doctor.

Jenna Coleman

On the good side, Capaldi’s age gives him more freedom to play the Doctor as a whimsical, childlike figure. He doesn’t have to pretend to be old. David Tennant and Matt Smith were young men who wore their gravitas on their sleeves. Capaldi reminds me of the first Doctor I knew, Tom Baker. He was older and could get away with playing silly.

But all is not perfect with this Doctor, and I think it boils down to the difficult relationship between Clara and this version of the Doctor. There is very little lightness between them. Their relationship is strained and forced. Most times I doubt they even like each other. The Doctor needs a traveling companion, and he’s developed a thing for humans. And Clara loves the rush of exploration. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship. Not much love, or warmth.

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Their tension, however, makes for great drama, and some damned funny lines. I loved when the Doctor commented on how Clara’s face was so big she needed three mirrors to see it all. Rumor has it that Jenna Coleman will leave after the season is over. As much as I’ve enjoyed her on the show, I’ll be glad to see her go. This Doctor — befuddled, socially inept, and a little cold — needs someone who will balance him out.

The Leftovers rehashed

A strong premise plus great performances does not equal a successful show.

Leftovers promo

I was looking forward to HBO’s new show The Leftovers for two reasons. The first was that it was created by Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost, one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The second reason was the premise: two percent of Earth’s population has suddenly, inexplicably vanished. This biblical premise has been presented before, and I was interested to see how it would be handled without an overtly religious point of view.

Once you leave behind the religious element, which The Leftovers did, there were two directions in which to take the show: 1) as a jumping point for a wider sci-fi/mystical/horror story, or 2) as a navel-gazing meditation on loss and grief. Unfortunately, the writers chose #2.

Leftovers KevinI wanted to like The Leftovers. And it seemed promising, even once I realized that the “why” of the disappearance would never be addressed.

I liked the cast, and several of the characters, at least in the beginning. Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, the police chief, was intense and intriguing. He hadn’t lost anyone close to him in the vanishing, but his family fell apart soon after. He seemed to be losing his mind, and struggled to fulfill his duty as police chief while keeping what was left of his family intact.

Leftovers Patti LaurieAmy Brenneman as his estranged wife Laurie was great at portraying a range of emotions while rarely uttering a word as a member of the Grieving Remnant, a cult that wore white, refused to talk, chain smoked, and harassed whoever they could find, all in the name of reminding people of their losses.

Ann Dowd was brutal as Patti, the local leader of the Grieving Remnant. But part of the problem with this show was not only Patti, but the whole Grieving Remnant. I never liked any of them, and I never understood their motivation, which kept me distant from them.

The ten episode long series seemed to spin in its wheels the whole time. We watched characters struggle to move past an event that occurred three years earlier, yet they never progressed. I wasn’t sure where the story was heading, and halfway through the series, once I realized we would never learn the why, I didn’t care.

However, The Leftovers contained two of the best hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. Usually each episode jumped between different characters, but for two episodes, they chose to focus on a single character.

The first episode followed Matt Jamison (played by Doctor Who‘s Christopher Eccleston). I’ve been a big fan of Eccleston since Shallow Grave. He has a manic intensity, and this episode followed Matt Jamison as he fought to save his bankrupt church. It was a heartbreaking hour of television.

Leftovers Matt

The second episode, which was the best of the season, followed Nora Durst (the sister of Matt Jamison). I’d never heard of Carrie Coon, the actor who played Nora, but she’s high on my radar now. Nora lost her husband and both children in the vanishing. She was left alone. We were given one hour tracking Nora, and it was brilliant, both in the storytelling and in Coon’s portrayal. If only all the episodes were like this, I’d be a fan of The Leftovers, regardless.

Leftovers Nora

I think the fatal flaw of this season was that it followed the Garvey clan, and we were never given any motivation for their surly, strange behavior. There was a flashback episode that showed the Garvey family just before the event, and it did sweeten the bitter Garveys just a bit, but it was too late to change my feelings toward them. If Nora Durst and Matt Jamison were the main characters, I’d be looking forward to season two.

Doctor Who: regenerated again

What do you do when you create an accidental hit TV show, and your lead actor leaves? If the show is the British sci-fi series Doctor Who, you give your time-traveling alien-in-human-form lead the power to regenerate.

Doctor Who

And now, with a change of actors on Doctor Who, we have yet another regeneration.

The era of Peter Capaldi as the latest Doctor begins with an episode titled Deep Breath, and what we saw was a Doctor thoroughly unsettled.

Age brings natural gravitas. Capaldi is older than the actors who’ve played the CapaldiDoctor in the modern era — Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith. So, naturally, Capaldi’s Doctor seems so much older than the others.

How to maneuver around that? Capaldi’s Doctor, at least in the early days of his regeneration, is unhinged, nearly to the point of being child-like. In this way, Capaldi’s Doctor seems much younger than any of the modern Doctors.

This Doctor is a rambling, rummaging mess. He’s aggressively disoriented.

It’s not just the writing and acting that make it all so unsettled. The music is thumping and discordant, an angry rock soundtrack out of tune (in a good way). And the camera work is quick and jumpy without being shaky. It all combines in a way that let’s us know that this iteration of the Doctor may be far different than what we’ve been used to.

Regeneration is the theme of this episode. We’re along for the ride as his current human traveling companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) Clarastruggles to make sense of the whole concept of the Doctor regenerating. Not to mention the Doctor himself. Regeneration is never easy for the Doctor, and this one is especially difficult.

The writers use the theme of regeneration to hint at the insidious nature of the Doctor. Does this centuries-old alien wear a human face merely to be accepted by humans? Does he use this human face to keep from revealing who or what he truly is?

Philosophical questions aside, this first episode of the Capaldi era is classic Doctor Who, throwing a dinosaur into steampunk-infused Victorian-era London. But it also revels in the darkness that infuses many of Doctor Who‘s best episodes.

Based on this episode, I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re headed. Capaldi’s Doctor is clearly different from the rest, and Clara, as companion, is proving to be more Donna Noble than Martha Jones.

Finally, there was some great dialogue from this episode:

“You mustn’t worry my dear boy. By now he’s almost certainly had his throat cut by the violent poor.”

“Nothing is more important than my egomania.”

“It’s times like this I miss Amy.”

Fun with skulls

I’m not a macabre person by nature, but I like skulls. I’m not talking about actual human skulls, but representations: drawings, T-shirts, liquor bottles, candles, etc. Sure, it’s a cliche by now, but it’s still fun.

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(Image courtesy of Gerrard King)

Where did my affinity for skulls start? Who knows? Maybe from the image of Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull and talking to it. I always got a kick out of that when I was a kid. (Here’s a picture of Doctor Who‘s David Tennant as the moody Dane.)

Tennant Hamlet Yorick

Obviously I’m not alone. Skulls are everywhere in pop culture, and not just American culture. For instance, the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) holiday is a festival that recognizes the dead, and similar traditions can be found throughout the world. Though the Mexicans seem to have perfected the imagery.

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My own theory: these representations of skulls are a safe way for us to reference our own mortality. We can observe it at arms’ length, poke fun at it, while still acknowledging it. Sure, some people choose to avoid anything that will remind them of death, while others seem to revel in it. For most of us, we can acknowledge it, have a laugh, and then move on.

And now I’m happy to be adding a skull to the pop-culture pantheon. My soon-to-be-released novella, House of Flies, will feature a skull on the cover. House of Flies follows Alec as he battles a fly infestation that drives him to the brink of insanity. It’s a psychological horror story about suppressed grief and the avoidance of death, hence the skull. I can’t describe how cool I thought this imagery was when my designer first showed it to me.

House of Flies

It turns out that there have been more than a few skull-themed covers. The website Science Fiction Ruminations has compiled a collection of skull covers from the recent era. Here are a few funky examples — check out the site for more.

Philip K. dick

Robert Heinlein

Harlan Ellison

 

 

The latest Doctor: older and wiser?

The BBC just released a new trailer for the latest season of their classic sci-fi hit Doctor Who, with Peter Capaldi taking the lead role. Will this older Doctor signal a shift in the writers’ approach?

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I’ve loved the reboot of Doctor Who. It’s been a thrilling ride, beginning with Christopher Eccleston as an edgy, battle-scarred Doctor, followed by David Tennant’s whimsical, haunted Doctor, and then onto Matt Smith, who brought a child-like, though deadly serious, quality to the Doctor. What all three Doctors had in common was that they looked significantly younger than Doctors of the past (I grew up watching Tom Baker — he was my first Doctor). Matt Smith, while a great actor, was in his 20s. Kind of strange for an alien who is centuries old.

The writers of Doctor Who seemed to be trending toward younger Doctors, maybe chasing a youthful audience. But then they announced that Peter Capaldi would take over for Matt Smith. While there’s much unknown about how Capaldi’s Doctor will be written — and played — he’ll definitely bring a new level of gravitas to the role.

But what will all this mean in terms of storytelling? I guess we’ll find out when Doctor Who returns in August.

In the meantime, BBC’s minute-long trailer highlighting the upcoming season includes the returning companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and the voice of one of the Doctor’s classic enemies, the Daleks. Check it out below.

 

Lukewarm Leftovers

Will The Leftovers become a TV classic? Too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look good.

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HBO’s new sci-fi-ish series The Leftovers has an intriguing, if unoriginal premise, is based on a high-profile novel, and is produced by the man behind Lost. Yet the first episode left me underwhelmed.

The set-up: two percent of the world’s population has vanished with no explanation. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton (aka Anytown, USA) struggle to move on despite the uncertainty and lingering grief.

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The story follows police chief Kevin Garvey (played excellently by Justin Theroux), who is not quite with it. He struggles to relate to his rebellious teenage daughter Jill, and his son Tom, who has fled to a mysterious commune. He butts heads with the town’s mayor, Kevin and LucyLucy Warburton, and tries to keep the peace between the townspeople and a strange cult that wears white, chain smokes, doesn’t talk, and taunts the grieving. And he may or may not be crazy.

So far, so good. Plus, The Leftovers based on a book by bestselling writer Tom Perrotta. I like it when TV shows and movies have a literary legacy (then again, as a writer, I’m biased). And, it was brought to TV by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Say what you will about Lost; that show is a classic in my eyes, with spectacular storytelling and gripping characterization. The Lost connection, more than anything else, had me excited for the show.

But based on the first episode I’m not confident that The Leftovers is headed for greatness. I see two main problems:

1) I fear we will never get any kind of explanation for the disappearance, and this show will become an endless grief-fest.

2) There were so many characters who we zoomed past that it was difficult to get sucked into any of their stories. Theroux’s Kevin Garvey worked well, but aside from him, I felt no real connection with the faces who passed by.

Some of the subplots were interesting. Nihilism has gripped the youth of Mapleton, as we see with Kevin’s daughter Jill. There’s a party scene that perfectly captures the sense that if anyone can suddenly vanish, what’s the point of trying?

The story following Kevin’s prodigal son Tom, who is part of some survivalist-type cult is also intriguing (though the actor is miscast. He is 29 in real life, while his “father” is 42. It shows).

And then there’s Christopher Eccleston of Doctor Who fame who plays a preacher. I’ll tune in to anything with a Doctor Who alum in it.

I’m nowhere near ready to give up on The Leftovers, though I’m somewhat pessimistic. It’s hard to NOT compare The Leftovers to Lost, but as with Lost, I fear that the writers will lose their way when it comes to the sci-fi elements.

I hope I’m wrong.

Is time travel possible (for real)?

When I was young my mother was in college and she took me to one of her film studies classes. I was maybe 8 or 9, and the movie we watched was an avant garde French black-and-white flick called La Jetee, about a man from a desolate future who travels back in time and is killed. A boy watches the man die, and the boy turns out to be that man as a child (You can watch the whole movie here).

La Jetee

Since then I’ve been hooked by time travel stories. They’re a staple of sci-fi, and some of my favorites are The Terminator series, Doctor Who, SyFy channel’s Continuum, and 12 Monkeys, which was based on La Jetee.

Twelve_monkeysmpWhile time travel is an interesting fictional conceit, it’s been pretty much dismissed as an impossibility for several reasons:

1. How could it be done physically?

2. The possibility of time-destroying paradoxes — the most famous one being, what if you went back in time and accidentally killed your grandfather before your parent was conceived?

3. If time travel is possible, then why aren’t time travelers all around us?

I’ve never been convinced by number 2. Number 1 never interested me. Number 3 has always been the most persuasive.

Nevertheless, scientists are getting closer to solving the riddle presented in number 1.

According to this report, a team of Australian physicists have simulated time travel on a quantum level using particles of light. The particle “traveled” through spacetime on a closed timeline curve. This means that the particle returned to its original starting point. It did not create a new curve.

In the simulation, the particle was sent back to an earlier point in time and interacted with the original particle before returning back to the present.

Don’t ask me to explain the nitty-gritty science behind this stuff. I failed physics in college.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, time travel is theoretically possible, at least in the quantum world. Will this mean that we can one day travel through time? Probably not, but who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll keep going back, time and again, to time travel stories.

Doctor Who news: series 8 to ‘regenerate’ the show

This blog post below covers much of my own thoughts about the iconic British sci-fi show Doctor Who and the direction it’s been headed in.

As I’ve written before, I’m a huge fan — Doctor Who is must-watch TV for me. But, as much as I’m digging it, the show has been getting kind of repetitive. Specifically, there have been way too many neck-twisting plot zigs and zags, where the story stretches nearly to the point of breaking.

So, hopefully head writer Steven Moffat will use the new Doctor as a chance to reboot the show, and take Doctor Who in a fresh and compelling direction.

Nothing Is True

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Series Eight of ‘Doctor Who’ was always going to be a special one. It will be the introduction of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and following Matt Smith’s exit Christmas Special ‘The Time of The Doctor’, will see The Doctor begin his new thirteen regeneration cycle following his “reset” as a gift from the Time Lords on Gallifrey, which is still missing following ‘The Day of The Doctor’ 50th Anniversary episode.

But whilst speaking at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, Steven Moffat, executive producer for Doctor Who has given a clue that more than just the Doctor will see a regeneration of ideas: ( The interview video can be viewed here on BBC Arts)

“It needed to change. One of the hardest things ever to do, is to notice when your clever new idea is now your very old idea.

We haven’t made much of a change…

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