Fitzy’s Special

An exchange while eating my home-made tacos tonight:

Me: I could make these more often, you know. They’re scrummy!

Debbi: “Scrummy?” Is that, like, scrumptious and yummy?

Me: Yup.


Me: It sounds better than “yumptious”.

The taco recipe, by the way, comes from an ex-girlfriend. “Fitzy’s Special”, she called it. It’s ground beef, refried beans, browned onions, and spices, served in tortillas or taco shells. If I ever hear from my ex again, I’ll have to tell her how much Debbi loves it. (Okay, maybe that wouldn’t go over so well.)

The tacos are one of the few things I cook which I can make in 30 minutes or less. A lot of recipes I make take several hours, especially the Indian food which takes 30-60 minutes to prep, and then 2-3 hours to simmer. It’s scrummy, too, and makes several meals’ worth of food, but I pretty much have to make it on the weekends.

Gee, I oughta make some sometime soon!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 26 March 2008.

It’s a small, all-DC week!

  • All-Star Superman #10, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #5 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Keith Giffen, Jim Starlin & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #8 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Allan Goldman & Julio Ferreira, and Justin Gray, Fabrizio Fiorentino & Adam Dekraker (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #40, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
Countdown to Final Crisis #5 I’ve been trying to resist commenting on Countdown to Final Crisis until it wraps up, but I can’t resist this one: The Great Disaster arrives (a concept from Kirby’s Fourth World series from the 70s, which as I’ve said before I think are silly and forgettable at best), and it’s because a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes came back from the 31st century, decided to stay, and happened to be carrying an advanced virus (“morticoccus”) which causes humans and animals (and Kryptonians, it seems) to mutate into murderous monsters.


There are still four issues to go, plus the inevitable Final Crisis series coming up, but this whole series makes basically no sense to me. Not only have many of the plot threads been seemingly-irrelevant to the main story, but the time travel element introduces logical difficulties which the story has made no effort to explain.

While there’s a certain fascination to watching the fall of the “real” DC Universe, and the audacity that it’s being handled in such a straightforward fashion – when the series involves time travel and parallel universes, it seems all too easy for them to write this one off in a few glib panels. While I suppose it’s remotely possible that this drek could be woven into a sensical story in the last 4 issues, it sure seems unlikely.

Countdown to Adventure #8 The best of the various Countdown-related comics has easily been Countdown to Adventure. Of course, it’s not the Countdown-related elements that I enjoyed; rather, it’s the unrelated material which is entertaining.

The Forerunner half of CtA has been completely pointless. She was a pointless character to start with, and is only more so here: A supremely-skilled combat expert and the last survivor of her race, she finds reason for being at the end of this tale, but since she’s pretty much a total cipher as far as her personality goes, that basically renders the whole thing, well, did I say pointless?

The headlining story is by far the reason to check out this series: The “mystery in space” characters from 52 – Adam Strange, Animal Man and Starfire – deal with an infection brought by them to both Earth and Rann which turns people into violent slaves of a religious demagogue named Lady Styx. It may sound silly, but it’s very much in the tradition of the Silver Age yarns from which Strange and Animal Man hail. All three characters undergo some decent character tests along the way: Strange is deposed as protector of Rann and replaced by a psychopathic fellow Earthman, leaving Strange wondering what his reason for living is, since he’s unable to support his family as a civilian. Animal Man’s marriage is strained after his year-long absence in space. He and Ellen are letting Starfire live with them until her powers return – if they ever do – and Ellen worries that her husband is thinking of leaving her for the statuesque alien babe. Of course, it all turns out all right in the end, but it was a fun read.

Adam Beechen does a good job guiding the story, and while Allan Goldman’s art is a little unpolished, it’s dynamic enough to work, and reminiscent of Norm Breyfogle at times.

I guess the characters will return in this summer’s Rann/Thanagar: Holy War, although unfortunately I find the Rann/Thanagar warfare to be pretty tedious by this point; not only is it an old idea (dating to the late 70s) but it’s addressed in little bits here and there without much sense of ever moving forward. I fear that the character bits which made CtA enjoyable will be completely lost in that series. Still, that’s no reflection on this series, which I’m almost sorry to see come to an end.

Fantasy Baseball 2008

Ah, another year of fantasy baseball. Last year was extremely frustrating, since I came out of last year’s draft with what I thought was one of the best teams I’d drafted in this (very competitive) league, and then my pitching imploded and various other things went wrong. Mid-way through the season I decided that if I didn’t finish in the money that I’d drop out of the league. I ended up finishing 7th (out of 16 teams) which was the last spot in the money, so here I am, back again!

As always, the draft was held at Chris’ house down the street. I got there at 11 am to set up the wireless, which ended up going flawlessly – it worked the first time! Internet connectivity was actually great, and the draft went very smoothly. We were doing each round in about 25 minutes for the first 10 or so rounds, and it speeded up after that. It took us a little less than 9 hours to do the whole draft, which is about average. A long day, but it’s a lot of fun – which is why I do it!

Pos Player Team Round/
Age Comments
C Gerald Laird TEX 14/218 28 My catching really stinks.
C Dioner Navarro TBA 15/234 24
1B Albert Pujols SLN Kept 28
2B Kelly Johnson ATL 2/26 26
2B Ron Belliard WAS 19/296 33
2B/SS Erick Aybar LAN 18/281 24
3B Miguel Cabrera FLO Kept 25
3B Melvin Mora BAL 20/310 36
SS/1B Carlos Guillen DET 1/10 32
SS Jhonny Peralta CLE 6/90 25
OF Corey Hart MIL Kept 26
OF Chris Young ARI Kept 24
OF Josh Hamilton CIN Kept 26
OF Jacoby Ellsbury BOS Kept 24
OF Jason Kubel MIN 16/250 26
OF Carlos Gomez MIN Kept 22
OF Melky Cabrera NYA 22/345 23
SP James Shields TBA Kept 25
SP Joe Blanton OAK Kept 26
SP Jeff Francis COL 3/42 27
SP Hiroki Kuroda LAN 4/58 33 A new Japanese import, reportedly an extreme groundball pitcher.
SP Zack Greinke KCA 5/74 24
SP David Bush MIL 7/106 28
SP Kevin Millwood TEX 9/138 33
SP Edinson Volquez CIN 10/154 24
SP Paul Maholm PIT 23/356 26
SP Zach Duke PIT 23/364 25
RP Rafael Soriano ATL 11/170 28 I have the all-Rafael bullpen!
RP Rafael Betancourt CLE 12/186 33
RP Rafael Perez CLE 13/202 26
IN Carlos Gonzalez OAK 8/122 22 The key prospect in Oakland’s trade of Dan Haren to Arizona.
IN Gio Gonzalez OAK 17/266 22 One of the prospects in Oakland’s trade of Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox.
IN Brent Lillibridge ATL 21/323 24
IN Matt Antonelli SDN 21/334 23 Heir apparent to second base in San Diego.
IN Justin Masterson BOS 23/368 23 Well-regarded sinkerball pitching prospect.

My biggest regret of the draft was not taking Kurt Suzuki when I had a chance, as that left me with the true dregs for my catching slot, without even much upside. I also regret just missing out on prospect Brandon Wood. But those are fairly small regrets; overall I was pretty happy with how it turned out. I expect I’ll have a middle-of-the-road pitching staff with some upside, and a potent offense. My team is generally young (which is typical of my teams in recent years) so it could be better than I project.

It takes a fair amount of luck to win this league, not to mention a better pitching staff than I usually have. But I still have a fun time putting the team together. Hopefully the dice will roll more in my favor than they did last year.

Low Variance

Poker last night was fun. Lee hosted, which meant we spent some of the evening trying to seduce his cats (and then trying not to get clawed or nipped by his over-stimulated cat).

I had a blah evening on the poker side, never being down or up more than $4 at a time (we play with 5¢/10¢ blinds). We did play with a new wrinkle, giving each of us a special randomly-select hand – from cards no higher than an 8 – and if we showed down the winning hand with it then we’d win 10¢ from each other player. Mine was 8-3, and I managed to win one pot with it. Watching people play crappy hands makes for some very strange play, since it’s not clear why they’re playing so weirdly, when it turns out they’re just trying to see a showdown with their pair of 3s.

Otherwise I decided to make a few wacky plays, but ended up missing the flop too often to make it worthwhile. And most of my best hands got folded to preflop. So it was basically a grind-’em-out evening for me.

Bex had the most dramatic evening, losing her buy-in and then coming back to almost even by the end of the night. Moreover, she made a downright heroic call of Andrew’s all-in on the turn in one pot, showing A-K against Andrew’s A-T on a Q-J-x-x board to win. Andrew couldn’t believe she made that call. She was getting 2-to-1 so it was a good call if she thought he might be bluffing 1 time in 3. Moreover, she had a chance to hit her straight or top pair, so really he needed to be bluffing only 1 time in 4 or even 5 for it to be a good call.

Of course, I wouldn’t think Andrew would be bluffing there 1 time in 5, but that’s me. I’m not the one who won the huge pot!

We also tried to come up with peoples’ “indian poker names” (a la Dances With Wolves). A few we came up with:

  1. Folds to Pressure
  2. Calls Too Often
  3. Raises with Nothing
  4. Grinds For Hours

The fact that there was whiskey available to sample may have had something to do with this silliness.

But silliness is half the point of social poker anyway!

We Got Him

Yesterday was my friend J.’s 40th birthday. J. is on a pretty close-knit team in my department, but they also have this comically adversarial relationship with each other, playing practical jokes on each other and so forth. J. had made the mistake of letting slip when his birthday was, so yesterday at 2 pm his cow-orkers D. and L. gathered a bunch of people together and we all surprised him by walking up to his office singing Happy Birthday. L. even bought a cake and got it inscribed “Happy Birthday Old Man!” 🙂

J. is someone who appreciates some good verbal abuse jousting, so we made sure not to let him down on that front. It’s almost too easy since D. and L. are both recent college grads. At one point D. and J. were sitting in adjoining chairs and I said, “It’s like you two are the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures.”

Tonight hopefully I can further celebrate J.’s birthday by taking some of his money at poker!

But seriously, J. is a good guy, a fellow science fiction geek, and I wish him the best. Especially if doing so means he won’t pull the same thing on me on my 40th!

Intelligent Design on Trial

After posting about Richard Dawkins on Expelled! I realized I ought to post the following review I wrote way back around the time of our trip back east last November:

While out there on vacation, I caught the Nova special Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, which as I mentioned previously is about the 2005 Dover trial in which parents sued the school board to prevent Intelligent Design (ID) from being taught in schools.

It’s a remarkable show. Inspiring, even. Watching it one really sees what the scientific community can do when it brings both barrels to bear on a pseudo-scientific idea like ID: Not only were the expert witnesses able to demonstrate the extent to which evolution has been repeatedly tested and found to be reliable (and thereby demonstrate the scientific method at work), but they neatly dissected ID and showed how useless it is as a scientific theory. The principle of irreducible complexity – a key tenet of ID – was shown to be reducibly weak through the demolishing of examples of it (supposedly) in action, and without that there just wasn’t a leg for ID to stand on. One commentator observed that ID is essentially a negative argument, summing it up by saying “Evolution doesn’t work, therefore we win by default.” But of course evolution does work – it’s passed test after test – and even if it didn’t, that doesn’t make ID a theory, it just makes it an idea: It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t provide a testable hypothesis, it has no practical benefits. It’s really just a pipe dream.

The plaintiffs managed to win an even loftier goal than that, though: Through savvy investigative research, they demonstrated a concrete link between the supposedly neutral Intelligent Design and the religious doctrine of Creationism, by tracing the history of Of Pandas and People, the ID book at the center of the trial. The smoking gun in the investigation is a beautiful moment, so I won’t spoil it for you, but it made my jaw drop. (There are several jaw-dropping moments on the science end of their arguments, too.)

The judge in the trial, John E. Jones III, came across as quite intelligent and perceptive, and his ruling against the ID proponents was sweeping, and his own commentary in the show made the wise point that in an era when we need good science and competitive educational systems as much as ever, teaching bad science to high school students seemed counterproductive.

Apparently only a few ID proponents were willing to be interviewed for the show. Two of the school board members who tried to introduce ID into the schools were an interesting contrast to each other: William Buckingham seemed utterly inflexible in his beliefs, unable to see where science and religion might be able to coincide, and thinking the judge to be a “jackass”. Alan Bonsell was more measured in his statements, saying that he only wanted to make the school district the best one it could be. Which is a fair enough goal, but it leaves open the question of what practical benefits teaching bad science – or, at the most, a simpleminded idea with negligible evidence to support it – would benefit students or society.

The other memorable ID proponent was Philip E. Johnson, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California Berkeley and a member of the Discovery Institute, an ID-favoring think tank. He says that he’d hoped the case would be a breakthrough in restructuring the nation’s educational system in his lifetime, but now he suspects it will be a lot longer. It’s baffling to me that he would have had such high hopes, since their case was based on nearly nothing – certainly nothing demonstrable or testable – so their hopes seemed mainly to lie in the Bush-appointed judge and the support the case received from the Bush administration. This just seems to underscore that the ID crowd are mainly pushing a political and social agenda without any rational basis underlying it. There’s nothing wrong with having irrational beliefs – the world would be a pretty colorless place if logic dominated every field of human endeavor – but such things are antithetical to science, and should not be presented as such.

Another take-home point to this show is how specious the argument that the fact that “many reputable scientists” believe or disbelieve in a theory is not a basis for arguing for or against that theory. “Many reputable scientists” may believe in ID or disbelieve in global warming, but how many of them there are, or what their reputations are, is irrelevant. Science is not a popularity contest, science is a quest to understand how the world works, and to validate or disprove theories through observation and testing. It’s those scientists’ results, not their numbers, which we should pay attention to.

And whether or not ID is long on numbers, it’s certainly short on results.

Naturally, Judgment Day is available on DVD.

Time Flies By

I can’t believe how fast this weekend went by. How fast? Well, it’s already Tuesday!

Friday night we finished watching season three of Doctor Who, as I posted a few days back, but that was just the warm-up.

Saturday afternoon we went to a baby shower for Susan and Subrata, who are expecting their first in a couple of months. It was a lot of fun, with about 30 people there and lots of good food. Our friends Chad and Camille hosted at their house, and everyone ooh’ed and aah’ed over their remodeled kitchen (we’d seen it before, but it was new to a lot of people).

Of course, we also ooh’ed and aah’ed over Susan and Subrata, who had a blast receiving gifts and seeing friends. Subrata’s parents also attended, having flown in for the weekend. They’re very excited about having their first child and have been getting their house ready for the new arrival. So everyone had a great time.

Then Sunday we got together with S&S and Subrata’s parents to go to the double feature at the Stanford Theatre: North by Northwest and The Trouble with Harry. NxNW as I’ve said before is one of my very favorite films, maybe my favorite. I’ve seen it so often that I’m well past the point of getting something new out of it on each viewing. This time around I think I enjoyed the scenes with Martin Landau in them the most, although the airplane scene is always terrific.

I thought I’d never seen The Trouble with Harry, but it soon started to seem very familiar. In fact I saw it back in 2000. It’s what passes for a comedy in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and it’s certainly one of his lesser films. Pretty to look at and with snappy dialogue, but it moves too slowly and the ending is just too unbelievable. Shirley Maclaine does a perfectly quirky turn as the female lead, and John Forsythe reminded me strongly of George Peppard for some reason. Not exactly essential viewing, but a nice try.

We went to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro for dinner, which we’d never been to. I guess I’d always suspected it was overpriced mediocre Chinese food, but it’s actually tasty, Maybe slightly expensive (though in the Bay Area who knows what that really means?), but it has just a hint of fusion flavor while still being essentially a Chinese restaurant. We consumed everything in sight and had a good time. And celebrated Subrata’s mother’s birthday, to boot.

All of that explains how the weekend could fly by so quickly. Since then it’s been work, bill-paying, ultimate and preparing for our fantasy baseball draft which has occupied my time. No doubt it will be Sunday before I know it!

Richard Dawkins on Expelled!

Richard Dawkins reviews the creationist film Expelled!, including recounting that he was able to view the premiere while his friend PZ Myers, who was Dawkins’ viewing companion, was, uh, expelled from the line to get into the theater (lots more links on this here, and Myers also wrote a follow-up).

Dawkins was even among the scientists interviewed by the filmmakers before he realized that their agenda was rather different than he’d understood.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 19 March 2008.

  • Batman: The Killing Joke HC, by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #11, by Mark Waid, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #6 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Keith Giffen, Mike Norton & Jimmy Palmiotti (DC)
  • The Death of the New Gods #7 of 8, by Jim Starlin & Art Thibert (DC)
  • Ex Machina #35, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fables #71, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Hourman and The Python vol 6 TPB, by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis & Warren Pleece (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #1 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Matthew Clark & Fernando Pasarin (DC)
  • Marvel Masterworks: Captain America vol 93 HC, collecting Captain America #114-124, by Stan Lee, Gene Colan, John Romita, John Buscema, Sal Buscema & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
  • Thor #7, by J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Djurdjevic & Danny Miki (Marvel)
  • Invincible #49, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
Batman: The Killing Joke Deluxe Edition Batman: The Killing Joke was arguably Alan Moore’s last really major contribution to comics, coming in 1988 which puts it right on the heels of Watchmen. Originally a “prestige format” graphic novel (which meant it was on nicer paper and was squarebound, but otherwise not much longer than your typical comic), it’s been reissued in a 20th-anniversary deluxe hardcover edition, recolored by artist Brian Bolland. It’s a very nice package.

It’s a pretty good story, a hard-hitting look at the Joker’s psyche and why he acts like he does. It provides an origin of sorts for the character – a twisted variant of his Silver Age “Red Hood” origin – without committing to it. In the story, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and cripples his daughter Barbara in order to prove a point about his sanity (or lack thereof) to Batman. The ending is perhaps a little too cute for its own good, but all-in-all it’s a good story with terrific art by Bolland. It’s told in a manner very similar to that of Watchmen with clever scene transitions and a restrained, “realistic” layout. Moore also lets some of Batman’s heroism show through, which I appreciate since I can’t stand the psychopathic character he’s become since the publication of The Dark Knight Returns.

The crippling of Barbara Gordon – the Bronze Age Batgirl – has been controversial, since female characters often seem to get tortured to “prove a point” to or about the male heroes (c.f. Women in Refrigerators). Barbara’s character was rehabilitated by turning her into Oracle, the computer-savvy mastermind behind the Birds of Prey series (also providing tech support for Grant Morrison’s JLA). In isolation, the event is brutal and effective in this story; in a larger context it does feel rather cliché. It’s worth noting that it’s now been nearly as long (20 years) since Barbara was crippled than the time (22 years) that she served as Batgirl. Generations of comics fans (as comics generations are measured) have grown up knowing her only as Oracle (unless they watched the Batman animated series); at what point does her current persona become her defining one?

Anyway. It’s a good story, influential mainly in how it defined and changed several of its characters, less so than for its storytelling. And the art is beautiful.

Sandman Mystery Theatre vol 6: The Hourman and The Python Speaking of relatively brutal comic book series, Sandman Mystery Theatre was a noir-ish detective/superhero/thriller series set in 1930s New York which ran for 70 issues in the 1990s. I picked up the first 8 issues (the first 2 story arcs) and then dropped it, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of Guy Davis’ artwork in the first arc, and I liked his replacement in the second arc even less. DC has been collecting the series in paperback form, and I was moved to pick them up and try it again. Not only does it read much better in collected form than as individual issues, but I’ve warmed to Davis’ artwork (large noses on his characters and all) and it turns out he does most of the drawing in the series. With this volume, number 6, we reach the halfway point in the series.

Wesley Dodds is a rich man-about-town who is tortured by dreams of killers, and who at night puts on a gas mask and employs a gun of sleep gas of his own making and hunts down these killers, even though he’s often at odds with the police. Besides this adventure, SMT is also a romance, following Dodds and Dian Beaumont gradually falling in love and moving towards their lifelong relationship. Dian is a strong adventurous woman, a little out-of-place with the societal roles her position forces her to play. She’s also deeply conflicted about Wes’s nocturnal habits, which she’s well aware of by the time of this volume. The tentative dance the two engage in, two steps forward and one step back with each arc, is agonizing and yet delicately crafted.

The adventure ain’t bad, either. The first arc in this volume features Hourman, another golden age hero, who joins with Sandman to catch some jewel thieves. Hourman’s superhuman powers are cleverly portrayed, showing them obliquely to make their full impact greater when he does something truly remarkable. The second story, The Python, is one of the more routine tales in the series, regarding some mysterious stranglings around the city.

If you find run-of-the-mill superhero comics dull, but would be interested in some mystery and romance to go with the adventure, then I recommend this series.

(Incidentally, there was a sequel mini-series published a year or so go, which I didn’t care for at all. It bore very little resemblance to this one in style or theme, so I don’t recommend it. A better coda to the series is a story arc of James Robinson’s excellent Starman series, collected in the volume Sand and Stars.)

Tangent: Superman's Reign #1 One of the more fun mini-series of the last 20 years was Tangent Comics. Tangent was created to fill a “skip week”; you see, most comics are published monthly, but comics ship every week. This means that four months each year there’s an extra week, so companies have the choice of spreading out their offerings across five weeks in those months, or producing some new material. For a little while, DC comics would publish some new material to fill the “skip week”, and the best of these was Tangent.

The premise was that an entirely new world was created under the oversight of Dan Jurgens, completely unrelated to any of DC’s other properties, except that the names of the characters and places and things would be re-used in completely new contexts. So in this world The Atom was a series of Superman-like figures who descended from a man who gained powers from early A-bomb tests. His presence caused Cuba to nuke the southeastern United States in 1962, resulting in even more super-beings, as well as New Atlantis, a futuristic city built on the site of Atlanta. The original set of comics were all snapshots of this world, with insight into its past and perhaps its ultimate future and doom. It was very clever and entertaining, well-written and well-drawn. The setting was re-used a year later in a second set of titles, which were considerably less enjoyable, re-imagining the “big three” heroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, in each case in a rather unimaginative manner (the Wonder Woman issue was especially noxious), and some redux issues of characters from the first series. Ultimately it felt like an attempt to “cash in” on the original concept, and predictably (and deservedly) the series disappeared after this second set of issues.

Now, ten years later, Tangent is back in Tangent Comics: Superman’s Reign, as one of the worlds in the new DC Multiverse (as Earth-9), and the Justice League is going to visit their world, which it turns out has been subjugated by their Superman figure, a superevolved human who I assume thinks he was doing the world a favor by taking it over and imposing his own order on it. A 12-issue series feels somehow like overkill, and integrating it with the Justice League sort of takes away some of what was special about Tangent, but it could still work out. The set-up here is pretty decent, and Matthew Clark’s got a clean line and pretty dynamic sense of layout. If writer Jurgens can get back to what made the first series fun and establish it once again as its own thing, not truly beholden to the main DC Universe, then this could be a good series. If it ends up being caught up in the Final Crisis muddle or falls apart storywise midway through, then it will probably be entirely forgettable.

But I’m going in with some optimism, because my memories of the first batch of Tangent Comics still burn brightly in my mind.

Thor #7 This month’s Thor wins the award for “hardest-to-spell creator names” for the month – maybe the year. Straczynski, Djurdjevic, Eliopoulos, Arbona, and even Danny Miki. Ye gads.

The story is still ridiculously slow, though. This issue is mostly a flashback one, in which Odin relates a tale from his youth while Thor is visiting him in the afterlife. That’s pretty much all you need to know, since nothing’s really happened in several issues.

Doctor Who, Season Three

It took a while, but we finished watching the third season of Doctor Who last night, which means it’s time for the review of the whole shebang. (If you missed them, you can go back and read my wrap-ups for Season One and Season Two.)

Please be warned that there are some spoilers in the discussion below, so if you haven’t seen the whole season, you might want to come back after you have to read this.

Here’s how I thought the episodes stacked up, from best to worst:

  • Blink (written by Steven Moffatt)
  • Utopia (Russell T. Davies)
  • Human Nature/The Family of Blood (Paul Cornell)
  • Smith and Jones (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Shakespeare Code (Gareth Roberts)
  • Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (Helen Raynor)
  • Gridlock (Russell T. Davies)
  • 42 (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Lazarus Experiment (Stephen Greenhorn)

(We haven’t seen the two post-Martha Jones episodes listed as part of the season, due to the peculiar way in which we watch the episodes. No, it doesn’t involve BitTorrent downloads, because if it did then we’d certainly have seen them!)

In the large, I thought this season was considerably weaker than the second season, and you’ll recall that I thought the second season was a disappointment compared to the first. As is usual with such things, I think the fault lies in the writing, as even several episodes in the first division were badly flawed, and several episodes during the season were downright cringeworthy. I think many stories strive to be too cute or too clever and end up just being ridiculous. Granted it can take a truly outstanding writer to take a silly idea and make good drama out of it, but I’d hope that any decent writer would at least be shy away from the silly ideas that they can’t make work. On the other hand, obviously I have a different idea of what “works” for Doctor Who than the show’s creators.

On the casting side, I enjoyed Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones quite a bit. I appreciated that she came from a less-nebulous background than Rose Tyler, as Martha was a medical student. It was sometimes frustrating that Martha would have moments of whining about the Doctor not noticing her, mainly because I thought the show didn’t spend enough time on her unrequited feelings until the very end and so it always felt a little out-of-place. (Not to mention that it felt like a reprise of the main running theme throughout Season Two.)

I still haven’t fully warmed to David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and still pine for Christopher Eccleston’s more nuanced character. I think I’ve decided it’s not really Tennant’s fault, it’s just that the character is written as a one-dimensional figure: A hopeless do-gooder who’s sort of a brilliant oaf. This leads to some very unsatisfying plot developments, often involving the Doctor seeming completely baffled until he pulls a rabbit out of his hat at the very end. This exacerbates some of the silly stories that the episodes are based around. The Ninth Doctor’s air of self-superiority tended to give his stories a firmer ground on which to stand; when he seemed baffled it was usually because he genuinely had no idea how to proceed, while you never know where you stand with the Tenth Doctor: It he really baffled, or is it just bad writing?

Okay, to be fair we may be pushing the limits of the various elements which go into the Doctor’s personality: Haughty, noble, self-aggrandizing, super-competent, bumbling, clownish. These are the elements which largely define each of the Doctor’s incarnations. The really good Doctors tend to expand and deepen their core aspects (think Tom Baker and Chris Eccleston as prime examples) while the lesser ones seem to flog the same horse over and over (with the Colin Baker character being the worst such figure). The ones in the middle all have their various flaws, by Tennant’s Doctor still feels a lot like the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy characters: The bumbling do-gooders who are largely undercut by inconsistent writing and oft-incompehensible plotting.

As for the episodes themselves, “Blink” was the clear winner here. Yes, the foundation is a bit weak, as thinking about the ecology of the Weeping Angels makes you realize that they don’t really make any sense except as a one-off plot device. But man, what a plot device! Sending characters into the past to kill them through the sheer passage of time, and telling the story through the character of Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan, who arguably out-acts almost everyone else in the season), with nifty little time dependencies and paradoxes, it’s creepy and moving and dramatic and it just hangs together better than anything else in the season.

“Utopia” is the other excellent episode of the season, and is the lead-in to the two-part finale. Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana is terrific, as one expects from Jacobi, and seeing Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) again and bringing closure to his disappearance after the end of Season One is a lot of fun. I still haven’t seen any of Torchwood, so I don’t know how his character has worked out there, but his presence here is entirely explained in the context of this series, and he’s a nice addition to the end of the series. Anyway, “Utopia” takes place near the end of the universe, and it’s built around a relatively modest concept – trying to help the last band of humans escape a hostile planet for a purported promised land – while being used as a vehicle to introduce the season’s climactic villain. And it does this very well, using bits set up in earlier episodes to build the suspense gradually. I think Russell Davies’ writing works better when his story’s venue is constrained like this; given a much larger canvas on which to work, his stories seem to get away from him.

Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature” two-parter is one of the stories which is basically a house of cards (the Doctor’s motivations for becoming human seem spurious in the extreme – he did all this to be merciful? What the–?), but it’s a pretty effective story nonetheless. The Doctor’s turn as a human results in a character with more depth and range than the Doctor himself has, which serves to underscore that the Tenth Doctor is one of the weaker Doctors, but it does give Tennant more to do than usual, and he does a good job with it. (This is one reason why I think the fault in the character lies in the writing and not the acting.) The story is perhaps overlong, but still pretty good. Special mention to Harry Lloyd as Baines, the prefect who’s taken over by the Family, who makes Baines into one of the creepiest human-looking antagonists I can recall in the show.

From here the season declines from “noteworthy” to “merely adequate” or worse. “Smith and Jones” was kind of a mess of an episode, although it gets extra points for the “Judoon on the Moon” line. The Judoon feel too much like unusually-silly Sontarans and the premise of transporting a hospital to the moon is even more ludicrous than the usual Doctor Who plot device. “The Shakespeare Code” was so pedestrian I have basically nothing to say about it.

Of the really bad episodes, “Gridlock” had a completely ridiculous premise which I just couldn’t get past to enjoy the rest of the episode. I haven’t really warmed to all the “New Earth” stuff which pops up in the series from time to time; I’d be happy if they just jettisoned the venue entirely. “42” felt like a poor redux of Season Two’s “The Impossible Planet”, which itself was not a great episode. And “The Lazarus Experiment” started out as a science fiction cliche, and ended up as an unusually implausible Big Monster Story. Really bad stuff. This made the first half of the season hard going indeed.

That leaves the other two two-parters. “Evolution of the Daleks” lands as a slightly-below-average story, largely squandering the promise in setting a Doctor Who story in Depression-era New York, overshadowing it with the rather silly idea of evolving the Daleks into human-Dalek hybrids. This story certainly had the feel of the Daleks being well past their sell-by date; unlike the Jon Pertwee-era Dalek stories, which felt all to mechanical and predictable, the Tennant Dalek stories have turned the Daleks into some sort of bogeyman, seeming slightly pathetic and overused, and only frightening because they happen to be armored machines carrying guns. All of the emotional resonance of the excellent Eccleston episode “Dalek” (arguably the best episode of the new series overall) feels very much a thing of the distant past. “Evolution” has too much of the feel of two over-the-top Colin Baker episodes, “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Revelation of the Daleks”, seemingly thrashing around to figure out in what new direction the monsters should be taken, while simultaneously undercutting their essential menace.

Lastly, there’s the climactic two-parter of the season, in which the Master (William Hughes) returns to the 21st century (apparently a few decades in advance of our own era, as they have flying aircraft carriers here) and arranges to take over the world and use humanity to launch a war to conquer the cosmos. The Master here is portrayed as both calculating and flamboyantly insane, which is certainly quite different from his past personas, who were dark, manipulative villains. It’s a weird effect; it certainly makes him a surprising antagonist as he often acts in ways that I found surprising compared to his past behavior, but then, that’s sort of the point of regeneration, isn’t it? Arguably it was just a coincidence that the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley Masters had basically the same personalities.

The downfall of the story is that it relies far too much on cheap tricks to work. Aging the Doctor to an old man, and then a ridiculously old man, was certainly creepy, but seemed gratuitous. And the story’s climax was nothing more than a deus-ex-machina, essentially allowing the Doctor to save the day by having all of humanity “think good thoughts” about him at the same time. Any time your heroes win because of a figure bathed in a glowing light, your story has gone badly wrong. (I’d been expecting that Martha had been telling humanity about the Doctor’s good works on their behalf in order to have them passed down the years to their descendants to short-circuit the Master’s plan from the other end.) This sort of magic solution was just as unsatisfying in “The Parting of the Ways” – the Davies script which concluded the first season – and I hope it doesn’t become a habit in what should be nail-biting season-enders.

The episode has a moment seemingly drawn directly from the film Flash Gordon when the Master’s ring is picked up from his funeral pyre by an unknown hand. I guess he’ll be back…

The new Doctor Who series is still fun, but it feels like it’s going steadily downhill. I hope they can turn things around in the fourth season, but I’m losing my optimism. Guys, a little madcap hilarity is okay once in a while (after all, how else could you really spin an episode called “The Christmas Invasion” than to have killer Christmas trees in it?), but I’d like more serious stories with believable premises and sensible resolutions, please.