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Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

Read on, Macduff! »

A Little TiVo Trouble

We got a Tivo Bolt late last year, and we’ve been enjoying it a lot. We’ve been able to time start watching some TV shows that were inconvenient for us to follow at their air times, watched some movies we otherwise wouldn’t have caught, and Debbi has discovered a couple of shows suggested by the machine which she wouldn’t have found otherwise, in particular Murdoch Mysteries, a police procedural taking place in late 19th century Canada.

We’ve had a few problems with it, though. Our TV provider is Comcast, which means we had to go through the process of setting up a CableCard for the TiVo, which means dealing with Comcast’s quixotic customer service line, and sometimes long hold times at Tivo’s help line. We never managed to get Comcast channel 1 – On Demand – to work, but we later learned that Tivo shows On Demand programming as one of several streaming options.

More annoyingly, recently we noticed that a few channels were no longer coming in. Sometimes they’d drop out for a few days, and then come back. Last week it got bad enough that we missed the last episode of season 2 of The Flash because it couldn’t get the signal. We tried to watch it via On Demand, but we couldn’t get that to work either.

The channels that were missing all had error messages that read, “Searching for a signal on this channel (v52)”. So I did web searches for that phrase, and found this page, where someone fixed the same problem by “re-seating the CableCard”. So I powered down the Tivo, removed the CableCard, inserted it again, and powered it up again. And lo and behold, not only were the missing channels back, but On Demand was working! So we managed to see the conclusion of The Flash at last.

It seems like a remarkable fragile system, and man, I dread having to call Comcast for support, especially since my experience so far is that as soon as they hear I have a TiVo they’ll ship me over to Tivo, where I’ll have a long hold time, and eventually connect with someone helpful who will nonetheless have both of us call back to Comcast.

So, mostly I blame Comcast for it all. Just like I suspect everybody does.

But at least I should be able to fix this particular problem if it happens again.

Arbitron

Back in February of 2014 Debbi and I were selected to join Arbitron ratings (who have since acquired by their competitor Nielsen and are now named Nielsen Audio).

I imagine back in the day that people in this program would need to note which programs they watched and when on paper and then mail them in. (I think I’ve heard of this, and no doubt someone who participated back in those days could explain in detail.) Today it’s different: You get a little device (“meter”) to carry with you which is connected to the cellular network, and it would listen programs you watch or listen to for a signal which identifies the program, and report back to its home base. All we had to do was charge it each night, and notify Arbitron if we were going on an extended trip away from home. Well, and not tell that we were in the program on social media while we were in it. (I doubt we told very many people at all, in fact.)

In return, beyond being counted directly, we also received a small check every month for our troubles. Coincidentally, we also signed up for Graze around the same time, and I noted that the checks we got from Arbitron would just about cover the cost of the Graze boxes. Convenient!

Debbi watches a lot of television in the background, especially police procedurals, while I tend to throw on sports. We also had some regular shows we watched. While I doubt I can remember it all, here’s a rundown of what we watched while we carried our meters:

  • I listen to public radio, and Debbi listens to country.
  • NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans. Probably also some NCIS: Los Angeles, though we have run out of gas on that show.
  • Doctor Who, of course.
  • The Big Bang Theory.
  • We started watching Elementary during that time. (Did I mention police procedurals?)
  • Ascension
  • Baseball and football.
  • And a random assortment of films which aired on cable.

Last September Arbitron contacted us that we had been randomly selected to leave the program – a little early, since we’d been told at the start that it would be at most a 2-year term. Apparently we’d been among the most diligent participants in the program. It was kind of weird for a couple of weeks to no longer be carrying our meters with us everywhere.

Anyway, it was a neat little perk for a while, easy to do, and maybe helping keep some programs we enjoy on the air. I rather wish we’d gotten a TiVo while we were in the program in order to support a few other shows, such as Person of Interest, which I’d been interested in but which aired at an inconvenient time slot to watch live. But, so it goes.

A Long Birthday Weekend

My birthday weekends get a little more low-key over time. Having a big to-do of a party seems less appealing than it used to. Maybe for my 50th.

This weekend I decided what I mainly wanted to do as play poker, so Friday night I had five friends over for an evening of our low-stakes game. Rooting around for the new deck of cards I knew I’d bought, I looked at my order history on Amazon, and found that it had been over two and a half years since I’d hosted a game. Probably almost that long since I’d last played no-limit, too. But it was a successful evening for me, more than doubling my buy-in. I was particularly pleased with a hand where I turned two pair with a 4-straight on the board, and realized no one had the straight when they didn’t bet the turn, so I was able to make a little more money on the turn and river.

(I’ve been listening to the Thinking Poker podcast, and find it’s maybe even more instructive to learn about hand-reading by listening to it than by reading a book about it.)

Saturday was my actual birthday, and I’d thought of going to the Magic Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease, but decided that poker was probably enough gaming for the weekend. Instead I opened presents, talked to my Dad on the phone for a while, and then watched the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the playoffs.

In the evening we went to Amber India with some friends for dinner. They moved a few months ago (I think their old strip mall is going to be redeveloped soon), and their new spot has a nice outdoor patio (not suitable for this rainy weather, but should be great in the summer). The inside feels a little cramped and warm, but possibly they just have a few kinks to work out. The good news is, the food is still awesome!

Sunday was had a relatively quiet day, though in the afternoon we drove over to Half Moon Bay hoping to catch some of the rain showers we were supposed to be getting. We stopped for lunch at Cameron’s British Pub, whose English pastie was exactly what I was craving. Then we drove down the side street the pub is on and ended up at the Wavecrest open space preserve, where we hiked around for about an hour, getting our sneakers muddy and (in Debbi’s case) soaked. But it was a pretty – if blustery – day, and we had a good time. We then drove up to Point Montara Lighthouse where we sat in the car and watched the waves crash on. Alas, we never got more than some drizzle on the whole trip, which was a bit disappointing.

In the evening we started watching Person of Interest, which I’d been curious about for a while, but it never aired at good time for us. (Now that’s a concern we won’t have in the future now that we own a TiVo.) It’s good stuff, a little over-the-top, but at least as good as other police procedurals, and I understand it gets more sophisticated over time.

Oh yeah: And my company’s “gift” to me for my birthday was that we have Martin Luther King day off for the first time. So today we took care of a bunch of chores in the morning, including having a plumber over to fix two of our toilets whose gaskets were having problems. In the afternoon we had some other friends over, who hadn’t been able to join us for cupcakes on Saturday, and I played with the kids for a bit, and they chased the cats and Debbi’s BB-8 robot around for a while. We wrapped up the weekend with dinner, some more chores, and some more Person of Interest.

A pretty busy weekend in a lot of ways, but also some nice quiet time. And we did get that rain I was hoping for, but it came in last night. Wish we could get a good solid day of rain during the daytime on a weekend. But for now it looks like I’ll have to be satisfied with another shower tomorrow.

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.

In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)

What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.

Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.

Read on, Macduff! »

Supergirl

We watched the premiere of the new Supergirl TV show last night. I’m not sure why I decided to watch this one while I sat out The Flash last year. Maybe because Supergirl isn’t up against shows I already watch (my interest in Gotham is somewhere south of zero), and I sometimes feel like I watch too much TV anyway.

The pilot episode’s first act was the closest thing I can recall seeing on TV to a true cinematic experience: The staging, the pacing, the effects, even the particular wittiness of the dialogue, all felt like I was watching a movie. If that’s what they were going for – and, frankly, I thought it worked really well – then they nailed it.

I’ve seen a little criticism that Kara’s secret identity is too close to that of Clark Kent’s, but I’m okay with it, especially since Melissa Benoist carries the role off with a fair bit of nuance (I actually liked her better as Kara than as Supergirl). Of the people at her workplace, Mehcad Brooks as James Olsen is the clear standout. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I have no idea how much Supergirl’s world matches up with that one, but I thought this was the best portrayal of Jimmy Olsen since, well, maybe the 1970s (thought the version in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman was also pretty good). Calista Flockhart has a one-note role (in this episode, anyway) as Cat Grant, and Jeremy Jordan is fine as her cow-orker and would-be romantic interest Winn Shott.

But the episode kind of went to pieces in the second act. Already overburdened with too many oblique references to Superman, the series throws us both a spaceship of criminals who have escaped onto Earth (with the attendant feelings of guilt since they followed Kara out of the Phantom Zone, not that she had any control over any of that), and the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, which Kara’s sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) works for. Presumably intended to provide some structure to the first season (giving Supergirl some people to work with and also feel suspicious of, and some people to fight every week), both of these elements are really just cheap contrivances, and it immediately made the show feel more run-of-the-mill. If the series turns into monster-of-the-week even for just a few episodes, its quality is going to sink like a stone. And I’m so done with Superman and his cast being threatened by menaces lingering from Krypton long after it’s destruction. Doing away with all that was one of the best parts of the 80s reboot of the comic book, and staying away from it (except for Brainiac) was important in the Superman cartoon of the 90s. Just say no.

Also, while I don’t mind repurposing names of minor comic book characters for a new medium, the fact that Winn Shott and Hank Henshaw both ominously share names with Superman villains is not at all welcome. Another thing that sucks the life out of adaptations like this is the slow reveal of some character we know about from the original material. (This is one reason I have no interest in Gotham.) If Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) turns into the Cyborg Superman, you’ll know the series has jumped the shark.

The third act was a fairly run-of-the-mill “heroine overcomes self-doubt” resolution, with a lot of punching and things blowing up. Which is not bad – before seeing this episode I felt the keys to the series would be a witty script and not welching on the superhero action (which is what sunk Lois and Clark back in the 90s). But the back end of the episode did not live up to the execution of the first 15 minutes.

Overall it was a pretty good episode, but I think they missed the boat by throwing Kara into the mess of the DEO and the ship of escaped criminals, which essentially prevents her from finding her own way to being her own hero. The premise is already burdened by her living in the shadow of her famous cousin without being able to ever show him on-screen in a satisfying manner. So the show should be about her establishing herself and building her self-confidence, not rounding up someone else’s criminals or worrying that the DEO is going to capture her again. I think it’s going to try to do both, and I worry that it’s not going to work.

Leonard Nimoy

When I was a kid – this was probably the summer of 1974 – my dad sat me down in front of the television (or so I remember it) and said, “You might like this.” This was Star Trek: The Animated Series. I don’t remember much about watching it back then, except being compelled by the episode “Albatross”.

A few years later, a friend and I would play Star Trek on the jungle-gym in our yard. He was Captain Kirk, and I was Mister Spock.

After seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I eventually realized (although it would take some years) that Star Trek was fundamentally about Captain Kirk. (One reason among many why none of the later Star Trek series worked for me.) But like, I imagine, many engineering types, I still identify more strongly with Spock than with Kirk as a personality.

Yet more years later, in my days of arguing Star Trek: The Next Generation on USENET, my main sparring partner made an observation that Leonard Nimoy was the only actor on the original series with much of an acting range. While I think this sells many of his co-stars short, it’s clear that Nimoy’s acting was a big factor in bringing Spock to life. With any other actor the character would, at least, have been quite different. Heck, even with Zachary Quinto doing his level best to imitate Nimoy’s performance, his version of Spock in the recent films feels considerably different from Nimoy’s.

Today Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. And, as is usually the case when someone passes – in this case, a man I never met, whom I only really know through a fictional character he played – I don’t know what to say.

How about this: I always thought it was great that back when the original Star Trek was bring produced, Nimoy and William Shatner became good friends, and stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Considering that Shatner was cast to be the series’ star, but that Spock was the breakout character of the show, it’s easy to see that they could have instead been rivals and not gotten along at all. I think each of them came away with a lot of baggage from the show, but in a way I think their lasting friendship is as powerful a lesson as any of the morality plays that Trek threw up on the screen.

Doctor Who, Season Eight

Welcome to my review of the worst season of Doctor Who since the Colin Baker era. Yes, even worse than last season, which did not have a lot to recommend it.

As usual, I’ll start with my ranking of episodes, from best to worst:

  1. Deep Breath (written by Steven Moffat)
  2. Mummy on the Orient Express (Jamie Mathieson)
  3. Robots of Sherwood (Mark Gatiss)
  4. Last Christmas (Steven Moffat)
  5. Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Steven Moffat)
  6. Time Heist (Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat)
  7. Listen (Steven Moffat)
  8. Flatline (Jamie Mathieson)
  9. The Caretaker (Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat)
  10. Into the Dalek (Phil Ford & Steven Moffat)
  11. In the Forest of the Night (Frank Cottrell Boyce)
  12. Kill the Moon (Peter Harness)

Let’s sum it up this way: I own every season of the new series on DVD – but I don’t plan to buy this one. Frankly there is not a single episode I particularly want to see a second time. The best of the season, “Deep Breath”, is barely more than a run-of-the-mill suspense yarn. And it gets worse from there.

Also as usual, my reviews contain plenty of spoilers, and so I’ll continue after the jump…

Read on, Macduff! »

Ascension

I was kind of aware of the SyFy mini-series Ascension (no relation to the deck building card game of the same name) because they’d been running ads for it for a few weeks now (mainly promoting it as Tricia Helfer’s return to SF TV). Somehow I stumbled upon the timeline for the story and it got me much more interested.

The premise is that in 1963 the United States launched a generation starship to Proxima Centauri, with a planned mission length of 100 years, and that this was kept from the public. So the ship, the USS Ascension, developed its own society (with only 600 people), cut off from communication with Earth. The series starts in the present day, 51 years after launch, and begins with the first murder on the ship since it took off. The first episode (of three), in particular, focuses on the investigation of the murder, and various red herrings along the way.

The first episode also ends with a big plot twist, and it’s impossible to talk about the story in depth without spoiling it, so I’m going to continue this entry after the jump.

But if this sounds interesting, I suggest watching the first episode, which features some stellar set design and costuming, maybe the best I’ve ever seen in an SF television show. When you hit the twist, you’ll either be intrigued to watch more, or you’ll decide to stop there.

But now, on to the spoilers:

Read on, Macduff! »

The Time of the Doctor

I’m hard-pressed to think of a less distinguished, less inspiring, and just plain less-fun final episode for any of the leads of Doctor Who than “The Time of the Doctor”, this year’s Christmas episode and Matt Smith’s swan song as the eleventh Doctor. While the 1996 TV movie was not great, and I’m no fan of “The Caves of Androzani” (a favorite of many fans for reasons I don’t understand), both of them are better than this mess of a story was.

Spoilers after the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »