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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! »

The Day of the Doctor

The 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who was excellent. I could have asked for them to reduce some of the gratuitously cheeseball scenes, but by and large it followed through on its promise of revisiting the Doctor’s darkest day during the Time War quite well.

Spoilers after the cut!

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Seven

The latest season of Doctor Who is in my view the weakest of the relaunched series. The basic problem is that the scripts were generally quite weak, and failed to follow through on the promise of their premises, or contribute to the ongoing developments in the series.

As usual, my ranking of episodes this season from best to worst:

  • Asylum of the Daleks (written by Steven Moffat)
  • The Name of the Doctor (Moffat)
  • Cold War (Mark Gatiss)
  • Hide (Neil Cross)
  • The Bells of Saint John (Moffat)
  • The Rings of Akhaten (Cross)
  • The Snowmen (Moffat)
  • The Crimson Horror (Gatiss)
  • Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Stephen Thompson)
  • Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Angels Take Manhattan (Moffat)
  • Nightmare in Silver (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Power of Three (Chibnall)
  • A Town Called Mercy (Toby Whithouse)

(I’m excluding last year’s Christmas special, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” from the list because I don’t think it’s really part of the season. But if you’re curious I rate it a “shrug”.)

Also as usual, there are spoilers ahead!

Read on, Macduff! »

How The Big Bang Theory Works

There’s an ongoing kerfuffle in geekdom (certainly not restricted to this recently-popular post) over the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory. (If you’re not familiar with the series, you can either read up about it, or just ignore this post.) The usual objection to the series is that we (the viewers) are supposed to identify with the character of Penny, and to laugh at the four geeky friends, Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj. I know at least one person personally who feels this way.

I think this is at best a superficial understanding of the series, and perhaps an outright misunderstanding of it.

Now, I’m a fan of the series. It’s rare that I’m a fan of any sitcom, since I generally dislike situational comedy. The last sitcom I enjoyed before this was Sports Night, whose humor was based more on wordplay than on situations. BBT also has a lot of wordplay-based humor, but most of its humor is based in its characters rather than in situations. (I think the archetypal situation comedy is Three’s Company, which I loathe.)

One thing to keep in mind is that, as with any series, there are good episodes and bad episodes. One interesting thing about BBT is that even the bad episodes serve to highlight what it is that makes the show work when it does work.

I agree wholeheartedly with Akirlu that Leonard is the central character of the show. The reason for this is that Leonard both fills the role of “everygeek”, and of the geek who can relate in a fairly normal way with non-geeks. The reason all of this is true is that Leonard is highly self-aware and has a strong empathy for others. This is also what causes him to be the character who makes the funniest scenes even funnier.

Penny is in many ways the least important character in the show. She essentially serves as a foil for the four friends by being generically “normal”. But her character actually develops fairly little during the show, and we don’t know a lot about her (we don’t even know her last name!). Really, it’s a testament to actress Kaley Cuoco’s comedic acting skills that the character works. (Like Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, she has an impressive array of funny faces.)

The core of the show, though, are the four geeky friends, who works well together because they’re not wildly different, but rather vary from each other in well-defined ways. Here’s how their characters work:

  1. Leonard, As I stated earlier, is geeky, but he’s also very self-aware. He’s also keenly aware of the foibles of his friends. He is for the most part well-adjusted to living in society (heck, he’s at least as well-adjusted as I am!), is familiar with social conventions, and is comfortable talking to a wide variety of people. His shyness around women is not particularly unusual; lots of men are uncomfortable talking to women they are strongly attracted to (as he is to Penny from the outset).

    What makes Leonard work is that he is a basically normal guy, but with strong geek interests. This is what makes some episodes poignant, such as the one where he decides to give away all of his geeky possessions after being criticized by Penny for being too attached to them: It’s two sides of his character at war with each other. But if he wasn’t well attuned to society at large then his reactions to Sheldon’s absurd behaviors – often the funniest moments in the show – wouldn’t ring true.

    Leonard is the guy we’re supposed to identify with. Heck, Galecki is listed first in the credits, so that even seems to have been the creators’ intent from the outset!

    The episodes of BBT that work the least tend to involve ones where Leonard’s self-awareness goes AWOL and he just goes along with someone’s cockamamie plan (or follows his own bad instincts) without realizing that what he’s doing is a bad idea. Sometimes Leonard falls prey to his own foibles and just can’t help himself from doing the wrong thing even when he knows it’s the wrong thing, but that’s just him being human. It’s a big source of the show’s dramatic (and comedic) tension – will Leonard figure it out in time to stop himself, or will he come to a bad end?

  2. Sheldon is essentially Leonard’s opposite: He has no self-awareness and no empathy for others. He has very little shame, and only a rudimentary grasp of social norms. His brilliance has allowed him to craft a bubble in which he lives most of the time, and he ignorantly bulldozes his way through anything which isn’t part of his normal world.

    Actor Jim Parsons has deservedly gotten a lot of credit for the show’s success due to his performance, and Sheldon is the character who drives many of the plots of the show. But it’s often Leonard’s reactions to Sheldon’s foibles that make the show funny: Either his expressions of amazement at Sheldon’s behavior, his attempts to keep other people from inadvertently pushing Sheldon’s buttons, his occasional triumphs over Sheldon’s own efforts, or his attempts to accomplish something by performing an end-run around Sheldon’s structures.

  3. Howard is a sort of alternate Leonard: He’s also aware of his own foibles, but he either chooses to ignore that they make him a jerk, or he feels that he just has no hope of ever overcoming them and gives in to them. (I think it’s the latter, since his mending of his ways through his courtship with Bernadette is one of the series’ major chunks of character development.) He puts on an air of self-confidence that he doesn’t really feel. It’s easy to see that Leonard could fall into the same behavior if he didn’t have a basic understanding of and respect for other people.

    (Howard has a minor axis of humor based around his being a “bad Jew” and his relationship with his mother. These are not central to his character, but often make for some good one-liners.)

  4. Raj is Leonard taken to a different extreme: He’s very insecure in anything not related to his work or his geeky interests, he can’t talk to women, and he doesn’t feel comfortable in non-geeky social situations. Raj is in many ways the weakest character of the four, the one who might most justify a “laughing at them rather than with them” criticism of the show. On the other hand, Raj’s brightest moments come when he stands up to Sheldon (or anyone else) on subjects he does feel comfortable with (Star Trek his work, etc.).

    Raj’s weakness as a character is evident in that the writers have not really developed him over the years. Sheldon and Howard have both gotten girlfriends, Leonard continues to court Penny, Sheldon has developed a better understanding of social norms, Howard has been forced to grow up, etc. Raj is largely the same (except for being able to talk to women some of the time). There’s been an implication that Raj is gay, but until the writers actually tackle the subject head-on, I don’t really believe it (we’ve seen Raj sleep with several women along the way, seemingly perfectly comfortably, too; maybe he’s bisexual).

So the show’s characters are rather complex. Even Sheldon, who often is the butt of laughter in the series, work in this way because he doesn’t really care (or even understand) that people are laughing at him, and frankly he’s so full of himself that it’s hard to tell whether he’d care. Early in the series we laugh at Howard for being a jerk (whose jerkitude gets him into some unfortunate situations), but over time we see that he is a much deeper character than that and he achieves some degree of redemption.

But it’s really Leonard who holds it all together. Indeed, Leonard often serves as the voice of reason for Penny, who has her own foibles, obsessions and blind spots. (I really wish the writers would just send Penny back to school to do something with her life, since it doesn’t seem likely she’s going to become an actress. If they’re planning to end the series with her finally getting that big acting job, then I think they’re doing a big disservice to the character.)

I wonder whether the fact that Sheldon has been the breakout character in the series caused a few of the writers to think, “geeks being ignorant of social conventions is what makes the show funny!” and bled some of Sheldon’s character traits into the other characters on occasion. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often.

I could go on (Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernadette are interesting additions to the cast, and I think comic ship owner Stuart is a good character who has been extraordinarily poorly handled), but I think that’s enough for one entry.

One last thing: I can’t help but wonder, when people who think that The Big Bang Theory is somehow disrespectful to geeks or geek culture, if that doesn’t say more about the people who feel that way than it does about the show.

Why “The Angels Take Manhattan” Doesn’t Work

“The Angels Take Manhattan” was the “mid-season finisher” of season seven of Doctor Who, and the final episode of the series for the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory. But despite having the fan-favorite villains the Weeping Angels, I don’t think the episode was successful, either internally or as a send-off for the pair. For two reasons:

  1. The Angels have passed their expiration date as villains, and
  2. The story fails in its emotional resonance.

My spoilery explanations after the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Six

Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
  • The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
  • The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
  • The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
  • A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
  • The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
  • Closing Time (Gareth Roberts)
  • Let’s Kill Hitler (Moffat)
  • The Curse of the Black Spot (Stephen Thompson)
  • The God Complex (Toby Whithouse)
  • Night Terrors (Mark Gatiss)

Spoilers ahoy! Read on, Macduff! »

My All-Time Favorite Advertising Campaign

The NYNEX Yellow Pages series of commercials from the late 80s/early 90s, roughly in order from best to worst:

This one is a little offensive, but for completeness’ sake:

Sadly no one’s put up my favorite ad from this series, “Fishing Tackle”. But I’m sure you can use your imagination.

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

We discovered that Comcast On Demand features Doctor Who, so we’ve been able to watch the first couple of episodes of season six despite not getting the BBC America station. Nice! (Sadly we haven’t been able to see the Christmas episode, but it doesn’t seem like we missed much.)

The season-opening two parter was a little disappointing, though. Spoilers for these episodes if you haven’t seen them.

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Five

While no one can take away from Russell T. Davies his accomplishment of getting Doctor Who back on the air, by the end of his 5-year run I found the style of the show under his reign had worn thin; indeed, I liked each season less than the one before. Some of this was because Christopher Eccleston’s performance in the first season was so much better than David Tennant’s (nothing against Tennant, just that Eccleston was a supernova in the role), but mostly I found the stories were getting less sensical and more saccharine, and I was pretty sick of the Daleks and the over-the-top and ever-more-ludicrous season-ending two-parters.

As the new producer, Steven Moffatt, had written many of the very best episodes under Davies, I had high hopes for his first season. But the end result was… not quite what I’d hoped for. While Moffat wrote six episodes in the season, none of them were as good as the best ones he’d written during the Davies run, and while the season overall was more consistent than the last few Davies seasons, there were still several clunkers.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (written by Steven Moffat)
  • The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (Moffat)
  • Amy’s Choice (Simon Nye)
  • The Beast Below (Moffat)
  • The Lodger (Gareth Roberts)
  • The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Eleventh Hour (Moffat)
  • Vincent and the Doctor (Richard Curtis)
  • The Vampires of Venice (Toby Whithouse)
  • Victory of the Daleks (Mark Gatiss)

If you haven’t seen the season, be warned that there are spoilers ahead in my review.

The biggest change, of course, is that we have a new Doctor in Matt Smith, and a new companion in Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). The best feature of the new stars is their relationship, as it’s established from the first episode that Amy is fascinated by (and infatuated with) the Doctor, but she also feels betrayed by him because she feels he broke a promise to her when she was a girl to take him with her. (Of course, it was just that darned unreliable TARDIS bringing him back 12 years later, but she doesn’t really change things for her.) Amy’s sorting out of her feelings for the Doctor and for her fiancé, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), is a big part of the season’s story arc; it’s basically her coming-of-age story.

Matt Smith is fine as the Doctor, but he didn’t blow me away. Indeed, I was disappointed for the first few episodes that he seemed to just be channeling David Tennant, that his Doctor wasn’t a significant departure from his predecessor (this might be a first for the franchise, which previously has usually made an effort to make the break between Doctors clear and even extreme). At times it seemed like he was Tennant’s Doctor in Peter Davison‘s body wearing Patrick Troughton‘s clothing. Fortunately, he grew on me as time went on, but I’m still hard-pressed to say how his Doctor is materially different from Tennant’s. I think Smith brings a little more empathy to the role: His Doctor is a more sympathetic figure, and that makes those moments when he seems to betray his companions (whether inadvertently or as part of some larger plan) seem all the more emotionally wrenching. But I think Smith makes the Doctor earn the benefit of the doubt more than Tennant did (Tennant’s Doctor often seemed callous to me, putting on his “gosh that’s too bad” face in reaction to other peoples’ troubles; consequently I didn’t have much sympathy for his whining in “The End of Time” when his time was up).

Karen Gillan pulls off the nuances of Amy’s character quite well, excited about traveling with the Doctor, challenging him on some of his stranger behavior, and being stuck between him and Rory (by the way, Arthur Darvill doesn’t get a lot of different stuff to do playing Rory, but absolutely nails it when he does get a chance to show some range, such as in “The Big Bang”). She’s a strong character, though I noticed that she’s another in a line of female companions who seem at dead ends in their lives before they head off with the Doctor: Sure, Martha Jones was an exception, and Sarah Jane Smith is the most prominent professional-woman companion, but Rose was a young woman working in retail and seemingly without direction in her life, Donna was unemployed, and now Amy does “kiss-o-grams”; not really distinguished backgrounds. But to be fair, Amy has the mitigating factor that her life has been turned upside-down by the crack in time and space in her bedroom wall. One could argue that a wandering adventurer like the Doctor is more likely to attract companions at loose ends or without direction, looking for someone like him to give their lives meaning. That certainly seems to be the case for Amy.

The unifying story element of the cracks – as with the running threads in past seasons – is handled a bit awkwardly, with the cracks showing up in various episodes to no real effect other than foreshadowing of the season’s finale. (“Bad Wolf” in season one was basically the same.) The exception is in “Flesh and Stone” when the Doctor uses a crack to deal with the weeping angels, but otherwise they’re more ominous than actually relevant. Then again, the season ends with the “why” behind the cause of the cracks left unresolved, with the promise that it will be central to next season’s story, so if things get better from here, then the fact that the cracks were handled so cavalierly will happily be forgotten.

As far as the individual episodes go, the season contained several pedestrian stories: “Victory of the Daleks” is one of the weakest Dalek stories I can recall, with a ridiculous climax involving World War II airplanes in space. I wonder whether this story played better to a British audience who might feel a more visceral excitement in this sort of recreation of the Battle of Britain, but absent that it’s just a bad episode. “Vincent and the Doctor” is a worse-than-average monster story which is not quite redeemed by the coda where Vincent Van Gogh (nicely played by Tony Curran) glimpses his future. One assumes writer Richard Curtis is a huge Van Gogh fan, since the story has no reason to exist otherwise. “The Vampires of Venice” is a similarly weak monster yarn. And “The Eleventh Hour” is only notable for its nifty set-up of the Doctor/Amy relationship, but the threats (Prisoner Zero and the ridiculous-looking Atraxi) are by-the-numbers.

In the middle of the season’s quality range, there’s the two-parter “The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood”, which is a bit better than the average monster story (although not nearly as terrifying as the Fifth Doctor story “Frontios”, which also involved people being pulled into the Earth), and brings back the Silurians in (I think) the form of yet another subspecies of this prehistoric reptilian race. The most notable thing here is the absolutely gorgeous depiction of the Silurian city, which might be the single most impressive special effect and set design in the history of the show – really beautiful. “The Lodger” is a more effective horror story, with the Doctor isolated from the TARDIS, renting a room in a flat in which mysterious things are happening, and getting to the bottom of it. Matt Smith gets to play soccer and there’s an entertaining love story among the supporting cast, but the ending was a little disappointing, since the cause of the mysterious happenings felt a little too quickly examined; I’d have appreciated more depth in the history of the thing. “The Beast Below” is a very traditional trapped-in-an-enclosed-space-with-danger-all-around story, except that Moffat turns the premise on its ear by making things be not what they seem, and using it as a means for Amy to demonstrate her worth to the Doctor. It doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders, but it’s pretty good.

Then there’s the best of the season: “Amy’s Choice” and the pair of two-parters written by Moffat. “Amy’s Choice” is a fine suspense piece, cleverly taking place at two different points in our heroes’ timeline, and presenting a difficult puzzle for them to figure out, plus bringing resolution Amy’s conflicting emotions about the two men in her life. “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” brings back River Song (Alex Kingston, who has plenty of screen presence to stand as an equal to the Doctor) and the weeping angels. While I think Moffat plays fast and loose with the nature of the angels (it seems much easier to keep them at bay here than in “Blink”), I liked some of the new characteristics that he added to them (“that which holds the image of an angel becomes an angel”, resulting in the tensest scene of the season), and there were quite a few nifty last-minute escapes. Despite this, the story seems overlong, the military crew who show up to deal with the angels don’t seem very competent or prepared, and overall the story has more style than substance. While still quite a good story, it felt disappointing given its heritage in previous great Moffat-penned episodes.

Moffat saved the best for last, in the season’s finale, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”, in which River returns to help the Doctor solve the mystery of the Pandorica (which turns out to be a pretty neat idea), and then to help the Doctor and Amy save the universe. “The Big Bang” has one of the best opening sequences of any Doctor Who episode ever, and despite the solution relying on a time paradox, it’s a highly entertaining romp, with the denouement at Amy and Rory’s wedding being great fun. Yes, the Doctor saves the Earth and the universe again, but Moffat brings more gravitas and humanity to the event than Davies did in his season-enders. And yet… I still wish the series would veer away from having to end every season with a big bang (literally, in this case). Honestly when the stakes are this high, you just can’t keep topping yourself every season – it just doesn’t work. It only works here because Moffat is a flat-out better writer than Davies (and Davies certainly didn’t pull it off season after season in his run), and maybe Moffat can pull it off once more, but that’s probably the limit.

I want to make special mention of the season’s incidental music, composed by (I believe) Murray Gold, which is some of the most memorable of the series. I particularly enjoyed the themes he wrote for the Doctor and Amy, which key the final scene of “The Eleventh Hour” as well as the coda of “The Big Bang”. I hope the music gets released on an album, because I’d certainly buy it.

This has been a far longer review than I’d anticipated, which I guess speaks well of the season overall. Certainly I enjoyed it, even if there were a few clunkers along the way. But it did feel like it was struggling to throw off the weight of the immensely popular Tennant era, and having a hard time finding its own voice. It did set up the overall storyline for next season, which I hope will see further evolution and rise in quality.