Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.
Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.
Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.
In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ‘empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ’other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.
So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.
So, there once was this guy named Jack – nevermind his last name, I can’t remember – anyway, he grew up very, very poor. Eventually, however, fortune smiled on him and, due to an unusual confluence of incredible stupidity and amazing cleverness, he got himself a reputation as a champion giant slayer and beanstalk climber. There was a good amount of money in this in the form of gold-laying geese, which allowed his family to live comfortably for a while. True wealth was beyond his reach, sadly, since that golden goose didn’t live all that long (gastrointestinal distress, said the veterinarian), but wise investing and the maintenance of a literal nest egg put young Jack through college.
He started his career with the government, first as a hot-shot bomb-squad cop with something to prove. After a particularly poor bus ride, though, he met a girl and, after she dumped him, started to re-think his career path. He floated through a cool dozen different homicide detective jobs, investigating this and that impossible crime or terrible tragedy, and even took the occasional foray into massed automatic gun battles. He wasn’t very good at listening to his brusque but ultimately admiring captains/lieutenants/chiefs, which led him to think police work probably wasn’t for him. After a while, it just seemed like most of the reason they kept him around was so they could yell “JACK” at him, really loud, usually followed or preceded by some kind of profanity.
Anyway, Washington was calling him, and Jack answered. He did a stint in the FBI, but it turned out his real calling was in the CIA and its intelligence partners. Using his
inherent knack for bucking authority at just the right time coupled with his unparalleled ability at being right, Jack’s career was off and running. He hunted down rogue soviet submarines, he fought IRA radicals, spent some time being shot at by Columbian drug lords, and there was even a bit about a nuclear bomb.
His decision not to dance with the president, though, was indicative of his career’s trajectory, since before he could be made president himself, he shifted his focus towards a counter terrorism group. No, wait – he became president I think. No, maybe that was a different Jack. Anyway, the Jack I’m talking about worked for CTU for a while. The days were long, though, and he had to spend a lot of time torturing people, which proved taxing. Worse than that, though, was the amount of time he had to spend on the phone so that he could understand what was going on and keep his bosses up-to-date on the things he learned while torturing people.
Burned out with that line of work, he went into the military for a while. Seeing his interest in doing things others wouldn’t, the first thing they did was task him with going through this wormhole device to explore other planets. This got him involved in a variety of interstellar conflicts older than the planet itself, but which, of course, he wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about. There was a lot of shooting and being shot at, which Jack typically enjoyed, as well as some workplace romance.
Still, eventually his bosses got tired of him and went off to try building some kind of super spaceship and he…wait. What happened to him? No, no, no – wrong Jack again. I think. Anyway, the Jack I’m talking about eventually got into the space program. Of course, his resume suggested he might be interested in off-the-beaten-track type exploration, so rather than shooting him into space, they miniaturized him and stuck him into Martin Short’s rear end. This was pretty exciting and, not only did it result in him being able to marry the girl of his dreams (who may or may not have been Russian…can’t remember), but it was a great career move. I mean, how many ex-cop, ex-spy, ex-military astronauts could say they killed giants and managed to spend a couple hours floating around Martin Short’s insides?
There were lots of job offers at this point, but Jack was pretty worn out with the dangerous, violent work of space exploration and so on. He drifted for a while, eventually getting a job as a truck driver. This was nice, calm work – the kind Jack had never experienced before – and he spent most of his time telling
people how awesome he was on the radio. Inevitably, Jack’s inability to accept his limitations led him to a fairly hair-raising encounter with an ancient Chinese sorcerer. His friends in the Chinese community helped him sort it out, but it led Jack back into police work of a sort. He became a drifter, travelling about in muscle cars, and not caring about evidence or laws and focusing, instead, on what was right.
He beat up a lot of people during this period. A few of them died of shame whilst he was being gentle with them, but that’s the way vigilantism goes sometimes. Overall it was a good life, barring the various gunshot wounds and his incessant arguments with government officials. The special age-reversing serums and reconstructive surgeries the government gave him when he left their service came in handy here, since he had the vitality of a much younger man.
Eventually, however, the government had need of him again. They talked him into taking a long-rang mission to the Jupiter area (his Russian wife was on board, which was an enticement) to investigate some big alien artifact. He was, of course, kidnapped, cloned, memory wiped, and the rest of it. Earth was mostly destroyed, and it was partially his fault. It was okay, since he blew himself up. No, wait, different Jack. The point is he made peace with it and then hooked up with some time/space travelling alien for a while.
Of course, he grew tired of that, too (I mean, the ship was only so big on the inside, and tempers flared), and decided to settle down in the golden age of piracy, where he retired being the worst pirate anybody had ever heard of (though, he hastened to point out, most people had heard of him). Here he lived a long, productive life of being dead but then not being dead and much of the things happening to him not making much sense. He lives there to this day.
No, wait – I forgot about that time his plane crashed on a desert island and he had to save everybody and then died. I think. Wait, was this Jack a spinal surgeon, or was it that other Jack? Well, anyway, I guess it doesn’t matter that much. The point is that Jack has had a long and productive life and, ultimately, would like to be left alone at this point. He’s done enough. Leave him alone.
A few weeks back I saw a couple pilots on TV which marked one of the first time in years I was actually motivated to see what happened in a television show (I talked about it here). One of those shows, Siberia, I’m still finding pretty entertaining and well done. The other one – Under the Dome – is getting increasingly frustrating to watch. The trouble is this: while the concept of Under the Dome is cool (and it is), the visuals in the show are also very cool (and they are), and the characters are (mostly) interesting, I am losing more and more patience with listening to the characters talk to each other. The dialogue is, in a word, bad.
I’ve been trying to nail down precisely what it is about the dialogue that is so terrible and cringe-worthy. It isn’t just the acting, either (though the sheriff’s deputy is abysmally wooden), though few of the actors on the show are really good enough to overcome the cheeseball nonsense they’re asked to say. The problem is, ultimately, that everybody seems to have a permanent case of Cliche’s Disease. Basically, if there is an obvious and overdone way to express a thought at any given time, the show will use that specific way. I will also call this the “Dingo Ate My Baby Syndrome”. It takes what could otherwise be a perfectly serviceable, dramatic, and interesting scene and renders it foolish and weirdly dull.
Point in case, the lesbian couple. Their lines have exactly one and only one setting, and that setting is “A Dingo Ate My Baby!” They rush
into a room and say “Has anyone seen our daughter!” over an over and over and over to the point where you just want to smack them. They have super-serious conversations about the status of their insulin supplies, which is fine. But then they have the exact same conversation again, in the exact same way, with the exact same emotional investment. You can almost see the actors getting tired of it.
It’s like everybody in Chester’s Mill has the same five lines to recite over and over again. Now, in the pilot/second episode, the corny dialogue didn’t bother me as much, primarily because (1) it’s the pilot and the concept was strong – I was going to cut them a little slack and (2) they’re supposed to be in a small town somewhere, so the fact that people sounded hokey seemed authentic. Things should have loosened up a bit from there, but no – we are instead trapped in some kind of weird cliché factory. I keep expecting a Family Guy-esque cut-away where the Kool Aid man and the Giant Chicken make some kind of joke at the show’s expense.
Naturally, having sung the show’s praises early on, this whole turn of events is rather embarrassing for me (and, by the way, Katie: you seem to be more and more right). I am still interested in what happens (God help me), but if we keep heading down this trajectory, this show will hit the ‘unwatchable’ level pretty soon. Too bad.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Babylon 5 I have long held up as the prime example of how bad dialogue/writing ruins an otherwise good show. B5 had a really cool plot arc, interesting characters, good visuals, an engaging concept, and so on and so forth, but had the worst dialogue known to man. They didn’t have Cliche’s Disease, oh no, that show suffered from Terminal Exposition Syndrome. Pick any given scene from Babylon 5, and there’s probably a 75% chance that the only thing the characters will talk about are things that just happened (exposition) or things that will probably happen someday (exposition). Nobody talks about what is happening now and, indeed, they prefer to discuss the things that are going to/have happened rather than actually do anything. They took what should have been really interesting and made it one of the most arduous things to watch on television.
So, therefore, even though I still find myself watching the damned thing, I’m rescinding my endorsement of Under the Dome. Granted, I still think the concept is cool, but I don’t think it’s really worth putting up with some woman saying ‘the Dome did something to my BABY’. Sheesh.
The last good television show I watched was Lost. Yes, yes the last season wasn’t ideal, I know, but even with that caveat, the last season of Lost is better than the first season of pretty much any other show to come out since then. There have been things that are watchable (Defiance,
for instance, along with a laundry list of crime procedurals), but nothing that I saw and actually felt motivated to see more of. I would point out that I am aware Mad Men is supposed to be awesome and lots of people love The Walking Dead, but given my distaste for zombies and soap opera melodrama, the prospect of watching either of those shows sounds a lot like going to the dentist to me: good for me, and probably not that painful after all, but hardly something I’m rushing out the door to experience.
Oh, right, and there’s Game of Thrones, but seeing how I read all the books only to become disenchanted with the story at the end, the only reason I’m watching is to see Peter Dinklage tear up the screen. I’ve got the first two seasons on DVD, and I haven’t worked up the motivation to keep watching through season two. I mean, I already know everything that happens.
This brings me to my delightful discovery of the past week: Not one, but two shows whose pilots looked sufficiently interesting and fun that I am probably going to watch them both! Yes! Crazy, right?
Under The Dome
This is based off a Stephen King novel. I would imagine if you read it, that might suck some of the fun out of the series (much as happened to me and Game of Thrones), but beyond that, this show looks pretty awesome. It isn’t just that there’s a magical force field that’s cut off the town, it’s the completeness with which this idea has been imagined. King has thought of all the implications, here, and it shows. I know it’s been thought through because right at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sort of), I knew Duke shouldn’t touch the Dome, I yelled it at the screen, and I was right. Why? Because the Dome is operating under consistent principles and, therefore, can be anticipated. It also means there’s a lot more to discover, too. Throw in the devilish array of quintessential King small-town weirdo characters, and there is enormous plot potential running around here. So much has been set up and, goddammit, I want to see what happens. That hasn’t happened to me for the longest time.
This one snuck up on me. It just kinda came on the television just before bed, and it is just so gloriously new and interesting that I can’t help but be sucked in. If you loved Lost and its weird, mystery vibe, there is no reason you shouldn’t love this show, too. That, though, is basically similar to a lot of attempted shows since Lost, and the majority of them have fallen utterly flat. What gives Siberia the edge? Well, it’s filmed like a reality show. It’s a show about a reality show gone horribly wrong; it’s the Blair Witch Project on steroids with actually good actors and a better special effects budget. Besides, if you loathe reality show contestants the way I do, why wouldn’t you want to watch some of those self-absorbed assholes get devoured by monsters in Siberia? Throw in a series of creepy mysteries on top of it, and I’m sold! I’m in! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait until the next episode!
It’s such a relief to say this, since I was worried I was becoming jaded and cynical towards the world of television science fiction. I’ve either been indifferent or hated almost all of it for years, and now, all at once, I’ve got two shows I am seriously interested in watching. So, kudos, tv executives, for finally stimulating that bug in me. Now, off I go to On Demand…
Three years ago (or so) I ran a Star Trek RPG. I was feeling the Star Trek itch after seeing The Wrath of Khan again, and decided it would make a fun game. Boy howdy was I right.
The idea, you see, was to actually simulate our own television series. We had theme music. All players cast their characters. We covered every Star Trek episode trope I could think of. We had cliffhangers, two-parters, a pilot and a season finale. It was phenomenal, but not because of me, really. My players–typically stellar role-players, by the by–outdid themselves.
The theme of the series was a crew of Starfleet outcasts, has-beens, and misfits dispatched to run border patrol in a remote sector of the galaxy after the Dominion War. Their ship was a clunker pulled out of mothballs with a lot of technical glitches and a lot of character. They reported to an Admiral (played by a friend of mine who moved to LA and wanted to be involved, so he called in on speaker to send communiques from Starfleet or to confer over issues requiring higher approval). I envisioned this series as a kind of frontier western–the captain of the USS Lionheart was the only sheriff in a rowdy town, the admiral was the hangin’ judge, and the crew were the captain’s loyal deputies, trying to bring justice and order to a place that didn’t want it. Into that theme, my players inserted these characters:
Played by my friend, Chistine, Athelai was a Betazoid who had earned the Christopher Pike Medal of Honor during the Dominion War in an action that killed almost her entire crew but saved Earth from Breen attack. She also was captured by the Gem Hadar and used her telepathy to defeat the guards and stage one of the only prison breaks in the war. It also got her labelled a war criminal by her own people.
Dixie was tough, no-nonsense, tactically minded, and (ironically) really bad when considering other people’s emotions. She got put on the Lionheart because Starfleet couldn’t find anywhere else for her that wouldn’t piss somebody off. Her life was barren, empty, friendless…but it was eventually filled by her crew and her hard-nose exterior started to melt to show the emotionally traumatized woman within.
Altman, the first officer, played by my friend DJ, was a guy who had always played it safe and done the right thing. He spent his career pushing a desk in the logistical division, organizing supplies for the war effort. When the Dominion War broke out, he had the opportunity for a command post, but turned it down because his wife couldn’t take the stress. Years later, now divorced, Altman threw caution to the wind for the first time in his life and signed up for a risky assignment on the frontiers of the Federation. An old friend of the admiral, he had connections in starfleet that helped the crew on many occasions. Even still, he had trouble letting go of his cautious side.
He also sang opera.
Nolan is an inadvertent time-traveller. He was a contemporary of the Original Series who, due to a transporter accident, wound up decades into the future. He still serves in starfleet, but is a bit odd. In essence, this is the first time we’ve had a ‘geek’ on the starfleet crew. He was obsessed with pop culture, wore clever pins on his uniform (in violation of protocol–he was always getting in trouble) and make constant non-sequitur references to contemporary television and movies (which no one understood). He was played perfectly by my friend, Fisher, and was great comic relief in addition to serving as an excellent ops officer.
What to say about our ship’s doctor? Sloane, played by Meghan, was a half-Orion, half-human with a shady past and organized crime connections who, somehow, managed to make it through Starfleet Academy. She was cool, tough, smart, and played merry hell with fellow crewmembers hearts (notably John Dashell and Fanz Danter–two young men bucking for promotion played by Serpico and RJ). She was also dangerous and not shy about getting in a fight. This was made even more awesome by her Klingon nurse, Tu’kal, who was in a perpetual war against the greatest foe–Death itself. I really can’t explain how much fun Sloane was–her and Athelai really made the show…errr…game. We started plumbing her dark past and connections to the Orion Syndicate in the final few episodes, setting ourselves up for a second season that, sadly, never was to happen.
There was also Kuval, the brain-damaged Vulkan with mood swings, Rixx, the Andorian operations officer who treated everyone like her children, and so on and so forth. It was simply fantastic, and never has a game been more ‘cinematic’ for me. If they’d let me, I’d write this into an actual show any day of the week, and it would be awesome. I still think back on this game regularly, particularly as I look at what the franchise has become, and think “yeah, Star Trek: Lionheart would be every bit as a good a show as this stuff!”
Ah, well. Maybe someday we’ll get in that second season…
As has been happening this week, conversations on Facebook have been firing up my desire to write blogposts. In this instance, it was the comment from a friend of mine that she had just finished Doctor Who, Season 2. The consensus from a lot of the comments were that it was an episode they enjoyed. Before I start tearing into it, I’d like to make it clear that I don’t begrudge people their enjoyment of Dr. Who and, if you liked the finale, good for you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the series. I, however, finished saw the Season 2 finale myself a few weeks back and it basically confirmed my general difficulties with the show and has seriously dissuaded me from watching any further episodes.
Allow me to elaborate (spoilers below):
The two part finale begins with Rose and the Doctor arriving back in London to, presumably, visit Jackie. They discover that the world has become infested with some kind of ghosts, who show up and walk around and people are generally excited to see. Jackie insists that the ghost that shows up in her house is that of her dead father or grandfather or something. Since this show rarely deals with phenomena that aren’t interested in mass genocide of some kind, I am skeptical Jackie is correct, but whatever.
The Doctor is also skeptical, so he breaks out a bunch of his stuff from the TARDIS to perform an experiment involving 3D glasses. I wonder what the deal is with the glasses, of course, but the other people on the show stick to their general lack of curiosity about the things the Doctor does and nobody asks. I’m still with the episode at this point, so I don’t make a big deal out of it.
Oh! I forgot to mention that this episode was preceded by a maudlin speech by Rose Tyler indicating that what follows is the story of how she dies. I’m pretty excited by this, since I can’t stand Rose Tyler and I think her being killed off is an excellent idea. I digress, however…
The story begins to take a turn for the absurd when we find out that Torchwood is actually running these experiments with some kind of interdimensional hole that produces a lot of power and, as a side effect, seems to admit these ghosts to the world. The first thing (of many) that is pretty stupid about this is that they have the levers that control the weird portal and the work stations for the scientists monitoring it in the same room as the phenomenon. What kind of idiots are running this place? Who finds themselves an interdimensional hole and then puts all their workers right in front of the damned thing without so much as a pane of security glass between them and who-knows-what? If I were working on that project, I’d be asking questions like ‘might long term exposure to whatever is coming out of this hole be bad for us or mess with the computers?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep this hole behind thick doors in case it, you know, explodes or something?’ This, however, is the world of Dr Who, and the Idiot Ball is hugged with all the affection and tenacity of a little girl hugging her teddy on the way to school.
The next stupid thing that happens is that two of the Torchwood personnel go off to fool around in some abandoned part of the building. It just so happens that cybermen are hiding in there and they start lobotomizing the Torchwood people, one by one. Okay, reality check: (1) it makes sense that, given how fast they were building this skyscraper to reach the magic hole, that there would be unfinished and unfilled parts in the building; (2) it makes no sense whatsoever that these unoccupied parts of the building wouldn’t be surveiled by security on a regular basis; (3) it makes no sense at all that the people who work at the ultra-secret high-security defense organization wouldn’t be made aware of what was going on in the abandoned parts of their office suite; (4) even if they weren’t, it doesn’t make any damn sense why a cyberman would hang out there, apparently indefinitely, and hope against hope with all his little heart that the *exact* people he needs to control would just happen to wander in and they would just happen to be alone and he would just happen to be able to come upon them unawares and that they would just happen to have their screams unheard. What happens if a painter wanders in one day? Does the Cyberman kill him? Isn’t he reported missing? Don’t they smell the body? Really, really stupid plan, Cyberman. Idiotic.
Okay, so the Doctor and Rose trace the location of where the ghosts are coming from (who, it should be noted, aren’t just in England but are covering the entire globe–important for later) and zap over there in the TARDIS. Jackie happens to be on board (because we needed a way to keep her in the episode, I guess, which is just as well because I like her). Torchwood is waiting for them and are very excited to meet the Doctor. The director takes him around, shows him the stuff, tells him he’s a prisoner, and so on. He tells them Jackie is Rose and leaves Rose in the TARDIS. This is among my favorite parts of the episode, because I like the Doctor and Jackie, and Rose isn’t there to foul things up. The Doctor convinces them that opening and closing an interdimensional portal just to see what happens is a bad idea (which they should have known anyway). The director agrees (oh, yeah, her *office* is one thin pane of glass away from the evil portal–STUPID DESIGN) and orders it stopped. Of course, the cyber zombie people the hidden cyberman has been creating over the course of the past few hours open the thing all the way, which causes tons of trouble.
Turns out all those ‘ghosts’ were really cybermen. They’re from that other dimension, where we ditched the other good character in the show, Ricky, because he made things actively interesting between the characters and we can’t have that in Dr Who, now can we? Anyway, the cybermen now appear all over the Earth at once and start making demands. This leads me to ask the following question: Why did they bother with the whole ghost nonsense in the first place? If all they had to do was turn the dials to 11 and let them all through, why didn’t the lone cyberman they could get through (and how did they do that, exactly? Well, nevermind…) just waltz into the control room, electrocute anybody who got in the way, and open the damned portal himself or hold someone hostage until they did it for him? WTF, cybermen?
The people of Earth proceed to be spectacularly incapable of fighting slow moving armored people, despite some guy somewhere realizing the rocket launchers work just fine at killing them. No lights go on in any heads, nobody starts any kind of guerilla campaign, nobody figures out that they can just run faster than them or hide or whatever. Airpower is never deployed, tanks never hit the streets, the whole Earth just rolls over. Fine, I’m willing to give it to them. Let me ask a larger question though:
What the hell are the cybermen doing here in the first place? If they had umpteen billions of cybermen (the number you’d need to lock down the whole world), why not just conquer the world they were on? If they couldn’t win against the forces of righteousness on the alternate Earth, why hadn’t the alternate Earth people already wiped them out? When we finally get an answer to this question (when the good guys port in from their own dimension and start kicking ass), it’s ‘they’d barricaded themselves in their factories!’ Well Jeez, I guess they got you there. The human race sure hasn’t figured out how to blow up factories. That’s never happened–we’ve never pulled it off. Factories are just too damned tough to blow up, I guess. What’s that? Oh, it seems like Torchwood has passed the Idiot Ball! I beaut of a throw, snatched from the air by the nimble metal fingers of the cybermen.
Hold on, though, we aren’t done with the eye-rolling, yet. You see, the way the cybermen got here was by hitching a ride on a voidship, which travels through the emptiness between dimensions (well…you know what, nevermind–let’s not get into the inherent paradox of movement or existence in a non-place defined by its lack of space or existence. The show has the good sense of having this baffle the Doctor, so we can take it. To be honest, I thought the concept was pretty cool). Of course, the voidship contains Daleks. True to Dalek form, rather than killing everyone in the room immediately (which would make sense), they decide instead to chat. Rose (who got there by pointless misadventure), Ricky (who got there for a good reason) and the scientist guy (who should have called security as soon as he found Rose, but I guess they were busy being idiots somewhere else) are now having conversations with Daleks for a while. Everytime this happens, it drives me absolutely bonkers. WHY THE FUCK DO DALEKS PARLEY? Once, just once, I’d like them to show up and shoot everybody as soon as they walk in. No conversation, no exposition, no nothing–just killing. It’s what they’re supposed to do! Of course, they are the Grand Masters of Idiot Ball Conveyance, so they don’t.
Eventually we get some fun with Daleks and Cybermen yelling at each other. Of course, the Daleks should just start shooting (because what do they care what the cybermen are doing? They aren’t Daleks, therefore they ought to be destroyed. Where is the nuance in that philosophy? Why do they have conversations with other people at all? Why do they even bother yelling EXTERMINATE when actually what they should yell is DELIBERATE!), but they Daleks don’t shoot and the ensuing conversation just goes to show everybody just how idiotic the behavior of the villains in this episode really is.
Anyway, the Daleks have their hands on a Time Lord artifact that is a prison full of Daleks, which the Daleks open and release millions of Daleks into the world (you know, for a species that is supposedly ‘wiped out’, there sure are a buttload of them still out there). They proceed to have a little cybermen/dalek/human war across the world, where they fly around and shoot things occasionally and everybody runs around in the street like an idiot (dude, go inside!).
Our heroes, meanwhile, run around and avoid cybermen in the Torchwood building; this mostly involves running up and down stairs. For reasons completely in violation of the cybermen rules, the Director of Torchwood, now a cyberman, somehow resists her assimilation and starts killing cybermen. Way to break the rules for no reason, Dr. Who. Jackie and alternate-world husband have a touching reunion. I like this part.
Of course, by now we’re all waiting around for the Doctor to pull the solution out of his ass, just like always. He does so, by saying that he can reverse the portal and all the people from other dimensions will get sucked in. That’s what the 3d glasses are for, I guess–seeing who’s from another dimension. Anyway, because the portal is in the same room as the levers that open and close it, it’s dangerous for Rose and the Doctor, since they have visited the other dimension and come back at some point in the episode. The others go over to the other dimension where they’ll be safe, but Rose won’t go. Fine, whatever.
They pull the levers, the vacuum turns on. In violation of all physics, even theoretical or imaginary physics, all the cybermen and Daleks all over the world get sucked through the portal in, like, two or three minutes. I don’t need to do the math to point out just how ridiculous this is. What about the cybermen in India (who we were shown)? Did they go through the planet or were they dragged along its surface at a billion miles an hour? How much stuff did they destroy along the way? How many people were killed? Why wasn’t the building built around the portal ripped apart? How were the Doctor and Rose not ripped off the levers either by the force of ‘suction’ (since it obviously had to be incredible) or by getting banged into by passing cybermen/Daleks. Why aren’t the Daleks still shooting people on the way (sorry, side point)?
Inevitably, we know that Rose gets sucked off. Somehow, by a sheer chance that strains the imagination to accept, her non-father appears and grabs her out of danger at the last second. How the hell does he do that? How does he know where she is? How does he know the right timing? How does he have time to grab her and hit the button before getting sucked in? Does he have some kind of interdimensional periscope? Who the fuck knows. The show isn’t interested in making sense, and it can’t hear me over the sound of how cool it thinks it is, so fuck it.
That leaves us with the touching final scene, involving the Doctor somehow contacting Rose and drawing her to a beach (why? Why can’t he appear to her somewhere else? Ah, whatever…) where they say their goodbyes. The Doctor tells her
she’s officially ‘dead’ in the other world. My wife boos and hisses at this; I nod in agreement. We wanted Real Death, dammit. They kill everybody else in the damn show, why not Rose? Anyway, the episode ends. I imagine I’m supposed to feel bad, but I don’t. Rose is lame and I’m glad she’s gone.
There you have it. Those two episodes aggressively refused to have anyone act in an intelligent manner besides the Doctor and strained my suspension of disbelief well beyond the breaking point. It was, in a word, ridiculous.
I have a feeling this post is going to be unpopular, but here it goes: Dr. Who is an unimpressive television program. I have tried–I’ve really tried–to like the show, but I just can’t stop rolling my eyes most of the time. At this point I’ve slogged my way through about two seasons–the Chris Eccleston season and the majority of the first David Tennant season–and I can’t quite see what it is that has all you Whovians hooked. It took me a little while to formulate exactly what it was that I disliked about the show, and I think I have it narrowed down. What follows is my critique, for your perusal and (possibly) ridicule, though I can’t for the life of me figure out what has so many folks obsessed.
What I Like
Since I like to keep myself fair and even-keeled when it comes to ripping up popular scifi/fantasy properties, let’s start with what I like about Dr. Who. In the first place, I should point out that I really wanted to like Dr. Who, and so these various facts were the things I kept bringing up early in the first season to defend the show against my wife, who thinks it is overall pretty stupid-though-tolerable television.
In the first place, I like the overall concept well enough–the idea of an ancient alien who travels space/time alone and helps people along the way isn’t a bad one. I never thought it was particularly amazing or innovative, per se (I mean, isn’t that the structure of about 75% of the adventure television programs ever made, just this time across space and time instead of some other more earthly setting? I mean, from The A-Team to Kung Fu to Paladin to, hell, even to The Shadow, that’s basically how they all work). It took me a while to work up the interest to watch the show, mostly because catching up with a television show is a lot of work and the concept wasn’t really calling out to me.
Then, when speaking with a friend of mine who (I presume) enjoys the show, he pointed out the thing that I did (and do) like quite a bit: the tone and the main character. I love how positive the Doctor is–so much sci-fi is all doom and gloom and it gets oppressive and miserable sometimes. I love that the Doctor actually enjoys travelling around and that, despite all the evil he’s seen, he hasn’t gotten jaded and miserable. Lonely perhaps, but not miserable. That was fun, watching the Doctor grin and laugh and joke his way through horror and mayhem. The sense of humor sprinkled across the episodes and the Doctor’s banter in general is quite good and amusing, and if I ever watch any more of the series, that constitutes the sole reason.
So, okay, enough with the positives.
What I Don’t Like
There is a good bit more about Doctor Who that I find anywhere from annoying to lazy to unpallatable, and this might take a little while. Settle in.
Charge #1: Poor Supporting Cast
Rose Tyler is a very boring character. I gather that she vanishes or dies at the end of this season (I’m not quite there yet), but whatever–she bores the hell out of me. I mean, seriously, what’s her deal? If you’re struggling for an answer there, it’s because she HAS NO DEAL. She’s a prop, as like as not. She has no desires (that I can detect), no obvious fears or baggage (well, her dad, I guess, but that’s pretty standard ‘girl with father issues’ crap and not very interesting), no compelling relationship with anyone besides her mother (who’s a much better charater, by the way, and I would have preferred to see the Doctor and Ginny galivanting across the universe in a heartbeat), no set of interesting skills or hobbies, and just about nothing else I can figure that would make her an interesting character in any way shape or form. This is only made even more frustrating by the fact that the Doctor is so damned enamoured with her. “I trust Rose Tyler” and “She’s stronger than you think” and “I believe in her” and all that crap. Why? She’s a damned blank slate, man. It’s like saying you believe in the wisdom contained in a sheet of blank paper.
In addition to this, of course, is the fact that just about every other character is a one-shot person whose actual characteristics are either glossed over or unimportant. There are exceptions, of course, in individual episodes (like that guy who founded the Doctor fan club only to get all his buddies absorbed by the ridiculous fat alien–very good character, that guy. Too bad the end of the episode made the whole thing absurd as opposed to touching), but generally the whole group is a wash. For my money, besides the Doctor, the only good characters have been Mickey and Ginny, and the show keeps shoving them aside instead of using them in interesting ways.
Charge #2: Frequent and Irresponsible Use of the Idiot Ball
First off, I appreciate very much that the Doctor isn’t walking around with an arsenal in his pocket and doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights or blow things up or kill things–true to character and a refreshing change from most TV sci-fi fare. The thing is, though, the show keeps the Doctor alive not because the Doctor is all that clever (he isn’t), but because the enemies are usually overly stupid or slow-witted or otherwise inept. If you don’t know what I mean by the ‘idiot ball’, go here–this show uses it ALL THE DAMNED TIME. Like, in just over half the episodes at least, probably more. If the Doctor is being chased, the enemy moves at a walk. If the Doctor is being threatened, their weapons don’t work or they miss or something. If the Doctor is captured, there is usually a fairly convenient method of escape that presents itself that a reasonably intelligent adversary would never have allowed. It’s RIDICULOUS.
Point in case–remember the first David Tennant episode? The one where the giant spaceship of nasty aliens shows up and gets a whole third or quarter of the Earth’s population under its control and has them held hostage? Well, generally I liked this episode (it was one of the good ones), but there were a number of things that I found ridiculous and pertaining to the idiot ball. First off, the TARDIS shows up aboard their ship and the Doctor strides out (after being revived by tea, of all things–more on that later, though) and starts talking. So, a few questions: (1) why don’t the aliens capture and incarcerate the unidentified alien who isn’t part of the diplomatic party? (2) why are all the people aboard the vessel and surrounded by hostile aliens still alive in the first place? (3) Once the Doctor calls their bluff on the Blood Control thing, why don’t they just kill him right then with their rayguns rather than have a duel? (4) Why did the aliens let the Doctor look at the Blood Control thingy in the first place, since they knew they were bluffing and wouldn’t want him to figure it out?
I mean, in all reasonable situations, the Doctor would be captured, pinned, killed, or otherwise neutralized as soon as he shows up. Don’t even get me started on the Daleks, who, for such an advanced race of killing machines, have probably the least efficient method of going about killing people ever. What is the rate of fire on those stupid death rays, anyway? Muskets fire more often, for crying out loud.
Then, of course, the Idiot Ball is fielded almost as often by the supporting cast as it is by the villains. So, I just watched that episode where the kid can draw people and then suck them into the drawings. If your kid could do that, and you knew your kid could do that, and the Doctor told you your kid could do that, and you were told not to let your kid do that, would you leave your kid alone? Even for a second? Then, even supposing you did make the mistake of leaving her alone once, would you do it a second time? What the hell, lady? It would have been one thing if that kid’s mother was meant to be portrayed as negligent, but she wasn’t, so far as I could tell. She was just spontaneously stupid becuase the idiot ball had lodged itself behind her left ear and wasn’t letting go.
Charge #3: The Doctor Isn’t Very Clever
Look, he isn’t. He’s just not all that smart. If he were, he wouldn’t need the idiot ball to hit the field quite as often as it does. For most of the episodes I’ve seen, the Doctor wins on a technicality. He doesn’t outsmart the opposition, he doesn’t overpower them, he doesn’t outmaneuver them, he just remembers something he learned once about X and then applies it and viola! “Oh, right, Blood Control doesn’t work like that!” or “He just needs a hug from his mom” or “obviously the telescope kills werewolves!” It’s ridiculous. I find myself throwing my hands up in the air more often than not and rolling my eyes.
There have been other shows that have done this, of course–Star Trek: The Next Generation is chief among them. What made TNG a better show, though (and it is a better show) is that, while the A plot designed to solve the ridiculous alien cloud or whatever was invariably solved by Data shooting some kind of subatomic particle at it and everything working itself out, the underlying character arcs at play in the B plot were actually compelling and interesting. This was done by having good characters that we liked, as opposed to the Doctor and Rose doing nothing for no reason all the time and, therefore, giving us nothing much to fall back on. We just sit there and watch, inevitably, as the Doctor whips out his sonic screwdriver and solves the problem by use of pseudo-science and xeno-archaeology. We have to accept his solution, of course, since we have no prior knowledge of what’s going on, anyway, and his explanation is as good as any, but it’s still fairly lame. The Doctor’s no genius, he’s just read more books than us. I’m unimpressed.
Charge #4: The Show Buys into the Doctor’s Mystique
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show that just assumed the audience’s belief in the coolness of the main character more than Doctor Who. Let me think for a second….hmmmm…well, maybe Knight Rider or the A-Team, but since they had characters that actively earned their cool more often, I’m not certain. In any event, the show just assumes that everybody watching thinks the Doctor is the coolest thing since James Bond, and it goes out of its way to prove it. They play up his history at just about every opportunity, play eerie music when outsiders are thinking about him, and all that would be fine if they didn’t insist on having him perform ridiculous stunts like recover the Olympic Torch. Jesus–it didn’t even make sense that he would be there, let alone picking it up and running with it.
At times the show does this well, but much of the time I find myself rolling my eyes and saying ‘whatever, man–you’re just a dude who bums around the universe with a blonde sidekick, you aren’t Nelson Mandella.’ Now that I’ve said that, of course, there’s probably an episode where the Doctor teaches Nelson Mandela how to read and write or some just paternalistic garbage. Anyway, moving on to my final point:
Charge #5: It Just isnt’ that Scary
Doctor Who doesn’t scare me. Maybe I’m jaded or heartless or something, but I just haven’t found any of the episodes to be really all that creepy. That one in WW2 with the gasmask kid asking for his mummy? Eh. How scary can a slow moving child really be, anyway? That, of course, really comes down to the heart of it: why should I be scared of creatures that aren’t even all that dangerous to a dude who flies around the universe with a screwdriver and a trenchcoat? I got a trenchcoat, I got a screwdriver, and I’m every bit as smart as that guy in his magic phone booth (yes, ‘police box’, I know–I’m trying to goad you), so why am I scared again?
Well, to make a long story short (too late), I’ve found Doctor Who to be underwhelming at best and downright stupid at worst. There have been perhaps 4 episodes I’d call ‘good’ so far, and none I’d call ‘great’. The closest they came was the first Tennant episode, where the Doctor actually did something clever (“Don’t you think she looks tired?”), and past that…eh. I could take it or leave it. If Doctor Who were on television at the same time as Star Trek Voyager, it would be a coin flip, I kid you not.