Mythgard Movie Club: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mindGrab the nearest copy of the collected works of Alexander Pope (or is it Pope Alexander?) and join me for the inaugural session of the Mythgard Movie Club, the brand new (and free!) program from the Mythgard Institute. I and my podcast co-host Curtis Weyant will be spearheading this new program which will meet every 6 weeks or so to discuss the films and TV shows worthy of a deep dive. We’ll be focusing primarily on speculative fiction, but that’s a very broad category and who knows where we might go!

Since we’re doing all the work to get this party going Curtis and I took the liberty of choosing the first two films. First up is my what if I were hard-pressed I would name my favorite movie of all time, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry and springing from the twisted and hilarious mind of Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine explores the fallout of a new technology that allows people to erase unpleasant memories through the once-passionate but now-stale relationship of couple Joel and Clementine. Funny, poignant, and sad, Eternal Sunshine mixes tones and genres with a kind of low-fi visual approach that make it a truly unforgettable viewing experience.

If my pitch doesn’t convince you, how about that stellar cast? Jim Carey plays the quiet one and Kate Winslet the loud one! Kirsten Dunst in her best performance to date! Creepy Elijah Wood! Mark Ruffalo dancing around in his underwear! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll miss your dearly departed pets.

Our other panelists include Signum U. regulars Brenton Dickieson, Emily Strand, and Kelly Orazi. You can find out more about the Mythgard Movie Club here and sign up to attend the Eternal Sunshine discussion here. If you want to donate to support future free programs through the Mythgard Institute, check out Signum U.’s yearly campaign.

And of course, don’t forget to watch Eternal Sunshine! Unless you already did and erased it from your memory… in which case you should probably watch it again.

When: Monday December 4th 8:30 PM ET.

Where: Here!

Edit: And here’s the recording! It was a great discussion, if I do say so myself. Thanks to everyone who attended and participated live. If you catch up with video leave us a comment in the Signum U. forums to tell us what you think or to continue the discussion.

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Notes on a Rewatch: Game of Thrones Seasons 4-5

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#ISurvivedSeason5

Seasons 4 and 5 are coming packaged together thanks for being sandwiched between a very busy time at my day job (which pays the HBO bill) and a trip to Montréal. This actually kind of works out for analytical purposes. Seasons 1-3 represent the early years of the show when it was still in expansion mode, adhering most closely to the letter of the books, and proving its worth both as an adaptation, a critical hit, and a television event, culminating in the shocking Red Wedding. Seasons 6-8, as we’ll see, represent the show firmly in its end game, firmly established as a modern classic and working towards its conclusion well beyond the territory mapped out by the books (if not entirely by Martin’s outlines). Seasons 4 and 5, then, are the at times problematic middle children beginning the transition of the story from a pure adaptation into an autonomous narrative in its own right. For all their ethical and aesthetic issues, with season 5 in particular, both seasons maintain the high quality that the show manages pretty much across the board.

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Notes on a Rewatch: Game of Thrones Season 3

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Red Wedding tears. 

Let’s start with a plug. I mentioned it last time, but I highly recommend the Ringer’s new podcast Binge Mode: Game of Thrones. They have deep-dived into every episode of the show,  with each installment featuring thematic analysis, ASOIAF lore, an ongoing scoreboard of champions, and frequent hilariously exaggerated impressions. Despite being incredibly wrong about Theon, it is in all other ways one of the great resources for Thrones fans I’ve come across.

Now let’s get into some of my highlights and impressions of my rewatch of season three. As noted in the last blog this was the season I attempted to write reviews of at the time, so in some ways I probably know it a little better than some others, and yet not having seen it since it aired (4+ years ago now) I was definitely due for a revisit in order to catch all those little ironies, foreshadowings, and nuances that I inevitably missed on the first watch.
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Notes on a Rewatch: Game of Thrones Seasons 1-2

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I have to admit, I miss him.

Some you may recall that back in long summer I attempted weekly Game of Thrones reviews on this blog. I didn’t get very far: I started reviewing episodes weekly during season three, and got to episode seven before I fell off. This wasn’t due to any flagging interest in GoT, although the difficulty of tackling the “The Rains of Castamere” as both an episode and a pop-cultural event certainly played a part. More so it was due it was a mixture of lack of time and my then-exploding interest in Doctor Who which has continued to dominate most of my time and energy for writing. I always meant to get back to it someday, and perhaps I will. In the meantime, however, the most recent season triggered a thirst which seven episodes couldn’t quench. Laid up in bed this past holiday weekend I succumbed to temptation and binged the first two seasons over three days. I haven’t rewatched the series from the start in a long time, probably four or five years, and so it was a delight to go back over these early scenes in the light of later pay-off. Indeed, rewatching is so much fun that there are times I wonder if the only purpose of reading or watching anything is for the pleasure of going back over it again. To that end I want to collect and share some of my thoughts and impressions on this rewatch. These will be less structured blog reviews and more random notes and points that jumped out to me. Most of what I find myself reflecting on is less about how lines of dialogue echo forward and back in the story (check out the excellent Binge Mode: Game of Thrones podcast for detailed and exhaustive analysis of this sort) and more on the way characters are used in the show, and in turn how the actors portray and interpret those characters. I’ll continue paying attention to this as I continue my revisit, but let’s start with the first two seasons.

  • Casting Sean Bean makes the first season. He’s not the flashiest or most entertaining character, but his presence, gravitas, and name-recognition give season 1 a focus never to be found after the first season. This is fine — the sprawling nature of the story after Ned’s death is deliberate and effective — but it makes season 1 largely a different animal from anything that comes later. Putting Bean’s name on the marquee plays a similar trick to the one JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof considered pulling with Jack in the pilot of Lost: i.e. cast a famous actor (Michael Keaton) and kill him off just when the audience is getting comfy. Their plan to kill him in the pilot, though, likely wouldn’t have worked and they luckily abandoned it. Keeping Ned around until the end allows the audience fall for the other characters, cushioning the blow a bit and giving it room to carry on without him. This belies the excellent shock-factor, though. Ten years or so after Jackson’s LoTR films, this seemed like exactly the kind of project and role Bean should take at this stage of his career: Similar enough in genre to the project that he’s most known for but a different enough character and noticeably higher on the call sheet to seem like a good career move. Benioff and Weiss are employing media and metafictional savvy here to strengthen what GRRM had already done with narrative subversion, and it makes the slow-motion car crash of Ned’s downfall equally horrible and delicious on rewatch. It’s also fascinating to revisit how dominating his point of view is to the early story, as well. Jaime, in particular, will come to seem much difference once we’re out of the shadow of Ned’s perceptions.
  • Casting child actors is always a gamble, especially when those actors are expected to age into actorly maturity onscreen. GoT actually did incredibly well on this front. My memory tells me that Bran’s decline into stiffness starts even before his stint as the ethereal Three Eyed Raven, but that’s a subject for another blog. Here in the first two seasons he kind of crushes it, and you can absolutely see why he was cast. The quiet incisiveness of certain line readings convey Bran’s precociousness but he’s never annoying. Arya and Sansa are even better, with Sophie Turner in particular giving Sansa a tragic quality that keeps her from being despicable even in her weakest season 1 moments. By season 2 they’ve settled into their respective arcs: Sansa quickly learning how to play that game despite her absolute terror and Maisie Williams easily handling some incredible two-hander scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister. And what can one say about Jack Gleeson? His Joffrey is simply one of the most hatable and watchable TV villains of all time. And yet his youth, cowardliness in the face of any overt challenges of strength and authority, and general childish petulance give him a vulnerability that keeps him from being completely monstrous. And man, can that boy sit on a throne.
  • Speaking of well-acted roles: Give me an emotionally starved character faced with a difficult choice who betrays one set of loyalties and ideologies for another only to have circumstances demonstrate painfully and tragically how they made the wrong choice and they are almost guaranteed to vault to the top of my favorites list. This is my version of William Goldman’s oft-repeated penchant for “stupid courage” — totally irresistible catnip. This is only compounded when said character is played by an excellent and subtle actor, and Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy is no exception. Though largely secondary, he’s interesting in season 1 — a conflicted mixture of toxic masculinity, easily-provoked sensitivity, and yet genuine affection and loyalty to Robb. But season 2 is his season, and for all the highs and lows that come afterward I’m not sure that his performance in season 2 can be topped. In terms of acting, that is. Season 2 is in many ways the character’s moral low point as he makes one bad decision after another (the physical low point, as we all know, comes a bit later). The pain at his father’s rejection, the desperate attempt to gain anyone and everyone’s respect, the botched beheading of Ser Rodrick – it’s all great stuff. There are great little moments throughout, like when he bursts into Bran’s room to announce that he’s taken Winterfell only to flop sulkily down on Bran’s bed and try to talk him into submission like the foster-brother he is. My favorite, though, comes at the end of the season: His talk with Maester Llewyn, speech to the Ironborn, and final knocking-out by his right hand dude. GoT is often moving and often funny but this scene is equal parts both. Theon details his conflicted loyalties and Stockholm syndrome while squirming with annoyance at the most annoying horn blower ever (made even funnier if you think it’s Ramsay Snow); the stirring Greyjoy music soars as he tries to inspire his hopelessly sparse group of men even as his speech descends into the desperately crass; and finally the big Braveheart-like climax is interrupted by a spear to the back of the head and a curt, “Thought he’d never shut up.” Like poor Ned before him, Theon misjudges what story he’s in: He’s not a hero. Not yet, anyway. Once Ramsay shows up the laughs with Theon are basically non-existent: this is the highpoint of the the early tragicomic streak in his character which oddly only strengthens the poignancy.
  • The hero turns out to be Tyrion. Magic and destiny swirl more forcefully and noticeably around Jon and Dany on the fringes of the story, but it’s Tyrion who steps into the void left by Ned (mirrored by Peter Dinklage’s promotion to first name in the credits) as the everyman protagonist. Indeed, lacking magic and destiny it’s he who most clearly advances the cause of the story’s beloved “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” The first two seasons are largely an ascent for him. We’re told of his father’s cruel hatred and have no cause to doubt it, but Tyrion’s sudden ingenuity brought to light in the events of the story actually create something of an opportunity for advancement of his station. He’s surprised by his father’s vote of confidence at the end of the first season, and the afterglow of this trust pretty much carries him through season 2 and (in hindsight) looks to be like the high point of happiness for the character. His relationship with Shae is warm and lovely. He outwits the craftiest snakes in Kings Landing at every turn, firing/sending to the Wall anyone completely untrustworthy and at least putting on watch the more ambiguous ones, all the while gleefully humming “The Rains of Castamere” as he strolls through the streets. Peter Dinklage is damn funny, and season 2 in particular is just a series of scenes of his verbal sparring with the show’s craftiest and wittiest characters. Some, like those with Cersei, are laced with pain and cruel barbs but others are just pure fun like his budding friendships with Bronn and Varys or his joyful smackdown of Janos Slynt. Like Ned Tyrion brings a certain moral compass hitherto lacking in the Small Council, but unlike Ned he also brings an adeptness at playing the game. Sure, Dinklage’s accent leaves much to be desired but that means little when outweighed by his intelligence and humanity. All of this winning, of course, presages a downfall, not into death but back into obscurity. The battle of Blackwater (which prefigures season 7’s “loot train battle” in stirring up conflicted loyalties and feelings in the audience) ends up knocking Tyrion off his increasingly high horse. His courage and leadership and knack for tactics (not strategy) are met with a betrayal: a sword to the face, a grimy and claustrophobic bunk, and the loss of what he admits was the only thing he ever loved doing. Though season 2 has its deaths, with Renly probably being the most notable, GRRM was right to follow Ned’s shocking end with a different kind of loss at the end of season 2: The notion that success as well as failure can be met with harsh consequences.
  • On the topic of the small council, this is a magnificent group of supporting characters. In another show the scheming group of double-dealing advisors would be hardly distinguishable, but both the performances and the visual styling of Maester Pycelle, Vary, Littlefinger, and Renly keeps each unique and memorable. Pycelle’s bedroom scene at the end of season 1 suggests that the most harmless-looking may be the most dangerous, while Aiden Gillen’s charm keeps us (and Ned) wanting to believe in his helpfulness even as he baldly tells Ned not to trust him. The best lies have a seed of truth in them, and nobody mixes truth and lies better than Littlefinger. Varys is, in many ways, his opposite. The most untrustworthy on the surface (“Why is it no one ever trusts the eunuch?” he asks knowingly) he might actually be one of the few altruistic people in Kings Landing. The little duets between Varys and Littlefinger are particularly entertaining. Littlefinger’s chuckle after Varys’ joke about not knowing where his balls are (“and we had been so close”) suggests the admiration each rightly has of the other right beneath the enmity. They are not just enemies themselves, but of a larger thematic conflict between selfish ambition and chaos on the one hand and order under a just ruler on the other.
  • I don’t necessarily disagree with those who criticize Emilia Clarke’s performance as Danaerys, but her season 1 arc might be her best. Before she becomes the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, etc. (“titles, titles, titles” as King Robert would say) Dany  undergoes a pretty serious change over the course of season 1 from one of Tyrion’s “broken things” into a pretty fierce matriarch of her Dothraki tribe. The later false starts which keep her from invading Westeros too soon in the story obscure how much she accomplishes in that first season alone. Her terrifying marriage to Drogo which grows into one of the most tender romances of the series; her increased agency as her brother Viserys grows weaker and more spiteful; the gradual realization of her dragon-affinities. Like Bran, there’s an increased emotional distancing that can make Clarke’s later performance stiff at times, but in season 1 she allows herself to play Dany as unsure, vulnerable, and and emotional even as she discovers her strength. The stalling tactics get started in season 2 with the less than exciting Qarth plotline, but in season 1 her arc is the equal of any of the others, and only strengthened by the fact that it’s visually so distinct from everything else on screen. I’m not sure if Clarke makes for the best possible Danaerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, but as Dany, Ser Jorah’s beloved Khaleesi, she’s actually quite good.

Those are my highlights! What parts did and didn’t work for you about seasons 1 and 2? Leave a comment and we’ll discuss. I’ll be back with thoughts on the rest of the series as I go.

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Feeling a Glimmer of Purpose – “The Doctor Falls” Review

mastersThese final episodes are always the toughest to write about, as I’m sure they’re the toughest for the production team as well. This one even more than usual as it’s hard to avoid the feeling, justified or not, that the final episodes of an era have to bear an exponential amount of weight, functioning as the summary or concluding argument for everything that’s come before. Although for me “Listen” stands as the most eloquent and concise “thesis statement” of what the Moffat era is about, this two-part finale and the impending Christmas special will inevitably seen as the keystone of his tenure. The pressure of that epochal change from one writer to the next, even more than from one Doctor to another, pushes the writers to go big and sure enough “The Doctor Falls” resembles “The End of Time” in its high emotion and risk-taking as well as in some smaller details, and will no doubt result in mixed reactions from viewers. As my twitter friend @hammard_1987 observed, “One thing you can rely on. At the end of a season of Doctor Who some people claiming it’s perfect, others saying they’ll never watch again,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Knowing how to even break it down into digestible chunks for blogging purposes is difficult, and I can feel a larger, more broadly-encompassing Moffat Era post brewing, so perhaps the simplest way is to tackle the different character story-lines within the episode. Pretty much all of the plot and situational set-up was accomplished in the efficient (if predictable) part 1, resulting in a part 2 that spends all of its time on the fates of these characters.

Nardole

Let’s start with that quirky sidekick, Nardole. I feel as though I haven’t talked much about him this season. Like the Paternoster Gang, he’s a character I enjoy watching and don’t find myself thinking about at any depth. He certainly turned into a far less twee presence than the past two Christmas episodes would have suggested, so I think it’s kind of great the way he developed this kind of bitchy, not-quite-antagonistic rapport with the Doctor. There were a few lines that felt a bit unearned (are we sure he’s stronger than the Doctor? what was his thing about setting up a black market, again?) but those are minor complaints in the light of a character who came in with basically no goodwill and ended up carving out a place for himself as a proper companion. The smiley, goofy persona being a thin layer over a more jaded sense of humor works well with Matt Lucas’ delivery, and I kind of liked that the Doctor and Bill had time to focus on the emotional stories given Nardole blowing shit up in the background.

The Masters

Where to start with these two? While I was taken with Michelle Gomez’s Missy from the start, the gradual softening of her incarnation becomes much more apparent when placed alongside John Simm’s Davies-era Master who has never been darker or scarier than in this episode. I say that having quite liked his earlier appearances, but Moffat took the themes and motifs that signified his Master and doubled-down on them here. His cruel misogyny, implicit in his treatment of Chantho and Lucy Saxon, becomes almost unbearable when turned on the sensitive and long-suffering incarnation of sweetness that is Bill. His sneering dismissal of empathy and snarky fear the the future “will be all girl” highlight the ways in which his brutality and his contempt for women (and therefore his underestimating of them) have always been related.

As for Missy, Gomez finally sold me on her redemption arc. I have to put this down to the sheer power of the acting because I’m not sure those weird mid-season episodes featuring Missy ever really conveyed why Missy might change. But here, Gomez’s slightly crazed and desperate performance conveys her misgivings even without writerly motivation. And perhaps we are given an answer after all in the presence of the Master. This in the end is the biggest difference between the two incarnations: the Master wants to dominate the universe, including the Doctor. Everything from his misogyny to his racism to his actions toward the Doctor is about control: putting the Doctor in prison, eating the world, creating the Master Race. Missy doesn’t really want control; she wants chaos. This makes her like the Doctor in a way and allows her motivation to shift toward reclaiming their friendship. In her mind they could BFF TARDIS buddies traveling the universe together: It’s just those pesky companions and that boring morality stuff that get in the way. For all that the Master is consistently arch and villainous and funny (loved the repeated “he told me he always hated you” gag) these really are opposite motivations and so they cancel each other out. The mutual murder/suicide was just brilliant. Missy kills her old being so that a newer, better version of herself can emerge (and how wonderfully alchemical is that?). The Master, nihilistic and suicidal as ever, destroys his future self utterly. I absolutely love the echo with “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master committing true suicide rather than give the Doctor the satisfaction of being right. “How about that?” he muttered the first time. “I win.” Rachel Talalay directed the bleakness of those moments, with their hysterical laughter and the Master’s oddly-framed descent into the darkness below, exquisitely. In typical Moffat fashion, he gives them perfect endings which are in no way definitive. Is Missy actually the next regeneration after the Simm Master? Is Missy truly and finally dead? Obviously these are questions for someone other than Moffat to answer.

Bill

Part of me wants to end this blog with Bill, as in a way the end of a season is always the companion’s story and my feelings about her are the most complicated. Thank goodness they cut between CyberBill and regular Bill, and they really couldn’t or shouldn’t have done anything else. As finale episodes these are extremely powerful. Bill is really put through the wringer here, and what’s more they emphasize that fact. Companions have suffered terrible fates before but rarely are we given the time to just sit and dwell on their emotional suffering. The British stiff upper lip really doesn’t apply here. Bill tries to be her cheerful old self but it’s very clear that she’s distraught throughout. Her crying at the Master’s stupid insults, her tearful realization that “people are always going to be afraid of [her],” and her resigned capitulation when Hazran shoots at her… these hit an emotional register we don’t often see from the often “feisty” companions. I’m half-wondering if Moffat is playing with some kind of metaphor here about the gentle soul who is feared mistreated by others due to her appearance. That fits uncomfortably well with New Who’s unfortunate habit of converting black characters into Cybermen, although I’m not sure I like what it suggests about the associations between blackness and deformity. Bill says that she doesn’t want to live if she can’t be herself, which seems to validate her blackness as an integral part of herself. And yet when the Doctor tells her to control her temper lest it provoke others into attacking her, I can’t help but wonder.

Regardless, this is a might bleak time for our beloved Bill. I’m not quite of the school of thought that takes issue with Moffat putting her through this kind of hardship, and yet there does seem to be a slight disproportion between these finale episodes and the rest of the season in terms of Bill’s character development. Simply put… I’m not entirely convinced that she changes all that much in her travels with the Doctor. She starts out a sweet, humble, curious student who wants a bit of adventure and that’s kind of what we see throughout. This isn’t necessarily a problem, especially given the charisma and nuance of Pearl Mackie’s performance, but I’m not convinced that it worked as well as Russell Davies single-season companions. When you look back at Rose in season 1, Martha in season 3, and Donna in season 4 you see very clearly the arc of where they started and ended and the change they went through in just 13 episodes. Granted, those early RTD seasons probably had a lower batting average than these more sleek Moffat seasons, and yet I wonder if some of the more clunky filler episodes served as opportunities to put in those quieter character beats and nudge the development along. Moffat seasons tend to go from one high-concept episode to another, leaving little time to just check in with where Bill is emotionally. As it was, these episodes kind of slammed her out of nowhere and left me feeling like only Bill of all companions could be this well-disposed toward the Doctor after all this bullshit. The fusion of RTD-style companion with Moffat-era ending didn’t entirely fit, even if it was powerfully written and acted.

That said, of course I’m glad she wasn’t killed outright and the door was left open for a return to mundane humanity if she wished. Her sobbing over the Doctor and the horrible thud of the Cyber-body were bad enough: a truly dead Bill would have been too much. Naturally Heather returned, as everyone guessed she would, and whisked Bill off into their own adventure. Perhaps we can have a spinoff with Clara, Lady Me, Heather, and Bill flying around in the diner? That would be dope. Let’s hope the future’s all girl.

The Doctor(s)

originaldoctorIn a twitter debate with my podcasting co-host Curtis Weyant and a few others, the question of “surprisingness” in stories came up again. In the last post, I noted that every single major plot twist had been either spoiled by the production team/BBC or was very easily guessable by an attentive fan audience and therefore the plot twists must serve some other function for the viewer than mere surprise. The answer, usually, is what Lewis called “surprisingness”: the quality of surprise which doesn’t rely on the mere fact of the plot twist. In the hands of a masterful author, one can enjoy with pleasure the process of seeing how a story unfolds as much as the shock of the plot itself. While the fates of Bill, Nardole, and the Masters were more uncertain, the Doctor’s is less so and so lends itself to a kind of surpringness. We know he will regenerate soon: the question is when and how. While Curtis and others felt that Moffat teased out the “fake-out” regeneration energy a few too many times, I have to confess it never really bothered me. Doctor Who has never successfully pulled off a surprise regeneration before (except in the case of those that weren’t true regenerations, like Ten’s, or in the case of one-off characters/arcs, like the War Doctor). Know that we have a Christmas special still to come, that Capaldi would be appearing in that special, and that the Thirteenth Doctor’s casting had not yet been announced I was reasonably confident that we wouldn’t see Number Thirteen in “The Doctor Falls.” True, I would have been delighted to have been proved wrong, but I was in no way surprised or disappointed when we didn’t. Instead, what we get is the long, slow build-up to the inevitable. This is Moffat’s riff on Ten’s regeneration in “The End of Time,” complete with the Simm Master and the homage to the line “I don’t want to go,” yes, but more than that in the elegiac tone. One could successfully make the argument that RTD did it better. Gut-wrenching melodrama is really in his wheelhouse, whereas the bizarre and audacious Eleventh Doctor regeneration really feels more like Moffat’s style. But after some notable departures from the RTD era, it’s still interesting to see Moffat take a stab at riffing on what’s come before in his own way.

And as gut-wrenching melodrama goes, this was pretty great. Capaldi’s Doctor gets some nice speeches summing up the thematic virtues of his Doctor: the virtue of fear, the value of kindness, the importance of doing good “without hope, without witness, without reward.” When it comes time for his last stand, the at times bleakness of his interpretation of the character give it true apocalyptic weight. It’s an interesting twist on the “I don’t want to go line” to make it not about the regrettable loss of a beloved incarnation and more about the Doctor’s general weariness. In his first episode, “Deep Breath,” Twelve wondered about the “Ship of Theseus” broom paradox. This anxiety was restated at the end of series 9 in “Heaven Sent”: “How long can I keep doing this? Burning the old me to make a new one.” This Doctor mirrors the Master; maybe he doesn’t want to go on. He’s starting to wonder if he’s had enough. He’s the oldest Doctor and yet the first in a new cycle of regenerations. He’s an ancient old man expected to start fresh.

And so, beautifully and fittingly, he is placed alongside that other oldest of men who was also the first. Who else should come shuffling through the snow muttering about his distaste of change but the Doctor? Not the First Doctor, mind you, but the Doctor. The original, you might say. It’s perfect. Except that it’s nonsense. This is the delicious irony, you see. Here we have the Doctor confronted with his first, original incarnation…played by someone else. David Bradley is a national treasure, one of Britain’s great character actors. I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in, and he was excellent as William Hartnell in “An Adventure in Space and Time.” But he’s not William Hartnell but a guy playing him playing the Doctor. And so in that wonderfully metatextual way that Moffat writes Who, he’s set us up to explore the necessity of change both within the story and outside. There is, after all, something of a tradition of other actors playing the First Doctor. Doctor Who has only survived these fifty-four (!) years by this process of actors passing the torch. This is why we, and the Doctor, bear with the pain of regeneration: the promise of something new. And we’re subtly reminded of this fact by the mere presence of an actor doing an impersonation of an actor playing a role. What a weird, wonderful show.

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My First Friend – “World Enough and Time” Review

worldenoughandtimeWell here we are, dear friends: the antepenultimate episode of the Steven Moffat era, and the start of Moffat’s last ever Doctor Who season finale. As has been my wont this season, let’s start with a brief moment of reflection before trying to parse through the episode itself. For his first three seasons — coinciding, not surprisingly, with the Matt Smith tenure — Moffat eschewed RTD’s traditional “parting of the ways” finales and went instead for mostly unambiguously happy, eucatastrophic endings. “The Big Bang” and “The Wedding of River Song” both centered on actual weddings which signifies that we’re in the domain of comedy rather than tragedy. Though undeniably darker, ” Name of the Doctor” ended with both the Doctor and companion alive and together and lead directly into that most eucatastrophic and unifying of episodes, “Day of the Doctor.” Things shifted in the Capaldi era. Clara does survive both series 8 and 9 (sort of) but “Dark Water/Death in Heaven” and “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” have felt less triumphant and more like narrow escapes contingent on terrible prices. The very titles signify the importance of that most universal experience of death. They have been dark meditations on disturbing themes: the afterlife, body horror and suffering, and grief. The presence of Missy and Rassilon nudges everything into the cosmic conflict of demigods and feels suitably mythic.

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Doors Between Worlds – “The Empress of Mars” & “The Eaters of Light” Reviews

Getting to the other side of those rather odd mid-season episodes to the traditional late-season standalone episodes before the two-part finale, it suddenly occurred to me that there is quite a strong and prevalent theme of imperialism running through series 10. “Smile” introduces a group of human colonists seeking a new home, bringing their culture and civilization with them, and their dangerous interactions with the “indigenous species” of robots. “Thin Ice” and “Empress of Mars” set their stories at the peak of British imperialism, critiquing the uglier aspects of that patriotic love of crown and country. “The Eaters of Light” of course extends this historical aspect further back to a time when native Britons and Celts themselves were invaded by the current imperialist titan — the Roman Empire. “Oxygen” plays upon the imperialist tendencies of soulless, Big Corporations (or the entire capitalist system, if you like). And of course the trilogy of episodes concerning the Monks show the gradual and insidious manipulation of humanity by the Monks, demonstrating how their cultural and systemic domination comes not through brute force and warfare but by creating a situation where their power is invited, then accepted, and eventually normalized by their subjects. This is perhaps the most modern face of imperialism: how human beings willingly give up their freedoms because the alternative is worse, or because there are no other options. The Monks’ assertion that “fear is not consent” is hooey — fear is the key ingredient in this form of empire. Fear is what motivates a bunch of very modern people who fancy themselves enlightened members of democratic society to play ball with dangerous and power-hungry autocrats. Whether Moffat intentionally crafted this season as a reaction to Brexit, Trump, and the wave of nationalist fervor we can currently see sweeping the Western world it is interesting to go into the two-part finale bearing this theme in mind. After all, the Cybermen only want what ever Empire wants — to assimilate its subjects, to make them “like us.”

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