We’re Part of the Story – “The Ghost Monument” & “Rosa” Reviews

It will just be a quick double-post this week, as I’ve had a few busy weekends, including a lovely time at the always fun and memorable Chestnut Hill Harry Potter Conference (and the Harry Potter Witches and Witches Festival). If you’ve never been, I encourage you to check them out next year.

ghostmonument“The Ghost Monument” was a bit frustrating in the way that sophomore efforts sometimes are. For an episode pitched as a race, it felt somewhat lacking in pace and urgency; and between the supporting characters, the planet Desolation, the rules of the competition, and the four (count ’em, four) antagonists the whole thing felt a bit exposition-heavy and oversignified. But that’s all right. It’s an ambitious enough episode that goes for visual spectacle in a big way. The opening spaceship crash is a good way to kick off the season, and gives Whittaker a big, busy action sequence. The reveal of the TARDIS as the “ghost monument” is a nice touch and gives the episode something of an emotional spine. In fact, the phrase “ghost monument” is nice and evocative in the tradition of evocative and mythic names, a la the Nightmare Child, the Moment, or the Silence. The whole eucatastrophic feeling of the ending is, of course, right up my alley. Who doesn’t think of “Give me a day like this” when the Doctor pleads, “Give us this.” I think my favorite detail in the whole episode is the Doctor’s little denial to Yaz that she ever doubted winning the day: “Who, me? Nah. Never doubted. Don’t know what you mean.” Oh, that Doctor. Such a liar.

As for “Rosa,” where to begin? This certainly has to rank among the biggest risks in the show’s history. The fact that it works at all is a minor miracle, let alone that it works this well. I won’t say that it goes about taking the risk of openly discussing and confronting the history of racism in America in the year 2018 in the riskiest way ever, if that makes any sense. There are a number of obvious pitfalls that Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall sensibly avoid, not least among them letting the thing devolve into the often farcical tone of some other “celebrity historicals” like “The Unicorn and the Wasp” or “The Shakespeare Code.” This is obviously Serious History, meant to be taken seriously. Watching this the same week as the “Daleks in Manhattan” episodes of series 3 is a study in contrasts, to say the least. No pig-men or penis-faced human/Dalek hybrids allowed anywhere within the same galaxy as Rosa Parks, thank you very much. It makes one wonder which approach is actually the bigger risk, even if there’s no question which ultimately works.

thedoctorandrosaBut even though you could make the argument that avoiding monsters all together is the “safe” choice, I am fascinated by how close this episode comes – far closer than any other episode of the new series – to the long-abandoned “pure historical” of the Hartnell era. Yes, there is a time-traveling alien threat, but ultimately the bad guys of this episode are just the white folks.  And quite right, too. Ryan running around Montgomery, AL by himself has to be one of the more perilous situations a companion has found themselves in, and the early moment when the man slaps him for touching his wife is shocking. Despite that, everything is fairly standard inspirational fare until the final scene on the bus when the episode veers toward something more challenging by having the Doctor and crew stay on the bus among the white passengers. There’s a pretty powerful metaphor for the realization of privilege in Graham’s pained, “I don’t want to be part of this.” The realization of that you’re on the bus, and part of the story, whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t ask to be there. We are.

In the growing list of Doctory moments that I love:

  • Leaning over to surreptitiously scan Krasko’s weapon (the sneaky little movement is brilliant)
  • “You ain’t Banksy” / “Or am I?”
  • Throwing Krasko’s briefcase fifty-eight centuries into the future
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We Had Three Glorious Years – “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” Review

I like the new costume, but this look is also pretty rad.

Hey, troops. No, not troops. Team. Gang. Fam? It’s been a while. The Doctor has once again landed, this time in Sheffield after a year-long plummet. In the process everything has changed.

Not everything, of course. The show is still recognizably Doctor Who, and more specifically New Who, but there are always those subtle differences that define an era, that tell us how a new storyteller (in this case showrunner Chris Chibnall) takes the familiar structure of the premise and character and tailor them to his own concerns. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” doesn’t represent the most radical break from tradition ever, except in the obvious and laudable casting of Jodie Whittaker, and we do have nine more episodes and a Christmas special to go before we have a complete view of what Chibs is after in this first season. Steven Moffat also played his first season more conservatively, following the lead of his predecessor while seeding in themes and quirks that would come to define his own tenure. But there are some interesting changes of emphasis here that are worth noting.

First of all, the Doctor’s Christmas message on the virtue and necessity of kindness survived her fall intact. As far as first episodes go, Whittaker’s Doctor stands apart in her warmth and openhearted kindness. The Ninth Doctor initially eludes Rose’s attempts to attach herself and ask questions, enjoying some playful banter but telling her to forget him. The Tenth Doctor evolves in his comfort with domesticity represented by group hugs and Christmas dinner, but also ruthlessly takes down Harriet Jones on the side. Little Amy Pond certainly finds Eleven immediately lovable, but his twelve-year disappearance uneasily foreshadows some of his innate fickleness and undercuts him as an object of hero-worship. Twelve literally tells Clara that their relationship needs to change, even if he ostensibly takes responsibility for any misunderstandings.

And what does Thirteen do? She immediately takes charge, though not in a bullying way. She shares information at an unprecedented rate, though not in a condescending way. She even goes so far as to all but explain regeneration to brand new companions on day one, which is impressively candid. She’s quick in her praise and her gratitude: she thanks Grace for covering the mangled body and apologizes profusely for having not yet solved the crisis. This is a Doctor who loves people and is comfortable enough with herself to openly let them know.

All this could make imply that Whittaker’s Doctor is worryingly competent, in the whole “backwards and in high heels” tradition of “strong female characters.” With only one episode in the can, and having listened to several interviews with Chibs and Whittaker, I’m not too concerned at this point. “Perfection is not the aim,” as Whittaker said in the recent New York Comic Con Panel. I expect this Doctor to screw up as much as the next. But it seems equally important to display the Doctor’s best qualities when introducing them and hoping the audience will fall in love with a new incarnation, and Thirteen seems like someone you’d want to follow as she runs toward the aliens.

She’s also delightfully funny. The cheerful absent-mindedness works well on Whittaker, especially in scenes like wiping Ryan’s phone, building her new sonic (“should be fine” as it sparks), designating the alien threat Tim Shaw. She’s a confident dork who knows she’s left of center and totally embraces it.

Did Lisa Frank design the posters this season?

And it’s a good thing that she brings the humor because if there’s one thing that distinguishes this episode from most previous two premiers it’s a certain seriousness of tone. Russell T Davies’ world included bright, vivid soap opera characters and high emotion in both its comedy and its tragedy. Steven Moffat expanded to a playfulness of form, using the very structure of stories to evoke joy, mystery, and wonder. Both, in their own way, incorporated elements of the sitcom. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” might be the first season premier to feel more like a drama more a comedy. Despite the Lisa Frank aesthetic of the promotional materials, the episode itself is rooted in grounded in a kind of realism, focusing on the everyday lives of people who have struggled: Yaz with her desire to do valuable work; Graham with his cancer; Ryan with his need to prove himself. It’s Ryan we get to know best: his dyspraxia, strained relationship with Graham, disappointment with his father. You get the sense that, for better or worse, much of his life is lived online. I’m sure as things go on we’ll get as many layers to the other companions, but Ryan in particular feels like a character from a primetime soap. Something like This is Us. It’s an intriguing new direction. These aren’t characters who are desperate for escape into adventure in quite the same way that Rose, Donna, Clara and the others have been. These are people who have struggled and suffered, and the Doctor represents a test they didn’t know they were ready for.

And their struggles are foregrounded. Grace’s death looms over the episode. If you’ve paid any attention to the media promotion, you probably guessed it early on, maybe even during Ryan’s opening monologue. If you didn’t, it serves as a bold late-episode subversion of expectation. No other new series season has started with a death like this. Sure, plenty have died – killed by plastic dummies or something. But Grace is as much a main character in this first episode as any of the others. If you’ll allow the Buffy reference, she’s the Jesse of series 11. It’s an interesting move from Chibnall, creator of the vastly popular and lauded melodrama Broadchurch, which similarly began with a tragic and unfair death. It declares his intent to go another way, which is really the main thing one wants from a new show runner.

The audience is invited into this elegiac mood. We didn’t know Grace well enough to mourn her, perhaps. But we were rather attached to the Doctor’s old incarnation. “We had three glorious years,” Graham imagines Grace saying. He confesses that he “wanted more.” “So did we,” some of us might reply. Like the Doctor, we hang around in the back, not quite comfortable enough yet to intrude on the grief of this family we’ve only just met, but thinking of others we’ve known who are gone.

This isn’t to say that elements of tragedy weren’t present in earlier series – that would be absurd. And of course “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” had its moments of levity. But still the balance has shifted. A new writer has seated himself behind the control panel, dialing up some elements while quieting others. It’s the same mix of ingredients as always, of course, but a welcome remix nonetheless.

 

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Mythgard Movie Club: A Wrinkle in Time

AWrinkleInTimeTeaserJoin me and a fabulous panel of Signum University/Mythgard Insitute folks to the new film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic of YA science fiction and fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time. With a script by Frozen writer Jennifer Lee and ambitious direction by Ava Duvernay, the Wrinkle movie has provoked much discussion, debate, and various “hot-takes” that should make for some exciting discussion among this group of devoted L’Engle fans (and Curtis).

The panel will be held live this Thursday March 29th at 7pm Eastern time. Check out the event page for details, and register to join the discussion live. You can find all previous discussions archived on Youtube and check out the upcoming schedule of film discussions at the Mythgard Institute’s website.

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Mythgard Movie Club: The Last Jedi

ReyandKyloI have a feeling our next Mythgard Movie Club entry needs no introduction, so I’ll keep things brief: Join us live this Wednesday January 10th at 8:30pm Eastern Time for our panel discussion on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. We’ll address this most recent installment’s most pressing questions such as:

  • Why is this movie so polarizing?
  • What new ideas and approaches has indie writer/director turned blockbuster franchise curator Rian Johnson brought to the conversation?
  • What is The Last Jedi’s relationship to its past, both within and outside the fiction?
  • How have the returning characters changed or grown, and what do the new characters contribute to the story and the world?
  • Why am I allowed to be on this panel and can anyone convince me that Star Wars is all that great?

Though not a contrarian by nature I feel that it is my duty to represent the skeptical non-fan and interrogate some of these received pieces of conventional wisdom, so this should be fun.

You can read more about the event here and register to attend this and future meetings of the Mythgard Movie Club here. We hope to see you there! Unfortunately we cannot guarantee that any Porgs will be able to join.

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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

cersei-lannister-game-of-thrones-finale-season-5.png

#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

aryaredwedding

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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