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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Notes on a Rewatch: Game of Thrones Seasons 1-2

joffthrone

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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