OK, folks, I've finally done it: after threatening for months, I have finally got around to recording a real, genuine, honest-to-Gosh comics podcast. This is an experiment! Whether or not I do another is completely up to the reaction this one receives. If people like it, I will do more, and if they don't, I won't. Make your feelings known in the comments.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
OK, folks, I've finally done it: after threatening for months, I have finally got around to recording a real, genuine, honest-to-Gosh comics podcast. This is an experiment! Whether or not I do another is completely up to the reaction this one receives. If people like it, I will do more, and if they don't, I won't. Make your feelings known in the comments.
Friday, December 14, 2012
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
X-Man '96 (1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer, and Robin Riggs
It would be wrong to assert that there weren't any crossovers in the early 90s. There were plenty. But for a good five years at Marvel, there weren't any of the massive line-wide crossovers that readers became accustomed to in the late 80s. In 1988 and 89, respectively, Marvel launched two humungous crossovers - Inferno and Acts of Vengeance - that impacted almost every title published by the company. (Inferno had fewer crossovers, as I recall - the Punisher, the Silver Surfer and the West Coast Avengers sat that one out, but they were all in the house [sort of, in the Surfer's case] for Acts of Vengeance.) Inferno, because it originated in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, and because it represented the culmination of a decade's worth of loose plotlines in the three main X-books, was very popular. Acts, while a better crossover than most probably remember, suffered sales-wise for its Avengers-centric focus, as well as the fact that the X-books were all three in the middle of long-term storylines that precluded heavy involvement in outside crossovers. Although the Avengers have been the dominant franchise for almost a decade (which is weird on the face of it for anyone who started reading comics before the advent of Nu-Marvel), any crossover built on the Avengers franchise in the late 80s without heavy participation from the best-selling X-Men titles was probably not going to perform beyond expectations.
When Acts was over the calendar ticked over to 1990 and for a while the crossovers became smaller and more focused. Operation: Galactic Storm, Maximum Carnage, and X-Cutioner's Song were all big crossovers by any standard, but they were also focused within a relatively small set of closely related titles. The Infinity franchise launched three crossovers - Gauntlet, War, and Crusade - but amazingly, Gauntlet didn't produce many tie-ins (mainly Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange and a handful of stragglers). War and Crusade did produce an excess of tie-ins, but almost exclusively among the company's lower-tier books - lots of Moon Knight, Alpha Flight, and Darkhawk, with no X-Men anywhere to be seen. There was all of one War tie-in produced by the Spider-Man office, and when Crusade rolled around Web of Spider-Man was already considered enough of a tertiary title to qualify for the (probably negligible) sales boost provided by participation in a second-string crossover. This was the beginning of the an of era of editorial separation: the X-Men titles sold better than anything else at Marvel, so they didn't need to participate in surplus crossovers with lower-selling books. Similarly, the Avengers and Spider-Man family of titles were left alone with their own considerable audiences. (This was a time when both Wonder Man and Quasar were able to support their own solo titles, to give you an idea of how fertile the sales environment was at the time.) The exception to this was 1993's Bloodties, an Avengers / X-Men story that was designed to celebrate the shared 30th anniversaries of both franchises, as well as serving as a direct sequel to Fatal Attractions. But that was a short crossover, only five issues long.
This worked well for as long as it did. But as the salad days of the early 90s faded into the rear-view mirror of the mid-90s, as the bubble began to burst and retailers started to (slowly at first, and then frighteningly fast) disappear from the landscape, crossovers lost some of their luster. This was problematic. As much as variant covers, retailer incentives, holograms, die-cuts, trading cards, and foil-stamping all did their part to sell (and oversell) comics in the early 90s, crossovers were still the most dependable method available for selling comic books, as they had been for decades previous and as they have remained in the decades since. There were no more dependable money-making devices throughout the rocky 90s than X-Men crossovers, and there was no bigger X-Men crossover than the Age of Apocalypse. Comics readers of a certain age will still remember the "shocking" news story in Wizard magazine in late 1994 that Marvel was canceling the X-Men books - a patently absurd assertion that nevertheless sent a ripple of alarm through a gullible fandom. The following month, Wizard announced the real reason the X-Men books were being "canceled" - the books were being shuffled over to an alternate universe for four months, the duration of the new crossover. Back in the day Wizard covered Marvel news with the same selfless attention to rigorous objectivity that Fox News uses to cover the Republican party, and the slow roll-out of info regarding the crossover did a fantastic job of building anticipation.
But the most important element in the crossover's success was the fact that it was, well, very popular. For evidence of this popularity, how many 18-year-old crossovers can you think of that are still spawning spin-offs today? How many people even remember the Phalanx Covenant or Blood Ties, and how many people can still cite the AoA chapter-and-verse? Inasmuch as we can gauge the objective "quality" of massive 54-part crossovers, the AoA was good - people liked it, they bought it, they talked about it, and the story has remained in print fairly consistently since its original publication - or, leastwise, as consistently as Marvel has kept anything in print.
The problem is that the AoA was, if anything, too popular. It was essentially the biggest story ever told in the history of the franchise, and not only that but the alternate reality setting allowed the creators the freedom to end storylines. One of the problems with the X-books in the early 90s is that, after Claremont left, it became very obvious very fast that the books were treading water. When Claremont inherited the X-Men in 1975, they were an almost-certain-to-be-canceled afterthought; when he left the books in 1991, the X-Men were the premiere franchise in comics. It only made sense that Marvel's approach to the franchise was deeply conservative - the post-91 status quo was basically a bunch of people living together in a mansion who lived in a constant state of low-level crisis where nothing actually happened.
To his credit, Claremont had done a very good job of keeping the book fresh under his tenure by upsetting the status quo every few years. As unpopular as the latter third of Claremont's run is, it's worth noting that during the late 80s Claremont was still doing his level best to keep the book fresh, and even if some of the ideas didn't quite hit with fandom - exiling Professor X to space, replacing him with Magneto, "killing" the team, splitting off some of its longest-running members, sending the survivors to Australia, destroying the team entirely and scattering the members to the four winds, devoting half a year (!) to the adventures of an X-Men team composed primarily of Forge and Banshee (!!!) - there was at least a consistent and commendable effort to keep the book from stagnating into the mere exercise of formulae. As the book became more and more popular and the temptation to produce more and more spin-offs became too powerful for Marvel to resist, Claremont fought a long rear-guard battle to keep the book from devolving into the kind of capital-F Franchise that the higher-ups at Marvel already assumed it was. Even at the time it was hard to avoid the realization that the X-Men post-Claremont almost immediately became a stultifying, predictable, positively staid brand name. For all of Claremont's problems, he had managed to maintain a cohesive, idiosyncratic brand identity that disappeared the moment he walked out the door. The occasional changes that swept through as a result of periodic crossovers in the early 90s - Cable "dying" and receiving a new origin every other week, Wolverine having his adamantium sucked out and temporarily leaving, Sabretooth "joining" the team - were incremental changes without even the illusion of permanence.
The strength of the AoA was that - in stark opposition to the mainline books - things could actually happen. Magneto could marry Rogue. Wolverine could marry Jean Grey. Cyclops - no one ever liked Cyclops, remember - could be the most despicable villain. Morph (the one from the cartoon!) could be a fan-favorite character, as could Blink, who first appeared and died during the aforementioned Phalanx Covenant. Mystique and Nightcrawler could finally confirm their family ties. The story had a legitimate ending - and what an ending! Magneto killed the villain right before nuclear bombs fell and North America was reduced to cinders by atomic fire. (Sorry to spoil a 17-year-old story.) Is it any wonder that when the X-books reverted back to their original 616-incarnations, there was more than a little feeling of disappointment with the resumption of the status quo?
The creators themselves appeared to have been blindsided by the story's success. The best evidence for this is the simple fact that, once the story was over and the creators realized just how popular it was, they were completely dumbfounded as to how they could possibly follow it. So they did the only thing they knew how - immediately following the AoA they began to seed hints for a new plotline involving the introduction of a new heretofore unseen ultra-powerful bad guy with amazing powers and shadowy motivations. When Uncanny X-Men returned following the crossover, the cover teased a mystery that wouldn't be answered for another year. The answer to the question of how to follow up the AoA was, as we all know, Onslaught, an attempt to improve upon the previous crossover by going even bigger, upping the stakes by expanding the storyline to encompass the entire Marvel Universe. The problem was that Onslaught was terrible, a bad character and an even worse event, an idea that Scott Lobdell admits to having made up on the fly because they needed something to run with after the AoA, even if they had no idea what that something was. Over the course of the months leading up to Onslaught the X-books could barely make up their minds as to what exactly Onslaught was, so is it any wonder that the final storyline was such a mess? Because the AoA was so popular and Onslaught remains so enduringly unpopular, people like to forget that the latter storyline was intended to serve as a direct sequel to the former. It's hard not to see why people like to forget that association.
Not only was the AoA one of the most popular X-Men storylines of all time, but for many readers it was also their last major X-Men storyline, at least until 2001. After Onslaught the books began a long downward slide, as the attempt to capitalize on the goodwill garnered by the AoA was squandered on rapidly diminishing returns. Readers fell away in droves as the industry contractions became a full-scale implosion. Marvel bought Heroes World in December of 1994, and by the summer of the following year that company had become Marvel's exclusive distributor. The AoA finished up only a few months before Marvel went exclusive with Heroes World in the third quarter of 1995, and based on the success of that storyline Marvel would have to have felt pretty confident going forward that their business would remain solid, as long as they could continue to produce mega-hits like the AoA. But rather than serving as a new baseline for future successes, the AoA was actually the era's high-water mark: although the crossovers kept coming, the sales kept dropping. Heroes World was completely unable to deal with the volume of product they needed to move every month as Marvel's exclusive distributor, and the fact that Marvel sales were growing steadily softer from 1995 on certainly didn't help preserve a business model that was obviously designed around ludicrous, unsustainable growth projections.
After the AoA, every Marvel line was remade in the image of the AoA in an attempt to keep revenue from flagging. Spider-Man's then-popular Clone Saga was elongated to absurd proportions - not only was there a superfluous crossover with chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues (Maximum Clonage, I shit you not), but they even "canceled" all the Spider-Man titles to replace them for two months with Scarlet Spider books. Marvel staffers have said that the success of the AoA was one of the main reasons why the Clone Saga lasted as long as it did. It's easy to forget - very easy to forget - that the Clone Saga was initially very popular. (To give you an idea: the Clone Saga began a full half-year before the AoA and ended two months after Onslaught.) But when things started to go sour, when the story was extended for no apparent reason other than the desire to keep sales at artificially inflated crossover levels, fan reaction became brutal. The Avengers line had their own AoA with The Crossing, which - you guessed it - was kicked off with a chromium-covered one-shot. Nick Fury was killed by the Punisher in the Double Edge crossover (and yes, if you guessed that this story had chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues, you'd be right), which I remember for the dubious honor that it was the cover feature of the first post-Marvel Heroes World distributor catalog.
The still somewhat popular 2099 line was demolished when editor Joey Cavalieri was fired during a round of budget cuts that accompanied the downturn one of many long-time staffers whose departure hurt Marvel. Ongoing storylines were suddenly changed to fit the line's new direction, with longtime writers such as Peter David and Warren Ellis quitting in protest. The 2099 line had already weathered their AoA, the surprisingly well-received 2099 AD crossover. (Shockingly, this crossover did not feature chromium-covered "Alpha" and "Omega" bookend issues - instead, there were chromium-covered "Apocalypse" and "Genesis" bookends.) But with budget cuts and creator mutinies, the line would be dead within another year.
Heroes World could only succeed for so long as Marvel comics still sold at peak early-90s levels, but that didn't happen despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that almost every title in their stable was taken over by constant, terrible, completely gratuitous crossovers designed explicitly in the mold of the AoA. When sales grew even softer, Marvel brought two of the Image founders (Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld) back into the fold to take control of four of the company's moribund core non-X titles (Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America). The first issues of the "Heroes Reborn" titles were cover-dated November of 1996. Marvel declared bankruptcy in December of 1996.
The X-Men titles never recovered from the success of the Age of Apocalypse. Who remembers Operation: Zero Tolerance, the crossover that followed Onslaught and is infamous for featuring, as its climax, Iceman talking the villain out of wanting to kill mutants? Or how about when Joe Kelly and Steven T. Seagle were brought in as a team to revitalize the franchise? The Hunt for Xavier? The Twelve? Claremont's first, disastrous return? In 2000 the X-Men starred in their first feature film, the movie that (following Blade) jump-started the still-going-strong superhero movie trend and eventually led to the revitalization and eventual purchase of Marvel by Disney in 2008. The X-books had a brief renaissance in the early 2000s when Grant Morrison took over the adjective-less X-Men, turning it into New X-Men and symbolizing the change of regime represented by the new editorial reign of Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas, but never fully recuperated from the many years of terrible stories that followed the AoA and Onslaught. Just a few months after Morrison's last issue of New X-Men, Brian Michael Bendis began his run on The Avengers, a run that would see the Avengers almost completely supplant the X-Men as Marvel's premiere franchise.
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Monday, November 19, 2012
X-Man # -1 (July 1997) by Terry Kavanagh, Roger Cruz, Bud La Rosa, and Wellington Diaz
If you weren't around and reading mainstream comics in the mid-90s, it might be hard to understand now just how big a deal the Age of Apocalypse actually was. It wasn't just the biggest X-Men crossover of the era, it was possibly the biggest X-Men crossover ever, and by extension one of the biggest crossovers - full stop - of all time. It came in a year - 1995 - when the industry was already feeling the negative consequences of the excesses of the early 90s, but had not yet become quite so desolate as it would be following the Hero's World debacle and Marvel's bankruptcy. Stores were disappearing but people still didn't fully understand the extent of how poor the retail fundamentals behind the early 90s bubble actually were. The X-Men had long since weathered that storm and, after a brief period wherein Image comics had wrested some of the attention away from Marvel's flagship franchise, reasserted their unquestioned dominance as the number one commercial force in the industry. It was enough that anyone on the ground floor of the industry - that is, a regular Joe reading Wizard and buying their comics at the local comic shop (assuming your local comic shop hadn't already gone broke the year before) - could still convince themselves that all was well, and the industry was as hale and hearty as it had ever been.
Looks could be deceiving. The years immediately following the Image exodus may have seen the X-Men continue to maintain their industry dominance, but the books themselves floundered. It took them a long time to recover from losing Chris Claremont's guiding hand - without one single creative vision (and really, it was only obvious in hindsight just how much of Marvel's success in the 80s and early 90s was due to his specific and particular talents) the books lurched from story to story with little in the way of consistency or even a solid narrative thru-line. It didn't help that, in the years immediately preceding the split, the Image creators had birthed a plethora of purpose-less characters and plotlines, most of which were left completely hanging when the creators vacated in 1992. So the people left holding the bag - journeymen like Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza - were stuck telling years worth of stories for the purpose of cleaning up other people's messes. (By which I mean: Cable's origin, Stryfe, the Six Pack, Bishop, the X-Ternals, et al.)
Sean Howe's recent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story details the chain of events surrounding the Image founders' departure, and the picture that emerges with twenty years' (!!!) hindsight is, while not surprising, still sad: the Image founders left at the last possible moment before work actually began on 1992's big X-crossover, X-Cutioner's Song. That crossover set the tone for the first couple years' of post-Image X-Men books - needlessly convoluted, weighted down by dozens of superfluous characters at every turn, lacking anything even remotely resembling Claremont's deft hand at long-term characterization. Still, it was enough of a success to convince the industry that Marvel and the X-Men remained dominant commercial forces even after losing every marquee creator associated with the franchise. It didn't matter that the folks in charge were essentially making it up as they went along - the trains rolled on time, the characters remained popular, and for the most part the fans didn't seem to care that the books were terrible. (Not that the post-Claremont, pre-Image exodus books had been great shakes, either, but they at least had the virtue of being produced by the creators fans actually wanted to read.)
And so, after X-Cutioner's Song the X-Books settled into a predictable pattern of jumping from crossover to crossover. Readers got used to the fact that nothing important usually happened in non-crossover books, and the creators actually got to be pretty good at playing to these expectations. Both Uncanny and the adjectiveless X-Men book developed a pretty clever rhythm, where a big event was followed by a handful of issues devoted to smaller melodramatic character studies and less consequential plot points, all the while laying the groundwork by foreshadowing whatever the next crossover would be - X-Cutioner's Song into Fatal Attractions into Bloodties (a crossover with the main Avengers books designed to celebrate the 30th anniversaries of both franchises) into the Phalanx Covenant, with a brief stopover along the way for the wedding of Cyclops and Jean Grey. It was not, perhaps, the most graceful or subtle method of publishing comics, but it worked, and this business plan to a large degree dictates the way superhero comics are sold and published to this day.
The "problem" - and I am hopefully deploying these scare quotes in a sufficiently judicious manner - is that these crossovers just weren't big enough. Fatal Attractions was only six issues long, and while it featured a number of significant plot developments (Magneto's return, Colossus's defection, Wolverine losing his Adamantium), it was still - in publishing terms - a small crossover. The Phalanx Covenant was only nine issues long, and while it helped launch the highly anticipated (and inevitable) Generation X spin-off, it also featured the Phalanx - maybe not the least popular X-villains, but surely nowhere near anyone's top pick. All of which is to say - at some point, despite the fact that the books remained popular, someone somewhere took note of the fact that the line - by restricting itself to relatively restrained intra-line crossovers - was seriously underperforming. Add to this the fact that sales were dropping across the entire industry - due to the mass exodus of readers and mass extinction of retailers that followed in the wake of the early 90s implosion - and the ingredients were all assembled for what would soon become the perfect storm of mid-90s crossovers, the era-defining, immensely popular, critically acclaimed, industry-malaise-defying mega-juggernaut Age of Apocalypse.
I don't think it's possible to exaggerate just how important the Age of Apocalypse was to mid-90s Marvel. At a time when the industry was beginning to look very pallid indeed, the story represented a serious and sustained shot in the arm. But, even if we didn't know it at the time, the story would also be the era's high water mark. Not only would the success of the Age of Apocalypse lead directly to the subsequent overexpansion and commercial implosion of the X-Men franchise, but the attempt to capitalize on the success of the storyline would soon metastasize across the entire Marvel line. The Age of Apocalypse was Marvel's biggest hit in years, and the company soon sought to replicate that success across every other franchise. The results would be disastrous.
And of course, no character better exemplifies this era than our friend, Nate Grey, the titular X-Man himself.
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Monday, November 12, 2012
The absolute best thing about the election results this last week was the complete and total humiliation of so many of the worst people in the world. It isn't just that they were defeated - people lose elections all the time and somehow manage to retain their dignity, or at least some semblance of their composure. They were caught completely unprepared. The Republicans were stunned by the events of last Tuesday. You would imagine that most people in the position of potentially losing a close race would make some sort of allowance for the possibility - regardless of their confidence - that they might not win. Because when you lose and it's obvious to everyone else that you weren't expecting to lose, or even ever entertained the possibility that there was a chance in hell that you might lose, you risk looking like an unmitigated jackass.
So it was one of life's rare pleasures to see the "Golden Boy" himself, Karl Rove, humiliated on national television, in the friendliest forum possible. An unsympathetic playwright could not have concocted a more satisfying denouement to Rove's career if they had tried. Not simply to be forced to confront the inescapable evidence of your own colossal personal failure on live TV - and not just any live TV but the house organ of your own political party - but to have the precise moment when you realized that you lost a bet placed with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of other peoples' money recorded for the endless joy of your enemies - that, Conan, is what is best in life.
I knew Obama was going to be reelected. I'm not a wizard or some kind of savant, I just watch the news, listen to NPR, and read. Most of the country knew that Obama would probably be elected - opinion polls throughout 2012 were all fairly consistent in showing that a large majority of voters believed Obama would win reelection, even if they personally did not plan on voting for him. There's been a lot of talk about Nate Silver's impressive prognosticative abilities. Certainly, his record is admirable. But if you leave aside the complex math behind his models, his methodology doesn't seem particularly opaque: compare current national and local polls against their own historical accuracy as predictors in order to identify and eliminate bias and diminish the roll of sample error in skewing results. I'm certain it's a lot more complicated in practice, but in essence what Silver - and a handful of other impressively accurate (if less heralded) pollsters - have done is no different than what any reasonably educated citizen should be be able to do: exercise their critical-thinking skills in order to to judge the accuracy of new data through a comparison with old. This is very little different from what I'm teaching college students right now in my introductory composition class: pay attention, think clearly, and don't get hung up on bias.
I knew that there were strong odds favoring Obama's win based simply on the fact that I paid attention to the news and read a fair bit. I'm not unbiased. I voted for Obama and rooted for his victory, despite the fact that I am deeply unimpressed by many aspects of his presidency, and disenchanted with American electoral politics in general. There was no secret. You just had to pay attention. I didn't think John Kerry was going to win back in 2004 despite the fact that I actually quite liked Kerry as a candidate - the indicators were pretty strong back then, too, even if I despaired of the probability of Bush winning reelection.
If you actually succeed in sequestering yourself so far from the mainstream of American political thought that you believe you've cracked the code of the universe with such confidence that it is impossible to imagine for one second that you might actually be wrong - well, that takes a special kind of hubris. In doing so everyone involved with the Republican campaign confirmed in a single night of awestruck failure the objective truth of many of the worst critiques leveled against Mitt Romney during the campaign: out of touch with reality; raised to believe that high political office is a birthright and that elections are a mere formality; brittle, unwilling or simply unable to deal with the vicissitudes of electoral politics when things don't go precisely his way. Romney didn't just lose, he was humiliated, and it is impossible not to see that he humiliated himself. I despise John McCain for many reasons but when he lost in 2008 he didn't make a fool of himself. He faced his defeat with the integrity and dignity that had eluded him throughout his entire Quixotic campaign. Mitt Romney and his Republican allies faced their defeat with a petulance that bordered on absurdity.
Relief and joy at Romney's defeat does not necessarily also entail enthusiasm for the President's reelection. We must look forward to four more years of prevarication, compromise on core values, drone strikes against civilian targets, and ceaseless capitulation. I know there are many on the left who argue vociferously against the principle that it is necessary to vote for the lesser of two evils. Vote for the candidate who actually represents your beliefs, they say, and do not waste a vote for an inferior candidate simply out of a desire to prevent the worse outcome. I sympathize with this perspective inasmuch as I truly dislike the fact that my vote against Mitt Romney is, perforce, a vote for the mediocre politics of Barack Obama. But my sympathy with the unpleasantness of voting the Democratic ticket only goes so far. I vote Democratic because I truly believe, based on a lifetime's worth of experience as a citizen of the United States, that voting for President is essentially an act of triage.
Would it feel good to cast a ballot for Jill Stein? Sure. But the way our country is structured, there really is no alternative to the two-party system. If you are on the left, you have to vote strategically to insure that the people whose ideas about government and civic virtue are diametrically opposed to your own are not empowered to make your own life and the lives of your loved ones measurably worse. The difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is that the Republicans are driven largely by the impulses of their most radical and ideologically driven core constituencies, whereas the Democrats assume the support of the left as a given and act with the assumption that they can moderate policies with impunity, because for the majority of those on the left the alternative is simply too horrible to contemplate. For the most part they are correct in their assumption, because the palpable fear among the left of the reactionary right is simply too strong - and too based in fact - to be easily gainsaid. So the left votes out of fear and Democratic politicians dilute their policies with impunity. That's not likely to change any time soon.
I truly believe that the Founding Fathers of the United States were among the most intelligent, best educated, and literate men of any period in history, and the proof of their abilities is found in the endurance of the United State Constitution. What was the Constitution intended to do? Not necessarily the establishment of a perfectly egalitarian representative democracy. The purpose of the Constitution was to create a stable nation, one that would neither be helpless in the face of exterior invasion or vulnerable to internal fracturing of the kind that demolished the previous Articles of Confederacy. And so the country was established on the principles of checks and balances and separation of powers, a system specifically designed to prevent drastic systemic change, limit the ability of any one individual or branch of government to dictate policy, and maintain continuity of government through any conceivable crisis. They were smart - too smart for our own good. They built a binding contract that has managed to survive over 220 years despite its many, myriad flaws.
The Framers' one great oversight - not slavery, since most of them knew very well the significance of slavery to the nation's future - was the establishment of political parties. The Constitution makes no allowances for parties, even though parties sprang into being at the moment the Constitution was ratified. The government doesn't work properly when our political parties operate with the top-down efficiency of a European-style parliament. But even this type of legislative and deliberative gridlock can't really threaten the stability of the government, because the continuity and legitimacy of government is maintained regardless of how little or how much is actually accomplished by the government. Just examine the semantics of how many Parliamentary systems discuss the change of administration: they say that the government has been dissolved, that the country awaits the formation of a new government. For the United States, the current government is the same government that has existed since 1789, and that fact carries a kind of totemic authority.
In the long term, the United States is in a great deal of trouble. In the short and medium term, however, we are and will remain a stable country, no matter how bad things might get. The Founders knew what they were doing, for better or for worse. The idea of amending the Constitution is only slightly less crazy than simply wishing for the South to secede peacefully of their own free will, but if we were serious about fixing at least some of the problems with our electoral system we might think about abolishing the direct election of members of the House. Since the lower house of our Congress insists on running itself like a less-functional version of a European Parliament, why not simply call their bluff and institute some kind of proportional party balloting system, similar perhaps to the German Bundestag. Keep the upper house of Congress to maintain the Founders' (possibly deluded) dream of providing a venue for aggrandizing oratory in the self-styled mold of the Roman Republic, if you absolutely insist, but spare the ignominy of every congressman needing to run a separate reelection campaign every two years.
But that's just pie-in-the-sky. In the here and now, we should remain content that the country is relatively stable. As much as the admission may tarnish my reputation as a committed leftist, I'm not quite ready for the social upheaval of a Proletarian revolt quite yet. (To say nothing of the fact that a social revolution, if it does come, may very well come at the hands of our constantly-expanding lumpenproletariat, a group that Marx himself dismissed. He couldn't imagine a future where industrialized capitalism survived as long as it has, even if he did a pretty good job of predicting how that future would eventually look.) Soon, perhaps, the matter may very force itself. Neither political party is willing to question the primacy of capitalism as the driving principle of our economic, social, and ethical ideologies. When it comes to the function of business in relation to the responsibilities of the state, there is very little daylight between Obama and Romney. Occupy dissipated because the group made a conscious decision not to become a standard political interest party, to remain localized and rigorously egalitarian in every aspect of its organization. This is all well and good, but with a year's hindsight it's hard not to judge the movement as less a beginning and more a bubble. The United States of America isn't going anywhere anytime soon - even if the country is falling apart, the structure is too stable to topple. Maybe the disorganized left needs to exert itself more forcefully on the level of electoral politics if we want to ever have any chance of influencing the course of national policy.
Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Friday, November 02, 2012
Thursday, November 01, 2012
24.The five-year-old has it together tighter than I do.
Onslaught: Marvel Universe (September 1996) by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, Andy Kubert, Joe Bennett, Dan Green, Tim Townsend, Jesse Delperdang, and Art Thibert
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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
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Monday, October 15, 2012
Not exactly a film I thought I'd be seeing first-run in the theaters, but sometimes you have a few hours to kill near a strip mall and The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn't starting for another hour, so what are you going to do?
The reason why the first Taken worked as well as it did was very simple: people like Liam Neeson. People apparently didn't know just how much they liked Liam Neeson until about five years ago. By the later part of the 00s, Neeson had spent the large part of his career switching between the occasional big budget fare - cartoon voice acting, Star Wars, Narnia, etc. - and smaller, more prestigious films. Pretty much par for the course for any well-respected older male actor in Hollywood, having earned one Oscar nomination and probably hoping to snag a few more before getting much older. Then a funny thing happened: the first Taken made a completely unexpected boatload of cash and Liam Neeson became the most bankable action movie star in the world. Spend a few minutes on Wikipedia and look at the grosses for every Neeson action film made since Taken - it's just crazy how people just decided one day that the one thing they couldn't get enough of in this world was movies where Liam Neeson squints menacingly and kills people. Compare his take to someone like Jason Statham, supposedly one of the more popular action stars of the moment, and it's not even close.
It's hard not to see why, though. He is very good in the role - more convincing than just about any of the other old dudes still stuck in the action movie niche. Maybe he works in the role because he doesn't have a deep history as an action movie star prior to Taken? You don't get the feeling watching him that he's trying to relive past box office glories, a la anyone featured in the cast of Expendables 2. Neeson has a fair amount of gravitas, accumulated the old fashioned way through decades of work in serious films, and therefore he can be convincingly menacing in a way that other actors who have already spent decades spouting pithy one liners in the shit factory can't possibly achieve. You know the shit has well gone down when Oskar Schindler starts shooting people in the face.
With that in mind, however, Taken 2 just wasn't very good. By which I mean, Liam Neeson is still good in his role as a Gruff Old Man who flies into hyper-competent homicidal rages whenever anyone in his family is threatened, but the film they have constructed around the bog-simple premise of Liam Neeson killing a bunch of people really is quite perfunctory. The first Taken worked as well as it did partly because it devoted a great deal of screen time to elaborating just how bad the bad guys actually were. There aren't many villains worse than kidnappers and white slavers - everyone will agree on that, there's no possible defense for that kind of crime, and anyone involved on any level immediately forfeits any sympathy whatsoever. So we followed Neeson as he went deeper into a terribly exploitive underworld of Parisian sex trafficking, and our pleasure at seeing the bad guys dispatched in ever more gruesome fashion was directly proportionate to our revulsion at the enormity of the crimes on display.
It was frankly manipulative and blatantly exploitive, but it worked in providing an excellent rationale by which Neeson could be safely excused from the otherwise quite grave party foul of summarily executing dozens of men of indeterminately Middle Eastern / Eastern European / Persian / Arabic / central casting extraction. And thereby Neeson's career as a latter-day sexagenarian action star was launched. It doesn't really matter what his name is in any of these films - he's basically just Liam Neeson, but I've taken to calling him "Taken" like it's a proper noun - as in, "Taken is going to fuck you up," "Taken isn't going to put up with this bullshit," et al.
Taken 2 fails because it doesn't really invest any time in showing us how bad the bad guys are - the motive here is purely revenge, with a bunch of dudes from rural Albania showing up in Istanbul to kidnap Taken and his family for the sole purpose of getting revenge for the dudes Taken killed in the first movie. As such, they're nowhere near as despicable, and therefore nowhere near as imposing. Although we get the impression that they're involved with organized crime just like their dead comrades from the first film - they seem to have enough resources with which to carry out their revenge plot, if nothing else - they're just not very good at their jobs. The first film took the time to show us exactly how bad the bad guys were, but this movie just assumes we will accept that anyone who would swear revenge over the death of a human trafficker is themselves a despicable human being, QED. That may well be true, but the fact is that the villains in the first movie had all the resources of a huge network of organized crime to call upon, with corrupt tendrils seeping all the way up to the Paris police and all the way out to filthy Arab sheiks paying top-dollar for the finest in blonde, blue-eyed, American sex slaves (boo, hiss!). These guys really don't come across as anything more imposing than a bunch of Good Old Boys from the Albanian foothills.
They don't seem to be able to do anything more effective than pay off a hotel concierge. Admittedly, they have some cell phones and a seemingly endless reservoir of black SUVs and windowless cargo vans - but other than that it's a bunch of indistinguishable swarthy goons in greasy track suits and old Soviet style machine guns. There is no doubt at any point in the proceedings that Taken completely outclasses every one of these guys, and the only thing separating any of them from a bullet in the head is the time necessary for Taken to locate a gun.
To illustrate just how ineffectual these guys are: the name of the movies are Taken, so the assumption is that the bad guys are going to succeed in taking somebody at some point. They start out with three targets: Taken, his daughter, and his ex-wife who is pretty blatantly trying to get back in Taken's pants. At no point in the film do they ever actually succeed in taking all three of these targets. Taken's daughter - who was, you may recall, taken in the first film - is never captured, and actually succeeds in helping to locate and free Taken after he is himself taken. Taken's wife is taken and serves as the primary hostage throughout the film, but even though she's given a potentially fatal cut on her carotid artery (which is a problem for five minutes until it isn't), she never seems to be in danger of anything worse than being banged around like a sack of potatoes.
The first and most serious mistake the villains make in this film is simple: they take Taken. The whole point of Taken is that when someone is taken, Taken tracks them down and retakes them. If Taken is himself taken, it just makes his job easier, because he doesn't need to take any time in order to track down the bad guys and take back whomever's been taken. He just wakes up from one of those convenient knockout blows to the head, figures out how to undo his cuffs while the bad guys very conveniently leave him alone in a room with a plethora of jagged pieces of metal (I only wish I was exaggerating how incompetent these Albanian mobsters are), and then proceeds to kill people for the entirety of the film's remaining running time. There's also a weird bit where Taken and his daughter have to crash a car through the gates of the American Embassy in order to reach the courtyard, which doesn't make any sense since you'd think as soon as they were actually at the Embassy they could just walk up to the door and say, "we're Americans." Crashing through the barricade staffed by trigger-happy American soldiers just seems unnecessarily provocative, don't you think? But then, no one in this film can actually aim a gun except for Taken, which is very convenient.
If the first film managed to convince the audience to overlook the potentially troublesome connotations of a white man spending 90 minutes shooting dozens of indeterminately Middle Eastern / Eastern European / Persian / Arabic / central casting bad guys by stressing the severity of their crimes against human decency, the second film throws its proverbial hands in the air and accepts the fact that the entire premise of the film is based on the dogged reinforcement of some rather unfortunate stereotypes and a Eurocentric fantasy of violent Orientalism. There is a scene in the film where Taken's daughter - a skinny young blue-eyed blonde - is literally running around on the rooftops of Istanbul and throwing grenades randomly into crowded neighborhoods, just so Taken can triangulate his location based on the proximity of these large explosions. (Subtext, meet text.) As with the first film, there are really no consequences for any of the collateral damage Taken inflicts on Istanbul or its citizens. He has some sort of vague CIA license to kill that inoculates him from ever having to worry about the consequences of his killing sprees. Because, you know, his family was kidnapped by bad guys. This is something we accept because we're the paying audience of a movie and we're exercising our willful suspension of disbelief because we want to believe in a world of consequence-free violence, where Taken can inflict untold millions of dollars of property damage in the name of exacting revenge on dozens of swarthy Orientals. Because we like Liam Neeson we don't really care, and the moviemakers are smart enough to know that most people are going to automatically sympathize with anyone who has their family threatened.
The problem is that while the villains in the first Taken were despicable enough that we could easily believe they deserved every ounce of righteous punishment Taken could deliver - and the severity of their crimes was enough to render them legitimate threats - the villains of Taken 2 aren't despicable so much as just pitiful. They do some bad things, but they do them so incompetently that we don't believe for a second that they are any kind of match for Taken. It's like seeing a lame puppy dog throw down against a grizzly bear - maybe the puppy dog can sneak up and take a piss on the bear while the bear is sleeping, but you know as soon as the bear opens its eyes that the puppy dog is toast.
I put off Damsels in Distress as long as I feasibly could. I didn't catch it when it ran at the local indie theater, I didn't catch it on Pay Per View. I waited until it was at the Redbox, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of "least possible effort exerted."
My affection for Whit Stillman's tiny ouerve is profound, and so was my trepidation regarding his newest film. To put it as bluntly as possible, the dude dropped out of life for thirteen years following the release of The Last Days of Disco in 1998 and Damsels in Distress in 2011 - whatever reasons he may have had for doing so, including all the standard vicissitudes incumbent on independent filmmakers trying and failing to get movies made, thirteen years is a damn long time to be out of the game. Metropolitan was an excellent film - I'd even venture to say that it's a classic, in its own modest way - but so much time had elapsed since then that even the most charitable fan could have been forgiven for thinking that Stillman's time had come and gone.
If Stillman had simply retired after The Last Days of Disco his place in film history would have been assured. Although it might seem problematic to risk exaggerating the influence of such a willfully, almost perversely demure film such as Metropolitan, it cannot be denied that Stillman's reputation has only grown since the release of that film. All you need to do is look at the career trajectories of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson to see the outsized influence Stillman has had over his generation of directors. "It"-girl of the moment Lena Dunham openly praises Stillman at every opportunity. It's even feasible to see Stillman's slight influence in directors as disparate as Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino, in terms of the fact that these directors all share a willingness to trust their young-ish target audiences to have the patience to follow narratives communicated primarily or even solely through the medium of extended, occasionally even literate, conversation. It wasn't quite My Dinner With Andre - the film did have some romance, after all - but with its twin focus on the seemingly contradictory ideas of restless youth and effortless erudition, Metropolitan stood out even in an era already defined by very talky indie films. (Sex, Lies & Videotape came out in 1989, Miller's Crossing followed Metropolitan to theaters only a month later.)
With that said, in an era where many of Stillman's once-peers have gone on to incredibly successful careers in mainstream cinema, there is something positively quaint about the idea of seeing a new Whit Stillman film. Would Stillman's intensely mannered dialogue remain at all bearable? Stillman's approach to speech had always been purposefully artificial, definitely not intended to approach any kind of realism so much as to usher the viewer into a realm of dogged unreality: this isn't how people talk or think, but it's how this universe operates. The world of Stillman's films, while ostensibly "current" (or at least relatively so, as The Last Days of Disco is ostensibly a very early 80s period piece), wasn't so much contemporary as parallel to our own. The world of upper-crust, mannered tuxedo parties and deb balls was already mostly a memory by the time Metropolitan came out, and the complete lack of irony with which the characters comport themselves (save for the arch irony of witty repartee, that is!), could not be more alien to the decade that followed. Metropolitan was a strange hothouse flower, never so much dated as instantly timeless, capturing forever in amber a world that never really existed to begin with.
Now that we're even further apart from the time and place Stillman captured in his three films, what world do his characters inhabit in the year 2012? The answer is, a really weird world. One of Stillman's great strengths as a filmmaker was his excellent understanding of tone - despite their somewhat affected mannerism, his films worked because they carried a sustained and consistent tone throughout. What by all rights should have been mere trifles gained some degree of solidity from Whitman's relentless attention to detail. Tone is very difficult - many great filmmakers struggle with tone, so it should be no surprise that anyone back in the game after over a decade off should have produced a messy and uneven picture.
Damsels in Distress is ostensibly set in the present day, but the actual setting is a bit more vague - an East Coast liberal arts school (the cheekily titled "Seven Oaks") still improbably reeling from the aftereffects of coeducation many decades after the fact. Save for a handful of scruffy reprobates seen in passing, most of the students who attend the school are basically harmless preppies. (This should come as no shock to experienced Stillman watcher, as his previous films have focused almost exclusively on WASPs, with the occasional upper-crust Manhattan Jew thrown in for good measure.) The biggest shock is the fact that there are suddenly, incroyable!, black people in Stillman's universe. But don't worry, they're all still WASPs deep in their hearts, where it counts.
Oddly enough for a movie this frothy, Damsels in Distress is filled with discussion of depression, mental illness, and suicide. Of course, even though the protagonists work at a suicide helpline, you don't get the feeling at any point that Stillman takes any of this very seriously - the girls' prescription for suicidal ideations is a dance recital. Even when the lead Damsel, Greta Gerwig's Violet Wister (was there ever a WASPier name?) suffers a serious bout of depression, she barely qualifies as disheveled, and still looks better than most people ever do on the best day of their lives. I believe it is safe to say that, despite the occasional glance in the direction of some kind of real anguish, this is not a movie that takes mental illness very seriously. It doesn't take anything seriously, and that's fine.
The problem is that, as I said, the tone is all over the map. After a while it dawned on me that the film was a complete farce, and was meant to be viewed as such - I think I finally clued in somewhere around the time one of the male characters admitted that they didn't know what colors were because his parents made him skip kindergarten. But it doesn't "read" as a farce, not quite at first, and certainly not for anyone familiar with Stillman's previous films - so you're left sniffing around a pile of contrary style indicators to figure out in what direction the movie is actually heading. The movie reaches for screwball but, with the exception of a few inspired moment, is too delicate to really carry the tone. This is one instance where a less careful touch might have been more successful, because as it stands the film is simply too polite to sell many of its jokes. The movie becomes more and more unhinged as it moves forward, and its hard to reconcile the relatively sedate feel of the early scenes with the gleefully silly (multiple) music and dance numbers that cap the story. It's an intentional progression from something resembling naturalism to something resembling surreality, obviously, but at least on the first viewing the transition is far from smooth, less cumulative than clumsy.
No one in the history of the universe has ever walked out of the theater after seeing a Whit Stillman film and exclaimed, "Wow, that was sure some great camera work / cinematography / editing!" and that trend continues here. With the exception of a few interesting lighting effects that pop up periodically, Stillman is a very utilitarian filmmaker: he isn't out to surprise anyone with his revolutionary mise-en-scène, he is content to present the viewer with clean and precise tableaus designed for the purpose of showcasing attractive people dressed in nice clothing. If you like looking at pretty people, Damsels in Distress is one of the best movies you're likely to find this or any year. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with that, and for all its problems the film still succeeds based on the sheer likeability of its characters. This is the secret of Stillman's universe: regardless of the fact that, by rights in the year 2012 (or even 1990) we should be resolutely unmoved by the spectacle of the young and privileged in the throws of heartbreak, we still find ourselves amused despite ourselves. Stillman's world looks so much more fun and welcoming than our own.
It is a world to which I was glad to return, despite the uneven results. That is to be expected after thirteen years' downtime. We must hope that our next visit is not postponed until 2024.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Monday, October 08, 2012
Historically Dr. Who was always defined by the interaction of two competing factors: the first factor was the strict budgetary limitations of producing a weekly sci-fi show on the BBC during the sixties, seventies and eighties; and the second was the great wealth of good actors available in the BBC's talent pool. The latter factor often succeeded in elevating the show far beyond the impediments imposed by the former. The fact that Doctor Who was produced so cheaply for the length of its first run can only be seen, in hindsight, as a positive factor in the show's success. Unable to fall back on superfluous special effects, the show's creators built a franchise that was buoyed for 26 years on the strength of a small army of (mostly) superb character actors.
For the most part, the new Who - which, seven years into its run, is only "new" in relation to the previous forty years of Who continuity - has followed in this tradition. Although the special effects are unquestionably better, they're still not "great" by Hollywood standards. But if you're complaining about the special effects you don't have any business watching Who, anymore than the original series Star Trek. It is now more or less as it has always been - Who floats on the strength of its actors. The three actors who have played the Doctor since 2005 have all been very good, and most of the companions as well - although every viewer obviously has their most and least favorites. It's a cycle as old as time - every time an old companion cycles out in favor of a new, the fans scream bloody murder, until a year or two passes and they become so attached to that companion that the new companion is an utter betrayal. And so on. And, of course, whenever there's a new Doctor the entire world threatens to crumble into multiple little pieces because the old Doctor was so well beloved that the show simply won't be able to continue afterwards - until the new one starts up and quickly becomes acclaimed as the "best Doctor ever." (Good rule of thumb: fan polls usually place whomever the most recent Doctor - not the current, but the next-to-current as the #1 Doctor ever, with Tom Baker as a perennial #2. So, in two or three years when Hugh Laurie or whomever is the next Doctor, Matt Smith will be [briefly] universally acclaimed as Best of All Time, with Baker as always in poll position.)
This is a good formula and it works well for the BBC. Most shows fall apart after a certain number of years because the cast costs too much money and no one wants to continue being the same character for decades, regardless of success. Who manages to avoid ever becoming too big for its budget by simply rotating its cast - its a neat trick, replacing actors while retaining the same protagonist for almost fifty years.
The problem with Doctor Who as it exists now has nothing to do with the actors, and even less to do with the effects or any other factor (although every iteration of the post-2005 theme song still sucks). The problem is that the writing is terrible. And the funny thing is that this isn't just the opinion of a small coterie of long-term die-hards with memories stretching all the way back to William Hartnell. In the aftermath of this last mini-season, the assertion of modern Who's dodgy writing has surpassed the domain of mere opinion to become a widely-accepted fact. Although the series has struggled with poor writing since the beginning of its revival, this last set of five episodes - the first third or so of the seventh series - seems to represent something of a nadir. Every episode was poor, a series of interesting ideas and images strung together with gigantic plot holes, leaps in logic, baldfaced dodges, and a more or less total willingness to ignore storytelling sense at a moment's notice. Every episode was saved from being completely terrible by the presence of likeable and talented actors. But it's getting harder and harder with every passing episode to remain enthusiastic for a show that remains doggedly resistant to producing an episode that actually makes sense.
The climax of this latest mini-season, the appropriately-titled "The Angels Take Manhattan," offers a handy encapsulation of everything wrong with the current incarnation of Who. We begin with the return of a familiar monster in an unfamiliar context, doing something that only vaguely makes sense if you don't stop to think about it for more than two seconds. You have multiple very important plot points passed over with assertions that something critical is happening / has happened without taking any time whatsoever to linger on how or why such things may be happening / have happened. Add in very good actors doing their best with the material they've been given even though the episode requires them to change plots multiple times and run off in arbitrary directions at the behest of the writer. Then top it all off with emotional arcs that seem blatantly unearned simply because the story itself is so ridden full of holes that the only reason we have to believe that the important things we are seeing are actually important is simply because the main characters tell us they are. The difference between "important" episode of Who and "normal" episodes is that, in the "important" episodes, things which would in other circumstances have been momentary obstacles for a clever character to overcome are suddenly insurmountable challenges that result in a massive change in the status quo. And - let us not forget - any and all previously established characterization and foreshadowing can be abandoned at the drop of a hat if the opportunity for a fake-out "sacrifice" presents itself.
All well and good, you say, and certainly, you can't accuse Who of playing more fast-and-loose with these things than, say, Batman comics. Sure, Batman and Robin can escape the Joker's death-traps dozens of times . . . until the one time they don't, and then the sidekick dies, and suddenly the entire tone of the story changes. But usually when heroes suffer and fail the writers have to do a good job of presenting reasons why the obstacles in their path are more severe than any they have previously faced. This is problematic for any character who has been around for longer than a few years, because after a while you are forced to write stories about heroes who are sufficiently competent that the only legitimate threat they can face are existential threats to the existence of the universe, or other similarly cosmic notions. When was the last time Batman foiled a series of bank robberies? We all know Batman can do that, so (according to logic) the only interesting Batman stories will be stories that up the stakes accordingly.
The difference between Batman and the Doctor in this instance is that while Batman's powers and abilities are now and have always been fairly well-defined - at least to the degree that any situation that requires him to surpass his physical or mental limitations has to be carefully explained - the Doctor basically only has whichever limitations the writers feel like acknowledging in any given story. Traditionally (and by that I mean for the series' first run), the biggest restriction on the Doctor's abilities was less a restriction on his power than a restriction on the type of stories Doctor Who could tell. To be more precise, Doctor Who was a story about a time-traveler that was never really about time-travel. Time-travel was what the Doctor did in order to hop from here to there, a different setting for a different adventure every week. But he didn't often time-travel in the context of each adventure. It was accepted as canon that he simply couldn't double back on his own timeline except in the most unusual of circumstances - once he was on the ground in a certain time and experiencing his adventures, he couldn't double back and undo anything. (This also provides a handy explanation for why he so rarely meets himself.) So, if he is in a room and sees a man get shot, he can't hop in the Tardis and undo the man getting shot, because he already experienced that shot occurring. Of course, he (and the writers) can get around this in any number of clever ways - I know a number of fans thought that the resolution of "The Wedding of River Song," for instance, was a cheat. It certainly was, but it was most importantly a clever cheat that, I think, ultimately played fair with the audience by ensuring that nothing we had "seen" was undone, merely that what we saw wasn't exactly what we thought we had seen.
A major problem with NuWho is that they actually do quite a few stories about time-travel, not just a few. And one of the problems with that is that time-travel stories are very hard to write, especially within the confines of the Doctor's previously-discussed limitations. The reason they are hard to write is that, as I said, the way you get out of things like paradoxes and "set timelines" is by utilizing clever cheats. And once you start utilizing clever cheats to get around every obstacle - which, let's be frank, is basically the Doctor's whole métier - it becomes harder and harder to establish scenarios that the audience can't themselves imagine a cheat for. You can see why, either through explicit or implicit agreement, the writers of the original series decided to steer clear of any overt reliance on time-travel as a plot device - the potential story complications are simply too much work for nowhere near enough payoff. It's not that it can't be done, but that it is very hard to do.
So when Amy & Rory are trapped in 1938 New York and the Doctor says he can't go back to 1938 New York to retrieve them, the audience immediately thinks, well, why not go back to 1938 Hartford or 1938 Beijing or wherever is sufficiently far away, take a bus and retrieve them the hard way? Or why not wait until 1940 and retrieve them after they've had a good couple years' vacation? Or any number of other work-arounds of the kind that appeared across the internet moments after the episode was finished. The answer was, of course, that there wasn't going to be any kind of work-around because we all know this was the duo's final appearance (for now), and they were being written out permanently.The Doctor couldn't do those things because we have to take his word for the fact that he can't or, barring that, he is a petulant dick and simply doesn't want to be bothered exerting any more than the minimal amount of time in the care and upkeep of his pets (this last interpretation, while not particularly charitable to the Doctor, is actually not that far off from what the actual text of the episode and season-to-date would have us believe).
This was, of course, a gigantic wet fart of an anticlimax for Amy & Rory considering that this entire run of episodes was pointing to the inevitable conclusion that their departure from the Doctor would come after they realize they had grown up and couldn't keep dropping their lives every time the Doctor came calling. I imagined it would coincide with them either overcoming Amy's infertility or adopting a child, something that would require them to settle down for good. It was going to be sad and weepy and it would reinforce the Doctor's status as an eternally lonely Peter Pan-type figure who ultimately can't keep his friends from growing up and moving on, ending with the bittersweet but still happy image of the Ponds walking off arm-in-arm into the proverbial sunset. But what we got instead was a last-minute MacGuffin in the form of the Weeping Angels.
People seem to like the Weeping Angels, at least to judge by the fact that the monsters have already proven themselves to be the most enduring original foe of the NuWho era. Personally, I find my patience growing thinner every time they show up. Although it cannot be argued that their debut, "Blink," was one of the best episodes of the current series and probably one of the best Who stories ever (a fact also due to the presence of the seconds-away-from-superstardom Carey Mulligan), the things that made "Blink" such a good episode did not actually make a good argument for the Angels as recurring foes. For one thing, the Angels' gimmick is that they're statues. They don't move. They can't talk, they can't communicate in any way whatsoever. Although they are very intelligent, they are also unavoidably static. So while they are undeniably great monsters, they make for piss-poor villains. "Manhattan" is a great example of why they just don't work very well in this role: they can't talk, so they can't exposit. Because they can't exposit, they just do things in an arbitrary fashion and we are left to depend on the Doctor to explain just what it is we're seeing. And when they do things like, oh, setting up an apartment building on Manhattan's skid row and supposedly keeping it furnished and all the guests fed and occupied for decades at a time - or something? - I'm not really sure what that was about, to be honest. The premise of the episode doesn't make a damn bit of sense if you think about it too hard, or at all. Were the people allowed to leave the apartments? Did they have normal lives, or were they under house arrest? And just why would the Angels care what happened to these people once they sucked out their time energy? Since the folks who put this fiendish plot together - the Angels themselves - can't explain just what the hell they think they're doing, it all seems rather random.
"Blink" worked despite the fact that it was a time-travel story because it was extremely well-plotted and smoothly executed. Subsequent Angels stories have not been so lucky. Because the Angels' gimmick relies on time travel, it can sometimes (often, er, almost always) be difficult to keep track of just what they're doing and when they're doing it. The Angels' previous two-parter, "The Time of Angels" / "Flesh and Stone," had some serious legibility issues, not to mention the fact that the events of the episode were supposedly undone by a time paradox, even though the events weren't really undone because everyone remembered them. "Manhattan" ended in a similar paradox, only this time the tangled timelines got even more complicated, looping around into a Primer-level state of confusion. I like to think I'm not a stupid person, but these episodes are naturally confusing. The increasingly baroque illegibility of these Weeping Angel adventures tells me that perhaps the monsters aren't nearly as effective as the producers would like to believe. Doctor Who is at its core a kids' program, after all, and if someone with decades' experience watching and reading sci-fi stories has a hard time following these episodes, maybe that should tell them something.
All of which points to the single greatest problem at the heart of NuWho, bigger even than the writing (perhaps even a symptom of the poor writing), I'd argue: the shortage of villains. Name a top-shelf villain created for the new series since 2005. OK, name one who recurred. Lots of little villains and monsters-of-the-week, but the Doctor's two greatest single villains remain the Master and Davros, both of whom were created in the 1970s. The Daleks and the Cybermen and the Weeping Angels are races who possess little or no individuation. There have been a few very promising candidates in the new series, but none have stuck. The Family of Blood were credible foes who were dispatched in their first appearance but who by rights should have returned by now. For whatever reason they have not. I remain shocked that the Beast from the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" / "The Satan Pit" has not returned - I would have bet money they were setting up that demon as a serious recurring villain. Additionally, there are still a few very good villains from the original series who have never appeared in the current series. I am amazed by the fact that we haven't yet seen the return of the Black Guardian, who would seem to be perfectly suited to the kinds of long-game story arcs the current series favors. And while it's become something of a humorous cliche that old-school Who fans spend a disproportionate amount of time pining for the Rani, it's worth mentioning that the reason why long-term Who fans might be anxious to see the return of old favorites from the first series is that that the new series has done such a piss-poor job of creating and maintaining interesting villains of its own.
At this point, I regard the Angels in much the same way that I do the Daleks: once beloved fan-favorites who have become maddeningly obligatory, defined by increasingly vague motivations and convoluted backstory. I hope we don't see them again for a very long time, because this story was unabashedly terrible. (Also, I should mention in passing a pet peeve of mine concerning the Angels: since their very first appearance, it has been established that when they are seen they are transformed into literal stone. My question question has always been, why don't they just shatter the statues when the Angels are frozen? The Doctor is never above killing when the monsters in question are unrepentant predators. Grab a sledgehammer and go to town.)
By coincidence I also happened to catch up with the second series of Sherlock on Netflix the other week. Sherlock is also produced and primarily written by current Who show-runner Steven Moffat. And, perhaps not coincidentally, it shares many of the same problems as Who. The primary actors for Sherlock are incredibly talented and possess a natural rapport. The show is shot well (if a tad bit overblown) with excellent effects. The problem I noticed as I watched series 2 was that the stories were, how do I say this nicely? terrible. Series 1 was excellent, but the plots in Series 2 started off ropey and proceeded downwards to dire. "The Hounds of Baskerville" was not terrible, but both "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Reichenbach Fall" were awful. Perhaps the movie-length format just doesn't flatter Moffat's writing, but all three of these stories seemed patchy, episodic, veered from scene to scene with a distinct lack of focus, oftentimes almost insultingly arbitrary. A number of times during the second season I could be heard to ask, "do you know what's even happening anymore?" after the the story continued to plow on in six directions at once, blithely indifferent to whether or not any of these six directions made a lick of sense. The 90-minute format means stories that simply, for lack of a better phrase, refuse to die.
And yet, I still found myself somewhat entertained, if only by the quality of the performances. The stories themselves - cruel distortions of Doyle's tightly-plotted tales - simply refused to make sense when seen from a distance. Usually somewhere around the 50-60 minute mark the episodes devolve into people running around town in cabs doing things that aren't well explained for reasons only Sherlock knows, and which will still remain somewhat foggy by the end of the episode.
And yet people love it. Just completely eat it up. Just like with NuWho - despite the fact that the writing is less credible than your average episode of NCIS. Don't take my word for it, I'm hardly the only one saying these things - Dorian and Andrew beat me to it. The writing is just terrible. It's sapping the juice out of what could otherwise be one of the all-time great sci-fi television runs. In some ways it's a blessing that the show remains so popular - as I said Doctor Who is designed to run for decades, and a bleak patch can always be covered over when a new showrunner takes over and changes the status quo. The show's success means it gets the luxury of weathering its rough patches. Part of being a "fan" means taking the bad with the good - you like the show, you like the show's world for better or for worse, and you learn to take enjoyment out of it when it's bad almost as much as when it's good. If you don't like Who now, come back next week and you might find it more to your liking. If you don't think the writing is very strong, watch for the actors. I just wish we didn't have to make that choice.