Tuesday, October 30, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

23. Who imagined that Nate Grey had that much courage?

X-Men #56 (September 1996) by Scott Lobdell, Mark Waid, Andy Kubert, and Art Thibert

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Monday, October 29, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

22. . . . Trap!

X-Man #19 (August 1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Steve Skroce, and Bud LaRosa

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

21. Wha ..?

X-Man #18 (August 1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Steve Skroce, Bud LaRosa, and Rob Hunter

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Monday, October 22, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

20. Can I help you?

Avengers #400 (July 1996) by Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, and Tom Palmer

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

19. Who on this world needs me so?

X-Man #16 (June 1996) by Terry Kavanagh, Val Semeiks, and Bud Larosa

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Munchausen Weekend

Taken 2

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.

Damsels in Distress

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

50 Shades of Nate Grey

18. Just a dream, pal.

X-Man #15 (May 1996) by John Ostrander, Terry Kavanagh, and Steve Skroce

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey


Cable #31 (May 1996) by Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill

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Monday, October 08, 2012

This is not the Tardis you're looking for

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.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

50 Shades of Nate Grey

16. . . . if the atrocity rises!

X-Man #14 (April 1996) by John Ostrander, Terry Kavanagh, Steve Skroce and Bud LaRosa

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