The Simpsons: Season 1, Episode 1, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”

So I realized that I do, in fact, own the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons,” which is one season plus what I consider to be the show’s “golden age.” Also I realized that I had actually been with the show all through that era, beginning with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.” Because I can never lack excuses to waste valuable timebuild up my writing portfolio, I thought I could start doing what I’ve been doing with “Doctor Who” and just reflect on the episodes – what made them work and why I was in love with the show for so long.

So without further Apu (rimshot)…

“The Simpsons” are the Beatles of my generation.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s hyperbole or pop culture blasphemy. More than a TV show, it was a cultural event that, on one level, was just generating the usual wrong-headed and easy-way imitators, cheesy music videos, and shitty video games (I think trying to get through “Bart vs. The Space Mutants” was a rite of passage for anyone who was a kid and owned a Nintendo in the early ’90s), but on another level it molded the way an entire generation thought about animation, social satire, and even humor itself. Like it’s impossible to imagine a world where Archduke Ferdinand was never assassinated or what rock music after 1990 would have sounded like if Black Francis and Joey Santiago were never dorm mates at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a contemporary American cultural landscape where Matt Groening was never commissioned to produce cartoon bumpers for the “Tracey Ullman Show” is likewise beyond our comprehension.

Even though the show was clearly a rare successor to “The Flintstones” as a prime-time animated sitcom for adults, the FOX marketing gurus had unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg aimed toward children and adolescents, which for a long while skewed the public’s perception about what “The Simpsons” basically was and helped cancel out any long-term success the show might have had in showing that animated shows were not inherently juvenile (an idea still with us, in spite of the most optimistic pronouncements of anime geeks and the like, if the way the Oscars treat the animated film category is any indication). Anyway, since I was not only in elementary school when “The Simpsons” first came out but actually saw the Christmas special that first detached the Simpsons from “The Tracy Ullman Show” (I wish I could claim I was there from theabsolute beginning, but I don’t think I was even aware of “The Tracey Ulman Show”‘s existence*), I was at ground zero. I even remember kids wearing t-shirts that showed a black version of the Simpson family.

Of course, it was all about Bart Simpson, the twentieth century’s Dennis the Menace. In hindsight I can understand the appeal, since he came along after it became less acceptable in Hollywood to show adolescents and children, especially young children, acting and talking like foul-mouthed adults – in other words, to show them like they fairly often are in real life. Yet it was always clear that the writers did not mean for Bart to connect with the kids, but to remind adults of their own precocious (genuinely or rose-colored precocious) childhoods. Now it’s hard to imagine that “The Simpsons” was ever seriously pushed as a kids’ show. That may be because the show has been on so long that the audience literally grew up with it, but also it was not all that long before the show’s focus unquestionably shifted toward Homer. Even the video game spin-offs have moved from being about Bart to starring the entire family. Speaking for my very young self, I never got some thrill from seeing Bart defy authority figures and spout off allegedly relevant slang, but because the show felt honest. It seemed refreshingly true about what school was like, how adults and especially my parents and teachers treated me, and about the society around me in ways that barely, if at all, existed in anything else that was on television or even in most mainstream movies at the time. I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was like that for many of the other kids my age who tuned in.

To really understand why “The Simpsons” was so quickly successful and came along at the right cultural time, you have to remember that they were riding the crest of a “backlash against a backlash.” The Norman Lear philosophy of the sitcom, that they can address the social and political concerns of the day, was one of many casualties of the cultural wing of the Reagan Revolution. The dominant species of ’80s sitcom was in the main sanitized celebrations of middle-class life, designed to assure audiences that personal happiness really can come hand-in-hand with financial security. Even sitcoms with potentially controversial premises, like “My Two Dads”, tended to be straight and without bite. While you did have “Cosby Show”-esque sitcoms all through the ’90s too, I still think you can say that the sub-genre was dying out by at least the early ’90s. After all, nothing signifies the death of a sub-genre or of a specific approach to a genre like seeing it boiled down to its purest, most nauseating element. And what represents that happening to the typical ’80s sitcom better than “Full House”?

Where was I? Oh yes, the backlash. I don’t think there’s a question that the very last years of the ’80s brought about a significant and lasting backlash against “The Cosby Show”-esque television; in fact, I’d argue that the late ’80s/early ’90s were a period of revolutionary television that hasn’t been matched in network TV since. Suddenly instead of more Cosby clones, we had shows centered around single, liberal Jewish New Yorkers; about single women in their 50s enjoying active sex lives; and a working-class Chicago family who were poor, miserable, and built around a dysfunctional marriage. Most strikingly, all three of these shows had the audacity to be tremendously successful, and if it weren’t for the late ’80s backlash there probably would be no FOX network.

Even the family sitcom did not go unaltered. There were the “Roseanne”s, which purported to offer a “realistic” reflection of working and lower middle-class life, and the “Married With Children”s, which went one step further by answering the successful, loving, upper middle-class family of “The Cosby Show” with impoverished, cynical, and self-loathing lower-class families, offering a kind of deconstructed “hyper-reality,” arguably (it’s no surprise that an early working title for “Married With Children” was actually “Not The Cosbys”). As much as the show stands out now in hindsight, “The Simpsons” was meant to be sitcom in this vein, only animated. Believe it or not, but in the first season “The Simpsons” was actually intended to also be realistic. Instead of presenting a distorted and satirical view of American life, at first it was supposed to give viewers a family that had actual financial struggles and interactions that were at least somewhat relateable.

This is probably why not many people, even people who claim to be diehard fans of the show, actually like the first season. In quite a few ways, it’s a completely different show from what “The Simpsons” became by the third season, even by the standards of all long-running and popular shows that experience an inevitable process of evolution. I’ve met people who say that they want to collect every DVD set of “The Simpsons,” but they still feel free not to bother with DVD sets of the first two seasons. Is this omission warranted? Is “The Simpsons” v1.0 any good at all?

Technically “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” was the first episode, even though it was the eighth one to be produced. Ironically, though, it works as an ideal introduction to the series, even in hindsight, since the characters really haven’t changed all too much. Lisa is intellectually precocious, gently but logically explaining to Aunt Patty that mocking her father will damage her perception of manhood and affect her adult relationships; Marge is the long-suffering but eminently forgiving mother; Patty and Selma are the joyless sisters-in-law (although they have yet to capture the je ne sais quoi of female, working-class, midlife singledom); and Bart is the softcore delinquent (if anything, he’s toned down over the years; I can’t imagine him saying “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” in any of the recent seasons of “The Simpsons.”) Surprisingly it’s Homer who is the least recognizable. He’s much less “borderline insane” and far more “disgruntled lower middle-class patriarch”, although there is a point where he has no idea who Tiny Tim is.

I honestly don’t have too much to say about the first episode, partially because I feel like I cut down too many digital trees already giving the background. Even with the gap between “The Simpsons” circa season one and circa season three, quite a bit of what makes “The Simpsons” great can already be glimpsed. The show is already just able to grab at the essence of American life: the pathetic nature of the elementary school play (and Lisa’s bizarre effort to breathe some life into it); the false and forced sense of “family” in work settings (although the writers do tip their hands a bit when Mr. Burns brags that safety costs have not touched management’s salaries); and Homer’s overriding sense of responsibility. There’s even a taste of reality about the way children think in Bart’s fantasy about why his mother would be overjoyed at the sight of his “MOTHER” tattoo. Even the strange logic of children is captured here and will stay on display, as we get to see more of life at Springfield Elementary.

To be honest, it’s not a particularly funny episode, especially if you’re used to the gag-a-minute nature of the later seasons. But it’s still quite good, a look at the very core of what will drive the show for years to come. Plus, even the stone-hearted among you have to admit that the plot – a desperately poor family salvaging a crappy Christmas by taking in an abandoned dog – is pretty damn sweet.

Favorite Lines and Gags

I don’t know why, but Maggie’s immobilizing star-shaped coat never fails to crack me up.

“And now, our boss and friend, Mr. Burns…”

Manager: “Do you like children?”
Homer: “What do you mean? All the time, even when they’re nuts?”

Homer stealing a Christmas tree from someone’s property – pretty funny. The fact that he apparently didn’t notice the birdhouse in it when he put it up – hilarious.

*Like 99.97% of all Americans, apparently. Zing!

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: Journey’s End

Let me start by reminding everyone that I am not out to bash Russell T. Davies. It’s taken as a truism, even among his fans, that the second parts of his two-part season closers tend to be let-downs, but I’ll admit from the start that “Journey’s End” is not that bad. It’s not that good either, but as far as Davies’ finales go it’s no “The Last of the Time Lords,” which infamously gave us an ending cribbed from Care Bears 2: A New Generation. And how can you have such a cheesy, bubbly ending with Doctor-Christ like that after you had this story about most of humanity getting wiped out and the survivors left to a post-apocalyptic environment so hellish you would wish you were living in a standard-issue Romero zombie apocalypse and where it’s revealed that the final fate of humanity is facing suffering and insanity in a void at the end of the universe with no life and no hope? The answer is you can’t, Russell T. Davies, you just can’t!

Where was I? Oh yeah, “Journey’s End”!

As I think I was writing before the pills kicked in, Russell’s epic closers were infamous even among his fans for never living up to the potential his hooks promised. What people don’t discuss so much is Davies’ love for the bullshit teaser. Example: the Doctor starts the episode regenerating, but instead his regeneration energy goes into the hand he lost in “The Christmas Invasion” because…uh, I don’t know, some Time Lord vitamin supplement the Doctor has been taking. And thus we get a bullshit teaser, showing a regeneration that most of the audience knew wasn’t going to happen yet. And does this mean that the Doctor used up one of his thirteen allotted regenerations on a silly, pointless little fake-out to the fans? Oh well, as long as the sooner-to-come “thirteenth regeneration” means we’ll get a story that will bring the Time Lords back, I’ll be happy. (Oh yeah, I’m one of those fans. What of it? And, by the way, anyone want to see my fan script for how to bring back The Rani?). Actually, what gets me isn’t so much that one bullshit teaser, because at least it was kind of a natural one given that the media had been reporting that David Tennant would be leaving, even if it did potentially create continuity problems for future writing teams. It’s really that this episode gets more than one, which really strains the camel’s back, with the Doctor-Donna, the fake “clues” that Donna is a bona fide Time Lord, and with Dalek Caan prophesying, “one of the Doctor’s companions will die!”, which doesn’t quite happen, at least not in the literal sense.

But I’m skipping ahead. Let me try to sum up where all the various subplots (I don’t think there is a “main” plot to speak) are going. Davros, who seems to be barely in control of the Daleks, has invented something called a “reality bomb” that he plans to use to destroy everything in all creation except the Daleks themselves. He and the Daleks are guided in their bizarre scheme by Dalek Caan, the sole survivor of the Cult of Skaro, who became an insane prophet after retrieving Davros from the time-locked Time War. Torchwood is saved from a Dalek attack by a “time lock” device made by a deceased colleague, trapping them in their home base and miraculously making their appearance in this storyline even more pointless than it already was. The TARDIS is transported to the Daleks’ space station, the Crucible, and the Doctor, fearing that these Daleks are advanced enough to even penetrate the TARDIS, surrenders with Captain Jack and Rose, but before she can leave the TARDIS the doors suddenly slam shut on Donna. Suspecting the Doctor is planning some type of ruse, the Daleks drop the TARDIS into their station’s plasma core. Sarah Jane teams up with Rose’s ex-boyfriend Mickey and mother Jackie, and convinces them to surrender to the Daleks in order to find the Doctor, but instead they witness first-hand the horrifying ambition of the Daleks’ plan. And Martha, under the orders of UNIT, is sent to stand by with other UNIT agents from across the world to potentially activate the Osterhagen Key, a device designed to trigger planetary suicide in the event of an alien invasion and occupation so brutal humanity itself would be condemned to a fate worse than death.

As you can hopefully tell, there’s a bit too much going on in this one episode. I can understand Russell T. Davies wanting a true capstone to his run (which doesn’t explain at all why he did it again with “The End of Time”, but…well, we’ll get there when we get there), but there really was no need to include characters from Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures for longer than brief cameos, especially since Sarah Jane and Captain Jack are already integrated into the story. There’s an even bigger problem with Martha’s role. Don’t get me wrong, I thought the Osterhagen Key was the strongest and freshest idea to come out of this storyline – it’s nice to see Russell T. Davies actually considering the implications of having the Earth invaded every two months, for one – and it really deserved to have an episode or two centered around it. Instead it’s just another subplot out of many that ultimately, besides giving Martha an excuse to run around and adding a couple of dramatic scenes, does nothing. Now you can say I’m being unfair, that it did more than including the Torchwood gang who almost literally get locked out of the plot, and that’s true to a point. It’s just that, in the end, the dramatic weight of Earth’s governments consenting to the most desperate option imaginable is handwaved away by both the Daleks and the Doctor, in a way. All we really get out of it is a tense scene between Martha and a minor character, a German woman, who we’ll never see again.

But the Osterhagen Key isn’t what you want me to talk about…no, it’s Donna. Well, dear readers, let me take a moment remind you of the clusterfuck…I mean, questionable creative choices Russell T. Davies made with her. Trapped in the TARDIS and sent to a fiery grave, the regenerative energies in the Doctor’s hand merge with Donna, causing a second, half-human Doctor to grow out of the hand and making Donna half-Time Lord (but we’re not supposed to know that yet). Human-Doctor pilots the TARDIS out of the engine core without the Daleks noticing while the Doctor’s various companions threaten to disrupt the Daleks’ plans through various kamikaze tactics. This prompts Davros to brag, “The man abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth Doctor, you take ordinary people and fashion them into weapons.” The Daleks easily take the wind of the companions’ sales by teleporting them into Davros’ lair with Davros, Rose, and the Doctor. Human-Doctor appears and tries to stop the Daleks, but fails. However, Donna, her Time Lord knowledge activated in the chaos, manages to use the Daleks’ own equipment against them and stop the reality bomb just as it’s on the verge of being detonated. Meanwhile the Doctor deduces that Dalek Caan, who was horrified by what he saw across time and space about the Daleks and their actions, had been manipulating time itself, allowing Donna to be in the position to ruin Davros’ plans. Afraid that the Daleks would still have the power to wreak havoc on the universe, Human-Doctor destroys the Crucible and kills all the Daleks in a stroke, horrifying the Doctor so much he practically banishes Human-Doctor to Rose’s parallel universe. Everyone flees, with the Doctor offering to save Davros, but he refuses to be saved, screaming that the Doctor is the true “destroyer of worlds.”

I mean, I can forgive Davros, because he’s a few mad scientists short of a supervillain team, but why does the Doctor look pained by Davros’ accusation? How the Doctor should have responded was with, “Um, whoever just tried to annihilate almost all reality, raise their hands!” What’s with the “reality bomb” anyway, besides being a bit too much like the Solaranite from Plan 9 from Outer Space? Again, I can get Davros thinking it’s a good idea, but you would think even the Daleks would balk at the thought of existing in an infinite void on a space station without any planets with resources around.

Well, this really gets at the weird and frankly confused ethics of this episode. I do understand what the viewer is supposed to get out of all this. We’re meant to see the Doctor fully finding himself after the hellish traumas of the Time War and turning his back on the occasional ruthlessness he had been exhibiting. Honestly, though, his treatment of Human-Doctor’s actions comes across as more than slightly dickish. In the early Ninth Doctor episode “The Dalek”, the Doctor, driven by vengeance, tortures a helpless, imprisoned Dalek and barely hesitates to sacrifice a companion to prevent the Dalek from even having a chance to escape. Here the Daleks, far from being at anyone’s mercy, have the technological capability to go anywhere in time and space, abduct entire planets and civilizations, and wipe out the multiverse. There’s about a galaxy’s worth of distance between the two scenarios. Really, the episode would have worked so much better without the whole “reality bomb” premise. Giving Davros and the Daleks the power to destroy everything only eliminates any chance that the viewers will actually see any type of moral dilemma for the Doctor here. Just having Davros single-handedly build a new and potentially even more dangerous Dalek Empire would have been enough and made for a more convincing ethical split between the Doctor and his half-human doppleganger, but I suppose such a premise just wouldn’t have been epic enough.

Now with all that aside, we come to what really made this episode controversial: the final fates of Donna and Rose. The Doctor leaves Rose, Jackie, and Human-Doctor in the parallel universe, and practically fixes Rose and Human-Doctor together (Rose, being Rose, still pouts about everything). The only way Rose’s ending could have been more double-plus good was if it spelled out that Rose and Human-Doctor would parent a new race of Time Lords (although a cut scene does have the Doctor giving Human-Doctor the means to “grow” a new TARDIS…). Donna, however, is dying from being unable to house the mind of a Time Lord, forcing the Doctor to telepathically erase all her memories of her time with the Doctor. He leaves Donna with her family, as shallow and self-loathing as she was before she met him. To be honest, when I first watched it I defended the ending to a couple of irate fans, because I thought that it was a genuinely tragic fate for one of the Doctor’s companions. Having watched it again, I’ve changed my opinion more than slightly. It’s still a good ending…but for Rose, not Donna.

See, Rose was confident and assertive even before she met the Doctor. True, she did learn and gain a lot in her travels, but her time with the Doctor was mostly defined by the fact that she bridged the impossible gulf between their two species by falling in love with him and making him at least consider the fact that he was in love with her too, something that hadn’t happened since Jo. This makes her losing those memories as much a tragedy for the Doctor as for her. For Donna, on the other hand, it wasn’t even really about the Doctor, but their travels. She learned empathy, confidence, and that the significance of her existence wasn’t defined by her job but by what she herself made of things. This ending just renders her entire character arc and her intense growth as a character (portrayed beautifully by Catherine Tate)  null and void. It’s unfair enough that Rose gets the Good+ ending and Donna has the Bad+ ending, but the fact that Donna was underused throughout the entire season and the huge discrepancy between what Rose and Donna get in the end makes it even harder to swallow. So, needless to say, I’ve changed my opinion quite a lot.

And yet…I really enjoyed this episode the first time I saw it. Now it hasn’t held up well to repeated viewings for me, but like I wrote I think it’s still one of Davies’ own better season closers. There are more than a few good ideas here and seeing Tennant’s Doctor go up against Davros is a rare treat, but Davies ends up juggling too many characters and too many subplots for the episode’s own good. Worse, Davies is showing signs of being too self-indulgent, but as we’ll see it’s only the beginning…

Oh, yeah, and just in case I haven’t made my opinion clear:  screw you, Russell T. Davies, Donna was the Tenth Doctor’s best companion.   

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: Silent Hill: Downpour


Full disclosure:  I think the first three Silent Hill games are the not only great games, but their stories and use of atmosphere stand out in any medium.  I even like Silent Hill: The Room, the somewhat less popular last game done by the original developers, Team Silent.  However, I never got around to playing Silent Hill: Homecoming, which Downpour apparently resembles, at least in its combat system.  So, for better or for worse, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who veers maybe a little too close to being one of those  “It was good, now it sucks” fans (but in fairness the only Silent Hill game I’ve really loathed so far was Origins.)

When reports about Downpour‘s premise came out, I was a little dubious.  Instead of an everyperson, Downpour gives us Murphy Pendleton, a convict who escapes into Silent Hill when the prison bus transporting him crashes.  Pursued by a prison guard whose interest in catching Murphy might be more than just professional, Murphy quickly discovers, soon after breaking into an eerily abandoned cafe, that the town itself may be judge, jury, prison, and, of course, executioner.  It is a good premise, and while in a few ways it’s a kind of “spiritial sequel” to Silent Hill 2, it does break with series tradition in a way that made me both hopeful and anxious.   Luckily, even though I’ve only played through about 30% of the game so far, Murphy is a good morally ambiguous protagonist (although really the player determines  how “morally ambiguous” he actually is!) and the game exploits the prison theme to the hilt, to the point of giving the “Otherworld” a real decrepit prison theme that constantly draws on new images of water and electricity as well as the old-fashioned  Silent Hill ambiance of industrial decay.

Of course, the main question for me was:  how does Silent Hill: Downpour work as horror?  Well, it depends.  Downpour just doesn’t capture that delicate mix of sound, tone, and atmosphere that made the original Team Silent games so effective and memorable.  Maybe it’s actually for the best that it doesn’t, but there are points in the game where it just…feels like you’re playing a survival horror game, a sense that, in my opinion, the first three games avoided.  Maybe people who actually played Homecoming would know better, but it does seem like Downpour continues that tradition of being focused on combat that Homecoming was criticized for.  Maybe it makes sense in the context of the game, since even early on you find out that Murphy is a prisoner who is at least somewhat used to violence, but the feeling of desperation and the feeling of dread as you entered a new room or area that pervaded the Team Silent games is largely absent (although it is nice that, when Murphy is faced with a monster, he shouts out “Fuck!”, a welcome touch of realism.)  For all that, making torrential rain a game mechanic – when it pours, the monsters come out hunting for your blood – was an excellent touch that gives the player a real sense of urgency and a reason to…well, GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE.  There are quite a few subtler touches too:  a radio DJ trying to reach anyone with increasing desperation;  the bits of background information and how they’re used to disturbing effect (for instance, just after reading about a train accident in a cave that killed eight children because of a drunk driver, Murphy comes across a shadowy area sealed off with police tape while empty beer bottles sit on a nearby cardboard box); and even the fact that the loading screen, which normally shows tips for gameplay, will sometimes show messages like “They never loved you” and “It knows you’re alone.”

Another big change is that Downpour gives you much more room to explore than most of the previous games, and there’s more to do than just hunt for extra items and hidden weapons.  While there is a linear story that makes it clear where you should go, Downpour also offers optional areas in the town to explore and even “side quests.”  I tend to think the argument that games need to offer lots of side quests for the sake of “replayability” is more or less BS, since it assumes that video games, unlike other media such as novels and films, can’t be worth experiencing again for their own sake, but still if any series was a natural for a more expansive world it’s Silent Hill.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only player of the early games who wished he could have actually gone into some of the businesses in Silent Hill 2, for instance, or revisited some familiar territory other than the amusement park in 3.

The one way Downpour doesn’t quite work as a game is with its combat.  Having not played Homecoming, which apparently resembles this game’s fight mode, I can’t say anything about whether it’s an improvement or not.  The one definite criticism of Homecoming I remember reading is that the game was not only too action-oriented, but the fights were too easy.  Apparently the developers were aware of this criticism, because the fights in this game even on “Easy” combat mode are rough (although I’m willing to admit the possibility that I just suck at the fights here).  Also the pattern I’ve noticed is that the monsters like to ambush, which seems to undercut the feeling of dread the game tries to cultivate. But at least you have many weapons that don’t break right away, like the lead pipe in Origins that gives up after four or five uses…freakin’ Origins…

Anyway, is this the game that completely revitalizes the franchise?  Maybe, maybe not, but what Downpour gets right it gets right indeed, and fans worried that the new development team would cut as many ties with the series as possible should be pleasantly surprised by the number of references and nods to the Silent Hill mythos that are there.  It may lack some of the more intangible things that made the series great, but between a great story and a care for detail and atmosphere it’s an installment worth investigating.

Doctor Who – The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve (1966)

The Doctor and Steven arrive in a place the Doctor quickly figures out is sixteenth century Paris. Right away the Doctor wants to try to meet Charles Preslin, a famous apothecary (sort of the early modern equivalent of a pharmacist). Unknown to them they’ve arrived at one of the worst possible times to be in Paris this side of 1792; Huguenot noblemen are staying in the city to celebrate the wedding between the Protestant leader Henri of Navarre and the French princess Marguerite de Valois, and tensions are running high between the Huguenots and Catholics. Not knowing this, the Doctor reluctantly agrees to let Steven go sightseeing while he tries to find Preslin, but makes Steven promise not to talk to anyone unless he must. However, once the Doctor leaves Steven accidentally disobeys by getting into an argument with a bartender, which leads to him befriending a Huguenot named Nicholas. Meanwhile the Doctor finds Preslin, who is in hiding and is terrified of being persecuted by agents of the Abbot of Amboise, and encourages his research in science.

Nicholas offers shelter to a frightened servant girl, Anne Chaplet, who fled the service of her master, the Abbot, who had heard a rumor that there was going to be a massacre of Huguenots in Paris. To protect her, she is sent to work for the prominent Huguenot Admiral de Coligny; Nicholas also brings Steven to stay the night at Coligny’s quarters, in order to save him from being arrested for breaking the curfew. The next day Steven arouses Nicholas’ suspicious when he mistakes the Abbot for the Doctor, who are both dead ringers for each other. At least Nicholas agrees to help Steven find the Doctor, but has suspicions that Steven is a Catholic spy, which are exasperated when it turns out that Preslin has been missing for years. Steven escapes and tries to make his way to the Abbot, whom he’s convinced is the Doctor in disguise, and winds up embroiled in politics when he overhears members of the royal council discussing an order from the queen mother Catherine de’ Medicis to assassinate someone codenamed the “Sea Beggar,” who turns out to be Coligny.

Steven meets up with Anne, who was thrown out for continuing to defend Steven. Anne and Steven hide out in Preslin’s abandoned home while events spiral out of control. Steven, still thinking that the Doctor has been posing as the Abbot, becomes distraught when he learns that the Abbot has been murdered. The Doctor finally shows up and, knowing that the assassination of Coligny will soon spark the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, wants to leave as soon as possible. Afraid of changing history, the Doctor, despite Steven’s pleas, refuses to invite Anne to join them in the TARDIS, but he does try to help her figure out where to go for safety. Once they escape back to the TARDIS on the eve of the massacre, Steven berates the Doctor for abandoning Anne and vows to leave at the next place they stop: London in 1966. True to his word, Steven abandons a morose Doctor, who is surprised by a young woman named Dodo who thought the TARDIS was an actual police box. Soon Steven rushes in, warning the Doctor that policemen are approaching the TARDIS. Delighted by both Dodo’s resemblance to Susan and Steven’s return, the Doctor launches the TARDIS without warning. Dodo accepts events anyway since she has almost no family to speak of. When Dodo reveals that her last name is “Chaplet”, Steven gladly takes it as proof (albeit not very good proof) that Anne survived the Massacre after all.

Continuity Notes

From what I can tell, there never actually was a sixteenth century scientist named Charles Preslin, much less one who contributed toward finding observable proof of germ theory. Nevertheless the Doctor refers to a German who is working on a device that Preslin would use to see germs. I think this is a reference to Zacharias Jansen, who, depending on who you ask, is the inventor of the microscope, but who was actually Dutch. Anyway, microorganisms weren’t actually seen until 1676, about a century after this story takes place.

After Steven leaves, the Doctor muses, “Perhaps I should go home, back to my own planet, but I can’t. I can’t!” Of course, we don’t know if he means he can’t because of the TARDIS’ technical problems or because of the consequences.

It’s not at all made clear why the Doctor refuses to bring Anne Chaplet in the TARDIS (besides, of course, the desire of the showrunners not to have another Katarina). Apparently the Doctor is afraid that Anne was meant to die in the Massacre, but even then it raises the question of why he hasn’t had any qualms about plucking people out of their native times before.

Finally, we have the first appearance of Dodo Chaplet, who is sort of notorious among “Doctor Who” fans. We’ll wait and see why…

Comments

I wish I had a more elaborate and spot-on criticism, but I really don’t know what to say except that this serial is boring. In its defense you could say it suffers from being one of the few serials from which not a single second of footage survives, but certainly the serial “Marco Polo” got around that handicap. Honestly I can’t imagine any way to make an engaging serial out of this topic; I find the subject of the French Wars of Religion to be complex and I’m supposed to specialize in French history. So instead of relying on seeing the Doctor and Steven get tangled up with historical events, we have lengthy and really uninteresting scenes with characters essentially explaining the history in a mostly flavorless way. Even Catherine de’ Medici doesn’t stand out. Queen Margot this ain’t, and I’m actually stunned that this serial was delivered by the same screenwriter who wrote “The Aztecs” and “Marco Polo.”

There is one element that makes this fun, though, and that’s seeing William Hartnell play another role as the Abbot, but unfortunately even then he doesn’t get to accomplish or just say much. Something else for the plus column is that Steven’s character really does seem well-developed by this point. It’s nice to have a companion always ready and willing to challenge the Doctor, as I said, and seeing him berate the Doctor for abandoning Anne is a welcome look back at the morally ambiguous Doctor from the show’s beginning. Otherwise, though, this season continues what has so far been (with the exception of “The Myth Makers”) a lackluster season.

The Most Effeminate Male Villain: Final Fantasy vs. Disney

So you’re writing a novel or a movie and you’re trying to decide on some quality that will make your villain more distinctive, more unusual. There’s one easy way: have them defy gender conventions! Thus we end up with villains like Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was modeled after the Ur-drag queen Divine (yes, really) and Jafar from Aladdin, who wasn’t modeled after anyone in particular except a bunch of really dusty Arabic stereotypes. Okay, okay, I love Final Fantasy and I love Disney’s animated movies (well, most of them), so I don’t want to imply that the makers of these franchises are being reactionary or homophobic or heterocentric or whathaveyou, and I’ll just leave it to Gender Studies majors to parse out the implications. I’ll just say I think it all comes down to the cultural language we’re all programmed with, and not any attempt to respond to contemporary political or social issues – unlike, for example, the insanely homophobic portrayal of King Edward II in Braveheart (because it cannot be said enough times: screw you, Mel Gibson, even if you did an elaborate cameo in one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever).

I just find it amusing that two franchises I like both went through the same trend in the early-mid ’90s: really effeminate bad guys. And I by “effeminate” I mean “almost in the drag-queen realm.”

Jafar vs. Emperor Palamecia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, okay, maybe Jafar isn’t halfway toward auditioning for Edna Turnbladt in Hairspray, but he does come across as a homicidal Paul Lynde. Although unlike Uncle Arthur and the real life Paul Lynde, he does enjoy kissing a princess.

But, of course, sexual orientation doesn’t mean a guy can’t sashay with the best of them.

Emperor Palamecia is trickier to pin down, because what little personality he has only comes across in Dissidia and even then it doesn’t go beyond a few lines of dialogue. Nonetheless, we just have to look at him to see he’s like the offspring of Uncle Arthur and Hedonism Bot, which can only make him the winner of this round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scar vs. Kuja

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scar does embody a pretty old literary stereotype – the mincing, cowardly, luxury-loving, treacherous male villain in comparison to the earthy, honest, and butch male hero. But it’s hard not to like him anyway, from the moment he scorns his inconvenient nephew Simba and sneers, “Shall I curtsey?!”

Kuja, on the other hand, represents…I don’t know, glam rock’s invisible yet pervasive influence on Japan? In Final Fantasy IX Kuja is an extraterrestrial arms dealer trying to trigger an apocalyptic global war, but his costume instead makes it look like his ultimate objective is to be the next Lady Gaga.

Admittedly it’s a close call, but I have to call it for Scar.  Kuja’s got the dress, but Scar is an out-and-unashamed metrosexual lion.  Plus we know he’s the real protagonist of The Lion King.  

Ratcliffe vs. Seymour

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is Pocahontas‘ villain Governor Ratcliffe a fancy boy, but he even has an effeminate animal sidekick, a dog named Percy. That’s a new height for any of the villains on this list. Plus he gets his own song with the lyric, “Think how they’ll squirm when they see how I glitter!”

By rights he should win, and yet…there’s Seymour, who in Final Fantasy X is basically an evil Pope as envisioned by David Bowie’s Goblin King …

The real scandal isn’t that Seymour is an undead being (who gets beaten up by your party every two hours) or that he serves a corrupt Church that is complicit in a cycle of mass murder carried out ritualistically at the behest of a literally mindless spirit, but that at least 40 percent of the tithes paid to the Church goes to Seymour’s hair.

I mean, I’m sure Radcliffe leads a pricey, lavish lifestyle, but Seymour wins simply because his annual hair care budget surpasses the GDP of some small countries.  Truly that makes him the maester of metrosexuals, and in the world of Spira which includes girly frat boy Tidus that’s quite an accomplishment.

Winner:  Final Fantasy  

Disney put in some strong contenders in the early-mid ’90s, but the award goes to the Final Fantasy franchise.

Our Western sensibilities just couldn’t compete with a franchise from a culture that has formed entire genres out of having men with ambiguous sexualities and androgynous genders.

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 6: Final Fantasy V

So this is the game we didn’t get.  In a way, Final Fantasy V was the anti-Mystic Quest.   While the gameplay of Mystic Quest was boiled down to the bare bones, and then thrown back into the pot for more, Final Fantasy V added a whole new element of challenge by taking the job system from III and giving it a further strategic angle by making it possible to mix and match different skills from the different “jobs” as well as throwing in a host of new jobs that somewhat take the series away from its Dungeons and Dragons roots.  Not only can you be a black mage or a samurai, but now you can also have a party of beastmasters, mimes, and dancers.  There really isn’t much cooler than having a bunch of dancers kick the ass of a killer mech.

But…I never really got into this one, at least to the point where I feel strongly about it the way I feel about IV and (as you’ll see) VI.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I still think the Super Famicon/Nintendo trilogy is the peak of the series, and that Final Fantasy V is a great game on its own.  Plus maybe part of the problem is that the nostalgia factor just isn’t there;  like the other “lost” Final Fantasies I didn’t get to play this one until much later.  But after the tour de force that was IV the plot seems a little hollow.  A traveler Bartz (still better than his name in early fan translations, “Butz”) stumbles across a meteor/ship piloted by an amnesiac named Galuf.  The two later team up with a princess seeking to rescue her lost father, Lenna, and Faris, a cross-dressing pirate, to stop the destruction of the Elemental Crystals which are the only things preventing the resurrection of the evil Exdeath (obviously they don’t succeed with that bit).  I mean, yes, IV had a cliched evil wizard villain like V’s Exdeath (well, really, Exedes, but “Exdeath” is a lot more fun to write), but IV ‘s Golbez at least had an aura of mystery surrounding him and his motives, leading up to a couple of genuine plot twists.  With Exdeath…well, he wants to unlock the power of oblivion so that he could make himself a god.  And the only twist here is that Exdeath is a tree – one that has been possessed by dozens if not hundreds of exorcised demons and spirits, yes, but still a tree.  Well, tree or not, at least he got a pretty awesome theme song:

I should make it clear, though, that I’ve got nothing against this game.  Especially since it gave us Gilgamesh, everyone’s favorite clueless collector of knock-off swords who seems to be one of the few things tying together the series’ different worlds together.    Then there’s the fact that, despite my criticism of the plot and even though the cast is smaller than IV, V does a really good job making the characters look…well, like real characters, giving them authentic relationships and motives (if you don’t get at least a little sentimental during Bartz’s flashback, when “Music Box” plays, you are a soulless monster!).

Enough expository banter, let me admit that I do like, even love, this game.  It’s just for some reason I can’t be as passionate about it as I am with other installments in the series.  Maybe the series’ formula was wearing a little thin, maybe there just wasn’t enough to distinguish it from the past games in the series, in which case Final Fantasy VI would prove to be just what the doctor ordered…

Thoughts on the ‘New’ Who Series: The Stolen Earth

Welcome to the first edition of “I Don’t Hate the Russell T. Davies Era, But…Or Thoughts on the ‘New’ Series.”

I’ve had a couple of people actually ask me, based on my write-ups of the classic series, what my thoughts on the “new” series are. In sum, I think the show’s been consistently putting out A+ work, taking the best of the “classic” series and combining it with new elements and approaches. Now there are episodes I didn’t like and some seasons I prefer over others, but that’s natural and I would still say that even when the show is “off” it’s still one of the better programs out there. I decided to give some of my thoughts on the “new” series and, inspired by the lovely Diamanda Hagan’s Twatty Who Reviews, I’m focusing on the Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era, particularly how it wrapped up. I don’t have any plans to start writing about all or even most “new” Who episodes, and definitely not with the level of detail I’ve been writing up the classic series, so this won’t be an open-ended feature.

Now I should probably make clear that, as much as fandoms like to draw lines in the sand, I’m not here to bash Russell T. Davies and exalt Steven Moffat. I will admit that I have come to generally prefer the episodes produced under Steven Moffat’s regime for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever write off the entire Christopher Eccleston/David Tenant era. For one thing, there very likely wouldn’t even be a new Doctor Who series if not for Davies, or at the very least we would have ended up with something like the ill-advised reboot FOX and the BBC had in mind during the late ’90s. For another, variety is one of the things that has kept Doctor Who going after all these years, and even if I just happen to really like Steven Moffat’s take on the Doctor Who mythos doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that Davies had some very different interpretations – and likely enough whoever follows Moffat will as well. Third, Russell T. Davies is actually a very good writer – a great one, even. As evidence, I present “Midnight,” an extremely effective and downright brilliant story that managed to use minimal effects and setting to breathtaking effect. I’d go as far as to say that it should be included in any top 10 Doctor Who episode list and taught in screenwriting classes. And even when I’ve been unhappy with the episodes he penned, I’ve always found something to like – well, except with “The End of Time”, but we’ll get there.

The problem is that Davies kept underestimating his audience. If you keep in mind the fact that he did keep the excellent “Midnight” on the back burner for years because he thought the audience would completely reject it, it’s a fair assessment, and really I always thought Davies’ vision of the Doctor was more akin to American superheroes than to what the Doctor was in the classic series. Now it should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with a fresh take and certainly I’m sure there are lit grad students who can show how the Doctor and, say, the Green Lantern really do come out of the same giant cultural well, but I genuinely do believe there was a disconnect between Davies and the show itself, which really came out in his grand season closers and especially in the sagas that finished his run.

I was just going to write on “The End of Time”, but I figured I should instead start with “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End.” Honestly, I could always use the excuse to push out more content. However, I also don’t think it’s fair to write on “The End of Time” until I tackle the rest of the huge “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic, especially since the last time I watched most of it was when they first became available to Americans. Let me also point out that I think the season with Donna Noble was the best of the David Tennant seasons. Not only did Catherine Tate just seem to have better chemistry with David Tennant than, yes, even Billie Piper, but there was just something about the Tenth Doctor’s character that made him traveling across space and time with a cynical, embittered office temp so natural. I’ll say more about it later, but that’s why it irks me so much that Davies turned the last season and the final specials with Tennant into a nostalgia fest for his own run. There are only six episodes where Donna and the Doctor are together for most of the story and where Donna doesn’t have to share the spotlight with past companions of the Tenth Doctor. Yes, she does get her own adventure with “Turn Left,” but she still gets pushed aside in her own finale (and really she gets pushed aside hard, but we’ll get to that). So, anyway, with this long, rambling preamble out of the way, let’s get cracking with “The Stolen Earth.”

I’ll give this to Davies: he knows how to lay out one hell of a hook. Right after the events of “Turn Left” (or, well, really the largely non-events…wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff), the Doctor and Donna arrive on Earth looking for the catastrophe they were warned about. Seeing nothing, they return to the TARDIS, but as is usually the case the Doctor has lousy timing. As soon as they step back on the TARDIS, they discover that the Earth has instantly disappeared without a trace. The Doctor does the unthinkable: seek help from intergalactic authorities, in this case the Shadow Proclamation. Meanwhile, his allies on Earth, including Rose who has returned from the parallel universe, find themselves facing a familiar threat of apocalyptic proportions.

I admit, though, the first time I watched it I was less impressed with the premise and more annoyed that we were getting yet another big event storyline about an alien invasion in present-day London. When Donna’s granddad, Wilfred, shouted, “It’s the aliens again!”, I was all like, “Oh my God, you said it.” As the saying goes, if your own characters are complaining about the plot… And if it wasn’t contemporary London, then it would have been Victorian London or a distant future so like contemporary London it might as well have been contemporary London. I know despite its success Doctor Who doesn’t have the biggest budgets, but did Davies believe viewers’ brains would melt if they didn’t have stories that took place in their own day and time? You’d almost think they weren’t watching a show about a man who can travel anywhere and anywhen.

Okay, okay, there were things I liked, then and now. I always love throwaway weirdness in my genre fiction, like bees being an alien race (“Not all of them!” the Doctor obnoxiously corrects) and the Daleks’ hiding the Earth and their base “one second” out of sync with the rest of the universe. Also, being a huge pedantic nerd, I also appreciated that they actually filled in a plot hole of sorts with the old ’60s serial, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” That serial never really gave us a good explanation for why the Daleks invaded the Earth; we get a reference to it here from the Tenth Doctor: “Someone tried to move the Earth once, a long time ago…” So hooray for filling decades-old plot holes. Plus, as usual, the Tenth Doctor is a lot of fun, when he’s not apparently pining after Rose (er, but more about that later). Also the solution that the Doctor’s ex-companions use to help the Doctor find Earth, basically getting every phone in Britain and Ireland to call the TARDIS, is a rather fun way of working the Doctor’s special relationship with the UK (and Ireland, maybe?) into the show, and a hell of a lot less cheesy than the “Doctor defeats The Master with the power of hope and faith!” resolution in “The Last of the Time Lords.” Speaking of which, I also liked the denouement the character of Harriet Jones got. She was always treated as more of a joke than I would have liked, but I appreciated that she was presented as heroic and silly up until the end, and that she could have great respect for the Doctor while still claiming that his strong ethical objection to her past actions is, well, completely wrong. On a similar note, how awesome was it to see Wilfred take on a Dalek with a paint gun? It doesn’t work, but still! And finally…Davros is back!

While I was sick of the Daleks by this point, it was good to have back another villain from the classic series and see once again everyone’s favorite cold yet short-tempered sociopathic scientist.

So looking at the big picture I should have loved this episode, and there was really a lot I liked about it. But for all that, though, the same old flaws we always see with Davies’ epics crop up again, and having watched the series from the beginning it was all getting much too tiresome. For starters, Rose is shoehorned into this story with a jackhammer. To be brutally honest, there’s just no logical place for her here, at least no place that isn’t already occupied by Donna. It’s Donna who’s shown fearing for the safety of her family and it’s Donna who should be having the reaction of shock and horror when she thinks the Doctor has been killed near the end. In fact, I would have preferred it if Donna was the only companion in this story, but at least Martha and Jack are given things to do. Besides a couple of bad-ass movements involving Rose running around with a really big gun, she really doesn’t do anything, a fact that the character herself complains about when she finds herself literally excluded from an Internet conference with the Doctor and the other ex-companions (seriously) and whines, “I was here first!” I’m sure many people, including myself, shouted “Oh, nobody cares!” at their screens.

Now I was going to put this off until next time but let me assure you…I don’t dislike Rose and I find the fan-rage directed at her extremely silly.  Billie Piper did more than a fine job with the character and even the idea of giving her a crush on the Doctor wasn’t a bad one, at least at first. The mistake wasn’t so much keeping it ambiguous, but implying that the Doctor returned her feelings. Yes, yes, the Third Doctor had feelings for Jo, but still at worst the Doctor should have seen her like a human would see the romantic potential of a chimp; at the very best their relationship would have been as likely and productive as that of a 30th century person and someone from the Bronze Age. It’s the reason why I liked the way Steven Moffat handled a companion crush through the Eleventh Doctor and Amy. The Doctor is confused and more than a little horrified, which would be a human’s ideal reaction if a dolphin tried to seduce them. Also, guess what, Amy’s feelings and relationship with the Doctor actually changed and evolved. Just saying.

Anyway, I’m sure more words have been spent on Rose and the Doctor than have been used to talk about Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the past century, and I’m starting to get into things better left for later, so let’s stop at the end of the episode, with the Doctor regenerating as a result of a Dalek attack; Jack, Rose, and Donna cowering in a corner of the TARDIS; and Martha off to activate a mysterious device designed by UNIT. Those of us familiar with Davies’ series closers already knew to brace ourselves for another round of “Oops, I’ve written myself into a corner,” but hey, at least we’d get more Davros!

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan (1966)

The Daleks begin planning for something called “Operation Inferno” while Mavic Chen, “guardian of the solar system”, confides in an ally that he is planning to betray Earth and its colonies to the invaders in exchange for power. Meanwhile the TARDIS appears on Kembel (the planet from “Mission to the Unknown”) where the Doctor sets out to explore, leaving Steven to recover with Katarina’s help. Steven and Katarina are rescued from a Dalek patrol by Bret and Kert, two soldiers looking for Marc Cory, although the latter is killed by the Daleks. The Doctor learns that they are in the year 4000 and that the Daleks are up to something, but nobody can agree what to do as Steven, the Doctor, and Bret indulge in some alpha male posturing. To escape a fire in the jungle started by the Daleks in order to smoke them out, the Doctor and the others sneak into the Dalek base, where they and their allies have gathered again. While the Doctor disguises himself as one of the representatives, the others work on stealing Mavic Chen’s spaceship. At the meeting, Mavic Chen presents a weapon called the “time destructor” that needs a rare element called taranium, but before the Doctor can learn more his ruse is exposed. Bret prepares to fly the ship without the Doctor in order to make sure they warn Earth before getting caught, but the Doctor makes it to the ship in time, along with the taranium, which he managed to steal in the confusion.

On the way to Earth, the Doctor produces the tape left by Corey, which he found in the jungle. Of course, the tape confirms their suspicions that the Daleks are planning a massive invasion of the solar system. Soon the Daleks manage to cause their ship to crash and unfortunately it happens to land on a prison planet. The Doctor uses electricity to keep the prisoners at bay long enough for Bret to repair the ship while the pursuing Daleks accidentally crash on the planet too. Unfortunately, one criminal who managed to get in the ship regardless takes Katarina hostage and threatens to kill her unless they take him to the nearest planet, which happens to be Kembel. After the others comply, Katarina opens the airlock, killing both her and the criminal. Steven cannot believe that she could have done it deliberately, but the Doctor thinks otherwise.

At last reaching Earth, Bret enlists the help of a friend, Daxtar, but the Doctor figures out that Daxtar is secretly working for Mavic Chen. To the Doctor’s horror, Bret promptly kills Daxtar. When Mavic Chen’s chief of security, Sara Kingdom, arrives, Bret is killed fighting her, giving the others enough time to escape. Sara chases the Doctor and Steven into a laboratory where a teleportation device is being tested, causing them to end up on the planet Mira. Steven and the Doctor learn that Bret was Sarah’s brother and that she was convinced they were all traitors, but Sarah is soon convinced that Mavic Chen is the real villain. The Daleks are hot on their trail, but unfortunately the natives of Mira turn out to be unfriendly – and invisible. Luckily the two problems cancel each other out, giving the Doctor and company the opportunity to hijack the Daleks’ ship. However, the Daleks take control of the ship remotely and steer it toward Kembel. On the fly the Doctor constructs a false piece of taranium and offers it to the Daleks if they allow them to hand it over in the TARDIS. They accept, thinking they have nothing to lose. However, Steven, who conducts the handover, is protected from the Daleks’ attacks by a force field, which gives them time to escape in the TARDIS. From there the TARDIS lands in 1960s England, where they are briefly arrested, and 1920s Hollywood, where they accidentally wreak havoc on the set of a silent film. For all that, the TARDIS’ crew still take time to celebrate Christmas.

After several more brief adventures, the TARDIS begins to be pursued by both Mavic Chen and the Daleks, who have realized the Doctor’s trick, and the Monk, out for revenge for when the Doctor stranded him in Anglo-Saxon England. Everyone ends up in ancient Egypt, where Mavic Chen forces the Monk into an alliance. Pretty effortlessly the Doctor catches the Monk in wrappings and traps him in a tomb. Sara and Steven rescue the Monk and enlist him in helping them find the Doctor, who has disappeared. When they run into the Daleks, the Monk acts as if he’s captured Sara and Steven as hostages. Mavic Chen uses a loudspeaker to draw out the Doctor, who hands over the taranium for Steven and Sara’s (and even the Monk’s) lives. Of course, the Daleks plan on killing everyone anyway, but an army of angry Egyptian soldiers gives them the chance to escape. On the TARDIS, the Doctor admits that he handed over the real taranium, but he also lifted the Monk’s directional navigator from his TARDIS. When the Monk flees himself, he finds himself on a frozen planet and vows revenge.

Unfortunately, the Doctor didn’t count on issues of technological compatibility, and because the Monk’s TARDIS was another model activating the navigator causes it to shorten out. Still, the TARDIS lands in Kembel as the Doctor wanted. In the jungle the Doctor and the companions are separated. The latter find the Daleks’ allies, including Mavic Chen, who have all been imprisoned to further the Daleks’ goals of universal conquest. In exchange for their freedom, all agree to turn their military forces against the Dalek Empire. Only Mavic Chen, whose ship explodes when he tries to leave, is unable to escape. However, Mavic Chen has only faked his death, and takes Sara and Steven prisoner. Chen tries desperately to salvage his partnership with the Daleks, but only winds up dead for his trouble. The business of mopping up Mavic Chen distracts the Daleks long enough for the Doctor to activate the Time Destructor, which causes lifeforms and objects to age rapidly. They flee with the Destructor back to the TARDIS, aging to old age as they go. Steven manages to cause the Destructor to go in reverse, but not before Sara dies. The Doctor flies the TARDIS away, leaving behind the now unstoppable Destructor. The Daleks try to destroy the Destructor, but only succeed in causing it to malfunction further, destroying them and Kembel. Back on the TARDIS, the Doctor reflects on the losses they’ve suffered and mumbles, “What a terrible waste.”

Our Future History

It is hinted that Earth is now heading an intergalactic empire or has at least extensively colonized dozens of other planets. At the least the entire solar system has been thoroughly colonized.

Continuity Notes

Katarina, who has only been with the Doctor briefly, is killed off, making her the first companion to die. It was purely a practical decision – the showrunners quickly decided that a character from the Bronze Age, who must have everything explained to them, would simply not work in the long term (arguably Leela would prove them wrong, but even with her the emphasis was not on her technologically backward background but on her violent warrior ethos). Unintentional as it may have been, it does add a bleaker edge to the show, as well as the idea that the Doctor is not as in control of events as he appeared before.

Plus it’s the first appearance and death of companion Sara Kingdom. Originally she was intended to have a leading role in an American-produced spin-off of “Doctor Who”, featuring characters in Earth circa 4000 fighting against the Daleks, but of course that never got off the ground.

This serial also has historical value as the first time the Doctor and his companions interact with a time contemporary to the viewing audience, unless you count the kick-off to “An Unearthly Child” or “Planet of Giants”, which arguably doesn’t count either.

Comments

To be honest, it’s probably unfair for me to review this episode, since several episodes from this serial are lost and I couldn’t find reconstructions or even just the audio to fill in the gaps. Like the best early “Doctor Who”, there’s a strange but potent mixture of dark elements (two central characters die in this, after all, as do quite a large number of background characters) and high camp. Not one but two companions die, in fairly horrific ways, in addition to a sizable number of less important characters. Never has the world of “Doctor Who” looked so dangerous and uncertain.

Like “The Chase”, it’s a Dalek story that runs too long for its own good and takes some downright bizarre turns (the digression that has the TARDIS’ crew arrested in contemporary London and ends with William Hartnell wishing a merry Christmas to the audience at home probably being this serial’s equivalent to the haunted house episode), but at least there’s more meat to the plot. Still, it is awfully repetitive; just about every cliffhanger until the conclusion ends with the Doctor and the crew being saved by some kind of very unlikely coincidence. It’s hard not to think that, at least in some respects, the scripts were being phoned in. Also, in hindsight, it’s a shame that the Monk is reduced to little more than a cameo in this, his second and last appearance.

Yes, This Really Happened: Cobra Has a TV Network

Growing up I never really got into G.I. Joe, but instead was a Transformers kid.  I realize now that was a mistake.  After all, the fact that it was a kids’ show in a country that tolerates little or no anime-style violence or Doctor Who-style bleakness in its mainstream children’s entertainment meat that G.I. Joe couldn’t do a lot of the things you’d expect from a show about an American paramilitary organization.  No storylines about Cobra supporting the Lord’s Resistance Army in order to create a power vacuum in the Central African Republic, and no episodes that show G.I. Joe storming Pyongyang to rescue a group of tortured hostages.  This meant that instead the writers of G.I. Joe had to eschew the obvious and aim for the creative – and by “creative” I mean “drug-trippingly insane.”

The challenge of taking a potentially very serious topic and making it mostly toothless also meant that Cobra had to be the most bizarre, non-threatening terrorist organization ever, sort of what Al Qaeda would be if you took away their death toll and left them with nothing but their attempts at corporate branding and hip-hop.  This episode more than most really reveals why that makes Cobra one of the more memorable villains to come out of Saturday mornings.  Who else would steal a bunch of satellites in order to launch their own TV network?  Not the Decepticons!

Feel free to make your own FOX News jokes.

All this is from the episode titled “The Wrong Stuff”, and as you might guess from the almost thirty-year old reference it’s sadly not really about Cobra’s TV network.  See, the Himalayan base Cobra is broadcasting from is, according to Cobra Commander, too well-hidden for the Joes to uncover.

Jesus Christ!  Even Dr. Wiley would accuse Cobra Commander of being too flamboyant!  Well, I guess at least this base doesn’t have a giant cobra on top of it like so many of their other ones.  I guess in Cobra terms that is a secret base.

Well, apparently the Joes really aren’t that bright after all or they really need to put more money into their reconnaissance budget, because the only way to stop Cobra is actually go out into space and take out their satellites.  it’s all just an excuse to get G.I. Joe to fly a space shuttle, and fight in zero gravity,  and there’s a training montage while they’re tested to see who can go out of space that takes up about five minutes, and…well, how can you keep up your interest with the heroes when the villains are airing things like Mr. C?

Unfortunately, we only get to see him say “I pity the fool that doesn’t join Cobra!”  Does he sing songs like “Treat the Baroness right!” or does he travel the world with a gymnastic team as they steal state secrets for Cobra?  Sadly we will never know.  At least Mr. C“wasn’t the worst, most shameless attempt to exploit Mr. T’s good name by a powerful organization promoting a deranged, nonsensical ideology.

Speaking of which, we do also get to see Cobra Commander on his very own talk show, where we learn, “I was six when I realized that I could run society better than the morons that are in charge!”

This just raises even more questions that Mr. C.  For example, is really just a full hour of Cobra Commander ranting at an empty suit?  Or would they have kidnapped and/or blackmailed celebrities as guests?  “We’ll hear some more about Cobra Commander’s trying years in junior high, but now…Cher!”  Or would it just be the other members of Cobra?  Would the host ever ask the Baroness and Destro about their simmering sexual chemistry?!  Anyway, it’s the Cobra Commander interview that proves the last straw to the Joes, with Lady Jaye angrily commenting, “Some people would watch anything!” Now this is an episode that literally speaks to me.

But it’s not just infotainment and knock-offs of popular shows;  CTN also has original programming designed to promote what Cobra Commander calls Cobra’s “social philosophy,” like The Likeables.  Three Smurf-like beings (only green) are walking down a road, with one complaining that nobody likes him.  The other two cheerfully remind him that it’s because he’s “different” and use their magic to make him look more like them.  Then we get some hardcore Cobra “social philosophy”:  “”Only when everyone looks alike and acts alike and thinks alike and never ever gets angry, can we achieve world peace.”  Leave it to an international terrorist organization to finally give us a young children’s show moral that realistically prepares viewers for what school and, let’s be honest, what working in most offices is like.

I kind of lost interest after the show was clearly done with the CTN idea.  From then on, it’s just space battle, space battle, Destro is awesome as usual, Joes win, hooray.  Well, to be fair we do also get Cobra Commander playing with a giant globe for absolutely no reason.  Who wouldn’t follow this man?  And, really, I’m not sure if I meant that as a joke.

That is one of the things that made G.I. Joe so much fun, and still makes it more distinctive than the inevitable “darker and edgier” adaptations.  Destro and the Baroness come across as at least very rational, competent villains, but they still play second fiddle to the backstabbing, cowardly, inept, and pretty crazy Cobra Commander.  It’s Dilbert before Dilbert, The Office before The Office…but with hi-tech terrorists!  Seriously, if Shredder and Krang were the dysfunctional sitcom family of kids’ shows, then Cobra had the screwball office environment.

Really, though, this episode would have been so much more fun if it had Cobra trap the Joes in some kind of Running Man-like game show, or if we had more clips from CTN’s Thursday night line-up.  But at least we do get to see Cobra host a fundraising telethon, but that’s a tale for another time…