Thoughts on the New ‘Who’ Series: Planet of the Dead

To celebrate The Dark Knight Rises coming to theaters, let’s talk about that Doctor Who episode based on a “Catwoman Meets Doctor Who” fanfic.  You know what I mean!

I should probably be really upfront:  I don’t care for “Planet of the Dead.”  It’s probably my least favorite of the “End of the Tenth Doctor” mega-epic besides of course That Which Shall Not Be Named Yet.  I wish I liked it because it’s co-written by Gareth Roberts, who wrote one of my favorite episodes of the new series “The Lodger,” but regardless I don’t like it, to the point that I had to coax myself into rewatching it just for this post.   I’ll be honest and admit that part of the reason I don’t like it is for political elements that have nothing to do with the aesthetics of the episode, specifically that Russell T. Davies, a gay man, chose to have most of the episode filmed in Dubai, a country where gay people are arrested, tortured, and executed.  Diamanda Hagan covers the topic with the appropriate venom so I won’t really get into it here, except to say that I’d definitely be really pissed off about it if I was a UK taxpayer.  Besides, my main issue really has to do with how this episode combines the worst of Davies’ tendency to write the Doctor like an American superhero with one of the most obnoxious attempts at making a “strong” female character in history:  Christina de Souza.  Why did we end up with a third-rate Catwoman or Lara Croft when they could have used a much more powerful fictional woman as their model:

Okay, I’m joking…but only kind of.   Believe it or not, and because of my weird fixation on Chaos! Comics feel free not to, but at least with Lady Death Brian Pulido was pushing the boundaries of what’s morally acceptable for a female protagonist to do.  Christina de Souza is just so…stock.  For me the litmus test for seeing if a character is badly written is how easy it is to imagine a bunch of writers coming up with the character via a Mad Libs game, and that’s the case here.  See:  Christina de Souza is a(n) aristocrat who is unhappy with her station in life and rebels by being a thief and putting on a strong front along with wit and flirtatiousness but she really has a heart of gold!  For me personally when her character seriously said, “That’s how I like things…extreme,” it was all over.

Of course, it didn’t help that when she’s introduced she lets the police arrested her boyfriend who was serving as a getaway driver, and it’s okay and doesn’t make her unlikable at all because, uh…she’s a strong female character, okay?!

You know, one way the character might have been salvaged is if this took place in another time period.  If she was a noblewoman from just about anytime before the late twentieth century, she might have come across as more interesting, or at least it would have forced the writers to put more effort into her character.  However, since Davies is behind the wheel in part, our choices are just contemporary London or a far future resembling contemporary Britain.  For part of this one, it’s the former.

While escaping the cops, Christina boards a bus that happens to have the Doctor on it…and happens to drive through a wormhole to apparently a desert planet…and happens to include a female Magic Negro, who “hears” the voices of the dead on the planet.  I’m not at all against metaphysical elements in my Doctor Who – let’s face it, from the start the show was as much fantasy as it was sci-fi under most definitions of either genre – but the character’s abilities literally add almost nothing to the story…except one thing, but we’ll get to that.  The other people on the bus are worth mentioning even less.  At first it seems like we’re going to get a “Midnight”-like character study of the Doctor dealing with humans in a crisis, but honestly they all end up being set pieces behind the Doctor and Christina…as shown below.

So the Doctor and Christina set out alone to find the cause of the wormhole.  You know the drill:  Christina is flirtatious and tough but occasionally acts girly because, you know…strong female character.  They stumble across a group of humanoid flies, who reveal that the planet was once home to a thriving civilization with hospitable environments but they were wiped out by a horde of locust-like creatures (although when we see them they look more like sting rays) who devastate an entire planet, reproduce, and then move on to a new world via a wormhole they create themselves.

Honestly the fly humanoids are the best thing in this episode, if only because their reason for being on the planet was that they were carrying out a trade for the planet’s capital’s manure.  Fill in your own joke about the quality of this episode here.

Of course, because I found them interesting, they get killed off as soon as the threat of the episode is revealed.  I forgot to mention while this is going on UNIT (sans the Brigadier sadly) is investigating the wormhole.  Their scientist Malcolm deduces that the wormhole is growing larger.  While they do have the technology to shut it down, Malcolm hesitates because the Doctor is still on the other side and Malcolm happens to be a fan.  According to production notes, Malcolm was either meant to be or turned into an allegory for Doctor Who‘s entire fan base.  I actually like the idea behind the character, even if in execution it’s a little too over-the-top like all of Davies’ “cute” ideas.  But it helps if you actually see the character as Davies’ own Mary Sue (assuming that Rose Tyler didn’t already serve that purpose…).

This does lead into the one other thing I liked about this special.  The UNIT commander, Captain Magambo, wants to close the wormhole immediately, to the point that she actually threatens Malcolm with a gun.  Rather than being completely unsympathetic, the episode concedes that she has a point, and the implication is there that Malcolm is willing to risk the lives of everybody just out of his fanboyish love of the Doctor (like you wouldn’t!).

Unfortunately, in the end not much is done with it, and the dark tone from this subplot (not to mention the tragic implications of countless inhabited planets getting wiped out by an unending horde of planet-destroying monsters) is overshadowed by the frothy light-hearted adventure Davies keeps trying to impose over the proceedings.  The Doctor rigs the bus to fly through the wormhole, Christina does some more strong female character things (like whining about the Doctor using the gold from an Anglo-Saxon era goblet that she stole for his device), and three of the creatures do escape but get killed by UNIT soldiers.

Once the crisis du jour is averted, Christina offers to travel with the Doctor, but he refuses, still reluctant to take a companion after what happened to Donna.  He does, however, give her an opportunity to escape arrest.  This would annoy me, but at least there’s the assurance she won’t ever be coming back (Steven Moffat willing!).

But there was one other thing.  What was it?

Oh, right.

So via the psychic Davies unleashes on his audience one more bullshit teaser:  the Doctor is warned that “he will knock three times,” signaling the Doctor’s “death.”  Honestly, when this episode first came out, I actually enjoyed the fan speculation that ensued, so I really can’t blame Davies, especially since it was a perfectly conceived hint;  just vague enough that one could construct the most elaborate and outlandish theories around it.  Unfortunately, since the reveal came in That Which Will Not Be Named Yet, some of the fan theories turned out to be more interesting than the end result…but that’s for another time.

Until then, we have “The Waters of Mars,” which believe it or not I really liked.  Am  I capable of not being overly negative when it comes to a story by the man I owe contemporary Doctor Who to in the first place?  We’ll see!

Radio Silence (For A While Anyway)

My computer died, and somewhat unexpectedly too.  Worse, I’m not much of a tech person, so this inconveniences me more than it would people more savvy and prepared than I am.  

You may have already noticed that I was posting on a less frequent schedule, and that was deliberate.  I was taking advantage of my looser schedule over the summer to work on other projects, so Trash Culture was on a back burner for a bit.  Honestly even my computer dying won’t have that much of an impact if you need your trash culture fix, but it will set us back a bit.

I won’t get into the messy, frustrating, and boring details, but to desperately save money I took steps that will basically mean I won’t have a new computer for a while.  It was also take longer before I get all the data restored.  While everything vitally important has been saved, I have a feeling – an increasingly sinking one, knowing my recent luck – that some of my media and game files have been lost to the void, or at least will take even more time to recover.  That means there is a chance, since I was playing Spiritual Warfare on an emulator, that I lost my save data for the game.  Now I’m committed to finishing the series, even it means starting the game over (God help me!), but in all probability it might be a few weeks until we bury Spiritual Warfare and drive a stake through its heart once and for all.  Also it means that another Forsaken post I had planned will have to be postponed.  It will be up eventually because while I lost the screenshots for it I do have my notes, but it will be a while on that too.

But this doesn’t mean this blog will go out of commission for too long.  There’s a “New Who” post I’ll have up in a couple of days and a new Simpsons write-up I can finish after that.  In the meantime, as much as it pains me to have to clang the cup, don’t forget the Donate button.  I’ve always been shocked and humbled whenever anyone donates any amount, but if you’ve enjoyed my posts at all and have felt any inclination to donate, now’s definitely the time!  

Despite the delays and problems, though, I have no intention of abandoning the blog and in fact I still have various plans to expand it further in the future, including the introduction of video posts.  I’m amazed and gratified that I have over a 100 followers on Twitter and that my site averages have been increasing each and every week for the past few months.  Thank you everyone for your support, either by donating or just sharing my posts, and stay tuned.

Doctor Who – The Tenth Planet (1967)

It’s 1986, and the release of “Crocodile Dundee” isn’t the only thing that’s noteworthy. An international space agency has just launched the “Zeus IV” rocket on a routine mission from its base in Antarctica. Afterward the base’s crew are shocked when they spot the Doctor, Ben, and Polly sightseeing the wasteland of Antarctica. They have them brought to the base and detained. The official in charge of the base, General Cutler, wants to interrogate the Doctor, but is distracted by the mission Zeus IV is on, especially once the crew on board spot a brand new yet strangely “familiar” planet that’s near Venus and the ship suffers an abrupt and unexplained loss of power. The Doctor proves his credentials by accurately predicting exactly what the scientists will discover: a planet that resembles Earth, but Cutler is still hostile and skeptical. While the base’s crewmen investigate the TARDIS outside, they are killed by a group of cyborgs who then disguise themselves with the crewmen’s coats.

The Doctor tries to warn the scientists about the danger the crew of Zeus IV are in and about invaders from the twin Earth, but they’re too busy trying to save the ship to listen or notice as the disguised cyborgs effortlessly take over the base. One of the cyborgs explains that his race are the Cybermen. They come from Mondas, a planet that shared Earth’s orbit millions of years ago but some cataclysm caused it to drift into deep space. In order to survive, the surviving human-like Mondasians, the Cybermen’s ancestors, had to use “spare parts for their bodies.” Another improvement made by the Cybermen was in removing all emotions. By threatening to break off all contact with Zeus IV, the Cybermen force the base’s scientists to tell the space agency that nothing unusual is happening at the base even though knowledge of the existence of Mondas has become public and power across Earth is slowly being drained. Ben tries to grab a gun and attack the Cybermen, but only ends up locked in a room. The crew can only talk to the crew of Zeus IV as the ship is pulled into Mondas’ orbit and explodes. The Cybermen coolly explain that what happened to Zeus IV is also happening all over the Earth; Mondas, which has been dying, is draining Earth’s energy, but before the Earth dies the Cybermen will “save” humanity by bringing them to Mondas and converting them into Cybermen. Meanwhile Ben manages to use the equipment in his prison to devise a makeshift weapon which, to his horror, he uses to kill a Cyberman. Still, Ben hands the weapon to General Cutler, who uses it to kill the Cybermen and take back control of the base. Cutler gets into contact with the international space agency in Geneva and learns that they just sent his son on a mission to save the doomed Zeus IV.

The Doctor becomes severely ill, so ill he becomes unconscious. Meanwhile Cutler plans to use the Z-Bomb, a literal “doomsday weapon,” on Mondas, now that a Cybermen invasion force seems to have been launched from Mondas. Even though Cutler’s superiors and one of the base’s scientists, Dr. Barclay, are concerned that blowing up Mondas with the Z-Bomb will cause a wave of radiation that would kill much of Earth’s population and Ben tells Cutler that the Doctor was certain that Mondas would absorb too much energy and become destroyed, Cutler is determined to see Mondas obliterated. Polly convinces Barclay to turn against Cutler and he then tells Ben how to sabotage the Z-Bomb. When the bomb fails to launch, Cutler immediately blames the Doctor, Barclay, and the others. A conscious but still ill Doctor appears and defends Polly and Ben. After one more broadcast reveals that his son’s ship is almost out of power and is drifting toward Mondas, Cutler goes insane and threatens to murder the Doctor. Suddenly Cybermen invade the base again and, when Cutler tries to attack, he is killed. The Doctor tries to warn the Cybermen that Mondas is doomed and offers to let them live on Earth. As a guarantee the Cybermen take Polly hostage and promise to return her once the Z-Bomb is taken underground by Ben and Barclay. The Doctor figures out that the Cybermen really want to use the Z-Bomb to destroy the Earth in order to save Mondas and manages to warn Barclay and Ben about the Cybermen’s real intentions.

Ben figures out that the Cybermen are reluctant to handle the Z-Bomb themselves because they are vulnerable to radiation and tries to threaten the Cybermen with the bomb. In retaliation, the Cybermen take the Doctor hostage. Ben and Barclay use radiation rods taken from the base’s energy core as a weapon against the Cybermen and get a front row seat as Mondas literally disintegrates. This has the handy side effect of killing all the Cybermen on Earth. Ben rescues Polly and the Doctor, who has fallen unconscious again, from the Cybermen’s ship. The Doctor desperately demands that Polly and Ben take him back to the TARDIS “at once.” Polly and Ben are locked out of the TARDIS, but a very weak Doctor barely manages to open the doors. As soon as they reach the console, the Doctor collapses on the floor and his body flashes with light as the TARDIS teleports, leaving behind a younger and seemingly new man.

Continuity Notes

There are a couple of big ones here; the biggest is that we have William Hartnell, who originated the role, leaving the show and the first regeneration, which is probably the ultimate example of television necessity becoming a major plot point. Naturally the showrunners had no inkling that “Doctor Who” would keep running until the year depicted in the serial and beyond, but they knew they at least had to find a way to work in the Doctor’s replacement. According to interviews, the original idea was that Mondas’ energy drain on Earth had the side effect of causing the Doctor to revert back to youth, but once we had a third Doctor it was retroactively declared that the Doctor regenerated here as well. This does leave open the question of why exactly the Doctor needs to regenerate in this case. Despite the old suggestion, which isn’t conveyed clearly at all on screen, that Mondas itself is the culprit, the usual fan explanation seems to be that the First Doctor simply needed to regenerate due to old age.

The other big one is that it’s the first appearance of the Cybermen, who are undoubtedly second only to the Master and the Daleks in the Doctor’s rogues gallery.

Like quite a few things in this episode, it isn’t made clear, but if you squint your eyes you might see the writers hinting that the Doctor was involved in whatever event threw Mondas out of orbit. At the least you could argue that the episodes show that the Doctor encountered the Cybermen or their Mondasian predecessors before.

Choice Quotes

The Doctor: “I don’t like your tone, sir!”
Cutler: “And I don’t like your face. Or your hair.”
The Doctor: “Hmph!”

Sign of the Times

Once he realizes that he’s in 1986, Ben asks if people have been to the moon yet. Unfortunately, the answer he gets suggests that expeditions to the moon happen frequently.

During the tense scene where Cutler tries to get the Z-Bomb launched against Mondas, Polly helpfully offers to make coffee for everyone.

Days of Future Past

First off, in 1986 there is a fully functional space base in Antarctica, capable of sending ships to at least the moon. Also there is an international space agency with its headquarters in Geneva. Plus, given that the head of the space agency is Russian and is working well with General Cutler, who is American, the Cold War is apparently long over.

The Last Words of the First Doctor

The Doctor: It’s over, it’s all over. That’s what you said. No, but it isn’t all over. It’s far from being all over! […] I must get back to the TARDIS…immediately! […] I must go now.
Ben: Don’t you want to go back and say goodbye or anything?
Doctor: No, no, I must go at once.
Ben (handing the Doctor his cloak): Oh well. Better wear this or you’ll catch your death of cold.
Doctor: Oh yes. I forgot…keep warm.

Comments

To be honest I never really liked the Cybermen. They just seemed like a reiteration of the emotionless, psychotically pragmatic Daleks. Still, I was pleasantly surprised with these episodes. Somehow the Cybermen are more effective in their most primitive form in ’60s sci-fi glory, with simply distorted and silly yet vaguely menacing voices, still recognizably human mouths and eyes, surgical bandages wrapped around their heads instead of sleek helmets, and unrecognizable, chaotic mounds of metal and plastic on their chests. It really drives home the idea of these as designer cyborgs, created not methodically but by a desperate people looking down at darkly slim odds of basic survival. Also I have to admit they got quite a nice introduction. When Polly asks them why they don’t care about the lives on Zeus IV, one Cyberman simply retorts that “there are people dying all over your world right now and you do not care about them.”

As for the story itself, it is sublimely ridiculous, even by ’60s “Doctor Who” standards, from digging up the old idea of there being a Counter-Earth to the weird idea that Mondas is somehow draining power from Earth to the unexplained plot holes (like how and why Mondas came back into Earth’s orbit in the first place). Admittedly it’s a bit much, especially if you have a low tolerance for camp, but the whole serial just captures the very essence of a ’60s sci-fi film so well it almost feels like you’re watching something that came out of a young Roger Corman’s studio. The impression is definitely sealed by the inclusion of General Cutler, who represents one of sci-fi’s most beloved tropes, the barking military man. The fact that he’s basically a bundle of American stereotypes naturally makes him even more fun to watch. I simply enjoyed this one, and it probably does the best job of tapping into a cinematic atmosphere since “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”

Now I just have to talk about the First Doctor’s final appearance (well, sort of, but we’ll get to all that). I plan to write up a retrospective on the First Doctor era, but I have to say I am disappointed that William Hartnell didn’t get more of a send-off. I suppose, if the stories about Hartnell’s health problems are true, it was inevitable, and a quiet, subtle close to the First Doctor’s era does fit it best. However, Hartnell’s Doctor always worked best when he was facing off against a rival mastermind, as in “The Time Meddler,” “The Celestial Toymaker,” or, in a way, “Marco Polo,” or when simply poking around and getting into trouble in some alien or historical milieu. In action-oriented stories of alien invasions like this, which seem to belong more to the Pewtree era or even to the coming Troughton era, Hartnell was a bit more out of place. So while it is nice that the Hartnell took a bow on a strong note, especially after a couple of mostly lacking seasons, it did leave me with the feeling that the “real” end of Hartnell’s time on the show had already long passed. Nonetheless, even if it is mostly from hindsight, there was something rather sad, and very appropriate, in the First Doctor’s muddled last words.

The Forsaken: The Edge

Out of all the performers and artists out there whose careers stalled badly after a certain point or who never seemed to get as large of a following as they deserve, Julie Brown (not to be confused with “Downtown” Julie Brown) has always been at the top of my list.

Sure, maybe her shtick had an expiration date on it, since it initially depended a lot on the ’80s’ own nostalgia craze for the ’50s and on mocking the late ’80s/early ’90s phenomenon of the “rock bimbo,” but even in her heyday she didn’t seem to get the credit she deserved.  Although we’re now pretty much in a post-Madonna world (sorry, older gay readers, but deep in your hearts you know it’s true), Medusa: Dare to be Truthful is still one of the greatest works of pop culture satire ever, if just for the song “Party in my Pants.”   Since then, sadly, her career has been marked by projects that did not make as much of a mark as her first big show, Just Say Julie!  That includes the 1993-1994 sketch comedy, The Edge.

Even more than Julie Brown spearheading the show, “The Edge” is known for being full of soon-to-bes. The show’s initial producer David Mirkin was between producing cult hit Get a Life and his historic run as the showrunner for The Simpsons, Wayne Knight was about to get a career boost from playing Jerry Seinfeld’s eternal nemesis NewmanTom Kenney would go on to be the voice of Spongebob Squarepants, and, well…

Yes, the star of Leprechaun!

Besides its notable future star cast, The Edge had other ways to set it about from the ur-American sketch comedy, Saturday Night Live,  like the fact that every episode began with the entire cast being killed.  Over the course of the show’s run, the cast had been set on fire, sucked into a vortex to Hell, shot with arrows, shot with a gun, and of course, decapitation:

But even with making a recurring gag out of the brutal homicide of the entire cast, was The Edge really edgey?  Yes and no.  Like most FOX offerings of the early ’90s, The Edge was, even more than SNL, ready and willing to not only seize the lowest common denominator, but do so with pride and aplomb;  a kind of meta-sleaze, if you will.  Also The Edge is generally faster paced with more overlap between its skits, which gives it a fundamentally different feel from SNL.  Yet it just didn’t go the lengths of David Mirkin’s cult hit Get a Life or later skit comedies like The State and Mr. Show.

 You do get pretty dark skits like the “Armed family,” featuring a family encouraged by their patriarch to gun down anyone that looks at them crosseyed, including a car full of teenagers who try to pass them.

But like with too many attempts at “morbid” humor the “morbid” element becomes the entire joke.  The other kind of skits that fall flat are the ones that are a little too SNL-like and come across as one of 30 Rock‘s parodies of comedy skits, like Cracklin’ Crotch, the cowboy with…a cracklin’ crotch!

It’s a cliche to say that a sketch comedy is a mixed bag, but it’s a cliche for a reason, and The Edge is…a mixed bag, so there’s good to be had as well.  A recurring skit has Julie Brown and Jennifer Aniston play a couple of rock groupies (for a very thinly disguised Guns N’ Roses) and it’s funnier than you’d think what is essentially a series of “dumb bimbo” jokes would be.  Then there’s a parody of “heartwarming” made-for-TV movies with Kevin Nealon portraying a man who received an ass-transplant from a baboon.

Another episode has a fast series of clips titled “People Not Connected 2 Reality”, with a nerdy pizza guy calling Madonna and Claudia Scheffer for dates and a New Jersey yuppie trying to bribe an IRS agent with a $20 bill.  My personal favorite, though, is their special sweeps episode, where morally outraged newscasters show the very lingering shots of half-naked women that they decry, all while being watched by three housewives who nervously chow down on phallic fruits and vegetables as they plot counting T&A shots from Basic Instinct.

When The Edge gets it right, it really gets it right, but the show is uneven even by sketch comedy standards.  Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for fans of Julie Brown or David Mirkin’s work on Get a Life and The Simpsons.  As far as I know there aren’t any fan-made DVDs circulating (emphasis on as far as I know), but there are some full episodes posted on YouTube, just not all 18 episodes from the show’s one and only season.  What is out there, though, is definitely worth sampling.

Final Fantasy Retrospective Part 8: One Winged Angel

I honestly can’t say if Final Fantasy VII is as divisive as it used to be, but like I said last time back in the day you were either pro-VI or pro-VII.  And I was so vehemently, fanatically pro-VI that I’m ashamed to admit that I actually refused to acknowledge VII.  It was years before I actually played it, and even longer before I actually completed it.  In a lot of ways, VII truly is in many ways the literal and spiritual sequel of VI, despite all the differences on the surface.  Both toy with if not flat-out deconstruct Japanese RPG tropes;  both make full use of their non-traditional (or more exactlynon-medieval) backgrounds; and they both push a series already known for its emphasis on plot even further.

From the very start, VII already breaks the mold.  You start the game not as a member of a group like the “Light Warriors” or as a lovable rogue like Locke from VI, but as a mercenary working for a terrorist group the game explicitly tells you is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.  VII’s hero, Cloud, tends to get remembered as a brooding, mopey protagonist, but that’s not the whole story.  What then looks like it’s become a straightforward story of misfits – two terrorists, a bartender, the remnant of an ancient civilization “disguised” as a flower girl in the slums, a sentient lion-like being, and (possibly) an amateur ninja/thief and a gunslinging vampire-like entity – against a powerful, sinister corporation slowly killing a planet in a short-sighted quest for greed subtly becomes something else:  a  tale about identity, memory, and the fight against a tragic villain and a truly incomprehensible, Lovecraftian threat.  It takes Final Fantasy to the next level of storytelling the same time it took the series to the next level of technology.

Of course, even people who praise the game do admit that it started trends that would lead to the downfall of the series, leading to a real divide between the “pre-VII” and “post-VII” fans.  It taught Square the wrong lessons, leading the Final Fantasy games to emphasize cinematics over art and to cling to contemporary and sci-fi aesthetics rather than experiment with worldbuilding further, and unleashed the anime and cosplay hordes upon the franchise, although arguably that invasion wasn’t really launched until VIII came along.

Still, you can’t blame VII like I childishly and stupidly did, and VII definitely isn’t responsible for one of the problems that emerge later:  over-experimental and overcooked gameplay.   Instead VII‘s gameplay is beautiful simplicity.  The characters do lose a lot of the “gameplay individuality” the characters in VI has, but with the materia granted characters spells and abilities there is a certain degree of strategy to the character building, which doesn’t need to be learned inside or out just to do well.

So in the end I’ll have to conclude that both VI and VII are the golden age of the franchise.  However, the fall did come quickly…