Non-Nostalgia Reviews, Uncategorized

Non-Nostalgia Review: The War Master: Only The Good

This might shock you regular readers of this blog, but I am a pretty big Who fan, to the point that I’m familiar with not just the TV show, but with the radio plays put out by Big Finish (which, rather delightfully, were recently given at least semi-canonical status by the show itself!). Plus I have very strong opinions about the “Who was the best showrunner of the modern series?” debate, but fortunately for you we’re here for something rather different. Here’s my thoughts on probably one of Big Finish’s most anticipated titles, springing out of their closer arrangement with the BBC that allowed them to work with storylines and characters from the modern series…


Let me state the obvious: if you’re not already at least a casual fan of the TV show, this ain’t for you. Even the title, “The War Master”, is not really comprehensible unless you have some familiarity with the show’s continuity, and not just the fact that one of the show’s longest-running villains is called the Master. This definitely is no gateway, but it’s not intended to be. Instead, it’s a salve for those of us who wanted to see more of the great Sir Derek Jacobi performing as the Doctor’s greatest frenemy, the Master, for more than the six minutes we got in “Utopia”. Luckily, more than that, it’s a great addition to the “Doctor Who” canon in its own right, which fleshes out the Master in a way that fits neatly with both the “classic” and modern series interpretations of the character.

After a run-in with the Daleks and managing to recover his lost TARDIS, the Master is ordered by the Time Lords to perform an undercover mission on the planet Arcking, an entire planet that’s serving as a battlefield hospital in the Time War. If there is such a thing as an interplanetary Geneva Convention in the Doctor Who universe, the Daleks wouldn’t give a damn about it anyway, so why hasn’t Arcking been blasted into oblivion? Well, some unknown power that can effortlessly defy even the entire Dalek armada is protecting the planet, and the Time Lords want to find out if they can harness it. While pretending to be a benevolent doctor, the Master runs into a young, brilliant engineer named Cole, whom he soon enlists as his own companion and encourages him to play hero even in the midst of the most tragic catastrophes of the Time War. See, even the Master is disgusted with the Time War and, like the Doctor, he has a plan for ending it. It’s just, unlike his childhood friend, he doesn’t really get hung up on the question of whether the ends justify the means…

In a way, it’s a shame that we probably won’t get to see Derek Jacobi play the Master on the TV show again. But one of the strong points of Big Finish is that, freed from the limitations of a special effects budget, you can steer the story almost anywhere. So, Big Finish has stories like “…ish”, a Sixth Doctor adventure where the Doctor and his companion Peri face off against a renegade, murderous bit of language, or an Eighth Doctor story, “Scherzo”, where both the Doctor and his companion Charlie spend most of the time completely blinded by a bright light. The four interlinked stories that make up this “mini-series”, Only the Good, don’t get that experimental by a longshot, but it’s still hard to imagine it playing out on the show, unless the BBC miraculously multiplied its budget by ten. It’s an epic that spans from a war-torn city of amphibious beings to a suburban (literal) death-trap, with lively voice acting, especially from Nerys Hughes, who gets a delicious role that…well, I can’t talk about without spoilers.

The one issue with the scripting is that the overall story takes a while to actually get going. The first installment, “Beneath the Viscoid”, is more of a prelude, having little to do with the overall arc of the mini-series but setting up the Master’s personality, how he fits in the Time War, and just how dire the situation is. Still, it doesn’t fit in the narrative that well, and sets up the expectation that Only the Good will be a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive tale, albeit one with different cooks stirring the pot. In fact, you could probably skip “Beneath the Viscoid” and still be able to follow the rest of it.

But this is, admittedly, nitpicking. Honestly, this is one of Big Finish’s best offerings, and indeed an excellent Doctor Who tale even by the standards of the TV show at its best. Partially, it’s because this isn’t just a Master story, but a story about the Master. It actually makes an effort to build on both his past and future characterization. People dissatisfied with the more unhinged Masters portrayed by Sims and Gomez (and, for that matter, Big Finish’s own McQueen) might be pleased that Jacobi more resembles the cool if still murderous Master of the old series. At the same time, though, the writers pick up on the modern series’ exploration of the question of whether or not the Master is more capable of heroic selflessness than he’d ever admit.

As you might expect, though, the main draw is Derek Jacobi’s layered and downright brilliant take on the Master, which builds so much more than the precious little time he got on screen and showing that not giving him more time was one of the show’s biggest blunders. Jacobi’s Master is, on the surface, a reserved, eccentric, if slightly irascible man, but you don’t have to scratch far to find a sadist who can hold a really nasty, deadly grudge. Without getting into spoilers, it even makes Only the Good worth at least a second listen, as you listen knowing what the Master has in mind. Much like how thanks to Big Finish the Eighth Doctor, who “officially” only appeared in the TV movie and a brief special, The Night of the Doctor, became a fan favorite, I’m sure Jacobi will become one of the best Masters despite being fated to barely even an episode-long tenure.

Anyway, let me close off with just one quick, mild spoiler that might satisfy the curiosity of some of you: no, Only the Good doesn’t even refer to the “the Master was driven mad by a drumbeat inside his head” retcon (as if you’d need another reason to like Only the Good).



Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: “Gotham” Pilot (2014)

Even more so than other projects targeted toward a large fanbase, Gotham was getting bad word of mouth as soon as the news of the series was announced.  Of course there was the usual skepticism about prequels, but also the idea of a Batman series without Batman or of Smallville in Batman clothing.  All things considered, though, Gotham is a stronger concept for a prequel than Smallville.  Focusing on the rise of Detective Gordon through a decadent police department, on Gotham’s notorious corruption, and on the ugly transition from traditional organized crime to super-criminals is a much richer and more natural mine for stories than what Smallville had, which did draw from the teenage Lex Luthor-Clark Kent relationship but had to resort to monsters-of-the-week and later to shoveling in as many DC Comics characters as possible to generate episodes.  It helps that the comics have already delved into most of these regions of the Batman mythos, with classic stories like Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween as well as a series focused on the Gotham police department, Batman: GCPD.  Centering the series around an already weary but irrepressibly ethical James Gordon first getting his glimpse of the machinery of corruption that runs Gotham City was a wise move, providing lots of possibilities for story arcs that can touch on the mythos without turning the series into Young Batman versus Teen Joker.


That said, what did give me pause was the decision to include several members of the rogues gallery.  I get that it was inevitable, necessary to please both fans and the studio.  And I will admit that the debut of a young Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) as a lowly but ambitious mob lackey works quite organically, and the appearance of Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) (which here amounted to little more than a cameo) does promise some interesting developments later.  Also it’s not a bad idea on the face of it to include an adolescent Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), especially if we get to follow her evolution as a master-thief, but already the pilot tries too hard to tie her in with Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz).  Even worse is the inclusion of Poison Ivy (Clare Foley) as a little girl, who gets connected, albeit loosely, to the murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents in a way that begs suspension of disbelief even more than a millionaire who dresses in a bat-costume to fight genius psychopaths.  It does make me fret that, especially if the series lasts for at least a few seasons, we’ll end up with the Scarecrow as Bruce Wayne’s child psychologist or the Mad Hatter as James Gordon’s eccentric neighbor.


Still, my overall view of the series is “cautiously optimistic”, largely because the pilot was pretty smartly written.  There’s a few great little moments like Detective Bullock downing milk of magnesia while eating in a cafe and Edward Nygma having an elaborately scribbled notebook that hints at his insanity even more than his dialogue.  But most of all was how well the characters who weren’t Bruce Wayne or Alfred or the future rogues were depicted.  Jada Smith already looks like she’ll be a quality antagonist as the mob lieutenant Fish Mooney, even if the laws of the prequel indicate that she’ll be doomed eventually.  Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is, like his comic counterpart, a good cop in a rotten department, but he’s also a character the script isn’t afraid to force into a few ugly choices.  Probably the most surprisingly developed character is Harvey Bullock (Dolan Logue).  In a lot of adaptations Bullock is at worst comic relief or at best a foil for Gordon and Batman, but here the script and Dolan Logue present him as a fundamentally well-meaning cop who nonetheless became fully integrated into the corrupt system long ago.  Together with Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), one gets a portrait of a team of cops who are “good” in the sense that they want to do their jobs but who also see no alternatives to playing the system as it is, potentially making their dynamic with Gordon the would-be reformer even more interesting despite the fact that fans already know where all this is headed overall.


With the exception of Oswald Cobblepot, the appearances of the future rogues is still a weak point in an otherwise solid story, especially because the script is blatantly much more interested in how Gordon and Bullock handle the Wayne murders than in setting up the rogues or even spending much time with young Bruce Wayne.  Still, that’s what having a television series is for, and despite my misgivings I will be tuning in (which may not be accurate technically but sounds so much better than “logging in to Hulu”) to see where this particular take on one of my own favorite franchises is headed.

Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: Chaos #1

(Apologies for the lack of updates lately, yet again, but…day job and all that.  However, there should be something big in the pipeline!)

ChaosSeeleyAs the Internet’s foremost scholar of Chaos! Comics, finding this gem in my comics pull list was a historical moment for me.  I missed Chaos! as a prime source of unapologetic schlock since the plug was pulled and the blood spigot was shut off in 2002.  True, there have been a few independent comic publishers that have catered toward camp in their own ways, but none had that je ne sais quoi, that feeling of being the sort of company you’d run with your old college friends who were all into D&D and Type O Negative (and I mean that as a compliment!), like Chaos! did in its prime.

I know I can’t be the only interested in seeing Chaos! come back, because not counting the various Lady Death series published by Avatar and Boundless, this is actually the second shot at a Chaos! revival.  The ill-fated first one was launched by Devil’s Due in 2005, with several miniseries released starring a few major Chaos! characters.  Although it had some big names associated with it, including Alan Grant (my own favorite underappreciated scribe for the Batman franchise) writing Evil Ernie in Santa Fe, it didn’t lead to anything lasting.  Now, about nine years later, we have another attempt by Dynamite Comics, this time in the form of one universe-building miniseries and written by Tim Seeley of Hack/Slash fame.  Honestly, just based on the horror homage-rich Hack/Slash alone, I can’t think of anyone in the industry today more suited to spearhead a Chaos! revival.

Picking up after Dynamite’s earlier Evil Ernie series (although knowing the events of that series are not necessary here, except for fully understanding one small bit of dialogue), we meet Gallows, a werewolf who has gathered together a group of young people empowered or changed by occult forces.  They’re on a perpetual mission to take out malicious “unusual” beings whose murderous activities threaten to bring down the wrath of the US government and “the straights” on all supernaturals, even the ones just trying to live their lives (or “lives”, as the case may be).  The latest target of Gallows and his “chosen” is the vampire goddess Purgatori, who is holed up in Las Vegas, “enjoying” the young women gathered by her minions.  In Texas, while intercepting one of Purgatori’s shipments they rescue an insane young woman calling herself Vex.  During a fight between the “chosen” and Purgatori’s unwilling assassin Chastity, Vex imparts on all present a vision where an undead serial killer, christened “Evil Ernie” by urban legend, has unleashed a zombie apocalypse that will eradicate humanity, all at the behest of a mysterious woman.  Overwhelmed by the vision and its implications, Gallows declares that they must abandon their mission to stop Purgatori in order to destroy Evil Ernie instead, not knowing that their new enemy is already following his own visions of a woman calling him…

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Whatever you thought of Chaos! – and I’ll admit there are plenty of comics bloggers who would find my own fixation on the company perplexing (especially since, to say the least, I’m not a boob man) – overall I would recommend this to even people who don’t have the pull of nostalgia tugging at them.  The art manages to be rough and stylistic without being too abstract for the narrative to be clear, while capturing with precision the gritty horror/urban dark fantasy feel Seeley is clearly aiming for. Even the cheesecake factor manages to not be quite as excessive as you may expect a Chaos! homage to be, which for some of you might not be a point in its favor.  As with Hack/Slash, Seeley’s dialogue is crisp and painted with true love for the genre. You really feel as if you are in a world where the supernatural does manage to be both pervasive and yet hidden just underneath the surface, with slang like “groupies” (for a vampire’s minions) and references to Internet chatter about the activities of Evil Ernie. I do think Seeley made a bit of a misstep in trying to introduce too much too fast; of the Chaos! alumni we see here, all at once we get Purgatori, Leonard Price, Evil Ernie (with Smiley the Psychotic Button, natch), Morgan Gallows and all the members of the Omen (although they’re not called that, not yet anyway), Chastity, and to a lesser extent the woman who is totally not supposed to be Lady Death.  I wasn’t expecting a member-by-member roll call like you usually get with the first issues of superhero team books, but the number of characters being introduced, even for someone who does know the Chaos! originals quite well, was a tad distracting. Still, this is just a nitpick in what I actually found to be a strong opening salvo that left me in anticipation of how else Seeley might reinterpret Chaos!


Granted, as with so many things I doubt it’s possible for anyone to recreate whatever chance conjunction of cultural climate and creative hoodoo that spawned Chaos! and its successes in the first place.  Even Brian Pulido, Chaos!’s own Stan Lee in more ways than one, lost quite a bit of that magic in the company’s final years.  And on another point, unlike original recipe Chaos!, Seeley’s writing, with all due respect to Mr. Pulido, is more…polished than what you probably experienced reading Evil Ernie: Revenge or Lady Death: The Oddysey back in those halcyon days when AOL discs all but literally rained from the heavens and the music on the radio didn’t always suck.  Depending on what you got out of Chaos! back then, that might actually be a detriment.  Still, this is Seeley taking these characters, whatever you make of their original stories, and bringing new perspectives on their own unique mythos.  I have high hopes for this reboot, and clearly Dynamite does too, since they’re already soliciting a Chastity solo series.  So, in the meantime, I say…welcome back, fiends!  

Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)


I know, this one’s been out for a few years, but I let this movie fall under my radar for far too long and I want to do what I can to make up for that.

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society landed itself on just about every H.P. Lovecraft lover’s map by making a deliciously ambitious silent film adaptation of Lovecraft’s foundational short story, “The Call of Cthulhu.”  The idea was to present a world – an alternate timeline, if you will – where Lovecraft, instead of dying a virtually unknown writer, had the cred in his lifetime that his name earned after his death, so much so that big-budget Hollywood adaptations of his stories existed.  With that concept in mind, HPLHS’s The Call of Cthulhu was as much a period piece as it was a Lovecraft adaptation.  Naturally, the HPLHS followed up with an adaptation of Lovecraft’s later story, “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but, since it was written in 1930, this adaptation would be a talkie.

ImageH.P. Lovecraft has been deemed unadaptable, a judgment borne out more or less by the many adaptations we have seen, from 1963’s famously lackluster The Haunted Palace (which at least deserves some distinction for being a Lovecraft adaptation thinly disguised as an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation for legal reasons) to 2001’s fun but pretty un-Lovecraftian Dagon.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s work can accurately guess why;  in short, Lovecraft was better known – infinitely so – for his ideas and bizarre descriptions than for his plots or characters.  Nearly all adaptations get around it, either by just using the source material piecemeal and slapping it on to a more run-of-the-mill horror story, expanding the story to include far more characters (especially women) and action, or just trying to capture the feel of Lovecraft’s bleak, merciless, and “science-gothic” vision of the universe within a story that really isn’t based on anything Lovecraft actually wrote. It probably says a lot that one of the best Lovecraft “adaptations” out there, John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness, isn’t even technically  a Lovecraft adaptation.

Nonetheless, pulling off a good Lovecraft adaptation seems to be the Eldritch Grail for filmmakers.  Besides Roger Corman and John Carpenter, there’s Stuart Gordon, who has basically made an entire career out of trying.  Although I’d be the last one to question Gordon’s chops, his Lovecraft adaptations still try to throw way too many foreign ingredients into the pot.  His best known film, Reanimator, based on Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator”, is a fantastic gory horror-comedy in its own right, but doesn’t really have much by way of Lovecraft’s essence.  Likewise Dagon does feature some of the atmosphere from Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, but unfortunately at a certain point almost turns into Die Hard, which isn’t exactly conducive to Lovecraftian dread.


Just judging from the film, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman seem conscious of the pitfalls awaiting anyone trying to bring Lovecraft to the screen.  While they do expand on the story and add a third act after the ending of the original story takes place, they stick closely to the source material, but not slavishly so.  A professor specializing in New England folklore, Dr. Wilmarth (Matt Foyer), becomes interested in but remains skeptical of reports from a rural Vermont county of strange crablike beings, reports that echo local Native American tales of a creature they knew as the Mi-go.  Wilmarth enters a strange correspondence with an old farmer from the county, Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), who relates increasingly strange and paranoid accounts of discovering unusual carved stones in the mountains and of his farmhouse being increasingly visited by the Mi-go.  One day Wilmarth receives a letter from Akeley claiming that he no longer fears that the Mi-go are hostile and urging Wilmarth to come visit him personally.  Needless to say, the curious Wilmarth is being lured into a trap, set not only by a cult collaborating with the Mi-go led by a man named Noyes (Daniel Kaeman), but by the inhuman visitors themselves, who have an…interesting proposal to extend to select humans.

Like The Call of Cthulhu, this is an impressive effort, especially given the budget.  The acting is professional-grade and the setting, filmed in authentic Vermont country, will invoke Lovecraft for any fan.  The CGI (which at least is used sparingly) might ruin the period effect for some, but not overly so.  It’s also obvious throughout that Branney and Leman love the source material and know it forwards and backwards.  While like other adapters they add a few new elements (although there is only one new character, Hannah, the daughter of one of the cultists), the spirit of Lovecraft is obvious throughout.  In fact, it does seem like the filmmakers are having a bit of fun with audience expectations.  There’s a few moments where the movie seems ready to veer off into more traditional, safer directions, only for the audience to be rudely reminded that, yes, this is Lovecraft Country in just about every sense of the word.

The Whisperer in Darkness comes strongly recommended, not just to even casual fans of Lovecraft but for anyone willing to give an indie black-and-white horror movie based on a classic a chance.  Even though this film unfortunately didn’t seem to make as many waves as The Call of Cthulhu did, I will personally say a prayer to the Black Goat with a Thousand Young that we’ll be seeing more cinematic efforts from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.


Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: The Sandman: Overture #1


DC Comics has been on a bit of a nostalgia kick lately, with prequels for Watchmen and now a new prequel for The Sandman. Luckily, unlike the Watchmen prequels, The Sandman: Overture is being written by the original creator, Neil Gaiman, himself.  Also, while it’s possible that the main reason this is coming out now about twenty years (God that’s depressing) after The Sandman concluded is that Neil Gaiman got a call from an editor, Gaiman has been discussing a possible prequel in interviews as early as the ’90s.  From what I understand, the two possibilities being openly mentioned were a series about how Delight of the Endless became Delirium or a story explaining why an occultist was able to imprison a virtually omnipotent being like Dream in the first place, the event that began the Sandman saga.  This series, much to the disappointment of some fans I’m sure, is about the latter (but, who knows, maybe some clues about the former will show up as well)…

It’s 1915, and Dream of the Endless is diligently (and ruthlessly) attending to some of his responsibilities as the personification of the act of dreaming.  Suddenly he does what would normally be unthinkable:  stopping in the middle of carrying out in the task.  Something is calling him, a summons so powerful that even a fundamental force of sentient existence can only barely delay answering it.  Longtime readers might assume it’s all because of a quasi-crackpot, quasi-sorcerer in London, but the answer is something a bit more cosmic…

Part of the problem with prequels is their preoccupation with filling in the gaps that only diehard fans really focused on  It’s too soon to tell if The Sandman: Overture will fall into that trap too, but I will admit I was concerned when I heard that the impetus of the prequel is to explain how Roderick Burgess was able to capture Dream in The Sandman #1.  However, it’s clear that this is a story Gaiman wants to tell, and if the main motive is to elaborate on some backstory this issue also ends with Gaiman potentially explaining one aspect of the Endless’s existence that readers of The Sandman have tended to ponder, which I can’t contemplate myself in this space without giving a lot away already.

The art by J.H. Williams III is, of course, gorgeous, whether it’s painting an alien world populated by sentient plant life or a dream of a dreary London office.  As for Gaiman’s script, for this long-time fan of The Sandman it hits all the right notes.  Skeptical readers might worry if the series will succumb to another dreaded problem with prequels, cameo-itis, but while there are a lot of familiar faces even in the first issue all of them carry on the plot.  Still, I hope we will get to see some new characters to add to the already rich Sandman mythos.

As with all reviews of just the first issue of a comic series, this is basically just the review of the first chapter of a novel or the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie.  Nonetheless, I just wanted to add my own little voice to the deluge of promotions for this, especially for those who might be reluctant because of certain well-publicized and infamous…missteps that the management at DC have made recently.  All that aside, despite some recent successes like American Vampire, the Vertigo line, which I have a great deal of fondness for since it played a huge role in teaching me that the medium can do so much more than just superheroes, has been floundering.  Here’s hoping that, much like how The Sandman helped make Vertigo what it was back in the day, The Sandman: Overture can revitalize the line.

Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Review: The Cinema Snob Movie

“You want to know what happens when people with exploitation on their minds make an art film?”  Brad Jones in the guise of Craig Golightly in the guise of Vincent Dawn asks the would-be director of his would-be epic, Neil.

“What?”  Neil responds.

“You get the fucking Doom Generation,”  Brad/Craig/Vincent explains, exasperated.  “Do you want the fucking Doom Generation?”

The Cinema Snob Movie is in some ways the ultimate culmination of the trend unleashed by the success of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the “discovery” of Ed Wood in the ’80s:  a low-budget film glorifying b-movies that is itself a spin-off of an Internet show that riffs on low-budget b-movies.  However, Brad Jones goes one step further, by poking at the barrier that separates “quality” cinema from “trash” cinema, and pointing out with glee that movies like Salo and A Serbian Film are practically exploitation films as sleazy as anything to pour out of the gutter of the ’70s Italian film industry, but through the magic of promotion or the power of the director’s name they nonetheless get labelled as “great” (albeit “daring”) cinema.   In short, the only difference between your controversial, edgy art-house film and a Bruno Mattei or Herschell Gordon Lewis flick is a dash of pretension here and there and the choice of wrapping.

The whole joke behind The Cinema Snob – and it’s a joke so successful that it’s sometimes lost even on fans – is that it’s a show about a standard issue, Roger Ebert-esque critic mysteriously condemned to watch the grungiest of exploitation flicks, from ultraviolent slashers to quasi-professional porn parodies.  The joke gets most blatant, so blatant you can feel the genuine outrage behind it, with the Maniac episode where the Snob reacts with horror and outrage that a movie about a serial killer be…violent.  The movie spin-off takes things a bit further by giving fans an actual origin story for the Snob.  An aspiring exploitation screenwriter, Craig Golightly, and his director friend Neil just want to make a blaxploitation movie titled Black Angus about a roller-skating black guy who “wants his vengeance.”  They even get a wealthy producer to back it, but the vindictive president of a local film club, Dan Philips, intervenes to stop Craig and Neil from getting permission to film in public.  In a last ditch effort, Craig Golightly infiltrates the film club as “Vincent Dawn,” a born-and-bred film snob.  While he does charm Dan’s wife, Nancy, a fellow exploitation and horror buff, his timing proves spectacularly bad, as one by one the film club’s members are brutally murdered giallo style.

While the giallo plot runs through the movie and dominates the last act of the movie, much of the movie’s action – unsurprisingly given the budget limitations, which of course the film itself comments on – surrounds Craig’s deception and struggles with fitting into the club.  My one complaint, though, is that the movie does in the first two acts dwell a little too long on the gag that the film club only enjoys movies to make convoluted interpretations.  The humor does delve into what makes The Cinema Snob stand out from dozens of riffing Internet shows, by pointing out the hypocrisy of rejecting sensationalistic genre movies while embracing movies like Salo just because it has a veneer of intellectualism over the sex, violence, and the gross acts with bodily secretions, but more screentime goes to the easier gag of mocking off-the-wall interpretations of symbolism.  That said, the humor still largely works, because it does the fine trick of tapping into the audience’s knowledge that they’re watching a very low-budget movie filmed by a group of friends and that fan base’s love of off-Hollywood movies, without becoming either Family Guy-esque pure referential humor or having an unending Tarantino-style didactic screed about pop culture.  The movie is obviously written in praise of “trashy” cinema, but it doesn’t need to get the point across with long monologues;  instead there’s only the subtle contrast between the elitist film club who lovelessly torture every movie for every possible interpretation and Nancy, who just loves Italian giallo films because they’re simply “fucking beautiful.”

Those who are already fans of Brad Jones and his fans obviously don’t need me to recommend this to them.  There’s no riffing here in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, but the humor and the references are very much in the style of the show, so unless you really only watch The Cinema Snob for seeing sarcastic summaries of z-grade slasher films then it should be an easy sell.  Everyone else?  Well, obviously anyone who can’t tell their Tinto Brass from their Jesús Franco is cautioned, but really I feel I can recommend this movie to just about anyone who has ever had a conversation lasting longer than an hour defending the merits of ’80s slasher movies against a Gender Studies major.  Just be sure to check out the actual show.

The Cinema Snob Movie can be purchased here.

Non-Nostalgia Reviews

Non-Nostalgia Reviews: Hellraiser the Comic

Before we dive in, here’s an apology.  Real life, mostly in the form of my “day job,” has been intervening lately, and that will continue to be a factor until the day I can make a living out of this kind of thing.  However, for the near future at least I should be able to get us back on a “two posts a week” schedule.

I do plan on wrapping up the Spiritual Warfare series soon, for my own sanity if nothing else, and tackling the rest of Russell T. Davies’ “Death of the Tenth Doctor” saga.  Also I have plans for a new series, The Forsaken, which strangely enough closely matches my original plans for this blog.  Finally, at some point this fall I may start doing video posts while continuing the blog.  I have no hopes of joining the pantheon of trash culture video reviewers at That Guy With The Glasses (well, maybe a couple, down in the back), but I really do want to experiment with different media, this being the Digital/Information/Post-Postmodern Age and all.  I have no timeline or deadlines, but hopefully the launch date will be sometime this fall.

Anyway, just to show that there’s more to this than snark and indulging in postmodern (post-postmodern?) irony, I want to give a positive shout-out to something I’ve been enjoying and which I suspect many people aren’t even aware exists.  I’m talking about…

Now this isn’t the first time the Hellraiser franchise chained its way into the comics medium.  Marvel’s Epic imprint, which was more or less Vertigo Comics before there was a Vertigo Comics (and, who knows, we might be talking about Epic if only Epic had a Sandman),did a series of Hellraiser comics from 1989 to 1993.  I would comment on them some more, but I never even read them, which…well, given how much obscure crap I’ve read, might be saying something.

The selling point of Boom Studios’ Hellraiser comic is that this one is actually written by Clive Barker, in conjunction with Boom Studios regular Christopher Monfette (except for the annual, which was co-written with Mark Miller, not to be confused with Mark Millar).  However, even though Clive Barker stopped being exclusively a horror writer many years ago, he manages to pick up precisely where he left off with the fans, while expanding Hellraiser from gory horror to epic dark fantasy.  (A little confusingly, the comic series is a direct sequel to the first two Hellraiser films, not to the original novella The Hellbound Heart, which Clive Barker might still finish a sequel to, The Scarlet Gospels.  Anyway and unsurprisingly, it’s pretty safe to assume that Hellraiser III and IV and all the myriad straight-to-video sequels are going to be ignored completely by the comic).

With the comic series, we find Kirsty Cotton living a relatively normal life…except that she and other people who survived encounters with the Cenobites seek out puzzles created to summon the Cenobites and destroy them.  Meanwhile “Pinhead,” dissatisfied with his “work” since his humanity was revived at the end of Hellraiser II, is on an existential quest of his own, one that has the potential to overturn Hell itself and make Kirsty’s simple mission so much more complicated.  I wish I could go into more detail, especially since later issues of the comic offer up one of the most genuinely surprising “twists” I’ve seen in a long time.  I’ll just say that Barker does a fantastic job of toying with and exploring his own premise and concept of Hell, but all the while leaving just enough room for mystery and interpretation.

Art duties have been shared between different artists over the course of the series.  Regardless, the “tone” has remained consistent, with a constant focus on sketchy yet vibrant visuals and an emphasis on dark colors contrasted against bright depictions of (of course) blood and the human anatomy.  The art has remained stylistic but also very descriptive, and captures the spirit of the Hellraiser universe, if not the very spirit of Clive Barker’s work from that era, in a way a more traditional photorealistic approach could not match.

The only caveat is that I’m not sure how accessible it would be to people not familiar with at least the original Hellraiser film.  To be fair only one of the stories in the annual makes direct references to plot points and characters from the movie, but you’re never really given a primer on what the Cenobites are or how Kirsty Cotton got wrapped up with them.  Given who the target audience for this comic would be, though, that’s probably understandable.  Still, it’s worth looking into for comics readers who may not be into the film franchise but are looking for a good horror/dark fantasy series as well as followers of the franchise who may not be big into comics.  Most of the series as of this writing has already been collected in trade paperbacks, which you can get from Boom Studios directly or, better yet, your local comic book store.

"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

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

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.

"New" Who, Non-Nostalgia Reviews

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!