Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Liveblog of Impossible Things: Doctor Who, season eight, episodes 1-3

Oh my stars and round things, have I never made a Doctor Who post on this site before?  That is amazing.  Let's fix it really hard this week.

My abiding love of Doctor Who was once so strong that I watched The Impossible Astronaut (episode 6.01) and said aloud to my mother "If it were anyone else writing this show, I would be worried that the plot twist for this season was going to be terrible, but I know that Moffat has something great planned."  Doctor Who was as close to religious ritual as I got: new episodes were like holy days, brief periods of time in which we imagined what could be and what was and what we would do in the worst possible moments of our lives.  Rose becomes a god.  Martha laughs in the face of armageddon.  Donna shines brighter than anyone in the universe.  Jack lives.

My adoration of the show even let me look past the varied weak points of the fifth season and brush off (as rough edges to be soon fixed) the perennial flaws of Moffat's writing.  To this day, while I won't argue with anyone who says the Eleventh Doctor is a terrible person, I personally like to maintain that he was a great man and his actions were unfortunately misrepresented by inept writers who meddled with the truth.  (This applies triply to the 50th Anniversary episode.)

The show has since devolved into a case study in Special Smart White Guy Privilege about a man who travels the universe being rude to everyone and getting away with it because he's good at his job, also known as 'that plot you've seen a million times before', but now with more rayguns and women who literally tear apart the universe over their infatuation with Our Hero.

So while I downloaded Deep Breath (the first episode with the Twelfth Doctor) and watched it immediately when it was released, I then set about a strict regimen of completely forgetting about the show for the rest of the year.  I am told I didn't miss much, but it's the holidays and a friend has lent me the boxed set that she just got for Christmas, so let's just marathon the lot of them and get it over with, shall we?

Episode 8.01: Deep Breath

I'm skipping rewatching this one.  Summary: the Twelfth Doctor is rude in that way that's supposed to make white male heroes charming, his human companion Clara is a spunky young lass who puts up with his antics out of loyalty to his previous self, the Doctor definitely would/wouldn't voluntarily kill someone, and he has a new hidden nemesis who is a vaguely posh pretty thin middle-aged governess-type woman, also known as 'the only kind of female villain Moffat knows how to write', and the word 'knows' in there is generous.  Come with us on a journey of discovery to find out why the Doctor's new face has previously been seen on a patriarch in Pompeii and a government monster in modern London.

Final score: Creepy, striking, weird, pointlessly adoring of the cranky old white man, Vastra and Jenny's kiss didn't need an overlay of 'we must share oxygen' to justify it.

8.02: Into the Dalek

The episode opens with the crew of a not-X-Wing ship trying and failing to escape a Dalek mothership in space.  The surviving pilot awakens on the TARDIS, where the Doctor is Charmingly Rude to her about saving her life and how she can't kill him and claim his ship because "you'd starve to death trying to find the lightswitch".  I'm trying to imagine the Ninth Doctor acting like this around someone whose brother just died beside them, victim of Dalek cannons, and I take a moment to shake my fist at the uncaring gods who let Moffat do this to us.

He returns her to her warship, where they intend to kill him for security purposes but decide instead to zap him with a shrink ray and jam him inside a captured Dalek.

The new intro graphics look intentionally low-budget, like they're trying to find the most expensive way of simulating a papier-mache model dangling from a string in front of the camera.

We then cut to a dude pretending to be a drill sergeant but proving to actually be a gym teacher at the same school where Clara works.  He's also an ex-soldier, and tears up when a student asks if he's ever killed someone who wasn't a soldier.  He's running a cadet program at the school, which he insists includes a moral element beyond shooting people, which Clara summarises as "Ah, you shoot people and then cry about it afterwards", which puts me much more on Clara's side than his so far.  He is all awkward in ways that clearly are supposed to be adorable, but luckily for him they are in mutual boners for each other.

Clara gets whisked off to join the Doctor on his new journey, because the captured Dalek has declared its intention to destroy all Daleks, which has the Doctor thinking about saving it.  (He asks Clara if he's a good man, she says she doesn't know.  I'm not sure he's an anything man anymore, myself.)  He guesses that it's so damaged its hatred toggle flipped around in the wrong direction  The lot of them get shrunk down and injected through its eyestalk.  They're not actually that small; maybe five-ten millimetres tall?  I'm pretty sure this is all in the realm of normal slicey-slicey surgery, not even futuristic robot surgery.

The inside of the Dalek body turns out to be a 'perfect analog' of a living body, and therefore firing a grappling hook into the metal plating summons antibody drones.  The Doctor tells their unfortunate redshirt to eat a pill before the drones vaporise him, which lets him track the residue to some waste tube.  Trying again to imagine Nine's response to an about-to-die man being "Hey, chew this and you can still be useful to me" rather than any kind of apology or sorrow.  Who the fuck is this man?  (Also, what kind of internal sensors react hostilely to a tiny puncture in a metal plate but ignore complex radio communications beaming in and out of their robo-intestines?)

A radiation leak is killing the Dalek, but also caused it to reach a reversal of the normal conclusion: it saw a star born as concluded that 'resistance is futile', but not resistance to the Daleks, resistance to life, which keeps coming back and keeps fighting.  Ten seconds later, the Doctor seals the radiation leak and the Dalek immediately sets about slaughtering everyone on the ship in dramatic slow-motion.  Clara slaps the Doctor for being pleased that he was right that all Daleks are evil, but they have the dramatic realisation that good Daleks are possible and set about mucking with its robo-brain and its memory banks.

Sidenote as I watch the actiony climax: this episode is rubbish on any kind of mental health-relevant philosophy.  The Daleks "are" evil, but the Doctor points out that they have mental suppressor tech that quashes any hint of empathy, but then the mentally-damaged Dalek "is" good, and when fixed it proves that it always "was" evil.  It's not clear to me either that the Dalek ever "was" any of these things, given that we have no idea what it would be without its suppressor working.  (Why did no one think of breaking the suppressor to start with?  Why was anyone surprised that it would start murdering people as soon as the leak was repaired while its suppressor was still running?)  The conclusion appears to be that if someone has any kind of factor impairing their ability to be kind or polite or generous, this reflects on their innermost morality and nature.

The climax seems to lean pretty hard on this as well, when the Doctor mind-melds with the Dalek to show it the beauty of the universe and it instead latches onto his hatred of the Daleks and goes on a rampage to rescue the remaining redshirts.  So, even a Good Dalek is fundamentally evil and destructive after all.  The Doctor says this isn't victory, "victory would have been a good Dalek", and it responds "You are a good Dalek", referencing episode 5.06, 'Dalek', a vastly better episode that covered basically all the same plot and philosophical notions, on a lower budget, with a more family-friendly script and kinder Doctor.  Moffat fucking loves referencing old episodes in a way that he has not narratively earned.

The soldier girl from the beginning, Journey Blue, asks to leave with the Doctor, and he sadly lists all her good qualities before saying he wishes she hadn't been a soldier, and turns away.  Apparently forgetting that his own daughter Jenny was literally born a soldier, Dalek-style, and in the space of a day grew to be much more heroic.  (Clara should know this, Clara knows the Doctor's whole life, or maybe she doesn't, I don't even know anymore.)  The important part of course is supposed to be that the Doctor doesn't like soldiers and Clara's new boyfriend is a soldier, oh noes, what tension shall this create.

Final score: Doctor Who is always supposed to be accessible to children, no matter how grim it gets; who was this episode for?

8.03: Robot of Sherwood

Clara reveals that she's always wanted to meet Robin Hood and the Doctor informs her that he doesn't exist, so I just want to take a moment to note that the legends are very liked inspired by the locals who became guerrilla insurgents to resist the Norman invasion of England.  These people, the ones who left behind their families to live in the wilderness and fight the conquerors, were the first Wildmen, and I am their descendant, so fuck you very much, Mr I-Know-Everything, Robin Hood was my nth-great-grandfather.  Naturally, the TARDIS lands in Sherwood Forest and immediately gets an arrow in the door from Robin Hood, who is realistically scraggly for a man who lives in the woods but oddly well-bathed.  Robin Hood declares his intention to take the TARDIS, as "all property is theft", so apparently he got to that line about 650 years before Proudhon.

The Doctor fences with Robin Hood, but using a spoon, which is at once incredibly stupid and charmingly weird.  It's the type of thing I would let go without a blink from the Ninth or Eleventh Doctors; weird for Ten or Twelve.

There is also a Sheriff of Nottingham pillaging the locals villages, stealing daughters and shanking old dudes.  Straightforward enough.  We meet the Merry Men and the Doctor goes around stealing hair and blood and such to try to prove they're not real.  There is the traditional archery competition to capture Robin Hood and the Doctor steps in, also a master archer in addition to master fencer.  When did the Doctor suddenly start studying all the weapon arts?  They do the 'split the arrow' trick about five times total, so I guess this is supposed to be a funny episode?  I should not have taken this long to realise that.  The Sheriff's soldiers are revealed as robots, everyone gets captured, Robin Hood and the Doctor squabble in their cells, and Clara is identified as the ringleader and taken away to be interrogated.

This is the kind of episode that sets out to be all 'women are the truly competent people and very badass' and comes out 'men are infants and need women to mother them forever'.

Down in the dungeons, the slaves are seen running forges, and one of the robo-guards pours the metal into an enormous circuit-board-looking mould.  Uh... that's not how circuit boards work.

Clara has dinner with the Sheriff in traditional villain manner, where he demands to have the screwdriver explained to him.  Clara instead bluffs him into revealing what deal he made with robots from the sky.  They crashed, offered him power, and he now intends to conquer the world.  The Doctor and Robin somehow break free (no explanation how, after a long scene of them utterly failing) and find the hidden ship at the core of the castle.  The robot needed gold to fix their engines, but the Doctor declares they're too far gone and all he can do is blow up half of England.  Et cetera et cetera action scenes, banter.  There's a moment after the Doctor has helped the slaves free themselves by reflecting their laser back at them with gold plates, and the last girl to escape gives the Doctor a kiss on his cheek.  He looks startled, reflected, and I begin to hope that this Doctor is supposed to be seen as a cantankerous jackass who needs to remember that he loves people and they are the purpose for his whole journey, as opposed to self-aggrandisement.

When the world is saved with improbable archery, Robin (who is real after all, not a robot) and the Doctor have a last chat about people and legends and pretending to be a hero and inspiring others, it looks like a pretty good show for a moment, and then the TARDIS leaves and Marian appears behind it for her one line, "Robin!", so that Our Hero gets his Love Object Reward.

Final score: A roundabout, slapdash mess that destroys any shot Twelve has had so far at character consistency, but also less conceptually offensive than the first two episodes.  Terrible, yet charmingly so.  Quoth Rosa Diaz, "And the night gets even worse-better!"

Probably come back tomorrow for the next episodes!  Happy imminent New Year!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Eye of the World, chapters 14 and 15, in which a dream sequence is actually good

Only two chapters this week, because there's actually stuff worth talking about in them.  Still have to sift out great tracts of chatter, but I knew what I was getting into, and the novelty of a dream sequence that's actually got some weight to it was worth the slog.

(Content: animal death. Fun content: I am the captain of the HMS Mat/Perrin.)

The Eye of the World: p. 192--229
Chapter Fourteen: The Stag and Lion

We last left our heroes arriving at an inn, which is apparently jam-packed with waves of people finally leaving the mountains after getting snowed in all winter.  Wouldn't people leave the mountains for the winter and work mines in the summer?  I confess to not knowing standard practice, but that seems counterintuitive to me.  Lan splits off to find news from the loud and joyful common room, and Rand decides not to follow because he smells.  (Literally.  Shouldn't Lan smell just as much?  Or more?)  The ladies split off and the dudes are brought to a bath chamber, with a circle of twelve copper tubs (everyone likes washing themselves panopticon-style, right?) and inexplicably extensive quantities of hot water.  The gleeman is at one point described as sinking up to his nose, and there are four tubs, so I'm guessing 140 gallons of water at 38C, and they were just able to provide that, in this super-crowded inn in the chilly springtime, in the time it took Our Heroes to get naked.  [Drink!  Sorry, no, wait, this isn't Orson Scott Card anymore.]  The first house I rented couldn't provide that many hot baths on its best day.  Apparently there are witch-hunters in the city looking for Aes Sedai; have they searched the boiler rooms?  Or grown suspicious that there are boiler rooms?

The bathtub attendant (most awkward job?) sees their weapons and asks if there's anything Dangerous going on in hick country, and there's half a page of everyone bluffing and trying to stop Mat from revealing that they were attacked by trollocs.  Lan arrives and shoves the bath attendant out of the room.
"Don't talk about Trollocs," Lan said grimly. "Don't even think about Trollocs. [...] If the Children of the Light heard Trollocs were after you, they'd be burning to get their hands on you.  To them, it would be as much as naming you Darkfriend."
Doesn't that make the opposite of sense?  'The forces of evil want to murder him--he must be on their side!'  Shouldn't being wanted by trollocs be a badge of honour?  Anyway, Lan is so frigid about the risk they're putting Moiraine in that they all spend the rest of the bath in silence.  (That or Lan got naked and everyone was just so 'daaaamn, that butt is cubic' that they couldn't speak.)  Afterwards, despite the uber-crowded inn they get a private dining room.  There was no one else in the baths, either; how is this crowded?

Rand shows a rare flash of Doing Better when he sees Egwene again:
It seemed they could not trust anyone but themselves [....] And Egwene was still Egwene. Moiraine said it would have happened to her anyway, this touching the True Source. She had no control over it, and that meant it was not her fault. And she was still Egwene.
Folks round these parts already know my feelings on the 'born this way' argument, but if Rand's childhood friendships and teenage boners can help him grapple with the idea that people are complex and not just inherently and arbitrarily good or evil based on fairy tales, that's a start.  Of course, Egwene immediately spins away from him and he thinks 'well, if she's going to be like that about it' and they don't talk.  I would call this teenage realism, except I gather that this is going to be a running problem for everyone in the series.

The innkeeper delivers chickens and veggies for all, and his Distinguishing Character Trait is that he can't shut up, so his every appearance has resulted in at least half a page of blather, but Moiraine insists the food is a feast and he should feel proud.  I hope Lan overpays the hell out of him too and this isn't just perks of celebrity.  Lan's news says that the false Dragon, Logain, has won a major battle, but no one can agree what happened to the Aes Sedai that fought him, if they died or lived or joined him.  Rand's genre-savviness power detects that Lan and Logain were previously bros.  (Logain is such a brooding bad boy name; is he going to stay a mid-level bad guy or switch to Team Good?)

They get split among three rooms, girls in one, Lan, Thom, and Rand in another, so the good ship Mat/Perrin is still sailing steady.  Rand immediately falls into another plot-relevant dream, but I don't hate this one.  I actually think it's one of the better passages we've had so far, because Rand wanders an Escher-esque castle with a view of an impossible sky until he meets a dude who calls himself "Ba'alzamon".  I was a big fan of Digimon as a child, so I'm going to take this sole incident to call him Ballsmon and then show restraint for the rest of the series.  For some reason Rand identifies this dude as the Dark One, but he's the guy from the prologue:
Dressed in dark clothes of a fine cut, he seemed in the prime of his maturity, and Rand supposed women would have found him good-looking. [NO HOMO YOU GUYS.] 
"Once more we meet face-to-face,"the man said and, just for an instant, his mouth and eyes became openings into endless caverns of flame.
The thing that's less boring about this dream sequence is that Rand spends the whole time insisting that it is a dream and being distressed about his inability to wake up, while Ba'alzamon basically starts singing Sympathy for the Devil:
"I stood at Lews Therin Kinslayer's shoulder when he did the deed that named him. [....] I whispered in Artur Hawkwing's ear, and the length and breadth of the land Aes Sedai died."
He tries to get Rand to drink from a goblet, insists that he has never been bound and could destroy Rand at any time, mutters a lot of stuff that obviously won't make sense until later, but there's one interesting bit, when he claims that Logain and various others (past false Dragons, I assume) are "being used", as Rand will be.  He also claims that if Rand tells the Aes Sedai about this, he'll be a threat to them and they'll kill him instead of using him.  I've become so inured to people expositing half-sensical phrases at me that I mostly just enjoyed the scene.  Maybe that's the secret of the series?  Sort of like how in Fifty Shades we start looking forward to the sex scenes because people talk less, maybe Wheel of Time transitions into a state where the Generic Fantasy Cliches become a kind of bland cracker base upon which we can start to savour the hints of things that have actual flavour.  (Plus I just enjoy villains cheerfully delivering their resumes.)  When Rand finally awakes, he thinks about asking Moiraine for help with his nightmares, but doesn't, because that would make that last scene relevant.

Chapter Fifteen: Strangers and Friends

Rand wakes late with aches and a headache, which are obviously totally reasonable symptoms of a nightmare.  He sees the others have taken their weapons with them, and straps on his sword as well, with a nice lampshade as he tells himself "it was not because he had often daydreamed about walking the streets of a real city wearing a sword".  Of course, Rand knows that his heron sword hypothetically marks him as a master fencer, which could be a mite attention-grabbing, but I guess we'll just skip that for now.

Rand wanders to the kitchen, where there's a full page and a half of the innkeeper and cook talking about her cat and guest complaints, but in a shocking twist, it turns out to be plot-relevant, as a dozen rats were found around the inn with their backs broken, just as Ba'alzamon did to a rat in Rand's dream.  Interesting way to prove your power.  I don't expect this to be anything more than a throwaway scare tactic, but having sufficient physical power to snap a dozen rats in half at will seems like a waste of that power, when you're an imprisoned god of evil threatening the Chosen One.  If you know where he is (in order to kill the surrounding rats), why not drop your monster horde on him?  If you have Rat Control, why not swarm him in the night?  If you can snap bones, why not kill him outright, or one of his friends if you have some purpose for Rand left?  The only way this makes sense to me is if the Dark One only has the power to harm vermin, and can channel that into the vicinity of someone whose mind he has invaded, but can't use that connection to actually find the target.  That is a very specific power.

Perrin turns out also to be in bed, and he and Mat apparently had the same dream Rand did, but Mat tried to laugh it off, whereas Perrin still feels ill.  Rand leaves him behind, steps outside and is immediately bewildered by the sheer number of people on the street, none of whom know each other.  Rand's bemusement at the idea of people from the same city being strangers is the first rural thing with any verisimilitude about him, and I approve.

Also, called it, because a short-haired girl whom he saw talking with Moiraine the night before appears and immediately comments on how weird it is to see a country boy with a heron sword.  Rand is a bad spy.  The girl introduces herself as Min, reveals that she knows their deal, and quickly exposits that she has Plot Relevance Senses, or sees "pieces of the Pattern", if you prefer.  There's some really blatant imagery about how their party altogether creates and aura of sparks trying to ward off a great black shadow.  She also states that Rand and Egwene are in love with each other (which: what, no, they at best are in boners with each other) but are not meant for each other, so yay for the initial love interest not being the real One True Love Interest?

Oh god, it goes on with the symbolism forever, Lan has "seven ruined towers around his head" and a baby with a sword, Mat and Perrin have stuff like "an eye on a balance scale", and this would all be much more interesting to me if it were in any way informative.  It's just the author coming up with shorthand symbols for future plot points and rattling them off, so that readers can spend the rest of the series going 'That's the thing that Min meant when she saw the thing!'  Rand gets a better quality of montage, including "a sword that isn't a sword" and three women standing around his funeral bier.  That's at least got some plot gravitas to it, because we've already heard something about a legendary maybe-a-sword-but-not-quite, and in another series we might actually be wondering if Rand would die in the end.  She also sees a fuckton of lightning, which I assume hints at Rand's future duel with the false Dragon.

Pseudo-exposition done, Min lets Rand run off to wander the city in a distressed daze.  We get a solid page and a half of city description before Rand finally finds the peddler from several chapters ago, believed deceased, now a ragged homeless man.  Rand promises his horses are safe back in Emond's Field, and says he should come back with Rand to the inn, where they're staying with Moiraine.  I'm going to say 85% chance that the peddler is going to sell them out to the witch-hunting Whitecloaks in vengeance for how he feels Rand's village betrayed him.

Rand runs into Mat next, they recap their dream and the rats, and resolve not to tell Moiraine, because she's obviously untrustworthy and might murder them all on the spot if she finds out the devil is in their heads.  Rand also promised not to tell her that he found the peddler.  So beginneth the path of Oh My Fucking Word Just Tell People What You Know And Get It Over With, I think.

They spot a bunch of dudes with white cloaks and pointy metal hats, making me wonder if they are intentionally supposed to invoke the KKK.  If so: I find this sketchy, especially since thus far we have an utterly white cast.  They're the Children of the Light, of course, and because Mat makes bad decisions he 'pranks' them by using his sling to set a small avalanche of full barrels rolling into the street, thus panicking everyone and splattering the neat white cloaks with mud, ha ha.  Rand half thinks this is a bad idea and half wants to run with it, and is left laughing alone with the whitecloaks when they recover.  He tries to intimidate them by casually displaying his heron sword, to little effect, and they bluster until the town guard arrives.  I think the implication is that some magical force is pushing Rand to get into trouble, but it's not clear.

Rand escapes, they regroup with the gleeman, and recap again all that's happened.  Thom confirms that all the names in their dreams were powerful figures in history (he doesn't say what they have in common, but I'm running with 'false Dragons' for now), but he's Obi-Wan levels of vague on whether the Aes Sedai killed them.  We've also now had the Eye of the World and the Horn of Valere name-dropped as big magical artifacts (the Horn being related to the Great Hunt, which I know is book two's title) that people go on quests to find.  They return to the inn where Perrin reports that Nynaeve from back home has caught up with them, having bullied the ferryman into rowing her across the river after Moiraine obliterated his ferry.
"From my observation of the young woman," Thom said, "I don't think she will stop until she has had her say." [....] 
They exchanged glances, drew deep breaths, and marched inside as if to face Trollocs.
Totally less sexist than Tolkien, though!

Next week: