Someone Else’s Writing

“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.

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Orphan Black and The Doom of Men

All the same actress.

All the same actress.

Orphan Black is a nifty little Sci-Fi show shown on BBC America about a young woman, a snarky grifter-type from the foster system, who sees a woman who could be her twin jump to her death one night. Stealing the woman’s purse, and eventually impersonating her, she discovers that she’s one of many clones — identical physical replicas raised by a variety of parents all over the world.

There are, as you might imagine, conspiracies.

The main takeaway everyone has about Orphan Black is that one actress, Tatiana Maslany, plays all of the clones. For the most part that means she plays five distinct characters on a regular basis, and she’s played several other clones to boot. Even more impressive, she often depicts the clones impersonating each other, which is kind of mind-bending, if you think about it, because she finds little tics and ways of making it clear that this one distinct character is impersonating another distinct character. The acting she does on this show is nothing short of amazing.

That said, Orphan Black is one of those sci-fi shows that relies on a central mystery and dozens of satellite mysteries for its narrative focus and energy. That means that the first season, which was occupied with introducing the mythology of the clones, the clones themselves, the bad guys, and several double-crosses and unexpected twists, rolled along like a bus on fire. Since then, the show has suffered quite a bit from terminal Exponential Complexity.

Nesting Doll Plotting

The problem is simple: On a show like this, you can never actually solve the mystery. If you solve the mystery, the show is over. Lost was like that, and like that earlier show Orphan Black faces a problem: People want the mystery solved. We watch, at least in part, because we want the mystery solved. We can tolerate a slow solution, we can tolerate twists and heel turns, but eventually we need to feel like the story is moving forward to a solution that makes sense.

So, Orphan Black is doing what a lot of shows before have done in response to this problem: They solve a mystery here and there, but introduce two more at the same time. So, while in a sense the audience knows more about the universe of Orphan Black than they did back in Season One, in fact they know about the same proportion of information because the writers keep introducing new aspects that come with their own mysteries.

For example, in the first two seasons we were aware of the female clones, known collectively as Project Leda. At the end of Season Two it was revealed that there were also male clones from the same genetic material, known collectively as Project Castor. So while we know a bit about how the Leda clones came to be and what they’ve been up to, the Castor clones were a whole new mystery.

This strategy works for a while, but eventually becomes cumbersome. At this point in the show, the main character, Sarah, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep or a normal day in what seems like forever. It’s been a never-ending slog of investigation, impersonation, capture, torture, escape, shocking revelation, and the occasional clone dance party (Google it). It’s exhausting to imagine her having even more adventures as time goes on, only to continuously reveal even more mysteries, even more powerful villains who outrank who we previously thought were the Big Bads, and have to laboriously retcon story decisions that don’t make a whole lot of sense otherwise.

Eventually, it simply becomes untenable. Eventually, we can’t suspend disbelief any more. I don’t think the show is quite there just yet, but it’s inevitable. The British system of treating shows like one-off miniseries would be better: Tell a story, finish the story, and then, if there’s interest, set a wholly new story in the universe. It would save us all a lot of sadness.

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Two Cents on Mad Men

Just give me five minutes, and I'll be golden.

Just give me five minutes, and I’ll be golden.

I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

I know that writing endless blog posts about a TV show is silly, really, but at risk of annoying the folks who cannot comprehend how you can spend so much energy contemplating a work of art, I have thoughts about Mad Men and the finale. In a nutshell: The whole show is about the fear of losing that creative spark.

Let’s start with the pilot episode: Don Draper, in a sweat because he has no ideas. He spend the whole episode in a sweat, worried he’s lost his gift, worried his brain will, finally, betray him and leave him with nothing to offer in the pitch session with Lucky Strike. Creative folks know that sweat: Every time we take on a new project, we worry that the Idea Machine in our brains will abandon us. Trust me. I’m still haunted by a brief period in college when I came up dry on story ideas and feared my best was behind me at the age of twenty. Stop laughing. This shit is serious.

Over the course of the whole show, we’ve been watching Don Draper fade. Season One is where his two most memorable and most-quoted pitches occur: Lucky Strike and Kodak. Since then, what truly great pitches has Don managed? None that I can think of. Well — maybe the Accutron Pitch in the first episode of Season Seven. That pitch kind of rocked — but, notably, Don wrote it, but he didn’t pitch it. And while it’s an arresting piece of writing, it’s not exactly a creative triumph that has people rushing from the room in tears. It’s just a solid, well-written piece of marketing. Don is a pro. Losing your creative spark doesn’t mean you lose the skills as well — he can still write, and write well. But he has no new ideas.

That’s not to say he wasn’t still creative. Or smart. Or cool. But we’ve been watching a Don Draper who is less and less creative as time goes by. In the season four episode “The Suitcase” Don’s big idea at the end is a simple steal from the iconic photo from the big fight. Also in season four, Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat commercial, but not only is it not an especially brilliant idea, it’s also largely stolen from Peggy. In the season six episode “The Crash,” Don, high on speed, claims he has a great idea, but can’t even articulate it.

Don retains his “cool” until his disastrous pitch to Hershey in Season 6. In the final season of the show, Don is relegated to creative grunt work, and even when he regains his executive authority, there are no good ideas. Don Draper goes from a creative genius in 1960 to a man still coasting on past (and long gone) creative glory in 1970.

Until rock bottom. Until Coke.

Once again, in the finale, Don is up against it. While he hasn’t been officially tasked with coming up with a pitch for Coke, we know he’s been assigned to the Coke pitch. We know Jim Hobart wants Don on Coke. And throughout the last few episodes, Don has been seeing Coke everywhere: At the meeting for Miller Beer he walks out of, on the road as he wanders the country. Many of the details at the retreat end up in his commercial pitch, and even rando Leonard’s speech about being unnoticed and wondering about love — the speech that moves Don to embrace him and break into tears — reminds Don of Coke (think about it – the whole bit about the dream of being in the refrigerator).

Don finally has a good idea again. No — a great idea, because no matter how you feel about advertising as a creative medium, the fact is that Hilltop Coke commercial is regarded as one of the most effective and most creative ads ever. After nearly ten years of stagnation, Don manages one last flash of genius. And that’s why Don will be okay. It has nothing to do with his familial obligations or failures, or his money, or his libido. Don will be okay because he’s found his creativity again.

Or, yanno, it was a TV show and they made it up as they went along. Shut up.

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The Coming Age of Assholes: Mad Max Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road is a great movie. Zero exposition, nonstop action, real-feeling stuntwork, and subtle performances plus a surfeit of imagination when it comes to the details and characters of a universe — these are the ingredients for a film that will probably be remembered long after the Marvel tent collapses under its own weight. If you disagree that Fury Road is a good-to-great film, we are no longer friends.

What struck me most about the universe in Fury Road is the way George Miller assumes that in the event of apocalypse, it’s not the strong who will survive. Or the just. Or the smart. Or the innocent. No, Miller’s universe has consistently assumed one thing: When the world ends, it will be the assholes who rule the embers.

Confining ourselves just to Fury Road, every single character, basically, is an asshole. You have your murderous thugs in Immortan Joe and his crew, you have your unsympathetic, gluttonous plutocrats in the leaders of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. You even have Max himself and Furiosa, our protagonists, who are both incredible assholes. Max, after all, spends much of the film concerned only for himself, and Furiosa isn’t exactly nice, and she’s making “amends” for some mysterious crimes, likely pegged to her rank as Imperator in Immortan Joe’s brutal society.

Now, this makes sense. A lot of apocalyptic fiction likes to imagine that at least somewhere some thoughtful, socialized folks will set up camp and impose some sort of order, or that even when pushed to the edges of their humanity people will still be fundamentally good. The Stand and The Walking Dead both trade in these tropes, but Miller is probably closer to what would really happen: The assholes who already act like civilization is an impediment to their enjoyment of life will simply strap on a studded codpiece, rev up a chainsaw, and take over your town with brutal glee.

Think about the folks you ride the subway with, who share your HOA, who bump into you at bars and nightclubs. Think about all those assholes and despair, because chances are they will be the Immortan Joes of our future world, whereas the rest of us will be killed, enslaved, or exiled.

In fact, I personally like an interpretation of the film that “Max” as portrayed by Tom Hardy isn’t actually the Max Rockatansky from the original three films — that Max has become a legend of sorts, a ceremonial name people adopt when they leave behind the brutal me-vs-you attitude of the world. This appeals to me because it fits in with my Assholes Theory: It’s like you have this epiphany that you just fought like a dog for something larger than yourself, or common decency, and you’re declaring that you’re no longer, I dunno, Gloriable Amputate or some other insane persona wearing leather and driving a car festooned with rusting metal spikes, but a person – the legendary Max.

Likely that’s a stretch, though Miller’s casual attitude towards continuity and throughline in his four films makes it entirely possible. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point remains the same: In the Mad Max universe, the assholes have taken over, and it’s why the films are so good. It’s the verisimilitude.

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A Few Quick Mad Men Thoughts

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

While I realize the universe is likely not waiting breathlessly for one more set of random thoughts on a TV show, I have always been that jackass that likes to bloviate endlessly about TV shows and the like, so let’s do this.

Watching the final episodes of Mad Men I’ve been struck by the way the show repeats patterns in different ways, generally following changes in the characters. In some ways, each of the principles is ending the show on a pitch-perfect note for their characters, the perfectly appropriate ending. Roger has come full-circle as the monied but irrelevant figurehead. Joan, who once advised all the girls to pursue husbands and not get too ahead of themselves, is cut short on her rise to power. Peggy, whose life has been dedicated (to the detriment of everything else) to her career, attacks her new job with gusto. Pete, lusting after executive success, finally gets a job that lives up to his expectations. Betty – sure, Betty is dead, but her final scene showed her back in school, flirting with the boys, like she’d always wanted. While some of the details of these fates are unexpected, you can line them up with Season One’s depiction of these characters.

The perfect example, which I suspect will show up in next week’s finale in some form, is simple enough: Don is running away again. Don Draper, coward, liar, creative force, is once again fleeing his life into the West.

He’s done this before, or tried to. When Pete Campbell threatened to expose him, he tried to run away. When his wife found out about his affairs and his lies and began to assert herself, he fled to California for a long time. Don has always run away, or dreamed of running away. It’s what he does.

The difference is that before, Don ran out of fear. Fear was what drove him, a desire to escape consequences. What’s he running away from here at the end of the season? Not fear: For once he has nothing to fear. He’s secure in his career (or could be), he’s got access to all the best accounts, he’s divorced, rich, and his kids are finally growing up. His relationship with poor Betty was on the upswing. He’s even day-drinking in a modestly controllable manner and hasn’t vomited, passed out, or pissed himself in front of other people in ages!

You could argue that he runs out of fear, that what inspires him to run is actually the sight of all those other Creative Directors, the competition. Maybe Don is terrified he’s lost “it” and can’t compete. Instead of a big fish in a small pond, he’s suddenly a guppy, and he runs in terror. The clue, for me, is the shot of the plane that captures Don’s attention right before he flees. It’s not fear. He looks around and realizes he has no desire to do this work any more.

No, Don’s running for other reasons, finally. He sits in a boring meeting and realizes he’s no longer the Golden Boy, he’s one of dozens of Creative Directors. He’s a cog. And he’s bored. So he does what I think anyone with an office job has dreamed of doing: He walks out of a meeting, away from millions of dollars, gives away his car, and seems happy about it all. Just walks out. Because it’s not fear, for once. He’s just ready to move on.

This is why I’ve really enjoyed the show. It’s thoughtful, and while it could be occasionally obvious in its metaphors, and sometimes a bit plodding with self-seriousness, it’s one of the few TV shows I’ve ever seen that explores themes and patterns over the course of the entire show, and not just for a brief episode arc. Don’s a runner, so he runs – but not always for the same reasons.

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Frank

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

NOTE: The illustration included here was created by Ryan Gajda (http://www.sundaydogparade.com) and I neglected to credit him.

If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.

(more…)

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The Video Gaming of Movies

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

I recently watched the film Everly, directed by Joe Lynch and starring Salma Hayek, specifically so I could write this little essay, because I suspected that it would be a good place to start. Everly is a simple film despite the sheer number of corpses and gunfire – it’s also not exactly a good film. But that doesn’t actually matter for my larger point.

To get it out of the way (and SPOILERS HO!) here’s the basics: Hayek is a woman who has forced into prostitution by a very, very bad man, and has been living as a prisoner in a nice apartment, forced to never see her daughter or mother. Planning to betray the crime boss, her intentions are exposed and he sends a group to gang-rape her and then kill her in revenge, but she has a gun and a phone hidden in the bathroom and manages to kill them all. The crime boss sends wave after wave of people to kill her, and she manages to survive through a mix of luck, determination, and a very high tolerance for pain.

To say the film is inconsistent would be an understatement: It picks up ideas, plays with them a little, then discards them. It throws in several pointless moments of “excitement.” It has no relationship with reality at all. For all that, it’s kind of entertaining, actually. Some of that goes to the script, which is mildly witty, and some goes to the direction, which is occasionally arresting. And some of it goes to Hayek, who looks good with a machine gun and manages to sell the emotion when she’s not gunning down nameless thugs.

But mainly, the movie entertains because it’s essentially a video game run-through.

CUT SCENES FOR THE PLOT, Y’ALL

This is an increasingly popular form of action movie. It doesn’t matter much what the plot is, or the genre, or anything else. The main thing is, the film is structured like a video game: Quick setup, then a series of levels, each with its own challenges, special look, and sometimes a specific Boss battle.

Dredd was like this, too. These films are marked by the wave-after-wave structure, where the hero fights off a wave of adversaries, gets a brief respite (level loading) and then wades in again. The waves of thugs get either increasingly tough, show up in increasing numbers, or become increaingly bizarre as the hero advances through the game, er, story.

Everly follows this pretty closely: The thugs going after the title character start off relatively weak (they’re the other prostitutes in the building, who are offered a reward if they kill her). Then some standard-issue criminals in black suits and better weaponry show up. Then some bizarre torturer Boss-type guy, then a police SWAT unit with body armor and assault rifles, then the Big Boss himself with an RPG, a katana, and a nice suit. Every time Everly  kills off a wave, there’s a sequence of quiet akin to a cutscene, where the story advances until the next level loads up, I mean, the next scene begins.

You Know, For Kids

Now, this isn’t an awful way to set up a film (and I liked Dredd very much if I didn’t think Everly was so great) when what you’re going for is that breathless, adrenaline-soaked experience. But the model is very clearly video games, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a conscious attempt to capture the youth market, where a lot of kids have come to prefer the way video games tell stories. The rhythms of action/cutscene/action, the stylized violence, the increasingly bizarre Bosses – it all matches up pretty well.

It’s been theorized that Video Games might someday be the future of visual storytelling – aside from action games, games like Gone Home or Myst had the feel of being inside a movie, walking around (albeit in Myst’s case the movie was an insanely dull one) and I can see it. Once graphics become truly realistic, why not – games like Half Life and Portal and others are already very story-driven in some ways, and, frankly, there’s something exciting about the idea that you could “re-play” a movie and explore different areas and plot options, etc. And instead of sequels, there would be downloadable content.

Although, as I get older, that would make watching a movie exhausting. But at least there would be speed run-throughs on YouTube.

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“Lucy” & The Art of Pulling Back

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Scarlett Johansson in Believably Bloated Mode

Lucy, written & directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson, is currently enjoying a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is, frankly, amazing, since it’s not a good movie or a good story. Oh, it’s pretty-looking. Some of the imagery is breathtaking, there are a few kind of cool action moments, and I’ll admit that the first forty minutes or so of the film is rendered with a bouncy, off-center energy that is enjoyable, cutting back and forth between Lucy’s increasingly dire predicament with some gangsters and an incredibly daffy lecture being presented by Morgan Freeman, uttering some of the most ridiculous bad science in recent memory.

But the story is pretty dumb. (SPOILERS, HO!) In a nutshell, Lucy (Johansson, looking believably bloated and rough as a young woman apparently surviving on tequila shots, questionable sex partners, and ramen) is conned by a skeezy boyfriend into taking a briefcase to a gangster (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi), who turns out to be lamentably unconcerned about Lucy’s wellbeing. In the case is a new drug the gangster is smuggling around the world, accomplished by surgically inserting plastic packets of the powder into his drug mules’ bellies. On Lucy’s part, at least, it’s an involuntary job. After some shenanigans, Lucy gets kicked in the stomach hard enough to rupture the packet, and this experimental drug begins to leak into her system.

And Lucy turns into a god.

More specifically, the drug somehow unlocks the “unused cerebral capacity” of the old, bullshit saw about how we only use 10% of our brains. This wonder drug allows Lucy to suddenly use increasing amounts of her own brain, which in turn allows her to first control her own body, then the bodies of others, and finally, as she consumes more and more of the drug, matter and energy (and, ultimately, time).

Yeah.

So, this is kind of silly. Johansson goes into Stonefaced Goddess mode, and the rest of the story lacks any sort of tension whatsoever because Lucy is almost immediately unstoppable. One scene where she causes a bunch of thugs to float to the ceiling like balloons as she walks stiffly beneath them is a nifty visual, and completely boring. When Lucy can make people collapse, wall them into invisible boxes, and make their weapons fly off as if suddenly magnetized, there’s little doubt who wins the confrontations she gets into.

Fixing a Hole

You know what, though? This could have been a much better story with one simple tweak: Instead of the drug granting Lucy what are, essentially, magic powers, if all it did was sharpen her perceptions and reflexes to godlike levels, this could have been an interesting revenge tale: Lucy starts off as a crying, weak person confused and terrified, is abused and brutalized, and then through sheer accident uses the gangster’s own product to destroy his organization via uncannily accurate shooting, superhuman reflexes, and a sudden ability to plan sixteen steps in advance like a boss.

In that version of the film, Lucy would still be mortal and would still be able to be injured. The story would still have tension. And we’d still get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and taking names while looking slightly hungover the entire time. In other words, if Besson had just pulled back a little with his premise, this might have been a fun film. Instead, it’s a lot of crazy imagery with an ending lifted straight from The Lawnmower Man.

Of course, there’s the alternate explanation that the last hour of Lucy is just the titular character’s death hallucination as she quietly overdoses on the drug, which is more interesting but no more entertaining, frankly.

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The Cynicism Fail

blackmirrorSO, approximately three years too late, I finally caught the first episode of Black Mirror now that it’s on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about the show for years, especially that first episode – “National Anthem” – and was very interested in it. I’m too lazy to chase things down, so I just thought of it every now and then and finally my weak magical field worked its wonders and the show popped up on Netflix.

And it’s good – very well done, creepy, and the premise of “National Anthem” – a hugely popular member of the royal family is kidnapped, and the sole demand for her release is that the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live television – is inspired in both its creepiness and hilarity. I enjoyed it as a piece of black comedy and theater. It does, however, fail in a big way that often hurts supposedly audacious satires like this – it revels far too much in a cynicism about the world that’s supposed to feel edgy but is actually just really, really lazy writing.

And yes, I know: Me carping about lazy writing is like Charlie Sheen carping about drug addicts. Let it drift.

In “National Anthem,” the Cynicism Fail occurs when the story suddenly needs to give us a reason why any reasonable man, a Prime Minister no less, would actually agree to fuck a pig on live television. Yes, yes it’s satire and thus not beholden to normal rules of storytelling, but plot mechanics are plot mechanics. And Black Mirror falls back on the rickety old structure of “public opinion has shifted,” which is possibly the laziest writing crutch in the universe. In the story, at first the public is reasonably shocked by this ridiculous demand and supports the Prime Minister against it. Then the government makes the mistake of trying to fake a pig-fucking via CGI, and a raid on a spot where the princess might be held goes haywire and a reporter is shot. When the public finds out about these debacles, polling shifts, and suddenly the whole country insists the Prime Minister fuck the pig already. His party informs him that not only can they not longer support him if he doesn’t fuck the pig, they cannot even guarantee his or his family’s safety.

In other words, we are to believe that in the space of an hour or so the country goes from mild shock at this turn of events to rabid, primitive grunting.

And I call bullshit. The trope of “people are really the worst and will show their true colors when pushed” has been done. And people are the worst, I’ll stipulate. But bad polling as a reason you cannot possibly avoid fucking a pig on live television is perhaps some of the worst plot mechanics I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed the episode in spite of this bullshit, trust me. This is the sort of stuff a writer who has become completely divorced from real people trots out, imagining that everyone who is not him or people directly in his line of sight must be awful, ignorant, evil people.

I haven’t watched the other episodes, but likely will, and likely will also have drunken, belligerent things to say about them, as well. In the meantime it’s nice to know that even highly-paid folks with shows on TV can screw up their stories this badly. There’s hope for us all yet!

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Why “The Girl Who Waited” is theBest NuWho Episode

Thirty-six years.

Thirty-six years.

Okay, I understand this is controversial for fans of Doctor Who, among whom the episode is considered kind of meh, but I recently re-watched the Season 6 episode The Girl Who Waited, and it’s one of the best episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who, for several reasons. The main reason, though, is how brutal it is.

Let’s consider the brutality:

  • Amy Pond is accidentally abandoned on a plague planet in a separate time stream amongst unintentionally murderous robots for thirty six years because The Doctor refuses to do any sort of basic research about where he’s traveling (“That is not how I travel.”).
  • The Doctor’s solution is to bring Young Amy into their time stream and then to abandon Old Amy to nonexistence even though over the course of 36 fucking years Old Amy has become a distinct and unique person.
  • The Doctor doesn’t even do this brutal murder himself, he forces Rory, Amy’s husband, to do it. And then he leaves it to Rory to explain to Amy that he basically murdered her older self.

That’s some dark stuff. And it gets to the core of what Doctor Who really is: It’s a horror series. And The Doctor is the monster.

The Doom of Men

Forget Amy and Rory’s ultimate fate — to say that Companions on Doctor Who often have less-than-happy endings is an understatement. But The Girl Who Waited underscores the fundamental conflict that drives the show. The Companions, usually (though not always) humans, want The Doctor to care about them. To be their friend. But he doesn’t, and can’t be, not the way they think. He’s not a human, and humans will always be collateral damage to him. He might feel bad about it — in fact, often does — but it’s equivalent to the way we feel bad when a pet runs away and gets run over by a car. We grieve. We feel bad.

Then we get another pet.

Collateral Damage

The murder of Old Amy is pretty dark stuff. And in the episode it’s not even obscured: The darkness is right there. Ostensibly, The Doctor’s decision to abandon Old Amy (or, to be fair, an Amy, as he leaves the choice of which Amy to leave up to Rory) is brutal, and Matt Smith plays it that way. It’s a murder. One moment Old Amy exists: bitter, fierce, and filled with rage, but also filled, suddenly, with hope of reclaiming her future, of having adventures and popping ’round the Pond house for holidays.

The next, she is gone. We’re supposed to be relieved that the hot, young version of Amy, the one we’re used to, the charming one not filled with bitter rage, has been ‘saved,’ and ignore the fact that Old Amy has … not been. But Old Amy existed. Imagine Young Amy, married to a man who abandoned her to die on an alien world, alone, her last memory her friends leaving her again, for the second time in 36 years. Imagine waking up next to a spouse who’d made that decision, no matter what the circumstances.

This is pretty much the core of Doctor Who. He’s a madman in a box, right? He’s an incompetent thief who stole a TARDIS that he’s not even 100% competent to operate and who has spent 2,000 years exploring and abandoning and generally destroying lives, often in the name of justice or the greater good. Viewed from far above, it looks like heroism. Looked at standing next to him, you have to know that if you became a liability, he would sacrifice you, and if he got a little moody about it, he’d just go out and get a new companion, eventually. The Girl Who Waited makes this subtext text, and that’s why it’s one of the new episodes I watch over and over again. Because it makes it clear: The Doctor is a monster.

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