Saturday, June 30, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 12

Most of my reading over the last few months has been for reviews, which has left this blog rather silent on the book front. The following is a selection of some of my non-review reading.
  1. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - Lee, the protagonist of Sittenfeld's apparently semi-autobiographical debut, is a not-too-bright, not-too-talented, not-too-special middle class, Midwestern girl who somehow manages to finagle a scholarship to a prestigious East coast prep school. This is a familiar premise, but unlike most school story protagonists, Lee has very little to recommend her. Her primary motivation throughout her four years at Gault Academy is to fit in, but the harder she works at achieving this goal the more isolated she becomes. Lee is so terrified of being different, and of being singled out for that difference, that she forgets to be anything at all. She is so focused on popularity as an abstract concept that she doesn't even notice the people around her, who might have become her friends if she'd given them, and their unique personalities, a moment's thought.

    Sittenfeld's portrait of Lee is unflinching, at times hitting uncomfortably close to home, but it goes on for too long and is ultimately repetitive. The novel is actually a series of linked stories, each one of which paints another facet of Lee's shallow self-involvement. Taken together, the stories' effect is overwhelming, and towards the end of the novel there is a sense that Sittenfeld is checking items off a list of boarding school crimes: Lee is befriended by a strange, affectionate girl, and then snubs her for fear of being tarred with the freak brush; when her parents drive a long way to see her, Lee is so embarrassed by their very existence that she spends the entire weekend of their visit desperately ensuring that none of her schoolmates clap eyes on them; when a friendly townie makes romantic overtures towards her, Lee is initially flattered, but later ignores him when he approaches her in front of other students. At the beginning of Prep, our disgust with Lee's behavior is mingled with pity. We want to shake some sense into her, explain that high school is a tiny, insignificant world, and that grinding herself into the ground for the sake of being popular there isn't worth it. By the end of the novel, Lee has committed so many offenses against basic decency that we just want her to go away, and can't help but suspect that she is never going to grow up--that she will spend the rest of her life a mousy, shallow person who doesn't understand why no one wants to be around her.

  2. The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories by Michel Faber - In the foreword to this collection--basically a bunch of outtakes, B-sides and afterthoughts to Faber's gargantuan and extremely enjoyable Victorian pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White--Faber claims that the stories are self-contained and can be enjoyed by someone who hasn't read Crimson Petal. He's right in the sense that only a few of the stories require familiarity with the novel's plot, but I find it hard to believe that readers who haven't been initiated into the Crimson Petal universe will care about their protagonists. Most of the pieces in The Apple are quite flimsy--a few glances at Sugar's life before she meets William, which mostly read like scenes cut from the novel for repeating what was already there, and a few vignettes about minor characters that don't really stand on their own. There's a glimpse of William 15 years after the novel's end, but it doesn't tell us anything we couldn't have guessed from the novel's ending.

    The only truly worthy piece in the collection is, as Faber himself points out in his foreword, the concluding story, "A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing." It explores the consequences, both good and bad, that Sugar's choice at the end of Crimson Petal has on a now grown-up Sophie, in the context of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th century. This story, more than any of the others, doesn't stand on its own--one has to know what the roots of Sophie's inner turmoil are before the story can be decoded--but perversely enough it is the only piece in the collection that feels like a creation in its own right. It is a secondary universe spun off from the novel's, peopled with new and mostly unfamiliar characters whom we would like to know better. One hopes that with The Apple, Faber has finally gotten The Crimson Petal and the White out of his system, or, alternatively, that he will expand on "A Might Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing" and write a Crimson Petal: The Next Generation novel. Either way, I'd like to see him producing new works in new settings, not ancillary material.

  3. Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull - Brust and Bull's epistolary Victorian pastiche, apparently a great favorite in SF and fantasy circles in spite of the fact that it doesn't belong to either genre, starts off very strong but ultimately amounts to a cross between a poor man's An Instance of the Fingerpost and a poor man's 1610: A Sundial in a Grave. The protagonists are four cousins--James, Richard, Susan and Kitty--who work together to investigate the circumstances by which James finds himself injured, deathly ill, and with no memory of the last two months of his life. The conspiracy they uncover encompasses both the Chartist movement (Friedrich Engels makes a guest appearance) and pagan blood sacrifices, which sounds like a hell of a lot fun, and for a while is. There's a good balance in the first half of book between thrilling investigation and pursuit, political discussions, and relationship drama--of particular appeal are the fraught, loving-yet-adversarial relationship between James and Richard, and the burgeoning romance between Susan and James.

    Unfortunately, about halfway into the novel, that romance comes to fruition, and promptly eats both the novel's plot and James's brain. He starts the novel a slightly sinister character, deceitful and manipulative even towards the people he loves, and so consumed by despair at the failure of the Chartist movement that he becomes bitter and mean. It's all a little Mal Reynolds-ish, which is by no means a bad thing, but try to imagine Mal Reynolds redeemed by love, Mal Reynolds focussed one hundred percent on his girlfriend, Mal Reynolds going on for pages about how fantastic said girlfriend is and letting her call most of his shots, and you'll get a pretty good sense of how annoying the second half of Freedom & Necessity is. By the end of the novel, the smart, sharp characters who first made it so appealing are nowhere to be found. James, and Susan as well by that point, are so drippy and lovey-dovey that one can barely stand them, and the political aspect of the novel is not simply sublimated but folded into their romance--James and Susan ending up together is somehow a victory for socialism. Freedom & Necessity is a master class in how not to write a romance--and perhaps an indication that we're lucky Joss Whedon never had time to resolve the tension between Mal and Inara.

  4. Eifelheim by Michael F. Flynn - Flynn is the author of a very fine novelette on this year's Hugo ballot, "Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth." He also wrote "The Clapping Hands of God", a novelette nominated for the 2005 Hugo which has lingered in my mind for several years. Add to that a Hugo nomination for Eifelheim, and you get a novel that I was very interested in reading. (Like Peter Watts, Flynn has made his novel available online under a Creative Commons License. Link leads to PDF file.) The main plot strand in Eifelheim takes place in a German village of the same name, in the middle of the 14th century. In spite of the terrible turmoil of this period--for one thing, the Black Death is just around the corner--the villagers of Eifelheim live a quiet, well-ordered existence, at least until a spaceship crash-lands in the woods. Obviously, at this point most readers would expect Flynn to cue the torches and pitchforks, and he has a lot of fun subverting these expectations, and describing the tentative, yet ultimately strong and fruitful, coexistence that develops between humans and aliens, and the ways in which the aliens are quickly subsumed into the village's social matrix.

    This is not to say that Eifelheim is a My Friend the Alien story. There are plenty of villagers who fear the aliens and make trouble for them, and the aliens themselves have a social structure that is rigid and at times quite cruel. Caught in the middle is Father Dietrich, the village priest and an amateur philosopher whose efforts to make sense of the upheaval to his image of the world, as well as to explain and possibly spread his personal morality and, yes, religion, to the aliens make up the bulk of the novel. The relationship between Dietrich and the aliens is fascinating, but at times one feels that Flynn is stacking the deck too high in the humans' favor. Not only are the aliens unfamiliar with compassion and charity, but the village they land in just happens to be the embodiment of the chivalrous ideal, complete with a genuinely noble, compassionate lord and fiercely loyal serfs (all the while, reports coming from outside the village describe a society in disarray, plagued by persecution, lawlessness, and unspeakable cruelty). Nevertheless, the genuine friendship that develops between humans and aliens (and between humans and humans) is touching, especially towards the end of the novel when Flynn goes the Doomsday Book route. An unfortunate, and ultimately unnecessary modern-day plot strand notwithstanding, Eifelheim is a very fine novel. It's certainly an interesting contrast to Blindsight, and I'll be very interested to see which one of these extremely different, flawed yet worthy novels garners more votes in the Hugo race.

  5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - I think Ian McEwan may very well be the only writer currently working in the English language whose prose is more limpid, more beautifully transparent, more elegant and precise than M. John Harrison's. His latest novel--not much more than a novella, really--is intensely focussed on a single time and place, describing them with the kind of clarity that puts us in the room. In this case, the room is a hotel room off the titular beach, the time is an evening in 1962, and the occasion is the wedding night of Edward and Florence, two shy young people whose love for one another may not be sufficient to overcome their own insecurities and unspoken expectations from marriage. Edward is equally keen and nervous about the upcoming consummation. Florence is in terror of it. That's really all there is--an unbearably excruciating shag and its consequences for people who don't have the words to express what they want, and don't want, from sex (McEwan also travels back in time, describing Edward and Florence's childhoods and their courtship, and illuminating the ways in which their personal image of marriage developed, and how completely independent it is of the person they end up marrying).

    It would have been easy for On Chesil Beach to patronize its characters and invite its readers to do the same--those poor folks in 1962, with their unsatisfying sex lives, aren't we lucky to live in a more open, more permissive time. Instead, McEwan makes Edward and Florence's predicament universal (perhaps because Florence's sexual hang-up is the only one our society still can't accept--she doesn't want any). The intensity and immediacy of his prose puts us in their place and lets us understand that, as the novel's opening lines point out, talking about sex "is never easy." My only problem with On Chesil Beach is that its ending focuses on the wrong character. It follows Edward in the years and decades following his disastrous wedding night, but abandons Florence. We never get to find out what her issue with sex actually was--was she, as the novel strongly suggests but never confirms, molested by her father? Was she simply in a virginal panic? Or was she simply not a very sexual person?--or whether she ever found a way to have an open, meaningful relationship. It's a flaw that keeps On Chesil Beach from the top tier of McEwan's work, but it is still an exceptionally well-crafted, beautiful and fascinating novel.

  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl - This is yet another school story, and makes for an interesting accompaniment to Sittenfeld's Prep. The protagonist of Pessl's novel, Blue van Meer, is everything Sittenfeld's Lee is not--smart, opinionated, individualistic, and, although admittedly quite shy, at least not so driven by that shyness that she forgets to be herself. Following the death of her mother, Blue and her eccentric, domineering political scientist father bounce from one university town to another for most of her childhood, but when Blue insists on spending her entire senior year of high school in one place, they move to Stockton, North Carolina. At the St. Gallway school, Blue is inexplicably absorbed into an exclusive cadre of popular and attractive students, a group ruled over by a beautiful and magnetic teacher, Hannah Schneider. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is structured like a mystery--Blue starts the narrative by telling us that Hannah dies, and leading up to that death are a myriad of weird and mysterious occurrences. As a mystery, however, Special Topic falls flat. It takes Pessl 400 pages to get to Hannah's death, another hundred pages for Blue to decide to investigate that death, at which point the solution is more or less dropped in her lap by a total stranger.

    Apart from the mystery, what's left in Special Topics is Blue's coming of age story, and while this aspect of the novel is more successful than the mystery, it is still problematic. Blue's narrative voice is erudite, sometimes to a degree that beggars belief. She annotates and references sources both fictional and real (one wonders why Pessl didn't go whole hog and litter the novel with footnotes), and her only approach to life seems to be intellectual. This has a distancing effect on the reader. Blue seems less like a person and more like a performance, which makes it harder to care when she falls under Hannah's spell, when the other kids in the group alternately befriend and shun her, when she finally makes some effort to come out from under her father's thumb, and when the calamities she endures wear away at her shyness and turn her into a genuine badass. There is a predictable progression to the plot of a school novel, as illustrated in the preceding sentence, and unless the author can make us care about their protagonist, that predictability will overwhelm the story, as it does in Special Topics (a more successful example of using an erudite tone to convey a teenage protagonist's confusion and innocence can be found in Frank Portman's King Dork). Fortunately, Special Topics deviates enough from the school story to be at least somewhat appealing, mostly when it comes to Blue's father, whose almost total, and disturbingly affectionate, domination of her opinions and worldview makes for the novel's most interesting character arc. There's a sense that Pessl feels the same--the novel is ultimately about Blue making peace with her father even as she gains her independence from him--and one wishes that she had cut out the noise drowning out this more interesting story.

Recent Movie Roundup 4

The summer of three plus one.
  1. Spider-Man 3 (2007) - I appear to be one of the few people on the planet to have liked the second Spider-Man film, mainly because, rather than reiterating its character's core concept as so many other superhero films do (Batman: the fine line between fighting evil and becoming it; X-Men: being different is something to be celebrated, not feared, or lorded over others) it expands upon it, using it as jumping-off point for character development. The first (and, I've always thought, severely over-praised) Spider-Man film got the 'great power = great responsibility' formula out of the way, and while the second film plays around in the same neighborhood it ultimately uses the Spider-Man framework to expand on the theme of heroism, ultimately bringing Peter to the realization that his doesn't originate in his superpowers, and that even ordinary people can be heroic from time to time. The third film takes the same premise and uses it to discuss the journey to adulthood, and the necessity of casting away the simple, one word definitions that told us who we were in high school and accepting that adult life is more complicated, and rarely black and white. Unfortunately, the film itself isn't very good (although the dialogue is about ten times better than the overblown, cringeworthy stuff Spider-Man 2 delivered). Its plotting is predictable, none of the leads appear to be working very hard, Bryce Dallas Howard is wasted, and Topher Grace walks away with the whole film, his witty performance putting Maguire's to shame (actually, that's not entirely true. Maguire's best scenes are the ones he shares with Grace). I think the Spider-Man films may be unique among the recent spate of superhero films in that they actually try to replicate the comic's extraordinarily detailed, densely populated universe, and in trying to tell more than one kind of story about their character, but their ambition repeatedly outstrips their capabilities.

  2. Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End (2007) - better than the second film (hardly a great achievement), but not nearly as much fun, or as funny, as the first. The problem is first that the film isn't trying to be fun, but instead shoots for a muddled convolutedness that neither the characters nor their universe are complex enough to support. A bigger problem, however, is that some characters just work better as supporting characters than as leads, and Captain Jack Sparrow is one of them (the same holds, by the way, for the other Captain Jack). Orlando Bloom catches a lot of flak for his blank performances in all three films, and there's no question that he isn't delivering on the same level as any of the other leads. That said, Bloom has the unenviable task of playing straight man to an overacting Johnny Depp, a slightly-less overacting Geoffrey Rush, and a love interest who seems to have become an emo cross between Dark Phoenix and Xena. It's no wonder he gets lost in the shuffle, but in the one or two scenes in which he comes to the fore, he presents an interesting combination of intelligence and naiveté, and we get a glimpse of the far more compelling film (not films, as there is really not enough story here to justify two 2+ hour movies) that might have been made with Will in the central role and Jack as the chaotic neutral. Apart from that, there are a few fun and energetic scenes (the shipboard wedding was particularly enjoyable) and I still care enough about the characters to be slightly miffed at the raw deal that Will and Elizabeth get at the end of the story (I also join in the chorus of complaints at Elizabeth's apparently domestic role in the ten years between the end of the story and the post-credits coda. Making her a superhero pirate is absurd, but if you're going to do it, don't back down), but Jack Davenport is criminally underused and, after successfully skirting the issue for two movies, Elizabeth's 'they may take our lives, but they will never take our ability to rape, pillage and murder indiscriminately' speech tossed me right out of the story.

  3. Zodiac (2007) - I knew, going into David Fincher's latest film, that unless he was planning to play very fast and loose with the facts of history, he was not going to reveal the identity of the Zodiac killer, who attacked at least nine people (killing seven of them) in various parts of California in the late 60s and early 70s, and was never caught or definitively identified. Going into the film, however, I trusted that Fincher would be able to make something other than a mystery out of the story. He doesn't seem to have done this, or at least, he doesn't seem to have done enough to justify nearly three hours of story. The film's main point seems to be an examination of the ways in which the Zodiac investigation consumes three men--a San Francisco police detective who barely manages to walk away from the investigation with his career intact (Mark Ruffalo, in a solid but perpetually overshadowed performance); a crime reporter for a San Francisco newspaper who descends into alcoholism and becomes a ranting recluse (Robert Downey Jr., giving as good a performance as ever, but the character is not sufficiently explored, and it is at any rate perhaps time to admit that Downey doesn't so much portray characters as give the same, delightful, performance in every film he's in); and a cartoonist for the same newspaper, who allows his career and family life to gutter as he pursues the killer for reasons that not even he fully understands (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal, although the adjective is somewhat redundant). Unfortunately, this is a fairly flimsy hook on which to hang an entire story. Once the point is made, all that's left are Fincher's excellent historic recreations. I was particularly impressed with his depictions of the murders, which manage to strike just the right midpoint between accuracy and sensationalism (it's hard to believe that this is the same man who made Se7en, which evinced a nearly pornographic fascination with violence). At times, one gets the impression that Fincher is less interested in telling his own story than he is in reporting a real one, and although the result is impressive, it is also mostly hollow.

  4. Ocean's Thirteen (2007) - as with Pirates, better than the second film (and again, this can't have been hard) but not as good as the first. What's missing in this case is a sense that anyone--the writer, the characters, the audience--cares about the plot. We are talking, after all, about a heist film. Plot should be key, with complications, fakeouts, and hairpin turns keeping the audience at the edge of their seats. There's a desultory attempt to deliver all of these elements, but the film doesn't even pretend to be nervous about, or even particularly interested in, the outcome of all these efforts. What's important, it repeatedly tells us, are the characters (mainly Clooney, Pitt and Damon, and my use of the actors' names rather than the characters' is entirely deliberate), or rather their unflappable coolness. So intense is the focus on this antarctic coolness that many scenes in the film consist mainly of the character quipping, for the most part rather obliquely, at each other, and just wowing us all with how cool they are. One gets the sense that Soderbergh is trying to recall the original Ocean's Eleven, which was less of a heist film than a chance for the Rat Pack to cut loose and show off how, yes, cool they were. Like the original film, Ocean's Thirteen is a love song to Las Vegas (probably one of the reasons that Thirteen works better than Twelve is that it moves the action back to that city), with the characters waxing nostalgic about the city that used to belong to Sinatra and his cohorts and lamenting its loss. The only problem with this approach is that the Disney-fication of Las Vegas happened a long time ago. The battle was fought and lost, and it is quite strange for Soderbergh to set his story on the Strip--the rotting carcass of Sinatra's Vegas--and pretend that it is still ongoing.

  5. Shrek the Third (2007) - this film is not better than the second in the series. Neither is it worse. It is precisely as good, precisely as inoffensive, precisely as unworthy of the original Shrek, and has almost precisely the same plot. Like Shrek 2, it diligently works to reassemble many of the original Shrek's signature elements--pop songs on the soundtrack, humor that references contemporary culture, cultural satire, particularly when it comes to Disney films. The problem, of course, is that in the six years since Shrek wowed us all by eschewing the Disney mentality, these elements have become de rigeur in any animated film. Even Disney is using them these days. Meanwhile, the less revolutionary, but ultimately more important, elements of the original film are nowhere to be found. Shrek the Third is neither clever, nor genuinely funny (except in a few spots involving, you guessed it, Puss in Boots, and in an absolutely uproarious scene in which Shrek pretends to be a spoiled diva), nor emotionally interesting. Like the original Shrek, it has a predictable (Disney-ish) emotional arc--in this case, Shrek panicking about his impending fatherhood and then learning that he has what it takes to be a father by mentoring the heir to the Far Far Away throne--but unlike its predecessor, it doesn't work very hard to sell it, relying on the character's popularity and the story's familiarity to do the writers' work for them. In other words, the Shrek franchise has become just as lazy and soulless as the Disney films it once lambasted, and whereas Disney took decades to get to that point, the folks behind Shrek turn out to have had only one good film in them. Oh well, at least we still have Pixar--bring on Ratatouille!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Self-Promotion 12

In case you've been wondering what I've been doing with myself for most of this month, here it is: Infinity Plus's review of the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award nominees (by now not even fashionably late, I know, but there was some trouble getting hold of review copies). That's at least a month's worth of a blogging in a single pop, so enjoy yourselves, and come back here if you feel like arguing about anything.

If you're looking for contrasting opinions, Farah Mendelsohn disagrees with almost every one of my assessments in her own (timely) overview at Strange Horizons (we both agree that Streaking sucks, though), and over at Torque Control Niall has a roundup of individual reviews of the nominated books. I'm particularly fond of John Clute's review of Streaking, and of Nic Clarke and Victoria Hoyle's joint review of Gradisil at Eve's Alexandria, a blog I would have added to the blogroll a long time ago if I weren't horribly lazy about these things.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Next Logical Step

...after killing off most of the women and characters of color:
David Anders, best known for playing the evil British freelance spy Julian Sark on TV's "Alias", will play ancient samurai warrior Takezo Kensei in NBC's sci-fi drama "Heroes" next season.
There are times when loving this show takes a lot of effort.

(reported by Strange Horizons)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Everybody Dies!: Doctor Who Thoughts

There are some good reasons to draw comparisons between the recently completed Doctor Who two-parter, "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood", and Steven Moffat's first season story "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," and not simply because the latter is the last time Who was as good as it's been these last two weeks. As Iain Clark points out in this entry on "The Family of Blood", "this two-parter does for World War One what 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' did for World War 2: make an abstract historical event into a real and relevant thing for a young generation of viewers."

The comparison seems particularly apt when one notes the two stories' emotional arcs. "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" is a story that emerges from the bleakest despair into the most miraculous, unexpected hope and redemption. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" tells an opposite, and extremely grim, story. It describes ordinariness giving way to horror, a simple, pleasant way of life--village dances, the schoolteacher courting the matron, and also of course casual racial and class prejudice--about to be devoured whole. John Smith's fantasy of a bucolic family life with Joan Redfern is impossible not only because he's merely a story with a three month shelf-life, but because their entire world is about to be overturned. "The children are safe," an aged Smith is assured at the end of his life, but of course they aren't--neither the boys at the school, nor the children of his and Redfern's imagination, who would have been born in the shadow of an unspeakable war, and come of age in time to fight in an even more terrible one. The Doctor's last encounter with Joan, in which she bitterly accuses him of bringing death to her world "on a whim", is the anti-"everybody lives!"

In a way, Joan Redfern gets the rawest deal of any New Who companion or potential companion. Especially in the Tennant era, the show's writers have made much of the parallel between the Doctor/companion relationship and a romantic one--the most successful episodes of Tennant's tenure have dealt with the similarities, and tragically great differences, between the two kinds of relationship. It makes sense, therefore, for John Smith, who may not be the Doctor but is certainly of the Doctor, to respond to Joan's companion-ish qualities with the human equivalent of the Doctor's 'come travel the galaxy with me'--a romantic overture. Turned back into the Doctor, he offers Joan the closest analogue he's capable of, but she's already been poisoned against him by getting to know John Smith. She doesn't get the chance to fall in love with the Doctor on his own terms the way Martha and Latimer do, or to see how travelling with him changes a person and makes them more Doctor-ish (I didn't catch this while watching the episode, but Latimer's characterization of himself as a coward, every time, is of course a direct quote from "The Parting of the Ways"). All she sees is what he's taken away from her and her community, and her reaction is appropriately venomous and disdainful. The Doctor leaves her to what we know is going to be a pretty harsh fate--the endless, thankless task of a nurse during wartime. As, in fact, he does to the rest of the episode's guest characters, while he and Martha walk away largely unscathed--Martha has got, if not what she wanted, then at least what she can get, and if the Doctor even comprehends what he's lost in Joan, he's certainly not unwilling to leave it behind.

I find myself wishing that the episode had cut off after that last, horrible encounter between Joan and the Doctor, or at least after the Doctor's ambivalent reunion with Martha (which, of course, includes the requisite takeback of any unambiguous romantic feelings expressed throughout the story). The cheerful farewell to Latimer, as well as the almost hopeful scene of him and Hutchinson in the trenches, undercut, perhaps deliberately, the horror of what the main story seems to be saying, the equivalence it draws between the Doctor and the first world war. The episode's final coda, in which an aged Latimer catches a glimpse of Martha and the Doctor at a memorial ceremony, all but demolishes the episode's horrific effect, just as time and distance tend to smooth the horror of war into a comfortable, and even slightly pleasant, melancholy. There's a part of me that wishes the episode had retained the courage of its premise, and not sought to console its viewers.

David Tennant does his best work thus far as John Smith, but the episode's standout scenes are the ones in which the Doctor peeks through from beneath Smith's human surface. The cricket ball scene in "Human Nature" is jubilant; the one in which Smith momentarily slides into the Doctor's arrogant mode of speaking is heartbreaking. Both of them, along with Tennant's performance as an initially oblivious, ultimately terrified, and always entirely human Smith finally manage the job of crystallizing the Doctor's otherness. In the past, I've said that what's been missing from Tennant's performance as an incomprehensible alien is a core of humanity, along the lines of the prickly vulnerability Christopher Eccleston brought to the role, and that absent that humanity, the Doctor will never amount to more than a mass of mannerisms. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is making me wonder whether my problem with Tennant's Doctor isn't a great deal simpler--maybe I just don't like him. What's human about Tennant's Doctor, I'm beginning to believe, is his immaturity and his selfishness, and while the show has in the past featured characters who have criticized or disliked the Doctor for these traits, they have mostly been villainous or unlikable themselves. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is the first instance in which viewers are allowed, or even encouraged, to dislike the Doctor, and it's probably as a result of that shift in perspective that I'm seeing Tennant's Doctor as a fully-fledged character for the first time.

Another character placed in a new light by this story is Martha, whose appeal had, up until "Human Nature," managed to escape me. When I wrote about Martha at the beginning of the third season, I said that I felt "Smith and Jones" was bullying me into liking her. That impression has persisted into the season, mostly because I don't feel Martha is being allowed to develop her own personality and her own reasons for traveling in the TARDIS. Yes, she's smart and resourceful, but last time I checked these were companion prerequisites, and I've yet to see anything about Martha that sets her out from the crowd. Why does she love the Doctor? Because she's the companion. Why has she walked away from her life for an indeterminate amount of time (not that the scene of her showing Joan up by reciting the bones of the hand wasn't fabulous, but did anyone else wonder how long she's going to keep calling herself a medical student when there's no indication that she intends to resume her training?) to travel the galaxy with him? Because that's what anyone would do. These answers aren't specific to Martha. Nothing seems to be specific to Martha except her infatuation with the Doctor, which increasingly seems to be her only motivation. For most of the third season, Martha has focused herself completely on a person who barely even notices she's there, while letting the wonders of the universe, for the most part, pass her by (which, by the way, is more or less the reason that Adam got chucked off the TARDIS with a hole in his head).

What "Human Nature"/"The Fellowship of Blood" does is turn Martha into the point of view character. The minute that happens--the minute we start seeing the story through her eyes instead of seeing her through the Doctor's eyes--she becomes about a thousand times more interesting, regardless of the fact that her actions are still Doctor-oriented. Instead of constantly telling us that she is fabulous--through a character who most of the time doesn't even seem to notice her presence--the episode finally gets around to showing us that she is. In her interactions with Joan, Jenny, and even John Smith, the focus is on Martha the person who happens to be in love with the Doctor, not Martha the smitten companion who has a family and a budding medical career on hold somewhere. The Doctor's obliviousness to Martha ceases to matter because she's become a character in her own right.

In the end, my only real complaint against "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is that it is unlikely that any of these interesting character developments--or, for that matter, the more sophisticated storytelling--are likely to stick. Like Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell is an outsider to the writing staff, and he doesn't have a significant influence on the show's overall tone and overarching plotlines. Next week (or the week after next, if Moffat meets his previous high standards), the Doctor will be an arrogant prick again (and the viewers will be expected not to notice), and Martha will go back to being a doormat (I'm really starting to wonder where her storyline can possibly go at this point. Given that the Doctor is never going to give her what she wants, what's left for her but to leave in a huff?). I don't think it's even entirely fair to say that "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" is an example of what Doctor Who can do when it tries hard enough--it might be more accurate to say that it shows us that the show's premise, characters, and actors are capable of great things, but that the people in charge on a day-to-day basis are either incapable or unwilling to strive for those heights.

See, I told you this episode was grim.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Poking My Head In

I know, it's been ridiculously silent around here lately, and I never got around to posting those pictures from Brazil (I might yet, if it doesn't seem absurdly late to do so). In my defense, I have been writing--it's just that most of it is for other venues and is leaving me with very little free time to consume books or films or TV, much less write about them. That'll change, hopefully, in the near future.

In the meantime, a few thoughts and links:

  • I'm glad the Danish kidney donor show turned out to be a hoax, but I haven't exactly regained my faith in humanity in the wake of this revelation. Most of the reactions I read over the last week assumed the show was in earnest. Maybe I just hang around a particularly gullible corner of the internet, or maybe we've reached the point where we no longer believe there are any depths to which people won't sink in the pursuit of fame and fortune. More importantly, the people who tuned into that show probably did believe that they were going to see a dying woman force sick people to dance around for a chance at survival. These are the same people, the show's creators are now hoping, who possess enough compassion and decency to register, not only as organ donors, but as potential live organ donors. Am I the only one seeing a flaw in this chain of reasoning?

  • Dan Hartland on Veronica Mars and the fannish experience.

  • The SciFi Channel confirms that Battlestar Galactica's fourth season will be its last. "This show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end," quoth David Eick and Ronald D. Moore. Good luck trying to cram all three into a single season.

    But seriously, folks. I'm intrigued by both the show-runners' and the SciFi Channel's willingness to kill off what must be a very lucrative cash cow. It seems to run so contrary to the attitudes I've come to expect from TV executives--the SciFi Channel's being no exception. (Link via Iain)

  • Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship, it's about television. Even leaving aside the whole 'the author is dead' debate, it seems awfully late in the game to be coming out with these kinds of declarations.

  • I am genuinely excited at the thought of watching last night's Doctor Who. This is the first time this season I've been able to make this claim (and next week: Steven Moffat!).