Author Archives: danny_g

About danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

Comic TV With Dan: We Gots us a CRISIS!

Okay, nerds, nerdesses, and innocent bystanders just stopping by, it’s time for the big game. The epic battle between good and evil, the superhero team-up I’ve been waiting months to see play out in all of its four-colour glory.

These guys?

No. I said “superhero,” “colour,” and “glory.” Not four people trying their very hardest not to be superheroes in a show about a ninja cult harvesting dragon marrow that somehow still manages to drain both of those concepts of fun or interest. No. Think brighter. Think DC.

THESE guys?

What? No. No no no. Not that one. This one. The good one.

The only Justice League we need.

Crisis on Earth-X, the biggest, most ambitious, and best of the annual Arrowverse (sadly I am still not influential enough to make “DCW-verse” catch on) crossovers has arrived, and did it ever–

Look, what do you want me to say about Justice League, exactly? We all must know the general consensus by now. It’s… fine. Fun but shallow. Enjoyable but occasionally forgettable. Forty minutes’ worth of footage was cut and it kind of shows, and not entirely from the fact that every trailer has a moment that got cut from the movie. The action scenes are often gorgeously shot, including an acrobatic duel between Batman and a burglar that might be one of the best-shot Batman action scenes ever… fine, not counting anything Lego-related… and it certainly tries to be more fun, but while many of the jokes land, sometimes it’s trying too hard to be “quippy.”

I wanted it to be Wonder Woman good, and instead it’s somewhere between Ant-Man and Age of Ultron. It’s a B- superhero movie that had the misfortune of coming out in a year when the genre was averaging A-. Logan, Wonder Woman, even Thor Ragnarok of all goddamn things, these were all home runs, improbable ones given the lower success rate of X-Men movies, the DCEU, and movies about Thor. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming weren’t entirely knockouts but had more than enough charm to smooth out their flaws. 

But enough about that. Not here to talk Justice League. Just Crisis on Earth-X. Just that. Probably just that. Almost definitely maybe probably just Crisis.

Evolution of an Event

The annual CW crossovers have been a tradition as long as there have been multiple DC shows on the network. Longer, really, since Barry Allen made his debut on Arrow the season before The Flash debuted, around the same time of year the crossovers normally happen.

First they were simple. A handful of Arrow characters went to Central City for Flash Vs. Arrow, so that the two CW leads could go two rounds against each other before bringing down meta-human bank robber Roy G. Bivolo, known to comics fans as either “Prism,” “Rainbow Raider,” or “the guy once deemed too lame for a crossover that introduced amped-up versions of Major Disaster and Killer goddamn Moth.” A day or two later (real time), a handful of Flash characters headed to Starling City so that Flash and the Arrow could team up against Rogues’ Gallery Also-ran Captain Boomerang. Simple, self-contained, fits easily into a marathon binge of either show, but had the fun of seeing the different casts and show styles bounce off each other.

That was the fun of Avengers, wasn’t it? Seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and whatnot all flow into one team. Which is what Justice League could have been, except they’ve been trying to reinvent their tone so much that it’s hard to actually see it as a continuation of the previous four movies. Sure, it has references to Wonder Woman and continues stories from Man of Steel and Batman V Superman but it doesn’t have that Avengers-style-the-franchise-comes-together special feel, you know? Not like Crisis on Earth-X. Which is what this blog is about. Crisis on Earth-X. Not Justice League.

Ahem.

They amplified the crossover the following year, with Legends of Yesterday and Legends of Today, which set up the centuries-long Hawks Vs. Vandal Savage relationship that was central to the coming third DCW show, Legends of Tomorrow. Sure that one was held back by the same problems that plagued all the CW shows that season: too much narrative capital devoted to setting up the new spin-off, and an unsatisfying take on Vandal Savage, but it was still a fun two-parter. And the year after that, things got epic, as Flash, Arrow, and Legends came together (with special guest star Supergirl, whose own show wasn’t really involved) for the three-night, super fun, heroes vs. aliens extravaganza of Invasion! Watching Kara get to know Oliver Queen and the Waverider crew, and seeing everyone have a big post-victory party was just as much fun as seeing the combined heroes take down the Dominators. Plus each chapter still felt like an episode of that particular show. Flash addressed Barry’s Flashpoint screw-up, Arrow served as a perfect 100th episode celebration of the show’s past, and Legends brought time travel into the mix.

So the question seemed clear… how the Hell would they top that? Well, they found a way, readers, they found a way.

Barry and Iris’ wedding brings characters from all four shows to Central City, and it looks to be a happy day for all, but when the wedding is crashed by Nazi soldiers led by evil versions of Green Arrow and Supergirl, Team Arrow, Team Flash, the Legends, and the Danvers sisters have to square off with strange visitors from an evil planet.

The Faces of Evil

If one were to claim that the CW crossovers have flaws, one could argue that they have, in the past, let us down villain-wise. Vandal Savage, as discussed, was underwhelming, and a cameo by Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk really drove that home. Prism was… well, Prism was a half-assed take on Rainbow Raider who existed to give Flash and Arrow an excuse to fight. And the Dominators provided some effective global menace, but they were a horde of CG aliens.

Fortunately their machinations meant that the plot never hinged on largely interchangeable CG aliens, and they had some concrete motives. Like in the event book that inspired it, they felt Earth’s high rate of meta-human development was problematic. Could be worse. They could have been an entirely CG villain with a horde of faceless minions, a magic space rock, and a vague-at-best motivation to take over/destroy the world.

Which is the shade I used to throw at the weaker Marvel villains, at least the ones not out to kill Tony Stark and sell weapons. But man alive no one lived up to that terrible archetype like Steppenwolf. Making him all CG was awkward any time they showed his face, and if you haven’t grown up on DC comics like me, who exactly this mook is and why he’s doing anything he’s doing might feel obscure at best.

Right, yes, Crisis on Earth-X. Earth-X, as any longtime DC fans knows, is the Earth where the Nazis won World War II, and are opposed by a small band of heroes known as Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. Which essentially makes this a crossover between five shows, as Earth-X, the Freedom Fighters (possibly minus Uncle Sam), and the Reich’s top warriors were introduced in the CW Seed show Freedom Fighters: The Ray.

Having Nazis as your villains, and depicting them as absolutely, irredeemably evil shouldn’t be a big political statement, but it’s 2017, the New York Times is running sympathetic stories on actual Nazis, and here we fucking are. So watching the heroes of four shows and an online animated series tear into some Nazi stormtroopers is incredibly satisfying.

But what’s impressive is that they set out to create fully developed characters out of their main villains, making the Nazi Oliver Queen/Dark Arrow and his general Overgirl flesh-and-blood people without justifying their abhorrent beliefs. They’re monsters, but they’re still driven by love. Dark Oliver isn’t just out to conquer a new world, he’s out to save the love of his life. He and his followers believe that strength is virtue, that compassion is weakness, and that they’re doing the world a favour by ruling it. They’re wrong, and we know they’re wrong, and the back half makes a very clear statement of “This is what Nazis do and it’s terrible, are you listening, Republicans” but giving them human motives and emotions buried under the hate and intolerance makes them more interesting than, say, some rat-faced vet who lets vague talk about “real Americans” turn him into a mad bomber. Or a horn-headed CG alien named after a late 60s-70s rock band for reasons no rookie viewer will ever, ever know.

Back on topic… Also on team Nazi is an Earth-X Prometheus, who is not the Prometheus from last season of Arrow. He’s got a surprising identity that gives Oliver a meaty scene when they come face to face.

Plus, the Reverse-Flash is back! Not some Nazi version from an alternate Earth, but the one we know from Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, who admits that he probably should be dead by now, but never seems to recognize the Legends, so maybe this is from before his Legion of Doom days? Anyway, he’s back to looking like Tom Cavanaugh’s Harrison Wells, which I suspect is a cost-saving measure. The crossover was already hell of expensive, and having Tom Cavanaugh do double-duty saves them paying for Matt Letscher. Also it’s fun. Good as Tom is/has been as the Harrisons Wells of Earths 2 and 19, it’s been too long since he’s gotten to properly chew the scenery as the Reverse Flash. So as long as Stephen Amell and Melissa Benoist are pulling double duty, why not let Tom “Playing just one character on a show is for lazy people” Cavanaugh join in?

Our Heroes

Now these shows have big casts. Green Arrow leads a team of four other vigilantes, five if you count Felicity “Overwatch” Smoak. Flash has two part-time sidekicks and two superpowered assistants. Supergirl rolls with the Martian Manhunter and has Superman on speed dial, and the Legion of Superheroes just came to town. And the Legends are a full team of time-travelling would-be heroes. That’s way too many people. So obviously not everyone gets to play all the time. Some characters get sidelined for one to three episodes, some get restricted to quick cameos. J’onn J’onz, for instance, gets maybe three lines in the first five minutes of part one.

It’s like how Justice League tries to slip in cameos by various supporting characters of the heroes, to varying success. Connie Britton’s return as Hippolyta makes for an impressive sequence; JK Simmons makes a great Commissioner Gordon in his two scenes; Billy Crudup does his best impression of John Wesley Shipp’s Henry “Flash’s Dad” Allen in a scene that does okay setting up Barry’s character, but seriously feels lifted out of the first season of the TV show; Amber Heard gets handed much more ham-fisted exposition as Mera, but I’m still interested to see what she does with a proper role in Aquaman. I mean her scene was only a little more character-driven than Anthony Hopkins’ voice-over narration at the start of the bad Thor movies. Meryl Streep couldn’t have made “Here’s who Aquaman is in twenty words or less” work much better.

And we’re back… so while most of the shows’ casts get at least a little screen time*, if not necessarily on their own show, Crisis on Earth-X focuses on a smaller team. Specifically, Kara and Alex from Supergirl, each nursing a heartache; Oliver and Felicity from Arrow; Barry and Iris from Flash (and to a lesser extent Caitlin… Tom Cavanaugh is there all the time, but mostly as Thawne, not Harry Wells); and Sara Lance, Jax, and Martin Stein from Legends (and to a lesser extent Heat Wave), as Sara’s essentially the lead of Legends and the crossover helps wrap up a Firestorm arc that’s been running through the season. And in the back half, The Ray turns up, alongside his cohort, the Earth-X Leonard Snart. Good to have you back, Wentworth Miller, if only temporarily.

Oliver’s team and the rest of the Legends are mostly there to make the final heroes vs. Nazis showdown sufficiently epic. And sure, some arbitrary lines got drawn here. Sure, a solid entrance by Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog, and Black Canary was undercut by what happened afterwards. Sure, I wondered why Ray Palmer didn’t get an invite to the wedding if Barry’s former nemesis Heat Wave did. But that’s okay, and I forgive all, because when The Atom finally makes his entrance, it is a stand-and-cheer moment, and the rest of the late-to-arrive Legends keep that momentum going. Plus then Team Arrow, Vibe, Killer Frost, and the Legends get to kick the stuffing out of Metallo and it is niiiiiice…

The finale of Justice League works that well too, especially one Superman joins the fray. Partially because Superman is finally the Superman we’ve been waiting for. And also the League refusing to let Batman make a sacrifice play is a nice moment as well. And yes, that one has more production value and is more spectacular, but while seeing the League come together to kick Parademon ass is fun, seeing a dozen or so heroes beating the tar out of Nazis is a pretty great finale as well.

*Regular characters getting the week off are Lena Luthor, Samantha “Reign” Arias, Black Siren, The Thinker, and Thea Queen. Sorry, my brain needs to list them, and here we are.

Emotional Impact

Past crossovers have just been fun adventures with no lasting consequences. Not negative ones, anyway. In fact, Invasion! is when Barry finally found forgiveness for all that Flashpointing, and the musical crossover fixed Barry and Iris and Kara and Mon-El’s relationships… man, given how much work the seemingly all-powerful Music Meister put into getting Barry and Iris engaged, he surely was blasé about extra-dimensional Nazis crashing the wedding… no. No, leave it there, do not get into the weeds about Music Meister again.

But this… this isn’t just a crossover. They invoked the name “Crisis.” And that is not a word DC just throws around. When it’s a Crisis, Earths are in peril and people die. Permanently, for decades, or just for a little while, controversial or forgettable, a Crisis has a body count. This one is no different.

Some crossovers try for this, but don’t nail it. Think of Superman’s death in Batman V Superman, and how it had no emotional impact at all. Maybe because you didn’t like the movie at all so nothing did, or maybe because you know that come Justice League he’ll be back. See also Defenders. 

Spoiler

Matt Murdock sacrificing himself for the others meant basically nothing because Daredevil season three had already been announced. Daredevil’s “death” was just a way to get him off the board for a while so we wouldn’t ask where he was during Punisher.

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But Crisis on Earth-X was playing for keeps. And it…

It hurt.

A lot.

I went from cheering to crying several times over the course of the final hour, and actually yelled “Don’t do this to me” at the screen. A hero’s death, dying so others can live, it might be noble… but it doesn’t hurt much less in the moment.

Sorry. I thought I was ready to talk abut this. I was wrong.

This wasn’t an issue in Justice League. They were going for hopeful, inspiring, and a sense of wanting to see these characters in their own solo movies. Guess we’ll have to wait 13 months for Aquaman to see how well they managed that last one.

The Little Moments

Half the fun of these crossovers is watching characters from different series interact, and Crisis on Earth-X does not let us down. First and above all others, Sara Lance finally meets Supergirl’s sister Alex, and it is everything I wanted and more, given that in a satisfyingly roundabout way, meeting Sara helps Alex move past her breakup with Maggie. They also make a fun duo kicking Nazi ass together.

Heat Wave meets Killer Frost, which is fun. I’d love to see those two get into trouble for an episode or two. Barry, Oliver, and Kara work together so well (Nazi or otherwise) that it’s a shame they only get to do this once a year, twice at most. Eobard Thawne claims that at some point in his past/everyone else’s future, he fought Superman. A tease, or a promise?

Of course there are missed opportunities as well. Just like how we never really spend a lot of time with Aquaman, Flash, or Cyborg outside of the group context in Justice League because of all that cut footage. For instance, we’ve never gotten to see how Sara “White Canary” Lance feels about her late sister’s codename, Black Canary, going to newcomer Dinah Drake. They never interact at all, in fact. Also I haven’t gotten a proper Detective Joe West/Detective Officer Captain Deputy Mayor Quentin Lance* team-up in over two years.

And there are questions. Lingering things that I require answers to, and in one case won’t get them. The fact that the main Earth calls itself “Earth-1” and nobody calls them on it… when did the numbering of the Earths become a multiversal standard? What representative came to the Nazi world and said “You’re not Earth-1, that’s Earth-1, and you’re Earth-X, and we’re all going to pretend you don’t exist when we’re counting the total number of Earths if that’s okay,” and which super-Nazi said “Sure, that’s fair, Earth-X it is?”

But more importantly, and in this case I do need an answer… are we just ignoring the fact that the overeager server who was offering Barry a sparkling water and gushing about being at the wedding… that was clearly Barry and Iris’ daughter or granddaughter from the future, right? I mean it must be, she was way too excited about being at the wedding of a CSI and a reporter, but they just, but they just, they just moved on and she vanished and they never came back to it but I’m right, aren’t I? I must be right. Just tell me I’m right. Explain that. Explain yourselves, Flash writers not fired for sexual harassment.

*Dude has worn a lot of hats in six seasons.

To Sum Up

The one catch about Crisis on Earth-X is that for anyone watching, say, only The Flash, you’re going to be a little lost. Unlike Flash Vs. Arrow/Brave and the BoldCrisis on Earth-X doesn’t work as individual episodes. And unlike Invasion!, each show doesn’t maintain its own feel. That is, the Arrow chapter doesn’t feel more Arrow-ish. In fact, they cut the usual title cards and replace them with a unified Crisis on Earth-X title sequence combining images and themes from all four shows. And to those upset that they can’t just watch Supergirl this week because it’s full of other characters and plotlines from other shows, I say…

Nuts to you.

Because this was awesome and the only way to do it is to blend all four shows into one four-hour event, and I’m sorry that makes your Netflix binging harder, but watch all four, you numpty.

Once again narrowing down to Oliver and Barry in the end remains charming, but unlike following Invasion’s celebration with Oliver and Barry having a quiet drink, we needed something a little more celebratory to shake off the preceding, well, funeral. 

Gonna get into spoilers.

Some people complain that when Barry and Iris have their sudden, improvised, “finish what we started” wedding ceremony in front of no one but Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle, Felicity shoehorned herself and Oliver into it, making it a double ceremony without asking. Well, frankly, it’s not like she did this in the church. Barry ran to Star City to get Felicity and Oliver’s best friend just so they could do a three minute exchange of vows. It’s not that big a deal, and now Arrow doesn’t have to spend seven episodes on Oliver and Felicity’s wedding. It’s done. No mess, no drama, no derailing season six with Olicity wedding stuff.

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In the end, Crisis on Earth-X was amazing in the ways Justice League was just okay, and is a pinnacle example of why the Arrowverse hosts the best superhero shows on TV.

Watch and learn, Defenders.

And seriously. Was that Barry and Iris’ daughter? Was it!?

 

Comic TV With Dan: The Punisher

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: a breakout character from Daredevil gets his own solo series.

Short version: fun if you like violence, but Marvel Netflix, we need to talk about your pacing problems.

Premise

Frank Castle, as established in Daredevil’s second season, has been on a violent rampage of revenge ever since his wife and children were killed in a gang fight that was somehow orchestrated by rogue operatives of the US military to cover up something that happened in Afghanistan, and now that I write it out it sounds pretty convoluted… man Daredevil got scattered in its second season.

Anyway, given that when we last saw Frank he was learning that his former CO and his bosses were behind the assassination attempt via gang fight, naturally we join him having opted not to care about that and live in lonely, quiet seclusion… in the city where he was very publicly tried for mass murder a year or so ago. It’s hard to tell with Marvel Netflix, their timeline is fuzzy.

But Frank’s retirement doesn’t last long, as a former intelligence analyst turned outlaw hacker calling himself Micro tracks Frank down in an attempt to go after those guys we thought he was already going after.

Frank sets out to kill everyone responsible for his family’s deaths (for reals this time), but a Homeland agent named Dinah Madani is trying to get justice for one specific part of all that stuff Frank and his comrades-turned-nemeses did in Kandahar.

So the question looms: what will win, vengeance against the military/CIA conspirators, or justice? Or are they both basically the same? No. They aren’t. They try to be clear about that, but… we’re here for all the gun battles, but they don’t want to endorse vengeful murder-sprees, per se… awkward.

And for a change, I’m not going to complain about lack of connection to other Marvel properties. First off, the Punisher as a protagonist works better on his own rather than surrounded by other Marvel characters. Second, Marvel Netflix and the Marvel movies are not connected, they just aren’t, let’s all accept that. And third, it’s not even a problem that the only link to the other Netflix shows is a few appearances by Daredevil‘s Karen Page. Daredevil is out of play until his third season; The Punisher might be set in New York, but it never makes it to Harlem, so no Luke Cage; nobody has need or desire of a private detective, so no Jessica Jones; and unraveling the events of the series requires covert intelligence connections, forensic abilities, situational awareness, and the ability to recognize basic patterns, and that rules out Iron Fist.

Strengths

John Bernthal remains great in the title role, capturing Frank’s rage, grief, and even flashes of charm. Westworld’s Ben Barnes shines as Frank’s former combat buddy-turned-private military contractor Billy Russo. 

Spoiler

And when he inevitably turns out to be one of the bad guys, as we all must have known he was going to, he’s utterly believable as Frank’s equal in violence.

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Agent Madani follows in the footsteps of Marvel Netflix’s frequent attempts to pair a male hero with a strong, badass female co-lead. Actually not the men, ’cause Jessica Jones had Trish Walker. But this one might be one of their better attempts. She doesn’t need constant rescuing like Karen Page in Daredevil, doesn’t consistently fail at the one thing she’s supposed to be good at like Misty Knight in Luke Cage, and she isn’t savagely undermined by her writing like Elektra in Daredevil or Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, becoming subservient to the male hero’s arc at the cost of her own. She always has her own motives and agency.

Micro works, and is well acted.

And if you do enjoy bloody, violent revenge stories, they do not let you down on that front. Well, in episodes with action beats. Which I think is most of them?

Weaknesses

If the “Secret military wrongdoing in Afghanistan” plot doesn’t do it for you, or rooting for a guy whose go-to solution to problems is murder doesn’t appeal to you, well, there’s not much else to enjoy here.

Rawlins, the man behind Kandahar and architect of the Castle family’s deaths, is kind of just a blank slate of “corrupt, criminal, torture-happy would-be patriot.” He lacks depth, humanity, or redeeming qualities of any kind. But then Punisher villains can’t really be nuanced. A Daredevil villain can come down to philosophical differences driving different ideas of The Good; a Batman villain can be driven by sympathetically tragic events in their past, like Kite Man (hell yeah); an X-Men villain can be a good man thinking he’s protecting humanity (I’m referring mostly to Legion, not The Gifted, police dude from The Gifted is just an asshole); but when you exist to be someone for Frank Castle to murder for our entertainment, you kind of have to be unambiguously evil. Which… I mean, that’s fine, but at least try to be fun like Damien Darhk, or engaging like Kilgrave. Rawlins is just there and you want him not to be.

Madani’s partner, Sam Stein, is incapable of speaking without delivering ham-fisted exposition. Like, really ham-fisted. “Quite a story. Doesn’t bode well for me, your newly-assigned partner.” As natural-sounding expository dialogue goes, he’s somewhere between a Star Wars text crawl and Narrator Smurf.

Let’s talk about Lewis. In the first episode, Frank lurks around his old military pal Curtis’ support group for veterans. It’s the one scene in that episode where he acts like a human person with emotions. One of the veterans is a gun nut, liberal-hating, “keep America for white Christians” asshole, and his rantings catch the attention of a younger vet named Lewis, who mutters “sic semper tyranis.” A weirdly educated remark for someone who falls for ignorant hate speech so quickly.

Here come the spoilery bits.

If that had been the last we saw of Lewis until episode nine, that would have been fine. But no, we spend swaths of the first two thirds of the series watching Lewis have PTSD, decide that the only cure to his PTSD is to be back in combat, get rejected by Russo’s company Anvil because he’s very clearly too unstable for any sort of combat, and then slowly but surely turn to domestic terrorism, all so that he can distract Frank Castle from the main story for two episodes near the end of the season. Which, okay, while putting the plot on pause, allows for a couple of key character beats to happen (two in two episodes, that’s not a lot), but there must have been a more elegant way to do them.

And sure, yes, an examination of how life on the homefront is difficult for vets would be good, if not necessarily germane to classic Punisher stories, but surely the right approach would have been to show how not all vets turn into Castle-style murder machines, not to imply that PTSD turns vets into domestic terrorists because mental trauma renders them incapable of not fighting. Lewis had all the love and support you could ask for, and still went mad-bomber, and that does not feel super respectful to struggling veterans.

I get it, man, I get what you were trying to do. When the second-amendment, concealed-carry douchecanoes show up to point at Frank Castle and say “That’s my guy! A good guy with a gun! That’s what we’re saying!” the producers can point at Lewis and his “Jews control the internet” mentor and say “You idiots aren’t the Punisher, you’re these morons.” But if that’s what he’s for, you did not need to spend ten episodes failing to build Lewis up as a character just to make him a third-act bonus villain. If a third-act bonus villain is even needed, which brings us to…

The Ever-Present Pacing Problems, or “It’s called episodic narrative, look it up.” If you needed to pad out the first season with all of these dull, reductive Lewis scenes, maybe it’s time to rethink your episode counts. It’s happening more and more with Marvel Netflix, so it must be said… if you don’t have enough story for 13 episodes, you don’t need to make 13 episodes. And there’s more.

It takes three episodes for the Frank-vs-corrupt-CIA-guy arc to kick off. Three episodes waiting for the show to catch Frank back up to where he left off when Daredevil ended. Three episodes giving Punisher a second, worse origin. Guys, it’s time you gave up the whole “The reluctant hero must be gradually dragged back into action” routine. Only Daredevil has ever managed to hit the ground running. Even The Defenders took three episodes to get out of first gear, and it was only eight episodes long. Punisher could have been a tight ten, if they’d sped up the first act and restricted Lewis to that first scene and his bombing spree.

Being on Netflix means people can and often will binge-watch, but not always. Stop treating each Marvel Netflix show as one really long movie and learn how episodic narrative works.

High Point

It’s easy to spot off-episodes of the first season, but it’s a little harder to name standouts. There’s sort of a baseline level of decent quality that they sometimes fall short of, but never really break past. I guess… either episode three, “Kandahar,” in which we examine Frank and Micro’s pasts as they have the most awkward “getting to know you chat” possible, or “Virtue of the Vicious,” a Rashomon-style examination of the long-awaited end of Lewis’ arc.

Low Point

With two flow-breaking Lewis-centric episodes and an hour-long torture session to choose from, it should be hard, but… let’s talk about episode one, “3 AM.”

First off, Frank hunts down the last members of the gangs whose gunfight left his family dead, despite knowing that his ex-CO arranged all of that, so really he’s just hunting down pawns in his ex-bosses’ sick game. Having killed the final possibly unrelated peon, Frank takes the iconic skull costume it took him 12 episodes of Daredevil to get around to wearing and burns it. Then moves back to New York and, despite being a notorious criminal with a very distinctive face, takes a job with a construction crew, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer. Knocking down walls. On a construction crew. Don’t tell me they’re a demolition team, why would a demolition crew need a cement mixer.

Save for introducing Curtis and Lewis the Rat-Faced Time Waster, they spend the next forty-five minutes, forty-five goddamn minutes, with Frank’s asshole criminal co-workers verbally harassing and threatening him while he silently ignores them, hammering his walls and thinking about his dead family all day and all night. Finally, in the last five minutes, when the assholes try to kill the one co-worker who was nice to Frank after a botched robbery of a mobsters’ poker game, his former self is unleashed upon the assholes and the mobsters they robbed. Which would have been a great jumping off point for a classic Punisher vs mob story, but is instead when Micro spots Frank, after months of waiting for him to notice that intel he’d slipped Frank back in Daredevil. If it had been Frank vs. the mob, sure, maybe I could see him needing to be convinced to take up arms, since this Punisher didn’t fight mobsters, he only hunted people he blamed for his family’s death. And some ninjas. But this is just the same vengeance rampage.

The Punisher had an origin. We did not need to drag him back to square one just so he could be reluctantly pulled back into the same vengeance spree he was on when we last saw him. Stop with the reluctant heroes. Stop it.

It’s a weak opening, designed to fill in anyone who didn’t watch Daredevil, while annoying anyone who did watch Daredevil by taking a huge and unnecessary step backwards.

MVP

Gotta be John Bernthal. Like Daredevil season two, the show is at its best when he’s on screen. Unlike Daredevil, that’s most of the time.

Tips for Next Season

He’s run out of vengeance, so it’s clearly time for an Equalizer-style grudge match between the Punisher and the mob. That would be some classic Punisher storytelling, far more on-brand than taking on black ops groups. Maybe try something like that.

Also… The first episode ends with Micro spotting Frank through “gait recognition,” which, no, what is that… and then says “Welcome back, Frank.” Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” is a classic Punisher story filled with humour (often black), memorable villains, oddball supporting cast, and frequent, innovative action beats, like a shootout in a morgue or a chase scene through a zoo, forcing Frank to use zoo animals as weapons. It is everything you should have aspired to, and if you’re not going to manage it, then keep Welcome Back Frank’s name out of your mouth.

Overall Grade: B-

Coming soon to this feature: can I find a source for Runaways? Let’s find out.

Dan Watched Inhumans and Wow But You Shouldn’t

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: what happens when the showrunner of Iron Fist doesn’t try so hard.

Short version: If you are watching Inhumans, then stop.

Premise

Behold, the Inhumans! Created centuries ago by the Kree (this is not specifically explained on the show), the Inhumans live on the far side of the moon, safe from the prying eyes of the humans below. Well, except for all of those Inhumans that lived in the secret village we saw in season two of Agents of SHIELD, who are never mentioned, and all of the new Inhumans that have been springing up in seasons three and four of Agents of SHIELD, who are begrudgingly acknowledged and a couple of whom even make appearances… but no mention of the government agency that worked so closely with them before ending up in space at the end of their last season.

So, like season two of Agent CarterInhumans continues the trend of other ABC shows being the only Marvel properties willing to very, very vaguely reference events on Agents of SHIELD. As little as they can get away with. Which… you know, Agents of SHIELD has been Marvel’s best TV show since Daredevil stopped trying halfway through season two, so maybe… whatever.

The Inhumans use a process called Terrigenesis to unlock their true selves, which sometimes just grants a power, sometimes causes a physical transformation (good or bad… just ask Eldrac, who got turned into a wall), and sometimes does diddly-squat, in which case welcome to the Moon Mines, you genetic failure.

The Inhumans are ruled over by Black Bolt (short for Blackagar Boltagon… not a joke) and his royal family. Black Bolt’s voice has incredible destructive power: speaking at a whisper hits like a cannon ball, and normal volume can obliterate a person. His wife, Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan, who in better days was Zatanna on Smallville, yes I just called Smallville better days, that’s where we are with this), has prehensile hair. I don’t know how to describe it to make it seem more dignified. Karnak (Ken Leung, of many things, one of which was Lost), one of the top warriors, can see and exploit the flaws in anything, and precisely plan any scenario in seconds. Gorgon… has hooves for feet and can stomp on things like super hard. Crystal is cute but boring. That is… she can, like… control the elements and whatnot, fire and air and… I mean she looks good in jean shorts but she basically adds nothing to this show except being the closest one to Lockjaw, the adorable giant teleporting bulldog.

And Maximus (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton, Iwan Rheon), Black Bolt’s brother, has no powers, but a serious lifelong case of throne envy. Which is where we find ourselves in the first episode.

They were really banking on us being on board with the apparent protagonists right from the top, because we open with Maximus staging a coup to seize the throne. The royal family retreats to Hawaii (sure), gets split up, and attempts to regroup so that they can retake their home from Maximus.

Maximus, by the way, won the support of the royal guard through his platform of “Maybe we shouldn’t take everyone who didn’t get powers in Terrigenesis and force them to work in the Moon Mines, maybe a rigid caste system based on genetic accident isn’t cool.” Black Bolt, therefore, is pro genetic-caste-system, which is problematic, but they compensate for Black Bolt being on the wrong side of history by ensuring that Maximus is the sleaziest sleeze in Sleazetown, dripping malice and creepiness every time he’s on screen.

Okay, let’s break this thing down.

Strengths

The big teleporting bulldog is pretty cute.

He’s a good boy who doesn’t get the pets he deserves.

And it’s short.

Weaknesses

Where. To. Start.

Every character is made the least interesting version of themselves possible, whether for budgetary reasons or just utter lack of vision from showrunner Scott Buck, who just a few months ago also failed to deliver an even slightly interesting take on Iron Fist. That he was given a second Marvel show demonstrates flawed leadership at Marvel’s TV branch, even if going from Netflix to network is the equivalent of being sent down to the minors. Right, the characters…

Medusa has super-strong prehensile hair, so of course that’s taken away from her immediately as Maximus shaves her down to a buzzcut. Sure her CG hair couldn’t have been cheap, and it looked bad, but the fact remains that they swiftly took away her most notable feature, and made it really rapey when they did it, and goddamn you guys that wasn’t cool. Karnak is a master strategist, so by the end of episode one, he walks off a cliff, I say again the master strategist walks off a cliff, and suffers a head injury that compromises his power. Black Bolt, king of Attilan, is overthrown inside of half an hour. Maximus, in the comics, is an insane genius, brilliant but untrustworthy, and here he’s just a power-mad douche incapable of thinking anything through. Eldrac is a person who got turned into a wall that can open portals and they barely even touch on that. Crystal… I don’t know much about comics-Crystal but she must have had more going on than looking cute in shorts. She couldn’t have less going on than she does here.

Look, every comic book show eventually does “Are they still a hero without their powers,” but a) it’s always a drag, and b) they don’t make it the whole first season. But this is just where our problems start.

Every single aspect of the show is punishingly bland at best. The dialogue is bad, the acting mediocre, the effects cheap, the characters uninteresting, and while Maximus is insufferably terrible it’s hard to ignore that fact that he seems to be right about everything. He doesn’t want to live under a genetic-lottery caste system and thinks maybe forcing 1400 people to live in cramped hiding on the moon isn’t the best call, and he’s right on both fronts. It takes 10,000 individuals to maintain genetic diversity. With 1400 people in Attlian it’s amazing that the Inhumans aren’t as inbred as an Austrian duke by now.

Sure, there’s apparently another reason they live in hiding, some larger danger hinted at repeatedly in the finale, hints almost assured to never be paid off, but it’s the Kree. They were hiding from the Kree, the aliens who created them, and in season two of Agents of SHIELD made it clear they thought that was a mistake worth erasing, that’s the deal, fuck you for making a show this bad and thinking you could lure us in to wanting a second season with such obvious cliffhanger-bait.

Medusa and Black Bolt keep wanting to give Maximus one more chance to turn things around despite him taking every opportunity to not be worth it. It gets old.

And it’s not a recent development, either. A flashback to Maximus and Blackagar’s youths shows young Blackagar moping about not wanting to be king, while his brother keeps shouting “I do! I’ll be king!” And when their father says no, it has to be the elder brother, Maximus literally says “But if he dies, I get to be king, right?” And Father-of-the-Millennium lets it slide. Sure, pal, nothing to worry about there.

The human scientist who teams up with Medusa is trying so hard to channel Arrow’s Felicity Smoak that I can only think of her as Faux-licity. Also she might be in love with Medusa. A more interesting show would have run with that.

My only theory is this. Head of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, has been desperate to introduce the Inhumans to the MCU as a replacement for the Fox-owned mutants (even though the Inhumans are terrible replacements for the X-Men, do not work as metaphors for oppressed minorities, and Fox’s The Gifted is proving why mutants do it better on a weekly basis). He tried to force Kevin Feige to make an Inhumans movie, only for Feige to break away from the rest of Marvel Entertainment and cancel the movie the second he didn’t have to report to Perlmutter anymore. So Ike made it into a TV series. Maybe, maybe Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV, knew that the only way they were going to shut Ike up about the damn Inhumans was to make the show, but make it Fant4stic bad so that the concept would lose appeal. And so they hired the Iron Fist guy to write it.

I mean that’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. They screened the pilot on IMAX. They read the script, saw the dailies, and then still felt comfortable putting the worst thing Marvel Studios has ever, ever done onto the largest screens possible and charged people money. I don’t see how that happens unless they are actively trying to fail.

High Point

…Um… “Make Way For… Medusa,” maybe? They finally managed to add a character I enjoyed, even if he’s one of the bad guys.

Low Point

“…And Finally: Black Bolt.” The season (and gods willing series) finale managed to be just as excruciatingly bland and pointless as the pilot while delivering a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion (seriously, the final scene was entirely dull) and spending too much time setting up a second season that I cannot imagine anybody actually wants at this point.

MVP

Lockheed the giant dog, I guess.

Tips for next season

Fuck you. I shall think of this show as cancelled until ABC’s May upfronts confirm it as so, and then I will think of it no more.

Overall Grade: F

Like, it’s not even fun bad.

Gonna have to finish series five of Doctor Who just to wash that crap-fest out of my brain.

Dan on TV: Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire is the best show you’ve never heard of. Allow me to explain.

The first thing to understand about Halt and Catch Fire is that despite being a period drama on AMC, it is not Mad Men. I say that to you now, suspecting that one of the creators had to say this to the network at some point during season one.

Halt and Catch Fire just completed its fourth and final season, and it has been a hell of a roller coaster. In the beginning, it was about a would-be tech visionary recruiting a failed computer designer to create the next big thing in PCs, but it was so devoted to re-invention over its four seasons (as is fitting for a show about tech visionaries) that in the final episode, those two characters barely appear. And along the way, it went from a pretty good period drama to a great one.

Love, War, and Computer Culture

Halt and Catch Fire centres around five brilliant but often broken people trying to be the next big thing in computer culture, a place where “the next big thing” shifts frequently and unpredictably. It begins in 1983, as they attempt to break into the home PC market, but goes on to cover 11 years of developments and advancements in the dawning internet age as the leads continue to chase the bleeding edge. Online gaming. Online community and commerce. Anti-virus. The dawn of the world wide web. In all cases, united or divided, they strive to be the leaders in an ever-shifting, hyper-competitive marketplace.

All five are lovable and hateable in equal measure. Together or apart, they form a riveting ensemble. Between 1983 and 1994, they love each other, hate each other, support each other, try to destroy each other, build businesses, lose businesses, and are constantly on the verge of being the first or best to market with some new innovation. But no matter how many times they screw each other over, no matter how much damage they cause to each other, there is still a bond between them that often weakens, but never fully breaks. Which is good, because it keeps them banging off each other.

Sure, in the beginning, it leans towards Mad Men. We have an enigmatic, charismatic leading man with a mysterious past in a period drama, but within season one they wisely move past that. And even in the beginning, there’s an important difference between Halt and Mad Men… a little thing called pacing.

Mad Men had a very nuanced, subtle, gradual pace. Events would creep along through small actions and awkward silences, building slowly until everything burst in the finale. Throughout the first season, Halt and Catch Fire would introduce a crisis, build it to a fever pitch, force someone to make a compromise someone else hated to fix it… and still have enough episode left for some even worse crisis to destroy their momentary peace. Future seasons calmed down a little, but you could never call the show uneventful.

The setting, the central plot, and central theme all shift throughout the series, but the core never does: Cameron, Donna, Joe, Gordon, and Bos. Let’s meet them.

Cameron Howe

The Prodigy

When we meet Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, who’s picked up three high-profile sci-fi gigs since doing this show– The Martian, Black Mirror: San Junipero, and Blade Runner 2049), she’s a punk programmer sneaking into college lectures about the coming computer age. More often than not, she’s the smartest person in the room, and painfully, aggressively aware of that.

Cameron dreams of true innovation. She doesn’t want to build a slightly better IBM, she wants to build a truly new computer. When video game design draws her interest, she doesn’t want to just make Centipede. She wants a wholly new, wholly different game experience. Cameron Howe would be the bleeding edge of the internet age if it weren’t for a few… quirks.

Cameron does not play well with others. She’s a loner by nature and doesn’t excel at “collaboration” or “cooperation.” She views partners and investors as encumbrances, not teammates. She expects her teams to dance to her tune, even when she’s making no effort to teach them the words. She alienates people, forces them to take actions she doesn’t agree with, and even when she’s right, she’s usually burned too many bridges for it to matter.

And the show really took off when it realized that she was its actual heart. Her and…

Donna Clark

The Businesswoman

Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) was set up to be simply the long-suffering wife of one of the main characters, and thank the TV gods they sobered up from that, because a) that’s a tired cliche, and b) both Donna the character and Kerry the actress are better than that.

Donna is married to Gordon, and is mother to their two daughters, and while season one sets up Gordon as the big, gifted, engineer and computer builder, it also makes it clear that Donna is his equal. She can’t program like Cameron, few can, but she can build as well as anyone.

Not that people tend to notice, because it’s 1983 and she’s a woman. And, spoiler alert in case you haven’t noticed all of the everything, being taken seriously as a woman did not exactly get easier over the next ten years. And that’s more of an issue for her than it is for Cameron, since she’s the one actually willing to work with people to get ahead.

Also, she doesn’t really care for being the mother to anyone but her kids, and her compatriots have a tendency to force her into the position. Being the responsible one, the grounded one, the one willing to make the compromises, the one who has to see the larger picture beyond just the dream. And when you’re dealing with volatile visionaries like Cameron and Joe, or just the habitually wounded pride of her husband, that can cause turmoil.

Donna has dreams, she has ideas, she’s as capable of chasing the next horizon as anyone else in the cast, but there are a couple of things she’s missing. She doesn’t have Joe’s manipulative charms or Cameron’s determination to live or die by her work alone. What she does have, in place of those things, is a willingness and ability to work the system. To make connections, build relationships, to care about audience engagement and put what they want over what she thinks they should want, something Cameron struggles with. Or something Cameron would struggle with if she didn’t find it all so beneath her.

Look, I love Cameron in general, but sometimes… look, the ain’t anybody you can root for every episode.

Case in point, our theoretical lead character…

Joe MacMillan

The Visionary

Joe MacMillan is played by Lee Pace, who was the Piemaker in Pushing Daisies and as a result has my love and loyalty forever. In the beginning, he has recently left IBM, fancying himself a visionary. He can see where computers are heading and is determined to get there first at any cost: financial, human, or otherwise. He comes to Cardiff Electric, Texas-based manufacturer of typewriters and radios, and infiltrates it to push them to build a home computer that will challenge his former employers. It is 1983, one year before Apple debuted the Macintosh. The timing is not coincidence.

Joe McMillian was introduced as an enigma, a man of mystery with a hidden past and unexplained scars and a mysterious agenda, and thank Buddha and all of his wacky nephews that they got the Hell over that. There are two things they did with Joe in season two that improved the show immeasurably: first, they made him more of a fun human being; second, they realized he wasn’t the lead. Even if he would be top-billed all the way through, because opening credit politics are what they are.

Joe does have a certain amount of vision. He must, because he finds himself at the forefront of a lot of industries, one way or the other. He also has a certain amount of charisma, because he keeps drawing people to his banner… even the other leads, who after his initial actions have so many reasons to doubt him.

Because more human or not, Joe’s got his flaws. He’s not the best team player, since he’s willing to fight entire companies if he feels they’re holding back his vision. He’s willing to burn anyone he has to if the project demands it. And when a project or a company goes wrong (which they often do, this is not a happy show where everything always works out), he can lash out in sometimes extreme ways. Joe MacMillan does not fail gracefully.

But once they’re done trying to turn him into Computer Don Draper, they find something worth rooting for at his core. A love for his colleagues that makes the shift from “Manipulating them to create the Cardiff Giant” to “He created the Cardiff Giant as an excuse to work with Gordon and Cameron” believable and touching.

Even when his story is mostly detached from the others, he’s a key part of the show, but it’s still for the best that they moved the focus away from him after the first season. Not because he doesn’t work, but because the ladies just work better.

Gordon Clark

The Builder

Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, who you’ve certainly seen in something) tried and failed to launch his own computer alongside Donna, and the failure was a costly one, in terms of savings, pride, and Gordon’s standing in the eyes of Donna’s parents. When we meet him in 1983, he’s a simple engineer at Cardiff Electric, a broken man who’s abandoned ambition. Until, that is, Joe talks him into reverse-engineering an IBM to build their own PC.

Gordon’s a builder at heart. He’s never happier than when he’s prying open a machine and putting it back together, better and stronger. He and Joe have the best working relationship, if still not consistently, which makes sense because he and Joe were supposed to be the leads until it became clear that Donna and Cameron should take over.

Maybe it’s because Joe can sense that Gordon still has the drive, the need to be a success on his own terms rather than just a Cardiff Electric cog. But the sting of his previous dream’s death hasn’t fully left him, and it means he has one thing Joe doesn’t: a willingness to settle. To plateau. To say “This is enough.” But the line where he’s willing to do that isn’t low enough to make life simple.

Gordon and Donna’s dreams do not sync up as often as either of them would like. Often one’s dream comes at the expense of the other, and that puts a strain on their relationship, and their relationship with their kids. All is seldom well in the Clark household, and Gordon makes some typical 80s-success bad choices that don’t help in the matter. Or help him in general.

But if there’s something to be created in order to find the next big thing, Gordon’s not hard to talk into joining in.

John Bosworth

The Salesman

John “Bos” Bosworth (Toby Huss), career salesman, has been at Cardiff Electric since most of the cast were kids. His is a simple life of southern-charm sales pitches and golf with clients, which is utterly upended when Joe MacMillan arrives and, before Bos and any of the bosses know it’s happening, tricks/forces them to rebuild Cardiff into a computer company, bringing down the wrath of IBM.

But as much as Bos resents how Joe is changing Cardiff, the more important change is what’s happening to Bos himself. His resentment thins. He bonds more and more with Cameron, becoming a surrogate father to her (her father is alive, but she and her parents don’t exactly get along). The glow of the computer age infects him, even if it doesn’t endear him to Joe in a rush.

Older than most? Sure. Computer literate? Not very. But he sees the future the others are building, and he wants in, even if he’s past his prime. He’s hungry to be part of this, and hunger plus limited time equals desperation, desperation leads to bad choices, and on this show, bad choices lead to big consequences.

But nothing short of death ever drives these people apart forever, and Bos’ folksy charm hides real skill for business and with people, something the others sometimes find themselves needing. Which works for Bos, because he needs them to need him, as after decades of life in sales, it’s only chasing after the dreams of his younger colleagues that he’s spotted his purpose, and he can’t lie down and rest before he’s caught it.

Final Thoughts

I feel like I should do more than talk about the characters here, but the fact is that each season is a new ride (featuring time jumps mild and extreme in between), each ride is bumpy as hell, and I feel I’d be doing you a disservice  by hinting at what any of the bumps are. I can say this: if the Cardiff Giant story of season one isn’t grabbing you, skip to the last two episodes of the season. Witness COMDEX, the birth of Mutiny, the first great fracturing of the central cast, and dive into a much-improved season two as Cameron and Donna take centre stage, attempting to invent online gaming in the time before Nintendo and Sega resurrected home consoles. See Bos rise from the ashes, Joe struggle to bounce back from a humbling computer convention, Gordon flounder for a new purpose, see the whole board change as the show finds a new structure.

There are incredible visual flourishes on this show. In one episode, there’s what seems to be a single tracking shot following Gordon, but this simulated single shot covers months or even years as a company grows from conception to construction to growth and expansion and finally to stagnation, and relationships strain and collapse in a few minutes that encompass a season’s worth of of drama. But lower-key than usual drama, nothing super exciting, so it’s okay that it’s just one shot in just one episode.

See Gordon and Donna’s girls grow up, one of whom grows into a computer whiz in her own right, and begins to steal the last season.

See Joe discover what the One Big Thing he’s been chasing this whole time really is… and whether or not he ever catches it.

See Cameron’s dream of what computer games can be collide with the birth of a drastically different take, the ultra-violent first-person shooter.

And let an incredibly talented cast make you love the flawed, sometimes broken, often wonderful characters pushing the story along.

If you’re in Canada, the first three seasons are on Netflix and the fourth will be along eventually, I’m sure. I know that it’s peak TV, and everyone and their streaming service has a recommendation, but the finale… the finale was a thing of beauty, and not every series can claim to have gone out that strong, and based on that I felt I had to share this show with you all.

And then life happened and this post got hell of delayed on me, but it’s still valid. So go, my pretties, binge, binge.

Next time… hadn’t we just gotten to my favourite era of Doctor Who? I should get back to that.

A Love Letter to Glove and Boots

So there are certainly no shortage of horrors to be found in 2017. No shortage at all. But in the midst of it all, a few special people, a groundhog, and a red thing tried to make the world a little brighter, only to get cut down by YouTube deciding to screw over creators worldwide. They are Glove and Boots, the funniest non-Henson puppets on YouTube.

Mario and Fafa. No, nobody is actually named “Glove” or “Boots.”

Based out of Brooklyn, New York, they’ve been doing puppet-based YouTube comedy blogs for a few years now. In 2017, they decided to try to grow their channel with an ambitious plan to crank up their output. They set out to make 100 videos in one year, from their usual work to various new mini-episode series to monthly live shows on their main channel and weekly streams on Glove and Boots Gaming, where Fafa the Groundhog and Mario the… Mario would try out games for our amusement. And all of it was fun, but all of a sudden it wasn’t working, because YouTube changed its algorithm.

And anyone who’s noticed how social media channels have been getting progressively worse lately just reflexively clenched up reading that. Facebook pushing “Top stories” and hiding things from your news feed, or demanding that Pages boost posts just to reach their audiences; Twitter taking a perfectly functional chronological feed and ruining it with “In case you missed it” tweets from days ago; and now YouTube is screwing over small-to-medium channels. Algorithms ruin everything. Mario and Fafa try to explain what they think happened here, but basically viewership was taking a bigger hit than they could handle.

But I come not to bury Glove and Boots, but to praise them. First of all, they’re not dead. They’re just taking an unplanned and indefinite hiatus while they try to figure out how to deal with their viewership issues. But while that’s happening, there’s a lot of great material on their channel that I suggest you check out. Every view and subscriber could help bring Fafa and Mario back faster.

And also someone has to point viewers at their A-material, because the only video YouTube’s algorithm thinks to recommend is the one where Gorilla dances to Gangnam Style. Goddamn algorithms ruin everything.

The Blog

I mean they called it a blog, but really it was a series of comedy videos starring puppets. Which isn’t to say that they didn’t occasionally try to inform. Witness this explanation of the characters found in the Monomyth, with assistance from Fafa’s toad cousin Johnny T, and why their absence makes Adam Sandler movies suck now. (Sure, that’s the problem.)

Once upon a time a friend and I were considering writing a modern-day Robin Hood movie. This video really helped me break the general story, as I figured out who would fill which roles, and where that took us. And then Hollywood greenlit like half a dozen Robin Hood movies and there didn’t seem to be a point to writing ours anymore, but that’s hardly Fafa’s fault.

Another time, once again with Johnny T’s help, they tried to teach the internet a much-needed lesson about grammar.

And tips on visiting New York I wish I’d seen before my 2014 trip, when I blew an evening seeking out the Original Ray’s.

That was the first one I ever saw. Took me a couple of videos to learn that Johnny T wasn’t the star. And for the record, if you’ve been walking the Coney Island boardwalk for a couple of hours and it’s really sunny out and you just want to eat something indoors, maybe, maybe, there’s a valid reason to go to Applebee’s.

Maybe.

I mean the next time I was in that area we found multiple better places to be than The Applebee’s of Last Resort but at the time… anyway, he’s not wrong about Olive Garden. Times Square hosts the worst Olive Garden in North America, this is known.

But they’re not all educational. Sometimes it’s just about how life would make for a pretty terrible video game.

I could go on and on, because this channel is a gift, but I want to move to some of their other categories.

Product Testing

Sometimes they’d watch a bunch of infomercials, order the products, and field test them for our education and enjoyment, beginning with the most famous disappointing products of Vince the Shamwow guy.

Or witness their experiments with the Rollie: a device for people who find placing eggs over heat and then eating them to be too taxing.

(I have heard a theory that all of the infomercials showing people finding every day tasks to be too challenging are actually, on the DL, trying to sell products to people with disabilities who legitimately find these things hard, but that’s another post, innit.)

And since the end result is just a cylinder of basically normal cooked egg, they had little option but to get weird with it, and see what kind of nightmare tube-omelette they could create.

Now, this process involved watching a lot of infomercials, and this sometimes resulted in tripping over comedy gold, as explored in their first-ever live broadcast. Join me now for the saga of “I LOVE.”

You know, coming up with comedy is hard, coming up with comedy on the spot is harder… coming up with comedy on the spot whilst operating a puppet? You have to give it up for that.

Songs!

Turns out Fafa the Groundhog can also belt out a tune. So since YouTube is sometimes just a long Weird Al Yankovic album with zero quality control, Glove and Boots got into the song parody game. Sure, some of them are simple parodies, like turning “Uptown Funk” into a ballad honouring Shaolin kung fu, but they’ve done some fun music videos over the years. Here’s a for instance… when Canada’s king of space, gentleman astronaut Chris Hadfield, did a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while actually in space, Glove and Boots decided they wanted in on it and snuck Fafa into space with him.

Well… not literally. But even if you don’t want Hadfield trivia sung to the tune of Rocket Man (it gets away from them a little), it’s mostly worth it for Mario’s initial confusion over who’s who.

Mario’s failure to get how the song goes is also what makes their cover of “All Together Now” so damned charming. Well, that and Fafa’s stuffed bear. And frankly the original doesn’t have enough references to old-school rapper Biz Markie. Good add, Mario.

Now, if you want to understand who the rest of the puppets are, and why two of the are Wolverine and Thor, you need to get into the back catalogue, but I’m fine with that since that is what I’m trying to get you to do.

Want to hear Blurred Lines turned into an explanation for Robin Thicke’s legal issues over the song? They’ve got you covered. Want to see The Beatles end some pop culture rivalries? They damn it I used “covered” too soon this one IS just a cover the wordplay would have been– anyway here it is. They also taught me what “mumblerap” is, and why it’s awful, yet still created something enjoyable by parodying someone calling himself “Lil Yachty,” and more egregiously, calling himself “talented.”

Moving along…

Shooting for 100 videos

Making 100 videos in one year was an ambitious goal, especially since the main videos have backgrounds to green screen and occasionally puppets to fabricate. So they came up with some easy-to-shoot shorts. Mario attempted to improve our vocabularies through “Mario’s Word of the Week,” sometimes to his own detriment…

Johnny T. tried to show us all a better way of living with “Don’t Be a Dummy…”

And one of their uncles was turned into a squirrel for some true stories that became some of their weirdest material since that countdown to Christmas from two years back, “Santa’s Secret Stories.” Man, those were odd.

Plus there was their gaming channel, which… look, Slime Rancher doesn’t seem, on paper, like a good game. Seems like an FPS merged with Farmville. But watching Fafa play it… or more accurately watching Mario watch Fafa playing it… if I hadn’t been having budgetary issues, I might have bought it and started playing it that day.

Really looking forward to resuming a lifestyle where spending $25 isn’t intimidating. But that’s neither here nor there.

Look, you guys, I know I just threw a lot of videos at you right there, but I promise you, watch even half of them and you’ll thank me, because these guys are delightful, and as someone who tried to launch a YouTube channel of his own, it’s heartbreaking to see them put so much work into providing free entertainment and then hit a wall that forces them to stop because of a goddamned algorithm. 

The worst part, the worst part, isn’t just knowing that Facebook and YouTube and Twitter aren’t adding these algorithms for us, they know we hate them, but are doing it strictly for monetization. The worst part is that knowing that and pointing it out doesn’t help, because as long as it is helping monetization, they’re going to keep doing it, and they’ve got us by the short-n-curlies on this, because I am not going back to calling people to see if they want to see Star Wars when I’m seeing Star Wars. And while new streaming sites are happening, none of them are YouTube killers.

That got away from me.

I had a dream. A dream that one day, my webseries would grow to a point where I could talk Glove and Boots into doing a guest appearance. That Jeff would do a bunch of peyote, end up on a vision quest, and have Mario and Fafa pop up to guide him, or possibly just point out just how badly he’s tripping.

Keith (my co-writer) and I would have guest starred as well. After a few seasons of us being background extras, Jeff would have snapped and demanded to know why we were always in the background of everything he did. Man that would have been a fun episode. But I knew it would be a hard sell. Our first season didn’t break out the way we wanted, so would we ever be worth their attention? And getting funding to keep it going proved daunting, and now it’s been long enough I’m chasing funds for something different… but I liked the idea that it was possible. And I always thought they’d be there if the time came.

Glove and Boots was never supposed to end.

And maybe it hasn’t! They certainly want to keep going. They have an absurd amount of fun making these videos, if the amount of shots that end in one or both of them cracking up tell us anything. But nobody knows when or, more importantly, how yet.

But in the meantime, check them out. Enjoy their back catalogue. There’s great stuff in there and more supporters are always better.

Hurry back, Fafa and Mario. My day was always better when you were in it.

Overthinking Doctor Who 4.5: Road to Regeneration

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

The Specials: “This song is ending.”

In 2005, Russell T. Davies finally, after years of fan hopes and prayers, reintroduced Doctor Who to television. Later that year, as the first series drew to a close, David Tennant took over the title role, bringing the show to new levels of popularity and fan love.

And in 2008, both men announced they were leaving.

While series four was their last full series on the show, they both took 2009 to do a sort of farewell tour. While incoming showrunner Steven Moffat got everything in place to take over in 2010 (Moffat series take a while to write), Davies and Tennant came back for five hour-long specials airing between Christmas Day 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. The Specials represent the terminus of Ten’s journey, ending with his regeneration into Eleven.

Something Davies specifically, maliciously set out to make the most brutally heartbreaking regeneration of all time.

So we’ll have to break format a little to cover these.

It’s Christmas!

The Next Doctor finds Ten trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to shake off the remorseless string of increasingly sad farewells that marked the end of series four by visiting Christmas in Victorian London (this will not be the last time a hearts-broken Doctor comes to this time and place to wallow). He’s only barely landed when suddenly he’s running into returning enemies the Cybermen… and an oddly-dressed gentleman calling himself The Doctor (David Morrissey), claiming to have a sonic screwdriver and a Tardis. Has The Doctor found his future self?

Well, no. By the time they even announced this episode we knew that the next Doctor would be some kid named Matt Smith, so the bluff wasn’t strong, but the mystery behind why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor was well-told. And provided the first clear, undeniable proof that Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor is in fact canonical.

The pain of The Doctor’s losses is partially buried beneath his curiosity in this false Doctor, but it’s there. He has no companion and isn’t seeking one. And when Miss Haritgan, who has taken control of the Cybermen, rebuffs his offer for a peaceful solution, it’s clear that he resents being made into a killer.

“What do you make of me, sir?” she asks, refusing to leave Earth in peace.

“The question is, what do you make of me?” he replies. Then his tone goes ice cold as he says “You make me into this.” And he fires.

It’s a pretty standard Christmas special, all told. A charming self-contained adventure in which they casually mention that it’s Christmas. But it also makes it clear that some part of Ten died during The Journey’s End, and despite the best efforts of his would-be replacement, it doesn’t look to be coming back.

It’s Easter!

Planet of the Dead was meant to be The Tenth Doctor’s last good time, one more simple, fun adventure before things start to get dark. Well, simple for The Doctor. There’s still a far-off planet and alien fly-people and an incoming swarm of fangy death. So, sure, pretty casual.

A woman we will come to know as Lady Christina de Souza steals a valuable golden chalice from a museum. Fleeing the approaching police, she trades diamond earrings for a ride on a London bus, only to have The Doctor hop into the seat next to her, munching on a chocolate egg.

He doesn’t care about the chalice, though. Doesn’t even know about it yet. He’s more concerned with the wormhole he’s trying to track, which has grown large enough that the whole bus drives through it and ends up on some foreign desert world.

Problem is, it wasn’t a desert world last year, and the things that stripped it down to sand are heading their way. The Doctor and Christina have to get everyone home and ensure that the incoming death swarm doesn’t reach Earth.

Like Astrid in Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor and Lady Christina were the a perfect-companion-meeting that was never meant to be. They hit it off quickly, she’s clever and resourceful almost beyond The Doctor himself, and they share a thirst for travel and adventure (even if her desire for travel is slightly escape-the-law based). And she’s eager, so eager to hop in the Tardis and see the stars. But it’s not happening.

Where Astrid and The Doctor were torn apart by Kylie Minogue being expensive circumstance… and for all we know, a little temporal manipulation from Dalek Caan to keep Astrid from delaying The Doctor’s reunion with Donna… it’s The Doctor himself keeping Christina out of the Tardis. After having to say goodbye to Rose for a second time and then immediately losing Donna, he can’t bring himself to let anyone else into his travels. So Lady Christina serves two key roles here.

First, she delivers that “last good time” Davies was trying to deliver, and second, she’s important to showing how damaged The Doctor has been since that mess with Davros. She is almost precisely the sort of person he’d normally take off into time and space. The whole “cat burgler” thing isn’t fully a value-add, but Jack was a con artist when they met and look at him now, all defending the Earth. So to sell The Doctor’s deep spiritual damage, they hand him a perfect companion desperate to go with him… and have him say a firm no.

But that’s just where his problems begin.

One of the passengers on the bus is psychic, and after an hour of seeing their impending doom hurtling towards them, she has a final warning for The Doctor, after repeating the warning he received from the Ood last year, “your song is ending.”

“It is returning, it is returning through the dark. And then, Doctor… Oh but then, he will knock four times.”

The end is nigh, and The Doctor’s not walking into it willingly. He likes who he is, he’s liked being Ten more than he’s liked himself since the Time War turned ugly, and he is not looking to change. Why else would he have dumped a regeneration into his severed hand so that he could heal without changing?

It’s… Fall, I guess?

“State your name, rank, and intention.”
“The Doctor… Doctor… fun?”

The Doctor arrives on Mars, in the mid-21st century, where he comes across the planet’s first human settlement. Problem is… the first human settlement was destroyed. Which may have inspired its leader’s granddaughter to later captain Earth’s first faster-than-light ship, and explore the galaxy. The destruction of this base is a fixed point in time, like Vesuvius. And it’s happening today. Any minute now. Because there’s something in the underground glacier they started using for water, and it’s infecting the crew one by one, turning them into water-spewing crag-faced zombies.

The Doctor is eager to get away, because it’s a fixed point, so not only is there nothing he can do… after Pompeii, he’s afraid that if he stays, he’ll be the one who makes it all happen. But the crew aren’t eager to let this inexplicable stranger leave, the water zombies draw his curiosity… and he likes these people. He especially likes their noble commander Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan, filling the companion role this time around), whose grandchild starts a dynasty of space explorers, and when he finally begins to leave as everything goes wrong… he can’t. Or at least, he won’t.

“There are laws of time,” he shouts to Adelaide as he seeks a way to stop the water zombies. “Once upon a time there were people in charge of those laws but they died. They all died. Do you know who that leaves? Me! It’s taken me all these years to realise that the laws of time are mine and they will obey me!”

If you think The Doctor asserting dominion over time itself is a good thing, you are way off. Adelaide sees it. He’s been alone too long. He’s gone too far. He’s becoming something terrible, someone willing to rewrite history to his own preferences. It’s not a power she thinks he or anyone should have, and is willing to sacrifice to take it from him.

And The Doctor collapses, emotionally. He knows he’s gone too far. He’s become lost, the exact sort of monster he once fought. And as this is sinking in, an Ood appears in the snow, signalling that his end is drawing near. So he does the only thing that makes sense to any Doctor in this position…

He runs.

Waters of Mars is when The Doctor, already damaged from Journey’s End, finally breaks. And it sets the stage for the End.

Brace yourselves. It’s gonna get teary up in here.

It’s Christmas Again! And Also New Year’s!

The Ood have seen a terrible omen. A sinister cabal seeks to resurrect The Master. An industrialist named Joshua Naismith has his own plans for The Master, and is trying to build an alien healing device called The Immortality Gate. Two of Naismith’s staff have their own agenda. The people of Earth are plagued by nightmares, but only Wilfred Mott (Donna’s granddad, remember?) recalls them and knows what they mean. A mysterious woman is reaching out to Wilfred, telling him he must take up arms. The drumbeats in The Master’s head are getting louder. And behind it all, something horrible… the End of Time itself.

It’s all a trap, a way for the Time Lords to survive the Time War… at the expense of everything.

And The Doctor gallivanted through time and space too long (marrying Queen Elizabeth along the way… improbably, we’ll get back to that), and is late to the party. Or so say the Ood, anyway.

We could spend a lot of time talking about everything that happens in this final two-parter for Davies and Tennant. What The Master does, what the Lord President of Gallifrey is willing to do, Donna’s return, the mournful Chameleon Circuit rock epic summarizing it all… one last triumphant “ALLONS-Y!” But while End of Time is an appropriately epic tale for Ten to end his run with, what we should really focus on is this…

While The End of Time Part 2 isn’t without humour, don’t get used to it. Russell T. Davies set out to write the Saddest Regeneration of All Time. And good lord but he nailed it. He nailed it hard.

First, he took away the security blanket of regeneration not being the end. Ten, facing his prophesied death, laments that even if he does regenerate, it’s still like dying. “Everything I am dies. Some new man saunters away… and I’m dead.”

When the prophesied “he” knocks four times, and The Doctor sees his death approaching, it takes him a moment to meet it gracefully. “I could do so much more. So much more!” (Also of note, Wilfred isn’t making it easier, as throughout the second half he begs The Doctor not to let himself die, and Bernard Cribbins makes it heart-rending.) But the cost of living on, small though it was, is still too high. And so The Tenth Doctor must end… following a farewell tour.

Every companion, friend, loved one… everyone who meant anything to Ten gets a final, often silent farewell. And after one last visit to 2005 Rose Tyler, the Ood return to sing him to his rest. He staggers back to the Tardis, utters the saddest final line a Doctor has ever had*, The Doctor’s Theme plays one last time in epic fashion…

And Matt Smith arrives. It’s a rough ten minute ride to get here, but it’s going to be okay. I promise you it’s going to be okay from here.

Except when it’s incredibly sad. That doesn’t end. But it’s not all the time.

(*I would argue that the second saddest final Doctor line ever is Colin Baker’s “Carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice!” because nobody knew that would be his final line. The head of the BBC fired Baker between series, in the first of several moves that seemed to be engineered to kill the show.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Rassilon isn’t just a Time Lord, he’s the Time Lord. As covered in Chameleon Circuit’s Gallifreyan History 101, “he was strong, he was mighty, he was the founder of Time Lord society,” one of the two men who mastered time travel and elevated Gallifrey. The other having been Omega, who was unfortunately erased in the process, something he took umbrage to in 1973’s The Three Doctors. There were also some hints during the Sylvester McCoy years that The Doctor himself may have also been involved, a story thread that was dropped when the BBC clamped down on attempts to explore The Doctor’s past.

Anyway, since the end of the original series, books and radio dramas have dug further into the legends of Rassilon. Was he the wise and benevolent ruler of a good and just Gallifrey, or was he a cruel despot who intentionally killed Omega? Whatever he was before, being resurrected to fight the Time War has made a monster of him now. But that’s what the Time War did.

This Year in Daleks: They got 2009 off. Still wiped out from The Journey’s End.

The Good: The Master is back to, albeit indirectly, kill his second Doctor. The Master has been involved in the incidents that caused the regenerations of Four, Ten, and Twelve. Man, that’s two of the all-time favourites.

Miss Hartigan made a good human ally/overlord for the Cybermen in The Next Doctor.

The Bad: …Eh. They’re all fine.

The Ugly: I have some qualms about the design choices for the water zombies in Waters of Mars. Not fun to look at, and the head water zombie kind of annoyed me any time she was on screen, I’m glad they’re all dead.

Parting Thoughts

Notable guest stars: 

  • Timothy Dalton, James goddamn Bond, is the Lord High President of the Time Lords, revealed in the end to be Rassilon.
  • Brian Cox is the voice the head of the Ood in Out of Time.
  • Joshua Naismith is played by Supergirl’s Martian Manhunter, David Harewood.
  • Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is one of the passengers in Planet of the Dead.
  • I want to include Michelle Ryan as Lady Christina, but other than Steven Moffat’s surprisingly good Jekyll and 2007’s failed Bionic Woman remake, she hasn’t really done much. Shame. I liked her.

End of Time is the first and only time that a villain, in this case John Simm as The Master, is included in the opening credits. Though he turns out not to be the villain.

The bus in Planet of the Dead sustains damage going through the wormhole because they filmed the desert planet scenes in Dubai, and the bus did suffer significant damage in the process of shipping it there. Which caused some production headaches.

The woman contacting Wilfred in End of Time is a Time Lord, one of two who opposed the plan, credited only as “The Woman.” The Doctor seems to know her somehow. How, exactly, is the one last unanswered mystery of the Davies era. Is she Romana? Susan? The Rani? The wife we never knew, a child they’ve only alluded to, some other family member? Just a like mind from the days of the Time War? We don’t know. We may never know. “I was lost, long ago,” she tells Wilf. In the words of The Doctor, that is textbook enigmatic.

She comments on Wilfred’s military service, that he missed the war and never killed a man. “No I didn’t,” Wilfred says. “No I did not. No. But don’t say that like it’s shameful.” This mirrors actor Bernard Cribbins’ military service. He served in World War II, never killed anybody, and is incredibly proud of that. One more reason Wilfred, the Final Companion, is the best.

Planet of the Dead uses a cute lampshade-hang on the question of how similar to humans The Doctor is, one Moffat will steal in the year to come:
“You look human.”
“You look Time Lord.”

“I don’t know what I’d be without that noise,” says The Master.
“I wonder what I’d be… without you,” replies The Doctor. There can be some interestingly sweet moments between these two eternal foes.

On a personal note, The Last Doctor was the only episode I managed to watch between Last of the Time Lords and May of 2010, when I started binging my way through series four. The rest of the specials ended up waiting until that summer, after series five was up and running. So I had a slight advantage over most other viewers at the time: heart-crushing as Tennant’s final scenes were, I’d already fallen for his replacement, and knew that fresh good times were on the other side.

“Legs! I’ve still got legs!” The newly minted 11th Doctor begins with an inventory, and a disappointment: “And still not ginger!”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: A speech from Barack Obama plays a role in End of Time Part 1, but I wouldn’t count it.

Doctor Quote of the Year: “I don’t want to go.”

Saddest Moment of the Year: See above.

Next time… Hello, Mr. Smith and Mr. Moffat.

Overthinking Doctor Who Part 4: Companionpalooza

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

Voyage of the Damned was the first “apropos of nothing” Christmas special, not setting up or paying off stories from the main series or centered around a recent/impending regeneration. It’s got all of the hallmarks: a one-off story (not unique, most Doctor Who stories are one-offs), a one-time companion, and a weird amount of heartbreak for freaking Christmas. The only exception here is that they do technically introduce a character of interest, even though they didn’t necessarily know that at the time. But maybe they did? Could be, he is back on the show in the first episode of series four.

Anyway. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords… or depending on how canonical you consider it, moments after the really sweet Moffat-written Children in Need short Time Crash in which the Tenth Doctor meets the Fifth (who both Tennant and Moffat grew up watching)… sorry, where was I.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones… sorry, but it just is really endearing watching David Tennant give a tribute to the man who helped shape his childhood love of the character, both lightly mocking things like the stalk of celery he wore on his lapel and paying homage by listing all the Fifth Doctor quirks that Tennant incorporated into his own take. Right, back to it.

Moments after dropping off Martha Jones— and the moment where he looks at Davison and says “You were my Doctor,” that is just–

Right. Got it. For real this time. Moments after dropping off Martha Jones at the end of Last of the Time Lords, The Tardis collided with a luxury liner called The Titanic, for the second consecutive finale cliffhanger in which Tennant was reduced to just “What!? What!? What?” Turns out to have been the Starship Titantic, bringing alien guests on a stellar cruise to Christmas-time Earth.

“Why is called Titanic?” the Doctor asks one of the slightly creepy robot angels called Hosts that just seem to cry out “These go on a killing spree in the second act” the second you see them.

“Information: the Titanic is the most famous ship in Earth history,” the benign assistant about to go full murder-bot says.

“Yeah, cheers, any mention of why it’s famous?”

So it’s pretty clear where this is going. The Doctor meets a waitress named Astrid (played by Kylie freaking Minogue), a poor couple who won first class seats named Morvin and Foon, a tour guide with faulty Earth information named Mr. Copper, an upper class bag of putrid dicks named Rickston Slade, and a fun-sized spiky alien named Bannakaffalatta.

And just as everyone’s bonding and having a great time, the sudden yet inevitable disaster strikes, and it’s up to The Doctor to save who he can. Which… well, the disaster movie template requires that it not be too many people, and it’s not who you’d expect or hope.

Don’t get attached to Astrid, is what I’m saying, fully aware that you will anyway.

It’s a fun and touching episode with an instantly likable supporting cast (save for that asshat Rickston) and moments almost guaranteed to bring out the tears. First being the most unlikely yet brutally effective tug at the heartstrings…

“Bannakaffalatta stop! Bannakaffalatta proud. Bannakaffalatta… CYBORG!”

And then, of course, The Doctor’s desperate wail, pain masked by rage, determination giving way to failure… “I can do anything!”

And along the way, there’s an alien-suspecting newspaper salesman played by Bernard Cribbins that you’ll want to keep an eye on.

Series Four: Companionpalooza!

It took me a year and a half to get around to this. My PVR didn’t record series four in fall of 2008, and somehow it took me until spring of 2010 to catch up. Nineteen months of thinking “I need to get on that.” Never again.

Series four was Russell T. Davies’ last full series as showrunner, and he intended to go out big. Donna Noble’s return becomes the capstone to an arc that began with the Cult of Skaro’s appearance in Army of Ghosts, although I have no proof that Davies actually meant for Army of GhostsThe Runaway Bride, and Evolution of the Daleks to all be pieces of one larger story.

Martha Jones (who has joined UNIT, as we learned in series two of Torchwood) is back for three episodes in the middle, Rose Tyler is trying to reach The Doctor, and those are just opening salvos. For the big two-part finale, everyone’s back, and I mean everyone. Everyone.

Rose, Martha, Jack, Mickey, Sarah Jane, K-9 (briefly), all three of the horrible companion mothers, even Former Prime Minister Harriet Jones. Jack brings Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood (allowing The Doctor and Rose to note her similarity to when the same actress was in The Unquiet Dead, waaaaaaay back in series one), Sarah Jane brings her son and supercomputer from The Sarah Jane Adventures. The only non-evil, still alive characters of note from the last four series missing are Nine (of course) and Pete Tyler.

And in the end, they all join together for one sweet, perfect, heartwarming moment where they all fly the Tardis the way it’s meant to be flown… as a team.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because the sadness is coming and coming fast. As an Ood warns earlier on… every song must end. And this song’s ending soon.

(Oh, and one more time for the kids in the bleachers… anyone who thinks the Moffat era relies too much on deus ex machina, rewatch this finale and explain yourself. It’s better, or at least more narratively satisfying than Last of the Time Lords, but it remains basically gibberish.)

The Doctor

Series four shaves a few layers of grief off of Ten this year. The loss of Rose is less fresh, so he’s less hung up on it (just in time for an unexpected reunion), and with the final villain not a fellow Time Lord, they don’t have to punch the grief over losing his homeworld and species in order to sell his determination to keep his old foe The Master alive.

This, then, is David Tennant as his apex as The Doctor. He’s always incredible to watch, because he is that astounding an actor basically always (look, people, I saw him live in London, and you just… you have no idea), but this year he cut loose and had the most sheer fun in the role.

Not that his white-hot rage and flares of grief are absent, because those are parts of the character. But by now it’s all a well-fitting suit. Two years of practice, and Tennant can really strut his way through time and space.

The Companion

Donna’s back!

Much as I somehow didn’t enjoy her first appearance in The Runaway Bride for reasons that I can no longer recall or comprehend, Donna Noble is the greatest of Tennant’s companions, fight me.

First of all, Donna doesn’t fall in love with The Doctor. And after two years of will-they-won’t-they with Rose and one year of quiet pining from Martha, that was refreshing. 

Second, she has the best arc of possibly any companion ever. A simple temp from Chiswick, she doesn’t seem like most important person in all of time and space, and cannot believe that she might be, but she grows into that role over these 13 episodes. Plus, she is amazingly capable, often spotting clues The Doctor misses, and saving his soul along the way.

Catherine Tate and David Tennant have amazing comic chemistry together. It takes a few short minutes for them to become a screwball comedy double act again in Partners in Crime, and it remains delightful all the way through.

Road to the Medusa Cascade

A lot of big, epic stuff happens in the finale, requiring every recurring character of note from the first four years, but basically all of it happens in the last two episodes. Leading up to that, we have a few Bad Wolfs; recurring phrases, shots, or ideas that pop up throughout the year to hint towards what’s going to happen in the finale.

First, and most flashy, a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rose Tyler, leading up to her full return right before the finale in Turn Left.

Second, the bees are disappearing. A real-world environmental catastrophe that provides a key clue to The Doctor in The Stolen Earth.

Third, as the title The Stolen Earth suggests, planets are going missing. Whole planets, missing. Probably should have looked into that a little faster, Doctor, it was important.

And they sure do like to remind us that The Doctor keeps his old hand in a jar in the Tardis. You know, the one that was cut off and regrown right after his regeneration in The Christmas Invasion? That Jack had in his office throughout the first series of Torchwood? And that The Doctor took back from The Master in Last of the Time Lords? That one.

The Supporting Cast

Donna’s mother is kind of the laziest Russell T. Davies companion mother of the trio. Sylvia Noble is overly harsh with Donna, and at one point is quick to pin the Earth’s problems on The Doctor, the very person trying to stop them. She doesn’t have Jackie Tyler’s “Cautionary tale of mundane existence” or Mrs. Jones’ instant, irrational, sell-out-humanity commitment to distrusting The Doctor. In place, she has… not much. Not even grief for her husband, who we saw in The Runaway Bride but apparently passed on since then. She’s just mean to Donna. Like I said, kind of lazy.

There is, however, Wilf.

Wilfred Mott, played by Bernard Cribbins, made his first appearance in Voyage of the Damned, then in Partners in Crime was re-introduced and established as Donna’s grandad. (In The Sontaran Stratagem they underline that it’s the same guy.) And he is delightful. A believer in aliens, he also believes in Donna, and swiftly puts his faith in her new friend, despite having seem him vanish the previous Christmas.

Wilfred Mott is Ten’s final companion, but that’s still to come.

Also of importance this season… in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, the annual Steven Moffat story, The Doctor meets an archaeologist by the name of River Song (Alex Kingston), who swings into the adventure with a knowing “Hello, Sweetie.” She claims to already know him, but he’s never seen her before. An awkward situation for them on your first watch, heartbreaking once you’ve reached series six. River’s going to be vitally important down the line, but for now enjoy her intro/exit.

(Is River’s dismissal of Ten as not “the real Doctor,” not the Doctor she needs right now, a statement by writer Steven Moffat about how he intends to write a better Doctor once he takes over? No. No, it couldn’t be, could it? No… no. Maybe–no. No, Tennant hadn’t even committed to leaving yet, although… Let’s not worry about it.)

The Monsters

The Big Bad: Welcome back to the stage Davros, mad genius of Skaro, creator of the Daleks. This is a dude in serious need of some chill, and is out to unmake reality. Shame that there’s practically no trace of him for eleven episodes. Honestly, the whole “just drop a few buzzwords and then have them be important in the finale” Davies model can be just a touch unsatisfying.

Davros works almost better as a dark mirror to The Doctor than The Master. All of The Doctor’s genius with none of his compassion. Where The Doctor devotes his incredible mind to kindness, Davros is fixated on destruction. But he is able to cut into The Doctor’s very being, showing that they both create weapons of death: Davros created the Daleks, The Doctor makes weapons of his friends, and has left a trail of (mostly) good people dying in his name in his wake. There’s even a montage of people who died to help him, starting with Jabe the Tree from End of the World and going all the way to the unnamed hostess from Midnight. Davros might lose, but that revelation about The Doctor cuts deep and won’t heal in a hurry.

This year in Daleks: Dalek Caan, last survivor of the Cult of Skaro, managed to break through the unbreakable seal and pull Davros out of the Time War, so that he could build a new Dalek Empire. In the process, Caan went more than a little crazy. Anyway, brace for another trip on the old “The Daleks are back, the Daleks have been wiped out, the Daleks are back” rollercoaster. But a decent one.

Classic Monsters Revived: Say hello to the Sontarans, a cloned race of short, potato-looking warriors out to either conquer all or die in battle. Makes them hard to threaten, when death in combat is almost as good as dying. The lead Sontaran is General Staal, but keep your eye on his second-in-command, Commander Skorr. He’s played by Dan Starkey, who has a bright future playing Sontarans on this show.

The Good: The Adipose, little blobs of sentient fat, are utterly adorable, even if their Nanny is a little aggressive with the humans they’re born from.

People died, sure, but you can’t stay mad at the little guys.

The Vashta Nerada, microscopic swarms living in shadows (“Not every shadow… but any shadow”) once again prove Moffat’s ability to wring scares out of very simple monsters. A kid in a gas mask, a mime made up like a stone angel, and now darkness and shuffling space suits.

People probably wouldn’t keep insisting that Midnight is the best episode of the year if the villain weren’t so effective.

And humanity itself manages to be the monster no fewer than four times, either by being the real villain (Planet of the Ood) or by being swift to sell their fellow humans out to the villain (The Sontaran Stratagem, and to a lesser extent Midnight, where humans’ ability to be nasty plays into the monster’s agenda).

The Bad: I guess the villain of Voyage of the Damned isn’t their best work.

The Ugly: The big damn CGI wasp from The Unicorn and the Wasp is a little cheesy-looking. And the Pyrovile sure shout their name more dramatically than they needed to…

High Point

Several people I know would say Midnight, in which The Doctor is trapped in a broken transport with a group of increasingly agitated passengers while an unknown monster lurks outside in an impossibly hostile environment. I disagree. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not even in my top three.

No, for my money, the single best episode of series four is Fires of Pompeii. The Doctor and Donna find themselves in Pompeii on, as Captain Jack Harkness once called it, Volcano Day. Donna confronts the dark side of time travel, The Doctor has to make a horrible choice, the cast is solid, the central story strong, the tragedy is profound, and the ending is simply beautiful, if still sad. Catherine Tate proves that she brings a lot more to the table than screwball comedy, and it features two guest stars who will go on to be major players of future series.

Midnight is highly effective. Fires of Pompeii is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.

Low Point

Turn Left, in which a sinister alien uses a beetle thing to alter history, making Donna change one decision, ensuring she never met The Doctor. And without her, he doesn’t survive the events of Runaway Bride.

Want to know what would have happened if The Doctor hadn’t been around for any of the crises of the last two years? Think watching the world slide into ruin from the lack of Time Lord intervention might be fun? Well it isn’t.

Turn Left and Midnight came about for the same reason as Love and Monsters and Blink: need to compress the shooting schedule. The previous two years, they just gave The Doctor and his companion a much reduced role so that David Tennant and Billie Piper/Freema Agyeman could start filming the next episode at the same time. In this case, David Tennant could film the bottle episode of Midnight while Catherine Tate was doing Turn Left. Catherine Tate was certainly capable of shouldering an episode without Tennant’s help, but after a year filled with screwball comedy and high-octane adventure, Turn Left is just a major downer, and by the time Britain is building concentration camps I just really wanted it to be done.

Highlights?

Lots.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a great two-parter from impending showrunner Steven Moffat, and as I’ll elaborate later, never, ever miss a River Song episode.

Partners in Crime is delightful screwball comedy that brings Donna back to the Tardis.

Unicorn and the Wasp continues a tradition of high quality Historical Guest Star episodes.

The Doctor’s Daughter is pretty incredible, as The Doctor, Donna, and Martha find themselves in the middle of a war between humans and fish-aliens called Hath fought through soldiers grown in instants from tissue samples of other people. Not clones, separate beings grown by reassembling the donor’s DNA. And when a sample is taken from The Doctor, resulting in Jenny, he must grapple with the notion that there’s a possible new Time Lord that is, in a way, his offspring. It’s one of the few episodes to acknowledge, and possibly the only one to drill into, the fact that once upon a time The Doctor had a wife and children. And at least one grandchild, whose name was Susan. And they’re all gone.

And Planet of the Ood is basically the best Ood episode, and they’re about to be important.

Skippables?

…Nope, can’t think of one. I don’t love Midnight, but I can’t advise skipping it. I mean for what it is, which is an incredibly tense bottle episode, it’s really well done. And The Sontaran Stratagem is a lot of build-up to the more engaging The Poison Sky, but is a “Previously on” segment really enough?

And Turn Left is the return of Rose and features Wilf. You probably shouldn’t skip that.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • Most important is Fires of Pompeii, which features both a future Doctor and a future companion. Peter Capaldi, at the time of writing about to end his reign as Twelve, appears as a marble merchant whose family becomes key to The Doctor and Donna’s investigations. Karen Gillan, future Guardian of the Galaxy and Jumanji victim, back then less than two years away from getting her own Tardis key, has a less significant role as a local prophet/priestess. There’s no callback to this for Gillan, probably because the makeup and accent disguise her more than, say, Freema Agyeman playing Martha Jones’ weirdly identical cousin the year before Martha was introduced, but the Twelfth Doctor looking exactly like some guy an earlier self met in Pompeii eventually gets an explanation.
  • Academy Award Nominee and Rogue One platoon leader Felicity Jones turns up as a guest at the party in The Unicorn and the Wasp.
  • In addition to Kylie Minogue, the crew of the Starship Titanic includes Being Human’s and apparently Quantico’s Russell Tovey and British actor of note Geoffrey Palmer.
  • I mostly just know Colin Salmon as Oliver Queen’s stepdad from the first season of Arrow, but apparently he’s a big enough deal to have played himself in Master of None. Anyway, he’s in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. As is Westworld hostess Talulah Riley.
  • Midnight features David Troughton, son of Patrick Troughton, the Second Doctor. He’s not famous, but that’s neat.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: Joe Dempsie, who GoT fans know as Baratheon bastard Gendry, turns up in The Doctor’s Daughter. And Tim McInnerny, who has been popping up lately in Winterfell as one of the crankier northern lords, but who I still remember as Percy/Captain Darling on Blackadder, is the would-be owner of the Ood in Planet of the Ood. If you claim to own a species, try not to meet The Doctor. It won’t go great.

Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter is played by Georgia Moffett, the daughter of Fifth Doctor Peter Davison. And apparently she and Tennant hit it off on set, because they got married and had a daughter (possibly in that order). So The Doctor’s Daughter is played by The Doctor’s daughter, who married The Doctor and gave birth to The Doctor’s daughter. Only on this show.

Martha’s engaged to that doctor she met in the third series finale’s alternate timeline. Guess she looked him up after all. Won’t last, though. Their careers don’t match and he’s Lucifer.

After enduring Jackie Tyler’s pestering and Wossname Jones’ bitter paranoia, The Doctor lands a solid burn against Sylvia Noble’s constant belittling of Donna towards the end.

UNIT is back in a big way, though they suffer heavy losses against the Sontarans and the Daleks, and lose their flagship The Valiant. No more CG helicarriers for you, UNIT. Also, they reference The Doctor’s old pal and UNIT’s commander, Brigadier General Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. Sadly he never made an appearance on the reboot.

Doctor Quote of the Year: Ten finally gets to say “Alons-y, Alonso!” but also mixes it up with the odd “Molto bene!” And everybody seems to take a turn saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Historical Guest Star of the Year: Agatha Christie solving a parlour mystery.

Saddest Moment: First time through, it’s got to be What Happens to Donna. But if you rewatch, if you know where things are going, if new characters have become old friends… then it’s in the Library. “All the time we’ve been together, you knew I was coming here.”

Next time… Russell T. Davies and David Tennant take a goodbye tour as the show mostly takes 2009 off.

How I Salvaged the Worst Thing I Ever Wrote

Okay let’s take a break from the stroll down Doctor Who’s memory lane. I’d like to tell you a little story.

Long-term readers might recall that during my oft-neglected look back at past plays, I discussed the worst first draft I’d ever written, Quest, which given how I tore into some of my other early works is quite the damning statement. Yet still somehow earned, because this attempted blend of Ocean’s 11 and Lord of the Rings was basically unstageable.

I also mentioned that, years later, there were elements of the concept that I still kind of liked. I liked the idea of most of the characters, if not the execution. There was a moment, a key turning point for several characters, that could have been beautiful. That should have been beautiful. It was there, in my head, a moment of joy and perfect happiness right before things were scheduled to go wrong. I felt an overpowering need to try and do that moment justice.

And there began ConQuest.

Know Your Medium

When I started this mad project way, way back when, I had some friends who attempted to softball their disapproval of the script by saying that maybe stage wasn’t the venue. Maybe this was a novel, or something else.

I said no, I can make it work, because I’d seen Fringe plays that made weird or minimalist choices work and assumed anything is stageable if you’re determined. Well, that’s part of the truth. It’s a little true but underneath that was the fact that, having been running community theatre groups for nearly a decade, I knew how to get plays staged. I had no successful experience with film or with getting novels published. Or written. Not super at prose if I’m being honest.

No, this isn’t prose, this is conversational exposition. There is a difference.

Nothing said “This isn’t meant for stage” like the fact that everything interesting happened off of it. Everything. Every single thing. Because exposition and talkiness are so much easier to stage than magic and battles. Or the cons that should have been the central story mechanic.

So step one… if this story was going to work, if my one, perfect moment had any chance of existing, I had to write this thing for a genre that could actually support it. And while I’m still bad at prose, I had recently been seduced by Sweet Lady Film. So maybe it was a movie.

And when it passed the 150 page mark, maybe it was a series. So that’s what I turned it into.

Know Your Story

When writing the stage version, I had characters in my head, though only partially realized. I had a vague notion of the world, enough to fuel far too much exposition. But did I have a story? Only kind of sort of. I just started writing some stuff down and tried to build some rising action and threw in a sudden yet inevitable betrayal just to try to add value to the supposed lead, and none of it landed.

So this time I did a bit more legwork.

Know your story. Know where it’s going. Know how to tell it. If your story is about a con artist fighting a magic war, have cons. And action. The Fellowship of the Rings didn’t become The Fellowship of the Rings by standing around and talking about how cool they all were when the cameras weren’t running.

Now there are twists, turns, rising dangers and diminishing safety, action and cons. Plus characters people actually like, and moments that elicited gasps at the first reading.

Telling your story right is step two. But before you can tell your story right, you have to know what it is.

Get Good Advice

The first readers of the play version did their best. They tried, they really tried, to warn me away from it. But they also softballed it a little. They said “I don’t know if this will work” rather than “It will not work.”

Fortunately I had other friends willing to say that in no uncertain terms. Less fortunately, in a far more public venue.

So before I got attached to this new version, I called three close friends (including the two most vocal opponents of the stage version, you know, the ones from that last paragraph) and said “I need feedback on this on a level I would classify as ‘unflinching.'”

And to my mild surprise and deep relief, they dug it. Sure they had notes, of course they had notes, do you have any idea how few scripts nail it on draft one or two? But overall, I was on to something.

Soon this went from a project I’d only talk about after at least four whiskeys into something people were anxious to hear news on, something they wanted to be part of. That was a good feeling. Almost good as I imagine filming it will feel.

That’s not true. Filming it would be WAY better.

Question Assumptions

BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg wrote a great post about gender in comedy in response to a question on his Tumblr. Basically, he called attention to the fact that when casting a character for a simple gag, we assume the character will be male. Example, the Minions are genderless yellow blobs but all have male names. And the only way to break this assumption is to notice we’re doing it and fight against it.

And that’s how the main character’s partner, Freddy, changed from “Frederick” to “Winifred.” And once that was done, I analyzed every choice: am I only doing this because she’s a woman now? Is this the right choice for Freddy, beyond the question of gender?

The most important choice, and the one everyone was very relieved to hear, was that Toby and Freddy do not end up together at the end of the season. That would not work at all.

Weird that a man and a woman being friends and colleagues without any sexual history needs to be a revolutionary concept.

So when will this hit screens? No idea. Doing my best, but scrounging up filming money is a new field. But for now, it’s just nice to know it’s working.

I might get my one, perfect moment yet.

Comic TV With Dan: Preacher

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: an unconventional search for God.

Short version, if you’re not watching Preacher, then start.

Premise

Following the explosive events that ended season one, small town preacher with a shady past Jesse Custer is on the road searching for God, with his volatile girlfriend Tulip and buddy Cassidy the Irish vampire in tow. Jesse’s still bonded to Genesis, the half angel/half demon baby that gives him the power to make anyone do anything he says. So this should be easy, right?

Well… There are a few complications.

First… and I’m surprised the comics didn’t go into this more… the world is big and God is hard to find, even if you think you know which city to start with. And since nobody’s ever met God, you could be looking right at him and you wouldn’t necessarily know.

Second… last season, the angels who were supposed to be guarding Genesis dispatched the unstoppable cowboy killing machine, The Saint of Killers, to kill Jesse.

The Unholy Cowboy Terminator

Third… The Grail, a religious organization that secretly controls the world, has taken an interest in Jesse. And one of their top people, the cunning and heartless Helmut Starr, wants to control him.

Not a person you want giving you a lot of thought.

And fourth… Tulip and Cassidy are not 100% on board with this plan. They have their own things going on that Jesse barely seems to notice, and the perpetually debauched Cassidy is still sweet on Tulip.

Oh, also, Eugene “Arseface” Root remains in a sticky situation after last year, and makes an unexpected friend who might be able to get him out of it.

This show’s debut season was impressive if scattered, but with all of the origin stuff settled, they were off like a shot this year, and everything was clicking. In university, half of my friend group eagerly waited for the new Preacher every month, and now I’m right back there waiting for fresh Preacher every week.

Or, at the moment, eight to nine months. Damn it.

Strengths

Wham! Pow! Billy Joel’d! When Preacher has a major fight scene, they do not mess around. It doesn’t happen every episode, but there are some epic throwdowns. Everyone else doing fights on TV, watch Preacher and take notes (yes, you, Iron Fist, always you, Iron Fist). The rest of comic book TV has their work cut out for them if they want to top the Billy Joel Fight.

Tighter focus: Season one was spread over the entire town of Annville, but season two opens with the thing season one most notably lacked… a tight focus on the three leads and their relationships. After too many season one episodes where Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip were split up, they’re finally a unit, and the first half of the season is laser focused on them, and it’s delightful.

The Faces of Evil: As good as Jackie Earle Haley was as Odin Quincannon, the show absolutely crushed it this year with the Saint and Herr Starr. Graham McTavish is chilling as the killer cowboy, and Pip Torrens kills as Starr. He’s savage, humourless, absolutely hateable yet fascinating to watch. If he’s to be the main villain on this show, may he last six seasons and a movie.

Twisted Storytelling: I read every issue, miniseries, and one-shot of original Preacher, and I never know what they’re going to do next. For example, one of the three new regular characters? Until he walked on screen for the first time, I would not expected [REDACTED] to be a character at all, let alone an opening-credit-regular character. And with one slight exception, everything they have pulled has been pretty impressive.

Two Acts: Basically, the show splits into two halves, fairly cleanly. The first half follows the trio’s journey to New Orleans and run-ins with the Saint (with revelations about their pasts), and in the second half, Starr and the Grail make their play. It works well.

Impressive Cast: The cast all does such great work, it’s impressive even if you don’t know that almost none of them are speaking in their native accents. I think it might just be Julie Ann Emery as Featherstone, and I’m not even positive about her.

Cassidy and the angel Fiore take a break from a hedonistic bender to read Archie comics.

Learning about the Saint of Killers involves the trio reading the actual, original Saint of Killers miniseries.

A Bill Hicks poster in Fiore’s dressing room serves as a neat Easter egg to the Bill Hicks tribute issue of the original comic.

They actually did Humperdoo. I wasn’t sure they would but they did. (When it happens you’ll know.)

Weaknesses

Underused Tulip: Somehow Jesse is still the only one whose story has momentum. In the back half, when cracks begin to form between the central trio (which of course they had to, so let’s not call that a flaw), Tulip’s plot has no second gear. Again. And Cassidy’s is mostly background.

High Point

Sokosha. After two shootouts and a lot of walking, the Saint of Killers comes to call on Jesse… with unexpected twists and hints along the way.

Low Point

Backdoors. Look… there aren’t really bad episodes, but… sometimes, when the protagonists are clearly being manipulated, and they’re not seeing it happen, and you want to scream “Damn it, Will, Hannibal is literally messing with your brain,” but you know this is just going to keep happening until the finale… it can get frustrating. That’s where I was going into Backdoors.

Also the more they split up the main trio the more the show suffers, if only because they are not good at giving Tulip her own story.

MVP

Pip Torrens as Helmut Starr. It’s a whole new Preacher when he shows up.

Tips For Next Season

Okay. So. We’re going to Angelville. Gonna finally meet Jesse’s less noble relatives. That is… gonna be thing, and after the Saint and Starr I trust you to nail it. And Cassidy’s there. That’s new, he took that arc off in the books, so seeing Cassidy meet Gram’ma and Jody and TC could be neat.

But you know who else is around that wasn’t in the comic arc? Herr Starr. I want to see Starr and Gram’ma cross paths in just the worst way. Give me that, please thanks.

Also Tulip and Featherstone’s reunion should be a fight for the record books.

Overall Grade: A-

Coming soon to this feature: I swear to Zod I’m going to get around to watching The Tick soon.

Coming next time to this blog in general: something less TV related.

Does that mean I’m done with examining Doctor Who? HA! No.

Overthinking Doctor Who 3: On the Rebound

There’s a new Doctor on the horizon. The first female Doctor. This has some people wondering if it’s time to try out this show I love so much.

Well, that’s what I’m here for. Because when you love a show as much as I love Doctor Who, you have opinions.

These are mine.

It’s Christmas!

I didn’t overly care for The Runaway Bride first I saw it. Not sure why, because it is delightful.

At the end of Doomsday, in the closing seconds after the tear-stained farewell between Rose and Ten, The Doctor turns to see a bride (the wonderful Catherine Tate) has appeared in the Tardis and is angrily demanding to know where she is and how she got there, to which he can only stammer “What?” over and over. It’s pretty funny.

The Christmas Invasion was a key part of series two, introducing plot threads (Torchwood) and the new Doctor. Hope you didn’t count on that being a regular thing, though, because it won’t happen again for a while. Okay, sure, The Runaway Bride introduces a companion, Donna Noble, but not this year’s companion.

The Runaway Bride is a break from the tragedy of Doomsday, some simple screwball comedy (and world-threatening menace) that showcases delightful comic chemistry between Catherine Tate and David Tennant (his reaction to repeatedly being called “Martian” is simple yet hilarious).

And in the end, while Donna chooses not to run off with The Doctor today, she does remind him of something important… Rose or no Rose, he needs someone. He shouldn’t be alone.

Luckily…

Series Three: “Time Lord… You are not alone.”

At the beginning of series three, The Doctor has never felt more alone. When the trauma of burning Gallifrey was still fresh, he had Rose. In series three, she’s gone, stranded somewhere he can never go, and the happy-go-lucky best pal Doctor of series two is hollowed out as a result.

So when the Face of Boe tells him he might not be alone in the universe after all, it’s a beacon of hope he can’t quite bring himself to face.

Series three is all about reminding us that The Doctor is a big, mythic character. That for all of his attempts to seem down-to-Earth-or-equivalent, he’s so much more. “He’s ice and fire and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

By the time the resolution of the finale hinges on everyone on Earth thinking about The Doctor until it gives him godlike powers, it’s like “Okay, we get it, he’s cool. He’s so very cool. We’re on board, already, we watch the show.”

Yeah, on that… I’m going to need everyone who thinks Steven Moffat is bad about deus ex machina to rewatch Last of the Time Lords and then explain yourselves. I’m not saying Moffat doesn’t occasionally make up some freaky time travel things to resolve a plot, but the deus ex machina finale nonsense Davies pulled makes Moffat era finales look like Law and Order.

Really sensible and logical. Was that not clear? I feel that was clear.

The Doctor

Weird to take such a positive, energetic take on The Doctor and then suck all of that out of him for a whole year. Okay, that was unfair, it’s all still there in most episodes (but definitely not all), but The Doctor is defined by grief this year. His heartbreak over losing Rose haunts everything he does, from his reluctance to take on a new companion to one of the reasons why his new companion Martha voluntarily takes her leave from the Tardis, something that almost never happens, and certainly hasn’t happened to a companion since.

Well, mostly not.

How alienated is The Doctor? When he turns himself into a human (something I’ll be discussing later, and not in a flattering way), he gives Martha a series of instructions on what to do if things go wrong. He does not even think to include “What to do in case I fall in love with someone,” a fact that fake-human-Doctor John Smith finds horrifying.

The Doctor needs a kick in the ass, is what he needs, but he won’t really get one until next year. And he won’t get one that takes for three.

The Companion

Martha Jones, would-be doctor, would-be Doctor’s girlfriend, and the first ever Companion of Colour.

Poor, poor Martha Jones.

A med student prepping for her final exams, Martha gets swept up with The Doctor when her hospital (St. Thomas’, a pretty swank hospital to be across the Thames from Parliament, frankly, so she must be fairly damn clever). She doesn’t even get to be a full, proper companion until the halfway point of the series. Until then, it’s The Doctor offering her one adventure into the past, then okay we may as well do one into the future, alright that was a rough one, one more into New York…”

The first seven episodes all happen in a row, over a few days, with minimal time jumps (like, cut from night to the next morning is probably the biggest), and that’s all the time it takes for Martha to fall for The Doctor. In fact it’s happened well before the first “Some amount of time and adventures later” cut. She’s completely smitten by the time she asks, no, demands that this stop being a temporary arrangement at the end of The Lazarus Experiment. However… it’s already begun to be clear that he doesn’t really see her, because he’s still hung up on Rose.

And that never gets better, and that’s agonizing for Martha. Eventually it’s part of what makes her choose staying with her family rather than travelling on with The Doctor. He’ll never see her the way she sees him, and while she’s confident they’ll meet again (rightly so, after a guest stint on Torchwood series two she pops back for a couple of visits next year), she needs to get away from him to figure out a life for herself.

There are a lot of implied Doctor/Martha adventures between 42, the last “We pick up where we left off” adventure, and Utopia, the beginning of the three-part finale arc, and good for her. I hope there were a lot of adventures that happened between episodes, because otherwise her time in the Tardis would be a downer. Two trips to the past, two to the future, two adventures at home, nearly dying in five of those, and then stuck in one place for months. Twice. Human Nature/Family of Blood sees the pair spend months in 1913, an incredibly sucky time/place for a black woman at the best of times, where future doctor Martha Jones has to work as a scullery maid. That would be a rough gig even if she didn’t need to watch The Doctor fall in love with someone else. And then right after that is Blink, where The Doctor and Martha get stuck in 1969 (which again is not the friendliest time towards black women, like all of recorded Earth history up to and at least somewhat beyond the present day) and she has to take a job in a shop so that she and The Doctor can afford food and shelter.

You are an indescribable genius with natural charm, Doctor. Get. A. Job.

But she does mention having watched the moon landing four times. Which means she’s had some good times with The Doctor that might not even have been life-threatening. It also means she’s probably killed a few Silents by now.

We’ll get to that. Later.

Harry Saxton

Beginning in Smith and Jones, our premiere, the name “Harry Saxon” begins flying around. But it’s slightly more than “Bad Wolf” and “Torchwood,” because that Harry Saxton is up to something. He’s an MP on the rise, riding anti-alien-weirdness sentiment and an odd, indefinable charisma into the void left at Downing Street when The Doctor arranged for the fall of Harriet Jones.

Now… it would be easy to say “Hey Doctor, I know you were mad at how the Sycorax thing played out, but maybe you shouldn’t ought to have done that to Harriet, because look what happened” given what her replacement will do. But that’s unfair. If she’d still been in office when Saxon began his play, she’d have just been one more obstacle to be removed. And if the goddamn Slitheen didn’t let an existing Prime Minister stop them from seizing control of British government, then Harriet Jones couldn’t have slowed down Harry Saxon.

As to who Harry Saxon is, why he’s so interested in The Doctor as to weaponize Martha’s family against him… the answers to this 21st century mystery are, improbably, waiting at the very end of the universe, with a well-meaning old man named Professor Yana.

Who seems to find the words “Tardis,” “regeneration,” and “time vortex” reeeeeeaaaaally familiar somehow.

The Supporting Cast

Martha has more than just a mother, she has a whole family, all of which seem to count on her to be the voice of reason in familial disputes. But while her brother, sister, and father are simply tethers to Earth, her mother… well, she’s a Russell T. Davies era companion mother, and also the worst Russell T. Davies companion mother. She’s bitter, hostile, and paranoid. She decides, within minutes of meeting him, that she doesn’t care for this Doctor guy her daughter’s taken an interest in, and her ugly, angry, overprotective nature makes her all too willing to sell out The Doctor to Harry Saxton.

The one and only thing I like about Martha’s mother is that she gets a nice, long time to know that that was the single worst decision she could have made, and given Martha’s life choices from here, her opinion about what Martha should do with her life clearly carries no weight from then on.

“I don’t like this new job of yours, Martha–”
“Hey, remember when you tried to sell out the planet, the whole planet, because you had a ‘bad feeling’ about a guy I brought to a party?”
“…Right.”

“I don’t know about this man you’re seeing–”
“You know who you did like? Harry Saxon. You liked him plenty.

No, no, don’t talk to me about hypnotic signals affecting all of the UK, I know about those, but they didn’t work on Martha’s father, so I’m not letting that harsh old woman off the hook.

But hey, Captain Jack’s back for the last three episodes! Yay! And they explain A) what happened when Rose resurrected him at the end of series one and why he got left behind (for Who fans), and B) why he can no longer die (for Torchwood fans).

The Monsters

The Big Bad: What if you were the last of your kind? Alone in the universe, no matter how many other people you find and befriend. But what if there were just one more? One more person like you?

And what if that one person were the worst possible choice?

Ladies and gentlemen, readers of all ages, the first and greatest of The Doctor’s Time Lord nemeses, The Master.

Introduced as a foil for Third Doctor John Pertwee, the would-be-conqueror Time Lord has battled Doctors across the decades, and made his first reboot appearance in series three. All of The Doctor’s cleverness with none of his conscience, The Master is never an opponent to take lightly. Even back in the 90s when he was briefly Eric Roberts.

The Master takes on new meaning in the Davies era, because The Doctor’s nemesis is now also the only other living Time Lord. An old friend that is The Doctor’s only living link to his people and his past, but who is determined to destroy him. Whether he beats The Master or not, The Doctor still loses.

This Year in Daleks: The Cult of Skaro, those four Daleks designed to explore new ideas, take over the construction of the Empire State Building to further their most radical and un-Daleky experiment yet. It… doesn’t go great for them.

The Good: The Carrionites, aliens who look like witches and speak in iambic pentameter. Series one had ghosts who were actually aliens, series two had a werewolf that was actually an alien, now these ladies. And if you were wondering, eventually there’ll be vampires that are aliens and a mummy that’s… I forget the mummy’s deal. We’ll get to him.

The Weeping Angels, now a classic, make their first appearance this year.

As do the Judoon, rhino-faced freelance police officers with a somewhat forceful approach.

The Bad: I don’t love The Family of Blood.

The Ugly: They did not have the technology to animate a scorpion monster with a human face in The Lazarus Experiment. That was some Mummy Returns-bad CGI.

High Point

I know what you think I’m going to say and I’ll get to it, but first…

The Shakespeare Code is clever beyond measure, and it involves William Shakespeare repelling an alien invasion by freestyling iambic pentameter, which ends in a Harry Potter spell.

I don’t know what else I need to say.

Low Point

Human Nature and The Family of Blood have a couple of points of merit, I guess, but… to escape the body-stealing hunters The Family of Blood, The Doctor transforms himself into an average human: an instructor at a private school in 1913. His memories replaced, lost in the illusion of being teacher John Smith, he and Martha are essentially trapped in immediately-pre-WWI England, which again is just a bummer of a time for Martha to be stuck in (man but it sucks to be Martha).

This “Time Lord hiding out as a human” thing is vitally important to the Harry Saxon arc, but… I dislike these episodes for the same reason I dislike episodes of The Flash where Barry doesn’t have his speed: watching the hero not be the hero isn’t any fun. It might be a little interesting to watch The Doctor being human for a bit but he’s lacking as a protagonist.

And it doesn’t help that the hyper-obnoxious Family of Blood cried out for a swift and brutal defeat like nobody since the goddamn Slitheen (they aren’t Slitheen bad, nobody is). Realizing that this story was going to continue for another week was one of the most crushing moments I’ve had watching this show. Why did Russell T. Davies give the worst villains two parters.

That said when they do get theirs, it’s pretty satisfying.

Highlights?

Any fans reading are mystified that I didn’t name Blink as the highlight of the year. Like Love & Monstersit’s a Doctor-light episode, with The Doctor and Martha barely appearing and a new character driving the action. Unlike Love & Monsters, it’s brilliant. It introduces a new and swiftly iconic villain in the Weeping Angels, is the first appearance of the phrase “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey,” it sells a completely new and utterly one-time protagonist in Sally Sparrow, it juggles horror, humour, and heartache, and has a really neat conceit, as Sally must unravel messages from The Doctor from almost forty years in the past to defeat the Angels. It’s just… it’s weird to call an episode that barely features the title character the best of the year. Shakespeare Code did a lot of that and also The Doctor is, you know, in it.

Other highlights… Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks is a solid double feature. The Lazarus Experiment is worth it just for why and how The Doctor sticks around after saying his good-byes to Martha.

Skippables?

Nope, sorry, much as I dislike the villains and the lack of Doctor, Human Nature and Family of Blood are absolutely indispensable to the year’s arc, and really let David Tennant act his heart out in the second half.

Parting Thoughts

Notable Guest Stars: 

  • John Simm might be a big deal in the UK but I only know him from this and the British version of Life on Mars. Maybe he’s more familiar to you, I don’t know. Anyway.
  • Two Academy Award nominees this year. Star of The Social Network and history’s worst Spider-Man movies Andrew Garfield tests out the southern drawl that got him an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks.
  • Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan takes centre stage as Sally Sparrow in Blink.
  • Mark Gatiss, occasional Who writer, co-creator of Sherlock, where he also plays Mycroft Holmes, makes his first of two appearances– well, three including an uncredited voice-over– in The Lazarus Experiment.
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I know from… things, and will be in Wrinkle in Time soon, is Martha’s sister.
  • Pip Torrens, currently playing Herr Starr on Preacher, is John Smith’s headmaster in Human Nature/Family of Blood. 
  • In Last of the Time Lords, Martha Jones teams up with a resistance soldier (a doctor, in fact) played by Lucifer’s Tom Ellis.
  • And Jessica Hynes, co-creator and co-star of Spaced with Simon Pegg, is the 1913 school nurse who tempts John Smith with a simple and good human life.

Game of Thrones Guest Stars: There’s enough overlap over the years to require a second category. Human Nature/Family of Blood features two: Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen) is the most notable member of the Family of Blood, Son of Mine, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen Reed) is a slightly psychic student who’s key to resolving (albeit prolonging) the whole mess.

Wow. Lots of neat guest stars this year. Probably a record.

Christopher Eccleston got the first stab at telling the audience (via Rose) that Gallifrey and the Time Lords were gone. But, for all of his strengths as an actor, based partly on what he was given he couldn’t sell that profound loss like David Tennant did in Gridlock, finally telling Martha what happened to his world, and allowing the grief over its loss to trickle out.

This season got a new theme for The Doctor, which next series became the theme for Martha: The Doctor Forever. Does that not say everything about Martha Jones. Doesn’t even get her own theme, just has to ride shotgun on The Doctor’s.

Future showrunner Chris Chibnall writes his first episode: the real-time disaster adventure 42. I mean the story revolves around a disaster, not that the episode is a disaster. Actually it’s pretty decent.

Doctor Quote of the Year: It made its debut last season, but it’s back to stay: “Allons-y!” Although “I’m sorry” is still a frequent flier.

Historical Guest Star of the Year: William freaking Shakespeare. Maybe I named Madame de Pompadour as the best one too soon. Yep, yep, I surely did.

Saddest moment: “I have until the rain stops.”
(Honourable mentions: David Tennant can make you sad when a monster dies, and he does in the finale. Also, in Family of Blood, The Doctor’s human identity John Smith must die so that The Doctor can return, and he doesn’t love that idea. But I was so ready for that to happen by then that it didn’t bother me much.)

Next time… Russell T. Davies ends his last full series as showrunner with a bang, I tell you what.