Locus Poll for the best sci-fi and fantasy of the past 110 years

The website for Locus magazine — which I admit an unfamiliarity with — is hosting an open poll, which closes tomorrow on November 30th, asking readers to vote for the best novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories in the genres of fantasy and science fiction from the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. Fortunately, they allow for multiple votes, and have conveniently broken down the categories.

Since my reading of the shorter literary forms, and of science fiction, is extremely limited, I didn’t vote for any short stories, novellas, or novelettes, and only a few sci-fi novels. For the fantasy novel ballot I filled all ten slots.

My Short List of Great Sci-fi Novels from the 20th Century

  1. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
  2. That Hideous Strengthby C.S. Lewis
  3. Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
  4. Ringworldby Larry Niven
  5. Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyby Douglas Adams (which I actually forgot to include on the ballot! Oops.)

Again, I haven’t read much science fiction, and fewer still that has really impressed me.

My Short List of Great Fantasy Novels from the 20th Century

  1. The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
  2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeby Lewis
  3. The Hobbitby Tolkien
  4. Watership Downby Richard Adams
  5. A Wrinkle in Timeby Madeleine L’Engle
  6. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
  7. The Last Unicornby Peter Beagle
  8. The Neverending Storyby Michael Ende
  9. If on a winter’s night a travelerby Italo Calvino
  10. The Black Cauldronby Lloyd Alexander

I’ve read a fair bit of fantasy novels.

It was painful to leave certain books and authors out, and I admit that my list is very close to my list of personal favorites. I just couldn’t fit in Neil Gaiman nor Patricia McKillip, nor Lawhead, nor even Rosemary Sutcliff (though on a longer list I might put her Tristan and Iseult).

But Tolkien and Lewis are givens, of course. I doubt many would argue against A Wrinkle in Time and The Last Unicorn, although the former is frequently categorized as science fiction; I personally find it to be solidly fantasy inspired by some scientific ideas. A very neat blending, certainly.

I finished Peter Pan not too long ago and became convinced it is one of the most important fairy tales that English literature has produced, as well as one of the most beautiful.

It has been many years since I read Michael Ende, but The Neverending Story was a powerful reading experience, and the 80’s movie was formative for my childhood. I look forward to reading it again with adult eyes, but I’m fairly confident in its position here.

I’m using The Black Cauldron to stand in for the entire Chronicles of Prydain. I couldn’t bear to leave out Lloyd Alexander’s prolific, always entertaining and often moving work.

Italo Calvino is a tricky writer, and If on a winter’s night a devilishly tricky novel. I’m not even sure it’s fantasy, but it feels safer to put it here rather than in science fiction or realism. It’s the most wildly original, experimental novel I’ve ever read. Parts of it I hated, most of it I loved. It must have been a torture to conceive and write, but it was certainly a pleasure to read. Even if no one else reads it, it deserves a place on a list like this.

In the comment section, I recommended that there should be a poll for the best pre-1900 fantasy and science fiction; the real foundational stuff. Everything from Homer to Edmund Spenser to Jules Verne and George MacDonald and Hans Christian Andersen. Generally my favorite stuff. +)

You’ve all got until tomorrow to vote, so go to it! Which fantasy and sci-fi books do you consider the most important and the best?

Advertisements

2012 Hugo Awards

As you may or may not know, the Hugo Awards are sort of like the Oscars for science fiction and fantasy stories. I don’t follow them much (or, to be honest at the risk of losing my geek cred, at all), but when I saw the list of this years’ winners, and recognized a few names, my interest was piqued.
The winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (which apparently means “Best TV episode”) was the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman, who accepted the award (and said he was currently writing another episode for the show). This is from Series 6; I am currently half way through Series 5.

Best Graphic Story went to the webcomic Digger by Ursula Vernon, which I recently reviewed. I personally wouldn’t rate it higher than the amazing Gunnerkrigg Court, but Digger is definitely worth the time of anyone who reads my blog.

The other name to catch my eye was Catherynne M. Valente, who apparently was part of a fancast along with Doctor Who-writer Paul Cornell. I don’t know what a fancast is, but it sounds like some kind of discussion panel that is broadcast…for fans? With fans? By fans? Ceiling fans? I don’t know. But I have respect for the writing ability of both these people, and would definitely be interested in hearing them talk about their stories or those of others.

Short Film: “The Raven”

No, it’s not about Edgar Allen Poe. (Although apparently there is a movie about him called The Raven coming out soon, starring John Cusack and Brendan Gleeson.) No, instead, this short sci-fi film is sort of like a simplified Minority Report. Or a sci-fi Bourne Identity. Or…well, look, it’s pretty simple. A young guy who knowsparkouris fleeing from the robotic authorities in a dystopic L.A. He doesn’t appear to have committed any crime, but he does possess a few very interesting talents…

There’s not much substance to it, but it’s kinda cool. More like a teaser for a chase movie. I like the special effects — for a low-budget indie short film, they’re very convincingly integrated with their surroundings (one exception being the mecha at the end, which does look a little fake). If I have a complaint, beyond the lack of real plot or substance, it’s that the camera jiggles too much and doesn’t step back to show us better what’s going on. Especially since the actor is apparently doing the parkour stunts himself, it’s odd and a bit frustrating that we don’t get to see the stunts very well. They fly by very quickly, when they should be featured more clearly. Still, it’s not so bad as some Hollywood movies.

*sigh* That’s the problem with “action” movies these days; they’ve forgotten the purpose of action. They are supposed to be about taking joy in stretching human physical abilities to the limit, as shown off in fight scenes, chases, stunts, etc., but that can’t be done if you can’t see the action and understand how it happens and where it happens.

Credits

Director : Ricardo de Montreuil
Producers:
Ricardo de Montreuil & Eliz Eskeranli
Writers:
Ricardo de Montreuil & Antonio Perez
Cinematographer:
Andres Sanchez
Composer:
Angelo Milli
Special Effects Supervisor:
Aaron Burns
3D Modeling and Animation:
Juan Somarriba and Francisco Concha
Visual Effects and Compositing:
Ricardo de Montreuil
Editing:
Ricardo de Montreuil
Color Correction:
Santiago Padilla
Sound Design and Mixing:
Martin Seltzer
Budget:
$5k

Short Film: Dr. Grordbort Presents “The Deadliest Game”

I like to showcase neat short films when I find them, even though I don’t typically review them as I do feature films. Dr. Grordbort Presents: The Deadliest Game is a fun, five-minute diversion, a Vernian steampunk safari through an alien planet that humorously and gently satirizes the Victorian love of killing exotic and endangered animals in far and colonial lands. The alien designs are particularly inventive, reminding me somewhat of the goofy aliens in Calvin & Hobbes, as well as the planetary romances of the early sci-fi writers. And the last line is a great one to end with, perfectly summarizing Dr. Grordbort’s attitude.

Dr Grordbort Presents: The Deadliest Game from Media Design School on Vimeo.

TV Show Review: Doctor Who Episodes 3.08-3.09 “Human Nature” & “The Family of Blood”

Episodes 3.08 and 9 “Human Nature” & “The Family of Blood”
Written By: Paul Cornell
Originally Aired: May 26and June 2, 2007

Synopsis: “In order to hide from a family of murderous aliens who are following his scent across time, the Doctor disguises himself as a mild-mannered English schoolteacher in 1913, even rewriting his own memory to complete the charade. Only Martha holds the secret to his identity as the Doctor, with orders to not bring him back to himself until the time of danger has passed. But the Family of Blood appears sooner than expected, and the Martha realizes that she may have lost the Doctor for good this time…” (synopsis by me)

While undoubtedly an excellent story, it’s not exactly quintessential Doctor Who. It lacks most of the humor and optimism that the show usually strives for, and thus may not be the best introductory episode for a new viewer. But then, it was never intended to be an introductory episode. Rather, it explores an intriguing possibility that the Doctor Who universe makes possible, but doesn’t often investigate. What if your mild-mannered, bookish professor was secretly a time-traveling superheroic alien, and even he didn’t know it? How many other people with vague pasts scattered throughout history could be the Doctor disguising himself for months at a time? Smack in the middle of an intense season, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood” build heavily on the emotional continuity that comes before. While the plot is self-contained and engaging by itself, the real reward of this two-parter is in seeing where it takes the Doctor and Martha in their respective arcs.

John Smith: Mankind doesn’t need warfare and bloodshed to prove itself. Everyday life can provide honour and valour. Let’s hope that from now on this country can find its heroes in smaller places. In the most ordinary of deeds.

We see, if we hadn’t noticed before, that Martha really does work harder than any other Companion. By sheer perseverance, loyalty, cleverness, and humility, she navigates the complex relationships and frustrating class-based (and race-based) hierarchies of the British boarding school system. She puts up with the Doctor ignoring her even more than usual in his guise as Professor John Smith. She resists opening the watch that holds his Time Lord identity, because he told her not to. She tolerates her heart breaking as he falls in love with Nurse Joan Redfern, an event he, as the Doctor, had not foreseen. She suffers, and waits, and works, and talks sense with force and energy when she hopes it’ll do any good. And, as before, she is generally overlooked and underappreciated by everyone around her. Even Joan, normally a very sensitive and perceptive woman, fails to really see or appreciate Martha.

The Doctor-as-John-Smith’s romance with Joan Redfern is very sweet and believable, making it that much more painful for Martha to watch. For seven episodes she has pined for the Doctor, hoping against hope that he might wake up to her. She knows he is capable of love because he himself still pines for Rose, but since she had never seen him with the object of his affections, the reality of it had never quite hit home. Now she watches him fall in love right before her eyes and sees him happy, attentive, and belonging slowly but steadily to someone else.

John shows Joan his diary of drawings, where he records his strange dreams of aliens and time travel...

As it happens, this is not only disastrous for Martha’s emotions but also to everyone’s safety. The less the Doctor-as-John-Smith trusts her, the harder it will be for her to bring back his Time Lord identity and fend off the murderous Family of Blood. And so the story’s power is magnified because the danger to Martha and the Doctor’s relationship runs parallel to the danger to their lives. Everything could be fixed if only the Doctor were back to himself! He’d at least acknowledge Martha as his important friend and deputy, he wouldn’t get sidetracked with domestic romance, and he most certainly would send those scarily mundane aliens packing! Such we viewers know, and thus it is more alarming how completely the Doctor has fallen into his own disguise. John Smith certainly has a few of the Doctor’s personality traits – a warm, energetic optimism that can quickly become grimly serious if the situation warrants it, for one – but he’s also strikingly different. When John begins to learn about the Doctor and to believe the Time Lord is real, he is horrified: who is this person who endangered the lives of everyone at the school on a whim (after all, he could have chosen any place in time and space to hide), who is permanently nomadic and alone, and who couldn’t even anticipate the possibility of falling in love?

Which brings me to what I think is the story’s most heartbreaking and fascinating element: the choice of John Smith to die and become the Doctor again. See, we always expect the Doctor to know what he’s doing. Even when he says he’s making things up on the fly, we generally feel that he knows the risks involved and what he’s prepared to do or not do. But here the Doctor miscalculated. When he uses the chameleon arch to become completely human for a few months, his memory and personality is completely subsumed into John Smith, a man who considers himself imaginative, but fairly practical when it comes to things like reality. He thinks Martha is crazy when she tries frantically to tell him that the aliens have arrived and that he must become the Doctor again. And when he’s later forced to accept the facts of things, he’s terrified. Martha demands that he change back so he can save them all, but John Smith doesn’t feel like the Doctor. He doesn’t know the Doctor. Even if the memories are fake, they are all John Smith knows. For him, becoming the Doctor again isn’t returning to himself, it’s ending himself completely.

Martha: All you have to do is open it and he’s back.
John Smith: You knew this all along, and yet you watched while Nurse Redfern and I—
Martha: I didn’t know how to stop you! He gave me a list of things to watch out for, but that wasn’t included.
John Smith: Falling in love, that didn’t even occur to him?
Martha: [beat] No.
John Smith: Then what sort of a man is that? …And now you expect me to die?!

A glimpse of a very pleasant, potential future...

Of course he makes the change, or else we wouldn’t have the rest of the show. And, while we’re immensely glad to see the Doctor again – and delightfully defeating the aliens in their own ship with virtually no effort at all – we’re also a little bit sad at seeing John Smith go. He was such a decent fellow, with such promise. The show doesn’t let our emotions off easy, either – it shows us the potential for John Smith’s life; happily married to Joan, with beautiful children, a pleasant career (possibly becoming an early sci-fi novelist, I presume), and not putting anyone’s life in danger. We know that he must change, because he isn’t truly John Smith, but while he’s in that guise John Smith is the only himself he knows. And so Joan’s final words to the Doctor sting all the more because there is some truth in them – though she may be too harsh on him because she doesn’t know the whole story, still there is much truth: many people died because the Doctor chose to hide at the school, and ultimately John Smith is braver than him because John Smith chose to die to save others.

It’s such a serious story, and while I don’t enjoy it as much as many other episodes (due to the rarity of humor and prevalence of deserved angst), I remain fascinated by its insights into the Doctor and Martha’s characters. The Doctor saves the day, but you’re not quite sure if he made the right choice. Hiding from the Family of Blood was intended to be an act of mercy from him, to give them a chance to escape the terrible punishment he had for them. Yet many people died because the Doctor chose to hide at the school, and a vulnerable widow’s heart was broken. And then the Doctor’s final punishment for the Family – is it too much? This terrible, poetic judgment – would execution have been more just? Questions worth asking. Good must punish evil, but the Doctor is not God. The show does seem a bit confused on that issue, though. It freely lets him be vulnerable and his actions questionable, but he is also called “ancient and forever…he burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”  Such phrases I would apply only to God.

He's not God and he's sometimes wrong...but he's still really really cool!

Book Review: “Waverly Hall: Relois” by Brian Melton

This is a solicited review, and a free copy of the book was sent to me. In no way does this affect my opinions expressed here.

Cover is cool, but doesn't accurately reflect the story's tone.

Title: Waverly Hall: Relois
Series: First in a projected series.
Author: Brian Melton
Pages: 255
Published: 2010, by Lantern Hollow Press
Spoiler-free Synopsis: While staying at her mysterious Uncle Warren’s mansion, teenaged Meg O’Reilly stumbles across a portal to a dystopian world ravaged by plague and tyranny and must fight for the world’s freedom if she ever wants to return home.
Reason for Reading: Solicited review. Also the premise is interesting.
Story Re-readability: Story-wise, I would say low, because it doesn’t leave much of an impact. There were some nice characters, but none that were engaging enough to return to. The plot is okay, but carries few surprises. And the pacing was awkward, alternating between too slow and too fast. Still, if you really enjoy the book, the author has hidden numerous allusions to literature, philosophy, movies, and even video games all throughout it, and he encourages readers to try to find them all, as an extra game. I won’t be doing so, but it was fun to note some of these allusions as I read.
Author Re-readability: I’d be willing to give Melton’s next book a try when it comes out. His writing style is bland, but good-natured and with lots of room to grow. His ideas are more interesting, at least, even if their execution needs a lot of work to be worthy of them. Basically, I think he’s got some good stories to tell, but I hope to see him improve at their telling.
Recommendation: I think this is a decent book for teenagers and middle-schoolers, as they are more likely to relate to the fourteen year-old heroine and less likely to be picky about issues with style, pacing, and originality. More sophisticated readers may get a little bored or frustrated with it in parts, but it’s not without some charm. I wouldn’t put this on any must-read list, but it did provide its fair share of entertaining and interesting moments.

Key Thoughts

The plot is actually more complex than I had expected, but I’m undecided on whether that works for or against the book. Waverly Hall: Relois is loosely broken into three parts: Meg’s arrival and early weeks living at the titular mansion, her time living with a family in Relois’ dystopic city of Paucée, and her subsequent fight against the bad guys. The final part is probably the most entertaining, but also the weakest from a narrative standpoint. More neat things happen as the story approaches its finale, but they make less and less sense. The underlying story is good and could have provided a really fascinating book, but the end result is decidedly mediocre.

So let’s backtrack and start with the good stuff. Meg is a likable and fairly believable fourteen year-old girl. She’s a little bit disaffected and unhappy with her parents (who don’t understand her) and her little brothers (who are brats), but isn’t as angry and cynical as she makes out to be. Though she’s happy to plug in her iPod’s earphones and ignore the rest of the world, she’s also a reader and is familiar with a lot of classic literature, from Sherlock Holmes to The Lord of the Rings. When confronted by weird stuff, she asks reasonable questions. When confronted by human suffering, she is deeply affected. In fact, looking over her character traits, she has some clear similarities with Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time; the comparison only serves to remind us of that classic’s superiority, however. But more on that later.

The side characters are also likable and mostly well-drawn. The homey Mrs. Davidson is a warm and wise mother-figure to Meg who also engages in the book’s most explicit discussions about Christianity, science, and philosophy. The family Meg meets in Relois is interesting because it manages to be a loving and functioning unit even though its individual members have been so abused and broken by the dictatorial system. Uncle Warren is amusingly weird in much the way that Merlin is in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King…only perhaps a bit too weird, without enough reason behind his madness being revealed. He felt more like a plot device than an actual character. Though I expect him to get more development in future volumes, he needed more in this one. Another key character, named Selcwis (no prize for guessing who that’s an anagram of), is also a case of lost potential, being a man of much wisdom, humor, and some mystery, who really deserved much more development.

However, I don’t like how Meg’s becoming soldier gets romanticized it as if this is some fun kids’ story. She essentially becomes a child-soldier, yet suffers little psychological trauma. Oh she is scared often enough, sure. She’s often terrified, and confused, and desperate for adult help. But then she gets a deus ex machine in the form of a sentient futuristic fighter jet and starts cheerfully slaughtering enemy soldiers by the dozen. These scenes are admittedly more fun than much of the rest of the story because they are faster paced and contain actual victories for the good guys (and because the jet fighter’s personality, named Ai, is amusing), but they also feel contrived to be like a video game in book form. The comparison is not a positive one. Now, The Chronicles of Narnia also had teenagers killing monsters and bad guys in battle. So what’s the difference? Those were fairy stories told in broad strokes, and inhabiting a world that was clearly allegorical. But Relois is a gritty sci-fi dystopia, and the sudden shift in tone to cheerful child-soldiering is too much a contrast. It’s jarring, a bit disturbing (in a way Melton doesn’t seem to intend), and just doesn’t fit. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe teenagers weened on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games won’t see a disconnect.

That’s one of the book’s major problems: its uncertain tone. Is it a dark, dystopic sci-fi story, or a Narnia-style young adult fantasy adventure? It’s got elements of both, but they never fuse comfortably. The cover hints at a gritty, serious tale, but most of the beginning and end is relatively light-hearted. And then the dystopia of Relois and Paucée is too grim and depressing for the video-game style shenanigans that ensue when Meg escapes in a sentient jet fighter whose personality is unsatisfyingly trite. Maybe Melton was trying to keep the story from being too dark by turning that most formidable vehicle of war into comic relief, but it’s too jarring. Or take the creature Reep, a cute squirrel-rabbit-dog thing that appears randomly at the beginning and attaches itself to Meg, following her in all her adventures yet functioning mostly as a fluffy thing for her to hug when she’s scared or tired. He doesn’t serve much of a plot purpose, and his existence—especially since it is entirely unexplained—feels superfluous.

This disparity is also reflected in the art. I was excited when I first realized that the book is illustrated. Unfortunately, the pencil sketches are of a quality comparative to your average deviantArt or Elfwood teenager’s anime fan art. While I have no intention of hurting the young artist’s feelings, this book really needed more sophisticated and evocative illustrations, or none at all. I wish the artist all the best in her future drawings, and I’m sure she will greatly improve in the coming years. Another artist contributed two pictures which are a little bit better, but also far less than what the book needed. All the pictures look drawn by a teenager doodling in the margins of their notes, and this childish quality contrasts too much with some of the more serious goings-on.

The ending was mostly acceptable, but failed to explain a few things it should have. It’s understandable that Melton wants to leave lots of the lesser mysteries unanswered so they can be explored in future volumes. It gives us something to look forward to. But I think he really should have revealed more about Waverly Hall by the end. Too many bizarre things happened in the mansion near the beginning that were glossed over by the characters, but that any sane person would have angrily demanded answers to. Some explanations need to be offered in this book regarding the creature It, the potentially-living carpet, the origin or identity of Reep, and the weirdness of Uncle Warren. Not the complete explanations, but at least something that is plausible and interesting. I expect them all to be elaborated on later in the series, you can’t just have some majorly random but quite important elements like these pass without some illumination. Take Uncle Warren, for example. His behavior in his few scenes is extraordinarily weird, unpredictable, and buffoonish, and he makes some very odd choices that seem counterintuitive to things he and his servants – Mr. and Mrs. Davidson – say. By the end of the book, we get some of his history, but nothing that explains his personality or the choices he makes. That’s just the opposite of what it should be. What we need is insight into his character; some historical facts about him are useless unless they are used to do just that. But sadly, they don’t. Melton makes us wait for the promised next volume to see if he will provide anything satisfactory then.

While I share a great many of Melton’s literary inspirations, I think he is too caught up with imitating them and paying them tribute, such that his own originality and vividness suffers. If a writer can’t put down a paragraph without quoting someone else, there is little room for his own ideas. The great writers that Melton admires all had their own writing voices, their own passions, their own stories they burned to tell, and I wish he would spend more time developing his own than reminding me of theirs. This isn’t a bust of a book by any means – it’s just weak, for lack of a confident storytelling voice.

Other Reviews
J. Holsworth Stevenson @ The Library of Libation

TV Show Review: Doctor Who Episode 3.07 “42”

Episode 3.07 “42”
Written By: Chris Chibnall
Originally Aired: May 19, 2007

Synopsis: “On a spaceship headed straight for the centre of the sun, The Doctor only has 42 minutes to save Martha and the rest of the ship’s crew from an inevitable doom…” (Wikipedia)

I always get this episode confused with the “Impossible Planet”/ “The Satan Pit” story from Series 2. They both involve a claustrophobic space station where one crewmember gets possessed by an alien malevolent and starts sabotaging and killing in creepy ways. The color scheme is also similar, with hot orange and reds predominating. The earlier story is better, but this one has its charms.

The Doctor: “Keep moving, fast as you can. And Martha, be careful; there may be something else aboard the ship.”
Martha: “Anytime you want to unnerve me, feel free.”
The Doctor: “Will do, thanks.

The title refers to how many minutes the crew has before the ship’s course into the sun is irrevocable; of course, it also refers to the episode being set in the 42nd century, not to mention the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything (according to Douglas Adams, also a writer for the classic show). Conveniently, it also happens to be just short of the standard episode length, leaving a couple minutes on either side for the pre-title sequence and the credits. But anyway, the show plays out in real time, frequently reminding us how much time is left before everyone crashes into the sun. There’s lots of running, shouting, and perspiring, as is the norm for Doctor Who, and it’s all enjoyable, if not superb. We’ve seen this done before, but it’s always a bit scary when the alien malevolent so ruthlessly kills some people, and then possesses others.

That space suit sure looks familiar.

Two side characters stand out: the captain, a woman named Kath, and a friendly, but lonely, crewmember named Riley. I liked them both, as I was meant to. Kath is an excellent leader, being strong and loving simultaneously. She can take the Doctor’s advice while retaining her authority (the Doctor has a way of nullifying or “commandeering” the authority of nearby authorities, intentionally or not). She is clearly heartbroken as her crew starts to die off but continues to give orders, not least because the possessed killer is her own husband. It’s hard for her to fight him, to treat him as a monster to be fled from or killed, but the Doctor reminds her that her husband is already dead, and that the thing inhabiting his body must be stopped. When the moment comes when her possessed husband has her trapped, and she looks in his eyes with a face full of love and sorrow, whispers “I love you,” and presses the button that sends them both floating out of the airlock towards the sun, you want to cry and cheer at the same time. It’s a beautiful moment.

Awww...

While the Doctor and Captain Kath are trying to figure out how to restart the engine of the sabotaged spaceship, Martha tries to fix other areas of the ship with the aid of Riley, a warm-hearted young man who quickly falls in love with her. They work well together, and the scenes where they work their way through a series of doors that can only be unlocked by answering trivia questions that the crew thought up when they were drunk (such as “CLASSICAL MUSIC: Who had the most pre-download Number Ones: Elvis Presley or The Beatles?”) manage to be funny and tense at the same time. The romantic element is sweet also. Martha is a sensitive, observant person: she pays attention to people and their feelings. So it makes sense that Riley, who explains to her how he really has no one to love him in all the world, nor to love, becomes attached to her. In one instance they are trapped in an escape pod that’s been forcibly ejected, and believe they are going to die, enveloped by the fire of the sun. It gives them a few minutes to open up to each other, and Martha realizes that here is a man whom she could love, who is already ready to love her back. There’s a little sadness, a tinge of regret, at the end, when she steps into the Tardis to leave him, still hoping against hope for the Doctor, but consolation in the fact that they both are a bit stronger and happier for having met each other.

The concept of a star being alive is a beautiful one that has been used in much other fiction (such as A Wrinkle in Time). I don’t really like the way it’s used here, though. The spaceship is mining the sun’s plasma for its fuel, and this action is equated with some kind of horrific torture or rape, for which the sun seeks revenge by possessing members of the crew and turning them into serial murderers. The writers are clearly trying to shove some kind of moral down our throats, but which is it: that mining for resources is bad, or that non-biological creature abuse is bad? Or both? The former moral isn’t very moral at all. The problem with the latter moral is that the crew had no way of knowing that the sun was a living creature, nor likely even the concept. This renders the Doctor’s angry accusations rather unfair; it’s one of the annoying traits the writers keep giving the otherwise pretty excellent Ten. He’s too easily angered, and often fails to consider the entirety of a circumstance and its context. But fortunately, this “message” isn’t given much weight, and the writers are more interested in the fate of the crew, as are we.

There are some interesting moments for the Doctor and Martha as well. At one point the sun actually manages to possess the Doctor himself, causing our favorite Time Lord to feel more fear and pain than he usually does. He cries out to Martha commands and pleas while clawing at his eyes and trying to stay on his feet. “I’m scared! I’m so scared!” he gasps, as she holds him. He even starts trying to explain regeneration, showing how close death seems to him, as well as his memory of Rose’s shock at experiencing his previous regeneration uneducated. But his fear is something deeper than mere death – he’s afraid the sun will make him a mindless killer, as it has some of the other crew. His peace-loving hero’s heart breaks at the thought.

The dénouement is nice too. Back in the Tardis, safe, the Doctor finally gives Martha a key. A Tardis key. Of course, he could have given it to her at the end of the last episode, when he officially accepted her as a full Companion, but nevermind. I guess the writers wanted to spread out their heartwarming moments. Still, the giving of the key is a sign of the Doctor’s complete trust, and I think we can all agree that Martha richly deserves it.

The Doctor: [explains his plan]
Captain Kath:That is brilliant.”
The Doctor: [quite pleased] “I know! See? Tiny glimmer of hope.”
Crewmember: “…If it works.”
Captain Kath: “Oh believe me, you’re gonna make it work.”
[Crewmember leaves to do his job.]
The Doctor: [smiling] “That told him!


Credits: All screencaps from killcolor.

TV Review: Doctor Who Episode 3.06 “The Lazarus Experiment”

Episode 3.06 “The Lazarus Experiment”
Written By: Stephen Greenhorn
Originally Aired: May 5, 2007

Synopsis: “The famous Dr Lazarus has appeared to discover the secret of eternal youth – but do his experiments hide a sinister secret?” (Wikipedia)

The pre-title sequence is quite interesting for what it reveals about our two protagonists. It ends on a hilarious note, but before that it shows us just how little the Doctor understands who Martha has become to him. After all of their adventures thus far—saving a hospital on the moon, helping Shakespeare fight off space-witches, liberating the citizens of New New York, thwarting the Daleks in the Depression—the Doctor still thinks this has all been part of his one “ride” he promised her as a thank-you in Episode 3.01 “Smith and Jones.” He takes her home, expecting to just drop her off and return to his private travels. And Martha, displaying extraordinary emotional strength and reserve, accepts this. Oh, she is hurt, make no mistake. She’s incredulous at first. She has become much more than just an incidental traveler, and the Doctor should know better than to treat her as one. Without meaning to, he insulted her. Continually oblivious to her feelings, he mistakes her incredulity as referring to his ability to return her to the very day after she left home. And in a very quick space of time, Martha comes to grips with this, and thanks him. Very sincerely, looking him straight in the face, she says “Thank you, for everything.” “It was my pleasure,” he says, smiling, and walks into the Tardis. The magnificent machine whoosh-whooshes, and disappears.

…And reappears a few seconds later. Did that man on the television just say he was about to change what it means to be human?

This isn’t one of my favorite episodes, by any means, but it has some strong points. Dr. Lazarus is very well-acted by Mark Gatiss (a sometimes-writer for the show). He draws out some pathos from the idea of this man who so desperately wanted to cheat death and return to his youth so that he could have more lifetimes to accomplish all the wonderful things he wanted to do. And the climax in the cathedral is pretty neat. The Doctor has a good conversation with Lazarus, and for a short while there is hope of redemption. When that fails, and the raging monster is back, the Doctor manages to defeat it by the strategic amplification of music from the church organ. To call the fact that this works a stretch is an understatement, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless.

Sometimes I think Tennant just took the job so he could make all sorts of funny faces.

Alas, the weak spots are quite glaring. Firstly, I was disappointed that the plot about Lazarus seeking youthful regeneration so quickly took a back seat to one long monster chase, which isn’t nearly as interesting as the stuff before. The story as a whole ends up being pretty simple and shallow. And the monster itself is both ugly and utterly nonsensical. I really wish Greenhorn had just stayed with his first idea instead of trying to blend to different types of stories.

My second objection is the ridiculous evolutionary aspect which is used to explain why Lazarus is suddenly turning into a huge inside-out lobster-spider-thing. Somehow Lazarus’ reverse aging process unlocks in his DNA a “rejected potential” lifeform that the supposed evolutionary ancestors of humans could have evolved into, but happily didn’t. Somehow, this DNA got “activated,” thus causing the man to involuntarily turn into a monster or back to a human. Even evolutionary scientists should scoff at this, much more those of us who reject the theory of biological evolution. Sure, this is science fiction, but it’s so ridiculous and given such a cursory explanation that the whole episode feels really weak because of it. And it’s so unnecessary to the initial story about Lazarus seeking to cheat death! So much could have been done with that premise, but Greenhorn seems to have preferred a simple monster chase.

Eeeeeewwwwww...

Two more observations. One, we meet Martha’s family again for the first time since “Smith & Jones,” and they are mostly unlikable. Her sister shows some warmth and good sense, but does not have much to recommend her. And her mother has the dubious honor of being unlikable despite having completely understandable and justifiable reasons for her actions. Mrs. Jones, you see, is hugely suspicious of the Doctor for whisking Martha away without any notice or explanation, and she spends the whole episode constantly nagging Martha about it and giving the Doctor dirty looks. We also notice that Mrs. Jones is constantly being fed anti-Doctor sentiments by discreet tuxedoed agents claiming to work for a mysterious Mr. Saxon. Interestingly, what these men say about the Doctor is generally true—that death and destruction follow in his wake, that his Companions don’t always live, etcetera—but naturally leaving out the fact that he’s always trying to save the day from evil influences. Anyway, the point is that Mrs. Jones is understandable, but annoying and unlikable, and we think back to Series 1 and 2 and marvel that Jackie Tyler managed to convey all the same concerns about the Doctor while still being lovable and tender.

The second observation is a very nice one. At the end, the Doctor finally accepts Martha as a full Companion. He takes some prodding, though. At first he only offers her another “last ride” as a thank-you for this adventure. Martha, sensibly, says no, it’s all or nothing, this time. She can’t let herself continue to suffer the emotional uncertainty of being always seen as a temporary passenger in the Doctor’s eyes. She’s absolutely right about this, and fortunately the Doctor realizes this, and gives her the full position. Martha, always gracious, accepts happily and without bitterness regarding his previous insensitivities.

The Doctor: There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.
Lazarus: [sneers] You’re so sentimental, Doctor. Maybe you are older than you look.
The Doctor: [solemn] I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired; tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything you love turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone.
Lazarus: That’s a price worth paying.
The Doctor: Is it?

Like I said, funny faces.

TV Show Review: Doctor Who Episodes 3.04 – 3.05 “Daleks in Manhattan” & “Evolution of the Daleks”

Episodes 3.04 and 5 “Daleks in Manhattan” & “Evolution of the Daleks”
Written By: Helen Raynor
Originally Aired: April 21 and 28, 2007

Synopsis: “[In 1930s New York] The Doctor and Martha confront a host of surviving Daleks from the Canary Wharf battle. What are those creatures in the sewers? And why are the Cult Of Skaro attempting to create a Dalek/Human hybrid…?” (Wikipedia)

Bet you didn’t know that Daleks built the Empire State Building! Yessiree. Perhaps you remember how, during the Battle of Canary Wharf in “Doomsday” (the incredible Series 2 finale), the Cult of Skaro escaped through an “emergency temporal shift.” These four elite Daleks, specially selected to preserve their race by thinking creatively, ended up in Depression-era New York, where they started plotting again. Concepts like this are just pure Doctor Who. The historical ones tend to be my favorites not only because I’m a history buff but also because it’s fun to see how the show works its alien mythology into the details of the real events of the past.In this two-parter we see Depression-era New York recreated with great flair and convincing atmosphere. It’s the exaggerated New York of our imaginations, as shaped by movies and high school American history courses. The almost-completed Empire State Building towers over the gleaming Chrysler Building and the rest of the sprawling megacity, while the fabulously wealthy amuse themselves as they try to ignore the hordes of unemployed homeless that gather in Central Park’s Hooverville. Against this backdrop the Doctor and Martha have a good, pulpy adventure involving an exploitative businessman in over his head, Dalek treachery, and goofy-but-creepy pigmen who stalk the sewers and the backstages of theaters.

It being many months since I watched it, I admit that I had forgotten a lot of this story. For a reason I am not sure of, it gets overshadowed in my memory by the smaller episodes preceding it and the more astounding ones that come later in the season. Yet upon revisiting it (through YouTube!) I found it to be quite entertaining, and a strong, if hardly perfect, example of what Doctor Who is all about.

Humanity is well-represented here. The emotional core is provided by the (somewhat) tragic love story of showgirl Tallulah and her boyfriend Laszlo. They are a genuinely sweet couple, and I liked how their story played out, pig nose and all. They aren’t assured a happy ending, but are given the means and freedom to have one. A victim of the Daleks’ experiments in fusing human DNA with pig DNA, the mutated Laszlo nevertheless retains his sharp mind, his dignity, and all of his considerable virtues, including courage and a romantic heart. The other notable good human is Solomon, the de facto leader of Hooverville, who is struggling to maintain peace and order. In a scene which is not so much symbolism as direct adaptation from the Bible, he settles an argument over a loaf of bread by splitting it in half, one half for each hungry man. His wisdom also extends to his dealings with the Doctor and the Daleks. Recognizing the Doctor’s superior knowledge, he often supports him, but not to the point of setting aside what he knows to be right. When the Daleks attack Hooverville, Solomon attempts to reason with them, even though the Doctor and Martha have told him that they are emotionless killers. But Solomon can’t just accept their word for it—he knows that the right thing to do before using violence is to try to reach peace through other methods, and he must try. He even says that the appearance of these aliens, however terrifying, only causes him to be amazed at the vastness and glory of God’s creation—a sentiment I certainly appreciate! Alas, the idealistic ones rarely live long in modern shows, and good Solomon is incinerated by the Dalek—but not before greatly impressing Dalek Sec.

You know, the pigmen are actually kind of creepy, especially when they're stalking you in the sewers or in the forest at night.

Ah, Dalek Sec: “the cleverest” of all Daleks, the leader of the Cult of Skaro and the Dalek general at the Battle of Canary Wharf. His plan, to ensure the survival of the Daleks, is to splice their DNA with human DNA in the hopes of gaining humanity’s knack for adaptation and invention. I don’t favor the idea of genetic splicing, as it involves the concept of being able to scientifically change someone’s species. This seems to come from a purely naturalistic worldview, and is incompatible with a Christian view of the relationship between body and soul. Yes, this is science fiction, but even in speculative fiction a writer speculates according to his worldview. But anyway, moving past that objection, I do find it interesting how this concept is used to further develop Dalek Sec’s character and, indeed, to show the Daleks in a whole new light.

Once Dalek Sec uses himself as the prime test subject and assimilates human DNA, he gains emotions, independent thought, and even some morals. Of course, the other Daleks cannot tolerate this, but it’s interesting to watch the Doctor’s reaction. I think back to Episode 1.06 “Dalek,” in which the Ninth Doctor so vehemently resisted the idea of offering mercy and compassion to the Daleks. But here, the Tenth Doctor realizes that there is a chance for something new and wonderful—a redeemed Dalek, a good Dalek. The influence of Rose is still felt in Ten’s ability for compassion, although Martha has had an effect that way as well. Solomon’s heroic martyrdom also left an impression on the Doctor, as well as on Dalek Sec. And the best thing is that even when Dalek Sec is slain by the other Daleks for treachery, the Doctor doesn’t forget this hope. When he confronts the last remaining Dalek at the end, Dalek Caan, whose DNA is still resolutely pure Dalek, he offers it mercy. He offers it help to change and to start anew in peace. The Doctor makes an effort to love his enemy. He’s not perfect, but he tries, and that’s the right thing to do. Dalek Caan’s response?

EMERGENCY TEMPORAL SHIFT!!!

Darn it! So close. Well, the Dalek race lives on to reappear again. When? We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?

Tallulah: Doctor, can’t you do something?
The Doctor: [softly] Oh, Tallulah with 3 L’s and an H… Just you watch me. What do I need, oh I dunno, how about a great big genetic laboratory? Oh look, I’ve got one. [runs around grabbing equipment.] Lazlo, just you hold on! There have been too many deaths today; way too many people have died. Brand new creatures and wise old men and age-old enemies, and I tell you, I tell you right now, I am not having one more death!

Other Reviews: The History of the Doctor
All screencaps from killcolor

TV Review: Doctor Who Episode 3.03 “Gridlock”

Episode 3.03 “Gridlock”
Written By: Russell T. Davies
Originally Aired: April 14, 2007

Synopsis: “The Doctor and Martha return to New Earth to find it has been laid out as a horrendous trap, stuck in a giant and long traffic jam under the streets of New New York.”

A rather grimy, almost claustrophobic episode is this one. We return to New New York (first seen in Episode 2.01 “New Earth”) to find it a dystopia. The premise is ridiculous, but a bit frightening precisely because it’s based on something relatable: we’ve all felt, at various times, that we were spending most of our lives stuck in traffic. Well, the residents of New New York really do spend most of their lives stuck in traffic! And their flying cars float in a massive underground tunnel-road, meaning they can only get out of their vehicles every few months, when they inch up to a loading dock.

Bring a bandana...or a gas mask! The flying-car fumes are that bad.

As an adventure it’s fairly interesting and well done. Martha gets kidnapped by a desperate couple who need her in order to, essentially, use the carpool lane, and the Doctor gives chase. The best parts feature him jumping from rooftop to rooftop of flying cars while searching for her. It’s a near impossible task, but he never gives up.

But it’s not an episode that demands rewatching. The setting is convincingly portrayed, but ugly because of it. Some of the side characters are interesting and well-played (including the young couple that kidnaps Martha), but writer Russell Davies again indulges his political ideas by going out of his way to include lesbian characters (and, rather uncomfortably, a marriage between a human woman and a cat-man that produces children). The gap between Davies’ morals and Christian morals is made more awkward by the usage of the Christian hymn “Abide With Me” to celebrate the liberation of the citizens at the end. I like the song, and I like that the humans sing it, but coming from the pen of Davies it almost feels like mockery because we’ve seen how little he cares for Christianity.

Aviator cat-man-with-Scottish-accent is really cool, but it's creepy that he married a human woman.

The main reason to see this episode is for the reappearance of the Face of Boe, that ancient and mysterious creature that was first, and briefly, introduced in Episode 1.02 “The End of the World.” Reputed to be the oldest living creature in the universe, he is now dying, and he chooses to gives his last words to the Doctor; it’s a prophecy, in fact: “You are not alone.” What does it mean? Martha presses the Doctor, but he sadly rejects the possibility that there is another Time Lord out there. The Time Lords are all dead, he explains, having died in the Time War against the Daleks along with their planet. So the Face of Boe must be wrong, or must mean something else, he insists. Of course, this is a plant for something to be revealed later in the series, but it does lead to the Doctor opening up to Martha with a beautiful description of Gallifrey, his long-destroyed home planet, in its prime. After two adventures, he finally pulls up a chair and tells her something of who he is and where he comes from. It’s nice to see him recognize how important this is for a companion to hear. The adventure is over, now it’s time to talk.

Martha: When you say “last time”, was that you and Rose?
The Doctor: [he pauses, somewhat taken aback by the question] Um… Yeah! Yeah, it was, yeah.
Martha: [looking put off] You’re taking me to the same planets that you took her?
The Doctor: [surprised, oblivious] What’s wrong with that?
Martha: [disappointed, upset] Nothing! [starts to stalk away] ‘Cept have you heard of the word “rebound”?

Source of Photos: Killcolor
Other Review: Doctor Who Reviews