Webcomic Review: “Digger” by Ursula Vernon


HEY HEY! THIS IS MY 200TH POST! THIS GIVES ME THE RIGHT TO USE ALL-CAPS, WHICH IS NORMALLY A CAPITAL OFFENSE IN MY BOOK! HEY HEY! THIS IS LIKE, SPECIAL, OR SOMETHING! +) [But seriously guys, thanks for reading my blog and having unbelievable conversations and all. Otherwise this would be a very quiet, very sad corner of the Internet.]

Title: Digger
Author/Artist: Ursula Vernon
Pages: Difficult to say, because the numbering is disorderly and unreliable, but the web address count is 921.
Published: February 1, 2007 to March 17, 2011
Status: COMPLETE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pragmatic, good-hearted wombat engineer gets wrapped up in a quest involving dead pagan gods, talking statues, vampiric squash, the social politics of an anthropomorphic hyena tribe, a possibly-demonic shadowchild who wants to be good, an oracular slug with an attitude, a shrew pirate-troll-awesomething with even more attitude, mythologies so tangled even the god Ganesh has trouble working them out, and far too much magic for her comfort. All Digger really wants is to stop being lost and go home.
Reason for Beginning: Ursula Vernon has been known on deviantArt and Elfwood for her oddball drawings and clever, slightly-insane explanations for them. I like her creative weirdness, and her sense of humor, and wanted to see if it would hold out over a longer story.
Reason for Finishing: It did. And fortunately, the central characters are all very interesting, mostly likable folks, and the mythology Vernon creates is intriguing.
Story Re-readability: While the overarching plot might only beg for one or two rereads at most, to catch all the details, individual pages and passages make for fun and satisfying rereads on their own, on account of Vernon filling every nook and cranny with something uniquely funny, touching, ominous, and/or character-building.
Author Re-readability: Definitely. She knows how to keep the characters and setting interesting even when not much appears to be happening plotwise.
Artist Re-viewability: Her main weakness seems to be drawing human faces; they often don’t succeed in communicating the characters’ age or even expressions very well. Fortunately, most of the characters are non-human, which she manages much better. The stark black-and-white art at times causes problems when she’s drawing particularly complicated objects or an odd perspective, because with all the lines and shadows it can be hard to make out the details, but on the whole it creates a heavy, ominous atmosphere. Vernon’s real specialty, though, is creating weird new creature designs, often of a goofy variety, and then giving them a certain dignity; check out her fierce hyena tribes, bridge trolls, and oracular slugs below. There are many memorable, even iconic, images in this strip.
Recommendation: Aye! It has an effective mix of pathos, comedy, and mystery. Digger herself (yes, the wombat is female) is one of the more original and likable webcomic protagonists I’ve met, and you get to know her very well. Where the story becomes more interesting than just a fantasy adventure is when it throws in some surprisingly difficult moral quandaries that challenge Digger and engender some thoughtful discussions among the characters, as well as, hopefully, the readers.

Key Thoughts

The thing is, I’m a wombat. And no self-respecting wombat has anything to do with magic. It’s dangerous, but mostly it’s just bad taste.

This is a peculiar twist on the idea of the fantasy quest, but an entertaining one. If you read mainly for the plot, you might get frustrated, because it takes some time to get going. For the most part, and despite heavily featuring prophecies and divine intervention, the plot of Digger reveals itself naturally in small stages, like one of the dark underground caverns through which our heroine often walks with her lantern held high and her sensitive nose sniffing the dusty air. It takes quite awhile for the main quest to get moving, but honestly, I didn’t miss it. The build-up is every bit as entertaining and fascinating as the climax – perhaps even moreso, in fact.

It's like "The Matrix." With...wombats. And no Matrix.The naming of Ganesh, a Hindu deity, would seem to set this story in India, yet the designs of the humans look either more oriental or, in the case of the village nurse or a local ruffian, very Caucasian. I don’t know if this is due to Vernon’s afore-mentioned difficulty with drawing humans, to laxity of design, or to deliberate artistic choice, but it does work to make the setting rather vague. In the long run, this probably helps the story, as it has enough exoticism to feel different from standard Western fantasy while still retaining a certain timeless quality. Sort of timeless. I mean, this is still a pre-industrial society we’re talking about.

Digger herself is an eminently likable main character, full of common sense from her toe-claws to the tips of her furry ears, and she functions as a reader stand-in. Chatty and reflective in a down-to-earth way, her observations and opinions on everything from temple architecture to a village nurse’s medical practices make for a charming and often funny running commentary on the story’s world, serving to deepen the worldbuilding as well as develop her character. She, like all wombats, loves the art of engineering but distrusts things like magic (which the dwarves fiddle with too much) and religion (which, being wholly of the pagan and polytheistic kind in this story, is disorganized and full of dangerous or untrustworthy spirits).

Now, at this point, I should probably tell you about some buried trauma of mine so that you’ll be willing to open up to me and tell me whatever. But frankly, I don’t have any buried traumas or dark secrets or anything. Well, I’m scared of ducks, but it’s really not the same thing.

Her character feels consistent: she never denies that gods and magic exist, she just goes out of her way to avoid them whenever possible. When, at the story’s beginning, she finds herself lost and confused in a bewitched tunnel far from home and crawls out of a hole into a temple to the Indian god Ganesh, she is noticeably disappointed. And yet, because the spirit of the god’s statue can talk (it is careful to inform us that it is only the spirit of the statue representing Ganesh, not Ganesh himself), and can talk quite sensibly and courteously at that, Digger addresses it politely, even while honestly admitting her distaste for the supernatural.

Most of the supporting characters are equally entertaining, and some of them nearly as developed as Digger:

Digger: You’re a lifesaver.
Statue: On occasion, yes.

It is Ganesh—or the statue, rather, but Digger just gives up and conflates the two—who is responsible for kicking the plot proper off. He’s a fun personality, sometimes speaking grandiose words of prophecy, other times letting out an eloquently snarky comment, but always fairly humble and polite. The story’s cosmology is extremely vague, but seems to be loosely Hindu. After all, the character Ganesh is clearly a supernatural spirit who inhabits the statue. Yet he insists that he is not the actual Hindu god Ganesh, but merely the god’s representation in this particular temple. It doesn’t make much sense, but Ganesh himself admits it is confusing, and Digger is less concerned with pagan theology than with how Ganesh can help her get home.

Ed: Of course It remembers! It remembers the rabbit It ate yesterday too, but rabbit still gone. Memory not life.

The hyena Ed is perhaps the comic’s most fascinating and iconic character. Gentler than a puppy, more joyous and forgiving than a child, his outward appearance of simplicity betrays a mind and heart that have dealt with some of the most difficult issues, morally and emotionally, that it’s possible to imagine even in real life. The secrets of his story are revealed slowly, late in the comic, but prove crucial to Digger’s growth and understanding. I like Ed a lot – it’s almost impossible not to love him. I believe that a truly good character, well-portrayed, is inherently more interesting than a villain, and Ed is proof of this. For all the interesting flawed characters in this story, it is Ed, the kind and loving soul who made a heartbreakingly difficult choice based on his values, who may be Ursula Vernon’s greatest achievement.

Murai: The Veiled serve the gods, Honored Digger. Comparative mythology and hand-to-hand combat are our specialities.

Nothing is ordinary in this webcomic.

The character who is the least fun is the girl Murai. She’s apprenticed to the Veiled monks who guard the temple of Ganesh and supposedly act as his police force, but have their own agenda. She’s another gentle soul whom Digger feels compelled to take care of, and then becomes surprisingly crucial to the quest. As a character, she’s okay, but because the Veiled are always, well, veiled, Murai can only express herself through her eyes, since we can’t see her mouth. While Vernon tries hard to make the character emote, Murai still comes off blander and less interesting than the others around her. The fact that she’s sometimes either insane or possessed by a prophetic spirit only makes it harder to figure out her own personality. Personally, I thought she got in the way more often than not, and I wish Vernon hadn’t made her so central to the later parts of the story.

The artwork is always engaging, sometimes powerful. While I mentioned some of its weaknesses in the summary section, the truth is that Digger is still a joy to look at. Environments—particularly the forest—are well-evoked, and the level of detail is usually very pleasant and balanced. As vague as the setting is (vaguely Indian), it acquires specificity through all the little surprises Vernon adds to the corners and backgrounds of each page. Look at Ganesh’s library, pictured below. Little rats and mice nose around scrolls and books with titles like Ryleh Text and Chickens of the World II.

Or this beautiful dark forest, where a trenchcoated and fedoraed lizard sidles into the bottom right corner, probably pondering the mystery of who killed his late partner or something. It has nothing to do with the plot, and this little guy doesn’t ever appear again. But it adds a welcome whimsy that’s not out of keeping with the weirdness of the world as a whole.

Wombat ethics are pretty straightforward, and were not meant for situations this complicated unless geology is involved.

The characters, humor, and artwork are enough to make Digger excellent entertainment, but what gives it resonance are the discussions of morality and mythology that crop up more and more as the story progresses. The creature Shadowchild is so-named by Digger because he appears to be made out of shadow material, and has the demeanor and innocence of a child. He doesn’t know what he is or what morality is, so Digger finds herself having to explain to him what’s right and wrong. This proves difficult. As a Christian, I found these segments interesting because even though I know what the absolute standard for truth and morality is, Digger (and presumably Ursula Vernon) takes a loosely agnostic stance on theology (not denying the existence of gods, but rather their relevancy and utility), but finds herself trying to defend what her conscience tells her are universal truths. She does a pretty good job; while obviously insufficient from the standpoint of Christian knowledge, her explanations avoid complete relativism and do illustrate the difficulty of articulating deeply-held beliefs.

Other times, Digger herself is directly faced with thorny moral quandaries. The most prominent and interesting one I cannot, unfortunately, tell you, for fear of spoiling important plot points, but it involves Digger’s need and desire to take part in a tribal ritual that—very contrary to her desire and morals—involves a kind of cannibalism of the dead as a way of honoring them. It was a case where I would still say that the tribal culture is wrong, but Digger’s choice was likely made for righteous reasons and, in context, may have been morally acceptable. But it’s a tricky case, and undoubtedly one that has come up for real-life Christian missionaries before. I’m glad that Vernon is able to ask questions like this in her story.

More troublesome is a section where one character relates a myth—possibly true within the comic’s world—that quite overtly echoes the Christ story in certain key elements. It begins on page 366. It calls the Christ figure the Good Man who was revered as a god, who was born miraculously by his mysterious mother who was revered as a goddess, and he healed the sick, raised the dead, and converted politicians (to which Digger cries out “Now I know this is a myth!”) until one day he was attacked and mortally wounded by the families and friends of the people he hadn’t cured and raised from the dead. He is carried by his goddess-mother back across the sea over which she had originally come, and never seen again. There is no talk of sin, grace, redemption, or any kind of salvation, but there is a promise to return. The story is powerfully told through Vernon’s artwork, but in the context of the whole webcomic it doesn’t end up amounting to much. It helps explain just one minor plot point and never shows up again. The elements that resemble the Christian gospel feel forced to do so, and contrast oddly with the parts that are clearly un-Christian. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. If this were presumed to be a retelling of the actual Christian gospel—as Catherynne Valente tries to do in Habitation of the  Blessed—it would be easier to see this as blasphemy and a perversion of the gospel. But Vernon doesn’t make that claim, and is rather just telling a myth she made up for her fantasy series That story, however, goes out of its way to use Christian imagery and language. She doesn’t seem to be critiquing actual Christianity, but it left me feeling rather uncomfortable, for she did co-opt the story of my Lord to tell another one that is untrue and much less meaningful.

Likewise leaving me uncomfortable is the great quest—the main plot arc—which involves killing a god (possibly two). Again, these are definitively pagan gods, weaker even in Vernon’s world than those of Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythology, but it still reflects an idea of divinity which is increasingly common in our time, that of any idea of divinity as pathetic and weak, unworthy of reverence, and able to be conquered and killed by man. The god Ganesh is the only positive portrayal of divinity, and even then it’s only his statue who appears, and he’s hardly powerful, just knowledgeable and wise. As a Christian and an amateur classicist, I cannot be offended by the negative portrayal of deities which are explicitly very far from the true God I know. But as a Christian and a person aware of the prevailing trends in popular and academic culture, I am still worried that this is one more work that denigrates the idea of the supernatural, to the elevation of the created over their Creator. It’s a good comic here, a good story, but not without elements a Christian might object to.

So there you have it – a very long review in which I probably left out a great many important things from the comic. To re-iterate, most of the comic is really very funny. The oracular slug is hilarious, as is Surka the shrew who is also a professional troll (and sometimes professional pirate queen, and even the possibly-demonic morally-confused Shadowchild is a great source of comedy. Digger’s internal voice is a delight to read, what with her wry comments on the weirdness about her, and Ed is so cuddly you just want to hug him and give him a cup of tea. But there is some serious stuff going on to balance out the laughs, and the main plot is of a quite dark nature.

Who’d have thought a slug could be so…cute?

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: “The Last Unicorn” by Peter S. Beagle


Title: The Last Unicorn
Series: No.
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Pages: 212
Published: 1968
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A unicorn, hearing that she may be the last of her kind, sets out to find the other unicorns, with the help of an almost-incompetent wizard and weary woman who has lost her way in life. To do so, they must confront the infamous King Haggard and his terrifying, enigmatic Red Bull.
Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard of it for quite some time, always mentioned with fondness and respect, and finally snatched it up.
Reason for Finishing: A truly beautiful fairy tale, which manages the difficult task of including bits of anachronistic whimsy and humor without letting them ruin the solemnity of the magic.
Story Re-readability: High. It’s short and fast-paced, but expertly written and atmospheric.
Author Re-readability: I would gladly read anything else by Beagle. He chooses only the right words to express himself and can swiftly build charcaters that feel warm and real, yet never too far removed from their fairy-tale roots. He understands that taking fantasy seriously doesn’t always mean being serious.
Recommendation: Yes and again yes, for everyone with the slightest interest in fantasy and fairy tales. This is one of those few books that really deserves the label of “classic.”

Key Thoughts

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

“She still moved like a shadow on the sea.” The music of this phrase was the first of the hundreds in this book that made me fall in love with it. Mr. Beagle has a passion for words on their own merits, in addition to their meanings and the stories they can tell. Not an image or metaphor is haphazard or ineffective. Each is striking, burbling with life, original, and perfectly fitted to its object. The smell of iron “seemed to turn [the unicorn’s] bones to sand and her blood to rain.” A hostile crowd begins “to hiss like embers.” Firelight makes a sleeping cat “look like a heap of autumn leaves.” The escape of a wicked harpy from her iron cage is described in terms of a terrible blooming flower, the cage falling away as the harpy rises screaming into the air, “her hair swinging like swords.”

The Mel Grant painting from which the cover was taken. His illustrations in the book are sketches and quite effective.

There is a joy and beauty to this book that feels effortless, as if Mr. Beagle had just happened to find the story growing in a strange, secluded grove, plucked it from the tree of childhood dreams, and handed it to us as a gift. It is a fairy tale, and knows it. The characters tell each other so themselves, and discuss the implications of the traditional fairy tale structure on their lives. When the magician tells the mysterious white girl, “You’re in the story with the rest of us now, and you must go with it, whether you will or no…you must follow the fairy tale to King Haggard’s castle, and wherever else it chooses to take you,” there is the sense that there is a sort of Fairy Tale Providence that guides its characters down predestined paths, often against their will, but most likely for their own good.

The plot ebbs and flows, sometimes stopping to visit a curious place by the side of the road but never straying too far. It moves quickly, but not hastily, if you catch my meaning. Like an experienced traveler who never fails to take in all that is around him, even while his gait is so assured that he always seems to arrive at his destination right when he needs to.

But let you not think this is some verbose or dreary tale of philosophy masquerading as entertainment. Far from it! The Last Unicorn is an absolute delight from beginning to end. It is filled equally with pathos and humor, beauty and terror. There are beautiful, magical forests populated by obscure, slightly incompetent outlaws who think themselves Robin Hoods and eat tacos. There are gypsies running a farcical circus that happens to contain a genuine, dangerous harpy. There is a butterfly who sings in pop songs and poetry, and there is the Red Bull, one of the most genuinely terrifying creatures in any story I have encountered.

The main law of his existence seems to be inevitability: you can never escape him, because he is always fast enough to catch you, large enough to squash you or small enough follow you through caves, smart enough to corner you or herd you in the direction of his will, and just mindless enough that you cannot reason with him. He is a force, whether of nature or of magic, or perhaps of something else. He is a riddle that remains largely unsolved, and is the more effective for it. I can still feel the rumble of the earth as he rages down the mountain.

Also by Mel Grant.

The unicorn herself is superb. She is just how I would imagine a unicorn might be, were she real. Wise and beautiful beyond anything purely natural, of course, yet also aloof, because of her immortality, and somewhat disconnected from the world around her. We are privy to her thoughts, but they are rarely the thoughts any mortal creature would have. And so it is that we feel as though we get to know her, but cannot claim that we really understand her. There is an element to the unicorn that is always unpredictable. We cannot fully comprehend her being, nor can she fully comprehend ours. It is a phenomenon that her human friends, Schmendrick the Magician, Molly Grue, and Prince Lír all try to come to grips with. It also leads to some interesting arguments. Just because the unicorn is uncannily wise and probably thousands of years old does not mean she is infallible. And her judgments are even and final, sometimes ruthless. Mr. Beagle has written the most iconic and best unicorn I have come across.

Side characters also enrich the story. Ironically, their very down-to-earth and realistic natures complement the magical side of the story instead of detract from it. The unicorn is more the perfect fairy tale creature when contrasted with the hopes and sorrows, failures and uncertainties of Schmendrick and Molly. She is more unworldly and pristine beside their many-colored humanity. Prince Lír lacks a little of their depth, but mainly because he is young while Schmendrick and Molly are middle-aged and mature in life experiences. I liked him, but I loved the latter two. Even Haggard himself is layered and surprisingly believable, even a bit sad and lonely, far from the cliché wicked king I initially expected.

Tender. Terrifying. Lovely. Silly. Somber. Magical. Human, in the best way. There is power in this book.

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 Review: Doctor Who Episode 3.02 “The Shakespeare Code”


Episode 3.02 “The Shakespeare Code”
Written By: Gareth Roberts
Originally Aired: 7 April 2007

Synopsis: “The Doctor takes Martha back in time to Elizabethan England where they meet William Shakespeare and try to solve what sent the architect of the Globe Theatre to the madhouse.” (Wikipedia)

A fun, beautiful-looking episode, very similar to Episode 1.03 “The Unquiet Dead,” with its darkly lush historical setting (see the header image), and its topics of great English literature and creative inspiration. I love how the Doctor is such a huge fan of Earth’s artistic traditions. He loves Charles Dickens, he quotes Shakespeare with glee, and he even reads Harry Potter! (“Wait till you read Book 7. Oh, I cried.”) (In the next season you will discover that he also enjoys Agatha Christie’s Poirot.)

I question the Doctor’s assertion that Shakespeare was the greatest genius of all humanity, but it is neat that the Bard’s brilliance, quick-wit, and intuition render the Doctor’s psychic paper ineffectual on him. Normally the Doctor can just flash his wallet of psychic paper—which is actually blank—and people will see whatever he wants them to see on it (a special ID, tickets to a concert, etcetera). But Shakespeare not only sees the blank page, but he quickly deduces its nature and the fact that the Doctor is from the future. Quite a shocker that should be, but it only delights the Doctor. A true fanboy!As may be expected, there is much comedy gained from the running gag of the Doctor “accidentally” feeding Shakespeare many of his own famous lines (“The play’s the thing. And yes, you can use that.”), as well as a few that aren’t Shakespeare’s (The Doctor: “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…” Shakespeare: “I might use that.” The Doctor: “You can’t, it’s someone else’s.”).  And it turns out that the Bard is almost as big a flirt as Captain Jack, though considerably more eloquent. Never one to be politically correct, but always one to be romantic, Shakespeare is inspired by Martha’s beauty to write about his mysterious “dark lady.”

All in all, a strong, very entertaining episode, with no huge weaknesses that I remember.

[after landing with the TARDIS]
Martha Jones: But are we safe? I mean, can we move around and stuff?
The Doctor: Of course we can. Why not?
Martha Jones: It’s like in those films: if you step on a butterfly, you change the future of the human race.
The Doctor: Then, don’t step on any butterflies. What have butterflies ever done to you?

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 3 Overview and Episode 3.01 “Smith & Jones”


[N.B. For Series 3 and 4, I’m switching to an episode-by-episode review format in order to speed up the posting process. The epic and glorious reviews are cool when they go up, but they take too long to finish!]

Series Title: Doctor Who
Season: Series 3
Original Air Date: March 31, 2007 – June 30, 2007
Length: 13 episodes, 45 minutes each
Head Writer: Russell T. Davies
Lead Actors: David Tennant (The Tenth Doctor), Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones)
Content Advisory: Between PG and PG-13 level violence, very little blood, but some very horrific or nightmarish stuff is shown or implied, and some sexual innuendo.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: After the heartbreaking loss of Rose Tyler and the rejection of Companion status by Donna Noble, the Doctor continues his travels, this time with a bright young medical student named Martha Jones, who quickly falls into unrequited love with the dashing Time Lord.
Arc Phrase: “Mr. Saxon”
Reason for Watching: The rousing adventure, sharp humor, spectacular sights, all involving characters that feel real, organic, that change and yet are consistent, that think about their own lives and are worth caring about.
Episode Re-watchability: All Doctor Who episodes of the revived series have high entertainment value. Of this series, the most re-watchable are the “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood” story and “Blink,” which each can stand independent of the show’s continuity as excellent stories in their own rights.
Recommendation: A new viewer could start with this series, as the introduction of a new Companion means that the show’s premise gets re-explained. There are enough references to what happened to Rose that a new viewer would likely get the gist of that, too, despite not knowing the actual story of Series 2. The average quality of the episodes has risen slightly, with the standouts being the abovementioned stories.

Key Thoughts

The Doctor: Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden. Except for cheap tricks.

COMPANION – Martha Jones

Now here’s another surprise: on the surface, I should not have liked Rose, because of her selfishness, unsophistication, and frequent insensitivity; yet I found myself becoming deeply engaged in her character. Then comes Martha Jones, who on paper I should like much more than Rose because of her kindness, intelligence, and professionalism, and yet she left less of an impression on me. That’s not to say I did not like Martha Jones – she is a strong Companion, quite competent and amiable, cool under fire but with a ready smile. She participates in some top-notch stories and performs admirably through all of them. But I think that one season was the right amount for her; at the end, I was ready to bid her a friendly farewell.

The main reason for this, I think, is because she falls too quickly in love with the Doctor and is immediately and continually disappointed when he fails to consider her romantically, as if she is somehow entitled to his love. She knows about Rose – or, at least, she knows that the Doctor loved Rose but has recently lost her – and so should be more sensitive to his emotional condition. There are a few times, which I hope to point out in the episode reviews below, where I don’t think she is very sensitive.

However, I am grateful to the writers for not forcing the Doctor to enter into a new romantic relationship. Despite her emotional turmoil, Martha holds her tongue and doesn’t make too many inappropriate advances on the Doctor. And in a way, she does function as the Doctor’s pick-up after the heartbreak of losing Rose. She is a steady friend, a warm smile, an ardent admirer…and a skilled doctor herself!

Episode 3.01 “Smith and Jones”

Written By: Russell T. Davies

Synopsis: “The Doctor meets his latest companion, Martha Jones, in a hospital that’s abducted by the Judoon who are searching for the evil, blood-sucking Florence Finnegan.” (Wikipedia)

For someone new to Doctor Who, this would be a fine first episode; better than the first episode of Series 2, because the new Companion means a new set of side characters and drama. While Rose’s legacy is very much felt due to the Doctor’s occasional references to her, Martha has her own ambitions, her own dysfunctional family, and her own need to break the mundane rhythm of her life. The episode even begins similarly to “Rose,” with the zooming in on the cityscape from space and the quick establishment of Martha’s daily routines and stresses. Both episodes are also fast-paced and involve plots that are mostly just excuses to get the two leads working together.

"A platoon of Judoon on the moon!"

Not to say that the story of the rhino-headed Judoon mercenary police force seeking a vampiric alien criminal masquerading as a harmless old lady isn’t interesting, because it is. It’s not every episode we get to see an entire hospital teleported straight to the moon (“A platoon of Judoon on the moon!”). It’s also not every episode that we get such a glimpse of the political entities, federal laws, and regulations that may or may not govern the universe beyond Earth. The Judoon, we learn, are prohibited by intergalactic law from pursuing the alien criminal onto Earth, so they’ve removed the place she is hiding (the hospital) to “neutral territory” – i.e. the moon. Something about jurisdiction.

Another note: it’s always fun to see a human’s first reaction to the Tardis. “It’s bigger on the inside!” Yes indeed!

Mr. Stoker: There’s a thunderstorm moving in and lightning is a form of static electricity, as was first proven by – anyone?
The Doctor:Benjamin Franklin.
Mr. Stoker: Correct.
The Doctor: My mate Ben. That was a day and a half: I got rope burns off that kite, and then I got soaked…
Mr. Stoker: …Quite.
The Doctor: …and then I got electrocuted!

Sources
All screencaps from Killcolor