Doctor Who 8.13 – Last Christmas

Well, I take back one thing that I said about the previous episode, which I really, really didn’t like. It, and the next episode, establishes that the Master continues to be very aware of Earth’s popular culture and knows Toni Basil’s hit from the early 1980s, “Mickey.” This episode establishes that the Doctor had no idea that there was a film called Alien. “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.” This is so perfectly in character for both of them. It’s also such an incredibly funny line that I’d call this one a winner even if it wasn’t.

I think this was a very well-timed episode, because our son was talking about dreams from which you could not wake just a couple of weeks ago, and that’s the plot of this one. He enjoyed it a lot, and his favorite scene might be Santa Claus’s big explosive entrance, with a group of slinkies, followed by a small army of wind-up robots, clearing the way. I’ve always enjoyed it and think it’s only improved with time.

There’s also a neat little hat tip to a real-world production decision in the eighties. “Last Christmas” is Samuel Anderson’s final appearance as Danny Pink, as a dream after the character died, and he was not credited in advance publicity to keep the surprise. Back in episode two of “Time-Flight” in 1982, Matthew Waterhouse made a final appearance as Adric, as a dream after the character died, but he was actually credited in advance publicity to keep the surprise of his death in the previous story.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll resume the show in early July. Posts here will be a little thin for a few weeks, as I’m only going to write about every other Worzel Gummidge and it’ll just be that show and Stargate through June. We’ll start the three-series rotation again after we finish Worzel. Stay tuned!

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I’d only seen Big Trouble in Little China once before this, ages ago, and had largely forgotten about it. I’m not sure when it crossed my radar again, but it suddenly struck me that our son was certain to love it. The smooching is kept to a minimum, it’s just mayhem, magic, fight scenes and at least two characters who later got pilfered by the people who make video games. I was right; he enjoyed it very much and thought the video game comparison was apt. “Some of that,” he observed, “looked a lot like a ‘cut scene’,” as those things are called.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that John Carpenter’s film has inspired so many people who later worked in movies and games. I was absolutely at the right age for it when it was originally released, but I somehow missed it until it showed up on cable, and thought it was pretty good. It’s actually a little better than that. It’s a very clever and very fun film, and about the only complaint I can make is that the drum-machine music has aged really badly. Everything that Carpenter put on screen is really entertaining.

I especially like how Kurt Russell just effortlessly sells this. Jack Burton is one of the greatest action heroes from his day: resourceful, if not particularly intelligent, and loyal even when he is in way over his head and in the middle of other people’s problems. Dude just wants his truck back. I can get behind that. Support comes from the terrific James Hong as the main villain, along with Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and Al Leong. I like how there’s a surprise around every corner, and there’s no predicting what the villains can do or what grotesque creatures are going to show up next. I also like how nobody’s cleaned up any of the cobwebs and skeletons in Lo Pan’s fortress underneath the streets of San Francisco.

So our son was incredibly pleased with darn near everything in the movie, and wowed appreciably all the way through it. I think his favorite bit might have been Dennis Dun’s character having an aerial swordfight with one of the baddies, but pretty much everything that Kurt Russell did amused him. I was surprised to learn the movie was a box office flop, only earning back about half its budget, because I’d just assumed it was a hit because everybody loves it. That’s a shame, because the late eighties and early nineties could have used another two or three Jack Burton adventures. With some different music, of course.

Stargate SG-1 7.4 – Orpheus

I enjoyed this one, though I have to admit it feels a little long waiting for the good guys to finally get the rescue going in the third act. Most of the time, the Stargate universe doesn’t do as good a job as this one does emphasizing the time between adventures. This one recounts the events of “The Changeling” in the previous season, and explains that shortly after that story, two of our heroes’ allies were captured on a mission behind enemy lines. They’ve been in a prison camp for months, awaiting rescue, and Teal’c, recovering from an injury on duty, doesn’t feel like he is strong enough to be part of the team.

Anyway, our son enjoyed this one, particularly the anticipation of the big finale when O’Neill decides they’re going to take out an under-construction mother ship. Tony Amendola and Obi Ndefo are back, giving more definition to the ongoing storyline of the baddies’ troopers building into a rebel army. It’s a good story overall, though I confess the mischievous side of me had the most fun with a short scene where Sam tells Daniel about a very silly film that he missed while he was away: M. Night Shyamalan’s dopey sci-fi movie Signs.

Doctor Who 8.12 – Death in Heaven

At the risk of leaving our son out of these posts, I’ll start tonight by mentioning that while we were on vacation, the condo we rented had a previous occupant’s Hulu account logged in, so the kid sat down to a few hours of Animaniacs. I interrupted him to play him the notorious “Frozen Peas” tape of Orson Welles having a series of tantrums while recording commercials in the UK for Findus. Then we looked at the Pinky & the Brain installment “Yes, Always.” Famously, the Brain’s voice actor, Maurice LaMarche, perfected his Orson Welles impersonation by playing and replaying the “Frozen Peas” tape, and in “Yes, Always,” the Brain does an overdub session for some previous episode or other. The script is a mildly edited transcript of the “Frozen Peas” tape, ensuring that a generation of kids knows that a gonk is a bang from outside.

Returning home, that led me to dusting off Tim Burton’s masterpiece Ed Wood, in which LaMarche was called to overdub Vincent D’Onofrio in the role of Welles himself, because no matter how much we love D’Onofrio in so many great parts, especially Detective Bobby Goren, no living actor can do Welles as well as LaMarche. So he and I talked about how and why overdubs like this work, and then I let him know that Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez performed the lines from the previous episode revealing the Master’s identity silently, so nobody in the crowd on location would learn the secret, and overdubbed them later. So see, I’m always looking for coincidences and connections. Narf.

Something really, really funny happened on November 8, 2014.

Did you know we have a food blog? There’s a link on the right-hand side, right down at the bottom of the page. It’s mostly dormant, in part from burnout and in part because we just don’t travel with food and old restaurants as our principal destination anymore, but we had lots and lots of fun and learned so many stories from 2010-2018. I used to be in the habit of taking off for two days of just driving around listening to loud music and eating barbecue many, many miles from home.

And so at 11 AM that November 8, I entered the Skylight Inn in Ayden NC for the very first time and had the best plate of barbecue I’ve ever had. I’ve taken Marie – and our son – back twice, in 2017 and in 2019. It was mindblowing and perfect, and, if I do say so myself, it resulted in such a delightfully quirky and silly blog post that it is, in all honesty, my favorite of all the hundreds of food posts I’ve written.

So there it was. At eleven that morning, I found my all-time favorite restaurant. And twelve hours later, back in Atlanta, at eleven that evening, I sat down to the encore presentation of Steven Moffat’s “Death in Heaven” and found my all-time least favorite episode of Doctor Who.

It is an absolutely appalling piece of television. It out-Timelashes “The Twin Dilemma” and it under-Underworlds “Fear Her.” It is a towering icon of terrible taste and absolutely brainless narrative decisions, of which, making the Doctor the president of Earth might just be the pinnacle. No, it’s the Cyber-Brig. No, it’s something else. It resolves the “Am I a good man?” and “the Doctor hates soldiers” storylines by swinging a sledgehammer around them so that they need never be discussed again. I’ll grant you that had this been Jenna Coleman’s final episode, then the farewell scene with the Doctor and Clara lying their goodbyes to each other would have been something new, but it ends up not mattering since she comes back in seven weeks.

But the weirdest thing actually showed up a few years later. Something about this, atop all its other misfires, really didn’t sit well with me that dark and disappointing night in 2014. It’s that now that the Master is a female, she reveals that she did all the evil things that she has done for the benefit of the male hero. She wants her friend back. I said that felt wrong at the time, that the female villain shouldn’t be reduced to needing a male lead’s approval. And then, on January 15, 2017, in the absolutely execrable final episode of Moffat’s Sherlock, which I swear I enjoyed nine out of thirteen times, we meet Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister Eurus, who reveals that she did all the evil things that she has done for the benefit of the male hero. She wants her brother back. The female villain shouldn’t be reduced to needing a male lead’s approval, and here it was again.

I’ve been back to the Skylight Inn twice and it was every bit as amazing as I remember it. I watched “Death in Heaven” for the second time tonight and it was every bit as terrible as I remember it. It was a funny day, that November 8.

Doctor Who 8.11 – Dark Water

And then there was that day, that terrible, terrible day in 2014. We’d come to the end of an absolutely remarkable story. It was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, who seemed like she wanted to kick down the doors and demand that she be considered in any discussion about who might be the very best of all Doctor Who‘s directors. It started with Danny Pink dying in a freak accident, continued through Clara willing to betray the Doctor to change her timeline, and provided a brilliant one-off chance to smile in this dark story when the Doctor asks, quite rationally, whether the scientist who detected human speech in some of that white noise / EVP rubbish was an idiot. Then the Cybermen showed up, on the steps of St. Paul’s, even!

It was so, so good. And then Missy revealed herself.

It could have been worse. A good friend of mine confessed that she’d spent several minutes in horrified silence afraid that Missy was Romana, gone bad.

I’ve got no problem with Time Lords changing gender. Beginning with season nine, Michelle Gomez would become second only to Delgado as my favorite Master, ever. But she does nothing in these two episodes to impress – and what Moffat makes the Master do in the second part is going to prompt a pretty pained response in tomorrow’s post – and the cliffhanger landed with a thud with me because the Master has been completely and utterly uninteresting since 1976. All the promise, all the mystery about this strange woman and the Nethersphere, all the possibilities… and it’s the Master?

It’ll get better. But it’s going to get worse first.

Stargate SG-1 7.3 – Fragile Balance

I’d have thought that week three of a new season might have been a bit early for a comedy episode without the star actor for most of the runtime, but I suppose it worked out just fine. That’s in large part thanks to the really, really good impersonation of Richard Dean Anderson by Michael Welch. Then just sixteen years old and already with three dozen credits behind him, Welch has grown into one of those “oh yeah, that guy” actors with more than a hundred parts, and his impression of Colonel Jack O’Neill is downright uncanny for a teenager to have pulled off. Since the whole production rested on his shoulders, it looks from a distance more like a gamble than a comedy break, but darned if it doesn’t pay off.

This one isn’t a time travel episode, surprisingly. A rogue scientist from one of Earth’s allied races decided to borrow O’Neill for experimentation – there’s an in-universe reason, but it’s lengthy – and left behind a clone with memories intact for the week that he needs him, but a flaw left the clone stuck as a teenager. This results in a whole bunch of continuity references to similarly unlikely sci-fi stuff happening in the series, including why Jack’s in no hurry to go into stasis again while the Tok’ra figure this out. Teen Jack also gets to remind Carter that he is still her superior officer and shouldn’t be called “kind of cute,” and then retreat to the base guest quarters and grumble in front of his Playstation.

Admittedly, it does get a little strained at times – O’Neill is surely smart enough to know that without even an attempt at a fake ID, nobody is going to sell him any beer – but the comedy is appropriate for the situation and our son really enjoyed this one. He liked it better when it was just being funny and before they figured out what was going on, but I think we can call it a win.

Worzel Gummidge 6.2 and 6.3

This two-parter was extremely strange and not very satisfying, but the story behind it turns out to be even stranger. I’d argue that the reason that Worzel Gummidge works is because it gives us what is identifiably our world – the real world – and either through Worzel running amok and causing mayhem, or the magic of the Crowmen in Britain or Zoo Neeland making something odd happen, they affect what feels like a real world, populated by real people.

But in this story, “A Red Sky in T’Morning” and “Them Thar Hills.” nothing feels like the real world. It’s a goofy cartoon version. The Crowman runs afoul of a local taxman who stepped right out of an old Popeye. He wears ridiculous clothes, goes everywhere with a huge ledger, and moves/dances around like he’s the bad guy in a David Lee Roth music video. And Worzel falls down a mine shaft and ends up in a ghost town that’s just a few paces away from the locations they’ve been visiting all this time and nobody has known it’s there. The ghost town has one resident, a crazed American miner who acts like somebody from the 1850s and has unearthed more gold than anybody’s ever seen. Lots of talk about claim jumping and vittles follows as he bellows how he’s been prospecting for twenty years. A hundred and twenty, maybe.

But I suppose children don’t notice this sort of thing. At one point, the miner gets “blown up” by some dynamite and he gets blackened and smoked and his clothes get torn like what would happen to Wile E. Coyote and our son fell apart giggling. If dynamite had gone off in Mr. Braithwaite’s face back in Britain, it would have killed him. That’s the problem.

It doesn’t feel real, and so it doesn’t feel right, but there’s also a massive change in the visuals between the episodes. They were filmed a year apart! They made six episodes in 1987 with Una Stubbs, and six in 1988 without her, as she had other commitments and could not join the cast in Zoo Neeland. Fortunately the actors who played the taxman and the prospector in part one didn’t have other commitments as well. In fact, “Them Thar Hills” was the last of the twelve to be made, and it’s not at all an auspicious finale.

Image: 45 Worlds.

Serenity (2005)

I’ve rewatched all of Firefly a couple of times since I first saw it in 2005. I’ve left Serenity on the shelf. It’s not at all a bad film, but the experience of seeing it that one-and-only time, having no idea what was coming, was just so deliciously potent that it overpowered the narrative. It overpowered it so much that I forgot several important plot points, in particular the whole business about the nasty future government being responsible for the creation of the Reavers. That’s why the last time that I wrote about them, I said they were unlikely threats, but there was a perfectly good explanation that I didn’t recall. I’ll tell you what I did recall in just a minute.

So since we left Firefly with its ignominious cancellation in December 2002, some of the show’s small-for-a-network audience of two million viewers were discouraged, but their ranks quickly swelled. Firefly‘s home video release was a phenomenon for its time, and the audience of people who had no idea Fox had commissioned such an entertaining program just kept growing. The original studio couldn’t be bothered with new episodes, but Universal liked the idea of a reasonably-budgeted movie with a built-in audience. You might make the argument that they then undercut the possibility of turning the project into a hit by making sure every member of that built-in audience got to attend one of what seemed like hundreds of free advance screenings in the summer of 2005, but at least the audience kept quiet about what happened in the movie.

But almost sixteen years on, we’re past the point of spoilers, so I’ll say that this was one of the best theater experiences of my life. The setup is that those two creepy dudes with blue gloves don’t find River; an Alliance operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor does. He seems reasonable and not at all angry; he just wants Mal to surrender. When Mal doesn’t, the operative and his crew systematically raze every bolt hole our heroes have ever used, and one of them was where our old friend and castmate Shepherd Book had been living. Book dies in Mal’s arms and about half an hour of screen time later, Wash joins him in one of the most shocking and surprising death scenes ever.

So things are very bad and they start getting very worse, and with absolutely everybody injured and the Reavers charging in, Simon also takes a bullet, and I remember sitting in that half-empty theater by myself silently swearing and realizing “They’re doing the last Blake’s 7.” None of them were getting out alive. I couldn’t believe the moxie and just marveled that the film was seriously going to kill off all the heroes. What stones.

As it turned out, I was completely wrong, but we all learned in 2005 is that capping two of your nine lead characters going into the climax really is an effective way to tell your audience that you’re not ready to play by the rules.

Serenity was a box office failure, barely earning back its budget despite some very good reviews. It’s a really good film that ties up most of the show’s loose ends. I don’t think that they put a single foot wrong in its two hours. Our son was very impressed, although, unlike me, he was able to keep from trying to guess what would happen next to whom. We all enjoyed it very much, and even though the whole Firefly experience found smaller audiences than anybody spending money to make it wanted, it’s safe to say that almost everybody who explores this ‘verse was very, very happy with it. Maybe one day, Netflix or somebody else will give it a reboot. I’ll certainly take a look if they do.

Stargate SG-1 7.2 – Homecoming

As I’ve mentioned often enough, I really, really enjoy seasons six through eight of Stargate SG-1 a whole lot. One reason is that they’ve got the execution down to a science. They’ve figured out that the show needs a whole lot more than creeping around the enemy motherships looking for a way out, because we’ve done that enough back in the first few years and we need something different. “Homecoming” balances all that stuff quite expertly with some negotiations with other villains and a heck of an interesting story about what’s happening on the planet below.

Anubis’s mind probe from the previous episode has brought him to Jonas’s home planet in search of the super-rare MacGuffin “naquadriah.” So while Jonas and Daniel are creeping around on the enemy mothership, Anubis’s forces occupy the capital city, Kelowna, which we first visited back in season five. The three power blocs on the planet still can’t get their crap together even when a city-sized spaceship is parked right above the skyscrapers. Our son loved that visual, by the way, and not only because the special effects team made it look so good, but because he’s a silly ten year-old kid and it amused him to imagine the skyscrapers puncturing the big spaceship and it deflating like a balloon.

Even more interestingly, they’re doing something downright different with the System Lords. Again, this is something I’ve mentioned often, but the baddies are typically very, very run of the mill and have just the one note: they all do the same thing. But last time, Yu the Great withdrew his forces and sped to another part of the galaxy. That’s because, as his First Prime quietly confesses to Teal’c, his master is getting increasingly ill. Yu is deteriorating mentally; he has aged out of the ability to take a new host and his mind is going. He thought he was supposed to battle Anubis thousands of light years away.

Interestingly, Vince Crestejo isn’t in this episode; it’s explained that Yu spends so much time in his sarcophagus attempting to heal that he’s trusting decisions to his First Prime, who doesn’t know what to do anymore. So he and Teal’c strike a deal with Ba’al to come take down Anubis. And this works really, really wonderfully: it leaves the audience on a knife’s edge, wondering whether Ba’al is going to end up betraying everybody as well.

So it all ends okay in the end. Anubis meets another huge setback, Ba’al amasses new power, the big jerk Commander Hale from Kelowna betrays everyone and gets killed for his efforts. It works out great for everybody except poor old Corin Nemec. The life of an actor is tough and full of things getting moved around by producers and studios that leave people thanking you for your time. Michael Shanks left the program after five years, and then there were some real world behind-the-scenes negotiations, and now he’s back with one of those slightly more prestigious “and the actor as the character” credits, meaning there’s not room in the show for Jonas Quinn anymore. So it’s a shame to see Corin Nemec go for now – he’ll return for a guest shot about halfway through the season – and an even bigger shame that they couldn’t find a role for him on Atlantis the following year. I still wonder why that never happened.

Stargate SG-1 7.1 – Fallen

One of the treasures of watching our kid grow as we’ve watched things together is seeing how he’s able to make connections at age ten that he couldn’t at age seven. I was reminded this morning of watching A Close Shave with him in 2018; he couldn’t quite connect that the “launch sequence” bit in that was a tip of the hat to Thunderbirds. But “Fallen” just pilfers its plan to beat the villain straight from the original Star Wars, even down to having the lights down low in the briefing room where they discuss the whole business of shooting missiles into a convenient exhaust port. It took our son no time at all to start singing the Star Wars theme, figuring it out even before Jack protests that he wanted to be called “Red Leader” on this mission.

Anyway, in non-space battle news, Michael Shanks is back as a regular starting with this episode, with Corin Nemec knocked down to guest star for this installment and the next. I’ve never read much about the behind-the-scenes stuff; I’ve always assumed there was some contract stuff in play here. At least Nemec gets an entertaining cliffhanger for his last story. Our heroes have crippled Anubis’s super-weapon so that Lord Yu’s forces can destroy Anubis… but weirdly, Yu betrays everyone and sends his fleet away. Jonas is captured and the episode ends with Anubis ready to use his ugly, spiky mind-probe ball on Jonas. “That thing!” our son said, loudly, when Anubis revealed his gadget. “Oh, I hate that thing!” Then he growled that we were going to make him wait several hours for the next part.