November 25, 2015

Misspent Youth: Kent Island Memories

What with the holiday and all, I don’t have time this week to do the background research for the scheduled article. So instead, another Special Article Day. This time, I’d like to try out some rambling about something more personal. I’d intended to go somewhere specific with this, but I got halfway through and decided it was better as a more philosophical meander. If you like this sort of thing, I’ll try to do more in the future.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge
It has been a quiet week on Kent Island, my home town. I guess. I don’t really know. But it’s pretty much always a quiet week on Kent Island. The Long & Foster at the Thompson Creek shopping center is running a Toys For Tots drive through December 18. Veteran’s Day events were held at the local middle school and two of the three local elementary schools, including the one which existed at the murky dawn of time when I was in elementary school.

My relationship with my home town is a little bit fraught. On paper, Kent Island sounds like it could be one of those neat old quirky backwards little communities full of local color, but anywhere can seem boring if you’re living in it unless you’re the right sort of person, which I wasn’t. Besides, I lived on the south side of the island, which put seven miles of residential neighborhoods and farmland between me and what passed for civilization, so all those fun adventures you hear about kids having in quirky backwards little communities were sort of off the table, since even the playground was about 40 minutes away by bike, if your mom even let you bike on the Big Road, which she really shouldn’t because it’s incredibly dangerous. The bike path that ran parallel wasn’t added until the 21st century. If you were a little older, of course, you could drive to town, where, I am told, the major pastime of young people was smoking backs of pick-up trucks in the parking lot of the Acme, the island’s only grocery store, located next to the island’s only fast food joint, a Hardee’s, and the island’s only pizza place, a Pizza Hut that was run by the family of the girl I went to prom with.

Kent Island was first seen by the early explorers of the Chesapeake bay in the 16th century, unless you count its discovery by the indigenous Matapeake tribe twelve thousand years earlier, which those intrepid 16th century explorers didn’t. In 1631, William Claiborne established the first permanent European settlement on the island, which he named for his own hometown of Kent, England. It was the first permanent settlement within the borders of the present-day state of Maryland, though (and this will get you extra credit in fifth grade social studies), not the first permanent settlement in Maryland (That’s St. Mary’s City, est. 1634): Kent Island was considered part of Virginia Colony until 1658, and Virginia didn’t give up its official claim to the island until the revolution. The original settlement no longer exists, on account of the ground it stood on no longer existing, on account of the island’s habit of occasionally losing bits around the edges to hurricanes.

Traditionally a farming and fishing community, the island became a transport hub in the middle of the nineteenth century with the building of a causeway and later a railroad bridge across the Kent Narrows (A tiny little waterway leading to the Eastern Bay, which makes Kent Island an actual Island, unlike the nearby and geographically similar peninsula of St. Michaels) to the Eastern Shore. Convenient to Baltimore and Annapolis by water, the town of Stevensville was founded in 1850 to serve as a steamboat terminus, displacing the older town of Broad Creek, now extinct. The unincorporated town of Stevensville is now the most populous Census Designated place in Queen Anne’s County. In my time, its official limits contained virtually all of the island’s commerce and retail. Beyond its official limits, its ZIP code, 21666, services the bulk of the island. The neighboring unincorporated town of Chester, 21219, seems like it’s where most of the commercial growth has been in the twenty-first century, the other side of the island being, y’know, full.

Kent Island, MD

Kindly ignore the horrorshow that is my thumbnail. I damaged my cuticle.

Viewed from the air, Kent Island vaguely resembles a crude, weathered drawing of a mittened right hand on its side, fingers pointed south. Stevensville proper occupies the end of the metacarpals, Chester the base of the thumb. I grew up somewhere along the second finger-joint.

My parents moved to Kent Island in February of 1979, part of the leading edge of a wave of migration touched off by the addition of a second span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1973. That wave would eventually see the island transformed into an exurb for the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but back when they moved, there were maybe nine houses on their quarter-mile street, which now has, I think, twenty-two. My parents didn’t have family or friends in the area, and aren’t especially outgoing to begin with, and I’m no better. Besides, they were city folk and not especially attuned to whatever excitement there was to be had with country living. The only really geographically grounded stuff I remember from my childhood was going for explores in the woods behind our house. Dad found a nineteenth century midden once. I found a little lea full of shrubs that looked like foot-tall Christmas trees. The woods are gone now, cut down for wood around the turn of the century. The scrub that replaced them went up in a 7-alarm fire back in 2012 and nearly burned my parents’ house down due to Kids These Days smoking pot back there during a drought.

Things from my childhood being gone is basically the story of going back to my home town now. I imagine it’s the same for everyone. I went off to college in 1997, and spent about nine more months living total over the course of the next four years until I bought my first home in 2001. Things had changed a great deal over the course of my life there, of course, but it had always felt predominantly constructive rather than destructive. The overpass on MD-8 that eliminated the traffic signal at US-50/301 and made it so that a trip to the grocery store during beach season wasn’t an all-day affair. The “new” shopping center in Chester, with the island’s second grocery store, a Safeway. The new “new” shopping center at Thompson Creek with the island’s third grocery store, a Food Lion. The industrial park at the end of Main Street where the Paul Reed Smith factory is, identifiable by the large water tower the kids nicknamed “The Eiffel Onion” for its distinctive spheroid shapeonion. The first big-box store, that made it possible to buy home goods without crossing the bridge. The McDonalds. The Burger King. The first non-chain pizzeria, whose phone number I can still remember. The Friendly Computer Store, where my 486 came from, located above the Friendly Chinese Take-Out in the building behind the Friendly Gas Station. The evangelical Christian video arcade (Basically an ordinary video arcade, with the implicit mission to give kids a more wholesome zombie-shooting-based alternative to smoking in the Acme parking lot). The evangelical Christian ’50s-style malt shop (“JitTterbugs”). The public library branch, where my sister’s mother-in-law works. The new elementary school. The new new elementary school. The gourmet carry-out and gas station.

Abandoned Stevensville Acme Market.The Acme closed in November, 2012. The building is currently unoccupied. The hardware store that had taken over their previous location (and for that reason, had an otherwise inexplicable supermarket-style airlock foyer) moved out, that entire strip mall having priced itself most of the way out of business by undergoing an expensive renovation right before the anchor store closed. The Safeway built a new store which seems perfectly normal to me, but my dad still speaks of it in hushed, reverent tones as though it’s some kind of grocery Mecca. My dad, of course, has lived on Kent Island since long before it was perfectly normal for supermarkets to be that big or carry exotic, otherworldly produce like Swiss Chard or Chayotes. They tore down the McDonalds and built a bigger one. The gas station still exists, but it’s neither a Chinese carry-out nor a computer store any more. The independent pizza place and its entire strip-mall was bulldozed in favor of a Cracker Barrel. The motel that used to stand at the intersection of MD-8 and US-50/301 didn’t survive the loss of the intersection. It stood abandoned for a decade then turned into a Park-and-Ride.

Chesapeake Bay Model

We’d always assumed they moved the model out when it was shut down. But the model itself was made of concrete and effectively part of the floor. Had I know, I think I would have broken in to take a look at it at some point, rather than just wandering around the outside that one time until I saw a spider as big as my fist and ran away in terror.

The Bay Model, an enormous scale model of the Chesapeake Bay for scientific research, had been closed ever since computers rendered it obsolete in 1981. The building collapsed from storm damage in 2006 and is a business park now. The Pac-Man tree, a big tree by the side of MD-8 that had been distinctively groomed to accommodate overhead power lines, fell down in a storm. An ancient abandoned store on Batts Neck Road, which had probably shut down when MD-8 was widened and rerouted in the ’70s but which inexplicably still featured a working Coke machine in front of it as late as 1996 is now just a weed-encroached concrete slab. Tidewater Bank is now a Bank of America branch, and at some point in the 21st century, they replaced the 8-track player (Literally the only 8-track player I have ever seen in real life) that had sat on top of the night deposit vault playing background music dutifully for as long as I can remember. They tore down the Pizza Hut last May, I think. There’s a Dunkin Donuts there now (The island’s second attempt. One opened in the late ’90s, but was run out of town to defend the business of a local non-chain donut shop. Which closed a year later anyway. The first one is a Dairy Queen now). The Hardee’s is still there, but not really, because Hardee’s was bought by Carl’s Jr. back in ’99 so the modern place bears basically no resemblance to the place I remember from my childhood.

Over and over again, I go looking for my past and find that they’ve torn it down and replaced it with something that’s just like everywhere else. And, I mean, of course it is. I’m looking for the past, and someone’s gone and replaced it with the present. Duh. Still, I’m disappointed, and it’s not the disappointment of nostalgia exactly, because I’m not just looking for my own past.

When you’re a kid, and your parents drag you off on a long trip, where do you want to eat? If you’re every child I have ever known, including my own younger self, the answer is that you want to go to McDonalds. And this is, once you are no longer a child, stupid. Because, come on, you can eat at McDonalds any time you like (In my own personal defense, when I was a child, McDonalds was exotic, since you had to cross the bridge to get to one). There’s like 10,000 of them. There’s an intersection in Ellicott City where, if you go up to the parking lot of the car dealership on the hill there, you can see six of them. You’re going somewhere new and exciting, and you should try something you can’t get at home. (This has, in recent years, become a source of all-consuming angst for me, to the point that it makes it really hard for me to have a decent meal when traveling)

The past is a foreign country. That’s the actual problem here. I don’t actually mind the past being a foreign country. But I find travel stressful. Kent Island, my home town, is an hour’s drive and thirty years away from the father of one and a half who lives in central Maryland and has a wife and a job and two mortgages. If, as I do roughly twice a year, I’m going to drive down to Kent Island on a weekday when I’m neither bringing nor visiting my family, I want to have something to do when I get there to justify the trip. Something more than a dentist appointment. I never find anything. At least, not anything I couldn’t do just as well at home. If I’m going to put in the effort to go visit a foreign country, I don’t freaking want to eat at McDonalds.

Which is why I always go to Hardee’s.

Even if the burgers are kinda bland. Chicken’s good though.

November 22, 2015

Face the Raven: Nevermore

I don’t know how I feel about this one. There is something wrong about it. Something hollow. Something artificial.

Actually, I feel watching this like the Doctor feels at the end of “Sleep No More”. I feel like I’ve been set up. I do not feel like I have been experiencing a story. Rather, I feel like I have been listening to a con-man wind me up so that he can steal my wallet.

I have felt like that a lot the past few seasons.

Other thoughts:

  • In its way, this episode parallels “The Caves of Androzani”. In that story, the Doctor very early on stumbles into a pit and contracts a fatal disease. And really, from that point on, the Doctor has very little influence on the large motions of the story and mostly is just invested in staying alive until the end, when he dies. Similarly, Clara’s doomed from the midpoint of the episode and nothing else that happens in the story actually matters. Because this is not “the adventure which ends with Clara’s death”: it is “the story about Clara dying.” The point of this story is to kill Clara. Everything else is just window-dressing.
  • There’s something a bit Friedberg and Seltzer about this story. Their shitty parody movies work by simply inserting allusions to things in a context that indicates they are ridiculous. But there’s no actual comedy. They don’t do anything with it. It’s just “Paris Hilton is a person you may have heard of. Laugh now!” Similarly, none of the elements of this story seem to amount to much. “There’s trap streets that you’re kept from perceiving unless you sort of happen onto one by accident while you’re not looking,” but that doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, it’s just there because it’s a neat piece of window-dressing for the Clara-killin’ we’ll get to in a bit. The alien refugee camp where Cybermen and Sontarans and a guy who kinda looks like Wolverine all live peacefully, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, it’s just there to be set-dressing as Clara snuffs it. The Doctor talks about a plan to get the refugees on his side, but it goes nowhere. The whole story of the Doctor trying to save and/or exonerate Rigsy is just a framing device for the real story, Clara dying.
  • In its way, it also parallels “Day of the Doctor”. In that story, we are told that the War Doctor is the one who broke the vow, who became a warrior and thus was unworthy of the name “Doctor”. But not a single thing we are shown actually supports this and we are just to accept it on faith. Similarly, here, when the Doctor learns that Clara’s taken the black spot tattoo everyone instantly gives up, and never even considers trying to find a loophole or escape clause or defense. We’re just meant to take it on faith that there is absolutely nothing they could possibly do to save her and don’t even try, even though there is absolutely nothing we are shown that actually supports that this is a less-escapable “absolutely certain unavoidable death” than the absolutely certain unavoidable deaths the characters have faced approximately one hundred times thus far.
    • That, for example, no one even mentions “What if we stick her in the convenient stasis box that is right here.” Not, per se, that it should have worked, but why didn’t anyone even ask about it? Because this episode is not an adventure where Clara sacrifices her life. It is a story about Clara dying
    • I don’t know if this extends to the Doctor never even asking about taking the mark himself to save her. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Doctor knows Clara well enough that he knows not to beg her to let him take it.
    • But it would be an interesting conundrum for Mayor Me if the Doctor outwits her trap by getting himself killed. Also, wouldn’t it have been a neat cliffhanger to have the Doctor take the mark, only to reveal that, right after we set up that no way no how you can’t possibly escape the Raven, whoever it is who she’s sold the Doctor to is powerful enough to just zap the Quantum Shade out of existence.
  • That aspect also parallels the end of “Time of the Angels”, wherein we are simply told that there’s absolutely no way out for the Doctor to go rescue Rory and Amy because New York in the ’30s is absolutely verboten to the TARDIS, without showing us any indication in any way shape or form to justify why this problem can’t be solved by the Williamses taking the ferry to Hoboken.
  • Of course, it also parallels “The Magician’s Apprentice” in that the Doctor hands over his confession disc to an old, old friend, gets teleported away to mysterious doom, and Clara gets absolutely for reals no backsies killed off.
  • The alien refugee camp in Diagon Alley is an absolutely brilliant concept. Shame that the story wasn’t about it or really even had that much to do with it.
  • Banksy Rigsy’s mystery is an interesting concept. Shame the story wasn’t about it
  • They have really been laying it on thick this season that Clara is trying too hard to be like the Doctor and that she’s got an uppance-coming for her hubris. While it’s reminiscent of series 2, it’s very different: in that season, it was heavily telegraphed (most especially in “Tooth and Claw”,) that the Doctor and Rose were getting carried away with their own hubris and had their own comeuppance on the way. But there, the sin is laid equally on the Doctor and Rose, while here, there is an uncomfortable and hopefully unintentional sense of “Uppity b—- shouldn’t be trying to be like the Doctor! The name of the show is Doctor Who, not Clara Who! She needs to get ganked, put her in her place.”
    • Which, interestingly is exactly how a whole bunch of oldschool neckbeard fanboys felt about Rose. I will be in a very forgiving mood if the twist at the end is a saving throw that says, “No, actually Clara was totally right to be like the Doctor,” aside from the fact that everything else in the season was clearly set up to make us feel otherwise.
  • Clara dies, however, not because she has acted like the Doctor. Even as she recites rules for being the Doctor, she’s clearly forgotten what she knew back in “The Magician’s Apprentice”. She takes the mark from Rigsy on the assumption that she can use the misdirect to play for time and manipulate Me into removing it. The Doctor would have taken the mark with absolutely no plan to weasel out of it, even if he knew the arbitrary rules change that was coming, and just assume everything would work out for the best. That is why Clara dies, and again, it’s because of her hubris in thinking she can be sneaky and plan and outmaneuver the situation rather than just running into it headlong and hoping for the best.
    • I mean, unless the whole season’s timey-wimey and this episode takes place before “The Magician’s Apprentice”, but that would just be stupid.


November 21, 2015

Tales from /lost+found 34: Semicentennial

Sorry this is late. Somehow got the AM/PM thing wrong when scheduling…

So here we are. Back where it all started. November, 2013. The day that my ennui ruptured the space-time continuum. When something I had loved for literally as long as I could remember communicated in unequivocal terms that I was wrong for ever having thought of it as something grander and more transcendent than just another TV show. That… Hurt (pun unintentional). I was actually pretty upset about it for basically all of 2014, which I imagine sounds very small and petty. But I found a way back, eventually, by wandering back in my mind to an earlier time when people I don’t know and who owe me nothing took my childhood love and tried to turn it into something.. Ordinary. Something just like everything else. I went back to May 14, 1996, and I just shoved the universe a little bit. What if the dominant model for Science Fiction television in the US in 1996 were just a little bit goofier, more amenable for what Doctor Who was selling.

It’s not always easy to admit when you’re wrong. And I was wrong about this. My reasons — the reasons I gave — were better than most, I think, but they just weren’t actually adequate to the task because nothing could be. But the reasons I gave weren’t the full story, because I didn’t realize the full story at the time. Which is: I was wrong because I just couldn’t see it working. I couldn’t see it. And then, one day, out of the blue, I could. It happened, of all times, while watching an episode of Top Gear. So I guess thank goodness it took another week for Jeremy Clarkson to punch his producer.

The thing about the TV movie, possibly its worst sin, was that it tried to make Doctor Who into something ordinary. If it had been picked up, the best possible outcome would be an American TV series that, even if successful, would have meant the end of Doctor Who. Eight seasons, and the end. The flame could burn or it could last. Eight seasons of a US Doctor Who and we get no BBC Books, no Curse of Fatal Death, no Big Finish, no Scream of the Shalka, no 2005 revival, no Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures or K-9 the Series, no Lego Dimensions, no 3D theatrical premiere, no Proms show, no cleverly titled 2005 blog post after a night of making out with Leah in a Karaoke bar. Doctor Who would become a permanent part of the past, dead and buried.

But then, there are always possibilities…

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

November 18, 2015

Deep Ice: I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it (Timothy Hines’s H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds)

I explained some time ago…

The Classic War of the WorldsIt’s June 14, 2005. A 7.0 earthquake off the coast of California prompts tsunami fears, but a tidal (not actually tidal) wave doesn’t occur, there are no major injuries reported, and only modest property damage. Voters in Italy fail to overturn the Catholic country’s restrictive laws on fertility treatments. Michael Jackson is acquitted on all counts of child sexual abuse. Darth Vader is on the cover of the Rolling Stone. The Detroit Pistons beat the San Antonio Spurs 96-79 in game three of the NBA finals. It is a fairly quiet month, all things considered, and I hope you like it here, since we will be back.

It’s summer, so TV is mostly in reruns. Will Ferrell guests on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Pamela Anderson and Bob Saget are on Conan. We’re right around when I started getting too old to care about new music. Mariah Carey tops the charts with “We Belong Together”, followed by Gwen Stefani with “Hollaback Girl”. Kelly Clarkson is on there twice with “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, which I actually do rather like, and “Since U Been Gone,” about which I am neutral. The Killers enter the top ten this week with “Mr. Brightside”, or as you probably know it, “The Killers song that isn’t ‘Somebody Told Me’, but which is still pretty good aside from the fact that the second half of the song is literally just them doing the first half over again.” Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is still in theaters, having opened last month. New this week are the ill-advised Cedric the Entertainer-driven reimagining of The Honeymooners, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D, and a spy film called Mr. & Mrs. Smith which has nothing to do with the 1996 spy TV series Mr. & Mrs. Smith nor with the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock comedy film Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Tomorrow, Batman Begins.

But before that, this. I had this whole shtick planned where I was going to pretend that I wasn’t aware of the Stephen Spielberg movie and thought that this was the highly successful big-budget Hollywood blockbuster adaptation of War of the Worlds that came out in June, 2005, with me being all surprised at how great a departure it was for such a famously skilled filmmaker. But then I actually watched the movie, and… This movie does not even deserve the effort it would take to make those jokes. I try very hard to find the good in everything I watch. I can enjoy the basic wrongness of an Ed Wood film, and I can appreciate the zealous glee of a talented actor hamming it up because the script is crap, or an inexperienced actor giving a minor role in a cheap B-film everything they’ve got because they’re just so grateful for the work. And I can appreciate the sheer misguided gall of a Star Trek fan-series doing an episode where the dialog is just straight-up lifted verbatum directly out of an episode of The West Wing. And besides, I’m not a mean guy by nature, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I’d hate to imagine Tim Dunnigan or Illya Woloshyn or Keram Malicki-Sánchez or Rod Pyle or Joe Pearson happening upon my blog (That last one actually happened) and hearing me badmouth them. And if I didn’t genuinely love stuff like War of the Worlds and Captain Power, I wouldn’t have spent four years doing this.

I just can’t do it this time. Hitler Meets Christ may have been a seriously fucked up movie, but at least you got to watch Jesus shoot Force Lightning at Hitler. But this movie is terrible. Timothy Hines, if you’re reading this, I know you put a lot of work in on this and I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but your film is awful, borderline unwatchable garbage, and it isn’t going to do either one of us any good to pretend it isn’t. The acting is wooden, the dialog is stilted, the visual effects are toddlerish, and the pacing is like Sapphire and Steel had a baby with Star Trek the Motion Picture, and that child smoked a whole bunch of weed while falling into a black hole.

It would be folly to call anything in particular the “worst” sin of this movie, but at least in terms of narrative, the first huge mistake is that it attempts to stay as faithful as possible to the book. If you’ve ever been annoyed by an acquaintance who complains when they change something from page to screen, show them this movie. In fact, show this movie to anyone who annoys you. They’ll probably leave you alone from then on.

What’s the problem with being slavishly faithful to the book? Remember, this is 19th century Science Fiction. Sure, we’ve talked at length about the outline of the book, but what’s the actual plot of The War of the Worlds? A nameless man walks from Woking to London, describing in detail what he sees along the way. There’s hardly any point where any of the characters express any agency. There isn’t much dialog, and when characters do speak, they tend to not engage in actual human speech so much as they pontificate. They open their mouths and exposition falls out. The book is by no means awful, but it isn’t really much of a story. Rather, it’s a fictional history that, for better or worse, has been structured like a travelogue. And you can do something with that. You could, for example, present it as a documentary. That worked really well for The Great Martian War. But you wouldn’t want to try to make a traditional narrative-based movie out of it; that would make as much sense as trying to make a traditional movie out of, say, World War Z.

And it didn’t have to be that way. When Timothy Hines started work on the film back in 2001, the plan was to set it in modern Seattle, orienting the tale around a news correspondent and arming the aliens with EMPs. But then September 11 happened, and the idea of a sudden, shocking attack out of the blue against major American cities suddenly stopped being the sort of thing folks were comfortable putting in a movie. It had, as Wells and Welles once said, “Ceased to be a game.”  So Hines and his colleage Susan Goforth rewrote the movie as a period piece. The film was scheduled for a theatrical release in March, 2005, but, according to Hines, venues pulled out for fear of reprisals from Paramount, which was getting ready to release their own adaptation.

Or maybe they pulled out because the movie was three hours long and basically unwatchable. Three. Hours. THREE HOURS.

War of the Worlds The True StoryThe film was recut in September 2005 as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds: Director’s Cut trimming it to a still-ponderous two and a quarter hours. It was recut again a year later trimming another ten minutes (and replacing some of the visual effects) as The Classic War of the Worlds. I have seen bits of all three versions, but my own innate sense of self-preservation forbid me from watching more than one of them all the way through and I don’t remember which one. Then in 2012, Hines took the footage, added some new material, and edited the thing in to a mockumentary called War of the Worlds — The True Story, purporting to be a documentary of historical events, with the 2005 film’s footage recontextualized as historical reconstructions and archival photography. And I wish I’d found that one first, because it sounds like that might actually be watchable, but I’ll be damned if I watch another version of this movie. Sorry.

There is hardly any point in summarizing the film. Just read the book. It’s all there, in excruciating detail. Jack Clay as OgilvyMost of the film’s dialog is closely drawn from the book, the nameless protagonist providing voiceover narration wherever it isn’t convenient to just have characters recite passage of the text, such as Ogilvy explaining that the apparent “pulsing” of Mars through the telescope is actually just the telescope vibrating due to the clockwork.

But somehow it gets worse when they go off-book. They insert a comic relief scene where Ogilvy, trying to get help upon discovering the first Martian cylinder, gets briefly locked up by a local farmer who assumes he’s gone mad.  Where Wells says, “One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed,” the movie tries to create a romantic scene. The nameless protagonist and his nameless wife out for a stroll at twilight, him playfully trying to make Mars’s “ruddy cast” sound sexy as he impresses her with his astronomical knowledge as they look up at the—


I don’t even. Night is a thing that actually exists, right? I mean, the filmmakers must have some firsthand knowledge of what night looks like, right? They should realize that night isn’t just day but a few degrees above the treetops the sky instantly turns black, right?

Hardly anything looks real in this movie. And not just the visual effects shots. Lots of the interiors are shot on a greenscreen, I have no particular sense of why. Exterior shots are invariably tinted to suggest the time of day, orange for daytime, and blue for night, these being the only concessions to the concept of day and night as things that exist. It’s basically like they keep beaming back and forth between CSI Miami and CSI NY. An establishing shot of Victorian London uses CGI so piss-poor it it seems to have inspired the Victorian London episodes of Doctor Who. Again, London is a real place, right? I mean, you can actually just go out and take pictures of it? What the everloving—


And it is just so ponderous. I was very glad to do as he asked, and so become one of the privileged spectators within the contemplated enclosure. I failed to find Lord Hilton at his house, but I was told he was expected from London by the six o’clock train from Waterloo; and as it was then about a quarter past five, I went home, had some tea, and walked up to the station to waylay him. — The War of the Worlds, Chapter 3. It takes half an hour for the aliens to actually present themselves, though it feels much, much longer. Before they do, we’re treated to five minutes of the protagonist walking from Horsell Common to the local manor house to ask the local lord to help set up a cordon. He isn’t home, so we’re treated to another five minutes of the protagonist walking back to his own house, waiting until six o’clock, then walking to the train station to meet said lord when he gets off the train. Then walking back to Horsell Common. No one will be seated during the exhilarating “walking back and forth to the train station” scene.

MartianFinally, mercifully, a Martian shows itself… Well okay, I will give them that it is consistent with the description in the book, aside from the fact that it looks for all the world like it’s flying. I know it’s supposed to be walking on tentacles, but there is neither any sense of weight to it, nor any sense that those tentacles actually exist in the same spaciotemporal dimension as the background. Also, the alien is weirdly flat. It feels like it should be mounted on a wall demanding a robot bring it five teenagers with “attitude”.

War of the WorldsAnd then suddenly it’s night and Ogilvy and his entourage are planning to approach the pit under flag of truce. If you haven’t read the book, you basically have no chance in hell of figuring out what the heat ray is meant to look like. To wit, it’s a wobbly mirror. Again, true to the book, the ray itself is invisible. They just wave their mirror around and stuff bursts into flames.

Or rather, they wave their mirror around, and we cut to the victims, and there are some little gold sparklies on the screen, and everyone just sort of stands there for a good ninety seconds looking alarmed and sort of dancing, and then they burst into flames, some instantly turning into still-dancing skeletons that kinda remind me of the skeletons from that high-end porno movie Pirates from a few years ago.

War of the Worlds

Oh, and one of the victims looks for all the world like being heat-rayed gives her an orgasm.

War of the Worlds

After what feels like about six hours of people very slowly gurning and not trying to run or anything until the special effects department gets around to drawing some flames on them, the horrified protagonist runs back home, stopping only to chastise some people by the side of the road who, not having born witness to the destruction, think the whole thing sounds a bit silly. This too is taken straight from the book.

The Death of Ogilvy

I get the feeling that literally all the filmmakers knew about Victorian England came down to “They were kind of repressed and prim.” With absolutely no indication of excitement at all, the protagonist deadpans to his wife this bit of narration: “I must confess the sight of all this armament, all this preparation, greatly excited me. My imagination became belligerent, and defeated the invaders in a dozen striking ways.” She smiles nobly and suggests that it is, “Something of your schoolboy dreams of battle and heroism,” with far less passion but exactly the same sense of this as something that has real consequences for real humans as a Presidential candidate talking about the possibility of starting another war in the middle east.

But shit gets real when their CGI house starts getting grazed by the heat ray and starts dropping CGI bricks and roofing before catching on CGI fire.

War of the Worlds tripodWe’re almost an hour in before we see a tripod. It’s… Not the worst thing in the world. Still very bad, though. It’s just about passable when it’s not trying to interact with anything. The illusion completely collapses when they do. The curate’s demise looks like something from Photoshop Disasters, and the black smoke is even worse, having, I think, been added in MSPaint. The whole “slavishly translate the whole text of the book verbatum” thing means that this is also the only adaptation to show us the less-common types of Martian machines, such as the flying machineWar of the Worlds Flying Machine (It serves absolutely no purpose in the story, and is clearly only there because it’s mentioned in the book that they had one) and the “handling” machine that collected humans for consumption.

The scene where we witness the aliens exsanguinating a human victim should be gruesome. And it would be, except that at the key moment, the live actress magically transforms into a low-poly CGI model. Not a model of a human, even, but, like, a ragdoll or something. What I’m getting at here is that this is an intensely ridiculous-looking movie.

War of the worldsBut hey, at least the acting is terrible too. When people talk, they rarely seem to be talking to each other, just pontificating for the benefit of the audience. The artilleryman seems to be just reading from a prepared speech (and the protagonist’s abandonment of him is handled in a montage). Most of the dialog is delivered by actors staring vacantly off into the distance, which is terrible, but also probably the right way to do it, since most of the dialog doesn’t actually read like dialog, but rather as narration. Instead of freaking out at their impending demise, people will somberly declare their scientific theories about how Martian technology works or what their strategic plans are. Upon watching the Martians feed, the writer’s reaction is not to wet himself and crawl off into a corner to whimper, but rather to explain through his tears that the Martians, being highly advanced, must have evolved beyond the need for a digestive system. And when, again, as in the book, he finally decides to end it all by throwing himself in front of a tripod (The damned things pick that exact moment to die, forcing us to keep going with this interminable movie), he does so only after declaring his intentions. The single best performance in the entire thing is the newspaper boy who tells the protagonist about the Martian cylinder, excitedly chattering about the possibility of “Men from Mars, roasted alive inside a meteor.”

War of the WorldsThe tone is radically inconsistent. I assume they’re trying to convey Victorian stoicism again, but mostly, everyone just alternates between bored and a very low-key histrionic (That is, a degree of histrionic that does not interfere with all their dialog sounding like someone reading off a placard at the museum). Possibly the most egregious is any scene with The Writer and The Wife (Played by producer and cowriter Susan Goforth), which I think genuinely tries to suggest affection between these two despite a complete lack of chemistry, a complete lack of anything useful to this end in the book they’re adapting, a strong belief that as Victorians, no one should show emotion unless they’re having a panic attack, and neither one of them being any good at acting. When he returns home after the attack on Horsell Common, she listens to his shellshocked description of events with what’s supposed to be sincerity, but comes off like she’s humoring a small child who had a bad dream. The next day. the two of them apparently go about their business as usual, her, I think, pressing flowers as he reads the newspaper over tea. And though the narration dutifully tells us how compelling the writer found the artilleryman’s plans to build a brave new world, the actual speech is dull and passionless, and the rest of their time together is handled via a montage ending with the writer waving back to him as he walks away.


This movie is kind of a perfect storm of terrible. Bad in practically every way a movie can be (The audio levels are okay. That is the one common low-budget sin this movie doesn’t commit). I hope you can believe me when I say that its low budget is far from the worst of its problems. We’ve talked about low-budget productions before. Some people are able to squeeze out a masterpiece on a tiny budget, and some people can squeeze out… Something that has a kind of indie low-budget charm. You know what you can’t do on a shoestring budget? A three hour special-effects extravaganza. You could maybe do something with intense character-driven drama, but you know what the worst possible way to build compelling characters is? To slavishly adhere to the text of an H. G. Wells novel. Out of the entire cast, there’s only five characters who have names (And that’s counting “Greg the Butcher” and the Writer’s servant, who only has a name so he can shout at her to evacuate the burning house). Everyone else, including the nominal protagonist, is just “The Writer” or “The Wife” or “The Writer’s Brother”.cwotw13No one was crying out for a completest, novel-accurate adaptation of The War of the Worlds. You couldn’t have given Spielberg this brief and had him turn out a functional movie. It’s just bad. Badly acted, badly written, badly made and a bad idea in the first place.

  • H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is available in its original 3-hour cut from third-party sellers on
  • The two-hour recut, The Classic War of the Worlds is available via Amazon video
  • War of the Worlds: The True Story is available via Amazon video.
November 17, 2015

Sleep No More, Gatiss Doth Murder Sleep

So people liked when I had a lot to say about The Zygon Inv.+ so I figured I’d say the far less I have to say about Sleep No More:

  • Nosir, didn’t like it
  • Does it work better if you don’t notice the Clara POV shots the first time it happens, so there’s no actual reveal when the Doctor explains that it’s recording her eyes?
  • The Doctor just happily rolling with the whole “Grunts” thing left a bad taste in my mouth especially in light of the Zygon thing with the Doctor easily accepting and in fact idealizing a minority being relegated to permanent second-class status. If the Doctor really did get his face to remind him of “The Fires of Pompeii”, it’s a shame he doesn’t also remember the episode that came right after that.
    • Bethany Black was great though. It’s a shame the character wasn’t more fully realized. It seemed like the story was content to just establish what the point of the character was and assume the audience has seen the Noble Warrior Grunt Who Turns Out To Be Awesome enough to just fill in the blanks. Which, in the context of this being Ramussen’s edit, is logically valid, but that does not actually make this a good episode.
  • In fact, you know what this really feels like? One of those season 2 “Tardisodes” stretched out to full length. The implied actual story isn’t nearly as bad.
  • It is just about possible that the elements of this story will get picked up in “Face the Raven” in a way that will recontextualize them in a way that makes them not suck. I can imagine that happening. This episode is framed not as a “natural” narrative, after all, but is instead a deliberately constructed version of events by Ramussen, and that implies the existence of additional story outside the scope of what was shown to us. I’m willing to reconsider this story’s merits if that happens. I’m not holding my breath.
  • Clearly, this episode should have ended with the Doctor receiving a phone call from Sadako telling him that he’s going to die in seven days.
November 14, 2015
November 12, 2015

Did I mention I’m a prophet?

MST3K logoSo, you know how no one had heard of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and then I wrote a series of articles about it, and then I had a kid and took a couple of years off blogging, and then they decided to do a revival of Captain Power, which is totally a coincidence except that clearly I am a prophet?

Well guess what happened on Kickstarter literally one week to the day after I published this article about Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Clearly, I have the power to inspire defunct ’80s shows to return to life by blogging about them. Shall we open up the bidding for me to write about Manimal? Or to not write about Knight Rider? (Seriously, you had four chances. It’s just not going to work.)

(Man am I glad I pushed back that article exactly that many weeks and not a week longer)

The Zygon Apotheosis

Part 1. Part 2.

All day long I’ve been mulling over one thing, and getting angrier and angrier about it. And honestly, getting angrier and angrier at myself for taking so long to notice it.

Look, like I said before, I’m sure Peter Harness means well. And I’m sure that Steven Moffat means well. And I know that, being American, I come from a background where the dynamics are radically different, and so stuff can end up meaning things over here that they should not be held responsible meanings that only exist on a different continent from where they wrote it.

But they set out to write a story centered around the idea that the dangerous radicalized members of the refugee minority aren’t representative of their race. They made a story which was unrepentant in the idea that the right to live your life in the skin you were born in is not worth fighting for. They made a story which was unrepentant in the idea that the right thing to do for a minority is to keep your head down, don’t spook the “ordinary” folks, hide who you are until the day you die, because otherwise, they’re going to hunt you down and murder you and it would be wrong for you to fight back. That the right to just not be murdered in the street is actually a privilege we may deign to confer on you if you’re good enough at “passing”.

It had a powerful white man, a literal lord preach about how bad war and fighting is, because he’s real sad about the great big war between his godlike people and a race of super-powered killing machines, and do it to a young woman who just wants to not spend every second of her life living a lie as if their situations were remotely similar. Don’t talk about revolution, that’s going a little bit too far.

To put it bluntly, the argument made by Truth Or Consequences was #ZygonLivesMatter, and The Doctor responded, #AllLivesMatter.

And you know what? Fuck this show for doing that. And fuck me for taking all day to notice it.

Please do read Jack Graham’s excellent “The Zygon Invocation” for a response which covers similar ground, though not quite the same, and does it far more eloquently than I could.

The Zygon Addendum

Two Additional Thoughts That Came To Me Last Night:


  1. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the Zygons had been depicted as being able to solve their own problems rather than reinforcing the idea that it is Objectively Right for an uninvolved third party from a distant land with a history of getting involved in local conflicts he doesn’t fully understand without regard for the consequences to come in and force his worldview on them? Nice of Bonnie to greet him as a liberator at the end.
  2. I am deeply, deeply impressed by the show of restraint involved in going all the way through a two-parter about Zygon renegades fighting for the right to assume their natural form without even once having a Zygon rebel shout the slogan, “Let Zygons Be Zygons!”


November 11, 2015

The Zygon Aversion

Leah and I finally got around to watching these two today, and I decided, what the hell, I’d write down my thoughts.

The Good:

  • The Doctor playing the guitar
  • Jenna Coleman shooting a rocket launcher
  • Basically everything with Osgood and Kate
  • The two teenagers witnessing the transforming Zygon having absolutely no reaction
  • Clara manipulating Bonnie to send a text message
  • The Doctor referring to “The Imbecile’s Gas”
  • The Osgood Boxes being deliberately modeled after The Moment.
  • Before I even watched this episode, I caught wind of the mention of Harry Sullivan’s Magic Zygon-Killin’ Gas which would Invert Zygons. It instantly occurred to me that the stupidest possible outcome, and therefore a very likely one, would be that the Zygon extremists would be tricked into releasing what they thought was a turn-all-Zygons-back-to-their-natural-form gas, but it would turn out to be The Imbicile’s Gas instead, but it would turn out that the gas didn’t really kill the Zygons but instead turned them permanently human, thus ironically defeating the renegades and conveniently removing the whole “There are still Zygons living on Earth in secret permanently” thing. It turned out not that not only did they not use this stupid reset button resolution, but they did use the concept as the fake-out.

The Bad:

  • It would have been a lot funnier if the Doctor had declined to specify what article of clothing he wore the question marks on.
  • It would have been nice if it had not been obvious that Clara was a Zygon duplicate from even before she got grabbed. Seriously, the second the Doctor calls her and gets her voice mail, we already know what’s going to happen.
  • Ditto Kate Stewart, only the other way around.
  • Okay, so yeah. The Doctor forgives Bonnie, and is cool with her becoming an Osgood. The story’s written itself into a bit of a corner here where that is the only possible “right” answer for the story. But… Bonnie was responsible for the murder of dozens of UNIT soldiers, all the people killed in the shopping mall, that one civilian Zygon she zapped back to his natural form, and the entire population of Truth or Consequences, NM. But that’s okay because she’s learned an important lesson? I’m sure that will be a great comfort Jac’s family.
  • The Doctor keeps asking Osgood which one she is, even after she makes it clear that she rejects the question. Now, I am cool with the way that this gives Osgood moral superiority to the Doctor, but there is no point where I got any sense that the Doctor actually had a valid reason to keep asking her. The obvious “good twist” would be to reveal that the Doctor keeps asking because he wants to be sure she won’t pick a side, but he never does. He just keeps on asserting that it’s really important that he know which one she is, and she just keeps on asserting that, no, it’s really not, and he just keeps not getting it.
  • Will you shut up about the fucking “hybrid”? We get it.

The Excellent:

  • The Zygon the Doctor interrogates on the plane doesn’t even seem to understand the concept of having a name.
  • But Bonnie does. Bonnie makes a point of saying it, of differentiating herself from Clara and making others acknowledge her identity.
  • Osgood’s utter refusal to identify as human or Zygon. And even though they keep asking, everyone who matters, even Kate Stewart, accepts that. You know, I think this is the most trans-positive message this show has ever had. I’m guessing they didn’t know they’d done it.
  • You know who doesn’t ask Osgood which one she is? Clara.
  • That Kate’s escape from the Zygons involved the simple expedient of shooting them.

The basically unforgivably bad:

  • Episode 1 is a 45 minute runaround whose only purpose is to say “It takes basically zero effort to defeat UNIT.” Ooh, UNIT’s so suspicious and so quick to solve problems by killing, but they fall for the same trick three times in a row.
  • For all the work they do to reinforce the idea that Truth or Consequences is a splinter group not representative of the majority of peaceful Zygons, we see exactly one civilian Zygon (And it’s implied that he goes on a murder spree when unmasked). We see approximately two non-radicalized Zygons, and they’re the Unhelpful, Ineffectual and Probably Corrupt government.
    • I notice that this pair of episodes was written by Peter Harness, who also gave us last year’s “Kill the Moon”, the story that half of viewers thought was a pro-choice parable and half of viewers thought was a forced-birth screed, since it’s all about it being the obviously right choice to not terminate the moon’s pregnancy. But the choice is ultimately made by one woman in spite of being pressured by literally everyone in the world, and the choice takes the form of pushing a big red button literally labeled “ABORT”. I get the feeling Peter Harness means really, really well, but has a blind spot for the implications.
  • That fucking CGI title sequence. Yes, it was a brilliant and wonderful fan-made sequence that inspired it, but a bunch of professionals making a television show in high definition for international consumption as a flagship of BBC drama should be able to produce something that doesn’t look like it was made for the Playstation 2. At the least, they should be able to make something that looks as good as the fanart that inspired it.