Saturday, January 26, 2008

Doctor Who: 1x01 - 1x05

This is indisputably the Golden Age of television, the medium’s never been better, and I’ve been catching up on the great shows of the era over the past few years. I’ve knocked off most of them, but one recent one I’ve heard talked about a lot, but haven’t seen is the new Doctor Who. I was vaguely familiar with the premise of the show when I started, but I figured any show with this much fan acclaim is worth a look. Without much foreknowledge, I dove into the show, and after five episodes, I’m pretty impressed.

Right now, the show reminds me a lot early period Buffy. There’s some mild personal drama mixed in with a slightly goofy monster of the week plot. The monsters of the week are a bit more ambitious than some of those early Buffy characters, but that’s not saying much, some of those early Buffy episodes were really awful. Right now, I don’t see the show growing into as emotionally ambitious a show as Buffy was, but it’s still early and there’s a lot of potential. What is now is a fun, energetic show that’s consistently a joy to watch.

The first episode introduces the Doctor. As a new viewer, his introduction worked. There’s some teasing over the course of the first few episodes, until we finally find out that he’s a time traveling alien with an origin that hasn’t been entirely revealed. Maybe older viewers know exactly what’s up with him, but I’m still a bit in the dark, and that actually works well. The character at present exists mainly as the catalyst for events, the energy spike that expands our perception of the ordinary world.

In light of that, the series’ center is actually Rose. I really like the character, and the way she differs from the archetypal sci-fi hero. Joss always made a big deal about how he wanted Buffy to be an ordinary girl, who liked ordinary girlish things, and also happened to be a vampire slayer. The attempts to make Buffy into a cheerleader or shopaholic never quite worked with the character who actually showed up on screen. She already had the weight of being a slayer, and her history at her previous school by the time we met her, so she couldn’t ever be the happy go lucky girl that Rose is at the start of the series.

A lot of fiction, including Buffy, centers on chosen one heroes, people who have to carry the burden of doing the right thing. Think “With great power comes great responsibility.” Be it Peter Parker, Harry Potter or Buffy Summers, I have issues emotionally responding to these kind of heroes. As someone who has neither great power, nor great responsibility, the thought of being part of some larger cosmic adventure is exciting, not a burden. It’s harder to relate to a hero who just wants to live a normal life, because to me, normal life is not that exciting. It’s a case of the grass is always greener, but it’s refreshing to see Rose genuinely love getting to go on these adventures and experience the universe. As she tells her mom at the end of “World War Three,” if you see what’s out there, you won’t be able to come back and sit in your flat.

Rose has more of a call to adventure arc. She meets up with a mystic character, The Doctor, and is called away from ‘the farm’ to go out and have adventures. It’s the same as Star Wars, it’s a classic archetype, and it works well here. The core of the series, at least so far, is about Rose exploring the new world that’s open to her, a world without the limitations of space time.

All these thematic discussion might blow the show up a bit. The episodes themselves are really entertaining, but not particularly deep. After all, the show did a two parter about aliens who are constantly farting. That kind of humor didn’t really work, but some of the goofiness is successful, keeping things fun and making the show’s sometimes limited production values work.

What gives me hope about the show’s future is the moments of real emotion sprinkled throughout. I love in “The End of the World” when Rose watches the Earth being destroyed, and reflects on just how far she’s come. The scenes with her and her mother work really well too. Jackie starts out as a comic character, but in the alien two parter, we understand what Rose’s adventures do to her. The scene at the end when Rose and the Doctor leave is particularly effective. I like how the Doctor doesn’t understand what humans need, he wants to go off on his adventure, not wait an hour and have the Shepherd’s Pie to make Jackie happy. He makes the choice that much more binding, Rose has to leave now, or not at all.

My favorite episode so far was “The End of the World,” which featured a lot of wonder and high concept wackiness throughout. That was our first trip off world, and it did a great job of putting the viewer in a totally different mindset, such that when we finally return to Earth at the end, the present day feels totally alien. The weakest was the Charles Dickens episode. That felt clich├ęd, notably the fact that they ran into a famous person, which seems to happen to every time traveler to the past. It didn’t do much to add to the characters or world.

On the whole, I’m really liking the show. It’s a bit goofy, but it’s fun in a Ghostbusters way. I’m curious to see how it grows, but I’m enjoying the journey, and am glad to have another series to look at.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Teen Titans: The Lost Annual

You’ll read a lot of people talking about the Silver Age, how those comics had something missing today, and everything would be great if comics were just like they were. This is a book written in 2003, but done in the style of the Silver Age, and it absolutely owns. Like the best of Grant Morrison’s work, it manages to mix Silver Age craziness with some real emotion towards the end for a thoroughly joyous read.

I have a problem with people who do a one line pitch, like zombies vs. astronauts, and wind up selling a huge amount of books from people who say that must be awesome. That said, John F. Kennedy fighting in an alien space war is a pretty killer high concept, and the great thing is, the book more than lives up to the concept. It starts with that and then goes forward for a whole bunch of other interesting stuff.

The pacing of the book is very Silver Age, barreling through a huge amount of story in a short amount of time. In a matter of panels, Robin and the gang hop through billions of miles to the alien dimension, and the huge war happens in a hyper compressed way. I think this kind of compressed storytelling works in the same way that the missing reel of Planet Terror does, cutting out the parts of the story that are usually placed in, but don’t really have a purpose. There’s no logical way for them to get to the alien dimension, so the easiest way is to just send them there quickly and move on. The people who will enjoy this story just accept the logic of it. To quote Grant Morrison, a lot of our society is schizophrenic and unable to press metaphor. These kind of people will get hung up on the weirdness of the content, and not enjoy the story.

It’s disturbing to me that so many people use ‘weird’ as a negative when describing a work of fiction. I want fiction to be like a drug, to open a window into another world, and make perceive things differently. A work like this has an entirely different logic system than the world we live in. Is it plausible in reality? Not at all, but it runs on its own internal logic, and once you engage with the world, it’s a joy to read, an experience that takes you out of the everyday to a world of wonder where anything can happen.

Now, one could take that as an excuse for forgiving sloppy, illogical storytelling. I read the first few issues of Joe Casey’s Godland recently, a comic that’s going for this Silver Age insanity, but doesn’t quite get there. It feels a bit too self consciously wacky. With that comic, you feel like Casey is doing a Silver Age pastiche. He’s emulating Kirby’s wacky ideas, where Kirby didn’t have that layer of self-conscious, he was just hurling the ideas on to the page. Reading Casey’s book makes you appreciate what Grant Morrison is able to do, Morrison’s work is in that same area, but manages to do Silver Age stuff without that layer of self-consciousness.

Back to the Annual, it’s the vibe of this book that makes it works so well. The compressed storytelling maximizes the enjoyment, Robin’s able to go to the White House, and it happens so fast, you don’t even look back to think about whether it makes any sense. Once things get going, we get the inherently enjoyable spectacle of ‘Leader Kennedy’ on the alien world, leading this group of mod aliens against the hippy aliens. There’s definitely a 60s subculture war vibe going on there, and it fits with the whole youth culture theme of the book.

The book is interesting for me as an interesting companion piece to Manhattan Guardian #4, Grant Morrison’s wonderful take on the secret history of a kid gang, not unlike this one. Here, Kid Flash and Speedy are uncomfortable with Wonder Girl’s relationship with the Violator. The three boys don’t want Wonder Girl to break up the platonic gang they’ve got, but her sexual desire is going to soon destroy what they had. It’s one thing to have a crush on President Kennedy, to actually be in a relationship with the Violator, a guy who looks decidedly older than our boyish heroes, disturbs them.

In Manhattan Guardian, we saw the way Chop Suzi’s pregnancy led to the destruction of the group. As a kid gang, they were unprepared to deal with growing up. Ed couldn’t see her pregnancy being anything but the product of rape, he didn’t want to deal with real maturity. What Morrison did with that comic is bring the subtext of all these teen gangs to the surface and explore it in a way writers of the 60s just couldn’t. That’s the thing that makes Morrison’s work so special, he manages to combine the crazy pop joy of books like this with very real emotion and deep thematic substance.

That’s not to say there’s not emotion here. The final pages present a startling alternate history of the Kennedy assassination. It’s really weird, and unexpected after the adventure of the previous pages. Reality comes crashing in to the fantasy world. What’s interesting here is the deep affection you can tell Haney has for Kennedy. Kennedy was famous for incarnating ideals and hope, it wasn’t so much what he did as president, but the idea of Camelot that made him so beloved.

The ending of the work sends Kennedy back to Ulustra to battle with the aliens and fight the good fight in space. It’s a crazy ending, and really touching. I love that someone came up with a whole alternate scenario to save a leader they loved from untimely death. Even though Kennedy’s dead, his spirit lives on, that’s what the ending says, and it does so in a dynamic, pop way.

And, I’ve got to give big props to the art. It’s very pop, but still emotional. The art places you in that 60s pop place, and also does a great job of conveying character emotion. It’s not an easy thing to make a comic like this work, Alan Moore’s greatest failures usually come when trying to emulate Silver Age stuff. You need a total commitment to what you’re doing, to come from a mindset where weird ideas come naturally, you can’t think about it, you’ve just got to do it. In that respect, it’s the same thing that separates David Lynch from the myriad Lynch knockoff films out there. Lynch’s stuff is so weird because he’s not trying to be weird, he’s just doing what comes naturally.

This book has me wanting to check out more Haney Titans. If it’s even half as good as this, the Showcase volume should be well worth it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Wire: 'Transitions' (5x04)

Marlo must die. That’s what I was thinking after seeing this episode, the bodies in the vacants, the attack on Butchie, all that didn’t turn me on the character, but after seeing him kill Joe, there’s no alternative for me. Marlo, Snoop, Chris, they’ve all got to go. Will this happen? I don’t know, but I feel like he’s done too much bad stuff to go unpunished. Within the social systems of The Wire, someone like Marlo could survive, but out on the street, people who fly too high usually burn out, and after killing Joe, Marlo’s isolated himself, made everyone else his enemy.

One of the central themes of this season is generational change. All around, we’re seeing older, more experienced people replaced by a new generation of people. This started last season with Royce’s ousting for Carcetti. There’s this sense that simply changing the person in charge of the institution will change the institution itself, but something as big as Baltimore is bigger than the man in charge of it.

The same will likely be true of the police department. Burrell echoes the “eating shit” speech Royce gave Carcetti when turning over control of things to Rawls. Daniels may be ‘good police,’ but when he’s got virtually no budget, he can’t invest in projects like the Major Crimes Unit. He’s just go to keep things the way they are, and eventually, the public will sour on him as well. There’s always someone higher up the ladder, no matter what chair you’re in. I’d like to see Daniels succeed as commissioner, and I think he’ll try, but over the course of show, we’ve constantly seen how the system corrupts those who gain power.

But, back to the focus of the episode, the Joe/Marlo storyline. Over the course of the season, we’ve seen Joe grooming Marlo, teaching him what he needs to be a legitimate businessman. However, that doesn’t really interest Marlo. He’s only working with Joe to get in contact with the Greeks. Marlo has no vision beyond the street, I don’t think he really cares about the account in the Caymans or what Levy can do with his money, he just wants total control of the drug game. He humors Joe when Joe tries to ‘civilize’ him, but it’s all about getting to the Greeks. From the moment he met Vondas in season four, he saw something Joe had that he didn’t, and wouldn’t stop until he got it. Marlo needs total control, he can’t have anyone speaking ill of him on the streets, and he needs to control drugs from supplier to corner.

There were a lot of really great moments in the episode, one of my favorite is that lengthy plan out shot in the diner that finally reveals The Greek. So much of the press for the show focuses on the sociological side of things, how it’s a political treatise, but this episode shows that it’s just as strong, if not stronger, as a straight up pulp gangster story. There’s a lot of thematic layers there, but part of me was just like “Oh shit, The Greek!” I thought The Greek was gone and that plot was over after season two, and I’m really happy to see it come back. This year does have the sense of everything coming full circle, and all the plots congealing together for a finale.

The Greek is the perfect ally for Marlo because he’s similarly inhuman. Vondas has affection for Joe in the same way he took Nick Sobotka under his wing. He’s a cruel guy, but he has loyalty. The Greek, much like Marlo, is only out to make money and advance his empire. Both are representations of capitalism at its most destructive, razing everything and everyone in their path if it means making money. It’s chilling to watch them come together because they’re the same thing, but from different worlds.

I complained about The Greek’s monolithic evilness when talking about season two, and I think the major reason for that is that he’s so secure in his position. I can’t see anyone taking him out, and he’s so far beyond the law that you knew McNulty and crew were going to fail. Marlo is still in his formative years, he may be just as single minded as The Greek, but he’s got to work to gain what The Greek already has. It’s those uneasy alliances that make him a fascinating character, watching Marlo humbled before Joe to get what he wants. Plus, Marlo is so bound to Baltimore, it is possible that he’ll get caught by the police. The Greek could just walk away and go somewhere else, but Marlo can’t live anywhere else. He needs to be on the streets.

I feel like Marlo is a more evolved version of Avon. Avon had that soldier mentality, but he was a bit too showy. He was capable of violence, but I get the sense he wanted to be liked more than he wanted to kill people. In that sense, it’s very much The Godfather conflict in action, between the community minded older generation and the fiercer, violent younger generation. I could never imagine Marlo at a community dinner the way we saw Avon back in season one. Avon talks a lot about West Side pride, I think Marlo only has pride in his own organization. Marlo is more precise than Avon, he doesn’t make mistakes, or put himself at risk in the way that Avon did, and he doesn’t split his focus between legit business and the streets. When Avon tries to confront Marlo at the end of season three, Avon seems to be playing gangster while Marlo is just being himself.

Joe is very much of the older generation, a generation that’s quickly being wiped away. We saw Butchie taken out last week, Hungry Man dies here, a present to Cheese for giving Marlo Butchie. I love the fact that Method Man has become such a central piece of the closing season. I think he’s a great screen presence, and the notion that this one inept guy is going to take down Joe is so sad. Joe watches out for him because he’s family, but it turns out blood doesn’t matter so much anymore. Cheese is pretty dumb, the only reason Marlo’s dealing with him is to get to Joe, but he doesn’t know that. He only knows Joe scolded him for going into Hungry Man’s territory, and this, coming on top of his refusal to deal with Omar, means Joe’s going to fall.

In his final scene, Joe says Marlo was like a son to him, and throughout his time on the show, it’s been easy to see him as the father to this whole messed up gang of drug dealers. He’s kept the co-op alive after Stringer’s death, and provided the voice of reason when people like Marlo start to go too far. As a parent, his kids aren’t necessarily going to like him, but he’s got their best interest at heart. However, when your kids have guns, a parental role isn’t enough to guarantee survival.

Marlo’s really pushed it over these last couple of episodes. It’s notable that Chris and Snoop, the more likable presences, fade into the background here. It’s Marlo who gives Cheese Hungry Man, and Marlo who’s there to personally oversee Joe’s death. I’ve heard some people say that the death felt telegraphed, and in retrospect, it’s clear that anyone who starts getting introspective is going to die soon, at the time, I didn’t see it coming. I thought Joe was going to get out of the game for a while, but it wasn’t until he tells Marlo “You didn’t come to see me off” that I realized what was going to happen.

One of the things I love about both this show and The Sopranos is they don’t try to shock you with the plot developments. Joe’s death has been telegraphed throughout the season, I’ve been speculating about it in every review I’ve written, but I didn’t expect it to come this quickly. And, watching Marlo and him, I was hoping that there’d be some way for him to survive. However, the crushing inevitability built with every moment until he was finally killed. That’s more effective than a shocking death because it makes it more emotional. The death itself is a release, but those moments of buildup are awful. You’re thinking “they can’t do this,” all the while knowing that it will happen. It’s the same as D’Angelo’s strangling in season two. Because you know the rules and credibility of the world, there’s not going to be some last minute reversal. After he’s choking for a while, you realize, he’s going to die, and it’s the same with Joe.

Joe was an amazing character, one of the best presences on the show. After Avon and Stringer were taken out the game, he was the only larger than life personality left. Now, we’re left with only Marlo. I’m thinking that Marlo will dissolve the co-op, likely killing most of the members, and plan to take over their territory. He has the supply, so they are beholden to him.

But, all is not lost. As Marlo gets worse and worse, Omar moves in in the background. I love the fact that he’s got the old timers working with him. Those two old guys are his last allies, and some of the last survivors of the old era. They can get revenge for Butchie and the others who have died. I’m thinking more and more that Omar will survive this, that he will take out Marlo, just because Marlo has made so many enemies, he can’t survive. There is rarely order in the institutions, but on the streets, characters eventually get what’s coming to them. Stringer tried to play Omar and Mouzone against each other, it backfired and they teamed up to kill him. I’d love to see Mouzone come back one more time, to help Omar take down Marlo.

On some level it would be ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than the over the top Wild West showdown with Stringer. And, c’mon, Omar and Brother Mouzone battling Chris and Snoop, that scene has to happen. Here, Omar demonstrates that he does have a code, he won’t kill people just because, and the death of Joe should confirm who killed Butchie in the first place. There’s such desperation in Omar at this point, he knows what it’s like outside the game, and doesn’t enjoy the killing anymore. He just wants to finish things.

It really bothers me that so much press attention focuses on the press storyline because the Marlo stuff this year has been phenomenal. I suppose there’s less to talk about there, because there’s not the controversial element to latch onto. But, from a storytelling point of view, it’s just gold, right up there with the Avon/Stringer betrayal arc from season three.

The other great storyline this episode was the stuff with Carver and Herc. First, there’s the phenomenal scene where Marlo taunts Herc about the camera. It’s a great callback, and demonstrates how even though Herc is moving up in the world, he’s still controlled by the criminals. He now makes his money helping the people he used to help capture.

The character’s moral bankruptcy is pointed out by Carver when they’re sitting outside the police station. Herc rolls up in his Mercedes in a suit, Carver’s still wearing the police uniform. Carver plans to break the blue wall of silence and turn in Colicchio. He does this because of what Herc, a similarly dangerous officer, did to Randy. So much of the show is about the unexpected consequences character actions have, how a police decision can impact a criminal’s life. Most of the time, the characters are unaware, and it’s the viewer who makes the connections. However, Carver saw the full extent of what Herc did to Randy, he knows that what they do matter, and he knows how much a bad officer can screw up someone’s life. He failed that kid because he never called Herc on his bad behavior. People who stand by and let horrible things happen are just as guilty as those who do them.

This actually fits well with the newspaper/serial killer storyline. Because the media focuses on sensationalized crimes, while letting the everyday injustices go by, we’re all complicit in what happens in America’s cities. We’re all like Herc, just going along, unaware of the damage we cause. The thing is, there’s no easy answer. The institutions are so flawed, you can’t change things on a mass level. The message of the show, if any exists, is that the individual level is where you can make the difference. Taken out Marlo and a new Marlo will come along, take down Clay Davis and corruption will continue, but intervene in one person’s life and you can save them. That’s what Cutty does, that’s what Colvin does, and it’s what Carver does here. Colicchio is a danger, and having him off the street may help save someone down the line.

There’s a lot of other noteworthy stuff in the episode. I love the scene where Kima decides to build a house for Colossus, and the juxtaposition of that with McNulty’s awful behavior towards Beattie. The two were closely paralleled in season three, and now we’re seeing Kima where McNulty was at the end of that season, thinking about what kind of life exists outside the police force. The serial killer storyline rages on, still in the construction stage, not quite at impact. And, we get a rather pointless scene with a trip to The Washington Post. But, on the whole, it’s an amazing episode, with a truly haunting finish. Prop Joe will be missed, and Robert Chew deserves huge props for creating such a memorable character, who just owned the screen whenever he was on.