Saturday, April 03, 2010

Doctor Who - "The Eleventh Hour" (5x01)

After a while where I didn't have any shows I was really excited to watch week to week, it's getting to be an embarrasment of riches with Lost, Breaking Bad (which I'm still working on catching up on, but will be weekly soon), soon Treme and today the new season of Doctor Who, featuring a new Doctor and new producer. I didn't enjoy the first episode quite as much as the rest of the internet, but I think it's a strong introduction to the character, stronger than either of the new companion introductions from RTD's run. And, even if the main plot never quite came together, there's enough great moments along the way to make it a solid episode.

While it was frustrating to have the show take nearly two years off between series, I think it made it easier to transition to the new Doctor. Tennant's run was decidedly closed off by the epic “Journey's End,” and laid to a gentle sleep over the course of the five specials. I was still very sad to see him go at the end of “The End of Time,” but it felt appropriate and I was emotionally ready to move on. The closure those specials provided made it clear that we had reached the end of one story, and this series is the beginning of another.

And, I think Matt Smith did a great job of keeping consistent with the character we'd seen under Eccleston and Tennant (as well as the previous guys), but not feeling derivative. He seems a slight bit edgier than Tennant, a bit more prickly, but still with that same joy for life. After one episode, I accept and believe him as the Doctor, and that's perhaps the greatest thing this episode could achieve.

Similarly, I really like Amy Pond, and am curious to see how their relationship develops. I feel like Davies did all variations of the Doctor/companion in love, so I'm not sure where their relationship will go and how it will develop. The obvious set up is for some kind of love triangle, or at least emotion triangle, between the Doctor, Amy and Rory, but we'll see how that goes. I'm assuming that he will not return her to her wedding morning as promised and that will be a source of conflict.

In terms of specifics about the episode, I think the opening sequence worked really well, and had a great fairy tale quality. It brought us into the world of the new Doctor and set up Amy's personality and their chemistry. The thing that didn't work for me was the conceit of the door that you could only see out of the corner of your eye, it feels like a retread of previous Moffat ideas, like the statues from “Blink.”

And, the A story of the attacking aliens and coma people didn't do too much for me. It felt like things took a while to get rolling again after the opening, like we were one step ahead of the characters for most of it. There were some fun gags and character beats, but I never really felt the enormity of the threat. I know it's a season premiere and it's not time for an operatic epic conflict yet, but this one felt really flat for most of the episode.

Things picked up with the great moment of the Doctor slamming the fire engine ladder through the window and tricking the Multi-Form alien into exposing itself. And then the final scene on the roof was a fantastic declaration of purpose. As a viewer who's been through several doctors now, the montage of old doctors, punctuated by Eleven walking through and claiming his identity was the high point of the episode.

And, the final beats in the Tardis were really strong as well. The new design looks great, and it left me eager to see what happens next. So far, I didn't feel the same emotional charge as in the best of RTD's episodes, but it's early going, and the trailer for the rest of the season looks fantastic. I'm on board with the new Doctor and am looking forward to having the show finally back on a weekly basis.


Kick-Ass the movie is getting some pretty strong heat media wise, to the point that the actual comic seems like a foot note. Thanks to the movie being optioned and produced before the series was even complete, it's easy to feel like the source material is superfluous at this point, and that's increasingly how I was feeling before reading the comic. After reading it, I found a strange, flawed, but deeply personal story. But, what does it mean to have a personal story when the guy who wrote it is kind of a delusional egomaniac?

First off, I'll say that Kick-Ass generally works. It's a fairly strong character based story, but one that at no time is as radical or innovative as Millar seems to think it is. Alan Moore cracked on Geoff Johns quite a bit for retreading his ideas with Blackest Night, but this series really feels like a retread of those late 80s grim and gritty superhero comics that Moore and Miller did, quite literally in this case imagining what it would be like for a superhero in the real world. Of course, that reality lasts for about an issue, by the end, after several superhero team ups, we're firmly in an elevated genre world. I think that undermines the series' basic conceit, but I think it functions in an interesting way as Millar exploring his own fame and success, to suddenly find himself not being a pretender to star status, but actually being a star.

Reading the series in this way requires an understanding of the extratextual Mark Millar persona, something that's been of particular interest to me in the context of working on the Grant Morrison doc. I don't know Millar and have never met him, but I have this picture of him through the people we've talked to that paints him as an ambitious fame hungry guy who got a taste of success and star power in the early 00s and has been rolling to bigger and bigger things ever since. I think his writing has suffered for this, Civil War was terrible, and his Fantastic Four wasn't great compared to the iconic work he did on The Authority and The Ultimates.

The weaker works suffered from feeling a bit generic, his authorial voice was subsumed to the general needs of the Marvel universe in a way they never were on The Ultimates. I didn't want to read about the Marvel U version of Iron Man or Captain America after reading about the Ultimate versions. To me, those are the definitive takes on those characters, and it's telling that the films have drawn so heavily on Millar's work. The Ultimates is a really strong distillation of everything that works about the Avengers concept, and it has interesting things to say about fame and media culture, which is the unifying theme that ties together most of Millar's signature works.

The Authority is the first riff on that, the superhero as rock star, and The Ultimates escalates it to the superhero as tabloid fixture, as modern celebrity. But, both those works are written solely from the perspective of cool insiders, it may be an aspirational text, but there is no reader surrogate. It's key to note that all The Authority and Ultimates characters are sexy, powerful and famous beyond their costumes, they don't have to work to win peoples' admiration, it's inherent to their image.

Kick-Ass flips the perspective on this, showing a character who's spent his life admiring those kind of characters (and in some cases those exact characters to enhance the “reality” of the book), and decides that the best way to become famous and beloved is to become a superhero. For Millar, being a superhero isn't about being a symbol of humanity's best potential as a species (as it is for Morrison), it's about gaining fame, power and notoriety. There's this fixation on MySpace friends and critical heat throughout, and when Dave hangs up the mask early in the book, what brings him out of retirement is not the need to do good, but the desire to one up Red Mist and get his headlines back.

So, the whole thing becomes this strange petty quest of one self-perceived loser to gain social capital in the form of fame. He may pursue a relationship with Katie, but the love that he really wants is not a meaningful emotional connection with one person, it's the dilute adoration of the masses. Either way, he's never able to put his true self out there, either to the public or Katie, it's like he doesn't have the self confidence to let his true self be loved, he needs to hide behind a facade.

The whole pretending to be gay subplot may seem like Millar's excuse to make a bunch of gay jokes, but it seems to be key to the work in many ways. In Kick-Ass, Dave sees the way that a mask makes it easier to do things he never could as himself. The gay persona is another mask, and as the work goes on, we see less and less of the real “Dave,” he fades into this progression of false identities, playing a part to satisfy a particular audience who needs to see him in a particular way.

This has great resonance with the idea of fame itself. The person who becomes famous or beloved by the masses isn't a real person, it's a construct built by PR people and the media to be an accessible, relatable presence for people. Incidents like the Tiger Woods troubles are interesting because of the disparity between the 'real' person and the self that he presented to the world.

Dave's status as a fanboy is emphasized throughout, and the whole work often quite literally deals with the idea of the superhero as adolescent male power fantasy. Only this time, Dave is taking the very thing that makes him a social exile, his comics habit and nerdiness, and is turning it into an asset, showing up the people who socially ostracized him by becoming something cooler and more loved than them, Kick-Ass.

And, you can easily equate the idea of a 'real' superhero jumping off the comics page with Millar's own comics being turned into movies. What was once this niche hobby relegated to dingy shops is now front page news, and comics like Wanted or Kick-Ass are household names. Millar himself is a media figure, and he feels like he's blazing the trail of taking these books to larger and larger audiences.

So, it's appropriate that Kick-Ass is turned into a movie right off the comics page since it's taking the Kick-Ass idea and realizing it into a star studded big budget movie. Even within the comic, there's meta resonance that Big Daddy, the seemingly ultra cool impeccable assassin, the biggest 'star' in the universe, is funding his missions by selling old back issues of superhero comics. This comes mere months after Nic Cage, the actor portraying him in the film, is forced to sell his own back issues to get out of debt. The meta implication is that Millar, and comics, are so cool that even the badass hero, or ultra popular movie star, love them, that deep down all the cool people are really just fanboys.

So, the entire book plays as this strange mirror version of Millar's own fame and increasing media profile. He's got the MySpace friends now, he's hanging out with celebrities, he's been taken out of his regular life and become something more.

One thing I haven't really seen mentioned in conjunction with the book is how structurally similar it is to Wanted. Both books chronicle the story of a loser who gets pulled out of his ordinary life into a world of excitement and adventure. That's a pretty basic story structure, but there's a lot of resonances, particularly the self hatred the protagonist feels. Is Millar writing about this because it's how he feels about himself? Or, is it a calculated way to appeal to the fanboys who comprise his target demo?

Either way, the book itself is always entertaining, if nowhere near as revolutionary or groundbreaking as Millar might think it is. I will give a big commendation to John Romita Jr., who told the story in a really compelling, visual way. I always had to read both the images and the text to get all the information, and that's unfortunately a rarity in today's comics. On the whole, it's a satisfying read, but perhaps a bit too indebted to the 80s style deconstruction of superheroes and offers very little in the way of new insight into the genre.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lost - 'The Package' (6x10)

Another week of Lost, another episode that exemplifies most of my issues with the previous season six episodes. There's some really great scenes in here, and the final reveal is very satisfying, but both the on island and particularly the alt-verse stuff is a lot of wheel spinning with not too much payoff.

First, let me deal with the downside of the episode. With any long running work, a looming end raises the stakes for what you've got to do. Not only must the episode be satisfying on its own terms, but with limited time, every story, every scene has to deal with being the best possible use of the time left. I don't like to judge a work based on what I want it to be rather than what it is, but I don't think anyone could consider this Sun/Jin story the best use of the series' remaining time.

More than any of the other flash-sideways, this one didn't even deal with the characters on an emotional level. Some of the beats in the hotel room were nice, particularly the shirt unbuttoning thing, but the characters were so far from their on island counterparts that they don't even resonate emotionally with what we've seen those people go through. That means that it's harder to emotionally engage with the characters and the whole thing doesn't work. I'd compare it to watching these two actors in another movie. You get that Sun/Jin resonance thanks to the performers, but it's not the same people. Even fan service allusions like Mikhail's return don't make for a satisfying story.

Most troubling is the realization that with only eight episodes left, there's no way that all these alt-verse stories will find a satisfactory resolution, nor is that were I want screentime expended. If alt-Sun/alt-Jin never do anything else, why did we spend this time with them in the first place? I'm increasingly unclear about the purpose of these stories in the overall narrative, and the decision to only tell us how Jin got in the fridge we saw him in several episodes ago doesn't help move things forward. That's characteristic of the worst of Lost, the idea that we'd really care about how Jin got in that fridge. Why not just pick up there and let us catch up on what happened.

On island, a lot of good stuff is happening. My biggest issue right now is that character motivations are very unclear, primarily due to the fact that so many of the characters who willingly came back to the island now only want to leave. I thought we'd moved towards the idea of the island as an end in and of itself, as the purpose these people have been seeking. Sun seemed eager to get away from her daughter and fuck around with Widmore in season five, so I don't buy her only wanting to find Jin and go back. I prefer the idea that these characters have become part of a larger world and the simple desire to go home will only prove as dissatisfying as it was to the Oceanic Six earlier. Jack is the only character who seems to realize the magic of what's happening, while everyone else is still in seasons one and two mode.

But, other than these issues, there was a lot of great stuff here. Things are mounting towards the eventual war, and the Widmore/Locke confrontation was as good a scene as we've had this season. Terry O'Quinn has been absolutely owning this season with his seemingly benevolent menace, and here he had an equally ambiguous force to reckon with. I also loved the scene with Richard getting his troops ready and making his plan.

Richard's speech makes me think that the eventual split at the end of the series might come down to people who believe in the higher purpose of the island battling people who want to leave it. Jack has come around to believe that this is where he's meant to be, and destroying the plane is the ultimate symbolic gesture to indicate that. By destroying the plane, he is reenacting again the opening of the series, and acquiescing to his fate. SmokeLocke, Kate, Claire and the others who want to leave have resisted the will of the island and seek to return to the world.

It would make sense to stage the final battle around the plane because of its resonance with the series opening, and clearly the creators have an interest in bringing stuff full circle. It would also make the stakes clearer in the war and give them a relatable hook. Throughout the series, we've seen the island function as a transformative engine, giving people what they want, and sometimes punishing them when they want to leave. You could argue that Juliet's death in “The Incident” was a consequence of her and Sawyer's decision to leave the island. Committing to stay on the island means it will protect you, trying to leave means it will fight against you. Locke is invulnerable on the island, but off island, he is killed by Ben.

But, I'm guessing things will all be shaken up next week by the return of Desmond, the man who may finally be able to hack the alt-verse/prime-verse divide, or at least shed some light on the larger purpose of things. Either way, it's great to finally have the character back, and I'm eager to see how he plays in the narrative.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Lost - 6x07-6x09

I was traveling, and then sick, so I haven't been able to post reviews of the last few Lost episodes. So, I want to do a post to sum up some of my feelings about the series at this point, and my hopes and fears about the rest of the season.

Lost, like a lot of other works that have a fanatically devoted fanbase (think Star Wars or Evangelion), has a lot written about it, but very little objective analysis of the quality of the work. So much of it is centered around the series' internal mythos that more general looks at what does and doesn't work in the storytelling doesn't really happen. With this series, so much of the dialogue centers around what answers we'll get and how new revelations integrate with what we've seen before. It's more of a puzzle approach to criticism, while I feel like the focus on answers excuses some of the series' more basic problems.

To me at least, the show never became frustrating because it didn't reveal answers. If you just want the answers, wait until May and read a Wikipedia page. The show became frustrating, both in the early years, and in this season because it has characters struggling with mysteries and nothing else. The creators are fond of saying that this is really a character based series, but the storytelling doesn't support that. The show has generally been most successful on a conceptual level, and frustrating on a character level, since devices like the flashbacks, or the flash sideways, lead to a notion of character that is inherently contrary to ongoing serial storytelling.

The universe of Lost has always been based around revealing secrets, be it the drawn out revelations about the nature of the island, or the way that the flashbacks ostensibly revealed the true nature of the characters on the island. The problem with that has always been that I feel like most of these people are going to be more affected by being stranded on an island than by the small scale slights that happened to them on the mainland. Characters should grow and change over the course of the series, and that's why the flashbacks were a structural failure. I'd argue the show would have been more interesting if we never saw the flashbacks at all and had to speculate about who the people on island were, or had it revealed in season four when everybody made it back to the main land.

The biggest problem with the flashbacks was the implication that they were a satisfying way to pay off the audience's need for character development, allowing the on island time to focus more on mythology questions. In stereotypical terms, the flashbacks, or current flash sideways, are there for the female or casual viewer who doesn't really care about the island, while the on island stuff, with its action and mythos is for men or more committed viewers. This strict division has reached its apex this year, where most of the characters have no arcs at all on island and the island material is heavily intellectual, with most emotion restricted to the flash sideways.

Now, yes, there's some arcs happening on island. Sawyer's gone through some stuff, as has Smoke Locke and Jack, but other than that, everybody's basically sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. Why not devote some time to giving character arcs to people like Miles and Ben, who haven't done much at all this year. Ben is particularly frustrating since he was the propulsive causal engine for the show in seasons three and four, but hasn't been doing much this year. Take him out of this season, or take Lapidus, Sun, Miles, Ilana and Kate out of this season and what changes? Not too much, and that's not good writing.

This really frustrates me since I felt like season five did a fantastic job of servicing all the characters in a satisfying way, and still progressing the mythology stuff in a way that felt integrated with the emotions of the story. Even something like the love quadrangle issues surrounding the nuke were a bit hackneyed, but gave that story an emotional resonance that led to arguably the most emotional moment in the whole series, Juliet's fall down the hole.

That said, some of the concepts and ideas of the season are amazing, I love the idea behind the Jacob/Man in Black conflict, and the way it resonates with things we've seen throughout the series. It's a great narrative engine to bring all the characters together and lead to a big climax. It's also strange and surreal in a way that TV shows so rarely are.

I really dug the Richard episode, and a lot of the Sawyer episode. But, it's frustrating for me to see no one really analyzing the significant structural and emotional flaws in the series. Character based storytelling can't be just telling a random ten minute story about a different version of the character from the series. Character based storytelling is telling stories that derive from characters doing things, and dealing with the consequences of their actions, and sadly, the on island stuff right now is pretty much the opposite of that.

So, I guess what I want to see is more objective analysis of the structural elements of the series, and the way that the series is dealing with character and emotional issues, rather than reviews that just focus on the answers, or saying the season sucks. With shows like this, with a really committed fan base, it's hard to do that objective analysis, but surely there must be someone else out there feeling the same frustrations with the show as I am, who's still loving elements of the show, but just wishes it could be better.