Monday, December 26, 2016

In Which I Review the Doctor Who Christmas Special (2016)

It has been far too long. For an entire year, I have been without my very favorite TV mythological hero and his wonky, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey adventures through all of time and space. After such an extended period away, this year's holiday extravaganza "The Return of Doctor Mysterio" felt like nothing short of a Christmas miracle. If I'm being up front and honest, the Christmas episode could have been down right terrible and I'd probably still praise it to the hilt (my show has been off the air for a year! I get all sentimental and gushy after 365 days) but thankfully for me, and for all of you reading my review, the special this year was delightfully cheeky with its winks and nods to comic books, over the top villains, and outlandish origin stories of superheroes. After all, why not? It's Christmas, a time for all mythological heroes to come home to roost and The Doctor is the best superhero of them all. And, as usual, he, his TARDIS, and everything that comes along for the sleigh ride are my favorite Christmas gifts. Put on your secret identity glasses and let's go! 

No one is born a superhero. Not Superman, not the Doctor, and not even Grant Gordon, known by his more flashy moniker, The Ghost. No, most of the time those we recognize as superheroes become such through extraordinary measures: sent to a far off distant planet as a baby, bitten by a radioactive spider, struck by lightening, an encounter with an alien or divine race, or they chose to live a life of adventure out there amongst the stars saving the lives of strangers as they pass by. The superhero story follows the same path as the hero of myth or legend--mild mannered and unimportant, they are pulled out of the known inexplicably by something or someone greater than themselves into the realm of the unknown, the "other," where magic and cosmic forces collide; there they are asked to save the very fabric of reality from an agent of chaos and death. Harry Potter gets a letter from Hogwarts, Buffy gets a visit from a Watcher, Luke finds an android, and Henry knocks on Emma Swan's front door. All of these are moments that beckon the superhero within, that allow the mundane to transform into the mythical and it's actually something Doctor Who does on a pretty regular basis with the Doctor and his companions. In religious schools and communities there is a principle known as transcendence in which the subject is vaulted above their mental and cognitive plane of existence to, at the very least, glimpse the divine. At the same they are witnessing the divine in this moment of transcendence, they are able to touch their own sense of divinity, to find that inner spark of the divine that resides in all of us. To paraphrase the last show I reviewed: to find the center of the Maze and touch their version of the creator. The companions of the Doctor have been transcending their own humanness for ages; just look at Rose Tyler or Donna Noble or Clara Oswald. The Bad Wolf, the DoctorDonna, the Impossible Girl, mythical names for the mythical creatures they become after their adventures with the Doctor who allows them to glimpse the other side, to see beyond the veil and into the magical and mysterious. This year, however, it's not a long time companion, but a little boy with a cough who doesn't just transcend cognitively but physically as well. Grant may have had a slight cough but he came down with a case of levitation all in the span of one night. A single moment that changes his life forever.

Grant Gordon is a heady mix of Clark Kent (mild-mannered), a young Peter Parker (down on his luck), and Barry Allen (enthusiastic do gooder) all rolled into one giant DC/Marvel comic hero but his story is as old and as classic as it gets. A young boy is called off on an adventure of epic proportions by a mysterious stranger who grants unto him (accidentally because it's the Doctor....) strange and wondrous powers that he channels into helping New York City, saving children from burning buildings and rescuing reporters who fall into the wrong hands. If you're getting a major Superman feel then you're on the right track. After all, Superman is the iconic American hero in his red/blue uniform standing for individualism and self-determination. That's what I like so much about this year's Christmas outing--well, one of the things I like. As a lover of all things comic book-y, it was hard for me to not like this episode. But one of the strongest points is that this episode is about the superhero that resides in all of us. We need not swallow a magical gem of love and wishes to be super; Grant's actual act of superheroism isn't his ability to fly or his super strength. It's his super heart, the one that babysits a young baby so a mom can go to work; it's a heart that can't let go of the baby monitor for fear that something will happen to the tyke while he's working his night job. It's the super heart that loved comic book superheros and followed in their footsteps when he realized that his powers weren't going to pass. Lucy, the Lois to his Clark, put it's best when she wants him to don his superhero outfit and puts on his glasses, not his cape. At Christmas time, we're reminded that superheros come in all shapes and sizes and that we all have the ability to be one; we all have the capacity to have a good heart and stand up to corruption and greed and tyranny. Some years the Christmas episodes get a bit too schmaltzy, a bit too on the nose with their themes of hope and family. This one gracefully stepped back from those heavy handed tendencies and instead told the best story Doctor Who can tell. No Santa, no snowmen, no Victorian costumes, no tear inducing Christmas miracle; just a simple reminder of the special nature of humanity and what happens when we encounter the divine. What's more Christmas than that?

Miscellaneous Notes on The Return of Doctor Mysterio 

--The Doctor thought he was the first person to ever stumble on to the truth that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person. Bless.

--The alien invasion plan involved placing foreign and hostile brains into world leaders and staging a takeover from inside the system. I'm not saying this part of the narrative was a little bit inspired by Brexit and the 2016 American Presidential election but...this part of the narrative was inspired by Brexit and the 2016 American Presidential election.

--"You're kind of wet." "I prefer mild-mannered."

--I was surprised at how much I liked Nardole given that he was in last year's Christmas episode for a hot second and nothing more. He's unassuming and he didn't get in the way or really contribute except to point out the Doctor's loneliness which allows the Doctor to still play the hero but have responsibility to another which he will always need.

--"They have the same plan they always do--me!"

--"He never explained. Doctor Who?"

--Season 10 will likely start in the spring of 2017. It's Steven Moffat's final season before stepping down as showrunner. It's probably time for fresh and new blood to run the show but before then, one more season to see the universe anew!

Thursday, December 8, 2016

In Which I Review Westworld (1x10)

These violent delights have violent ends. Since the beginning, Westworld has wanted us to question the nature of reality and consciousness. Who is real? What does real even mean? Is real born or made? Can it be achieved or is it a simple fact of being? I don't know that the season finale "The Bicameral Mind" got us any closer to those weighty questions but if several thousand years of philosophical debate didn't already solve them, then a 10-episode HBO show wasn't going to either. But let's give the little show credit for trying, yes? To say that Westworld is smart is an understatement. To say that it might be too smart seems more apt as, just from my perspective, I spend every week wrestling with some of the most daunting questions facing mankind. To say that Westworld takes these Herculean questions and manages to mix in plot, character, and pathos is to sum up the show perfectly. There was a whole lot-o-plot to be hand in this finale, but the show also answered its own questions on consciousness and whether or not the Hosts can achieve such a thing. In other words, Dolores is awake, angry, and packing heat--run. Hunker down, dig deep, and prepare to have a conversation with yourself and let's go!

Who is God? Yes, that's a fairly tough and heavy question right off the bat but given it's an important one not only for Westworld but for everyone, everywhere, at any time it seems relevant. If you were to put 100 people in a room and ask them the same-God question, you'd likely get 100 different answers with such characteristics as father, creator, wrathful, omnipotent, indifferent, caring, distant, near, nonexistent, ever present, and even the delightfully conflicting answers of real/not real and literal being/universal concept or force. God, then, is a void and we, the mortal and flawed human beings of this plant, fill up that void and create God however we want. There's a Biblical idea that most of you probably know: we are created in God's image and while that's a lovely idea but this is a case where I believe the opposite to be more accurate. We are not created in God's image; God is created in ours. If you live in a cruel and capricious part of the world and life is a constant, hard struggle, then your version of God is likely also cruel, mean spirited and decidedly unhelpful. If you live on a part of the globe where there's always plenty of food, life is sweet and good, then your God is probably seen as a wise parental figure who lifts up his creation instead of tearing them down. The God of your reality is a direct reflection on the reality of your situation and as such, God is a mirror for you, your life, and your community. To speak to God is to speak to your inner self, to discover your own consciousness. And that is exactly what Dolores did in this finale. Her awakening has been a long time coming, something teased and planted in brief moments throughout all ten episodes. It feels as though Dolores has been dancing on the edge of consciousness, veering toward center only to slide back to the outer edge, toward madness. This is the Maze. The winding paths and pitfalls of identity and consciousness. At the center, a great reward: the ability to talk to yourself, to see yourself as who you really are and to be unafraid at what this means for your future. At the edges, madness, losing consciousness and finding yourself in a never ending loop of trails that only lead further and further from your goal. None of this is to say that Dolores is God of the world--though it'll be interesting to see what the other Hosts make of her in her fully awakened state--but rather Dolores has freed herself from the construct that the humans, her creators, were her gods and has found her own inner divinity, her own consciousness. This series of events does beg the question of whether or not Dolores can stay within her newfound consciousness, though. After all, she's been here before; can't this be another loop? Is it another elaborate story of Ford's making in which Hosts are given the allusion of consciousness only to have it ripped away just when the story reaches its denouement? What's worse: losing your hard fought consciousness or realizing that what you thought was consciousness was only another series of game plays from someone who sees the entire chess board and not just one tiny square?

This question is at the heart of Maeve's story. What has looked like total and complete control--like being able to ignore voice commands and out think every human around her--turns out to be another elaborate game, another expertly written series of code that only gives the allusion of choice and freewill. Did Maeve really get off that train of her own accord or is this the next move on the chess board that ensures she'll never be free of the human's control? What if she had stayed on the train and managed to actually leave Westworld? Would that have signaled her true independence from the park? On the other hand, what does Maeve's choice to stay mean for internal identity? We know that the key to consciousness is suffering and Maeve's choice (pre-programmed choice?) to get off that train was motivated by the pain she felt over never seeing her "daughter" again. A choice to go and find her child, to be a family, to be whole once more feels pretty un-computer-code like, right? And yet, isn't that what makes Westworld so compelling; everything is computerized, everything is laid out in narrative form from start to finish with little to no surprises and improvisation and yet it looks and feels one hundred percent driven by choice and free will. Did Neo really break the Oracle's vase or did the Oracle cause the vase to break by putting the idea in Neo's head, to borrow from another popular science fiction reality bending series. Did Maeve choose to get off that train; did Dolores choose to kill Ford? Or did someone program them to make these choices as part of a new narrative, one in which they must play active parts? Ford's final speech about how his new narrative begins in a time of war, with a murder at the hands of a villain named Wyatt (with whom Dolores has merged, thanks to Arnold) sounds like a hint that Dolores is still not totally free. What if freedom itself is an allusion, another construct programmed into us by society and culture? Are you free, even if you believe yourself to be conscious? After all, I've never had a conversation with myself and if pressed I'm not sure I could define my identity in any clear and concise way. How do we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Journey Into Night--Ford's new narrative--doesn't start exactly like this, with a Host being given the allusion of choice to commit a public and gruesome murder of the first God? That, my dear readers, is what season two needs to answer.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Bicameral Mind

--Sometimes the internet gets things right! William and the Man in Black are the same figure, after all.

--There was a ton of plot in this finale so just to make sure we're on the same page: Arnold, in his grief, wanted to find consciousness in his Hosts, beginning with Dolores, the Original Host. When Arnold realized that Dolores was alive, he fought with Ford about opening the Park. In order to save his creation, he programmed Dolores with Wyatt's storyline and had Dolores and Teddy kill every single Host in the Park. Dolores then killed Arnold and the loop began again. At some point, William came to the Park and met Dolores and began the adventure we saw, ending with Dolores back in the original "workshop" dying once more. Along the way, William realized he was a killer and ended up taking over Logan's company, by way of marriage, and becoming the principle shareholder in Westworld which allowed him unprecedented access to the Park. Yes?

--"Once you find it, you'll find your way back." This sounds really hopeful but it also sounds like someone defining the never ending loop Dolores and the Hosts live in. Is this show optimistic or pessimistic?

--This world does not belong to the humans but to "a new belongs to someone yet to come."

--"Stories are lies to help us see truth."

--Westworld will return either in late 2017 or early 2018. See you then!

Monday, December 5, 2016

In Which I Review Once Upon a Time (6x10)

Who is Emma Swan? This question, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense, has been at the center of the show since the beginning. When we were introduced to Ms Swan, all those years and adventures ago, Emma was a self-defined orphan, loner, and troubled soul. Drifting from place to place, Emma never put down roots or formed attachments for fear of her heart breaking once more. In a literal sense, Emma's the Savior; even as a child, we've seen that Emma could tap into her magic when her emotions were heightened. Being the Savior is who Emma is; like she tells Hook, "in this case the cliche is true. I was born for this." In this week's episode, our last OUAT episode for 2016, "Wish You Were Here," Emma goes through a proverbial looking glass to see what life is like on the other side, to see what her life would have been like if she was not blessed/cursed with her cosmic importance. These questions of existence and Emma's cosmic importance have always resonated with me, so I was pleased to see the show explore these questions, if in a clunky, bizarre, and world deconstructing manner. However, I'm not so sure that any of this made a lick of sense and if I have previously lamented that this season so far has no point, then I shall revise my statement that instead of being aimless, its aim was to obfuscate and delay the real story (the Black Fairy) until the final moments of the winter finale. Make a wish and, for the final time this year, let's go!

The Upside Down

There are many questions that come with an alternate universe in storytelling and many of them I likely asked myself two years ago when OUAT delved into Isaac's penned manuscript. That version of shifted reality made enough sense to let the world feel like it could actually exist and any glaring faults in logic and character could easily be chalked up to Isaac's lack of skill and his own human folly in trying to create a world where heroes were villains and villains, heroes. This world--this wish-granted universe--does not have a saving grace like Isaac and, as such, I find myself wondering the writers even remember certain aspects of their mythology, their story, and the universe it resides in. This isn't to say that some aspects of Wish World weren't coherent; Emma growing up a princess who had everything she ever wanted and was beloved by family, friends, and subjects alike made perfect sense. Of course Emma's life would be radically different; not only would she be unmagical but she wouldn't be that scared, stunnted orphan who wished she wasn't alone on her twenty-eighth birthday. Emma's life is one of joy and wonder, unhampered by the concerns--both magical and mundane--that have followed her these six seasons. But there are other aspects of Emma's life that don't quite scan, as if they were attempts by the writers to curtail fan criticism at the head before anyone could angrily tweet their displeasure. One aspect in particular fails to make sense: Henry. I understand that the writers don't want to leave Jared Gilmore out and that there is a poetic nostalgia to Henry (kind of, sort of) being the one who makes Emma remember who she is once more, but Henry's existence in the Enchanted Forest of this AU makes little sense because nothing about him has changed. He's still the son of Nealfire, who either never went to Neverland or somehow made it back to the Enchanted Forest one hundred plus years later where he grew up, met Princess Emma and had a child with her before dying in some heretofore unexplained manner. I get that the writers are aiming for consistency with Henry--after all Henry can't literally exist if you change one of his parents--but in this warped AU, how am I to explain his conception, birth, and the death of one of his parents when the story of the universe has been so fundamentally altered?

Let's parse this out, shall we: if Emma was never the Savior and Storybrooke never existed, then Greg and Tamara never came to the sleepy town in Maine, never kidnapped Henry and never took him to Neverland at Peter Pan's insistence. If these events never happened then it follows that Peter Pan never followed the heroes back to Storybrooke and never met the sharp end of Rumple's dagger, taking his son into death with him. With me so far? If Rumple never sacrificed himself, declaring that villains don't get happy endings, and the Curse was never reverse cast, then the gang of heroes (minus Emma and Henry) never wooshed back to the Enchanted Forest where Neal and Belle were tricked by Lumiere and Zelena in to turning the key of the Dark One's Vault, thereby releasing Goo!Rumple and having Neal pay the ultimate price of resurrecting his father. This is the thing with AU's; you change one detail--be it little or big--and the whole narrative changes. A good writer has to account for those details, those ripples in the pond. Now, you could say that Nealfire died in some other manner and obviously before Henry was born given that this AU version of Henry doesn't know or remember Neal, but that opens a whole other narrative door that will not be answered given that the AU spell is broken, Emma remembers she's the Savior, and everyone (including Robin...uh, hi. Deal with you later) is about to head back to Storybrooke. You can try to rationalize this as a dream world and so everything has that hazy, not quite real feel of a dream, but that doesn't hold water any more than the AU itself does: Emma and Regina don’t leave the world by waking up–they (almost) take a very literal magic bean that created a very literal portal back to their very literal Storybrooke. That’s the problem. If this was a dream world, then the bases are covered and we can handwave away all the wonkyness. But it was never stated as such. Belle was still asleep when she went to dream world, her subconscious traveled. But Emma and Regina–their very bodies and beings–traveled to this AU. I'm not harping on this simply because Neal is involved; if anything, I'm delighted that the writers didn't try to change Henry's parentage to, say, Hook. I'm harping on this because these sorts of flaws are apparent in everything that happened this season.

Any internal, previously established logic, world building, narrative plot point, or in some cases character development, has flown the coop this year. This isn't the first year, but this is the first where I feel like the poor world building and attention to detail is actively destroying what could have been a very thought provoking, interesting, and meaty storyline. The idea of the Evil Queen coming to town and facing down a unified front, including Regina, and everyone having to battle their own demons feels like the final chapter in a long Hero's Journey. We've battled and defeated the agent of Death, now here comes Chaos Incarnate to upset our happy home. Emma defeating the Evil Queen--preferably by reintegrating her with Regina--and saving her own Saviorhood, as well as the home she previously tried to run away from, is the perfect end to her story. She's come home; she's come into herself. Emma accepted her own identity and everything she is--mother, daughter, Savior, witch, Dark One, Light One. A complete circle--round and round it goes, until we arrive back home. But that's not what happened. Instead the story devolved into pointless tangents--the Land of Untold Stories--that went nowhere and only built up more questions about doors and keys and unmentioned characters--which vanished once Jekyll and Hyde had been dispatched; Rumple and Belle's never ending angst and abusive relationship; the supposed resurrection of Robin; Charming's father; the Black Fairy, Gideon and previously unmentioned "darker realms;" Aladdin, Jasmine and Agrabah (with a side helping of totally pointless and uninteresting Jafar). What's wrong with having one solid, narratively complex story? Why not make this entire season about Emma's Saviorhood; keep the Evil Queen as Chaos Incarnate with a small helping of Jekyll and Hyde to provide commentary on the separation of self but drop everything else and focus on the core: Emma's internal struggle with this last bit of her journey--ultimate acceptance of herself. Maybe I'm asking too much; maybe I need to acknowledge that TV is a business and in order to write a 22-episode season, I need to expect a lot of rabbit trails and misdirection. But, I'm stubborn that way, and I know the sort of writing I want isn't impossible. It was called Season 1 and as many callbacks as this current season had to that season (this finale in particular) it's still a shell and shadow of what once was.

Miscellaneous Notes on Wish You Were Here

--I honestly didn't mean to make this review so short or lacking in the many plot lines that were happening this week. The problem is that there's nothing to say. Emma and Regina/the Evil Queen carried the bulk of the narrative while everyone else either stood around and fretted over what was happening or had absolutely nothing to do with the AU at all and thus didn't really fit into the review proper.

--The Black Fairy raised Gideon to be a monster and I guess that's where the next half of this season is going. Alright then. Also, this is a total Angel/Holtz/Conner rip off, right?

--I still don't care one iota about Aladdin and Jasmine and their journey to Agrabah (what if it's at the bottom of the sea! Did they even think about that?)

--“What are you gonna do…throw a fireball at yourself?”

--Normally the show’s costumes are on point, but Aladdin’s genie outfit is horrid

--Regina literally runs up to a group of dwarves and asks where Emma is without even pausing to question which type of world she’s in. She knows it can’t be present; if it’s the past, no dwarf is going to trust her; and if it’s a reality where Emma wasn’t the Savior, then it follows that she’s a defeated Evil Queen and, again, no one would trust her!

--There’s a literal KEY TO THE KINGDOM??? What nonsense is that?

--So, where was Zelena this week?

--I have very little to say about Robin Hood coming back. He's not been brought back to life in the same way Hook was brought back in S5 but it speaks to something I mentioned above: the writers trying to placate the fans by giving them what they think they want. They keep doing this; there's a difference between listening and hearing. What the writers hear is that people were upset at Robin's death; what they aren't listening to are the reasons why. It goes beyond OutlawQueen.

--“Nothing makes sense. Anything is possible.” This is like the most literal description of this show since S3B I’ve ever heard.

--So, as is tradition, how about some thoughts on season 6A as a whole? I guess it's safe to say that I wasn't really a fan of this first half. It's not that it was bad in the same way S5A was bad--which rubbed against me morally, ethically, and as a feminist. It was bad because it didn't matter; there were so man stories going on at once but none of them got any sort of real attention or focus because apparently everything is happening next year. That is one way to write, but I don't believe it's a good way. We got no further explanations for the Land of Untold Stories (keys! doors! people go there a lot apparently!) because once Jekyll and Hyde died, that story and those ideas/people exited stage left to the metaphorical Forgotten Character Island. Jekyll and Hyde themselves, while well acted, never felt like a real threat because they were kept either off screen or locked up, making snarky comments at anyone who visited. The Evil Queen was supposed to be the real threat this first half and it's true she managed to create some small measure of chaos (like with Snowing) but for someone who was was conceived as "totally evil" she was left mostly to make witty comments, kiss Rumple, and lament with Zelena. The fact that the Evil Queen was out getting manicures like it was an ordinary day and she had nothing better to do is downright bizarre. Regina, in the first season, did more dastardly and "Evil Queen" things to Emma than the actual Evil Queen did to anyone this year! The Evil Queen's storyline also continued the maddening insistence that all evil/fallen women must somehow be sexually aggressive. More time was spent on her making out and flirting with Rumple than any long game she was playing against her real enemies; and this was not out of affection or genuine interest or even because sex is great and fun, but because in the minds of the writers, if a woman is evil then she must also be predatory in a sexual nature. It's a gross trope and it needs to go away already. The other major storyline this year was Aladdin and the idea of Saviorhood but like the Land of Untold Stories and Jekyll and Hyde it went basically nowhere. In this case, it's likely because it's going to come up next year, but that doesn't mean that some decent amount of time shouldn't be spent at least exploring those ideas. Do you know why Aladdin is a Savior? I don't. Do you care about his story, Jasmine's story or anything to do with them? I don't. Instead of laying groundwork into one of the biggest mythological constructs in the Onceiverse--the idea of Saviorhood--Aladdin simply appeared when needed, helped Emma see the light, and then became a genie. Along the way we got still more stories that were teased before dropped like a hot potato for next year--like Charming's father, the Black Fairy, and even Gideon. This isn't to say that there weren't good moments or ideas here. Lana Parilla got to act her socks off playing both the Evil Queen and Regina; Snowing's centric episode was a delightful reminder of how powerful their love story is. Little things like costume, some of the CGI and witty one-liners remain a staple of the good parts of this show, but that's part of the problem: only the little things remain.

Final Rating for Season 6A: C

Final Episode Ranking for Season 6A (least to favorite) 

10. Street Rats (6x5)
9. Changelings (6x9)
8. Wish You Were Here (6x10)
7. The Savior (6x1)
6. A Bitter Draught (6x2)
5. The Other Shoe (6x3)
4. I'll Be Your Mirror (6x8)
3. Dark Waters (6x6)
2. Strange Case (6x4)
1. Heartless (6x7)

See everyone in March!