Sunday, June 25, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x11)

Had we but world enough and time, 
This coyness, lady, were no crime. 
We would sit down, and think which way 
To walk, and pass our long love’s day. 
--Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress."

The relationship between the Master/Mistress and the Doctor has always occupied a rather complicated sphere. They are antagonists, to be sure; the megalomania of the Master matching the Doctor's heroic streak point by point. Over the course of this very long series, they've engaged in more fights and battles than I could possibly detail here, but what makes the Master/Doctor relationship so meaty is that it does not just occupy the enemies space. There is a delicate push and pull of regret and longing that we don't find in, say, the Doctor's relationship with the Daleks or, as is more appropriate for this week's episode "World Enough and Time," the Cybermen. Behind the Doctor's unrelenting need to stop whatever plans the Master has concocted this time around to burn planets and destroy anything and anyone the Doctor loves, is a hope that our hero in a blue box can save his oldest friend. Nostalgia; it gets us all in the end. Trusting Missy, believing that she can be redeemed and be good, is possibly a very stupid move on the Doctor's part, especially by episode's end when we--and our Time Lord--are confronted by one of the most dangerous versions of his foe to date--but he wouldn't be the Doctor if he wasn't constantly trying to save everyone. It's a heartbreaking episode that also ramps up the stakes for the finale next week. Grab your ever present IV and let's go!

In a segment at the top of the hour, during a rib tickling hilarious bit where Missy pretends to be the Doctor (sorry, pretends to be Doctor Who), the devious Time Lord tells Bill Potts that the Doctor doesn't have friends. Only another Time Lord can serve as a friend to a Time Lord; everything else is just "cradle robbing." This point is emphasized over and over as Missy finds new and laugh out loud ways to characterize Bill and Nardole as anything but friends to the Doctor. This upsets Bill and with good reason; the Doctor is many things to our girl, friend being among them. This season has had a lot of nice focus on the various facets of relationship the Doctor can have with one human; he's served as a professor and mentor, a father and grandfather, a god and savior, and--for Bill who has enjoyed all of these different variations on a theme--a friend, as well. Moments like the Doctor chatting to Bill while she works in the cafeteria or the two of them enjoying fish and chips on the rooftop show how the Doctor has become the perfect companion for Bill. He doesn't put pressure on her to be something she's not, like her foster mother who doesn't grasp Bill's sexuality, but he is also there to bolster her, encourage her, and help her transcend whatever mundane and normal human life she was living before she met him. But for Missy, this lovely human/Time Lord relationship is a farce because it cannot possibly be real. As close as Bill and the Doctor might be, our plucky assistant (or pet or snack) isn't a Time Lord and therefore cannot possibly be as close to the Doctor as someone like Missy could. It's a point that the Doctor actually emphasizes as well, revealing to Bill that Missy is the only other person who's like him and his first memories of him/her are as a child at the academy; they aren't terrifying memories of a lad who wanted to watch worlds burn, but of a clever, smart, funny kid who made a pact with his dearest friend to go and see all the stars someday. Two drifters off to see the stars. Is it any wonder the Doctor has been trying to fill that void ever since the Master turned? When the Master went mad and began plotting to burn worlds instead of visiting them, the Doctor didn't just gain an enemy, he lost a friend and it's this quiet but hopeful desperation that the Doctor can get that friend back that causes him to lose his other companion. Poor Bill. Poor, poor, poor Bill.

It's hard to watch a companion go out in this manner, if indeed this is Bill's end. After almost an 11 full episodes, Bill has become the surprise all-star of the season. Her quick wit, her compassion, and her wonder at the universe have made her (and yes, I'm about to use certain words again) a refreshing delight to a series that can often fall into the formulaic. Bill has an interesting relationship with the Doctor because of all those aforementioned layers that ultimately comes down to a deep level of trust between the two; so when the Doctor plants an order in her subconscious of "wait for me," Bill has no problem believing that the Doctor will come for her and, in turn, I have no problem believing that Bill would make the best of being tied to one location for years on end, with only a fairly crazy janitor for company, waiting for the Doctor's time stream to catch up. In a lot of ways, the ending for this episode would have been pretty easy to write if there weren't so many twists and turns. The Doctor arrives on site, manages to get the metal heart out of Bill, realizes he's about to encounter the Mondasian Cybermen, reveal the Master as behind the whole plot (complete with the Scooby Doo face mask peel off--damn those meddling kids!) and then find a way to save the day with Bill and Nardole as he has done before. Where the episode becomes one of the best of the season, is in the way it upends your expectations. Suddenly, it's to the Mistress that the Master is revealed, with Missy perhaps taking his side. It's not Bill the Doctor runs into but a Bill-turned-Cyberman, the Doctor appearing to be too late to save her; in a lot of ways this brings us back around to the point I, Missy, and the Doctor, were making in the above paragraph. Can the Doctor have friends who are not Time Lords or are Time Lords his true friends? For the former, the answer has always been yes, be it Classic or New Who. We've never doubted that the Doctor doesn't just look at those who live in the TARDIS with him as pets or lesser creatures upon whom he can bestow his godlike wisdom and grace; they are his companions in the truest sense of the world. Allies, partners, friends. The stumbling block comes where it always comes: in the Master/Mistress. The writers this year have been pushing the narrative that Missy is changing but it's hard to accept that as true when she is standing next to the Master, with a Cyberman Bill in between them, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Missy is great at playing long games but would the Doctor's true friend play such a game when the Doctor is in anguish over the loss of someone, especially when it's her former self who is responsible for said loss? The question circling the end of this season is can Missy be good? Or have the Doctor's hopes once again been misplaced.

 Miscellaneous Notes on World Enough and Time

--If the flashforward at the top of the episode is any indication, the Doctor will regenerate alone, in the cold snow, in anguish. I'm not ready for this.

--The music this episode--particularly the motif where we are examining the space ship and the Black Hole--were stunning.

--I wish I could quote the whole Missy speech in the beginning but a smattering of funny lines will have to suffice: "Hello, I'm Doctor Who. These are my plucky assistants, Thing One and the Other One."

--"What does he call you? Companions? Pets? ....Snacks?"

--"These are my disposables...exposition and comic relief."

--"Are you human?" "Oh, don't be a bitch."

--Missy (and the writers) casually trolling the fandom by insisting that the Doctor's name is really Doctor Who was possibly the most meta piece of exposition this show has ever done. I was laughing a bit too hard at "I've known him since a child and his real name is Doctor Who! He dropped the 'Who' later because it was a bit too on the nose"

--The Doctor addresses one of the peskier elephants in the room for the show as a whole when he insists that the Time Lords are the most advanced civilization in the universe and are beyond human obsession with gender and stereotypes...only to be called out by Bill that they still call themselves "Time Lords." Well done, show. Well done.

--I am troubled by the image that the show's first full time LGBT companion is killed off by a character we've never met before and to serve as a narrative point for a white man but there is something deeply political about that same LGBT character's story being a horrifying look at "conversion" to become "just like everyone else."

--John Simm, it has been too long. Welcome back to your classic role. I really look forward to seeing what goes down between the Doctor, CyberBill, Nardole, Missy and the Master next week! One to go....

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x8)

Every religion or code of faith is a story. It has all the hallmarks of a good narrative; there's a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; there are heroes and villains, quests for redemption and falls from grace. There are deeds of valor and actions of woe; magical creatures, far off places, larger than life characters who work their charms alongside any other talents or gifts the world has given to them. And like all good stories, faith is asking for only one thing: belief. Since the beginning of the series, I--and American Gods--have pounded home the idea that at its center, this show is about belief. Testing belief, finding belief, expanding your belief, losing belief, discovering all the unique ways that belief and faith manifest in our world--and in worlds unseen--are all at the heart of American Gods and perhaps no other episode quite captures that essence more than the season finale, "Come to Jesus," a fairly apropos title given that, on the one hand, there are several Jesuss' that are wandering around a villa in Kentucky on Easter and, on the other hand, the term means to have a conversation that leads to an epiphany, a reckoning, or an understanding. Shadow Moon, welcome to belief. It only gets weirder from here. Grab your bunny rabbit that poops jelly beans and let's go!

Every character in this episode has a story to sell and they are really hoping that you'll believe in it long enough to get whatever it is they want. Let's start with one of the more complicated stories to parse out: Shadow Moon and the problem of disbelief. Maybe the most frustrating--but necessary given the medium of TV where revelations are best served up in a climax--thing about Shadow is that after seven episodes of bat guano crazy twists and turns--from Laura coming back to life, to Not-Really-Lucy-Ricardo talking to him out of a TV, Marilyn Monroe floating and revealing herself to be in cahoots with the likes of Technology and Mr. World, to six foot plus leprechauns, to Slavic sisters and their cow killing family member--Shadow still doesn't know what to believe and worse still doesn't know if he believes in anything. It's a bit preposterous given that his confession of non-faith is given to a version of Jesus with a literal glowing halo who is literally floating on water. I'm not sure how Shadow, at this point, manages to avoid belief of any kind given all he's seen except to handwave it away as the magic of TV needing our hero and protagonist to come into belief by way of something explosive. However bizarre and frustrating, Shadow's disbelief serves a purpose in that it helps to illustrate how ordinary Americans manage to fall out of belief due to circumstance of life or the absence of gods that they can touch, feel, see, and interact with which in turn leads to the likes of Mr. Wednesday and his war. The ever present multiple Jesuss's (Jesi? Jesuses?) are a good example here. They are not the real McCoy; they're a specific image of an image, almost a magic trick meant to fool the observer. The reason why there are so many is because belief in Jesus takes many different forms from Catholic to Protestant to Greek Orthodox to Coptic and, I mean this quite seriously, the list could go on for quite awhile. Lists within lists. Jesus, a lot like Vulcan, can be adapted for whatever the believer needs: King of Kings, prophet, humble shepherd, fully human, fully divine, son of god, messiah, savior, or guy down on his luck. For Shadow and others it's hard to know which one to latch on to because while they all present a similar image, the up close version is distorted. Notice how the various types of Jesus have precious little to say that is meaningful; the one interaction we get between Shadow and the main Jesus is a platitude: "I am belief. I don't know how to be anything else." That's not super helpful and because it's so very opaque and Shadow is looking for something he can hold on to; it's no wonder that it takes Wednesday with a lightening storm, screaming his various names for Shadow's eyes to truly open and believe in something real. Wednesday feels real; he's tangible in a way that the other ephemeral Jesuss' aren't. The other part of Shadow's story that he's trying to sell (and failing at every turn, poor guy) is that he's so angry at Wednesday for how massively weird his life has gotten that he doesn't care about the truth, about what's really going on. The story Shadow himself wants to believe is that he can walk away from Wednesday at any time. But, of course, Shadow can't because a big part of Shadow wants to believe; he wants the surety of faith that everything that has happened has some sort of explanation. Shadow's story is one from disbelief and heavy skepticism to belief; because seeing is believing, he has finally witnessed that the gods are real and that there actually might be a reason behind all the crazy happenings around him.

At the center of Shadow's journey into belief is Mr. Wednesday who sells stories better than anyone we've met so far. The New Gods offer too much flash, too much pizzazz in their stories to make us receptive; they offer almost nothing concrete. Like Mr. Wednesday has told them twice now, they are mere distractions from any existential crisis of faith. What he offers, by contrast, is inspiration and, more importantly for the Old Gods he's trying to recruit: meaning. I should pause here to point out a few things; first it's worth noting that Wednesday lies a lot. He flat out lies to Easter (sorry, Ostara) about Vulcan's fate, claiming it was the New Gods who killed the lord of firepower. Second, the Old Gods understand that Wednesday is a tricky fellow. Several times gods have called him fraud, a deceiver, a liar, and outside of verbal cues we have many instances of Wednesday selling a story that simply isn't true from acting like a senile old man to get on to a plane, to pretending to be a bank guard taking people's deposits. The idea that Mr. Wednesday lies hovers around our story, even as it asks us to believe everything he is saying. It's a nice push/pull between wanting to believe and put faith in Odin despite what our eyes are telling us. The show has made clear several times that the motivation behind Mr. Wednesday's lies and trickery is desperation. He has been forgotten over time; his name (or names) no longer have any meaning in America except as a myth long since replaced by something newer, shiner, and prettier. If belief is the life blood of these Old Gods, prayers and sacrifices the appetizer and main course, then Odin is--essentially--starving. No one lifts up their voice in song to him anymore, no one beseeches him, no one offers up the fated calf, and so he'll spin his tale in whatever manner he can so that he can feast once more. His interactions with Easter demonstrate that he's not willing to go gently into that good night; he can't sell his soul--for want of a better term--and change his story to suit the new world; Easter can, though it's not the same. Easter's story offers up a chance to see how hollow Odin and the other Old Gods would be if they accepted the New Gods's way of life. Her high holiday has been overtaken by a different religion but also become a mass product that can be sold, not just to the religiously minded but to atheists as well. Peeps, Cadbury eggs, bunnies and chicks, it doesn't matter if you're of the faith or not, Easter has become a holiday that all participate in, though it's sugary sweet and doesn't fulfill anyone, Ostara least of all. The story Ostara is selling is one of peace through accommodation; hair pinned up, a beautiful picture but simply that: an image of an image. The real Ostara is spring itself; wild, beautiful, full of life and rebirth, and utterly powerful. What's interesting about Wednesday in all this is that it takes lying and manipulating Ostara to bring her back her muchness, to borrow a phrase. Does that make her return to self false? Or less powerful? Does it mean that, should Ostara find out what really happened to Vulcan, that she'll regress? Or does it not matter how one gets to belief and fullness just so long as they get there? Questions for season two, I suspect.

And finally, we have a few other stories being sold by various peoples and gods. The New Gods really like their narrative that you can't stop progress and that progress in and of itself is good. They are good because they are new, different, and longer lasting (or so they imagine). I don't know that progress itself is bad, but it is the way these New Gods want to go about doing it, which is to say destroying the old and offering something less substantial in their place. Wednesday is right; Media and Technology are distractions for the most part. We offer up our time, our energy, our attention, and sometimes each other for our computers, our phones, our TVs and I have to wonder if we really get anything in return (this is a deep piece of irony given that I spend several days a week writing a TV blog, parsing out one of the more prolific types of media for deeper meanings). Laura's story is that she has so much to live for, having finally realized that Shadow makes her happy to be alive and surely someone can help her; Mad Sweeney's story is that he can undo his past mistakes of killing Laura in the first place by resurrecting her with the help of Ostara. Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Hollywood, Bilquis tells herself the story that selling her soul to the New Gods is worth their price because she feels like a goddess again. All of these stories from Shadow to Wednesday to Easter to Laura to the New Gods to Mad Sweeney to Bilquis have belief at their center. The belief in love, in power, in sex, in progress, in life, in strength, in reverence, and in belief itself. We started off American Gods with a simple commandment: believe. Now as we move into the next phase of the story, a question arises: what do we do with all this belief?

Miscellaneous Notes on Come to Jesus 

--The art director for this show deserves all the awards not only for every single shot of Easter's house but also for the carefully constructed sewing room at Mr. Nancy's. Talk about gorgeous!

--"Once upon a time...see it sounds good already. You're hooked." Anansi doing what Anansi does best, telling a tall tale.

--Can we start a petition to have Ricky Whittle dress in grey and lavender all the time? Damn.

--"Worship is volume based; whoever has the most followers wins the game."

--I don't think I'd welcome Wednesday into my house either if he kept running over my bunny rabbits.

--"What are you pissed off about?" "You just cut off your friends head!"

--"People create gods when they wonder why things happen. Why do things happen? Because gods make things happen."

--There is a great power in sacrifice, most religious texts and traditions will tell you that. Notice that Laura was a sacrifice to get Shadow to where he is now, literally and mentally. Also, take note that Odin dedicates the deaths of the faceless men to Ostara which seems to give her some sort of power that she previously lacked.

--"Do you believe, Shadow?" "I believe." "What do you believe?" "Everything."

--I have enjoyed every single second of this show and reviewing it this season. The writers, actors, the producers, and everyone else have done Neil Gaiman and his magnificent work proud. Thanks to everyone who read! See you in season two.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x10)

It's hard to praise this week's episode, "The Eaters of Light," and not sound just a wee bit like a hypocrite. Why? Because the broad pitch of this week's episode is almost identical to last week's episode. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole find themselves in the middle of a skirmish between an invading force and the natives; the travelers try to negotiate peace and understanding between the two cultures so that the blows do not claim more lives. I had a lot of issues with last week's Mars centric episode because I felt it did not push any sort of boundaries and stayed too safe in the blandness in regards to both sides of warriors nor did it give any of our major characters a chance to shine. This week's episode did the opposite, dispensing with carbon copy tropes of hardened and dogmatic soldiers versus bitter and resentful natives, and instead couched the entire sequence of events in something more human and real. In other words, everything that was missing from last week's Ice Warriors episode is found here in the second century Scottish countryside. Grab some weaponized popcorn and let's go!

It might be helpful, when discussing this week's episode, to think about it terms of contrast to last week's. There was so much done right in comparison to last week's wrong--or if not outright wrong, than at least underwhelming and rote. Like last week, the mission to parts unknown is spurred on by a mystery, though this one is (literally) grounded to Earth and comes from Bill's insatiable curiosity for the unknown and nothing stumbled upon on a way to a different mission. Pausing quickly, but this is one of the better through-lines of this season; Bill's entrance into the TARDIS and into the Doctor's life is not one of mystery. She isn't a puzzle to figure out, clues carefully hidden throughout the text, her every word and mannerism supposed to telegraph something unknowable. Bill is simply....Bill and much like Rose or Donna before her, her adventures with the Doctor come from her desire to learn and to know. The universe, all of time and space, is the mystery for Bill to puzzle out and it's to the show's credit that they let her reason things out on her own, not needing the Doctor's (glaringly male) hand to guide her into realizations big and small. For example, past companions have needed the Doctor to explain why everyone in space speaks English (they aren't, of course, but the TARDIS and the Doctor are able to auto-translate what babble the aliens or peoples of the past/future are saying); but Bill didn't get the same explanation. She figured it out on her own in a particularly funny Latin/English exchange with a Roman soldier. Since this review is all about the contrast from last week's episode, Bill's active role is a good one to focus on for the moment. Last week, Bill didn't have much to do and, in fact, my most major complaint about the episode was how it missed the mark on letting Bill and the Empress of Mars present a unique version of feminism on and off world. This week, while femininity isn't exactly on display in an obvious way, Bill's active role is. Bill sets off on her own, wanting to solve the mystery of the Roman legion before the Doctor can; when she stumbles (er, falls down a hole) into the remaining bits of the legion she does not simply wait for rescue but uses her time with the lads to tell them about the Doctor and his way of seeing the universe. When Bill realizes that her long sought after Romans are really just boys with swords, she takes charge, she tells them how they are going to get away from the monster. Bill has been one of the season's best surprises, turning Moffat's typical (and often maligned) female companion on its head. I've used the word refreshing on Bill more times than I can count but it bears repeating: she is a breath of fresh air in a show that can often get bogged down in formula.

And while we're speaking of breaking the formula, there's another really well sold contrast in this episode when compared to last week's: the soldiers. In the Mars episode of last week, the soldiers were mostly devoid of personality, totally flat archetypes of battled hardened men (and Ice Warriors) who showed little fear in the face of actual battle. Men (and women) all around, they faced battle with grim determination, faltering neither in resolve nor courage nor dogmatic approach to ridding the planet of those they considered enemies. It's not that these types of soldiers don't exist in the real world but they are rather hard to connect to. This week our soldiers weren't battle tested; they were children. This is a point that is driven home time and time again by both the Doctor and by Bill; making the soldiers young does one vital thing that the Mars episode failed to do--a sympathetic link to them as characters is almost instantaneous. The episode would likely have been less successful if one side was demonstrably older than the other but in keeping both the Picts and the Romans as young children, the writers were able to show a commonality between the two parties which went from subtext to text when Bill and the Doctor got involved, imploring them to drop their weapons and work together to fend off the monster who eats light. Going along with that, we have a different version of the Doctor, one we haven't seen much in the past but one that keeps making an appearance this year: the father (or, if you like, grandfather). The Doctor has always fit into several different molds of archetype; clearly the mythic hero or the angry god is obvious, but it's easy to forget that, when this show began, he was a grouchy old grandfather trying to curtail his granddaughter and newly minted companions in one breath. It's a role that Peter Capaldi does as well as William Hartnell did in the 1960s largely because Capaldi has already made his version of the Time Lord a bit of a grouch who is ever so slightly exasperated with the "young kids" under his watch. The Doctor-as-Father, though, doesn't just mean a grouchy exterior. It means a fearless and unyielding protection for those he has sworn to take care of. Sacrifice comes easy for the Doctor; as he said, he doesn't die he just regenerates. But this sacrifice comes not just from his mythic hero status but from his role as a parent/grandparent. These Roman and Pictish soldiers are, after all, just kids. Asking them to leap into a never ending battle inside a time rift with a dragon-monster-thing isn't something any parent worth their salt would ask a child to do; the parent would always take that role on themselves. In the best line of the night, the Doctor reminds Bill that he's been guarding Earth's creatures since they were all children: "I've been standing at the gate of your world keeping you all safe since you crawled out of the slime." It's a pleasant contrast to last week's episode where the Doctor was a weary soldier and negotiator, a role we've seen him take up several times not only this year but in Capaldi's entire run. All of this is to say that if Doctor Who took several missteps with the Monk trilogy and with the excursion to Mars, this has certainly gotten the show back on track as we head into the final two episodes of the season.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Eaters of Light

--Just in case anyone thinks it's all sunshine and roses from me this week, the titular monster is one of the blandest and least developed of the era.

--As poignant and sweet as the episode was, the crow “Kar/Caw” thing was eye roll inducing. There’s a line, Doctor Who, between heartfelt and sickly sweet.

--Remind me to use popcorn as an escape mechanism if ever I’m in trouble.

--The Doctor not only lived in Roman times but he also juggled and was a Vestal Virgin, second class.

--“It’s called charm.” “I’m against that.”

--The final thread of this week's episode is the continuing Missy saga. I've already expressed misgivings about this plot because the moments of redemption or reflection on Missy's part are like this one here: kept and confined to the final few moments of the episode. Redeeming the Master/Mistress isn't something that should be left until the the end of an arc; this is a villain almost as old as the Doctor himself and there's a lot of ground to cover.

--However, there is a really nice push/pull between the Doctor and Missy; the former wants to hope that he might get his old friend back but the idea that she is pulling a long con on him fits with Missy's modus operandi more.

--Going along with that, though, it does look like Missy will be a focal point of the show for these last few episodes. Can the writers sell it? We shall see.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x7)

When it comes to adaptations of novels, especially novels that I hold dear to my heart, I am a book purist. The book did it first, it did it the best, and the adaptation need not stray into uncharted waters because the perfect layout--with a clear beginning, middle, and an end--has already been written. The adaptation's job is to color the world with living, breathing actors who can capture the written word perfectly. In other words, an episode like this week's "A Prayer for Mad Sweeney" shouldn't have so captured my heart and been such a careful and considerate character study of two side character who, in the novel "American Gods," appear only a handful of times and mostly without adding anything character driven to the plot. Mad Sweeney and Laura show up to move the plot along--and one of them vanishes fairly quickly--or to hinder Shadow emotionally and literally but that's all. Fodder for the text, you might say. What this episode did was nothing short of remarkable, if only because I find that I honestly don't care that the vast majority of this episode took a brief "Coming to America" side story in Gaiman's novel meant to demonstrate how myths come to America from various places and made it feel like a piece of narrative as worthy to be told as Shadow's hero's journey and Mr. Wednesday's war. Put some bread and cream out for the fairy folk and let's go!

Nothing in this episode should have worked. Mad Sweeney has largely been played for laughs; he's been punched, kicked, robbed, and thrown from a moving vehicle at least once. His luck has run out and because we heavily and automatically associate leprechauns with luck, there's an inherent dramatic irony in watching a 6 foot plus Irish leprechaun stumble his way around modern America, getting his ass more or less handed to him at every turn. Mad Sweeney has been loud, rude, crude, and a danging thread in Mr. Wednesday's sprawling opus. Laura, on the other hand, got a whole episode to color her character but it did her few favors. Understand her we might, but sympathizing with her is much harder as we watched her attempts to find a reason to live before she actually died. This is why throwing in Salim, with his doe eyed belief and rigorous religious practice, was a delightful and smart move on the part of the writers. Two totally impious and unholy individuals strike up a deal with deeply pious and religious taxi driver who has literally been one with a mythical being. If there wasn't a coming war in America, it might be the start of sitcom. It's curious, then, that the writers dispense with Salim so quickly, sending him off in search for his djinn (stopping five times a day to pray to Allah along the way). That's why this episode shouldn't have worked; it does away with what was working to focus on two elements that, up until now, have been periphery to the main thrusts of the major plot of the show. To wit, Shadow and Mr. Wednesday do not appear at all and instead we get a multi-generational, mythical flashback about how Mad Sweeney came to American via a very stubborn, obstinate, and resilient Irish girl named Essie (cleverly played by the same actress portraying Laura Moon). What strikes me most about this episode is how singularly focused it is. Sure the themes of belief and prayer and remembrance are all there, tucked inside Essie's pocket like so much salt and bread. But what this episode is really about--almost in joyous celebration--is life. Just that. Good old fashioned life, with all the twists, turns, faults, and triumphs that come with it.

This story had love, hate, greed, choices, sex, grief, pain, heartache, and death all wrapped into one and in spite of taking place in 1721, Essie and Mad Sweeney's story felt universal. This is a life fully lived and while Laura and Essie aren't the same person, and Mad Sweeney isn't human at all, there's something transcendental about the way Essie's story was told. As if everyone is Essie because we've all been through the same hallmarks of life that she passed through. One of the things this adaptation of American Gods is trying to do, and I'd saying doing very well, is tell an immigrant story, of what it means to come to America. It doesn't matter if they are Vikings in the 9th century, an Egyptian woman, an Arabic man in New York, a group of Natives from long ago who crossed the Bering Straight, or a red haired Irish girl who lied and cunningly schemed her way to America, all the immigrant stories are the same at their core. They are painful and hopeful, sad and joyous. They are human stories, not to point to fine a point on it. The reason these Old Gods can come together and join up with Wednesday, in spite of coming from vastly different mythologies, from different time periods over different parts of the world, is because they understand what it means to be an immigrant. They are more alike than they are different and in the end, when Mad Sweeney gives up his lucky coin to save the already dead girl lying on the side of the road it's because he understands what it means to want something, to go after something and to feel alone--because after all, isn't Laura Moon just another kind of immigrant--and he's capturing the commonality of all the peoples and gods before him. His need for his lucky coin doesn't outweigh Laura's need for Shadow or forgiveness. If anything, his need for his lucky coin means he understands why Laura is holding on to Shadow and why Essie held on to her stories and beliefs. In America--a land where gods live and die as belief turns from the old to the new warp speed fast and without cycling back around--it's important to hold on to those things, those totems, those beliefs, that make us who we are. It's the same for all of us, be we human or god.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Prayer for Mad Sweeney 

--It sounds like all the gods are headed for the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. Hopefully, we aren't too far behind because--no exaggeration--it's my favorite part of the novel.

--"In truth, the American colonies were more of a dumping ground.

--"I will eat you!" Honestly surprised more people do not threaten Huginn and Muninn given how annoying they can be.

--Mad Sweeney himself becomes a much more sympathetic figure in this episode as we not only hear about how he fled from a war, but also hear just how far his kind have fallen over time. From kings to fairies to being a joke and mascot for a breakfast cereal. Is it any wonder he'd join up with Wednesday?

--Another thing that shouldn't have worked but did: the 1950 doo-whop soundtrack that played throughout most of the flashbacks.

--"The more abundant the blessings, the more we forget to pray."

Sunday, June 11, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x9)

Okay, Doctor Who. I think it's time we had a serious chat because this is yet another week where I feel you've dropped the plot ball and are simply spinning your wheels rather aimlessly. It's not that this week's episode "Empress of Mars" is bad but it certainly isn't good either. It's a very standard, by the book, rote episode. Two opposing forces face off, the Doctor and his companion intercede and we get another look at the Twelfth Doctor as a negotiator, something Moffat and company have been hammering home since Capaldi took over the role three years ago. This is an unremarkable episode, with a forgettable plot, that adds almost nothing to the season as a whole. That's harsh, I know, but after a much hyped trilogy that ended abruptly before it was allowed to really be fleshed out, a return to the norm might be expected, but the episode fails to elevate itself above the anticipated and expected. I'm still waiting for this season to recapture the momentum it had for the first few episodes when it not only felt like a new experience but when the show genuinely had something to say. The saddest bit is that the fix for this episode is simple and it would have made for a much more interesting hour: Bill and the Empress discuss feminism, the patriarchy, and colonialism. Come on, tell me that doesn't sound fascinating. Grab your Gargantua and tally ho, let's go! 

There's a pretty consistent through-line in this episode about colonialism and the irreversible effects of the conquering nation on the conquered. This is a more tricky to approach as an American than it would be if I were, say, British. It's not that America didn't get its feet wet in colonialism--our nation was quite literally ripped away from the indigenous peoples living here--but we've never really experienced the kind of dissolution in Empire that our neighbors across the pond did; there's a reason the old saying "the sun rose and set on the British Empire" exists. The British Empire at the time of Queen Victoria, specifically in 1881 when the Doctor and Bill land on the surface of Mars, was immense. It spanned to almost every corner of the globe, across several--if not all--the livable continents (poor Antarctica, always left out!). The psychological, literary, and cultural effects of colonialization are far reaching and require years of study to really parse out; in other words, more time and effort than I admittedly expect Doctor Who to tackle in one hour of TV. The colonialism trope is a staple of science-fiction and it's more than acceptable for Doctor Who to stick to the hallmark traits of an openly hostile conquering race (British humans, in this case) who are pit against a conquered race (the Ice Warriors) in which the conquered culture is seen as foreign, other, and ultimately inferior to the conquering culture. For example, one British soldier remarks, "Don't belong? We're British; Mars is part of the Empire now!" and another red coated officer pays no mind to the sacrality of a tomb and instead proceeds to pry off the coffin's gemstones. I understand that all narratives need a driving force so I'm not asking that the show cut the entirety of the skirmish. To wit, looking at the episode presented before me, it does have a fast pace and lots of explosions, the much lauded chemistry between Bill and the Doctor, and various subplots that quickly endear or deride the one-off characters. As a stand alone episode, it fulfills a lot of Doctor Who requirements. The issue, for me, is that it's just not enough to give the episode a passing grade. This episode could have joined the ranks of "Thin Ice" in terms of unpacking clever political analysis instead of avoiding it. When the Ice Queen arrives on the scene, we get an indomitable, strong, female force, something all too rare in any sort of warrior culture where men get the lion's share of credit. It's a right shame, then, that the episode didn't put a giant pause on the predictable battle of conquering vs conquered and, instead, give viewers a meaty and weighted conversation and think piece between Iraxxa, the Queen, and Bill, our queer, colored, modern working class woman. There was so much to pick up here between what it means to be female between human and Ice Warrior, the relationship between male and female, and even colonialism given not only Bill's skin color, but also the fact that she just saved her planet from being invaded by hostile alien-Monks! We get a small morsel of this when Iraxxa wants Bill's opinion because "we are both surrounded by noisy males" but then the episode drops any further development of this idea and focuses instead on the internal angst of a lot of male figures. I understand that Doctor Who isn't hard science-fiction and likes to stay in the more pulpy, campy, and often fantastical lane but for a season that has been so politically charged, more's the pity that the writers didn't find a way to cut large parts of the male-orientated drama (a coup, a dishonorable officer who gets his honor back, the tiredness of a soldier who returns home at last) and focus on something a bit more relevant and modern.

Miscellaneous Notes on Empress of Mars

--Speaking of shame, the eponymous Empress of Mars was a one-note character until the end. She did little but bark orders at her warriors and hiss at the humans. The only coloring she got was when she spared the officer's life.

--Well hey there Alpha Centauri! That's a blast from the long ago past if ever there was one.

--"Sorry, I never could resist a countdown."

--Why did the TARDIS zip Nardole back to the present day Earth? And why did Missy keep inquiring if the Doctor was okay when the team was all reunited? I have a feeling this dangling thread will come back before the season is over.

--It would have been very meta if the picture of Queen Victoria kept by the army had born a more striking resemblance to Jenna Coleman given her latest TV project.

--I think this is the least amount I’ve laughed during an episode all season. The only chuckle I got was that the Doctor hasn’t seen classic sci-fi movies like the Terminator or The Thing, but he has seen Disney's Frozen. Go figure.

--"You will die with honor, with bravery, and in fighting for those you have sworn to protect." Geez, foreshadowing the regeneration much?

Monday, June 5, 2017

In Which I Review American Gods (1x6)

In my first review of American Gods, I quoted Mr. Wednesday as he attempts to explain to Shadow Moon that no one is American, not originally. This week's episode, "A Murder of Gods," more than any other so far is about another of the central ruminations in Gamain's book, right up there with belief: identity. The two are not mutually exclusive, to be sure. As Vulcan, god of firepower and weaponry, tells Mr. Wednesday over a particularly tense drink in Virginia, "you are what you worship." A search for identity goes hand in hand with a search for what you believe in, a journey to find something to claim as your own. It could be a person, a feeling, a coin, a group of followers, a djinn, and sometimes, a whole lot of gun toting nutters. Belief and, religious belief at that, has the power to bring people together but it also has the ability to separate us from "others." We box ourselves and each other into neat little boxes (that are rarely--and hardly ever stay--neat) and we set up a wicked but easy dichotomy of us vs them. And, hey, to be fair, isn't that what Mr. Wednesday is doing as well? New Gods vs Old Gods is just as much an us vs them mentality as other competing religious franchises.  There is one question that is repeated time and time again this episode, and every time it's met with confusion, more questions, and answers bordering on the insane. "What are you?" It might be mostly directed at the gods that populate our narrative but it applies to all of us, human or god, dead or alive. Get your trusty side arm and let's go! 

Everyone in this week's episode is trying to figure out who they are by way of trying to piece together who the people around them are. It's a messy way to find yourself because it relies on you being introspective enough to understand that what you believe you're seeing in the person next to you is a reflection of who you really are. Everyone, that is, except Vulcan who knows damn well who he is because he found his own little slice of American life that freely, eagerly even, worships him even when they don't realize they are doing so. That's why it is so easy for Vulcan to betray Wednesday in the end; like the New Gods urged Wednesday to do last week, Vulcan adapted. He figured out how to get his needed worship (and blood sacrifices) in this new, complicated, and unstructured land by finding the piece of America that would believe in him. If this episode is all about fractured identities--Salim who is neither Salim nor Ibrahim, the six foot Leprechaun who cannot be a proper lucky Leprechaun without his coin, the clinically dead woman who is more alive than ever, the Old God trying to stay relevant in a world that has forgotten him--then this episode is also taking another cue from Gaiman's work of a fractured America. Mr. Wednesday began this discussion in a previous episode that America is the only country that doesn't know what it is because America is more of a whispery idea than an actual tangible concept. America is full of so many different people who believe so many competing things about what America is that the idea of America can never truly settle into itself. This might be a fictionalized world but as we look around at America today in 2017, ain't that the damn truth? As Mr. Wednesday puts it this week while he and Shadow roll into a one select corner of America, "everybody looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face." It's why so many different gods can pop up in America. There is no America.

So if everyone is trying to work out their identity, then what exactly is identity here in this show? It's a way to get wherever you need to be. Vulcan needs to be worshiped, needs those precious blood sacrifices, so he'll turn himself into the god of firepower, turning religious worship into a franchise with factories, time cards, and hailstorms of bullets if it means he gets to keep on keeping on. There's a great line from Gaiman that works well here to illustrate this point: "You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified, essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief and become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystallize." Vulcan knows that no one is going to worship a god of fire and volcanoes, but a god of guns? Hell yes. Conversely, Laura needs to get to Shadow but is trapped in the past, unable to move on to the future she wants. Her identity is a mix between being a dead person with all the accompanying delightful smells, sketchy appearances, and gung-ho expressions of "fuck those assholes" and being alive, a wife and a daughter who is trailing after her husband and stopping off to see her family one last time. Mad Sweeney tells Laura to "choose one" meaning a car to steal but there's an undertone of choosing which life Laura wants: dead or alive. In the end, Laura settles into the identity that will get her Shadow, the thing she is seeking. This identity is as a dead person seeking resurrection, even if it means losing sight of her husband for awhile. Laura is choosing life and for the first time in, likely, her whole life. This isn't a test of her resolve to see how far she can push herself before she feels that spark of life; Laura's choosing the identity of a woman seeking to live again now that she's discovered how wonderful life is which brings us to Salim, our taxi driver who stumbled his way back into the narrative. Salim is an example of what Laura could be once she lets go of all her past identity issues. Salim used to be scared and timid, having sex with men in back alleys and taking crap jobs with an abusive brother-in-law to make his way in the world. That Salim died after a night spent with a djinn and something new was born. This new creature might bear a striking resemblance to Salim but, as Laura keeps calling him, he's not Salim. He has no real identity except that which he constantly creates; Salim is living a new life after his old one died and passed into the ether. This new life is more carefree, more open. Salim can hold onto the things in the past he loved--like Allah--but he can also incorporate the love he bears for a djinn without feeling torn asunder. He's an interesting character for Laura to interact with since that's essentially what she's trying to do. Salim could be a guide for her, a flashing neon sign telling her that she can have a new life and new identity if she just believes.

Miscellaneous Notes on A Murder of Gods

--In my very first review of American Gods I also posited the question of what exactly was a god. It's something Mr. Wednesday shoots at Shadow as well before trying to explain, "people believe things which means they're real. That means we know they exist. What came first--gods or the people who believed in them?"

--"I got stabbed by Charlie Brown's Christmas tree!"

--My stomach did a whole lot of churning watching Wednesday pull out a root from Shadow's insides.

--“What the fuck are you? I mean, what the fuck are any of you, but first tell me, what the fuck are you?"

--"Did you just name drop Jesus Christ like you know a guy who knows a guy?" Laura and Sweeney's comedic timing is on point and I'm quite enjoying this non-novel insert.

--Speaking of Jesus, RIP Mexican Jesus? That whole scene was darkly funny in that of course the very second the Mexicans get across the river they are gunned down (because welcome to America!) but when the tumbleweed blew across Mexican Jesus and left a tumbleweed crown of thorns, I may have laughed just a little too long.

--"You could sacrifice yourself. You've done it before."

--Know Your Gods: This week's pick is fairly obvious and I think Mr. Vulcan himself spells at the underlying problem with me trying to talk about him: "I was a story people forgot to tell." When we think of the great Roman (and Greek) pantheon, Vulcan isn't one of the gods that readily springs to mind because there are few stories that spark out interest. He's no Jupiter, in other words. He is, as you might have guessed, the god of fire, volcanoes, and metalworking (hence the really cool sword). The Romans adopted the Greek god Hephaestus for their Vulcan and both are associated with the same properties listed above; there are some overlapping myths about both so this is Vulcan by way of the Greek god Hephaestus. As you might expect, Hephaestus is responsible for some of the more legendary weapons and items found in mythology like Hermes' winged helmet and sandals, Aphrodite's girdle, Achilles' armor and so on. One aspect of the god that is mostly consistent is his lameness with a shriveled foot; American Gods picks this up by having Vulcan walk with a limp during the street march. How he came about this injury is another matter; some stories say that Hera threw him out of Olympus while others say it was Zeus. Other stories about Hephaestus revolve around his troubled marriage to Aphrodite who was often unfaithful to her husband, particularly with Ares the god of War. There is one story that says Hephaestus, having learned of this affair, caught the two lovebirds in flagrante delicto in an unbreakable net made by the craftsman god himself.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

In Which I Review Doctor Who (10x8)

In this week's episode, and conclusion to the Monk trilogy, "The Lie of the Land," the Doctor Who writers sought to create a world where authoritarians rulers are in absolute power; where there's a constant flow of misinformation, lies disguised as truths, false slogans and empty promises. It's also a world where any action against this state of lies and decay is swiftly and severely punished by the state under the guise of being "for the good of all." So, in other words, it's 2016/2017 and someone like Bill Potts needs to unplug Donald Trump/Nigel Farage/Boris Johnson from the memory-beacon chair so that we can get back to the business of living. Like many episodes so far this year, this week's escapade wants to sit in a hyper dramatized reality of the current worldly situation and, using science fiction as its lens, figure out how the human race can fight back against tyrants, fascists, and speechless Monks of all shapes, sizes, and colors. All you need is love, apparently. Grab on to your favorite memory of you mother and let's go!

To be perfectly honest, this episode only really works for about the first twenty minutes. Everything that comes after is rushed, overly sentimental, and a bit too easy breezy to be a satisfying narrative and conclusion to a three week story. In reality, banding together to topple a dictator, or any sort of fascist regime, is easier said than done and the characters in Doctor Who are helped not only by a Savior-God with two hearts and massive brain but also by some science mumbo-jumbo. To its credit, Doctor Who knows this and telegraphs as much with the Doctor acknowledging that even with the Monks gone, humans still don't learn from their mistakes while exercising free will. In the series of scenes following Bill's rescue (that is not really a rescue) of the Doctor, everything flows too well for a world that is as complicated as the opening narrative and fly by scenes showed. There are no Monks lurking around corners, they don't have sophisticated enough technology to find the erstwhile Bill and Doctor; the zombie creatures reduced to the all too mundane "looking around" in spite of their awe inspiring computer and whiz-bangs that can brainwash an entire planet into thinking that they've been there since the dawn of time. For an episode that really draws heavily from George Orwell's "1984" the writers of this week's episode missed the mark on really getting into the world they set up and examining just how dangerous it can be. The scenes at the beginning were a great way to at least open that particular door and let us as viewers get a foot inside, but Memory Police, constant broadcasting of telepathy designed to subdue and constant vigilance for any Monk naysayers do not go away simply because the Doctor is out and about, no longer confined in his prison. Empty London streets without the ever present eye are not part of this society but to include them would complicate the narrative real estate Moffat and team are working with at a meager 44 minutes. In other words, what I'm really trying to say, is that this trilogy could have worked better if it were a few more episodes. And I honestly believe I would have enjoyed seeing an episode or two of Bill fighting against the Monks, recruiting strangers to her cause because the first 20 minutes of this week's episode were very strong with a well built world, a certain seat-gripping tension, and a reality that strikes a certain chord in anyone living through 2017. The messages of fighting back against false information (or, you know, alternative facts), toppling the lies those in power create isn't a subtle one, but it's a necessary one.

Instead, though, the episode pulls out one of the more annoying TV tropes: the ruse to test loyalty. The performance of the ruse itself was the best part of the episode because--and I think I'm going to say this every week until his regeneration--Peter Capaldi is a world class actor. He brings a wonderful anger to the role that his predecessors only got to hint at in previous incarnations. The basic premise of the ruse is great: what happens when the sworn protector of the planet is fed up with fixing humanity's mistakes? It's not something we or the show have dealt with a whole lot in recent memory but after everything this little blue marble has put the Doctor through, one scared human goes and sells the planet, its people, and its history to a bunch of telepathic Trumps? Yeah, I think I'd have a hard time being forgiving too. It's like the Doctor yells at Bill, "you had free will. And look what you did with it." Given all the political undercurrents in this season, it's not hard to imagine any sort of divine figure looking at the current state of the world and saying the same. But the problem comes in the denouement when Bill, sick to her stomach at what the Doctor has become, fires a gun into his heart(s). It turns out this is all a test meant to see if Bill really was on the side of free will and humanity. I won't pause long to consider the mythological significance of the Doctor using up some of his regeneration energy (you're on number twelve, dude! maybe don't waste it) but this is where the episode went from great to just okay and, to be honest, it's a shame because it highlights something that I always think needs remembered: even the Doctor is corruptible if you anger and frustrate him enough. It would have been a nice reminder that the Doctor sits comfortably in every aspect of the Savior archetype with awe inspiring majesty and awe inspiring wrath. I don't want to linger on a missed narrative opportunity too long because while the path not taken would have been more rewarding, there is one aspect of the path taken that hits a lot of right notes: Bill. She is turning out to be one of the best companions the show has had in its regenerated run because she's just so human. She's exactly like us; she's not a mystery first and a person second because Bill is all human, all person. It's true that the hyper sentimentalized ending of Bill thinking about her mother and this being the end of the Monks reign was super treacly, the height of which usually only comes at Christmas, but it does feel emotionally satisfying at least as far as Bill's character journey is concerned. Her mother has been a side character since Bill's introduction; a vital part of Bill is that she lost her mother at a young age and that has always haunted her until the Doctor gave her some peace with a box of photos. Since then, we've seen Bill "talk" to her mom, hang up pictures of her mother in her new house, and think of her before losing all her oxygen in the far reaches of space. Even if I roll my eyes at the idea that memories of a mother would topple "fake news central" it feels right for Bill. And in the end, this is as much her story as it is the Doctor's.

Miscellaneous Notes on The Lie of the Land 

--I talked about the Monks being the Doctor through a mirror, darkly, last week and that idea is carried over in the Monks rewriting human history to include them (and not him) defeating the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Weeping Angels.

--"However bad it is, if people think that's the way it has always been, they put up with it."

--If there's a third thread in this trilogy of episodes, it's Missy's rehabilitation, something that got very little attention thus far but takes a decent sized step forward this week with her 1) explaining how to stop the Monks and 2) thinking about all her past victims. However, we only have four weeks of episodes left and I'm worried that Missy's progress is going to be rushed here at the end.

--Missy wants gifts to aid against the Monks and they include "new boots, a particle accelerator, a 3-D printer, and a pony."

--Missy is "the other last of the Time Lords."

--So how much of Bill's story was inspired by Martha Jones's season three story? It's hard to say because Martha did everything I said I wish the show had Bill do like spending time tracking down sympathizers, converting them, and getting in and out of the most dangerous places in the world. Bill doesn't face that sort of hardship and in the end the Doctor wasn't really held captive by the Monks. But, Martha only plays one part and it's the Doctor who beats back the Master whereas Bill has to offer herself up as a sacrifice to rid the world of the Monks. There's a quasi-positive but also quasi-negative feminist streak in both of these and I'm not sure how to parse it quite yet.

--I'm slightly confused by the ending. Humans don't remember the Monks (either consciously or subconsciously forgetting the past six months) but those six months did happen and we saw that people did die. Either the public executions were fake to curtail rebellion or this is another example of the writers making everything too easy.

--"You're version of good is not absolute. It's vain, arrogant, and sentimental."

--Why does the Doctor put up with humanity? Because in seven billion people, there's at least one person like Bill.