Video Review of CHASING THE DRAGON

This is quite possibly my favorite thing ever today. A young woman named Sarah Ferreira posted a video review of Chasing the Dragon on YouTube, and I adore it!

Click here to see the review on YouTube. (I tried embedding it, but apparently I have all the technological prowess of a Neanderthal.)

I can’t decide whether my favorite line is “That dragon is witty!” or “This is not YA. There’s a lot of gore and gruesomeness in this book.”

Anyway, thank you for the great review, Ms. Ferriera. I promise in my next book the flashbacks won’t interfere with the action scenes so much. In the meantime, keep reading, and keep sharing your thoughts on books with the world!

Doctor Who: “The Rings of Akhaten”

My Twitter feed was ablaze this weekend with friends — both Doctor Who lovers and Doctor Who haters — claiming “The Rings of Akhaten” was the worst episode yet. I watched it with trepidation, expecting something so awful it would make a shit episode like “The Power of Three” look like “Pyramids of Mars.” To my surprise, I didn’t think it was terrible, just overly earnest and suffering from plot holes so big you could pilot a TARDIS through them — provided you actually decide to pilot your all-powerful, time machine/space ship instead of, say, renting a space scooter instead.

SPOILERS BELOW!

So at Clara’s request, the Doctor takes her someplace “awesome,” which this time turns out to be the Rings of Akhaten, not the Eye of Orion. The Rings are actually a collection of small, asteroid-sized planets circling a single star. There, the Doctor and Clara explore one of those alien marketplaces that have been all the rage since Luke Skywalker stepped foot into the Cantina on Tatooine. And like the Cantina, all the myriad aliens in attendance speak in grunts, growls, clicks, and barks that Clara can’t understand but the Doctor, being a thousand years old and having been everywhere, can. I guess the TARDIS’s telepathic universal translator, which is never mentioned once in the episode — not ONCE — is offline or something. Eventually, Clara wanders away and stumbles into The Plot. It’s the Queen of Years, a little girl who speaks English, apparently, and she has to sing a ritual song (also in English!) or Grandfather, their mean, old god, will wake up and eat everyone. She’s nervous about it, but Clara convinces her she’ll do a great job. She does, of course, but everything goes to shit anyway, and it’s up to the Doctor and Clara to race after the now kidnapped Queen of Years in the TARDIS a much slower rented space scooter, because why not? Someone somewhere thought it would be cool, logic be damned. Also, everyone speaks English from this point forward. Just so you know.

Apparently, the atmosphere of this planet extends indefinitely into space, because the Doctor and Clara aren’t wearing helmets when they take their space scooter between worlds to rescue the Queen of Years. Then they get there, and the coolest scene in the entire episode occurs: a scary thing in a glass box wants to break out and eat the Queen, and weird robot things materialize to make sure it happens, and suddenly we have some very good suspense and world-building and even a little terror. Of course, this being Moffat-era Doctor Who, it’s all negated almost instantly. The cool monster in the glass box is actually just an “alarm clock” (what?) and the real Grandfather is the sun itself, a sentient entity that eats stories (what?). Then there’s some overly earnest stuff happening (though the Doctor’s speech about his memories wasn’t bad; it almost reminded me of Tennant or Eccleston) and some singing (which I didn’t hate, because I’m a softy and I like scenes where people sing) and then there’s some bullshit about a leaf (what?) and the sun implodes. Victory!

I mean, um…victory? The Doctor and Clara have destroyed this solar system’s sun, but everyone is happy anyway. They’re heroes. Hell, the Doctor and Clara even congratulate themselves, without a smidge of irony, for what amounts to theoretically dooming an entire civilization to a cold death in the unforgiving black void of space. Doctor Who, ladies and gentlemen! Buy your t-shirts now!

Aside from the ridiculous plot holes and logic problems, there are two endemic problems on display here. The first is that Doctor Who has become a show that literally cannot think of anything for its characters to do outside the plot or when away from each other. When we see Clara for the first time this episode, she is just sitting on the steps waiting for the Doctor to show up. That’s it. She’s not packing. She’s not saying goodbye to that family she babysits for, or to her own father. She’s not writing a note that says, “If anything should happen to me…” or even looking in the mirror and asking herself if she’s ready for something like this. No, she’s just sitting there. Waiting. Rose had a vibrant family life and a sometimes boyfriend. Martha was a doctor herself. Donna, too, had a vibrant family and a career. But Clara, much like Amy, apparently has no outside life. She just sits around waiting for the Doctor. The Girl Who Waited, Part Two.

In this episode, the Doctor suffers from the same problem. When Clara first wanders off and encounters the Queen of Years, the Doctor is nowhere to be seen for several minutes. Eventually he shows up again eating some alien fruit. He just wandered off. He didn’t do anything. Hell, there’s no indication he was even secretly watching Clara to see how she holds up when confronted with alien life. Nope, he’s just doing nothing because he was away from Clara and the plot for a moment, and that’s what this show has become.

Another serious problem with “The Rings of Akhaten” is that we’ve basically seen it all before. This episode is the same as “The End of the World,” “Gridlock,” “The Fires of Pompeii,” and “The Beast Below.” Not in plot specifics, perhaps, but in tone. It’s the same old “Doctor takes a new companion somewhere exciting so he can show her how cool it is to travel with him” episode that we’ve been seeing since 2005. It’s getting stale. The program really needs to shake up this formula, and I think the best way to do that is have the next companion be someone the Doctor meets in space, in the future, rather than a contemporary figure. This way, he doesn’t have to pull the same “look how cool space is” routine for the millionth time, and we might actually get a new, exciting dynamic instead of the same one being played out over and over again. Are you listening, Doctor Who writers?

No, of course you’re not.

Roger Ebert, R.I.P.

I’m writing too many remembrances these days. I suppose it’s a natural part of growing older — the people who were part of your life start to go away. It’s one thing when it’s someone you know, like Rick Hautala.  It’s another, stranger but no less affecting thing when it’s someone you didn’t know personally but who was such a big part of your formative years that you almost feel like he’s part of your family. And that, to me, was Roger Ebert, who passed away yesterday at the age of 70.

There are no words to express what Siskel and Ebert At the Movies meant to me. I watched it regularly since it began airing in syndication in New York City in the mid-1980s. I watched it well into my adulthood. Hell, I would tape the damn thing with my VCR if I wasn’t home to watch it. Together, I let them into my home every weekend and listened to what they had to say about the movies coming out that week. I liked them. I respected their opinions. And even when I disagreed with their criticisms of movies I loved, I knew those criticisms were often valid ones.

When Gene Siskel was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998, Ebert tried to keep the show going. Siskel would call in from his home or hospital bed to share his thoughts on that week’s films — one time, famously, while flying so high on pain killers that Ebert could only laugh and shake his head at the non-sequitors coming out of his absent friend’s mouth. When Siskel died in 1999, Ebert refused to let the show die, too. He auditioned, on air, a rotating cast of fellow film critics to take Siskel’s place — including, weirdly, Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, who proved he’s much better behind the keyboard than in front of the camera. Finally, Ebert chose Richard Roeper, a fellow Chicago film critic, and the show became Ebert and Roeper and the Movies. Roger Ebert, after nearly twenty years, finally got his name first on the marquee.

I never warmed to Roeper the way I did to Siskel. When Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, salivary glands, and chin, and couldn’t talk anymore, Roeper soldiered on with his own rotating cast of co-hosts — including, weirdly, John Mellencamp, who refused to say a bad word about any film they reviewed that week. He was just happy the filmmakers and actors were trying so darn hard to entertain everyone. Roeper looked exasperated. Mellencamp never returned. Neither did Ebert. I eventually stopped watching. It just wasn’t the same.

One of the amazing things I’ve discovered about Roger Ebert from his various obituaries is what a lover of science fiction he was. Not just sf movies, but literature,too. According to Locus Online:

[Ebert] published two SF stories: “After the Last Mass” in Fantastic (1972) and “In Dying Venice” in Amazing (1972). As a teenager he was an active SF fan, contributing letters of comment to various magazines and writing poems for Pat & Dick Lupoff’s Xero in the early ’60s; he also wrote the introduction for The Best of Xero (2004). He was friendly with fans, authors, and editors, including Wilson “Bob” Tucker and Ed Gorman, and published his own fanzine, Stymie.

His own fanzine! Holy crap! And of course, Ebert became a fixture on Twitter in the past few years, becoming probably the most re-tweeted personality in the social website’s history.

His recent memoir, Life Itself, currently sits in my Kindle, still unread since its purchase a year and a half ago. I think I’m going to rectify that shortly.

I doubt there will ever again be two film critics so well known, so beloved, and so influential as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. And now they’re both gone. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be proved wrong. Maybe one day there will be a new movie review program, probably online, that will capture the nation’s attention the way theirs did. But until then, the balcony is closed.

Doctor Who: “The Bells of St. John”

Doctor Who is back from its winter break with the second half of season 7. We jump right into things with “The Bells of St. John,” the second (third?) new companion introduction episode for Clara Oswald. Steven Moffat’s script for this story is complete rubbish, but once again it’s the characters who save it. Moffat has a great handle on character, and in particular he understands the use of humor very well, but he does not seem to understand satisfying narrative arcs or internal logic. “The Bells of St. John” is a good example of this.

DANGER: SPOILERS AHEAD!

When I say the script is rubbish, what I really mean is that the story makes no sense. For instance, the Doctor would never in a million years sit around in some Dark Ages monastery meditating and painting conveniently captioned pictures of Clara while waiting for something to happen. The Doctor doesn’t wait for things to happen. The Doctor, like any heroic protagonist worth following into a story, makes things happen. Sitting around in monk’s robes while the universe chugs on, with countless lives under threat on countless worlds, the Doctor comes off selfish and obsessive. Right away, the tone is off.

Things get better five minutes later when the plot actually falls into place. We may never know who the mysterious woman at the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number is, but we should be glad she did because otherwise he would have been sitting around that monastery for, what, a hundred years? Anyway, the Doctor meets Clara for the third time, though she has no memory of him, and then some more complete rubbish happens involving people getting sucked into the wi-fi or something, and their consciousnesses being held in limbo or something, and maybe also being eaten by something, too. I’m not exactly sure, mainly because the script is never exactly sure. Remember the awful season 2 episode “The Idiot’s Lantern”? It’s kind of like that, but made slightly better by every scene where the Doctor and Clara just get to talk and let their characters come through amid all the nonsense. (Said nonsense including an averted plane crash that is pretty much immediately forgotten about, except that it shows that the bad guys can control people through the wi-fi, too, thereby negating any need to suck them into limbo, but they do anyway because plot.)

By the way, people get sucked into limbo by the “Spoonheads,” free-moving wi-fi bases that can disguise themselves telepathically as anyone. I think. Again, the script is never quite clear how this works or where the technology came from, considering this is a contemporary story, not a far future one. Anyway, the Spoonheads have to be there to zap you with a ray (!) to take your mind into limbo, and when it’s reversed they apparently also have to be there to zap you back into your body, as is shown with the first time Clara is returned to her body. This rule holds true except at the end, of course, when suddenly the Spoonheads don’t have to be there to return you to your body because…well, there just wasn’t one around when Clara is returned to her body the second time, but why let that stop you? Maybe consciousnesses just find their way back to their right bodies automatically? Sure, why not. It makes about as much sense as anything else in this episode.

So the Doctor defeats the Spoonheads and the evil people who control them, run by Miss Kizlet, and it turns out they’re all in the employ of the Great Intelligence from the Christmas special and also a couple of the Second Doctor’s serials from back in the day. Not that this makes any sense, either. Since when does the Great Intelligence eat consciousness? Until now, its motivation has always simply been to find a body to inhabit and then take over the world. But I guess when you’ve got Richard E. Grant playing the role, you want some bang for your buck. (Ironically, the Great Intelligence is a consciousness that cannot just find its way back to the right body!)

There’s also some nonsense about an anti-grav motorcycle that had me rolling my eyes so hard I thought I would accidentally enter REM sleep. The less said about that, the better.

But there’s good stuff, too! I still love the new TARDIS interior buckets more than the last one. The scene where Miss Kizlet is taunting the Doctor in the cafe by jumping from body to body is suitably creepy. There’s also a cute nod to Amy and Rory in the past with Clara’s friend (or step-sister? The relationship isn’t clear yet) reading a vintage children’s book by “Amelia Williams.” She’s on Chapter 10. Clara tells her to just wait for Chapter 11, when it gets even better. I took that as a jokey reference to the 10th and 11th Doctors. Too bad it’s not true.

So, “The Bells of St. John” is a rubbish episode saved only by the handful of scenes where Moffat just lets the Doctor and Clara be themselves. Here’s hoping for more of that in the future. As I said before, I think Clara might be just the shot in the arm the show needs after two and a half seasons of meh, and I hope I’m right about that. But I have two concerns. The first is that Steven Moffat is still showrunner — I haven’t exactly been quiet about how deeply disappointed I’ve been with his tenure — and the second is that I’m skeptical the companion should ever be anything more than the window into the Doctor’s world for the audience. If you make the companion a central mystery to be solved, they have no place left to go once that occurs. They have an automatic expiration date, which means they lack the potential to be anything more. Even in the classic series when they occasionally had high-concept companions like Leela, Romana, or Turlough, the show never detoured into being all about them. We’ve seen Moffat take that detour once already with River Song, and I thought it turned season 6 into a disaster. I’d hate to see him make the same mistake with Clara Oswald.

 

 

 

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