That last theme really lacked something, didn’t it? But it’s gone now, and this theme is here to hopefully stay a good long while. It feels much more comfortable to me. Better colors, and a dropdown menu for the archives. And sometimes a duck stares the reader in the eyes.
I have started on the next Doctor Who review. (Spoiler: The TARDIS takes them somewhere and it’s dangerous.) No promises as to when it’ll be done, but until then, have some pictures of baby cheetahs.
More first-time reads than last year, not that that was hard to do. I followed up on my desire to read more “classics”, picked other titles up on whims, and got burned by a book or two.
Blue Highways: A Journey Into America – William Least Heat Moon
The author lost his job and wife, so he drove the back highways of early 1980s America to see what he could see. A lot of scenery, a lot of people, a lot of reflections and stories told and lived. A very good read, one that I took my time savoring.
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
The first human expedition to Mars goes less than perfectly, leaving a single offspring of the crew alive to return to Earth years later, having grown up essentially a native Martian and having learned miraculous abilities from the locals. Thus the Earth (or rather, Heinlein’s vision of a near-future, radically different Earth) is the strange land. The offspring, Mike, quickly becomes wrapped up in money and politics beyond his knowledge or ken. This much is good stuff, tense and inventive. And then the middle of the book happens.
Look, I’ve read The Past Through Tomorrow (and enjoyed it thoroughly), I had some idea what I was getting into with Heinlein and his tendency to have a character preach the premise of the story. But the middle of the book eventually just slogs and bogs along. I was afraid Mike was going to stay in that home clear through to the end of the book, with Heinlein’s authorial megaphone character holding the floor, nine paragraphs out of ten, to propound and argue and rehash his worldview the whole way. The constant casual chauvinism endemic to the book’s era gets annoying after a while, too.
I actually started skipping through dozens of pages just to get to something readable. I never do that. Never. That’s how bad it got. Looking back, I realize what happened: Heinlein switched genres without telling anyone. The middle of the book is no longer sci-fi. It’s utopia literature, a mix of Type A and Type B (as I call them). Type A is when, as in Plato’s dialogues, people sit around and discuss how to run the ideal society. Not the most gripping of stuff, unless you’re really into the author telling you how the world should be. Type B is when a traveler comes upon a wondrous foreign land, and someone shows him around and then sits him down and tells him how their ideal society is run. This is typically not the most gripping of stuff either, which is why the whole genre fell out of favor over the centuries. (That and, with advances in living conditions, people found better things to do with their time than imagine a land filled with pancake trees.)
Fortunately the plot moves on and the book comes back to life, with Mike trying to build his own utopia under the guise of a new religion that seems to be obsessed with how wonderful running around naked is.
It’s one thing to come into a book expecting one thing about an idea, only to get a different approach to that idea. That happened here; I don’t know that I was expecting anything in particular, but a Martian coming to Earth was a surprise. My major problem is with that middle section, with Mike quietly doing nothing much while the book shifts the focus to Jubal’s political and religious commentaries, with Mike mostly only used as a whetstone for Heinlein’s ax-grinding. The Martian worldbuilding was good — I would have liked more, but it would have been outside the author’s intended scope, so I’ll let it pass — and Mike’s POV and development were good. If you know me and have read the book, I needn’t say that I disagree with a lot of the religious philosophy espoused, but I won’t hold that against the book when so much else is wrong with it. I’ve since been told that The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (which I’d been looking for when I picked this up instead) is a good read by someone who disagrees more than I do with Heinlein’s philosophies, so I’ll try Heinlein again someday . . . but after reading this, I was tempted to just stick to his short stories.
But love him or hate him, the man wrote great titles.
The Tale of Ginger and Pickles – Beatrix Potter
A harrowing, keenly incisive economic screed that would surely get the author branded as a wacko bent on brainwashing children if it were released in America today. Foolish animals run a shop charitably, only to run into the realities of an authoritarian government, with cynical results. I liked the pictures of bunnies.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams
Very entertaining, as one would expect. Adams’s usual snark, wild plotting, and sharp descriptions are fully on display here, and I always have a soft spot for the Gently type of character who insists on coming at the world from his own peculiar angle. If you haven’t read it, read it and its sequel. That’s all there is to say.
The Bridge Over The River Kwai – Pierre Boulle
A quicker read than I expected. Captured British soldiers are set to building a critical bridge for the Japanese in mainland Asia during WWII, while some other Brits seek to blow it up. Several very strong personalities on either side shape the plot, and in fact are the main attractions. It’s good.
Never Call Retreat – Bruce Catton
Another of his Civil War histories, this one covers from December 1862 up past Lincoln’s assassination. It’s the same trilogy as The Coming Fury and so has quite a bit of space devoted to the politics and politicians, in this case notably spending some time on just how ugly the racial politics could get. A blurb on another of his books mentions Catton’s “affection for style and color, his interest in details that reveal or imply the whole, his conception of history as the drama of personalities”, and that, combined with the fascination and wealth of the subject matter, sums up his continued appeal for me.
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind – William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
This is not just one long read about a boy putting together a windmill to provide power for his impoverished village in Malawi. This book can be divided into three rough sections. First is an account of the local culture (particularly the magic) and of Kamkwamba’s family background. That done, the middle tells of a harrowing famine year in Malawi, which probably takes up half the book on its own. It’s an unaffected but harrowing tale as things gradually get more and more desperate. Kamkwamba’s family runs out of money, forcing him to drop out of school, which leads into the last part. Kamkwamba uses the local library to learn enough engineering to build a ramshackle windmill to give his family a little electricity, which gets the world’s attention. The book is written in a frank, simple narrative voice that makes one feel that one is right there through it all. I suspect that Mealer did very little editorial work in translating Kamkwamba’s words into English.
It’s all a fascinating read. It’s also the first time I’ve ever seen a list consisting of “witches, Satan worshippers, and business tycoons”, but maybe I’m just visiting the wrong blogs.
The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime – Miles Harvey
The kernel of this book is a study of the life of James Bland, a nobody who systematically stole several hundred priceless maps from institutions across the United States (and a few in Canada) before being caught. Harvey surrounds it with the history of maps and map thievery, the current state of map collecting, the thrill of discovery and thievery and collecting in general, and other things that don’t come to mind immediately. Included are literary quotes; interviews with librarians, collectors and sellers, and an FBI agent; and speculatory ruminations about all the above. I always enjoy this kind of in-depth insight into a subculture that I maybe didn’t even know existed. This is one of the highlights of the year for me.
The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age – David Leopold (ed.)
It’s basically a coffee table book. If you want Al Hirschfeld drawings, there are hundreds of ’em. If you want to read about the arc of his career and a few incidents shaping the same, there’s some of that. If you want to read lots of names and Broadway play titles, there’s a lot of that too. Anything else, and you’ll be disappointed. There are a few anecdotes and Hirschfeld opinions — he didn’t like Snow White and subsequent Disney animations, and the look of the genie in Aladdin was modeled after his work — but they mostly just fill in a few stray corners here and there.
Hirschfeld was a much more pervasive, more varied artist than I had supposed, and I enjoyed looking at his art and being bad at finding the NINAs he put in most of his drawings. Truly one of a kind.
Gironimo! Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy – Tim Moore
A cycling enthusiast, disgusted with the Lance Armstrong era of professional cycling, decides to retrace the route of the (convincingly) worst-ever race, the 1914 Giro de Italia, in which less than 10% of the starting field finished. And he’s going to do it in period-appropriate gear, on a period bike.
It’s partly my fault that I went in expecting something akin to the lost maps book, with an expert blending of here-and-now with entertaining historical bits and anecdotes. The book starts out with a long period of hapless putting-together of an appropriate bicycle, while breezily violating one of my deepest dislikes, that of casual obscenities in the narration. That grimy part over with, it’s time for the actual riding in Italy, which is a much better read, largely because the anticipated anecdotes finally appear. Humor and tragedy, horror and pathos suffuse a tale of mountains, homicidal Italian drivers everywhere, the occasional angel of mercy, and bystanders who by turns jeer and applaud a lunatic on a bike with wine corks for brakes.
The blurbs are also at fault (I know, crazy, right?), with several declaring this to be a very funny book. It’s funny in fits and starts but never really builds on itself in that regard. If you like cycling, I guess it’s a good book, and might be funnier if you know the scene more than I do. Otherwise, go read any of the other books I’ve read this year instead. Other than Stranger in a Strange Land. Or The Round House.
The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
A poor Chinese farmer sets off to meet his bride-to-be, a slave in the local rich family’s house. His life thereafter is filled with ups and downs, flood and famine, family and fortune, and the occasional empathic prickings of a conscience he doesn’t understand. It’s a very human saga, with events largely driven by external forces but their effects shaped by the personalities of those involved. Wang Lung, the main character, averages out to “sympathetic, tragic, likable at times, but still typically a jerk”. Buck apparently wrote this story partly to give Western readers insight into Chinese life, and I came away feeling that it was a success in that regard.
The Round House – Louise Erdrich
The narrator, Joe, is at the time of the events narrated a teenager living on a Native American reservation in the ’80s. When his mother is savagely attacked, he finds himself distracted from his aunt’s boobs and Marina Sirtis’s hair long enough to try to help bring her attacker to justice. (Justice being one of the chapter titles, along with many other TNG episodes. I noticed each time, honest, but it took a while for me to catch on to the deliberateness of the pattern.)
There’s a lot of anguish, a lot of familial interrelations, some Scooby-Dooing, some Indian law, some teenage shenanigans, a looming Marine-turned-priest, and increasing amounts of people living lives of quiet despair. It’s kind of an unpleasant book, is what I’m getting at, which is understandable given the premise . . . but it goes above and beyond the call of duty. I could have done without the pubescent boys ragging on each others’ naughty bits and the octagenarians spending most of their time talking about sexual adventures of the past. Also this book contains the worst use of the number twelve I have ever seen, tossed in so casually that it didn’t register until I reread the paragraph it contained. Sometimes realism is not a sufficient justification.
Anyway, there’s a pretty good book in here underneath the sordidness. It’s well-written, well-plotted, well-realized, it’s just not my cup of tea. I can’t imagine it’s much of anyone’s cup of tea. Even hormonal teens are going to be put off by imagining wrinkly great-grandmas talking about how fat their sex partners were in the good ol’ days.
Past Time: Baseball As History – Jules Tygiel
Something a little lighter. It’s been a while since I read a book about the history of baseball. This is a collection of nine short essays, objective without being dry, that traces the interplay between baseball and American society, and how each reflects the other. It starts with the unification of various stick-ball games into a single “national” game intended to promote manliness, science, and morality; continues through the advents of radio and TV and watches as white and black politicians alike show up at Negro Baseball games to court the black vote; and ends with rotisserie leagues and the Baby Boomer romanticization of baseball in the ’80s and ’90s. With so much ground to cover in so thin a spine (about 220 pages), the essays rarely delve deep and occasionally resort to lists without calling out the importance of individual items. However, I found it an enjoyable and educational, if not amazing, read.
The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw – Patrick McManus
Something even lighter. A collection of humorous articles of mostly an outdoorsy nature, talking about the author’s exploits. Fishing, hunting, camping, getting lost while hunting for a friend you were supposed to go fishing with, that sort of thing. It’s written in a normal sort of voice, with the only “backwoods” inflections occurring when the author makes up a name (I hope) to protect the innocent, or trots out a euphemism for a less family-friendly exclamation that obviously was spoken. There’s also a lot of deadpan bald-faced lying to save one’s dignity, like when the author finds excuses for repeatedly missing the dumbest antelope in the world (“Oh, that was just a warning shot”). My favorites were the chapters about knot-tying and about Man’s relationship to Boat, where the author’s wife gets upset when she catches her husband and a newlywed making lewd remarks about a girl’s name, only to apologize when they claim they’re talking about a woman, not a boat . . . and then it turns out they were actually talking about a boat after all. The title chapter is ironically the only underwhelming essay in the lot (read Lear’s “The Night The Bed Fell” instead). It’s a fun, light read overall.
Nice Guys Finish Last – Leo Durocher
This is my book of the year so far. It’s an autobiography, one yarn leading to another about Durocher’s experiences and run-ins with players, executives, league presidents, and sportswriters. I read much of it picturing an old, gruff man sitting across from me, just rattling off all the stories he’s practiced telling over the years, leaning forward and shaking a finger for emphasis. Babe Ruth, the Gashouse Gang, Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Sinatra, and many other big names make substantial appearances. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the book involves “The Lip” shooting off his mouth or getting taken out of context or clashing with authorities, and naturally the narrator usually sees more merit in Durocher’s side of things, being eager to set the record straight. But it’s a fascinating, enthralling look at personalities and culture during a rich part of baseball’s history, and through it all Durocher projects enough of a sense of sincerity that I feel content to largely take him at his word about his view of events.
Look at the Birdie – Kurt Vonnegut
Fourteen short stories that Vonnegut never published, plus a letter and an editorial foreword, both of which are very welcome. A few of the stories, like “F U B A R”, are charming or heartwarming; some, like “Ed Luby’s Key Club”, get downright brutal; some have twist endings; and they’re all pretty good, to the point of reminding me just how much a good writer can pack into a short story. “Key Club” and “King and Queen of the Universe” might be the ones that stick with me the longest, as well as “Confido” just for its premise. A wide range of premises, although psychologists and a couple of other ideas pop up repeatedly, but I was surprised by the lack of science fiction. Nevertheless, Vonnegut is going on my list of authors to read again soon, with his imagination, writing style, and very agreeable viewpoint.
Beyond the Far Side – Gary Larson
Contains a disproportionate amount of rhinoceros.
Watership Down – Richard Adams
Given how much I read Brian Jacques growing up, it’s silly that I never got around to this book until now. But I am silly. This book is not silly, although it is less brutal than I expected it to be. Despite all the Bad Things happening in it, somehow the prose style . . . I’m not sure how to say it . . . there’s always a feeling that, even if it looks like someone is about to die, the main thread will just keep on going. Like, you’re going to be sad when it happens but not hit in the gut? It’s not a bad thing necessarily, just the style, but worth noting. The only other time I’ve encountered this is with Ender’s Game, which the feel of the flow of this book’s plot kinda resembles.
Anyway. This is a story about several rabbits who, based on a Bad Feeling from the local seer, leave their home warren and strike out for new territory. They run into one difficulty and danger after another that force them to surpass their latent rabbitness and find new ways of living, which is all the more striking because the author makes a point of keeping their anthropomorphism at a bare minimum — in fact, he breaks into the narrative from time to time to tell us how what’s going on is perfectly standard lapine behavior, even if it isn’t what a sensible human would do in that situation. They also meet other rabbits who have anthropomorphized their way into dystopias.
It’s a good story, well told, and would probably have been a favorite of my childhood. I enjoyed the legends about El-ahrairah, their trickster uber-rabbit legend, and I enjoyed the learned quotations for themselves even if they didn’t always contribute to my appreciation of the chapter that followed. My only complaint is that occasionally Adams tells when it would have been better to show.
A Year at the Movies: One Man’s Filmgoing Odyssey – Kevin Murphy
I picked this up for a buck at a charity sale and I admit, it looks like fluff. A guy who got his fame by playing a robot who pokes fun at cheesy movies, and he parlays it into a book about watching at least one movie in a theater every day for a year. Yeah, sure, whatever.
It’s really not fluff. Kevin Murphy is serious about movies, to the point of calling himself a snob, although he demonstrates that that means more “I have my own particular standards” and less “I’m not allowed to like anything the hoi palloi like.” The focus of the book is ultimately not about the individual movies, but more about seeking to recapture the magic of going to the movies, and about the state of the movie industry.
The book is divided into fifty-two chapters. Each chapter starts off with a title and the list of movies Murphy watched that week. It’s not guaranteed that Murphy will actually critique any of those movies. Instead, he will talk about at least one of the moviegoing experiences he had that week, and often expand that into a general idea. Experiences range from multiplexes to a theater made entirely of snow, from Cannes to a Finnish film festival, from Hollywood’s grand cinemas to the last theater left on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to the tiniest public theater Murphy could find (in the Australian outback). Along the way, Murphy encounters a number of people devoted to the cinema and to sharing it with others.
The “take seven different women to Serendipity so I can understand date movies” experiment, in which everyone involved was already married, makes for the funniest chapter in the book. Along the way Murphy sees current releases, classics, and silents in a broad range of genre and quality. And he talks about why he likes or dislikes many of the movies and theaters, without coming off as any worse than a curmudgeon. A fun and educational read, and a good pick for a motion picture enthusiast.
Dune – Frank Herbert
The story of how Paul Atreides overcomes the evil of the Harkonnens and the brutality of the planet Arrakis to fulfill his destiny as Guy With More Titles Than Aragorn. My first impression, which came very quickly, was that the prose was much less dense than I expected. But the world-building is there, and done well, and the journey feels epic, even if much of it was spoiled by what I knew about the story going in. I would have enjoyed it more without the spoilers, but still quite a good read.
The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas
Turns out this is (part of) a direct sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I have not read. Whoops!
Anyway, there’s a lot more politicking and less fighting than I expected. A lot of people trying to out-noble each other, which can be traced to most of the story involving Louis XIV and his court. Our four heroes are admirable and lofty in their speech and chivalrous enough, but not especially heroic, and the antagonists aren’t treated as villains either — also a thing it took me a while to get used to. Aramis’s motivations and actions in particular made much more sense when I stopped trying to read him as a Selfless Hero. The book uses a lot of Madame and Monsieur and the like as pronouns for unclear antecedents. I did enjoy it once I took it on its own terms, but — even given that this was only part of a larger work — the plot would take a much different shape if written nowadays.
Not unlike “Rose”, we pan from the Moon down into Jackie Tyler decorating her Christmas Crimbo tree. It’s white and gold with pastel lightbulbs, the better to blend in with the room. Then she picks up her present for Rose and looks at it with concern. Some naughty prop artist has underlined her name on the tag with a Jesus fish. Religion in a Christmas episode? What do you think this is, EWTN?
Anyway, she and Mickey both hear the TARDIS materializing, impressive since Mickey’s immersed in Automotive Repair Foley and bad British Christmas covers. They reach the usual landing spot, and the TARDIS appears overhead and they scrunch waaay down a good few seconds before it actually heads at them. It bounces off a few buildings but manages a two-point landing, and a strange man pops his head out. He has loud body language and accosts Rose and Mickey physically as he tries to recall what he needs to tell them. He announces “Merry Christmas!” and falls over unconscious.
Rose pops out next, and announces that this isn’t a spacetime hobo, it’s the Doctor. “Doctor who?” a befuddled Jackie insists, and with that ding! we’re off to the intro. The green and red have been toned down, just in time for Christmas, to pink and lime. That reads sarcastic, but it’s much appreciated.
The Doctor is now in a comfy bed in the Tyler residence. Jackie has “borrowed” a stethoscope from another flat, but she thinks what the Doctor really needs is a hospital, with a proper doctor in attendance. Maybe next companion, Jackie, as Rose has visions of alien dissections dancing in her head. Upon hearing the Doctor has two hearts, Jackie immediately wants to know if he also has two . . . anything else. One imagines she wondered the same thing about Spock back in the day. The Doctor exhales a drop of golden regeneration energy, and we get to watch it whisper its way into space.
Rose is teary-eyed about having to get to know a new Doctor. But she quickly decides her mother’s sex life is more interesting. You’re all alone on that score, Rose.
Then Harriet Jones, now Prime Minister, talks to the press on the telly. Remember when the Doctor said Harriet Jones would preside over Britain’s Golden Age, which was at least a different flavor of dumb in a generally dumb episode? Well, for whatever reason, PM Harriet is getting written out this episode, and it’s not like last season repeatedly told us “history can change”, so we’ve got to prove the Doctor right. So Jackie declares that her wages have gone up and that everyone is already calling Jones’s reign Britain’s Golden Age. That’s asinine, even in this day when everything must be labeled right away. Generation Y, indeed.
Rose is also all alone in recalling the Slitheen episodes fondly, but she did good there so it’s understandable. Meanwhile Harriet Jones is defending her space program on grounds of national pride, but it’s a probe to Mars. I expected a cheap satellite broadcasting “HELLO WORLD” or aiming a Fisher-Price telescope at the stars, but no, this sucker’s preparing for descent, destination Mars as they speak. It’s Mars — don’t you wait until the probe disappears before you start bemoaning the cost? I sense subtext. I think the “waste of money” must refer to bloated budgets and maybe a no-bid contract or two, and Jones just avoided the issue with a “YAY BRITANNIA.” Will it actually do any science, Prime Minister? Whose palms are being greased here?
Anyway, Guinevere One promptly smacks facefirst into a moon, which turns out to be an artificial construct that sucks it in. Wow. Mars expeditions peaked under Queen Victoria and it’s been downhill ever since.
Rose is out with Mickey, who joshes at her for talking about nothing but her TARDIS adventures. Their romance is still on the rocks, but they can laugh and accept each other better now. Rose tries to just enjoy herself, but notices the street music is being played by people covered by identical Santa Claus masks and robes. This is creepy when you’re in Doctor Who. And then they all lower their instruments and stare at Rose. This is creepy wherever you are. And then one strokes his trombone and it blazes forth Yulefire at her, which is a universal red flag. The other Santa Clauses (Santa Clausi?) also open fire, and everyone screams and runs away.
Rose and Mickey flee using fruit stands for cover without knocking any over, which I needn’t tell you violates basic rules of storytelling. Then a Claus launches a TUBA missile at them, knocking a tree over onto himself. No witty one-liners, no tomatoes flying everywhere. This episode is sinking fast.
Rose and Mickey race home to Jackie. Rose is practical, wanting to go to ground far away, but is distracted by a standard green Christmas tree in the corner of the room. The tree waits politely for them to figure out it shouldn’t be there, then lights up and whirls at dangerous speeds and advances upon them. If you know exactly where a Time Lord is, just send a spinning tree to kill his buddies, and then send some Santas to comb the city for them because apparently you don’t know exactly where they are.
I know, it’s a silly Christmas episode, doesn’t mean I can’t poke fun at it.
Anyway, Mickey (per usual) tries to fend the tree off to cover their escape, but Rose won’t leave the Doctor, so they wind up barricaded in with him. Desperate, Rose puts the sonic screwdriver in the Doctor’s hand (remember this is when you had to have some clue about how to operate it), then leans over and whispers that she needs help. The Doctor pops up as if he’d been faking all along and explodes the tree. He then leads them outside to find several Clausia holding the tree’s remote control. They back off and teleport away, because you don’t mess with a Time Lord before his new regeneration has woken up properly.
The Doctor says the Santae were attracted to the tremendous regeneration energy he’s radiating. The Doctor mentions a “neural implosion” resulting from being awakened early and says he needs something, at which Jackie rattles off painkillers and food until he tells her to shut up. The Doctor warns them that there will be something bigger coming, then collapses into a pained sleep.
The Doctor gets tucked back in, looking worse for wear, and the humans all shaky-cam watch a press conference about the Mars probe, starring a stammering nerd that someone cruelly promoted out of his natural habitat. This being a Christmas episode, Mickey spells out the “sharks following pilot fish” thing the Doctor mentioned again, then we get probe footage of a bony, red-eyed, wolfish, snarling visage.
I’m guessing this is our bad guy.
Anyway, the world is flipping out, and Over-Promoted Nerd confers with UNIT and Harriet Jones. Penelope Wilton puts a strong personality into Jones starting right now, forceful and practical without any coldness. You’d hate to let her down on a professional or personal level. They all watch a scary red blip leave Mars for Earth. Rose and Mickey watch along on a laptop, because I guess “buffalo” is still the password for everything everywhere. And then the aliens cut in and rhapsodize in Huttese.
Rose is upset that the TARDIS isn’t translating the Huttese for her, because the only explanation is that the Doctor is “broken”. Rose’s descent into despair never takes over the episode, but is a vital part of its emotional core, and she pulls the viewer down with her to be properly receptive when the Doctor makes his grand entrance at the end.
Meanwhile the U.S. President wants to take over from UNIT, and we all know the only thing Americans do with things that scare them is pew pew. So Harriet Jones tells the President off, then confers with a UNIT officer. No report of the Doctor. No thought of tracking down Rose. Torchwood comes up for the second time. Harriet allows nobody is supposed to know about Torchwood, but she does know, and she’s willing to activate them on her authority — clearly A Drastic Step.
The translation arrives: the Sycorax own Earth and its inhabitants, so surrender or watch ‘them’ die. Jones sends back a message of peace or begone.
The Sycorax response is to activate a blue light around the heads of billions of people around Earth. These people just blankly walk around, until they find a high spot where they’re one step away from plummeting to their death. It’s a frightening process, with people seeing their loved ones stripped of their selves and put into a clear hostage situation. Rose, who has moved on to the “frustrated inadequacy” phase of the grieving process, tells Mickey that “there’s no one to save us. Not anymore.”
But O.P. Nerd has figured something out: the K-Mart people must all have A+ blood. The Sycorax have done something with the blood sample from Guinevere One. Uh, I don’t see the point of having stuff meant for aliens onboard a Mars probe. Mars is dead as far as Nerd knows. Frankly, it’s an unacceptable contamination hazard.
So P.M. Jones goes on the telly and asks the world for calm, then begs the Doctor for help because she has no idea what to do next. Rose breaks down, taking the Doctor’s condition personally, telling Jackie that “he left me, Mum.”
But there’s no time for that, as the Sycorax (great alien race name, btw) enter the Earth’s atmosphere, producing a glass-shattering sonic wave that murders whatever that glass pineapple thing is. O.P. Nerd has a very GIFable take, rising into the shot, delivering his line with his eyes focused desperately at the cameraman’s thumb, then sliiiding his eyeballs to the side to look at . . . who knows?
Outside, the spaceship glides into view like an asteroidal leaf on the wind for all the extras to stare at, and stare at, and stare at some more. This episode certainly likes to set its own pace. It works, but one notices it. Rose looks long and hard at the ship, and comes to a decision. They’re going to take the Doctor into the TARDIS and just hide there.
Meanwhile the Sycorax beam Harriet & co. up. Remember the Santas beaming up? Feels like an entire episode ago. Anyway, the humans materialize in the Klingon court from ST: VI, which isn’t very reassuring. A Sycorax removes the wolfish helmet to reveal what looks like bone and muscle underneath. I’m with Nerd: put the helmet back on, please. Nerd tries to sort of inverse-Picard speech some mercy out of the Sycorax, but the alien flays the meat off him with an energy whip. The UNIT chief protests that that was a bad show, old fellow, and gets skellified in turn. Harriet Jones identifies herself, to which the Sycorax becomes the third person to tell her that, yes, he already knows who she is. He also tells her that she has a choice between letting half of Earth be enslaved or letting the third that has A+ blood die. Nasty choices indeed. Incidentally, what are the A+ infants doing?
In the TARDIS, Mickey and Rose fiddle with the central console’s screen dealy to see if they can pick up a broadcast. Somehow their fiddling is heard in the alien ship, and the Sycorax get paranoid and beam the TARDIS onboard to see what the Earthlings are hiding from them. Rose wanders out to see what Jackie is up to and gets nabbed immediately. Her scream brings Mickey out and he gets nabbed too. All that’s left safe in the TARDIS are the Doctor and Mickey’s Thermos, which drips tea onto a blue mushroomy bit of machinery.
Harriet recognizes Rose. Rose tells her that they’re on their own, then they all get lined up in front of the TARDIS for a photo I guess. The lead Sycorax decides that since Rose has the shiny box, she’s the one in charge. Despite having felt useless, Rose accepts the responsibility: “Someone’s got to be the Doctor.” Split between fear and bravery, she invokes Article 15 of the Shadow Proclamation blah blah blah, but the Sycorax just laugh it off. The lead Sycorax calls her a child, but his words turn to English as he nears the end of his monologue. Everyone turns dramatically as the camera zooms in on the TARDIS, and 41 minutes into the episode, the doors open and the Doctor appears at full tea-empowered strength. He smirks just a bit and asks, “Did you miss me?”
The Doctor yanks the energy whip from the lead Sycorax’s hand, breaks his other weapon over his knee, and immediately begins to assert his full personality in classic style, telling the lead Sycorax to just stay put for the moment. It may be significant that the first thing he does is give Mickey a delighted greeting. No residual disdain here, thank goodness.
Anyway, he intensely asks Rose how he looks, and after being disappointed at not being ginger he tells her off for giving up on him — but then acts a little surprised at how “rude” he’s being. Then he reassures Harriet that he is the one and only Doctor and begins to catch up with her. All of this, of course, without regard for their circumstances. The lead Sycorax demands to know who this person is, which is of course the very hook the Doctor needs to go off on a ramble about all the things he might be, but doesn’t know about yet . . . and then the Doctor catches sight of the pink jewely orb that the lead Sycorax has been standing by most of the time.
He investigates, tastes the blood in the dish underneath, identifies it as human A+. That’s one Time Lord ability I could have done without knowing about, but it puts him on the right trail. “I haven’t seen blood control in years!” he exclaims delightedly. Then, talking about how he just doesn’t know how he will react to a “great big threatening button that should never ever be pressed,” he grins maniacally and pushes down on it.
That frees the A+ people. With the lead Sycorax trying to save face, the Doctor explains that blood control can’t actually force anyone to kill themselves. It was all a bluff. The Doctor tries to persuade the Sycorax to leave humanity alone to realize its potential, and accidentally starts quoting “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. When that doesn’t seem to have any effect, he challenges the lead Sycorax to a duel. “You stand as this world’s champion?” the alien roars. “Thank you. I have no idea who I am, but you’ve just summed me up,” the Doctor replies.
They fight with longswords. Just basic longswords. Or broadswords maybe. Not an expert, but the Sycorax’s form doesn’t impress me. I know, Christmas episode. Anyway, the Doctor is getting the worse of it, so he heads outside for a change of venue. That doesn’t work so hot either, as the Sycorax quickly cuts the Doctor’s sword hand off, then turns away to roar his victory to the onlookers. But the Doctor grows a new hand into existence, then when Rose throws him another sword, declares it to be a “fightin’ hand” and goes on the attack.
The Doctor wins and the lead Sycorax swears to leave Earth alone forever. He hugs Rose and walks away chattering about the fruit he found in his borrowed houserobe. Upon hearing the Sycorax come up behind him to kill him, however, he throws the fruit at a button that causes the “ground” to retract from under the alien (why?), leaving the dirty cheater to plummet to his doom. “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man,” the Doctor grimly says.
He goes back inside to deliver a warning to the Sycorax assembly: stay away and warn others to stay away. They’re all teleported tellyported back down to Earth and get to watch the Sycorax ship fly away to the sound of triumphant music.
On being asked, the Doctor tells Harriet Jones that, sure, there are thousands of alien species out there, and they’re noticing Earth more and more! He clearly means it as a “chin up and have a blast” sort of message, but Harriet takes it the other way. On hearing that Torchwood is ready, she sadly, reluctantly gives an attack order. Death Star beams lance out from London and destroy the Sycorax ship.
The Doctor is of course angry, calling it murder. Dead UNIT Guy would agree. Harriet insists that it was necessary, to prevent word about Earth spreading to others who might plunder the planet while the Doctor was not around. He refers to the human race as monsters, and she wonders whether she will have to protect the Earth from him. He threatens to end her ministry with six words, and when she doubts him, whispers in the ear of her sidekick, “Don’t you think she looks tired?” . . . and simply walks away with his Tyler retinue, freaking Harriet out.
The rest of the episode is Christmas and wardrobe festivities, Harriet sliding down the slope of public opinion, and festive meteors and snow-ash falling from the sky.
The main takeaway about Tennant’s Doctor from this episode is his dominance. When awake, he dominates every frame he’s in. He dominates the screen when he’s loud or soft, when he claims to be at a loss or when he knows every letter of what he’s doing. He strides regally onto the balcony to confront the Santa Claus aliens. When he catches himself drifting into Disney song, he never loses any intensity. He dominates the lead Sycorax from beginning to end . . . well, we’ll call the swordfight a tie. Harriet is built up to be forceful and charismatic, but her PMship is sacrificed so that his personality can steamroll hers the moment she moves against his wishes. I think this was done so that “Is the show still worth watching?” was answered not by his looks or personality, but by his sheer force of presence. You may not actively like this Eccleston replacement, but he demands your attention . . . and meanwhile the other characters you love are still around. And that grants Tennant the time to grow into a Doctor you do like.
Rating: 3 Sycorax wolf masks
Favorite dialogue: Mickey: That’s fascinating, because I love hearing stories about the TARDIS. Ooh, go on Rose, tell us another one, ’cause I swear I could listen to it all day, TARDIS this, TARDIS that.
Rose: (grinning) Shut up.
Mickey: “Oh, and one time the TARDIS landed in a biiig yellow garden full of balloons!”
Me and my big mouth: thinking I’d never have to talk about the Slitheen mess again, back in the S1 summary
Featuring bits from: ST III, ST VI, SW V
Shoutout to: The late Adams Douglas Adams, when the Doctor mentions meeting Arthur Dent
I grew up a political conservative by default, a rules-concerned little boy in a largely conservative family. As I matured, I became more liberal. I still consider myself largely a conservative, but I hold a more liberal viewpoint with respect to some issues. Now, this isn’t a screed about how brilliantly correct my politics are; my politics have evolved enough over my life that I know perfectly well whatever I write now will be cause for wincing when I reread it ten years in the future. No, lucky reader, this is yet another screed about how screwed-up American politics are, and yet another plea for sanity.
It won’t be long, no worries. I just have three points to make, nice and simple.
#1: Conservatism, liberalism, whateverism: these are at most rules of thumb, not ideals to be attained.
When I say I’m largely conservative, it’s more of a general thing than identifying with the current political meaning. I don’t throw ideas out just because they’re “old”. I like being cautious, especially with decisions that are important or look like they could spin out of control. I don’t care for fixing things that aren’t broken. And things that are broken should be fixed carefully, with some forethought, lest they become even more broken or cause problems elsewhere.
Conservatism (or liberalism, or moderation) should be considered a temperament, a tendency, not a law of nature. “Let’s hang on to whatever’s in place” is a stupid law to live by, just as much as “Let’s ditch whatever we have” or “Let’s just go down the middle”. Look at the problem, look at the data, look at the proposals. Apply ideals, apply history and personal experience. Then make the call: what should we do? If at any point you ask, “Well, what does my party think? I’ll just follow their lead” then at best you are not contributing, and at worst you’re part of the problem.
#2: The universe is too complicated, and people are too messy, for a single political philosophy to completely describe a practical society.
Forget about politics for a moment. Let’s say your high school yearbook calls you “Sweetest Person” in your graduating class, and you’re kinda proud of that. Is that going to rule the rest of your life? Are you going to refuse to ever lose your temper again just because of a few stupid words? How about if people call you a penny-pincher, and you’re proud of how frugal you are? Are you willing to rule out an “impulse buy” that would be worth it, just for pride’s sake?
No? Then why do people act like that in politics? Embrace the label as far, as strongly, and as long as it accurately describes your concerns; the moment it doesn’t, cast it off.
#3: Stop hypocritically circling the wagons.
This was actually what, ahem, inspired me to write this post. If the other person does it, and you call them out, apply the same standards when one of your people does it. If you piled in on the other person without mercy, now you don’t get to say, “Well, technically these cases are different because [piddling difference] . . .” or “Let’s wait until all the facts are in.” Did you stop to consider the details in the first case? No? Then the details don’t suddenly matter when it’s your side’s reputation on the line. If you’ve changed your mind and the thing does or doesn’t matter to you now, (wo)man up and admit you were wrong before.
Same thing holds in reverse.
I can respect you whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Anarchist, or even a Cubs fan. I can respect you if your politics show a desire to change the world for the better, to avoid losing good things to fear or hate or apathy or plain old foolishness. The moment you start defending people just because they have the right letter next to their names, however, is the moment I start losing respect for you. I don’t care what ideology you think you’re fighting for. We aren’t here, ultimately, to play at tribalism. We are here to make lives better, even when it means we have to change ourselves in ways we might not appreciate.
My politics have changed over the course of my life. Right or wrong, they’ve changed to reflect my understanding of the world, and my desire for America to be the best it can be. I think that’s healthy. They didn’t change just to blindly match whoever happens to say things I like. I think anyone would agree that would be unhealthy. And, need I say, this country’s politics are very sick indeed right now.
“Edgar R. Burroughs? They’re really trying to spread the blame around.”
The movie:At the Earth’s Core, which feels like it might have been better if they had come up with the idea themselves instead of adapting a book
No smoking in the giant drill, but you’re taking along your fine china? Okay then.
I suspect if this movie were made today, the guy would have gotten the girl somehow or else she would have ended up dead. Not sure which era of movie-making that reflects more positively on.
All the host segments are good here. The meta backhanded compliments as Crow and Tom tell Jonah he’s pretty okay for not being Joel or Mike, the steampunk robots (although Crow is just eh), the camaraderie, fun songs, the approaching and actual wackiness, and what’s this? Dynamic camera angles for the big finale? Yes please. Everybody’s clicking, Cynthia certainly included.
Max confesses the movie is kind of fun, and it seems likely the riffing team thought so too: A lot of fun references here, ranging from Carol Burnett to Hungry Hungry Hippos to Tim Burton, and fun riffs in general.
That was quite a shock ending, and Kinga’s reaction is flawless. Not a hint of humanity there, without coming off as a monster. So, was Jonah not sure if he’d want to come back, or was Joel not confident of getting a second season, or did they just want to do something different?
I say hidey-hole.
Push the button: A strong ending to the season. Overall it’s a pretty good, enjoyable season, especially if you allow for the actors settling into their roles and relationships.