The Rich, Bold Flavor of Full-bodied Storytelling

My recent blog entry on the precipitous decline in quality of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time has me wondering about those moments when a series of books, or a television show, or a film franchise, take that almost inevitable plummet from something we once loved to something that, at best, earns our disinterest, and, at worst, irritates us with how unabashedly its potential was squandered.

The contemporary pop culture vernacular calls these moments “jumping the shark.” This is an idiom whose meaning has expanded and evolved over the years, but it’s always boiled down to being a convenient shorthand for those moments in a franchise that mark the point-of-no-return from when it was great, to when it was not. For those who are not literate in the language of pop culture, “jumping the shark” refers specifically to that infamous episode of the sitcom Happy Days when Fonzie, on water skis, jumps over a shark, definitively marking the point where the writers had run out of ideas and were relying on gimmicks.

But when has something truly jumped the shark, and when has it simply veered into a new but perfectly valid direction that leaves some of its audience behind?

Some claim that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same after Buffy and crew graduated from high school. True, it never was the same, but different doesn’t always equate to worse. Moving Buffy from high school to college, and then from college into the “real world,” allowed Whedon and company to explore other avenues of the show’s metaphorical nature. If monsters and vampires could be metaphors for the turmoils of high school, why couldn’t the show deliver similar metaphors for the confusion and pressures of higher education, or the scary, sobering realities of the responsibilities of adulthood? The arrival of Buffy’s sister Dawn was not a cheap plot twist to introduce a new character, but a clever use of the show’s mystical mythos and magical setting to force Buffy into a parental role. Pairing up Buffy with Spike was not a cynical move to have Buffy romantically involved with yet another vampire, but rather a logical character progression to illustrate how far Buffy had fallen into depression and self-loathing.

Battlestar Galactica didn’t jump the shark when its second season cliffhanger was followed by a four month story gap. It was simply a bold move to shake up the status quo and send the story into new directions. (Though the whole “final five” rigmarole might be a different matter.)

The Chronicles of Riddick was not a bad movie simply because it wasn’t trying to recreate Pitch Black. Say what you want about the quality of the film, but it would have been a mistake to simply emulate the original.

Tales from Watership Down does not fail as a sequel to Watership Down because it doesn’t live up to the epic nature of its predecessor. Quite the opposite. It succeeds because it doesn’t even attempt to capture the same scope and breadth of the original novel.

Unless a story gets completely gutted of its essential traits that made it stand out as something special in the first place, shouldn’t our first instinct be curiosity about where the story is going, rather than a knee-jerk dismissal of anything that doesn’t fit our comfortable status quo? Rather than being bitter about creative change, maybe we should consider the possibility that the creators are simply bold enough to try something new rather than cynically driving a property into the ground through stagnation.

You may prefer that brand of tea that you’ve become accustomed to, but maybe you’ll end up enjoying that mug of thick, hot coffee as well.


The Wheel of Time Keeps on Turning (or How I Was Broken by the Wheel of Pain)

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Young Conan is prepared for a decade of torture reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.

There’s no denying it, I’m a complete fanboy when it comes to fantasy literature. I’m the kind of gormless sucker who can enjoy just about anything with swords and spells, wands and witches, knights and maidens, or dragons and demons. If it’s fantasy, I can usually buy into it. I love all the tropes and cliches of fantasy. A good story and strong characters and striking prose are why I fall in love with some books, but the trappings of fantasy are always an irresistible draw.

As long as I know what I’m getting into, I can even enjoy the very worst kinds of Dungeons and Dragons novels. You may know the kind of books I’m talking about; the ones that have no seeming sense of story progression or coherency, but instead read like the random adventures of smart-assed D&D players cobbled together into something that’s supposed to be readable, where most of the dialogue sounds like wisecracks that are probably only funny once everyone around the game table has had a couple beers

But that’s fine. A twinkie may be garbage food, but it’s still delicious.

Point being, when a work of fantasy aggressively aggravates me, I tend to become a bit dismayed. I am, after all, such a damned forgiving reader when it comes to the genre.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, my two favorite, actively working fantasy writers were Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Williams’ trilogy Memory Sorrow and Thorn and Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time both had a vibrancy and breadth of immersive detail that I hadn’t been encountering of late in the fantasy I’d been reading, and they were both populated with a wide variety of distinct and engaging personalities. Following the maturation of young characters such as Simon, Rand, Mat, and Perrin was in turns frustrating, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and it was all wonderfully textured with clashing personalities and the dichotomy between these young heroes and their older, more experienced counterparts.

The climax of Memory Sorrow and Thorn fell a bit flat. It all seemed to wrap up a bit too neatly and easily, and the twist was predictable. But the journey up until then had been so enthralling that a bit of a letdown at the end was, at worst, a minor flaw.

The climax of The Wheel of Time

Well, I don’t actually know. I’ve never been able to get there.

I was first reading the books as they saw print, eagerly awaiting each new volume. The first book, The Eye of the World, was a blatant and deliberate riff on Tolkien, but I was hooked by Jordan’s world, his characters, his magic system and they way it was reflected in his societies and gender relations. The second and third books were great reads, with Jordan feeling free to abandon his emulation of Tolkien. The fourth and fifth books were entertaining enough, though they were starting to feel more like separate adventures rather than progressions of the overall story. The sixth book, Lord of Chaos, felt like a book where not much happened. Hundreds of pages going nowhere, salvaged only by a gripping and cathartic climax. It was the seventh book, A Crown of Swords, that broke me. I got about halfway through, wondered why I was still reading, and never picked the book back up.

A couple years ago I decided to give the series another go with a marathon read of the entire series, the plan being to be ready for the releases of the final post-humous volumes. Maybe I had missed something the first time around. I managed to get a couple chapters into the sixth book before giving up again.

I chalk my failure to get even halfway through this immense, fourteen book series to a couple factors.

1. Boredom: The early books, even though they were dense with minutiae and loaded with dozens of characters, always seemed to be actively moving the story forward. Rand was always moving one step closer to madness and one step closer to his ultimate destiny. The characters were always learning and growing, and new revelations were always being made. But as the books progressed, they became more and more weighed down with filler and pointless diversions. It was like Jordan, having created such a well-developed world, was happy to use his world and characters as an all-purpose plug that he could jack into the socket of any new fantasy story about quests for magical artifacts. Nothing carried any import, because nothing was really happening.

2. Characterization: I could have lived with the characters becoming somewhat stagnant. If you continue to steadily grow and evolve the characters over such a long span of books, you risk ending up with characters who bear no resemblance to themselves. But it’s terribly frustrating when this stagnation leads to the characters becoming cartoonish caricatures of themselves. Rounded, complex characters were suddenly being presented as flat and stale, defined only by their most distinctive trait and their inability to get along with the opposite sex. Rand was angry and a bit crazy, Mat the consummate smart-ass and contrarian, Perrin the slow, methodical thinker. None of them understood women, as the reader was constantly being reminded. The women fared even worse, coming across as spiteful, ridiculously myopic harridans. What had once been an engaging fantasy epic with interesting character dynamics was now reading like a bad parody about the battle between the sexes.

Both points, of course, are simply symptoms of the real problem with The Wheel of Time, which is that the Wheel kept turning, and turning, and turning, until it had worn such a smooth, deep groove that it couldn’t gain any more traction, so it was left to pointlessly spin, spin away. It’s tough enough to maintain quality, keep things fresh, and meet expectations within a single story or novel. Forget about trying to pull it off with fourteen 900 page novels.

I do feel a bit guilty about my inability to finish Jordan’s magnum opus. Even though I’m no longer a fan, it always bothered me that Jordan passed away before he could finish the series, and as a result I feel a bit dirty even now when I criticize his work. I hope his fans were pleased with the work that Brandon Sanderson did to turn Jordan’s extensive notes into the series’ three final volumes. They deserve a good payoff after the loyalty and patience they graced Jordan with, and Jordan deserved to have his story be complete.


The Nitty on the Gritty

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Fantasy fiction has experienced a shift in mood and tone over the last couple decades. Or people’s perceptions of fantasy fiction have shifted. As a genre, fantasy used to be stereotyped as fluffy, fairy tale tinted stories of rainbows and unicorns, where evil always fails and good always triumphs. Now, popular fantasy tends to be viewed as dark, gritty, bloody, brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s easy to point to certain fantasy novels and writers as examples of this descent into grit and grime.

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones if you’re referring to the first book or the television show) has an upsettingly high body account among its large cast of main characters.

Joe Abercrombie is often mentioned in the same breath as the bloodthirsty Martin.

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen strives to be so grim and gritty that it feels as though the entire world is covered in dead deserts and unforgiving wastelands.

Patrick Rothfuss’ anti-hero Kvothe from The Name of the Wind is responsible for the heinous assassination of the King and the war that followed. So much potential for going over-the-top with guilt, angst, and pathos, but Kvothe is too much of a cold bastard for that.

Other fantasy writers such as R. Scott Bakker, K.J. Parker, Matthew Stover, Scott Lynch, David Anthony Durham, Mark Lawrence, and Brent Weeks are frequently landing on lists of dark and gritty fantasy. The writers that I usually see recommended among fantasy fans are those who are known for writing dark, gritty, and “realistic” fantasy.

The first time I consciously noted this trend towards the grim and gruesome, and the shift from simplistic tales of good versus evil to stories of moral relativism, was with Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company. (Thank you, Brandon, for convincing me to read these books those many, many years ago.) I remember the pleasant shock of seemingly long-term characters being bumped off not only within the first book, but within the first several pages. The absence of a distinct demarcation between good and evil felt like a much-needed departure from and reinvention of beloved but tired fantasy tropes. Telling the story from the point-of-view of a rag-tag, oft-sidelined group of mercenaries instead of the central movers and shakers was a stroke of humanizing genius.

I’m not the only one who has noticed and remarked on the seminal nature of Glen Cook’s military epic. Do a search for The Black Company, and chances are that any reviews you find will comment on how Glen Cook was one of the first, if not the first, to trade in magical glamour for mercenary grit. There’s no doubt that the books were influential. The impact that they had on Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is instantly apparent in Erikson’s character and place names, and their influence becomes more concrete and vital as Erikson’s novels progress.

But thinking back on all the fantasy novels and stories I enjoyed as a child, teenager, and young adult, I’m not at all convinced that Cook’s reputation for helping to pave the way for dark and gritty fantasy is deserved. I’m not even convinced that the fantasy genre’s reputation for becoming darker and grittier is deserved.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often touted as being a prime example of how twee and simplistic the fantasy genre is capable of being. It’s often criticized for being a shallow, glossy adventure tale of Good and Light overcoming Evil and Darkness, but let’s not forget the creepiness of Smeagol’s demented spiral into despair and his pathetic addiction, or that Frodo fails his final test. Let’s not ignore that the epic’s overarching and ever present theme is about the long, grueling march of mortality and the inevitability of death and the end of all things. Good triumphs over evil, but our halfling heroes are unable to protect their home from the loss of innocence. Magic is fading from the world forever. Of all the fantasy stories I’ve read, this one is still the saddest. It was published 30 years before The Black Company.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan is an amoral thief and warrior in a world where life is cheap and violence rules. He has no qualms with dealing death and destruction, and is not a hero, but simply an adept survivor. The first Conan story was published 52 years before The Black Company.

Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, is about a city oppressed with dense and unfathomable tradition, which is populated with self-serving, monstrous individuals and pathetic, demented wretches. It was published 28 years before The Black Company.

The most popular incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the albino Elric of Melnibone. This self-loathing wizard and warrior wields the magical sword Stormbringer, which feeds on the souls of those it slays. Elric’s story culminates with Elric losing all that he holds dear, with Stormbringer feeding on his best friend before turning itself on Elric. The first Elric story was published 23 years before The Black Company.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are about a spiteful, lonely man suffering from leprosy who finds himself in a magical land that heals him of his terrible disease. One of his first actions in this world is to rape a young woman who had befriended him. His sense of guilt and his leprosy driven habits of survival cause him to angrily, stubbornly, and steadfastly deny the reality of the world he now finds himself in. Many readers find Thomas Covenant to be a loathsome, irredeemable character. Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series, was published 7 years before The Black Company.

There are many other examples of pre-Black Company fantasy stories with dark tones, disturbing ideas, or shocking events. Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Asprin’s and Abbey’s Thieves’ World, Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, Gardner’s Grendel

Look back even further, to the true progenitors of the fantasy genre such as Shakespeare, fairy tales, fables, myths, religion, Greek drama, epic poetry, and it becomes readily apparent that darkness and fantasy are true bedfellows. Fantasy stories of today are playing in the same heaps of grime and grit and violence that Oedipus was crawling through when he murdered his father, slept with his mother, and stabbed out his own eyes.

So, when someone declares that they love A Game of Thrones because it’s not typical fantasy, just remember that there are old versions of Sleeping Beauty where she was not awoken with a kiss, but by the suckling of her newborn twins, the result of her being raped while laying in an enchanted sleep. That’s sick.

And Cinderella’s step-sisters sliced off parts of their own feet in order to fit into the slipper. That’s twisted.

By the way, please read Glen Cook’s The Chronicles of the Black Company if you already haven’t. It’s reputation as being groundbreaking in tone and mood might be overstated, but they’re well worth the read, in no small part to Cook’s deft use of first person, his engaging cast of colorful characters, his bizarre creatures and frightening, ancient wizards, and his sense humanity.

The series contains the following books:

1. The Black Company

2. Shadows Linger

3. The White Rose

4. The Silver Spike

5. Shadow Games

6. Dreams of Steel

7. Bleak Seasons

8. She is the Darkness

9. Water Sleeps

10. Soldiers Live


Oh, My Giddy Aunt!

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The history of science fiction and fantasy television is riddled with tragedies.

There are the minor tragedies; the mishaps and unfortunate choices and events that mar what would have otherwise been shining testaments to the greatness of quality entertainment. These sad disappointments are exemplified by declines in quality such as The X-Files turning into the paranormal version of Moonlighting, Linda Hamilton being written out of Beauty and the Beast, Lost being revealed as random and pointless after the first season, Farscape not being renewed after a cliffhanger ending…

There are the major tragedies; those devastating losses and errors in judgment that cause your inner geek to sob itself into catatonia and to shrivel pathetically into a fetal position, its only sign of life an occasional mewling shudder whenever the pain becomes too acute and unbearable.

The premature cancellation of Firefly is the most recent of these tragedies. Eleven years and a miraculous sequel movie later, the wound still feels fresh.

But sometimes it’s the oldest scars that cut the deepest. I hadn’t been born when Doctor Who first aired in 1963. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I discovered the show, becoming an instant, rabid convert after just half an episode (it was the last half of episode four of The Power of Kroll that did it). But even as a latecomer to the fandom, I still remember that sense of outrage when I first learned of the BBC’s practice of destroying old tape, effectively erasing from existence entire swaths of television history. Luckily, Doctor Who remained relatively unscathed in comparison to other programs. We could at least see the majority of William Hartnell’s stories, and bits and pieces of Patrick Troughton’s years. Other shows weren’t so fortunate. Luckily, Doctor Who has long been adored around the world by a very obsessive and passionate fanbase, making the search for missing episodes something of a priority. The result has been the successful discovery of several missing episodes over the last several years.

Until today, the number of episodes still missing numbered at 106. Now, today, we Doctor Who fans can gleefully giggle and tingle over that number dropping to 97.

The rumors of found episodes have been circulating for a while, but it wasn’t until the BBC confirmed that episodes had, in fact, been found, that I began hoping that, through some miracle, the found episodes would include the final episode of The Tenth Planet (William Hartnell’s final episode, marking the first time that the title character regenerated) and the entirety of The Power of the Daleks, possibly one of the best Dalek stories of all time, and also Patrick Troughton’s first story.

I didn’t get my wish, but what we did end up getting was almost just as good, because we got two Second Doctor stories, and more Patrick Troughton is always a good thing. The Enemy of the World is a wonderful find because of Troughton’s dual role as both the Doctor and the maniacal and devious dictator Salamander. Even better may be that all but one episode of The Web of Fear was found. This one is notable for being the second appearance of the Great Intelligence (the Big Bad of New Who Series 7), as well as the first appearance of Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, better known as the Brigadier, one of the show’s longest-running recurring characters, and a beloved fan-favorite.

I can hardly be bothered to care anymore about the upcoming 50th Anniversary episode, or any other specials or celebrations. More of the brilliant Patrick Troughton is the best 50th Anniversary gift ever.


Adapting Tolkien: The Films

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When one considers how popular J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is, it’s a bit surprising that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings haven’t been adapted into other mediums more often.

It’s not so surprising that The Silmarillion has remained relatively untouched, because that work is, well, you know… it’s The Silmarillion.

But then you start looking at all the different Tolkien adaptations, and all the works that have been inspired by Tolkien, and you end up being surprised (and a bit overwhelmed) that Tolkien shows up in other mediums as often as he does.

The film versions of Tolkien’s work must be the most widely known Tolkien adaptations.

Rankin-Bass

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For many of us, the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit by Rankin-Bass is one of the defining moments in our evolution as Tolkien fans. It’s too bad about the 1980 follow-up The Return of the King, which is such a grotesque abomination that you have to look extremely hard and be extremely forgiving to find any of its redeeming qualities. Try as I might, the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that some of my friends like the song Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way. Catchy, but not enough to hang an entire cartoon on.

While The Hobbit suffered from some bizarre character design and from being so abridged that it lost much of its thematic weight, it at least managed to capture an otherworldly, creepy, fairy tale tone, which can still manage to capture the attention and imagination of children. The Return of the King, on the other hand, manages to be even more trite and childish than its predecessor, which is actually an impressive feat, since The Hobbit is a twee book that’s blatantly written for children, while The Return of the King is the weightier and more ponderously dense tome.

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And somehow, the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit manages to be appealing, like a darkly magical image of a Brian Froud fairy, while the creep factor of the Rankin-Bass Return of the King veers wildly into territory that can only be described as uncomfortable.

Ralph Bakshi

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I almost wonder if the poor quality of the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King was the result of it being rushed into and through production to take advantage of the infamous and unfinished Ralph Bakshi adaptation of The Lord of the Rings from 1978, two years earlier. Bakshi’s version of the fantasy epic is a fan favorite target for ridicule. It’s the kind of movie that’s so widely accepted as being terrible that it’s watched for the entertainment value of how bad it is, like an epic fantasy version of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. The film is undoubtedly a failure. Even it’s more glaring flaws, such as the spastic overacting mannerisms of some of its rotoscoped actors, or the choice to change Saruman’s name to Aruman and then back to Saruman, barely scratch the surface of where this adaptation went wrong.

It’s such a magnificent failure, though. While Bakshi’s wonderfully psychedelic and experimental style don’t quite mesh with Middle-earth, you can still admire the movie for how psychedelic and experimental it is. The screenplay certainly has its flaws, but still, it’s a screenplay by Peter S. Beagle, the man responsible for beautiful novels such as The Last Unicorn and The Innkeeper’s Song. The movie abruptly ends halfway through the story, but it ends with Theoden’s poignant, melancholy charge from Helm’s Deep and Gandalf’s timely, triumphant arrival. And who could complain about Aragorn being voiced by John Hurt? Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings may not be a success, but it certainly deserves to be revisited with as open a mind as possible. It’s full of hidden but shining gems if one is willing to look for them.

Peter Jackson

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This brings us to Peter Jackson’s epic, three film production of the saga. These films are, in a way, the opposite of Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation. Where Bakshi’s film immediately annoys because it’s so utterly wrong, Jackson’s films immediately enchant because they get so much completely right. Where Bakshi’s murky film is saved by a scattering of shiny, brilliant bits of gold shining through its tarnish, Jackson’s shining films are marred by scratches and dings that dull its gold leaf surface.

In a way, I have more admiration for Bakshi’s telling of the story, because it feels like he was, at the very least, trying to do something artful and poetic with Tolkien’s tale. Sure, his version of the Flight to the Ford drags, but it’s also so nightmarish and stark and strange and dark and ethereal that it effectively captures the sense of Frodo slipping into the shadow world of the Wraiths. Jackson’s version of the Flight to the Ford, on the other hand, is simply a thrilling chase scene. A chase scene that frustratingly ends with Arwen stealing one of Frodo’s defining moments of strength and courage.

I do love Jackson’s films, despite their flaws. They suffer from too many typical action film clichés, and they alter or excise the source material in a way that weaken some of Tolkien’s themes (no one will ever convince me that cutting The Scouring of the Shire was the right choice), but they are movies that are an obvious labor of love, and they capture more of the heart and spirit of Tolkien’s work than I ever expected from a big budget production.

I wish I could say the same of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. I’ve written about this before, so for now I’ll just say that the first part of the trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, was like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings with all its flaws magnified. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s a depressingly missed opportunity that is clumsy in its inability to find a consistent tone, and misguided and artless in its attempt to expand upon such a simple tale.

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At the very least, the casting in all of Jackson’s films is about as perfect as one could expect, which is always a huge plus.

Gene Deitch

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Last, and possibly least, we have, from 1966, the 12 minute animated adaptation by cartoonist Gene Deitch of The Hobbit. Saying that this is animated might be an overstatement, because it’s really just a series of narrated stills. Calling it The Hobbit is even a bit of a stretch, because other than a few names, the general plot of a hobbit on a quest to steal treasure from a dragon, and a few highly altered but still recognizable moments, it bears little resemblance to the original story. It’s rather like Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in that respect (and yes, before you attack me too vociferously, that’s me being hyperbolic).

On the off-chance that you’ve never see it, it’s worth taking a look. The illustrations are actually quite lovely, and it has a quick, breathless, meandering pace that almost reminds me of old Rocky and Bullwinke cartoons. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBnVL1Y2src

Others

There are other Tolkien film adaptations out there that I have yet to have the pleasure (or displeasure) of seeing.

There are fan made films such as The Hunt for Gollum and Born of Hope. I’ve heard good things about The Hunt for Gollum, and the few seconds of footage I’ve seen at least look pretty.

A television movie titled The Fabulous Journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit was produced in the Soviet Union in 1985.

1993 saw a Finnish production called Hobitit (The Hobbits), which was a nine episode adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

The Peak of the Pile

Despite my misgivings, the best film adaptation of Tolkien to date is clearly Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films. Even with its flawed screenplays, they manage to be the most entertaining and engaging of the Tolkien film adaptations. And while Tolkien’s books cry out for a quieter, more meditative approach than Jackson’s bombastic style, Jackson’s penchant for going big and brash resulted in some powerful moments. Bottom line is, of all the film adaptations, Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s masterpiece is the least egregious.

Here’s hoping that a couple decades from now we finally get the films that can be more truthfully and honestly called the definitive adaptations of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Not that there can truly be any such thing, but surely we can get closer than we have up until now.

In the meantime, I think I will go watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy again.


Behind the Times

My blog will never be a good source for reviews of books and movies. Even if I wanted to write reviews (which I sometimes do, actually), I don’t know if what I’d end up writing could even be called a review. “Nebulous, lazy, stream-of-consciousness thoughts on a movie” would probably end up being a more accurate moniker. Even if I did write reviews, they wouldn’t do many people much good, because I am always far behind the times. I suppose there may be a place for reviews that are written weeks or even years after the initial release of their subject, but it kind of takes the steam out of your engine when you want to gush or rant about the latest cool thing when that thing is long past late and long since warmed over.

Four days since it premiered, and I haven’t even seen the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet, which is rather remarkable when you consider that I’m a superhero fan, an adorer of the Avengers movie and the character of Coulson, and an unapologetic Joss Whedon fanboy (you shut your mouth, Dollhouse was almost great). I’ve been eagerly awaiting Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since it was first rumored, and I’m hoping that this is Whedon’s first true mega-hit for television so he can become even more influential and demand more creative freedom. But if I follow my usual pattern, I may not get around to watching Agents until it’s at least six episodes in.

I suppose I’ve just gotten too old. Work and kids and chores and even silly distractions like this blog always end up taking priority over trying to be on the cutting edge of my favorite entertainment. Technology also makes it easy to delay exposure to new content. Miss it in theaters, or when it originally airs on television? DVDs, DVR, and streaming make it easy to catch up on whatever you miss.

I kind of miss those days when it actually felt exciting to be at movie’s opening night, or when new television episodes actually felt like must-see tv. It’s all still must-see, but it’s turned from “must-see now” into “I’ll have to watch that sometime.”

Maybe I’ll end up writing a review of the first season of Supernatural. My students just recently talked me into watching it, and I’m only eight years behind.


Steven Moffat is Such a Fan

Apparently Steven Moffat can’t do anything right, even when he blatantly is.

There is no accounting for taste. Sometimes we just like what we like, and preferring one era of Doctor Who over another is not only all well and good, but completely expected and accepted. It would actually be strange if Doctor Who fans didn’t have preferences. In fact, Doctor Who has been on the air for so long, it would be a little strange if long-term fans didn’t have eras they actively disliked. I myself have a couple eras that I find extremely problematic. However, it would be nice if, when we engage in our complaining, we ranted about stuff that actually had some bearing on what’s appearing on screen.

Some of the complaints about current Doctor Who show-runner Steven Moffat that I’ve encountered come in the form of griping about how he doesn’t reference past episodes enough. Some feel that Moffat needs to be referencing Classic Who more often. Others are hungry for more references to the first three series of New Who, when Russell T. Davies (RTD) was the show-runner.

These types of complaints are misguided on the face of it, because they ignore one of the best and most consistent traits of Doctor Who, which is that Doctor Who is a show that constantly changes. Complaining that Moffat’s Who isn’t loaded with nods, references, and connections to the past is kind of like complaining that the Fourth Doctor era doesn’t mention Susan, Ian, and Barbara enough, or that it doesn’t have episodes about the Tribe of Gum, the Sensorites, and the Zarbi. Well, of course it doesn’t. Those are stories and characters from the First Doctor.

But even worse is that Moffat’s Who is, in actuality, loaded with references to past episodes.

I guess Moffat could squeeze even more references in, if he wanted the show to be nothing but a self-referential exploration of Doctor Who nostalgia, but that would be short-sighted. Besides, that’s what the episode The Name of the Doctor was already all about.

And I suppose when some fans say they want more references to RTD Who, what some of them are actually saying is that they still want the show to be about how Rose was the Doctor’s one true love, or that they want Martha or Donna or Jack to return, but that would also be short-sighted. Fans rabidly clinging to a handful of companions year after year, when their stories have already finished and gone, is anathema to a show like Doctor Who.

And finally, I imagine that one strong disagreement with my assertion that Moffat’s Who is full of references to the past is that many of the references are obscure and not direct, to which I would respond by repeating that this has almost always been the case with Doctor Who.

What follows is a simplified, probably short list of references to Classic and RTD Who that are contained in Steven Moffat’s three series and specials. Much of this is pulled from the TARDIS Data Core (http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Doctor_Who_Wiki), a very helpful and informative site. I highly recommend exploring the Data Core if you want to dig further into these many points of continuity.

I certainly don’t expect anyone to actually read this entire list, but it should give us an idea of how thoroughly Moffat’s Who is entrenched in the program’s greater continuity. Steven Moffat is so obviously and unabashedly a Doctor Who fan.

____________

The Eleventh Hour

“Do I have a face that no one listens to? Again?” is an obvious reference to the entirety of both Classic and RTD Who and how his companions typically don’t listen to him.

The opening scene with the crashing TARDIS is a continuation of the final scene in RTD’s The End of Time.

“Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey” is a catch phrase coined by the Tenth Doctor.

“What? What? What?!?!” is one of the Tenth Doctor’s catch phrases.

Opening the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers was originally done by the Tenth Doctor.

The Shadow Proclamation is a nod to RTD Who

We see images of all the previous Doctors and of creatures from both Classic and RTD Who.

The Eleventh Doctor’s lingering, glowing regeneration energy was a precedent established in RTD Who.

The Doctor being late to return for Amelia is making use of a trope firmly established in Classic and RTD Who. It’s comically common how often the Doctor never arrives where or when he wants to.

“You are not of this world.”

“No, but I’ve put a lot of work into it.”

This is an obvious reference to every time the Doctor has saved the Earth in Classic and RTD Who.

The Doctor telling the Atraxi to “run” is a nod to the Tenth Doctor telling Harriet Jones “I should have told [the Sycorax] to run.”

The Doctor’s immediate and virulent dismissal of carrots is a nod to companion Mel trying to get the Sixth Doctor to drink carrot juice.

The Doctor calling Earth a Level 5 planet is an RTD concept.

The Beast Below

The Doctor again refers to himself as “the last of the Time Lords,” an RTD invention.

A “Magpie Electricals” sign, first seen in RTD Who, makes an appearance.

The Earth being abandoned due to solar flares is a plot point established in Classic Who.

A Dalek makes a brief appearance at the very end.

Liz Ten mentions the royal family’s relationship with the Doctor as established in RTD Who.

A quick exchange between Amy and the Doctor establishes that the Doctor had family/children, but doesn’t talk much about them, a theme that has popped up in both Classic and RTD Who.

Victory of the Daleks

Daleks.

Threatening the Daleks with a Jammie Dodger is similar to the Fourth Doctor making the same kind of threat with a Jelly Baby.

When the Doctor threatens to send the Daleks back to “the void,” he’s referencing a plot point and concept from RTD Who.

Dalek Saucers have been seen in Classic and RTD Who.

The Doctor identifies the TARDIS as a Type 40 TARDIS, another nod to Classic Who.

The Daleks escaping through a Time Corridor is another nod to Classic Who.

The entire story is essentially a retelling of the Classic Who story The Power of the Daleks.

The Time of Angels

The Weeping Angels first appeared in RTD Who.

River Song also made her first appearance in RTD Who.

The crash of the Byzantium was first referenced during RTD Who.

The mention of “High Gallifreyan” is a nod to Classic Who.

There is a mention of perception filters, a concept from RTD Who.

The Doctor having his ego bruised by River Song being a better TARDIS pilot parallels the Fourth Doctor being annoyed when Romana claims that she is a better pilot.

The Doctor saying that he’s not a taxi service echoes dialogue from the Fifth Doctor.

The Doctor can speed read, which has also been seen in Classic and RTD Who.

Flesh and Stone

Events from RTD Who (the CyberKing, the Dalek invasion) are used to establish a plot point about history disappearing.

The Doctor kissing Amy on the forehead before leaving her in a dangerous situation echoes similar moments with Zoe and Jo Grant in Classic Who.

Vampires in Venice

The Doctor’s library card has an image of the First Doctor, the address of the junkyard where the TARDIS was located in the first Classic Who episode, and the name Dr. J. Smith, the alias that the Doctor has used throughout Classic and RTD Who.

Amy talks about all the running they do, a trope established by RTD Who.

Perception filter again, from RTD Who.

Amy’s Choice

The Tenth Doctor’s relationship to Elizabeth I is given a mention.

The Dreamlord’s comment about the Doctor loving redheads is a clear nod to Donna Noble from RTD Who.

The Doctor is called “the last of the Time Lords” and “the Oncoming Storm,” both monikers from RTD Who.

The possibility that the TARDIS “jumped a time track” is a nod to Classic Who.

The Doctor derides the TARDIS Instruction Manual, a joke that references Classic Who.

The Hungry Earth

The return of the Silurians, a Classic Who monster.

The Doctor ends up taking Amy to the wrong place after promising to take her to the beach. This has also happened with Martha Jones and Donna Noble (RTD Who) and Sarah Jane Smith (Classic Who).

The Doctor mentions the fate of the first Silurians he encountered in Classic Who.

Cold Blood

The Doctor asks for celery, a nod to the Fifth Doctor.

Fixed points in time are mentioned, which have previously been used as integral plot points in RTD Who.

The entire story strongly parallels the Classic Who story The Silurians.

Vincent and the Doctor

We see images of the First and Second Doctors.

The Doctor rifles through a chest full of junk and conveniently helpful devices to find what he needs. This has been seen in both Classic and RTD Who.

The flirting between Vincent and Amy echoes the flirting between Shakespeare and Martha.

The Lodger

Flashes of Classic and RTD Who Doctors and monsters.

Brief glimpse of Rose Tyler.

The song the Doctor sings in the shower is a song that has been sung by the Third Doctor.

“The Oncoming Storm.”

Craig’s “What? What? What?!?!” echoes the Tenth Doctor.

We see all the Doctor’s previous incarnations again.

The Doctor telling Craig “don’t spend it all on sweets” echoes the Ninth Doctor saying the same to Adam in RTD Who.

The Pandorica Opens

Silurians, Judoon, Sycorax, Sontarans, Autons, Cybermen, Daleks… All creatures who have appeared in Classic or RTD Who, or both.

“I… am… talking!” has been uttered by both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors.

The Big Bang

The Seventh Doctor also once wore a fez.

A Christmas Carol

The Doctor is unable to perform a card trick, much like the Ninth Doctor.

The Doctor has a photo of himself and Einstein, lending credence to the idea that the two are friends, as originally mentioned in Classic Who.

The Doctor wears a scarf that is similar to that worn by the Fourth Doctor.

This is not the first time the Doctor has seen flying fish, as the First Doctor mentioned having seen flying fish.

The psychic paper fails, as it did twice during RTD Who.

The Impossible Astronaut

References to River Song’s first episodes, which belong to the era of RTD Who.

“Brave heart, Canton,” is a reference to the Fifth Doctor’s “Brave heart, Tegan.”

Day of the Moon

“Magpie Electricals” makes another appearance.

The Doctor tastes something to get more information from it, a habit established by the Tenth Doctor.

Dwarf star alloy has been mentioned in both Classic and RTD Who.

The Curse of the Black Spot

Captain Avery was mentioned in Classic Who.

Two objects occupying the same space is a concept that has been used in Classic Who.

The Doctor’s Wife

The Time War.

The Doctor mentions having rebuilt the TARDIS before, which he has done in Classic Who.

Mentions using rift energy to refuel the TARDIS, an idea which originated with RTD Who.

A canonical reason is given for the long-running “unreliability” of the TARDIS.

Mentions the existence of older control rooms.

The Cloister Bell, a Classic Who invention, sounds.

The Ood, an RTD Who creature.

The Doctor mentions the Sixth Doctor’s umbrella.

Sending messages by Hypercube is from Classic Who.

The Tenth Doctor’s console room makes a return.

The first instance of the TARDIS trying to communicate psychically happened during the first series of Classic Who.

Deleting rooms to create energy was established as an ability of the TARDIS in Classic Who.

The Eye of Orion is a Classic Who reference.

The TARDIS says she likes being called “old girl,” which is a reference to all the times previous Doctors actually called her “old girl.”

Reference is made to the Classic Who idea that the Doctor stole the TARDIS.

The Third Doctor once travelled by TARDIS console alone.

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People

“One day, we will get back. Yes, one day.” –The First Doctor

“Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.” –The Third Doctor

“Would you like a jelly baby?” – The Fourth Doctor

“Hello, I’m the Doctor.” – The Tenth Doctor

A Good Man Goes to War

Another mention of the Doctor having family, a running theme that pops up occasionally since the early days of Classic Who.

Cybermen, Judoon, a Silurian, and a Sontaran.

“I am so sorry” echoes one of the Tenth Doctor’s catchphrases.

Nods to River Song’s first appearance during RTD Who.

The Untempered Schism from RTD Who is mentioned.

Let’s Kill Hitler

A repeat of the RTD Who banana gag.

We see holograms of past RTD Who companions, Donna, Martha, and Rose.

The TARDIS being in a state of Temporal Grace is a concept from Classic Who.

River surviving being shot during the few hours after her regeneration is similar to the Tenth Doctor being able to regenerate his hand because his regeneration was still fresh.

Night Terrors

Sontarans and Daleks get a mention.

Perception filters, again.

Jelly Babies.

The Girl Who Waited

Ejecting parts of the TARDIS for extra power is mentioned again.

Rory’s “I am so, so sorry” echoes one of the Tenth Doctor’s catchphrases.

The God Complex

The Minotaur is related to the Nimon, a Classic Who creature.

We see photos of a Sontaran, a Silurian, a Tritovore, a Hoix, a Catkind, and a Judoon, creatures who originated with Classic or RTD Who.

Weeping Angels.

Cloister Bell.

The Doctor calling the Minotaur beautiful echoes the Tenth Doctor’s sentiments upon encountering some alien creatures.

Closing Time

K-9 reference.

Cybermen.

Cyber-controller.

Cybermats!

“I don’t like it!” is from the Second Doctor.

The Doctor goes on a farewell tour before his impending death, just like the Tenth Doctor.

Being able to fight and reject the Cybermen conversion process was established in RTD Who.

The Doctor mentions that he sometimes forgets who he is, which has actually happened a few times in Classic Who.

“Not a rat, a Cybermat!” is a line from Classic Who.

The Wedding of River Song

Classic Who’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart gets a lovely and sad mention.

RTD Who’s Charles Dickens makes an appearance.

A Silurian.

Rose Tyler and Jack Harkness get a mention.

Drawings of Weeping Angels, Daleks, Cybermen, and Silurians.

Elizabeth I gets another mention.

The question “Doctor who?” was asked in the very first Classic Who story.

Dalek.

The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe

The Doctor mentions Jabe, the tree creature from the Forest of Cheeb from RTD Who.

Classic Who established that the Doctor can briefly survive in the vacuum of space.

Asylum of the Daleks

The Oncoming Storm moniker is used again.

Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks since the first series of Classic Who.

The Asylum is similar in style to the Dalek city where the Doctor originally met the Daleks.

Different Daleks from the entire history of Doctor Who make an appearance.

Several encounters between the Doctor and the Daleks in Classic Who are mentioned.

The Doctor’s knack for manipulating and using teleporters has been seen and mentioned in RTD Who.

The Doctor mentions that he is familiar with Dalek prison camps, which he is, from Classic Who.

The Daleks have converted humans to Daleks before, in both Classic and RTD Who.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Silurians.

The Doctor again claims that the TARDIS is not a taxi service, a nod to Classic Who dialogue.

Psychic paper, an RTD Who invention.

A Town Called Mercy

The characterization of the Doctor relies on his history of committing terrible acts. In other words, the Time War, an RTD Who invention.

The Doctor mentions the Master.

This is another episode about how the Doctor needs companions to keep him grounded, a conceit firmly established by RTD Who.

The Power of Three

U.N.I.T. is a Classic Who invention.

Kate Stewart is the Brigadier’s daughter, so she is a direct connection to Classic Who.

The Doctor mentions K-9 again.

The U.N.I.T. base under the Tower of London was originally seen in RTD Who.

The Doctor telling Brian about his past companions is a broad reference to all Classic and RTD Who companions.

The Angels Take Manhattan

The Doctor using regeneration energy to heal River’s hand is continuing a trend of regeneration energy being used for purposes other than regenerations, an idea that was originally used in RTD Who.

River says that the Doctor doesn’t like to see his companions age, which was a character trait established in RTD Who.

The Snowmen

Silurian and Sontaran.

Clara’s observation that the TARDIS is “smaller on the outside” only works as a joke because it relies on decades worth of characters observing that it’s “bigger on the inside.”

Strax’s inability to differentiate male from female is similar to the Sontaran Linx from Classic Who having the same confusion.

The Great Intelligence is an enemy that the Second Doctor faced during two different adventures.

The Fourth Doctor once dressed as Sherlock Holmes.

The Bells of Saint John

The Great Intelligence again.

The Doctor says that travelling short distances in the TARDIS is difficult, which has previously been stated several times in Classic Who.

The Anti-Gravity Olympics were also mentioned to Rose Tyler.

The Rings of Akhaten

The Doctor mentions his granddaughter, who we can only assume must be Susan, the first Classic Who companion.

The Time War.

The Doctor’s speech refers to events that he experienced during Classic Who.

Cold War

The return of the Ice Warriors, a Classic Who creature.

The Doctor activates the HADS, which was previously used by the Second Doctor.

The Doctor has a doll with blond hair, which might be an obscure reference to Rose Tyler.

The entire story is a nod to the Second Doctor’s style of “base under siege” stories.

Hide

The Ghostbusters references echoes a similar reference from RTD Who.

The Doctor says he used to have a place for umbrellas, referencing that some of the Classic Who console rooms had umbrella racks.

The Eye of Harmony from Classic Who is mentioned.

The Cloister Bell sounds.

Fixed points in time are mentioned again.

Psychic paper.

The Doctor poses as someone from Health and Safety, which he once did during RTD Who.

The Doctor mentions Metebelis III, a planet visited by the Third Doctor.

The Doctor visits a pocket universe, which he has done a few times in Classic Who.

The Doctor wears a red spacesuit which looks like the one worn by the Tenth Doctor.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

The Time War.

The Great Intelligence is mentioned.

Dialogue from several old companions and Doctors can be heard.

We see the Seventh Doctor’s umbrella.

The Eye of Harmony.

Cloister Bell.

The TARDIS changes its interiors, something it has been able to do since Classic Who.

The Doctor derides the fashion sense of the Time Lords, something they have had a problem with since the days of Classic Who.

The Crimson Horror

The Doctor referring to a “gobby Australian” was a reference to Classic Who companion Tegan Jovanka.

“Brave heart…” was another Tegan reference.

Silurian and Sontaran.

Nightmare in Silver

Cybermen.

The possessed Doctor imitates past Classic and RTD Who Doctors.

We see images of all the Doctor’s past regenerations.

The Doctor takes advantage of the Cybermen’s weakness to gold, which has not been seen since Classic Who.

Cybermats are mentioned.

The Name of the Doctor

The Great Intelligence.

Silurian and Sontaran.

The Valeyard, an evil incarnation of the Doctor from Classic Who, is mentioned.

The Sycorax (RTD Who), the Daleks, and the Cybermen are mentioned.

The Doctor’s deeds being undone and the stars going out echoes what happened when the Tenth Doctor was killed prematurely.

We hear dialogue from several past Classic and RTD Who Doctors.

We see the TARDIS being stolen by the First Doctor.

We see a glimpse of Susan.

We see footage of or flashes of every single past Doctor.

____________

Hate Steven Moffat all you want, but let’s stop pretending that he’s not a fan of Doctor Who and that he’s ignoring Doctor Who continuity. The truth is, one of the reasons his version of Doctor Who is the way it is, is because he enjoys Doctor Who very much, and because he understands Doctor Who very, very well.


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