Thursday, November 13, 2014

 Why I Like the Changing Face of the Doctor

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Doctor Who. I've been a fan for over 20 years. I met my husband and most of my friends because I am a fan of Doctor Who, so the series has had a big impact on my life. One of the things I like most about the series, aside from it being science fiction and quintessentially British, is the fact that the actor who plays the Doctor changes fairly regularly. That's a troubling issue for some fans, who become so attached to the current actor that they have trouble adapting to the changes. I've heard of fans who stop watching when a Doctor changes. But the change is what I look forward to, no matter how much I'm enjoying the actor who's currently in the role.

When I was a girl, my family regularly watched the television series Gunsmoke. It was a family tradition. For those not familiar with this series, it was a Western genre series that ran in the US from 1955 to 1975. In that respect it has similarities with the long-running Doctor Who. But for the entire run of the series, the lead character was Marshall Matt Dillon, the marshall of Dodge City, Kansas. The series was also on radio for nine years prior to being adapted for television, and the main character of the radio serial was also Marshall Matt Dillon, though portrayed by a different actor.

Marshall Dillon never retired - at least not permanently. He wasn't killed by some random outlaw, though he came close a few times. He remained the marshall of Dodge City for 20 years. The town doctor was also played by the same actor for the same length of time. During the majority of the tv series run, the Long Branch Saloon was run by Miss Kitty, who was a romantic interest for Dillon. They never married, and never seemed to progress their relationship beyond close friendship.

The point I make in describing Gunsmoke is that it never substantially changed. Every week one could rely on seeing the same familiar faces doing the same things. Marshall Dillon tracked down the bad guys. Doc Adams bandaged gunshot wounds and provided comic relief moments of banter with deputy Festus Haggen. Miss Kitty provided expository dialogue opportunities and worried about the marshall if he got hurt. The characters never grew, they never pursued new opportunities. The town never changed in size or population makeup. The only major changes that ever occured happened in the late 1980s, when the series was revived in the form of several tv-movies.

Doctor Who also has elements that never change. It's always about the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in a vehicle that looks like a 1960s British police telephone booth. He's usually accompanied by a young human woman who acts as his platonic companion and a surrogate for the audience. They get into trouble and usually end up saving the day. But every few years the Doctor's companion will change. Sometimes he has more than one traveling companion. Occasionally his companions are males, or the companion might not be originally from Earth. He's even had a few companions who weren't human. Now and again he doesn't have a companion at all for a short period of time.

More importantly, the Doctor himself changes. Typically every three or four years the actor portraying him departs and is replaced by someone else, who is deliberately chosen because he looks entirely different from his predecessor. He may be significantly older or younger, taller or shorter, have a different hair color, speak with a different accent. This new actor is under no obligation to play the role in the same way as the previous performer; in fact, it's encouraged for him to bring new facets to the part. The Doctor may suddenly manifest new talents, skills or interests that he never previously demonstrated. It's possible that in the future the Doctor may even change race or gender. And yet, the audience is expected to accept this new actor as the same person.

The production team also changes periodically, and each new team changes the tone of the series somewhat. Gunsmoke probably had changes in the production team as well, but although some of the more racist and misogynistic elements softened as the series moved into the 1970s, the essential elements never changed. The new producers weren't permitted to have Matt Dillon die or retire, he wasn't allowed to marry Miss Kitty or any other woman. The setting didn't move from Dodge City to some other location. People in Dodge City didn't start buying cars and the town wasn't electrified. The series really didn't acknowledge the passage of time - or the aging of the actors.

Doctor Who has changed with the times more than Gunsmoke ever did. The Doctor has lost his entire species. He's fallen in love with - and lost - one of his companions. In the earlier days of the series he didn't try to change history, but in more recent episodes he's made obvious and significant changes to historical events. He's backtracked over his own timestream. He's encountered his previous and future selves. He's even reached the end of his own lifespan. Some of this malleability is a function of this being a science fiction series about a time traveler, but some of it is also the willingness of the producing network to allow more flexibility, and of the audience to be more accepting of change.

It's this malleability that I like about the series, and the character. I don't want to watch another Gunsmoke populated by essentially static characters. I look forward to seeing what the new actor does with the role, how the actor interacts with new companion characters, what direction the new producers will take the show. Doctor Who has now been on television screens for 30 years. Imagine what sort of programme it would be if it was still what it was when it began in 1963. It would still feature the Doctor as a somewhat irascible old man, perhaps still traveling with his granddaughter and two London schoolteachers. If the series production team hadn't been willing to accept drastic change when original star William Hartnell decided to step down, we'd probably be experiencing what viewers of soap operas often see when an actor leaves and a new person is brought in to play the same role - the actor will still resemble the previous actor, still play the part the same basic way. Each replacement actor for the Doctor would have been another older man, trying to play the Doctor as the same irritable and imperious character. I probably wouldn't be watching Doctor Who any longer if that was the type of series it was. I would have lost interest long ago.

I can understand the desire for beloved entertainments to be changeless, to consistently bring us that familiar character and setting we enjoy. Our lives are full of so much change that it's comforting to know some things don't change. But I firmly believe that if Doctor Who didn't change, it wouldn't have managed to become the longest-running dramatic series in television history. I challenge those viewers who have a hard time accepting when the Doctor changes to realize that this is an essential element of the series, without which it wouldn't be the show that you liked. Give the new Doctor a chance. You might grow to like him even more than you did the previous one.

MOVIE REVIEW: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2013)
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris

Several months ago I saw the limited-release film Snowpiercer. I’ve read that the limited-release situation was due to the distributing studio’s confusion about what to do with it. I can understand to a certain extend why the studio didn't know how to market it: it's a Korean-American joint production, produced primarily in the Czech Republic, based on a French graphic novel. It has elements of dystopian science fiction, and some action scenes, but it's not really a sci-fi film or an action film. Many parts of it reminded me of the sort of surreal, quirky films produced by Terry Gilliam - which is ironic when you realize that the character portrayed by John Hurt is named Gilliam.

But what I really want to talk about here is what the movie made me think about. This is going to require a lot of spoilers, so if you don't want the plot elements spoiled for you, stop reading now.


The basic premise of the film is that to combat global warming, a chemical is released into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. The technique works all too well, and the entire world is engulfed in a severe ice age that apparently destroys all life. To preserve humanity from extinction, a huge train is developed that can carry thousands of people on a globe-spanning track, smashing its way through ice and snow like a locomotive icebreaker. It runs on a sort of perpetual motion engine so it doesn't need to stop for fuel, and has an enclosed ecosystem to provide all the necessities for the passengers.

The passengers on the train are divided into two classes: those in the front who live in luxury dining on a wide variety of foodstuffs, and those in the rear who live in crowded and horrible conditions, eating only protein bars provided to them by the people in the front. A small group of the rear passengers decide to stage a revolt and take over control of the train. They are led, reluctantly, by Curtis (Chris Evans), who gets a great deal of advice from Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis's devoted follower is a younger man named Edgar.

In the first third of the film we see armed guards from the front of the train come to count the rear passengers, and then take away some of their children, ostensibly for medical examination. When the father of one boy resists, he's punished by having one of his arms put outside the train until it freezes, then the arm is smashed with a sledgehammer. A few scenes later we see a number of older men who are missing limbs, including Gilliam, and I assumed that they must have been subjected to the same type of punishment.

In the last third of the film, Curtis and his band of rebels have made their way to the front of the train, but only Curtis and two others are left: Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona. Namgoong is the man who designed the security gates that separate the train cars. Curtis wants Namgoong to open the last door into the front car of the train, where Curtis will find the train's creator and ruler, Wilford (Ed Harris). While trying to persuade Namgoong to open the last gate, Curtis tells him a story about what happened at the rear of the train when people first boarded seventeen years earlier. The people from the front sent armed men to take all the supplies from the passengers in the rear, leaving a thousand people without food or water. The rear passengers finally resorted to cannibalism to survive. One day when a group of men had killed a woman so they could eat her baby, an old man cut off his own arm so they could eat that instead. The old man was Gilliam. The baby was Edgar, and Curtis was one of the killers.

This scene exposes so many elements of the plot that it's a challenge to describe them all now. First, it reveals Curtis's motivation for revolting against Wilford: he isn't a selfless messiah leading his people to salvation, he's a man with a terrible guilt and shame trying to expiate his sins. This also reveals why he defers so much to Gilliam: Gilliam's sacrifice changed his life. In an earlier scene it is shown that Curtis has a large scar on his right arm, but the cause isn't explained. As Curtis tells Namgoong his story, he reveals that he had attempted but failed to cut off his own arm in imitation of Gilliam's sacrifice. Curtis's story also explains why he is so attached to Edgar, and why it's obviously torture for him to choose when Edgar is taken hostage by the front guards and Curtis must decide whether to rescue Edgar or take advantage of an open gate that will let him get closer to the front of the train.

It wasn't until after I left the theater that I started thinking about the other things Curtis's story exposes about the organization of the train. Clearly, since the armed men from the front took the rear passengers' supplies, the train wasn't originally meant to carry so many people. The passengers at the rear were either allowed to board the train in a last-minute act of compassion, or - this is what I think is more likely - they forced their way onto the train. Wilford and his people must have made a decision to let the rear passengers starve in order to save resources for themselves. When the rear passengers turned to cannibalism and Wilford realized they weren't all going to die, efforts were made to develop the protein bars to feed the extra mouths. The train's carefully designed ecosystem couldn't support producing more of the food items that the people at the front were eating, so they devised a plan in which another source of protein was used for the rear passengers. But the train couldn't be made any bigger, and rather than integrate the rear passengers with the rest of the population, which would probably have caused shortages and conflicts for everyone, the unwelcome additions were left to live in what limited space was available.

As Wilford reveals to Curtis when they finally meet, the entire revolt was engineered as a way to reduce the train's surplus population. Curtis has been Gilliam's patsy all along, his guilt and shame used against him to manipulate him into leading a rebellion that would result in the planned deaths of 74% of his friends and companions from the back of the train. Curtis only sees Wilford's decisions as cruel and inhumane, because he's blinded by his own emotions. He doesn't recognize how torturous these choices must have been for Wilford - just as torturous as his own decision to abandon Edgar so he could get through the gate to the next car, or his final decision to destroy the train in order to set everyone free.

A couple of weeks after I saw the film, I ran across an article asserting that Snowpiercer’s plot contains elements of Gnosticism.  I find the author’s arguments pretty compelling, although I’m not certain the Gnostic influence was a conscious decision on the part of the screenwriter or director. As author Hughes points out, this type of story is also told in other films, like The Matrix and The Truman Show.

Although it may be a challenge to suspend one's disbelief that a train could keep running in such harsh conditions, or that it could support an entire population of people for seventeen years, the social and emotional messages the movie sends overcome the peculiarity of that plot conceit. Snowpiercer made me think, and for that reason, it's a movie worth seeing. And by the way, if you think Chris Evans is just Captain America, this film will make you think again. If I hadn't known he was in this movie before I went to the theater, I might not have recognized him.

BOOK REVIEW: Bitter Night

Title: Bitter Night (Horngate Witches series, book 1)
Author: Diana Pharaoh Francis

I've seen Diana Pharoah Francis at several sf&f conventions in recent years, and found her a good speaker on panels about the craft and business of writing. While listening to her speak about urban fantasy a few days ago, I decided it was time I read one of her books. During the panel, I logged on to Amazon and downloaded the Kindle edition of Bitter Night.

Although Bitter Night doesn't fit the description of urban fantasy given by one of the other panelists because it lacks a detective element, I would classify it as fitting in the urban fantasy genre. It's set in the present day, but features magic and magical creatures. Francis has designed an interesting magic system for her world. In her setting, powerful witches form covens with less powerful witches and claim territories. Each witch has a cadre of magic-enhanced bodyguards. These bodyguards are divided into two groups: Shadowblades, who are vulnerable to sunlight and can only work at night; and Sunspears, who are vulnerable to darkness and can only serve during the day. Each unit of Shadowblades and Sunspears has one person designated the Prime, who commands the rest of the unit. All of the Shadowblades and Sunspears are magically bonded to their witch by compulsion spells, but they must willingly accept the bond.

The main protagonist of Bitter Night is Max, Shadowblade Prime to a witch named Giselle whose territory is centered in Montana. But unlike most Shadowblades and Sunspears, Max hates her witch and constantly thinks about killing Giselle. It's revealed early in the story that Max believes Giselle tricked her into accepting their magical bond, and consequently she thinks of herself as enslaved to Giselle rather than as the witch's willing servant. It quickly became obvious to me that Max's conviction was completely wrong and her obsession with getting revenge on Giselle was foolish. But of course the character doesn't have the benefit of the reader's perspective.

Max is an unusually powerful and tough Shadowblade, her fierceness and strength fueled by her resentment toward Giselle. Other characters seem able to sense this power in her and are attracted to it. I'm beginning to wonder if Max has some magical talent of her own that will be explored in later books. She's also unwilling to recognize just how devoted her Shadowblades are to her, or how much she means to Giselle. In this she reminds me somewhat of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy hero Harry Dresden, who never realizes just how powerful and frightening he is to other people.

Francis provides a lot of conflict and danger for Max to face. Max's world is about to experience a magical apocalypse. The Guardians, god-like beings to whom the witches owe fealty, have decided that humans have depleted too much of the world's magic and it's time to clean house. Max goes through the tortures of the damned - literally - to protect Horngate and Giselle not only from a rival witch but from the Guardians themselves. There's a lot of exciting cinematic action in the story. Max is like an action movie hero, endlessly suffering injuries that would cripple or kill an ordinary person. At least she has her magical enhancements to explain her ability to withstand horrific wounds and keep fighting.

While overall I enjoyed the novel and read it quickly - always a good sign - there were some elements I found a little disappointing. Max encounters another Shadowblade Prime, Alexander, who instantly finds her attractive. When given the opportunity to leave the witch to whom he's bonded and follow Max, he hardly hesitates. Of course he's an extremely attractive man, which smacked a little too much of a romance novel for my taste. The Guardians also have servants referred to as angels, which when described sound an awful lot like anime characters. The two angels who appear in Bitter Night are both defined as masculine and physically muscular, and they wear the sort of clothes I would expect to see such characters wearing in an anime series. It would have been nice if the angels had seemed less human. But I suppose to a certain extent Francis is playing to an audience that enjoys supernatural romance, so the men have to be attractive even if they aren't human.

Despite the drawbacks I've described, I found Bitter Night an enjoyable read and am looking forward to reading the next novel in the series.