Monday, August 12, 2013

Season 7 [and Star Trek Into Darkness]

Let's start with the worst of it: Season 7 has been the least satisfying season of New Who. Heck, it's less satisfying than the last two seasons of Old Who. Still, if we're being honest, that's a high bar to cross. Seasons 1 - 6 (and 25 & 26 of Old) were dazzling, and carried through any rough patches by some staggering masterpieces.

More than anything, that's what missing from the season: classics. Asylum, Hide, and Name all flirt with it, and certainly attain "lesser classic" status, but none are on the level of Parting of the Ways or Blink or The Doctor's Wife. And all of the last several seasons have had at least one if not two or three of those.

The highlight of S7, Asylum of the Daleks, for all its genius, was rushed and in several ways unsatisfying. Yes, Moffat found the height of insanity for a Dalek, but otherwise, there really wasn't enough of Dalek craziness. The idea behind the split between Amy and Rory was compelling, but it's execution so brief and confused that it fell flat.

And that was the product of a decision Moffat made at the beginning of the season. He's experimenting with compressed storytelling: most obviously, episodes were to be "written like movies" but jammed in 45 mintues. But there are also a lot of gaps and off-screen stories.

There are advantages to this. It means we've essentially had 14 distinct stories (15 if you count the 2011 Christmas Special, 17 if you could the final two specials this year) in a single season. The old series usually only got 6 or 7 stories to a season, so it was the equivalent in stories of two complete seasons, maybe 2 1/2. Add to that the gap between Wedding of River Song and Asylum of the Daleks, and The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe and Pond Life probably represent a whole "lost season" in themselves. Power of Three pretty much jams an entire season into a single episode, and there's at least one if not several more lost seasons between Power of Three and Angels Take Manhattan. And the stories of the Doctor moping around after that and then searching fruitlessly for Clara after Snowmen. So that's five seasons - or, roughly, the lifespan of a healthy TV show - blasted through in a single season.

This does two things. First, it actively engages viewers to fill in the gaps themselves, and, in doing so, not only respects their intelligence but depends on their intelligence and imagination. That's a wonderful thing to see in a show. And the second is that blasting madly from adventure to adventure with no time to catch your breath gives some sense of what it's like to actually be a companion. It's particularly apt this season, given the finale.

It also has its downside. I already mentioned Asylum, but Power of Three and Angels in Manhattan could have been masterpieces at double the length. It's possible that Power of Three's deeply flawed climax could have been at least repaired by a rewrite, but it still would have felt severely undercooked. (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was also overstuffed, although that was more sloppy plotting and characterizations than rushed storytelling.) The Snowmen, too, felt at 1 hour like it needed at least a little more time; its plot basically didn't get started until the last fifteen minutes, and rushed through an unsatisfying conclusion.

The back half of the season didn't struggle as much. Neil Cross's two episodes (Akhaten and Hide) and Gatiss' Crimson Horror all had 45 minutes down. Cold War certainly didn't need to be longer. Even so, while they weren't explicitely hurt, I still think Crimson Horror for certain and possibly even Rings of Akhaten would have been improved with the extra running length.

The rushed episodes had a negative effect on the characters, as there isn't enough room for them to really do their thing. Until the last few episodes, the Doctor seemed to spend more time moping than actually doing Doctorish stuff. Yes, Hide, Crimson Horror, Nightmare in Silver, and Name of the Doctor all gave Smith magnificent material, but until then, it was looking like what turned out to be his final season was leaving him out in the cold.

Amy and Rory were still awesome in their final episodes, but it felt like they didn't do enough. Rory, in particular, was background dressing in A Town Called Mercy and not much more in the Chibnall scripts. Power of Three especially failed here - it was all about them, and still failed to let either of them have the slightest effect on the plot.

For all the effort expended to make Madame Vastra and her crew a sort of supporting cast, Vastra herself got to do little besides lecture people. If she doesn't even get to use her Katana against evil Snowmen, what's the point of giving her one? I love the character, but after four episodes, I feel like she has about half an episode's worth of stuff worthy of her.

Clara, meanwhile, remains a cipher. An enchanting cipher, but nonetheless... After nearly a full season, I have no idea if she's intelligent or not. She's fairly clever, but her intelligence seems to fly from average to exceptional depending on the whims of the writer. Same for her interests, her view of the Doctor, heck, her view of life. Perhaps it's simply that the bar for companion has been raised so high by the new series - even the underused Martha felt fully fleshed out. Maybe that was Moffat's intention - since she was the generic companion, she could stand in for all companions. But while that paid off in Name of the Doctor, I'm not convinced it was worth leaving the delightful Jenna Coleman with such a blank.

Strangely, though, even with all these pieces not quite working, the central theme - What is a Companion - worked. It was seeded all the way back towards the end of season 6, as the Doctor left Amy and Rory to live a normal life and adventured alone. And we saw how it affected him - depressed and lonely, and, as people are wont to do in those emotions, wallowing in a self-fulfilling circle of depression and loneliness. And, in his early episodes, he was much faster to go to his dark side. Which is one thing the Companion does - ground the Doctor. The Time Lord loses sight of the little things that matter, but when those little things surround him by being in the lives of his traveling partners, he can't forget.

The companions, too, are affected. Amy and Rory, dealing with the trauma of going from a life blasting from adventure to adventure to the mundane, dealt with it by tearing each other apart. The Doctor restored them, but they still longed for those lost days of glory. It never really left them. Only when they had no choice could they stay in one time and place. Their beautiful love kept them together and happy for the rest of their lives, but there would always have been the lost days of youth. It's a powerful view of what it means to be a Companion, and a thoughtful look on life itself - the wildness of youth is lost as ordinary life catches up. But with those we love - Companions of our own - the quieter years are as happy as those before.

Damn, I wish that story alone had gotten its own season. Or at least a few more episodes.

Where the story of Amy and Rory was bittersweet, the story of Clara was rousing. She's becoming a companion, and, by the end, the Companion. The one who saves the Doctor at every turn. Yes, the Companion grounds him, but she also keeps him alive and going. After losing Amy and Rory, the Doctor did nothing for a time. He lost his meaning, and lost his name. Only when he found Clara did he become the Doctor again.

So, for all its faults, at the heart of the season is a wonderful story, one of the greats woven underneath over a dozen stories across two years. It's a dazzling work of storytelling.

And let's be honest, even if the episodes weren't all great, they were mostly good. They're witty, exciting, scary, and moving. The only really bad and unnecessary episode was Cold War, and even that was basically competent.

But let's really put this in perspective by looking at Doctor Who's American equivalent, Star Trek.

Trek, after all, was a strange '60s sci-fi show that caught both a rabid fanbase and a surprising level of mainstream attention. The fans were so impassioned they kept it alive whenever it threatened to die, and it has always been brought roaring back to just as much mainstream success.

Star Trek Into Darkness certainly has style. Magnificently shot by Dan Mindel (partly in 70mm), paced like a cheetah with limitless endurance, and stuffed to the brim with action and humor, it can't help but be entertaining. The actors are terrific, and the ensemble is a joy to watch. (particularly Zachary Quinto, who nails Spock, the hilarious Simon Pegg, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who rocks every moment he's in) And with a gargantuan $190 million budget, it has all the sets and special effects money can buy.

And JJ Abrams isn't just a hack with a lot of money - there's real artistry and movie magic in his film making. There's one standout sequence in particular, a long montage (with Noel Clarke!) that beautifully tells a powerful story with only a single line of dialogue; it's strictly visuals and music.

But underneath the vast sheen on the surface so shining it flares like the lenses are broken, there's virtually nothing. Across a two-hour movie, there's about enough plot for a 45-minute TNG episode. The characters have consistent personalities, but there's nothing else there. Even Kirk and Spock, the only characters given actual development, just go through some very basic motions that we saw them go through much more effectively in the last movie. Kirk learns yet again to grow up and show a little maturity in his leadership while Spock learns about emotions yet again. Neither of which are especially interesting journeys for the characters, but twice in a row and with little depth the second go-round makes them ever more hollow. It doesn't help that most of the dialogue, while serviceable, is mundane and cliched. For example, here's Kirk's big speech to Khan:
Let me explain what's happening here: you are a criminal! I watched you murder innocent men and women! I was authorized to END you! And the only reason why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
Yes, the psychological cat-and-mouse games between Kirk and Khan are reduced to two teenagers petulantly telling each other to shut up or they'll punch each other.

And I remember when Star Trek didn't actively insult my intelligence. The movie wavers between acceptably dumb for an average blockbuster and too stupid for a Transformers sequel. Trek doesn't have to be particularly deep on a sci-fi level - one of its great episodes is Balance of Terror, which is just a sub movie in space. Even Wrath of Khan largely keeps its sci-fi elements down primarily to a plot device and the visuals. But it has always been thoughtful and intriguing. Wrath of Khan is as literate, dramatic, and emotionally and thematically layered as cinema gets. And even a lesser Trek film like Generations has intellectually engaging elements. Even when it's not smart, though, it isn't actively dumb.

This is actively stupid.

Take the opening scene. Kirk and McCoy run out of a building of primitive aliens having stolen a scroll which they then drop in the jungle. It's not entirely clear, but it seems they were trying to get chased out so the primitives would be saved from a volcanic eruption... except the volcanic eruption will kill all life on the planet. Unless, of course, Spock defeats the volcano by planting a cold fusion bomb in the volcano.

(For the record, a cold fusion bomb is a nuclear explosive that just happens to be colder than an average nuke. There is no possibility of it helping the situation. But whatever - maybe it's some kind of futuristic freeze bomb. But freezing the lava wouldn't save the alien villagers. All the pressure causing the eruption is still there, just more bottled up so the volcano will explode even harder. But, you know, technobabble. It's a futuristic anti-volcano bomb, so whatever.)

Spock has to plant the bomb personally because of problems with the magnetic field. This, naturally, doesn't stop him from being beamed out of there moments later. But meantime, the Enterprise has been hiding underwater. It now re-emerges and sets out to rescue Spock. Spock objects because then they would violate the Prime Directive because the villagers would see the spaceship. He then holds his arms out in a Jesus pose because...

Not one moment of that scene makes sense. Not the Enterprise underwater (even setting aside the numerous sciencey problems), nor Spock getting transported out but the bomb not getting transported in or set off by radio or any of a dozen other solutions. Why not keep the Enterprise in space? Not only was it not designed to be in an atmosphere or planet, let alone survive the pressures of staying underwater, but they would have direct line-of-sight... And so forth. Every scene transpires like this. The characters constantly make incoherent decisions and science isn't played with, it's spat upon.

Worse, it's empty. There isn't a single original idea in the film. It's just a bunch of scenes from the other movies strung together with a bigger budget but none of the heart or brains. Even the spaceship battle had no interesting strategy or meaning, just a bunch of explosions.

After Iron Man 3 did a surprisingly solid job of creating compelling female characters and giving them important plot stuff to do, Star Trek, of all things, actually takes a step backwards for feminism. Uhura, once one of the only iconic strong female characters not defined by her relationships with men at all, is defined entirely by her relationship with Spock. The singular moment where she gets to do something that isn't directly about her man turns out to be completely pointless, and pretty much could have been cut out of the movie without anyone noticing something was missing. Carol wasn't much better; her only memorable moments were the completely gratuitous scene where Kirk sees her in her underwear (not that it's an unpleasant image, but if it was cut out, no one would know something was missing) and the stuff about her father.

Even with all that, it's at least mindlessly enjoyable until the last 15 minutes, which are just awful. It's not just the physics of how two spaceships in orbit around the moon inexplicably fall to Earth (although that was dumb). It's not that Khan and Cumberbatch's fantastic performance are wasted because for all his superior intelligence, all he actually does is punch people (although that was also dumb). It's not even that they ripped off one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Trek, but without any of the emotion or heart and even lacking basic sincerity since Kirk's resurrection is so blatantly signposted (although that was especially dumb and made me want to burn every print of this travesty). At least I can give it points for being ballsy in its stupidity.

What really bothered me (besides, you know, that scene) was how little it cared about the deaths of extras. I mean, I expect Red Shirts to get killed (Chekov's reaction to being told to put on a red shirt was one of the highlights of the film). But that spaceship crash must have killed literally millions, and nobody notices. But who cares about that, we've gotta save Kirk so that we don't actually do anything ballsy. Nobody ever acts like anyone except Kirk died or was in danger of dying; the whole world revolves around him.

The entire film has that tone; extras are constantly dying, but nobody notices. Kirk is furious at Khan killing the Starfleet officers, but doesn't seem to care or even notice how many hundreds must have died in the London attack. Dozens of people are killed in that warp drive battle, but just a couple minutes later, Kirk tries to convince Robocop not to kill any of his crew. As though nobody had actually died yet. It's almost psychopathic.

And this flaw burns off what little exist of its underdeveloped themes. There's an attempt to create a story about terrorism in space and the morality of killing those who perpetrate such acts. But the movie doesn't care about the dead or the collateral damage of terrorism; it just wants to fly to the next explosion. And it doesn't want to set up that explosion through careful tactics and character interaction. It just wants to pile them on until we're overwhelmed.

The result is literally a Michael Bay movie with lens flares instead of sunsets. I mean, rated as a Michael Bay movie, it's good stuff. And I don't inherently have a problem with that - I'm gladly a fan of The Rock, and enjoy several of Bay's other films, or Bay knock-offs like Con-Air. But I never thought I'd see a year come when the actual Michael Bay movie was more intelligent, thought-provoking, and compelling than the Star Trek movie.

I'm not that picky about my Trek movies. I liked Generations and Nemesis. I kinda liked Insurrection. Final Frontier certainly wasn't good, but it didn't actively infuriate me. And for all its flaws, I thought the reboot was a lot of fun.

But this one just left me furious.

And that's the perspective of Doctor Who's 7th season. Star Trek has action, but has lost its mind, its heart, and its soul. But 50 years, 33 seasons, 798 episodes, and 11 Doctors in, Doctor Who is still built around a heart and a soul, still respects the audience's intelligence, and still wraps that inside a wildly entertaining adventure yarn. And even its flaws come out of experimenting and pushing the bounds of its storytelling. It's a wonderful show that remains as good as it's ever been.

Bring on the next 50 years!

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