Wednesday 6 December 2023

Doctor Who First Impressions: 60th Anniversary Specials Episode 1: The Star Beast

(A note before we begin: This was written on Nov. 27th of 2023, to accurately capture a true "first impression" of The Star Beast before the airing of any subsequent episodes of the 60th anniversary specials. It has been deliberately withheld to await the results of the SAG-AFTRA vote on Dec. 5th, as an abundance of caution and paranoid anxiety over a strike resuming and maintaining the principles I held myself to during the duration of the previous 2023 strike. If you are reading this, it is either just after that vote or after subsequent striking has been resolved. Whenever you are reading this, I hope you enjoy.)

Remember 2008, when this show was good? 

I don't recall exactly when I coined that cynical phrase in talking about this show, but it was a realization which struck me some three and a half years ago during Chris Chibnall's second season. A medley of elements in his Spyfall two parter all combined together to be nostalgic callbacks to David Tennant's era of the show, at the expense of ignoring the Moffat years which I quite liked. This annoyed me, as did many other things with the Chibnall years, and it all culminated with Power Of The Doctor last October. I did not hate that episode, but I do not remember it fondly either. It is pure celebratory fanwank, all the Doctor Who at once, and the fact that it kind of worked not only on the fans still clinging to this show but on me says something about how the Chibnall years wore down standards. They did that, and now they're gone. 

In some ways, though, the logical endpoint of the Chibnall years happened before they even ended. First it was the announcement of Russell T. Davies returning as showrunner once Chibnall was done. Then it was David Tennant and Catherine Tate coming back to reprise the Doctor/companion dynamic duo from that era. The final terror of the Chibnall era, revealed: Why just cover 2008 with winks and nods when we can actually bring it back? It horrified me. It terrified me. The final breakdown of this thing I loved into warm oozing ichor and ectoplasm, retro-regenerating the entire goddamn show as... what? The final form of Chibnall's nostalgia baiting? An apology for those years, a desperate plea to please come back, look, we undid all of it, it's the Good Doctor Who that YOU like? Gag me with a spoon. Let me grow up, leave this cloying desperation behind, and move on to horizons which challenge me instead of flailing about in a sad bid to appease me. Wake me when Ncuti Gatwa is on and you're doing something actually new.

That is the apprehension I grappled with for almost two years, and most of it melted away upon watching The Star Beast. I'm not a total convert who's pleased to be back here or anything, but it is only for three episodes. I endured much much worse going through Chibnall. Fine. It may be 2023, but tonally we are back in the world of 2008. It has a whiff of that legacy sequel vibe, the whole "Look! It's your faves, and they're back!" and I still must grapple with that. Begrudgingly, however, I have to admit it. This is a good episode of Doctor Who, one that I enjoyed watching and have nice things to talk about regarding it. After the Chibnall years, this is such a breath of fresh air that it results in me grading the thing on a curve. Let me finally sink into this thing and say some nice things about it.

For starters, the acting is pretty stellar all around and I enjoyed everyone in it. They all play off of each other well, and all the returning folks play their parts how you'd expect for the most part. There's a certain gravity and poignancy to the way they play some parts, though. Catherine Tate is boisterous and fiery as ever, but she has tinges of sadness and regret as well as channeling that bold energy into being a fiercely protective mother. I really loved Tennant's slow and mellow scene with Ruth Madeley (and I really love Ruth Madeley in this, period, what a badass) where he sits and ponders why in the hell he, the 14th numbered Doctor Who, has turned back into this particular face. The actual space alien plot itself, an adaptation of a famous Doctor Who comic from the late 70's, works well here. It hits all the good spacey beats you want it to, as well as following the framework you'd expect if you read the comic. It's all good stuff. I don't want to laser focus on it.

No, what I want to talk about is the bit which really spoke to me. I briefly relitigated all of that stuff about my horror over the return of Davies and Tennant. All of that came to a head a year and a half ago, in June 2022, when I wrote it all out as part of my introduction post to talking about Quantum Leap. Quantum Leap then proceeded to give me everything that Chibnall's version of Doctor Who left me wanting for. It gave me a show about travelling in time, dealing with microcosmic issues that resonate with the real world, and a good man just passing through and doing his best to make a material difference in the world. I have yet to write about it for the blog, but I want to briefly mention an episode of the 2022 Quantum Leap called "Let Them Play". It is a story about helping to create a better future for a trans girl, one where she gets to play the sport that she loves. It is one of my favorites in the new show's run thus far, a beautiful piece about fighting for real material social progress that also lets one of its supporting cast members, a nonbinary character and actor, share their story of the hardships and challenges of being who they are. It is a wonderful 45 minutes of television that has something to say about the state of the real world we live in, and makes one pay attention to these issues.

Yes, The Star Beast is basically a story about a David Tennant Doctor Who and Donna Noble and rekindling the memories of 2008. By comparison to last year's Power Of The Doctor, which was a macrocosmic mess of cameos and references, this is a downright microcosmic story about Doctor Who helping one family out during a wild alien crisis. The most interesting of these, Donna's trans daughter Rose Noble, causes the show to do something that even the best of Chibnall era Doctor Who did in spite of itself. With the deft and talented hand of Davies, Doctor Who manages to have its cake and eat it too. It is a fun space adventure with Beep the Meep vs. the Wrarth Warriors, with UNIT soldiers, with lasers and explosions and rockets and alien mind control. It is also imperious in its swagger as it is about a real something that matters in the world today, planting its flag and forcing the viewer to think about it. That something? Trans rights, baby.

There are scenes which have given cause for much discussion and debate. Rose being deadnamed in the street by passing bullies. Sylvia Noble slipping up with her pronouns while talking to Donna and correcting herself. The whole "did you assume their gender" bit with Rose calling Doctor Who out on using "he" for Beep The Meep before asking the alien for their pronouns. All that "binary binary non-binary" stuff, and the resolution of the Donna trolley problem being one that a "male-presenting Time Lord" could never figure out and we needed two women to do it. Lots have been said about them, and I've paid particular attention to the voices of trans Doctor Who critics whom I admire and respect. They're on board, for the most part, though there are reservations which vary here and there. That last line about the male-presenting Time Lord is the one which has caused the biggest reservations, but look. It's muddled, yes, but let me remind you that we're grading on a curve here. The implications of the line are there, but it's nowhere near as ethically cratering as, say, "The systems aren't the problem" or "Now they'll see the real you". (And while we're dunking on the Chibnall era, let me just say that the fact that the 13th Doctor could have figured out how to save Donna is laughable. This woman couldn't even be bothered to fix Dan's house for Christ's sakes, or even a half-splintered universe from the Flux.)
[INTRUSION FROM THE FUTURE: There's an irony in me having said that, like half a week before Wild Blue Yonder aired and had the Doctor briefly grapple with Flux angst.) 

Davies does indeed take a cue from Hell Bent, and has brought Donna back to admit that the memory wipe from 2008 was wrong and so it gets undone. The fact that he actually, for a few brief moments, sold to me that he was going to kill Donna off and I bought it says a lot. (It deeply amuses me that the climax of this episode involves a Noble stuck behind plexiglass while David Tennant agonizes over whether or not to save them.) It was dramatic, but this is better. Donna gets to remember Doctor Who again, and remember how she grew and changed from her time with the Doctor. I am surprised to find myself caring much less about that that I expected to. Don't get me wrong, it's good. but it's not exactly revelatory. A fictional character gets a happy ending after having a bummer one for 15 years. That is good, but I'm still worn down enough from Chibnall that this in-universe stuff does little to spark joy within my heart.

What does spark joy is the symbolism and power of the way Donna gets restored. There are a million plausible ways to write yourself out of the Journey's End mindwipe. The one Davies chose just happened to resonate with the imperious confidence of being trans positive in Doctor Who. The technobabble Metacrisis thing passed down to Rose as well, and together with her mom they use girl power to willingly let it go. For Donna, it is a rejection of the macrocosmic, an embrace of the microcosmic family that she loves and is fiercely protective over. For Rose, it's a chance for her to become a more true version of herself, discovering who she is and being proud of the woman she's growing up to become. There's a real beauty to it, a beauty which not only heals a rift in the show but is proud to have it come from trusting in, loving, and accepting your trans daughter. Fuck. That's beautiful.

That's where I want to leave off with The Star Beast. The magic of Doctor Who returned to me, and all it needed was a good fucking writer with a deft hand who had something to say about the world we live in. Who got trans positivity on Disney+, of all things, and who used it to patch up a past regret. Hell, I don't blame him for mindwiping Donna and wanting to walk back his choice. I've done shit like that in my NaNoWriMo projects. In 2010 or so, I decided to kill off a character and I regretted it. I spent 2019 through 2021 building up to a great undoing of that, a redemption that healed a bit of sin from the canon of my own little multiverse. Davies did that while also making it about something, which is more than I can say for my little story, but that's why he's the current writer of Doctor Who. I can live with that, and I can live with this small run of neo-Tennant if it means writing of this caliber.

To end this with a quote from another prominent Doctor Who critic, writing on Davies' very first episode of the show? Doctor Who has returned to television.

Friday 3 November 2023

Frezno's Criterion Challenge: October 2023 Trip Report

Hey all. So, we're back again with this thing, and here's the part where I'd ramble on about it for about a paragraph or so before launching into the capsule reviews and calling it a month. This time, though, things are a little different. After thinking about it for a bit, I have decided that this will be the last entry in the Criterion Challenge, and that I won't be continuing it for the final two months of the year. There are some reasons for this, which I'll be upfront and tell you about. First and foremost is that I've lost my passion for it. At the start of the year, I had 52 interesting films and cherrypicked ones that sounded really exciting and intriguing to me. Now here I am in November, with 12 or so remaining, and the spark is gone. Combine that with the fact that I cornered myself into not just watching these films, but having to say something about them on here, and you get situations where I look at the clock and go "Do I really want to burn an afternoon throwing one of these on?". It's not fun and exciting cinematic horizon broadening for me any more. It feels like work, and I'm not even getting paid to do it.

More to the point... I got what I needed out of this. I got that horizon broadening, that sense of discovery and eclectic enlightenment. Some of the films I watched for this became new favorites of mine. Even if I didn't like them, I was pushing outside my wheelhouse and found something to write about them. They made me a better writer, and got me to expand and apply myself better. The Criterion Challenge may be counted as a failure, but in my eyes I set out what I wanted to do. I watched some new and interesting movies, got some new and interesting thoughts, and I can say I accomplished something. Instead of making busybody work for myself with movies I feel more obligated to watch than excited to watch, I can spend my last two months of Criterion subscription going onward with my own pace, watching whatever esoteric thing on the channel catches my interest without any arbitrary categories. 

Still, I would feel remiss if I didn't end things on a high note, so I'll push myself through one last time to talk about the three films I managed to get to watch in October. If you've followed along with this journey since January, thanks for doing that! I hope you've seen a real growth and maturation as I explored the finer points of cinema. Let's do it one more time before the end, and we'll start with...

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Another Sixteen Screams For Halloween: Day 16 (Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers)

Well, here we are at last. It's Halloween, and we have once again come back to that powerful series which usually ends these. The double whammy of circumstances over what to cover, as well as just plain having done most of this series already, has led us to this thing. I covered the film this is a sequel to, Halloween 4, a good five years ago. I did not particularly like or dislike it, as I recall, but the words are back there in the archive. It is a film I let pass into hazy memory. This, on the other hand? I don't despise it, but I don't like it either. Halloween 5 is not a very good film, and let's talk about why to close things out.

Monday 30 October 2023

Another Sixteen Screams For Halloween: Day 15 (Dracula [1958])

Oh boy! We get to talk about Hammer Horror today! It's got a great beat and it's a lovely tune about performativity, with lots of interesting theatrical dancing-- Wait, shit, sorry, that's the Kate Bush song. No, we're actually talking about the Hammer film studio in England which did a whole bunch of horror films in the middle of the 20th century. Hammer Horror is a catchall for them, and I'd never seen one until now. For a first, I went with one that was both highly rated on Letterboxd and had the two iconic actors most associated with Hammer Horror: those two being Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Here we are, then, in a Hammer adaptation of the tried and true literary classic Dracula. How is it? It's not half-bad.

For a Dracula adaptation it certainly takes its liberties. Like how Jonathan Harker and Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing are in cahoots before the film even begins, and that's why Harker is at Dracula's castle. Or the swapping around of Lucy and Mina's partners in the film. Or how Harker bites it within the first 20 minutes. Or how Dracula's castle and the well-to-do society he invades seem to be like, a half-hour carriage ride away from each other? The broad strokes of Stoker are kept, but Hammer isn't afraid to change things up and make a quick and breezy 80 minute vampire movie. If you want a more literate and erudite adaptation, they're out there. You're here for some spooky vampires and to see splashes of bright Technicolor blood, and this Dracula adaptation cuts right to the chase and gives you that.

Just because it's speedrunning doesn't mean it's a fast-paced film, though. There are plenty of scenes of old British people (namely Cushing and Michael Gough) talking about what they're going to do. I quite like Cushing's Van Helsing, as I find it nails the perfect balance between a proper Victorian gentleman and a scientist/monster hunter who's devoted himself to going after vampires. Christopher Lee's also quite good and imposing in this, but therein lies a bit of a rub: his presence in the film is pretty brief. The glimmers of appearance he has in the Holmwood home, striding with imperious confidence towards the woman he's about to nibble on the neck, are powerful in their own right. I do also dig the effects when he melts in sunlight at the end of the film. For most of it, though, Lee haunts the proceedings from the night. Haunting, and hunting. In the end, it's a pretty neat little speedy adaptation of Dracula. I like it, but I imagine it had more power back in the day. Or maybe the like six or seven sequels Hammer banged out go even wilder than this, unrestrained by Stoker's framework. That could be something to discover in marathons in future, but for now we're at the finale. The stage is set.

Happy Halloween.

Friday 27 October 2023

Another Sixteen Screams For Halloween: Day 14 (Beau Is Afraid)

(TW: child abuse)

Oh god. Oh dear God in heaven. Once again I find myself returning to an Ari Aster film. Two years ago I did Midsommar for one of these and it was an anxious nightmare of a film, one which reflected back on me and made me feel the life of an anxious nightmare for that day. Things have not gotten any cheerier with his next film. Beau Is Afraid was three hours of Asterian nightmare for me to wring myself through, and it didn't help that I was interrupted 25 minutes in by some stuff and errands which needed to be done. For four hours I marinated in this absolute hell. Four godforsaken hours of this. Now I have to talk about it, and to talk about it I have to relate what I took from it.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Another Sixteen Screams For Halloween: Day 13 (Paprika)

For last year's spooky marathon, I went back to a film I'd only seen once before. It was a film which had left a mark on my psyche, a harrowing and haunting anime. That film was Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, and it remains just as terrifying as it ever was. In chatting with a streamer friend of mine, they compared it to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and I can definitely see the similarities. Both are quite intense. I put all this upfront to say that Paprika, another film of Kon's, is less intense than those nightmares. Nevertheless, it manages to delve into some of the same subject matters, and what remains is more unsettling and eerie than outright terrifying. It's still a fantastic film, barring like one caveat I have with it, so let's talk about it.

Using Fire Walk With Me as a springboard lets us make a good starting point. David Bowie's one scene in the theatrical cut of that movie is a fractured disjointed mess of images, but one of the many poetic things he says during it is that we live inside a dream. That's Paprika, through and through. Duality is blurred within the confines of this film. The waking world and the dreaming world merge, and you're never quite sure if you're in a dream or not. Dreams themselves seem to fulfill the old Steven Moffat adage of thinking for themselves, and invading the world to blur the lines. The mundane and the bizarre mix, the world shifting its state and us shifting our understanding of things as it happens.

Perfect Blue had a duality within it, the image of the perfect idol juxtaposed with the ordinary performer enduring the psychological terrors. So too is there a duality between Dr. Atsuko Chiba, working on dream diving tech, and Paprika, her other self who delves in the world of dreams and helps dreamers come to terms with themselves. Even this is blurred, as by the end of the film dreams and reality have merged, so Chiba and Paprika exist within the same space. The spirit self coming forth alongside the true self. This merging of selves is what brings about something beautiful. Paprika works as a dream-diving psychologist, hopping into the confusing mess of images in a person's mind to see what it says about them in reality, their worries and their guilts, in order to help them grow and change. It's police captain Konakawa who benefits from this in the film at first, a recurring dream about giving chase to someone being his mind's way of working with feelings of loss and grief from a dead friend of his who was always one step ahead in life.

The blurring of dream and reality helps not just Konakawa deal with his traumas and heal from them thanks to Paprika, but Paprika herself helps to make her own true self in the waking world grow and change for the better. Chiba's relationship and feelings for her colleage, Dr. Tokita (who's the film's one bum note, sorry to say: he's a large man and the film has some cheap shots at the expense of him being fat) are able to blossom and grow as she changes from the blurred reality of dreams becoming real. Paprika's a strange film, reminding me of David Lynch in the way it deals with the hazy ambiguity of dreaming and what it means to us, and some of it is spooky and unsettling enough for a spooky marathon. Either way, as Satoshi Kon's last feature film, it was one hell of a sendoff. It's worth your time, so give it a watch... and dream a little dream, every now and thena.

Monday 23 October 2023

Another Sixteen Screams For Halloween: Day 12 (The Haunted House)

It's been a strange sort of spooky marathon, what with the strike and all making me think outside the box. In any other year, that might really hamper me, but 2023 has also been the year of broadening my horizons with the Criterion Challenge. I mention that because the two dovetail together nicely for this instance. For the Criterion Challenge, I did a silent Buster Keaton film from the 1920s called Three Ages. It was a pretty good and funny bit of silent slapstick from one of the all-time greats of that particular genre. Somehow or another, in my research for things outside studio-released films, I came across this. A spooky-themed Buster Keaton silent short film? Okay, sure, why not!

It may be lacking in the spooky department compared to some things, but it's all in the right spirit of fun for this thing so who needs to quibble? The titular haunted house doesn't factor in until about halfway of the 20 minute runtime, and for a brief moment I thought I had chosen wrong and would need to pick something else. That's not the case, as you can see from this having been posted. That being said, the ten minutes before the haunted house escapades are still wickedly funny. I don't know much about silent film, but I did grow up watching episodes of Mr. Bean; as it turns out, that was well within the wheelhouse to appreciate this. Buster Keaton fumbling around as a bank teller with glue on his hands and making the money stick to everything, and then everything sticking to everything else, elicited an incredible laughing fit from me. Like, holy fuck. This was funny as hell.

Then the part that we're here for happens, and the setup to get us into the haunted house is surprisingly layered and dense for a 20 minute short. The house isn't haunted, but is a front for money counterfeiters operating in cahoots with a man from the bank, who fake the house being haunted to scare away intruders. In addition, due to a misunderstanding involving bank robbers and Keaton picking up their gun, the cops are after him and so he runs into the haunted house. In addition to that an opera group performing Faust is chased off the stage for being terrible, so they also run into the haunted house, including a guy in a devil outfit. What follows is a thing of silent beauty, as Keaton and the actors and the counterfeiters in ghost costumes and some skeleton men bumble around the house scaring each other and causing havoc. To a modern lens, it's like Mr. Bean crossed with Scooby-Doo. The repeated gag with Keaton and the staircase which collapses into a slide is amazing, especially the payoff to it at the end which I dare not spoil.

Sometimes it's good to just have fun with the spooky marathon. It isn't about getting scared out of your wits or unsettled every time. Every once in a while, let your hair down and watch a spooky-themed comedy. At 20 minutes, this is just charming and wonderful. It made me want to seek out even more short but sweet Buster Keaton antics, and that's no mean feat for a film that's over a century old. You can do a lot worse this Halloween season, so why not give an old classic a go?