Viewer’s Response–Sherlock: “A Study in Pink”

This was entertaining–a fun, high-energy modernizing of Holmes and Watson. Almost a romp, if you can leave aside the mayhem and murder. Others more capable than I can make the inevitable comparisons with Doctor Who, though some are obvious (the characterization of Holmes, particularly) and others are probably more subtle (production style, maybe, Cardiff for London perhaps?).

A plot summary is in order, not because I’m a great fan of them, but because my actual comments rely on the end of the story, so watch out. There is a wave of suicides in London. Four of them, anyway. But they’re connected somehow, which we know because they all used the same fast-acting poison and died in obscure locations. Then there’s a lot of running around, a lot of fast talking, some special effects to help the viewer feel like they share Holmes’s abilities, and then the big reveal where the killer shows up on Holmes’s front stoop, offering to give him a ride in a cab.

Here’s where things began to fall apart for me. I was cool with the part of the story where Holmes gets in the cab and goes to the obscure location with the killer. He doesn’t just want to know who the killer is, but also wants to know what the killer’s motivation is. Fine. Cool. Then they’re there, staring at each other across a table, and Holmes deconstructs the scenario. Then the killer tries to make Holmes play a round of ‘pick your poison.’ And Holmes plays the game! Of course there’s a gun involved, so that’s understandable. But wait! There’s not a gun involved! It’s a cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun! Holmes called the killer’s bluff! But wait some more! Holmes knew it was a lighter the whole time!

But then he plays the game. I mean, he actually plays the game. The game where the crazy person sits across the table from you and says, “here’s some poison, and here’s some nearly identical other stuff–stuff you can’t tell from the first stuff visually or by smell–and this other stuff is not poison. We’ll both take one dose, and you get to choose which one you take. Then one of us dies and the other one walks away. It’s a mental challenge, you see? Is it a bluff? A double bluff? Triple? More? You’ve been making judgments about me from the beginning, now’s the time to put your money, if you will, where your mouth is. Heh, heh. That’s a pun.” Then the crazy person puts one dose in front of you and the other one in front of himself.

Has Holmes never heard of The Princess Bride?

The guy’s a killer, Holmes! Even if his time is running out because of an aneurysm that, three years on, leaves him capable and spry, but liable to die at any moment, he’s still a crazy man who kills people with a stupid game. And you, you sucker, got baited into choosing a pill and taking it. You were saved from being a dead sucker only by the action of Watson at the last second. I know you knew Watson was there, in the next building, but you still got suckered. Even if the killer hadn’t spent the last three years building up a tolerance against the poison (no evidence that he had, of course), and he really had survived four instances of 50/50 odds against death, you still were going to eat a potentially deadly pill because you were teased into it by a loon.

Sure, Moriarty was behind the crazy person, his “sponsor” as Holmes put it. Or, more likely, Moriarty was giving the crazy person a couple of course corrections to bring him to a confrontation with Holmes. But we don’t need Moriarty in this story to see that Holmes let himself get suckered.

Also. Watson’s killing of the crazy person by shooting him through two windows and across a courtyard? Great shot. But, after a couple of days have passed since seeing the episode, I have to think: what? It only makes sense to kill the old man sitting in a chair if Watson could see the lighter gun resting on the table, was unaware that the lighter gun was a lighter, and believed that the old guy in the chair was going to use the gun. If Watson’s objective was to stop Holmes from taking the pill, why kill the guy? If the objective was to make sure the guy didn’t use the gun, wellll… OK, I suppose.

But, now that Watson has killed that guy, he has at least three problems he didn’t have before. Four, actually. And they’re all the same problem. He’s beholden to the good graces of four power centers not to to turn him in to stand trial for murder. Holmes knows Watson shot the crazy guy. Holmes told the cops all they need to know to suspect Watson, and once they pull the bullet from the crazy guy, they’ll have all they need to actually arrest him. Mycroft can plausibly intercept the police case, divert the investigation, and hide the whole thing away for his own ends–and there are least two layers there: to make sure someone who’s willing to kill is around to keep his brother safe, and to advance whatever his government job is. Finally, Moriarty can be expected to intercept the case from the police, though not necessarily to keep it buried, and then use the information for his own nefarious purposes.

Of course this problem adds to the narrative possibilities, so it’s a good problem. Nevertheless, I’m still pretty irritated that Holmes got suckered into almost killing himself by a crazy guy whose shtick, which Holmes knew, was to sucker people into killing themselves. So, except for the title character falling for a trick straight out of children’s literature, I’m quite impressed, and will be looking forward to how it all plays out.

“There was this one day when I was the Doctor…”

Yep, that one day is the movie, Doctor Who, sometimes called other things, but really just called Doctor Who, the only on-screen appearance of the eighth Doctor (at the time this was written–SM, Jan. 7, 2018). It’s somewhat better than I’d been led to believe. It starts quite strong, ends OK, and spends kind of a lot of time wobbling along a tightrope stretched over ‘American-style mid-1990’s action movie’ without a net. It actually falls off the tightrope a couple of time, but manages to climb back onto it and get to the end scarred but unbroken. Unbroken, that is, if you decide that even though a couple of events must have happened because you saw them happen, but you don’t accept the explanations given for why they happened since the Master is a psychopathic monster who will say anything to get to his goal and the Doctor sometimes just says stuff to distract people.

It’s been pointed out, fairly, that this blog, particularly in the Doctor Who posts, is pretty light on details. “Spoiler-free,” it’s been called. This is by design, though not out of any particular concern about spoilers. I just haven’t been interested in plot re-hashes, since there are lots of places to get them. But this time, a bunch of plot stuff is worth going over.

The story starts with a voice-over, describing the essentials of the Doctor Who background, and doing it both succinctly and in a way that gets the story rolling. We get to see the seventh Doctor. This wasn’t necessary, but it does touch the heart of this fan-boy, even if the seventh Doctor isn’t my favorite Doctor. It had been close to ten years since we’d seen the seventh Doctor, so there was no franchise reason to introduce him into the movie. Indeed, there was a powerful reason not to. He was on-screen for about half-an-hour, then he died! Then this new guy showed up, as the same character. Potentially confusing for the broadcast TV viewer. It worked well for the story, but was hardly necessary for an American adaptation, at least from a production point of view.

The characterizations of the two versions of the Doctor were well defined. All the major characters were good, actually. The eighth Doctor was quite good, as he came into himself, not knowing, choosing clothes, developing a personality. The Master was quite evil. The kid was a good evil henchman, and the lady doctor was a good companion.

The plot was… “oh, dear…” even for Doctor Who. It’s enough, really, that the Master escaped death, took over the TARDIS, and died at the end. It’s enough, really, that the Doctor figured things out at the last second, and then didn’t have time to implement the decision, so that he got tied up in a metal bondage gear Iron Maiden. It’s enough, really, that the threat was a high-stakes possibility that the end of the world was at hand, and that the Doctor was going to loose his future regenerations.

On the other side of the scales are a bunch of, “what/how” questions. How did the Master go from a small bucket of Dalek-imposed ashes to a nearly-transparent snake-like tube of goo? Why did it take a human to open the Eye of Harmony? Actually, those are about the only real questions from the story. There were some production choices I question. Glib dialogue, such as “I finally meet the perfect man and he’s from another planet!” while on a motorcycle ride through the rail yards of a San Francisco night. Not merely a strange line, but delivered apropos of nothing, you see.

There was a bunch of action-adventure stuff. Scenes of running around, shooting guns, ambulance-motorcycle chases. Except for the running around. Except not even that, so much. Not really Doctor Who-ey. But I’m glad to have seen it.

All that said, it’s not really necessary to see it now in the way it felt necessary to see when it was released. After all, in 1996, we hadn’t had new on-screen Doctor Who since 1989. Now we’ve have five seasons of really good stuff. This TV movie is good enough, but not the really good stuff. It’s an hour and forty-five minutes or so of good enough, and you can safely skip much of the second half, from, say the point where the Doctor walks through a window without breaking the glass, until, say, the female companion gets POSSESSED BY EVIL, which you can tell because her eyeballs turn black.

I’m glad it got made, however, I’m also glad there wasn’t a Fox-based TV series from it, especially given how the post-2005 series have worked out.

“I am the very model…”

Over at The Dish, I came across a video which seems to be supportive of President Obama. It touts his Presidential accomplishments, and touches on some of his personal qualities, too. It’s in the form of a walk around the White House while he and, presumably, his staff and family sing a copy-change of “The Major-General’s Song” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The original is a terrifically fun song from a very entertaining light opera, premiered in New York on New Year’s Eve, 1879. It’s been used as a base for–allegedly–humorous copy-changes since, probably, the very, very early morning of New Year’s Day, 1880. It’s catchy, and it has just enough metric challenge that creative types can impress the proles by playing with it. A notable version is Tom Lehrer’s performance of the periodic table of the elements.

We’ve been enjoying, or, as some would have been, subjected, to these renditions for more than 130 years so far, with no sign of let-up. When are they OK, and when are they not?

Copy-change is the process of taking some existing written work and changing the words, but keeping the grammar, syntax, and structure, to make a new work. Usually a parody, and often a satire. It’s a low form, since by tying oneself to the original, one cannot really present a well-worked-out new work. But, it can be an effective way of introducing something to a fresh audience. Particularly if you’re copy-changing a well-known song. Even if the song is mainly well known because it’s been used for copy-changes for 130 years.

Because it’s low, limiting, and essentially derivative, it’s good for pedagogical purposes and politics. In school, the familiarity of the source material affords a way into the actual content material, it’s a mnemonic scaffolding for the stuff you really want to convey. In politics, it has that advantage, but also the advantage of being amusing. In political advertising, there’s basically SCARY and amusing. If an ad isn’t SCARY, then, by default, it’s amusing. That’s not a high bar to clear, and even copy-changes can clear it.

Both of these uses are also, essentially, ephemeral. They aren’t meant to last. The copy-change is intended merely to draw attention to itself long enough to redirect it to the substance it wishes to convey. And–particularly for political advertising–that substance is itself ephemeral. So, in the context of a political campaign, a copy-change is OK. But that’s all it is: OK. Of course, in a political campaign, OK is actually pretty unusual.

Here’s the video itself, in case you care, but not enough to follow the Dish link above:

The TARDIS will deliver your pizza half an hour before you know you want it.

Well, we finished, what is it, season 5? Of Doctor Who, of course. The first season with Matt Smith as the Doctor with one, two, one, two companions. Plus River, who remains as irritating as she was the last time we saw her. Well, nearly as irritating, anyway.

It’s a good series, this season 5. The dream logic of the whole thing held together as well as you would want for Doctor Who. It didn’t really even fall apart at the end, which is nice. Also, and this is pretty important, even though there was a good bit of weepy leave-taking, it was tied to the story, and the telling, and the characters. The acting, the story, the production standards–all very good. Yes. See it, if you can, and see it if you haven’t yet.

On the other hand, it all should be. This is, after all, The BBC, Doctor Who, and season 5 since being brought back. It should be smooth, well designed, and well executed. Also, alas, if you have seen the previous series produced since 2005, you kind of have seen season 5 even if you haven’t. I mean, yes, it’s a new Doctor, with new quirks (about which more in a bit), and a new companion(s), and all like that. But, as I’ve crabbed in the past, the one companion, a woman, is the most important pizza in the universe, and–AND–the TARDIS is key to the story. Well-worn paths. A well-told story, absolutely. But a well-worn path.

Anyway.

Matt Smith’s Doctor is pretty interesting. “Bow ties are cool.” Also, “Fezes are cool.” And the way he says “cool,” is pretty cool, too. But this Doctor is far from cool. He’s pretty ungainly, actually. His cool is an affectation. It’s a personality feature he wears when he remembers.

Another personality facet he pulls on when he remembers, or when it seems like an apt thing, is his crowing about being The Doctor. But it’s not, shall we say, a core feature. Like it was with David Tennant’s Doctor, who’d say that sort of thing, all self-righteous and stuff, and you and everyone knew it was true. Most notably, perhaps in the library, facing down the shadows. “You’re in the biggest library in the universe, and I’m the Doctor. Look me up.”

Perhaps the most notable expression of this sort of thing for Matt Smith’s Doctor is when he was a lodger trying to get the TARDIS to land, and wound up playing football (really, really well, by the way, or at least skillfully if not particularly in a team-mate sort of way). The captain of the team was all excited, and went on about how they were going to slaughter the opponents next week, and the Doctor said, “no, not while I’m here, no violence,” and on for a while in that vein, and then, “I’m the Doctor, The Oncoming Storm, and you were just talking about beating them in a game of football, weren’t you?”

He’s not all that… um… there, this Doctor. He’s not any more mad than any previous incarnation. He’s just as sympathetic, and empathic as the best of them. But… he can walk around and not quite hear the humans around him. And when he does hear them, he gets frustrated, and loud, and… if not exactly angry, then certainly peevish, really quickly. He has a short fuse, but not in the Tenth Doctor, I’m-going-to-give-you-one-chance sort of way. More in the sort of way that a child gets frustrated and lashes out, and then once the source of the frustration blows away, the frustration itself melts, and he goes on.

And what he goes onto is usually, eventually, anyway, the right answer. However, sometimes–particularly in the early episodes–it’s pretty emphatically not the right answer. He made the wrong choice in the space whale episode, for instance. He has to talk to himself, run through the scenario, and keep talking until he hits on the answer. Other incarnations had to do that, too, but not to the same level. And, it seems like for the eleventh, he doesn’t really know or understand the scenario until he’s done this. The others were just, oh, I don’t know, extemporizing, chatting as it were.

But, by the end of the final episode, we begin to see this Doctor really coming into his abilities, and using what he knows and what he can do to actually overcome the problems he faces rather than just getting them resolved for the moment. He has his own power now. Next season (and starting with the 2010 Christmas Special), he’ll be fully matured into himself, I think. I have hopes for the way it goes from here. So, here’s what I’m hoping for the future of Doctor Who.

  • That they’ll stop running down the pizza delivery path.
  • That they’ll stop letting the companion get all gooey (or, as Donna, emphatically not get gooey) (actually, this should be pretty easy, now that Amy and Rory are together and both back on the TARDIS)
  • That they’ll spend more time on other planets and in different time periods
  • That, and this is pretty inside baseball, they somehow rebooted the Doctor’s regenerations when the TARDIS delivered the pizza (this is pretty unlikely, I know, since there are two more regenerations to go, and it’ll make a great storyline to cope with the consequences of the Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation’s impending final death–but, the frequency with which we saw images of the previous incarnations in just thirteen episodes, and that along with the fact that every time this incarnation flashed an ID, it actually showed the first Doctor was interesting)

It’s been a good run so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

On “Hell is the Absence of God”

Here’s a story that made me feel strange, keeping, on the whole, the promise of the slipstream anthology it’s in.

The premise is that the popular idea of Christianity is correct. Not, mind you, that there is anything explicitly Christian about the world the author, Ted Chaing, presents. There’s no talk of the death and Resurrection, and there’s no talk about the trinity, for instance. What there is, though, is a lot of talking about the necessity of loving God, the absolute presence of Heaven and Hell, and the visitations of angels.

There’s no debate about these things. They are not a matter of faith. They are just part of the world. Like trees, for instance. Angelic visitations are accompanied by brief glimpses of Heaven. And they result in miraculous changes in the lives of some witnesses. Often positive changes, but not always. And, on occasion, there are glimpses of Hell, where–sometimes–people who are known to have died are seen. When people die, you even see them go to Heaven or to Hell. All you have to do to get into Heaven is love God.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Even in our world, where these things are not common as dirt, that’s the big one. Love God. Everything flows from that. How much easier it must be in the world of the story where all doubts are removed. These things literally happen, and pilgrimages to places where they happen pretty often are commonplace.

Anyway, that’s the background. The story is mainly about one guy, and his search to… Well, his search. He intersects with a couple of other people out in a desert location where angelic visitations happen fairly often. And his search comes to an end. And it all made me feel pretty strange. Highly recommended.

Slip-slippin into the future…

I’m a good chunk of the way into Feeling Very Strange, and… it doesn’t make me feel all that strange. The stories are good, quite good, on the whole, and worth reading, but the slipperiness of the idea of slipstream is leaving me a little cold on the category.

The only story that’s made me feel strange at all is the first one in the collection, and I’m not even sure what it’s called. I think it’s called “Al,” which is to say like some guy’s name, like the guy who owned “Arnold’s” in Happy Days. Which is just to give a reference, since what’s ambiguous about the title isn’t that it might be a reference to a 1970’s sit-com (it isn’t), but that the “L” in the Al, might actually be a 1, the digit.

Anyway, it made be feel strange because it was clearly the same story told from two different points of view, but… what they were describing, while the same, can’t be reconciled. It’s not that one POV is sane and the other isn’t. It’s not that one POV is a child and the other is an adult. It’s more like one POV is a woodland fairy and the other is a technocrat, and while they experience the same events in the same space at the same time, the space they occupy is actually quite different from one another.

Anyway. I’ll wrap up this post, because I’m about half-way through another story in the collection which is making me feel strange. I’ll write about that one next.

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