The Doctor and the Most Important Pizza in the Universe

I’m now about six episodes in. Just watched the one with the not-vampires. I’m liking the show pretty well, though, alas, I have to like it out of continuity. Let’s introduce a metaphor to show what I mean, maybe. My wife and I have a six-year-old boy. The boy LOVES pizza. Lately it’s been cheese pizza, though up until about two weeks ago it was peperoni pizza. Now it’s cheese. Typically, and for reasons which have nothing to do with the fact that Thursdays used to be the Night of the Sit-com, in our house, if we have pizza, it’s usually a Thursday. Through a bizarre confluence of events best not gone into here, last week pizza night extended from Wednesday through Saturday, at least for the boy.

In our town there are six places to get pizza. Three of them are fancy-pants places, with wood-fired ovens, goat cheese, and pine nuts. Not pizza for a six-year-old. The other three offer pizzas from standard-issue pizza ovens on fairly doughy crusts, bland sauces, and ordinary toppings. Essentially, pizzas from this set of three places are indistinguishable, although the boy has a preference. (There’s actually one other place in town to get a pizza, but it’s only available on the kid’s menu, and it’s a frozen pizza from a food service commissary–doughy, and bland, with no toppings.) The pizzas from the other set, while fancier, are all trying oh, so hard to be Distinguished Pizzas, and wind up being indistinguishable from one another, too.

The boy loved every pizza; each night he loved the pizza. My wife and I were very happy to have soup on Saturday, but he loved the Saturday Pizza just as much as the Wednesday Pizza. This has more to do with the variety of available pizzas than with the Law of Diminishing Returns, so don’t think that way. It’s not that Friday’s pizza was less satisfying than Wednesday’s pizza, so much as it was that what my wife and I were looking for that night in a pizza was a very thin crust, an almost-not-sweet sauce, plenty of cheese, and some ham and mushrooms.

What does this have to do with Doctor Who? I can hear you asking that. It’s not that the pizzas are bland, exactly. It’s more that the pizzas, particularly the indistinguishable pizzas, are mostly good in isolation from the continuity of pizza options. So far in this current season, I have mostly felt as if I’m watching Doctor Who pizzas best taken without thinking too much about the pizzas that came before.

First, let me stress that I’m enjoying this season. The characters are good, the writing is good, the scenarios are good. But, aside from the Doctor, there doesn’t feel like a lot of energy–and his energy is mainly him talking things through to himself. The doing of things is sort of an afterthought.

However, despite the fact that I like it, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re regularly being introduced to the idea of the show, the idea of the Doctor, and seeing the tropes of the series played out. Knowingly. At one point in the not-vampires episode, the Doctor says, “I like the bit where someone says it’s bigger on the inside.” And, as I mentioned with the end of David Tennant’s run, there’s a feeling of running down well-worn paths. There’s a universe-shattering something going on, threatening the whole of existence, it’s going to take the entire season to resolve, and booga-booga-booga! And there’s a companion with ties that bind her back home, and this companion is threatening to get all gooey for the Doctor (in a pretty hard-core way at one point), and she’s the MOST IMPORTANT PIZZA IN THE UNIVERSE. Just so long as you forget about the other pizzas, including Rose, Donna, and (reaching back a bit) the sixth segment of the Key to Time, to name just a few.

There are a couple of neat things I went to mention. Stand-alone things. In the space-whale episode, I felt like I was seeing a good Doctor Who stand-alone episode. The Doctor and Amy drop in on an isolated location in humanity’s far-future, diagnose the dystopic problem, and move things along by fixing the perception problem. There were some unresolved plot threads (I’m thinking mainly of why is it a police state, and what are those things in the booth, really?). I also like that the show looked like an episode of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in a sort of plasticy, cartoony way. I liked the second part of the weeping angels story, especially the way the character of the Bishop developed. River is far-and-away more irritating than she was before, which is good. This was an all-around good episode–good characterizations (particularly with a particular characteristic of this Doctor I’ll get to sometime), a good story, and good looking design. All of that. Right up until Amy’s status as the most important pizza was reasserted right at the end.

“I am the Doctor, dammit!”

As is always the case with a new Doctor (and with a new companion), we viewers are a little uneasy at first. We’re used to the other guy, and this guy looks different, sounds different, acts different. Is he really the Doctor, or just some guy who’s dressed funny, has a warbling stick, and a blue box?

With Matt Smith’s Doctor (of which I have now seen about 4 episodes of his first season), we seem to be getting hit over the head rather a lot that this is–YES, this is–the Doctor. And he’ll tell you so. Repeatedly, and, weirdly, unnecessarily. In pretty much every episode since the 1960’s there has to be a scene where the Doctor says, “I’m the Doctor, and this is Amy (or Susan, or Sarah Jane, or Harry, or Rose, or whoever).” They’ve just dropped in out of the sky, after all. The people they’re helping deserve to be able to call them something. And, usually, there’s a set piece where someone wants a proper name (rather than a title) for the Doctor. This is a reasonable request, and is pretty much ignored. Increasingly, since 2005, however, the Doctor has been running into people who know him, either by reputation or because they actually do know him. Indeed, in two of the four episodes of this season, the Doctor is in the situation of the episode because someone called him in.

All this is OK, I suppose. I mean, it’s the story-teller’s option for how to get things going. But, now here’s the weird part I mentioned earlier, as the Doctor has been increasingly well known by people he might not be expected to be recognised by, he has been increasingly given to making speeches about how he’s the Doctor. He’s the protector of Earth, humanity as it expands throughout the universe, the downtrodden, able to derail, defeat, and destroy those who get in his way, how he is not bound by the rules unless he wishes to be, and so on and so forth.

This sort of speech has been happening since Christopher Eccleston, it happened more and more with David Tennant–especially toward the end of his run–and it has already started happening with Matt Smith, only four episodes in (and I’m only half way through the–presumably–first weeping angels story line of this Doctor). Now, with David Tennant, as his time in the role progressed, the Doctor underwent a lot of experiences, and it became increasingly necessary for the Doctor to unveil his capability. And his capability is truly phenominal. He’s a Time Lord, after all. And, as a rogue Time Lord, he’s had experiences, and had to develop skills close to unique among Time Lords. But still, I don’t recall pre-2005 versions of the Doctor constantly making such a big deal of it.

Reading List

No commentary, here, just a bit on reading, and what might be coming up.

I just started Feeling Very Strange (2006), an anthology of slipstream. As a concept, slipstream is apparently in the range of twenty years old or so. Samples of works that would fit into the concept apparently go back to the Dawn of Fiction, however. Essentially, so far as anyone–including the editors of the anthology–have worked out, slipstream is a style of writing where the author uses the tools of the craft to make the reader feel Very Strange. So, in that way, it’s more about effect than subject matter, and the editors place it more in a category with facets like humor and fear than in a category with facets like hard-SF or swords-and-sorcery.

I feel, having read all of the introduction and one story of fourteen in the anthology, as if one of my all-time favorite writers would probably fit under the slipstream umbrella. Steven Millhauser writes some of the creepiest books and stories I’ve ever read. I always get the feeling that there is something huge, and probably terrible, right around the corner of the reality his characters experience. It’s always there, and it affects things, but it never even peeps around the corner. I find it all quite unsettling and exhilarating in a reading-a-book sort of way.

Also, I just came across this post, where some real scientists talk with Annalee Newitz from the Mad Science blog at io9 about some science fiction they think does the science in their own fields pretty OK. It includes books and movies, many of which I haven’t heard of. So they’re on the reading list by reference rather than by typing.

Yep, Donna Noble Really Did Get Ripped Off “The End of Time” (part 2)

(The author goes on at some length about why “The End of Time” should have been better.  ±1400 words.)

A little while ago, I argued that Donna Noble got ripped off. Basically, as a companion to the Doctor, we viewers would expect her to have all sorts of adventures, and then a heartfelt farewell. There are lots of ways for this to play out. But Donna, while she did have lots of adventures, and while the Doctor felt really, really badly when he took her home, really got ripped off. She not only doesn’t remember the adventures, a bad enough fate, all things considered, but she was brain damaged with a weak amnesia which was so weak and fragile, that it could be undone by the merest hint of a reminder of what she experienced with the Doctor. If the amnesia is undone, her brain would explode, or something equally deadly if not necessarily as gross. Also, as if all that weren’t bad enough, not only does she not get to remember, on pain of death, all that she experienced, but also, she goes home the same shallow flake as she was when she first met the Doctor.

But, at the end of that rant, I acknowledged that the writers might have something better planned for her for the future. And in the finale of “The End of Time” we get to find out what that something is. But, since what happens to Donna is really just a special case of the general problems with the episode, I’ll leave you hanging for a bit.

“The End of Time” was the finale of both David Tennant’s run as the Doctor and of Russel T. Davies’s run as the powerhouse behind the new run of Doctor Who. And Davies’s run has been great. I’ve crabbed a bit about certain elements, and about how there was a degree of… if not repetitiveness, then sticking to well-worn paths. Romantic attachment (or emphatically not, which is the same), the Daleks, the effects of being a companion on the family, the Burden of Being the Last of the Time Lords. There are others, but the point is that under Davies’s command, Doctor Who was a bit of a soap opera where a few themes were explored from various angles. It was always well done, and didn’t get stale, although the edges were starting to dry a bit. Even within the show, the characters started to get wise to the idea that if it was Christmas, it was probably a good idea to get out of London.

Still, “The End of Time” had at least three good stories going on, which may have something to do with why it felt weirdly thin, that none of them got enough attention what with one thing and another. In addition to the three good stories, there was the maudlin meta-story of this being the end of not one, but two–count ‘em!–two eras all at once. Davies was wrapping up his run as go-to-guy, including writing several of the final episodes. Tennant was saying good-bye to a character which is well-loved (and properly), which he did justice by, and with which he will be forever associated. This good-bye business took up a lot of time which could have been given over to moving the actual stories along, or fleshing them out.

The stories:

 

  • First, the green aliens with the healing technology. We never really get a good idea of what this was all about, but the notion that it could be used to affect the entire human population had a lot of potential as a story on its own.
  • Second, the Master is out of his freaking mind. This is not exactly a new story line, of course. It’s connected to the first by the fact that he’s using the events in that story to take over Earth in order to make an army of himself to take over the universe. Again, a good story. It didn’t have to be connected to the first, but that it was could have made for a good two- or three- parter all on its own.
  • Third, the return of the Time Lords and Gallifrey. Cool. Very cool. We viewers have been wondering about this since, basically, Christopher Eccleston stepped out of the police box in 2005. And, they are, collectively, and in the person of Rassilon, out of their minds, just like the Master, only on a much, much larger scale. This story is connected to the Master as well, and the notion of turning all the humans into copies of the Master as additional soldiers in the Time War is an interesting one, and could have played well with the second story, or even both of the other stories.

 

Except… if the three stories are actually connected in this way, the episode (combining parts one and two into one episode for a moment) doesn’t actually make the connection. It’s not that everything has to be spelled out, though this is, after all, Doctor Who and not The Godfather, so generally things are spelled out. But the dream logic of the string of events essentially flowed from one problem to the next without ever really resolving them, and then just sort of flowed back and just sort of took care of loose threads. I never really felt like I was watching a story, you see, so much as a series of, “aw, look at that” sorts of events. Things just sort of happen, with only minimal relation between cause and effect, and with little real pay-off for how momentous they are supposed to be.

For instance. The Time Lords return, pissed off and out of their minds. Rassilon returns, for heaven’s sake, with the Hand of Omega no less (or some crazy glove, anyway). There’s a bit of talk about what they’re Going to Do once they get back. And they’re stopped, not by any sort of unforeseeable cleverness by the Doctor, but by the fact that he destroys the thingy. With a gun. He’s been zapping things with the sonic screwdriver all episode, and at the end of the day, when the chips are really down, he shoots the thingy with a gun, and sends the Time Lords back into the Time Locked Time War. Except, having gotten out once, there’s nothing to prevent them from getting out in the same way again, and doing it in a way that won’t get the Doctor’s attention. And the entire story was introduced and concluded in about 15 minutes of story time across two hours and twenty minutes of episode.

It just seems like a waste. It’s not as if the three stories couldn’t have been well rounded and played within the allotted time. It’s just that everything in these stories just didn’t get resolved. They merely got ended. And so back to how Donna Nobel got ripped off.

After losing all her gains in experience, knowledge, wisdom, and self-worth, Donna went back to being just a dope whose brain was going to explode if she remembered anything of the Doctor or her time with him. Then, when the Master changed everyone on Earth into a copy of himself, Donna was one of two humans who didn’t change. The other was her grandfather who was shielded from the changy machine when he hid by the machine. Donna was, apparently, protected by the Doctor/Donna incident. Then, after presumably having been fixed by the alien technology, she began to remember, and her brain exploded. Kinda-sorta. Some energy release happened, anyway. Then she fell over. Then, later–much later–though after the Doctor told someone else that she would be OK, she woke up OK with, apparently, stronger amnesia. But she’s still a flake.

And that’s why she got ripped off. And, really, we did, too. We didn’t get ripped off because Donna got ripped off. Not exactly, anyway. The precise nature of Donna’s fate isn’t what ripped us off; rather it was the flabby story-telling lameness with which Donna’s fate was presented to us that ripped us off.  Donna got ripped off because, even though she was a companion, she wound up worse off than before she left, because her mother and her grandfather know the truth about her and she never will. Not because her brain will explode, but because she’s such a flake that she would never believe the truth. The writers didn’t do justice by Donna because the end of her story just sort of trailed off rather than clearly paying off the danger she was in, and without justifying the limitations that she came back with.  It’s not like she’s the first companion to get hurt.  Some even die.

We viewers got ripped off by “The End of Time,” too. Not because of Donna, and not because the end of the Tenth Doctor’s story wasn’t worthy, or wasn’t a good ending. They were. But we got ripped off because the writers didn’t pay off the danger and coolness of the story ideas with a well rounded conclusion. Instead we got another maudlin montage of extended good-bye scenes that neither advanced the story, nor illuminated character. We should have gotten a better story from the story elements we were given.

Doctor Who, “The End of Time” (part 1)

Dream logic abounds in Doctor Who. For decades, we’ve enjoyed stories where suddenly things happen, and suddenly things make sense, and suddenly things work out. Often, this is because of the force of the Doctor’s personality, sometimes the force of his will. In recent seasons, more often than in seasons past, it’s been because of the force of the Doctor’s reputation. Things happen because, it seems, they need to happen just that way at just that moment, and a strictly logical progression–or a progression which leads to failure–need not apply.

But with “The End of Time” (part one, anyway), the dream logic overtakes everything. The Doctor–indeed just about everyone in this episode–spends a lot of time merely running from one place to another. The Master, at least, runs in an interesting way, apparently now capable of jumping, bounding, leaping hundreds of yards at a go in a way which we have never been given to suspect Time Lords are capable. In itself, that’s OK, but there was no sense that this capability was anything more than a neat visual trick on the part of the creative team. The plot, you see, just doesn’t do much.

There’s potential. A group of wealthy people have gotten ahold of alien technology to do something to do with making people healthy (though not, presumably, wise). How they did this without drawing the attention of UNIT or Torchwood is unclear. There are some spiney-headed green aliens pulling the technology together. This is a sort-of typical, if run-of-the-mill Doctor Who setup. Somehow the Master appears to be aware of this project, manages to get himself kidnapped into the heart of the project, makes some adjustments, and viola! Everyone on Earth, with one or two exceptions, is now a fully-fledged copy of the Master. That’s pretty neat, too.

But it’s only about a half-hour worth of story. The rest of this episode feels aimless, wandering, or padded with sentimental scenes for the actors to say good-bye. Now, I’m not opposed to sentimental scenes for the actors. But they seemed to be getting in the way of both–both!–the story and the episode. We’ll see. We were teased throughout the entire episode by the Narrator (a very unusual device, possibly unique, in Doctor Who), with the possibility that there was more going on. But, really, the tease only came at the very end when we see that it’s Time Lords. Well, this should be good news for we viewers. The return of the Time Lords and Gallifrey seems like something that could shake up the show for the next Doctor, especially since there seems to be some menace to it. But then it’s weakened by the reveal that the drumbeats that have been dogging the Master for who-knows how long are the sound of a Time Lord’s heartbeat. Like the Master wouldn’t have been able to recognize that sound, after all.

But the cliffhanger is a good one. Not only is nearly everyone a clone of the Master, but as a result of the Master-ification of nearly everyone, Donna Noble has her memory back, and her brain is about to explode!

Not science fiction, gay fiction, but really just good fiction.

Bottom line. People who wonder about what it’s like when people make the uncomfortable discovery that they’re gay despite expectation and acculturation should read this novel.

So should people who want a good laugh at stupid and obnoxious people, and there are plenty of these people in the book.

We know where this novel is going to end up from the title and the back cover. So as readers we’re not too lost even though the first couple of chapters–basically before we get to California–feel a little vague. They meander, getting Our Hero, Andy, from his college dorm life, back to his parent’s house and the listlessness of summer jobdom for a conventional type of college student in 1989, and on his way to a Life Changing Trip to California There are some amusing set pieces at the beginning, and a highlight of the entire novel is a juvenile but still funny prank Andy plays on a neighbor lady. It would be great to see more of that relationship at work.

Andy’s lack of self-awareness, and his gradual realization that he doesn’t know himself nearly as well as he thinks he does drives the plot. Once we get to California, Andy gets pulled from event to event, sucked along and barely in control of what’s going on, and only able to influence outcomes to the degree that other people are swayed by his smart-assery. Which usually means that Andy’s influence works against his hoped-for outcome. After repeated encounters with a distant relative of uncertain relation, Andy begins to become more assertive about the flow of events, but he remains largely unaware.

His slowly dawning self-realization allows for the character-driven scenes as well as the character developments. This growth in Andy’s self-knowledge carries the reader through some of the rougher patches of prose, which can sometimes be a little heavy on the smart-assery, and can sometimes veer toward after school special territory. If, that is, your after school specials were unambiguous and up-front about dealing with gay people, and watching everyone squirm through uncomfortable social situations made worse by constantly tripping over the gaps in their self-awareness. Which is a pretty good after school special.

 

(Note: this review originally appeared on my blog Interstellar Gas, in a slightly longer form. I have edited it to tighten it up, and to fix a broken buy link. IG was a science-fiction-focused blog, hence the title of this post. SM-Jan. 5, 2019.)

The end of The End of Eternity

It ended strong. I’m quite impressed with this novel. The manliness manliness of it was explained in context. I’m not sure that, if Eternity as described were actually possible, women would actually prove incapable of dealing with it. But I’m completely willing to accept that the organization and design of Eternity would make women unwelcome and unlikely to succeed. I’m particularly willing to accept this within the realm of this novel, since Noÿs is shown to be more than she seems.

In any case, plot summaries abound for the book. I’ve already written about how the characters are nicely rounded, and the plot is compelling, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how good a book it is. I do want to talk about the time travel element of it a bit, though.

One of the central elements of the way Eternity works in this book is that the people in it have taken it upon themselves to make things better throughout human history. Or at least the parts of it Eternity can reach. (Eternity is more of a brand name or a realm outside of ordinary space/time, and it touches on human history from the 27th Century on to the end of the solar system. It gets its power from when our sun goes nova.) Ordinary space/time is called Reality, and the people in Eternity meddle in Reality in order to maximize human well-being.

Finally, the people in Eternity are just people. They’re ordinary humans identified in Reality, and recruited into Eternity to do the work of keeping things improving. They age and die, they have flaws and egos, and all the normal things you would expect of a nearly all-male cadre of engineers, academics, and janitors.

There’s a problem, however, with the system. Two big ones anyway. The first is when they meddle, no matter how significant the change they’re working toward, things have a way of settling back into the previous pattern. An example I just made up. Suppose they determine that in the 3,000th Century a terrible war is going to wipe out half the human population, but that by making a change in the 2,900th Century it can be avoided. They make the change, and the war in the 3,000th doesn’t happen, but by about the middle of the 3,250 Century, there’s no change in circumstances from the previous condition.

The other problem is there’s a range of centuries in the far-far future the 100,000th century to much, much later that the Eternals cannot get to. They can go past them and see that there are no humans left. So the Eternals are unsure what this means. There are humans around right up to the point where they’re locked out of Reality, and no humans around once they can get back into it.

As a reader I found both of these ideas really interesting. Firstly, the idea of the inertia of history neatly gets around the paradoxes of time travel. The technology of Eternity protects Eternals from being affected by the changes. Also, this means that Eternity is populated entirely by people who can’t go home any more because, due to the constant meddling by the Eternals, their homes simply aren’t there any more. Things have changed since they’ve been gone, and it’s entirely likely that they were never born in the new Reality, or if they were, that they are virtually unrecognizable. Asimov also gives some thought to the emotional burden of this kind of life. I also found it interesting because Doctor Who recently used the phrase “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff,” which is very much like what Asimov seemed to be describing, and which so many of the Star Trek fans whose musing prompted this blog in the first place don’t seem comfortable with. (Edit: this first appeared in my now-defunct blog Interstellar Gas.)

The second thing about all this I found interesting as a reader is that the Eternals were locked out by Somebody. Discovering who the Somebody is, why they set the lock, and what their relationship with Eternity actually is turns out to be the central mystery of the novel, though Asimov disguises this very well until nearly the end of the book. It also has interesting implications for time travel stories. But Asimov doesn’t flesh that part out in much detail because, I suspect, it would get in the way of the story, and because maybe he simply didn’t work it out for himself. I’m not going to speculate too much about it here, but I think the idea of two sets of time-traveling peoples, with different technologies, different goals, and different perspectives on the best outcomes for humanity is really interesting.

Also, along the way, Asimov touches on the Galactic Empire, which I didn’t especially need as a reader, except to the degree that he does mention something I wondered about, but didn’t mention when writing about it, when I read the other two books. Namely, where are the space aliens in Asimov’s books?

 

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