Seasonal SFTV shifts

I’m still catching up on reviews of recent genre entertainment, but last weekend marked a definite changing of the guard on television. No, I’m not talking about the Emmys, which I ignored, just as the academy has ignored Tatiana Maslany’s excellent Orphan Black performances (with Person of Interest, among the best shows of this past year, IMHO).

First was the third season finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra, which I watched online because Nickelodeon has dropped the animated fantasy. It was bittersweet, because this season has been that show’s strongest yet in terms of character development and plotting.

Last Airbender/Korra wallpaper
The heroes of Avatar

 Sure, Legend of Korra has continued the spectacular world-building and action of its progenitor, Avatar: the Last Airbender, but its first two seasons lurched from one set-piece battle to the next, its leads took a while to mature, and its villains’ motivations weren’t well explained.

It’s also a shame that Legend of Korra hit its stride just as Nickelodeon abandoned it. The finale was rushed, with the duel between the eponymous heroine and dangerous anarchists quickly wrapping things up, with no mention of the crossover between the physical and spirit realms that had marked the season opener.

I look forward to a fourth season, which is reportedly in the works, but it’s too bad that the Avatar universe hasn’t gotten the recognition (or the live-action adaptation) it deserves.

On a related note, I’ve almost finished watching the final episodes of the computer-animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, which has managed to maintain a high level of quality even after Cartoon Network dumped it online. If this is part of a trend, that’s bad news for genre fans; even as a few shows such as Game of Thrones are mainstream hits, other worthy ones will again struggle to find audiences and sponsors.

Star Wars: Clone Wars Season 6
Another online-only wrapup

I’ve argued for a while now that, as with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, George Lucas, Genndy Tartakovsky, and Dave Filoni’s creation has patched any problems from the franchise’s most recent films. There are more hours of well-crafted entertainment from Clone Wars than in any of the less-popular Star Wars prequels.

Even though Disney/Lucasfilm/Marvel has decided to ignore most of the so-called Expanded Universe, Clone Wars has put that space opera on solid storytelling ground, and I look forward to Disney XD’s Star Wars: Rebels.

Last but not least was the latest season premiere of Doctor Who, with the first full episode featuring Peter Capaldi as the Time Lord. I like an older Doctor, who reminds me of the courtly Jon Pertwee with a bit of Christopher Eccleston’s edge.

Peter Capaldi joins an elite fraternity
Doctors Who

On the other hand, the frenetic pacing and reuse of the “Paternoster Gang” and clockwork villains seemed to be an attempt by producer Steven Moffat to convince the BBC and some fans that elements from David Tennant and Matt Smith’s popular runs will continue.

It’s no surprise that Jenna Coleman will be leaving after this year’s celebration and transition, even as her character, the plucky Clara Oswald, has had to come to grips that the good Gallifreyan no longer appears as a young swain. I hope that the stories are more tightly written in the coming series/season.

What genre TV shows were your favorites this past year, and what are you looking forward to this fall?

“Day of the Doctor” review

As a longtime Whovian, I’ve been pleased to see Doctor Who attaining new heights of popularity as its 50th anniversary approached. BBC America’s Doctor Who Confidential retrospectives, an ever-growing reference library, and plentiful merchandise warm the heart of this fan, who wore oversize coats and long scarves around the television show’s 20th anniversary. I even got my mother to sew question-mark lapel pins.

While I had some reservations about the so-called War Doctor and apparent lack of actors from before the 2005 restart of the long-running British series, it was hard not to get caught up in the fan anticipation. The time-travel franchise is rightly one of the best and longest in speculative fiction.

If you’re reading my blog and know nothing about Doctor Who, I’m afraid that most of this post won’t make much sense. Go watch the show! For those of you who are fellow enthusiasts, here’s my initial review of the episode of Saturday, 23 November 2013, sans “spoilers” (a River Song favorite, found in some of the enclosed links).

Story

Doctor 11 (played by Matt Smith) finds himself interacting with Doctor 10 (David Tennant) and a hitherto unknown past incarnation (John Hurt). The three Time Lords — actually the same person — must deal with nasty Zygon doppelgangers, the last day of the Time War between the besieged Gallifreyans and cybernetic Daleks, and their own guilt. I’ve seen some complaints that the episode was too low-key or “too zany,” but I think it balanced action with puzzle-solving and introspection.

There are “timey wimey” maneuverings, lots of script and visual allusions to past Doctors, and a reminder of the heroic idealism and childlike whimsy that have entranced viewers for decades. At their best, both Star Trek and Doctor Who have these qualities. I was dreading a dour, fatalistic look back, but I found myself looking to the future with renewed optimism.

Doctor Who 50th anniversary
Day of the Doctor

Acting

More than the recursive plot, the success of this crossover storyline is thanks to strong performances by Smith, Tennant, and genre veteran Hurt. They’re ably supported by Jemma Redgrave as the daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, Jenna Louise Coleman as latest companion Clara Oswald, and Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, the first of the modern companions.

There are a few surprise appearances, only adding to speculation for the upcoming Doctor 12, to be played by Peter Capaldi. Doors that were closed have been reopened, but the cast and crew manage not to trample on the legacy of Tom Baker, Paul McGann, and Christopher Eccleston.

Direction

The pacing of this anniversary episode starts out slowly, with idyllic vignettes and an apparent mystery. As with many of Doctor Who‘s landmark episodes, it soon accelerates with helicopter rides, chase scenes, and a race to save entire planets.

Ultimately, the producers are right to focus on the Doctor’s conscience and his love of common people with extraordinary potential. References to the fairy-tale infantilism of recent seasons, dueling Doctor egos, unresolved threats, and curating the best of the past to inspire the future all make this episode worth rewatching and discussing among friends.

Visual Effects

Story and character are still paramount, but special effects have come a long way in 50 years. I’m sure those who screen the “Day of the Doctor” theatrically in 3-D will have a lot to enjoy. I was thrown for a moment when the episode opened with the 1963 opening titles, after the pregame show had shown bits of the previous Doctors. I was also happy to see the Zygons, who were the first Doctor Who monsters to haunt my youth.

Even the characters noted the aesthetic differences among three TARDIS consoles. The aforementioned helicopter ride across London, visits to hidden vaults in the National Gallery and Tower of London, and glimpses of the Time War make this a true romp across space and time.

Soundtrack

I recognized references to Rose’s “Bad Wolf” theme, and subtle differences between Tennant’s tenure and Smith and Coleman’s era. I also have a renewed appreciation for the earlier Doctors (whom recent comic books have also revisited).

While Eccleston’s short run was marked by social commentary and a contemporary feel, this anniversary episode reminded me of “The Five Doctors” and the more mythic feel of some recent runs without feeling so overblown. Let’s hope that the self-aware sci-fi franchise continues to go strong as Capaldi’s time in the TARDIS approaches….

“Day of the Doctor” is a must-see and a gift for any Doctor Who fans, and I’d give it a 9 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-. The only way I’d give it a higher review would have been a longer episode with more cameos, but that’s only hardcore fan wishes.

Summer 2011 winds down

Human sacrifice?
Human sacrifice?

Although I’ve been dealing with several big projects at work, I’ve also been out of the office a bit lately. On Wednesday, 24 August 2011, I joined Janice at her department‘s clambake at Steep Hill Beach on the scenic Crane Estate. We had met Corbin A.Y. and family on the North Shore just a few weeks before that at Malt Hill in Beverly, Massachusetts. The grounds of the vacation home he and Andria K.Y. rented with his boss provided a pleasant retreat.

I enjoyed the shrimp, clams, mussels, and lobster at the clambake, but Janice had few alternatives to seafood — a rack of short ribs and corn bread. Most of her co-workers went down to the beach, and we checked out the impressive grounds of the mansion. The traffic on Route 128/I95 both ways was heavy, even though we tried to avoid rush hour.

We probably won’t get to the Marshfield Fair or the King Richard’s Faire this year because of other travel. Hurricane Irene brought heavy rain and high winds to the entire East Coast of the U.S., but we were spared the worst damage. After last week’s earthquake and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, skittishness was understandable. Needham Heights did lose power for a short time around midday on Sunday, Aug. 28.

Since as many as 20 people died, I think it was prudent to evacuate coastal areas from North Carolina through Long Island — it’s better to be safe than sorry. Fortunately, Janice and I had gotten some low-hanging branches removed and our gutters cleaned in the past few weeks. We did have to pick up numerous smaller branches.

I had hoped to see the Conan the Barbarian or Fright Night remakes with Thomas K.Y. and Josh C., but they and the Pathfinder/Skype: “the Vanished Landstelecom fantasy game will have to wait until people’s mutual schedules clear up. At least the half-season premiere of Doctor Who was entertaining.

I had to work from home again yesterday because power to my office and the Riverside MBTA station was out. Unfortunately, I didn’t check my e-mail beforehand and drove to work, finding out about the building closure only after dealing with detours caused by fallen trees.

On a sadder note, I recently learned that Ray C. and a former co-worker at BNA in Washington, D.C., had died. Ray was a good friend in my early years of high school, and like the late Bill B., we shared budding interests in science fiction, fantasy, and role-playing games. They’ll be missed.

Back to Chicago

Chicago Skyline by r_seaman@hotmail.com
Chicago skyline

This past week, I helped TT’s events staff with BriForum Chicago 2011 at McCormick Place. I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but since I had visited the windy city twice before within the past year, I can’t complain! I began reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, an evocative urban fantasy, on the flight from Boston.

The virtualization conference went smoothly, and it was a good opportunity to serve alongside Alex H. and co-workers outside of the editorial department. I helped stuff welcome packets, introduced speakers, managed one of the breakout rooms, and gathered session evaluations.

Since we had good wireless connectivity this year, I was able to check in with the Newton home office more often, which rewarded me with more work. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet my cousin’s family, since she was visiting the Philippines.

The days were long but fulfilling, from setting up rooms at 7:00 a.m. to dinner and other events in the early evening. On Monday night, Alex and I tried to go to the Meatloaf Bakery, which I had seen on television, but it was closed. So we had a good falafel dinner instead at Sultan’s Market, followed by decadent desserts at the Austrian Bakery.

After a hike through hot and humid weather to the train from Chicago’s Near South Side to the more upscale Lincoln Park, we took a cab back to the Hyatt Regency hotel. The next night, we went to a vendor-sponsored event at the Howl at the Moon piano bar, near the famous Billy Goat Tavern. I tried a Goose Island Honker’s Ale (although I preferred the Otter Creek Stovepipe Porter at the Yard House in Dedham, Massachusetts).

I returned to my hotel room on one of the earlier buses because of work, but I made up for the lack of socializing the next evening after grabbing a leftover sandwich from the North Shore Kosher Bakery. Alex and I joined Jackie H., Peter D., and Tom K.T. for more food and drink at Kroll’s South Loop and the M/X at our hotel. Among other things, I had a Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale and a Dark Horse Black Bier.

I’ve learned a lot about office politics in the past year, and the remainder of the show went smoothly. We endured a sweltering cab ride on the way to O’Hare Airport, and I had to find my way home after midnight after getting to my car in a parking lot near Logan Airport. I’ve spent the past few days catching up on summer TV such as Warehouse 13, Leverage, White Collar, and Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Coming soon: More movie reviews and Comic-Con reflections!

Time and again

The Doctor
Incarnations of a Time Lord

As a longtime “Whovian,” I enjoyed the first two episodes of the latest season of Doctor Who, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon.” Not only did the cast and crew of the British science fiction franchise get to travel to the U.S. for some location shooting, but writer/producer Stephen Moffat has continued building on plot threads he began last year!

I liked the interplay between Matt Smith as the eponymous Gallifreyan, Karen Gillan as perky companion Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Amy’s stalwart husband Rory. Guest stars included Alex Kingston as the glamorous and mysterious Dr. River Song and genre veterans Mark Sheppard and his father as former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III. Even President Nixon and Neil Armstrong figure into the story!

The heady plot of the two-part season (or series, as they call them in the U.K.) opener involves Moffat tropes including nightmarish aliens, personal secrets and perils, and of course, some romping through time and space. Who is Amy’s child? Could Dr. Song be a Time Lord? I haven’t figured out all the puzzles yet, but I look forward to episodes that balance childlike wonder at the universe and human nature with darker themes such as mortality and betrayal. Oh, and Stetsons are cool.

In sadder news for the Doctor Who franchise, Elizabeth Sladen, who played popular companion Sarah Jane Smith, recently died at 63. I met her at a genre entertainment convention and found her to be gracious and upbeat. She will be missed.

We have more Doctor Who and Torchwood: Miracle Day to look forward to, continuing the U.K.’s strong presence in genre television.

Coming soon: Boston Comic Con report, more on genre TV, and gaming observations!