“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.

Looper review

On Sunday, 30 September 2012, I met Beruk A., Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for Looper at the AMC Burlington 10 cineplex. We enjoyed the time-travel drama, which was one of the better genre movies I’ve seen in the theaters so far this year.

Rian Johnson's time-travel movie
Looper

We liked one of director Rian Johnson‘s previous films, Brick, which was a noirish thriller set in a high school. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, who was also in Brick, plays Joe, an assassin hired by criminals from the future who is confronted with closing his own loop.

Gordon-Leavitt endured makeup and altered his mannerisms to match Bruce Willis (12 Monkeys) as the older version of Joe, who goes on the lam to try to fix history. Of course, with gun-toting thugs, telekinesis, and a dystopian world, nothing goes as planned for any of Looper‘s characters.

The rest of the supporting cast is strong, including Piper Perabo as a dancer, Jeff Daniels as a crimelord, Paul Dano and Garrett Dillahunt (Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles) as fellow “loopers,” Emily Blunt as a secretive farmer, and young Kamden Beauchamp as a creepy child.

Looper alludes to previous time-travel films such as those mentioned above, and it does a decent job of bringing up the questions of paradoxes, free will vs. predestination, and “If you could go back in time and kill Hitler as a child, would you?” Looper doesn’t resolve all these, but the character development and action scenes keep the story moving.

Overall, I’d give Looper, which is rated R for strong violence, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+/A-. I’d put Looper close to the much-maligned John Carter, the blockbuster Avengers, and darkly whimsical ParaNorman and would recommend it to other science fiction fans.

I’ve missed other recent dystopian movies, including Total Recall and Dredd, and I don’t know if I’ll see animated Halloween flicks Hotel Transylvania or Frankenweenie. Before Looper, we sat through numerous previews, and only Argo and Lincoln looked promising. I’m looking forward more to James Bond in Skyfall, Rise of the Guardians, and of course, The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey!

Autumn 2011 genre TV, Part 1

Campfire by Matt Rhodes
Campfire tales

Now that we’re a few weeks into the new television season, here’s my look at the latest crop of genre programs. As a disclaimer, note that I tend to watch science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, and suspense over mainstream dramas, reality shows, and situation comedies. That’s not to say that I don’t like humor, romance, or competitions, but I prefer them in smaller doses compared with speculative fiction.

Many of my friends have stopped watching multiple series as they’re broadcast, instead preferring to watch a full season at a time via Netflix. For now, I still like variety and timeliness more than delving in depth into one show at a time, but I do think that video on demand will become more prevalent. I hope that niche shows like the ones I enjoy will continue to be made, even if genre TV shows already have a high cancellation rate.

This year, I’ll group shows by night of the week rather than subgenre. As always, I welcome your reactions and recommendations!

On Sunday nights, I’ve been running my “Vanished Lands” fantasy campaign, using Pathfinder, Skype, and an online dice roller. The eight role-players across the U.S. have had difficulty achieving quorum lately, but I hope that our gaming group will eventually get back to a regular schedule.

This past summer, I enjoyed the do-gooder capers on TNT’s Leverage and the British sleuths on Masterpiece: Mystery, and I look forward to the eventual return of Sherlock on PBS/BBC America. While many of my peers will be watching football or Fox’s animated comedies, I’ll probably record ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which is part of a wave of modern supernatural shows inspired by fairy tales.

Showtime’s Homeland is a strong Manchurian Candidate-style thriller with a strong cast, including Damian Lewis, Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, and Morena Baccarin. I’m not sure I’ll continue watching Homeland, but it does a good job of keeping viewers guessing whether Lewis’ returning prisoner of war has been turned traitor or if Danes’ intelligence analyst is merely paranoid.

On Mondays, I’m hosting and running the “Vortex” homebrew space opera, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures and Bulldogs (as well as any science fiction RPG I can borrow ideas from). Two teams of about six role-players each meet for our face-to-face sessions on alternating weeks, not including dates we’ve had to skip for holidays or travel.

SyFy’s Alphas has managed to succeed where Heroes, The Cape, and No Ordinary Family stumbled — showing a dysfunctional family of metahuman vigilantes in a semi-realistic setting. It has more in common with the better X-Men adaptations than with the more campy The Cape or even Smallville. Although Alphas is low-budget and low-key, I look forward to its return next year.

Speaking of SyFy, Warehouse 13 (which is apparently in the same universe as Eureka and Alphas, thanks to Lindsay Wagner’s crossovers) was still fun, even as it spent more time exploring characters and intrigue than MacGuffins.

Other genre veterans can be found on Castle, which mixes police procedural, fanboy homages and parodies, and the occasional romance. Firefly/Serenity‘s Nathan Fillion and The Spirit‘s Stana Katic solve often bizarre crimes in New York City.

J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg got a lot of attention for Terra Nova, their postapocalyptic family drama with computer-generated dinosaurs. However, I found the first few episodes to be predictable and contrived, owing as much to Earth 2 as to James Cameron’s Avatar. I’d prefer less focus on annoying teenagers and random encounters with dinosaurs and more gradual buildup of time-travel mysteries and the larger world.

Coming soon: Tuesdays on the telly and more travel!