"New sun, new air, new sky. A whole universe teeming with life. Why stand still when there's all that life out there?" -The Doctor
"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have." -Unknown

Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Few Thoughts on "The End of Time: Part 1"

(Say that like River Song and you've got it.)

A Bit Of Background
I'm pretty much a brand new Whovian. I spent the first half of the last school year on exchange in Germany, and when I returned to my small college town in Washington State, USA, I was desperately thirsty for the freedom, novelty, and adventure that had been at my fingertips during my stay abroad. And of all things, in my absence several of my friends had been pulled into a fantastic show called Doctor Who. It had everything: wit, pathos, drama, comedy, tragedy, high romance, robots, aliens, time travel, and cute guys in suits with British accents. What more could one ask for? But even more than that, it was a taste of freedom, wonder, and adventure--exactly what I was craving. I never had a chance.

Keep in mind, though, that this was only this last spring. My roommate and I plowed through Doctor Who; even counting the week-long funk I sunk into after "Doomsday", we finished all four seasons and all of the specials (up through "Planet of the Dead") in less than two months. Nine was my first Doctor, and although I was attached to him and sad to see him go, I'd only known him for a couple weeks before he regenerated into Ten--who I thought at the time was, due to his manic energy, a boggle-eyed ax murderer, but only for about two episodes, so please don't tell David Tennant I said that. We soldiered on, culminating in the brilliant season four and the tragedy of the loss of Donna.

Then came the waiting: long, painful, and seemingly unending. We drank up preview clips of "Waters of Mars" and were suitably stunned by the Doctor's long-overdue egomania. (I'll have to write on that later.) But the real heartache was still to come: the final death of our beloved Ten, inevitable and inexorable. Part 1 was the beginning of the end, and all the interviews, clips, previews and articles said it was going to be a fitting farewell.

If I Hear The Word "Swansong" One More Time...
Which just goes to show that actors are really good at acting, even when not in character. I found Part 1 to be profoundly disappointing, even more so because really authentic, heartwrenching, and achingly beautiful moments are jarringly and gratuitously interspersed with insanely silly bits.

The tone began well enough: you can never have enough Wilfred Mott, even scared and alone. Then came the long-awaited reappearance of the Doctor, but although he spoke with his usually glib cheerfulness, it was painfully apparent that it was no longer a true account of his grand adventures but a flimsy facade to cover his growing dread and urge to escape. Even the brain-headed Ood was okay; we were suitably set up, as a panicked Doctor raced backed to his remote-locked TARDIS, to follow him down whatever wild path he need to tread to save the universe from yet another disaster.

Then...Well, Then It All Went To Hell In A Handbasket
From the anguish in the Doctor's face and his heartpounding terror that he may be too late to a inexplicably well-prepared Lucy Saxon who blows up her husband after he is magically regenerated by his equally inexplicably devoted cult with a ring, some blue goo, and a "biometrical signature" left on her lips after heaven-knows-how-long--what? I mean, what? Who in their right mind would think this was a good idea? Was anyone else thinking Harry Potter?

This fluctuation between soulful and silly marred the whole of the episode. Sure, give the Master superpowers and make him insane--why not? He's the Master, and that means he can do or be anything. But please, give him sensible superpowers that don't make him look like Gollum hybred with a deranged Sith. Every time he flew away on rocket lightening blasts from his palms, the show fell into absurdity. The Master is at his greatest and most terrifying when his cackling madness is juxtaposed with deadly, terrible brilliance; but all we really saw was the mad jackal and none of the mad genius.

Ten's conversation with the Master about Gallifrey, about madness, brought home that they are really two of a kind. Which brings to mind another thought about the Master: he is the Doctor's Joker. He seems to be even more Jokerlike than the Joker himself (and we're talking Dark Knight Joker here); he brings to mind the Joker's description of himself as a mad dog chasing cars--he wouldn't know what to do with one if he caught it. The Master seems to have no plan except to hurt and thwart the Doctor, so when the Naismiths drop that opportunity in his lap, he goes for it, with no apparent further gameplan. What would he have done if they hadn't kidnapped him to fix their broken Gate of Phlebotinum? Made a life out of eating hobos and being mistaken for a Halloween decoration? And by the way, how in the world does "losing your life energy" make you fade like a glitchy hologram between flesh and blood and a glowing blue skull?

I'm Going To Die...
In the "wonderful" column, the cafe scene jumped instantly to the top of my unofficial list of best Doctor Who scenes ever. My heart broke for the Doctor not just because of his anguish and grief and horrible loneliness, but because it was more than a little true--it really is a different man that will go sauntering away, calling himself the Doctor, who isn't Ten at all. That conversation tapped straight into the pain for the loss of David Tennant as well as Ten.

Maybe the point is this: If RTD had wanted a patently absurd, Skeletor-Gollum-Sith-Master-takes-over-the-world-and-the-Doctor-must-stop-him story, that's just fine, and would probably be great. If he had gone for a really beautiful, urgent, dramatic, and exquisitely human take on the Doctor facing his inevitable death and the return of the Time Lords, to whose memory and legacy he's been enslaved for so long, that would be even better--that was what I wanted, at least. The disappointment comes from the seemingly indiscriminate mixing of the two. The sci-fi silliness of the Master's transformation and insanity, and his rather frivolous takeover of the entire world, is in complete disharmony with the solemnity and real emotion with which the Doctor, alone in fear and grief and sadness, faces his inevitable end. The dischord is what makes Part 1, despite its brilliant moments, more of a frustration than a fitting finale.

I can only hope that, as promised, Part 2 will focus on the Doctor: on his loneliness, his place in relation to the returning Time Lords, his relationship with the Master, and the form his death with take. Donna and Wilf will hopefully have important roles to play. This story can still be salvaged, but the next few days will tell.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nan's Christmas Carol

The dynamic duo from season (sorry, "series") four strike again: David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Last seen as English teacher and obnoxious student on the Children in Need special a bit ago, Tate now plays a nasty, crotchety, foul-mouthed grandmother named Joany (or "Nan") who, having thrown out the family who came to visit her at Christmas, is subjected to the same trials that Scrooge went through, only...modernized and wonky. The full show can be found, beginning with part one, here, but the part embedded below begins with the dramatic entrance of the Ghost of Christmas Present:

The most interesting part for me about this sequence--apart from Tate in old-person makeup in a snark war with an effeminate, bewigged, and heavily eyelinered Ten--is, of course, Ten's accent. Tate identifies him within one sentence as a Scot, but compared to the accent he uses to read the children's stories, his accent sounds overwrought and painfully exaggerated. As much as I'd like to be, I'm no expert in British dialects, so the change puzzles me--at times during the clip, his accent is almost unintelligible. What kind of inflection is he using? Is he making his Scottish dialect even more "Scottish"--like a Estuary-speaking Brit affecting RP, or a West Coast American emphasizing the American-ness of their pronunciation--or is he adding in another element? I really can't tell; my ear isn't experienced or attuned enough. The auditory gymnastics necessary to understand him are more than enough to deal with without analysis being attempted as well.

Ten reads Christmas stories for children

Much to the joy of children and lovers of Scottish accents everywhere, David Tennant reads four children's stories for Christmas on BBC, linked here for your viewing enjoyment.

What is it about the accent that is so appealing? Better yet: what is it that causes such a marked difference between this dialect, apparently Ten's normal mode of speech, and the more overexaggerated accent that he uses for the Ghost of Christmas Present in "Nan's Christmas Carol"? How many dialects does this man speak, anyway?

Welcome to the Translation Circuit!

This blog is intended to be the intersection of two great pleasures in my life: Doctor Who and linguistics. Thanks to the handy plot device of the "translation circuit", the TARDIS is able to translate psychically for its occupants, both transforming all input into their language (and a corresponding dialect, depending on the situation) and all output into some form that would be comprehensible by the listeners. This effectively eliminates the pesky problem of having to learn a new language every time the TARDIS doors open, and lets everyone across all of spacetime speak in some form of British English, except for a few obnoxious Americans. (Thanks, Britain. We love you too.)
I hope at some point to tackle some linguistics questions raised in Doctor Who, like:
-Just how the translation circuit works, especially as evidenced in "The Fires of Pompeii" (and the implications for psycholinguistics)
-That really infuriating scene in "The Christmas Invasion" where that punk kid comes up with a fully operational device that translates speech in one language into text in another, complete with slang and idioms, for a language that no one on the planet has heard before--in five hours. This is, of course, because our supremely convenient translation circuit is not working...
-The relationship between the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the functioning of the translation circuit

If I ever get around to it, and have read/researched/experienced enough to write something intelligent, I'd love to do some projects touching on British culture outside Doctor Who that, as an American, I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar with:
-What sort of feelings and connotations are associated with nonstandard dialects--for example, Scottish, Cockney, a Northern accent, Rose's accent (what is that, anyway?), and American?
-How does the character's dialect influence the audience's perception of them?

And, of course, random stuff like:
-How does a time lock work? What does it mean?
-What really happened in the Time War? (Although this may be explained on New Year's Day...!)
-Reviews and thoughts on episodes in no particular order
-The character of the Doctor and his relationship to other characters

I'll also be posting all kinds of things that catch my fancy: Doctor Who clips, trailers, previews, and interviews, of course, but also things more distantly related, like shows, clips, and news relating to Who alumni or (possibly) relevant linguistic articles or questions. Really, I can do whatever I want, I suppose.

EDIT (1/28/2012): I'm going to be moving away from a Doctor Who focus and look more at life and language, along with some sci-fi and whatever I feel like writing on. Doctor Who has become less of an obsession in my life (it's a good thing, really!) and the posts will reflect that.