"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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dragons in Scotland?

I just watched How to Train Your Dragon for the fourth time in total, and I still love it. Not only is it a good story, but there's something true about it; it had that faint whiff of reality that makes it really fascinating. I don't mean in the dragons or whatever, but in the people and their relationships to each other. Anyway. The dragons--well, especially Toothless--are still fantastic, and now that I finally own the movie, I can watch it over and over and over again! :D Hooray!

There's one thing about this movie that really bothers me. It starts out being narrated by Hiccup, the main character, in standard American English, which is fine up until we starting meeting the other characters, like his father and his instructor, who, inexplicably, speak a dialect of Scottish English. More baffling, all of the adolescents in the film speak American, and all of the adults Scottish, for no explicable reason.

On the one hand, this makes no sense at all. Why would an isolated society develop two completely different dialects based solely on age? Answer: it wouldn't. This is bad enough as it is, but the movie goes so far as to draw attention to it: in the opening minutes of the movie, while complaining about his father's attitude towards him, Hiccup mocks his father by briefly adopting a Scottish accent--highlighting the fact that he does not actually speak that way. Later, Stoick (Hiccup's father) tells him that Hiccup will have to learn to "speak like us [the Vikings]"--which presumably means his dialect will change? Maybe when he hits puberty and his voice breaks, he'll start speaking Scottish instead? Linguistically, it's total nonsense.

But--from a sociolinguistic perspective, taking into account the biases of the audience watching the story from the outside, this makes a good deal of sense. First of all, the book and the movie are both geared toward children--specifically, American children. Accentual and dialectal variations immediately identify the speaker as an other, an outsider, with a marked difference in expression; making Hiccup and his cohorts speakers of a neutral/standard-ish dialect of American English makes sense in order to make Hiccup appealing and relatable to the majority of the target audience.

Alright, then. Why do the adults then speak a completely different dialect? Most obvious is that the movie is playing on My Fair Lady's Higgins' Law ("An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him") to its advantage. Accent implies otherness and outsiderness; hearing someone speak with an accent immediately triggers a different reaction than if one was to hear the same words from the same person with no accent. (I make this statement from personal experience; I'd love to see some studies on it, though.) Since one of the movie's main themes is the barrier between the older and younger generations and the difficulty of communicating new and dangerous ideas, the philosophical, ideological barrier that separates old from young and Stoick from Hiccup is given measurable, perceivable form through the use of a dialectal difference. Hiccup and Stoick literally do not speak the same language.

Notably, though, they still don't speak "the same language" at the end of the movie, after all of their problems have been miraculously resolved, perhaps foreboding further troubles and misunderstandings in the future.

Now, I'm not really in a position to debate whether Scottish is really the historically accurate dialectal flavor for Vikings to have--I don't have the necessary geographical and historical knowledge, and for heaven's sake, they're computer-animated dragon-riding Vikings, so that seems to be less of an issue for me. What I'd like to know is: why Scottish? If they were going for Viking-y, why not Norse or Scandinavian? The latter is easier to answer, it seems to me. Scottish English is a dialectal variant of the great mythical ideal called English, whereas a "Norse" or "Scandinavian" accent would actually be an accent, i.e. someone speaking English as an L2 and approximating the phonemes of English using the phonemes of their Scandinavian L1. Which is a long way to say that Scottish is better-established, more consistent, and more easily recognized as "being a thing" than a Scandinavian accent. (Again, speculation!). Even the American youth have a good chance of having heard Scottish before; the chance of them having heard a Scandinavian accent, or even recognizing it as such, seems to me to be much lower.

So, Scottish sounds exotic in a Celtic, northern sort of way, but is not so anonymous or evanescent as a Scandinavian accent. Still, though, why not, say, Irish? Or British? Now, I'm sure there are some historical reasons that come into play here that I shall not be bothered to look into at the moment, but I submit that at least part of the answer goes back to Higgins' Law, i.e. the language one uses immediately modifies the hearer's perception and attitude toward the speaker in accordance with the hearer's previously held beliefs and stereotypes associated with that particular language/dialect. I've argued before that Americans associate British English (particularly southern) with high levels of intellect, tea and crumpets, sophistication, and villainy (see: almost every American movie ever that has a clever, ruthless villain), which are not really the connotations you want to put with your Vikings. All American varieties of English are out, for being 1) too familiar and 2) out of context; Australian and other non-British varieties for reason number 2; which leaves you with Britain. You want your adult Vikings to be fierce, brave, mighty, and noble, and Scottish fits the bill. As the article linked above mentioned, it could go back to Braveheart and the stories of the Scottish struggle for freedom against English tyranny--something that resonates and sticks with American viewers, I would guess. Stereotypes aren't always the best thing in the world, but as far as they go, Scotland could do a lot worse than "fierce, brave, mighty, and noble." Of course, I guess I'd have to add "highly traditional", "tribal", and "slightly savage" to more fully reflect the movie's depiction of its Scottish speakers. I'm not saying that is an accurate portrait of real Scottish people, just that such notions are evoked as stereotypical qualities.

Or it could be that DreamWorks just thought it would be really awesome to have Gerard Butler play an enormous red-bearded dragon-punching Viking.

Either way, I'm going to quit typing before I say something that gets me in trouble/doesn't make any sense; I suspect I'm past that point already. I just thought it was interesting that language is used in the same way that light and shadow and facial expressions are used to convey ideas, and although the inclusion of the language barrier in How to Train Your Dragon is clumsy, it also illustrates a point. How and why this kind of linguistic illustration works should be/hopefully is the topic of further study.


Monday, November 15, 2010

How are you?: A Rant

Oh dear. Last post was in August. Oops.

At some point in the near future (promises, promises, right?) I shall actually post something of substance and--if we are all very lucky--interest on this here blog o' mine. For now, all you get is a rant. Sorry.

I have recently (re)discovered my pathological hatred of the phrase "How are you?" Now, I understand that this is not actually a request for information, any more than the British "Cold today, isn't it?" is a remark about the weather. It is a social lubricant, a ritualized and therefore safe and nonthreatening way to begin a conversation. This is fine so far; I don't have any trouble with this phrase when people who don't know me use it. They don't know me, so what else are they going to say?

What bothers me is when people ask me this who know me, know what's going on in my life, live in the same building with me, whatever, and still insist on asking the same damn question every time they see me. I can't help it; I'm a literal person. Language is not something you toss away at random. When someone speaks to me, I want to analyze, question, poke and test, see the way the facets of meaning and emotion reflect and refract truth. So, in an interpersonal context, I have to interpret "How are you?" as a genuine request for information, also because the I-don't-know-you-well-but-I-have-to-say-something stage is pretty long over.

The difficulty with "How are you?" is twofold. First, if you really know me, you should be able to ask about particulars: "How was your lesson today?" "Traveled anywhere recently?" "How's your German coming?" "What did you do at Bienenkunde?" Asking "How are you?" is a cop-out; it means you don't really want to know what my life is like; you just feel like you have to ask.

The other problem is that "How are you?" is, despite its highly ritualized common use, a very personal question. The ones listed in the above paragraph are safer; one can safely talk about one's travels, or language development, without delving into emotional details, if one so wishes. These questions say, "I'm interested in and paying attention to what's important in your life, but I'll let you decide how much emotional information you want to share." On the other hand, when "How are you?" is employed interpersonally and therefore interpreted as a request for information, it is, at least in my view, a somewhat intrusive inquiry about one's current mental and emotional state. The joke answer "F.I.N.E." (freaked out, insecure, neurotic, emotional) tells you that this question expects a personal answer. The problem is that I and, I assume, other people, don't always want to express their precise emotional state for various reasons: they may be feeling an emotion that would be awkward or difficult to share, they may be upset and trying to deal with it, they may not be feeling anything at all at the moment, they may simply wish to be left alone. "How are you?" expects an emotion-based answer, which the other person may not want to give. The way I see it, there are only two possible responses to this question: you can lie, or you can tell the truth.

"I'm fine, thanks," is always always always a lie. It's a preprogrammed response to a ritualized question. It doesn't mean anything. As I said, in anonymous situations, where the two interlocutors don't know each other personally and are, most likely, never going to, ritualized is fine; it makes it easier for everyone. In an interpersonal context, a pat answer like this does not mean I'm actually fine. It's code for "I have absolutely no desire to talk about it right now." It's even more irritating because I am then socially obligated to respond with a reciprocal question, and if I'm in a "Fine, thanks" kind of state of mind, I have no interest at all in how you are at the moment. But I have to ask anyway, which in my mind means I am requesting information, which means that I am communicating to you that I have an interest in knowing how you are, which is a trite, easy, and totally infuriating lie as well. When the conversation ends a short while later, I have not only not learned anything new about the other person, I have the added thorn in my conscience of having lied to someone to get rid of them.

The other option is to tell the truth, assuming that telling the truth is actually desirable at the moment (which, as mentioned above, it often isn't). In my case, telling the truth in a "how are you?" situation would look something like this. Did you read the whole thing? Did you read the first bit? Did you even click on it? If not, congratulations, you're like most of the planet; no one except my mother and possibly my close friends wants to hear this stuff, and most of them still go all glaze-eyed halfway through.

So, to recap: in response to a "How are you?" question, I can either lie or tell the truth. If I lie, then I get to feel guilty about lying and blowing someone off. If I tell the truth, I get to bore someone else with the petty concerns of my mind and feel awkward about the idea that the things that are so important to me don't matter at all to someone else. This is assuming, of course, that I'm actually in the mood to talk about the constant stream of thoughts and emotions flowing through my head, as they flow through everyone's, throughout the day, which I often am not.

In conclusion: "How are you?" is a minefield for me. I hate being asked this question and I hate having to decide how to answer. If you don't know me, feel free to use it; you will get the standard, completely untrue answer that is totally unrelated to me or my life.

If you do know me, use it at your own peril.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Game Is On!

First, thanks to the miracle of technology and joy that is the BBC iPlayer, I have Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone on my computer now, so I can re-watch them and finally write something about them. Hooray!

But not right now. For the moment, I'd like to talk a bit about storytelling.

Once upon a time, there was a story: a magnificent story that had made its hero a household name that people recognized even if they hadn't read the story themselves. Like all good stories these days, it simply had to be filmed, because people nowadays can't be bothered to pick up and read books anymore. Coincidentally, two versions of this story were produced: one, a huge Hollywood production with A-list stars, and the other, a televised miniseries on BBC. The former, of course, set out to be grandiose in scale, impressive, sweeping, and amazing, and ended up being disappointing, silly, and somewhat insulting to the story that inspired it, while the other, in its small, carefully crafted way, managed to be poignant, stunning, and glorious while telling a very human story.

The question then becomes: What story am I describing?

Ledger had nothing on this guy.
If you said Casanova, then you'd be right. The Hollywood film staring Heath Ledger was obnoxious, boring, confusing, and trite, and had an ending that anyone older than eight could see coming in the first ten minutes. In contrast, the BBC miniseries, written by future DW writer Russel T. Davies and staring future Doctor David Tennant, was in turns romantic, quirky, revolting, heartbreaking, horrifying, and heartwarming. In a word: brilliant.

However, oddly, if you said Sherlock Holmes, you'd be right, too.

As you probably know, the big Hollywood interpretation of Holmes came out last winter, and it was a resounding...meh. I quite like Robert Downey Jr, and thought he made a sort of sweetly abstract Holmes, and Jude Law was okay as Watson. But oh, the story. Apart from a few very nice storytelling touches (like Holmes-o-vision and a display of his disguise skills), it was disappointing and nothing special. Furthermore, some very important elements of the characters--like, oh, Irene Adler's entire personality and history, and her relationship to Holmes, just for one--were, essentially, reinvented entirely for the sake of the plot, and that's being nice about it. It was a fun jaunt into a steampunk Victorian England with some handsome blokes calling themselves Holmes and Watson, but it wasn't really a Sherlock Holmes story. It was the typical vacuum-sealed prepackaged Hollywood drivel dressed up in a Victorian coat and top hat.

But now the Brits have given it a go, and done it right. There are no Victorian top hats to be seen, and Sherlock sends texts instead of telegrams. 221B is furnished with a laptop, and Holmes slaps on nicotine patches because it's too hard to find a place to smoke these days. But none of that matters. In fact, it makes it better.

There's that violin.
The man playing Holmes is utterly fantastic, and just as odd as his name: Benedict Cumberbatch. His pale complexion and icy eyes only enhance his vaguely alien appearance and cold, careless, completely abstract air. But even better, even better, he plays Holmes to the hilt with every ounce of the the wonderful, terrible trait that is both Holmes' greatest weapon and his darkest curse: his stone cold genius. The small problems and petty feelings of those around him don't touch him where he operates, wheeling ever higher like a gull over the heads of the confused dogs barking after him from the beach. But that means he only feels alive, only really cares, when a suitable challenge for his genius comes along to stave off the boredom of living a normal life. And this makes him the perfect prey for someone up to the challenge.

"Well, you invaded Afghanistan."
And then there's Watson. Jude Law's Watson was basically a pretty face with beefy arms attached who could break down doors  and shout at Holmes to make sure we really understood how longsuffering he was and what an eccentric prick Holmes could be, since they didn't really have much opportunity to show us what with all the explosions they had to fit in. This Watson, played by Martin Freeman (of Hitchhiker's), is a confused man, recently returned from Afghanistan with a psychosomatic limp and a total lack of direction. Just as Holmes sweeps through the story with his superhuman mind and his frantic enthusiasm, unaware of the precipice he dances ever closer to, Watson is the human anchor who has to acclimatize to his new flatmate's seeming telepathy and sociopathic, half-insane brilliance while he fights to figure out life after a war.

The first episode, A Study in Pink, is a modern update of Sir Conan-Doyle's original first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Now we have GPS tracking, cell phones, and CSIs, but the main drama is going on inside Holmes' and Watson's heads. And it's simply wonderful, which really isn't too surprising, given the elfin arrogance of Holmes, the frustration and loyalty of a still-mending (in body, but mostly in mind) Watson, and a script by Steven Moffat--current writer of Doctor Who. This is, really, pure magic.

Steely glare.
The second episode delves a bit into the problems of a fairly normal, pretty nice bloke with everyman sensibilities sharing a flat with a mad genius who fires guns into walls when he's bored. Ancient Chinese numbers, tea, and a couple of pretty girls figure into the plot somehow. Thank goodness, though Watson is, as usual, a bit distracted by a pretty nurse, Sherlock, as usual, is beyond oblivious to any carnal attractions. Robert Downey Jr.: Seriously, this is how it should be done.

The third and last episode sees Sherlock playing a dangerous game with other people's lives, masterminded by a shadowy figure who only speaks with stolen voices. Sometimes you want to hug Sherlock for his brilliance, although most of the time you'd really just like to smack him upside the head for being a prick. As if all of the explosives, near-misses, and snipers weren't enough, the series ends on a cliffhanger. Aaaaargh!

I'd love to tell you more about these three wonderous hour-and-a-half episodes, but honestly, pretty much all additional details are spoilers. Sorry.

Squee. <3
But there is still hope, because the BBC have already ordered a second season. So if you were disillusioned and disappointed by America's attempt to take on the world's greatest detective, and would rather see him at his arrogant, lightning-quick, sharp-tongued, cold-eyed, cleverer-than-everyone best, watch the BBC instead. You'll fall in love too.

Seriously, what is it about Hollywood that makes almost all their movies (not by Pixar or Dreamworks) complete rubbish?

And why don't they just give up and send BBC miniserieses to American cinemas instead?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Linguistic Note And Much Squeeing

First of all, I should apologize for the long silence on this blog--though I doubt anyone's noticed. What with sorting, packing, and hauling all of my earthly possessions across the pond and then dedicating most of my mental energy to traveling, I haven't had much time to write about the more geeky side of life.

However, even though I'll have to postpone my reviews of the rest of Series 5 indefinitely, I'm certainly not giving up on this blog altogether. If you'd like to keep up with my travels, you can find that here, but this is the place for me to talk about things that I love. And so I have two things for you right now:

First, as I write, I'm listening to the Doctor Who Proms, which was a brilliant Doctor-themed concert that took place just a few days ago. As of the time of writing, you should still be able to hear it online (I'm listening to it in Austria) for three days more from this site. I highly recommend it, and not just because it's Doctor Who stuff. The DW music has always been wonderful and brilliant, and I'm buying the Series 5 soundtrack as soon as I can get my paws on it, but the concert also featured other, non-DW pieces. Unfortunately, it's not downloadable, but if the BBC has any sense at all, they'll release it for purchase someday.

So, on to point two. As you may have gathered, the DW music was the "Much Squeeing" bit of the title; we now move on to the "Linguistic Note." I direct your attention to this article from the BBC. The majority of the article will only be interesting to you if you are an economist, a politician, or an ecologist, but about halfway down, under the heading "Reputations", you will trip over a quite unexpected nugget of sociolinguistic goodness. The article is speaking about Tony Hayward's replacement by Bob Dudley as CEO of British Petroleum following the Gulf spill. Amid all the political and business-oriented maneuvering, we find the following paragraph:
Many say that, from a public relations point of view, Mr Dudley has the advantage of being American and speaking with an American accent. He grew up in Mississippi and, according to BP, has a "deep appreciation and affinity for the Gulf Coast".
Woah, hold the phone. Alright, yes, the article says they're choosing him because he's Managing Director and he's been running operations and so forth, but there's not a word about how effective he's been, what his leadership skills are like, what his plan is for BP, or how he plans to deal with the crisis from here. No, the critical bit is his accent.

I've speculated before that the British accent is often perceived negatively by Americans. In the cinemas, Brits are nearly always (a) eccentric geniuses or (b) villains. Except when the majority of the main cast has some sort of British accent, accented characters usually seem to fall into one of these two categories. I happen to believe that this is because the two dialects (Americanglish and Britainglish) are so similar that British speakers are easily understood by American audiences, but the unfamiliar accent (which Americans may associate with Europe, tea, aristocracy, and James Bond) adds a bit of foreignness and distance and, thereby, menace. I also tend to believe that (some) Americans are therefore trained to associate Britainglish with negative feelings: something of a combination of an inferiority complex from their basic education (think of the rustic guerrilla Americans in the Revolution versus the sophisticated, well-dressed British) and a sense of stupidity and vulgarity derived from the stereotypical Brit as arrogantly intellectual and posh.

I guess I should mention at this point that these hypothesis are developed sheerly from my own observations and experiences and my conversations with other Americans of my generation. I don't have any solid evidence, but I would like to study this further.

Anyway, here's an example of these same ideas from the BBC itself. The Britainglish-speaking Mr. Hayward is, consciously or not, perceived as remote, supercilious, and cold; he isn't "one of us." But Mr. Dudley, just by the way he talks, is marked as being in our in-group. He's American; he knows, he understands, he cares, because he's one of us. I'd bet that Hayward and Dudley could do the same job with the same level of success from here on out, and Dudley would be favored by Americans because of his hometown and his dialect.

That opinion is, of course, based solely on the linguistic evidence. I'm unfamiliar with the previous circumstances, although I know that Hayward is not in favor because of his conduct over the last few months. Anyway, it remains to be seen whether Mr. Dudley actually does any better, although that may not matter as much as whether he is perceived to do better. The perception of familiarity, aided by the sociolinguistic information, is the essential PR point.

Sorry if you're asleep. Hope you enjoyed the Proms, in any case. :)

UPDATE: At about 1:10:00 in part 1 of the Proms, one of the composers goes all synesthetic and starts talking about the "colors of orchestral music." Oh, that's just delightful!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pullum vs. Strunk and White

Geoffrey K. Pullum is continuing his crusade against the idiocy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, which celebrated its 51st anniversary on the 16th of April. More power to him, too; if I'm ever feeling sad, all I have to do is turn to the section on passives and read the "examples" for a hearty laugh at the kind of incompetence that presents "It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had" as an example of a passive sentence.

Being the sort of child who read grammar books for fun, I never had much cause to refer to Elements. I think I have a copy in one of my bookshelves somewhere, but (thank the Lord!) its grammatical inanities never found their way into my consciousness. I therefore employ adjectives and adverbs with wild abandon, adore long and complex sentences, and generally have some writing habits that would probably give S&W apoplectic fits, were they not long dead. I'm very happy with this; given that I graduated magna cum laude, I hardly think that the use of adjectives or the length of sentences are really the main issues here.

The problem that faces many college students is the need for an intuition about what makes good writing. Since I've recently re-read Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy, I've been thinking about the difference between spoken and written language. Every normal human being (i.e. having not suffered serious emotional or physical trauma or mental deficiencies) learns not only the grammatical structures and vocabulary of their native language but how to utilize their linguistic knowledge in various social situations. In other words, native speakers have intuitions about how to use their language skills in various situations, with different people. They know which words are taboo and which are generally appropriate for a certain purpose with a certain person, although they may choose to ignore convention or intuition for a particular effect. This skill is just as important and intrinsic as syntactic, morphological, or phonological knowledge and intuition. Naturally, given the differing talents and intuitions regarding interpersonal relationships, some speakers are more adept and successful than others, but barring mental disability or other psychological factors, everyone can generally do it.

The key to writing well is to cultivate a similar intuition about written language. The considerations are similar, or at least parallel in many cases: Who is the audience? What are they expecting to hear? What do they want to hear? What kind of language is appropriate? As with spoken communication, the skill and success of each writer will differ, but unlike with speech, there's no guarantee that any given writer will ever be able to do this well. This is because speech is extremely natural, intrinsic to what it means to be human, whereas writing is a convention and a tool, not a natural part of human cognition. Speech comes naturally; writing has to be learned. And in the same way, the dynamics of interpersonal speech communication develops naturally, but the dynamics of written communication has to be tediously and meticulously learned. Of course, it comes easier to some than to others.

The goal of language/grammar books such as Elements is not to teach students how to compose language (usually), as, given the fact that they are usually native or near-native speakers in secondary education or above, they already know how to use their own language faculties. Instead, Elements is focused on "style", which in this case seems to mean "the proper application of spoken language faculties to a written medium." As Ong suggests, the style, form, and even cognition processes involved in writing are very different from those of speech.

The problem is that, just how what is accepted and standard in spoken language fluctuates frequently, what is acceptable and standard in written language changes as well. Even if Elements was accurate at the time it was written, there's no reason to assume that the same protocols apply; written conventions fluctuate just like spoken conventions do, although certainly much more slowly and reluctantly.

So how to teachers teach students to write clearly and beautifully, especially in an age of txt msgs, truncated RSS feeds, and Twitter? I don't have a catch-all answer, but I'd start by doing the same thing students have been doing for millennia: observing the masters at work and emulating them. These students know how English works, but just like they need to learn some conventions when meeting the President or their in-laws, they also need to learn what is appropriate and encouraged in writing as well. And really, outlawing passives and adverbs is not going to help.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Oh dear...

So, uh, I was intending to post after the airing of The Time of Angels and somehow seem to have messed up the TARDIS controls and overshot by a month or so. Sorry!

No, really, I haven't given up on updating this blog. It's just that Angels threw me for a bit of a loop; I still don't really know what I want to say about it. Don't fret, I'll figure it out eventually. Also, the delay gives me the advantage of appearing to follow the BBCA broadcast schedule, thereby not spoiling episodes as yet unreleased in America and avoiding the whole you-can't-use-iPlayer-so-how-do-you-watch-Doctor-Who-on-the-British-schedule kerfuffle. It's magic, I tell you.

In the meantime, have an adorable Britishism: faff. According to UrbanDictionary, it means to "muck about" (aw, that's delightfully British as well, innit!) or "waste time doing nothing/something unnecessary." Hmm, sounds like what I did today. Anyway, I like this word not only because it has a handy meaning neatly condensed into a single word, but it's also oddly entertaining to say and makes you feel a complete loony when you say it. Go on, try it: "faff." For some reason that I can't begin to fathom, this word reminds me of ducks. Specifically, duck feathers. Maybe because the mental image I associate with this particular sequence of phonemes is someone fluttering their hands uselessly with a vaguely distraught and bemused look shining in their eyes, rather like a duckling halfway across a motorway. "Faff." It also sounds to me (although I'm sure it's unrelated) like a twee replacement for the f-word.

Maybe because that rhymes with "duck"? Now I'm just confused.

Anyway, I highly recommend this word. Another one I quite like (although don't think I've ever encountered it in the wild, i.e. spontaneously elicited in speech, so I'm a bit vague on its usage) is "twee", which I've employed above. Again thanks to UrbanDictionary, we have "to be obnoxiously sweet, or quaint...disingenuous, corny, or effeminate." It seems to me that the best that Americanglish can offer in response is "saccharine" ("cloyingly agreeable or ingratiating; exaggeratedly sweet or sentimental"), which both lacks the sense of falseness and has the disadvantage of being distractingly pompous-sounding. "Twee" has the distinct advantage, like "faff", of fitting its phonemic form to its sense and meaning. I therefore recommend that both "faff" (and "faff about"; if we're going to do this, we might as well do it properly) and "twee" be adopted by all English speakers forthwith.

As I've written the above (in what has become an unexpectedly long post with a disproportionate number of brackets), I've noticed that my language is changing. Did you note the increased frequency of the present perfect instead of the simple past, the use of lexical items like "quite" and "proper", and the elevated register? I blame this, solely and entirely, on the BBC, especially Top Gear and Life on Mars. Britainglish is getting into my head.

Anyway: More Doctor Who reviews and other nonsense coming soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

River Song and the Pandorica

This interview with Alex Kingston is surprisingly spoilery, but the most interesting part is that Alex claims that River mentions the opening of the Pandorica as one of the events in her diary in Silence in the Library. The relevant quote is at 1:07; she mentions it again at 4:40.

I checked in Silence in the Library but couldn't find her referring to the Pandorica; she does, however, mention the crash of the Byzantium. Either way, this seems to imply either that (a) something important about the Pandorica will occur in the next two episodes or (b) River Song will return sometime later to be involved in the opening of the Pandorica. Since the Pandorica seems to be season 5's main arc, and thus will most likely not be fully addressed until the finale, I'm betting on (and hoping for!) option (b).

A note on the name: When I first heard it, I thought the name was "Pandoracle" (i.e. "Pandora" + "oracle", which I still think would be kind of awesome). As it is, "Pandorica" combined with "opening" points very clearly to the Greek myth of Pandora, a beautiful young woman created by the gods and given a box (or vase) filled with all the evils in the world that she is admonished not to open. Insatiably curious, Pandora opens it anyway and lets loose all the evils anyway--along with the only good thing in the box, Hope. How much of the Greek myth will be relevant, I wonder?

Dalek Psycholinguistics

This picture/poster was linked to from Hello, I'm the Doctor. I especially like the note on the "ears"/light bulbs: that they let off extra energy so the Dalek doesn't just spontaneously explode. I suppose that's a reasonable cover, given that the original rationale behind those flashing lights was probably something like, "Hey, wouldn't it be awesome if it had lights on its head? That flashed when it spoke?!"

Relevant in this particular instance is point (4), which reads as follows:
Inside the dome is the voice machine and translator unit, which connects to the control chamber (18). A Dalek has no vocal chords [sic], so this unit amplifies thought into speech and is sensitive to whatever language is necessary. For instance, an Englishman would hear a Dalek's "thought-noises" as though the Dalek were speaking English. This is best described as "Noise Telepathy." When anyone speaks to a Dalek, the process is reversed--it has no ears, but understands instantly.

This site seems to agree, stating that
Daleks have no vocal cords so this unit amplifies the Dal mutant's thoughts into speech patterns acceptable to the listener's brain. This process is reversed when the Dalek is spoken to.

These descriptions are, to me, a bit unclear. Take the first quote's description of the speech/translation process. It says that, given that the Daleks do not have an organic speech apparatus, this "translation unit" transforms their thoughts into speech. Okay, assuming a highly advanced alien race, I can suspend my disbelief long enough to let this slide past. But the description goes on to say that this translation unit is "sensitive to whatever language is necessary," and "an Englishman would hear a Dalek's 'thought noises' as though the Dalek were speaking English."

What does this mean? Does the unit, clearly already having telepathic capabilities, read the mind of the hearer in order to generate the proper language? Does it broadcast some sort of telepathic wave or other such nonsense that the hearer hears/receives and understands as being their own language? Anyway, the phrase "as though the Dalek were speaking English" seems to imply that the Daleks aren't actually speaking English, they're just perceived to be speaking English (or German, or French, or whatever). This brings to mind the passage in Acts where the disciples of Jesus preach to the masses and each man hears their words in his native tongue, and makes me wonder what the Daleks actually are saying (if anything). In reverse, the process is just as convoluted: apparently, the unit receives the audible input from a speaker, translates the entire thing into pure thought (including, apparently, highly culture- and context-dependent variables such as pitch, tone, stress, speed, emotional inflection, etc.--or not, given how obnoxiously literal and immune to humor and sarcasm the Daleks are!) and transmits it into the Dalek's mind as thought.

I cannot even begin to imagine what this would be like for the Dalek. First, it would require very precise cognitive control--how does the Dalek prevent the unit from translating every thought into speech? How does a Dalek lie? And how does it distinguish its own thoughts from those fed to it by the translation unit? Since humans are not generally telepathic, psychic communication is generally represented as audible speech in the media, usually with an echo effect; but that is still audible speech, represented so for humans, for whom audible language is the default mode. The Dalek would have no such echoing voices to distinguish each thought from another; from this description, they would have no concept of "word" or "language" at all, since they apparently deal directly with pure thought.

How does a creature with no voice and no ears conceive of speech as distinct from thought at all? With no way of producing or receiving language (no vocal organs or ears, as noted above), how can the Daleks understand this process at all? What sort of language could an alien have that has no way of creating or receiving language? The other options are telepathic communication and some sort of sign language/visual communication. The translation unit clearly has telepathic capabilities (it adapts to "whatever language necessary" and can clearly manage psychic input) but the Daleks specifically developed aparati to enable them to speak audibly--why, if they can communicate telepathically? Even when there are no other non-Daleks around, they still insist on shrieking obnoxiously at each other. As for sign language, the robotic shell they are encased in barely has enough mobility to function, let alone produce an entire language based on visual signs.

As a side note, the Daleks do seem to have one word of their own that is consistently left untranslated: "rel", which seems to correspond to the English "second" (as a unit of time). Why a high-tech telepathic translator would choose to leave this word untranslated when it has a simple counterpart in the target language (and, furthermore, is inflected as an English word; the Daleks often initiate a countdown from "thirty rels" or whatever) must mean either that (1) the Daleks, either intentionally or not, choose to preserve this word and distinguish it from their rest of their translated speech or (2) the word "rel" isn't actually a direct translation of the word "second." Given that the Daleks, like the Time Lords, have time-traveling capabilities and therefore would need specialized vocabulary (or thought-noises?) to deal with the mechanics of time travel, it's very possible that the word "rel" has additional senses or shades of meaning that are not captured by the English "second." It could also be a holdover from the language of the Kaleds, although certainly not for sentimental reasons. Being unfamiliar with Old Who, I have no idea if this word came up in Old Who episodes; even if it did, though, the TARDIS translation circuit should have translated it anyway, so the problem remains unresolved.

Anyway, these descriptions of the Dalek's mode and method of speech leave much to be desired. One would think that if a thoroughly malevolent alien race had not only impenetrable armor, unstoppable death rays, and time-traveling capabilities, but also a highly functional telepathic translation unit theoretically capable of reading the thoughts of their victims and transmitting their own thoughts into the minds of others, there would be nothing (short of an inability to climb stairs) that could stop them from very swiftly taking over the universe, not even a mysterious and overconfident bloke with modern hair and a screwdriver. And furthermore, with such a sophisticated thought-speech-thought translation system, they could come up with a more refined auditory output than grating, repetitive, robotic shrieking. Then again--maybe such speech is rather a painfully accurate rendering of what a Dalek's thought patterns are really like.

I hope to return to this topic someday, perhaps when I get around to analyzing the nature of the TARDIS's translation circuit, which shows similar features. For now, more research needs to be done.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Daleks Finally Get To Win One (Sorta)


This was my general response to Victory of the Daleks. I definitely didn't hate it, but it had too many gaping plot holes and quirks to be really great, and as other reviewers have pointed out, it didn't have the emotional connection that made The Beast Below so enjoyable. But that definitely wasn't the biggest problem...

I Will Kick You In The Shins If You Even Think The Word "Iconic"
I make no attempt to hide it: I really, really don't like the Daleks. Being, very definitely, an Nu-Whovian, and having little to no experience or connection with Old Who, the Daleks don't have any nostalgic value for me. I find them shrill, obnoxious, and irritating, from their hideously impractical design to their unimaginative, exterminate-the-universe plans. I believe that in Dalek, Nine said they were geniuses, but given how they are consistently outsmarted by ordinary humans and come up with some of the stupidest schemes, I have my doubts. If they weren't so relentlessly, persistently hateful and nigh-indestructable, they wouldn't be a threat at all. Given the Journey's End fiasco--part genius, part (mostly?) facepalm--I would have been happy to have the Daleks really, truly, forever for the last time actually for reals defeated and gone. But no. Here they are again--in technicolor.

I won't spend time harping on the new color scheme (somewhat laughable and Lego-esque) or the new design, since these things have been discussed by reviewers much more knowledgeable than me. They're still malformed little tanks of festering, shrieking evil, and that's enough for me.

What Do They Want? What Are They After?
Their plan this time apparently involved going to all the trouble to make an android so lifelike as to be indistinguishable from other humans, who would then "invent" them, giving them an excuse to infiltrate the British center of operations in London during the Blitz (haven't we been here before? In a Moffat episode?), hoping, I suppose, that Winston Churchill will be unnerved enough by their presence to phone up the Doctor, whom they will then provoke into a rage so that he will declare what they (and we) already know: they are the Daleks. All this because their own technology refuses to acknowledge them as Dalek, and therefore they need the Doctor's "testimony" to convince the blasted thing to spit out more Daleks.

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes. Why would the Progenitor take the Doctor's word (when he's regenerated anyway, with a different voice) over the Daleks themselves? Their DNA may be "impure," but the technology is clearly Dalek. And anyway, the new Daleks were just going to destroy the unworthies anyway; how does it in any way matter what their DNA is like? Why would a race dead-set on obliterating all other forms of life be picky about who regenerates them, as long as they get regenerated so they can go on shrieking and rattling threateningly? And furthermore, if they wanted the Doctor's attention, why not, oh, invade London on the German side? That'd bring him fast. Or, for that matter, just blow up the moon or some such, if you really want to piss him off. The get-Churchill-to-call-him-for-us scheme seems to rely far too much on coincidences.

And furthermore, not only are the Daleks stupid enough to be held hostage by a jelly-filled biscuit (cookie!), they don't shoot the Doctor when they have the chance. Once they have the information they need from him, why not just kill him, instead of shouting "EXPLAIN!!!" apoplectically? They could gain nothing--and lose a lot--by letting him live.

As a final griping point (then I'm done, promise!), the "choice" they offer the Doctor was not a choice at all. The dichotomy is to either (a) continue the attack on the Daleks, hoping to destroy them, and sacrifice the Earth to the bomb or (b) call off the attack and save the Earth. The Doctor backs down, calling off the attack--but the Daleks still try to detonate the bomb. So why bother calling off the attack at all? Let the nice man in the gravity-bubble-bomber blow that crap out of the Dalek ship as much as possible while the Doctor goes back to Earth to try to stop that bomb.

Speaking of which...

Don't Mess With Me, Sweetheart
As has come to be standard in the last few weeks, Eleven was the shining point of awesomeness amidst all the kerfuffle. From the moment he stepped out of the TARDIS, I couldn't keep my eyes off him--because although we, the audience, knew the Daleks were coming, he didn't.

But he did not disappoint. From the first meeting on the rooftop, where he stares at the Dalek with a heartrending mixture of disbelief, sorrow, and horror on his face, knowing what will come, to the determined suspicion, to the suicidal, murderous rage with which he attacks the Dalek and shouts it down, he was absolutely brilliant. The depiction was reminiscent of Nine's reaction in Dalek; I got shivers when Eleven urged Churchill to "exterminate them!" Wow. Wherever this darker, more perilous and ruthless side of the Doctor has been hiding, it's certainly back with a vengeance now.

This new darkness also hindered the Doctor, though, as well as helped him. It made him play right into the center of the Daleks' plans, and it kept him from making the human connection necessary with Bracewell to keep him from exploding. For that, once again, we needed Amy.

Come On, Pond!
Unfortunately, poor Amy didn't have much to do this episode except stop the aforementioned Explosion O' Doom and get shut down repeatedly by the Doctor. That was a shame, because being separated from the Doctor for a good portion of the episode meant that the relationship between them that's made Season 5 such a joy so far was conspicuously absent. For the second time, though, Amy swooped in and saved the day when the Doctor, caught up in grief and death, couldn't quite make it work.

Let's for now ignore the overlong and positively narmy sequence of Amy and the Doctor (although mostly Amy) convincing a super-robot not to explode and destroy the world because being a human and lovesick would be so much more fun. Instead, let's skip to the part where Amy mentions fancying someone you know you shouldn't, accompanied by a very unsubtle glance at the Doctor. It's like no one was paying attention through season 3, and they're going to do the whole agonizing Martha Jones unrequited-and-unreciprocated-love thing all over again. Although I really hope not, on the other hand, there's a bit more to it this time, given Amy's past with the Doctor, and all the years she's had to idealize and idolize him. So on the one hand, I can hardly blame her. On the other hand...just no.

Also, the Doctor wasn't very nice to Amy in this episode. He shushes her impatiently at the beginning, leaves her behind to go face the Daleks, and simply tells her she's not helping when she suggests cutting a wire to defuse the bomb. Granted, in each case he has a good reason to push her away (ie she really is wrong about the Daleks, he wouldn't put her in that much danger, and she really wasn't helping) but he is surprisingly tactless about it, like going back to Ten's "Was that rude?" phase. But this isn't a phase; this seems to be a part of his personality: arrogant, somewhat curmudgeonly and brisk as well as playful and wondering. Between that and Amy's blissful ignorance about the Daleks, their relationship seemed a little distant and strained. Which, actually, might turn out to be very interesting.

Oi, Churchill! Give Back The TARDIS Key!
As for the rest of the episode's setting, it's difficult for me to comment. Other sources say that the depiction of Churchill is caricatured and silly, but I don't know much about Churchill to begin with, so I found him rather interesting. Since I'm not British, I don't have the same connection to the man. I imagine the Doctor would have to meet Washington or Jefferson or Lincoln to get that effect.

The thing that struck me most about this setting was the missed opportunities. In The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, there's a palpable sense of fear and desperation that overshadows the city, embodied by a gas-masked boy following a group of frightened children. In this episode, the bombs boom in the distance and the walls shake, but there's no palpable threat of imminent peril, no hint of the very human grief and desperation and determination. The only attempt at this was the young woman whose husband is shot down over the Channel, but this is quickly dismissed and has no impact on the story. It's a shame, because there was a lot of potential for the darkness of the setting to mirror and enhance the darkness of the Daleks' return. Instead, all the lights are on.

So, the Daleks jump into hyperspace, surely to return to plague us all again soon. Yes, they did "win", if by "win" you mean "escape and survive." But their enemy, the Doctor, still lives, and the Earth is still whole, so was it really anyone's victory at all?

Premonitions and Predictions
One of the best, most spine-chilling moments of this episode was the revelation that Amy doesn't know or remember the Daleks. Not that she was scuba diving or something when the Earth was dragged across the universe--she simply doesn't remember it happening. The Dalek invasion of Earth in Journey's End has been key in several ways (i.e. Waters of Mars's Adelaide's life), and the fact that Amy doesn't know this is very creepy.

It has been mentioned that Rory's hospital ID has an issue date in 1990, which, assuming it was issued when he was about 25 at the youngest, would make him, what, 45? Yet he's clearly not 45, and the people in The Eleventh Hour are using modern cell phones, so the Doctor wasn't in the past. Could he have fallen through into a parallel world when the TARDIS exploded--a world where the Dalek invasion never happened? Could that crack that we've seen four times now be one that he caused, maybe even the same one that he came through?

Also, adding up Amy's reluctance to get married or even think about her abandoned fiancee and this week's over-meaningful discussion of unrequited love, we may be gearing up for another Doctor + Companion romance, one-sided or no. Either way, when Amy finally does tell the Doctor she's engaged (where's her ring, anyway?), it won't be pretty.

Next week: Moffat's back, along with a still-too-knowledgeable Dr. River Song, archaeologist, and the Lonely Assassins!

It's Not Supposed To Make That Noise

A new preview clip was released as part of the "Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide" special that aired on BBCA tonight. The clip is available in the player below:

A few things are clear in this clip. As has been speculated in our house, this is not River Song's first meeting with the Doctor; she's still ahead of him, and knows more about him than he does about her. Also, she knows her way around the TARDIS, and can fly it more smoothly than he can.

This leads to the positively glorious result of the Doctor attempting to imitate the TARDIS's wheezing vworp noise as Amy looks on skeptically. Turns out that the TARDIS isn't supposed to make that noise, and does so only because the Doctor leaves the brakes on. This would seem to indicate that if the Doctor started flying the TARDIS more efficiently per River's instructions (and we've already seen him snap the doors open in The Eleventh Hour), the TARDIS mights stop making the vworp noise altogether. This would be a tragedy of the first order, but given the Doctor's affirmation that he loves that "brilliant noise", hopefully he'll keep leaving the brakes on!

Continuity note: When turning on the blue stabilizers, Dr. Song reaches for the button with her left hand around the console, but in the next shot (a closeup) she pushes the button with her right. Clearly, I've just watched this clip too many times now.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Expect No Love From The Beast Below

As with The Eleventh Hour, I've been trying to work out what to say about The Beast Below. Several days and reviews later, I still can't get around the fact that I just loved this episode.

A note on the music: So maybe it was just the fact that the pre-title opening for the last episode was kind of painfully bad. Maybe we didn’t have the speakers cranked high enough. Because with an awesome and totally freaky opening involving a demonic robot, a terrifying children’s song, and a bottomless pit of doom, and with the volume on max, the new title sequence is a whole lot more epic.

I might even learn to like the new music.

Amy, What Have You Done?
This episode was all about choices, from beginning to end--political, moral, relational, practical--and dealing with the consequences of those choices. The biggest choice, of course, is the one that every adult on Starship UK, including the queen, has to make: whether to continue torturing a benevolent and innocent creature for their survival, or release it from its agony and die themselves. Every person on the ship has chosen to survive and forget the terrible truth, save for those few who dissent and are eaten, presumably unwillingly or unknowingly, by the creature itself.

This choice is presented to our heroes and decided twice in the episode, and both times by Amy Pond. The first time, she chooses to forget, urging herself to get the Doctor away before he's faced with the same choice. She presumably wants to save him from having to take the responsibility on himself, but it's very possible that she isn't at all sure how this strange, enigmatic time traveler will choose. She has no reason to assume that the Doctor will always choose to protect human life over alien, and good reason (he's an alien himself) to assume he wouldn't.

But inevitably, the Doctor's sharp mind and Liz 10's blasters get them back to the Tower, where the awful truth is again revealed. Infuriated at being kept in the dark and caught up in his own righteous rage, the Doctor determines to take a third option: extinguish the Star Whale's consciousness to block the pain and allow the human race to continue on into the stars. It takes Amy's connecting the dots and impulsive stubbornness to redo her own choice, this time choosing for the Queen not to forget but to "abdicate": set the Star Whale free. And for the first time in Nu-Who history, the companion is right and the Doctor, in his arrogance, is actually wrong.

I was much happier with Amy this time around. She's done what no other Nu-Who companion has done yet: shown up the Doctor, all on her own. And we finally get to see how she handles a real crisis and new situation. She doesn't disappoint, either; she tackles challenges head-on, makes her own decisions, and wanders past Keep Out signs just to see what might be there. Not only that, but the lovely and slightly awkward hug between her and the Doctor at the end was just adorable. This pair may be my favorite yet, and I thought it couldn't get any better than Ten and Donna!

Amy makes a few other important choices in this episode also. At the beginning, she chooses to go forward into the unknown of Starship UK when offered the choice to go back; and at the end, she chooses to try and explain to the Doctor what she's been hiding--namely, her upcoming nuptials.

Which reminds me--is Amy, being a headstrong, independent, and clever woman, simply leery of married life? Does she have another secret that prevents her being secure in her marriage? Or is there a problem with the man himself?

Help me, Obi-Wan—Wait, What?
If I sounded uncertain in the last episode's review--and I know I did--almost all of those qualms were resolved in this episode. I wanted to know if Eleven could pull off sadness, darkness, and wrath, and boy, were my prayers answered!

The Doctor really runs the gamut in this episode. He starts out as we have known him for a long time, back into Ten and even Nine's era: quirkily enthusiastic about a new place and time, insatiably curious, aware of more than he lets on and unable to resist the temptation to poke around. He sends Amy off on her own assignment, despite the fact that he's just told her that Starship UK is not necessarily a safe or friendly place, and reacts to Liz 10's entrance with suppressed curiosity. This is all pretty standard for our beloved Doctor, although Matt Smith plays it as a wonderful cross between an absentminded professor and a mischievous Peter Pan refusing to grow up.

But as the starship's secrets begin to surface, so do the new facets of the Doctor's personality. When asked about other Time Lords, he answers in vague terms and distant tones, his brow furrowed as if staring into an interminable distance. And then the man who stated not fifteen minutes ago that he never got involved in the affairs of other peoples or planets rebelliously proclaimed that he would bring down the government. Was he being facetious with Amy, knowing full well that he always gets involved? Or does the Doctor really believe that he does his best not to get involved, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary?

Eleven's fascinated glee with the Star Whale's anatomy was wonderful to watch, as was the shocked look on his face when Liz 10 mentions the Virgin Queen. But the last twenty minutes of the episode are the real treat. For me, one of the most fascinating ideas in the Doctor's character is that he is an alien with an unimaginable intellect, powers we hardly ever see, and although all the people that enforced the laws of time are gone, he sticks faithfully to them anyway, keeping his ego firmly in hand. But what would happen if he decided to do as he liked? There are no Time Lords or--for the moment--Daleks to stop him. The only thing that keeps the Doctor from wreaking havoc with time and space to suit his whims is his conscience.

Waters of Mars played on this idea beautifully, letting the Doctor indulge his desire to help and change, which is constantly at war with his self-imposed rules about non-involvement and preservation, but after being (sort of) reprimanded/summoned by the Ood, the point was ignominiously dropped. Now, Eleven gets to pick up that thread again, but it a different way.

"Nobody human has anything to say to me today!" he screams, convinced that his way is the only way. Forced to choose between humanity and the alien, the Doctor has to follow his conscience and choose humanity, but there's a tension about that choice--as if he could have chosen differently, given just a little provocation. Eleven is clearly not the human-loving philanthropist that Ten was; he is palpably, wonderfully, terrifyingly alien, with alien morals, and alien standards, and an alien perspective. He chooses the people of Starship UK not out of loyalty to humanity but a simple ratio of lives lost: millions to one. And he is so accustomed to being right, to being the cleverest one in the room, and is so disgusted with the selfish and cruel decisions that have forced him into his terrible choice that he dismisses anything the humans have to say as automatically wrong. Of course, Amy figures out what he couldn't see. Humbled and disturbed, he nevertheless is kind to Amy--a graceful loser, if you will. It seems though, like there is no rhyme or reason to his decision to take Amy along, his threat to take her home when she defies him--even if she doesn't remember it--and his inviting her along again--it's all at a whim. That doesn't bode well for further conflicts.

I'm The Bloody Queen, Mate
I don't have much to say about Liz 10 except that she was awesome. The Princess Leia references aside, everything about her was great--her mask, her attitude, her wrathful determination to find the truth and subsequent horror at what had been done.

Now, of course, she has to deal not only with the guilt of inflicting all that agony on the Star Whale for hundreds of years, but also with restructuring the government and way of life on the starship. Given the horror that she put her subjects through--and the number of people that have been fed to the Beast and children working in the dungeons--she'll have lot of explaining to do. I imagine it won't be pretty.

Never Get Involved--Unless There's Children Crying
Although there have been complaints that the plot was weak, I certainly didn't think so. I loved that a full reveal of the heart of the mystery was simply handed to Amy, who then, in terror, promptly chose to have it all erased from her memory, so we had to discover it all again, bit by horrifying bit.

The Smilers turned out to be a fairly innocuous threat, more foreshadowing doom than presenting any real menace. They were definitely creepy, but not really scary--again, I didn't really feel like there was any immediate danger to the Doctor or Amy. Also, it's a good bet that most of the people watching this saw The End of Time; we're very clearly aware that the Doctor is the last of his kind. There's no need to beat us over the head with the connection between him and the Whale, thanks.

I loved this episode for its ideas, its slow reveal, and its development of the relationship between the Doctor and Amy. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of this strange, alien Doctor, and the willful brilliance of Amy. Oh, and Winston Churchill.

Favorite Moments
Amy: Can we go out and see?
Doctor: Of course we can, but first, there’s a thing.
Amy: A thing.
Doctor: An important thing, in fact. Thing one: we are observers only. That’s the one rule I’ve always stuck to in all my travels. I never get involved in the affairs of other peoples or planets. Ohh! That’s interesting.

Doctor: Sorry. Checking all the water in this area. There’s an escaped fish.

Doctor: Oh, this fell out of her pocket when I accidentally bumped into her. Took me four goes.

Amy: What are you going to do?
Doctor: What I always do: Stay out of trouble. Badly.

Amy: So is this how it works, Doctor—you never interfere the affairs of other peoples or planets…unless there’s children crying.
Doctor: Yes.

Amy: Oh, don’t mind me. Never could resist a keep-out sign.

Liz 10: Help us, Doctor. You’re our only hope.

Amy: You look human.
Doctor: No, you look Time Lord. We came first.
Amy: So there’re other Time Lords, yeah?
Doctor: No. There were. But there aren’t...just me now. Long story, it was a bad day, lots of bad things happened. And I’d love to forget to all, every last bit of it, but I don’t. Not ever. Because this is what I do, every time, every day, every second. This. Hold tight. We’re bringing down the government.

Doctor: It’s not a floor, it’s, uh…So.
Amy: It’s a what?
Doctor: The next word is kind of a scary word, you probably want to take a moment, put yourself in a calm place, go “ommm.”
Amy: Ommm…?
Doctor: It’s a…tongue.

Amy: We’re in a mouth!
Doctor: Yes, yes, but on the plus side: Roomy!

Doctor: If this is the mouth, I’d love to see the stomach! …But not right now.

Doctor: Right then. This isn’t going to be big on dignity. Geronimo!

Liz 10: Hair of an idiot.

Liz 10: Vickie was a bit on the fence about you, weren’t she? Knighted and exiled you on the same day! And so much for the virgin queen, you bad bad boy!

Amy: I voted for this. Why would I do that?
Doctor: Because you knew that if I stayed here, I’d be faced with an impossible choice: humanity or the alien. You took it upon yourself to save me from that. That was wrong. You don’t ever decide what I need to know.
Amy: I don’t even remember doing it!
Doctor: You did it. That’s what counts.
Amy: I’m…I’m sorry.
Doctor: Oh, I don’t care. When I’m done here, you’re going home.

Doctor: Yeah, I know. You’re only human.

Doctor: Nobody talk to me—nobody human has anything to say to me today!

Amy: Very old and very kind and the very very last. Sound a bit familiar?

Premonitions and Predictions
The ominous crack appears again. Either it's following the Doctor and Amy, or it's simply everywhere. I vote "following", personally.

No ducks (or lack of ducks) this episode, sadly. However, we did have two other recurring ideas: glasses of water and twenty minutes. The Doctor used a glass of water to listen to the crack in Amelia's bedroom, and this time to check the lack of engine vibration. Last time he had twenty minutes to save the world; this time, Amy had twenty minutes of her memory erased when she chose to forget. These may just be coincidences, but we'll see.

Batman and the TARDIS

Despite the fact that that would be a kickass fanfiction title (and story, for that matter...although I bet someone's already done it), this is mostly to celebrate the simple fact that Matt Smith likes Batman.

The full story can be found here.

Eleven commented about Batman, "I’ve always loved him, you know? I guess it’s the darkness in him that I like." The article also draws a parallel between Batman and the Doctor, quoting Smith: "There’s something about the darkness and the loneliness of the man that I guess I’m sort of in tune with I think." That quote was apparently about the Doctor, though it could be about Batman as well.

The similarities and differences between Batman and the Doctor--two very different role models and, really, superheroes from two different cultures--would certainly be worth exploring in greater depth. I'm a huge fan of both characters, and find their darkness and loneliness fascinating as well. Those qualities bring both characters out of the two-dimensional, primary-colored world of pure children's entertainment and makes them into believable, relatable people brushed in the duskier hues of life's sorrows, griefs, and disappointments.

But in the meantime, extra points for Matt Smith for choosing Batman! And a few points off for Karen Gillan for picking Spiderman. That guy's a loser.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Have you reached your daily excitement quota today?

"Doctor Who has a tradition of thrilling title sequences but the new version exceeds all previous excitement quotas!"

The entire, sickeningly cheerful article is here, complete with a video of the aforementioned title sequence that I can't watch thanks to what I affectionately call the BBC's You Shall Not Has policy. (Read that out in your best impression of Gandalf facing down the Balrog.)

Okay, first of all, this means that the BBC's definition of "thrilling" is some combination of the following:
(1) floating heads in a kaleidoscope vortex;
(2) taxi signs in a tube vortex, or
(3) lightning and fire in a colon.

Iconic? Yes, at the risk of using a word so much that it simply falls apart at the seams (like "swansong" around the end of last year...argh!) and all of its meanings escape and hop away. Epic? Yes. In a very Who-ish sort of way. But thrilling? Um...not really. Especially not the new sequence, which, although thankfully without the taxi-sign logo, was not what I would call thrilling. The fire improved it significantly, but still...just no.

Second: "previous excitement quotas"? Really? Was this blurb automatically generated by a bizarrely enthusiastic yet incompetent computer? Or did the BBC just unwittingly create a new Serenity House in-joke?

From the Latin of the same form, English "quota" is apparently a shorter version of the phrase quota pars, meaning "how large a part," from quotus meaning "which." So, not exactly the right wh-word.
Dictionary.com has two relevant definitions for "quota":
  1. the share or proportional part of a total that is required from, or is due or belongs to, a particular district, state, person, group, etc.
  2. a proportional part or share of a fixed total amount or quantity.
My personal intuition goes with (1) here, a phrase like "daily quota" meaning "the recommended/expected/required amount per day." So that means that a "previous excitement quota" would be something like the amount of excitement that you are required to have based on previous experience. So, what, does that mean that since I find the new theme mostly unimpressive, that I should go top off my excitement quota by dodging cars on the freeway or something?

My feeling is that the writer meant something like "expectations" or "levels" and it just came out all wibbly-wonky. Admittedly, though, "previous excitement quota" is a lovely nugget of linguistic absurdity, one that I'm going to stuff away in this blog to bring out and giggle over again in the future.

Of course, it could just be that we Americans simply don't speak "Propah English." ;)

P.S. Shout-out to my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary. If I were you, I'd seriously consider spending an hour or so just wandering around there. Your life will be better.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Okay, What Have You Got For Me This Time?

There will be no attempt at all to avoid spoilers below.

Four days and three viewings later, I'm still stewing over The Eleventh Hour. It's not that I didn't like it--I certainly did. It was fun and enjoyable. But I didn't love it.

As almost every other reviewer I've read, I was unimpressed by the title sequence. The new music failed to impress, sounding too drowned out and muffled after the brazen boldness of Season 4's theme. The time vortex was also unimpressive--until the whole thing lights ablaze and the title materializes out of the flames. Now I'm paying attention! I guess I'll just have to give it time.

The Man of the Hour
Nice to meet you, Doctor: quirky, zany, slightly mystical Eleven. After three (and a half?) seasons of Ten, who had shining moments of lightness and fun mixed in with heartrending angst and pounding drama, the new Doctor feels rather...fluffy. Ten really is dead--not just the face but much of the angst, the guilt, and the grief that weighed him down are gone. Eleven is more childlike, constantly in a state of distracted wonder; the darkness that stalked Ten seems to have finally faded.

Don't get me wrong--this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I remember that my biggest doubt about Ten during his regeneration/new Doctor period was whether he would be able to successfully portray the gravitas and depth that his predecessor had--and he did, in spades (albeit with much more clenching of teeth and wild-eyed fury). Now I'm wondering the same thing about Eleven: he can do the light and fluffy and heroic and clever. Can he be serious and dark as well? Or does the regeneration signal the death as well of much of that survivor's guilt and anguish from his past? I can't decide if I'm hoping for that or not.

But enough doubts and negativity--Matt Smith was still wonderful. A couple moments were almost painfully Tennish (cf the cheerful "Hello!" as he climbs through the hospital window; also, the first shot of his face after the TARDIS crashes in Amelia's backyard was very reminiscent of Partners in Crime) but most was purely and beautifully Eleven. As I mentioned above, there's something gloriously childlike about him; he seems enthralled by the minute details of the world he finds himself in, as if he's seeing it for the first time. He can't seem to stop twitching and moving as well--I don't mean the throes of regeneration but the fidgety energy of a six-year old. Watch him interact with Amelia, pounding his fork on the table, tossing water out of a glass as if surprised by his own movement--he looks like a kid trapped in an adult's body.

But then the moment calls for a hero and he's suddenly full of authority and cleverness. He doesn't lose the childlike wonder, just channels it. He's wacky and zany and rattles on a mile a minute, but underneath all of it there's a clever and calculating mind dead set on saving the world. As the episode progresses, he even follows a development, from more childlike (connected with his time with seven-year-old Amelia) to more and more mature, until as the fully realized Doctor he faces first Prisoner Zero and then the Atraxi head-on and proclaims who he is.

Of course, put him with Amy and watch him show his childlike side again--he fidgets with his bowtie as he talks to her like a nervous teenager on a first date. Yet he bubbles with confidence and enthusiasm--which seems to miff his new companion a bit.

A Very Brave Little Girl and a Very Distrusting Kissogram
Amelia Pond is nothing short of delightful. From her first moments onscreen praying to Santa to her cold, fruitless vigil sitting on her suitcase in the garden, the character glows on the screen. Her immediate faith in the Doctor is beautiful, which makes his 12-year delay that much more heartbreaking.

It's almost a shame, because in almost every respect, I prefer the young Amelia to the older Amy. No, it isn't Amelia's eager trust and wonder versus Amy's wariness and bitterness; that's a fascinating part of the character. It's that Amy just wasn't as sympathetic, compelling, or interesting.

Given his 12-year miscalculation, Amy has every right to distrust the Doctor. But she doesn't just mistrust him, she also lies to him repeatedly. First, she pretends to be a policewoman when she's not; she refuses, until pushed, to tell him about the 12-year gap, or who she really is; she tries to disguise or gloss over her relationship (whatever it is) with Rory; and she neglects to mention that she's engaged and getting married in morning, presumably to Rory as well. So many secrets and misdirections do not bode well for a strong relationship between her and the Doctor. Then again, maybe it's about time that the companion has secrets that the Doctor doesn't know about instead of the Doctor always being the enigma.

But beyond that, Amy didn't really do much. She's (hopefully) going to be a strong and active companion with talents of her own--although, say, Martha, who had a definite skill set to use, never got to do much but get in trouble and get rescued by the Doctor, so given Amy's limited qualifications, I'm not too optimistic. Rose rescued the Doctor from plastic soldiers on her first day; Martha saved an unconscious Doctor from death and captured a murderess; Donna, depending on when you count her "first day", saved the Doctor from himself by making him stop or kept the whole world from being turned into Adipose. Amy forced Prisoner Zero to take its own form--being directed by the Doctor when she was helpless and unconscious, after he had already cornered the creature and summoned the Atraxi. Pardon me if I'm less than flabbergasted.

Also, her judgment seems to be less than stellar. She seems perfectly poised to recreate the Rose/Mickey situation with Rory, although heaven forbid she falls in love with the Doctor! Still, on the evening of her wedding, she disappears with the Doctor--despite the fact that he has already proven that his margin of error, even with a fully regenerated body and a new TARDIS, is two years. This is also after having spent a grand total of about half an hour with him since he returned. And as mentioned above, she fails to mention her upcoming marriage at all.

However, Amy definitely has potential. With any luck, she'll be a true Moffat woman, like Sally Sparrow, Nancy, and Reinette before her: strong-willed, capable, independent, and clever. She certainly seems to be headed that way. I hope and expect that the somewhat tenuous chemistry between her and the Doctor will deepen and develop into real friendship and trust.

The Poor Man Doesn't Deserve This
Rory deserves mention as well. I like Rory much more than is probably warranted by his brief screen time. He's not as strong-willed or brave as Amy (like Mickey) and seems to always take second place in her life to the Doctor (like Mickey), but the best guess is that it's him she's marrying. As far as I can tell, he's sweet, willing to be brave in a crisis, and head over heels for Amy, and that makes him endearing. I really hope to see more of him soon.

It's Biggerer On The Inside!
I love the TARDIS. After the Doctor, she might just be my favorite character. And I just love what they did with the new interior. I will be severely disappointed if we don't get to see other rooms in the TARDIS before this season is out.

I love the relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS as well, and this Doctor portrays it beautifully. From the onset, he's treating her more like a living thing than Nine or Ten ever did. When she shuts down to rebuilt herself, he strokes the door, pouting, "It's still rebuilding, not letting us in." Then, of course, he addresses the TARDIS directly when the glowing key calls him back with one of my all-time favorite lines: "Okay, what have you got for me this time?" When he brings Amy aboard at the end, he receives a new screwdriver from the TARDIS and takes with a murmured, "Thanks, dear." I really hope Moffat and Co. develop this idea more; a sentient TARDIS with a more prominent role as a character (not just transport) would be delightful.

Prisoner Zero Has Escaped
It's like The Girl in the Fireplace and Smith and Jones got shuffled together with dashes of Silence in the Library and the 1996 movie thrown in for flavor. The plot, although definitely creepy (love that "corner of your eye" stuff!) and intriguing, was by no means original or fantastic. I guess it didn't have to be; we really cared more about meeting the new Doctor and companion than the plot anyway.

Perhaps what bothered me the most was that the deadline didn't feel real. The Doctor said that he only had 20 minutes to save the world, but besides the change in the sun's appearance, there was no real indication or sense of impending doom. (Compare, for instance, Gallifrey materializing above Earth in Part Two). And besides that--why did it even have to be the whole world? Incinerating Leadworth, or England, would have been just as effective. What were the Atraxi thinking?

Despite its previous usage, the missed-time idea was heartrendingly compelling. The mistrust and secrets that Amy and the Doctor mutually have will hopefully be further and more richly explored in future episodes. Although the action-plot was just mediocre, the character-plot was lovely. I'm looking forward to more of the same!

Favorite Moments
Doctor: I hate yogurt. It's just stuff with bits in.
I was really hoping that Amelia would give him a pear!

Doctor: You're Scottish. Fry something.

Doctor: Everything's going to be fine.

Doctor: It's not just a box. It's a time machine!
Amelia: What. A real one?

Doctor: WHAT is that?!
Amy: It's a duck pond.
Doctor: Why aren't there any ducks?
Amy: I don't know, there're never any ducks.
Doctor: Then how do you know it's a duck pond?

Doctor: I've commandeered a vehicle!

Doctor: Okay, what have you got for me this time?
unlocks TARDIS door and looks inside
Doctor: Look at you. Oh, you sexy thing. Look at you!

Amy: That was TWO YEARS AGO!
Doctor: Oh. Oops.

Premonitions and Predictions
"The Pandorica (?) will open. Silence will fall." Hmm.

My first thought was that the cracks in the universe were from the breaking of the time lock in The End of Time, but now I'm not so sure. Please please please, no Dalek/Time Lord/Cyberman plan to destroy reality--please!

Did anyone else notice that when the TARDIS monitor was buzzing at the very end, the shape it was displaying was the same as the crack on Amelia's wall? That can't be a coincidence. We'll see if that pattern shows up again. Maybe this plot wasn't a throwaway after all.

"Why aren't there any ducks?" I dearly, dearly hope that this turns out to be important, like the bees from Season 4 or the dolphins from Hitchhiker's.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tenth Doctor Drinking Game

I have never played a drinking game in my life, and I don't plan to ever get drunk. So the "shots" would probably be, like, Pepsi or Nerds or something. But still. This would be fun.

Take a drink every time…

The Doctor uses his foot or a mallet to fly the TARDIS.

The Doctor says: “brilliant”, “clever”, “molto bene”, “allons-y”, “I’m sorry”

The Doctor and his companion hold hands

The Doctor pulls something out of his Time Lord pockets

The Doctor mentions Rose after “Doomsday”

You catch an in-joke from a previous season

The Sonic Screwdriver develops a new skill

Every time Jack says hi to someone

Every time the Doctor ruffles his own hair

Every time the Doctor puts on the brainy specs

Every time the Doctor gets snogged by someone else

Every time Donna says “Spaceman” or “Martian”

Every time the Doctor tries to reason with a villain (“Just listen!”)

Every time the Doctor smiles like a boggle-eyed ax murderer

Every time the Doctor dramatically screams the name of his companion

Every time the Doctor mentions being the last of the Time Lords

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Doctor is dead. Long live the Doctor!

After the catastrophic mess that was Part 1, I'd been worried that Part 2 would be equally disappointing. As many more experienced and perceptive voices have pointed out, Part 2 had its inconsistencies and absurdities, but the real soul of the story--the terror and grief and poignancy of inevitable death fast approaching--shone through brightly this time. Thank God.

Davies Ex Machina
There were several instances of what is fondly known in my house as Davies Strikes Again. The Master's transformation of the entire population of Earth into himself, and his subsequent (apparently completely improvised) plan to turn all the Time Lords into himself as well was dismissed with a wave of the Lord President's hand, which was fine with me because the whole situation was more ridiculous and annoying than really threatening. Likewise, the Time Lords were not given the complexity, peril, and attention they deserved; they didn't actually do much except stand in the white light and proclaim that they were going to end reality. (Heard that one before. At least the Daleks actually had a device to make it happen...) Given their emotional significance to the Doctor, they weren't treated very well, although the revelation that they had become as rotten and warped to the core as the Daleks was unexpected and, I thought, very good.

Two Sad, Noble Old Men And One Raving Psychopath
There was so much in this episode that I liked that even the ridiculous parts were not too blatant to spoil it. From the very beginning, the true heart of the story was the three caught at the center of the storm: the Master, Wilf, and the Doctor. Focusing on them and their relationship to each other elevated the story past its pseudo-scifi attempt at plot into really beautiful storytelling.

First, the Master's transformation over the course of the episode was wonderfully subtle, completely overshadowed by the bombastic return of the Time Lords but ultimately saving the day. The cackling maniac from Part 1 was thankfully toned down, and even in the first few minutes of the episode, when it looked like no one was left to stand in the Master's way, he still listened to the Doctor and showed himself to be vulnerable and lost. His search for the source of the drumming and childlike eagerness to bring the Time Lords to Earth was more sympathetic and pitiable than sinister; he was a victim and a tool, not a villain. That made it all the more satisfying when he was one to push the Time Lords back to their doom at the hands of the Doctor in the final days of the Time War. Was it just me, or did he become a good guy?

I was sure that there was no way to surpass the beauty of Part 1's cafe scene, but the conversation between, again, Wilf and the Doctor on the Vinvocci ship about the gun was just as good. There was no snarky cleverness from the Doctor, no naivete from Wilf, just these two lost and weary men exposing their souls to each other. The clear love they have for each other made the Doctor's final sacrifice for Wilf even more touching; the whole scene, from the Doctor's premature relief at having survived, to the dreaded knocking, to his desperate, futile rage, to resignation with dignity, were all wonderfully played.

This Is The Ending That Never Ends
Which brings me to the epilogue. The radiation chamber was heartbreaking, bittersweet in that the Doctor would die for one old friend with honor even when he had so much yet to live for. But then he uncurled from his fetal ball of agony, stood up, starting making jokes...it was a cheat. It felt awful, painful, wrong. He had surrendered to death, and yet he still couldn't die.

And on it went. Martha and Mickey together were silly, confusing, and pointless; I haven't bothered to care about them for a good while now. The Doctor's rescue of Luke and wave to Sarah Jane was similarly unmoving. Most irritating was hooking up Captain Jack with Alonso. I've never liked Jack, and the Doctor has never really approved of him, and yet his farewell is to set Jack up for a cheap fling with a naive young man to compensate for the fact that Jack killed his own grandson horrifically?

Of the three remaining vignettes, the visit to Joan Redfern's granddaughter, while sweet and touching, seemed totally unnecessary. If he wanted to check on her, why didn't he go and check on her? The granddaughter was a brand-new character, no one for the Doctor to say farewell to. Also, when was he going to have time to read that book? (Although if he could read the way Nine could in "Rose," it would take him about ten seconds.)

The Doctor's visit to Donna's wedding was much better: he makes sure that Donna will be secure and happy, and uses her father's money to buy her her wedding gift. Wilf finally says farewell to the Doctor, and his grief alone makes the scene work.

The last, though, was the most heartwrenching, and the one that was really important. If this had been the only one, the ending would have been just as good, if not better. As the Doctor dies, alone in the snow, he sees Rose one last time, even though she doesn't know him. He dies broken and terrified, but with the song of the Ood singing in his ears--and with him, the TARDIS as we know it.

...And Still Not Ginger!
And then...Eleven. Even though I was filled with grief for Ten, Eleven was brilliant and hilarious. He did the two things that he needed to do to make the regeneration really work: he mentioned his youth and features ("I'm a girl!") and he was irritated that he still wasn't ginger. The sudden change in tone to adventurous and lighthearted even as the TARDIS burned around him really drove home Ten's prediction in Part 1: everything that is or was Ten died completely. All the gravity, the grief, and the desperation were burned up in golden fire, purged away. And this new man is not Ten and yet is the Doctor.

Nice to meet you, Doctor. I look forward to getting to know you this spring.