Friday, December 28, 2007

The New Doctor Who: Questions

This show started in 1963, and ran without interruption for about 25 years. I don't remember exactly when it was canceled, but people tried for years to bring it back, and in 2005 Russell T Davies finally succeeded.

When reviving a classic show like this, there always have to be choices made about what to change, and what to keep the same. It's interesting to think about which choices work and which don't. I am very far from being able to explain it -- I'm no expert -- but I have devoted a certain amount of thought to the choices that Mr. Davies made, and whether or not I agree with him. In some cases I don't, but I still respect his decisions.

Or rather, I respect the questions he asks about the show, even if I don't always agree with his answers. That's what this post is about.
  1. Do the Doctor and his companions "love" each other? Davies' answer appears to be "yes," although the Doctor seems less willing to say the magic words. As an old-time fan, I can't really get behind this. I was never one of those who speculated about what the Doctor got up to, with all those cute girls, in the many rooms of the TARDIS, between episodes . . . and even now, to see him hugging people (or worse yet, kissing) is a bit of a shock to me. And yet it is certainly a valid question. I always believed that there was affection between them -- and when does that cross over into love? Is it sexual love, or what? Actually, my interpretation is that we, the fans, love the Doctor, and Davies is essentially trying to bring us into the show by focusing on love.
  2. When people go off with the Doctor, what happens to the families they leave behind? This is a crucial question, and asking it was one of the best things Davies did. It is in no way a departure from the old show, because obviously it was always the case that when people got into the TARDIS they were unlikely to ever see their families again. And yet by bringing it up, Davies causes us to look at the show in a completely new way. Actually, I can't really say that I disagree with his answer to this question. He might not have a specific answer, except for "they miss them." But simply pointing out that people do get left behind is a lot.
  3. Does the Doctor bring death and destruction wherever he goes? Is he, in fact, evil? Davies' answer appears to be "no" (which I would agree with) and yet more than one character has answered "yes." These tend to be people who haven't met him in person, who have only heard about him (and that's another neat trick from Davies, by the way, to postulate that a certain number of people know about the Doctor, because he has spent so much time on Earth. Well, more "Britain" than "Earth", but we get the point.) Or people, like Queen Victoria, who have only encountered him in the context of bad stuff happening, and somehow decide to blame him for the bad stuff. This is another really interesting question -- and why is Davies asking it? Where is he going to go with it? Maybe he's just going to leave it hanging, overshadowing the show. (I am a bit behind on the episodes -- as of this date I haven't seen any of Season 3 -- so I don't know if there have been any developments.) We have always seen the Doctor as a hero. From our point of view, he goes around fighting evil monsters and saving the world. So why do these people see him as the problem instead of the solution? As far as I know, Davies never sets out to explicitly prove them wrong. They're allowed to say these things without rebuttal. Is it possible that Davies wants us to think that he does cause more harm than good to the people whose lives he touches?
I started to give these questions serious thought after watching the episode "Love and Monsters." I hated that episode. And yet, after thinking about it I realized: first, that it expresses everything that Russell T Davies has to say about the show; and second, that in general I don't disagree with what he has to say. I just didn't like that particular episode. In fact, it failed to draw me in at the beginning. Some of the later bits were quite good -- but the opening scene of the Doctor and Rose chasing that monster around failed to suspend my disbelief and after that I just couldn't really get into it. Then there was the incredibly tasteless joke at the end. But I digress. (It says quite a lot for Davies' range though, that he can go from tasteless to thought-provoking to genuinely moving. Maybe he has good days and bad days.)

Love and Monsters are what Davies thinks Doctor Who is about, and he's certainly not wrong. If he wants to exaggerate the love, or suggest that the Doctor might be one of the monsters, he can go right ahead as far as I'm concerned. I might not always like it but I will watch it -- and that makes both him and me happy.

Make This Book into a Movie!

I can't help but notice that movies based on children's fantasy novels are currently popular (thanks no doubt to Harry Potter and Mr. Tolkien). Well, there is a young adult author who deserves to be just as rich and famous as J.K. Rowling, if not more so. I'm talking about Diana Wynne Jones, who has been around for a long time.

When I read the first Harry Potter book, I thought, "This is reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, only not as good." Specifically, I was thinking of Witch Week (which was set in a school, and first published in 1982), and the other Chrestomanci novels, to a certain extent. But that's not the book that I necessarily think should be made into a movie.

Every time I read A Tale of Time City, I think it would make a great movie. It's about time travel, which I think lots of people are familiar with, and it seems to be the most visual of her books. There are lots of detailed descriptions of Time City, and plenty of special effects. Also it's not excessively long.

Ms. Jones has already had one of her books converted to film -- Howl's Moving Castle. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard that it is only loosely based on the book. I also see from IMDB that Archer's Goon (which I don't think I've read) was made into a TV series in the UK. So, you know, she's ready for another one.

Her official website is here. (Stay away from dianawynnejones.com -- someone appears to be squatting on it.) And she totally rules!!!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Technobabble

I first encountered the term "technobabble" in reference to Star Trek. It refers to pseudo-scientific* explanations, given by characters in science fiction movies or TV shows, for why a certain thing happens, why something can or cannot be done, why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart, etc.

Technobabble is painful to listen to (in fact, the only way one can watch any significant amount of science fiction television is by developing an immunity to technobabble.) I understand that it is also painful to write and perhaps most of all, painful for the actors who have to speak it. Why then does it continue to exist?

Unfortunately, we do require explanations for why things happen. If events succeed one another for no reason at all, they may possibly be entertaining (as in dreams), but that is not a plot. The "reasons" given may be completely implausible, which most technobabble is, but they are still considered necessary. Somehow the brain is satisfied.

What I find interesting is that technobabble does not exist in written science fiction. The science is either genuine or at least plausible. The authors appear to have put some effort into their explanations, their scientific underpinnings. Why does this hardly ever happen in film? (I will use the term "film" to refer to both movies and television, since I think the medium is crucial.)

In a novel, or even a short story, a couple paragraphs of scientific exposition are no hardship to read. We are much more patient as readers than as viewers. In TV, or even movies, the explanations have to be reduced to just a few lines of dialog -- therefore, there is really no way they can be adequate. Books and film each have their own momentum -- momentum is certainly important in a piece of writing, but I suspect that it's even more essential in film that events keep moving along. When everything on screen comes to a dead stop so that we can hear an explanation of black holes (as happened in a certain episode of Doctor Who), we notice. We get bored.

Film is not suited to explanations. There are other things for which it is much better suited. For example, a good explosion is worth a thousand words. Is there any writer who can provide a really exciting description of an explosion?

I can think of a couple other reasons why technobabble exists in filmed science fiction. Actually, I am thinking of two other examples, that come down to just one reason: other things are more important. Or, in a single word, time.
  1. Before a book gets published, it is read by at least one editor. Part of an editor's job is to say, "This bit doesn't make any sense." That is how technobabble gets eliminated, because the writer does not usually have anything better to do than to fix it. A book is only a book -- it only exists as words. Film is much more complicated -- you have to have a script, actors, cameras, locations -- and for science fiction, you have to have lots of special effects work. The scriptwriters may be able to spend their whole time working on the script, but that doesn't mean that everybody else can wait for them. (And who cares about the explanations anyway? We want to watch stuff blow up!)
  2. I mentioned above that technobabble is often used as an explanation of "why the ship they're traveling in is about to fall apart." This kind of situation happens much more frequently in science fiction film than in books. In fact, off the top of my head I can't think of a book (or short story) where it is a major plot point. But in SF television it happens a lot. This may be called lazy storytelling. But if you are required to come up with a new story every week -- if they all have to be exciting, reasonably original and, most important, come to an end within 45 minutes (or 20 minutes, for a half-hour show), then you have to rely on certain shortcuts. And technobabble is one of them. So is causing your ship or other gadget to perform beyond its previously rated abilities, possibly resulting in the destruction of said ship or gadget. That's entertainment!
One other thing: I don't mean to imply that the people who write these scripts are ignorant of science, or don't bother to make the technobabble plausible. I believe that in many cases they do make an effort. But after all, any genuine technical explanation, complete and accurate, is mindnumbingly boring to people who are not experts in the field. In the final analysis, it really is not worth it.

* Then there is the question, "what's the difference between pseudo-science and science fiction?" I believe that some people think there is no difference, and as a true SF fan I am naturally grieved and offended by it. But I don't seem to have time at present to correct their false assumption.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Novels of Jane Austen

As a teenager, I couldn't appreciate Jane Austen at all, but as I get older I admire her writing more and more. So here are my comments on her novels, listed in roughly reverse order (from least favorite to most favorite.)
  • Pride and Prejudice: I was required to read this in high school, and I could not distinguish between it and an ordinary romance novel. I understood the plot pretty well, but Austen's ironic flourishes and digressions went right over my head. Now I appreciate the book more, but I still think that Darcy is too full of himself, and although the author sets forth the proposition that his "pride" and Elizabeth's consequent "prejudice" are equally to blame for keeping them apart, I just can't agree.
  • Emma: even after I started to enjoy Austen's other books, it took me a long time to get into Emma. The first sentence -- even the first six words -- were too much for me. After reading "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . ." I would think to myself, "I don't want to read about somebody who's perfect." and close the book. Of course, the whole point is that Emma is not perfect -- far from it. But even now, I don't enjoy seeing her humiliated. It is a superb accomplishment on Austen's part, that she can make me feel sorry for a character who has been getting on my nerves throughout the whole book, but such abrupt changes of sentiment are too taxing for me. Reading Emma is hard work.
  • Mansfield Park: if Emma is too arrogant, Fanny Price is much too meek. The last time I read this, I started to realize that it is much more enjoyable if one doesn't think of Fanny as the heroine. She is the eye of the storm, the passive center, around which everybody else rushes and whirls. A sort of anti-heroine (like anti-matter.) I think the best part of the book is the character of Mary Crawford. She is almost modern, with her lack of respect for her elders and her cynical worldly wisdom. And it's interesting to note that even though Fanny is too good to be true, and Mary is her rival in love, Austen avoids the temptation of making her evil. We're told that she doesn't know Fanny is in love with Edmund. She is never deceitful or deliberately cruel. It appears that she genuinely loves Edmund, but she can't get past her prejudice against the clergy, which was instilled in her by the fashionable world. Maybe she thinks Edmund is also too good to be true. And maybe she's right.
  • Sense and Sensibility: This one I have no quibble with. It is pure entertainment, just like fireworks.
  • Persuasion: One of my other favorites. Sweet and sad . . . and what an astonishing progression, from the nonstop exuberance of Austen's early works (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice) to this pensive ├ętude.
  • Northanger Abbey: This is my favorite. When I want entertainment, I read Sense and Sensibility. When I'm feeling romantic and melancholy, I read Persuasion. But this is a perfect blend of the amusing and the serious. Catherine Morland is confronted with questions that I'm still struggling with: How can you tell if someone is trustworthy? Why do people say so many things they don't mean? Do Gothic novels bear any resemblance to real life?* What, in fact, is reality? Also I think that it contains more quotable lines than any other of her novels, from Catherine's "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible," to almost everything that Henry Tilney says, to Austen's spirited defense of her protagonist's love of novel-reading, ending with "If the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"



Addendum: Lady Susan. This is not a well-known work, but it is very worth reading. A short epistolary novel about a beautiful, amoral woman who can (and does) charm every man she comes across. One can't help but think that Austen found it refreshing to set aside the weight of morality which is so noticeable in all her published works.

And since this is the Internet, I have to close by remarking that Pemberley is the "all Austen, all the time" web site.

* Well, okay, I don't read many Gothic novels. But I have consumed a great deal of science fiction. And I'm much struck by the fact that fiction, by definition, is not real, and yet those of us who read it and love it firmly believe that it has a lot to say about the world.

Monday, December 03, 2007

First Real Snow Last Night

A couple inches of soft wet snow, changing to rain. Here's a photo:



I have not seen any swans in a while. I seem to recall that this is not the first time a snowfall has brought them out. Maybe they understand that it suits them.