The Dark Knight Rises: And Flops

I went into this movie expecting to find Catwoman painful, desperately hoping to adore the rest of the movie, and pleasantly fortified by an excerpt from a review that declared the film boring.  (Thank you, Noah, you spared me heartache).  As it turns out, Catwoman was not only the best part of the movie, but the only part they really got right at all.  Massive spoilerage to follow.

Nolan clearly understood what he wanted to do with this movie, and I think he even knew why The Dark Knight worked so well.  It was the combination of just enough explicit examination of heady themes against timely political issues, with lots of ass-kicking, that let American audiences have the popcorn movie they wanted but feel smart for liking it.  Look, they had a conversation about power and Caesar and the fall of Rome, and they flipped a tractor trailer!

While the action sequences in Rises were still gorgeous, the thematic bumbling was so blatant, awkward, and in several respects incoherent, that I wound up entertaining myself for huge swaths of the movie by picturing Matthew Weiner assaulting Nolan with a script.  There was no subtext in the entire movie.  By this I don’t mean that there was no discussion of theme or deeper issues.  I mean the characters walked across the screen declaiming what the subtext should have been the entire time.  Everybody wants Bruce Wayne to go ahead and get laid, because everybody wants Bruce Wayne to be happy, and if he finds a girl, then he’ll be happy.  And they say it.  Like that.  Several times.  The conversation might start, “Hey, that philanthropist chick seems nice,” but it immediately turns into, “And you should date her, because I have this fantasy where you have a wife and kids and you’re happy and I want that for you so I’m going to go on at length about how hi, I’m devoted to your family and need you to be happy or I will be unhappy and you’re making me unhappy by being unhappy.”

Alfred was, tragically, one of the biggest problems with this movie.  Instead of being the endearing fount of wisdom and droll observations, he was the Mouthpiece for Exploring the Problem of Batman.  You see, now that super villains have all disappeared from Gotham because Harvey Dent is dead and we’re not even going to talk about the Joker, Bruce should switch to philanthropy and give up his being Batman.  Which he’s already done.  And he totally shouldn’t go back now that there’s a new super villain in town.

We get a kind of lurching twitch toward thematic subtlety with Selena Kyle, aka Catwoman.  She’s a low class girl with expensive skills and tech who runs around subverting class roles and gender expectations.  No really, it’s on the label.  “Hi, I’m a cute maid, stealing your pearls.  Hi, I’m a weak woman, screaming to high hell so you don’t realize I started this brawl.”  I actually adored her, Ann Hathaway put in a fabulous performance as the only character in the entire film having any fun, at all.  It’s not her fault she was swimming in a pool of incoherent thematic flail.

I think Nolan wanted to make a film that talked about class disparity, upward mobility problems, and our societal obsession with prisons as a means of addressing crime.  Instead he had Kyle warning about a storm coming as a vague hint about a peasant revolt in the first of the Batman movies to show no slums, no grunge, and no poor people.  Eight years have passed, and we meet evil corporation head Dagget (get it? Somebody read Atlas Shrugged), and hear about callous disconnected rich people all the time.  But what we actually see are a Wayne foundation event put on despite a lack of profits from Wayne Enterprises, and charity ball where it’s made clear that all the proceeds actually go to charity.  So we have a class struggle, but no visible oppressed people and a pretty shabby establishment of oppressors.

But wait!  Prisons!  You see, Bane grew up in a prison.  He’s from the worst prison ever.  Prison made Bane.  How many times are we going to explicitly blurt out Bane’s back story?  All the times.  It will be the inverse of the Joker declaring a back story we don’t believe but which makes the scene he’s in extra creepy.  Because Prison Destroys Innocence.  And Bane is from Prison.  Prison prison prison prison prison prison.  Prison.

I’m not sure what happened to Arkham in this movie.  I did spend some of the time wondering about it while characters were busy declaiming theme.  Crane’s appearance during the inexplicable French Revolution sequence was a highlight, at least.

You remember how the microwave water vaporizing device in Batman Begins was absurd but well let it go because we were watching a comic book movie?  The fusion reactor that could save the world but gets converted into a bomb with a 5 month decay cycle is dumber, and given plot deciding that this was going to be some sort of anarchistic revolution something something except we don’t really see much of anything, like why the people of Gotham would want to get behind this, or that they do, or, I don’t know.  I could see all the points Nolan was trying to make, but the actual logic of how he was making them was utterly opaque.  Bane having utter devotion from his men because they’re all League of Shadows folk makes sense.  Bane wanting to show that Gotham will tear itself apart while under the threat of nuclear bomb could make sense if he were the Joker.  Bane and *shock* Miranda wanting to destroy Gotham because its time has come, but deciding they’re going to send Bruce Wayne to the place that made them strong, and give him five months to do a training montage level-up so he can beat them? I’d have been giggling at it if I weren’t bored.

Seriously, now.  If exposure to a certain kind of hell hardens you and makes you into a total bad ass, what should you maybe not do with your arch nemesis?  SEND THEM TO THAT SAME PLACE.  Also, how did Bane get all the way to generic Middle Eastern Savage Land to dump off Wayne and then back to Gotham so quickly?

I could go on.  I haven’t even started on the incoherency around the various disablings of Wayne and Batman, the low level irritation that was “I’m not Robin, because I’m a cop, so I’m not Robin,” John Blake, the utter fail that was the twist reveal about Miranda, the ham-fisted cops-in-tunnels plot etc. etc.

IMDB has this movie at 8/10.  I’d give it a 6.  For any of you worried, I am not heart broken and filled with woe.  I think they managed to skew their points of success and failure so far from what I’d expected as to spare me trauma.

They really did nail Catwoman.

Among Others

This review spoilers everything.  You are warned.

I finished Among Others in the last five minutes of my open house yesterday.  I had things I had to do when I got home, so it was three hours before I got around to having this phone conversation with my sister.

Sister: Can I call you back later?

Me: No, I’ll be busy.  But I just need a minute.

Sister: Ok?

Me: I just finished reading a book and I need to tell you something: If we both have to  help fairies stop somebody from becoming a dark queen and you get killed, I will not screw it up when it’s time for you to pass on and if I do, I definitely will not thwart your opportunity to become a fairy later.

Sister: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Me: I’m just letting you know that I’d take better care of you than the character in this book I read and I’m very upset with it and I love you.

All the things you’ve heard about Among Others, that the prose is pretty, that it captures what it’s like to grow up as an alienated book nerd, that it captures a love of stories and the power of SF community beautifully, it’s all true.  It’s a very good book that does very nice things.

I hate it a lot.

I have serious, serious problems with the thematic concepts behind the idea that Mori did the right thing by deciding to grow up and go be with her boyfriend rather than fix the fact that she screwed up her sister’s afterlife.  That was not the right decision, and Mori lost all of my sympathy the moment she made it.  She lost it so hard I retroactively withdrew my sympathy for what happened at Halloween which she got only because she was confused and distressed and hadn’t known what was going on or what to expect.

I really don’t care if Wim turns out to be David Xanatos with a TARDIS, or Mori grows up to live a rich fulfilling life that is exactly everything she deserves and which saves the world from athletes.  If you get the chance to becoming a faerie and help your dead sister while you do, YOU TAKE IT.

Review: Deadline

Continuing with my Hugo novel reading, I finished Deadline a few days ago. I’m a big fan of zombie movies, and some of my favorite short stories in the last few years have featured zombies, but this was my first zombie novel.  It’s a great first zombie novel.

The thing that grabbed me about this book immediately was the voice.  First person narrative with blog excerpts at the beginning of each chapter, this novel is the voice.  Shaun, the narrator, is a fantastically engaging hot-tempered zombie-hunter turned news site manager in the wake of his sister’s death.  Just to keep things interesting, he’s dealing with her death by hallucinating her in his head.  The hallucinated character thing has been a pretty popular trope over the last few years, but this one doesn’t mess around with silly ambiguity.  Shaun knows he’s nuts, embraces it, and the people around him roll with it.

There’s a ton of action, good suspense, fun world building (the zombie hunters are called Irwins!), and basically everything you want for a fun, quick read.

It’s not perfect.  I feel like it was perfect, and then a critiquer or editor told the author, “You do realize that readers are morons, right?”  There were several points where I was confused because there’d been a line about a thing, I’d followed the implications of that thing all the way to their conclusion, and then spent the next chapter or two wondering why the characters weren’t reacting to the Big Important Reveal only to discover it was because they needed it explained them in excruciating detail.  Given that the meta-conspiracy was neither new in the realm of conspiracy zombie plots, nor particularly interesting, having it derail a couple chapters at a time when it came up was tragically annoying.  Also, Kelly the CDC scientist failed utterly as a character; she was never particularly sympathetic or made much sense, and when confronted with science things did not behave like a scientist.

That said, I really did enjoy this book a lot and recommend it to everybody.  It’s the middle book of a trilogy, but you don’t need to have read the first book; given how much time Deadline spends filling you in on what happened in Feed (the first book), I’m happy I hadn’t.

Embassytown still has my vote, but if Deadline wins, I won’t feel it was undeserving.

Review: Brave

I saw Brave on Saturday.  It was mediocre and I wasn’t going to bother to write a review, but then I spotted somebody on twitter saying, “Haters are misogynists.”  Well, okay, I’ve been called a misogynist before, but I have to wonder whether we saw the same movie.  This movie was not a blow for women, feminists, or, really, gender anything.  In fact, if we’re going to look at it with that lens, it sucked rather hard.

Pixar has never been bad at female characters.*  Their female characters tend to be as fleshed out and well developed as male characters filling similar structural roles, and they get to keep their clothes on.  So while yes, it was nice to Pixar finally have a female lead in one of their movies, I’m disinclined to be over the moon just because they got Merida right.  Of course they were going to get Merida right.  They know how to do that.

The problem I have with this movie was that they stopped doing any work or thinking after that.  Did you notice that the plot was so formulaic that it doesn’t actually make any sense unless you know the formula?  The main conflict is that Elinor wants Merida to accept bethrothal because if she doesn’t, the four clans will devolve back into fighting amongst themselves.  Merida doesn’t want to accept betrothal because she’s too busy running around the highlands playing with her bow and pony.  They resolve this by…telling the other clans that Merida doesn’t have to accept betrothal after all.  So now there’s no war.

Uhm…if it was that easy, why the hell was there a problem in the first place?  No, really, why?  Because that’s all they did.  As presented, either Elinor was stupid for thinking she had to pressure Merida into the bethrothal, or she was maliciously trying to force her daughter into following her own path.  Since Elinor wasn’t the villain in this story (the villain was a tacked-on bear who could have used some actual integration with the rest of everything) I’m pretty sure neither of those was meant to be the case.

Merida’s character arc consisted of tacking on, out of nowhere, an “I’m not responsible for this!” moment, and then at the climax, without any kind of apparent growth or transformation on her part, or the movie even commenting on themes of personal responsibility, tearfully declaring, “This was my fault.”  In other words, they gestured toward a character arc, then didn’t bother to, you know, actually have it in the story.  Because they had a spunky girl character, so their work was done.

Which brings me to my utter frustration with spunky girl characters as protagonists which Pixar triggered in a major way.  This is yet another movie where we have a strong girl whose entire story is defined by her relationship to marriage.  This time around we got the “Gets to put it off until later” variant of the story. Woo.  Yay.  Have we ever seen a boy protagonist have this plot?  I don’t think so.  No, this is the plot reserved for our special girl characters.  Because if we have a special girl character, this is clearly the only plot suited to her.  And to rub salt in our wounds, this time around they didn’t even bother to make the plot make sense.

Don’t get me started on how irritating it is that we’ve got two attractive female leads and not a single attractive man in the entire movie so they we can go ahead and perpetuate the old standard, “Men are boys and women are the real grownups,” tropes about marriage.  Yeah, Elinor stopping a brawl just by walking into it and grabbing the squabbling leaders by the ears was badass, but the fact that this was the only dynamic presented in the movie,** is seriously problematic.

I’m not saying Brave was a bad movie.  It was very pretty, the animation was worth a matinee ticket, and there are certainly movies that are more problematic.  I’m saying this was not the feminist triumph people seem to be touting it as.  It certainly wasn’t a movie that you’d have to be a misogynist to hate.  I just think that in order to love it, you’d have to be a feminist so desperate for something done right that you don’t look at what you actually have.

*I say this without having seen every Pixar movie, so I could be wrong.  More Pixar-obsessed friends assured me they are consistent on this.

** Reinforced from the triplets and their shenanigans, to the relationship between the lesson-teaching witch and the bad, selfish bear-prince


I finished reading this yesterday.  It is, I suspect, the best book of Miéville’s I’ve read.  The prose is every as erudite and skilled as you’d expect from a Miéville book, but achieves a grace that makes it engaging where it has, in others of his works, veered toward pretension.  Avice is definitely the first of his characters I’ve cheered for, the first who felt fully accessible, likable, and real.

As with any Miéville book, though, the brilliance is in the world building.

The premise of the books is that Embassytown is a sub-city for humans inside an alien city.  The aliens have an interesting quirk in that their language is spoken with two mouths, and while other species are perfectly capable of learning it to understand them, they cannot understand it when it’s spoken by another species.  That is, until humans figure out how to raise clones so that they are similar enough to fake it.  The alien language, or Language as the book refers to it, does not change, cannot abstract, and ruthlessly constrains the thinking possibilities of the aliens thinking it.  This is Miéville tackling the Sapir-Whof hypothesis, the linguistic theory most likely to show up in science fiction books, despite having been categorically refuted.  (Weak versions have been established pretty thoroughly, but we’re talking so weak that we use other names to talk about those phenomena.)  I was heart-broken to see Miéville going down this thoroughly hackneyed route, right up until one of the characters question whether the aliens were actually conscious, given the limitations of Language.

Miéville knew what he was doing.  He takes the concept of Language and pushes it, giving us fabulously winding plot that pokes into all the implications of an intelligent species actually bound by literal language, while applying his usual acuity with developing realistic political and social structures for, not just the human ghetto inside the alien city, but the presence of a human colony and the larger space-faring structure.

I coasted through the very first section of the book, mildly intrigued but not thoroughly hooked.  The City & the City never did quite get off the ground for me, but I love Miéville’s prose enough that it’s usually enough for me.  With the second section of the book, when we start getting into the real meat of the story, everything takes off and soon you’re wrapped up in what’s going on without realizing how that happened to you.

I want to give a special calling out to Ehrsul, a super-intelligent semi-independent computer.  As a character, I think she’s what let me develop actual interest in Avice.  As another vector along which to explore questions of consciousness, free will, and possibly coping with an awareness that you have less of both than you thought, she’s a brilliant bit of craft, letting Miéville introduce and foreshadow themes that build and pay off with a beautiful elegance at the climax.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for smart computers.

I am so, so happy Embassytown got nominated for a Hugo, because it utterly deserves it and otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have read it until next year.  I still need to read the rest of the books on the ballot, but this one has definitely set a high bar to beat.  I hope none of them fall short because angsting over which of the brilliant books to vote for sounds like a voting problem I’d love to have this year.

3: The Ghost you Gave to Me

I didn’t really ever go to live shows until about eight years ago.  Even when I started going, it was more for the company than the show itself.  That changed one night at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago.  Nick was there to see the penultimate act, a band I’d never heard of called 3 despite, inexplicably, having five members.  I was there for the same reason I usually went to concerts with Nick: it was a great opportunity to grab his ass in public.  This concert changed that.

Of course I liked them.  They’ve got a subtle sense of the creepy that is exactly me.  Like Astroknot.

Also, I’m a sucker for the kind of tricky guitar skills they flaunt almost self-indulgently.  Hearing the recordings is impressive enough, but encountering it for the first time live, in a small club, when you weren’t expecting anything worth paying much attention to?

Yeah, we’re talking about my favorite band.

Because I’m an osmotic geek, meaning I put myself near people who are interested in cool things then find the cool things through them, I generally find out about new albums from bands I like when Nick hands them to me.  Months ago, Nick handed over The Ghost you Gave to Me, and I was super thrilled.  I promptly popped it into my car stereo and prepared to have my mind blown.

3 changes a lot from album to album.  A whole lot.  Their sound has gotten bigger, richer, more complex with each album.  They’ve gone from a fairly straight-forward trio to a practically theatrical force hard enough to get classed as “Progressive Rock.”  Their prior album, The End is Begun, was such a departure from the one before that you might not realize they were the same band.  So I knew what I was in for: something completely new.

“It sounds like the B-side songs from The End is Begun,” I complained tragically to Nick.

“The production values aren’t as good, either,” he said.  I’d blamed my car speakers for that. Woe.  I only had one CD in my car, though, and the commercials on the radio were driving me nuts.  So I left it in, figuring I’d switch to station-hopping as soon as I got tired of it.

Two weeks later, it was still looping on my car stereo.  It was still fresh, and so, so much better than I’d thought.  They didn’t jump off in a new direction from The End is Begun, they went and perfected it.  More impressive, given the shuffle-culture of modern music listening, they’d constructed an album that works fantastically as a whole.  It opens with an intro, a “Listen up, this is what we’re doing, so settle down and get ready for it,” that transitions perfectly into the first real track, “React.”

The pace of the song switches back and forth, building up to an instrumental bridge and the rest of the song is a crescendo, spiraling off the themes introduced in the first half and practically screaming, “Hey, we’ve got subtle and complex down and we are wallowing in it.”  There’s a moment in the final bars that almost sounds like a throwback to Astroknot.  In other words, I judged way, way too quickly.  They knew exactly what they were doing, they were doing it on purpose, and they were right.

The production values aren’t quite as good as what they had for The End is Begun.  I don’t care.  The album takes you from moment to moment, getting intense then letting up and giving you some room to breathe, all while keeping up the same slightly spooky lyrical atmosphere and dodging rank pretension.

I could make arguments in favor of just about every track, but my absolute favorite is the last one.

It’s not my favorite because it’s the best song on the album, but because it pulls off the nearly impossible: a sentimental, slow-dance love song that doesn’t make me want to gag or leave me feeling dirty for liking it.  (Of course, I would adore a love song that features the lyrics, “Looking like you love me still/ As you kill me goodbye.”)

They bring the same instrumental competence and melodic complexity they apply everywhere else, and tie them together with a string of surreal, numinous imagery that precisely captures this sort of song aims for and draws you into it, wrapping up with just enough closure that if the album goes quiet you’re happy to sit and ponder it.  And if, because it’s in your car stereo, the disc spins up and starts over, that intro grabs you without breaking the mood and the next thing you know, you’re on the ride again.  That’s not a bad thing.

Glass Nickel Does Good

Wednesday canvassing happens out of the Glass Nickel on Muir Field.  Last night, that shaped dinner plans.  I was going to knock on doorways, then I was going to order a Thai pie and take it home to my hungry roommate and have a relaxing evening filled with working while showing off Mad Men to a buddy.  My ambitions were small, but important, since this week has been full of mornings and canvassing makes me hungry.

With triumph I returned to Glass Nickel, placed my order, and sat down to be useful for ten-fifteen minutes while I waited for my order to finish.  And forty minutes alter, plaintively asked whether my pizza was done.  It was, and had been for about half an hour.  Sad, hungry Anaea, now with tepid pizza.  I’m about to send of messages alerting people to my impending arrival when the guy who’d taken my order interrupts.  “I feel really bad about that.  Let me make you another one.”

“That’s okay,” I say, because I’m hungry and want to go home and still have several hours of work to do before I can call it a day.

“No, really.   It’ll just be ten minutes, I promise.”  So I sit back down, forlorn, but in the fuddled-phase of hungry that makes it hard to do much else.

Ten minutes later I had a hot pizza.  And the assurance that I should take the cold one with me too.  And five dollars off my next Glass Nickel order.  Plus another sincere, non-cloying apology for letting my pizza sit.

That’s customer service with a bang.  I’m not only not upset about my tepid pizza (It was annoying, but not a fiasco), I’m super pleased with the response to it.  Good job, Glass Nickel on Muir field.  Good job.  I will so be going back.  Just, you know, not until after we finish off these Thai pies filling the fridge.

Marvelous Mustard

Those of you who aren’t from Wisconsin may not realize this, but Madison has the singular honor of being home to the National Mustard Museum.  Okay, technically the honor belongs to Middleton, a suburb of Madison that is distinguishable from the rest of the city only because the food is less exciting and the age demographics tilt toward the retired.  Downtown Middleton is the westernmost walkable portion of the Madison area, so I give it mad props for that, at least.  Also, their library is quite nice.  But today we’re talking about the Mustard Museum.

This particular establishment used to be in Mt. Horeb, a place in Wisconsin so desolate and mythical I drove through it once on my way to go skiing but otherwise don’t really believe it exists.  Their building got sold and they had to move, so they decided to go to the people, rather than making the people go to them.  This was great because, despite repeated declarations that it was, “totally worth the drive,” I was never going to actually go to the Mustard Museum where it was.  Even in Middleton, it took a Groupon for me to remember the Mustard Museum long enough to actually go.  It’s possible my devotion to mustard is shabby.

I’m not going to lie; as a museum, this place was a huge let down.  The exhibits were thin on content, high on kitsch.  That would have been fine, but the kitsch was displayed in big clumps, leaving only the large mustard bottle costume as a real stand out.  One of the staff commented that they were working hard on applying for grants so they could keep the museum free.  I hope they get these grants, because the place is barely worth visiting at a free price point.  This is the expert opinion of somebody who spent her childhood going to various museums and liking it.  Given that the new space in Middleton is larger than the one in Mt. Horeb, everybody who tried to talk me into driving out to it owes me an apology.

Here’s the thing, though.  This place should not be judged as a museum; it’s a mustard store.    And it’s not just any mustard store, it is the coolest, best stocked, most exciting mustard store you can imagine.  They have tons of different kinds of mustards, well organized and nicely presented.  They have friendly staff who can talk at length about the different mustards and what they pair well with.  Best of all, they have samples of all of the mustards available so you can look at a jar and say, “Chocolate mustard?  This is either brilliant or awful and I must know which!”  (It was awful.  But the shallot mustard, and the Three Monkeys mustard were both excellent enough to buy.  The mustard cheese has been dubbed “crackalicious”)  Do you know Vom Foss?  This is the Vom Foss of mustard.  I don’t say that lightly.

The people running the place seem very, very convinced they’re a museum.  Meh, whatever makes them happy.  I just hope they don’t spend so much time chasing that down that they neglect the thing they’re actually good at, i.e. hooking me up with neat tasty spreadables.

Review: The Iron Lady

A Margaret Thatcher movie with Meryl Streep?  You better believe I was there.  The movie was good, Streep gave a performance exactly as good as you would expect from her.  But when I walked out of it, the people I was with were under the impression I did not like it.  Here’s why: It was a crap movie about Thatcher.

The movie opens in 2009 with Thatcher buying milk at a local grocery store.  She’s a doddering, slightly fuddled old woman clearly overstimulated by the small store and intimidated by the other (non-white!) customers.  “Milk has gone up,” she says to a hallucination of her dead husband over breakfast, and all of a sudden she’s sharp on the ball.  This is your first clue that this movie was badly marketed and horrifically titled.  It’s not about Thatcher, it’s about getting old, losing your faculties while you’re aware enough to know it’s happening, and staying true to your sense of self even as age and time is taking it away from you.

As a movie about a formerly formidable woman coping with the betrayal of time, it’s brilliant.  You get just enough flashbacks to the past to imbue the current timeline scenes with an extra level of emotional complexity.  My favorite moment was when she goes in to the doctor at her daughter’s insistence and he asks her if she’s having hallucinations.  “No,” she says, despite having yelled at her hallucination to leave her alone in the previous scene.  It’s a delightfully subtle demonstration of a woman too trapped by her pride and dignity to accept the help she needs in order to maintain either.

As a Thatcher movie, if you nothing else, you’d walk away from it thinking that Thatcher was a spunky girl who skipped into the Prime Ministership, did something nebulously controversial, started a war, felt bad about it, won it, then got run out  of office after yelling at her secretary.  Which, uhm, well.  I don’t think you have to like Thatcher to think that’s a rather weak, unsatisfactory rendering of her career.  A good movie would have come down either in favor of her or condemned her, a great movie would have rendered her career and let the audience’s prejudices make the choice.  This movie flinched entirely and avoided the issue.

Judging a movie for failing to live up to its advertising isn’t fair.  But this movie stumbled on the title.  You can’t call it, “The Iron Lady,” then wince when it’s time to portray Thatcher’s career.  I feel like the movie they actually made would have been much better served with a rust pun in the title, or something.  As it is, it took on the baggage of a pile of expectations it fails to meet.  Great movie; terrible Thatcher movie.

Mourning River

Spoilers below.  The only non-vague ones are references to River Song’s plotline.

My unhealthy love/hate relationship with Doctor Who is no secret.  That I’ve fallen desperately in love with the character of the Doctor, with the TARDIS, with a universe bereft of Time Lords and wandered by a their lonely, blood-stained destroyer is no secret.  That the writing, frequently lazy and often poorly thought out, used to tell the stories, the characters chosen to accompany the Doctor, the themes the show opts to explore often disappoint me to the point of fury, also not a secret.  There are things about the show I don’t like which come down to a matter of taste, but the show commits enough objective sins that I’m willing to hold it accountable for the subjective ones as well.

The first episode of the new series is bad.  Living plastic is dumb, the device they use to resolve it idiotic, Rose is a twit, and the dialog is nowhere near snappy enough to make up for any of that.  I went on to watch the second episode for one reason.  When Rose tries to pin down exactly who the Doctor is and it’s clear he’ll have to tell her something, the Doctor says this:

It’s like when you’re a kid, the first time they tell you that the world is turning and you just can’t quite believe it ’cause everything looks like it’s standing still. I can feel it – the turn of the earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinning at a thousand miles an hour. The entire planet is hurtling around the sun at sixty seven thousand miles an hour. And I can feel it. We’re falling through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world. And, if we let go…  That’s who I am. Now forget me, Rose Tyler. Go home.

Everything up to the penultimate sentence there is great, but not enough to redeem anything.  It’s that, plus the self abnegation that works for me.  I knew nothing at all about the series at that point.  But the Doctor was something special, something subtle and wonderful, and frightened of himself.  Of course I watched another episode.

One of my problems with the show is how very much it embodies the idea that humans, as a species, are rather pathetic.  I could cite nearly getting overtaken by fart-joke aliens as proof, but even the series seems to acknowledge the Slytheen were a mistake by not bringing them back after the first season.  There is that.  But Rose makes a sufficient case on her own.  The Doctor endlessly marvels at her compassion, cites this trait as the thing that makes her worthy, but that compassion is useful mostly as a plot device enabling her to do stupid, stupid things.  She wanders into traps, resurrects galaxy destroying villains, and gets hampered down in side plots all the time because of this “compassion.”  She’s not compassionate, she’s an idiot.  Her biggest redeeming quality is that she has the self-awareness to know what a lucky break she has in the Doctor, and acknowledging how much better she is with him than without.  But as a case for humanity, Rose’s argument seems to be that at our best, we’re puppies.  Affectionate, cute, but ultimately helpless.

Martha’s better.  She’s competent, assertive.  And inexplicably, character-shatteringly in love with the Doctor.  Falling for the Doctor is a sign of good taste, sure, but she is at points actively miserable as a consequence.  Humans, in the face of something as wonderful as the Doctor, even the best of them just freeze up with awe.  At least Martha had the sense to put herself out of her misery.  Still, not a great argument for humanity.  And if you think I’m being unfair, let me cite the extraordinary ease with which Harold Saxon pulled off his plot.  Oh those humans, so easy to bamboozle and manipulate.

Donna finally gives us somebody capable of seeing the Doctor plainly.  And she’s the best case, out of the traditional companions, made for humans.  Donna is actually compassionate; she forces the Doctor to actually examine the Ood situation as Rose never did.  She’s also competent and provides her own skill set to compliment the Doctor’s, like Martha did.  And like the Doctor, she has deep-seated self-image issues.  Donna’s revolve around her worth, though.  She’s not good enough, not clever enough, not successful enough.  We meet her when she’s desperate to get married because she needs the validation, and we’re told she gets a happy ending when she finally manages it.  In short, the only humans who can run with the Doctor without being completely warped by him manage it, not because they’re worthy, but because they’re convinced they aren’t.

Amy and Rory, not better.  But let’s stay with S4 for a minute.  I’ll direct your attention there because the Library is where we finally find a convincing argument for why the Doctor should spend so much time so dedicated to humans.  Yes, I’m talking about River Song.  For the first time we meet a human who is the Doctor’s match.  She’s clever and confident, knows the value of the Doctor but capable of coping on her own.  In some places she even outstrips him – she knows more about the TARDIS, about his future, knows him better than he does himself.  River Song is a character who, if she were to travel along with the Doctor, would be there as his equal, not his elevated pet.  Go team human.

At the end of S5, when Amy and Rory are getting fuddled and dead, River is holding her own, pulling some strings, and shooting Daleks, not because she’s frightened and helpless, but because she’s pissed and independent enough that the Doctor’s ethics do not control her.  The Big Bang was the first finale in the show which didn’t disappoint me, after a long slew of finales that often left me screaming obscenities and cursing the names of various writers.  River Song was a huge part of that.  At last, a human role model for me.  Somebody other than the Master who can match the Doctor and remain themselves.  It was lovely, a reward for sticking with this show that takes such joy in hurting me so much.

Of course it was doomed.  I knew the other shoe was coming.  And when, as the first half of S6 started to wind down I figured out the shape of the shoe, I grumbled.  While watching A Good Man Goes to War, one of my buddies asked why I was making the growly angry noises.  “Because they’re about to kill River and I do not like it.”  And they did.  Oh boy, did they ever.

Leaving aside the sloppy plotting behind the Schrodinger pregnancy and the urge to flesh out River’s back story at all, the real crime there was in the DNA.  River’s not human, she’s “Human plus Time Lord.”  It’s bad enough to say she is what she is because she was deliberately groomed into it, but in one scene the show takes the only truly worthy example of humanity in the show and says we can’t claim her.  Never mind, team human.  Rose really is all you have to offer.

Why can’t humans be as wonderful and enigmatic as the Doctor?  Why must we be a series of victims, of helpless, needy, nobodies at turns awed or spiteful when confronted with the Doctor?  It’s not his alienness that makes the Doctor wonderful, it’s his cleverness, his knowledge, his outlook, and his technology.  The character stakes are so much higher, the depths of pathos so much richer, if we raise the bar for humanity.  Wouldn’t it be better if the Doctor’s companions fall because their mortal, not because they’re feeble; if they leave because they have their own adventures to explore, not because remaining with the Doctor will destroy them?

I can never have River back.  And since the show put her there, then broke her, I will probably never get the thing River could have been for me.  I’ve faulted this show for failing because it thinks camp is an ends to itself, for using its designation as a family show to enable sloppy plotting, and for relying on nostalgia for worn out plot devices to carry them through.  But I think I’ve been harping on the wrong flaws.  The show’s real failure is one of vision.  For all that the Doctor walks through the universe praising humans for their wonderful humanness, insisting we’re special and wonderful, the show doesn’t believe it.  And maybe that’s the Doctor’s final tragedy, that he’s deluded himself into believing we’re better than we are and is doomed for bitter disappointment.  I don’t accept that.  Let’s leave the self-loathing to the Doctor.  Give me humans I can be proud of.