Desert Flora Through Time and Space

One of my earliest memories is when I was a really, really young child, and I stumbled on my dad watching Doctor Who for the first time. The image seared into my brain was a man with brown, curly hair and a large, red scarf, made up to look like a cactus, stumbling around. Scared the living crap out of me.

Almost forty years later, I’m watching “Meglos” again, and two things occur to me. One is that the model work on the pirates’ spaceship was outstanding, and I have no idea how they did it at that budget.

More importantly, in the eighties, most movie and TV producers would look at a script and say, “Put our lead actor in full cactus makeup? That would be ridiculous! Not on my watch!” But Doctor Who producers read the script and said, “Tom Baker as a cactus? That would be ridiculous! I don’t care what it takes, make it happen!”

And that’s why I will always love Doctor Who best.

The Hero We Need

Something I’ve been thinking about lately as I’ve been watching more TV and movies due to being trapped in the apartment. Star Trek, as a concept, will always be superior to Star Wars*, and that’s because of what it teaches you about heroism.

In Star Trek, Captain Kirk wasn’t there to save the day because of some prophesy, he was there to save the day because he chose to go through Starfleet Academy, and he performed well at his job, and he was promoted to captain. Picard wasn’t born to be captain, he earned it.

In Star Wars, you’re either born a Jedi, or you’re not. You can’t choose to become a Jedi. Also, being part of the Skywalker family absolves you of murder and genocide, so there’s that. I know, I know, Star Wars fans, there’s Han Solo and Poe Dameron and Finn and all these guys who are heroes despite not being born with the gift, but their stories take second billing to the battle between The Light and Dark side.

This isn’t just Star Wars. Hardly a property exists anymore where the hero isn’t made, they’re born. Harry Potter (all the characters), Neo, the aforementioned Luke Skywalker, Thor, both Buffy and Angel, the new Sabrina, Doctor Who now, and so on. It’s this damned hero’s journey that Hollywood is so obsessed by, where heroism is this external force that is bestowed on someone, as opposed to them actually deciding to be a hero on their own. And, yes, I know that many of these characters resist being a hero, but destiny is destiny, and they are heroes anyway.

Who out there do I consider to be a self-made hero? Captain Malcolm Reynolds is my first choice—even when he resists doing the right thing, he does the right thing because it’s the right thing. Spider-Man—a spider didn’t choose to bite him as his birthright, it bit him at random, and he eventually took responsibility and did the right thing. Steve Rogers—he signed up to be experimented on because it was the one way he could help sock Hitler in the jaw (if he didn’t die from said experiment). What makes these my top three choices is that they’re not exceptional: anybody could be bitten by a bug or volunteer to help your country. And, of course, there’s the blue-collar smuggler. It’s what they chose to do with what they got that made them special.

I think we need more media telling us that we don’t need to inherit fantastical powers or have had long dead men written about our lives to be the hero. That we need to stop letting those who are born with gifts (i.e. exceptional wealth) tell us that only they know how to save the day, because that is decidedly not true.

(On a similar note, is there an IP out there where magic isn’t genetic? This is everywhere, from Harry Potter and The Magicians to the Discworld to Sabrina and Star Wars. It’s in innumerable fantasy and urban fantasies I’ve read over the years. In my experience with magic, it’s a skill anybody can learn if they put the time and effort into it. Is there a movie/TV/book series where this is the case?)

* Put away the lightsabers and blasters, I’m exaggerating. They both have their positives and negatives, and they’re hardly the same thing, so how can you compare them?

Soothing the Savage Beast

Music was once one of the things that mattered to me most in the world. I listened to it full blast, I interpreted it with the pretention of an English professor, I waited breathlessly for album releases that were going to change my life, man, I judged people based on what they listened to, I shared it with anybody who would listen, and, as I got older, I went to innumerable shows in crowded, stinky bars. I, without exaggeration, credit music with saving my life on more than one occasion when I was a teenager.

But now, I really couldn’t care all that much about it. The last new music I bought was two years ago, and it was an album that was fifteen years old at the time. What I predominantly listen to now is the same stuff I listened to when I was in my teens and twenties. I appreciate it, I adore it, but I don’t build as much around it as much as I used to. 

I was thinking of this as I was watching that Hulu show, High Fidelity. Some of the conversations they had made as much sense as me listening to someone talk about computer components or Magic the Gathering cards. It’s the way I’d talk about Doctor Who if people would let me. And I think it’s great. Not the judgment that characters were passing on other characters for what they listened to, but the intensity, the fire. 

I think I lost mine after countless hours in the car with Kate, who was always driving and got to pick the music, most of which I didn’t like. (She did have one song that started an avalanche that greatly expanded my collection, though, and a couple of one-hit wonders I stole from her.) I had to put my hostility away to survive the trips. She was never particularly interested in what I listened to, so I had no one to share my own discoveries with. 

And then there was the spirit-breaking I have gotten working retail. Holy crap, is that some bad music. 

Somewhere along the line, I lost the passion for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you have been nodding along, saying, “Yup, that’s what getting older does.” I never lost my passion for comic books or action movies (I have lost it for cartoons, though), so I wonder, why music? Why did that have to shrivel up? It’s not because I’m an adult because I am a terrible adult. 

I’ll never understand it, so I guess I’ll just listen to some more nineties-era grunge, go to work, and tend to my teenager (who has four legs and is covered in fur). 

A Little Positivity, for Once

Lately, I’ve been watching movies starring my early 2000s celebrity crush. Most of her movies are not very good, and I’ve always known they were not very good, so I’d never waste precious minutes on them when I only had a few hours of free time a week. But now that I’ve got all the free time in the world, and my inspiration for my novel is coming at me like it’s trapped in molasses, so this is the perfect opportunity. I’m remembering why I crushed on her in the first place, so if I’m going to look at the bright side of coronavirus, here it is.

Who You Love

Everyday YouTube sends me a video it thinks I will enjoy, and 19 times out of 20, it’s wrong. But lately, it’s been drowning me in “Chibnall is KILLING the Doctor Who franchise” types of videos, and the very titles foul my mood.

Here’s the thing about them, though, that I think unsettles me the most. You can’t tell them that if they hate it so much, stop watching, because in their minds, they’re the true fans. They have in their heads this ideal of Doctor Who that’s so shining and specific and beloved and perfect that anything that strays from that must be protested. They think they’re helping by demanding that Doctor Who be only its best. And of course there’s all the raging misogyny behind it, cleverly disguised by focusing their attacks on “bad writing” and Chris Chibnall.

In general, I’m the type of person who stops watching a show when I stop enjoying it, so this attitude is a little too masochistic and narcissistic for me, though I did continue to watch Doctor Who through the Moffat years, despite the fact that I wasn’t enjoying the show as a whole anymore. I hung on because I was open to the good moments and the performances, of which there were many, and I wouldn’t dream of demanding my favorite show’s cancellation. Stephen Moffat wouldn’t be showrunner forever.

I started watching Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years. If I decided that this was the only way the show could possibly be, I’d be one miserable tool right now. And that’s what they are, miserable and impossible to please, and meanwhile, we’re here as the Doctor Who Fans Who Actually Like the Show, and we’re having a great time watching a show we love. If this was a contest, we’d be winning.

Who Asked You Anyway?

Classic Doctor Who Will Always Be Superior to New Who: A Thesis in One Episode 

I was recently discussing the Classic Who serial, “The Stones of Blood,” with my sister Rachel. The villain of that adventure is Stonehenge. I don’t mean a extra-dimensional monster that exists in Stonehenge. I don’t mean the Space Druids who built Stonehenge returning to fulfill its nefarious purpose. (Both of which would make excellent episodes of Doctor Who.) I mean the slabs of rock that make up Stonehenge, eating people. And the stones didn’t shoot lasers or fly or have big teeth. They slid along the ground at a speed of a sloth on Dramamine stuck in molasses. 

Somebody pitched this at the writers’ table, and the showrunner (Douglas Adams, I think) said yes, make this dream a reality! 

The ability of a monster to be convincing on Doctor Who rests on the ability of the actors, especially the one playing the Doctor, to sell its menace. Do you think Jodie Whittaker or Peter Capaldi or even David Tennant could face down a foam boulder on wheels being pushed by two key grips offscreen and be terrified? Tom Baker could. Nowadays they show off an actor in a fortune’s worth of makeup or an artist’s rendering of what the CGI is going to look like, and the Doctor barely has to try. Back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, they had a hundred bucks and the wizardry of imagination constrained. Nowadays they have a pretty good idea of the formula and what worked. Back in the seventies, even after the show had been on for over ten years, they had no clue what they were doing, they just knew it was working. 

I love the new show. I bought season 12 on iTunes for a lot of money, and I haven’t regretted it (even after that resort episode, yuck). The monsters could fit I to any sci-fi/fantasy show, and the most exciting plots of New Who are like last Sunday’s episode, fully self-referential to its own mythology. Arguably, the most exciting plot of Classic Who was that the Doctor meets an art thief who was actually an alien whose ship visiting ancient Earth was split up into a dozen or more selves linked psychically over the centuries who convinces Leonardo da Vinci to paint seven copies of the Mona Lisa so he can steal one and sell all seven at top price so he can finance his time machine to go back to his space ship and keep it from exploding but that explosion is literally the first spark of Earth life and if it doesn’t happen, humans won’t exist. What’s more fun, the revelation that the Doctor’s past may be a lie, or the Doctor wandering into an adventure that has no idea what genre it is? 

In conclusion, New Who lacks the sheer audacity of Classic Who, and unfortunately, as the audiences are more sophisticated and TV is being considered art, we’ll never see a show like that again. 

In Defense of the Empire

I’m thinking about the original Star Wars trilogy, and if we look at it only in terms of what we learned in the original trilogy, was the Empire that bad? Sure you hear about how bad the Empire is, with its ruthless something or other, but who do you hear that from? Princess Leia. A terrorist. You don’t see any of the ruthlessness they talk about in any of the planets they visit (although, to be fair, the only regular planet they visit is Tatooine). The symbols of oppression, the Storm Troopers, are checking vehicles for stolen droids that were used by the terrorists to smuggle classified data. That seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for a law-enforcement group to do. Basically, from what little we see of day-to-day life in the Empire, planets are self-sufficient and not really bothered too much. It’s a system of government that functions pretty well. Dissolving the Senate is not particularly democratic, but the Empire had been a dictatorship for twenty years, and spending all the tax dollars on a vestigial branch of government seems kind of wasteful. 

Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes. Alderaan. Grand Moff Tarkin ordered the destruction of planet Alderaan, ending billions of lives. Evil? Not so fast. Exploding countless innocent people because they might have some connection to terrorists is a pretty routine thing the United States does. And, yes, Obama did it too.  

Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarken are three very evil people, so they say. But they’re trying to run a galaxy here. They’re assholes, but maybe they’re just pragmatic.  

I guess I’m saying that the original Star Wars movies are pitched to us as a clash of good versus evil, but we have to take a terrorist’s word that the bad guys are really that bad. Imagine you were living in the Star Wars Galaxy, and you worked a nine-to-five job, and you were married and had kids, and your best friend was an alien who spoke to you in their alien language, and you spoke to them in English. Now imagine you turned on the news, and you hear that some teenagers in fighter jets are blowing up military bases and shooting a bunch of troops. The worst part is, it is absolutely killing your commute. It’s not clear from that point of view who’s good and who’s evil. 

And when you think about the Empire in the terms of a government that has to take care of billions of billions of people of all races and nationalities that is being attacked by guerilla warriors, what does that say about us? As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as plucky rebels overthrowing a ruthless, evil regime, but we’re really not, are we?