Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Comparing the two Doctor Whos by their Christmas specials

It's a good time to be a Doctor Who fan. In 1963 a character was created that erupted onto Britain's pop culture map. He started out as a wily grandfather but, with each incarnation, Doctor Who becomes a markedly different show. In his first incarnation, the Doctor was a wily grandfather type. Then he became more of a wacky uncle. Eleven incarnations and almost 40 years later (minus the hiatus in late 80s through to the 90s), the Doctor has been there on British television screens to whisk his audience away on adventure. But for some reason, it has taken Doctor Who almost 40 years to really build an American audience. Sure the old series used to run on PBS, but it was only during the most recent regeneration that the show has really gained a foothold in the states. Maybe it's Eleven's bow tie that finally made him mainstream in America.

Bow ties certainly helped Tucker Carlson's popularity.

With eleven incarnations, everybody has their own Doctor. I admit, it was during David Tennant's run that I originally started watching Doctor Who. I have always been a fan of time travel stories since I was little (I once tried to make my own time machine out of waffle blocks, a skateboard and a clock taped to my vehicle). And while I was aware of the older Doctor Who series, it wasn't until the new series premiering in 2005 that I really had a chance to watch it. Produced by Russel T. Davies and starring Christopher Eccleston, the revamped Doctor Who proved popular enough to continue past the first series. But it wasn't until Tennant took over the role that it really found its voice.

Tennant really was wonderful in the role.

And so the show continued, with Davies showrunning and Tennant starring. Doctor Who continued to be a success, but it was very campy and pulpy. Yes the series has always been tongue-in-cheek, however Doctor Who as a series never seemed to live up to its potential. With limitless storytelling opportunities at their disposal, having all of time and space to work with, series two, three and four just seemed to tell the same stories repeatedly. Let's look at the Christmas specials for simplicities sake.

Consider this my late Christmas post.

You see, Doctor Who has a tradition of running a special, a mostly standalone, extended episode around Christmas. During the Davies years, they have all been defined by giant invasions of tragedies. Just like most of the normal episodes, there was high stakes and high drama to be had by all. Whether it's an alien invasion, Victorian Cybermen or a futuristic Titanic disaster, Davies always struggled to tell huge stories with lots of sacrifice and action. These qualities define Davies' time as showrunner, with the world always in peril every week and the Doctor always there to save it. The Doctor became a messianic figure under Davies, and there is nothing fun about a messianic figure.

Sorry Jesus, happy birthday though.

When Davies left and Steven Moffat took over as showrunner, the show gained a new life and, with it a new following. Moffat infused a new sense of adventure that was lost in the RTD era. With Matthew Smith as the Eleventh Doctor, there was an energy to the show that has allowed it to finally become popular in America. While yes there was a niche audience of American fans before, now the ratings have never been better. Moffat brings a level of maturity to what is basically considered a kids program. For Moffat, the world doesn't need to be at peril every Christmas. Yes he has only produced two specials so far, but those two specials are head and shoulders above all the ones by Davies.

Series five and six feel completely different from the previous series, in a good way.

Both this year and last year, Moffat has crafted personal little tales about individuals in need to help. And not just sonic screwdriver help, but emotional help. The Doctor doesn't just save them from peril, but helps them become better people. The Earth being in danger is played out in science fiction, leaving the threat hollow, especially for a show like Doctor Who. But for the past few years it wasn't the Earth on the line, but instead the soul of a grumpy old man or the strength of a wounded mother. By focusing on real people instead of abstract threats of doomsday weapons, Moffat has allowed for real emotion to seep into the series. We are no longer told to follow our imagination and go on adventure, we are instead wrapped up in it.

Sidebar: Imagine if Terry Gilliam ever got his hands on Doctor Who? It would be awesome.

Davies used Doctor Who to play off our fears as children of monsters in our closet. But we needn't worry, because David Tennant will than show up in his blue box and save us all. Moffat instead humanizes those monsters. It's really quite funny, the past few series have been the darkest Who has been, but it still carries with it this childlike wonderment that you can't force or fake. Between Moffat's writing and Smith's acting, we have a Doctor that is both relatable and alien. The show is really a strange amalgam of themes but oddly it works brilliantly. Doctor Who could never gestate anywhere else but England. If Doctor Who was developed in America it could of never grown into its weirdness (for other weird but charming British shows, just check out Mighty Boosh), it would of instead compromised itself and been cancelled after a season. But instead we have a completely charming series that I enjoy watching. So, while I started watching with Tennant, I have no problem saying that Smith is my Doctor. He does a damn fine job.

Ignore the giant eyeball and just listen to the speech.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quadrophenia: The greatest album ever made

Don Woods (Mr. Jim): One of my favorite party tricks involves my friend Tom. You see, I become a bit out of depth when the subject of music comes up in party conversation. As I've admitted before, I've always appreciated music but to call myself a music-person would seem obscene to those that make it their life. But during these conversations I try and steer the direction of discussion to great albums. I state my case as to the best album of all time, get met with disbelief, and instantly grab a random member of the party to back me up. Grabbing my friend Tom (he is tall, you can't miss him in a room), we immediately babble on about the greatest album of all time: Quadrophenia. Then me and Tom get wrapped up talking about The Who and forget there is a party around us. With last week's re-release of Quadrophenia, it seemed a good time to finally talk about it on here.

It's not an album, it's an experience.

(Aforementioned friend) Tom Henry (Dr. Jimmy): Every year Guitar World releases a review of the best concept album of all time and year in and year out the winner is The Who’s Tommy. All I have to say to that is: bollocks. Tommy revolutionized rock n’ roll when it came out in 1969 and became The Who’s first commercially successful album. Until that point, The Who was an immensely popular Mod band trying to make it big. Most of the money they made on album sales and touring was spent to pay for damages the band made to concert venues and hotel rooms.

Keith Moon taking a break between wrecking hotel rooms.

Tommy eventually led to a movie and Broadway play which made the band economically viable, thus allowing them to explore further into rock. What followed are four of the greatest albums of all time: The Who by Numbers, Who’s Next, Who Are You and of course the single greatest album of all time, Quadrophenia.

DW: It's a completely lazy comparison, but I see Quadrophenia as being like an album version of Catcher in the Rye. It's a violent, seedy, coming of age story. Jimmy, the protagonist of the rock opera, represents all of us frustrated with life. Thank god Pete Townshend has such a large nose, or else the frustration that sells the album would never be there. The sound and fury of Townshend's guitar and Roger Daltrey's wail speak out for generations of disillusioned kids. By listening to this album we know that we are not as lost as we think we are. And though we maybe stuck on a rock, we can still find redemption in the rain.

Here is the soundtrack of the film based on an album.

I found Quadrophenia in my senior year of high school. Senior year is obviously trying for any adolescent, and my existential crisis seemed more severe than most. Through my lows during that year and summer, I knew I could always turn to The Who. And though I'm sure it's trite to say, I owe a lot to Quadrophenia. That album consoled me more than anything else.

It's not emo if you kick ass at the same time.

TH: While I have never been particularly plagued with angst, Quadrophenia has struck a cord with me ever since I first heard it. My uncle is responsible to introducing me to my Who-obsession. While I have always been a big Who fan (the first album I bought was a greatest hits album) I was a little late in discovering Quadrophenia. What can I say, I was a traditionalist. I believed in the Tommy/Who’s Next paradigm. What could be better? Then a rude awakening came in the way of the songs 5:15 and Love Reign o’er Me. Over the last four years my liking of Quadrophenia has blossomed into love. And not just fleeting infatuation as happens with modern Top 40 songs. Real, full on love.

Tom's favorite song.

This album is perfect. It features the flawless writing of Townshend and one of the greatest hard rock vocalists of all time in the form of Daltrey. John Entwistle is the little appreciated hero, who competes year in and year out for the greatest bassist of all time [only competition being Flea and JPJ (DW: and Les Claypool)]. And, of course, the greatest drummer of all time in Keith Moon.

Bassist never get much love.

DW: I admit The Who aren't as great as they once were. Bad Super Bowl shows and reliance on CSI royalties have showed that they aren't the hard rocking band they once were. But that's fine because the albums from their prime still live up to this day. It means a lot for an album to still have relevance this far down the road. Quadrophenia, however, is not just an album. For me, Quadrophenia was a lifeboat during turbulent times. And I know I'm not the only one that feels that way. My general taste in music might lean more towards the garage-rock revival of the double-0's and Radiohead, but my favorite album will always be Quadrophenia.

Donny's favorite Quadrophenia song.

TH: While I am unabashedly in love with this album I am not the only one nor am I its biggest fan. That proud honor belongs to Eddie Vedder. Yes, the Golden Baritone himself (DW: I'm not the biggest Vedder fan). Vedder covered Love, Reign O’ver Me for the 2007 film Reign Over Me; however he needed Daltry to coax him into recording it. Vedder initially turned down Adam Sandler’s request because Vedder, like me, believes that you can’t outdo perfection. On multiple occasions Vedder has spoken about the role that the Who played in his life and, specifically, how Quadrophenia influenced his work. Like Donny and I, Quadriophenia played an important role in his life. Pearl Jam really did a nice job of paying tribute to those that came before them and it was really special to see them pay tribute to the Who at VH1’s 2008 Rock Honors performing songs off of Quadrophenia.

Pearl Jams are the only other people that can ever do Love Reign O'er Me justice.

All in all, Quadrophenia is a tour de force. It's not so much music as much as it's pure raw emotion. You can feel it. Even after the music stops it resonates with you. It really is a masterpiece of writing that you just do not expect from a rock band. With Quadrophenia, The Who transcend the hard rock genre. They give us something real. Quadrophenia is a culmination of everything The Who stands for. If the band was judged solely on this album, than they should be so lucky.

The Who?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Extreme sword-and-sandal flicks suck

Myths have never truly been high art. Their age may lend a semblance of class to these stories of old but, in all honesty, they're just nice stories. And that's why they've survived for so long. Oral histories and blind poets spread these stories because they were cool. The stories are a witness to a long dead society, and by being passed on that society is still made full. Its character lives on despite the ruined columns and empty temples. Being mostly passed on through oral histories, these stories lend itself to alteration. No two collections of myths seem to have the exact same story. Yet, while the stories lend themselves to change, it's a bastardization to revamp these stories to fit the extreme attitudes of today.

Just one more insult in a subgenre of mediocrity.

The sword-and-sandal genre was largely forgotten until 2000's Gladiator. A brilliant and epic film, Gladiator is, to me, one of the great movies of the last decade. Gladiator is the kind of movie that lends itself to a type of grandeur rarely seen in today's cinema. It does not ask for this reverence, it instead earns it. Gladiator is one of the few films I can consider new classics (Shawshank Redemption can be another example). These are films that, ten years from now, we'll see them running on TCM (the pinnacle of film channels) instead of reruns on Spike.

Are you not entertained?

Less successful attempts at the genre include Alexander and Troy, two 2004 movies that tried to ape Gladiator's greatness yet missed out on its class. While they may be entertaining in their own right, they do nothing to benefit their genre or their audiences. Instead you get Brad Pitt with a ridiculous accent and Colin Farrell lost in a mess of a movie. After such overbloated failures the genre grew stagnant. There were no more attempts at strapping sandals on overpaid actors. That was until two years later when Zack Snyder took a Frank Miller graphic novel and tricked it out in a glorious fashion.

Glory and gory.

The transgressive sword-and-sandal subgenre first really emerged with the God of War video game series. With the idea still new and fresh, Kratos' bloody revenge on Greek mythology made for an excellent video game experience. A visceral hack-and-slash game that both recognized its shallowness and overcame it. A little after God of War rocked the Playstation 2, 300 premiered in theaters. Taking the idea of mythological epics to new heights, 300 took the fictional part of historical-fiction in an extreme direction.

Step one: Cast Vincent Regan (See Troy, 300 and Clash of the Titans).

And while critics were not huge fans of the film, testosterone fueled frat boys ate it up, if only for them to now have an idea for group Halloween costumes that let them wear a cape. While charming in its style, which has become somewhat of a cliche now, 300 because an archtype. Its slow-mo fight scenes and desire to prove its masculinity has been both spoofed and imitated since it came into theaters. But while 300 was a somewhat fresh take on Greek myth, it has since become stale.

Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.

The art of mixing overacting, overblown special effects and thrashing guitar soundtracks have birthed Clash of the Titans and Immortals (Immortals was released last Friday on 11/11/11). Greek myth has lasted thousands of years to be made into a loud, cacophonous mess. The myths themselves are nothing but window-dressing for hollow messes. This isn't a debate about which Kraken was better rendered, the 1981 version or the 2010 version. Instead this is a question of overdoing the Kraken because you have a giant special effects budget and you just know the monster could use more teeth.

Need a Kraken? Why not Zoidberg?

So hopefully this extreme genre dies out. Because while it may of once been exciting, nothing gets boring faster than the extreme. It's just become its own cliche. It even has it's own television show with Starz's Spartacus series. Void of any real meaning, which is the complete opposite of the original myths, the movies are nothing more than quickly made popcorn flicks with tacked on 3-D to raise ticket prices. My judgement against Immortals is even more personal, considering the fact that Theseus was my favorite Greek hero. But then again, maybe I should just be happy that Immortals dethroned Puss in Boots in the box office.

Dreamworks isn't even trying anymore.