Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Into the Dalek"

If the Daleks can't see you, they think you don't exist.
It's a new year and the Nation estate have a contract about which I'm sure they're very pleased, so it's time to do the Twelfth Doctor's confrontation with the Daleks. We begin in a typical New Who spaceship crewed by people who don't speak BBC English, fighting a Dalek saucer. It's all very exciting. Actually, if I'm being honest, it is a bit exciting, but fear not that we're about to turn into Star Wars or something because the Daleks, as they so often do, have a Master Plan: exhaust the CGI budget. As such our space pilot's ship explodes and she finds herself on the TARDIS. Before this, we get an unnecessary shot of the upper half of a Dalek saying "Exterminate!" in his brightly lit saucer bridge in case you've forgotten that's what Daleks do. On the TARDIS, our soldier wants out but Capaldi isn't having any of it, seemingly being stubborn to make a point. I think Capaldi carries this stuff reasonably well; he has the right demeanour for a Doctor who can make demands. After dragging a "please" out of her they arrive on the main anti-Dalek rebel spaceship, the 'Aristotle.' "It's a hospital," the Doctor remarks. I can't fault him. It looks a lot like a hospital - a lot. As in a building on Earth in the present day. A spaceship with rectangular paned windows? Right. We get a tiny bit of matte painting or something of a larger hangar from one angle to try to convince us that we're in space.
Nothing to see here.
Some soldier colonel with a beard rolls up with his crew and starts being a dick: "I'm still going to kill you," even though Capaldi saved the life of this soldier, whose name is bizarrely 'Journey.' She has them spare the Doctor's life: "He's a doctor, and we have a patient." "Why does a hospital need a doctor?" the Doctor asks. Colonel McBeard fobs him off with some answer implying the Daleks showed up first and killed all the doctors, while 'Journey Blue,' whose name sounds like a brand of aftershave, tells him "You don't like soldiers." Subtlety hasn't been Moffat's strong suit for a while. Further along, they come across a big glass cylinder: "Wow, a molecular nano scaler!" the Doctor exclaims, even Capaldi incapable of delivering this kids' TV line with anything approaching believability. It reminds me of Mel exclaiming "a megabyte modem!" in 'The Trial of a Time Lord,' which also sounded very futuristic in its day. The Doctor assesses that in science fiction tradition it's used to "shrink the surgeons." That 'science fiction tradition' includes a Tom Baker serial, of course, 'The Invisible Enemy.' We're hardly in pastures new here. In any event, if they can shrink stuff, why would they need to shrink surgeons? Wouldn't they have technology far superior to human hands? Anyway, the patient under examination is none another than a Dalek: "You can't put me in there!" Doctor Capaldi exclaims with some consternation. Why not? Roll titles!
"Why am I Mister Pink?"
Back on earth, the pacing of the episode takes an abattoir bolt to the head and has its flesh sluiced away as we cut to some beefy guy called Danny Pink training little kids to be soldiers at the Coal Hill School. We get some pointless comedy and then, as in every effortless school scene ever written in anything, the bell rings. This is followed by a completely nonsensical conversation Mr. Pink has with the secretary of the school where she keeps saying things like "I bet you did," and "I know your type." What's she on about? Him being a soldier? If I was a teacher and the secretary of the school was this weird with me I'd be pissed. In class some kid asks Pretty In Pink if he's ever killed a man, and like a classic incompetent teacher he doesn't fob off the question, although he really cagily does to the question about killing anyone who wasn't a soldier. Whatever is being set up here, it's another thing not being handled in a way that could be remotely considered to be subtle, as exemplified by the cliché single tear running down his cheek. In the staff room Clara is introduced to Mr Pink, the headmaster declaring that he's "a bit of a ladykiller." Wouldn't that be kind of an unprofessional thing to say about a colleague, especially when introducing them to a fellow colleague? Danny Pink denies this: is this heavy handed foreshadowing of a future plot point that he did kill a woman, literally? Or did he not kill a woman, but did kill a man? Perhaps he killed a "good man." Why do I get the feeling we've been here before? Clara questions the soldier practice outside, asking if Danny's "teaching them how to shoot people" and if any "moral dimension" of soldiering is that you "cry about it afterwards." Why is everyone being so confrontational to this guy? Then again I'd probably find it a bit odd if I worked at a school and some guy started trying to start a sort of cadet club. Maybe he's called 'Danny Pink' in juxtaposition to anti-military 'pinkos.' Maybe that's why he's crying.
"Why are some of the most positive reviews on OCBW?"
Incapable of having a normal conversation with anyone, Mr Pink has an equally odd one with Clara where he asks "why" to basic remarks like "I was being funny." Maybe he's a robot? Then in pure sitcom style he goes to his classroom and acts out a conversation with Clara because he won't go to drinks with her for some reason. Maybe it's because he's such a non-metaphorical ladykiller; he just can't help it, and that's why he can't go - he might uncontrollably slaughter Clara during conversation. Turns out Clara is listening in and she gets him to change his mind. Wasn't there Peter Capaldi and a Dalek at some point in this? What's going on here? This isn't a sitcom, and even if it was, this wouldn't be funny. The lack of music helps, mind. Anyway Clara finds the TARDIS in her cupboard. Turns out Capaldi ditched her in Glasgow at the end of last episode, which bothers me. Inside, Capaldi manages to carry some dreadful jokes about Clara's age before asking her a dangerous question written specifically for Series 8 promos: "Am I a good man?" He needs her for something - what? Maybe to help him size up the Dalek given how morally confused he's seemingly become. Back on the Aristotle, the captured Dalek declares that "Daleks must be destroyed." Haven't we seen this before? RTD's 'Dalek Caan' in the Series 4 finale, for instance? Or, dare I mention it, the Sixth Doctor audio drama 'Jubilee' by Rob Shearman on which RTD based the 2005 episode 'Dalek'? Clara says the Doctor's prejudiced, which sets up our cannonball-subtle theme for this episode. Meeting the soldiers, who apparently let Capaldi piss off to pick up Clara despite all their talk of killing him earlier, the Doctor declares of Clara that "She cares so I don't have to." Ooh, edgy.
Mr Tickle.
The Dalek is apparently "so damaged it's turned good." Pretty sure we've seen this before too. Capaldi, Clara and some stiffs including Chanel no. 5, get miniaturised so that they can go "into the Dalek" as it were, much like the aforementioned Tom Baker serial where miniaturised duplicates of the Doctor and Leela go inside the Doctor's body. The nano scaler seems pretty daft but there you go. There's an awkward shot of the little people inside as the tiny capsule gets picked up, and then a guy who looks a bit like Shapp from 'The Armageddon Factor' inserts them into the Dalek's eye stalk. Isn't this a lot like what happened in 'Let's Kill Hitler' as well, where tiny versions of the characters ended up inside a mechanical eye? After a bizarre and inexplicable slow motion sequence they follow some equally slow 'visual impulses' - the Dalek must see everything about five seconds after it's happened - before they come to the 'cranial ledge,' a huge empty space. Pretty roomy inside a Dalek, it seems. Capaldi reveals that the Dalek's personality change is due to a malfunction in the 'cortex vault' which "keeps the Dalek pure," that "extinguishes the tiniest glimmer of kindness." This doesn't seem to mesh very well with the notion that the Daleks are born full of hate, and I'm not fond of the notion that some mechanical device represses an otherwise unmentioned positive side of their personality. Surely their ideology and genetic engineering is enough to do that. It's not unlike the thing that stops the Cybusmen from feeling emotions in that New Who Series 2 story. In a somewhat lame way the Doctor addresses the Dalek as "Rusty" and then all hell breaks loose when one of the soldiers fires a harpoon into the Dalek's armour. I don't get this either: since when did a Dalek's entire casing simulate an organic being? What would be the point of armour if it could feel pain? Maybe if they'd fired it into an organic bit - it's just an excuse to have some robotic 'antibodies' show up to menace the cast. Didn't this happen in 'Let's Kill Hitler' as well?
"You do know I'm an evil hypnotist?"
Another soldier with a beard gets disintegrated shortly after the Doctor feeds him an energy cell that will let them find out where the bodies are dumped. This turns out to be a nearby chute. "They've dumped him down there." How? The antibody was behind them - how could it have already dumped the remains? These convenient, arbitrary enemies inside the Dalek are a bit unambitious as a storytelling device. Capaldi gets everyone to jump down the slippery dip and they land in a puddle of green goo like the garbage chute from Star Wars or perhaps the Space Whale's stomach from 'The Beast Below.' Capaldi informs us that Daleks need protein. Do they? Never seen one eat anything before. They can travel through time, but they can't synthesise a few proteins to sustain their organic components? I'm overthinking this. The bearded soldier has become "the top layer if you want to say a few words," according to Capaldi, forced to play up the 'Doctor being a bit of a dick' card with which this incarnation has been saddled. He gets briefly throttled and then goes through a hole. He explains that the tunnel they go through is hot, which is presumably meant to explain why in the next scene their costumes look freshly laundered. Even if they dried, why aren't they encrusted with Dalek shit? Turns out the radiation is getting higher: for some reason Capaldi's question "Are you wearing a Geiger counter?" is one of my favourite lines of the episode because it's just... characters talking about stuff. Explaining things sensibly. It's not that hard. He figures out that the Dalek is suffering from a technobabble syndrome, a "trionic radiation leak." Why do these people want to cure the Dalek anyway? Turn him against their own kind? As Journey herself asks, "Why should we trust a Dalek?" It's not explained.
"We're in the gonads of the Dalek."
The Dalek reckons it changed its mind about things after seeing "beauty," in this case the birth of a star. It busts out another well-worn science fiction line: "resistance is futile." Apparently it's recognised the inevitability of life, which makes the Daleks' ideology seem a bit unsustainable. We've come across this before as well, haven't we? Didn't the Daleks in New York say pretty much the same thing? Capaldi hopes the Dalek isn't lying as they come upon the "heart of the Dalek," which looks a bit pants: just a bunch of rubbery looking tubes and stuff. He closes the radiation leak with the sonic screwdriver and the Dalek immediately goes back to being its normal nasty self, fighting all the soldiers and opening communications with the little toy Daleks on the saucer. The Doctor figures the Dalek wasn't "good," just "broken," but Clara slaps him because she thinks he's pleased with the fact that he was right about all Daleks being fundamentally evil. Moffat needs to cut it out with the slapping, which happened a fair bit in the Smith era too. Not only is it lazy and cliché, but it's basically saying "women have to resort to displays of physical violence because they can't express their point in any other way." He seems to think women slapping men is women standing up for themselves, but it's quite the opposite. Journey wants to place explosive charges inside the Dalek: wouldn't they be tiny and therefore weak? Clara demands that the Doctor "think" about what's going on. Meanwhile the other Daleks declare their intentions with an amusing model shot of lots of silly-looking toy Daleks. It looks a bit naff, but I complain about the lack of model work in the show, don't I? So I should probably shut my gob.
"What idea of Steven's should I refuse to do next?"
The Doctor and co inexplicably manage to climb all the way back up to where they were when they first came in, declaring that they need to get the Dalek in the frame of mind it was when it was irradiated. Apparently the radiation allowed it to "expand its consciousness." He doesn't know how to do this, however, so we can get some subverted expectations for a cheap laugh. The other Daleks attack the Aristotle: we've definitely seen this stuff before. Inside, the remaining non-Journey soldier, Gretchen, sacrifices herself to the antibodies by firing a grappling line up to the cortex thing while the Doctor simply pisses off and leaves her to die. Gretchen reappears in 'Heaven' with Miss Pickwell from the last episode. It's not dissimilar to when the Doctor rescued Journey at the beginning, lending more credence to my theory that Missy is the Master and that "Heaven" is a TARDIS. We see Daleks and soldiers blowing stuff up. Why do the Daleks care about rescuing their 'comrade'? Why not just blow up the whole ship? Somehow Capaldi gets to where the actual Dalek mutant is located, while in the cortex Clara discovers the 'memories' which are just a bunch of lights in the wall. Pretty crude system. Elsewhere, the Dalek gets one of its better lines: "Daleks do not have souls." It starts seeing memories of random shit from New Who as Clara crawls through its memory ducts, reactivating its memories simply by whacking big red buttons along the floor. Seriously? The Doctor declares that it was when he went to Skaro that he "understood who he was" and the Doctor ceased to be 'just a name.' I suggest Moffat rewatch some early Hartnell. The antibodies are coming to get Journey, but somehow Clara hitting the last memory causes the Dalek to 'reboot' and the antibodies to 'reset.' Why?
Bellissimo.
Capaldi gives an arbitrary New Who speech, waving his arms around and enthusiastically declaring stuff like "you saw a star being born!" It's probably the lack of colloquialism in the dialogue as well as a general tendency to downplay some of the more exaggerated elements of the scene that allow Capaldi to carry this without it being nearly as cringe-inducing as, say, Smith's big speech from the end of 'The Rings of Akhaten.' He does a Vulcan Mind Meld with the Dalek to get it to understand things the way it did before. Why does it see "divinity" and "endless divine perfection"? Seems a touch hyperbolic. Then it witnesses the Doctor's hatred of the Daleks and that gives it reason to go kill its buddies. "There must be more than that, please," Capaldi argues. It reminds me of Tennant always pleading "just shtop, think" etc to bad guys in his time, when it was totally ineffectual and never worked either. During a transition the Dalek somewhat abruptly remarks to itself, "Daleks are evil," which comes across as a bit silly. It goes to town on the other Daleks, who all seem totally incapable of defending themselves against this one. The Doctor resigns himself to the fact that all they ever do is kill, even when 'good.' Again, this has been established before. It's a far less sophisticated analysis, just redirecting the hatred on another source, than the climax of the audio drama 'Jubilee,' which proposes an inherent logical contradiction in the Dalek imperative: if the Daleks ever achieved their goal of universal conquest, they would have no purpose, so it's actually in their own interests that they never achieve their goal.
I've got my eye on you.
Afterwards the Dalek just sits there chatting to the Doctor and Clara. He claims that it has unfinished business, and we get a very repetitious line: "I am not a good Dalek: you are a good Dalek." Seems like that's awfully similar to what we heard in 2005. That being said, this is New Who's eighth series and its tenth year onscreen. There are probably a lot of people out there, especially (but not exclusively) young viewers who've never seen the Eccleston episodes. Weird. Anyway, the Dalek goes away after giving them a lot of sidelong glances. Apparently the leaked script called for it going back to its saucer and self-destructing but that doesn't happen here. All we see is a shot of the saucer moving away. So what happens next? Who knows. There isn't time for resolutions in forty-five minutes of New Who. The Doctor and Clara piss off, Journey tries to follow but gets rebuffed by Capaldi because she's a soldier, and it's back to school. I don't know what all this 'soldier' business is about but we'll see. Clara doesn't know if the Doctor's a good man, and off she pops. I think it's time we went back to a companion who is a full time TARDIS inhabitant: this stuff with Clara and before her the last stint of Amy and Rory seems like it's run its course. Outside, Danny Pink suggests to Clara, "I thought you might have a rule against soldiers." What is going on with this solder thing? Clara disagrees and we're done.
Could you repeat that?
The main issue with 'Into the Dalek' is the fact that it's nothing we haven't seen before. We know the Daleks bring out a pretty harsh side of the Doctor. We know Daleks are never really capable of overcoming their genetically-engineered nature. We've seen people getting miniaturised and wandering around inside other things, too, in both Old and New Who. Another very notable example I've neglected to mention, of course, is 'Carnival of Monsters' in which Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor and Jo Grant are miniaturised and explore the interior of a machine. The narrative is a bit thin, and once again the lack of a real sub plot is problematic, resulting in a lot of wandering around sets one after the other, most of which don't have much particular purpose. The message is a bit simplistic - hating haters is still hate - and the stuff on Earth feels awkwardly positioned, as well as the extremely ambiguous comments about soldiers. It also seems deeply problematic to me that we're expected to find it troubling that the Doctor has 'prejudice' against the Daleks given that they're murderous totalitarian genocidal maniacs. As usual, there's plenty of clunky dialogue. I'm tired of the RTD-era gold, rivet-laden Daleks too. Moffat's 2010 'New Paradigm' seems to have been rendered damnatio memoriae but personally I think apart from the extravagant colours a more futuristic redesign was a step in the right direction. I'd like to see the standard New Who Dalek smoothed out with some of its panels and rivets stripped away, done up in gunmetal grey or something like that, and led to battle by maybe the white New Paradigm one to mix things up a bit. Just a thought. As for the script here, Capaldi does what he can with limited material, although a lot of the stuff at the school is, and I'm just going to be blunt, impossible to sell effectively given how badly it's written. That being said, I appreciated the future setting and I enjoyed Capaldi's performance, although I found the soldiers forgettable - like so much of the New Who guest cast, let's face it, they're never really there to do much except get in the way and die - and I think Clara's characterisation was a bit disagreeable. Overall, the episode's not great but I found it inoffensive. Clearly I've been worn down; much like the Cat and Rimmer in the Red Dwarf episode 'The Inquisitor,' by New Who's own low standard this episode has acquitted itself (for me at least - other opinions are available). What we really needed here, I think, is a bit more stuff about why 'hate' exists (fight or flight responses, etc) and whether or not we're born good (as Rosseau might have said), bad (see Hobbes) or neutral (Locke). Characters should be used to consider moral questions, not moral questions used to explore characters. Too much modern popular fiction seems to think that the fictional characters and universes are things and speculative ends in themselves rather than parts of a narrative whole. The Daleks do not exist. The Daleks are us, representing our hatred and totalitarian tendencies. The question is not "can a Dalek be good?" That's amusing but pointless fannish nonsense. The question should be "what might a good Dalek represent?" By all means go into the Dalek, but in New Who don't be surprised if you just end up covered in green shit.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Deep Breath"

They're really not all bad.
This is Peter Capaldi's first episode as the Twelfth Doctor, but it almost doesn't feel like it. Beyond his cameo in "The Day of the Doctor" and of course his initial appearance in "The Time of the Doctor" there's been an enormous amount of press building up to the character. We've seen his costume. They've toured the world. Furthermore, contrary to the BBC's best laid plans (unless you want to be a conspiracy theorist about it) multiple scripts and unfinished copies of episodes were leaked prior to the start of the Series. I didn't watch these, not to avoid spoilers but simply because I couldn't be arsed. Nonetheless it's been so publicised that I actually feel like Capaldi's been the Doctor for a while. Maybe it's for that reason that "Deep Breath" isn't the most striking introduction for a new Doctor. I wrote this paragraph initially comparing all the Doctor introduction episodes of Old and New, but once I found myself putting "Deep Breath" in the same category as "The Twin Dilemma" and "Time and the Rani" the whole thing started to feel totally disingenuous. This is why I prefer to consider Doctor Who and New Who to be different shows. Comparing a mediocre New episode to a mediocre-to-bad Old serial feels like comparing monasticism to a pair of socks - totally meaningless. I'll save the comparisons to the other New Who firsts for the end and say simply this: It's been over a year since an actual Series of New Who was on, specials notwithstanding, and yet Capaldi doesn't feel like an unknown quantity, partly because of all the press and partly because he's a known actor. There's a definite incongruity here for me. Let's get started.
"Strax, you know you're not allowed to
eat in the same restaurants as us."
So there's an oversized Tyrannosaurus wandering in the Thames but the people of London aren't especially bothered. Is this sort of the RTD "everyone becomes accustomed to aliens" effect but applied to Victorian London because Moffat Who has so many episodes there? Of course Vastra, Jenny and Strax show up. The three of them have a special name but I'm not writing it because it's lame. Anyway we get rammed home as usual how Vastra is a lizard, is familiar with lizard issues due to being a lizard, and is a lizard: "not since I was a little girl," "I was there," etc. This is why Vastra annoys me: she's a boring, smug character whose entire personality is being condescending and drawing attention to the fact that she's a lizard. There's plenty of redundant dialogue, like her complaining about the detective's "grasp of biology" as the TARDIS is regurgitated onto the shore. The dino is restrained with technobabble devices from the props department while the Twelfth Doctor appears. He gets to bust out some routine "funny racism," comparing Strax to the Seven Dwarfs and calling Vastra "the green one." He addresses the dinosaur, telling it he's "not flirting" which sets up a recurring ham-fisted point in the episode that the Doctor's not quite the romantic lead he has been in New Who days gone by and how you have to deal with it. More redundant dialogue includes a pointless mention of Handles the Head from the previous episode and another instance of the "speak x" joke, in this case "I speak dinosaur." For a first episode it really feels like Moffat on autopilot, indulging in the same old quips and conceits. Capaldi's better at delivering some of the exaggerated exclamations that Smith ended up doing a lot, but it doesn't change the fact that it's inferior dialogue. Clara's obviously flustered about the change in the Doctor, who passes out. Roll titles!
Sudden characterisation overdose.
The new intro is based on something a fan produced, with very overt 'clock' imagery. Moffat made one of his usual stupid generalisations about how it was the only original idea for the intro since '63, but even I, Hartnell fan that I am, must argue that the intro used from Season 11 to Season 17 ('73 to '80, primarily associated with Mister Tom Baker) is the best. The new theme tune arrangement is a bit anaemic in my opinion, but the whole thing has been totally overwrought and overembellished since 2005 anyway, as if the original tune isn't really good enough. Anyway, in Vastra and Jenny's house Capaldi complains about the bed and people's accents, then gets hypnotised by Vastra and passes out. Bizarrely, a Carry On-style comedy "blonk" noise plays when he flops unconscious onto the bed. I don't know what on earth they were thinking with that one, it seems like something someone would have put in as a joke in the editing booth and it accidentally got left in. Moffat uses Vastra to do a bit more of his incompetent "I'm not sexist, I swear!" routine by having her refer exclusively to men as "monkeys." I just want to address this for a moment. Moffat makes these kinds of jokes all the time, and it's not feminist, and it's not egalitarian. He seems to think the best thing is everyone making generalisations about everyone else, instead of no one doing it. Vastra also says that "people are apes" but of course Time Lords aren't, I think (to go full anorak about this) they're descended from reptiles. Anyway, Clara lets slip that she wants to change him back. Vastra insists that they have a chat, and Clara complains to Jenny that he looks old. She's seen all his different incarnations before due to that stupid thing in "The Name of the Doctor" where she jumped through the big glowing hole in time and space and the special effects budget and ended up in stock footage. Is it just a way of addressing the fans who objected to a New Who Doctor being older than those previous? In any event, some people think it doesn't make sense, but I think it's reasonable to consider that Clara knew the Doctor had looked old, but liked and was accustomed to him looking young. Not too much of a stretch, I would argue. I like the bit where the Doctor translates the perturbed thoughts of the dinosaur. It is, however, a typical heavy-handed parallel with the Doctor himself and too much attention is brought to it by Clara flat out asking if he's translating. It constantly frustrates me how Moffat can't permit subtlety because it denies him an opportunity to gloat. Strax asks for Clara's clothes because Moffat's thinking "phwoar," clearly and wants the idea of Jenna Coleman with her gear off hanging in the air. It should have cut away when Strax asked "are you wearing a hat?" because once again the subsequent dialogue ("it's hair" etc) is laboured and not funny.
"Was that some sort of reference to me not being married?"
Out in the street the Victorian people are pretty nonplussed by the huge dinosaurs even though knowledge of them wouldn't have been very widespread at the time, especially accurate reconstructions. A clockwork man then murders some bloke with big muttonchops in plain sight. Did no one hear the scream? Back at the mansion Vastra berates Clara about acceptance and how she shouldn't be so superficial about the Doctor's appearance. Clara at least gets some characterisation here, which she's been completely lacking previously. I read a stupid thing recently about how Moffat's unresolved plots are trying to emphasise that people matter more than events, but that can't work when the characters are so underwritten. While Peter Capaldi scrawls all over the floor with chalk, Jenny makes the point I myself once did about why she's the maid if they're supposedly married. Vastra tells her to be quiet and it goes unanswered. Vastra also implies that she judges people because they're so intolerant of differences. So she's intolerance intolerant. Are we just meant to find her unpleasant? Upstairs Capaldi becomes all self-referential, declaring that the door is "not me." Why must characters always draw attention to their own behaviour? Meanwhile Clara is inexplicably blowing up at Vastra about Marcus Aurelius for some reason, a historical figure with whom she appears to be obsessed given that she was quoting him in that shit Anniversary Special. Vastra makes another lame joke about how the Doctor had him playing bass in a band. How does she know the Doctor so bloody well? What's with all these characters like Vastra and "Tasha Lem" and River sodding Song who are complete nonentities themselves, yet seem to know so much about the Doctor? It's just lazy writing and cheap jokes. Clara stands up for herself, which is nice, but it seems to come out of nowhere. I've realised what this is. I feel like we're getting glimpses of some narrative (characterisation and all) that really only exists as a web of vague ideas in Moffat's head, but he thinks we all know as well.
"WHO? AM? I?"
Capaldi has to dish out some horrific dialogue up on the roof, yelling at the dinosaur that it's a "big sexy woman." After declaring he's going to get it home, it's immediately set on fire. Capaldi starts arseing about on a horse with the others in pursuit, which makes them seem even more pointless. There's no need for these characters to be here. They barely had a relationship with Smith's Doctor, they have no relationship with Capaldi's Doctor and their interactions with Clara are very heavy handed. We get cheesy music in pursuit, and a cheesy "automatic car lock" joke with Vastra's carriage that RTD already did in "The End of Time" with David Tennant in a lei. We never actually see what's happening in the river: is it too unpleasant? No one seems to react with more than shock, not horror or disgust. Not enough money, then. Capaldi declares that the important issue is whether there have been similar murders, nothing more. I'll give Moffat one thing - he's quite adept at making his writing seem clever when it actually isn't. Capaldi jumps in the water - we get a begrudging shot of what looks like a barely-disturbed puddle - and now we're back to Vastra's house for more stuffing around. There isn't enough plot to fill this huge episode. Strax won't stop making worn-out "I'm a reformed villain" jokes. There's a bit where he knocks Clara out with a newspaper which I find funny but really shouldn't. It's pure slapstick, and I've become desensitised through relentless punishment. Clara now runs into Jenny, who implies that Vastra kills and eats the suspects in her murder cases. What about the Victorian version of due process? There must have been one. Remember that Holmes story where he belted the killer over the back of the head with the poker after getting a full confession and then he and Watson ate him for tea? Yes, she's a lizard. I get it. Strax gives Clara a medical, with more nudity jokes and Clara being attributed these personality traits she never displays in her behaviour. So after a feeble effort at legitimate characterisation, Moffat decides showing is too hard and it's time to just start telling again.
"Aw, tha's roobash."
Meanwhile, Peter Capaldi's rooting around in a bin. He bothers a tramp, makes the obligatory reference to Tom Baker's scarf and wonders why his face is familiar. We have of course seen him a worrying six years ago as of transmission in the funny old Roman Empire. So that episode, an RTD/Tennant one, had Karen Gillan and Capaldi. Three different New Who periods represented. Weird. Anyway, Capaldi was in that, and Moffat of course can't disappoint the eagle-eyed fans who've noticed and are threatening to not watch because they can't accept actors in multiple roles in a fictional television program about a time travelling alien. Presumably the name "Commander Maxil" is totally alien to them as well. I believe Capaldi was also in one of the later series of Torchwood but I don't count that as canon even to New Who due to the fact that it's so incredibly shit. He goes on about his face and being Scottish before discovering that spontaneous combustions have been going on. Back at the house Vastra and Jenny blather on about being married before establishing that such combustion would conceal missing parts of the body. I don't think this ever really gets borne out. There's yet another joke about Clara getting naked and then they discover an ad in the paper for the 'Impossible Girl,' a piece of marketing that Clara applies to herself.
It's in the spirit of Robert Holmes.
To cut a long story short she figures out that she needs to go to some restaurant where she meets up with Capaldi. We're less than half the episode in, but this is basically the final setting. We get stuck here for ages. Why does everything lately seem to have a first act and a third act with no second act? Did everyone forget how to write second acts? I guess you could say this has a second act, but when it's over less than halfway through I'm not sure that counts. There's a long conversation about how the ad got in the paper because neither the Doctor nor Clara put it in there. There's some more meaningless armchair psychology of Clara. I don't know why it's such a recurring thing here. Then we discover the restaurant is a trap full of clockwork diners. They move whenever the Doctor and Clara move. Not enough is made of this. There could have been some interesting scene displaying how they escape, but no, they just sit down again. People have pointed out an existing Doctor Who connection here, to the old 'Daleks' computer game. Capaldi asks the clockwork waiter about the children's menu, but sadly doesn't inquire about whether or not it includes chicken nuggets. You should check - they almost always do, no matter what else is on there. I'm not saying you should order them, just see if they have them, out of pure curiosity.
"Have you seen the one where I swear a lot?
The thing everyone thinks is the only thing I've ever done?"
Then the booth they're sitting in drops into the floor, but the camera cuts away so that they don't actually have to show this happening on the set or location used for the restaurant. More budgetary issues, I guess. Downstairs is a beat up old spaceship set crewed by clockwork robots. Capaldi complains about the lack of Amy due to Clara's struggle to reach the sonic screwdriver on the floor with her feet. A reference to Amy's alleged legs? Moffat can't even lech over one woman in this script. We also get a knob gag when the sonic screwdriver lands on Capaldi's crotch. They get up and we get a decent line when Capaldi says he doesn't know if the robots are dormant, "I'm just hoping." References accumulate to "The Girl in the Fireplace" from a worrying eight years ago, but they also of course abound to 2011's "Closing Time" which also featured an underground spaceship with partially organic, partially mechanical beings who took people's bits. It all feels very repetitious. In this case, the legitimate spin is that rather than it being a man turning himself into a robot, it's a robot turning himself into a man. Why? God knows. When they try to escape Capaldi faffs around and the two get separated, so he proceeds to ditch her. We then get some genuinely torturous sequences as Clara has to hold her breath to avoid detection. Why do the robots detect breath but not, say, heartbeat, or anything else? There's no real reason, it's just an alternative to "Don't blink," some other involuntary action. Clara escapes but is instantly recaptured, which is all very exciting. When she has her oxygen-deprived flashback to her teaching classroom, how come the kid who goads her to make good on her threat is black? Also, the whole premise of this is that the biggest threat should always be made last. Fair enough, but what teacher has ever threatened to expel their students the first thing they do? She never even suggests detention. I believe Moffat was a teacher for a bit. Maybe he did this and still has hang-ups about it, like virtually everything else in his scripts.
"I'm not MacIntyre, sir."
Now we get to spend ages on this spaceship set not doing anything. The robot captain takes his hand off for some reason so he can get his flamethrower out and be all menacing, then he starts going on about the "promised land" which is Moffat's new plot hook. Capaldi reappears and says something about Clara being a "control freak." How is she a control freak? The pop psychology in this episode is really worn out. Then Vastra, Jenny and Strax drop in so that we can have this episode's obligatory big fight. Vastra declares that the robots must surrender "in the name of the British Empire." Have I ever mentioned Moffat's fetish for British Imperialism? They've called the police too, something Clara complains that the Doctor never does. Hopefully this was an intentional contrast between Vastra, who seems to rely on "the establishment" to give her authority, and the Doctor, who utilises his own moral judgement rather than allegiance to any kind of institution. Moffat probably just thinks talking about "the British Empire" sounds cool, though. The robot captain boasts about his ruthlessness with the fact that he burned up a whole dinosaur just for the optic nerve. So did they extract the nerve and then burn it? Because otherwise that would be quite tricky. He then gets back onto his chair lift and escapes. It has an absurdly convenient handy-hold on the bottom for Capaldi to cling on to so he can follow. Meanwhile Clara and the three stiffs get menaced by the other clockwork people.
"I have a Scottish accent, so I'm of course
cheap, mean and an alcoholic."
Upstairs in the restaurant the Doctor pours the robot captain a stiff one: he has "a horrible feeling I'm going to have to kill you." One of the better lines, in my view, but this whole scene is okay. Of course we discover these robots are from another French-themed spaceship, the "Marie Antoinette" which was associated with the "Madame de Pompadour" from "The Girl in the Fireplace." Funny coincidence. The restaurant takes off on a skin balloon for a bit of grossness. Isn't skin porous? How do they keep the air in? Anyway the Doctor tries to convince the robot man to give up because he's on a fool's errand: "There isn't any promised land... it's a superstition that you've picked up." I quite like the Doctor making a kind of flat out declaration like this, but when he compares the robot man to Trigger's Broom from Only Fools and Horses with the different brushes and handles, I don't see the point. Obviously it's meant to be comparable to his own regeneration, but more murderous. The correct term for this scenario is the "Ship of Theseus" paradox, but heaven forbid anything is ever presented in a remotely intellectual fashion. Still, why is that in particular relevant to the failure of the clockwork people's mission? I get that the fact that they've killed so many people is their chief crime, but how does the actual replacement of their original parts have any bearing on anything? Why are they taking human parts, anyway? Maybe I missed this. Conveniently, the Doctor deduces that the captain is the "control node" or whatever so that like so many things these days if he stops functioning, all the others will too. More laziness.
Nosferatu.
Two struggles ensue: overwhelmed by clockwork people, Clara and the others decide to hold their breaths which nonsensically stops the droids from detecting them, and Moffat sneaks in his girl girl kiss as Vastra breathes extra air into Jenny. Meanwhile the Doctor and the captain conflict over whether the robot should jump or if the Doctor's going to have to push him. It's a bit of an old-school style grappling sequence which cuts away before we know which is lying about their inability to either self-destruct or kill. All we see is the captain absurdly impaled on top of Big Ben. It's a decent confrontation in terms of discussion, at least. Somehow everyone escapes and Clara returns to the house for a final scene with Vastra, who gives her some sagacious advice from out of nowhere about herself and the Doctor. I wish it had been Jenny because Vastra is boring. The TARDIS appears and Clara discovers its redesigned interior with some books and such. She cracks out the "You've redecorated," line, the third time Moffat has done it in his tenure. Why? We get an extraordinarily clunky line where Capaldi says "Clara, I'm not your boyfriend." Then he shows off his new outfit. They discover that someone is trying to keep them together because of the ad in the paper. The Woman in the Shop who had the TARDIS' phone number is mentioned. Now back in my review of "The Bells of Saint John" I said: "For posterity's sake let it be known that this never gets resolved, it's just pointless throwaway dialogue. I will consume my own trousers with brown sauce if it ever is. Just kidding, I won't do that, I'll just complain about whatever godawful stupid resolution with which we are provided." Well, we'll see where that goes and if I ever do end up having to bust out the Worcestershire in a few months' time.
"Why am I still in this?"
Back in the present Clara gets a phone call. Lo and behold, it's Matt Smith on the set of "The Time of the Doctor," telling her to give Capaldi a chance. How worried were they that audiences wouldn't accept him? It's an okay scene, but a bit self-indulgent. I would have preferred the Doctor being glad to be older, maybe remarking that he hadn't been older for ages or something. Anyway she thanks Capaldi for the Doctorly phone call (albeit one made by a different Doctor) and they go and get coffee. Hurrah. Meanwhile in a garden somewhere Miss Pickwell from Bad Education swans around with an umbrella, telling the robot man that he's in heaven. She calls herself "Missy." Is she the Master? Only time will tell.
"It's just a very large belt buckle."
So there's "Deep Breath" for you. As an episode itself I think it's a bit thin, needing a more developed plot. Some of the characterisation for Clara and the Doctor is welcome, but not very subtle. The best scene is probably the confrontation between the Doctor and the robot captain at the end. Vastra, Jenny and Strax are utterly redundant and their recurring elements, like the marriage and Strax's jokes, are completely worn out by now. Do something new with them or don't do anything at all. The stuff about Clara's mental state is laboured and unconvincing as well. As usual there's too much "tell" that isn't even backed up by any "show." The efforts to encourage the audience to accept Capaldi is similarly unsubtle. The best part of this is Capaldi himself, who is able to deliver most of the dialogue decently, but the whole thing is still overflowing with unnecessary quips, jibes and absurdities that serve no purpose. Do these make people laugh? They make me cringe. As far as New Who introductory episodes go, it's not as effective as "The Eleventh Hour," but better than "The Christmas Invasion" largely because the Doctor's actually in it. It's probably about as average as, say, "Rose," but more laboured. It's too long for what it's trying to do, and either needed a sub plot or to be shorter. I found it much less enjoyable on the second viewing. I think there was a perception that we might have been moving into a new era with this series, but don't hold your breath.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Poodle Hat" by "Weird Al" Yankovic

I'm going to describe this album as 'Transitional Al' because it's somewhere between his original style and his slightly, but nonetheless distinctly, modern style. We have traditional themes of his as well as some new ones. Perhaps for this reason I'm not a huge fan of 'Poodle Hat,' but at the same time no Al album whatsoever is in any sense a write-off. This album was, however, released at a time when rap and a form of 'hip hop' were at a high point of popularity and exposure in the media. This isn't music which interests me very much, which might reflect my opinion of the album.

Couch Potato
This song's a mixed bag because it's a traditional Al theme and style - TV lyrics, listing stuff - but it's also a parody of a rap song which screams 'early 2000s.' It's very much in the same space as 'The Brady Bunch,' 'I Can't Watch This' and 'Syndicated Inc.' Favourite lines include mooted program titles like "Touched by an Uncle," a surprisingly off-colour gag for Al, and the rather cutting "Everybody Tolerates Raymond." The line about TiVo thinking he's gay for watching Will and Grace is either Al satirising the casual homophobia of the average TV viewer or is itself a vaguely unfortunate cheap gay joke. It surprises me to observe that the concept of 'HD Ready' existed in 2003. Eminem wouldn't let Al make a music video for this song, which I've always found to be a somewhat hubristic decision. Once again, Al is still around while as far as I'm aware no one gives a shit about Eminem any more unless he's on tour so I always feel like artists who say no to Al are basically killing one of their own chances at a little bit more longevity. The most effective element of the parody is the development of a trend in the more recent albums of turning 'edgy' music turned completely mainstream by industry exposure, marketing and hype into a composition where the lyrics actually match the culture which has absorbed the original track: the extremely non-edgy lives of the majority of consumers. I know I'm really ramming this home lately but I think it's one of Al's most overlooked and yet effective devices.

Hardware
Supposedly there is a fascination which exists throughout the world and is well-recognised in the US with power tools, hardware, DIY and the actual hardware store itself, which some (weasel words ahoy) have apparently argued is a kind of temple of the creative side of consumerism. Anyway, as a result this satirical number works as two types of Al song: it contains a big list and it's also a narrative about one person's slightly extreme behaviour. Specifically, it's about a guy who's really excited about the big new hardware store in his town. It's perhaps not entirely unlike 'Frank's 2000" TV' in terms of its theme. The funniest part of the song is of course Al's immense rapid fire catalogue of the store's inventory. This includes "automatic circumcisers,"  but personally I find the final item, "matching salt and pepper shakers," most amusing for its sheer mundanity. This is a good example of a "sing along if you know the words" Al song and is probably one of the strongest items on Poodle Hat.

Trash Day
Here's a comedy staple Al doesn't do so much: "gross stuff." The only comparable song really is probably 'Livin' In The Fridge' from his published work, although some off-record material like 'You Don't Take Your Showers Anymore' from way back shows that it's been on his mind for a while. 'Gotta Boogie' might also count. I guess it's occasionally possible to see why Al might be perceived by some derogatory types as having a rather childish sense of humour, but this kind of thing is a rarity. The original song was vastly overplayed in its day, and I actually heard it playing in a shop just the other day, over a decade after the fact, so I probably find this parody a little difficult at times to mentally distinguish from the original. I consider the original to be quite crap, which unfortunately doesn't endear the parody a great deal. Sometimes I think even Al's lyrics and voice can't entirely redeem the kind of garbage that the parody ends up being about. It's an exaggerated scenario, but one with which I'm sure many of us are familiar: letting a rather unseemly amount of garbage accumulate in the house. A select line might be "It's so bad the roaches wearin' slippers," which is Al at his whimsical finest. Other noteworthy ones include the contrast of "better get a hazmat suit and a push-broom," although the most clever is probably "it gives me stuff to talk about with my friends." It's a neat little insight into why we sometimes do strange things: so that we can self-deprecatingly discuss them later. The singer rather unfairly suggesting that his lady partner ought to help him clean up his mess, and then pretending it was a joke, is an amusing nod towards social satire of traditional household roles and responsibilities. Still, the original track is a bit tedious, which limits the appeal of this one.

Party At The Leper Colony
For some reason this is what my mind leaps to when I think of 'Poodle Hat' and probably informs my less than favourable opinion, because it's basically just a bunch of puns and cliché jokes about leprosy. Most of them, like the idea that leprosy makes your bits fall off, aren't even true. The saxophone solo reminds me of 80s original non-parody Al, and musically it's a real melting pot of rockabilly, old-school proper rhythm and blues and jazz styles that I feel are a bit wasted on the lyrics. I feel like bad jokes were being prioritised over the music, and I find that a bit off putting. Maybe that's the point, but then again this is probably the most harsh I'll ever be about Al.

Angry White Boy Polka
This is the era of me only recognising songs in the polka because I may have overheard other kids at school singing them in the corridors. Having been indoctrinated in a household where contemporary popular music was frowned upon through a mindless but arguably justifiable nostalgic snobbery I was not exactly familiar with many of the tunes in this polka then and a lot of them are still alien to me now, experienced only as accelerated fragments performed by Al on the accordion. For what I do know, it only goes to show that polka vastly improves many compositions, and I'm inclined to argue that it might be especially true in this case. Reversing the normal aspect of parodies, the polkas, and this one in particular, instead pull the rug out from under the lyrics, showing that a lot of these pieces are pretty meaningless when divorced from their dour and pompous instrumentation.

Wanna B UR Lovr
This is another example of the Al "self love" song where a romantic or "sexy" style is turned into something ultimately self-aggrandising, narcissistic or simply ridiculous. I thought this was a style parody of Prince but apparently it's more Al parodying some guy I've never heard of called Beck trying to sound like Prince. Prince, in addition to being completely loopy, has never let Al parody his stuff so maybe a direct style parody was considered to be off the cards too. As the main conceit is a string of cheesy, trite and increasingly bizarre chat-up lines, it lampoons the overcompensating, insecure botherer of women with entertaining relish. Select lines include the surely doomed "Your eyes are even bluer than the water in my toilet," and the amusingly corny but kind of endearing "How'd you get through security? 'Cause baby, you're the bomb." The actual innuendoes, such as "love torpedo," are surprisingly direct for Al. I'm curious about the "stupid" remark "You've got Yugoslavian hands." Did Al just consider "Yugoslavia" to be an arbitrary "weird sounding place" or is it a subtle dig at people who would think Yugoslavia was just some "weird sounding place"? Interestingly, Yugoslavia ceased to exist in the same year this album was released: what remained of the 20th century country was renamed as Serbia and Montenegro - which are themselves now two separate countries. Anyway, there are a few good backhanded compliments too, like "Don't speak now, you might spoil it" and "That would explain how you messed up your face." My favourite line, however, is the final one: "I'd like to take you home right now so you can meet my mom." That's the kind of thing at which Al excels. This one's a little slow to get going, but it's one of the strongest tracks on the album in my view once the humour gets into full swing.

A Complicated Song
I once saw a YouTube comment where some guy was raging against what he called 'Small Weird Al fans' who thought that this song was called 'Constipated' - it is uploaded by that title several times, I believe. Lo, a personal joke was born. I guess I can kind of appreciate it when short attention spans and fly-by-night-ery can lead to misinformation being perpetuated about something you like. At any rate, this is one of the album's great instalments, featuring as it does a cornucopia of humorous subjects: constipation, accidental incest and notionally lethal but somehow survivable injury. I think the best part is the one about decapitation, largely because for some reason the lyrics are written from the 'point of view' such as it is of the body, and not the head, but also the fact that it's such a cartoonish depiction of violence. I'm sure many of us can relate to the issue of eating too much cheap pizza as well, which is what makes the other two more outlandish scenarios so much more funny. At the same time, however, toilet humour is always good for a laugh. This is the second song in as many albums where Al mentions colonic irrigation. It's worth keeping an ear open if one ever sees Al perform this live, as he tends to swap in wherever the local "hillbilly" or "redneck" region is for Alabama in whichever country he's performing at the time. The two best lines in my view are probably the description of fighting constipation as having to "feel the pain," and, above all, the line: "the guide/Said not to stand/But that's a demand/That I couldn't meet." Making such a phrase fit the metre as well as contrast the outlandish situation is top notch Weird Al humour.

Why Does This Always Happen To Me?
This too feels like very traditional Al humour: it's a guy's unbelievably petty, selfish complaints when something horrible happens, the last of which is in fact caused by him in a massive overreaction. It's kind of like the opposite of 'One Of Those Days' from Polka Party. There it's reacting in a really blasé manner to increasingly terrible disasters, here it's getting really frustrated about some really minor problem (albeit caused by a disaster). Weirdly in this song Al has an opportunity to use one of his favourite phrases, 'internal organs,' but instead he opts for 'vital organs.' I wonder what people think of the lyrics about the earthquake, because there have been far too many disastrous earthquakes in recent memory and it might seem a bit on the nose for some, although of course the song is mocking the complaints of Western people's luxury in a way that foreshadows 'First World Problems.' The cleverest part of the whole thing is the build up, from complaining about a disaster in another country, to a disaster that affects him personally, to actually causing the harm himself and revealing that he's not just callous, he's a crazy person. The best line is probably "So I turned around and stabbed him in the face," although "He still owes me money, what a jerk/That's five bucks that I'm ever gonna see again," is proper Al, evoked again in 'Ringtone.' It's one of the strongest songs on the album, I would argue. It's interesting that both this track and the one before revolve around an escalating three-part joke structure.

Ode To A Superhero
Here's another one that makes Poodle Hat a very 'transitional' album, because this must be the most recent Al track that is based around a single film. It's in the same vein, naturally, as 'The Saga Begins,' 'Jurassic Park,' and possibly 'Yoda.' In this case it's about the 2002 Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man film: that one with Tobey Maguire that you probably really hate or really love or like me are rather indifferent about. It's a parody of 'Piano Man,' of course, which works when you can easily substitute 'Spider' in for 'Piano.' Like 'The Saga Begins,' 'Jurassic Park' and 'Yoda' it's also not a parody of a song contemporary with the album, which is clearly a recurring device of Al's that I've completely missed before. The lyrics are standard fare, being humorous summaries of plot points, jokes about inevitable sequels and overused catch-phrases and so on. I wonder if the line about Norman Osborn's "dumb Power Rangers mask" is meant to be in tune with the common criticism of the Green Goblin costume in this film. It's an okay but, in my opinion, not an especially memorable parody. The best thing about it is probably Al's understated lyrics to match the low-key mood of a lot of the song, things like "It's a pretty sad day at the funeral/Norman Osborn has bitten the dust," and the rhyming of "screwy" and "knew he." I guess this film was a pretty big deal in its day. I never saw it in full until about a year or so ago as of my writing this.

Bob
A style parody of Bob Dylan with only palindromes for lyrics, this is a clever little number. Dylan gets mocked and pastiched a lot, but Al does it here in a pretty inventive way. See Bowie's 'Song for Bob Dylan' or Zappa's 'Flakes' for Dylan imitations that deal with more Dylan-centric subject matter (Dylan the musician, I would argue, for the former, and his political and social views in the latter). This one might be a comment on the incomprehensibility of some of his lyrics or, these days apparently, a lot of his singing. The best palindromes in my view are "Was it a car or a cat I saw?" "May a moody baby doom a yam," and "Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog," because they are simultaneously the most coherent and the most bizarre. This track might also be compared to They Might Be Giants' 'I Palindrome I' from their Apollo 18 album in some respects, although come to think of it that might be a bit of a stretch.

eBay
Transitional Al occurs here in the shape of a technology-themed track, weirdly similar in hindsight to 'Craigslist' on Alpocalypse. Again, it's hyper-exposed pop music transformed into a meditation on something mundane. I think that's especially true in a 2003 context, when I believe eBay was still thought of as a bit of a novelty, a place where people impulse-bought junk. These days, of course, it's basically just a shopping site where you go to buy stuff you're having trouble finding elsewhere or at a reasonable price. My favourite lines probably include the remark about "some guy I've never met in Norway" and "don't know why/The kind of stuff you'd throw away," which are classic examples of Al's talent for using simple language in extremely blunt and therefore amusing ways. It's also a good example of how Al takes junk (in his case pop music) and finds some value in it, not unlike the eBay user of the time I suppose.

Genius in France
This album's 'long song,' it's also a style parody of mid-to-late 70s and early 80s Frank Zappa. It's interesting to compare the family-friendly lyrics of Al to the heavily politicised, often obscene and deviously taboo-breaking lyrics of Zappa. Zappa was a complicated man, but I think one of the most successful things about his music, from this period at least, in addition to the sheer artistry of his musicianship is the way that it used rock music in transgressive ways. In its inception rock was, of course, something that was extremely challenging to the establishment, but a lot of it came to be totally commodified and conformist. Zappa turned that against itself, writing music about themes of sex, sexuality, race and politics that mainstream music was too fatuous and bland or too repressed to express. Al's work, according to the reasons I've been developing, is comparable in how it takes the repetitive themes of mainstream pop music (cliché romance, the supposed drama of everyday life, simplistic approaches to social and political issues etc) and turns them into songs about the trivial things that the consumers who support the industry actually care about: what's on TV tonight? What am I going to have for dinner? The themes are a bit different for Al and Zappa, but I think both are really arguing against a lot of the pretensions of the industry. Anyway, this is a song about a stupid, feckless American guy who's inexplicably popular in France. Maybe it's poking fun at Zappa's proclivity for 'insensitive' or ambiguous remarks and messages in his music. It's of course also poking fun at how long some Zappa compositions are. Most of the humour comes from descriptions of how stupid this guy is and amusing rhymes of English and French words and phrases. The dodgiest part is probably when the term "Frogs" is actually used but I guess the guy is meant to be a jerk. All the talk of how stupid he is reminds me a good deal of the descriptions of 'Jimmy the Geek' from 'That Boy Could Dance' waaay back on In 3-D as well. Some choice lines include "They like me more than heavy cream," "most people look at me like I'm all covered with ants" and "I'm not even welcome at the Star Trek convention." It's an odd song, fittingly enough, but quite entertaining, and the Zappa pastiche is pretty effective.

That's Poodle Hat for you: Al trying to find his feet between two eras in a new millennium. It's not one of my favourites, unfortunately, but something has got to give. It's most interesting as an observation of Al moving into new themes and styles. The only video for this one is a short one they knocked together for 'Bob' after Eminem wouldn't let them make one for 'Couch Potato.' Maybe if we'd gotten that it'd be better remembered.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Depression Quest Again

So a bit over a year ago I wrote a reasonably positive review of Depression Quest, a sort of 'depression simulator' designed to help people understand depression. I thought it was fairly effective at what it did, although with the benefit of hindsight I think it has some limitations. The aspiration towards a "positive ending" doesn't seem terribly realistic, and it also seems to be quite in favour of the pro-medication route which to the best of my knowledge works for some and not for others. Nonetheless I played it and thought it was interesting.

The game was recently released on Steam, apparently. I played the browser version. They're both free. In any event some kind of teacup storm has broken over it, or more specifically its creator. I don't think it's generated a huge amount of press outside of game media. I won't go into the details because it's not very important but there's some group of people who think that the person who made it did some dodgy business as it were to get better reviews or something, and is trying to shut down criticism of it. There are a couple of big comment threads and articles and stuff about it.

But the question arises like a monolith in my brain: who cares? I mean, firstly, who cares about this person's personal life because it doesn't matter. But secondly, who cares in general? Some people seem to just be waiting, itching for something to come along that they can become totally hysterical and have an online riot about. That's what irks me about this whole thing. It's kind of baffling to see how seriously people take this stuff. I suppose some of it is being fuelled by trolls just stirring the pot for fun, but unless everyone's a troll there must be a lot of people who genuinely think this matters.

Supposedly it's to do with the "integrity" of "games journalism." Give me a break. If this whole thing is even true, games journalism was corrupt beforehand and it'll be corrupt after. Axe-grinding on the internet isn't going to change that as long as there are giant corporations with money to spend, and as long as people keep buying the generic tripe they spew out constantly. This is an indie game and the issue isn't one of money, but the fact remains that any corruption exists and it's doubtful that it's going to go away. Protecting the integrity of games journalism is therefore either a deluded view or an excuse for some other, more sinister ideological conflict that I couldn't be arsed getting into here.

I think the problem is that there is a relatively small (maybe a few hundred at most) group of people out there who think that they and the people who agree with them are the "gaming community" or the "geek community" or the "online community" or whatever. They're not. There is no community. There is no power to be wielded. It is purely an echo chamber of self-gratifying emotional masochism, getting outraged about something not in an effort to change something or bring it to light, but simply because they enjoy getting outraged. I think I've described elsewhere how for some sectors of Western society, pop culture, or parts of it, is becoming the new ideology, the new religion, the new thing to which you pin your entire identity and consequently take way too seriously. If you play video games then good for you, but that doesn't mean your hobby is some kind of pillar of existence. This isn't an attack on people who play video games per se, just that group that seems to think this kind of crap matters. Who cares, I ask you?

Who cares.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On "Weird Al"

Al is everywhere at the moment because of the success of his new album, Mandatory Fun. What's resulted are a string of bizarre and often largely pointless articles trying to analyse his appeal. This also seems to have brought all the crazies out of the woodwork with an axe to grind, appropriately enough, who can't seem to abide living in a world where a man makes a career re-recording pop songs with silly and humorous lyrics. This may be expected for a guy whose moniker is being "Weird," but in actual fact I've met Al a couple of times and seen a fair bit of footage of him and he comes across as an entirely friendly, grounded and self-aware person who really doesn't match the image of an eccentric musician, especially not the kind of tedious self-involvement of many supposedly mainstream people in music and cinema. What I mean by this, is that I don't see Al as being in any way harmful, nor is his success indicative of something bad. Surely the blame lies with the industry he lampoons and the artists he parodies, not the reverse. Sure, his style of humour is often either whimsical or crude in an entirely inoffensive way, but surely that's what makes him harmless, and therefore not deserving of anger. I admit there are a couple of lyrics here and there which haven't aged well, but other than that I don't see a problem. I'm not interested, however, in "defending" Weird Al, because it seems to me that he doesn't need defending from the kind of insecure people I've been discussing lately, but trying to give a brief interpretation of why people like his stuff.

1. Some people probably like his stuff because they find it funny
Not everyone has the same taste in humour, obviously, and it's entirely possible to enjoy Al's style of humour as well as other, different kinds, which might be more edgy, hard-hitting, vulgar or what have you. But I think it's safe to say that Al makes people laugh: not everyone, I'm sure, but some people. Many of his lyrics are funny, and sometimes the entire concepts or compositions of his songs can be funny - in my opinion, of course. The humour wears off after repeated listening and resurfaces at other times, naturally, but the same is true of any humour. I would argue that this is probably the main source of Al's appeal to the average listener, however, who is in the mood for a chuckle.

2. Some people probably like his stuff because they think the parodies improve the original songs
There's plenty of music out there, but it's altogether possible that people get turned off music for one reason or another, in terms of the lyrics or singing. Never fear: here's Al to replace them with amusing lyrics and his distinctive voice. I honestly think this is probably a reason why Al gets some of his popularity and establishes long-term fans. Take 'Amish Paradise.' The song it's based on (I won't say 'original song' because it's not really original in itself, is it) has exactly the same tune as the parody, of course, but unlike Al's tones, Coolio sounds like he wants to murder you in your sleep. Now I realise that may be the point, but it turns me off that kind of thing. Al, on the other hand, makes it work in a different way. You can enjoy a song you might otherwise never listen to. That may seem like a weak reason, but honestly I would never listen to a lot of the stuff Al parodies voluntarily because without his voice and lyrics, I often find them pretentious, shallow or just plain boring. I think this aspect is probably a good reason for why some people like Al.

3. Some people probably like him as a musician on his own
Al and his band are consummate professionals, able not only to precisely replicate and in some cases even improve upon existing material but also compose entertaining pieces of their own. Now Al's not nearly as well known for his original material as he is for his parodies, unfortunately, so I'm establishing this as the deepest 'tier' as it were of likelihood for someone enjoying Weird Al. My point is, however, that many of Al's original songs are funny and a lot of his music is catchy, and fun to listen to and sing along to. That may not be the most overwhelming argument, but nonetheless I think it's a valid reason for people's enthusiasm.

Not that hard, is it? My whole point is, I don't agree with the implication that Weird Al's success is a problem or somehow a bad thing, and I'm probably only arguing against a very limited and extreme point of view here that evidently not many people hold (like all extremes, really) so it may be pointless, but at least I think this interprets why people like Al: maybe not especially 'deep' reasons, but reasons that I think are perfectly valid. He's entertaining (by a particular standard, of course) and he's not doing any harm. It's not like Al attacks musicians in his lyrics - although kids who like the people he parodies and the occasional stupid seem to labour under the delusion that any parody is criticism - and he rarely even parodies particularly 'important' music, just vapid pop trash that doesn't matter anyway. Surely the fault is with that side of the industry, and Al's actually doing a good thing by, really, highlighting the shallowness of the industry by replacing lyrics with, usually, mundane and intentionally frivolous ones that actually match the process behind the original songs and their exhausted, simplistic topics they indulge. I don't think people actually listen to Al for that reason, most of the time, but at least the concept is there. My view, in the end, is that Al really is "on our side" as it were, and his success is definitely a good thing in addition to being well-deserved recognition of the talents of him and his band.

Arkham Horror

I know I'm about eight years late, or actually more like twenty-seven, to be reviewing this game, but I only got it six months ago, so what are you going to do about that then? In any event, reviews are one of those things for which, much like jello, there's always room. So here we go. This is going to be my quick-fire review of Arkham Horror for the benefit of the unenlightened and the bored.

What is it?
It's a board game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his friends, collaborators and correspondents, which various people have welded together, for better or for worse, into the so-called 'Cthulhu Mythos.' The basic gist is that you move characters around a board representing the city of Arkham, Massachusetts,  collecting clues and having encounters with the various odd goings-on of the city. The aim of this is to stop the awakening of the Ancient One, a nigh-unstoppable beastie of the ilk of Cthulhu and his chums. This is achieved generally by sealing gates which are opening to other worlds, which the characters must pass through, having encounters in various alien locations. In the meantime, however, these gates are also unleashing monsters which must be dealt with if the investigators aren't to be severely impeded in their job.

This of course isn't one of your snakes 'n' ladders type board games with a bit of plasticised cardboard, some little single-coloured tokens and a die. This is the scary kind of 'nerd board game' featuring stacks of cards, a huge piece of plasticised cardboard, more tokens representing people and monsters and what not, and loads of dice. Encounters are all text-based, so every set of locations in the game need cards, as do the items and abilities of the investigators. It's a game that's slow to set up and often slow to play. It also has a certain amount of resource management and statistical adjustment in the style of a role-playing game. It's complicated.

Is it fun?
Ehh... sort of? This is a cooperative game, not a competitive game, so there are 'rules' designed to obstruct the players and assist, as it were, the game: rules which dictate how monsters move and fight, where gates open, and how tasks are achieved, usually with lots of dice rolling and the cruel caprices of statistics. Arkham Horror is a frustrating game. When things are going well it can clip along at a decent pace, but when things are going badly the game becomes not only irritating but slow and boring. It's also possible to lose - if all your investigators die - which can make it feel like you've wasted your time. Then again, victory is nothing but a meaningless feeling of satisfaction, followed by a long time of packing up, so it's neither here nor there really. The most irritating core mechanic of the game, I would argue, is that a 'success' for most 'checks' in the game occurs only on a 5 or a 6. Why only a 1 in 3 chance? What's that representative of? That's the problem with random number games and games which use six-sided dice especially, in my opinion: they become completely unconvincing when they're supposed to represent probabilities so incredibly likely or unlikely that the chance of the other thing happening is practically zero. There's nothing more tiresome than gathering up twelve dice so your character with a tommy gun and a high Fight skill can pump some defenceless alien-worshipper in a robe full of lead and somehow every dice rolls less than a 5 or a 6. What happened? Did he forget to brace or something? I've heard the argument that a lot of the randomness is meant to be representative of Lovecraft's chaotic universe, but say what you like about Lovecraft's writing, it's hardly full of spontaneous randomness, rather creeping horror and impending doom. Is there some way to more accurately represent that? Probably something involving losing control and dying.
Arkham Horror is most fun when you've got the hang of the mechanics and are able to swing probability sufficiently in your favour to make things manageable and decently brisk. It's also fun when it's most closely evoking the sense of weirdness and cosmicism of the original H.P. Lovecraft texts through the particular encounters. It's not fun when you're overwhelmed by the random appearance of difficult encounters and problematic monsters and you're constantly twiddling your thumbs as your investigators are lost in the vast reaches of eternity or are constantly being incapacitated and forced to slowly recover at the hospital or the asylum. The game itself is not much like any H.P. Lovecraft story in particular, however, which some might find disappointing. It's more a general tribute to the literature.

Do I recommend it?
I would get Arkham Horror if the following things are true: you have a reasonable amount of patience and a tolerance for failure; you're a fan of H.P. Lovecraft - it helps to be a fan of August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith and the like too, because Lovecraft's own inventions can only be stretched so far, so plenty of their stuff turns up; you're likely to have a few hours to spare in which to play it; and you're not completely turned off by what are known as "American-style" board games with all their reliance on random chance. Its one advantage is that it can be played by any number of people, really, so you can still use it even after your friends have had a go and then never want to play it again.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Why I Don't Allow Comments

I suppose the answer to this is simple. To quote myself from a while ago, "I don't want spam or to have to hear people's dumb opinions." Personally, I think that's fair enough. Lately I've been reading statements from various individuals to the effect that they think people who have comments disabled on YouTube, for instance, have "something to hide." Yeah, I do have something to hide: your stupid opinions. I don't mean "you" personally, dear reader, because in all likelihood some of you are sufficiently sensible to not be the kind of person I'm avoiding. Rather, I mean "you" as in the angry or prejudiced or generally insecure person who likes to comment on, for example, YouTube videos.

I would love to make some hyperbolic comment like "Web 2.0 has failed," but that might be taking things too far. Nonetheless, as much as I argue in favour of discourse, that does not mean that I am obliged to offer a platform for people's stupid opinions. There are, of course, those who have sensible and constructive remarks to make. That's entirely fine. But if you want to say anything on a topic, you can discuss it on a forum or on social media, or start your own blog. Even the most feeble producers of "content" such as myself have no duty to provide that space.

I think that it's patently obvious that in innumerable cases, internet comments serve no useful purpose. I don't mean critical or discursive responses, but those which are based on mindless hostility, discrimination, generalisations and the whole host of "contributions" such as they are which, in their unironic expressions of fear manifesting as prejudice and hatred, speak volumes about the individual making the comment rather than the content under critique. I myself used to occasionally make jibes or arch remarks here and there, but now I don't. Why? Because it serves no purposes beyond justifying your own feeble compensations for inadequacy.

This is why YouTube and article comments are a waste of time, why in its current state things like 'Yahoo Answers' are a waste of time and why basically anything which allows individuals to give immediate responses is a waste of time. They allow no consideration. If they were forced to join a forum or write a blog to respond, it would pare things down a great deal because that would be too much effort. Some people blame this state of affairs on trolls and anonymity, but I believe the real reason is that there are quite simply genuinely many deeply angry individuals out there who cannot abide criticism or differences of opinion. These people have no voice in reality, because you would never meet them in real life. Why ought they to have a voice online?

My most consistent source of views is my rather exploitatively-titled article "Sherlock is Overrated" which I to an extent composed because I felt like there was a demand. I offer this kind of criticism, however, as a form of solidarity, I suppose, with other people out there who may be bewildered at how popular some of our current cultural juggernauts are. I feel that this is rather a different form of discourse to the spewing of mindless bile and hate, particularly of a sexist or racist kind. Those kinds of people, I would like to think, are not a majority - I certainly do not know any personally - but I think that nonetheless they ought not to be given a voice. I like to believe in a "live and let live" policy when it comes to differences of opinion: I can't stop people liking New Who or what have you. The exception, however, is when the people with the "difference of opinion" do not themselves have a "live and let live" policy: people who feel they must yell down the opposition as loudly as they can, who must have the last word, who honestly cannot see the world as anything other than dichotomies, biases and extremes. Why ought such people be given an inch? Some might argue they ought to be given just enough rope, as it were, but honestly I don't see the point. I believe that the propensity for comments on the internet to be abused in many cases drastically outweighs the advantages to having them.

I have never believed that the many should be punished for the crimes of the few. Nonetheless, things like limiting internet comments are not a form of punishment. As I've said, there are other platforms: take the discussion to a forum or your own blog. The danger with comment systems is the creation of echo chambers where people with these absolutist beliefs can endlessly reinforce their own opinions and confirmation biases by shouting down opponents: they in fact limit discourse rather than increasing it. This is healthy neither for individuals nor for society.

It is, perhaps, the doom of humanity that the poor examples of a few will spoil the experience of the many. We are a species of many moods, which some fail to control. Perhaps Western society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century is such an unprecedented time of relative peace for its specific inhabitants that certain individuals are incapable of otherwise dealing with a previously less inhibited human propensity for violence and destruction. I believe we are still at war, primarily, with ourselves: some, however, have made greater peace than others. Might we hope for such a strain to die out? It seems unlikely. Perhaps it can be remedied by education: a more viable solution, albeit I daresay one with its own limitations. Enough of us, I'm sure, are capable of wielding self restraint. Those who have the patience and self-awareness to do so have the opportunity to respond in a sensible fashion. This is why I believe, for the time being, that denying a voice to hateful elements is at least a potential stop-gap. Those who have mastered themselves will find a way to contribute if they wish. Those that have not will, I suspect, in many (albeit of course not all) cases be too overwhelmed to seek alternatives, and so drown in their own silence.