Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Who Musings.

In my article about Star Trek I mentioned that as a child I lacked Science Fiction in life, which is shocking considering how much I love it now. For the explanation of what I consider Sci Fi please see the same article. Before the high tech fantasy, exciting action, the science, the political, social and philosophical nature good Sci Fi has to offer, what fascinates me most in this genre is the writing.

Good Science Fiction exhibits a wonderful and rare amalgamation of creative freedom, which the Sci Fi stories usually allow and at the same time the great Sci Fi writing is one of the most disciplined, controlled and perfectionist kind of writing I have come across. It is as if creating the fiction in itself is science. Perhaps we should consider calling it Fiction Science, Fi Sci anyone?

Not that other don't offer equally brilliant writing. The Wire for example, is notable for its extensive and impressive research as well as superb and detailed writing, but its content is confined to the police drama genre, which doesn’t leave much room for the kind of plot craftiness that time and space travel, for instance, do.   

From the very beginning Doctor Who demonstrated this quality of Fiction Science most strongly, attracting an array of talented writers produced not just new original stories, some of which stand the test of time and space, but also created a unique concept. Maybe this is the secret of its success for fifty years. 

Steven Moffat's writing is certainly attune with this crafty Who writing and at his best he masters it like a conductor an orchestra. I wrote before, when discussing Sherlock’s The Reichenbach Fall and Doctor Who’s The Angel Takes Manhattan, about how Moffat’s writing shares the creative process in his works. Together with his skilled plotting, it's what makes Moffat one of the most interesting TV writers.   

Ho! How I loved The Name of the Doctor, which is, as it turned out, either Please or John Hurt, mmmm… Doctor John Hurt has a nice ring to it. From the clever play of words in the episode’s title to the resolution of the impossible girl this finale has taken hold of my heart and swept me away with it.

Not that The Name of the Doctor is free of problems. The godlike character the Doctor has become in Moffat’s hands, made even stronger by the sanctity of his real name that mustn’t be uttered, much like the real name of god for the Jewish people, is a bit jarring. However, with the exception of the episode Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, in this part of the season, most of the Doctor’s solutions are not godlike and I do think Moffat partly addresses the problems with such a character. Moreover, it seems like the godlikeness of the Doctor doesn’t have a religious cult like feel to it, unlike with some of the Russell T Davis stories. It rather feels like there is a genuine love for the Doctor from both the characters around him and the Moff and in a way it is similar to how any kind of fandom would attribute godlike quality to whoever it is aimed at. 

I have noticed that Moffat doesn’t like killing off his characters, at least not when it comes to Doctor Who but probably and understandably never, not even the minor ones. Some may see it as a problem, I think it’s kind of wonderful! Since Joss Whedon, who specialised in killing off favourite characters, had branded the loss of a loved character, it has become quite fashionable. Good television uses this to put viewers in a position where they are on edge and in constant fear for the wellbeing of their favourite characters as well as to create an uncompromising impace. In bad television, loss of characters becomes a gimmick which trivialises the effect this plot move can have.

Now it is interesting and refreshing to find a writer that struggles with killing any of his characters and therefore always leaves them an open window to come back. Why shouldn’t losing a character in such a final and determined kind of way, be a struggle? And since the Sci Fi, or Fi Sci, allows for it, why shouldn’t they come back? Like River Song says at the end of Forest of the Dead: "Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever accepts it".

True, Jenny’s return from the dead in The Name of the Doctor has reduce the impact her otherwise quite brilliant murder scene, had and I did wish Moffat would let go in this case. However, no one was happier than I was to River Song again. Like the Doctor and I suppose Moffat too, I never really accepted River’s death, to me she was saved, her voice over continued in the Forest of the Dead: "Everybody knows that everybody dies, but not every day, not today", there was every reason to believe that she may still come back and that her timeline has not yet ended. The idea that she might still exist somewhere, loving and missing the Doctor but unable to be with him, can be more painful than death. Like the eleventh Doctor said, he can always see her, she is always there, lingering in the back of his mind and unlike dead people, won’t go away.

Because she has been an off screen companion, because her story was as curious and fantastic as the Doctor's and perhaps because I love her with all my heart, River’s story never really ended in my head or my heart. We got to see River falling for the Doctor and stopping time for him, we never really got to see the Doctor falling for River. The wedding’s circumstances could, for some people who are not me, make less of the love story.The Doctor has never been as forthcoming with his feelings as River was, and though we know he trusted her with his name at some point, we never got to know how that came about.  All of this has made it difficult, for me as River Song’s number one fan, to accept his flirting with Clara, in fact it made me angry and disappointed as if River meant nothing.

Imagine my surprise and the burst of joy that filled me when I first saw River, almost equal to the joy from seeing all the previous Doctors, but for different reasons. Initially I was simply happy to see a beloved character back to save the day. Clara’s comment that she didn’t realise she was a woman added to my annoyed feeling that River meant little or nothing to the Doctor. But from the moment the Doctor grabbed her hand and acknowledged her. the tears started pouring and I knew that the Doctor did and does still love River and so does Moffat and just like me they don’t want to let go and she had to force them and me to do so, not unlike her mother. How painful and yet wonderful at the same time! Though I know it has been said before, by me as well, I must once again drop my jaw and tip my imaginary hat at Matt Smith's brilliant acting, how one moment he looks so commanding and severe his tallness make Kingston look small and gentle and then in blink of an eye, when he is forced to say goodbye, he becomes fragile and helpless himself, he even shrinks a little. Not enough words to explain the awe I am in when faced with this man enormous talent. Also when Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are on screen together, nothing else matters!

Now that I am done gushing over River for now, I can turn to Clara. Following the change of mind I had about Amy, I am still reserving judgement about her. Moffat seems to like tagging the girls who accompany the Doctor. Amy was the girl who waited (I’m still not convinced by that btw) and now Clara was the Impossible girl. It is like adding some air of importance to the companions, they are a mystery to the Doctor as he is a mystery to them and they are as important to the show as he. Apart from saving his life by remembering him, Amy has also become his mother in law. And so, apart from saving his life by rewriting back his tampered timeline, Clara not only becomes the longest serving companion, but also the writer of his timeline. 

Now Clara is on a crossroad, she served her purpose, the mystery has been resolved, but unlike her in the voice over, I think this is where her story is just beginning and perhaps now we will get less mystery and more Clara. There is the possibility that Clara will remain a background and flat character, I hope that’s not the case.

By planting Clara all over the Doctor’s timelines and letting her influence it, Moffat is claiming ownership of Doctor Who, but he does it with grace and unlike J.J Abrams with Star Trek, from a position of a fan. Therefore instead of wondering if the previous Doctors existed or not, Moffat not only makes sure that they remain a part of the Doctor and send his character to fight those who are trying to rewrite it, but also he weave himself into the classic series in a bid to become a part of it. While Abrams took Star Trek out of its history to create a new Star Trek history that will appeal to non fans, Moffat embraces the classic Who and wants to be worthy to be a part of its history.


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Trek Musings


As part of my decision to relive my youth better, I started to fill some major gaps in my cultural education. One of the worst deficiencies I have is in Science Fiction, the definition of which becomes blurrier and blurrier each time I check. For all intents and purposes when I discuss sci fi I mean things, books, films, TV etc. that refer to the future and to space stuff, not the destruction of rings or the love of vampires, these I was very well versed in from an early age and mostly with better quality material, but I digress.

The point I was trying to make is that for some reason sci fi has passed me by and didn't stay during my childhood. Later on, after becoming a fully fledged Doctor Who fan and slightly more sci fi savvy, I couldn’t understand my ignorance of a genre I now consume avidly and with immense enthusiasm. Although, I think that as a grown up my understanding of the genre is better and therefore, my appreciation greater and my love of it deeper.

Consequently, it should come as no great surprise that though Star Trek was around during my childhood and I often saw it on TV, I never really watched it. Apart from being slow to the sci fi world, I was always uncomfortable in or around uniforms. Even the colourful and bright Star Trek were still making all people look the same, as if they belonged to something. As someone who was always an outsider and an outcast I could never relate to that.

What bothered me as a kid with Star Trek and manifested itself in my aversion to uniforms is still there: the militaristic tone set by the choice to call space a frontier and a final one, Star Fleet, the future of peace and harmony forced by the Federation, who makes an enemy of those who oppose it, and the conquest of planets disguised as a peaceful, non interfering missions, non interfering as long as everyone comply with the “correct” behaviour of the Federation, enforced by Star Fleet, all have a dodgy whiff of the kind of American colonialism that never appealed to me. Forever a Browncoat.         

“Well if all this bothers you so much and you don’t like it, why watch it?” you may say. “More importantly, why write about it and bother everyone with it? “ This is where watching Star Trek as a grown up comes as advantage, because as an adult I’m not so blinded by my political anger and righteousness and I can see the wonderfully brilliant things that is Star Trek

As a late but loyal Whovian, I was completely wowed by Doctor Who’s originality and radical nature, right from its very beginning and I expected Star Trek to be conventional and tamed in comparison, or a plain Americanised copy of Doctor Who. But this was a time before the US has made American versions of EVERYTHING and there were actual creative writers with their own original ideas. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that not only Who and Trek were quite different and independent from one another, but they hardly ever handled the same subject matters at the same times and their approach was always different. For political point of view that I am more comfortable with (apart from the era in which the Doctor became Unit’s adviser), intelligent craftiness of story telling, brilliant characters’ development, acting and time travel I watch Doctor Who. Pure sci fi, interesting plots, philosophical themes and The Shatner will mostly be found on Star Trek. Together Doctor Who and Star Trek cover everything I look for in sci fi and quality television in general.

I was especially impressed with how courageous Star Trek actually was. When I say courageous I don’t necessarily refer the notable diversity in the cast, which I am sure had a tremendous and important impact and no doubt vital influence on TV and beyond. While this too was and is exciting and brave, for me what made Star Trek exceptional, and still does today, were its sci fi themes, which were cutting edge at the time, some might still be today, and have become central to many sci fi materials.

Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, is of the same generation as some of the great sci fi writers like Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and others and it’s not difficult to find related ideas and creeds in their works, mainly about what it means to be human, the constant conflict between logic and emotions, what is happiness and related topics like happiness, love, sex and god all flavoured with a true appetite for science and knowledge.      

After the first few films and Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was clear that it has become an unstoppable franchise. From what I have seen so far, the original series, the first six films, most of the first season of Next Generation and the two latest films, it seems that the Trek franchise remained loyal to the Roddenberry's spirit (he continued to act as a consultant in all Trek related works until his death) and continued to tackle similar topics as the original series, and at the same time stay fresh and relevant as it developed with the times. Since I watched the J.J Abrams Star Trek before I watched the original series, it is only in hindsight that I understood just how hard an act he had follow. 

Before delving into the debates about whether the decision to create a new timeline for the film wipes out the original series’ timeline or the fact that old Spock has the old memories means it still exists, and the kind of discussions time travel and timelines issues usually create, believe me I had a lot of those, I’d like to point out that the time travel plot device to change destiny is not as impressive if you are a fan of Back to the Future and Doctor Who or read a sci fi book or two. It has always annoyed me that many people gave this as an example to original and fresh scriptwriting. Time travel solutions are page one of sci fi writing and turned into a Superman like solutions. If you can solve everything with time travel, or in the case of Abrams’ Star Trek explain the changes to the original series, then, to me, it becomes in most cases boring. It’s a cheap trick and young Kirk says in the film “Coming back in time, changing history, that’s cheating”. The self awareness of saves it.

After watching the original series and adapting it to my heart, I re-watched Abrams’ Star Trek with different eyes. This time I found more flaws. Though I love Zachary Quinto and I think he is an excellent and talented actor, I abhor Spock’s emotional romance with Uhura! It goes against everything Spock symbolised in the original series and it looks to me as an attempt to make Spock more human and perhaps according to America, more relatable. This choice means that at the end of the day emotions triumph over logic, which defeats the idea of a struggle and correlation between them. In the original series there was a two part story called The Menagerie, in the end of it Kirk tells Spock of for acting emotionally when he kidnapped Captain Pike and hijacked the Enterprise. Spock answers that it was the logical thing to do. This is a much subtler way to confront logic and emotion and hint that perhaps sometimes they are interlinked. Alas Abrams chose a different path. 

The question of wiping out the original series has become an important following the impression the original series has left and suddenly the Abrams film felt more like a remake that claims ownership of the franchise rather than a reboot that respects all that was done before it. This feeling was enhanced with the new film Star Trek: Into Darkness, which felt very much like an inferior rewrite of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Oh well, not everyone is Christopher Nolan.

Moreover, the diversity of the cast is almost redundant today and by giving up the wonderful dialogues and conversations between the crew members, mainly Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty with occasional priceless contributions from Chekhov, in favour of more action and SFX, Abrams loses most of what made the original Star Trek oh so wonderful. In interviews Abrams admitted to being more of a Star Wars fan and not much of a Star Trek fan and said that it felt too talkie and static for him. Indeed Abrams has turned Star Trek into a Star War.

It might seem like I didn’t particularly like the new Star Trek films, really, I don't know what gave you that impression, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed Star Trek and absolutely loved Star Trek: Into Darkness. Not only do I think Star Trek: Into Darkness is the better of the two, but I also think it is the best J.J Abrams film.

Star Trek: Into Darkness was fantastic fun, which might not seem like much and perhaps contradicts the darkness suggested in the title, but definitely reflect the feel of the original series, of how much fun it was to create and be a part of. Regardless to anything I mentioned above I found myself emotionally invested in the experience that was the film and enjoying several air punching moment. Benedict Cumberbatch was mesmerising and Zachary Quinto, compelling and wonderful. I was happy to see that Abrams obsession with flares has calmed down and the camera work was less annoyingly shaky, which meant I could actually see and enjoy the fight scenes, which were totally worth watching.

While it is clear to me that J.J Abrams is not only not a fan, but also probably doesn’t really get Star Trek, I can see that he understands and respects the fandom and the responsibility towards fans when taking on such a franchise and I do think that despite Abrams claims that he was trying to make a film for film goers rather than Trek fans, the film offers more to fans.

I loved how on the one hand Harrison was a classic villain, all powerful and menacing and bewitching at the same time, and boy does Cumberbatch know how to be both, and on the other hand he was similar to Kirk, perhaps a better version of him, and until the last moment and possibly a little bit after that I wasn’t sure that I wanted Kirk to be the winner.

But perhaps what I loved most of all, and that comes from the writers, was that the film not only made me want to watch the old films again, but also reminded me how much I love Star Trek.
Keeping such a classic so alive is... well...just wonderful and the film's ending, which was truly moving for a Trek fan held a promise that from there on it's the Star Trek. I can only hope that it has a similar effect on people who haven’t seen Star Trek before, or like me never paid attention (are there any such people? I thought I was the last one) and they will want to watch the real thing