Further adventures in old-school Whovianism

I posted a while back that I had started dipping into the vast catalog of classic Doctor Who serials, and since then I’ve watched a few more. As befits the show, I’ve been jumping around in time, watching adventures of various Doctors. These are three I’ve watched and enjoyed since my last post (WARNING: contains spoilers!):

“The Aztecs” (1964)

The first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions–Susan the Doctor’s granddaughter and her former teachers Ian and Barbara–materialize inside the tomb of an Aztec temple in pre-Columbian Mexico. As they emerge from the tomb, Barbara is hailed by the Aztecs as the reincarnation of one of their gods. She then decides to use her new influence to steer the Aztecs away from the practice of human sacrifice. This raises the suspicions of the high priest of sacrifice–the conniving Tlotoxl–who then tries to reveal Barbara as a fraud. Meanwhile, the Doctor tries to figure out how to get back into the tomb, which is sealed behind them, so they can escape in the TARDIS; Ian goes into training to become an Aztec warrior and develops a rivalry with his competitor for the top warrior spot; and Susan enters a “seminary” to learn about the Aztecs’ religious ways and is faced with a possible forced marriage to an upcoming sacrificial victim.

This story is interesting in a number of ways, particularly from the perspective of later Who. First, apart from the obvious time-traveling, there’s no sci-fi element to this story. The setting is purely historical, unlike in the Doctor Who revival, where any trip to a historical period invariably includes an encounter with an alien or monster of some sort, Second, the Doctor seems to adhere to a time-traveler’s version of the prime directive–he urges Barbara not to try to change the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice because you can’t interfere with history. It’s not totally clear if he means that it’s impossible to change history or just a really bad idea, but ultimately Barbara fails. The crew of the TARDIS is lucky to escape with their lives, much less change history in any meaningful way.

The Doctor isn’t particularly heroic here–his overriding concern is to get himself and his companions out of the situation A.S.A.P. He’s certainly not interested in saving the victims of human sacrifice. There is also an amusing subplot wherein the Doctor becomes “engaged” to an Aztec lady in the process of trying to get information from her about how to access the temple. The episode comes down pretty strongly against trying to interfere with the Aztecs’ practices, and the Doctor seems a bit more cold-blooded and manipulative than in some of his other incarnations.

“City of Death” (1979)

The fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion and fellow time lord (“time lady,” I guess) Romana are on holiday in Paris in 1979 (the Doctor has an amusing line about how 1979 may not exactly be Paris at its peak). They inadvertently discover both that someone is trying to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and that someone is messing with the space-time continuum. They meet up with a hard-boiled detective type who’s investigating crime in the art world, and the three of them are led to a certain Count Scarloni. But of course, the count is not what he seems–he’s an alien who arrived on Earth in prehistoric times and was subsequently splintered into multiple selves existing at different points in time when his space ship exploded. He is trying to build a machine that will allow him to travel back to that point and prevent the explosion of his ship (and in some way that was not quite clear to me, saving his entire race). This elaborate project is financed by the selling of priceless artifacts like Gutenberg Bibles that he is able to acquire via his selves existing in past eras. The completion of the time machine will be funded through the sale of multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (painted by Leonardo himself, who is being forced to make them by a past version of the Count). But of course, no one is going to buy a Mona Lisa when they know the real one is hanging in the Louvre, so the Count has to steal the original so he can sell his copies on the black market.

Once the Count realizes that the Doctor and Romana are able to travel in time, he forces Romana to help him complete his machine. But if he’s successful in his quest, it will actually prevent the existence of the human race because it turns out . . . the explosion of the ship actually provided the energy that caused the primeval ooze on Earth to begin generating life! So the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan the detective follow the Count (whose real name is Scaroth) back in time using the TARDIS and stop him from preventing his ship’s explosion (in what is frankly a rather anticlimactic scene).

This episode was written in part by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and it’s pretty much pure fun. There’s plenty of witty banter, and Baker is in fine form as the fourth Doctor. It was partly shot on location in Paris and includes some nice exterior shots of the city. Scarloni/Scaroth makes a great villain, and there is actually some pathos to his plight.

“Earthshock” (1982)

This has the fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric showing up in a network of subterranean caves on Earth in the 26th century. A detachment of soldiers, led by a Lieutenant Scott, is investigating the mysterious deaths of a group of archeologists who were excavating the caves, and when they encounter the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, they assume they’re responsible. But it turns out that the archeologists were killed by some creepy faceless androids who were down in the caves guarding a bomb. The Doctor disables the bomb but traces the signal controlling it back to a freighter in space headed for Earth. The Doctor, his companions, the soldiers, and the surviving archeologist follow the signal back to the freighter in the TARDIS. They eventually discover that the culprits behind the bomb are the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen, who are stowed away on the freighter and who are planning to attack an interplanetary summit taking place on Earth among leaders who are joining forces to fight the Cybermen.

Since the Doctor has disabled their bomb, the Cybermen have to resort to plan B, locking the freighter itself on a collision course with Earth. The Cybermen’s leader takes the Doctor and Tegan back to the TARDIS and forces them to leave Adric–who’s a boy-genius science whiz type–on the freighter along with the freighter’s captain and first officer as well as Lieutenant Scott. Meanwhile, Adric is trying to disable the controls the Cybermen have placed on the freighter’s navigation, and through some kind of hiccup involving the warp drive, the ship starts to travel backwards in time–65 million years to be precise. The Cyberman leader thinks this is even better than his original plan because now it looks like the collision will prevent human beings from ever existing at all. But the Doctor points out that what the freighter will actually do is cause the extinction of the dinosaurs! And this of course will actually pave the way for the emergence of humanity. The Doctor and his companions then overpower the Cyber-leader and his henchman on the TARDIS, but unfortunately Adric is still on the freighter as it collides with the Earth and is destroyed. He had stayed on board when the others evacuated on an escape pod for the noble (but ultimately unnecessary) purpose of disabling the Cybermen’s controls and steering the ship away from the Earth. The episode ends on quite a downer with the Doctor speechlessly staring at the TARDIS view screen, on which they just witnessed Adric’s demise.

I really enjoyed “Earthshock”–it was tense, fast-paced (at least by classic Who standards), and packed a pretty solid dramatic punch with the death of Adric. But the Doctor himself seems rather passive and even ineffectual throughout the serial. Not only does he not come up with some brilliant scheme to defeat the Cybermen, he isn’t even able to save his companion. In contrast with some of the other incarnations, the fifth Doctor (at least here) seems somewhat hapless. I gather from what I’ve read that this was something the people in charge of the show at the time did on purpose. They wanted to portray a more vulnerable Doctor to change things up after Tom Baker’s nigh-infallible Doctor who laughed in the face of danger (or at least offered it a jelly-baby). But the problem here is that it’s hard to see why we’re supposed to regard the Doctor as particularly heroic. He’s compassionate and noble, but he doesn’t really do much (except when he blasts the Cyberman leader at point-blank range with one the Cybermen’s own guns, which seems rather un-Doctor like). I’m curious whether this characterization carries through the other fifth Doctor adventures.

Confessions of an old-school Doctor Who newbie

I’ve been watching the BBC reboot of Doctor Who that began in 2005 off and on for a few years (I’m currently catching up on the most recent season with Matt Smith as the Doctor). But apart from maybe catching some random episodes on PBS as a kid, until recently I had never watched any “classic” Doctor Who, the series that ran from 1963 to 1989 and featured seven different actors playing the Doctor.

Luckily for me, Amazon has a smattering of the old serials available on its streaming video service. So I’ve been hopping around, with the goal of hitting some of the high points from each of the Doctors (though I gather that some high points are considerably higher than others).

So far I’ve watched

“Tomb of the Cybermen” (with Patrick Troughton as the second Doctor)

“Spearhead from Space” (with John Pertwee as the third Doctor)

“Ark in Space” (with Tom Baker as the fourth–and longest running–Doctor)

“Pyramids of Mars” (with Tom Baker)

I’ve enjoyed all of these, though “Cybermen” the least due to some pretty slow pacing and spotty acting by some of the secondary players (not to mention some fairly egregious casual racism).

I probably liked “Spearhead from Space” and “Pyramids of Mars” the best. The former is the first appearance of the third Doctor and establishes his new status quo as an exile on Earth who is unable to operate the TARDIS (his space-and-time-traveling police box) and has to join forces with a paranormal investigative arm of the British army called UNIT. (This serial gives off some serious X-Files vibes, and you have to wonder if Chris Carter was a Who Fan.)

One of the fascinating things about Who (and which has been credited by lots of people for the show’s longevity) is that each new Doctor provides an occasion for a virtual reboot of the entire series. In the case of the third Doctor, there was a fairly obvious effort to incorporate elements from the spy/adventure franchises like James Bond and The Avengers that were popular at the time. As someone has aptly described him, the third Doctor was a bit like Bond and Q in one person.

“Pyramids” has the fourth Doctor firing on all cylinders. To Americans at least, Tom Baker is probably the most iconic of the “classic” Doctors (though I realized that before watching these, I had often conflated Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor and Colin Baker’s (no relation AFAIK) sixth Doctor because they both had big, curly hair and wore multi-colored clothes). The plot has the Doctor and his longtime companion Sarah Jane Smith trying to stop an ancient Egyptian “god” (who is of course really an alien) from escaping his imprisonment in a tomb to wreak havoc on Earth.

Baker’s Doctor is more like the Doctor we “nu”-Whovians have come to know and love–an eccentric cosmic bohemian who defeats his enemies through cunning and cleverness rather than brute force and has a special place for human beings in his heart(s). One of the fun things about watching different actors take on the Doctor is that while they each put their own spin on the character, he has certain constant traits that make him recognizably the same.

Next I’m planning to watch one of the fifth Doctor serials, then maybe skip to seven or back to one (I’ve heard terrible things about the Colin Baker years, so I’m putting those off).

There’s no shortage of online advice for deciding which serials to check out–I found these particularly helpful:

Old-School Doctor Who Episodes Everyone Should Watch (at io9)

Primer: Doctor Who (at the AV Club)

Doctor Who: 11 Must See Classic Episodes (at WhatCulture!)

Any Whovians out there want to recommend some must-see classic adventures?

“I Am the Doctor”

Okay, this is kind of nerdy, but I’ve been watching the Matt Smith seasons of Doctor Who, and I really like the 11th Doctor’s theme:

NPR’s SF and fantasy top 100

NPR did a listener survey on the best science fiction and fantasy books and posted a list of the top 100. The ones I’ve read are in bold. At a glance, the list seems a little bit too weighted toward more recent stuff. Anything else on here anyone would particularly recommend?

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert [first book only–L.M.]

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin

6. 1984, by George Orwell

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan

13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell

14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore

16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein

18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss

19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King

24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

25. The Stand, by Stephen King

26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman

30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein

32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller

36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne

38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys

39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells

40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson

44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven

45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien

47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White

48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

50. Contact, by Carl Sagan

51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons

52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

54. World War Z, by Max Brooks

55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle

56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson

59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind

63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist

67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks

68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard

69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne

73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore

74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson

76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey

78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin

79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury

80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire

81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson

82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks

84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart

85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher

87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe

88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn

89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan

90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock

91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury

92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge

94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson [first book only–L.M.]

96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville

99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony

100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

Friday Links

–Iowa’s House approved a bill to make it illegal to film the goings on in factory farms; it still has to pass the Senate.

–The great Midwestern backlash.

–What is the difference between liberals and libertarians?

–Rejecting death-centered Christianity.

–The fondness some secular liberals have for fundamentalism.

–More than half of Americans now favor legal gay marriage.

–On Catholic scholar John Meier’s version of the historical Jesus.

–George Scialabba on Adam Smith.

–Fred Clark (a.k.a. the Slacktivist) on John Woolman, 18th-century itinerant Quaker preacher and abolitionist. (I’ve come across references to Woolman in multiple books I’ve read lately.)

–An interview with Tim Minear, who co-created Firefly with Joss Whedon and had a major hand in Angel (the Buffy spin-off and an excellent show in its own right). Plus: Joss Whedon 101: Serenity.

–Jeremy reviews Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins (which, by his account, doesn’t sound all that scandalous or unorthodox to me).


–Nine daily rituals to increase mindfulness.

–The theology of “The Adjustment Bureau.”

Friday Links

–Why Washington doesn’t care about jobs.

–At the Moral Mindfield, Marilyn has more on the question of whether welfare reforms benefit animals raised for food.

–Metallica’s classic album Master of Puppets turned 25(!) yesterday. This was the first real metal album I ever heard, and it’s still one of the best.

–NPR’s “First Listen” is streaming the new REM album in its entirety.

–For all the sci-fi nerd parents of small children out there: Goodnight, Dune.

–David Brooks will decide when it’s time for you to die.

–A lecture from Peter Singer: Evolution versus ethics.

–From the blog Experimental Theology, a series of posts on universalism: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

–How all the extra noise created by human beings affects animals.

–On James Alison and discipleship.

–Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work.

–Two good ones from Fred Clark at the (newly moved!) Slacktivist: The epistemology of Team Hell and Should I not be concerned?

–In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 9th, Oxfam is “raising awareness about hunger, climate change, and other crises facing women worldwide.”

ADDED LATER: Glad to see Marvin back in action with posts on Christian Taoism, the politics of union-busting, and the Rob Bell-universalism brouhaha.

Literalists, progresives, and Lost

I like this, from Newsweek:

Lost‘s viewers fall into two categories, those who adhere to reason and those who follow their faith. The Lost literalists believe that the show is infallible, that it’s not only an engrossing, entertaining television show, it’s holy writ–divinely inspired, all-knowingly conceived, and absolutely inerrant. In other words, the show’s many, many loose ends–the smoke monster, the polar bear–have to be resolved. The progressives like the show just fine, but they accept its limitations. They know that television shows adapt, that actors leave or get pregnant, budgets get cut, writers go on strike. More than that, they know that ideas change, that good ideas are orphaned in favor of great ones, that Lost doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be important. In short, Lost has gone beyond being just a show about faith to being a meta-commentary on faith.

Maybe not entirely surprisingly, I’m firmly in the progressive camp. I’ve always found Lost most compelling when seen as a parable of human existence, not a meticulously constructed imagined reality. Obviously, some degree of continuity and–I won’t say plausibility–coherence are necessary for any satisfying storytelling, but I really couldn’t care less about the polar bear, Walt’s super powers, etc.

It’s interesting how many SF fans take a “literalistic” approach to the genre’s products. The “continuity police” types so familiar on message boards (and, in days of yore, in comic book letter columns) seem strangely incongruous with the suspension of disbelief necessary to get fantasy and SF off the ground.

ADDENDUM: Nice pre-S6 write-up from the AV Club’s Noel Murray (whose Lost reviews I read faithfully).

The lizard people cometh

This could be incredibly cool, or incredibly lame, but ABC is re-making the 80s science fiction series V, which, if you’re of a certain age, you probably remember as being awesome/terrifying.

As a bonus, it will star Morena Baccarin, who played Inara on Firefly/Serenity and Elizabeth Mitchell (a.k.a. Juliet) from Lost. I’m sure I’ll be tuning in.

Boldly going

A buddy of mine scored some tickets to an advanced screening of the new Star Trek movie last night, and was kind enough to invite me along. I enjoyed it a lot. I consider myself a fairly serious Trek fan, if not a true, hardcore Trekkie, and I thought it was great fun. It also takes a pretty clever approach to re-booting the series without disregarding past (future?) continuity.

Speaking of BSG…

You can watch the trailer for the prequel series “Caprica” here.

According to Wikipedia, an “extended version of the pilot will have its world premiere exclusively on DVD on April 21, 2009. In early 2010, the first season, composed of the two-hour pilot and 18 hour-long episodes, is expected to begin airing on the Sci Fi Channel in the United States.”