On Doctor Who

Like  a lot of people my age, I started watching Doctor Who in the 1980’s, which means that for the longest time, Tom Baker was “my Doctor”. I didn’t really keep watching after he left the series, and it wasn’t until the series was resurrected (regenerated?) in 2005 that I had the time and inclination to start watching again.

The thing about Doctor Who is that despite it’s often silly execution and relatively low-rent effects, it’s become a character show. The effects are sometimes only a step above community theater, and some of the episodes are just played for slapstick effect, but the structure of the episodes in relation to one another is such that whenever you get a light-hearted episode one week, you know you’re going to get a punch in the face real soon that will make you sad or creep you out.

Some people have said that Doctor Who is kind of a children’s show. It’s not really super violent, and the idea of struggling with pacifism is built into the narrative. But I think people assume because people aren’t being shot or getting into hand-to-hand combat, coupled with the sometimes silly and eye-rolling effects and creatures, that it’s intended for younger audiences. While I think overall it’s appropriate for younger audiences (immediate pre- and teens), there’s a lot of complex themes dealt with that younger audiences might not have references for.

How anyone watching the series can have a reference for the problems encountered by a 2000 year old time traveler is not really the point. Despite the Internet’s insistence of puffing up to try and make itself sound really smart by picking apart episodes and crapping on things it’s high-mindedness doesn’t like, I personally like the way the characters are written, and the circumstances that the characters endure in order to make the points about humanity and our interaction with the universe around us. Of course the Doctor has chosen to protect humanity, both past, present and future, and that allows humanity to continue up until the end of the Universe. We’re everywhere, and not only does that have ramifications on the universe, but most importantly, it has ramifications on the character of the Doctor himself.

Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor was kind of a preface (as he admitted that he left over disagreements with the management after one season), which made way for a younger generation’s apparently favorite Doctor, David Tennant. While the Eccleston Doctor treated us to vague notions that the Doctor had a missing period in his life that he refused to talk about, Tennant kind of started the emotional ball rolling over the situation. He also started a deeper engagement with the companions the Doctor traveled with, which set a precedent that continued through to Matt Smith.

Tom Baker more or less started the current “manic Doctor” persona, but until Tennant, the character was more of a mentor and kindly caretaker of his companions. Tennant and Smith were, I assume, cast to appeal to a younger demographic, and could be viewed as more of a friend to the companions — and even potentially a winking romantic interest. Both were young and energetic, and many of the scripts seemed to focus on fun they were having. The series became a lot about the fun of traveling through time and space; like cruising around with your first friend who get his or her driver’s license. Of course, there was the undercurrent of pathos running through the series: the Doctor had seen (and done) some shit that we were never fully informed about (until later in the game), but which could explain why his behavior was so manic.

That’s why I find that I’m preferring Peter Capaldi over Tennant and Smith. I liked both, but I think they were cast to bring life into the role so the series could literally burst out of hiatus with unconstrained energy and appeal to a new demographic that shows up for the attractive cast, but stays for the fun of the series. Capaldi is older than the previous Doctors, which circles back around the very early days of the show, but instead of being the “grandfather” that the Doctor started out as, he continues the manic presentation started by Baker. Still, we’re now on the other side of knowing more or less why the 21st century Doctor is haunted. It’s not a secret to us any more, which means that from a writing perspective, we need to find another concern that the character can brood about. So far, it’s a conflict between the now-pacifist Doctor and soldiering. In the first episodes, we see the character asking his companion Clara “am I a good man?”, and admitting that he’s made mistakes, and now it’s time to do something about them.

I expect we’ll be seeing a less fun-loving Doctor and a more contrite and grumpy Doctor (which has already started), but also a Doctor we can relate to. While Tennant and Smith embodied the potential fun of being able to go anywhere and any when, Capaldi shows us what can happen when the past — a very, very long past — starts to catch up to us, and starts to weigh on us, beyond the simple 100 yard stares we got from Tennant and Smith that were meant to convey something was bothering him. It’s a maturation of sorts, because in the real world we have to come to grips with the fact that we’re not as young as we feel, and that we have to own up and answer for the things we did when we were younger, and that those things which seemed like a good idea at the time weren’t actually the best decisions we could have made. The most telling episode so far this season was “Listen”, where we’re introduced to the idea of fear that’s always with us, and is embodied in scene when Clara comforts the Doctor as a child by telling him to listen to his fears. This new, “older” Doctor takes this to hearts (!), and is being more open to his fears that he’s been trying to avoid for the past three incarnations.

I guess it remains to be seen if the Tennant/Smith fans will take to the Capaldi Doctor as ardently. Aside from the fact that he is older (“I’m not your boyfriend”, he tells Clara, and as a nod to the sentiment fostered with the previous actors), he’s shaping up to be crankier and more morose. From a character stand point, it’s something I like. From a demographic standpoint, we’ll need to see how it plays out.

Defiance Season One

DefianceLogoThis week marked the end of the first season of Defiance on SyFy. Although SyFy ends up as the butt of a lot of jokes about low-budget movies like Sharktopus, their original series are usually pretty good (EurekaBattlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13).

The Background

If you’re not a Defiance watcher, here’s the short setup: A bunch of aliens show up on Earth’s doorstep, having fled their own planets after their shared sun blew up. Attempts to co-exist were made, but eventually a huge war broke out between the humans and the Votans (the collective name for the refugee races) until one battle where both humans and Votans ended up defying orders to fight, and instead worked together to save civilians. This was called the “Battle of Defiance”, and is how the remains of St Louis (featured in the show) got it’s name.

At some point in all of this, the Votan ships — called arks in a very human-centric coincidence — were destroyed in orbit around Earth. The debris still encircles the planet, with occasional pieces crashing down in what’s called an arkfall. It was because of these arkfalls that alien flora mixed with native flora to re-terraform Earth, resulting in a planet populated by strange plants and animals.

The show focuses on the town of Defiance, which is played as 19th century frontier town, cut off from other civilization due to no railroads, no highways, and no air travel (apparently the arkfalls and terraforming have rendered anything over a mile high extremely radioactive and hazardous to flying machines).

More information about the show, it’s settings, and characters, can be found on one of the Defiance wikis.

The Show (With Spoilers)

I’ve seen a lot of people say that getting started with the show was rather difficult. One of the problems was that they didn’t actually explain who the aliens were, or why they were living in St. Louis. During the first few episodes, new races were sent out on stage, and we were introduced to them through their weird rituals. It felt like we were being force-fed someone’s world-building, but Defiance has the potential to be a large IP. The Votanis Collective is made up of several races, and while only a few are mentioned and shown (Castithan, Irathient, Indogene, Sensoth, Liberata, and Volge), there were hints of several others. There’s really just a lot of info to set up that was needed in order to power the rest of the season, and I think the first few episodes not only had to do this introduction quickly, but also be entertaining enough to get people to return next week.

Once the viewer becomes comfortable with the cast, their races, and their situations, the show was free to move ahead.

[SPOILERS – Highlight to read!]

There are two weekly plots ongoing throughout the season, and one overarching plot.

One of the two weekly plots involve Nolan and Irisa, a human arkhunter and his “adopted” Irathi daughter. Nolan was a solider who fought in the Pale Wars against the Votan, and is considered one of the “Defiant Few”, the soldiers who worked with the Votans at the Battle of Defiance. He rescued Irisa from what we’re initially lead to believe was an Irathiant cult (which included her parents), and the two have survived in the Badlands — the terraformed frontiers between towns — collecting valuable technological debris that rains down in arkfalls. The two end up in Defiance after a run-in with the Spirit Riders, an Irathiant band of thugs, steal all of their posessions. Despite their nomadic nature, Nolan helps Defiance repel an attack from the war-like Volge, and then accepts the job of Lawkeeper for the town. Irisa isn’t too happy about that. She dislikes being in constant proximity to other people, and the town bothers the hell out of her. 

The second plot involves the current acting-mayor, Amanda Rosewater, and her primary foil, Datak Tarr, a Castithan “businessman” (in the way Al Capone was a “businessman”). Tarr, who was born into a low-ranking liro (social caste) is looking to gain respect for himself and his family in Defiance, but his shadowy dealings usually put him at odds with Amanda, who wants Defiance to be a lawful, peaceful town where Votans and humans can live together. Mixed into this plot is Rafe McCawley, owner and operator of the town’s gulanite mine, and staunch supporter of Amanda and direct opponent of Tarr and his schemes. McCawley’s daughter Christie and Tarr’s son Alak are actually involved in a Romeo and Juliet level romance, and eventually marry near the end of the season (neither dies).

The overarching plot involves a mysterious piece of Votan technology that McCawley’s oldest son Luke finds in the mines, and for which he is killed by Ben, Amanda’s Indogene assistant. It’s revealed throughout the course of the season that Ben, the town’s Indogene Doctor Meh Yewll, and the former Mayor Nicolette Riordon (an Indogen altered to look like a human), are working together to find this technology, which they believe is buried beneath Defiance in the gulanite mines. The Earth Republic (E-Rep), a global defense force-slash-government is also searching for this technology, which they believe is a Votan weapon that had crashed into Earth and was buried. E-Rep is constantly attempting to cut a deal with Defiance to bring railway service to the town, but Amanda refuses to cut a deal with them, citing that other towns that have ended up suffering for the privilege.

The end of the season resulted in a Mayoral run-off between Amanda and Tarr, in which the E-Rep backed Tarr won by a narrow margin. As a result of a Tarr scheme to discredit Amanda by exposing Nolan’s xenophobic past, Nolan and Irisa plan to leave Defiance, except that Irisa is integral to the retrieval of the strange Votan technology that the Indogene and E-Rep are searching for. Through a fast-paced conclusion, Tarr and his wife Stahma are presumed to be under arrest for killing an E-Rep commander, Nolan is dead, Amanda’s sister Kenya (the madam of the NeedWant, a bar-slash-brothel) is presumed dead for threatening Stahma over their illicit relationship, and Irisa must face her destiny as the potential weapon that could end the world. The last scene of the last episode was of an E-Rep force marching on Defiance, blaring through their loudspeakers that the town was now under E-Rep’s martial law.


Whew! So, with that out of the way….

Is It Any Good? (With Minor Spoilers)

Really, like anything else, your mileage may vary, but overall I think it’s a good start to a potentially deep IP.

One of the things that I liked about the show is that Nolan wasn’t what you’d normally get out of a “lawkeeper”, but he wasn’t portrayed as a mercenary either. He seemed to be focused on taking Irisa to Antactica (which they believed was a paradise thanks to the terraforming), but wanted to also stay in Defiance where they “could make a difference”. But in one episode, when he and a former friend-turned-bounty hunter were arguing over who would retain custody of a wanted criminal, Nolan killed the criminal rather than allow the bounty-hunter to turn the captive (a scientist with a history of creating WMDs) over to E-Rep [Edited]. Despite it’s undercurrents, I also liked the recording that Datak had of Nolan’s testimony from his days as a soldier which painted him as an unhinged xenophobe. We’re constantly asked to accept this guy as a peacekeeper, but we’re also shown that he might not actually believe in peace, but that he’s also personally conflicted with that sentiment in Defiance.

When it comes to sci-fi, it’s a difficult line to walk. If you go too far, you end up with a show about technobabble, a la Star Trek. If you go too far in the opposite direction, the technology barely matters in the face of human drama, a la Battlestar Galactica. I think that Defiance straddled the line pretty well. First, it’s about the people. Second, it’s about the fact that some of those people are aliens. Third, it’s about the mixing of the two, and the re-formatting of a familiar Earth recreated into something different. There’s a lot of familiarity still around that we can use as touchstones: The McCawleys live in a house that, from the inside, looks exactly like there was never an alien invasion. The miners who work in the gulanite mine could very well be coal miners anywhere in the U.S. at this exact moment. There’s very little alien technology floating around. We frequently see the Castithan energy blade wielded by Datak, and in the pilot episode, the Volge appear as “laser-gun packing monsters”, complete with giant mechs.

One of the things that seems a bit too pretentious, however, is the town itself. Built on top of a buried St. Louis, Defiance is a mining town full of Votan and Human refugees. To that end, it seems that it’s trying very, very hard to prove that it’s a melting pot, with it’s ramshackle buildings that make it look like everyone is some kind of street vendor. Such a chaotic implementation assures the viewer that there a nearly infinite number of stories going on at any given time, but after a while, wouldn’t it make sense that people would be working to improve on the town by building buildings and things? The Indogene were smart enough to create the arks to carry the Votans to Earth, but people are consigned to living in corrugated metal shanties?

One of the things I can’t figure out: Who thought it was a good idea to let the Volge tag along on the arks? We learn that the Indogene were spearheading a covert investigation into humanity which involved altering volunteers to look human, and apparently also involved Nazi-level experiments on captured humans. I suppose the Volge were the Votan’s invasion force, should it turn out that humans didn’t care to have new roommates.

And then, of course, we still haven’t found out exactly what happened to the arks. Who destroyed them, and why?

The Future of The Future

Defiance has already been renewed for a second season, although the life-expectancy on SyFy is 4 seasons (Eureka, Warehouse 13, and Battlestar Galactica all lasted about 4 seasons), so if Defiance can make it to season three, it has a good shot of making it to four.

One thing I’m not going to go into here is the “transmedia” aspect. If you’re not aware, Defiance has an accompanying online shooter game available for the PC, Xbox, and PS3. It takes place in San Francisco, but there’s tie-ins with the show. In one example, an Irathi named Rynn left Defiance (the town in the show), and showed up as a character in the Bay Area (in the video game). Currently, Trion (developers of the game) are holding a contest where one lucky player will actually have his or her character given a back-story, and will appear in the TV show, as that character. Pretty interesting stuff. I may write up something about it from the game site over at Levelcapped.com

Considering I don’t watch too much TV, I’d be sad if Defiance was shut down prematurely. There’s an insane glut of “sci-fi-esque” shows on these days, but most are on network stations. Like I said above, it’s difficult to really pull off good sci-fi, and I don’t think the networks have the skills to pull it off. Defiance has an excellent pedigree in it’s creative staff, like Rockne S. O’Bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation), Michael Taylor (Battlestar Galactica, The Dead Zone), and Scott Stewart (Iron Man, Sin City, Superman Returns), which forms a pretty solid sci-fi wall right there.

[Thanks to @Xgeistatwork for setting me straight on the “Nolan killing the criminal” scene]