Sunday, 26 May 2013

Andy vs Doctor Who Part II: The Name of the Doctor

Spoilers abound!

I have been without internet for several weeks as I recently moved house, so I've only just caught up with the  last episode of this season of Doctor Who, The Name of the Doctor. After my last rant blog about the show, I thought I'd better write something about it as a finale and an explanation for the 'Impossible Girl' (grr). 

First off, in my opinion, Doctor Who is not a program that relies too much on continuity, especially in it's original incarnation. The origin of the Daleks has changed at least a couple of times (for instance between The Daleks where they first appeared and Genesis of the Daleks 12 years later), Davros, The Master, the entire Dalek race and even obscure villains like Omega have been bought back from being seemingly dead with not a lot of explanation. But it does have small nods towards it: each of the anniversary specials nod back to the previous incarnations (as the 50th will) and the Time War seems to act primarily as a way to explain differences between the old series and the new - which is fine. A program about time travel shouldn't get too hung up on it.

This episode opens with Clara giving a voice-over as she apparently falls through a time vortex. I didn't like the voice-over thing with Rose in Army of Ghosts and I don't like it here. It's padding and a very artificial way to create tension. We then seemed to see it at least five more times

But on to the main body of the episode. Essentially, Strax, Vastra and Jenny get themselves kidnapped and are whisked off to Trenzalore - a planet that The Doctor must never go to, for it is where he is buried. I would have thought that crossing timelines with yourself when you are still alive would be a MUCH bigger problem, but whatever, I'm not a time traveler. Eventually they make their way to the center of the dying TARDIS, where The Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant) steps into the center of one of the coolest things I've ever seen on Doctor Who (quite literally, his life-line) and corrupts the Doctor's entire timeline. At which point, Clara steps in as well and fixes everything, explaining how she got scattered across time and space. 


From other reviews I am reading about this, this was seen as one of the greatest series endings of all time. I am not convinced. I had all sorts of problems with this episode. Here are some of the biggest:
  1. The Doctor's timeline is just sitting there, on Trenzalore. Yes, the actual name of the Doctor is required to get to it, but one door blocks the way to something that could potentially destroy entire civilizations in seconds. You don't even have to be planning to do it. Trip up the steps and rework history. "Whoops-" FWOOOM.
  2. Wasn't it the Silence's job to stop them getting to Trenzalore? Where the hell were they? I didn't particularly like them either, but you can't rewrite continuity and ignore it at the same time.
  3. Clara has been about for all of the Doctor's incarnations, and the 11th is the first to notice her. Seriously?
  4. Even if she was scattered through time and space, presumably she was still human. Why the hell was she on Gallifrey?
There are others (why were Strax and Vastra still on Trenzalore at all, let alone fighting?) and Stephen Moffat nicely undermined the poignant ending to Forest of the Dead by having a post-that River come back. In that episode, she died to save a man who didn't know who she was yet. It was perfect. Leave it alone. This was a tear-jerker, but a hell of a cheap one. Also, has she been holographically hanging around in the TARDIS since then? This certainly implies it. "I can always see you..." indeed. 

Forest of the Dead, more poignant the more you got to know River
(It's worth pointing out with regards to River, for one glorious second I thought she'd been prompting Clara all the time she was in the TARDIS. That would have been a nice twist as well as extremely funny.)

But the ending. Oh my lord. All of my objections and questions and problems were blown away by that one reveal. Forget Clara, John Hurt is a hell of a mystery. My personal theory is that I think he might be the meta-crisis Doctor from Journey's End, but anyone else got a good one?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Lord Tebbitt commits some Logical Fallacies

In a bid to make myself feel like a good samaritan I bought a copy of The Big Issue today. In it, Lord Tebbitt, who is, shall we say, slightly opposed to the idea of gay marriage, makes several charming statements:
“When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?’
“It’s like one of my colleagues said: we've got to make these same sex marriages available to all.
“It would lift my worries about inheritance tax because maybe I’d be allowed to marry my son. Why not? Why shouldn't a mother marry her daughter? Why shouldn't two elderly sisters living together marry each other?”

What a nice man. I write about this today though, not to make any comment on the issue itself (I know people who have strong opinions in either direction) but because it provides an excellent platform for discussing something I find interesting - logical fallacies.

First off, the obvious - The 1949 Marriage act has a completely different set of rules for marrying relatives; they're listed out in the Table of Kindred and Affinity, which quite sensibly states that not only can you not marry your son, you also can't marry his wife if he is still alive. Also there are seperate incest laws, not to mention the possibility of getting accused of tax evasion, although ultimately I discount the idea that Lord Tebbitt genuinely wants to marry his son and is instead not being serious. This is our first fallacy, and it's called the Appeal to Ridicule - presenting an opponents arguments in a way that makes them seem absurd. 

If I was being cheeky, I could also call the middle sentence an Appeal to Anonymous Authority - if this colleague said it, why must it be true?

But the first paragraph is truly a gold mine. Here, he posits a series of occurrences, which leaving our fallacies for a minute deserves a closer look. The question posed at the end relies on a number of things happening, but let's for a minute assume that he could be talking about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's baby. Below, I list the assumptions his question has to make, followed by my best statistical estimation of them actually occurring.

  • The baby is a girl
    • 50%, give or take. The couple may be genetically predisposed one way or the other (but we don't know), and there is a slight difference in the rate of boys to girls at the moment, but not enough to shift the percentage.
  • The girl is gay or bisexual
    • Bit trickier, this one, but the UK census suggests a rate of 1.1 % for the former and 0.4 % for the latter. This obviously only includes those who self-identify as gay, but I realized this isn't a problem because Lord Tebbitt assumes/implies that this Queen must have self-identified at some point.
  • The girl is married
    • This is where it gets tricky. Assuming that all those in a civil partnership would get married if the opportunity arose (a statistical leap in itself) and that the rate stays the same (again, bit of a stretch) there would be around 53,000 same sex marriages in the UK at this mythical point in the future. Assuming it takes two to tango, that puts the number of people (in total) in same-sex marriages at around 0.16 % and (assuming straight people aren't in same-sex marriages) the number of gay people at around 14.5 %.
  •  The girl wishes to have children via artificial insemination
    • This is apparently about 41%, according to one survey. I am not going to cite all of my references, as these are all approximate.
  • It is successful
    • This is tricky to estimate, but assuming she's under 35, the success rate is about 32.5 %, according to the NHS, and the percentage declines after that point.

How likely is Lord Tebbitt's hypothesis? By multiplying all of these together, the odds come out somewhere around 0.1 %. I think the primogeniture question of the throne is pretty safe.

So which fallacy is this he's using? This is called using Misleading Vividness. He has described a  scenario in such detail that you see the problem before considering how likely it all is. Interesting stuff.

And if you think, even after all this, that this particular argument is one that still needs to be thought about, I direct you to your own personal fallacy: the Appeal to Probability. Just because something can happen, doesn't mean it will, even if it is likely. This is very, very unlikely.

The conclusion we can all draw from this is that this doesn't exactly add anything to the debate about gay marriage on either side, just that we can safely ignore Lord Tebbitt and instead look at this cool diagram of logical fallacies.

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Frankenstein Theory - Movie Review

As someone who takes an almost perverse pride in plumbing the depths of horror-related obscurity I am ashamed to admit that this one flew completely under my radar. But someone lent it to me on Friday and I thought it was awesome. You should go and watch it.

First, a little background (I would say spoilers, but the book was published in 1817). The novel, Frankenstein is about a young medical student creating a new man (the method is never made clear) and then abandoning said man when it is monstrously ugly. Apart from these physical, er, limitations, the creature is an intelligent, reasonable being who ends up with severe parental abandonment issues, goes on a roaring rampage of revenge and the book ends with a half-mad-with-grief Victor Frankenstein pursuing his creation to the Arctic in order to finally kill it. The framing device is the letters of the captain of an arctic exploration vessel that finds Victor mid hunt and doesn't exactly believe him until he sees the monster himself. Victor dies, his quest unfulfilled. The monster grieves over his 'father's' body, saying:
I shall die. I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched. He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish. I shall no longer see the sun or stars or feel the winds play on my cheeks.
This is where this is happening. It's pretty grim.

It's one of my favourite books, and possibly the greatest gothic "places where science dares not tread" book ever written. Certainly the most famous. So why do I re-hash all of this? Because The Frankenstein Theory, set in the modern day, posits the idea that Frankenstein was a work of non-fiction disguised as fiction and that somewhere in the arctic wilderness, the monster lives.

Yeah, yeah, I know, the premise is faintly ridiculous, but the film follows through with it to such a degree and treats it with such seriousness that by the time the documentary crew reaches the icy wastes of North Canada you're pretty much sold. The method by which the location of the monster is estimated (a combination of migratory patterns and unexplained murder reports) is a work of creative genius. 

This is a 'found-footage' film a-la Cloverfield and normally I don't get on with them (they make me feel ill) but this is probably the best I've seen. There's really only five characters, Professor Venkenheim, the man who believes his Great-great etc. Grandfather conducted the original experiment, Vicky, the director/presenter of the documentary they're filming about the hunt, the camera guy and sound guy, and Carl, the Canadian guide who is probably the most memorable. Venkenheim is the most interesting, however, in a role mirroring that of Victor's in the novel - obsessional to the point of endangering those around him. This is evident in an early scene when he pushes a potential eye-witness too far and has terrible consequences later on. The rest are a likable bunch, but meat on the hoof to a man (or woman). The 'found-footage' concept alone doesn't exactly bode well for a happy ending. 

Carl also endears me by riffing on that famous scene in Jaws where Quint tells the story of the Indianopolis except with a polar bear rather than sharks. It's pretty creepy.

Carl, single-handedly making the Northwest territories cool
It's also very pretty to look at. The wilderness as presented is a harsh yet beautiful place, a place that could easily kill you even without anything else. There's a fun theme throughout of the encroachment - and de-civilizing effect - of the wilderness, with a hunter's yurt literally and symbolically becoming an increasingly flimsy refuge. 

Any faults? Other reviews have called it slow, and it's true that it takes a long while to get where it's going, but for me that allowed me more time to buy into the concept. It also ends rather...suddenly. But still a heavy recommendation from me.

One more question I bet you're asking. Do they find what they're looking for? Well, that would be telling, but let's just say that the theme of de-civilization is taken to it's logical extreme. 


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Andy vs Doctor Who

Next week I plan to do a serial story over the five days - Part I on Monday, Part II on Tuesday etc. This week however, I am taking time off to write about one of my favourite things - Doctor Who, partly because I want to write about something people have actually watched for once and also because it...troubles me at the moment.

Before you read any further, this is a rant blog for people who are up to date with the show – I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you’re somewhere behind The Bells of Saint John this may not be of interest to you and I will obviously be talking about some of the stuff that happens in the subsequent episodes.

I don’t really care what Clara Oswin Oswald is. And I am beginning to suspect I am not alone. 

Screenrant has an excellent guide to people who are new to Doctor Who. It ignores the pre-2005 series, rightly guessing that it is daunting and overwhelming for new viewers to dive into, at least initially (although it does offer a couple of suggestions),  and instead highlights a few of the new episodes that are a good starting point.

This can be a tad contentious (fans are defensive of their favourite episodes – I know I am - and I have yet to meet a fan who isn't)  but one of the best parts in my opinion is a list of ‘tips’ for watching Doctor Who. The last reads “…be aware that you will not likely be happy with each new companion at first.” Excellent advice.

One of the things it doesn't cover for new viewers however is the prevalence in Nu-Who for season-wide plots to be subtly hinted at, through the use of arc-words (Bad Wolf, Silence Will Fall) or names (Mr. Saxon, Torchwood).  Generally these tend to be in the background, and get resolved in the season finale. But if you’re a fan, of course you already know that. In my opinion, they work best as borderline Easter Eggs, and the less they infringe on the week-to-week stories, the better.

The best example of this, I think, was the mysterious Mr Saxon. He was never shown until the end, always name-dropped by someone back on Earth as a shady ‘benefactor’, subtly manipulating behind the scenes. His eventual reveal was doubly good, because it lived up to its hinted promise as well as highlighting the fact that the Doctor really should have been paying more attention.

Which brings us to Clara.

Clara is annoying. Some people may find her less so, but I have yet to speak to one. She’s smart-alecky and overly talkative in that irritating rapid-fire way writers confuse with genuine wit. She worked well in her first appearance in Asylum Of The Daleks. The reveal that her chirpy personality and endless soufflĂ© making were essentially denial and that she had been turned into a Dalek in the middle of a facility full of the craziest, most dangerous Daleks was a hell of a good twist. It was dark, it was tragic. It was awesome.

But then she came back, and the show writers made the fatal error of combining the new companion with the season’s major arc. Remember the rule up there? In other seasons if I took a dislike to a companion I could still get interested in the broader story as well as the week-to-week. I didn't like Amy Pond at first, but the stuff about the Silence and the Cracks didn't depend on her in the slightest. This way, however, the show runners have put all their eggs in one basket and disliking Clara makes the arcing plot (her being ‘impossible’ which in this case means ‘functionally immortal’) utterly dis-interesting   The best episodes from this season so far have been the ones that didn't draw attention to it at all, namely Cold War and The Crimson Horror the latter noticeable for providing far more interesting companions in Strax, Lady Vastra and Jenny.  Hide unfortunately showed a slightly old fashioned ‘doctor-companion’ relationship between Professor Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling that seemed infinitely calmer and preferable.

So why am I writing this now? Well, apart from the monolithic Blink, I hadn't re-watched any of the previous episodes of Doctor Who since they were on, but this Sunday I ended up watching The Lazarus Experiment, The Shakespeare Code and Human Nature/The Family of Blood, all from Series 3. Many people would argue this doesn't represent the strongest selection from that series (again though, arguments may/will ensue) but I was struck by three things:

1)      The quality of the stories was pretty good, with a solid structure and even some vague attempts at social commentary.

2)      The Saxon arc was extremely unobtrusive, only being very briefly mentioned in The Lazarus Experiment.

3)      Martha actually did stuff. She was practical, brave, loyal and most importantly relatable. Quick-paced dialogue is not a substitute for convincing characterisation.

I realised I had been in denial. The show has slipped in quality, and now has some serious problems. I am not going to abandon Doctor Who any time soon and it still retains a huge chunk of my affections, but these are my suggestions to the show runners that I think would improve it:

·         Realize that the core ‘mysteries’ of the series are best kept in the background until the end. Over-exposing them quickly makes them boring, confusing or both.
·         Realize that even if this were the case, the core mystery for this series is not very interesting. We need to get to know Clara before we care what happens or is happening to her. Amy Pond skated dangerously close to this with the cracks in time.
·         At the moment you have a ‘mystery’ immortal girl and a mad-man-in-a-box Time Lord adventuring through time and space. The companion is in many ways supposed to be a stand-in for the audience. Who are people supposed to be relating to at the moment, the TARDIS? (Addendum: This does not necessarily mean that the companion has to be human. They just have to react to their surroundings like a human – be it confusion, wonder or terror. Come on guys, it’s not hard. Like I said, I think Strax, Lady Vastra and Jenny would be awesome companions)
·         Please, please, please go back to finishing off plot-lines convincingly. Are the Silence coming back or aren’t they? To be fair though, Amy and Rory’s exit was exactly what it should have been - sad, true to the characters and FINAL.

Also, these three in a spin-off show would be awesome.

And seriously, no-one cares about Clara.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. What do you guys think?