Monthly Archives: May 2013

Doctor Who Season 7 (part deux)

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7BLast weekend, the seventh season (series) of Doctor Who came to a fun, but terribly confusing end.

Let me first say something about Clara Oswin Oswald, the Doctor’s new companion.

Clara OswaldI love her.  I love that she is incredibly smart, I love that she is a mystery, I think she’s awesome.

On the other hand, I think they put a lot more effort into personifying her character before she actually became the companion.  They showed how smart (and brave) she was in The Asylum of the Daleks, and also proved herself funny and strong in the Snowmen.  I loved her in both of those episodes.  But she had the unfortunate habit of dying all the time.

Since she became the actual companion, I feel like the writers have done less to make her unique and exceptional. She takes a backseat a lot of the time, just going along with the Doctor like any other companion.  There are a few exceptions, but she seems more passive now that she’s with him than she did before.  Step it up, writers!

So, let’s discuss the episodes that were in this half of the season:

The aforementioned episode The Snowmen was a Christmas special that I really enjoyed.  One of several in the last 1-2 years taking place in Victorian England, so that makes me immeasurably happy.  I thought it was creepy, Christmas-y, and lots of fun.  Everything a Doctor Who Christmas special should be.

When the season started up properly again, it began with The Bells of St. John. This is our first look at modern-day Clara, an orphan who lives with a friend of the family and looks after his children. Ignoring the ridiculous scene of the Doctor riding a motorcycle up the Shard, I liked this episode.  This is also the episode where Clara is the most independent and suspicious, not yet under the thrall of the Doctor (as all companions eventually do fall under it, I can’t blame her when she does, but I still like it when people don’t automatically fall at his feet. I mean, how would you feel if a strange man showed up at your door in a monk’s outfit and wanted to come in?

In other news, I really like his new outfit:

Dr Who new costumeVery Victorian. I kept expecting him to say something about waistcoats (vests) being cool, but it never came up.  Was that just a Doctor & Amy thing?  If so, I will miss the hats.

The next episode was The Rings of Akhaten, where Clara and the Doctor wander into a scene from that short story, The Lottery.  A sacrifice to the gods to prevent massacre of the planet, etc., etc. I thought this episode was the weakest of this (half of the) season.  Partially, I was really irritated by the premise.  Fine, this god wants memories to feed on, to keep it asleep.  The Doctor has 800+ years of memories, but a 23-year-old girl’s memories are more valuable?  In some ways I can kind of comprehend that the memories of a younger person are more…intense, because we feel things intensely when we’re young and we are more numb to emotions as we age, but the Doctor still has a bulk amount of memories. There’s no way hers are more valuable than his.  His whole planet was destroyed, his whole race.  He’s seen companions taken away by death and by time. He’s changed the world.  I’m sorry, but that leaf is not that important. He is more important.

Cold War was the next episode.  Not one of my favorites. I think I’m in the minority there, because a lot of people really liked it.  I think the difference is that, having never seen the old Doctor Who episodes, I have never before encountered the Ice Warriors.  I’ve never seen anything before Christopher Eccleston, so they just have no meaning for me within the larger canon. And this episode as a whole seemed to lack some tension for me–which is a ludicrous thing to say, since it was a time and a place where any second could bring about world-ending nuclear war.

Next came Hide, which I really liked. It was very spooky, and I sort of love it when the Doctor saves a hideous monster as readily as he saves a human.  It’s like watching someone carefully transport a spider out of the house and into a nice new home.  Plus, everyone gets to live and be happy at the end. Bonus–Emma, the psychic, was played by Jessica Raine, better known (to me) as Jenny from Call the Midwife.

I also loved Journey to the Center of the Tardis, where we finally get to see some of the other rooms inside the ship. I would live in the library, except for small breaks to visit the swimming pool. If I wasn’t being pursued by some sort of lava monster. What I really didn’t like about the episode is the Doctor yelling at Clara to try to discover who she is. I also wasn’t fond on those moments being ‘reset’ and Clara losing the memories of what she saw in the library.  I would pay so much money to get a look at that book…

The Crimson Horror was my favorite episode of this series.  Back in Victorian England!  The Doctor even gives us an adorable Yorkshire accent! On the other hand, that leech thing was the most foul slimy monstrosity I’ve seen in a long time. Yuck Yuck Yuck. I liked seeing the vulnerability of the Doctor, and loved Rachael Stirling (from The Bletchley Circle) as Ada, acting alongside her real-life mother as the heinous Mrs. Gillyflower.  There was something very Dickensian about Sweetville–the obsession with Christian morality, the gated community somewhat like a work house, the darkness in general. The only part of this episode I disliked was the end. Clara returns to her real timeline and the two kids she lives with have discovered pictures of her in different times.  Okay, so these kids just happened to both come across pictures of her in various places and times, during the short period she’s been traveling?  I find this pretty ludicrous, considering we’ve seen fans of the Doctor before who have a really hard time finding photos of him. Plus, I knew it meant the kids would be more important in future, and I really prefer not to have other people travel with the Doctor. I think it should be one companion only–Rory was the only exception, and these kids are not Rory. And I don’t like kids in general, so there’s that.

As I expected, the next episode had the kids going along with The Doctor and Clara, to the best amusement park in all of space and time…now disused and looking like something out of a Scooby Doo episode. Nightmare in Silver sees the return of the heavily upgraded Cybermen, to a point of being nearly unbeatable foes.  This episode had some problems–I wasn’t wild about the Doctor vs CyberDoctor scenes, and the kids were annoying for the first 10 minutes and then nearly inanimate for the rest. The salvation of this episode was Warwick Davis. I love Warwick Davis.  He was great in this, and I could have lived with a lot more screen time for him.  And a lot less for the kids.

Lastly, we have the finale. The Name of the Doctor. It was not as climactic (for me) as some of the finales have been, such as Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.  Still, it had some epic ideas behind it. We see where the Doctor’s grave is, we see River again (!), and we find out why Clara is ‘the impossible girl’.  It makes sense, too, if you don’t think into it very deeply.  Just wade your feet in the logic, then move on. Closer scrutiny will leave you cross-eyed.

I particularly loved the scenes where Clara encounters past incarnations of the Doctor, even though I am woefully ignorant about who is who. I can pick out Tom Baker, and that’s about it. Still, it was cool and Clara got to wear great costumes.

The big deal with this episode is the end.  John Hurt shows up and he embodies the Doctor when he is not the Doctor?  Huh?  Reading rumors online, I’m lead to believe John Hurt will represent the Doctor during the interregnum, between the end of Doctor #8’s short run in the ’90s and the beginning of the current incarnation of the show, with Christopher Eccleston.  The period of the Great Time War, when Gallifrey was destroyed and the time lords with it.  John Hurt will personify the Doctor when he had to do horrible un-Doctor-like things to win the war.  I guess? That’s all rumor, so we’ll see…in November.

Overall, this half of the season was much better than the previous (in my opinion).  I had fun watching almost every episode, and there were good moments in each of them.  I think Clara is a much-needed breath of fresh air. I hope they keep giving her opportunities to be very clever and very strong, rather than letting her just follow the Doctor’s lead.

I cannot wait until the fall and we get all the 50th Anniversary celebrations and guest stars.  It’s going to be a long 6 months.

The Bletchley Circle

The Bletchley CircleThe Bletchley Circle aired on PBS during April & May, though it aired in the UK in 2012.  Just a few weeks ago, iTV announced that they would be making a second series of the show.

Like Sherlock, this series (season) consists of only 3 episodes, 1 hour each.  Really, it’s more of a miniseries, and I was entirely prepared to describe it that way until I learned about a second season.  Miniseries don’t have further seasons, so I guess it is a drama series.

The show follows 4 women in 1950s London.  All four worked at Bletchley Park, the center of code breaking intelligence for the Brits during WWII.  Due to the Official Secrets Act, everyone had to hide their involvement in wartime divisions, etc., until something like the 1970s.  So these characters lead normal, horribly dull lives. No one knows that they’re code-breaking savants and were very important to wartime efforts.  They don’t get any recognition, even from family and friends.

It’s no wonder that Susan GraySusan Gray, the main character, is desperately in need of something to do. She has a dull husband and 2 kids, and is chained to the stove like any good ’50s housewife. After hearing reports on the news about a string of unsolved homicides, she can’t help but see some patterns in the details.  At first, she tries to go directly to the police, but she can’t work out all of the specifics of the crime without enlisting her 3 friends–whom she hasn’t seen since the war ended–to help her read the patterns. Gray would, if born today, end up an engineer, a statistician, a math professor. She’s exacting, efficient, a little too meticulous, a little boring.  She’s played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who I recognized from her roles in Bleak House (Esther Summerson) and North & South (Bessy Higgins).  I think AMM does a great job of portraying someone totally trapped by gender norms, who allows her life to be decided by feelings of what she should be doing.

In her determination to solve the puzzle and find the murderer, she enlists her three wartime compatriots:

Bletchley Circle MillieMillie, the free-spirited, world traveling, modern woman. She lives on her own, she’s tough, she takes care of herself.  You can tell how modern and independent she is because she is the only one who wears pants.  She is my favorite, obviously.

Bletchley Circle LucyLucy is the youngest and most naive.  She is very useful, though, because she has an eidetic memory.  Unfortunately, she also has an abusive, douchebag husband.  Lucy is maybe the most reluctant of the four. The violence they encounter during this investigation is probably worse than anything she’s ever imagined.  After all, they didn’t even have CSI back then–not even the original CSI.  They weren’t used to seeing dead bodies dissected and splashed about.  She explains that it’s also worse for her because her memory allows her to see bad things over and over again in perfect and horrible recollection.  That would not be my superpower of choice.

Lastly, there’s Jean.

Bletchley Circle JeanShe is the bossy older one, and she’s a librarian.  She looks and seems everything dowdy and unattractive at first.  There’s a quiet, assiduous power about her, though.  She is integral to the group because she has contacts in other libraries and with other intelligence workers that they use to dig up info on their killer. Jean is more reserved and less emotional, but she’s competent and hard-working.  She’s a Hufflepuff, in essence.

The ladies use their code-cracking skills to see other patterns in the killings–the girls were all on a journey, which they eventually narrow down to one specific train from St. Pancras.  He must be on the train too, then.

They discover over the three episodes that the man is a necrophiliac (they don’t use this word, but it’s made clear that each of the victims is raped after she’s killed).  They realize he has struck before, in other areas of England, and always pins the crime on someone else.  Shortly afterward, he does the same thing with his victims in London, but the girls (especially Susan) are adamant that the police have the wrong man.

It all comes back to the war. They discover the real killer is a man who was trapped underground during the blitz–trapped underground with a dead woman.  God only knows what he did with her body while he was down there, but it’s clear he’s trying to relive that with his victims.

As with any good mystery (as opposed to a police procedural), the authorities refuse to listen/believe what is truly going on.  The girls are on their own.  Susan, in particular, ventures too far in her search for the killer.  All the girls end up in peril, but Susan is alone with the man twice. He follows her home, threatens her family. I won’t say more about what happens next.

Primarily, I think this was a show about women.  In some ways it reminded me of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. You have these horrible murders, all perpetrated against young women by a man.  You have strong female character(s) determined to stop them.

Of course, they’re radically different in setting and style, but the theme of misogyny and violence toward women is a commonality.  The Bletchley Circle shows the lives of very smart, capable women.  In their best circumstances, they are under-utilized and bored as housewives/waitresses/librarians.  More often, they are ridiculed by other men, criticized or hit by their husbands.  Even Susan’s husband, who is the most empathetic man in the show, doesn’t understand why Susan can’t just stay home with the children like a good wife would do.  Everywhere they look, they’re told to conform to what society believes they should be and do.

At the same time, these four women work together remarkably well, care about each other, and are deeply committed to solving this crime.  To saving other girls from this horrendous fate.  Not to sound totally ridiculous, but it is about women protecting women.

The people who worked on this show did a great job recreating a particularly bleak time in English modern history.  While America was having a huge economic boom in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the Brits were still whipping out their ration books and dealing with economic crises left and right.  It was a really austere place and time, even when you don’t consider the losses of the war (people, but also entire buildings and neighborhoods destroyed in the blitz).  The show captures the dull lives, the last lingering period of tradition before the upheaval of the ’60s.  The director even said they avoided sunlight when filming. They wanted to capture the lack of saturation, the lack of bright color that seemed to pervade the national consciousness during that time.

This wasn’t the greatest show in the world.  There were parts of the plot that were thrown in and then cast aside without much explanation.  The resolution didn’t make things precisely clear.  The bad guy ends up dead, but it’s not clear to the audience that the women have enough evidence to prove he was the one who killed those other girls.  I found myself wondering if they would be believed when they told their side of the story.  And what happened to the man falsely accused of the crime? Last we heard, he was scheduled to hang for it.  Now what? I suppose I’m supposed to have good faith and just assume it all worked out, but the justice system isn’t like that and I worried that despite the killer being dead, the nightmare was far from over.

On the other hand, I think it was a unique and interesting story.  I like period dramas as a rule, I like women protagonists as a rule.  If this had stretched for 10 episodes, I might not be as fond of it, but I’m definitely up for another 3-4 episode season (series).

The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma

cvr9781451660319_9781451660319_hrOne of the first posts I did for this blog was a review for the first book in this trilogy, The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma. I loved that book.  It was unlike anything else I think I’ve ever read.  A perfect and unusual mix of magical realism, steampunk, historical fiction, science fiction, and (bonus!) the book featured several authors as characters–most noticeably H.G.Wells.

I reread The Map of Time in anticipation of the sequel, and I still really enjoyed it.  And it’s a good thing I did reread, because most of the characters from the first book make appearances in the second.

Whereas the first book revolved around H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the second book focuses on The War of the Worlds.  In an interview I read, Felix J. Palma said the final book in the trilogy will work around the themes of The Invisible Man. Palma must be a Wells superfan.

The second book features new characters as well as old.  It begins with Wells, resuming his place as one of the protagonists in the brief prologue. His life and his values are turned upside down when he is shown a real-live alien (known as ‘Martians’ throughout the book, though it is clear they are not from Mars).

The first part of the book deals with how this Martian came to be in the locked basement of a museum in London.  We are with the stranded crew of an Antarctic exploration ship in the mid-1800s.  Among the crew include Reynolds, head of scientific exploration on the vessel, and ‘Allan’, a misanthropic poet.  The crew discover a flying saucer type craft, and quickly realize that the alien is among them.  Not only that, but these aliens are shape shifters who can take on human form.  As events unfold, we learn more about Reynolds, and about Allan–revealed to be none other than Edgar Allan Poe–and eventually they do defeat the Martian, though they don’t manage to kill him.

Part of why I love these books is the interweaving of fiction and history.  In the story, Poe dies in a hospital after calling out for Reynolds repeatedly.  In real life, Poe died in exactly the same way–no one knows who Reynolds was or why Poe called out for him.  Palma easily works in facts with his fiction.

The next part of the book deals with an American girl, Emma Harlow, who is perpetually bored with her predictable and numerous suitors.  One, Montgomery Gilmore, is particularly annoying.  To get rid of him, she issues an impossible challenge.  Recreate the Martian Invasion from Wells’ novel, and she will marry him.  Fail, and he will have to leave her alone forever.

We quickly learn that this Montgomery Gilmore is actually Gilliam Murray, the conniving scam artist and ‘Master of Time’ that appeared in the first book. He has faked his own death, lost a few hundred pounds, and reformed himself for the sake of love.  The man portrayed as an utter villain in the first book is like a lovesick puppy in the second.

The story returns to H.G. Wells soon after, as this Martian invasion begins.  Except, we quickly discover that this recreated invasion is in fact a real one.  People begin dying left and right.  The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath (both immediate and a few years down the road) of this horrific invasion.  Humanity is enslaved and the ‘Martians’ prepare to bring their entire species to our planet in order to use up its resources.  We see other characters from the first book, including Charles Winslow and ‘Captain Derek Shackleton’, who has taken up a new life as James Peachey.

In typical Palma fashion, there are numerous timelines, some of which overlap. For every fact we know, there are 2 that are a surprise.  All of the action is curated for us by the extra-omniscient narrator, who can see not only all that occurs in this timeline, but everything that occurs in other ‘parallel timelines’ as well.

I really enjoyed the book, though I cannot say I thought it as good as the first one.  Part of what I loved about the first book was not knowing what to believe.  There are 2-3 different instances of time travel in that book, one after another, all of which are absolutely fake.  Yet, at the end there is genuine time travel.  Each time I found myself thinking…is this real this time?  No…and by the end I thought, there’s no way this is real…and it was.  I liked being flummoxed.  Palma tries something similar; there are real aliens and fake aliens, faked identities, reversals of time…but because I’m wise to his tricks now, it didn’t have quite the same effect on me.  It wasn’t really a fault with the book, just the fact that tricks like that only work one time.  You can’t recapture the first experience.

My other problem with the book was making Gilliam Murray a main character.  He is presented as something of a hero in this book, winning over the girl and making friends out of his nemesis, Wells.  In the first book, he is a morbidly obese con artist who has ordered the killing of at least 2 people who threatened to expose him.  He is arrogant, wrathful, petty, and (at best) pathetic.  I had a hard time believing him immediately reformed.  Palma did not present enough of his inner dialogue for me to believe this transformation.  Of all the characters in the first book, he was the last I would want to see again.  To find him so unrecognizable was a shock and hard to swallow.  I didn’t buy it, even though Palma clearly wanted me to.  I do think that people are absolutely capable of reformation, but it’s hard to believe without seeing more of his inner thoughts that explain it.

I also think there may have been two many characters in this book.  There is a narcoleptic inspector from Scotland Yard that flits in and out without much time to be a real character.  Andrew, who is a main character in the first book, flits in for a second and is gone the next. There is the crew of the Antarctic ship, which we learn about for a few hundred pages and then they are gone.  It’s just a lot to keep track of.

But those were minor problems, which did not detract from my enjoying the book. It was still well written, imaginative, and kept me guessing.  There were still excellent characters and a charmingly obscure narrator. I am definitely going to read the third book in the series.

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.

British vs. American Universities

Last entry, I discussed lower school systems in the UK vs the US.  This time, we’re ditching the minors and heading to university!

Oxford academic dressFirst up, the British system. The picture is not something they wear every day, so don’t recoil in horror.  But, Oxford students have to wear this for ceremonies and exams.

I’ll pick up chronologically where I left off last time.

So, you’ve got your A-level scores, you’ve applied and had interviews at a few universities, and then you get accepted. Yay!  Here’s what I know about UK universities:  They are very different from US universities.

Take something like Oxford.  The whole thing is the University of Oxford, but it is made up of a bunch of small Colleges. You would apply to a specific college, most of the time, based on your interests, talents, where you want to live, etc.  You are admitted to a specific college.  I believe at Oxbridge your tutor will come from your college, but I could be wrong about that.  You go to classes with everyone in your subject, but you live and eat with your college mates.  Think of Oxford as Hogwarts and the Colleges as Houses…but without the competition.

Other universities are different.  King’s College London is part of the University of London, but the different colleges (UCL, ICL, Queen Mary, etc.) are even more separate. They operate completely independently of each other, and are geographically disparate. You have no interaction with students at other colleges (through classes anyway).

Big point for UK Universities–they are dirt cheap compared to ours.  Average tuition is something like £8000 (~$13,000)  And they are eternally upset about that.  I mean, yeah, it’s a lot of money.  Buut…compare it to the $40-50,000 you would be expected to pay at an American private university.  Add to that, in the UK (in my experience at least) you aren’t expected to pay anything until after you leave university.

UK students only go to university for 3 years (there are a few exceptions to this, like St. Andrew’s, but it’s mostly true).  They finish in 3 years by only studying the subject they came to study.  If you are a Lit student, as I was, you only take Literature classes.  No general ed. classes, and a lot less variety and fewer options for courses.  So, if you’re an English major, then there are no math courses, no science courses, no language courses.  If you’re a Chemistry major, you don’t take any English courses.  This boggles my mind.  I find it really strange that you’re expected to know at 18 the only thing you want to study for the next three years and then do in your career.  And that you might not need to know some other skills.  Scientists should still know how to communicate effectively.  English majors should still know how to do math.  I can’t say I use Calculus every day in my publishing job, but I do understand more about the world and how it works for having learned some Calculus.  I don’t like this system, I won’t lie.

The other big difference is how much time you spend in class.  Hardly any.  I had 4 classes.  Each one had 1 lecture per week and 1 seminar per week, which meant a total of about 8 hours of class per week. 100% of your grade for the course is based on a test you take at the end of the year (or a paper you write), so there is no incentive to go to class or to keep up with reading or to participate in seminar discussions if you don’t want to actually learn. I could have read one Shakespeare play in January, written a great paper about it over the next three months, turned it in and gotten an amazing grade…and never gone to class.  Also, there’s no reason to be polite to your teachers, because the exams/papers are graded anonymously.  From my experience, the seminars were interesting because some discussion took place, but the lectures were mostly random professors paraphrasing something they’d recently published.  But that is my very limited experience.

Generally, you live in a dorm (at least at first), and these are roughly similar to American dorms.  A few key differences:

  • Usually you have a single room. Some dorms have suites, where you share a kitchen and maybe a bathroom with a few others, but your bedrooms are still for one person only.
  • Dorms are mostly self-catered, meaning there are a few kitchens with communal fridges, cabinets, oven, microwave.  When I went to KCL, there was I think 1 fully catered dormitory that provided meals, so it is an option, but not a great one. I recall that they could not cater to specialty diets.
  • Some halls have en suite bathrooms, most have a women’s and a men’s on each floor.
  • They have housekeeping!  I had a maid come clean my room every Tuesday, and I could drop off my sheets to get a fresh set whenever I wanted (which I totally did, like all the time. I definitely didn’t go the entire semester without changing my sheets).
  • During vacation times, universities often rent out student rooms as tourist accommodation.  This is really strange to me.
  • Usually they are not really called dorms, but are called Halls of Residence (or just halls).

Activities in UK universities are varied.  There are university sports, but it’s not anywhere near as pseudo-professional as in the US.  There is no big NCAA equivalent tournament, and it’s more like what we would think of as intramural sports. So don’t expect to get accepted to a UK university based mostly on your tennis record. There are also active student unions and lots of activities.  I can’t speak to specifics because since I was living in London for the first time, I spent my days doing touristy Londony things, not specifically student-oriented activities.  I would imagine the activities are more important for universities outside a major metro area, just like in the US.

So, on to the grades.  I will admit this thoroughly baffles me.  When I received my essays back, they had already been ‘translated’ into the American system, so I didn’t have to think about it too much.  But here’s my rough comprehension:

  • Anything above a 64/100 is considered an A- or above.  Anything 50-63 is in the B range, anything 38-49 is in the C range.  I do not understand how this works.  Do they just grade  things much more harshly here?  Because in the US, a 59 would be a failing grade.  I think this has something to do with grading on a curve, or scaling all the tests to match this weird (to me) set of numbers. I have heard UK students say that it’s virtually impossible to get over 80% on anything.  Anything over 75% on an essay, for example, means you could probably publish it in a scholarly journal, etc. It’s that good. Despite not being able to explain how it works, I can at least tell you that if someone ever mentions they got a 65 on their exam…do not console them. They did fine.
  • When you’ve finished your degree, your work is categorized in a specific way.  If you got an A average, you have a First degree.  If you got an A-/B+ average (roughly speaking), you have an upper second (2:1) degree.  If you got a B average, you have a lower second (2:2) degree. Anything below that is a third class or just a pass, and probably shouldn’t be bragged about.

As far as I know, no one’s going to ask you about your grades on individual exams after you’ve finished university.  But getting a 1st or an upper second is really important if you plan on pursuing a master’s or PhD.  It also looks good on your CV when you apply for jobs and internships.  Firsts are pretty rare, by all accounts, so anyone who has one is pretty smart.

A word or two about postgraduate.  All (or virtually all) UK Master’s degrees are 1 year.  You are generally required to have a master’s degree before applying for a doctoral program. PhD programs and similar are typically 3 years.  Unlike the US, there isn’t a lot of funding for doctoral students.  On the other hand, no one expects you to teach 30 hours a week in classes while writing your dissertation, so if you can afford to go there it is easier on you.  They have different terminology for some degrees, partially because study is divided into ‘taught programmes’ and ‘research programmes’.  The first is very similar to any master’s program in the US. You go to classes, you are ‘taught’, you take a test or write a paper, you get your award.  These award the same degrees: an MA or MSc.  The latter type is more of a ‘leave me alone I’m working on this project for a year’ program(me).  You go and take advantage of the lab/library, you work with an adviser, but there are no/few classes. These award different degrees: MPhil, MRes and some can be 2 years.  PhDs can be called PhDs or DPhils.  There are others like LLM (law),  MPhil, MEd, DBA, DMus, DEng.

Okay, enough of that confusion.  What about US Universities?

frats and sororitiesFirst distinction: American universities are divided into State Schools (which receive public funding) and Private schools (which don’t).  Most of your better schools are private, such as the Ivy League, Stanford, NYU, the Seven Sisters colleges.  There are also really good public schools, like U of Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA.  State schools offer big tuition reductions to students from that state.  So if you are from Virginia it’s much cheaper to go to U of Virginia than the nearby University of Maryland.  I spent 1 marginally terrible year at Iowa State University, and at the time I think it cost a paltry $3000 per year.  Dirt cheap.  On the other hand, there was almost no financial aid offered.  When I went to a private college, I was given tons of financial aid…but I still ended up with student loans at the end.  Biggest difference between UK and US grads–US grads are 1 year older and $40,000 more in debt.

Campus life at US universities (or those of a certain kind) revolve around sports and greek life.  This isn’t all universities, obviously.  NYU tends to care far less about sports than the University of Nebraska.  As a rule, the more there is to do in the city, the less you care about the stuff the university organizes.  But, compared to the UK, all US college sports are more organized, higher stakes, more widely followed and watched.  The biggest example is the NCAA March Madness, where all the (good) college teams in the country compete in a basketball tournament.  Tons of money goes into that, and it’s broadcast on prime-time TV and is a really big deal for people who follow sports (aka not me).

Greek life means fraternities and sororities.  These are places where the cheeriest, happiest, drunkest, worst, nicest, meanest, douchiest people go to be with others of their kind.  They range from really nice people who just want to have an active social life, to the most dreadful rich, privileged, fake, superficial people you can imagine.  I passed on being involved, because I have no desire for an active social life, and there were all kinds of meetings where people clapped for each other, and everyone had to follow rules about what they could and couldn’t do.  And that was at a nice sorority, not one of the ones that hazes you by making you take cocaine or anything involving penetration of anything into anything else or where you have to deal with this girl.  I’m sure there are nice greek chapters with nice people.  Somewhere.

The curriculum for US universities is very different from UK universities.  As I mentioned before, you don’t go in with a major.  If you do choose a major straight away, you can change it anytime.  The first 1-2 years of your university experience will be occupied with ‘General Ed requirements’ that everyone has to complete.  As an example, here is what Georgetown requires:

  • Two humanities and writing courses
  • Two history courses
  • Two math/science courses
  • Two social science courses
  • Foreign language through the intermediate level
  • Two theology courses
  • Two philosophy courses

The point of these is to ensure that everyone graduating from Georgetown has a solid basis in these fields, can talk intelligently about them, can do basic maths and can communicate reasonably well in English and in another language.  If you’re particularly skilled in any of these areas, or if you have taken AP tests and done very well, you can test out of taking the classes.  Once you’ve finished getting your general ed requirements out of the way, and you’ve picked a major, you take (mostly) classes in your major from then on. Some people also get a minor, which means that most of your optional classes were taken in a specific area.  Minors don’t really mean much for a job, but I guess they could help with grad school.

Classes meet far more often in the US than in the UK.  You typically have 3-4 hours of class per week for any given course you take.  I used to have my Italian classes for an hour every day.  Summer classes were twice as bad–I think I took 2 courses, but had class 4-5 hours per day, 4 days per week.  I also remember science classes are particularly awful because you get a 2 hour lecture 2-3 times per week AND a lab once a week that can be 4 or 5 hours long, but only counts as one ‘credit hour’.  That nonsense is part of why I happily switched to being an English major.  Also, my refusal to dissect anything may have played a part. Anyway, if you are from the UK and think you might want to go to uni. here, be aware that you will be spending a lot more time in class here, and you will have a lot more assignments.

Grades are cumulative in most courses.  That means each quiz, test, essay, and discussion from the whole semester will count toward your end grade.  And none of it is anonymous, so be nice to your professors if at all possible.  Also, generally, attendance is important.  Professors take attendance, and some classes lower your grade if you’ve missed a certain amount of days.

Grades are far easier to understand than the UK system.

  • 90% and above – A range
  • 80% and above – B range
  • 70% and above – C range
  • 60% and above – D range
  • the rest is all bad news.  F range.

GPA is calculated exactly as it is in high school.  For more info, see this Wiki page.

When you’re done with all your requirements, and you have all the credits you need to graduate, you…graduate. If you’ve done really well, you graduate with honors.  This is similar to the degree classification scale in the UK. If you got above a certain GPA (every school has a different measurement, but at my uni., it was above 3.80/4.00, then you get Summa Cum Laude.  This is roughly equivalent to a First.  The next highest (for me this was a 3.6/4.0) is Magna Cum Laude, roughly equivalent to a 2:1.  The last honors distinction is just Cum Laude, usually awarded for 3.4 or above.  Equivalent to 2:2, I think.  Anything under that is just a regular degree, no distinction.  Some schools don’t do the honors degrees at all, some (Yale, Harvard) do it by percentage, so the top 5% in the university class would get SCL.

So, graduation. There is a big ceremony in the football stadium or wherever, and everyone wears caps and gowns again.  If you’re from a fancy school they get Desmond Tutu or J.K. Rowling to come talk to you about starting your life. At least one of your relatives falls asleep during this speech.  Then you throw your cap up in the air and you’re done! On to terrifying debt and high unemployment, yay!

If the thought of that terrifies you, then graduate school is for you!  First stop should be standardized tests.  Take the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, or GMAT, depending on what you want to punish yourself with.  I took the GRE last year.  Remember to study vocabulary about 23 hours per day if you want to do well.

Master’s programs are generally 2 years here; no idea why.  They place less emphasis on research and you spend more time in class.  You have regular assignments and a dissertation/thesis at the end.  There is (usually) no funding for Master’s programs, so they tend to be quite costly.

PhD programs are incredibly competitive, partially because a lot of them are funded.  That’s right, they will pay your tuition and give you a living stipend (a paltry one, but still).  The funded programs are also the good programs, so everyone wants in.  Acceptance rates tend to hover around 5%.  In exchange for all this free school and living expenses, you pay in sweat and stress.  In addition to classes (again, there is more class time than a PhD program in the UK would provide), you are expected to be a teaching assistant or to teach your own class.  This depends on subject.  I think in the sciences you tend to lead seminars or labs, but I had my first year Italian course taught by a grad student.  A master’s student even, and she was the full professor of the course.  So it just depends. It’s a lot of work and you’re not paid for it; it’s expected because of your free education.  Also, somewhere in there, you have to write your dissertation.  Most people have a really hard time finishing in the 4 years that are paid for, and then they have to look for private funding opportunities to get time to work on the dissertation later.  Humanities PhD programs regularly have people who finish int heir 7, 8, or 9th years of study.  That’s almost a decade. No thanks.

When you’re done with grad school, you can look forward to even more debt, being a lot older, and probably fierce competition for a constantly shrinking number of academic jobs.  If you manage to get one, you will have to wait for someone to die before you get promoted.

These little snarky comments of mine aside, I do actually want to get a master’s degree, because what can I say, I love the learning.  And I’m a glutton for punishment and feel uncomfortable having money in my pocket or a job to go to.  Part of this post came about because I am considering both UK and US universities, and it helps me to compare and contrast in what way I want to go broke.  Both systems have serious flaws, but they also have upsides that make me look back on time at university as really rewarding and satisfying intellectually.  I’m sure I’ve got some of the details wrong here, or left something out, so if you have any questions, suggestions, or corrections, I’d love to hear them!

British vs American Education Systems

I was engaging in some friendly Internet banter on Gawker the other day and ended up (after being asked to do so) explaining the American education system to some Brits.  There is a lot of confusion on both sides, partially because the systems are really different.  I can’t say I think one is superior to the other, but they both have strengths and weaknesses.  Thought it might be helpful to provide a real breakdown of how they differ.  I can’t guarantee I’ll get everything right, but I think this should be mostly accurate. I’m going to deal with lower education first, and discuss universities later.  Otherwise this will be a very long post.

First, the British System

the_inbetweenersMost importantly, you’ll notice the uniforms.  Uniforms are, I think, a government mandate.  Blergh.  So glad I didn’t have to deal with that.  On the other hand, I think I wore a black Old Navy fleece pullover for about 6 months straight in high school, so maybe it wouldn’t have been so different.  Still, I got to choose the black fleece pullover.  An illusion of freedom is helpful for those under 18, who have no actual freedom under the law. I think there are a few schools in the UK without uniforms, but probably over 90% require uniforms.

The British system starts out similar to the US System.  You have the option to attend something called Nursery School, which is similar to our Preschool, until you’re 4.  After that, you go to Primary School from ~4/5 years old through ~11 years old.    The first year is called ‘reception’, similar to our kindergarten. After that, you start with year 1, then year 2, etc., etc., very similar to our 1st grade, 2nd grade.  Things don’t really become vastly different until you’re nearing adulthood.

When Brit kids are in year 6, they sit an exam called the Sats (in no way related to the US SATs), which helps determine what classes they can/should take going forward.  This is, I imagine, similar to our basic standardized tests in elementary/middle school, when it comes to format and material.  The big difference is that it makes a difference in what classes you can take going forward.  More of a placement test.

After year 6, if you don’t get your Hogwarts letter, you go to Secondary School.  Instead of having a Middle and High school as we do, you go to Secondary school from about 11/12 y.o. to 16 y.o., from year 7-year 11.  Somewhere in there you take another Sats test to help with future class placement.  But the first big deal stressful test you need to take in your young life is the O.W.L.s….no, that’s not right.  The GCSEs (stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education). I think you study the subjects for year 10 and 11 and then take the tests in year 11, but I could be wrong on that.  According to Wikipedia, the grading goes like this:

The pass grades, from highest to lowest, are: A* (pronounced ‘A-star’), A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Grade U (ungraded/unclassified) is issued when students have not achieved the minimum standard to achieve a pass grade; the subject is then not included on their final certificate.

The GSCEs help you determine where you go next.  Government mandated education in the UK stops at 16, not 18 as it does here.  So if you want to be done with school and go work at your uncle’s garage, go for it.  If you want to go to University, you need to continue with school.  You have two options; you can go to ‘College’, or you can stay on at your Secondary School in something called ‘Sixth Form’. Both options prepare you to take your NEWTs A-levels.  From what I understand, being accepted to Sixth Form is more competitive and difficult than going to a College, and there don’t tend to be a lot of other students with you.  This video talks about the differences, and the guy mentions that out of his entire Secondary School, there were only 30 classmates in his Sixth Form.

Note to Americans–if you’re in the UK and you say College, people do not think you mean University.  They only call it University.

You take your A-levels at 17 or 18 years old, and primarily they determine what Universities you can attend.  People generally take 3 or 4 A-levels (usually you study 2 per year, I think). I believe the closest equivalent we have in the US is AP tests.  They seem to offer A-levels in everything, though I don’t think each of these subjects is offered universally.  I feel sorry for anyone who, at 15, decides Accounting is the subject for them, but I am jealous that so many different languages are offered. Passing grades are A*, A, B, C, D and E.  Everyone stresses about their results, and I think these tests are the main qualification that universities look at before they consider you for admission. For Oxbridge, you need all As, at least.  That’s the minimum requirement.  For reference, if an American wants to apply to Oxbridge, they expect 3 AP tests with grades of 5, so they are fairly equivalent in the eyes of their Admissions Offices.  King’s College London, which is where I went (briefly), requires you to ‘pass 3 A-levels’, but if you look at their more prestigious programs (Law, Medicine), they require AAA or A*AA to be admitted.  An A* is like an A+; I think you have to get over 90% on the exam, but I’m a little unclear on that because a 90% on an American exam is usually an A- and an A+ is over ~98%.  A more average university, like the University of Surrey, requires 3 passes at A-level, but also looks at your GSCEs.  You need a C or better at Math and English, regardless of your A level scores.

A note about graduation–they don’t have one in the UK.  Because some students leave at 16, some at 17, the rest at 18, there is no one moment of ‘thank god that’s done’ as there is in the US.  They have something called a Leaving Day, I believe, but it’s not on the scale of a high school graduation.

Okay…so that’s most of what I know about the UK Education System.  If any of my UK readers would like to correct me, I’d love to know what I got wrong or left out.  Also, if any of you readers from the UK (or elsewhere) are confused about the US system, this bit’s for you!

graduationIt’s far simpler to explain. First and most important: very few schools have uniforms.

First, you can go to preschool or daycare when you’re very young.  Then, when you turn 4 or 5, you will go to Elementary school. This starts with kindergarten, and goes through 5th grade (in most places).  So you start at 5 years old and leave at 11, very similar to the UK.

Here’s where it starts to be different.  After Elementary school you go to Middle School.  This is from grades 6-8, so ages 12-14(ish).

After 8th grade, you move on to High School.  TV shows should give you a good indication of what it’s like. You go to High School from 9th-12th grade.  There are other words for your status during each year: In 9th grade you are a freshman, 10th grade you are a sophomore, 11th grade you are a junior, and 12th grade you are a senior.  No one really says ‘I’m in 9th grade’, they would say ‘I’m a freshman’. You study a variety of subjects, but everyone has to study things like Math, Science, History, English.  Usually people study a language, and most places require you to take gym.  The popular kids torture the less popular kids, but really everyone is incredibly miserable.

Pressure to prepare for college starts, in my experience, as a Sophomore.  You take some standardized tests to give you a hint of what your future hell will be like when you are taking them for real.  You can start taking AP classes, if they are offered at your school.  AP classes are similar to GSCE classes, I believe. You study a subject for (usually) a year, and then take a test at the end.  Grades for the tests are 1-5, with 5 as the highest.  3-5 are the passing grades.  You can take as many as you want, or take none.  They’re not required, but if you want to go to Harvard, they’re going to expect you to take whichever advanced classes your school offers.

In your Junior year, you take the SATs and/or ACTs for real.  These tests are measured differently, but they test very similar things.  A very good score on the SATs would be anything above 2000/2400.  A good score on the ACTs would be anything over 31 out of 36.  Again, if you want to go to an Ivy League school, you need to have nearly perfect test scores.

The thing to understand about American universities is that they look at you as a whole person.  There are your test scores (AP, SAT, ACT), but also your GPA (more on that in a minute), your extra-curricular activities like clubs or sports, and your personal statement.  Some do interviews, but it’s rarely a requirement.  Most schools have a huge amount of students apply, so they use things like GPA and test scores as a first step to weed out the least suitable candidate.  Then they start to look at the other materials. Just keep that in mind when I continue to describe all the shit you have to do to have a chance at a good university in the US.

So, GPA.  This is a confusing subject for everyone outside the UK, from my experience.  Your courses are graded with letter grades, but each letter grade has a corresponding numerical value out of 4.0 (usually).

  • A = 4.00
  • A- = 3.67
  • B+ = 3.33
  • B = 3.00
  • B- = 2.67

etc., etc for grades A, B, C, D (the passing grades).  We only have one failing grade, F.  For more info, this is a Wiki page that goes into specifics. I’m not going to attempt to explain grading on a curve to you in this blog.

So, your GPA is just your average.  If you have all Bs, you have a GPA of 3.00.  If you have 2 As, an A-, and a B+, your GPA would be 3.75   [(4.0+4.0+3.67+3.33)/4 classes=3.75].

I would say GPA is the number one thing universities look for.  An Ivy League school would probably not consider anyone with below a 3.5, unless they were a celebrity, Olympian, legacy, sports star, or had something else to offer the university. The majority of people accepted to an Ivy probably a 3.8 or above.  For your middling state schools, anything above a 3.0 is fine.

The good thing about a GPA is that it’s an average, and it covers all 4 years of high school.  For UK students who get nervous taking their A level tests, this must sound wonderful.  After all, if you bomb one test in the US, it’s not going to hurt you in the long run.  On the other hand, the GPA is a bit unforgiving.  If you have a bad year in your freshman or sophomore year, it’s really difficult to ever get your GPA back up to a respectable level.  To judge people for university based in part by their performance at 14 years old seems harsh.  So, there are pros and cons.

Generally, people take the SAT and/or ACT once more in their Senior year in an attempt to get a better score.  People apply to college (university) in the fall of their Senior years and usually hear back in the spring. You get in and you celebrate, or you don’t and you cry.

Two big events end the high school experience for most students.  Prom and Graduation.  These have been covered in countless shows and movies, so I doubt I need to explain them.  A prom is just a formal dance, the biggest one of your young life.  Graduation is the formal celebration of your being finished with school.  Since the leaving age in the US is 18, this is a big deal.  Celebrating together the end of this collective experience.  You have a ceremony and a boring speech, you wear robes, you get a fake diploma, your family takes lots of pictures.  Usually you have a party afterward. If you’re wealthy or lucky, your family buys you a car and/or a laptop.  If you are me, your family buys you a dictionary.  You are an adult and can now do what you want (in theory).

Next time, university!