Monthly Archives: November 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Extravaganza

Doctor-Who-50thThere’s something really lovely about being involved in a fandom, a special sect of people that understand why a TV show/movie/book is incredibly important and amazing.  There’s something even more wonderful when that fandom is recognized and appreciated by the wider public.

Though Doctor Who has been mainstream in the UK for many years (decades, really), it’s only grown to great prominence in American culture since the newest iteration started with Christopher Eccleston in 2005.  It’s still a bit of an outsider’s club on this side of the Atlantic, but that makes it a little bit more fun, if I’m honest.  But even in the US, the knowledge that the 50th anniversary special was happening this week was everywhere.  Theaters held special simulcasts of the episode, pubs had special nights for Whovians. I’ve heard rumors that a Mini Cooper painted like a TARDIS was spotted nearby.  We got our Google Doodle, though ours came one day later than the google.co.uk version. Is there any greater measure of cultural importance and legitimacy than a Google Doodle?  I think not.

BBC America started their Doctor Who marathon early in the week, and new content was there when I started my weekend.  Though I didn’t learn much from Doctor Who Explained, I really loved An Adventure in Space and Time. This was a made-for-TV movie about the origins of the show, and about the first doctor, William Hartnell.

4482503-high_res-adventures-in-space-and-timeI’ve actually never seen any of the pre-2005 episodes of Doctor Who, so I learned a lot from this movie about the beginnings of the show.  David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones) plays William Hartnell, and I think he did a superb job.  I also think the whole movie made me very sad.  When I compare William Hartnell’s love of the character and devotion to the show, with Christopher Eccleston’s attitude toward it…I’m forced to think very badly of the latter.

The movie also starred Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, the History Boys) as the first director of the show, and Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife, Doctor Who) as Verity Lambert, my new personal hero.  She had a wardrobe of the most amazing ’60s clothes I’ve seen ever. Way better than on Mad Men. More importantly, she was a kickass feminist, dealing with a bunch of stodgy old men in sweaty tweed suits (the Old Guard).  She fought for Doctor Who, not just because it was her first producer job, but because she grew to love the subject matter and what it could be used to communicate. She forced the BBC staff (from executives, to set designers, to technical staff) to take the show seriously; we owe her a huge thanks.

Jessica-RaineThe movie itself was well-acted and had incredible sets.  A good portion of it took place at the iconic elliptical BBC building:

BBC-Television-Centre-007Probably didn’t take a lot of work to make it look like the 1960s again inside here, though they must have cleaned up since James May & co. drove a motorcycle through the interior.

After the movie, we had the Saturday simulcast to watch.  The 50th Anniversary special, complete with Doctors 10 and 11 (together at last), and John Hurt (Harry Potter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), all playing different iterations of the Doctor:

Doctor-Who-2458109Seeing David Tennant in his brown suit and Converse sneakers again made me literally giddy.  I miss his Doctor so much.  And we got to see Clara, and Rose (but not really), and all of the living actors who’ve played the doctor (sort of…damn you Chris Eccleston).

I thought the special was actually really excellent.  As long as I never think too much about the timey wimey stuff, I will continue to think that.  I have the feeling that the ‘time fissures’ and the Time Lord art won’t stand up to much rational scrutiny, so I will dutifully avoid any such scrutiny. I loved seeing Matt Smith and Clara, I adored seeing David Tennant again, and I thought John Hurt was fabulous.

It also felt really appropriate that we finally get to see the moment of the Doctor’s life that has really defined the show since the 2005 reboot.  The Time War. The moment the Doctor had to decide to kill his own species, in order to save the rest of the universe.

We also got to see the much-talked-about relationship between Ten and Elizabeth I.  Starring Joanna Page (Stacey of Gavin and Stacey) as Elizabeth I.  I thought she was great, although I don’t really think Elizabeth would have had a Welsh accent.

DOCTOR-WHO-50TH-ANNIVERSAR_THE-DAY-OF-THE-DOCTOR_01

I think my only real complaint is that, despite having Billie Piper and David Tennant together again, they don’t get to interact as Rose and the Doctor.  And I was hoping for more of Peter Capaldi as 12 (or he’s really 13?) , more than just a shot of his furrowed eyebrows. I suppose their keeping his costume and his persona under wraps until the actual regeneration happens.

Sometimes, when Doctor Who tries to do something big and important, it can be a bit of a belly flop.  I usually end up enjoying the little, one-off episodes more than the big important two-part season enders.  But this, despite hype and importance, was really fun and lovely and I was just grateful to see David Tennant again.  I think if he’d turned up with the suit and the shoes and the glasses, and read the phone book, I’d be just as thrilled.

I’m ready for the Christmas Special! To which, we now have a short teaser trailer:

Downton Abbey, season Four

downton-abbey-season-4-cast-photo

Before I even begin to talk about this season, which just ended in the UK and premieres on PBS this January, I have to say that if you have not seen this season, do not read any further.  To say there are spoilers would be an understatement.  I do not want to ruin all the pain you’re going to experience, particularly at mid-season.

You have been warned! Past here there be dragons spoilers!

There’s one even that is of premiere importance in this season, but I’m going to start with some other thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this season.

1-This season, and this season alone, changed my mind about some of the male characters.  For one thing, Lord Grantham is a big ole pain in the ass. He got on my bad list in the very first episode. In a callback to season 1, once again Mary’s place as an heir to Downton is in doubt.  And, despite all that she’s been through, and her undeniable abilities, Lord Grantham doesn’t think she’s capable–or just does not want to share power with anyone.  I know this is the 1920s, and women had just gained suffrage in the UK and in the US.  But Julian Fellowes has portrayed Lord Grantham, not as a sexist, but as someone who just doesn’t want other people interfering in what he views as his own responsibilities.  And he tries to do it once again, planning to skip Mary as a partner in the estate and only turn over his ‘powers’ to her son when he comes of age.  I think I find it all the more insulting and annoying that he either can’t see or doesn’t care that Mary a-needs this and b-is completely capable of excelling at it. I found my affection for Mary growing by just as much as my dislike for Lord Grantham.

And Bates?  I’ve heard chatter before that he and Anna don’t belong together, because she is young and wonderful, and he is old and a killjoy. I never understood it before, because I quite liked their story.  But now, I totally get it.  In mid-season, before the …event… Anna was having a good time, having some fun! What did Bates do?  Sulk and be angry and not join in.  And what did Julian Fellowes do?  Punish Anna, obviously.  More on that later. But after the event? I felt some sympathy for Bates–he doesn’t know what’s wrong, he’s done nothing but his wife is just gone from him.  But when he finds out? Instead of doing what Anna needs (supporting her, helping her to move on), he focuses on what he needs: revenge.  And he gets it.  I suppose there are people who think he didn’t do it, but I’m not one of them.  I was never entirely certain he didn’t kill his wife, and now this?  We know he’s violent, we know he’s single-minded.  Anna, you deserve better.

2-The one character I disliked for the entire season was Rose.

Lilly-James-as-Lady-Rose-in-Downton-Abbey-set-to-star-as-CinderellaI get that they needed to inject some youth and optimism into the cast, because they killed off lovely, wonderful Sybil, and turned Mary into a widow.  Edith never was cheerful.  But didn’t Julian Fellowes learn anything from Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch? No one likes the new kid.  Rose is no Sybil. Rose is vapid and willfully naive, with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.  Sybil was kind and thoughtful, rebellious when she believed in something, but not rebellious for the sake of rebellion.  Rose only wants to shock; it’s a desperate cry for attention from her disinterested parents, and it is boring. Get rid of her.

To be fair, she didn’t annoy me too much at the beginning of the season.  But by the end I was rolling my eyes, and truly a bit disturbed by her desire to marry someone out of a combination of youthful infatuation and to anger her mother.

3-Can we talk about Mary’s suitors?  First, there’s Lord Gillingham

198200-lord-gillinghamHe didn’t seem too bad, at first.  I don’t think he’s a villain, at least.  But you can’t go from saying ‘Oh, Mary, I only want you’, then immediately become engaged to someone else, but still hang around frequently hoping Mary will change her mind.  That has me very suspicious. At best, he’s wishy-washy and lacks courage.  At worst, he cares very little for the feelings of either woman in question.

Then there’s Mr. Napier

-Evelyn_napierHis character is too bland and flimsy to ever have a remote chance with Mary, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know that. His chief function in this season (despite boring me to death) is to introduce his friend, Mr. Blake, to Mary.  Mr. Blake is the obvious choice for Mary’s next beau.  Of course, they claim to dislike each other passionately at first. Mr. Blake is very cynical about the upper classes, and thinks they don’t deserve their wealth.  Mary is (understandably) offended by this, and dislikes having him around.  Remember season 1, when Matthew and Mary got off on the wrong fit along similar topics?  Matthew’s middle class background, his insistence upon working, his reluctance to have a valet…it’s all echoed in Mr. Blake.  downton-abbey-series-4-charles-blake

And, like clockwork, the two begin to feel differently about one another.  Mary earns Blake’s respect when she proves that she is willing to change and adapt in order to keep Downton financially successful.  Her active role in the estate, along with Tom’s guidance, bring Downton into the 20th century (against Lord Grantham’s wishes).  It’s easy to see reasons why Blake and Mary will continue to be thrown together, and that’s who I’ve got my money on.

4-Edith.  I didn’t mind her this season!  I am really confused about why her beau just went missing at random, apparently as soon as he arrived in Germany!  Germany wasn’t a particularly good place to go at this time, I think, but I find it hard to believe he disappeared without a trace.  Edith kept mentioning that private detectives and the police were searching for him, but we never seemed to see any proof of that–correspondence with them, or with his office in London.  It was just sort of an undercurrent to the latter half of the show, without ever being brought to the forefront.  I found that very strange, and am very curious.  One assumes that he’ll turn up at Christmas, but then I expected him to turn up at the last episode of the series, so that proves my instincts are generally wrong.  Either way, her story line made me extremely grateful to live in a time with birth control.

Well, there’s nothing else to discuss except the big thing this season.  No deaths, no war, no Spanish flu or miscarriages.  But what Julian Fellowes did to Anna seems worse than all of them.  I (and a lot of people who watch the show) felt that it was like a slap in the face. So, let’s talk about why it does and does not make sense for rape to be a feature of this show.

For one thing, it absolutely did happen, and it was covered up.  When you have a society that prizes secrecy as fervently as the Victorians & Edwardians did, you are never going to even be able to estimate how prevalent a problem it was.  And when you have girls in positions of submission, as maids in houses owned by powerful men, they don’t feel capable of speaking out.  Even if the crime wasn’t perpetrated by one of the family, a maid would probably lose her position if she admitted what had happened. The family wouldn’t want any shame brought on them.  So…we can be sure it happened, and we can be sure it happened far more than we could ever prove.  The majority of the time, the perpetrators probably faced no consequences.  Is that an important topic to cover in a history of the period? Sure.

On the other side of the coin, this is not a nonfiction.  This is a primetime soap opera. In the past, it has shown no remorse in exploiting tragedy and death to garner ratings and accolades. But it’s also an idealized version of past reality.  Shows and their show-runners have a pact with their audience.  An agreement among the two parties.  The show-runners provide titillation and excitement, depression and happiness.  They are allowed to play with our emotions, because we like it.  We enjoy a cathartic cry over the deaths, and we smile at our television sets when the hero and heroine finally get together.  We get enjoyment for watching, but we are giving a bit of ourselves to the show, being vulnerable to whatever happens next.  The same pact exists between writers and readers.  As I said, we expect to be tossed and turned a certain amount; that’s what we want.  But it’s a delicate balance, and when the powers-that-be go too far, we feel hard done by, used and abused. I can’t adequately describe how furious I was when I read Atonement.

Julian Fellowes has done a good job, up to this season, creating a safe but believable world. A world where bad things do happen, but usually because of huge ineffable forces like war or disease.

And has Julian Fellowes broken our contract this season?  I think he has.  I feel cheaply thrown about with no real purpose or reason.  Other times, he has stretched believability to create a safe and acceptable version of actual history. The most obvious examples are the ways the family dealt with Thomas’ homosexuality, or the black bandleader, Jack.  We like watching Downton Abbey because the 1920s seem more polite, more elegant, less harsh and grating.  Undoubtedly they were, if you were a rich, white man.  In truth, very few people would have been accepting of gay people in their homes, or black Jazz musicians performing for them. It’s the sad and terrible truth of it.  We overlook it when Julian Fellowes fibs to us, because it makes it easier to enjoy the world he’s created for us.  But, as is often the case, a lie that placates us is twice as acceptable as a truth that hurts us.

He punished Anna, the best of the lot of them, and destroyed all her happiness.  And there is something truly disturbing about a man, with his own share of power, writing a rape scene for a young girl.  And then a real woman has to act out that horrible scene.  It’s almost like a mirror of the attack itself. It reminds me of tales of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured some of his actresses (notably Tippi Hedron) with horrible scenes and multiple takes in the Birds, who wanted to tear her down and used his scripts and his direction to do it. I’m not saying Julian Fellowes is a vile pervy old man, but when I think about the scene in this light it is even more difficult to accept.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt this was too much to deal with from what has been a safe space.  In reality, though, if you kept watching past that episode, you’ll keep watching the rest of the season.  And on to the Christmas special! I think it would have been a better season without the rape, but it was still good enough that I kept tuning in and wanting to watch.

Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.