All posts by A. A. Rubin

Adapting Classic Sci-Fi part 2: PKD and Aristotle—Sci-Fi Adaptation and the Golden Mean

Note: This is part 2 of my two-part series on adapting classic science fiction for contemporary audiences. If you missed part 1, which focused on HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation, click here.

The road to adaptation is fraught with peril. The sci-fi-nerd community is a nostalgic bunch, and demands that adaptations be as true to the original as possible, yet, to be viable, a certain amount of updating is usually needed. There are a seemingly infinite shades along this spectrum, ranging from completely faithful remakes, about which one could argue “why bother even making remaking the original story if it’s going to be so close to the original, to nearly unrecognizable “inspired by” pieces that bear little resemblance to the source material, which might make one wonder why the writer did not just write an original story. Either way, the adaptation, and by extension its creators, are open to criticism from the very audience they are trying to attract. Last week, we examined how HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation tries—and ultimately fails—at this balancing act. This week’s article covers the myriad of other strategies a writer can take when adapting classic science fiction.

Electric Dreams, the Amazon Video/Channel 4 series of 10 short films inspired by the short fiction of Philip K. Dick, provides a fascinating case study in science fiction adaptation. Dick’s writing has, historically, been a fertile ground for adaptation. Some of the remakes of his works, Blade Runner is probably the best example, are considered groundbreaking classics in their own right, while others, Paycheck, for example, failed miserably. Many others have fallen somewhere in between. What makes Electric Dreams so interesting as a vehicle to explore the art of adaptation is not just the ability to compare adaptations by different writers and directors in the context of a loosely unified series which features big-budget production and star-studded casts, but also the ability to compare the thought processes of the writers themselves.

Recently, I watched the series while reading Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams: The Stories That Inspired The Original Dramatic Series (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), the companion book that not only collects the original stories which inspired each of the ten short films, but also contains a brief essay by the screenwriter of each episode, each of whom had to grapple with the issues raised above. While each writer, to some extent updates the story for modern times, the adaptations generally fall into three distinct categories: Those that are basically faithful to the original, those that make major changes to the original story or premise for the purpose of using the story to directly criticize contemporary issues, and those that fall somewhere in between. While there are stronger and weaker episodes in all of these categories, ultimately, I find those that follow the golden mean between the two extremes to be the most successful.

Below, I will briefly examine each episode and its approach to adapting classic science fiction. I will be following the Amazon Prime Video order of the episodes rather than the Channel 4 order, which is different.

Note: The cited page numbers come from the above-mentioned book.

Episode 1

Episode Title: Real Life

Story Title: Exhibit Piece

Screenwriter: Ronald D Moore

“Real Life” presents the dichotomy inherent in adapting classic science fiction starkly. As a PKD fan, I was extraordinarily disappointed in it because it changes the original story as much as any other episode in the series. If I hadn’t been committed to participating in a roundtable about the series in which I had to discuss each individual episode, I might have given up on the series after one episode because of the way that it messed with the source material. The other members of the roundtable, however, generally liked the episode and a couple of them cited it as their favorite in the first half of the series. I can only imagine that they are unfamiliar with the source material. Herein lies the problem—the episode was effective at attracting new viewers and hooking them into the show, however it alienated fans of the original short story. Now, the first group is admittedly much bigger than the latter, but I feel that if one is going to present something under the mantle of an adaptation, one takes on an obligation to remain somewhat true to the source material.

In the PKD story, a man who is a curator of a museum exhibit on 20th Century American life becomes trapped—either literally or mentally—in the very exhibit he curates. He begins to live within the exhibit piece and neglects his life in the story’s present, which is our future. It could have been adapted easily by updating the exhibit to be about 21st century life, and by keeping the premise otherwise true to the original. Instead, Moore changes the story, making it about a rich man who gets lost in a virtual world. To me, it was more “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (the story that inspired Total Recall) than “Exhibit Piece.” Moore said that he “was attracted to the underlying theme of losing oneself in another reality.” (1) While it is true that “Exhibit Piece” addresses this theme, there are a myriad of other PKD stories that do as well. Moore admits that “very little of remains of the original story remains in the show” (2), which, I feel is unforgivable in an anthology show claiming to adapt some of the great science fiction stories ever written. He does say that he hopes the “heart” and “brain” of the original story remains, although, if they are there, they are difficult to find. “Real Life” is quality science fiction. The reaction of the other participants in the round table speaks to that, but it is barely connected to the source material, and, in this context, it fails for that reason.

Episode 2: Autofac

Episode Title: Autofac

Story Title: Autofac

Screenwriter: Travis Beacham

“Autofac,” in contrast to “Real Life” provides the paradigm for a successful PKD adaptation. While there are definitely elements that are updated for contemporary audiences—and even plot points that are changed—the story remains authentically true to the source material both aesthetically and thematically. The updates are smart and apt, and the theme of remaining human in an increasingly automated world is even more relevant today than when PKD wrote it.

Both the story and the episode follow a community of humans who attempt to rebel against the automated factory that runs their lives in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic future. Beacham said that “you always see stories about malevolent artificial intelligence rebelling against its programming and trying to destroy its creators…And this story follows that path but in the end is something completely different. What’s brilliant about Autofac is that the factory isn’t a machine running amok. It’s a machine doing exactly what its ingenious but irresponsible creators had built it to do” (181). In a world that is becoming increasingly animated, Beacham finds the premise “more realistic than the traditional robot rebellion yarn” and a “more timely technological parable” (181). His understanding of this relevance is, perhaps, what leads him to the authenticity of this adaptation.

“Autofac” is adapted brilliantly. The basic premise is that of the PKD story, and there are certain details like lifting certain prominent lines of dialogue directly from the story that lend the adaptation authenticity. That said, it does change/update certain elements as well. One example is the use of delivery drones in place of the robotic trucks of the original story. The drones speak to where the technology of our world is headed (and are especially creepy when watching the story on Amazon) and the general computer tech is updated as well. The ending is slightly different than the original story’s but the theme, which is, according to Beacham, that “we’re fighting ourselves, we’re fighting our own nature” comes across just as powerfully (182).

“Autofac” strikes the perfect balance between the old and the new. It is not only a great adaptation, but one of the best sci-fi films I’ve seen in years.

Episode 3

Episode Name: Human Is

Story Name: Human Is

Screenwriter: Jessica Mecklenberg

“Human Is” is another successful adaptation. Even more so than “Autofac,” “Human Is” remains true to the original tale. The episode follows the plot almost exactly. It is told from the perspective of a wife whose husband may or may not have been possessed by an alien life form. The setting is changed slightly—it is a more militaristic future—and the names of the characters have been changed, but all of the key plot points and scenes, including the chilling final conversation between the wife and her maybe-husband are there, almost exactly as they are in the book. Mecklenburg does change the names of the characters, which is unnecessary, and adds a weird sex scene that takes place in an underground subsection of the society, which seems like just an excuse to show some skin on the screen, but only the most staunchly old school Philip K. Dick fans (Dick-Heads?) could complain about the authenticity of this adaptation.

Human Is is probably one of the easier stories to adapt because, as Mecklenberg says, “it has a timeless quality,” but Mecklenberg should still be commended for recognizing “how relevant, if not crucial to our understanding of today’s world”(164) the story feels. The fact that she understands “it’s astounding how essential Philip K. Dick’s work feels” makes her the perfect writer for this particular adaptation (164). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Episode 4

Episode Name: Crazy Diamond

Story Name: Sales Pitch

Screenwriter: Tony Grisoni

According to Grisoni, “PKD voiced his worries about the tale in 1978: ‘I really deplore the ending. So, when you read the story, try to imagine it as it ought to have been written’” (75-76) Grisoni took this as statement as license for changing not only the ending but the characters and basic premise of the story as well. More than just an adaptation, this almost feels like a continuation, an “inspired by” piece about the further development of the company that created the original Farsad, the sales robot which sells itself. The original Farsad is name-dropped in the story, but the products that the company sells are way more advanced than the ones in the source material. That’s all well and good, and I could buy the changed ending knowing Dick’s feelings about it, but I have a larger problem with the change in the characters and their motivation. While Steve Buschemi is brilliant as Ed in “Crazy Diamond,” he is not the Ed of “Sales Pitch.” Changing his escapist motives from tangible ones—to get to a new planet—to fantasy ones alters his character significantly. Ultimately, “Crazy Diamond” shows the dangers of altering one part of an adaptation. Because of Dick’s statement about the ending, changing it is legitimate. The changes necessitated by the specific altered ending, and the way they change the characters and the plot are worse sins, however, and ultimately undermine this adaptation.

Episode 5

Episode Name: The Hood Maker

Story Name: The Hood Maker

Screenwriter: Matthew Graham

One of the reasons that the book version of Electric Dreams is so fascinating is that it gives insight into the screenwriter’s mind. This is especially so for “The Hood Maker.” When Graham read the story as a boy, he imagined the eponymous hood as a full cowl that covers the wearer’s head and protects them from mind reading. In actuality the hood is a concealed metal headband. Graham preferred the hood to the band because it was “at once a brave act of public defiance” and “a way to hide one’s personal identity, to remain aloof and secretive. It spoke to the theme of the story—what secrets do we have the right to keep? Should all our thoughts be sacred, even if they are dark and dangerous ones? Do I have a right to read your mind if I believe that it’s in the national interest? Can I hide? Is that wrong?” (115) Ultimately, despite recognizing his boyhood error, Graham decided to include the full hood in his adaptation. It is a choice that works well for exactly the reasons he describes. Other than that, “The Hood Maker” has a similar attitude toward the source material as “Autofac.” It is successful for the same reasons, though not as well executed. It is also a reminder of an important point about adaptation. We all love the source material, but we each have a different experience with it. What may be authentic for one reader is not necessarily so for another.

Episode 6

Episode Title: Safe and Sound

Story Title: Foster, You’re Dead

Screenwriters: Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell

This episode suffers from the same issues that I discussed last week in part 1 of this series: It attempts to take a piece of classic sci-fi and apply it to a current political issue. In fact, it takes those issues and multiplies them tenfold.  Although the screenwriters claim to be big PKD fans, and even to have met each other through his work, they admit that they “wrote [their] adaptation of Electric Dreams during the ascent and election of a man riding a new wave of American populism and found [they] couldn’t escape at least half a dozen unintended resonances” (136-137). To this viewer, even if those resonances are ‘unintended,” they are too dominant. The allegory is heavy-handed and hits of over the head with its relevance to today’s political and social climate. Egan and Sentell claim to be taking the cold war paranoia of the original story and updating it to reflect the jingoistic paranoia of the contemporary period. In the process, they change the setting, the characters, and the story until they are unrecognizable. If I wasn’t told that this was an adaptation of “Foster, You’re Dead” I wouldn’t be able to figure it out. Other than the surname of the protagonist, little remains of the source material.

Episode 7

Episode Title: The Father Thing

Story Title: The Father Thing

Screenwriter: Michael Dinner

Much like “Human Is,” “The Father Thing” is virtually, a faithful adaptation, until the last minute that it is. The screen story is told in much the same way as it is written, and the writer and director even play off the campy aspects that come with so faithful of an adaptation. At the end of the episode, when the child-protagonist, types #resist, the echoes of the current political climate are reflected in the episode, but, unlike, “Safe and Sound,” the message feels authentic because of the faithfulness of the adaptation. It retains its timeless aspect, which is what allows it to be timely.

Dinner’s summarizes his attitude toward adaptation as follows: “I wanted to preserve the emotional core while firmly placing it in my own world” (97). This, he does successfully. The setting is contemporary, but the characters, conflicts, and themes remain true to the original. Even the double-political message at the ends works, partly because of the credit Dinner has built with the viewer by remaining otherwise true to the original material. The episode successfully navigates the dilemma at the core of adapting classic sci-fi as well as any episode in the series.

Episode 8

Episode Title: The Impossible Planet

Story Title: The Impossible Planet

Screenwriter: David Farr

“The Impossible Planet” presents a different type of challenge as the subject for adaptation. It is a very short story, and there is probably not enough there to sustain a full, hour-long film. Expansion is necessary for the story to fit the format. Farr does a good job of staying true to the “timeless themes” in one of PKD’s “simplest stories” (39) while fleshing it out enough to not only sustain the run-time, but also provide the kind of mind fuck ending that is reminiscent of the best PKD adaptations. It ends with the same type of uncertainty as the endings of the original Blade Runner movies. Overall, a job well-done.

Episode 9

Episode title: The Commuter

Story Title: The Commuter

Screenwriter: Jack Thorne

On the surface, “The Commuter” takes a similar approach to adaptation as “The Impossible Planet.” Certain scenes from the original story are performed virtually identically in the show. However, the attempts at addressing more contemporary issues fall a bit flat in this one, partly because they are done in a straightforward, obvious way. In fact, the entire thing is more concrete, as the lines of several characters are telescoped into the protagonist, and the fluid timeline is straightened out a bit. While in his essay, Thorne praises the “twists and turns of the story” (22), ultimately, this episode felt like a simpler version of the original, almost as if it’s dumbed-down  for a mass, tv audience.

Episode 10

Episode title: Kill All the Others

Story Title: The Hanging Stranger

Screenwriter: Dee Rees

Much like “Safe and Sound,” “Kill All The Others” was written in “the throes of the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” When there was a “blind, chanting jingoism” according to screenwriter, Dee Rees (54).  As such, it is subject to the same weaknesses. There is little in this story that follows the source material. In fact, the most PKD elements actually come from the story, “Sales Pitch,” which is, theoretically, the inspiration for the episode “Crazy Diamond.” Much like the other episodes that attempt to be timely, this one changes too much about the original in pursuit of timeliness.

Looking back at these adaptations, I am reminded of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. This might seem a strange association, since Aristotle was a man who advocated for the concrete and the real over the esoteric philosophies of his teacher, Plato, but his theory of the “The Golden Mean” is particularly relevant to this conversation. The Golden Mean is the sweet spot between two extremes where, Aristotle believed, the truth lies. Those who wish to adapt classic science fiction, like that written by PKD or Ray Bradbury should re-read their Aristotle. While, as we discussed last week, it is important to update the source material to fit a future the original authors could not foresee, the adaptation is still beholden to the original to some extent. Balancing these aspects, finding the golden mean, is essential to creating a successful adaptation. Episodes like “Autofac” and “The Father Thing” provide the perfect counterbalance to the type of adaptation done in Fahrenheit 451 and the perfect template for being both timely and   and timeless.

 


A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif MagazineScrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

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Adapting Classic Science Fiction, Part One: HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 Timely, But Not Timeless

Note: This is part one of a two-part article on adapting classic science fiction. Part 2, which deals with Amazon Video/Channel 4’s Electric Dreams will appear in this space next week.

Ray Bradbury once said, “There are worse crimes than burning books, one of them is not reading them.”  Raman Bahrani’s new film adaptation (HBO) is an adaptation that will only appeal to those who have never read the original, or who are only familiar with the type of condensed, digested versions that Bradbury laments in the original novel. Those who have read and loved Fahrenheit 451 will find the Bahrani’s version disappointing, as it, to quote Hamlet, has “only got the tune of the time” (5.2.169) but not the timeless substance of the original.

Bahrani’s falls victim to one of the classic blunders in adapting classic fiction for contemporary audiences: He makes too many changes designed to beat the viewer over the head with the story’s relevance to the contemporary political and social situation, but, in doing so, he diminishes those aspects that made the original a timeless classic. This is shame, because there is a lot to like in this movie. It is well-acted and beautifully shot. Unfortunately, none of these makes up for messing with core aspects of Bradbury’s story.

Now, I recognize the need to adapt certain aspects of classic science fiction for a modern audience. Futuristic science fiction comes with a built in shelf life. Time stops for no one, and, therefore no matter how far distant the future seems at the time a piece is written, eventually history catches up and either the future will resemble the one that’s described in the sci-fi story, or it won’t. Either way, the writer’s world is left in an unenviable position. Rarely, the writer will prove correct, and the modern submarine will resemble—and even be inspired by The Nautilus—or a soda company will create a drink which is, literally, addictive–in which case, we’ll marvel briefly at the foresight a particular offer has displayed, before lamenting the loss of wonder that comes from reading the book, or watching the movie, that comes with the perspective of history. More often the particular history described in the work of fiction will bear little resemblance to reality once real history catches up. Some of the most successful words of science fiction are replete with anachronisms. Why are there no flat screens (or touch screens for that matter) aboard The Enterprise? Moreover, if an author hits on a particular prediction once, it doesn’t necessarily imply a particular skill at predicting the future. While the afore-referenced Jules Verne, by any measure one of the all-time greats, may have predicted the submarine in 2000 Leagues Under The Sea, many of his books, From Earth to the Moon and Around the World in 80 Days, for example seem dated today, because the things that have happened since the books were written make the feats described in these novels seem unimpressive by today’s standards.

Futurism, however, is not the main reason we return to classic sci-fi. Rather, the most successful science fiction speaks to universal themes and provides social criticism that is as relevant to today’s society as it was when it was written. It matters little that the world had not been taken over by Stalinist megapowers by the historical year 1984. The themes presented in the classic novel, from government surveillance, to groupthink, to the changing nature of language, are just as relevant today as they were when Orwell imagined his classic dystopia in 1948. If anything, the issues presented in his novel are even more prevalent today. The recent Facebook scandal recalls Orwell’s telescreen, and concepts like “fake news” and “alternate facts” remind us of doublethink and newspeak.

With this dilemma in mind, let’s return to Fahrenheit 451. There are many aspects of modern society that Bradbury’s novel correctly predicts, including the increasingly immersive, but, ultimately, vapid personal home entertainment market and the importance of optics over policy in politics, but there are many developments that it fails to predict, most prominently, the internet, which would have a major effect on the essential 512px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-.jpgmessage of the novel. None of these matter in the grand scheme of things, because the central timeless issues of the book—censorship, free thought, and literacy—still speak to modern audiences just as loudly, or, in some cases, even more loudly than they did when the book was written.

Thus, when Bahrani’s version includes the effects of the internet on the preservation of knowledge, I’m basically ok with it. When social media plays a prominent role in his world, fine, I can see how that’s needed to build a believable future. But, eliminating characters such as Montag’s wife, and completely changing Clarice’s character from a purely innocent, but visionary child, to an adult, tortured double-agent fundamentally alter the original story in unforgivable and unnecessary ways. That doesn’t even get into the way that the HBO film changes the Montag and Beatty, the central characters in the story.

None of these changes, however, is as significant as the film’s emphasis on inclusion and exclusion of various groups in society. Bahrani’s film puts the question of EEL’s, shorthand (and heavy-handed) slang for illegals at the center of the film. These EEL’s actively work to thwart the government’s censorship not by hiding books, but rather by  trying to upload full versions of classics to The Nine, the film’s version of the internet  and are hunted down by the firemen, who seem to play the role of police or ICE operatives. The parallels to the current political situation are obvious, as is the message the film conveys. The problem is that while it is a relevant message, it is not Bradbury’s message. Shifting the focus away from what Bradbury wrote, makes the film a different type of dystopia, and the confused return to something more in line with the original plot in the second half of the movie confuses both messages so that neither one is fully developed.

The issue of oppression and insiders/outsiders in society is fine material for a dystopia. If Bahrani wanted to write and direct that movie, he should have made it, as an original story, not as Fahrenheit 451. Such a movie would have been timely. Time would tell whether it would have been timeless.

As an aside, it is counter-productive to message of inclusion and unity to assign the memorized books of the resistance to people of the same race as the authors of those books: The white woman memorizes Steinbeck; the black woman, Morrison; the black man, Baldwin; and the Chinese woman, Mao. The message would have been more effective if at least one of the characters memorized a book that wasn’t written by an author of the same cultural background as the memorizer.

The comparison between the two versions of the story can be seen by juxtaposing Beatty’s speeches in the book vs. those he gives in the movie. Early in the film, Beatty (Michael Shannon) and Montag (Michael B. Jordan) visit a school, give an anti-EEL speech, and then burn some mock books. The speech feels timely, as if they, despite the conceit of the far-distant future society, are speaking directly to America in 2018. However, because the allegory is so direct, it is unclear whether the message will last beyond the current moment. In contrast, Beatty’s speeches about history and education in the novel feel timeless in the same way that Dickens’ commentary on education in Hard Times are timeless. Years after the book was written, they feel just as fresh and relevant. Even Bradbury’s own understanding of the book’s meaning has developed over time because the text he wrote lends itself to multivariate meanings centered around a central theme.

Michael_B._Jordan_Small.jpg

Again, it’s a shame that this movie failed as an adaptation, since it does a really good job at building a believable future, it’s shot beautifully, and it is acted well, especially by the characters who play the central roles.

So, if HBO’s Fahrenheit is ultimately unsuccessful as an adaptation, what makes a successful one? Come back next week to read part 2 of this article, which will explore the different approaches to adaptation taken by the writers of Amazon/Channel 4’s Electric Dreams.

 


A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif MagazineScrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

The Doctor Who Christmas Special: Twice Upon a Time—An Allegorical Reading

The Whoniverse is about to change—we all knew that. Peter Capaldi’s run as the titular character is ending, show runner Steven Moffat is leaving, and Jodi Whittaker will become the first female doctor in the show’s long history. This last bit, you may have heard, has been the subject of much discussion among the Whovians, many of whom have been, to put it more mildly than the 12th incarnation of the doctor would, worried. Moffat sent a message to these folks in his and Capaldi’s final episode: These “worries” are unfounded, and antithetical to his vision of the long-running science fiction program. Thus, in addition to nostalgically looking back to the past, Twice Upon a Time cleverly sets up the show’s future.

Twice Upon a Time picks up where the last season ended. The Doctor is dying, but refusing to regenerate. He ends up at the South Pole where he encounters the First Doctor (who is masterfully played by David Bradley). The two doctors have to solve the mystery of glass-like avatars who are stealing the memories of the dead to unfreeze time, and return The Captain (Mark Gatiss) to World War One, his proper place in the timeline. On the one level, it is the perfect vehicle to send off Capaldi’s doctor: The aliens’ ability to access anyone who has died allows for sentimental appearances from old companions, and the presence of the First Doctor—and his Tardis—invites the kind of allusions to classic Who one would expect from Moffat’s swan song. On another level, however, Twice Upon a Time can be read as an allegory for the state of the Whoniverse, and Moffat’s final statement about what it can and should be.

This allegory is accomplished through the juxtaposition of Capaldi’s doctor with the original doctor. Throughout his tenure, Capaldi has been compared to Hartnell’s version of the character. He was older, grayer, darker, more alien than his most recent predecessors, and his episodes were replete with more classic Who references than theirs, as well. And, indeed, when seen next to each other, they are indeed similar. They have both arrived at the same place with the intention of stopping their regeneration.  Both are considering dying rather than letting someone else become The Doctor. However, when presented with the mystery of The Captain, they are forced to at least temporarily postpone this plan and work together. It is in this partnership that the differences between 1 and 12 are revealed.

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Despite the episode’s nostalgic tone, the humorous banter between Capaldi and Bradley carries much of the episode. From the opening sequence, where the two doctors argue over who is THE

Doctor, the subject of the Doctor’s identity is hinted at at the forefront. Is the original the best? Or is the latest version, the culmination of years of experience and growth, superior? At the beginning, it seems like 1 is in charge. He gets the better of the exchanges, and seems to be more comfortable in the role of leader. He identifies himself as “The Doctor” and calls 12 his “nurse” in one particularly funny scene. As the show goes on, however, 12 ascends to the leadership role. Ultimately, it is he who solves the mystery, and it is his plan that provides satisfying, Christmassy resolution to the Captain’s predicament. The first doctor fades into the background and Capaldi is left alone on screen, first for his teary reunion with certain past companions (spoilers) and then for his powerful final monologue and regeneration scene.

The shift in power in the Tardis is accomplished through the progression of the above-mentioned banter. While the First Doctor seems to be getting the better of the battle of wits early on in the program, as it progresses, his jokes begin to fall flat. His views on women, and their role in the Tardis, are at best anachronistic, and at worse offensive. He professes, among other things, that the women are fragile (made from glass) and that it is the female companion’s role to “tidy up” the Tardis. These comments are met with rebuke from the 12th Doctor, as well as from Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who makes her return in this episode. As the First Doctor’s worldview is revealed to be out of place in time, the 12th ascends, representing what The Doctor does and should currently believe. The First Doctor’s anachronistic sexism echoes that of a certain segment of the fan base who would reject the 13th Doctor, the first female incarnation, without giving her a fair chance. The First Doctor may not be happy about the upcoming change—either in the context of the show where he is about to regenerate for the first time or in the context of the allegory where his refusal to regenerate reveals his reluctance to progress—but then he would not have been happy sharing the Tardis with Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara, or Bill, none of whom would be doing his housekeeping. Imagine how he would have felt about Captain Jack Harkness, then consider if you’re being close minded about The Doctor’s gender.

After Capaldi’s regeneration, we get our first, brief glimpse of Jodi Whittaker as The Doctor. Though she is on screen only briefly, she appears comfortable in the role. Her only line of dialogue recalls the 9th Doctor, and her fall from the Tardis into open space may symbolize the endless possibilities that come with a new doctor and new show runner.

There are no monsters in this year’s Christmas episode—no Cybermen, no Zygons, no Weeping Angels. The only Dalek who appears is, nominally, on the Doctor’s side. Even the glass avatars of the dead—the supposed antagonists of the episode—turn out, to The Doctor’s consternation, not to be evil. What, then, is the doctor fighting against? In the end, it is his fear of the future, his fear of change and the unknown, things the whole Whoniverse encounters every time the Doctor regenerates. These fears are cleverly alluded to in Capaldi’s final speech. Early in the monologue, he says (and perhaps it is Moffat speaking through him), “Yes, yes, I know they’ll mess it up without me,” and then implores the new doctor to “wait a moment. Let’s get it right.” He then offers his advice for being a successful doctor: “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind.

As long as The Doctor is able to, “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind,” everything is going to be ok.

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A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif MagazineScrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

 

 

American Gods, Episode 1: A Show In Which You Can Believe

Viewers of the first episode of American Gods (Saturdays 9ET, STARZ) likely find themselves in the position of one of the two primaries: Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), the laconic ex-con who is first being introduced to the strange world of American Gods, or Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), the man who has been living in this surreal universe for a long time. There is plenty in the premiere episode to entice both sets of viewers, who will likely make the leap of faith necessary to return for the second episode and beyond.

I am firmly in the Wednesday camp. My first-edition copy of American Gods, the Hugo and Nebula winning novel by Neil Gaiman upon which the series is based, was read for the first time when the book was released in 2001, and most recently over the past few weeks in preparation for watching the show and writing this review. As such, my standards for any adaptation, much less a big-budget, well-hyped premium cable adaptation, were high. The premiere episode more than lived up to my expectations, as I have seldom seen an adaptation as true to the book as this one.

Every important scene from the opening chapters of the novel, from Shadow’s release from prison, to Wednesday’s introduction on the airplane, to Shadow’s fight with Mad Sweeney (Pablo Shrieber) is there, as is much of the dialogue from the original novel. Even the Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) scene, which had the potential to be disastrous in this medium, was done, and done well. Long-time Gaiman fans will likely be satisfied with the fidelity of the story to the original.

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The casting, likewise, is masterful. McShane is compelling as Wednesday, and it is his charm and range that largely carries this episode. He is able to make the viewer believe in his con, even when said viewer knows the outcome. He is clearly having fun with the role, and his performance did more to sell me on the program than anything else that happened in the first episode.

Whittle seems born to play Shadow, and his laconic intelligence, moral compass, and gritty toughness form the perfect counterpoints to McShane’s Wednesday.

Even the minor characters are near dead ringers for the way I imagined them when reading the novel.

The show is far from just a nostalgia fest for long-time Gaiman-readers, however. There is plenty here that is new and interesting even to the most seasoned of Gaiman’s fans.

The episode is visually interesting, which is no surprise coming from something associated with Gaiman. Anyone who has seen even one of the pre-released teasers got a feel for the surreal atmosphere created by the show’s visual and audio aspects. But beyond the Dave McKean-esque credits and the cinematography of the dream sequences, there are a number of visual motifs which run throughout the episode that only those viewers already familiar with the source material will understand. For example, the imagery of gallows and hangings that run throughout the episode reflect as much on Wednesday’s true identity as the they do on the racial issues from America’s past that comprised a portion of the discussion about the show on social media during episodes airing Saturday night. One can only hope that writer/creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green continue to utilize this type of dramatic irony to communicate with those familiar with the source material.

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Additionally, there are a number of scenes that have been updated to fit the times. As Gaiman, who is an executive producer of the TV program, discussed during a release event for his book Norse Mythology at Town Hall back in February, many of the deviations from the show’s source material were necessitated by the long gap between the book’s publication in 2001 and the show’s release in 2017. The scene when Shadow is kidnapped by Technical Boy (Bruce Langley) is a perfect example. Technical Boy needs to convey a cutting-edge image of the newest technology available, and the descriptions of him found in the book would not work in today’s environment. The scene, however, retains the spirit of the original (Technical Boy 2.0, if you will), as do most of the updates that are not letter-perfect adaptations of the novel.

Most of the adaptations are either of this nature, or, as Gaiman discussed at the same event, were necessitated by the switch in medium from novel to television. There are, however, a small number of deviations from the original that felt wrong. Chief among these is the portrayal of Audrey (Betty Gilpin), Shadow’s ex-wife’s friend. The scene between Audrey and Shadow at the graveyard deviates wildly from the corresponding scene, which takes place at the funeral, and completely changes Audrey’s character. While, according to an article published by the A/V club (http://www.avclub.com/article/neil-gaiman-why-he-asked-american-gods-cut-blowjob-254491) Gaiman was able to intercede with the show runners to keep Shadow’s reaction to changed Audrey true to his original character, the change seems out of place with the spirit of the show, and is an unnecessary distraction during an important character-building scene for Shadow.

There are other minor deviations that bothered me, including the opening “Coming to America” sequence—and I wish there could have been some acknowledgement of Shadow’s desire to take a bath–but overall, the adaptation is as true to the book as one could hope. Let’s hope that future episodes continue that fidelity, unlike, for example, Game of Thrones, which started out true to the source material, but quickly deviated from it in many of the key storylines.

Viewers in the Shadow camp—those who are coming to the show for the time— are likely intrigued, but confused, which is exactly where they should be after the first episode. The decision not to reveal the major conflict in the series (who is Mr. Wednesday preparing to fight; who are the “we” of whom Technical Boy speaks) does create mystery and suspense, but I wonder if there is enough grounding to hold viewers who do not possess the background knowledge of those in the Wednesday camp. Hooking these viewers is essential if the show is to become, as many have already predicted, the next big thing on TV.

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Still, I imagine that the quality of the acting described above will be enough to hold these viewers for a couple of more episodes, at least. The characters are intriguing, and these viewers will likely want to find out what happens to them.

Whittle’s portrayal of Shadow is tailored well for this purpose. As the show’s moral compass—ironic as he is an ex-con—he is the character in whom we are supposed to invest. He is believable enough, and charismatic enough to carry viewers through the delayed exposition as they, along with him, learn this new reality.

It is McShane, however, who is likely to carry the program, and through his dazzling performance is likely to be enough to make viewers forget what they don’t know until it is time for them to know it. By that time, they’ll be invested, drawn into his world, like Shadow, unable to leave.

The first episode of American Gods hints at the possibility of greatness. All of the elements are there, from spot-on-performances by the cast, to the spectacular visual effects and cinematography, to the perfect source material. Will the show deliver on the promise of the first episode? It’s impossible to prove for sure after just one episode, but it’s something in which viewers can surely believe.


Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

Doctor Who Series 10 Premiere: The Pilot—Just What the Doctor Ordered

Doctor Who took off Saturday with The Pilot, the premiere episode of the show’s tenth season. The episode effectively introduces a new companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), whose character’s development dominates the episode, and returns the long-running program to the type of smaller-scale personal stories that marked Matt Smith’s early episodes, tinted with the signature darkness of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Much of the episode is told from Bill’s perspective, as the viewer is re-introduced to the Whoniverse through her eyes. This choice by writer Steven Moffat and director Lawrence Gough allows long-time viewers to reset their relationship with Capaldi’s doctor (like they would have with a new character in a “pilot” episode for a new show—get it?), experiencing both the joy and terror involved with meeting The Doctor for the first time. Those who already loved Capaldi get to see him from a different angle, while those who never really connected with him over the past two years get to reset their relationship with him as he begins his final season.

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Pearl Mackie is excellent as Bill, playing the role with a wide-eyed quirkiness that belies an incisive mind. She comes off innocent and vulnerable at first, but she soon shows the qualities which have caused The Doctor to take an interest in her even before the episode’s monster appears. She raises some interesting questions—ranging from The Doctor’s obsession with Earth, to the location of the bathroom on the TARDIS—many of which The Doctor is uncomfortable answering. She also banters well with Capaldi, a fact noted by Nardole (Matt Lucas), reinforcing that she won’t accept The Doctor’s BS at face value, as well as adding levity to the dialogue that has been largely missing from the past two seasons of the show.

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Bill is also the Doctor’s first openly gay companion, and this aspect is handled very well in this episode. Her sexuality features prominently in the episode’s plot and is an essential part of her character, but, like previous portrayals of homosexual relationships in the show’s long history – from Vastra and Jenny, to Captain Jack Harkness distracting male guards—Bill’s orientation fits seamlessly into the diverse Doctor Who universe.

Speaking of The Doctor, Capaldi is excellent in this episode, which opens with him as a university professor who gives lectures about whatever he wants. Playing the professor is a good role for Capaldi’s Doctor. The university lectures give him a platform for the grand speeches that have characterized his tenure as The Doctor, and this job seems a natural progression from the little lectures he has given the audience using the blackboard in his TARDIS over the last two seasons. Capaldi seems to relish his role in the mentor/student relationship with Bill, and the fresh start with the new companion, along with the aforementioned banter, makes him seem funnier and warmer than he has in past seasons.

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Perhaps the most welcome aspect of The Pilot was its return to the paradigm of the Doctor saving a single person, rather than saving the entire world or universe. The poignancy of Bill’s personal relationship with this particular monster is reminiscent of early Matt Smith episodes, and reveals a compassion and empathy in Capaldi’s Doctor that reminds the viewer of Christopher Eccleston’s run, as well. Yes, Capaldi still displays his signature darkness, but that darkness is balanced by his human-like emotions. His empathy allows the viewer to empathize with him.

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While there is much new about The Pilot, there are also plenty of allusions to seasons past. From the pictures on the Doctor’s desk in his office at the university (spoilers!), to the variety of sonics used throughout the episode, there are plenty of nods to the past to satisfy long-time fans.

The new monster in this episode also seems to look backwards, as it clearly has been influenced by the Tennant-era episode Waters of Mars. It is, as the Doctor explains, more hungry than evil, is scary nonetheless, but, thanks to its personal connection to Bill, it evokes a sympathy not commonly found in a mindless predator.

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Not everything in the show, however, was integrated as smoothly as the references to the past episodes. Nardole’s presence—while seemingly necessary to set up plot lines that will be explored in future episodes—seems largely superfluous to this particular story, as do the Daleks, who don’t contribute much during their brief time onscreen.

Overall, The Pilot is an effective re-introduction both to the Doctor, after a long hiatus, and to his new companion. The chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie, as well the return to smaller-scale storytelling, both bode well for the rest of the series. Hopefully, Moffat has finally found his stride writing for Capaldi, and this season, which is the final one for both the lead actor and the long-time show runner—will prove to be as strong as its first episode.


Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio—Good, But Not Quite Super

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Tardis? Doctor Who returned, after a full-year absence, with its annual Christmas special, a rollicking superhero-themed romp through the streets of—and skies above—New York. The episode is fun, and is one of the stronger in 12th doctor Peter Capaldi’s run, although it is not quite “super” enough to be considered an all-time classic.

The episode opens with The Doctor hanging outside the window of a young boy who is obsessed with superhero comics. Through the usual Doctor Who hijinks—escalated by the comic book-y idiom of this particular episode—that young boy eventually becomes “The Ghost,” a masked vigilante who protects New York City. Many years later, the two cross paths again, as The Doctor and The Ghost battle brain-swapping aliens intent on taking over the world.

The episode is replete with superhero references, both subtle and overt, and these allusions reflect both the strengths and weaknesses of this particular Christmas special. The story is essentially a Superman parody, and some of the Superman references, both in the dialogue and visually, are extremely clever, but some of the other allusions—especially to Spider-Man and other well-known comics that really have nothing do to with the comic-book source material that directly influenced this particular story—stick out. It’s almost as if writer Steven Moffat doesn’t entirely trust his audience and wants to make sure his viewers know how clever he is.

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The episode is strongest when it deals with what Moffat calls the “superhero love triangle for two,” between The Ghost, Grant (his secret identity), and Lucy Fletcher, a reporter for The Daily Chronicle. Justin Chatwin, who plays The Ghost, and Charity Wakefield, who plays Lucy, have excellent chemistry in both halves of their relationships, and the scenes between them crackle with the perfect amount of romantic tension and dramatic irony.

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Peter Capaldi’s performance is, predictably, strong. He excels as the “older mentor” and “third wheel” in this episode, and the script is perfect for this version of The Doctor who plays better as the crazy old guy than he does as the brooding old man who has been featured in the majority of his tenure as Doctor. Now freed of the darkness of Clara’s denouement, Capaldi is able to fully embrace The Doctor’s alien nature. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who, although eccentric, were passable, relatable humans, Capaldi’s Doctor’s maniacal otherness allows for a resolution that none of the other “new Who” doctors would have even considered. The most significant development of this year’s Christmas special may be Capaldi finally finding his Doctor’s true personality.

The extreme alien nature of The Doctor makes the companion’s role even more important than usual, and in this role, a new star has been born. Matt Lucas reprises the role of Nardole, who has, in the year since last year’s Christmas episode, been “reassembled” by The Doctor. Lucas plays the role with the perfect blend of humor and psychological insight into The Doctor’s character. He shines as the humanizing element, and his very presence foreshadows the episode’s resolution. I won’t say anymore because, well, spoilers.

The new monsters, however, are a bit disappointing. While they do possess a certain creepiness, they don’t have the screen presence of either the Tennant era Weeping Angels or the Smith era Silence. While the episode forebodes a role for them in the upcoming season, it is unlikely that they become the 12th Doctor’s signature addition to the program’s rogue gallery.

Similarly, the episode’s resolution is a bit underwhelming. Everything turns out about how it should to tie up the superhero story and prepare the viewers for the next phase of the Doctor’s journey, but this feels predictable for The Ghost and Lucy, and the big reveal for The Doctor relies heavily on prior knowledge from past episodes rather than being contained within the universe of this Christmas special. The necessity to call in UNIT to clean up the mess at the end of the episode reflects some major plot holes beyond those one would except in a typical Doctor Who episode, even one which lampoons the superhero genre.

Overall, this was a strong episode, even if it is not quite super. The excellent performances from the principal actors, along its full embrace of the superhero oeuvre, make it a lot of fun to watch. Fans will likely remember it fondly, and look forward to “The Return of  Doctor Mysterio” each year as it re-airs as part of the marathon leading up to the year’s Christmas episode.


Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

The Power of the Daleks Animated: A Lost Classic Regenerated

It’s too bad that there isn’t a real TARDIS lying around some vault at the BBC. If there was, someone (a doctor perhaps) could go back in time and save the now-destroyed 60s and 70s episodes of Doctor Who, many of which are considered lost classics.

Among those episodes stranded in the void are the six that comprise the 1966 series’ fourth season serial, The Power of the Daleks. This serial has been reconstructed (regenerated?) using the original 1966 audio and newly commissioned animation. The recreated animated episodes air Saturday nights, (8:25 PM Eastern Time/7:25 Central) on BBC America.

The Power of the Daleks has long been considered one of the most important of the lost serials, as it features the first “regeneration” (called “renewal” in this serial), from the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, to the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, along with an early appearance of the titular monsters, the most famous in the show’s history.

Any attempt to reconstruct a seminal lost serial would be a big deal in The Whoniverse, bound to cause both excitement and controversy amongst the show’s fans – and there is plenty in the new animation, produced and directed by Charles Norton, to do both.

The very fact that the show exists in any watchable format is amazing, and makes the serial compulsory viewing for all Doctor Who fans. Not only does it contain the aforementioned original regeneration scene, it also gives fans a complete story featuring Troughton’s Doctor. The destruction of the 60s and 70s BBC tapes (one pictures a bunch of trashcan like monsters gliding around the BBC offices screaming, “exterminate”) hit the second Doctor particularly hard, as none of his complete serials have survived. Fans should jump at the chance to watch a complete story arc featuring this influential Doctor, who established the premise that has allowed the show to survive and adapt for over 50 years. He has also been cited by Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, and Matt Smith as their favorite version of the iconic character.

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The reconstruction uses the original sound recording, which survived even though the video was destroyed, so the viewer listens to Troughton’s acting, along with his companions, Polly and Ben (Anneke Wills and Michael Craze, respectively). The music and soundscapes are original, as well. What the viewer sees, however, is entirely new, and it is from there that most of the discussion—and controversy—about the reconstruction will most likely arise.

The animation, which is a combination of computer generated and hand-made elements, is decidedly low-budget. The character designs and 3D renderings, designed by Martin Geraghty and Adrian Salmon, are beautiful, and the black-and-white-retro aesthetic perfectly matches the vibe of the surviving Classic Who episodes (through a color version is available for download at the BBC store website). It is when the characters start moving, however, that the issues caused by the small budget manifest. The stop-motion-style of the character’s movement, along with certain basic animation errors that should have been caught in editing, initially takes viewers out of the experience, and provides a barrier they must overcome to fully immerse themselves in the story. For a program like Doctor Who, which already heavily relies on the willing suspension of disbelief, anything that takes its watchers out of the experience, and reinforces the idea that what they are watching is not real, is an even more serious problem than it would be for another, more realistic program, and a segment of the viewers will likely reject the recreated series right off the bat because of these flaws.

For another group of viewers, however, the simple, quirky animation will be an endearing call-back to the original, low-budget, live-action, classic Doctor Who episodes of the 60s and 70s. Let’s face it, Doctor Who—especially in the early years—was never about fancy visual effects; rather, it was about character and story. The lack of bells and whistles, slick modern animation, and anything that can remotely be considered fancy, is, in its way, true to the source material, and fans of the original program may appreciate the quirks in the animation as an authentic nostalgic throwback (whether the producers intended it that way or not).

I tend to lean toward the second reaction. After the first 10 minutes of the first episode, I stopped noticing the animation, and was able to focus on the acting and the plot. The animation did, however, hinder my focus for the first 10 minutes, and I sympathize with people who see it the other way.

The story itself is a strong one. It begins with the above-mentioned regeneration scene. The companions’ reaction to the “new” Doctor is one of mistrust and confusion. They do not know exactly what has happened (remember that this is the first regeneration in the history of the show), and the new Doctor’s propensity to refer to the old Doctor as “the Doctor” and speak of him in the third person as if he was someone else does not help their comfort level. Fans of the “New Who” shows will find much familiar here, as every regeneration in the new program echoes this original regeneration in some way. Polly and Ben’s confusion and inability to initially accept a Doctor with such different physical and personality traits reminded me particularly of Clara Oswald’s initial reaction to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in the show’s most recent regeneration.

In the midst of this discomfort, the TARDIS has landed on Planet Vulcan (no pointy ears: apparently, Doctor Who and Star Trek both had the idea of naming a planet after the Roman fire god independently), where the new Doctor assumes the role of a recently murdered inspector from Earth. He discovers that the residents of Vulcan have found a very old space pod, and are unsure about whether to open it. Eventually, they do, and it contains—spoiler alert, but not really, since it’s in the title of the serial—Daleks. The story makes brilliant use of dramatic irony as the Doctor and the viewers know the true intent of the Daleks, while the human colonists of Vulcan do not.

The script, by David Whittaker (with an un-credited assist from Dennis Spooner) is strong, especially considering the age of the program. It is considered to be one of the strongest—if not the strongest—Classic Who serial by many fans, and it is easy to see why. It is well-plotted, suspenseful, and speaks to universal themes about human nature. Troughton is excellent as the Doctor, and the ensemble cast holds up its end of the bargain well. Of course, some of the nuances of the performance are necessarily lost both because of the animation and because there is little surviving footage on which the animators could base the lead character’s facial expressions and movements.

The pacing, however, is much slower than a typical modern television program, let alone a “new” Doctor Who episode, where the storytelling style is “don’t blink” or you’ll miss something. For fans coming to the classic material for the first time, this will necessitate some adjustment. The excellent score and soundscape helps, and, by the end of the first episode in the serial, viewers will likely get used to the “dramatic” pauses in between the dialogue.

Overall, there is a lot to like about the animated reconstruction of The Power of the Daleks. While it isn’t perfect, it is a welcome addition to the Doctor Who Canon, especially during a lean year in The Whoniverse.


Ari Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine,Scrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.comand on twitter as @thesurrealari .