Tag Archives: The Surreal Ari

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 .

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 .

 

 

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: A Cult Classic In the Making

After watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America, Saturdays 9ET), I am thoroughly confused—and that’s a good thing. To explain why, I could try to describe the experience watching the show—something akin to Doctor Who directed by the Cohen Brothers with a bit of Guy Richie thrown in for good measure—but I suspect that wouldn’t be very helpful, unless you’ve already seen both the episodes and the disparate references I would need to properly explain it. Instead, I’m going to take you back 20 years (don’t worry, as the titular character would say: it’s all connected).

I was a college freshman who had just finished reading Mostly Harmless, the final book in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams. To tell you the truth, I was a bit depressed that there were no more Hitchhiker books to read. Then, I found out about the Dirk Gently books. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. Upon reading them, however, I was a bit confused. Each individual incident worked. Some even had that signature Douglas Adams humor. But, overall, the pieces didn’t fit the same way. The narrative seemed disjointed, and the tone—which was darker and stranger than the rollicking Hitchhiker books—wasn’t quite what I expected. Still, the characters and situations were intriguing, and before I knew it, I was drawn in. By the time that Dirk himself actually turns up—more than a third of the way through the book—I knew I’d keep reading through the end, and indeed through both Dirk Gently novels. These days, I find myself referencing Dirk nearly as much as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, though fewer people seem to get the allusions.

I anticipated the first episode of the television adaptation with the same eager excitement that I felt when starting the novels. After watching the first two episodes, I’ve experienced the same bewilderment. There is so much going on here that it is difficult to process. It’s interesting, compelling even, but also disconcerting in that the pieces don’t quite fit yet—and it is so utterly unlike anything I have seen on television before that I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. Normally, if I was that confused by a TV show adapted from a novel that I love, I would hate it—I’m a traditionalist when it comes to adaptations—but, strangely, I feel like this sense of confusion is showrunner Max Landis’ biggest achievement: it is not easy to utterly perplex the segment of his viewership which is intimately familiar with the source material. Whether or not he can pull it together into a satisfactory conclusion within the next six episodes remains to be seen; it is unfair to judge until after those episodes are released.

Now, I don’t want to mislead anybody: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency the television program is not a faithful adaptation of the novel with the same name. There are no Kublai Khan readings, no jokes about Beetles songs, and no horses stuck in bathrooms (although a corgi, a kitten, and, apparently a hammerhead shark do figure prominently in the first two episodes). Thus far, there are no professors of chronology, and while there may or may not be electric time traveling monks, they definitely don’t fulfill the same function as the monk in the original novel does. Aside from the titular character and the general premise of Dirk investigating the murder of a multi-millionaire, the show borrows little from the novel aside from an occasional throw-away reference (about a couch, say, or Thor) or quote as sop for fans of the source material. Indeed, it is probably better to consider this version of Dirk Gently as a sequel rather than an adaptation—much like The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul (the second Dirk Gently novel) featured only three of the same characters as the original novel.

In this version, Dirk, played by Samuel Barnett, is hired to investigate the murder of a millionaire—by the victim himself—six weeks before said victim is murdered in a hotel penthouse. Barnett plays the role in a way reminiscent to Matt Smith’s Doctor on cocaine, alternating between presenting himself as the (only?) character in the know, and being just as clueless and confused as everyone else. Though he claims to be “a leaf on the wind” of creation, he drives the show, and your opinion of the program may hinge on whether you find his performance charismatic or overbearing.

Barnett is joined by Todd, played by Elijah Woods, Dirk’s reluctant sidekick and, according to Dirk, his best friend. As the first episode begins, Todd starts the show as a bellhop in the very hotel where the murder takes place—which is what connects him to Dirk and the case that he is investigating–although he is fired soon thereafter. He reluctantly follows Dirk on his adventures, initially because of Dirk’s tenuous promise of monetary compensation, and later because the universe seems to have designated him as a focal point in the case. He also serves as the viewer’s anchor amidst the chaos. Wood’s role is reminiscent of the Doctor’s companions or Sherlock’s Watson, though unlike these characters he is a reluctant participant in the action. Still, Todd is the one bastion of normalcy amid the absurd chaos that surrounds him. Viewers are likely to identify with his motivations—he needs money to make rent and to buy the medicine that his sister, Amanda (Hannah Marks) needs to treat “pararibulitis,” a condition which causes her to have hallucinations she believes are real. This will give them something to hold on to as they, along with Todd, try to piece together this strange new world.

Wood’s performance is excellent, and his reactions to the ridiculous situations in which he finds himself—ranging from anger to indifference to exasperation—often mirror the viewer’s own. Although he initially rejects his connection to Dirk, by the end of the second episode he seems hooked until the end of the ride, determined to find out what his significance is in the mystery in which he has unwittingly become involved. As the second episode progresses, Todd takes the lead in many of the scenes, a development which bodes well for future episodes.

The report between Wood and Barnett is somewhat strained in the first episode, probably because of Landis’ decision to change Dirk’s backstory. Because Dirk and Todd have no prior connection (unlike the novel’s Dirk who went to college with Richard, who is Todd’s equivalent in that story), their initial encounters are often awkward. By the second episode, as Todd becomes more invested in the case, these issues are largely resolved. The tension between the two leads is still there, but the awkwardness is gone as they begin to work together to try and solve the mystery.

The leads are supported by a motely crew of cops and criminals. The most interesting of these is Bart, played by Fiona Dourif, a holistic assassin whose story parallels Dirk’s own. Although Bart holds many of the same views as Dirk, she ultimately wants to kill him, despite the fact that the two have never met. She also randomly kills most of those who cross her path. As a holistic assassin, the universe delivers her targets. Strangely, she does not kill Ken, a hacker whom she initially mistakes for Dirk Gently. Ken, played by Mpho Koaho, plays the Todd to her Dirk once Bart kidnaps him, and unlike the two leads, they click right away. Dourif and Koaho are clearly having fun with the absurd situation in which they find themselves, which shines through in all the scenes in which they appear. The parallels between Dirk and Bart clearly hint at some encounter later in the season.

The scale of the show is so large that it is difficult to cover all of the characters and plotlines. There are at least three different sets of cops and agents working for various government agencies, both known and secret. The best of these are Estevez and Zimmerman (played by Neil Brown Jr, and Richard Schiff, respectively) who remind me of Croup and Vandermar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. There are also at least two supernatural criminal organizations, including the Rowdy 3 (there are four of them, they know), following Dirk, Todd, and Farah Black (Jade Eshete) the dead millionaire’s (remember him?) security officer.

All of this can be difficult to follow, which as mentioned above, is probably the point. Viewers will want to piece together the clues, but will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of characters and plot twists. They also may be distracted by the high level of violence, which could seem out of place in a Douglas Adams adaptation, but should hardly be surprising in a show produced by the same people who brought us The Walking Dead.

Ultimately, I believe the show will become a cult classic. I found it entertaining, and like Todd and Ken, am in for the duration, but the show requires effort on the part of the viewer, which may hinder its commercial success. Those looking for the next Doctor Who or Sherlock will surely be disappointed, but those who give it a chance and trust that, in the end, it is indeed all connected, will be rewarded. If Landis is able to pull together the myriad of disparate threads introduced in the first two episodes, his show will garner a dedicated following. To go back to my original analogy, while the show may never be as popular as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, it has a good chance to truly be the television version of Douglas Adams’ other series, which is really all we can ask for from a series called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.


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 .