Happy Belated Birthday, Doctor Who

Written for Time to celebrate last November’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and left unpublished for reasons too ridiculous and complicated to get into.

At one point in Russell T. Davies’ wonderful The Writer’s Tale, a book about his creative process during his final two years as Doctor Who showrunner, he writes “Four years in, and I’ve rarely resorted to the Doctor or companion having to clobber someone unconscious. I’m sort of proud of that, though it does write me into corners. When trapped with a guard, I much prefer to write some sort of distraction – then run! Idiots punch. And punches can kill. Oh, listen to me.”

In that short excerpt lies the heart of Doctor Who in many ways (Not least of which the self-conscious “Oh, listen to me” after making the serious point about the unintended impact — pun not intended — that violence can have; Who has always been a show that undercut its potential preachiness with humor. How stereotypically British, some would say).

That pride in the show’s pacifist stance obviously continued after Davies left the show, if last weekend’s 50th anniversary episode, “The Day of the Doctor,” is anything to go by. That episode, after all, not only investigated what happened when the Doctor surrendered his pacifism in favor of a more violent solution — a final solution, if you will — to war, but the price paid for those actions and what it meant to him moving forward.

Pacifism has always been, after all, what separates the Doctor — and Doctor Who as a whole — from other fictional heroes and stories, especially in genre material. It makes sense why fighting is so common elsewhere; it’s externalizes the conflict necessary to good drama and is, ultimately, exciting to the viewer. Star Wars just sounds exciting from its title alone, and even on Star Trek, the viewer recognized the stakes were raised whenever the order was given to fire phasers.

The Doctor is different, and intentionally so. Throughout his many incarnations (Peter Capaldi, who takes over the role at Christmas will be the thirteenth actor to play the character), only one — the rogue “War Doctor” of the anniversary special, played by John Hurt — has preferred to engage violence directly as opposed to trying to outwit or simply run away from his enemies.

In part, I’ve always put that down to the series’ origins as children’s television, and the oft-repeated advice you receive as a child that bullies should be “stood up to” without violence per se, with the implied bravery in doing so forcing them to back down. The Doctor, then, becomes an analog for the viewer with the Daleks, Zygons or whatever other creature of the week transformed into whatever threat the audience requires them to be at the time. The unstated lesson being, You’re okay: If he can handle this, you can handle anything.

Other pop culture heroes fulfill some level of wish-fulfillment or another, but the Doctor is one of the few heroes who comes across as genuinely aspirational for viewers. Perhaps more importantly, he’s also one of very few characters specifically created with that goal in mind that ended up successful enough to stick around for decades. True, the Doctor may be an alien in the mythology of the series, but somehow he remains less “other” as, say, James Bond, Indiana Jones or even Batman, with his defining qualities being ones that can be more easily assumed by fans than any of those other heroes.

Admittedly, yes, Doctor Who is a sci-fi show that deals with all manner of fantastical elements on weekly basis, but the lead character’s identifying characteristics remain theoretically attainable for the audience: Curiosity, good humor, and intelligence. That’s it; that’s what “makes” the Doctor. You can take him out of the TARDIS and strip him of his sonic screwdriver, and he remains just as heroic — and, arguably, just as potent a character — as he would be otherwise. He doesn’t need a lifetime of training, any life-changing tragedy or a particular ability (or superpower!) to do what he does. He just needs to have the right attitude.

This is also the purpose of the companion, to an extent — more often than not, they’re everyday characters like the viewers who survive and thrive through the storylines because of sharing the Doctor’s attitude towards everything: Ask questions, remain open to possibilities and don’t give in to your worst instincts.

That optimism and embrace of what could be out there — instead of treating the same with fear or suspicion — is what has kept Doctor Who alive in the hearts of fans and viewers for five decades now. What “The Day of the Doctor” did was to spotlight the kindness and possibility at the heart of the character, and reinforce what makes him at once so unique within the fictional space and so inspirational out here in the real world. Happy Birthday, Doctor. May you keep inspiring for another 50 years.

Work Not In Progress: The LEGO Movie

Another abandoned spec piece, on The LEGO Movie. This one wasn’t coming together either, and the more I think about it now, weeks after writing it, the more I think that I was writing out of my ass and didn’t have a real conclusion to build towards. Good thing I gave up.

In some ways, it’s difficult to parse the success of The LEGO Movie, especially after its surprise second weekend at the top of the U.S. box office despite high-profile competition from the remakes of About Last Night (A movie that should have benefited from its Valentine’s Day timing) and RoboCop.

On the one hand, it’s easy to be cynical and dismiss it as another case of a successful grab at a movie market fueled in large part by nostalgia for childhood things — LEGO, after all, is probably a more common and fondly-remembered part of many childhoods than comic book heroes like Iron Man or the toy-cartoon hybrids of Transformers and G.I. Joe (If nothing else, it’s arguably one of the few childhood brands to be given the big screen treatment that wasn’t primarily aimed at a male audience first time around).

And yet, there has to be more going on than just appealing to happy memories, doesn’t there? Don’t get me wrong; the movie shamelessly plays on nostalgia in very particular ways — the spaceman’s cracked helmet being my favorite of the small shout outs that has to be familiar to anyone familiar with that toy — but if all that was required to make a movie a smash hit was a basic recognition of a particular brand, Taylor Kitsch wouldn’t be bemoaning the decision to take a role in Battleship right now.

It helps that The LEGO Movie is also a good movie, something that Battleship could hardly claim. Then again, we all know by now that quality is rarely an indicator for success — insert your own “Best Movie Cruelly Shunned By Mainstream Audiences” here as proof. In fact, it’s arguably true that we’ve come to a point where the opposite is true, these days; that a good movie being a hit on the scale of LEGO is more of a surprise than the alternative. Our smashes are movies that we hope to enjoy, instead of love, to make a small but important distinction.

Begin the Begin

For no real reason whatsoever, here’s a pitch document that I sent to Time at the start of the month (Minus the pitch that was approved). This is the kind of format I work in for them, although it tends to evolve (I don’t always do pros and cons, for example).

– With Back to the Future being revived as a musical in London by the same producers as the Ghost revival/musical, a list suggesting other 1980s movies that are ready for musical revival (Short Circuit! Big! Cocoon!) with accompanying plot pitches and suggestions for song titles, show-stopping scenes/numbers, etc.
Pros: Fast piece, potential for nostalgic appeal.
Cons: Even if it ran on Tues (assuming approved today, written Mon), would that be too late for halo effect of announcement? Also, too niche?

– Op-ed about Sherlock’s season finale and fan-service in the new mainstream. For want of not spoiling the finale of the new Sherlock season (airing Sunday), there’s a lot of… pandering, perhaps, to those who have been paying very close attention to the season as a whole. This isn’t a new thing for Steven Moffat; his Doctor Who is built around the same model, with plots that require a lot of either close focus throughout or accepting that some things will have to be taken on trust in the finale. I’m stuck wondering whether this is the next generation of what could be called the Lost model of serialized TV: something that rewards obsessives, arguably alienates fans and builds brand loyalty through that very divide — creating a them and us mentality.
Pros: I don’t think people have really addressed this a lot, despite all the Sherlock attention?
Cons: Will people care about Sherlock post-end of S3?

– Related: Why aren’t people attacking Downton Abbey for being misogynistic this season? Are they, and I just haven’t seen it? The way the show writes its female characters is insane — Mary needs men to tell her to get past her grief, Anna gets raped and blames herself, etc. Consider this a stealth pitch, I guess.

[Approved Pitch Removed — but now you see how far down the list it was.]

– Tying in with LEGO movie (2/7), something about LEGO’s return to cultural currency? I feel like that’s happened through selling out, for want of a better way to put it — licensing outside properties and being adapted into video games and animation. LEGO isn’t really about, well, building blocks anymore — it’s a brand based on a visual aesthetic, the appeal of which is at least partially nostalgic. Is that sustainable?
Pros: Topical, something that I’m not sure is being talked about out there — again, unless I’m missing it — excuse to give overview of where LEGO is at right now as a brand/company
Cons: Too dry, perhaps? Do people care about LEGO as a company, especially when they could just watch Chris Pratt as a CGI blockhead?

The Previously Ill-Considered Importance of “Previously, On…”

This piece was written on spec for Time, and never used.

After finishing the second season premiere of House of Cards, two thoughts stuck in my head. The first was, of course, related to that thing that happens, the thing that those who’ve seen the episode will immediately know what I’m talking about without my having to spoil it for others here. The second was less obvious: I found myself missing the traditional television “Previously On…” recap at the start of the episode.

There are many reasons why such a recap is absent from the episode, and House of Cards and other Netflix shows in general. The most obvious is that the “binge-viewing” nature of the Netflix model would appear to make recaps unnecessary; more than likely, you’ve watched the previous episode(s) of the series so recently — perhaps even just seconds before the episode you’re watching next — that you don’t need anyone to remind you of the plot.

There’s also the fact that “Previously On…”s can be problematic in general; more often than not, they telegraph the events of what you’re about to watch when summarizing what’s come before. Whatever scenes are chosen to remind the viewer of past events offer hints at what’s about to unfold, especially if those scenes are less-than-obvious selections (Whenever a network show’s pre-episode recap features a guest-star who hasn’t been seen in a few weeks or longer, you can pretty much guarantee that they’re going to show up again within the hour). With the best of intentions, a poorly-constructed “Previously On…” montage can spoil what the episode ahead.

With both complaints in mind, the lack of a recap would appear to be a bonus. Finally, you might be thinking, I don’t have that problem of having to skip past the recap like I do when I was binge-watching The OC on DVD that time. And yet, without it, something seemed to be missing, somehow.

That “something” just might be context. The previous season of House of Cards started a little over eleven months ago, which on a regular television schedule wouldn’t be that big a deal; with an episode released weekly, we’d only have been looking at, what, an eight month gap between seasons? Surely that’s not that long to forget the various balls left in the air by the end of the season. Except, of course, House of Cards was purposefully designed to work outside of a regular television schedule, and for a large percentage of viewers, it’s been almost a year since Frank Underwood’s plans and schemes bore fruit.

When speeding through the first season of the show — or, even, the second season, once it gets going — the unforgiving pace and structure of House of Cards felt like a plus. It didn’t pander to viewers, or pause to offer exposition or explanation; instead, it pushed them to pay attention and keep up, safe in the knowledge that if they didn’t, they could always go back and rematch the episode to catch what they’d missed the first time around.

At the start of the second season, though, that unrelenting focus on forward momentum felt like a problem. I didn’t rewatch the first season before starting on the second, and as a result, I felt lost in certain scenes: Had I met this character before? Was this conversation referring to something I’d known or was it new information? What is going on here?

(That that particular feeling, that moment of concern and uncertainty about not being up-to-date with everything that was happening and temporarily lost in a world that was insular and uninviting, felt oddly appropriate maybe spoke a lot about the world which House of Cards is set inside, with all of the alliances and power plays that we’re not privy to. I doubt that such parallels between confused viewers and confused laymen to the political process is anything more than coincidence, however.)

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t remember the main points of the first year, but that I hadn’t remained as steeped in the minutae of the show as I had been during that first breathless binge watch. I could recognize Frank Underwood, Zoe Barnes and the rest of the main players; I could remember what had happened to Peter Russo. It was more a problem that I didn’t know whether or not I was supposed to recognize Jacqueline Sharp or not, and whether or not we’d previously known that the father of Gillian Cole’s unborn baby was a married man or not.

In Netflix’s defense, there is a special recap episode available for those looking to catch up. Perhaps the problem was that I didn’t realize quite how much I hadn’t remembered, or how unforgiving the first episode of the new season would be in terms of re-entry into the series and the world it takes place in. Throughout the whole episode, however, I remember thinking often that I wished there had been, just once, just for the start of the season, a “Previously On” to act as primer for what’s to come.

Perhaps some things from the old model of television are worth keeping, after all.

One More Thing

The first draft for a thing for Time that ended up being rewritten from scratch and, bizarrely, about an entirely different television show altogether (although, if/when it goes live, you will see mention of Columbo in there).

***

Somehow, more than four decades after the fact, I have become entirely addicted to Columbo.

It’s tempting to point to Netflix as being at least one of the causes for my current quasi-need to watch old, more-than-a-little hokey television crime shows made even before I was born. After all, if it wasn’t for their ease of availability — The first seven seasons of the show are right there for the streaming right now, each episode featuring at least one familiar face wildly protesting their innocence despite their being the guilty party — I doubt that I’d currently be in the predicament I’m in, spending at least a couple of evenings a week watching Peter Falk bumble his way through investigations.

Of course, Netflix has all manner of material on offer that I’ve yet to end up hopelessly hooked on, so I can’t throw all of the blame in that direction. I should also blame the Nerdist Writers Panel and whichever guest talked about the series in hushed, reverential tones (I’ve long forgotten, sadly). It was, she said, a great example of American Class War fiction, with the working man constantly unraveling schemes of those who consider themselves above not only the laws of the land, but morality itself. Hearing that description, how could I do anything but watch the pilot episode?

What I found when doing so was something that seemed so unusual and curious that I went into the second episode almost immediately after, thinking Well, they can’t keep this up all the time, only to find out that, not only can they, they do. The more episodes I watch — I’m midway through the third season already, appallingly — the more I marvel at the way in which Columbo is, in many ways, the murder mystery show that can’t quite help but contradict the genre over and over again.

Let’s start with the most obvious break from the norm: There is no mystery in this murder mystery, with each episode showing the murder in its opening act. That changes the shape of everything that follows in ways that aren’t even immediately apparent; not only is there no need for the viewer to try and guess the murderer’s identity, but showing the murderer and murderee interact straight away removes any need to waste any more time later on with exposition regarding motive. Furthermore, Columbo also does away with the traditional red herrings as the cops track down dead lead after dead lead, because again: We already know who did it, so why bother?

It’s also a show that happily ditches another important detective story tradition, by removing the cult of personality surrounding the detective. As viewers, we have no idea who Columbo is, any more than the murderers do. Sure, he talks about his home life a lot, but the one thing that the show makes clear over and over again is that Columbo will do or say anything to get people to lower their guard. For all we know, his wife is as fictitious as his bumbling persona and scatterbrained forgetfulness. We never go home with him after the case is over, so we have no proof about anything that he’s saying.

But how could we follow him home after the case is over when every episode ends with the arrest of the murderer? It’s a weird storytelling choice, and one that I keep coming back to again and again. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense — Each episode opens with the murder and closes with the murderer being discovered; there’s some sense of symmetry there– but, at the same time, the viewer is robbed a particular sense of closure as a result. No scenes of everyone else laughing and reassuring us that they’re going to be okay in this show; the bad guy gets caught, but everything else is left unknown and up to the viewers’ imaginations.

It all adds up to a show that should be cold and far less likable than it actually is. I find myself wondering, with increasing frequency, what Columbo would be like without Peter Falk in the title role, and suspect that the answer is “a show that would’ve been cancelled in its first season.” There’s so much about Columbo that pushes against everything that has been proven, over and over, to “work,” and yet it works nonetheless. There’s a lesson here that should be remembered by everyone in television: When you have someone so charismatic at the center of your work to win the audience over so effortlessly, it’s a license to play with everything else without anyone even noticing.

Things You Weren’t Supposed To See #23

It’s been a week for writing things and then starting over from scratch, for multiple reasons, and multiple projects — the sheer volume of material written that’ll never see the light of day this week is both staggering and ultimately depressing, considering the time wasted that it represents. Here’s the opening to a TIME piece that ended up being entirely re-written and re-positioned.

**

It’s been a very strange experience to watch the online anticipation to the final episode of Breaking Bad grow over the last few weeks as an outsider. At times, I’ve felt like a cultural anthropologist, studying fandom — and Breaking Bad has a very large, very active fandom judging by the online activity surrounding the show over the last few weeks; fandom isn’t just for nerd stuff, you know — as it’s become ever more obsessed and obsessive about each episode as we get closer to the end, and I’ve grown obsessed with the obsession being exposed.

I should rewind for a second and confess, with some small level of humiliation, that I’m not just slightly behind on Breaking Bad, I’m actually years behind — the perils of coming to the series significantly later than most, and still playing catch-up on Netflix. But that level of disconnect — not total, so I have some idea of what’s being discussed and who the main players are (for the most part), but enough that I don’t feel like I’m being told immediate spoilers for where I am in proceedings — feels strangely comfortable for the voyeuristic position that I’ve taken in regards to the mix of anticipation, fear and expectation about what the end will finally turn out to be.

A lot of what I’m seeing online is particularly familiar, as someone who was this plugged-in and excited about the finales of other recent shows on a popularity/obsessive level with Breaking Bad — I was one of those poor deluded fools who tried to convince themselves that the final episode of Battlestar Galactica was brave and meaningful, and not misguided and a narrative mess! — especially when it comes to the strongly-held belief that of course the final episode will be great and that there’s no chance whatsoever that it could disappoint longtime viewers at all.

That particular reassurance — one that seems to be as self-directed as it is outwardly directed, at times — is one that grows particularly brittle in times like this (I write this just days before Breaking Bad‘s finale); there’s an internal battle in fans’ minds between “Well, it’s been this good for so long, how could it make a misstep?” and “It’s been this good for so long, if it makes a misstep now, it’ll ruin everything retroactively” that manifests itself in this need to believe that following the show for all this time won’t end up being something that ends in disappointment.

Ahead of Schedule/Thinking of Scheduling

An odd day. Yesterday, I wrote a bunch; today, I wrote a lot of emails to set up things for later writing (A lot of invoicing, too; it is the last day of the month, after all). It’s probably a healthier thing to do, essentially take an admin day to map things out for the future (Interviews have been set up for tomorrow, potentially Thurs or Fri depending, and Monday, and plans made for things beyond that, too).

I’m still trying to settle into a new rhythm with the various things I’m doing now. I’m still writing for publication daily, with Newsarama and Digital Trends, but I’m also writing for future publication a lot more, with Time, Wired and – end of May release, and the first time I’ve said this publicly, I think? – Playboy magazine, and that part, the “I am writing longer things that aren’t immediate and short, but need research and interviews and reflection and everything” makes me nervous, still.

I mean, I’m still working and juggling and all, but there’s definitely a part of me that has a “You mean only two websites have content from me today? That’s lazy!” thing going on in my brain. I’m sick that way, I worry.

The Story That Never Ended

Somehow, I forgot today was Wednesday, which means I almost didn’t link you to my Time Entertainment piece for the week: High (Concept) Anxiety: Are Big Ideas Bad for TV?

This was the piece I was complaining about yesterday, the one that just felt as if it coming together on Monday; ironically, this ended up being a weird week for my editor at Time, leading to the rewrite process going all the way up to 8pm last night, which is unusually late for this kind of thing (There actually weren’t a lot of rewrites, it was just all happening later than usual), giving me a feeling of the whole thing just never, ever ending. Normally, I try to finish writing by 6 or 7pm at the latest (Hey, I start at 7am or so, don’t look at me that way) but this piece had ended up running past that two nights in a row, with me doing drafts and rewrites while on the couch in the living room with my laptop just because I couldn’t bear to be in my office any longer that day. I’m not sure if something you end up creating yourself can actually feel oppressive, but this definitely came close.

(For those curious: It was written with all the “fuck”s in there, and then had to be edited because that’s apparently a verboten word on Time.com. I can never quite understand language restrictions and what’s cool and what’s not; I don’t get why “shit” is allowed, but “fuck” isn’t, for example, but these are just the ways of the Internet world…)

Two For The Price of One

This is a screenshot from the front page of Time.com as I write these very words. Those two un-pixelated stories? They’re both by me; weirdly and somewhat wonderfully, I ended up doing two stories for Time this week (Yes, the Lucasfilm/Disney thing was a last-minute thing, because I journalist well at times, thank you very much) and they both ended up on the front page of Time.com. I swear, I’m almost getting good at this writer thing.

The stories can be found here (Disney/Lucasfilm) and here (Horror on Broadcast TV), respectively.