Friday, September 20, 2013

Five Drastic Ways to Make Doctor Who Better

Thesis: Doctor Who is less exciting and enjoyable when the Doctor wins every single one of his battles, and when it isn't all about him. To make the show more dramatically compelling and less character-centric, he needs to lose occasionally. (And other stories.)

Solution #1: Blow up the Earth.

I've written before about the problem of stakes in Doctor Who. It's almost a given in new-Who that during garden-variety crises, somebody will be about to conquer or destroy the Earth; during season finales, it's the universe, or all of time and space, or whatever clever-sounding sobriquet the writers have thought up for today. This is supposed to add drama by raising the stakes, but it really lessens it because there's no way the Doctor is going to lose when there's so much to play for!

That's why Steven Moffat should actually blow up the Earth. Do it in the first episode of a season, do it in the last, in the middle, I don't care. Make us think it's another ho-hum alien invasion, like the attack of the Sontarans or the Silent Invasion, when everything looks bad but the Doctor finds the aliens' one secret weakness at the last moment... and then have the Doctor fail. Let the Earth actually be destroyed. And sit back and bask in the astounded screams of the faithful.

Think about the narrative possibilities this would open. Why did it happen? Who blew up the Earth, and how? What about the Companions' families back on the world—they'd actually have to work through a significant loss that can't be timed away. What about a permanent change in the Doctor's character that isn't gone before the next episode begins, when he's actually reminded that he's not infallible? And don't tell me it would take away from possibilities, either; just go to Earth's past, or another galaxy, or anywhere at all. Blowing up Earth would completely change the show in one episode and usher in a new era of Doctor Who—different, scary, better.

Solution #2: Change the Doctor's motivations.

No matter what the villain is, when the Doctor is pleading with the Monster of the Day not to destroy Earth (right before he blows them directly to hell, do not collect $200), he invariably throws in a line about the potential of humanity and our deep character flaws, yes, but also our essential goodness. It's pretty much the same from villain to villain, and it's always felt sort of tacked-on haphazardly. For example, while it may have been true of Tennant, it's hard to imagine Eccleston or Smith actually caring about the people of Earth. It's just not in their characters. Eccleston was an embittered veteran who was driven by grief and guilt, and Smith is a happy-go-lucky mad scientist cowboy who wants to explore. It just doesn't fit with those personalities.

Making the Doctor an asshole has been tried before, with the Sixth Doctor, with disastrous and stupid results. Don't do that. Just make him a guy who cares about winning, not saving lives. He can still defend humanity and defeat villains, but he does it because he wants to prove he's better than anyone else, not because he's got a thing for humanity. It would turn a character anachronism into a strength that could turn into stronger Companion-Doctor relationships, character development episodes, you name it.

Solution #3: Give the Doctor a foe worthy of him.

Like I said above, the Doctor has to lose occasionally. Thinking back throughout all of modern Who, I count really one time where the Doctor loses. “Midnight”, which also happens to be my favorite Who episode, is a terrific deconstruction of the Doctor's motivations, behavior, flaws and purpose that ends with him being utterly defeated by a monster uniquely capable of neutralizing his greatest weapons. It's a glorious, thrilling, terrifying episode, and it's also the only one of its kind. The Doctor winning all the time is boring. We expect that he's going to solve the mystery, defeat the villains, and set things to rights (perhaps with some collateral damage along the way, but most of the people usually live). Wouldn't it be more exciting if, rather than just magically winning every single battle, the Doctor fought a foe that was actually a challenge?

A revived Master would be a great foil for the Doctor, but he needs to win sometimes. A few months ago I was shocked to read a list of the worst Doctor Who villains that prominently included the Daleks. They're great enemies! They're iconic, implacable, devious and crazy! What's wrong with that? Well, they appear more frequently than any other foe, and therefore they've been defeated more times than anyone else, to the point where they're not even a thing worth fearing anymore. Want to put some punch back in the Daleks' step? Have them overrun a human colony on some desolate moon that the Doctor can't save. Show them breaking free from Skaro, fighting dissension in their ranks, killing people by accident in their new Doctor-less confusion. You could think of a million ways to make the Doctor's villains better, and most of them start with letting them win once in awhile.

Solution #4: Build a universe around the Doctor. Have recurring characters.

We're in the early stages of this one actually happening, but we need to go further. Part of the show's charm is its ability to go off and do a completely different thing with completely different people every single week if the writers want, and I'm not suggesting that that be taken away entirely. But the Doctor needs an establishment. Like it or not, there is only so much you can do with the Doctor, a couple of Companions, and a few family members back on Earth we see once or twice a season. The Victorian England bunch is a great start, but here's why it needs to go further.

Doctor Who would be better if it was a little more grounded. I get that it's a vehicle for science-magic-y stuff, and that the changes from week to week in era and technology and enemy mean that the writers can put basically any damn thing they want and get away with it. But you get to a point where all the threats out there and all the different technologies and time periods just get kind of overwhelming. Nothing really registers because anything is possible, and therefore we're not surprised or impressed when we see anything. One really good way to draw people into a TV show is by breaking your own rules (judiciously), but Doctor Who doesn't have many to break.

And plus, it'd just be better. Think about, say, “A Good Man Goes To War”. This goes along with #3, but the schmucks that he defeated that day—who were they? Did we ever hear of General Runaway again, or the headless monks or anyone else? Did it feel like he'd really expended any real effort to defeat this massive coalition drawn together from across time and space to stop him? Nobody, no and no! Wouldn't it have been better if we'd spent a while getting to know these people, establishing how good they are and how determined they are to defeat the Doctor, and then have the Doctor beat them anyway? That, at least to me, beats seven kinds of hell out of a bunch of khaki-clad nobodies who are less interesting than almost any other monster of the week. Give me background, and I'll give you a better show.

5. Solution #5: Everything so far leads to a more story-focused show, which has less character focus. That is a good thing. Do that.

Doctor Who, for the last few years, has been all about the characters. The overall storylines to each season are hiding behind the scenes (Bad Wolf, vanishing planets), unexplained until the end of the year (cracks in the walls) or what have you. The characters are what we see, what we fall in love (or hate) with, what absolutely drives the show. The plotlines, a.k.a. “What the hell is Moffat thinking?” are always a source of interest and debate, but the characters come first. And sometimes, they just suck.

There's no way to say this without coming off as an opinionated ass, but I've never had a problem with that before. River Song is not a compelling character to watch, in my opinion. Neither is Amy Pond. I don't like their acting, I don't like the way they're written, I think they're generally unexciting. Not bad, not good, just mediocre. But we're stuck with them for multiple seasons because the show is about watching the characters interact in weird situations, not watching characters play through a story arc. To put it another way, very few things influence the characters' (Doctor and Companions') decisions outside of the needs of the moment. There's no overarching plot that governs a season, and there should be.

It doesn't mean the end of character-centric play, either. Look at shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, which balanced excellent characterization with a general sense of where the story was going. Yeah, they could be tangled and convoluted, but they also had a general direction they were going in. Doctor Who could benefit from that. It would give the characters room to grow and develop in directions determined by the storyline, rather than fumble along from standalone episode to standalone episode all the time. (One thing I've noted for years is that any change or growth in the Doctor's character in particular usually lasts until the end of the episode, no longer. They rarely reference previous episodes by name, and rarer still by their behavior. This isn't a good thing.)

So what's my vision for Doctor Who? It's bold. It's unafraid to mess with your head. It builds a universe for the Doctor, gives him enemies to fight, establishes that he isn't invincible and in so doing, makes him more relatable. And it pumps up the stories, which despite Moffat's brilliance and incorrigible scheming, have been the weakest part of Doctor Who for a good long time. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

God of Ice, God of Fire (Game of Thrones)

I was thinking, on my way to work, about what Melisandre said about there being only two gods (in Book/Season 3). Instead of the Seven and the heart tree gods and the Drowned God and Tyrion’s god of tits and wine, she says there’s only two: the god of fire and the god of ice. Neither are particularly nice gods, but if you have to back one, you’re going to pick the god that allows people to live over the god whose servants kill and revive everybody to fight in their army, and probably wants to cover the whole world in ice because that’s just how those sorts of gods normally do.

Bolstering Melisandre’s claim, besides the fact that the Others exist and reanimate people, is her magic. We have seen the red priests do things that no other religion in Westeros has even come close to matching. They see the future in the flames (supposedly), they spawn shadow-babies (assuredly) and raise people from the dead (repeatedly). And there’s this interesting idea in this universe that their magic is of a particular kind, that asks the victim—not so much the user—to pay a part of his or her life as price. Melisandre gives up the baby, literally, but she’s otherwise unaffected; Stannis, whose life force she drew on twice, is guttered like a candle. He’s permanently depressed now. And Beric spoke of how it feels to come back each time—he loses a part of himself. We didn’t see him before, so it’s hard to really say, but I’m prepared to take his word for it. R’hllor’s magic is all about drawing from somebody to create these miracles.

And yet those are the key words: magic and miracles. Because if we’re taking these incredible events as substantiation for Melisandre’s claims, then we also have to ask: what about all the other spooky things we’ve seen happening around Westeros and Esteros lately? The lamb people reviving Drogo at the cost of Daenerys’s baby. The warlocks who conjure chains from thin air and live forever. Jaqen H’Gar changing his face. These are clearly magic, and there’s no visible connection to the fire god. So how do we know who to believe? If a red priest and a warlock had a chat, the priest might say “Here’s how it is. Your magic comes from the existence of the dragons. Dragons are creatures of fire, and their emergence into the world at this time when the great war is coming is clearly not a coincidence. They were brought here by R’hllor to fight the cold god. Your power comes from them, even if you got burned by them that time, which makes you servants of the Lord of Light.” And the warlock might say “No, no, you’ve got it all backwards. You couldn’t do any of this shit until the dragons came into the world, could you? They are the true source of all magic, fire and not-fire. Their presence is what allows you to perform your little rituals, and your red god is just another god.”

Who’s to say which is right? There is corroborating evidence for the priest’s point, which is that no other Westerosi religion has yet performed a verifiable miracle. Things like Cat praying for Jon to die and him getting sick and then her reversing course and praying for him to live and Jon subsequently surviving are great stories, but a skeptical nonbeliever would certainly wave them off as coincidence. But whether the red priests’ acts come from R’hllor or from the dragons is to explain them as a miracle or as magic, and that brings to mind some cool historical comparisons.

As best I understand it, in the Christian religion, the miracles of Jesus are not considered magic. Multiplying the loaves and fishes, healing the sick, rising from the dead, etc. are the power of God working through Jesus, not some warlock casting a spell. They’re divinely ordained events that occur because God wants to manifest his power in a way we can understand, and they come directly from Him. Magic, on the other hand, is drawn from other sources; Satan is the most recent, but before he was a thing, Christianity was trying to outshout the pre-Christian gods of pagan Europe by saying that their rituals and whatnot were just idolatry. The things they did weren’t miracles because only God could do those, and since He obviously didn’t give you permission, you’re committing blasphemy by defying him and turning to other powers. Miracles are thus understood to be different from magic, and they’re therefore okay for Christians; they were and are reputed to occur all the time at saints’ shrines, and even a garden-variety priest can perform the miracle of transubstantiation, and produce the body and blood of Christ out of some wine and a wafer. If it’s from God, it’s okay; if it’s from something else, like the lamb men’s death magic, it’s not okay.

This makes me wonder, by the way, what the historical Muslim perspective on miracles and magic has been. I’ve only ever read one biography of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which was written for Christian Westerners by a Westerner and takes a very secular view of things. Things that any Muslim believer would accept as a miracle, it sort of skirts around or explains away in other fashions, the better to not put off a suspicious Westerner. The one thing it can’t really explain away, though, is the miracle of the night journey. That’s when Muhammad is picked up and physically transported from Medina to Jerusalem, hundreds of miles away, and there ascends to heaven to meet with various prophets and finally God Himself.

Obviously this wasn’t a miracle witnessed by anybody except Muhammad, like his original visit from the Lord when he was meditating on his mountain. There are corroborative details, though, in an odd way: he said that while he was flying over the desert, he saw caravans and camels in the desert below, and predicted when he got back that they would arrive in Medina at such-and-such a time. Islamic tradition records that they did, and everyone was amazed and took that as proof of his journey. And you can explain that away any number of ways if you want, like he’d known about them in advance, or one of his friends had helpfully supplied the information, or he’d gotten one right by sheer luck and that sort of outshone the others that he’d missed, whatever whatever. But for a believer, it was more than enough. 

That would very clearly be a feat performed by God for Muhammad, like His decision to speak with Muhammad in the first place. Muhammad was very clear throughout his life that he himself was just a guy, and that God was doing all the hard work. So if miracles are allowed the way they are in the Judeo-Christian portion of the tradition, is magic outlawed in the same way? Djinni were an acknowledged part of the jahiliyyah, pre-Muhammad world, 

On the other hand, 

So are Melisandre’s rituals magical or miraculous? Is it only fire-based magic that works for R’hllor, or are all of the magical events in Westeros somehow connected to the fire god? Did the dragons appear to fight Melisandre’s war, or was that just coincidental? (And if so, where did Dany’s powers come from, anyway?)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Networking is Freaking Magic

I'd like to tell you a very short story.

Between January and August of this year, I submitted at least 150 job applications. About 50 of those came in February, and 100 more came over this summer. I applied to jobs on both coasts and in the middle, jobs with nonprofits, government agencies, corporations, Americorps affiliates, you name it.

This yielded me five interviews, two in person, one over Skype and two on the phone, none of which resulted in a job. One resulted in a flat-out lie about whether I was being considered for the position; that was McMaster-Carr. The others were polite, bland and fruitless.

I've always had a kind of instinctual aversion to networking, because I felt that it's another form of relying on others to do something I could do myself. Plus, the idea of yanking on my connection to someone else and producing a token never appealed to me. I wanted to make it on my own merits, not to get a job because my parents knew somebody or because my old boss did. That was my thought process.

After seven months of frustration, by pure chance, I was invited to a reception in Cleveland Heights for a local candidate for City Council (her name is Melissa Yasinow, and you should vote for her if you're eligible to do so) by the head of a young nonprofit who I'd just met for coffee. I accepted, went to the reception, met the candidate, met her brother through her, met the head of another local nonprofit—Global Cleveland—through the brother. The head, Joy Roller, asked me to come into the office to tell my story of why I'd come to Cleveland, and I accepted. When I got there three Mondays ago, she offered me a temporary job as their administrative assistant while they searched for a full-time candidate; because I'm good at what I do, I soon became the full-time candidate. Now I'm about to sign a contract that'll pay me an adult sum of money to do an adult job.

One hundred and fifty job applications, five interviews, no results.

One random connection, three sub-connections in a single night, and a great job three weeks later.

Networking. Freaking. Works.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

This Is How I Cook Caribbean Black Beans and Rice

  • Peppers are basted with olive oyl and in the oven. Now to start on the rice.
  • Water's on the stove. Time to chop some stuff while I wait for it to boil.
  • Aaaand my shorts are on backwards. This is a good start. I wondered where my pockets were...
  • Ack! The cheese fell out of the fridge and attacked me while I was getting the green pepper. Stupid cheese, you're not even a part of this recipe.
  • Rice is in! Stirring with my grandma's antique wooden spoon that has been passed down for three generations. I deem this dish worthy of its usage.
  • Using about twice as much green pepper as the recipe calls for, because I'm worth it.
  • (Also a bit more red pepper because I had this half a red pepper sitting in the back of the fridge that I forgot about, and it'd be a shame not to use it.)
  • I am rethinking that first decision. That's a shitload of pepper. Oh, well.
  • "Slice the garlic paper-thin with a paring knife." The hell is a paring knife? *Googles*
  • Wikipedia: "A small knife with a plain edge blade that is ideal for peeling." Well, all of our knives are either serrated or goddamn gigantic. Guess I'll make do.
    I rescued the rice from being Lawrence Welked in a sea of bubbles. Still a lot of water in there. Going to cook a bit more.

    Garlic's chopped. Thought process: "All right, paper thin... Well, for some very liberal definition of paper thin... Okay, I can make this work... Ah forget it WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK"
    Sweet mother of plants, this is so much more cilantro than I needed. The recipe calls for three tablespoons and there's like, a fern here.

    Time for another round with the world's shittiest can opener. Black beans, emerge!

    (Also: the "preparation time", meaning before things get into the slow cooker, is 30 minutes for this recipe. Considering that the red peppers have to be baked for an hour before they ever touch the slow cooker, I'm not sure the writers understand how time works.)

    Update: pepper's been ground, cilantro is ready, salt is ready. About to rinse the black beans. 
    (The beans: "BLORP".)
    Halfway through slicing up the peppers baked in oil. Heavens to Murgatroyd, these things are hard to cut.

    I love the SOUND that sautéeing vegetables makes. Just this wonderful crackling, hissing noise.

    Well, the green peppers are going to be a bit firm. I thought putting in the garlic for two minutes was a dumb idea, because it's gonna brown if you have it that long, and the fact that I chopped it up pretty small didn't help. I don't think it'll be that big a deal, though.

    Now comes the payoff, where I ADD ALL THE THINGS

    Cilantro: Bam! 
    Salt and pepper: Wham! Wham! Black beans coming down like an avalanche! Vinegar coming in! Hot sauce, co... hot sauuuuuce. Takes forever to get out of the bottle! Okay, here we go. Everything's in. Now we stir. Wait, I somehow almost forgot the rice. In you go, rice!

    (Update: It was delicious and I'm still eating it a week later. This went well.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Syria and the Expansion of Executive Authority

Just a little thing to keep in mind regarding Syria and armed intervention: 

President Obama said today that he would ask Congress for permission before going into Syria, although he maintained that he does not need to do so. That latter fact puts him in the category of every single president since Richard Nixon, all of whom have maintained that the 1973 War Powers Act--pretty much the only piece of legislation on the books, at least as far as I'm aware, that sets realistic limits on the power of the President to commit American troops to combat--is unconstitutional and we don't need it. (Presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, have usually ignored even that flimsy restraint without consequences.)

If you're concerned about the gradual accumulation of power by the executive branch, which has been happening essentially since the U.S. was created, that's a good place to start. Think about it for a second: Obama is maintaining that he has the power to make war upon a foreign country... and it is a war, if a small and one-sided one, euphemisms be damned... without the consent of Congress. Even though it says right there in the Constitution, in Article I, section 8, clause 11, that Congress shall have the power to declare war.

Any justification of that expansion of Presidential authority must inevitably come back to some form of the following argument: "Well, making war is a big deal. But little things like this, where we only kill a few thousand people while losing perhaps none of our own, that isn't a big deal. Congress doesn't even need to be consulted for something so minor."

You know why the power to make war is vested in the most fractious and squabbling branch of government? Because the founders, in my interpretation, set things up so that when the United States goes to war, there's supposed to be a really, really good reason. Like a "The survival of the country is at stake" kind of reason. This is not it. The most important thing we'll be defending is our credibility. Is that worth killing a few thousand people for? Is that worth making war over?

Coda: Chemical weapons aren't the reason, either. As we just found out, the U.S. is perfectly fine with letting an ally use chemical weapons if it serves our interests, and ignored Saddam's later use of them against his Kurdish population. The fact that we publicly said we didn't want them used is nothing more or less than a threat to our credibility. If the use of chemical weapons is so abhorrent and such a threat to people around the world, why is the United States's closest ally saying "I'm not going to get into that heaping pile of crazy?" Why hasn't the international community responded with something more than empty outrage? Because it doesn't matter. It's an atrocity whether the victims are being killed with bullets or with poison gas.

Again, think about this for a second. The best estimates are that more than one hundred thousand people had died in this war before chemical weapons were ever used, as far as we know. If the deaths of all those people didn't prompt an intervention, why is the use of poison gas going to do it? It's not like the people killed by gas are any more dead than the people blown up with explosives, or killed with knives, or guns, or anything else. The United States made a foreign policy choice not to get into the war when it began, and we've stuck to it for two years, because a) it's hard to see how intervention could end the war in a way that helps, and b) Syria is only marginally relevant to our national interests. The use of a new and different way of killing people does not change those reasons at all.