Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

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Book Review: Warlock by Andrew Cartmel


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
TitleWarlock
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Previously read by the same author: Through Time: An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who
Summary/Review:

Andrew Cartmel was the final script editor on the original run of Doctor Who on tv from 1987-1989, and is known for allegedly having a master plan for the Doctor’s story that would be revealed over time.  Interestingly, he never wrote a screenplay for a Doctor Who tv  screenplay, so it is in books that one gets to see how he’d tell a Doctor Who story.  And this one’s a doozy.

The Seventh Doctor is living in a cottage near Canterbury with Ace and Benny, using the cottage to carry out research while sending his companions on missions. Benny goes undercover with a top secret drug enforcement agency (called IDEA) in New York to find out about a mysterious new street drug called warlock, while Ace becomes involved in a pair of animal rights activists working to undermine animal testing at a nearby research facility.

What’s stands out about this book is that the Doctor is hardly involved in the story at all, and it can also go chapters at a time without checking in with Ace or Benny.  Full plotlines are carried out by the characters Cartmel invented for the story including the NYPD detective Creed, IDEA agents, the lab researchers conducting experiments, and a couple named Vincent and Justine who have psychic powers (and were introduced in an earlier Cartmel novel).  It’s a tightly-plotted crime drama with just hints of science fiction/fantasy underpinning.  There doesn’t even seem to be an extraterrestrial element unless you consider, …. well I won’t give away the ending, but readers will probably figure it out well before then.

The strangest thing about this book is that a reader with little to no knowledge of Doctor Who could pick it up and read it as a solid, standalone novel.  And it’s a strange book which includes things such as human consciousness entering animals, a woman suddenly forced into prostitution and just as quickly rescued, the complete destruction of Canterbury cathedral, and a couple sneaking into Buckingham Palace to have sex, and these are all relatively minor plot points.  Whatever you’re expecting from a Doctor Who story, this novel will defy expectations.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks


Author: Terrance Dicks
Title: Blood Harvest
Publication Info: Virgin (1994)
Summary/Review:

Terrance Dicks has a long association with Doctor Who, writing scripts for the 2nd to 5th Doctors, serving as script editor for 5 years, and writing 60 novelizations of TV stories as well as original New Adventures. He can always be counted on for a ripping yarn seeped in Doctor Who lore. This story sees the Doctor and Ace running a speakeasy in Chicago and rubbing shoulders with Al Capone. Meanwhile, Bernice is left on a planet with a medieval culture and an infestation of vampires, and ends up teaming up with Romana. On top of all of this, evil Time Lords are plotting against the Doctor.

The last two plots follow up on TV stories Dicks wrote, the 4th Doctor story “State of Decay” and “The Five Doctors” 20th anniversary special. With the multiple plots and heavy continuity, this book should be a mess, Dicks does a good job of alternating the first two plots while bringing them together with the third at the end.

That said the writing also reflects Dicks’ old-fashioned mentality and casual sexism. This works well in the first-person portions written from the point of view of a Chicago detective, Dekker, less so in the third person omniscient parts. He also repeats the unsettling idea from Timewyrm: Exodus of alien influence causing human violence. In the earlier book it was the Nazis, here it is Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Still, the Prohibition Chicago story is an entertaining read, and it’s fun to have Benny and Romana teaming up.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: The Highest Science by Gareth Roberts


Author: Gareth Roberts
Title: The Highest Science
Publication Info: London Bridge (1993)
Summary/Review:

This is the first published novel for Gareth Roberts who went on to write numerous Doctor Who books, audio dramas, comics, and episodes of the revived tv series and the Sarah Jane Adventures including “The Shakespeare Code,” “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” “The Lodger,” “Closing Time,” and “The Caretaker.”  His stories are known for being clever and funny. Unfortunately, Roberts has also revealed himself as a bigot who rants against LGBT people and I believe the BBC has rightly decided to not have him write for the show again.  If it’s any consolation I got this book second hand so he won’t get any royalties.

As to the book, it features the Seventh Doctor and companion Benny investigating a Fortean flicker, a temporal anomaly bringing together beings from different people from different times on one unremarkable planet.  This includes the Chelonians, a militaristic turtle-like species who clear planets of “infestations of humans,” a group of hippie-like individuals traveling to a music festival; people riding an English commuter train; and a galactic criminal traveling with a stolen organic intelligence called The Cell.  Without giving too much away, the book is largely a parody of the elaborate plots and schemes that the Seventh Doctor is known to create, with the twist of this time the Doctor failing to anticipate someone else’s scheme.  But is it worth it to have to keep up with so many different characters and their plotlines, especially since only some tie in with the conclusion while others are shaggy dog stories?

Rating: **

Previously Reviewed:

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)


TitleAvatar
Release Date: December 10, 2009
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment | Dune Entertainment | Ingenious Media
Summary/Review:

Avatar is a movie that has the unique distinction of being one of the top-grossing movies of all time while simultaneously being a movie that no one seems to like all that much.  I decided to finally watch it in small bits over five nights until I drifted off to sleep.  That I kept falling asleep during this movie is more of indication that I’m old and tired than that the movie is boring, but it should be noted that it is excessively long.

The gist of the movie if you’re not aware is that corporate interests from Earth want to exploit the natural resources of a moon called Pandora, but they find that the indigenous peoples, the Na’vi, in the way.  A team of biologists lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) negotiate with the Na’vi by genetically engineering Na’vi bodies which they control remotely through their minds.  The protagonist of the film is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled Marine who is called into use the avatar of his deceased twin brother.

The story has Sully gradually question his role in exploiting the Na’vi as he comes to learn more of their culture and falls in love with a female Na’vi named Neytiri.  It’s a message movie, but one that fails to hold the conviction of it’s messages (exploitation of indigenous people, imperialism, environmental destruction), and instead falls into tropes of the “white savior” complex and “explosions are cool.”

This is a very militaristic movie, and curiously the technology and behavior of the military forces in the movie are so similar to those depicted in Cameron’s Aliens, that I wonder if the two stories are set in the same universe.  There’s no subtly at all in this story, and in addition to the other “messages” in the movie the military are depicted basically reenacting atrocities from Vietnam and Iraq.

What stands out from this movie are the stunning visuals of the world of Pandora.  The movie is probably a bit better if I saw it in 3-D on a big screen as intended.  The best parts of the movie are when the narrative slows down and we the audience get to just explore the environment and learn about the Na’vi, even if these scenes add a lot to the movies length.  There weren’t Netflix series in 2009, but I kind of wonder if the whole story would’ve been more interesting if they had time to develop the world and characters rather than falling back on tired cliches to accompany the special effects. On the other hand, I’m not sure if Worthington’s acting would improve any.

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 14


Code Switch :: Location, Location, Location

The history of housing segregation and how it underlines every serious social issue in America today.

60 Second Science :: Old New England Underground May Be Spry after All

Uh-oh! Tectonic activity underneath New England!!!

AirSpace :: 2001: An AirSpace Odyssey

1968’s weirdest science fiction film and it’s long-lasting affect on the culture of space exploration.

Book Review: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken


AuthorAlexandra Bracken
TitleThe Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy: An Original Retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope
Narrator: Rebecca Soler, Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group , 2015
Summary/Review:

The is a new novelization of the  original Star Wars film adapted for younger audiences (albeit the original novelization is something I enjoyed as a kid and this is something I enjoy as an adult so those specifications are rather loose).  Bracken uses the movie script, the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, and her own imagination to retell Star Wars: A New Hope in three parts: first from Leia’s point of view from her capture by Vader to the destruction of Alderaan, the story picks up with Han from the cantina to their escape from the Death Star, and Luke holds the point of view for the final third of the movie.

Since everything is seen from the point of view of one of these three characters, scenes from the movie such as those involving R2-D2 and C-3PO and Darth Vader and other imperial leaders are left out, while the part of Luke’s story from the early part of the movie is only told in conversations and Luke’s memories.  But what is lost is made up for by the rich detail of each character’s inner life and perspectives, as well as scenes that aren’t in the movie (my favorite involves Luke going through an X-Wing simulator test with Wedge Antilles).

I can’t imagine that there are many people who would come to this book with no previous knowledge of Star Wars but I think it would be a treat for that reader, while stilling allowing a lot of surprises if they eventually see the movie.  The audiobook is enhanced by familiar John Williams music, sound effects, and voice acting by the narrators Soler and Thompson.  This would make an excellent accompaniment to a long family road trip.

Recommended books: Star Wars by George Lucas and Star Wars : Before the Awakening by George Rucka

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)


TitleStar Wars: The Last Jedi
Release Date: December 15, 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

This will be a spoiler-filled review, so consider yourself warned if that kind of thing troubles you.

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The Last Jedi is a movie that that defies all expectations a Star Wars film, or action-adventure films in general, deliberately undermining genre tropes again and again. Whatever movie you expected to see after watching The Force Awakens, or what you imagined about what would happen to the Rebellion after defeating the Empire when you watched the original trilogy when you were younger, or what you may have read in the extended universe books, or even what you saw in the trailer for The Last Jedi, this is not the movie you were expecting.

This movie feels like a spiritual sequel to Rogue One, as again and again we see people sacrifice themselves to save the Resistance, yet those sacrifices end up being ineffective and it is an open question whether the Resistance can survive the loss of so many lives. We see the Resistance begin with a large fleet and finish with just a handful of people aboard the Millennium Falcon. The First Order suffers heavy casualties too – losing Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma, and at least two enormous ships – but they seem unaffected, relentlessly continuing pursuit under the monomaniacal leadership of Kylo Ren.

The movie is steeped in failure.  Rey fails to convince Luke to join the Resistance.  Rey fails to convert Kylo Ren and Kylo Ren fails to convert Rey.  Vice Admiral Holdo, after being vindicated for her plan to rescue the fleet against the Poe’s mutiny, sees that plan fail too due to DJ’s treachery.  One of the major subplots of The Last Jedi, where Finn and Rose go to the casino at Canto Blight to get a codebreaker (and end up with DJ) turns out to be a MacGuffin ending in complete failure.  Albeit, the whole sequence is valuable because I live Finn and Rose and their blossoming friendship, and the scenes at Canto Blight introduce a part of the Star Wars galaxy we’ve never seen before, the disgusting inequality at the root of all these wars.  As Yoda says, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

While much of the ongoing saga of Star Wars is steeped in the greatness of the Jedi, and the Skywalker family in particular, as wielders of the force, this film challenges the notion of the great hero entirely. Kylo Ren bluntly informs Rey that she doesn’t come from anyone special, her parents were ordinary people, and I believe he’s telling the truth.  The most egregious flaw of The Phantom Menace, that certain people have midichlorians that make them more sensitive to the Force, is condemned as a heresy against the Force which flows throw all living beings.  Once again, Rogue One is the model here.  Success does not come from waiting for a great hero but by ordinary people working together. Even when Luke Skywalker finally makes his stand against Kylo Ren and the First Order forces, it is not the heroic moment we’re expecting. But it’s the heroic moment we need, as does the Resistance.  Rose Tico says it best “This is how we’ll win. Not fighting what we hate … saving what we love.”

If there’s one major flaw to this movie is that it runs too long.  Not that there’s anything I could suggest that could be cut out. It almost feels as if this story could be made into an entire tv series, expanding on the great characters and deep themes.

I’ll have to see The Last Jedi again – preferable when I’m not with children who need to visit the bathroom frequently – but I think this a movie that will reward repeat viewings.  I like a movie that makes me think, and The Last Jedi is an action-adventure space opera that deeply considers the realities of the human condition in an imaginary galaxy far, far away.  That, for me, is filmmaking that puts The Last Jedi among the best of Star Wars movies and the best of films.

Some stray things I loved/admired from The Last Jedi:

  • Chewbacca becoming the perfect father figure for Rey
  • Admiral Ackbar died tragically as result of … a trap
  • Rose Tico is no one’s depiction of an action hero, but she’s awesome in every way
  • R2-D2 guilt-tripping Luke with the old hologram of Leia
  • Sassy dead Yoda living up his afterlife by teasing Luke for his dramatics
  • Laura Dern as Admiral Hold is fascinating in a relatively brief appearance. In of the great ways that The Last Jedi undermines our expectations, we identify with the “hero” Poe in his mutiny against what we’re lead to believe is Holdo as Captain Queeg, only to realize with Poe that she was right all along
  • Another great misdirection is Supreme Commander Snoke, built up to be the next big bad, but ending up to be a deformed creature lounging in a Hugh Hefner robe who gets cut down in his arrogance.
  • Seeing Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the crack of Captain Phasma’s helmet just once before she plummeted to her death
  • The allusion to Hardware Wars. Just beautiful
  • There’s a lot of humor in this film that is not distracting but builds on the movies themes and characterization (unlike the cheap gags in the prequel trilogy)
  • Bite me, porg haters.  They’re hardly in the movie at all, and dammit they’re cute!
  • So many stunning visuals – Paige Tico in the bomber, Skellig Michael, Snoke’s chamber, the salt planet Crait
  • Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac all impressed in The Force Awakens and really knock it out of the park in The Last Jedi. One disappointment is that there’s very little time with Rey and Finn or Finn and Poe on screen together.  I hope the three of them get to team up for the next film
  • Luke and Leia’s reunion.  Perfect played and filmed.  It breaks my heart that neither Luke nor Leia will be in the next film (albeit Mark Hamill may return as a force ghost).
  • I don’t envy the filmmakers having to find someway to explain Leia’s absence in the next film. There doesn’t seem to be any good options that will be respectful to Carrie Fisher and Leia’s character.

Rating: ****1/2

Related posts:

 

Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley


AuthorDaniel O’Malley
TitleThe Rook
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC , 2012
Summary/Review:

This book was recommended to me as being something I might enjoy as a fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  While there are similar approaches to a detective novel with supernatural elements sprinkled with humor, I found this book darker and grimmer than anything Fforde has ever written.  The novel begins with a woman waking up in a park surrounded by dead bodies with no memory of who she is.  From letters she finds in her pockets and more letters found elsewhere, it is revealed that she is Myfanwy Thomas (or was Myfanwy Thomas, since the conceit of the book is that she is a new person born into an old body) and that she is part of a covert organization of people with superpowers who protect England from paranormal forces.  She holds the title of Rook in an organization based on chess pieces called the Checquy, hence the title of the book.

It turns out that the old Myfanwy was shy and obedient, but losing her memories has made her forget the traumas of her youth and more willing to explore using her powers to their full extent.  Thus, Myfanwy is set on finding the traitor in her organization who caused her amnesia while simultaneously dealing with the threat of the Grafters, a Belgian group that has learned how to augment and modify human bodies.

This is a very high-concept book, and I feel like at least the first third of the book is a slog because it’s mostly in the form of Myfanwy’s letter to herself that explain her past in a very tell, not show manner.  If you manage to  make it through that part of the book, though, the letters and Myfanwy’s present day adventures both get entertaining with a wry mix of humor, clever concepts, and gross outs.  There’s a sequel to the book I’ll check out, albeit I’m not rushing to get it right away.

Recommended books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Portable Door by Tom Holt, A Soul to Steal by Rob Blackwell,  Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket and Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
Rating: ***

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 7th


What I’m listening to and what you should be listening to.

Have You Heard? :: Divided by Design: Race, Neighborhoods, Wealth and Schools

A history of racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools that is still feeding inequality to this very day.

To the Best of Our Knowledge :: What is School For?

I was worried that this would be peppered with corporate reform ideology and myths, but actually has some interesting stories on teacher burnout, multicultural studies, and the importance of the humanities.

The Truth :: Brain Chemistry

A funny/poignant audio drama about the life of a brain in a jar in the future, starring Scott Adsit of 30 Rock.

Hit Parade :: The Great War Against the Single Edition

It’s a good thing that Hit Parade is published infrequently, because I think I’m going to post every episode here.  This is the story of how record companies from the 1960s to the 2000s tried to make people by the more expensive full albums in order to get a copy of a popular song.  Deeply fascinating, with lots of Casey Kassem cameos.

99% Invisible :: The Athletic Brassiere

The hidden story of the sports bra (nee, the “Jock Bra”) and how it helped transform women in sports.

Snap Judgment Presents: Spooked :: A Friend in the Forest 

The Snap Judgment spinoff podcasts tells creepy stories for the month of October, and this contemporary ghost story from Ireland is particularly eerie.

TV Review: Doctor Who (2017)


Title: Doctor Who
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 10
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The 10th series of Doctor Who includes several landmarks.  First, it is Peter Capaldi’s third and final series as The Doctor.  I’ve grown to love his performance and wish he could stick around for one more series.  Of course, I thought that about previous Doctors too, but Capaldi has joined the ranks of my favorite Doctors of all time.  Second, this is the sixth and final series for Steven Moffat as showrunner.  Moffat has been an innovator and changed Doctor Who for the future.  He does have a habit of repeating himself in his themes and ideas, though, so it may have been better if he’d finished a little earlier.  He apparently intended to leave after series 9 but was asked to do one more series, but oh wouldn’t Hell Bent been a story to go out on.   Nevertheless, series 10 shows that Moffat had a few more good story ideas left.  Third, the series sees the return of Matt Lucas as a full-time companion Nardole, a decision that seemed odd at first, but paid off across the season. Finally, this series introduced Pearl Mackie as the new companion, Bill.  As a young, working class woman of color and a lesbian, Bill is a unique character in Doctor Who history, and Mackie shined with her humor, intelligence, and clear chemistry with Capaldi.

Moffat stated that the season was a jumping on point for new viewers and the first four episodes followed a familiar pattern for new companions: meeting the Doctor in the first episode, traveling to the future in the second episode, an historical adventure in the third episode, and the supernatural intruding into the companion’s everyday life in contemporary times in the fourth episode.  All of this is undergirded by the mystery of what The Doctor is keeping in a vault underneath the university.  The middle four episodes took a huge left turn and were more reminiscent of highly experimental style of series 9.  First there was Oxygen, one of the standout episodes of the series that is a caustic critique of capitalism, and features a grave threat to Bill and The Doctor making a sacrifice.  This is followed by three episodes linked together as “The Monks Trilogy,” although each episode features a different screenwriter and director.  Moffat introduces a major new villain in the Monks but unfortunately they’re too reminiscent of previous villains the Silence and the Headless Monks.  The trilogy starts off well with Extremis which could easily be edited to make a stand alone episode, but there are diminishing returns in the ensuing two episodes.  There are good parts to each story, although I don’t know if it would be possible to pare it down to just one or two episodes instead of three. The final four episodes feature a couple of more episodes that fit more into the theme of Bill discovering the thrills of travel in time and space, while also incorporating Michelle Gomez Missy into the Tardis team (spoiler: she’s what was hidden in the vault).  The concluding two-part story World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is a tour-de-force that explores Missy’s efforts to try to be “good,” the return of John Simm as an earlier incarnation of the Master, and some extreme body horror in the form of the Mondasian Cybermen.  Capaldi, Gomez, Simm, and Mackie all put in a remarkable performance in a mindblowing and heartbreaking story.

The mid-season “Monks Trilogy” derail makes it hard to give the series as a whole top marks, but for the most part it’s some excellent television and a fitting finale to the Capaldi era.  Now Christmas needs to get here so we can say farewell to these characters and meet our first woman Doctor!

Below are links to my reviews of each episode from my Doctor Who sideblog on Tumblr:

  1.  The Pilot (7 of 10)
  2.  Smile (5 of 10)
  3.  Thin Ice (8 of 10)
  4.  Knock Knock (6 of 10)
  5. Oxygen (8 of 10)
  6. Extremis (8 of 10)
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World (6 of 10)
  8. The Lie of the Land (5 of 10)
  9. The Empress of Mars (7 of 10)
  10.  Eaters of Light (8 of 10)
  11. 12. World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (8 of 10)

A note on ratings:  A score of 5 is the baseline for a decent story from end to end with 10 being an all-time classic and 0 being an utter stinker.  Basically, any story rated 8-10 is a great story, 5-7 is good and worth watching, 2-4 has its moments but can be passed, and 0-1 is only for the Doctor Who completionist.

Book Review: Bitch Planet. Volume 1 Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson, and Taki Soma


AuthorKelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro (Artist.), Robert Wilson (Artist.), Taki Soma (Artist.)
TitleBitch Planet. Volume 1 Extraordinary Machine
Publication Info: Berkeley : Image Comics, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Writer Phillip Sandifer stated that this comic series is “most unapologetically social justice oriented book on the stands” so I thought I’d give it a try.  Bitch Planet is set in a future dystopia where noncompliant women are sent to a prison on another planet.  “Noncompliance” in this society is basically anything that doesn’t please men, so women who are angry, opinionated, independent, unattractive or overweight and attempt to control their sexual selves are the ones incarcerated.  In a lot of ways it builds on a tradition of feminist dystopia from The Stepford Wives to The Handmaid’s Tale.  The comic draws on the aesthetic of 1970s prison exploitation films and it is unsettling in its graphic depiction of violence.  It takes me a while to connect with characters in comics, but one who stands out is Penny.  Shortly after I finished reading this volume this comic was published in Unshelved which is a good introduction to the story.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008)


Title: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Release Date: 2008
Director:  Dave Filoni
Summary/Review:

Feeling all Star Wars-ish lately, I decided to watch this animated movie set in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  Obi Wan and Anakin are leading clone armies into battle against the separatists and have to negotiate a treaty with Jabba the Hutt and have a padawan Ahsoka Tano delivered into their midst.  The animation allows for visual sequences that might not be possible/plausible in a live-action film, although some of the battle sequences remind me of 1980s GI Joe or Transformers cartoons (which may be good or bad depending on how much you enjoyed them).  I thought that the character work was pretty strong especially the interactions between Obi Wan and Anakin and Anakin and Ahsoka.  Much better than in the prequel trilogy where characterization and development was given short shrift.  But really this movie is worth watching for the scene in which R2-D2 basically uses a Baby Bjorn to carry Jabba the Hutt’s son.

If that’s not weird enough, we also meet Ziro the Hutt, Jabba’s uncle who is coded as being fabulously gay with the voice of Truman Capote.  Padme is introduced late into the story, and while it’s good to see her, she is swiftly taken captive and doesn’t add much to the story.  But I found myself enjoying this movie despite myself.  I hear that the spinoff series is better, so I may give that a watch.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Return of the Jedi (1983)


Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  . People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.
Rating: *****

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Related Post: 38 Things About Me and Star Wars

Movie Review: Star Wars (1977)


Title:  Star Wars
Release Date: 1977
Director:   George Lucas
Summary/Review:
Rating: ****1/2

What can you say about this movie in 2016?  Most people know and love the movie and our popular culture is steeped in its motifs.  But this was the first time my children watched the movie and  the first time I’ve watched it in a long, long time (but still within this galaxy).  The kids generally claim not to like movies, but they liked this one and asked to watch it again, which is always a good sign.  I wonder what it’s like to watch Star Wars for the first time when it’s something that’s always been around and references are wound into our culture like mythology as opposed to when I was a child and it was brand new?  I was impressed that the movie holds up very well.  There are many things from the 70s, 80s, & 90s that seem to have dated much more than this.  Of course, I’m an old fuddy-duddy and prefer the somewhat slower pace and practical special effects of Star Wars to many of today’s blockbusters.  But really the stories and the characters are what made the movie what it is and what makes it persist.  So simple, rooted in older stories, yet so fresh and new at the same time.

Book Review: Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
Summary/Review:
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.

Rating: ***