Thursday, July 22, 2010

Culture Shock 07.22.10: 'Doctor Who' season finale plays with time

I've been a "Doctor Who" fan ever since I discovered reruns of the original series on public television in the 1980s.

My first Doctor was Tom Baker — the fourth Doctor overall, and, with his floppy hat and absurdly long scarf, the most recognizable one, at least until BBC Wales revived the show in 2005 and David Tennant (the 10th Doctor) became an international celebrity.

Fans usually say your first Doctor is always your favorite, and Baker still occupies my personal top spot. But the new Doctor, Matt Smith, is quickly gaining ground. And no offense to the legions of Tennant fans, but Smith's first year as the 11th Doctor almost has me asking, "David who?"

For the first time since it returned after a 16-year hiatus, the show feels like old-school "Doctor Who," albeit with a faster pace and glossier production values. And Smith's odd, brilliant and eccentric interpretation of our wandering Time Lord is a big part of that.

Season 5 of the new "Doctor Who" concludes Saturday at 8 p.m. on BBC America with "The Big Bang," which finds our time-traveling hero trapped in an inescapable prison and his companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and River Song ("ER's" Alex Kingston) seemingly either dead or about to be. As far as cliffhangers go, that's pretty impressive. But for an extra inconvenience, the entire universe is about to cease ever having existed in the first place.

Or maybe it has already ceased existing. That's the problem with time travel. You're never sure when you are.

So, if you need to catch up, BBC America will also air the rest of season 5 during a marathon beginning at 8 a.m.

In the "The Big Bang," new producer and head writer Steven Moffat does what he does best, which is play with the concept of time travel. He's the one who put the term "timey wimey" into the geek lexicon with his season 3 "Doctor Who" story "Blink," where the Doctor uses it to explain unexplainable time paradoxes without really explaining them.

"The Big Bang" is all about the wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, even jumping back to episodes earlier in the season. For instance, how is the Doctor wearing his jacket in one scene in "Flesh and Stone" when he lost it earlier in the episode? Timey wimey.

For everyone wondering how "Doctor Who" would fare without Tennant and producer Russell T Davies, who oversaw the show's return from the mists of time, the answer is, just fine, thank you.

"The Big Bang" is the strongest finale since the program's return. And, top to bottom, season 5 ranks as possibly the best in the show's 47-year history. (The original series' season 14 with Baker and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, however, is also a contender for No. 1.)

For me, the highlight of Moffat's stories is the way he makes time itself an integral part of them. His "Doctor Who" isn't just a show about a character who travels through time. It's about playing with the idea of time.

Not everyone agrees with me. Charlie Jane Anders of writes that time travel has become an overused plot device. But I think it's about time "Doctor Who" started playing with time more often. The Doctor is a Time Lord. And even the original series was often at its best when time travel was a major plot point, for example in "City of Death" (another Fourth Doctor story), written by the legendary Douglas Adams ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy").

Moffat's most interesting timey wimey innovation is River Song, a future traveling companion of the Doctor's, whom he keeps meeting out of sequence, so she knows all about him, while he knows almost nothing about her. She keeps a diary, in which she has recorded the Doctor's future adventures, but she won't let him read it because it contains "spoilers."

As Doc Brown once told Marty McFly, you should never know too much about your own future.

But there's no need to panic. The Doctor's future is in good hands.

If only I had a time machine so I didn't have to wait until Christmas for the next episode.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Culture Shock 07.15.10: It's not just TV; it's cult TV

The distinction between "cult TV" and ordinary, run-of-the-mill, mainstream television is rapidly becoming hard to make.

Fan behavior once reserved for unabashedly cult programs like "Star Trek" now pops up even for what seem like decidedly mainstream shows. Ardent "Sex and the City" fans hold viewing parties, memorize trivia and learn to love cosmopolitans because they're Carrie Bradshaw's signature drink. Most of them do, however, draw the line at dressing like Carrie, whose unintentionally ironic lack of fashion sense makes even a typical Starfleet officer seem like a runway model.

On the other side of the ledger, cult TV shows are gaining followings that now extend well beyond their historic core audience of sci-fi geeks, animation fans and Britcom aficionados. (For you newbies, "Britcom" means "British comedy.")

"Lost," for example, dealt with such cult-TV subjects as time travel and parallel universes. Yet it garnered huge audiences for ABC, and its series finale provided heated water-cooler talk for the entire nation. The same goes for "Heroes" — at least during the first season, when it was still good. Before bad writing drove its audience away, "Heroes," a show all about comic-book iconography and characters with superpowers, was a mainstream hit.

Last year, I was in a local shopping center, minding my own business, when two teenage girls told me my "Doctor Who"-themed T-shirt was cool. That never would have happened 20 years ago. But now "Doctor Who," the dictionary definition of a cult show, is identifiable enough in America that it doesn't demand an explanation.

So, there are shows that are mainstream yet develop cult followings, and there are shows that are filled with cult-TV themes while still attracting millions of viewers. That makes it really difficult to determine what exactly is — and what isn't — cult TV nowadays.

That dilemma informs one chapter, titled "Mainstream Cult," of "The Cult TV Book: From ‘Star Trek' to ‘Dexter,' New Approaches to TV Outside of the Box." Edited by Stacey Abbott, the book is comprised of 26 chapters by different authors, writing about every facet of "cult television," plus case studies of various shows, from "Twin Peaks" and "The Prisoner" to "The Sopranos" and "South Park."

"The Cult TV Book" is good reading for fans of cult TV, as well as for anyone interested in where American pop culture now stands. But I won't try to recycle its conclusions here because I already have my own, which are deserving of their own cult following.

What makes a TV show a cult TV show? Is it the subject matter? Is it fan reaction? Is it having a small audience? Can a cult show have a large audience, just so long as a small portion of it is enthusiastic to the point of obsessive displays of devotion? Can I cram one more question into this paragraph?

Basically, any show, no matter how popular and regardless of its subject matter, can be a cult show if it has among its viewership a small, obsessive fan base. And there are more cult TV shows now than ever before simply because, between broadcast and cable, there are more shows than ever before. The only programs that can't be "cult" are popular reality and talent shows like "American Idol," because apparently everyone who watches them becomes obsessive.

Even the news can be cult TV, as anyone who has ever met deranged partisans of either Keith Olbermann or Glen Beck could tell you.

If a small group of people went to conventions dressed like Archie and Edith Bunker and traded tips about how to make scale replicas of Archie's easy chair, would "All in the Family" be cult TV? You know, it probably would.

But I'm not betting on any "All in the Family" conventions being held any time soon.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Culture Shock 07.08.10: Wonder Woman has woeful new wardrobe

One of the world's most recognizable fictional characters is now almost unrecognizable. Wonder Woman has received a makeover.

Her new costume, designed by artist Jim Lee, combines every fashion faux pas of the 1980s. Gone is Wonder Woman's iconic star-spangled one-piece. In its place, she is now wearing black leggings and a dark-blue jacket with shoulder pads.

Fox News pundits predictably complained that the new costume's lack of American flag elements was unpatriotic. (News flash: Wonder Woman is also a foreigner — an Amazon from an all-woman island, no less! — who worships Greek gods!)

This isn't Wonder Woman's first wardrobe malfunction. Still, the hype this time has reached all the way to CNN and the New York Times, which also made big deals out of the deaths of Superman (he got better), Batman (he wasn't really dead) and Captain America (he got better). In comic books, costume changes are like death. Rarely is either permanent, unless you're Batman's parents or Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. Even Wonder Woman has done the dead-and-back thing. Twice, at least.

Costume changes are common and fleeting. In the '90s, Superman briefly wore a hideous electric-blue unitard. He even sported a mullet for a while. Before that, Spider-Man ditched his red-and-blue long johns for a sleek black costume. But that lasted only until he realized the black costume was an extraterrestrial who wanted to kill him. (It's a long story.)

Wonder Woman's look has evolved over the years since her debut in the pages of All-Star Comics No. 8 in 1941. Originally, she wore a star-spangled skirt instead of the now-familiar trunks. And since the '40s, artists have made minor changes.

But Wonder Woman's costume remained basically the same until the late 1960s. Wonder Woman's circulation was down, so DC Comics looked to modernize the character and boost sales. Wonder Woman lost her powers and her costume. In their place, she picked up martial arts skills and some instantly dated, mod-style jumpsuits. She became a globe-trotting, Karate-kicking Emma Peel clone. The book's writer, Denny O'Neil, mistakenly thought this new Wonder Woman was a more "empowering" figure. But few agreed with him, and the mod Wonder Woman lasted just a couple of years before she returned to her classic look.

One of those who objected to O'Neil's revamp was Ms. Magazine's Gloria Steinem, who isn't wild about Wonder Woman's latest ensemble, either. But this time, she is more upset about changes to Wonder Woman's back-story.

Incoming writer J. Michael Straczynski has changed Wonder Woman's history so that the Amazons have been killed off and Wonder Woman is now a lone survivor forced to grow up on the grim and gritty streets of the big city. Basically, she's now a cross between Superman and Batman, which isn't exactly groundbreaking.

Steinem complained the whole thing "seems to be the brainstorming of a very limited group of brains." It also seems like desperation. DC's parent company, Warner Bros., has spent years trying to get a Wonder Woman movie into production. The new-look Wonder Woman with the grim-and-gritty origin looks like yet another attempt to jump-start a movie franchise.

If so, Warner Bros. has forgotten the lesson of Halle Berry's Catwoman movie: Don't make a film about a well-known character and then not have that character appear in any recognizable form.

Wonder Woman is an icon. Audiences aren't likely to accept a substitute. And Wonder Woman without the star-spangled swimsuit simply isn't Wonder Woman.

But don't get too worked up about it. It may take a year or two, but Wonder Woman will be back in her classic costume eventually. She's already come back from the dead.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Culture Shock 07.01.10: Forgotten movie sums up the gung-ho 1980s

It was the 1980s. Ronald Reagan was president. Sylvester Stallone was re-fighting — and winning — the Vietnam War. And high school students were fending off a Soviet invasion.

You didn't mess with America, and if you did, you were soon sorry. This was the era that spawned every Chuck Norris joke you've ever heard.

In the gung-ho decade of "Red Dawn" and "Invasion USA," a mullet and guns — lots of guns — were all you needed to take on the Forces of Evil. It was "morning in America," every day was the Fourth of July and Hollywood got busy settling the U.S. of A.'s old scores.
Sometimes the plots were, to be charitable, a little silly. But even for anyone who thought "Red Dawn" was a documentary from the future, there was one movie that made all the others seem sane. That movie was 1987's "Nightforce."

If you've never heard of "Nightforce," that's understandable. This straight-to-video action flick received most of its airplay on late-night cable TV. The VHS tape is long out of print, and it isn't a likely candidate for reissue on DVD. And that's a shame because while "Nightforce" is in no sense a good movie, it is bizarre artifact from a decade that now exists only as a target for jokes on VH1.

Here's the plot: Central American terrorists kidnap a U.S. senator's daughter, and for reasons that don't make any sense, especially because we're talking about a senator's daughter, the government is powerless to act. Meanwhile, the senator refuses to give in to the captors' demands because "we don't negotiate with terrorists."

It falls to the daughter's mullet-headed, polo-wearing college friends to come to the rescue. They load a jeep with automatic weapons and ammunition, then head south of the border on a rescue mission you just know is going to end with half of them dead. But one way or the other, they'll rescue the girl and shoot a bunch of foreigners, especially that one guy who looks like a burly Fidel Castro. He's a dead man.

There's also a subplot about said senator's daughter, Christy, getting married to some rich guy even though she's in love with the rich guy's younger brother. But as far as I can tell, the subplot is there mainly to justify the sex scene that occurs in the first 10 minutes. That's reason enough, come to think of it.

Amazingly, Christy's friends drive all the way to Central America without getting their throats slit.

They also have the good fortune to meet a friendly mercenary played by 1980s B-movie mainstay Richard Lynch, who gives them even more guns, plus some tactical support.

Most of "Nightforce's" (unintentional) entertainment value comes from its absurd script, but you can't discount the cast. Apart from Lynch, there's Linda Blair — smack in the middle of her post-"Exorcist" career's action movie phase — playing Christy's best friend and leading the rescue operation.

Then there's James Van Patten, son of "Eight is Enough" patriarch Dick Van Patten, as Steve, the younger brother/love interest. (Or is he the older brother? I honestly forgot.)

Somehow, Lynch spent a fair chuck of the 1980s dealing with Dick Van Patten's children. In "Nightforce," he tries to keep James from getting killed, while in 1985's "Cut and Run," he tries to kill Dick's TV son Willie Ames.

Lastly, there's Christy, played by Claudia Udy, best known for her title role in the Cinemax After Dark favorite "Joy," due on DVD later this month.

It almost goes without saying, but Udy spends most of the movie in various states of undress.

Basically, "Nightforce" is the sort of untrained-Americans-kick-butt-against-skilled-adversaries movie that could only have come out of the '80s, with just enough exploitation elements to keep late-night viewers awake.

For all of its schlock value, "Nightforce" says something about the prevailing attitude in America during the decade it was made. America was finally over its post-Vietnam funk and looking to kick butt.

How quaint those pre-Iraq, pre-Afghanistan days seem now.