Friday, April 30, 2010

Batman Versus Doctor Who

No, not literally. (Although tell me that wouldn't be awesome. Perhaps the Pertwee Doctor? He could probably hold his own against Batman, he knows Venusian Aikido.) No, what I was referring to is that these are probably the two most prominent fictional characters who make a point of disliking guns. Other characters might not use them or carry them, but Batman and the Doctor are almost alone in very vocally disdaining them. (The only other that immediately comes to mind is MacGyver, who was of course created by a prominent Doctor Who writer, Terry Nation.)

Interestingly, neither one of them had their anti-firearm stance as part of their original character bible. Batman, of course, started out as a pistol-packing pulp hero, who notoriously gunned down his early opponents before Bob Kane and Bill Finger figured out that a) there's more money in being kid-friendly, and b) it's easier to write a continuing series if you don't keep killing off your best villains. The Doctor didn't start out with any particular opinion on guns one way or the other; he was an elderly inventor, an eccentric scientist with a brisk trade in improvised gizmos. It was only later, as he was put into a military setting, that his decision not to carry a gun became a character point instead of an afterthought. (Hmm, improvised gizmos, no guns...wonder where Terry Nation got the idea for MacGyver, exactly?)

So we have two characters who have a very similar aspect to their personality...except that they don't, do they? After all, the Doctor disdains beating people up pretty much in general. (Venusian Aikido notwithstanding.) He carries a screwdriver in his pockets--a tool, not a weapon. Batman, on the other hand, leaves the gun behind to carry weapons that he can apply with better precision and non-lethal force. He's more than happy to punch, kick, thump, and batter enemies into submission. He packs a Batarang, not a Bat-Screwdriver. (Except the Adam West Batman, who naturally packed both.)

So with that in mind, you'd think that it would be more shocking to see the Doctor pick up a gun, right? After all, he's the self-proclaimed "man of peace", the one who always gives his enemies the chance to surrender, the one who doesn't solve his problems with his fists. One would imagine that to see him pick up a gun and use it to solve his problems, well...that'd be a sign of a crisis so grave that it shakes his moral foundations to their very core, even more so than Batman (who, as mentioned, started off his career as a card-carrying NRA superhero.)

Except that both heroes have done exactly that, lately. First in 'The End of Time', then just this last week in Doctor Who (well, last week in week in, spoilers, okay?) the Doctor used a gun; and last year, Batman had a dramatic face-off against Darkseid that ended with him shooting the god in cold blood. Which was more out of character? Batman's shot, by far. The question is, why?

The answer can be found in their respective moral codes. It's actually a pretty interesting study in contrasts--Batman's moral code is very inflexible, the Doctor's...well, let's just say it's less so. Once Batman makes a decision (no killing, no guns) he holds himself to it with steely determination. The Doctor? He's against killing as a general rule, and he's always trying to find a non-violent solution...but when he comes up against an enemy that can only be stopped with lethal force, he's willing to use it. He's against guns, but not for the same reason as Batman--Bruce Wayne refuses to use guns because they're the cowardly instrument of death that wiped out two of the finest people he ever knew.

The Doctor doesn't carry a gun because he feels like they limit the mind. "If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail," as they say. If all you have is a gun, then you'll see every problem in terms of "What needs to be shot?" And when you come up against as many bullet-proof enemies as the Doctor, it can be downright suicidal if your first instinct is to reach for your gun. He doesn't carry one because it makes him tactically flexible, not because he hates the things. (Although he's not fond of them, either. But there's a difference between disliking guns and having a visceral hatred of them.)

So when the Doctor reaches for a gun, it means that the situation genuinely requires a gun. When Batman reaches for a gun, he's overcoming a lifetime of loathing and a traumatic association between the weapon and the man who used it to shatter his life forever. And that's why it will always be more dramatic to have Batman use a gun than the Doctor. Even though their philosophies seem alike on the surface, they really couldn't be more different. And despite the fact that Batman seems like the more violent character, it's really the Doctor who's willing to be more ruthless with his enemies.

(But tell me a team-up between them wouldn't be awesome. Batman and the Doctor fighting Ra's Al-Ghul and the Master? Oh, yeah.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stop a Limited, Specific Quantity of the Hate! (No, Not That Hate. The Other Hate.)

Television Without Pity has weighed in this week on the current season of The Amazing Race, providing a detailed and specific listing of why they hate it. (In handy slideshow format, no less.) Speaking as someone who has now full two-and-a-bit seasons of the show, and hence clearly an expert, I thought I'd weigh in on their weighing in. (I know, I've got strong opinions on The Amazing Race. I feel so bourgeois. But I'm stuck for topics this week, and it's either this or the NFL draft.)

Their first complaint, about the eating challenge in Leg Four, I'm going to rate as bogus. Yes, sauerkraut is arguably less disgusting than some of the things that contestants have had to eat in the past (I say arguably because I personally consider the stuff to be about as appetizing as toenail clippings, and would eat it only at gunpoint) but to me, the addition of a time limit makes it an innovative twist on the conventional eating challenge. (For those who missed the episode, you had to choke down a massive plate of the stuff in the amount of time it took a polka band to play "The Sauerkraut Polka." Didn't finish before the song ended? They refill your plate. So the more times you fail, the harder it gets.)

Their second complaint--that a disproportionate time was spent on the bizarre feud between Carol and Brandy and Brent and Caite--is absolutely true. Carol and Brandy were irritating and whiny, Caite was blatantly homophobic and trying to justify it with claims that "they were mean" to her (claims that relied pretty much entirely on a single incident that was relayed to her second-hand in Leg One) and in general, I do not watch The Amazing Race for interpersonal drama anyway. I watch it for the, y'know, racing. Every time they play up the "teams don't like each other" crap, I find myself wanting to fast-forward.

Their third complaint, that the cops are obnoxious catchphrase-spouting stereotypes that seem to be angling for a spin-off series--is true, but it hasn't really bothered me. But this is definitely the funniest complaint, and is worth reading simply for the humor value.

Their fourth complaint...seriously, Television Without Pity? "The cowboys have gotten lucky"? Seriously? Come freaking on. Every winning team gets a healthy dose of good luck to go with their good decisions. Remember when Tammy and Victor had the good luck to be stupid on the one leg where another couple missed their connecting flight and got there the next day? Or when the penultimate leg went through China, which gave them (the only team fluent in Chinese) a huge advantage? TAR is luck-based as well as skill-based. Get used to it.

Their fifth complaint...yes. "Mom-trepreneurs" was extraordinarily stupid. You had to put up with it for three episodes. Get over it.

Their sixth complaint was about the Blind U-Turn returning. (See my previous post on The Amazing Race for an explanation of how U-Turns work. Blind U-Turns work like that, except you don't have to let anyone know who it was that U-Turned.) This is a silly complaint to me, because a) Joe and Heidi did know who U-Turned them, because there were only two teams ahead of them and they got there less than ten seconds after the second team did, b) knowing who U-Turned them didn't help them, because they got eliminated by the U-Turn, and c) nobody else cared that they'd been U-Turned, because the only thing you care about when a U-Turn is used is, "Was it used on me?" If it wasn't, you're too busy thanking Fate to care about whichever team got hosed. This is not a game where long-term strategic alliances matter. The only way the "Blind/Non-Blind" option makes an actual difference is if 1) you U-Turn a team that survives the U-Turn, 2) it's not obvious to the other teams that you did it, and 3) you don't tell anyone. Since those are pretty unlikely, I say it doesn't matter. In fact, I think all U-Turns should be Blind, because as previously mentioned, I hate Drama, and anything that the actual producers use to "start shit" between two teams irritates the hell out of me. It's a game, not high school.

Their seventh complaint...yep. Brent and Caite are tremendously irritating on every level. No arguments there.

Their eighth complaint...again, yep. This season seems to have had a pretty weak field in general, with several teams that feel like they'd have been eliminated a long time ago if they'd been in any other group of racers. The fact that Jeff and Jordan lasted until Leg Six speaks volumes.

And finally, their ninth complaint--I honestly don't think that the drinking challenge was intended to be a major hurdle. (Teams had to share an oversized beer at a German bar. Actually, this one would have been a major hurdle for me, since I don't drink, and it was a similar problem for many teams. But I don't think that's "incompetence" on the part of the teams in question, like TVw/oP does.) But it wasn't a Road Block, it wasn't a Detour, it was just one of those little things they throw in to dick with the racers. I certainly don't think it qualifies as a reason to hate the season. (Certainly not as much as Brent and Caite do. Good Lord, if I have to hear her complaining about "the Lesbians" one more time...)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Personal Favorites: Vengeance on Varos

Some part of me feels a little guilty rhapsodizing about Doctor Who--after all, I've been a Doctor Who fan so long that I just assume that everyone already knows about every episode. I feel like I could almost just say, "Vengeance on Varos--pretty awesome, right?" and everyone would know what I was talking about.

But then I remember that not everyone comes to this blog through Doctor Who fandom. Some people might only have seen the new series, or not seen the show at all. So for those folks, let me sum up Vengeance on Varos for you a little bit better than, "pretty awesome, right?"

Vengeance on Varos is one of those stories that seems a little bit smarter every year. It's set on a mining colony (a staple of Doctor Who) that was originally a prison colony, a la Australia. There's a lot of social unrest, with the workers constantly in thrall to the "company store" (an off-planet mining consortium run by slimy aliens. The alien representative, Sil, is one of the series' few genuine special effects triumphs; the actor who played him, Nabil Shaban, was born without legs, and the costume is designed around that. There's a great scene where he's resting on a platform that you assume houses the actor, and then his manservants pick him up while he continues to talk and gesture.) As a gesture to ease the unrest, the ruling class televises the execution of prisoners in a grotesque form of reality television (a good decade or so before the term was coined.) Prisoners must run a demented obstacle course called "The Punishment Dome", with numerous fatal traps for the unwary. The audience delights in the spectacle of watching them match wits against the designers of the traps.

The Doctor and his companion, Peri, stumble into all this when the TARDIS malfunctions, and the Doctor needs the mineral Varos produces in order to restore it to working order. Of course, the TARDIS materializes square in the heart of the Punishment Dome, and to escape, the Doctor winds up assisting a group of rebels who are trying to overthrow the social order. There's lots of fun to be had with the metatextual layers of story; after all, we're watching the Doctor struggle for his life against the Dome, putting us in the position of the miners in a sense. (The ultimate example of this is the frankly brilliant cliff-hanger at the end of Part One. The Doctor has entered a virtual reality trap that convinces him he's dying of thirst in the middle of a trackless desert; his slow, agonizing struggles against the seamless illusion are contrasted with the TV execs cutting from camera to camera, finding the best angles to catch his death throes. He collapses, and the director says, "Perfect. And cut" And on cue, the end credits roll.)

In the end, this is probably the only Sixth Doctor story to really make good use of the era's strengths. The violence is grotesque and over-the-top, much like the rest of the Sixth Doctor's run, but here it seems genuinely disconcerting, instead of simply layered on for shock value. The Sixth Doctor is manic, unstable, self-righteous and arrogant, but he's fighting a system so obscene that his theatrical gestures (and nearly un-Doctorishness tendency towards violence) seem in keeping with the story. And the actors (particularly Martin Jarvis, playing an ineffectual governor who's trying to change the system from within) do real justice to the script. If you ever want to watch a Colin Baker story, but have been turned off by the reputation of his time as the Doctor, this one is the one to watch to get a real feel for the potential of what his era could have been.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Deliberate Trilogy: Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man

A while back, I posted a guest column on about the thematic linkages between late-70s sci-fi movies The Omega Man, Logan's Run, and Soylent Green. Someone posted in the comments section that they were actually hoping to see "the contrived and hilarious explanation of how these three movies were actually a trilogy."

To be honest, I just thought that was too obvious to post at first. Clearly, the radical overpopulation of Soylent Green eventually turns humanity into the breeding ground for a new supervirus, a radical plague that wipes out most of the human race and turns many of the rest into mutant vampire-like creatures. Only Charlton Heston, who narrowly survived his injury, escapes the plague's deadly effects. (Clearly, the fact that he has a different name and profession speaks to a fascinating "film between the films" showing his failed revolution and subsequent adoption of a new identity.)

At the end of The Omega Man, of course, Heston sacrifices his life to find a cure for the younger generation. He succeeds only too well--without an older generation to provide stability and tradition, the young people decide that there's no need for a post-thirty humanity, and they turn to scavenging pre-plague technology to create a futuristic Utopia for themselves. Which works fine, unless you decide to run.

And of course, somewhere above all the chaos, Bruce Dern silently watches and guards Earth's precious natural resources...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Surprise Cute Kid Story!

Well, first, "Surprise, cute kid!" story. I don't normally blog much about my personal life, because I'm actually pretty boring, but it's worth mentioning that my girlfriend will be moving in with me in a little less than two weeks. (Which may cause me to miss a few blog posts. Can't be helped, there will be a lot to get organized and unpacked et cetera.) It's also worth mentioning that she has an utterly adorable four-year-old daughter who I'm very happy to be raising alongside my girlfriend. (You may now "awww" or "ewww", depending on your child-friendliness.)

I've been doing shuttle service for the Kidlet these last few months to and from preschool as we prepare for the move...and today, I had a conversation with her so utterly brain-destroying that my girlfriend absolutely insisted I share it here.

It started pretty normally...well, as normally as these car conversations ever go. She was asking me where Mister Sun was. (Heavy rains this morning, very overcast day.) I told her he was hiding behind the clouds. She said, "Oh, but I like Mister Sun!"

"Yesterday, you told me you didn't like Mister Sun because he was shining in your eyes," I said. "Are you being fickle?" (I like to toss in vocabulary words in conversation with little kids. If they don't pick it up, you can always clarify. If you do, they've learned a new word!)

...this was where things got weird. Her response was, "Fickelson!"


"Fickelson! You be Fickelson!"

"..." I'm not going to represent the full length of my confused pause here, but it was a good 'un. "...Phil Mickelson?" I said at last, a blind stab in the dark.

"Yeah! You have to be Phil Mickelson!"

"The Phil Mickelson who won the green jacket on Sunday?" I asked, not really sure if she was really talking about Phil Mickelson or just agreeing with what I said.

"Yeah! You have to be Phil Mickelson and wear the green jacket to play miniature golf!" (She has played miniature golf in the past. Obviously, Phil just plays a very large version of miniature golf.)

"Okay," I said, willing to go along with make-believe as usual. (I have, at various times, been John Lennon, Bubbles and Buttercup simultaneously, and on more than one occasion, "a bad guy".)

"Phil Mickelson?" she asked. Once I had confirmed my new identity, she said, "Why do you wear the green jacket?"

I replied, hoping to teach her a new fact for the day, "Because that's what you wear when you win at the Master's."

"NO!" she shouted, very angrily. "No! The Master does not get to play miniature golf! Because he will static you!" (Yes, she's seen 'The End of Time'. When she saw that scene, she got visibly upset and insisted that the Master had just given the Doctor "a BAD touch!")

At this point, I'm trying hard to keep the car under control, let alone the conversation. I placated her by telling her the Master would not be allowed to play miniature golf, and she happily went along explaining how I could wear my green jacket and she could wear her purple dress and we could be the Prince and Princess of miniature golf.

So there you go. Phil Mickelson and the Master, dueling it out in miniature golf for the fate of the universe. Call me, Steven Moffat!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Basic Multiplayer Strategy (As Seen On 'The Amazing Race'!)

I don't normally talk much about 'The Amazing Race', because if it's a weekly play-by-play you want, the folks at TV Without Pity can do it better than I can. And if it's a sort of pithy "lessons learned" type of post, well...most of the time there's not a lot to learn from 'The Amazing Race', because unlike a lot of other reality shows, the strategy is pretty elementary. (This is because it's an actual competition, and not just an excuse to get people to bicker.) For the most part, you do the tasks as quickly as possible, you haul your butt from place to place, and you try not to do stupid things. There's not much opportunity to screw over other racers, and almost no deliberate opportunities to do so. (Stealing their taxi when yours drives off might be a cunning move, but it's not like you can set it up.)

But there's one big exception to that, and we saw a pretty significant example of it last night. The U-Turn is the one major, officially sanctioned "FUBAR another team" opportunity, available about twice a race and usually sufficient to knock whoever gets U-Turned out of the running. (For those of you who don't watch 'The Amazing Race'...every leg of the race, teams perform a Detour, a task they do together and must complete to move on. There are always two options for a Detour; teams choose which one to do, and can switch tasks with no penalty save the time they've already lost by trying the first task. If you get U-Turned, you must perform both options on the Detour before being allowed to move on. This is significant, especially since Detours are usually designed so that one option is easier than the other.)

(The option that is easier may not be the one that looks easier, which is where the fun starts.)

Last night, there were five teams remaining in the race. Jet and Cord, apparently their real names, had won three of the nine legs. Louie and Michael, two New York cops, had won three as well. Dan and Jordan, Brent and Caite, and Brandy and Carol, the three remaining teams, had not won a leg between them. Brent and Caite arrived at the U-Turn first (Dan and Jordan got to skip the Detour and the U-Turn by completing a special challenge called a Fast Forward) and U-Turned...

We'll pause here. Who would be the best to U-Turn, simply from the point of view of generic multiplayer gaming strategy? Obviously, it's between Louie and Michael, and Jet and Cord. Louie and Michael had made an informal alliance with Brent and Caite, which would ordinarily be a point in their favor...but this is the Amazing Race, and there really aren't many opportunities to help another team any more than there are to hinder them. However, it's worth remembering that Louie and Michael won their legs back-to-back-to-back, benefiting a little from the head start that the first team sometimes gets. Jet and Cord might be the stronger racers overall, and Brent and Caite knew that they were having difficulty with the Detour.

So who did Brent and Caite pick? Carol and Brandy. Why? Two reasons: One, Louie and Michael suggested it. They had insisted over the past several legs that Carol and Brandy were major threats and needed to be U-Turned at the next opportunity. And two, Caite heard from Dan and Jordan that Carol and Brandy made a disparaging remark about her in the airport on the first leg. (And dear god, just typing that sentence temporarily turned me into a twelve-year-old girl.)

Obviously, this is epic fail on everyone's part. To start with, Brent and Caite get a spectacular, multi-generational epic fail. We're talking the "Roots" of fail, here. What's the most elementary multiplayer strategy there is, the first thing you learn when playing a multiplayer game? If Player A says to you that Player B is a major threat and you need to help them out by devoting all your resources to knocking Player B out of the game, then if you listen to them, it is a virtual guarantee that the last thing you will see is Player A's smiling face as they take all the marbles. Brent and Caite got played like a harmonica.

And their second motive makes their first motive look downright smart. This is a race with a million dollar prize at the end, not junior high. You take out the racer with the best chance of beating you, not the one who was mean to you back in Los Angeles.

Which is not to say that Louie and Michael were brain trusts, here. Yes, they accomplished their primary goal--making sure that Brent and Caite never got to thinking about how much better their shot at winning would be if Louie and Michael weren't around anymore--but they had a chance to manipulate someone into taking out their biggest remaining threat, Jet and Cord, and instead they tricked them into getting rid of a team they'd beaten on four of the last five legs. Admittedly, Caite was more likely to listen to tales of how the mean lesbians said nasty things about her tiara, but still, when dealing with marks as gullible as those two, you can probably go for the gusto.

So now there are four teams. Soon there will be three, then one million dollar winner and two runner-ups. My guess? In three weeks' time, Brent and Caite and Louie and Michael will wish they'd U-Turned Jet and Cord when they had the chance.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

I Get Political Again

Some say it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Republicans say that it is actually better to wait until it's sunny and sell the entire candle supply for cheap while decrying the purchase of candles as another example of the previous administration's wasteful spending; then when it gets dark, blame the Democrats for the inadequate lighting conditions and insist on a free-market solution to the crisis. And by the way, they happen to know a dear friend and true patriot who recently obtained a supply of candles that he's willing to part with. Admittedly, he's asking quite a bit for them, but that's just the way it is, laws of supply and demand, and the government shouldn't be sticking its nose into what is at heart a strictly business proposition.

Oh, and if you think there's anything suspicious about the whole arrangement, you hate America and you want the darkness to win.

Monday, April 05, 2010

How Wrong Is This?

On a scale of, say, one to ten, how wrong is it that I'm envisioning a remake of Lillian Hellman's classic play, 'The Children's Hour', that updates it for modern audiences as a wacky romantic comedy? In my revised version, Mary Tilford tries to get revenge on two of her teachers by spreading rumors that they're having a lesbian affair with each other, only to have the whole thing backfire when the community comes together to protest the school board's treatment of them and insist that they be allowed to stay. (There would, of course, be a humorous scene where the school board president tries to explain that they never had any plans to fire them to begin with, but nobody listens to him because they're all too busy being outraged at his intolerance.)

At that point, the whole school becomes involved, using the two teachers as a model for their classroom activities about diversity and tolerance. Both teachers continue to insist that not only are they not a couple, they're not even lesbians, but everyone just assumes that this is just a fear of persecution, and all they need is more unconditional support from everyone before they can be comfortable enough with their sexuality to come out of the closet. Wacky hijinks ensue, until both of the teachers finally start to wonder if maybe everyone else sees something that they didn't...

I figure you slap Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About" over the trailer, cast Julia Stiles and Carey Mulligan as the teachers, and it's a guaranteed hit. (Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" playing over the end credits is optional.)

So, how wrong?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Isaac Newton, Trying To Come Up With Something Pithy

If I have seen further, it is only by wearing really good glasses.

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of werewolves.

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of dire badgers.

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. Specifically, titans. I don't think it would be ettins, because they're not that much bigger than humans...maybe frost giants, but I think they're all evil-alignment. Hold on, let me go get my Monster Manual...

If I have seen further, it is only by getting piggyback rides from other scientists. Wheeeeeeee!

If I have seen further, it is only because I'm a lot smarter than everyone else. Frankly, you're all a bunch of idiots compared to me!

If I have seen further, it has been despite my weird obsession with alchemy. What was up with that?

If I have seen further, it it is only by standing on the shoulders of archaeologists. Look! I'm eleven foot four! Today, I hear the robins, the dove is on the, who knows what life will bring? TODAY!

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the testicles of giants. Angry, screaming giants.

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. Do they still have giants in Fourth Edition? It was so lame that they got rid of gnomes. I had the coolest gnome illusionist, only she multi-classed into ranger so that she could use two daggers at once, and she had the Still Spell and Silent Spell feats, plus like a billion ranks in Concentration, so she could swordfight and cast illusions at the same time, and...hey, wait, come back!