Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Doctor is back, with a new companion and new threats

Doctor Who's return features the third incarnation of Clara Oswald, the reappearance of an old villain, and a dose of internet-age paranoia.

Jenna-Louise Coleman and Matt Smith in "The Bells of Saint John." Photo courtesy of

There is one genuinely horrifying moment in "The Bells of Saint John," the first episode of this half-season of Doctor Who. At the end of the hour, Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie), who is working for the Great Intelligence (who originally appeared way back in the era of the Second Doctor, and who returned as the villain behind the evil snowmen in this year's Christmas special) is abandoned by the Intelligence and told to erase knowledge of the Intelligence's existence from the minds of herself and her staff. In a wickedly clever, creepy image, Kizlet hits a "Restore Factory Settings" command on the iPad app she's been using to run the operation, leaving behind a room full of suddenly bewildered employees who have no idea how they got there. It's a funny stinger that turns tragic when the UNIT troops sent to assess the situation bust into her office, only to find the formerly powerful woman reduced to the intellectual level of a child who can't find her parents. The Intelligence has discarded her, just as it discarded Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), whose face and voice it now uses to communicate (apparently the show couldn't afford to retain Ian McKellen), in "The Snowmen," and the moment is sad and disturbing in equal measure.

The rest of "The Bells of Saint John" stays away from this kind of harrowing emotion, which is probably best for those of us still recovering from the events of "The Angels Take Manhattan." It's a generally light-hearted episode that serves primarily to re-introduce the audience to Jenna-Louise Coleman's new companion, Clara Oswald, and to establish Clara's relationship with the Doctor. The episode's actual plot, which involves uploading people's souls into the WiFi as food (or possibly pets) for the Great Intelligence, takes a backseat to the Doctor/Clara dynamic; the threat never seems terribly credible, and mostly serves as a platform for lots of Facebook and Twitter jokes. Not that I have a problem with these jokes; the way Matt Smith contemptuously enunciates "Twitter" is, and always has been, marvelous, and the scene in which Kizlet's second-in-command, Mahler (Robert Whitlock) realizes that every employee of their super-secret operation has posted their work information on Facebook is a brilliant little piece of comedy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

But is it "real" enough? Girls, The Wire and the authenticity obsession

Thinking about pop culture in terms of perceived authenticity can help explain reactions to everything from Girls to The Wire to Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway.

Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls; David Simon, creator of The Wire.

Steven Poole's recent, excellent piece on the authenticity fetish currently dominating the culture (published in The New Statesman) has some fascinating things to say about the way critics and the public at large value authenticity in their entertainment. Touching on reactions to Zero Dark Thirty, artisanal coffee shops and Beyonce's performance of the national anthem, Poole ultimately concludes that the search for authenticity in entertainment and consumer goods is a way for tastemakers to distinguish themselves from the huddled masses who enjoy such "inauthentic" entertainments as lip-synched performances and Argo:
The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that numberless faceless artisans have laboured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be “artisanal” and “independent”, the indolent demand for a pre-aged Stratocaster, or the hysterical suspicion that a singer might not have been working hard enough to entertain us. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.
 Of course, if you have a friend who prides himself on his consumption of only locally-grown, hand-picked food and micro-financed films shot on a vintage Super-8 camera (or if, god forbid, you are that friend), you were probably already aware of this phenomenon. Still, Poole's essay (which I highly encourage everyone to read - it meanders into existentialism a bit in the middle, talking about Sartre and "bad faith" and still manages to be worth your time) offers a useful starting point for a pop-culture discussion I've been wanting to have for a while, about perceived "realism" on film and television and the (often insane) reactions to that realism.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Game of Thrones season 3: who will live, who will die?

In preparation for the epic series' third season, I present a speculative list of the characters most likely to die, and those who stand the greatest chance of surviving the next ten episodes.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen; Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark
Game of Thrones has gained a reputation as a TV series that doesn't think twice about killing major characters, even when those characters happen to be the lead who was featured in all the promotional materials. The show's "no one is safe" sensibility makes it difficult (and irresistibly tempting) to predict who will be the next casualty. So just for fun, as a newbie who is unfamiliar with the books and therefore blissfully ignorant of the show's next painful twist, I offer up a list of the five characters most likely to follow Ned Stark into the next world, and the five who have the best shot of telling death, "Not today."

The Casualties

5. Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aiden Gillan)

King's Landing's very own Tommy Carcetti might seem like the consummate survivor; after all, he's the third-smartest character on the show (after Lord Varys and Tyrion), he's demonstrated his craftiness on multiple occasions, and he's always willing to double-cross the losing side (a.k.a., the dearly departed Ned Stark). However, Littlefinger's downfall might be his lust for power. While Lord Varys always manages to keep his ambition in check, Baelish is the sort to be cut down while reaching for the crown. Not to mention that he's now the Lord of Harrenhall, and that locale has never been kind to its owners.

4. Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen)

Now that Dany has a ship (not to mention some rapidly growing dragons), it seems that her return to Westeros is, if not exactly imminent, at least plausibly on the horizon. In spite of (or, rather, because of) Ser Jorah's love and loyalty when it comes to his Khaleesi, I don't see him ever making it back to Westeros. Love and loyalty are not the sorts of qualities that tend to get rewarded on Game of Thrones. Plus, back in Qarth, we met a cryptic masked woman who suggested that Ser Jorah may have betrayed the woman he loves. All signs point to an unhappy ending for Dany's white knight.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The six most awesome moments from Game of Thrones' third-season trailer

The trailer for Game of Thrones' third season is finally here, and boy is it amazing!

In no particular order, here are the six most awesome things contained in this clip:

  • Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) standing in front of (commanding?) a giant army. Time for the Mother of Dragons to do some serious ass-kicking.
  • Catelyn's (Michelle Fairley) line, "Show them how it feels to lose what they love." Season 3 is looking to be the season the ladies of GoT really get their bad-ass on.
  • Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson) line, "Everyone is mine to torment." It's nice to know that the show's most villainous villain has only gotten more evil over the hiatus. Everyone needs someone to hate, and that someone is Joffrey Baratheon.
  • "I'm going to light the biggest fire the North has ever seen!" Who else is excited for the introduction of Ciaran Hind's Mance Rayder?
  • The dragons are growing! And flying! And possibly lighting a whole bunch of shit on fire!
  • MS MR's awesome "Bones," which scores the trailer and which is my new favorite song. Between this and last year's epic "War is Coming" clip, which featured Florence + The Machine's "Seven Devils," I almost wish GoT used anachronistic pop music to score actual episodes (the key word being "almost").
UPDATE: There is now an extended version of the Season 3 trailer, and it is somehow even more badass than the first. Probably because of the dramatically increased presence of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), whose fall from grace at the end of the second season has done nothing to diminish his quips.