Review: Doctor Who – The Thirteenth Doctor

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“It’s About Time” proclaimed the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who. It is of course a play on words as the Doctor travels throughout time and space but is also for the first time to be portrayed by a woman. The new season would also herald the departure of long time showrunner, Stephen Moffat and usher in a new showrunner and writers. They also made a conscious and public decision to use original stories without old villains returning such as the Daleks, or Cybermen. In a way, all those changes stacked the deck against them. Anytime there is a new Doctor there is some kind of resistance and with the decision to finally cast a woman in the role, the internet being what it is unleashed its army of trolls.

So is this the best that the Doctor has ever been? No, not really. But it has potential. Hopefully that potential gets realized in later seasons. Is it so bad that it killed your dog and you have to go John Wick on the producers? No, far from it. But it has had some freshman problems mostly in consistent writing. Rather than totally recap all episodes I’m going to go over some of the highs and lows of the season and my overall impressions of the new season and Doctor.

The season started off well enough with the introduction of the new Doctor and an ensemble cast of companions in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” There’s some regeneration confusion and head wonkiness on the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) part. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is a bus driver, married to Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandmother. There is a bit of distance between them as they are not really related. And Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is a young police officer who once went to school with Ryan. So not only are we introduced to a group of companions who are relatively ordinary people, there is no hint of them being anything other than that. None of the three seem to be a universe altering objects. Yes, I’m looking at you Bad Wolf, and Clara. They could be any of us just plucked from our mundane world into adventures through time and space.

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The second episode, “The Ghost Monument,” was still trying to find it’s legs for it’s ensemble and is not particularly remarkable as a Who episode. It’s just there. We do, however finally get to see the newly redesigned interior of the Tardis.

I’ve already heaped my praise in a specific episode review of “Rosa.” It still stands as the highlight episode of the season. Looking back on it it, I think it will be considered one of the best episodes of the modern era. It is a shame, however, that they followed such a well-rounded episode with “Arachnids in the UK.”  Slightly above mediocre only because of the guest appearance of Chris Noth or Law and Order fame. The episode after, “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” was more or less a bottle episode where the Doctor and team must avert disaster on a hospital ship. Some interesting moments and here and there, plus one incredibly cute monster that eats everything. But it’s still not as cute as an Adipose. It’s a straight forward Doctor Who episode with some decent science fiction elements.

Going again into the past, “Demons of the Punjab” feels almost like a spiritual successor to the excellent Rose-centric “Father’s Day” episode. Yaz not only explores her family’s past but along with the rest of the Tardis gang explores the very bloody day of Partition Day, when India and Pakistan split into two nations. There  was a little bit of hand holding for “Rosa,” for European audiences, but Partition Day seems very much a part of British history and its repercussions are still felt today. Like Rosa, it presents a set moment in time which can not be interfered with by the Doctor and her companions. And for Yaz, making sure history plays out as it is supposed to is personal. Like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab” also has them be a part of that history as well. It addresses the often paradoxical appearance of time travelers as not just participants but as part of the history itself. In the end, it is implied that they were always there as part of history. After “Rosa” this is my favorite episode because it deals with drama that is grounded and relatable. It also has some nice interactions with Yaz’s family.

I think that after “Demons of the Punjab,” the series starts to gain its full legs. The writing is sharper. After a rather amusing episode called “Kerblam,” a little lark taking a few stabs at Amazon shipping and their warehouses, we get “The Witchfinders.” It’s a well done monster episode, also taking place in the past, this time where the Tardis team gets to actually change a few things. They are in a period where suspected witches are persecuted and even King James I makes an appearance for good measure. It is also the first time that sexism actually becomes an issue since King James does not believe in the Doctor’s authority with her usual magic ID papers. Graham, as the older white male, ends up playing the role of Witchfinder General, a sort of bigshot inquisitor who hunts witches.

The character interactions evolve more especially between Ryan and Graham in the surreal “It Takes You Away.” Ryan has father issues from his father not being around especially after the death of his mother. He is also a bit resentful of Graham marrying his grandmother not because of race, but because he is trying to be a father figure to Ryan. Graham, himself has had trouble coming to grips with the death of his wife, Grace who we last saw in the first episode of the season. It is ultimately an episode about loss of those whom we love and how we so often wish they were back with us. It’s deals with those last vestiges of grief, the final goodbyes that many of us wish we had.

The season closes out with “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” a mouthful of words for a fairly decent episode where we come full circle and are confronted with the return of the villain from the first episode., Tzim-Sha. The Doctor just calls him Tim Shaw. Tim Shaw makes for menacing enough monster though a bit generic. The science fiction elements of it are rather interesting with the incredibly powerful and religious Ux. Graham seems to complete his character arc of the season as he starts out by saying that he intends to kill Tim Shaw the first chance he gets. He eventually is the one that makes a choice in what sort of justice must be served.

Now it has become a bit of a tradition in modern Who to have a Christmas Special. So not surprisingly many fans were upset that they did a New Year Special instead. Give me a break, people. Find something else to complain about. The special, “Resolution,” brings in a new year and an old villain. No surprise it’s a Dalek. Apparently a scout Dalek that was defeated in the 9th Century resurrects and is trying to communicate to the fleet. The Doctor and team try to stop it. It works really well as a Dalek episode. For half the episode, it is in its flesh gob form and is controlling a human’s mind and body which is something new and unnerving at the same time. It’s mechanical body is a bit more imposing, not as sleek as modern ones, as it is cobbled together from whatever it can get. The special also features an appearance by Ryan’s father in which we get some closure on the character arc of Ryan.

Right up front, Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor and her new companions have a great dynamic together and chemistry. Also instead of waiting around always parroting,”Don’t worry, the Doctor will save us,” they work as a team or “fam” as the Doctor sometimes calls them. There is a deliberate emphasis on character development for the season which allows us to get to know them not only as empty cups to be filled by whatever the showrunners feel like making them from week to week. The companions, as I’ve said, up until meeting the Doctor have led fairly mundane lives, but the call to adventure and to make some sort of difference in the universe is very convincing.

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Jodie Whittaker brings delight to the show and a sense of wonderment as well. That is something that has been lacking lately.  As we go on this journey with her, we experience that joy as well. Sure there is danger but there is good in what she does, and it looks like she is having fun doing it. For the most part, anyway. Exception given for Daleks.

The episodic nature of the season does away with seasonal story arcs of the past and for the most part it works. But it’s a double-edged sword. Episodes are wrapped up neatly at the end and sometimes the writing shows that a nice tidy conclusion must happen, and it must happen quickly. It is very opposite of the Moffat era of convoluted season arcs and breadcrumbs of plot clues. Ultimately a few episodes have plot threads that were introduced into an episode dangling or uncluded by the end of that episode.

The shortened 10 episode season did not help the new Doctor much either. Any new regeneration will need a few episodes to get its legs. By the time the season becomes comfortable it is almost half over. And I can see why some see so many shortcomings of the show.

And I must say that as much as I appreciated Murray Gold’s music for the last 10 seasons of Doctor Who, I am quite impressed with the music from the new composer Segun Akenola. His title theme is a bit more evocative of the classic theme than the last few seasons. And although it is probably not the choice of the composer, for years I’ve disliked the sound mix of overly dramatic music drowning out dialogue.

The bottom line is Jodie Whittaker makes a fine Doctor and her companions are very down to earth and relatable. I have high hopes for some improvements next season and I’m looking forward to a few more seasons of her and her fam.

Trivia

I believe Yasmin Khan is the Doctor’s first Asian companion. While checking that, I came upon another Yasmin Khan:

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Crunchyroll Expo 2018

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For those who are not familiar with Crunchyroll and it’s service, it is probably the largest provider of anime streaming content on the Internet. Through mobile and console apps via Roku, Amazon Fire, Playstation and XBox, they have grown very popular as the default service for licensed legally available anime. One of the pluses is their licensing deals with Japanese studios to allow simulcasts of current anime seasons. That means as an episode airs in Japan, it is streamed online with subtitles that same day.

In 2017, Crunchyroll had their first Crunchyroll Expo (CRX for short) at the Santa Clara Convention Center. It was quite a good turnout as a medium-sized convention, Not San Diego Comic-Con numbers, and that is a good thing. This year, CRX was held in San Jose, a larger venue and at least as big a crowd if not bigger. To be fair SacAnime was also going on in Sacramento and the behemoth of Dragon Con was also going in in Atlanta.

CRX differs a few ways from other anime conventions in that since it is run by a specific company there is of course bias towards Crunchyroll and it’s content. If you’ve ever been to Sony’s PSX, then this might sound familiar. Fortunately, Crunchyroll has enough content worth running a convention over.

The exhibit hall of the convention center had much to offer, including food from outside vendors whose menus included katsu curry sandwiches, takoyaki, and what has become a mainstay at geeky conventions in San Jose’s convention center, Psycho Donuts.

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In addition to the main hall being a vendors room where you can get all sorts of anime related merchandise from blu-rays to cosplay wigs, figures, plushies and even body pillows, there  was an extensive artists area. This artist area is a great place for finding art prints, postcards, even crochet. And to me the examples of creativity is really well represented in anime conventions.

This year, there were quite a few premiers and retrospective screenings of anime films all throughout the day. GKids, which is celebrating its 10 anniversary, brought in their library of Studio Ghibli films and even their Irish import, The Secret of Kells.  A major stand out for me was the premier of the English dub of Maquia. It had previously made the rounds in limited release subtitled and is now about to make the rounds again dubbed. If you get a chance to see this in the theater do so — and call your mother. Seriously, you’ll want to. It is truly a beautifully animated film that is also incredibly emotional as well.

Another premier was for a new anime about to make the rounds called Penguin Highway. It’s quite a charming and at times surreal film about youth, inquisitiveness, and of course penguins. I’m a sucker for pengins already adn penguins in anime will score huge points from me.

Both films came courtesy of Eleven Arts Studio which was responsible for bringing over the truly remarkable film A Silent Voice — which , by the way, still doesn’t have a North American home video release. I had to import the Region B UK blu-ray. Luckily I had a blu-ray player that can switch regions. More in-depth reviews of both films are forthcoming.

One new upcoming show I got to see was the premier of The Rise of the Shield Hero coming in January to Crunchyroll. Yes it’s yet another Isekai anime, a genre where a protagonist is brought out of their regular mundane world and transported to a fantasy RPG like world. And frankly for the first half of the premier episode I was cynical, but after a twist it does become very interesting and becomes a little darker. I’ll be looking forward to where they go with this in January. Meanwhile there have been several light novels and manga already translated and available already.

Of course, as with most anime conventions, there are guests. One of the most popular animes right now is My Hero Academia, an anime that is heavily influenced by Western super-hero comics. So it’s no wonder that it has a cross appeal not just because its influences but because it’s a darn good show. In my opinion it is also a show that is very well done in the English dub and several of the English voice actors were on hand having fun swapping their roles from several scenes from the show.

Crunchyroll was just recently acquired by AT&T and I don’t know how that will effect the service going forward and also the future of any more Expos. But if AT&T were smart and cared (seriously, I doubt that from my experience) they will grow and continue on with CRX. So until next year — hopefully…

My Reflections on The 2018 Hugos

The Hugo awards, probably the most prestigious award of the science fiction and fantasy community were handed out on August 19th at Worldcon 76 in San Jose. Now this was the second Worldcon I had ever been to but this first one I voted on.

So when you sign up as a member of Worldcon, you are eligible to nominate and vote on the Hugos. I did not participate in the nominating process. And a good thing too. Apparently all the books I read in 2017 were not published in 2017, except for one.

When the Hugo nominations came out I was not prepared for the fact that I did not read a single one of the novels on the list, nor any of the novellas, let alone novelettes or short stories. I did manage to see all the movies nominated which were under the category of “Dramatic Presentation Long Form.” So yay for having the time to watch a bunch of nerd movies and no time to read? No? I guess not.

There was of course no way that I was going to read all the works nominated. There was even a Best Series category. So I set out the goal of reading all the novels, six in total. And maybe the novellas as they were relatively short.

Little did I know, there is such a thing as a Hugo Packet. Much like how around awards season, studios provide screener copies of their movies for review and voting thus becomes easier. Yeah, I found out about this late.

Oh, and the votes are ranked voting, so out of six nominees, you are supposed to rank your 1st place to 6th place choice for winner.

Come the night of the Hugos and the show went on. My friends Veronica Belmont and Tom Merrit lost in the Best Fancast category for their show The Sword and Laser to the Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace hosted Ditch Diggers podcast.  It’s Tom and Veronica’s first of hopefully many Hugo nominations.

Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for New Writer went to Rebecca Roanhorse. “So listen, y’all a Black and Indigenous woman just won the Campbell award,” she said to applause. Though I have not read her debut novel Trail of Lightning, I did read her short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” which by the way also won the Hugo award for best short story.

Winner of the Best Graphic Story went to Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood. Written by Marjorie M. Liu with art by Sana Takeda. This is the second year in a row of winning for them. It’s a really well done graphic novel series. Very mature, often graphic. But yet beautifully drawn as well. Sana Takeda also won the award for Best Professional Artist.

The winner of the Best Editor Long Form went to Sheila E. Gilbert. Now this is one of those categories that I know next to nothing about but they are responsible for editing many of our favorite novels. Here, I would probably shut down and look at my phone, then Ms. Grant closed with this statement:

I’d just like to add one more thing this year. We find ourselves living in a terrifying dystopian reality. If someone had submitted this as a novel to me, I would have turned it down as way too improbable. But if this had been a novel instead of 21st century America, I could have at least edited and improved the situation. The only way that we can all do that now is to exercise our right to vote. If you can vote in the Hugos, you can vote in the midterm elections. Vote to change the present. Vote to save the future. Go out and vote and get everyone you know to do the same. Thank you all very much.

Truly, to me the highlight of the night went to N.K. Jemisin who is the breaker of records. Not only is she the first African American woman to win the Hugo back in 2015, but she has won it three years in a row. No author has done it three years in a row. She won in 2015, thwarting the efforts of the Puppies movement. Her first win was for The Fifth Season, followed by The Obelisk Gate, and she pulled off the trifecta this year with the final book in the trilogy, The Stone Sky. Now some of those sad and rabid puppies may have cried tokenism and not earning her Hugo, Ms. Jemisin had a message for them:

And yes, there will be naysayers. I know that I am here on this stage, accepting this award, for pretty much the same reason as every previous Best Novel winner: because I worked my ass off. I have poured my pain onto paper when I could not afford therapy. I have studied works of literature that range widely and dig deeply, to learn what I could and refine my voice. I have written a Million Words of Crap and probably a Million More of Meh…But this is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers—every single mediocre insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, that when they win it it’s meritocracy but when we win it it’s “identity politics” — I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger in their direction.

The full video of her speech is below:

And the full text is available here.

The Hugos are a way for us, readers to acknowledge great accomplishments. And this was a tough field to vote on. I regret not being able to vote in as many categories as I could, but I am glad I was able to participate.

For a full list of nominees and winners. The San Jose Mercury News, Newspaper for the host city has a fill list of nominees and winners here.

Until next year, Worldcon. I won’t be in Dublin, but I’ll be sure to vote again next year. And hopefully I will be reading more.

Harry Potter and the Brisket of Beef

So a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending LeakyCon 2018 a Harry Potter Convention. It was in Dallas  Texas and since it was in the middle of August it was muggy, and it was rainy, actually. So of course with tradition among all convention centers, the air conditioning was turned to about 60 degrees inside while it was in the 90s outside.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, when you find yourself in Texas, and you like barbecue, y’all gotta try Texas barbecue. I found my way to Lockhart Smokehouse which is a place where you place your order at a counter in a back and they give you your food wrapped in butcher paper, then you find a place to sit. As my hobby is smoking barbecue, it was damn good brisket. Seriously, getting good authentic barbecue should not be that hard in San Francisco. Okay, onward.

If you discount the Harry Potter Celebration Days at Universal Studios Orlando then this is my third Harry Potter inspired convention my first was Azkatraz 2009 which was held in my hometown of San Francisco It was fun. And of course, being that kind of nerd, I really liked the academic panels, especially about the mythology and influences of the books.

My second was LeakyCon 2016 in Anaheim. It was similar in many ways to Azkatraz. It was a small convention, maybe less than a thousand attendees, but that made it all the more friendly. Sure, the passes I got allowed me autographs with some of the actors, but I was not actually interested in getting anything signed. The highlight of the event was one night just hanging out in the lobby with a couple of those same actors who were having a great time playing the bar piano and belting away Broadway tunes.

LeakyCon 2017 was held in Dublin, Ireland. I was hoping for Dublin, California. But no go there. So I missed out on that.

Which brings us to LeakyCon 2018 in Dallas, Texas. For me I had not planned on going post Dublin. In fact, since I ain’t rich and have to work for a living, by mid 2017 I already planned my nerdy convention going, Baycon in May, Wordcon in August and CRX (Crunchyroll Expo) sometime in the fall. In fact I already paid for Baycon and Wordcon a year ahead of time. So of course I ended up going  to Dallas anyway, which happened the weekend before Worldcon.

I don’t know what the final numbers are for the attendance of LeakyCon 18 were but it was far bigger than I had imagined it would be and frankly beyond the intimate convention that I was expecting. Instead it was like something between a Wizard Word Convention and Wondercon size. Hurray for the attendance, but there were sacrifices of that small intimacy and of previous experiences and as huge and diverse as the panels were, there were a couple of things lacking, one of which was no panels on cosplay or costuming. And there were basically no or little academic panels. There were quite a few sorting of other fictional character though.

I’m sure there were several factors that contributed to the size of this sold out convention, part of it was that there has never been a Leaky convention in Texas. Another part was that since last year’s was in Dublin Ireland, those that could not make it overseas wanted to come to this year’s. And of course guest actors from the movies (with autograph opportunities) were a big draw. Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol (Kowalski and Queenie respectively from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) have great chemistry and play off each other well off screen as well as on.

We are at a cusp now. Harry Potter is now entering into its third decade and it is remarkable that the fandom is not slowing down. But it should be noted that many of those fans in 1998 when the first book came out are still around and possibly raising their own children. Which brings me to the point about the panels, they still skewed towards a YA crowd but a good percentage of the crowd were over 25.

Next year, I’ll be in Boston. They will have one in Dallas too, in August again. No thanks to that. Anyway, I hope they realize that diverse panels also include panels for some of us old folks and some of us nerdy college grads and English majors would totally love more academic tracks in the programming. If you are fan of Harry Potter, going to one of these is still a joy and definitely an experience.