Monday, May 02, 2005

Just finished Scrib, and it's great. Find it and read it.

Otherwise, it was a good weekend for "British Telefantasy That I Like." As posted earlier, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was number one at the box office, beating XXX-2. (Double-triple X?) A friend had told me he had heard this wasn't going to be the case, that Hitchhiker's wasn't going to break $20 million (it did, it seems), so I'm glad to hear it turned out to be otherwise.

Me, I actually managed to haul myself out to the theater to see Hitchhiker's Guide for myself. I mean, this is a story (or set of stories) I have loved since I was a kid. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this was my Lord of the Rings. And I thought it was great. I had read some early reviews that indicated it might be otherwise, but those reviewers were clearly hopped up on the goofballs. The movie felt completely true to the spirit of the original material. I had never really pictured the characters or settings in my head looking quite like they do here, but when I saw them, they felt so completely right, and the tone of the movie is so perfect, I felt completely at home.

Some of the reviews I had read complained that too much was cut from the original radio series or books or TV or whatever, but anyone paying even half attention would notice that Douglas Adams changed things when adapting the radio series into books, and then again into the TV series, and computer game, and whatever. Of course he would have made changes in turning it into a movie. (And I'm not interested in playing the game of what parts of the movie were written by Adams and which parts were by Chicken Run Karey Kirkpatrick. It doesn't really matter, because the script is good all the way through, and Chicken Run is a great movie anyway.) I had read articles and interviews where Adams talked about one of the problems with the movie being his not being interested in telling the same story over again in quite the same way, so it never would have been just like the radio series (which wasn't like the books, which weren't like the TV series).

And, really, the negative reviews which focus on what has been lost in translation ultimately just seem like people whining that their favorite bits have been left out, rather than judgments about whether the story still works. I mean, the audience I saw the movie with laughed at all the jokes just fine, so it's hardly a case of them being gutted. Part of the problem, I think, is that a lot of people's favorite bits come from the Guide entries, which are voice-over narration in the radio series and prose asides in the books. Well, voice-overs work great in an audio medium, but less so in a visual medium. (The TV series has plenty of them, but it's so completely cheap, it's really almost radio on TV anyway.) The movie, unsurprisingly, focuses more on big, beautiful images that look great filling the huge screen.

And it does, indeed, look great. As I said, at no point did I find myself thinking that this isn't the way things should look. (My favorite stupid review complaint comes from Douglas Adams freak-nerd MJ Simpson, who complained that the movie had completely changed the appearance of two-headed, three-armed Zaphod Beeblebrox. And, I suppose the freak-nerd has a point, because, as portrayed by Sam Rockwell in the movie, Zaphod does, indeed, look absolutely nothing like he did on the... radio... God.)

In the end, between the Simpson review and SFX Magazine--as well as the freak-nerds who write comics reviews at and the ones who do Doctor Who fan reviews at Outpost Gallifrey--I've created a couple new rules/reasons to discount reviews completely. (As if I needed more.) First, I now place absolutely no value in reviews written by folks who are too close to earlier versions of whatever they're reviewing. (Here, I'm talking about movie or TV revivals, adaptations of anything, or long-running series like comics or whatever.) Those reviews inevitably aren't about the actual movie, or book or whatever. They're about the reviewer's memories of the earlier version or source material, and how the new version compares. Which, you know, means something if I felt exactly the same way about the original version. But, generally, I seem to be a little more flexible in my views, and more willing to accept the new, as long as it creates similar feelings as the old. The reviews seem to be more fixated on details, like specific lines, or the genders of characters, or whatever. So, since I'm almost never coming from the same place as the reviewer... useless.

Then there are the reviews written by folks who are intimately familiar with the material, who proclaim something as being inaccessible to people who aren't. I mean, get over yourself. How would you know? A review is all about your opinion, period, so just speak for yourself. The minute you start doing more than that, shut up. You've run out of things to say.

So the other great British telefantasy event this weekend would be the new episode of Doctor Who: Dalek. Written by award-winning playwright and TV writer--and Doctor Who fan--Robert Shearman, the episode loosely adapts his Big Finish Doctor Who CD, Jubilee. I loved the original, but it's been long enough since I heard it that this episode felt completely fresh.

For those not in the know, the Daleks are the arch-enemies of the Doctor, and probably completely responsible for the show's early success back in 1963/4. They're these mutated creatures inside these armored travel machines which, as Doctor Who Confidential points out, are basically personal tanks that are all the more terrifying because, unlike a full-sized tank, this is a tank that can come into your house and kill you. They're absolutely not human, but because--externally--they're devices, not creatures, they aren't obviously men dressed as monsters.

Having said that, I never really found myself scared by the Daleks in the way I did watching this week's episode. Too often, in the old series (see, now I'm doing it), the Daleks were just mobile guns motivated by hate, a virtually unstoppable army that--unsurprisingly--only the Doctor can defeat. This time, however, we meet a lone Dalek who has been held prisoner for 50 years, the last of its kind. The Dalek is treated as a character, aided tremendously by a fantastic vocal performance by Nick Briggs, and the audience feels sympathy as well as fear. The Doctor, too, isn't simply there to defeat the Dalek. For perhaps the first time, we see how his experiences with the Daleks have affected him. Yes, insisting that the Daleks are bad guys is an obvious response, but this Doctor is absolutely terrified, and that fear colors his reactions in a way we've never seen before. But, having said that, while this episode maps out new emotional territory for the characters and series, it does so in a way that never feels out of place. Fantastic.

Again, watching Doctor Who Confidential, it's clear just how much the new technology available to the production team helps this episode (as well as a generous budget). In the past, the Daleks have always had certain jerky, wobbly quality to them. This would be because the single operator inside the Dalek had to move it around the studio, operate the two front arms, turn the head, and move the eyepiece. And flash the lights in the dome in time with the lines being spoken by another actor. The new Dalek has a remote controlled head, including the eye stalk and lights, so the actor inside the thing only has to move the body around and operate the arms. Another actor operates the head. So this new Dalek moves more smoothly and confidently than any we have ever seen. Additionally, because the lines are being delivered on-set by Briggs, and the head operator can see him, the lights on the head are perfectly synchronized with the speach, for the first time ever. The end result: a Dalek with smooth, confident motion, who truly does seem like an implacable foe.

And then, the end... Not to give too much away, but the idea that I'd be watching an episode of Doctor Who and feel a lump in my throat or a tear in my eye... Okay, not unprecedented in this series: there was the cell phone scene in End of the World, the final scene of the same episode, the Doctor telling Charles Dickens his works would live forever in The Unquiet Dead, and the death of the pig-alien in Aliens of London. But that it would be a Dalek who would make me feel that way? Fantastic!

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