January 4, 2021

A Collection of Beatle Blasphemy - A Prologue

wow, first post in nearly six years?

Over the past three years I've been writing theatre reviews for DC Theatre Scene, which as of the end of 2020 has gone dark. I plan to re-post my theatre writing on this blog for posterity (or at least until Blogger gets put to pasture), and might as well take the opportunity to start collecting my random musings on music, theatre, film, etc.


Not gods.
I love the Beatles. They are unquestionably the most important pop group of all time, blazed trails, stood at the vanguard of a musical and cultural revolution. They were the soundtrack of my childhood, my parents' scratchy, skippy, cover-less LP's as a wee lad, then on cassette and CD and streaming as I moved into adulthood.

They are also not gods.

Sometimes - a lot of the time, actually - they were not very nice people. And sometimes the music they made was not the celestial music of the spheres. They should be subject to scrutiny and criticism like any other cultural creation, yet seemingly every attempt to embrace or even discuss their shortcomings provokes a backlash from ardent Beatle worshippers. Thus reverent awe is the only acceptable philosophy, and any biography has to be hagiography. The doctrine of Beatle infallibility, it seems, must not be questioned.


Not every song they wrote was brilliant, not every action they took was perfect, and one can simultaneously love the Beatles and their music while embracing their flaws. They were human beings, and I suggest that scrutinizing their music and lives is a useful, even necessary, tool to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of their art. I can simultaneously think that John Lennon was, at times, an utter asshole, and still think Gimme Some Truth is an utterly magnificent song.

I understand that the music of the Beatles is still deeply personal to many, particularly people of my parents' generation, the Boomers, as they were the ones who were the Beatles' primary audience. The Beatles were the soundtrack of that generation's maturation into adulthood: adolescents when they appeared on Ed Sullivan, teens when they went psychedelic, college aged when they broke up. To cast a critical eye on the Beatles can be a very sensitive matter for these folks, and I will try to remain cognizant of this as I post my Beatle musings.

Also, as we have a comprehensive history of their lives to go alongside their music, we can draw parallels between the two. We can see their lives, their struggles, their weaknesses reflected in their songcraft. People also try to do this with Shakespeare, but not having a richly detailed biography to accompany his works can lead scholars and aficionados to the most credulity-straining lengths. Not here. We know, for example, that Paul's relationship with Jane Asher was occasionally strained (they're both around, you can ask them), and we can see that play out in his more sour tracks I'm Looking Through You and You Won't See Me as well as in the optimism of We Can Work It Out.

So with all that being said, gird thy loins and prep thyself for a series I'm calling Beatle Blasphemy.

July 21, 2015

Star Trek Nemesis Review

In 2002 I passed this around to my cadre of geek friends back in the day. Reposted by request.

"Waitaminit, we're not even the same height!"
<my humble opinion>

I've seen it twice now, and although Nemesis has many good moments, it just doesn't stand up to any sort of close scrutiny. I can't deny that its best moments leave a distinct emotional and/or visceral impact, but these moments are sabotaged by some downright stupid plot holes, plus the fact that far too many events depend on characters (both good and bad guys) either Overlooking The Obvious or Making Stupid/Unlikely Decisions. Plus, the writers, although they admittedly inject a refreshing perspective into the script, don't pay enough attention to established TNG lore. It's far from the Best. Trek. Ever. It's not even the best TNG-cast movie ever.

Consider... (Comments are generally in movie sequence order )

What would have happened in the opening scene if one Romulan Senator had thought to say "Oh, Senator Tal'aura, you forgot your Big Conspicuous Red Thingy?" She'd be unable to refuse to take it with her; her deceit would have been instantly spotted (given that Romulan regime changes happen so often), and she would have had to take it with her into a broom closet and do the Honorable Thing. Someone could've swept her dust out later. (Oh and none of the deadly Thaloofian radiation escaped out the metal gate of the senate room door? Damn clever technology, that rad bomb.) And what happened to her anyway? She doesn't appear after that scene.

Even though the image of the Senate's demise was gripping, the sequence of events leading up to that could've been handled much more effectively. None of this "Um, excuse me, gentlemen, I have a dentist appointment, gotta go" bush-league stuff. She could have concealed the weapon. She could have sacrificed herself. I could go on, but you get my point.

Technical Note: Couldn't help but notice that in the CGI external shots of the Romulan Capital Complex, the water doesn't lap against the land. It just runs underneath it.

Wesley's off in another dimension with The Traveler. What the fuck is he doing at the wedding? How could Troi and Ryker get the invitation to him? (If he had to appear, they could've at least given Wil Wheaton - who has aged quite well, I must say - the dignity of dialogue, and not leave his lines on the cutting room floor.)

Please, Mr Spiner. We know you're an established Broadway actor with numerous musical theatre credits. We know you've made a solo album. Please. As long as you remain part of the Star Trek Franchise, I implore you to Never. Sing. Again. (in a ST movie, that is.) Thank you, though, for cutting the "Blue Skies" number short.

I applaud the Enterprise's amazingly accurate sensors, being able to pick up a "faint positronic energy pattern" on a planet many light years away (and completely out of their path). Even if you buy that, the fact that it's on a previously unexplored planet veerrrryyy close to the Romulan Neutral Zone should've raised some suspicions. Couldn't they have checked it out on the way back from Betazed? Or just sent a probe?

Worf has next to nothing to do in this movie! His only lines are comic relief. He's drunk, he hates Irving Berlin, he doesn't want to go naked, etc.

I really dig the camera filter used in the Planet Southern California sequence; it gives the scene an entirely refreshing immediacy lacking in most of the other ST movies. However I can't help but notice that nearly everything that happens there is a clear and direct violation of the Prime Directive. They're using their advanced technology to attack and escape from the pre-first-contact inhabitants. And don't get me started on the straight-outta-Dukes-Of-Hazzard dune buggy leap into the Argo. Puh-lease.

Let's see. They find an android that looks exactly like Data. Hmm. Funny that no one thought to say "Lore." And funnier still that nobody, not even Data, noticed that Extra Data Port on the back of B4's neck until after the Data download (no pun intended, I think); especially after Crusher's pronouncement that "structurally, he's exactly the same as you." Side note: The TNG characters are showing their age. I suppose that both Data and B4 have built-in Paunchy Gut Subroutines built into their programming.

Admiral Janeway's cameo: from an acting standpoint, it's trash. It's obvious that her speech and Picard's reactions were recorded separately.

Why do they make Shinzon look like Nosferatu? The vampire metaphor is inconsistent, even if he needs Picard's blood. Or is he supposed to be Ming The Merciless?

How did Shinzon build the Scimitar, a fucking humongous warship filled to the brim with phasers and photon torpedos as well as a huge Thaloofian Radiation generator, without Romulan detection? If the Enterprise's sensors are so sensitive (see above), they could've detected the Scimitar from Earth!

Shame on whoever made the decision that all that's required to clone Picard is to take a young British actor with only a slight physical resemblance to Patrick Stewart (and by slight, I mean none) and shave his head. (And another violation of TNG lore: Young Picard, as portrayed in that Back In My Academy Days episode, had a full head of hair.)

It's never explained why Shinzon initially kidnapped Picard. They take a blood sample that is never referred to again. If they used it to slow Shinzon's cellular degeneration, it is apparently ineffective. Afterwards, Picard states that Shinzon will come for him, and Shinzon orders the boarding party "Get Picard!". For what? His blood? Again???

A stupid move, that demotes Shinzon to the level of the campiest James Bond villain: I'm going to taunt you, state that I intend to kill you, and then leave you alone except for One Stupid Guard. Once Data rescues Picard, Shinzon orders the guard's death instantly. If he wanted Picard dead, he should have likewise killed him when he had the chance (after all, he already had Picard's blood sample). Unless of course he waffled. Which leads straight to my next point.

It is Shinzon waffling about his motivation, or is it the writers? If his target is Earth, why doesn't he just Go And Fucking Do It Already? He can go back for the Enterprise at his will. In fact, he can go through that transfusion process (assuming that his doctors were able to synthesize Picard's blood from the sample) on the way. (more on that later)

My, but those Remans, "a race bred for war," are fucking incompetent marksmen. But then again, all the Bad Guy Armies are like that (Vader's Stormtroopers, Sauron's Uruk Hai, any Cowboys and Indians movie...) You'd think those Evil Geniuses would know better.

The conversation in the ready room between Shinzon and Picard reminds me way too much of Return of the Jedi. "Father, I feel the conflict within you; let go of your hate!" "You do not know the power of the Dark Side, Luke" Interesting, though, that it's the older person (Picard) counseling the younger person (Shinzon), the reverse of Luke and Vader.

Stupid And Completely Out-Of-Character Action With No Other Purpose Than Advancing The Plot: Picard and the Enterprise are fleeing the Scimitar to rendezvous with the Federation force. Meanwhile, they pass through a rift that jams their communications. But it only occurs to Picard just at the point where it's too late. What made Picard and his predecessor Kirk such effective leaders was their ability to recognize potential problems like that in advance. That oversight cost Data (and many others) their lives.

I'm sorry, no. The instant that the bridge's hull is breached, every single person on that bridge is dead. This isn't a 747. People don't survive by hanging on to the armrests, or those suddenly convenient chrome handles along the edges of the consoles. That's a vacuum out there. Nature abhors it. They're all sucked out, they all pop like balloons, they're all meat. (But it's notable for adhering to one aspect of Trek Lore. See Rule #44: Mortality Rates, Lead Characters vs Minor Characters, aka The Red Shirt Rule.)

The ramming. Again, no. I can't help but notice just how much this battle (as well as the Kirk vs Khan showdown in the Mutara Nebula) is constructed like a naval battle. Physics be damned, hull tolerance be damned, full steam ahead! (I suppose it never occurred to Shinzon to, oh, I dunno, FIRE AT THE ENTERPRISE??? or perhaps BACK UP???)

The showdown scene is problematic. Healthy vigorous Picard versus dying, degenerating Shinzon? Hardly fair.

I wonder if it wouldn't have been a much better choice to have Shinzon go through the transfusion process, so that the final showdown would be Picard Versus Picard. A much more fair fight. Or, to take it a step further and dispense with Tom Hardy altogether, and have Patrick Stewart play both parts. (Hell, as a homage to Classic Trek, give Shinzon a goatee! LOL)

Shinzon's death: Excalibur. Mordred: "Come, Father, let us embrace at last." (or again, Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon '80!)

Overall, Shinzon as a villain comes nowhere near the standard set by Ricardo Montalban. Shinzon's position as Romulan Praetor is very tenuous. He doesn't hold the loyalty of the Romulans, his course of action (destroying Earth) is openly questioned, he's physically deteriorating. Apart from the Extremely Nasty Weapon he has, he possesses very little power.
Khan, on the other hand, had the absolute devotion and loyalty of his crew (and for the rest, there were the Ceti Eels). His physical strength is far above that of the humans. And, unlike Shinzon, He Never Wavers In His Course Of Action.
Shinzon is just a little man with a big toy. (I suppose, though, that he can be seen on some level as a metaphor for George W...)

The Reman Viceroy deserved a better-thought-out fate than falling down a Jeffries Tube. (All too convenient reference to Trek III: "I've... Had... Enough... Of... You!!" as well as Emperor Palpateen's death in Return of the Jedi.)

Data's noble and moving sacrifice is shadowed by one nagging question: he blew up the Scimitar one second before the Thaloofian radiation ray would have been fired at the Enterprise. Are we to assume then that all that radiation was instantly neutralized by the blast? (and I suppose it was out of the question to simply deactivate the device... and I suppose Geordi couldn't have bothered to make two transporter devices... and I suppose, Oh Never Mind.)

What logical reason could there be for B4 to sing "Blue Skies" in the last scene?

And of course, even with Data gone, Brent Spiner still has a job if there's another TNG cast movie (which, given its box office returns thus far, is unlikely)

And Now, The Good Bits:
  • The psychic rape scene. This is one of the darkest and spookiest moments in the history of the Trek franchise.
  • Troi's Revenge, or as my Dad called it, the Betazoid Blowjob.
  • If I recall correctly, the scene between Data and Geordi, as Data prepares to leap into the void, contains no dialogue. All the communication of their past together, their friendship, their final farewell etc is in their eyes. A great directing choice, realized well by Brent and Levar. Hurrah.
  • I swear that during the debate about whether or not they go naked on Betazoid, I saw Riker glancing down at Worf's crotch.
  • The battle sequence, for all its flaws, is still the best balls-out battle sequence since Wrath of Khan.
Best lines:
  • Picard to Riker: "You have the bridge... (devilish grin) Mr. Troi."
  • Worf: "Irving Berlin... ugh."
  • Data: "I must deactivate you." B4: "For how long?" Data: "Indefinitely." B4: "How long is th... [click]"
  • Picard: "We will continue to Betazed, where the ceremony will be performed in accordance with Betazoid tradition! Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be in the gym."
  • Shinzon: "Will you join me in your ready room?"
  • Picard: "On screen." (realizes the bridge screen is gone) "Open a channel."
  • Data: "Goodbye."

</my humble opinion>

November 20, 2014

RANKED: Doctor Who on Hulu

Shortly after my previous blog post, in which I ranked the eighteen Doctor Who stories available on Netflix streaming, I was alerted to the presence of a larger collection of stories available on Hulu Plus. If you don't mind three commercial breaks per episode (and having to pay for the privilege), you can watch all 18 stories also available on Netflix, plus 74 more.

I'm going to lump these into groups. Ones that I think will go over best with New Series fans, ones that I think are good stories but you might find a bit rough, ones that are mediocre/average (or may be rather tough to get through if you're used to contemporary storytelling and special effects), and ones that are best left untouched (or only for the really brave).

Note: These are listed in BROADCAST ORDER.

Start With These...
54. Inferno (1970, Pertwee, 7 episodes)
This is a rare treat - the Doctor witnesses the destruction of a parallel Earth, can't do a thing to stop it, and as all hell breaks loose around him, he's in the unenviable position to rally a handful of survivors - even though he can't save their lives - to help him get back to 'our' Earth to prevent the same fate here. Fascinating to watch England re-imagined as an Orwellian fascist police state, with deliciously evil versions of the Brigadier, Liz and others. Not so fascinating are the green gorilla monsters, but still, worth the longer running time.

57. The Claws of Axos (1971, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
I love this - golden aliens come to Earth, offering wondrous technology in exchange for nuclear energy for their spaceship. The Doctor isn't fooled, not for a minute. Boundary-pushing special effects (especially episode 4's psychedelic freakout) for 1971. And the Master and Doctor's relationship is fascinating. The Doctor's potential for amorality is never more on display; when he announces he's abandoning Earth to its fate, and is prepared to betray the Time Lords to the Axons, it's plausible that he's serious.

65. The Three Doctors (1972-73, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
66. The Carnival of Monsters  (1973, Pertwee, 4 episodes)
69. The Green Death (1973, Pertwee, 6 episodes)
76. The Ark In Space (1975, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)

88. The Deadly Assassin (1976, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)
The Doctor returns to Gallifrey, is framed for the murder of the Time Lord President, and has to survive a nightmarish trip through the surreal terrain of the Matrix to unmask the real culprit. Very evocative of The Manchurian Candidate with all its political machinations, and the Matrix sequence is stunningly imaginative. Very controversial at the time, partly for the image of Tom Baker being drowned, and partly for knocking down our perceptions of the Time Lords from godlike superbeings to corrupt and/or clueless bumblers.

91. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977, Tom Baker, 6 episodes)
A major character is an Asian man played by a caucasian in yellowface (and prosthetic eyebrows), but if you can handle that, this is a great story. And since the BBC's bread and butter was Victorian-era drama, the Sherlock Holmes atmosphere is superbly rendered. The duo of Jago and Lightfoot would go on to star in their own audio adventures.

105. City of Death (1979, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)

114. Warriors' Gate (1981, Tom Baker, 4 episodes)
The cinematic direction and avant-garde flourishes distinguish this convoluted and fascinating story. The third part of a trilogy set in E-Space, it involves a super-heavy spaceship stuck near the gateway to our dimension, who carry a slave race of telepathic lion-like men who navigate the time winds.

136. The Caves of Androzani (1984, Davison, 4 episodes)

If You Survived Those, Try These...
1. An Unearthly Child (1963, Hartnell, 4 ep)
It's a great first episode, with three decent bonus episodes tacked on at the end. It's amazing how much of the show's mythology dates back to these first 25 minutes, and how ruthless and machiavellian the Doctor is initially.

2. The Daleks (1963-64, Hartnell, 7 ep)
Despite show creator Sydney Newman's stern "No Bug-Eyed Monsters" directive, he had to admit his modest aim for an educational adventure program over teatime turned into a cultural institution because of this story. The Daleks are icons. As slow-moving as this show is, it's pretty compelling. The ethics of persuading a pacifist society to take up arms, partly for their own best interest but mostly because four strangers in a blue box need them to, is pretty sticky. And some awesome special effects shots that have aged quite well a half century later.

6. The Aztecs (1964, Hartnell, 4 ep)

9. Planet of Giants (1964, Hartnell, 3 ep)
The "Honey, I Shrank the TARDIS"plot dates to the early brainstorming sessions in the show's development, and they pull it off pretty darn brilliantly. Post production, they edited the third and fourth episodes into a single episode - even then, they acknowledged that the emphasis on dialogue over action could make for tedious TV. Smart choice.

45. The Mind Robber (1968, Troughton, 5 ep)
51. Spearhead From Space (1970, Pertwee, 4 ep)

52. Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970, Pertwee, 7 ep)
Script editor Robert Holmes and producer Barry Letts quickly realized that once they confined the Doctor to Earth, they were limited to two plots: Mad Scientists and Alien Invasion. Here they cleverly sidestep that plot - they've been here already - and throw in a not too subtle parallel to Middle East politics. What do you do when you oversleep, wake up millions of years later, and those pesky apes have evolved into the dominant species on the planet? The Doctor is in the unenviable position of trying to negotiate a peace between two mutually xenophobic species... and he fails spectacularly.

55. Terror of the Autons (1971, Pertwee, 4 ep)
A soft re-boot of the series, with shorter stories, a new companion (Jo Grant), and Barry Letts' master-stroke: an arch-enemy Time Lord, the Master. And in addition to the Autons, we have everyday household items turning into fatal traps: inflatable chairs, troll dolls, and plastic daffodils.

56. The Mind of Evil (1971, Pertwee, 6 ep)
A mess of a plot, but a lot to recommend. An homage (read: ripoff) of A Clockwork Orange that can't decide if criminal behavior is actually due to 'evil impulses' that can be siphoned out of a person's mind, or if that's the bridge being sold to the gullible politicians who buy into it. And Britain has an illegal nerve gas missile that it's trying to dump; shame on them.

59. The Daemons (1971, Pertwee, 5 ep)
The Master appears in his fifth straight story, and after sub-contracting an alien entity that yet again grows too powerful for him to control, and once more has to rely on the Doctor to save his sorry butt, you'd think he'd've learned. This time around he poses as a rural vicar (quite a treat to see him wearing a collar), while summoning a cloven-hoofed demon in the church basement. The Doctor is rather a jerk to Jo in this one, at least in the first scene.

61. The Curse of Peladon (1972, Pertwee, 4 ep)
By this season, the production team was stretching the "exiled to Earth, with certain exceptions" beyond credibility. But this is still a treat, an alien whodunnit that's all about joining the EU, with a bevvy of alien creatures - including the much loved hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri.

67. Frontier In Space (1973, Pertwee, 6 ep)
Doctor Who rarely attempted grand space opera - mostly because it didn't have the resources - but here they go all out. The Master, with the Ogrons, is secretly manipulating Earth and Draconia into war... and he's a subcontractor working for another menace who are waiting to pounce...  Most of this is capture/escape/re-capture writ large, but it's a grand adventure, and the Draconians are awesome. Pity, though, that it all falls apart at the end, and Roger Delgado never got the sendoff he deserved.

78. Genesis of the Daleks (1975, Tom Baker, 6 ep)
The Time Lords draft the Doctor into trying to prevent the creation of the Daleks. The debut of Davros, their creator, superbly performed by Michael Wisher. Terry Nation modeled the Daleks after Nazi Germany, and no story he wrote made that clearer than this. Lots of corridor acting, and a major cliffhanger copout, but some supremely iconic moments balance it out.

82. Pyramids of Mars (1975, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
92. The Horror of Fang Rock (1977, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
98. The Ribos Operation (1978, Tom Baker, 4 ep)

100. The Stones of Blood (1978, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
Part 3 of the Key To Time season. Blood-sucking rocks, a great villain in Vivian Fay, and a superb sidekick in Professor Rumford (who might be Vivian's lesbian partner...).  Great line: "Doctor, are you from outer space?" "No, I'm from inner time."

110. The Leisure Hive (1980, Tom Baker, 4 ep)

112. Full Circle (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep)
Underrated and overlooked.

115. The Keeper of Traken (1981, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
A civilization so placid that evil shrivels up and dies. Yeah, that won't last long...

116. Logopolis (1981, Tom Baker, 4 ep)
Tom Baker's last. Bonkers evil scheme by the Master.

117. Castrovalva (1982, Davison, 4 ep)
Peter Davison's first. Bonkers evil scheme by the Master.

125. Snakedance (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
The Mara (from Kinda) is back.

127. Terminus (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
Grim story, but look for the moment at the end of Ep 3. The Doctor is standing next to the corpse of the space pilot who inadvertently caused the Big Bang... consider the theological implications here.

128. Enlightenment (1983, Davison, 4 ep)
Yacht race in space. Devious girl pirate.

132. The Awakening (1984, Davison, 2 ep)
English Civil War re-enactments are inadvertently summoning a malevolent alien entity. And Tegan visits her grandfather or uncle or something.

133. Frontios (1984, Davison, 4 ep)
Giant alien woodlice destroy the TARDIS, temporarily. Another grim story; one of the last human space colonies are under siege from meteors from above, and said bugs from below.

152. Remembrance of the Daleks (1988, McCoy, 4 ep)
The first story to feature script editor Andrew Cartmel's 'masterplan' to re-envision the Doctor as having a deeper, darker backstory than just being a 'madman with a box.' Two warring factions of Daleks bust up stuff in the Doctor's old stomping grounds.

155. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-89, McCoy, 4 ep)
An extended metaphor for the state of the program; the Doctor and Ace are trapped in the Psychic Circus, which fanboy WhizzKid acknowledges as "not as great as it used to be, but still..."

158. The Curse of Fenric (1989, McCoy, 4 ep)

159. Survival (1989, McCoy 4 ep)
An ironic title for the final story of the Classic Series... but the Master hasn't been this awesome in over a decade, the cat people look pretty cool, and stuff blows up real good.

If You're Still Hungry For More...
The Chase (1965, Hartnell, 6 ep) - A bumbling troop of Daleks build their own time machine to pursue the TARDIS through eternity. Incompetently executed on every conceivable level (particularly the robot duplicate of the Doctor), this one is classified as "So Bad, It's Actually Awesome." Though the montage of Ian and Barbara safe at home is legitimately wonderful. (The Hulu version contains a clip of the Beatles performing "Ticket to Ride," which is edited out of the DVD release)

The Time Meddler (1965, Hartnell, 4 ep) - We meet another Time Lord for the first time, a comically mischievous meddler in a monk's cassock, trying to change the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, just for the hell of it apparently.

The Ark (1966, Hartnell, 4 ep) - The TARDIS lands on a giant spaceship in the distant future containing the last surviving humans escaping the doomed planet Earth, and new companion Dodo's head cold causes an epidemic.

The War Machines (1966, Hartnell, 4 ep) - the first story since the debut episode set on contemporary Earth, and the first story to feature a supercomputer primed to take over the world.

The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967, Troughton, 4 ep) - not quite as good as its legacy, but still worthy of viewing, though the character of Toberman is troubling

The Enemy of the World (1968, Troughton, 6 ep) - Dr Who does James Bond, and Troughton pulls double-duty as the villain as well. Be glad this was re-discovered.

The Web of Fear (1968, Troughton, 6 ep) - Fondly remembered for its atmosphere - Yeti in the subway! plus the debut of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and a memorable climax. Though to me, it drag

Colony in Space (1971, Pertwee, 6 ep) - Impoverished space farmers versus an all-powerful intergalactic mega-conglomerate. And a doomsday weapon. Guess who wins.

The Sea Devils (Pertwee, 1972, 6 ep) - A virtual re-write of "Silurians," with less subtlety and more stuff blowing up.

The Mutants (Pertwee, 1972, 6 ep) - Better than its reputation, though rather patronizing in that we need the white fathers to sort out the lives of the indigenous people.

The Time Warrior (Pertwee, 1973-4, 4 ep) - Hello Sarah Jane Smith!

Planet of the Spiders (Pertwee, 1974, 6 ep) - Goodbye, Jon Pertwee.

Robot (Tom Baker, 1974-5, 4 ep) - Hello Tom Baker!

Planet of Evil (Tom Baker, 1975, 4 ep) - generic, homage to Forbidden Planet

The Masque of Mandragora (Tom Baker, 1976, 4 ep) - generic, nice medieval setting.

The Sunmakers (Tom Baker, 1977, 4 ep) - extended metaphor for state taxation.

The Invasion of Time (Tom Baker, 1977, 6 ep) - Such a mess, but fun to watch Tom Baker chew scenery

The Pirate Planet
The Androids of Tara
The Power of Kroll

The Creature From The Pit (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Yeah, the one with the alien that looks like a big green willy. And Tom blows on it. Oh dear.

Nightmare of Eden (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Drugs are bad, especially when they are the crystalized remains of nasty hairy space beasties. Tom sabotages the ending.

The Horns of Nimon (Tom Baker, 1979, 4ep) - Such a mess, but fun to watch everyone chew scenery.

Meglos (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep) - Such a mess, but nice to see Jacqueline Hill (Barbara from season 1-2) again

State of Decay (Tom Baker, 1980, 4 ep) - Decent story, undermined by the hand puppet at the end.

Black Orchid (Davison, 1982, 2 ep) - No alien menace, a murder caper, a cricket match, and it's short.

Resurrection of the Daleks (Davison, 1984, 2 45-min ep) Tedious and grim, but with good moments.

Delta and the Bannermen (McCoy, 1987, 3 ep) Genocide and mass murder at a holiday camp with a hip 50's soundtrack.

Dragonfire (McCoy, 1987, 3 ep) - Alien done as a Christmas pantomime. It almost works.

The Happiness Patrol (McCoy, 1988, 4 ep) - Orwell on acid. Be happy or else.

Battlefield (McCoy, 1989, 4 ep) - Doctor Who does King Arthur. Of course the Doctor is Merlin, who else could he be?

Only The Brave Dare...
The Edge of Destruction (Hartnell, 1964, 2 ep) - trapped in a malfunctioning TARDIS, strong suggestion that it has telepathic capabilities. Great idea but executed poorly and awkwardly.
The Sensorites (Hartnell, 1964, 6 ep) - slow and tedious slog about xenophobia
The Rescue (Hartnell, 1965, 2 ep) - spoiler: Bennett is Koquillion. Now you can skip it.
The Web Planet (Hartnell, 1965, 6 ep) - revolution on a planet of insect people. epic in conception, tedious in execution.
The Space Museum (Hartnell, 1965, 4 ep) - revolution in a museum.
The Gunfighters (Hartnell, 1966, 4 ep) - aka Dr Who at the OK Corral
The Dominators (Troughton, 1968, 5 ep) - it's fun to imagine the title characters as a bickering gay couple
The Krotons (Troughton, 1968-9, 4 ep) - Robert Holmes' first script. They got better.
Planet of the Daleks (Pertwee, 1973, 6 ep) - Invisible Daleks, boring Thals, long slog.
Death to the Daleks (Pertwee, 1974, 4 ep) - Unarmed Daleks, boring Humans, interesting maze.
The Monster of Peladon (Pertwee, 1974, 6 ep) - Caves and corridors, corridors and caves.
The Sontaran Experiment (Tom Baker, 1975, 2 ep) - Filler.
The Android Invasion (Tom Baker, 1975, 4 ep) - aka, the alien plot falls apart if that dude looks under his eyepatch
The Invisible Enemy (Tom Baker, 1977, 4 ep) - Hello, K9.
Underworld (Tom Baker, 1978, 4 ep) - the one with the infamous CSO caves
Destiny of the Daleks (Tom Baker, 1979, 4 ep) - Terry Nation wrote this in his sleep.
The Visitation
Warriors of the Deep (Davison, 1984, 4 ep) - Sea Devils, Silurians, nuclear brinksmanship, all the elements of a good story, but nothing gels. And then there's the Myrkha.
The Twin Dilemma (Colin Baker, 1984, 4 ep) - Worst Doctor Debut story ever. Start of a long, sad decline.
The Mark of the Rani (Colin Baker, 1985, 2 45-min ep) - She sets a trap that turns people into trees. Trees. As if the acting wasn't wooden enough already.
The Two Doctors (Colin Baker, 1985, 3 45-min ep) - Unrelentingly grim, intentionally and unintentionally.
Timelash (Colin Baker, 1985, 2 45 min ep) - famously spells "Lame Shit." Sums it up nicely.
Time and the Rani (McCoy, 1987, 4 ep) - Worst Doctor Debut story since... the previous one.
Silver Nemesis (McCoy, 1988, 3 ep) - Cybermen vs Neo-Nazis vs oh god make it stop.

October 30, 2014

RANKED: Classic Doctor Who on Netflix

Eighteen classic Doctor Who stories from the 60's, 70's and 80's are available for instant streaming on Netflix. If you only know the 'new' (i.e. 2005 and up) series, want to investigate the old series but feel daunted by its half-century legacy and don't know where to start, here's our completely subjective ranking of the Netflix stories.

Before we begin:
- The stories of the classic series (1963-89) were broadcast in individual episodes (usually four, sometimes six, other times as little as two and as many as twelve ), usually 25 minutes in length, so a typical story runs the length of a feature film.
- In the black and white days (1963-69), the show was recorded virtually live to tape, and re-takes were very rare, so minor line fluffs and technical glitches were common.
- In typical BBC fashion, through the 80's, interior shots were on video and exterior shots were on film, so the transition between the two could be jarring. Complicated FX were also frequently done on film.
- We can't talk about early Doctor Who without talking about special effects. Before Star Wars, audiences were a lot more forgiving about hand-puppet dinosaurs, wobbly sets, latex alien suits, flying saucers on strings, etc. The BBC allotted Doctor Who about the same budget as a regular drama series, and the effects, such as they were, still were the most technically advanced television effects of the time.
- There are no Colin Baker (Doctor #6) stories on Netflix, except for his appearance at the end of "Caves of Androzani." Trust us, that's for the best.
- This list does not necessarily reflect how *I* personally feel about these stories, but more my estimate of how fans of the New Series might embrace these stories. I would, for example, rank the two B/W stories much higher.

OK, now for the list, starting from the top:

1. City of Death (1979, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writers: Douglas Adams, David Fisher and Graham Williams under the pen-name David Agnew
This is my go-to story to initiate newbies. The plot? Briefly summarized: the Doctor and Romana are enjoying a holiday in Paris when they become embroiled in a time-traveling plot involving selling multiple copies of the Mona Lisa (all original!) on the black market to finance the scientific research of a debonair art thief who's actually an ancient alien war lord attempting to return to a pivotal moment in history. Baker and Lalla Ward have sparkling chemistry (they would later marry, albeit briefly), Adams' script is just the right balance of scientific gobbledygook, wit, and goofy humor, and the Paris location filming is great.
Watch For: a hysterical cameo appearance in Episode Four (I won't spoil the surprise)
Recycling: Adams re-used plot elements from this story and his unfinished/unbroadcast story "Shada" in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

2. The Caves of Androzani (1984, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Peri
Writer: Robert Holmes
Apart from the stupid and pointless Magma Beast, this is near-perfection. The Doctor and Peri wander into a web of political and economic intrigue centered around a precious mineral known as Spectrox. The character of Peri pretty much existed to be drooled over by campy villains, and Sharaz Jek, in his Phantom of the Opera slash BDSM mask, is the absolute pinnacle. Robert Holmes had been writing for the series since the late 60's, and his best tropes and anti-capitalist sentiments are on display. Ratcheting up the tension is the fact that the Doctor and Peri are slowly dying thanks to a casual mishap five minutes in, ultimately resulting in Davison's Doctor regenerating into Colin Baker. Davison calls this his favorite story, so much so that if there were more scripts like this, he'd've stayed in the role.

3. Carnival of Monsters (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant
Writer: Robert Holmes
For the previous three seasons, the Doctor has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords (though the definition of this exile was a bit malleable), but after the previous story (The Three Doctors, more on that later), he is once again free to roam time and space. And where does he land? In the cargo hold of a ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Or so we think. And what does it have to do with the Amazing Vorg and his lovely assistant Shirna as he peddles his Miniscope to the gray, drab, bureaucratic denizens of planet Inter Minor? One of Robert Holmes' best scripts.
Look For: Ian Marter plays a dashing young sailor, and would later return as companion Harry Sullivan when Tom Baker took over as Doctor. Also Michael Wisher and Peter Halliday, two of Doctor Who's most memorable guest actors, under the gray makeup.

4. The Ark In Space (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companions: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Writer: Robert Holmes (sensing a theme here?)
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry land on a space ark, thousands of years in the future, where the last surviving humans sit in suspended animation after the Earth is rendered uninhabitable from solar flares, but as these things usually go, they've overslept, there's been vandalism, and an alien menace lurks in the ventilation shaft. This is Doctor Who's version of Alien, but four years earlier and with no budget (and on television, so everything is brightly lit) but they still manage to make green bubble-wrap look menacing. There are some glaring limitations in the budget, but the concept trumps all.
Iconic Moment: Tom Baker's "homo sapiens" speech
Trivia: to save money, the set was re-used for "Revenge of the Cybermen" a few stories later.
More Trivia: The "In Space" was added to distinguish this story from the Hartnell story "The Ark," another story about the future of humanity facing peril on a space ark.
Unintentional Racism: The Ark's sleepers are genetically selected... and yup, they're all white.

5. The Green Death (1973, 6 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (and the UNIT team)
Writer: Robert Sloman
In an economically depressed Welsh mining town, a new petroleum refinery claims its process creates no waste, but the hippie scientists living in the nearby commune (led by the dashing Clifford Jones) believe otherwise. The Doctor looks in and discovers that, yup, the refinery is dumping its toxic sludge into the abandoned mines, which among other things, is creating a swarm of giant maggots impervious to UNIT bullets. The refinery's mysterious "BOSS" has a hypnotic hold over its employees, and turns out to be a supercomputer with megalomaniacal designs on world domination to achieve 'maximum efficiency and productivity.' A powerfully leftist political stance for the show, overtly conflating capitalism with inhumanity; definitely not recommended for Ayn Rand fans.
Famous Moment: At the end, when the Doctor sneaks out of Jo and Cliff's engagement/farewell party and drives away, alone and heart(s)broken.
Secretly Best Moment: Stevens' tear, after he regains his humanity and saves the world.
Trivia: Jo and Prof. Jones were a real-life couple at the time.
Continuity: The Metebelis Crystal would become a major plot element in Pertwee's farewell story "Planet of Spiders" the following year.

6. Pyramids of Mars (1975, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Writer: Steven Harris (pseudonym for Robert Holmes and Louis Greifer)
Doctor Who's version of The Mummy. Sutekh, an ancient God, is trapped in a state of paralysis in an Egyptian pyramid by the Eye of Horus, a ruby sitting at the center of a pyramid on Mars. When his tomb is opened, he awakens and sets the stage for his return... with robot mummies. It takes a little while to get going, but Sutekh is one B.A.M.F. of a villain. The showdown between him and the Doctor is truly chilling, and one of Baker's best moments.

7. The Three Doctors (1973, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee
Companion: Jo Grant (plus the UNIT team)
Writers: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
If you want to experience the first three Doctors in one sitting and don't want to sit through a black-and-white story (sigh... really?), this is your best bet. This tenth anniversary story was intended to exhibit all three doctors equally, until it was evident that Hartnell's infirmity would make this impossible (the writers' solution is clever, though). The interplay between Troughton and Pertwee is a treat. Omega, the Time Lord villain at the heart of the story, is played way over-the-top, the gel-guards are very very silly, there's a lot of capture-escape-recapture plot padding, but it's a whole lot of fun.

8. The Curse of Fenric (1989, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Sylvester McCoy
Companion: Ace
Writer: Ian Briggs
The Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras were arguably a nadir for the series: the budget and audience kept shrinking, the BBC execs wanted the show gone, producer John Nathan Turner wanted out, and many stories were (in our opinion at least) awful. But the 26th and final season was a brief renaissance, and this was the highlight, with a lot of concepts that laid the groundwork for the new series. It took 25 years to come up with a companion with a backstory, family, and an emotional catharsis to undergo, and seeing this in the classic series was a bit of a revelation. The plot? WWII codebreakers, Russian navy spies (who switch from sub-titled Russian to heavily accented English for no reason whatsoever), and a dormant Norse God coming back to life. And lots of monsters rising from the sea in latex masks. Or something.

9. The Ribos Operation (1978, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Season sixteen's stories, for the first time in the show's history, comprised an all-encompassing arc; each story centered around finding a segment of the Key to Time, and this was the first story. Although set on an alien planet, there are far more medieval elements than sci-fi. Two intergalactic con men attempt to scam the disgraced warrior prince Graff Vynda-K (an awesomely whackjob name) into buying a planet, and the Doctor and Romana are stuck in the middle. It's a Robert Holmes script so it's witty, funny, and wise, but its truly iconic moment is the Binro the Heretic scene. BINRO WAS RIGHT!

10. The Horror Of Fang Rock (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Leela
Writer: Terrence Dicks
A hastily-written script, but very effective. A shape-shifting alien crash-lands near an isolated lighthouse, and starts picking off the crew. It's a little slow-moving (and the episode one cliffhanger is a dud), but stick with this one. Particularly chilling (spoilers, sorry) is the body count: although the enemy menace is defeated, every character except the Doctor and Leela dies.

11. Spearhead From Space (1970, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companion: Liz Shaw (plus the UNIT crew)
Writer: Robert Holmes
After an unprecedented six month hiatus (after running virtually every week for six years), Doctor Who did a full re-boot with a new lead actor, a new companion (who was also a scientist), a new Earthbound action-oriented direction, and in COLOR!! This one was shot entirely on film due to a strike at the BBC, so it has a cinematic quality to it. The Nestene Consciousness and their animated plastic soldiers, the Autons, were so iconic and tied to the notion of a Doctor Who re-boot, that they were also the villains of the very first New Series episode, complete with an homage to Spearhead's memorable scene of the shop window dummies.
Trivia: the film clips of doll manufacturing were originally set to Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," but the music is removed from all VHS and DVD releases.

12. The Leisure Hive (1980, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana II
Writer: David Fisher
When John Nathan Turner took over as producer after the troubled Graham Williams era, his impact was swift and dramatic: new credits and theme music, a new pool of writers, phasing out K9, an emphasis on synthesizer music, and experimentation with the latest special effects. Tom Baker is a bit lost this season, his seventh and final in the role, and his performance has an autumnal quality with a very tangible change of focus away from the overtly comic direction he'd taken the Doctor. The grab-bag plot involves cloning, nuclear holocaust, and an alien holiday camp. Director Lovett Bickford opens with a memorable panning shot on the beach, and the makeup work on the Doctor when he is aged several hundred years is outstanding.

13. The Mind Robber (1968, 5 episodes)
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Zoe, Jamie, and... Alternate Jamie!
Writer: Derrick Sherwin (ep 1) and Peter Ling (ep 2-5)
Of the two B/W era episodes available on Netflix, this narrowly gets precedence over the other, if anything for the boldly experimental plot and the boundary-pushing special effects (some that work, others that don't). The TARDIS lands outside of the known Universe, in the Land of Fiction, in which anything can happen depending on the imagination of the controller. Thanks to the 'anything goes' structure, the story is even able to absorb the temporary loss of one of the companions, when Fraser Hines' illness kept Jamie out of episode Two. It was too late to re-write the script, so a brilliantly unique solution was devised...

14. The Aztecs (1964, 4 episodes)
Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Susan, Ian and Barbara
Writer: John Lucarotti
Probably the best of the surviving Hartnell era stories. For the first four seasons, the series alternated between science fiction-focused and history-focused stories. In the latter, the Doctor & Co. would land in Earth's past, get separated from the TARDIS, interact with famous people or critical moments in history, and attempt to escape without A) Getting Killed or B) Changing History. They land in an Aztec tomb which closes behind them, shutting them off from the TARDIS. The Aztecs hail Barbara as a re-incarnated goddess since she'd grabbed a bracelet off a corpse while in the tomb (um, eww...). Barbara appalls the Doctor and incites the wrath of the Aztec shaman by denouncing the practice of human sacrifice. Meanwhile, the Doctor has to woo the widow of the tomb's architect to find a way back to the TARDIS, Ian makes an enemy of the warrior chief, and Susan tries to avoid getting married. In the end they get out alive, but leave a considerable mess behind - shattered faith, spilled blood and broken hearts.

15. The Pirate Planet (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Douglas Adams (under the pen-name David Agnew)
Part Two in the Key To Time saga, this one's a mixed bag. A lot of great sci-fi concepts and a witty script, a fantastic villain in The Captain, and a nice twist at the end, but underdone by a weak supporting cast, some sloppy production work, and Tom Baker's alternately indifferent, silly, or over the top acting.

16. The Androids of Tara (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: David Fisher
Part Four of the Key To Time saga. The plot: Prisoner of Zenda, with androids in it. And a really, really, REALLY stupid looking Taran Wood Beast, so stupid looking that it almost hobbles the entire story even though it's on screen for maybe five seconds. The villainous Count Grendel is fun, and the climactic swordfight is sufficiently swashbuckly, but meh.

17. The Power of Kroll (1977, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Tom Baker
Companion: Romana I
Writer: Robert Holmes
Part Five of the Key to Time saga. Doctor Who attempts King Kong, but with a giant squid. Not Robert Holmes' best script by any measure, hampered further by budgetary limitations and miscasting (though it is fun to watch Philip Madoc visibly seething that he's not playing Thawn).

18. The Visitation (1982, 4 episodes)
Doctor: Peter Davison
Companion: Nyssa, Tegan, Adric
Writer: Eric Saward
Saward has his fans, but we're not among them. The Terleptyl looks great, but there's nothing else memorable about him. Since the plot centers around the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, we'll bet Saward intended to set it in 1660's London, but the budget confined him to a nearby village with an apparent population of five. And the plot is one of the most egregious examples of capture, escape, re-capture. The vagabond actor Richard Mace is memorable, but that's about all there is here. There's no action. None. Just wandering around and talking for four episodes, with three crap cliffhangers in between. Others seem to rate this highly, but to us, it's a dud.

COMING SOON: The Best Dr Who Episodes Not On Netflix

May 16, 2014

Just saw... On The Verge at New Rep

I worked crew on a production of On The Verge in my tiny hometown theatre, the Players Ring, in Portsmouth NH in, oh, 1998 or so. I absolutely fell in love with this play, and in my mind his dazzling flights of linguistic fancy is only rivaled in this century by Tom Stoppard. I would sit backstage and let the words wash over me.  It helped that it starred three of my favorite actresses on the planet - well, three semi-professional actors from Portsmouth whose skills could match (and best) many pros - Peggi McCarthy, Nickie Fuller (Farr), and Kristan Raymond (Curtis), who fed on the text as if it were fuel. Director Michael Gillette wisely put the words front and center.

I saw it again at Arena Stage in 2006 or so. What a letdown. The greatest/worst example of a play sabotaged by its production design that I can conceive of, and three actresses with zero chemistry. A full third of the audience was asleep, and another third left at intermission. A narrow platform diagonally spanned the arena theatre, suspended over a chasm. I was distracted by the possibility of a castmember falling into the void, at least 16 feet down. And the actresses weren't connected with the material at all (maybe they too were distracted at the prospect of plunging). They memorized the lines and delivered them clearly (the least that can be expected from professionals), but exhibited no indication they had the slightest idea what the hell they were talking about.

A few years later, just outside of DC, Rep Stage took a stab at it, directed by the guy who directed the original production. The three actresses were better, as I recall, and the production was OK... I just had a problem with the guy playing the male roles. I learned later that he had some kind of condition that affected the way he talked, which accounted for the odd, stilted delivery. I gathered that he was not their first choice (I was invited to audition a few months beforehand, clearly indicating the original actor had dropped out, and had I been available I'd've definitely gone).

And I'm just back from seeing New Rep's production. I would rank this as the best professional production I've seen, though I must admit that the Ring production still is the gold standard. I think the key here is the abstraction of the staging. All the moving bubble-wrapped screens aside, this was a very minimalist production, arguably too minimal. Three chairs served as cliffs, bridges, etc., and it took most of the first act for the audience to glom onto and buy into the presentation. Too long. It asked for too much imagination from the audience too soon, and quite a few checked out. The Ring's production, in my opinion, was less abstract and thereby met the audience halfway and brought them across the chasm, so to speak. And in a small theatre, the emphasis invariably went to the words instead of spectacle.

More evidence that an Equity Card or a LORT contract is no guarantee of artistic validity.

October 1, 2013

Goddammit, Bill.

Not even 24 hrs since you left this world.

I'm supposed to be grateful for the memories we've shared over the twenty-four years we've known each other, and I am, I promise I am, but goddammit all I can think about now are future memories denied - yours, mine, and everyone you knew.

Our last conversation, all too brief in retrospect, contained the following exchange:
Me: "How are you, man?"
You: "I'm dying."
Me: "Well, stop."
It was at the apartment you got with Sean, what we all secretly hoped would be the change you needed in your life, hoping against hope that it wasn't too late. You lived there for nearly six months. Number of times I hung out with you and Sean in this apartment: zero. I thought there would be time. Opportunities deferred.

I wish you knew how scared we all were, to a person, about the prospect of losing you. Only a few people ever told you unequivocally to your face, and to my shame I was not one of them, those few futile words excepted. I remember times where you made tentative stabs at talking about your own fears, and I didn't follow through. We don't do confrontation well. If I had told you how much I loved you and dreaded the prospect of a life without you in it, I don't know if it would have helped, but goddammit, at the very least my conscience would be clearer.

I wish you had it in you to heal yourself. This wasn't cancer, goddammit, this was controllable. The mountain was steep, and climbing it would have been the hardest thing you've ever done in your life, but every day it got higher. Who knows what day that was when you passed that threshold and decided, consciously or subconsciously, the mountain was just too high.

As far as I can tell, you saw your weight as an insurmountable obstacle until it became a self-fulfilling prophesy and stopped a heart so full of love.

The little things so many take for granted. Window shopping. Walking around town. Going to a concert or a ball game. Going to a movie without needing a special seat. Getting into your car without complicated choreography. It wasn't so long ago that you did these things. And bit by bit they became impossible, each item added to the List Of No-Longer-Possibles was another humiliation, another surrender. Goddammit, you surrendered far too soon.

I wish you found a previously undiscovered well of inner strength, that you stunned us all with your focus, tenacity and will power, that you reinvented your entire life and bought yourself (and us) twenty, thirty, forty more years. To see you so transformed would be a greater victory than, well, any sports championship. I wanted you to have that victory more than anything, and I regret that I never told you that. I wanted to see you on top of that mountain.

Now I can't help but compile The List Of Lasts:
  • Last concert we went to: King Crimson, NYC, March 2003
  • Last play I was in that you saw: Blackadder II Live!, April 2011
  • Last time we listened to music together: your house, after a dinner at Flatbread Co, April 2012
  • Last time we went for a beer: The Mead Hall, Sept 2012.
  • Last time we watched Doctor Who: same day, I think. "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"
  • Last time we had scotch and cigars: October 2012, with Sean and Mike. It nearly killed me.
  • Last movie we saw together: Star Trek: Into Darkness, May 2013
  • Last time we had a meal together: North By Northeast, Inman Sq, my birthday, June 29th
  • Last time I saw you upright and conscious: Tuesday, August 27th for about 5 minutes at your apartment
  • Last Facebook comment: September 12th, on a video I posted of Chris Squire's isolated bass track of "Roundabout"
  • Last time you left your apartment: Saturday, September 21, 2013
  • Last time you took a breath without a machine: early Monday, September 23, 2013
  • Last time I saw you alive, albeit comatose: later that evening
  • Last heartbeat: about 6:30pm on Sunday, September 29, 2013
  • Last time I could listen to King Crimson's "Starless" without weeping: same.
 I'm mad at myself for letting opportunities slip by. I've been in "Our Town" enough times that I should know better.

And I'm mad at you for leaving the party too soon.

Goddammit, Bill, you were supposed to grow old with us.

Graduation day, UMaine, 1993 (Bill, me, Sean and Frank; Mike in the front)

My 40th Birthday weekend, 2011

January 7, 2013

Yet Another Edition of Piercing Analysis From Random Facebook Apps

Your results:
You are Data
Mr. Sulu
An Expendable Character (Redshirt)
Geordi LaForge
James T. Kirk (Captain)
Mr. Scott
Will Riker
Leonard McCoy (Bones)
Jean-Luc Picard
Beverly Crusher
Deanna Troi
Even though you are a genius
you are always striving to be better.
Click here to take the Star Trek Personality Test

December 8, 2012

Four Gentlemen of Verona (or, "Hey, Didn't We Just See This?")

We have two Equity theatre companies in the Boston area devoted primarily to Shakespeare. Commonwealth Shakespeare Company does a splashy outdoor free production on Boston Common every summer, while Actors Shakespeare Project does full seasons of edgy productions in a variety of metro-Boston venues.

I don't think the two consider themselves in competition with one another; their production dates don't overlap, they frequently employ the same actors, Comm Shakes has at least three times ASP's budget, and they arguably are going after different audiences.

ASP is about to open the second production of its season, Two Gentlemen of Verona, next week. Yesterday Comm Shakes announced its upcoming summer production, and its... yup. Two Gents. Two professional productions of the same play in the same region, eight months apart. As it turns out, this is the second time this has happened in three years; they both did Othello in 2010.

This is odd to me. Even if the two companies don't consider themselves in competition, I'd've assumed they consulted one another regarding play selection; some kind of "I call dibs on Hamlet next year" kind of gentleman's agreement. Or Rock-Paper-Scissors. Guess not.

Given that ASP announces its season well in advance, the onus is on Comm Shakes to take ASP's season into consideration; apparently they don't. I don't know nor will I speculate what ASP thinks about this. The differences between the two companies are such that ultimately the effect on each others' audiences is negligible, so I guess in the end it doesn't matter.

Among Boston's fringe theatre scene there has been a fair amount of similar instances. In the past year, for example, two companies did Romeo and Juliet within days of each other, another did a play a professional company on the Cape had done three months prior, another is doing a play performed six months earlier by Boston's local youth troupe, and two companies recently announced the same production to be performed within a year of one another. (UPDATE: a local company just announced they're throwing together a benefit production... of a play another local company is opening the following month.)

These companies are chasing the same audiences, so it does matter. A hundred tickets can separate financial solvency from ruin. There are other considerations as well - companies producing the same play so close together invite comparison and competition. The producers of the first production then is tempted to become protective of their artistic choices, and issues of intellectual property rights then come into play. This promotes competitiveness, divisiveness, secretiveness and disharmony, which is cancerous for a scene that requires unity, openness, and collegiality to survive.

It would be prudent, then, to establish some sort of Best Practice standards regarding play selection. I submit the following.

Dear Fringe Theatre Companies:

When a member of the theatre community approaches you with a script they want you to consider, assume they have a vested interest in it. If they're an actor, they want to act in it. If they're a director, they want to direct. If they're a playwright, they probably wrote it. If you decide to greenlight the production, it's only fair to include them in it. If you don't, from their perspective you're snatching their dream project from them and slamming the door in their face.

Keep the lines of communication open. If they bring you a script and don't hear from you, they have no way of knowing that you're laying the groundwork while they're off pitching it to another company who might just wind up greenlighting it first.

Or maybe they didn't pitch it to you; maybe they just mentioned a particular play near and dear to their heart. If you're suddenly struck with an all-encompassing desire to produce this play yourself, it's only fair to mention it to them beforehand, get their okay, ask if they want to be involved somehow, etc. Otherwise you're stealing their baby.

Maybe it's a play that you've discovered yourself, something you've been dying to produce since you first read it or saw it years ago, or whatever. Before you announce it to the world, avail yourself of the nearest available Internet Search Engine, be it Google, Bing or - god forbid - Yahoo, and check to see if it's been produced locally in the last few years, or if it's already slated for production by another local company.

Okay, so you've committed, come hell or high water, to doing a play that another group is doing a few months or weeks beforehand. As an actor, if I'm in a play that's been made into a movie I make a choice not to see it. I want my creation to be my own, and not influenced - even unconsciously - by someone else's specific choices. And in this case, that prior company's design choices, directorial choices, etc, are their own intellectual property.

On the other hand, if you're the company doing the prior production, you have the option to reach out to that other company and talk about a co-production. Neither you nor they have a monopoly on good ideas; by unifying your efforts, you might have a better show. And you're also splitting your production costs. Why work apart when you can work together?

I understand that it's unrealistic to expect every theatre company to get together once a year to  hammer out a season in which nobody doubles up. But it is possible to observe some guidelines.
  • Open communication with people who bring potential ideas/projects/scripts to you.
  • Due diligence to make sure your dream production isn't already on some other company's schedule.
  • Consider a generally agreed-upon moratorium between productions - if another local company did it within, say, the last couple years, hold off before you do it. My number: five years.
  • But if you *must*,  make sure it's your own creation, and not influenced by the earlier show.
At the root of all of this is simply this: although there needs to be some incentive to do the best work we can do, we shoot ourselves in the foot when we work against each other, or needlessly duplicate efforts, or engender bad faith amongst one another. Onstage and off.

Thoughts? Observations? Comments?

October 7, 2012

On the Economics of Small Theatre

My friend Karen replied to my earlier blog post about small theatre companies who don't/can't offer compensation to their cast/crew by offering an intriguing question. What if these companies gave audiences the option to pay an extra $5 per ticket, and all that extra money was then split amongst the artists?

The practicality of this solution is debatable. But it did get me thinking. Although much of our audience is each other - our fellow theatre colleagues, our families, friends and co-workers - the rest is the general public, who by and large are unaware of the economics of small theatre.

And I should take this moment to talk more about those economics, lest my previous post be considered to be a blanket indictment against these small companies.

It costs a lot to produce a play in Boston.

A three-week rental of the area's various blackbox and small spaces costs between $2,400 (Factory Theatre) to over $6,000 (BCA Plaza Theatre). Dramatists' Play Service's average royalty rate for a full-length play is $75 per performance. Then there's budget for set construction, costume budget, and props. There's publicity - postcards and/or posters and occasionally advertizing space. There are other miscellaneous expenses, particularly if they're utilizing the theatre's in-house tech staff or equipment.

How much is our audience aware of the expense in producing the play they're watching? Are they aware that in many cases, nobody (actors, crew, designers, director, or even producers) gets paid?

What benefit would there be, if any, if these small companies were transparent with their audiences about where their ticket prices go? If they approached their audience with the dilemma they face - wanting to keep ticket prices low but then having little or nothing left for the artists - would they be open to paying a few dollars more? Would they be more open to making donations? Would they be willing to be more supportive of small theatre in general? Get their employers to underwrite productions? Lobby their state/local politicians to create more arts funding?

You never know if there's a theatre lover in your audience who has a lucrative job at one of the Boston area's tech, finance, legal or healthcare companies, who has no idea that box office income never covers the cost of production and the artists involved are largely working without compensation.  This transparency could be the start of productive dialogue that could be a watershed moment for Boston theatre.

October 3, 2012

My Non-Equity Actor Manifesto

Dear Boston-area non-Equity theatre producers:
I am a non-Equity actor. I call myself a professional due to my two decades' experience, training, attitude and ability. I made a choice to work a full-time career outside of my art from economic necessity. I neither expect nor demand a living wage in exchange for my services.


My time is valuable.
In addition to my full-time job, you're asking me to spend 4-6 weeks in rehearsal and 2-4 weeks in performance. When I'm working on a show, I leave the house at 8:30 am and roll in after 11pm. This is time away from my friends, family and partner. My cats miss me. My laundry and dishes pile up. My milk goes bad. I miss other people's shows. I miss family gatherings. I miss concerts, movies, museum exhibits, TV shows, and other cultural events. I spend money on gas, tolls, parking, bus fare, cab fare and subway fare to get to rehearsal.

My skill set is valuable.
Check out my résumé. I don't need any more exposure or experience, thanks; I've been at this for twenty years. Trust me. I've got plenty.

There is a limited set of circumstances under which I'll work for free.
It's my first time working with you.
I'm excited about the play, the role, the cast, the director, etc.
There's a realistic chance you'll bring me on board as an artistic associate, let me direct someday, etc.

You really should pay your actors.
If you don't already, I strongly suggest you make it your mission in the very near future to do so. This may mean more active/aggressive fundraising, a slightly higher ticket price, or choosing plays with smaller casts. Even if it's only a $100 or $150 stipend, it's a start, and it's meaningful and beneficial to us actors.

I know it's not (always) your fault.
I understand that there are economic realities at play, especially in this city. Performance space is expensive and limited. There's nowhere to rehearse. It costs a lot to put on a show, and I absolutely respect that you want to reach a broad audience and keep ticket prices low. I know you're investing as much if not more time and sweat into this as we are, and quite often you're not making a dime on this either. I don't accuse you of deliberately exploiting the actors of this city; I trust that the vast majority of you would pay us if you could.

But the more that actors are willing to work for free, the more that theatre producers become accustomed to actors working for free. When we set our value at zero, eventually our worth becomes zero.

When you pay your actors:
  • You attract better actors, which usually improves the quality of your productions, which usually raises your profile.
  • You make the theatre scene more competitive, but in a good way; actors with less experience are motivated to improve their skill set.
  • You stymie the attrition of the area's talent pool. You give a reason for early and mid-career artists to stay around, and for artists to settle here.

Until that happy day when someone opens a checkbook and creates a complex of affordable blackboxes specifically for the emerging/small/fringe theatre scene, when the local university theatre programs are more willing to share their spaces and resources, and when there is increased mentoring between larger and smaller theatre companies, a major step in pushing our theatre scene forward is paying the artists you hire. And for our local actors to take a stand and demand compensation.