July 19, 2010

Doctor Who Geekery Report - Matt Smith's First Season

Spoiler Alert.

I've finished watching the newest season of Dr Who, with Matt Smith as the Doctor.

I like Matt a lot, much more than I thought I would when he was announced. I confess to a bit of age prejudice, given that he's only 27. But he succeeds in capturing the essence of the Doctor. He's alien, he's funny, he's dark, he's hyperintelligent, he's awkward... he evokes the classic era of Doctor Who, where characterization trumped - by necessity - special effects. He has the rumpled integrity of Patrick Troughton and the boyish charm of Peter Davison.

He does lack, however, the gravitas of Tom Baker, as well as the sexy charisma of his predecessor David Tennant, and I suspect that over the long term this may prove detrimental to the show. Tennant was responsible for expanding the show's appeal globally. It grew, over three years, into a show that was must-see viewing, rivalling Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even it's own spinoff Torchwood. I don't know if the new fans that the show gained with Tennant will stick around.

The companion is a plus. Amy Pond is likable, self-sufficient, spunky, tortured, and really pretty. I'm largely immune to that last quality, but she also scores points for a Scots Burr that, unlike Tennant, she doesn't mask for the role. And I adore Rory and their relationship.

I also love River Song. Her character is the greatest non-Companion addition to the series since the Brigadier and the Master, and she's skirting the dividing line of actually being more interesting than the Doctor.

So what's missing?

Why aren't I as emotionally invested in this season as I've been with the other New Series seasons? Why am I more excited about receiving The Time Monster, Underworld, and The Chase (arguably the worst stories in the Classic Series' canon) on DVD in the mail this week?

The stories are decent. The writing is solid (which I figured would be a given, with Moffat producing). So why am I missing Russell T Davies and his occasionally questionable contributions to the program? Thankfully there are no farting aliens, no Jackie Tyler, no pigs in space uniforms, no Absorbaloffs, no smarmy Captain Jack, no dredging up Rose Tyler yet again, no instant daughter, no human/Dalek hybrids, no Mini-Me Doctor...

...but then again, for every one of those forehead slapping moments, there was the iconic moment or the brilliant idea: the Doctor meeting a Dalek for the first time since the Time War, "Are You My Mummy?", Rose and her father, Sarah Jane and K9 returning, Daleks vs Cybermen, the Asteroid containing Satan's lair, the Doctor losing Rose, the Chameleon Arch turning the Doctor human, the entire episode of Blink, the return of the Master, the chill of Dr Moon: "your reality is a lie, and your nightmares are real"... I could go on.

If there's a fault in the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat era thus far, is that it's too safe. They're not going big. The crack in time is a very solid unifying concept, but I kept waiting for that big choice. That over-the-top, fandom-splitting, attention-getting moment that attracts the interest of the non-fan. Though hardly boring, I can't think of a Major Iconic Moment this season. We got another old enemy returning, but so far removed in design and characterization that I wondered why they bothered. They brought back a Cyberman, but by making it say "You Will Be Assimilated", it's not even pretending to be anything else than Budget Borg. They tried to go for the big Emotive Moment with the Van Gogh episode, but not only did I feel manipulated, but I kept wondering why they broke the Cardinal Rule of time travel by bringing him forward to the present day and making him aware of his legacy? Why was I shocked but not shattered when Rory died?

They almost hit it a few times. The big reveal of the nature of The Beast Below. The unexpected humor in "Vampires" and "Lodger". The Valeyard-evoking Dream Lord. There are no clunkers this season (although Victory of the Daleks and Hungry Earth/Cold Blood come close), but no home runs.

To take that baseball metaphor further: with RTD we got a lot of strikeouts, but a lot of home runs and bottom-of-the-ninth walk-offs. With Moffat, we got a steady streak of singles and pitchers duels. Singles win games too, but lack the drama and celebratory catharsis of homers. What baseball game would you rather watch?

I'm not overly worried, but I want more. You've got nine months, guys. Get moving.

A Tale of Two Fringe Shows

Dear readers: I've been lax lately in my postings. I blame Twitter and Facebook. Why post a blog when a tweet or status update will suffice, says my ever-dwindling attention span. I note that I have as many draft postings as I do live posts. I'm great at starting, and need to work on getting to the end.

I just closed my second production of the Capital Fringe Festival, Steven Dietz's The Nina Variations. I was hoping to repeat (and thereby build upon) the success of last year's Bad Hamlet, which was an award-winning sleeper hit that sold out its last two performances and was an arguable profile-raiser both for me and my producing banner, the Adequate Players.

Well, Nina didn't quite capture the same lightning in a bottle.

It was a very solid and successful production from an artistic standpoint (Melissa and Kevin, you were marvellous, and Bob, you rock), but otherwise? We played to less than 40% capacity, and after Fringe Pass discounts and press and producer comps, even with a smaller cast (2 vs 6), a director working for free, no stage manager or designers, no set or costume expenses, minimal prop purchases, etc., this is one Fringe producer who is taking a bath. My percentage of ticket revenue might just cover my two actors' and one techie's stipends. No luck in recouping the participation fee, insurance fee, script royalties, or publicity expenses. Oh well.

It occurred to me just how fortunate I was with Bad Hamlet; above and beyond the quality of the show and the people working on it, we caught a favorable confluence of circumstances that set the stage for a success above and beyond my most optimistic expectations. (As a producer, it's fine enough to have a great show, but better still to have a great show that gets great press, sells out and wins awards.)

To say that Nina didn't catch that same confluence is not to declare it a failure, nor to point the finger of blame at anyone. Both shows were great. We got lucky last year. We weren't as lucky this year.

Let's compare:

The Bedroom (Nina), versus the Bodega (Hamlet). Both are 'found spaces'. The Bodega was larger, the Bedroom was slightly cooler (better AC). Neither venue had bathrooms, neither was ADA compliant, both had significant sound bleed between neighboring venues.
Result: a wash... to get the sweat smell off.

Bad Hamlet - Twelve days passed between our opening and closing shows. We opened with back-to-back shows Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, were off until the following Friday, then another Sunday afternoon show, and a Wednesday evening close. Between show 2 and 3, we had a full workweek for our good reviews to come out and generate buzz, and then a good solid 5 days afterwards on which to capitalize. And we did; show 3 was nearly full and the final two shows were sellouts.

Nina Variations - Our five performances were compressed over an eight-day period, opening on a late Friday (11:30pm) and closing the late Saturday (11:15). Our most favorable reviews came out the day before our closing show, leaving hardly any time to capitalize. I recognize in saying this that other Fringe productions had as brief a run as mine, and did just as well if not better. I present the two cases merely as comparison.
Winner: Bad Hamlet coasts the final length

Pre-Show Publicity:
Bad Hamlet: Apart from one blog interview from a colleague, none.

Nina Variations: Seeing the level of other shows' pre-Fringe media blitzes last year taught me the value of generating early buzz. I sent two rounds of press releases, had postcards ready before Source Fest, and Bob took a fabulous promo pic (see above) that appeared in the Post and its daily digest, The Express.
Winner: Nina, by a flock of (dead stuffed) seagulls.

Bad Hamlet: Although I did little to actually encourage them to do so, practically all the local media covering Fringe came, and came early. As a result their reviews, almost all of them positive, all came in a big mid-week cluster a week or so before the end of our run. Our ticket sales for our latter three shows exploded. And either through luck or by design, practically all the reviews contained perfect quote nuggets that I could capitalize upon for future marketing. "A Fringe Must-See"... "Fascinating and wonderful to watch"... etc.

Nina Variations: Only one critic at opening, so until the day of our penultimate performance the only review was DCTC's decidedly mixed assessment; not exactly a buzz-generator. The Post followed Wednesday with warmer but similar sentiments. DCist apparently skipped over us this year, and we got exactly the review I expected on Allartsreview4u; no link is warranted or merited. For what it was worth, Rich Massabny of Arlington Weekly News came on Tuesday and gave us a brief but glowing online review (skip to the end) that came Friday. The City Paper's Fringe & Purge "Hip Shot" that came late Friday was by its own admission a cop-out. Having run out of time to write a thorough review, this picture served as the critical evaluation in lieu of a deeper study that I hope will follow, either posted publicly or shared privately.
Oh, and our quote nuggets? Read on.
"An interesting approach, but only a partial success." - DCTC
"The novelty started to wear off..." - WaPo
"When are people going to realize that Chekhov's plays are already perfect
and don't require any deconstruction or re-imagining?" - Express (that was
supposed to be a joke, right?)
"It appears that I may not be able to produce an actual Hip Shot before its
final performance" - Fringe & Purge (City Paper)
Winner: Do I even need to tell you?

Play Selection
I have to swallow my pride and accept that perhaps the Nina Variations just wasn't as effective of an audience draw as Bad Hamlet. Deconstructed Shakespeare is evidently more buzzworthy than deconstructed Chekhov. Even though Nina is a published script with a solid pedigree and a small core of fervent admirers, and Dietz is a solid and nationally respected playwright, it didn't gain the "must-see" patina from either the critics or general public. Maybe under a different set of circumstances it could have taken off, but ultimately there's nobody to blame except perhaps myself.
Maybe next year I'll sell out and do a play that adds zombies to a work of great literature (Don't laugh, I already wrote it).
Winner: Bad Hamlet.

But ultimately I can either obsess until I'm blue in the face about what didn't happen this year or be grateful for what did. What we did get was a tight band of friends, loved ones, colleagues and general public who came and greatly enjoyed The Nina Variations. It's still one my favorite plays, and being so easy and relatively inexpensive to produce, I can do it again whenever and wherever I want. So I'm not sorry. At all.