Saturday, November 23, 2013

Next Stop? Everywhere! (Happy 50th Birthday to the Doctor Who-verse - Aliens, Companions, Robots, Villains, All!)

I just finished playing the Google Doodle celebrating Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. It took me a while to get all letters, but I made it to the end. It was the latest in the long line of DW teasers celebrating this Saturday’s anniversary special. It will feature Doctors Ten and Eleven, my favorite Doctors of the series.

But I suppose “favorite” is too weird a word to use, especially in a serial that spans 50 years. For every Doctor, there will be a dud episode, a weird plot arc, an iffy companion, a ridiculous villain, and a backstory factoid that won’t seem to fit the canon. If you play the part long enough, the law of averages will win out, and you will have some series’ peaks as well as some crazy troughs. (That was certainly true of the Tenth Doctor.) But what matters in the whole history of my admittedly short DW fandom is that I started the journey. And thankfully, that journey is still ongoing.

My first Doctor is also the youngest – Matt Smith. That seems weird to say on paper, but I do have HUGE affection for Matt’s Doctor in that his series’ debut was the very first DW episode that I watched in full. Never mind that I was stuck on a treadmill debating what to watch on the little TV screen in front of me. I clicked on the BBCA channel in time to see little Amy Pond see a blue police box crash into her garden and I’ve been hooked ever since. Very soon, I was rooting for Number Eleven as much as I was rooting for his companions’ relationship to survive the trials of being sucked into the time vortex. Amy and Rory were my favorite Doctor Who companions. Not Rose or the Doctor. Or Martha and the Doctor. Or whoever else. It was Amy and Rory. Arthur Darvill, in particular, was an inspired and lovely piece of casting. As the Doctor described him in “The Wedding of River Song”, “The loyal soldier, waiting to be noticed. Always the pattern. Why is that?” It was such a sweet summary of Rory’s character through the seasons. Though Amy waited for her Raggedy Man, Rory waited for his girl, his Amy. And he fought for her amidst the wars of the universe. It was quite fitting that their final episode has them transported back in time where they lived their years together. And fans were treated to our beloved Rory character getting closure through a storyboarded webisode where their son meets his grandfather for the first time and explains why he’d have to keep watering the plants from now on.

The fact that his companions were sometimes larger-than-life compared to the Doctor possibly necessitated a change. Whereupon Clara came in. it was quite a clunky character device, in that she was supposedly in the Doctor’s timestream and therefore a part of all his reincarnations. We will see what the 50th anniversary episode has for us.

My first brush with Doctor Who fandom, meanwhile, happened much, much earlier. I was a fan of the series “Heroes” and in one episode, Christopher Eccleston guest-starred. At that moment, the Internet LIT UP like crazy. The Doctor is in this episode! The Doctor! Doctor Who! At the time, I was like, aptly enough, “Doctor who…?” I tried to look him up and it turns out he played the Doctor the year before. I was like, “okay great” but didn’t go beyond that. I thought, well, he’s no longer the Doctor now.

Then a year or so later, when I was reading through casting news for the new Harry Potter Goblet of Fire movie, news of David Tennant being cast as Barty Crouch Jr. spread like wildfire and also took the Internet by storm. I was like, “who IS this guy??” Upon seeing the movie, I thought to myself, “he only has like, 5 minutes of screentime – what the heck was the fuss all about??” I read up on him, going backwards, and again, Doctor Who cropped up. This is nuts, I thought. And it wasn’t until I was transfixed on that small TV screen on the treadmill that day that I finally figured out what the fuss was all about.

Since I didn’t have a DVR or subscribed to Hulu or Netflix, it wasn’t easy to watch the series backwards. Sometimes BBCA would randomly air a Tenth Doctor episode, but that was rare. And even rarer was a Eccleston episode. At some point, I’d have a pretty good sample of Ten episodes (there were a lot; he played the role for 5 years!) to figure out that he did a phenomenal job with the character. He’d had something like 4 major companions (Rose, Martha, Jack, Donna), and the recurring companions like Jackie and Mickey and Wilf. My top two DW episodes are all Tennant’s: “Blink”, “Waters of Mars”. Third goes to Eccles’ two-parter “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”. Funniest episode had been “Partners In Crime” and possibly most of the Doctor/Donna season. I LOVE Catherine Tate. Next to Rory, Donna was my other favorite companion. I love that she was “just a mate” of the Doctor’s. None of that romantic nonsense. And then third goes to Capt. Jack Harkness. That Capt. Jack love eventually translated to me binge-watching the first three seasons of “Torchwood” – it was great! (Jack-Ianto forever! Also, *sniff*…)

If it weren’t for 2013 being the anniversary year of Doctor Who, I would never have watched any episode of the older Doctors. But the BBC did show at least one memorable episode from each Doctor’s time, and it was fun watching old-timey sets and costumes (Tom Baker’s scarf!) back then, along with the older versions of the TARDIS, the Cybermen, and other monsters of the week. It was fun watching the original Master duke it out with the Doctor for the first time. And the Daleks never changed, save for a pop of color in the current version. The Daleks are still the enemy. Some newer “monsters” came along, and at the top of any Doctor Who list of terrifying monsters, especially my list, were the Weeping Angels. “Blink” was the first time they appeared on the series and I was rightfully frightened out of my mind. I was thankful that it aired in the daytime, because I otherwise would have jumped out of my skin at the climactic scene. Though Tennant did not feature largely in this episode, Carey Mulligan did a fantastic job as Sally Sparrow, as did the first-time lady director. The episode was both outstanding and a standout in that it didn’t have the same look and feel as the rest of the Tenth Doctor Who episodes at the time. And the story structure was different, too. Combine these along with a superb heroine, a mostly absent Doctor, and a truly terrifying monster of the week, and I will say that “Blink” is the best and my favorite DW episode of all.

As a fan of Matt Smith, I love that he is a huge goof and makes the Doctor funny and approachable and relatable. I think the fact that he was very young, had humor, and had companions that were his age helped cater to a younger demographic and most likely brought an increased audience to DW (myself included). And also the fact that he wasn’t afraid to be KissyDoctor helped as well (a character trait born from Paul McGann – the underappreciated Eighth Doctor and one whom I still love to bits).

But I think Tennant, and to some degree, Eccleston, showed the best characterization of the Doctor. Not just with humor and empathy, but with a great deal of enigma and tragedy as well. “The Waters of Mars” was a particularly telling story that emphasized the “Lord” in Time-Lord. Tennant’s Doctor showed us that, while he can take a pratfall or two, he is ultimately a powerful being that can do away with any compunction whatsoever if he feels like it. It’s a recurring theme that was planted in Nine, and underlined in Ten’s legacy. That, despite being an advocate of peaceful resolution and the fact that he does not utilize any weaponry, he could erase universes and alien races, bring down governments, and manipulate individuals and events that could change history. And indeed, he has done all those things. When he brought about a character’s suicide towards the end of “Waters of Mars”, the tragedy that plays out on the Doctor’s face was very telling and yet you knew this was just all in a day’s work for him. In “The Stolen Earth”, when Davros chided him for fashioning his companions into weapons, you felt the weight and guilt of that statement on him. It was one of the risks associated with being the Doctor. Sure you can travel and create extraordinary experiences. But to have lived so long and alone amidst great darkness and evil was bound to affect your psyche and, eventually, the people you associate with.

I had assumed that Doctor Who will have an endgame at some point. People are talking about a finite number of regenerations, and yet the franchise continues to amass and amaze. The Twelfth Doctor was also a genius casting choice (Peter Capaldi, who will need to keep his tongue in check and play/talk nice for now) and whom I will need to enjoy the ride for as long as he is able. I don’t know if they are going to end the series, nor how. I think the “how” is a good question. Will the Doctor finally find peace? Happiness? Love? Well, we all know he’s married to River Song, and has a granddaughter Susan. So there goes “love”. And I don’t think “peace” will ever be achieved as long as inter-planetary turmoil continues to be an issue. So, “happiness” maybe? It’s odd to think that a franchise with such a devoted fan base is predicated on a character that is lonely and sometimes, angry. I’m not sure how this will all end. For now, I will enjoy the journey. Bring on Number Twelve, please.

But first, let’s see how three Doctors are going to save London again this Saturday.


Monday, November 18, 2013

An Open Letter to the National Theater Live, and to Everyone Involved in the Production of “Frankenstein”

In the intro to "Frankenstein", we were encouraged to react via Twitter. However, allow me my moment of foolishness, to wear my heart on my sleeve. I need more than 140 characters to capture what I truly felt upon watching "Frankenstein" that night. I hope this reaches the right people over at the NTL. Because God knows their impact is stronger than they realize.

Last week, I traveled more than an hour’s worth of subway rides to see the National Theater Live’s re-broadcast of “Frankenstein”. I had been looking forward to this for months, and I was prepared to brave the cold Evanston chill on a Wednesday night just to see the two Sherlocks duke it out on stage.

I have heard of this production a year after it ended its stage run, so you could say I was very “late to the party”. I’m not even sure how I have come to hear about the play. I must have been reading a Benedict Cumberbatch Wikipedia entry one day and seen it on there. Or I must have been checking out the National Theater website and simply started clicking on links here and there and stumbled upon the 50th anniversary re-broadcast. However I discovered it, I instantly regretted not knowing about it early enough, and I vowed to see it. Even if I had to travel all the way up to a north Chicago suburb to see it.

So yes, I was excited. I have been a fan of Jonny Lee Miller ever since “Eli Stone”, of Benedict since he broke out as “Sherlock”, and Danny Boyle since, well, everything (but primarily “Trainspotting”). To discover that the stars aligned to see these three creative forces commit to “Frankenstein” was nothing short of a miracle, I could imagine. It was no surprise that the whole original run was sold out, and the leads’ performances were acknowledged and recognized by critics and peers as extraordinary. I’m not sure if the decision to have them switch between Victor and The Creature was a novel one, but it certainly worked with only actors of their caliber. The production I saw had Jonny Lee Miller take on The Creature and Benedict as Victor. As a biased observer, I can say that The Creature’s confusion, loneliness, and desire to be loved resonated with me very much. I confess to not having read the original source material, so I was rooting for him all the way to the end (and cursing Frankenstein for neglecting him in the first place). I admit to being heartbroken when The Creature killed Elizabeth, only because I honestly thought he could be redeemed. It was a fantastic play, and the way Jonny portrayed The Creature, in my mind, was spectacular. With humor and pathos combined. I felt rather tortured with the way the production toyed with my feelings – sad one moment, overjoyed the next, then heartbroken after that. But I relished it because it proved that the production was compelling and memorable enough for me.

The production itself, primarily the set design, seemed to take on a steampunk aesthetic. Quite apropos, given the sci-fi and morality themes within the material. And the way Underworld rendered the lighting and score only served to reinforce the aesthetic some more. Much was also said about The Creature being given a point of view, which gave the production its moral (or amoral, depending on how you look at it) center. “Frankenstein” certainly set out to be different from other versions of the tale. Sometimes it tried too hard, and you can tell when it did. But the end result was something creatively definitive and memorable.

I should add, however, that I saw it with a heavy heart. As excited as I was to see it, I had mixed emotions going into the theater that night.

I am currently into the last two months of my stay here in the US. My work visa is expiring, and I am trying to lap up and savor as many experiences as I could, especially those that I could not experience at home. You see, growing up in a Third World country meant that cultural pursuits were expensive, if not accessible. Though I was privileged to be educated in a top-ranked institution, the curriculum was directed more towards local culture and history. I had a dearth of knowledge about what you'd call the Western "classics" – like Shakespeare, and Emerson, and Whitman. I tried to read them, and about them, in my own spare time, but I was only limited to what I can get my hands on(e.g., buy in a bookstore) and what I can understand. It was perhaps the reason why I was grateful to Hollywood for “visualizing” the literature for me (I must have consumed more versions of “Romeo and Juliet” that I can remember, and seen more Bronte-inspired rom-coms than I care to admit). And why “Deads Poets Society” resonated so much with me.

In my 8 years living in the US, I have always been enamored of how the arts and culture are perceived and supported here. When the time comes for me to pick up my bags and leave, I will truly miss how accessible the arts are here. The fact that I can watch an innovative take on “Frankenstein” more than two years after it was staged, just boggles my mind. And the fact that I saw it in a Stateside theater is just as astounding. Whoever thought of the idea to broadcast UK theater – be it from the National Theater, or the Royal Shakespeare Company – is a genius. Never mind the income that it generates. Think of the cultural effect it will have on the many, many people who can now access this kind of cultural phenomena when they initially couldn't. I myself am inspired so much that it makes my heart burst – and only because I do not know where to begin with my story.

I had only been in the US for a year, studying for a graduate degree, when I decided to spend the scholarship stipend money I’ve been saving up on a ticket to see “The History Boys” on Broadway. I do not know why I decided on that particular play. I only glanced over the synopsis on the website. But I saw it and had the most wonderful time. It was my very first time to see a Broadway play, and I got to see Richard Griffiths onstage, as well as the original UK cast. I got to hear Posner sing “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered”. And I got to see some of the main cast before they became popular. The material was reminiscent of “Dead Poets Society”, and I remember walking out of the theater after the matinee, not minding the pouring rain, and thinking to myself, “I’m going to write them a letter.” And I did. I thanked them for giving me such a lovely first-time experience. And Nicholas Hytner wrote me back. I still have that letter.

With the National Theater Live program, the National Theater itself does not need to rely on Broadway versions of its productions to reach out to audiences beyond the UK. And I know that this program has entertained many others like me, and inspired many others like me. My only misfortune is that I can no longer access this program once I return home. And while the needs of a developing country are different, and possibly more dire, I cannot imagine how showing a Shakespeare play can hurt. But like I said, going home means taking on a different set of priorities. And I quietly weep at the possibility that I will no longer have access to National Theater Live productions.

“Frankenstein” will be my last NTL production before I leave for home. I wish I could stay here longer to see “Coriolanus” and “War Horse”, but I’m afraid I will have to miss them. The UK-bred productions are a wonderful export. Broadway is great, sure. But there’s a certain history, quality, aesthetic, and novelty that the UK stage brings to the world of theater. And so it bears repeating: I hope you folks are aware of the cultural effect you have on people who otherwise can’t see a play in the UK. I can’t thank you enough for entertaining me through the years, and for putting me in a cultural space that believes anything is possible. I will have to do away with you for a while. But be assured that it gives me a goal to strive for. Maybe save up for a trip to London and see something live for the first time?

That would truly be mind-blowing.