Monthly Archives: September 2011
Developments So Far:
Last week, in a season that has become defined by its twists and turns, the Doctor and the Ponds (Amy and Rory Williams) went their separate ways, after the Doctor had, rightfully, became concerned that his adventures were too dangerous for them, and for Amy especially. The departure was amicable, poignant, and touching, but it seems to be doubtful that we’ve seen the last of Amy and Rory, especially with only two episodes left in the season (and Amy still narrating the BBC America version of the opening).
The Doctor also confronted, and defeated, a monster that reflected his own existential dilemma – an ancient, world-weary creature drenched in the blood of its unintended victims. Last we saw of him, he was forlorn and alone on the TARDIS, facing his oncoming death with dread and sorrow, but also with a touch of anticipation, having seen himself become the monster that the Anglican Marines in the future took him to be. Read the rest of this entry
Developments So Far:
In last week’s intriguing and heart-breaking “The Girl Who Waited,” Rory was faced with the choice of having to save either a younger or older version of his wife, Amy (a choice that was forced on him by the actions of the Doctor). Ultimately, the Old Amy chose to stay behind and let the younger Amy live. Though sad, and somewhat unfair, we now see that Amy Pond does have the chance to develop into character far stronger and more proactive than the one she has been. It also began to tease both the Doctor’s irresponsibility and cold-bloodedness, and Rory’s growing frustration with his manipulative behavior.
Going forward, there has been a great deal of concern among the fanbase that major emotional issues, especially in the case of Amy and Rory, have been getting ignored by the writers to a frustrating degree. With two major events in the last three episodes that should rock them to the very core – the loss of their daughter’s childhood and the sacrifice of Old Amy – it remains to be see whether this will continue to be the case, or if more attention will be paid to the continuity of their characters.
Also still looming over all is the fact that the Doctor now knows when he is going to die, and the toll that will take on him as the story goes forward is still to be discerned. Read the rest of this entry
Developments So Far:
Last week’s “Night Terrors” was crafted as kind of a standalone episode, which, as a follow up to the very mythology-laden “Let’s Kill Hitler” left the panoply of previous questions largely unanswered. One point of popular concern that has risen up involves specifically “the Ponds,” Amy and Rory Williams, and how they will be reacting going forward to the current state of their daughter Melody Pond/River Song, who is now a fully grown adult and living off on her own in the distant future. After no reference during the last episode (which, it’s pretty well understood, was written for the first half of the season and then produced later), many have wondered if there will be attention paid to their state of mind, or if it will be awkwardly ignored like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla.
Let’s talk about Amy Pond, shall we?
For those not yet familiar with the history of Amelia “Amy” Pond (Karen Gillan), she has been the constant companion to the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) since his first episode (Season 5’s premiere “The Eleventh Hour”). Introduced initially as an eight year old (who mysteriously doesn’t seem to have any immediate family), she first meets the Doctor when his TARDIS (damaged by the energy given off by his regeneration) crash lands in her backyard. After promising to return “in five minutes” and lead her off to a great adventure (which would be a cover to find out why she seems to be at a convergence for a major temporal event called the Fall), the quick jaunt in the TARDIS “to get the kinks out,” propels him instead twelve years into the future. When he returns, Amy Pond has grown to adulthood after a lifetime of believing in the “Raggedy Doctor.” After helping the Doctor save the world, however, her childhood dream finally comes true: she becomes the Doctor’s new companion, following him throughout space and time, and helping him fight monsters and save the world (as any good companion should). Because of how long she ended up waiting for him to come back, the Doctor has often referred to her as “Amelia Pond – the girl who waited.” After a few episodes as the sole companion, in a move that was considered a little controversial, Amy’s fiancé, the good-hearted but awkward Rory Williams, became a third companion (and sometimes, admittedly, a third wheel). Last season culminated with Amy and Rory’s wedding, and as a couple have been with the Doctor for the entire season so far (well, not counting the fact that Amy was kind of clone…but you get the idea). Read the rest of this entry
Ironically, on June 6, 2011, during the same weekend X-Men: First Class was released to theaters, the two top film critics for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, crafted an interesting piece entitled “In Defense of Slow and Boring,” defending the power and importance of the “boring” film, i.e. the arthouse films that are typically not driven by commercial concerns or toward presenting high entertainment, but strive to some greater significance. The central film spoken about in their piece was the Terrence Malick film “The Tree of Life,” and how to some, it was brilliant, and to others, who sought more entertaining fair, found it to be boring and pretentious (I have not seen the film yet myself – though I do want to – so I have no opinion on it). It’s an extremely good essay, even if, in the end, it’s just another entry on the extended debate between cinema as escapist entertainment and cinema as high art. So, you might be asking, what does this have to do with X-Men: First Class, a high concept, big budget, mass-entertainment superhero film (which is being released today on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download), of which this piece is ostensibly about? Simply put, many of the best films, and the ones that I think largely stick with us, are those that exist at a nexus between art and entertainment, of escapism and meaning. They address both sides of the debate, and build a bridge between those viewers that just want a thrilling ride and those that want their ride to ultimately go somewhere significant. X-Men: First Class is absolutely not one of those movies, though after I had finished watching it, I couldn’t help but yearn and lament that it is precisely what it could, and should, have been.
Now, as a scholar, I have focused mainly on Post-September 11 media and popular culture, so the resurgence of the comic book superhero film after its critical and commercial collapse in the 1990s was and is of keen interest to me. While most of the modern superhero films are initially presented as little more than aspiring blockbusters, there have been a select number that, somewhat surprisingly, managed to be both grand popcorn entertainment and intriguing allegorical drama, such as Spider-man 2, Iron Man, and both of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Fueled by the deeply held emotions and underlying tensions of a post-terrorist culture, these films incorporated issues of ethics, moral philosophy, personal responsibility, and the tenuous and fluid nature of good and evil into the often ludicrous worlds of costumed superheroes, and as a result managed critical responses that were often otherwise reserved for Academy Award nominees. However, after reaching a creative, critical, and commercial zenith with The Dark Knight a few years back, superhero films have been on a noticeable and marked decline in critical response, fan opinion, and commercial returns. Nearly a decade into the resurgence of the superhero film, the genre (if you want to classify it as that) finds itself at something of a crossroads, critically and commercially. With the global and national economy, natural disasters, and the role of government supplanting the fear of terrorism in the popular imagination, combined with a very noticeable excess of poorer output (ahem, Green Lantern) and less intriguing choices in subject matter (Ghostrider, Fantastic Four), superhero and other comic book films have shown signs of having engendered genuine fatigue with fans, critics, and audiences alike (and it is especially noticeable at the box office). As a result, the films seem to have lost the ambition of the blockbuster exemplars of just a few years ago, and this summer had no less than four major superhero films that arrived with fairly marginal prerelease “buzz” and very specialized hype geared to very limited audiences (namely the sort of people who recognize the name “Guy Gardner” or care what a “Cosmic Cube” is). Stuck in between the fairly flat Thor and the terrible Green Lantern (and safely removed from the strong Captain America) was X-Men: First Class, the latest installment in the X-Men movie franchise, and upon whose shoulders was the future of a film property that had seemingly squandered what was once a world of potential.
Telling the origin (or an origin) of the relationship and development of Professor X and Magneto, the two contrasting ideologues of the X-Men universe, First Class can’t really be called a bad movie, but I certainly think it was given a noticeable surfeit of praise upon its release three months ago. For those unfamiliar with the two iconic characters in their comic or film incarnations, Professor Charles Xavier, or Professor X, is a powerful telepath (mind reader) and the leader and founder of the X-Men, a group of superheroes who believe in Xavier’s vision of a peaceful world wherein normal humans (homo sapiens) and mutants (homo superior) – individuals granted amazing powers through inborn genetic mutations – peacefully coexist. Opposed to Xavier is Erik Lensherr, or Magneto, a ferrokinetic (defined by the ability to manipulate magnetic fields and thus mentally control nearly all metal), who, in contrast to Xavier, believes that mutants are the next step in human evolution, and with the aid of some incarnation of his terrorist/supremacist group, the Brotherhood of Mutants, tries to help the process of natural selection on its merry way by leading mutants to their rightful place as rulers of the Earth. Though Magneto’s presentation often wavers between villain and antihero, his tactics against normal humans typically border on the genocidal. First Class tries to relate the backstory of how the two men, formerly best friends and allies, eventually became mortal enemies. It certainly manages during its 132 minutes to be highly entertaining and, periodically, very compelling, but despite its qualities, it also remains unfortunately shallow and misguided.
Now, to some, that may be perfectly satisfactory, but to one who understands the appeal of the X-Men and their history, this particular story told in a fairly superficial manner becomes a particularly disappointing experience. The X-Men, through its long and tortuous publication history, has come to be defined by a mix of good and bad. The bad comes in the form of its continuity: the X-Men were singular and unique among other comics in that their success came primarily on its appeal to very dedicated, hardcore fans. Stories set in the X-Men universe could often be fairly complex and complicated, told across multiple publications, with legions of characters that ranged from being fascinating, richly layered, unique individuals facing deep, existential dilemmas (such as the noble genius with the body of a monster named Beast, the beautiful, mysterious young woman incapable of touching another human being named Rogue, and the popular postmodern Heracles called Wolverine) to those who were frankly little more than a gimmick. As a byproduct of this, however, the various X-Men comics have become notorious for their dense continuities, which are often criticized (including by myself) for being almost impregnable to the casual reader. However, while the X-Men series falter in their continuity, their success has always been on the strength and appeal of its characters and its deeper subtexts. Truly, what has always set X-Men stories apart in the world of comics media is its shared, core allegory about the nature of prejudice, the evils of intolerance, and the minority perspective. Mutants are, essentially, a racial minority group feared by the majority of normal humans, and though most of the heroes’ battles are typically against Magneto and other megalomaniacal mutants, their victories were always fleeting in the face of their lack of societal acceptance. X-Men comics were also the first to evince and endorse a multicultural society; many of the mutant X-Men, though bound together as a genetic minority, nevertheless came from a variety of different countries, races, religions, and cultures. As a result, despite their shared plight, they were rarely a homogenous unit and the interpersonal conflicts that would develop and be resolved among the various incarnations of the team were sometimes the leading source of drama for the various series, as opposed to the traditional superhero derring-do. It’s often understated, too, that the comics were highly influential in their medium for their portrayal of female characters. Though still crafted to be sexually alluring to the predominantly male audience, characters such as Storm (the first major black female comic book character), Rogue, Jean Grey, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and others demonstrated that strong women could bolster and carry comic book narratives that were, and still are, too often viewed as a “boys only” club.
To understand further where First Class ultimately succeeds and fails must also mean understanding where the film stands within its franchise. Though once lacking significant mainstream recognition, the X-Men were popular enough during the 1990s that a feature film would be inevitable. Directed by Bryan Singer, who was not a fan of the comics or of comics in general, the original, refreshingly intimate, and low-key X-Men (2000) wisely pared down the massive continuity to a core group of key figures, and especially kept the focus on the franchise’s most popular character, the amnesiac fighting machine Wolverine, played near perfectly by Hugh Jackman. The result was a good summer action movie with strong character dynamics that also offered a star-making turn for Jackman. It was successful enough to be followed, three years later, by X2 (subtitled popularly as X-Men United), which seemed to carry the franchise light years forward, using the groundwork laid by the first film to create a tensely paced story that eschewed many of the conventions of the traditional superhero film. Instead of facing a super-powered supervillain, the X-Men, as well as their nemesis Magneto, found themselves opposing a human enemy who was the living manifestation of the prejudice and intolerance that subjugated them all. Cleverly interspersed with allegorical touches about the similarity of possessing mutant powers to LGBT identity politics (director Singer is himself gay), the end result was one of the better super-hero films yet made (other’s opinions may differ), and the franchise seemed poised to set a new standard in quality among what was then a broken trail of collapsed superhero film series.
However, it was clear even then that the streamlining of the X-Men continuity came at a price. Besides losing or marginalizing a vast number of storylines and characters, which was absolutely unavoidable and necessary, the X-Men portrayed in the films were often no longer identifiable as being representatives of various cultures and ethnicities. With the sole exception of the German character Nightcrawler (whose appearance was already entirely demonic), X-Men who had, in their original incarnation been foreign born, such as the Russian Colossus (who was another comic first – the sympathetic Russian), the African Storm, and the Austrailian Pyro were all recast as specifically American (at one point, literally the most exotic character seemed to be the Canadian Wolverine).
Then, as the story goes, it all went to hell. Bryan Singer left the series to take the reins of Superman Returns (a project for which he was regrettably ill-suited), and 20th Century Fox Pictures, demonstrating what would become an emblematic indifference to the quality of their Marvel film properties, hired perpetual critically anathemic director Brett Ratner to helm the series’ third film. X-Men: The Last Stand was a commercial success but a critical and popular disaster that was widely scorned in all quarters. Three years later, Wolverine had his own origin story told in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was not only terrible but managed to almost completely “de-claw” and thoroughly undermine the appeal of its main character. Both films shared in common an impulse displayed by Fox to throw as many X-Men characters as possible onto the screen, regardless of whether they belonged or could be executed properly. To fans, this betrayed a deeply cynical approach that seemed designed to exploit the gullible archetypal “fanboy” with the expectation that he or she would buy their ticket simply at the promise of seeing their favorite characters oncreen, without realizing such contempt would, and did, yield continuously diminishing returns.
In this context, X-Men: First Class was made as an attempt to bring the franchise back to its earlier standard of quality. And certainly, it would be unfair to ignore the quality the film has on display. As mentioned, the story centers on the meeting of a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbinder), whose separate paths – Xavier as a CIA contractor and Lensherr as a Nazi hunting Holocaust survivor – both lead them toward the shared goal of defeating a megalomaniacal evil mutant named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of a pro-mutant terrorist group called the Hellfire Club. For Lensherr the hunt is very personal, as Shaw, in a previous identity as a Nazi scientist, experimented on the future Magneto after discovering the young boy’s powers while he was interned at a Nazi concentration camp. After learning that Shaw plans to force the United States and the Soviet Union into a nuclear showdown so as to pave the way for a mutant takeover, Xavier and Lensherr, with the help of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), start recruiting young mutants to go against Shaw and his Hellfire Club. Included in this group is Xavier’s adopted sister, a blue-skinned mutant shapeshifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and closeted mutant science whiz Henry McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), each of whom will eventually become better known as the villainess Mystique and the hero Beast.
As a movie, under helmer Matthew Vaughan, First Class is fast paced, exciting, and occasionally quite witty, with a number of very dynamic set pieces that make excellent use of the nature and mechanics of the X-Men universe. Magneto, for instance, makes inspired use of an enemy’s metal fillings, and in one fun sequence gives new meaning to the phrase, “drop anchor.” However, there are definitely times where the film suffers from its crackling pace, as moments that should have some narrative and emotional resonance are quickly glossed over to make way for things that are far less interesting, therefore causing the film’s best material to lose whatever poignancy it might have otherwise mustered. Among its other strengths, though, the film also makes handsome use of its highly stylized and retro 1960s setting. The costumes are fantastic, perhaps even worthy of an Oscar nod, and many of the sets and scenery are highly evocative of the early James Bond films, especially Shaw’s snazzy submarine-cum-bachelor pad.
The film works best, at least initially, when dealing with the development of the relationship between Xavier and Lensherr. The dashing and dynamic Fassbinder gives a star-making performance on par with Jackman’s in the original X-Men, and McAvoy does a surprisingly good job bringing youth, wisdom, charm, and idealism to the part of the future Professor X. Kevin Bacon, too, hits the right note in playing the villainous Shaw. Benefiting from being cast against type, Bacon brings restraint to an antagonist’s role where a more traditional villain actor might have seen it as a showcase; he doesn’t try to upstage the action or the story, only play his role in it.
On the other side, though, are the frankly bad parts of the film, which unfortunately have much to do with the eponymous “first class.” Again falling victim to the Fox mentality of throwing as many new characters into the film as possible, as well as the decision to make this a prequel more than an outright reboot (an admittedly overused approach that would have actually worked here), the roster of what should be presented as the X-Men’s iconic first class is generally filled out with characters for whom it would be generous to call “B-teamers” in the comics, such as Havok, Banshee, and Darwin. As had been the problem in the previous two films, the characters bear little resemblance to their comic book counterparts. Banshee, for instance, who in the comics is appropriately Irish, is here just a WASPish blond teen pretty boy who happens to boast a high-pitched scream. Even more anachronistic is the plasma-generating mutant Havok, whose main claim to fame is being the brother of the more popular X-Man Cyclops, who in the film’s continuity hasn’t even been born yet. I personally don’t like to get too caught up in the inevitable differences between comics and their films; if the filmmakers truly thought adapting these characters in this way was best for the film, than I was willing to be convinced. But I wasn’t, and with the X-Men, as mentioned, the unique traits of the characters are pretty much the central appeal. In essence, it repeated precisely the same issues on display in the earlier installments: to fans, their characters are unworthy of inclusion here, and to non-fans the film does absolutely nothing to make them appear to be the slightest bit interesting or worthy of being the inaugural X-Men. Worse yet, the written characterizations and performances of the young X-Men are generally terrible, with almost everyone looking and performing like they were rejected by the Disney Channel. Academy Award nominee Lawrence comes across fairly bland as Mystique and Hoult does a pretty awful job as Beast, though he isn’t aided by makeup that seems better suited for a mall opening than a major theatrical blockbuster.
The actual Hellfire Club is also a somewhat underwhelming bunch, featuring a red-skinned teleporter named Azazel and an individual who throws tornadoes apparently named Riptide, neither of whom are ever even burdened with dialogue. As the popular character of Emma Frost, January Jones falls far short in a role that was already underwritten, and which again failed to capture a large part of the original character’s appeal (her scathing wit), though she does look appropriately gorgeous, with her transformation into the character’s diamond-skinned form certainly evokes memories of the gilded gals from Goldfinger.
The film’s biggest and most nuanced quality issue, however, lies firmly in its script. While there are a number of very good scenes and some very intriguing payoffs layered in its plot, the narrative threads aren’t carried through to a satisfactory conclusion and a number of dramatic character changes are simply not earned. Magneto’s transition from roguish avenger to mutant supremacist is eloquently handled but ultimately quite abrupt. The Magneto of the comics and the earlier films was also portrayed as a genius, scholar, and scientist, while in this film he’s not much more that an ideological Jason Bourne. Though his arc is still better than that of Mystique, who performs a completely abrupt about face to join Magneto and betray her foster brother, with the greatest narrative cause seemingly being the fact she was a villain in the first three movies, and thus had to be one at the end of this one. After the film was over, I honestly felt that I needed at least one more film’s worth of narrative to truly justify both character’s changes. As it is, X-Men: First Class shares a problem in common with the previous series installment, which told the story of Wolverine and his lifelong nemesis Sabretooth, and with other prequels, such as the second Star Wars trilogy and its focus on the Vader/Kenobi relationship, where what seemed fairly epic when once presented as a backstory loses a great deal of its grandeur when actually played out before us.
In the end, First Class is ultimately a film that is stylish and glossy but ultimately more sizzle than steak, but its complete lack of real substance is not alone my greatest source of disappointment in the film. As I recounted earlier, the X-Men, as a cultural product, have always risen above others in its medium through the way it has allegorically addressed the issues of prejudice and intolerance. In First Class, sadly, outside of a very muddled and nonsensical subplot about whether Mystique and Beast should strive to hide their inhuman appearance, there are painfully few moments in which the issues of prejudice core to the X-Men’s existence are even tacitly represented. That, in and of itself, is not that a terrible thing, and normally if the movie chose just to be accepted on the terms of being an empty action spectacle, I could forgive it that oversight. Why I can’t completely do that, however, comes in the fact that the filmmakers chose to set the film during the early 1960s, and thus took upon itself a greater responsibility to the era in history it was representing. This makes the omission of much of the identity politics and allegory almost disturbing for a film that is set during an era which saw the peak of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, to watch the film, one would think that the entire era was defined only by Jack Kennedy, the Soviet Union, and haute couture. A film with even a modicum of ambition beyond being just an easily digested blockbuster would at least have used its fantastical story to give some attention to the racial problems and tensions of the period in which it’s set. Instead, it excludes it entirely, thus not only undermining the subtextual appeal of the X-Men themselves, but suppressing a very important part of American history – and more specifically, African-American history.
Thus, viewed in hindsight, one word that manages to describe First Class extremely well is “white.” The film makes use of many institutions and icons of mid-20th century white paternal domination – from the Kennedy administration to the Swingin’ Sixties, Las Vegas, the CIA, Oxford University, the Nazis, and the Soviets. The film acknowledges that Magneto is a concentration camp survivor, but otherwise barely brings up the fact he’s Jewish. Most damning, however, are the ways in which the film treats its other two minority mutant characters, the African-American Darwin (Edi Gathegi) and the Hispanic Angel Salvadore (who is played by the light-skinned black actress Zoe Kravitz), which stand as mind-boggling in their retrograde thinking. Darwin, especially, is just such an amazingly transparent example of tokenism that it almost manages to be sickly funny. Introduced as a cab driver when Xavier and Lensherr find him, which makes me wonder if anyone making this even realized that’s an Amos ‘n’ Andy reference, Darwin is the first and only member of the X-Men in the movie to die, which he does by sacrificing himself early in the plot to the Nazi Shaw to save his other teammates. There is even a painfully obnoxious and awkward moment were Lensherr is speaking about mutants being treated as slaves, where the camera cuts directly to Darwin, because, I’m guessing, he’s black, and only black people can be and should be regarded as representing slaves (the moment actually elicited audible groans when I originally saw the film in the theater). As for Angel, a former stripper, she immediately turns on the nascent X-Men to join Shaw’s group after he promises her power and a better class of life, thus classifying her as ungrateful, selfish, evil, and the stereotypical Latina whore.
Both these examples are themselves disturbing, but sadly not outside the pale for mainstream Hollywood. But the film otherwise seems to do whatever it can to seemingly run from anything that could even be mildly interpreted as their heroes combating intolerance. In a montage sequence where Xavier and Lensherr traverse the United States rounding up the members of their team, none of the young mutants are shown to be victims of prejudice in their own lives – even the future Beast is living a closeted life as a US military scientist. Yet even in the earliest X-Men comics, published in the early 1960s, most of the X-Men joined the team specifically to escape prejudice. The character Iceman, for instance, joins the group after Professor X just barely saves him from a lynch mob after he’s put in jail for using his powers, which for a 1963 comic book audience would have certainly brought up contemporary references to Emmett Till and other instances of anti-black lynching. The film actually includes an obvious variation of this, as Havok is instead the one Xavier and Lensherr find in prison, after he himself asked to be placed there to protect others (!). Even Lensherr’s internment with the Nazis seem to absolve them of any great wrongdoing; it’s fellow mutant Sebastian Shaw, moments after mocking the Third Reich’s dream of a Master Race, who shoots the future Magneto’s mother dead as a way of triggering the young man’s powers.
It’s fairly well known that the very real world antecedents to Xavier and Magneto’s respective ideologies were, always and obviously, the pacifism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the militant black nationalism of Malcolm X (the comparisons can be obviously problematic, of course). But whether it was Vaughan or 20th Century Fox who made the final decision, the obvious historical contexts that would have enriched the movie tenfold here were ignored, making this already fairly shallow film completely counterintuitive to the X-Men’s long legacy as progressive, mutlicultrual superheroes. By the film’s end, the inaugural class of X-Men are literally a group of young white men (and yes, I do count Beast as being coded as white, despite the blue fur) protecting humanity from nuclear annihilation, not minority representatives looking to “uplift the race.” Truthfully, it seems the reasons this film was set in the 1960s were threefold: that’s when the X-Men were first published, someone somewhere wanted to ape the fashion sense of James Bond and Mad Men (without noticing how the latter serves as an examination of the mores and attitudes of its era), and the filmmakers wanted to tease nuclear annihilation without having anyone feel there was any real threat of anything actually happening. History, after all, clearly went marching on.
X-Men: First Class, as a popcorn movie, would probably make for a mostly entertaining rental, and as long as you try not to think too hard about it afterward, that should be good enough. But in comparison to what it could have been, First Class is exceptionally frustrating. This could have been an interesting, epic, and entertaining story about the forging of a friendship against that backdrop of racial conflict, reflected personally in the identity politics of mutants, and placed in a historic era where race relations in this country made a giant step forward. This honestly could have been something we haven’t seen in years – a truly great X-Men movie. But it’s not. And with prospects of a second film still somewhat undecided after a good but not great box office take, it also may not have been the film to reverse the fortunes of the fading franchise. Someday, hopefully, someone will see the decades of fascinating characters inherent in the X-Men universe and will craft an epic, dramatic, enthralling, and exciting movie on par with The Dark Knight or even X2. But make no mistake: First Class is not that movie.
But where the relative lack of ambition in X-Men: First Class may become truly lamentable for fans of good comic movies is if it is an indication of what the genre may now be facing going forward: ever dwindling blockbusters looking to dazzle you with CGI, gimmicks, and superficial storytelling, but with aspirations of depth, allegory, ideology, and resonance left entirely at the door.
Developments So Far:
Well, you could just read my painstakingly detailed recap here, but, in short, in the last episode we learned the early origin of River Song, and how she transformed from a would-be Doctor assassin and proto-Time Lord into the Doctor’s future human paramour and accused murderer (ain’t that just always the way?). We also learned that her original training came at the hands of the Silence, a religious order trying to either cause or prevent the destruction of the Universe by the asking of the mysterious, unknown “Question.” The Doctor also learned, thanks to pillaging the computer files of the time-traveling robot-ship the Teselecta, the exact time and place of his death at the hands of the mysterious Astronaut, who is likely Melody Pond (though how, why, or if this is even completely true, has yet to be clarified). How this affects the Doctor’s character going forward remains to be seen, especially given how he has begun to confront (and perhaps even embrace) the darker aspects of his personality and reputation. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory both must come to grips with the awkward realization that their daughter is now a fully grown woman and must let her find her own way in the world.
Though regarded as one of the stalwarts of geek culture (and, more recently, geek chic) here in the United States, Doctor Who has been an important part of British mainstream popular culture for almost fifty years. And while the series is predominantly a popular show in the US among adult and teenage fans of science fiction, to British audiences it is regarded predominantly as a kids’ show, which is why it still airs on the “family” viewing hour on Saturday night. Part of its longstanding appeal is that, for younger viewers, it can be a pretty scary program, especially in regards to the famously grotesque monsters the Doctor typically faces week in and week out. A phrase common in the British lexicon that traces its roots back to the early days of Doctor Who is “watching from behind the sofa,” a euphemism for how British children would watch the many scary monsters, such as the Daleks and the Cybermen, while literally hiding behind their living room sofa. For an entire generation, such shared terror was an important part of British cultural experience, and though Doctor Who lacks the cultural footprint it had decades ago, it still pays keen attention to its rich history of presenting terrifying “monster” episodes that provide kids (and maybe even a few adults) the thrill of being scared. Tonight’s episode, “Night Terrors,” written by Mark Gatiss (who, along with present Who showrunner Steven Moffat, created the awesome Sherlock series) appears to be one of those episodes.
So, ladies and gentlemen…children of all ages…ready your sofas.
Tonight’s ep opens in a location atypical to the exotic locales often visited within the Whoniverse: one of urban Britain’s many high rise apartment blocks (well, atypical after the Rose Tyler era). Though modern, the entire landscape takes on an altogether gothic atmosphere of malevolence and dread, which is only enhanced by the eerie musical chimes playing over the soundtrack, like those from a children’s nursery rhyme. (Seriously, does that kind of music ever invoke happy, comforting thoughts and memories for anyone anymore? Yeah, I didn’t think so.) Into this scene we are introduced to some rather innocuous images and sounds: an elderly lady making the long, slow ascent up to her apartment, and kids playing soccer outside a door. Though innocuous, the shadows and atmosphere make these sounds seem almost monstrous, which they certainly do to little George, a ginger-haired little boy who lives in one of the building’s many apartments, whose mother is getting him ready for bed before she heads to her job on the night shift. It becomes immediately that George is a rather timid and anxious little boy. When he becomes scared by the sound of the elevator outside of his apartment, his mother reminds him of what he’s supposed to do when something scares him: “put it in the cupboard.” She knocks on his bedroom cupboard as a way of giving physical representation to her metaphor. As she leaves, her son insists that she turn the lights on and off five times, another comforting routine for young George. When she’s gone, George begins praying, to no one in particular, to “please save me from the monsters.” After a momentary glimpse of the outer cosmos, his mother tucks him in for the night, and tells him that there is nothing to be afraid of. Outside, George overhears his mother and father speaking tensely about him; his Dad is particularly agonized over the fact that he’s “terrified all the time.” The mother responds that they need to get help, an idea to which the father remains . When the Mom states, “he needs a doctor,” George becomes terrified, and begins muttering again, “please save me from the Monsters” over and over again. Strangely, his prayer again seems to travel through the cosmos, soaring through countless galaxies before reaching the TARDIS. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor gets a sudden jolt and pulls out his psychic paper (for those unfamiliar, the psychic paper is a blank wallet badge that the Doctor uses to give himself false credentials when he needs them; it essentially appears as whatever the Doctor needs it to appear as). He pulls out the paper and reads the message on it, “Please save me from the monsters.” The Doctor informs Amy and Rory that he’s doing something he hasn’t done in quite a while. Amy: “What’s that?” “Making a house call.”
After the credits roll, the TARDIS appears outside the apartment building in Anycity, UK. Rory makes the comment, “No offense, Doctor…” Doctor: “Meaning the opposite…” Rory: “We could have taken the bus here.” Doctor: “See? The opposite.” The Doctor informs him that they are going to be entering “the scariest place in the universe: a child’s bedroom.” Inside his room, young George is still awake and scanning his flashlight across his room, looking for “monsters” while paradoxically making everything in his room appear more terrifying. Outside his window, the sound of the old woman’s labored breathing as she carries her groceries to her appartment scares young George, causing him to pull his blanket up over his chest. While waiting for the building’s elevator, the Doctor shares the psychic paper with Amy and Rory, and they make a plan to try and find “the very scared kid” who sent the message. In his living room, George’s Dad looks over pictures of George as he was growing up; they’re all happy and comforting, a sharp contrast to the terror that presently grips his young son. Inside his room, George is still terrified of all the random noises happening in the building.
At this point, it’s Humorous Montage Time (TM BBC), where the Doctor, Rory, and Amy visit various tenants at the apartment trying to find the source of George’s message. Of key interest is Rory meeting the building’s landlord Mr. Purcell, a gruff, solitary type who owns a large, threatening bulldog, and the Doctor meeting the old lady, Mrs. Rossiter, who’s a bit on the cantankerous side. The landlord, on the other hand, is clearly disliked by most of his tenants.
George is roused from under his covers by the sound of Amy and Rory passing by his window, wear he overhears them talking about how they have to “find that kid.” Rory then jokes that maybe they should just let the monsters “gobble him up.” This, as you have probably already guessed, will become regarded as a very bad move. The Doctor happens to see George nervously spying out his window, and decides that he may have found the child he’s looking for. After meeting up again with Amy and Rory, the Doctor sends them to check the lower floor while he goes to George’s apartment. With George becomes especially terrified in his room, Amy and Rory step onto the elevator, which then takes on a life of its own and sends the couple on an express trip straight down. When the elevator doors open however, Amy and Rory are nowhere to be seen.
The Doctor then knocks on an apartment door, where George’s Dad answers. Apparently, his wife said she was going to call Social Services, which the Doctor immediately claims to be a representative of. Walking into the apartment, he asks the father to “tell me about George.”
Out near the building’s dumpster, Mrs. Rossiter deposits her garbage while complaining about the general lack of consideration shown by her fellow tenants. As she’s walking away, one of the bags on the pile moves, drawing her attention and leading her to scold the person she assumes is trying to scare her (and calling out George by name). As she takes a closer look, the garbage pile sucks her in, and she vanishes…
Inside the apartment, the Dad describes George to the Doctor while the Doctor looks through a family photo album. Apparently, George acts very strangely for a child of eight; he never cries, for instance. The Doctor rightfully surmises that George’s condition has recently gotten worse, and the Dad confirms that they were considering sending George somewhere for help. This only further exacerbated his son’s neurosis, to the point he’s now “afraid of everything.” The Doctor explains that this is “pantophobia,” which, he makes sure to clarify, “isn’t a fear of pants.” After the Dad lists George’s various phobias, he states that he’s “not an expert” and expresses hope that the Doctor can get through to him. The Doctor: “I’ll do my best.”
Amy and Rory the suddenly awaken in a darkened old house. While pondering how they got here after being on the lift, Rory’s first conclusion is that “we’re dead…again.” Amy will have none of this, however, and they begin investigating their surroundings. Rory then assumes that the TARDIS has done something to them…again…while something in the background is watching them.
The lamp in George’s room then falls over, and the Dad and the Doctor come in to investigate. After finding our that the Doctor is, in fact, a doctor, George asks “have you come to take me away?” The Doctor says that he hasn’t, and that he just wants to talk to him “about the monsters.”
Meanwhile, back in the old dark house, Amy and Rory are wandering around their creepy surroundings, where they discover that everything appears to be made of wood instead of metal. They also find a lantern that also uses an electrical switch (like an oversized toy), and open a drawer which contains a giant glass eyeball. Rory and Amy then notice that his pocket flashlight rhythmically turns itself on and off again five times. Appropriately creeped out, they keep searching the house for an exit.
In the apartment, the Doctor and the Dad speak with George, while the Doctor attempts to fix a Rubix cube (and fails, declaring it to be broken…too funny). The Dad speculates that they thought George’s fear maybe have been something he watched on the telly or read in a book (which allows the Doctor to reminisce on some of the classic children stories of his youth, which apparently included “Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday.”) As the Doctor begins getting all manic (as he is wont to do), he then points out George’s cupboard, which fills the young boy with dread. The Dad explains the significance of the cupboard as the place where George places the things that scare him. The Doctor: “Including the monsters, George?” When the Doctor goes to open the cupboard, there is a loud knocking on the front door that causes everyone to jump (nice shocker, actually).
Amy and Rory, meanwhile are still wandering the dark house, but now we get a better glimpse of “the monster” that’s following them: a strange looking doll with a large white head…
The person at the front door turns out to be Purcell the landlord and his dog; the gruff and unpleasant man has come to inquire about the coming rent, and we find out that the Dad is presently out of work. The Doctor, meanwhile, tries to protect George from hearing the conversation by showing off the sonic screwdriver. In a nice little bit, the Doctor uses the screwdriver to turn on all the toys in the room, which immediately makes them all seem far less terrifying. Outside, the Landlord intimidates the Dad. The Doctor scans the cupboard with the screwdriver and finds the readings are “off the scale.” After Purcell leaves, the Dad steps into the room and tries to open the cupboard, but the Doctor stops him, stating that the “monsters are real.”
Inside the house, Rory and Amy discover that they can’t get out, and find further evidence that everything in the building is artificial. They then hear sounds of running footsteps, and children giggling menacingly.
In the kitchen, the Dad tries to ask the Doctor to leave, feeling that his belief in George’s “delusions” are only making things worse. The Doctor refuses, and then tells emphasizes that he has come through time and space based on his son’s distress call, and that what is inside the cupboard is undeniably monstrous and powerful. The Doctor: “Do you see these eyes? They’re old eyes…and what I can tell you is: monsters are real.” The Dad: “You’re not from Social Services, are you?”
In the old house, Rory, Amy, and, in a separate part of the structure, Mrs. Rossiter, are being pursued by the unnatural giggling. When the couple come upon a door, it opens on them, revealing a wooden dummy, which they first think is harmless, but as they walk away, it starts moving after them.
Back in the apartment, the Doctor speculates, in a fashion as only he can, about whether they should open George’s cupboard. While they’re moving off to do it, the landlord Purcell, in his own apartment, is sucked into his floor, as his bulldog watches apathetically. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, cautiously begin to open the cupboard, revealing an old dollhouse…and nothing else. The Doctor then has an epiphany, and runs back to grab the photo album. Looking through it, he points out to the Dad that a month before George’s birth, that his Mom wasn’t pregnant. The Dad then suddenly remembers that his wife actually can’t have kids, which then terrifies him as he realizes that George’s existence is, in fact, a complete impossibility. The Doctor then turns to George and asks, “What are you, George?” Before George can reply, the sound of the elevator again terrifies him, and he begins rhythmically chanting “please save me from the monsters.” The cupboard behind them springs to life and sucks both the Doctor and the Dad inside and then traps them within.
In the old dark house, Amy and Rory meet Purcell, who is also being pursued by the large wooden dolls. When one of the dolls catches him, it transforms him into doll himself, giggling all the time. Amy and Rory then finally realize that they are in extreme danger and run for it. The Doctor and the Dad, meanwhile, wake up in the house themselves, and the Doctor quickly makes the determination that they, like everyone else, are trapped in the dollhouse inside George’s cupboard. The Dad, still trying to come to grips with his altered memories, asks the Doctor to explain what his son is. The Doctor explains that the Dad under the influence of a perception filter (again, for those unfamiliar with it, a perception filter in the Whoniverse is a device which effects people’s perception, causing them to forget or ignore certain elements and details; the TARDIS, in fact, uses one, so people don’t otherwise notice a hugely anachronistic police box just kind of standing around). As they make their way into the house, one of the white[faced Giggling Dolls, or Gigglers, is shown to be watching them. Meanwhile, Rory and Amy are trying to bar the door against the Gigglers, without much luck. When they try to escape the room, Amy gets captured and is transformed into a Giggler.. The Doctor and Dad then realize that George is putting everything in the cupboard that scares him, using it as a kind of psychic repository for his anxieties. One of the Gigglers then shows up, and they then realize that they, too, are in extreme danger. After finding that the sonic screwdriver is useless against them (the Doctor: “I have to invent a setting for wood…it’s embarrassing!”), the grab an oversized pair of safety scissors, which they used to push off the Giggler, and make a break for it.
The Doctor then realizes that George is a Tenza, a kind of psychic alien who are dispersed throughout the universe to find foster parents, into whose lives they assimilate themselves. In this case, George sensed two parents who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have any, and thus filled the void in their lives as well as his own. Quickly cornered in the house by an onslaught of Gigglers, the Doctor realizes that George is causing all of this unconsciously. He tries to communicate with George, telling him that he’s the only one who can vanquish the monsters. Rory then shows up, with the Giggler Amy hot in pursuit. Meanwhile, in his room, George opens the cupboard and then appears in the dollhouse himself. For a moment, it seems everything is fine, but then the Gigglers turn on George.
Remembering the clues from earlier, the Doctor realizes that George is afraid of being sent away by his “parents,” which is what is causing all his other anxieties. The Doctor tells the Dad that he needs to go help his son, but the Dad is understandably cautious with the fact his son is an alien. However, just as George is about to be overwhelmed by the Gigglers, the Dad fights his way through and rescues him, telling him that he loves him no matter what he is, and that he will never send him away. The Doctor, meanwhile, looks on approvingly as the Gigglers vanish.
And with that, everything turns back to normal. At daybreak the next morning, Mrs. Rossiter climbs out of the garbage, the Landlord wakes up on the floor of his apartment and begins cuddling his dog, and Rory and Amy climb off the elevator, unharmed. Amy: “Was I a…” Rory: “Yeah.” Claire, George’s mom, comes home to find her husband and the Doctor making breakfast and George completely fine. As the Doctor leaves, the Dad catches up to him with concerns over George’s future. The Doctor tells him just to treat him as a normal boy, and everything will be fine. He does, however warn him, “that it may pop back again around puberty…always a funny time.” George and his Dad then walk back into their apartment, arm in arm and happy.
The Doctor then meets up with Amy and Rory again, they board the TARDIS, and discuss where to go next. As they talk, their dialogue fades out, and we hear the ominous singing of the Gigglers again:
“Tick-tock goes the clock…even for the Doctor…”
The final shot is of the onscreen data the Doctor downloaded from the Teselecta last episode, stating when and where he is due to die…
Not a whole lot, really, save for reminding us of the Doctor’s impending death in the last beat; this really was the definition of a “standalone episode.” With that said, the alien Tenza/George’s reaction and terror at the word “Doctor” again works into the theme of the Doctor being regarded as a something to be terrified of rather than a figure of benevolence. The Doctor also spent a lot of time in the episode bragging about the number of monsters he has fought and defeated, even though here his final role was as a healer rather than a warrior. Finally, though, after the wardrobe change last week, the Doctor was back to his “junior professor” attire again. Possibly a meaningless change after a one time anomaly, but perhaps indicative of something more.
A good “monster” episode in the grand tradition of them, as well as something of a meta homage to the show’s legacy of children peeking out from behind the sofa (or in this case, the bedspread). One thing I kind of realized in this episode, though kind of by inversion, is that Amy and especially Rory have a tendency to “suck up the oxygen” in many episodes and otherwise prevent some guest characters from developing properly. Here, by trapping them in the dollhouse early in the episode and giving them only brief cutaway scenes, it allowed Gatiss to develop the central dynamic with the father, son, and Doctor, making for an intriguing story and a touching finale. It’s a nice change of pace from what has sometimes been the norm lately. Not a vital episode to the overall mythology of the series, but certainly worth a look on its own merits.