Into Syria with the Doctor aboard the TARDIS

I have easily a hundred ebooks on my Kindle that I’ve never read.  Either they were freebies, or I made them from files off Project Gutenberg, or I got them as part of a bundle where I was interesting in only two or three specific titles, or I bought them cheaply from one of the various ebook alert newsletters I subscribe to.  My Kindle isn’t my preferred way of reading — I still enjoy the tactile pleasures of the printed page — but it serves a function, even if that sometimes seems like a virtual “to-be-read pile” of forgotten files.

coverLast weekend I went through my Kindle and I found that, sometime in the past, I’d downloaded Aboud Dandachi‘s The Doctor, the Eye Doctor, and Me.  Dandachi’s book, a look at Doctor Who through the prism of the Syrian civil war offered for free on the Kindle, interested me conceptually, but I never got around to reading it.  In light of the fall of Aleppo to Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, I decided it was time to visit the book.

A refugee from Syria’s civil war and holed up in a hotel in a seaside city, Dandachi discovered Doctor Who as a way to pass the time while the war went on around him.  A short book of maybe 25,000 words, The Doctor, the Eye Doctor, and Me looks at Matt Smith’s era as the eleventh Doctor, which corresponds to the first three years of the Syrian civil war, and relates the storytelling to his experience and the war itself. 

Dandachi examines several episodes of Smith’s era — in order, “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon,” “The Doctor’s Wife,” “A Good Man Goes to War,” “The Girl Who Waited,” “The Wedding of River Song,” “The Eleventh Hour,” “Asylum of the Daleks,” “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS,” “The Night of the Doctor,” “The Day of the Doctor,” and “The Time of the Doctor” — and explores the ideas in the episode, the character of the Doctor, and how the episode illuminates aspects of Syria’s civil war.  Initially predisposed against the Doctor due to his name — in Syria, Bashar Assad is known as “the Doctor” — Dandachi finds something compelling in the Doctor, a man whose first choice is never violence but, when forced to fight, picks his fights and plans his moves.  He contrasts the Doctor with the “Eye Doctor,” Assad himself (a trained eye doctor), and finds Assad wanting.  Delving into the episodes, he examines how conflict hardens and scars people (“The Girl Who Waited”), how people lie to themselves to cope with horrible circumstances (“Asylum of the Daleks”), how nature abhors a vacuum and what fills it may be as bad or worse than was had been there (“The Time of the Doctor”), even how Matt Smith’s departure and the revelation of Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor represented a turning point in his life.  Dandachi presents a thoughtful and unexpected take on Doctor Who here, showing how the series cuts across cultures and offers universal lessons.

In the course of his exmaination of the series, Dandachi delves into the history of Syria, how Assad came to power, how the civil war unfolded, and how Syria’s population suffered from Assad’s incompetence.  (Violence, as Isaac Asimov wrote in Foundation, is the last refuge of the incompetent.) He also has harsh words for the “Friends of Syria,” countries who condemned rhetorically Assad’s brutal suppression of his people but stood by and did nothing as he unleashed chemical weapons attacks on the rebels and destroyed cities like Homs and Aleppo.  He writes about what it’s like to be in a city block that’s being shelled by the Syrian military and notes how unrealistic it was for the Gallifreyans of Arcadia to run out into the streets as the Daleks move in to exterminate.

An intensely political book, this book is a compelling account of what remains, even with the fall of Aleppo and a tenuous truce, an ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Syria, one man’s discovery of Doctor Who, and the lessons in life and politics he drew from the series.  Occasionally repetitive, sometimes in need of a good copy-edit, The Doctor, the Eye Doctor, and Me is literate, thoughtful, and worth the time for any Doctor Who fan with an interest in geopolitics and the plight of Syria’s population.

Thoughts on “The Day of the Doctor”

Years ago, a little more than a decade now, EB Games put me and thirty-odd other managers through a pilot management training program.  Our instructor was a man by the name of Harry Friedman.  He had created a sales management training program, and EB wanted to see if it would work for the company.  I remember something he said in one of the seminars, and it’s stuck with me all these years.  He was talking about hiring employees, but I realized that what he said applied just as well to creative endeavors:

You can polish crap, but at the end of the day it’s still crap.

That piece of wisdom came back to me as I was walking down Baltimore Street yesterday afternoon.  The Baltimore Science Fiction Society was holding a screening of “The Day of the Doctor,” the Doctor Who 50th-anniversary special, and I’d gone.  I took the train in from Hunt Valley, then caught a bus, which though it was the right bus went out of service far from my destination, and then I walked the remaining distance, probably twenty-five blocks, because it was easier.  Upon leaving, I decided not to fool with the busses at all, and I walked straight into downtown and picked up the light rail there.  That left me a great deal of time, alone with my thoughts, to reflect on “The Day of the Doctor.”  And that brought me back to, “You can polish crap, but at the end of the day it’s still crap.”

In the moment, I loved it.  When I thought about it, I didn’t.

There’s something about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who that makes it well suited to a communal experience — I’ve experienced that twice in my life now, the first time at the “Asylum of the Daleks” screening in New York — but that wasn’t why I loved it in the moment.  It hit all sorts of fun buttons and ran off an hit more fun buttons before I could stop an think about the buttons it had just hit.  And the crowd, who was giving emotional feedback as things were unfolding on screen, reinforced the feeling of fun.

Then, as I walked into the city and the sun fell behind the skyscrapers downtown, I started to think about what I’d seen.  Some of it I liked.  Some of it I thought was really clever.  And some of it didn’t make any sense at all.  I was forced, once again, to confront the reality that, like Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: Voyager work, Steven Moffat writes popcorn that is best consumed with the brain turned off.

The cleverest thing about “The Day of the Doctor,” the thing I think Moffat deserves great credit for, is the way he wrote the RTD era, not by rewriting the text but by rewriting the assumptions that underlay that text.  We’ve known for eight years that the Doctor ended the Time War, that he used the Moment and locked Gallifrey in a Time Lock, and he destroyed both the Time Lords and the invading Daleks.  What we learned yesterday is that that’s not precisely true.  The Doctor had the Moment, the Doctor intended to use it, but he found a different and very unexpected solution, one that produced the result that the Doctor has believed to be true for 400 years, but wasn’t what actually happened.  The Doctor is at last absolved of the guilt he has carried for centuries (and that has overhung Doctor Who since its return in 2005) for that final, genocidal act against his own people because he saved them, essentially, in the Bottle City of Kandor.  In true Marvel Comics fashion, “Everything you thought you knew about the RTD-era was wrong!”

Not quite as clever, but still very interesting, was the role that Billie Piper played.  Piper, as I imagine everyone knows, was Rose in the first two seasons of the relaunched Doctor Who, and she was an integral part of the series’ success.  Russell T. Davies realized, rightly, that television audiences in the 21st-century needed more out of an audience identification character than Doctor Who had done in the original run of the series, and thus she was a fully realized character in her own right, and the stories had as much to do with her as they did with the Doctor.  The Piper that appeared in “The Day of the Doctor” was not Rose.  The promo pictures for the special showed Piper in tattered clothing, suggesting a post-apocalyptic setting.  For some reason, I thought she might be an avatar of Bad Wolf, the temporal energy that possessed Rose at the climax of the first season in “The Parting of the Ways.”  I’m a little muddled about who she was; she’s the sentient interface of the Moment (the ultimate Gallifreyan weapon), but John Hurt’s Doctor also calls her Bad Wolf.  Perhaps she was both — time itself as a weapon.  She plays an intriguing role in the story, conscience and muse to a Doctor who has seen great horrors, even participated in them, who has had enough and wants to end it.  And she gives him the gift of seeing who he will become if he goes through with his plan, and he gets to see how his own conscience will weigh upon him.  She is, in a way, the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The thing I was most intrigued by was John Hurt’s Doctor.  We learned at the end of “The Name of the Doctor” that the Doctor had an incarnation who was unworthy of the name “the Doctor.”  “What I did, I did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity,” he told the eleventh Doctor in the dreamscape of his timeline, who retorted “But not in the name of the Doctor.”  We learned recently in “The Night of the Doctor” that Hurt’s Doctor was the successor to Paul McGann’s Doctor and the Doctor who fought the Time War.  Now, in “The Day of the Doctor,” we saw that Hurt’s Doctor desired to end the war — and himself — after centuries of life.  I’ve long wanted to see John Hurt as the Doctor, so the revelation that he would be a heretofore unknown incarnation of the Doctor was a delight.  I was curious to see how the episode would deal with a Doctor who had been forced by circumstance to do dark things “not in the name of the Doctor.”  I don’t know that “The Day of the Doctor” entirely succeeded there.  Oh, Hurt was a delight (and I imagine that he was the Doctor’s Merlin incarnation), but I didn’t feel that he was any darker than any previous Doctor.  For that matter, I’m not sure why Hurt was strictly necessary as a forgotten incarnation of the Doctor; the role could have been filled with McGann or Christopher Eccleston.  There’s always been a bastard lurking beneath the Doctor’s surface, and I wanted to see a Doctor who had had centuries of being an unremitting bastard and what that would do to him.  What we got was a tired Doctor who hadn’t yet done the thing that his successors had blamed him for and made him unworthy of the name “Doctor.”  In that sense, Hurt’s Doctor didn’t quite work.  In retrospect, Hurt’s appearance feels very much like an excuse for stunt casting a name actor as the Doctor.

Another Doctor that didn’t quite work for me, though for different reasons, was David Tennant.  At the beginning of the year, when it wasn’t clear who was going to be in the fiftieth anniversary special, I remember some friends making impassioned arguments why Tennant shouldn’t be involved.  I don’t remember the arguments posed, alas, but I remember my response.  I did want to see Tennant return, because he would have to play a new facet to his character.  For once, Tennant’s Doctor wouldn’t be the smartest, cleverest man in the room because there would be a Doctor who knew more, experienced more, lived longer, and, most importantly, remembered this.  We would see a new side to Tennant’s Doctor as, for once, he was in someone else’s adventure.  We didn’t get that.  What we did get was a character who had no narrative purpose at all except to get the MacGuffin plot going.  Don’t get me wrong, Tennant had a lovely rapport with Matt Smith and I was thrilled to see it, but there wasn’t a scene where I felt Tennant was essential.  Again, I thought there was going to be a payoff when, in the shack, he hears Hurt say “Bad Wolf” and he would have second thoughts about the plan that Hurt and Smith were coming up with, that he might believe this was a trick, but no, there’s no payoff to Tennant’s appearance at all.  Tennant’s Doctor was superfluous to needs.  The story would have functioned without him with minimal rewriting.

As for the MacGuffin, that would be the Zygon plot.  In the 1560s, the Zygons have impersonated Queen Elizabeth I and have some sort of secret lair beneath the Tower of London.  In the 2020s, paintings that aren’t actually paintings explode in the National Portrait Gallery, and from those paintings emerge Zygons.  The whole purpose of this plot is to introduce the concept of the stasis paintings and to bring Smith and Tennant together, but once that is done Moffat loses complete interest in the Zygons.  Was their lair destroyed in the 1560s?  Were they definitively stopped in the 2020s?  We have no idea.  There was a point, when the Tennant and Smith Doctors have tricked the humans and Zygons into negotiating a peace treaty that I had an “Oh, damn!” moment — neither knew who was human and who was Zygon in human form, so when the Zygon handed her human counterpart the inhaler she needed two of the people in the room knew who they really were — but there was no payoff to that.  This is a typical Moffat problem; he sets up a Plot MacGuffin, and then dispenses with it when it no longer serves his purpose.

The climax is puzzling.  On the one hand, it suggests that the Doctor has always known that the Time War would happen as all thirteen Doctors — William Hartnell to Peter Capaldi — arrive to save Gallifrey.  At some point during Hartnell’s time, he began a calculation in the TARDIS that didn’t complete until Smith’s or Capaldi’s incarnations, a calcuation that would place Gallifrey within a Zygon stasis painting.  On the other hand, it states that the two past Doctors most involved, Hurt and Tennant, won’t remember (Hurt, because he regenerates immemdiately into Eccleston) or will remember only fuzzily (Tennant, because we see that Smith does fuzzily remember some of this).  At least Hurt’s Doctor regenerated, absolved of the guilt of what he was about to do, no longer the mass-murderer of billions of innocents as he had planned, yet for four hundred years three Doctors will continue to think of themselves as the nightmare that never happened.

In the moment, all of those things that bother me now worked.  I enjoyed seeing Tennant slip back into his Converse trainers and make ridiculously over-the-top and overly dramatic speeches.  I was moved by John Hurt’s plight, especially when the Moment brought the tenth and eleventh Doctors to the shack as he was about to press the Big Red Button and end it all and they weren’t about to let him do it alone.  In private, I might’ve squealed as past and future Doctors rushed to Gallifrey’s rescue or when the Curator (who, by the way, appears in Amelia Williams’ novel Summer Falls) appeared at the end to discuss the painting known variously as “No More” or “Gallifrey Falls” with Smith’s Doctor.

By the way, the Curator?  I think he’s exactly who he appeared to be on screen.  I don’t know how.  I don’t care how.  Magic suffices.

It’s in retrospect, when I don’t need to keep up with the story’s forward momentum and can think about what it’s doing and why, that I begin to dislike “The Day of the Doctor.”  It was pretty to look at, generally well-made, and very much less than the sum of its parts.  Maybe it’s not polished crap.  Maybe it’s just a flawed piece of work.  It wasn’t very deep, it wasn’t quite an anniversary special — it was the culmination of the last eight years, not the last fifty — but in the moment “The Day of the Doctor” was fun.  It was popcorn.

And in the right time and place, popcorn sufficed.

The Year of Two Doctors

The Radio Times had a curious article this morning.  As we know, Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who at Christmas, to be replaced by Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It).  It turns out that Smith had a plan to continue with the series, and it turns out Steven Moffat said no.

Matt Smith had worked out a series that starred him and David Tennant.

Said Moffat: “Matt told me that he’d worked out this plan that they’d both continue in Doctor Who: do five individual episodes each and three together — would that be ok?  It was a nice plan.  I think if I’d said yes they’d have gone for it.”

Two Doctors, in a single series!  My god, this could have been brilliant!

When “The Name of the Doctor” aired this summer, the BBC released a video of Matt Smith and David Tennant together on the set of the anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor,” and the two actors had such chemistry and rapport that I immediately wanted an entire series with the two Doctors teaming up.

Obviously, that mad dream of mine wasn’t what Matt Smith had in mind.

His structure for the season makes a lot of sense, though — five solo episodes for each Doctor, plus three team-up episodes, especially from a production standpoint.  A plan like this would have limited the filming so each could have pursued other projects; we’re talking five filming blocks each for Tennant and Smith instead of the usual seven.  It would basically be taking the “Doctor-lite” concept (where an episode is shot at the same time as another that doesn’t need the main cast) to an extreme.

In terms of narrative, I’d imagine a team-up episode would kick off the season, perhaps introducing a “Key to Time”-like threat that the eleventh Doctor knows he can’t handle on his own, so he calls in his tenth incarnation and they split up, each doing what they can.  Throughout the season there could have been cameos (filmed in later filming blocks) as the Doctors check in on each other (because the audience would want to see the two Doctors together as much as and as often as possible).  Finally, there would the two-part season finale where the two Doctors have to work together directly to deal with the threat.  This could also be very timey-wimey, as the eleventh Doctor would remember the tenth Doctor’s adventures in this larger adventure, unless the eleventh Doctor doesn’t and that becomes a plot point.

This would have been a very new concept for Doctor Who, though one of Johnny Byrne’s Doctor Who film scripts from the 1980s had two Doctors, with the younger and more inexperienced Doctor acting, for all intents and purposes, as the older Doctor’s companion.  It would have been a very unique concept, the kind of thing that only Doctor Who could do.

And it would have been fun.

Oh, Moffat, how could you say no?  How could you be an implaccable enemy of fun?  I know I’ll love Peter Capaldi, but I will now, forever, wonder what “the two Doctors” season would have been like and how much fun it would have been.

On Doctor Who Casting News

The news has broken on casting for November’s Doctor Who anniversary special — in addition to John Hurt, the special will also guest star David Tennant and Billie Piper.

Fandom, naturally, is sharply divided.

There is wailing that there’s no Eccleston from the new series.  Classic Doctor Who fans are wailing that the pre-new series Doctors aren’t represented.  “Doctor Who is fifty years old!  Why is the special limiting itself to the last ten?”

There is wailing that it’s Tennant.  “We’ll be treated to hyperactive gurning!”

There is wailing that it’s Piper.  “We’ll be inflicted with wubby dubby Wose!”

And I can’t entirely say that any of these wailings are wrong.  My immediate reaction to the news this morning was, “Really?  No, really?  Really?”

You have to remember, I didn’t really want a multi-Doctor story for the anniversary.  But if we had to have one, I wanted something that broke the mold.

That said, I’m not opposed to David Tennant and Billie Piper in the anniversary special.  And if that’s all the kisses to the past that appear, I believe there will be a reason for it.

Tennant in the special doesn’t bother me.

First, in Steven Moffat’s four scripts for the tenth Doctor (five if you count “Time Crash”), he never wrote Tennant’s Doctor aS the hyperactive caricature of fan memory.

Second, in the anniversary special, Tennant wouldn’t be the lead Doctor, and he would have a new aspect of his character to play — how does he react to his future self?  How does he react when he confronted by a situation when he’s not the smartest guy in the room?  “Silence in the Library” actually gives us a clue; the tenth Doctor is stupidly thick when it comes to River Song.

Nor does Piper in the special bother me.

First, I don’t think Moffat will make the same mistake Russell T. Davies made in the fourth season where Davies thought that the emotional climax of the season rested with Rose, not Donna.  I don’t expect that the climax of the Anniversary Special will revolve around Rose, basically.

Second, look at “The Girl in the Fireplace.”  Moffat had no interest in writing the wubby dubby Wose.  Hell, it’s even arguable that, based on “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” Moffat had no interest in writing for Rose at all.

Thus, I’m not expecting a tenth Doctor/Rose-centric story for the Anniversary Special.  They will be in it.  They will do things.  But sixty minutes is not a lot of time, and he’ll have to keep the incumbent Doctor central.

Moffat’s not stupid.  He knows that 2006 is not where the series is today, and the audience today doesn’t want to see a lost episode from that era to replace “Fear Her.”

No, let’s speculate on John Hurt.

Could he be Borusa?  The Doctor’s father?  A pre-Hartnell Doctor?

Or maybe he’s someone that the Doctor saved as a child from a [Insert Monster Here] in London 1963, and the Doctor has periodically checked in on the child as he grew into adulthood and old age.  Though that might be too derivative of Paul Cornell’s short story, “The Hopes and Fears of All the Years,” a charming little story of the tenth Doctor and a boy named Tom.

Enough about the future!  There’s new Doctor Who tonight.  Let’s focus on that, and stop worrying about a special that’s still eight months away. :h2g2:

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #8
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

Ten months ago, IDW Publishing announced the comic book I’d waited most of my life to read — a Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover.  Yesterday, I read the eighth and final issue.

The best thing I can say?  The damn thing is over.

Oh, you’re expecting me to say more than that.  I was hoping that would have sufficed.

When last we left our heroes, a Cyberfleet was en route to the Borg’s space in the Delta Quadrant.  With the Enterprise-D in pursuit, a small group traveled to the Cybership in the Doctor’s TARDIS.  There, Amy and Rory joined a security detail lead by Worf, who showed them how to use phasers, while the Doctor, joined by Picard and Data, went in search of the Cyberleader.  But the separate teams found themselves endangered by armies of Cybermen!

Which brings me to the final issue.

It’s not very good.

It suffers from a frequent Doctor Who finale problem — the conclusion is achieved in the least interesting way possible, and everything you expect to happen does.  You expect the Doctor to confront the Cyberleader and outwit him.  You expect the Borg Conduit to turn on his seeming allies.  You expect a quiet denouement as the heroes say their farewells and return to their respective continuities.

But you also expect to be surprised.  And that’s the thing that this issue — and Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who — never achieved.  I never felt surprised.

Instead I felt disappointed.

The series did not end exactly the way I thought it would six weeks ago, but I was pretty close in my guess.  The story tied into Star Trek: First Contact, but not in the way I expected it to.  And the Doctor had a different choice from the Enterprise crew for a possible TARDIS traveler than I guessed.  Still, it ended largely as I thought it would, and the previous issues had given me no reason to expect otherwise.

Yes, this is going to turn into more of a generalized litany of woe lodged against the series rather than a specific takedown of the final issue.  But if you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t interested in the final issue on its own, you really want to know what the story as a whole was like.

Which brings me back to, “It’s not very good.”

It’s easy to guess what the elevator pitch for this series was — “The TARDIS lands on the Enterprise, and the Doctor and Picard team up to fight their deadliest enemies!”  Conceptually, that should have worked.

The execution left much to be desired.

I don’t know if the rumors of behind-the-scenes turmoil are true.  Personally, I doubt that Tony Lee’s departure after issue #4 affected the series in any significant way as there would have been an outline that CBS and the BBC would have signed off on in the development process.  Plus, the series was already mediocre to that point, as I explained at length in my review of issue #4.  In short, while there may have been lines of dialogue in the latter half that would have been written differently with Lee’s input, I feel confident that we read the story that IDW set out to tell eight months ago.

The thing I I do know is that Scott and David Tipton had no grasp of what Doctor Who was or how its storytelling worked.  They treated the Doctor as if he were simply a guest star in a Star Trek: The Next Generation story, with Amy and Rory as unimportant associates.

Doctor Who is capable of being a lot of things.  The TARDIS and the Enterprise could easily have ended up at the same planet and the two casts could have been involved in the same adventure, much as we saw in the flashback sequence in issue #3.  However, it occurs to me the simplest way of handling the crossover (from a Doctor Who perspective) would be as a “base under siege” story, albeit one where the base (in this case, the Enterprise), is a mobile weapons and exploration platform.

However the merging of the two franchises was done for the purposes of the story, the Tiptons needed to find a way of integrating Amy and Rory into the story.  What they failed to recognize is that, in modern Doctor Who, the companions are as important as the Doctor.  They are expository characters, yes, but they’re also characters that have emotional and narrative arcs that as just as significant as the Doctor’s.  In this story, however, they had no role at all, much to its detriment.  Perhaps they could have been endangered as a catalyst for the Doctor’s involvement.  (I thought early on that the Borg would have captured and assimilated Rory, and I was disappointed when it didn’t happen.) Or, there could have been a moment where Rory needed to use his medical skills; perhaps if the Enterprise were attacked Rory would have to assist in Sickbay as casualties came in, perhaps even bonding with an injured child aboard the ship.  But Amy needed to have a role as well.  Perhaps her natural tourist instincts, which got Team TARDIS in trouble in episodes like “The Beast Below” or “The Vampires of Venice,” would endanger the Doctor or the Enterprise.  Or perhaps she simply needed to be the Doctor’s conscience and hold him back from a devastating decision.  But these things didn’t happen.  Instead, Amy and Rory were nothing more than window dressing.  AS I said a long time ago, “If this were the episode ‘Sarek,’ then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.”

However, the Tiptons’ treatment of Star Trek: The Next Generation was no better.  They have the reputation of being IDW’s “good” Star Trek writers, and based on things like Klingons: Blood Will Tell and Mirror Images, it’s not an undeserved reputation.  Those are good series, and I recommend them both; the former is a look at Star Trek (in particular, several episodes of the original series) through Klingon eyes, while the latter is a story about the Kirk and Pike of the Mirror Universe.  When this series was announced, I wrote in a comment to a blog post I made that “Based on the Tiptons’ previous Star Trek work, I have a hunch that this story could tread on some interesting psychological territory.”  It didn’t.

That was the least of their Star Trek problems.  Psychological depth is nice, but more important is getting the characterizations right, which they consistently failed to do.  For a story that was ostensibly set during the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the characters behaved more like their older and more cynical movie-era counterparts, particularly Picard.  But throughout the series there were moments where the Star Trek regulars spoke or behaved oddly.  (A scene of Crusher and Troi with Amy and Rory midway through the series is perhaps the most egregious example.) The Tiptons seemed not to “get” Picard and his crew.

Assuming that the Tiptons had been able to deal with all of this — better integration of the two universes, roles for Amy and Rory, characterization — they still needed to execute a good story.  They didn’t.

First, I have no doubt that the eight issues will read well in a single sitting, and when IDW publishes a single-volume hardcover of the series next year I’ll add it to my collection.  In single issues, however, this was a dire read.  It wasn’t just that the pacing was languid.  It was that they failed to understand that an eight-part story needs seven cliffhangers.  At the end of every issue, the reader needed to say, “Damn, what’s going to happen next?”  There needed to be rising action, increasing tension, and unbelievable plot twists.  Instead, we got limp endings to most issues.  Putting the Doctor on the verge of meeting Guinan at the end of issue #3 is not a gripping cliffhanger.  Heck, it wouldn’t even have sufficed for a commercial break.  This story — really, any multi-part story arc — needed to work as eight individual issues, and it didn’t.

Second, just because Star Trek: The Next Generation was frequently a dull, talky television series, the comic book didn’t need to be.  The story felt drawn out and stretched to no good effect.  In Bilbo Baggins’ words, it was like too little butter spread across too much bread.  In the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, this story could have been told in a four-part comic strip of eight pages each.  More happens in “The Iron Legion” or “The Flood” than happens in Assimilation2.  Heck, I’d even argue that more happens in the single issue stories “The Time of My Life” or “The Professor, the Queen, and the Bookshop” than happened here.  Assimilation2 was the Parkinson Principle applied to comic book writing — the narrative expanded to fill the space allotted.

Third, too much of the story relied upon exposition.  Even in the final issue, we had important points made through expository dialogue.  If it’s not the Cyberleader explaining his plan or Riker talking about the best friend we never knew he had, it’s the Doctor explaining how the TARDIS works or what will happen when the TARDIS leaves the Star Trek universe.  The problem is these characters are doers.  They have ships, they go out and find information.  It shouldn’t simply be handed to them.

Fourth, the story lacked a sense of jeopardy throughout.  The Borg-Cybermen alliance was never anything more than a conceptual threat, even in the final issue when the Doctor and Picard confront the oddly chatty Cyberleader.  I didn’t feel like the characters were ever in danger or that they would have to sacrifice something to achieve victory.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 suffered from two failures — a conceptual failure and an execution failure.  I wanted to read this story for a long time.  I couldn’t have imagined ten months ago that it would be so crushingly disappointing.  This story could have gone places and done amazing things.  Instead, it treated its concept — the union of two of the most famous science-fiction franchises into a single story — as a sufficient reason to be.  A disappointing series ended on a mediocre note, and I voted for Assimilation2 in Bleeding Cool’s Most Disappointing (In A Bad Way) Comic For 2012 poll.

The best thing I can say is that it’s over.  That there should have been another way.  And that I sincerely hope nothing like this ever happens again.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #5
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

It’s safe to say that after the fourth issue of Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 that I was ready to give up on this series.  My two favorite science-fiction franchises, sharing the same story!  How could it possibly go wrong?  But, just as the Chicago Cubs find new and interesting ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, Assimilation2 was taking something that should make every Star Trek and Doctor Who fan feel excited like they’re thirteen again and making it plodding and underwhelming.  After four issues of that, I had no expectations for the fifth issue.

Let’s just say that the fifth issue is a stay of execution for Assimilation2.  It’s not great, it has the same problems as the previous four issues, but it actually does something and it does it competently even if it’s unsurprising in its development.

When we left Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the eleventh Doctor on the bridge of the Enterprise-D, the Borg-Cybermen alliance had shattered, and the Borg were asking for Picard’s help — or, rather, Locutus‘ help — in defeating the Cybermen.  Picard, however, rejected the Borg’s entreaties out of hand because of his assimilation at the hands of the Borg, and he brushed off the Doctor’s insistence that the Cybermen posed a greater threat than the Borg.

Everything that happens in this issue I expected.  When writing of the fourth issue two weeks ago, I said that that the Locutus twist “seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing” and that “I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in ‘Pyramids of Mars’) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.”  Both happen, and they’re tied together with a flashback, conversations, and more conversations.  If this were a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, we have a clip sequence, no guest cast, and a lot of standing set use, particularly Picard’s Ready Room.  In short, we have ourselves a budget-saving bottle episode issue here, and it’s one of the passive, talky ones at that.

Yet, it mostly works.  And we get our first sign that there’s actually a Doctor Who story going on here as well as the Star Trek story.

Is there anything new to the conversations?  No.  Guinan once again tries to push Picard to trust the Doctor’s judgment.  Picard once again states his firm decision not to work with the Borg, firmly.  Rory and Amy once again have pointless conversations with Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi so that we can pretend the Ponds have a role to play in a story that has no narrative room for them.  And then Picard finally decides to listen to the Doctor — and then suddenly we’re in a Doctor Who story.

The Doctor’s trick of taking a recalcitrant local on a trip into the future isn’t new.  The fourth Doctor does it to Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars.”  The Doctor of The Infinity Doctors takes the Sontaran and Rutan leaders into the future to show them the result of their eternal conflict.  And here, the Doctor takes Picard for a little spin in the TARDIS, visiting both Star Trek and Doctor Who planets, showing Picard the remorseless march of the Borg-enhanced Cybermen across the galaxy, decade by decade, and the consequences of inaction.  At last, five issues in, with the six pages of the Doctor in the TARDIS it beings to feel as if the promise of the series is about to be fulfilled.

But getting to this point isn’t perfect.  The bits with Guinan feel, like they did in the fourth issue, like nothing more than reprises of other Guinan scenes.  Amy’s conversation with Picard is reminiscent of her conversation with Kazran in “A Christmas Carol” and Lorna Bucket in “A Good Man Goes to War.”  The conversation she and Rory have with Troi doesn’t feel authentic at all; what reason do Troi and Crusher have to trust anything about the Doctor and his companions?  And Picard’s final decision in the issue doesn’t feel like a decision at all because it never feels like a choice.  The dubious plotting of the series, which Stuart Ian Burns has addressed in his reviews of the series continues unabatted, then.

The artwork is also variable.  We continue with the Gordon Purcell and J.K. Woodward team from the previous issue, but this issue’s artwork doesn’t appear as rushed or unfinished as previous issues.  There are also some sequences that look as if they’re Woodward flying solo, in particular most of the Picard-on-the-TARDIS sequence.  Purcell’s Karen Gillan likeness is better than in the previous issue, though there are panels where she looks more like a titian-haired Anne Hathaway.  Purcell’s Arthur Darvill likeness, however, is atrocious; if anyone can tell me who that is on page 11, please let me know.

And, let’s be honest, the story is absurd.  Star Trek: The Next Generation fans know that the Borg are a serious threat — they assimilated Picard, they trashed two Starfleet task forces, etc.  To accept the story that the Doctor ahd Guinan are telling Picard about why the Cybermen are a threat on the same level, you first have to accept that the Cybermen are a galactic, nay universal threat.  Really? On paper, maybe.  But have you seen “The Tenth Planet”?  “Attack of the Cybermen”?  “Silver Nemesis”?  The Cybermen are a bit crap when it comes to plans.  They can barely overrun a moonbase, it’s not likely that the Cybermen could overrun a galaxy.  The Cybermen aren’t a cosmic-level threat and have never been a cosmic level threat.

Still, the visuals of Picard’s journey into the Cyber-ized future are fabulous.

One problem with the Cybermen and their threat is the series hasn’t made the threat posed by the Cybermen and Borg credible.  To date, they have been conceptual rather than actual threats, and on the basis of nothing whatsoever the Doctor is able to explain to Picard what the Cybermen want and how they’re going to accomplish it.  The series has an unfortunate habit of telling and not showing.  The Away Team mission in the previous issue gave the characters some information, but there should have been some indication of how the Doctor arrived at his conclusions.  Of course Picard doesn’t trust the Doctor’s assertions; I don’t trust the Doctor’s assertions.

So why do I say it “mostly works”?  Two reasons.

As absurd as the story is, I avidly turned the pages to see what would happen next.  My inner thirteen year-old, who would have loved to see Colin Baker striding across the bridge of the Enterprise-D, loved this.

And, I honestly have no idea where the story is going from here.  In broad strokes, this series has been ridiculously easy to predict.  I suppose that if I were looking for a plot twist in issue #6, it would be a betrayal by the Borg, but I don’t know how to get there from here.  Basically, at this point, Assimilation2 is capable of surprising me.

Also, the fifth issue has the strongest final moment of the series to date.  The way the fifth issue ends is the way the fourth issue should have ended.  Late though it may be, it’s welcome.

I was fully prepared, before I read the issue, to post a JPG of Enchanter Tim with the caption “Get on with it!” as the sum total of my thoughts on this issue.  However, this issue worked for me, in ways that previous issues did not.  I’m not to the point of liking Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 yet, but neither am I on the verge of dropping the story unfinished.  The fifth issue, while not perfect, was satisfying enough to earn it a stay of execution.

I am, curiously, optimistic.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #4
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward

For two weeks this review has defeated me.  I wrote a draft.  I didn’t like it.  It was, I thought, harsh.  I wrote another draft.  This one I didn’t like, either.  Then deadline madness descended upon me with all the weight and force of Thor’s mighty hammer, and with the fifth issue only two weeks away I wasn’t sure I was going to say anything of the fourth issue of this series.

Then I saw the cover to the final issue of the series.  We’re not there yet.  The concluding eighth issue isn’t out until the end of December, four issues away.  Yet, I couldn’t not think about it.  And I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.  As a fan of comics history, it’s… fun.  Totally unexpected.  As a fan of these franchises, Doctor Who and Star Trek, it’s taking the piss.  That piss-taking cover shouldn’t bother me — comic books should be fun, after all — and yet it does irk me somewhat.  Based on the series to date, it’s not earned.

I’ve not been happy with this series.  The first issue had a cover that promised more than it delivered, giving us essentially a Doctor Who comic with a Star Trek: The Next Generation cameo.  The second issue reversed that — a Star Trek: The Next Generation comic with some Doctor Who stuff — and gave us the meeting of the two franchises, but then it left the interesting things, like the Doctor and Picard talking, in the background.  The third issue, where we should have finally seen plot movement, instead spent its time on a flashback.  The series, to that point, committed an unforgivable sin — it was boring.

I’ve been critical of the series, but I’ve always held out some hope that something, anything would happen to redeem this, to make suffering through the boredom worthwhile.  I really wanted this series, after all.  But there comes a point where a person has to accept that their aspirations don’t reflect reality.

And the reality, after four issues, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 is not good.  It could have been good.  It should have been good.  But it’s not, and frankly, it doubt it’s going to get better.

Let’s break it down.  The series has had four major problems.  Three of these I’ve discussed before, one I’ve not.

First, poor pacing.  Assimilation2 has not been written to be read in single issues.  The Oncoming Storm Podcast, in their review of the first two issues, has compared the pacing to the decompression of Brian Michael Bendis’ work.  Even I wrote after the first issue that “I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.”  I’ve yet to feel satisfied after an issue of this series because the story isn’t plotted or paced to fit a monthly chunk of twenty pages.  (I think that the better format would have been, like JLA/Avengers, a four-issue 48-page prestige format mini-series.  Same story, same pacing, but the format would mask some of the obvious pacing issues.)

Second, a lack of meaningful plot development.  The series has raised a number of questions, and it’s made no effort to answer them.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why doesn’t Picard trust the Doctor?  (More to the point, why is Picard so badly characterized?  He’s acting like the Star Trek: First Contact Picard, not the season five Picard.) Why were the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  The fourth issue adds a plot complication to these questions — the Borg and the Cyberman have had a falling out and have turned on one another — but this complication has no justification based on what we’ve seen before, so it adds another question to the mix: Why have the Borg and the Cybermen fallen out?  Even allowing that this story isn’t meant to be read in single issues and should be read in a single volume, we should have started to get answers to these questions by this point because the protagonists’ attempts to resolve these questions and solve the problems should have lead us to a definite climax that introduces new problems and launches the second act.  To this point, the series hasn’t done that.  It continues to muddle along.

Third, a too-large cast.  Star Trek: The Next Generation has a large ensemble cast.  Doctor Who doesn’t have quite as large an ensemble.  While other Star Trek crossovers (the X-Men crossovers, the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover) have managed to incorporate the other cast well, usually by pairing off characters between the two franchises and giving each a plotline, Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 has yet to find a role for Amy and Rory.  Essentially, Assimilation2 reads like a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that guest-stars the Doctor.  The problem, as I’ve said before, is that Amy and Rory simply have no role in a Star Trek story.  As a window into the setting, they’re unnecessary; everyone knows the Star Trek world, the way it works, the way it behaves.  As characters whom the story affects, they’re useless; there was no good reason for them (the Doctor, yes; Amy and Rory, no) to join Riker’s Away Team in the fourth issue.  If this were the episode “Sarek,” then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.

Finally — and this is the new problem, the problem that in the background of all the others — the series is a conceptual misfire.

Start from the premise that this can be read as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story with the Doctor as the guest-star.  I’ve yet to identify anything about the story that requires the Doctor.  When the first issue comes out next week, take a look at Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: The Next Generation mini-series Hive.  The first issue of that series and the fourth issue of this series end in exactly the same place — the Borg Collective asks Picard to rejoin them and lead them again as Locutus because there’s a bigger enemy that threatens them both.  Are there Cybermen in Hive?  The Doctor?  Of course not.  This could be a case of similar stories (Borg and time travel) hitting similar story beats, but even if it’s a coincidence it points to the lack of necessity in the crossover elements in Assimilation2.  This story could be told without the Doctor quite easily.

There’s a word of advice I remember former Star Trek novel editor John Ordover making years ago to aspiring writers during the Strange New Worlds contest.  Paraphrasing from an old and musty memory, it went something like this: “If you can tell your story with other characters, then the characters aren’t intrinsic to the story.”  Since then, I’ve asked myself these two questions when writing a story.  What about this story requires those characters?  What about these characters motivates that story?  Insofar as the Doctor and his companions are concerned Assimilation2 fails those questions, if viewed from the perspective of a Star Trek: The Next Generation story.  Viewed the other way, as a Doctor Who story with Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, those questions are impossible to answer because the story is incoherent seen in that way.  There’s nothing intrinsic about this story and its characters.

After four issues of Assimilation2, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the point of the series is simply to see the Star Trek and Doctor Who characters sharing the same page, that’s all the creators intend, and any quibbles with story are beside the point.  The story, basically, is an excuse for Picard to act constipated around the Doctor, for the Doctor to be a force of chaos on an Away Team mission, for Guinan to say cryptic things, for Amy and Rory to worry about the Doctor.  Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in their critiques of “The Five Doctors” in About Time 5 summed up that story thusly: “It’s a party, so they all do their party pieces.  [SNIP] Like the Star Trek movies, what we have here is an on-screen convention.  In those terms, nobody’s really in a position to grumble.  But it could have been something much more radically odd, like Doctor Who used to do before it started playing safe.”  Sadly, that sums up where Assimilation2 is at the halfway point.  And based on everything that’s come before, what’s to come is unlikely to be any different.

That’s in the future, however.  What of the fourth issue, since I’ve spent the last fifteen hundred words waxing theoretical on the problems of Assimilation2 as a whole?

The story develops some plot.  The Doctor talks with Guinan, and, just as in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Guinan recognizes that something has gone wrong with time and that the guest-star shouldn’t be there.  The Borg and the Cybermen suddenly turn on each other.  Picard is content to let the Cybermen destroy the Borg when the Borg ask for his assistance, but the Doctor wants Picard to ally himself with the Borg and become Locutus again to defeat the Cybermen.

Yes, it’s nice that the Doctor and Guinan have a sit-down, but there’s nothing new here.  Guinan says cryptic things, the Doctor plays mysterious and says cryptic things, everyone else is confused.  We’ve seen this very conversation before.  For Guinan, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Time’s Arrow,” Star Trek: Generations.  For the Doctor, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Wedding of River Song” come quickly to mind.  The only thing different here in Assimilation2 is who the Doctor and Guinan are having this cryptic, pointless with — each other.  This isn’t something we would get on television or on film because they never met on film, but that doesn’t make the same conversation new, it just makes it different.

Yes, it’s nice that there’s some development of the Borg/Cybermen alliance.  We’ve seen that they’re together in past issues, but we’ve had no idea why they were working together or what they wanted (beyond the obvious modus operandis of assimilate and/or destroy).  Before the story can even answer those questions, suddenly they’re at each others’ throats.  This development, interesting though it may be, feels ungrounded and unearned.  Ungrounded, because we can’t understand why the allies are fighting each other if we don’t understand why they’re allies to start with.  Unearned, because the Borg/Cybermen alliance, after the attack on Delta IV way back in the first issue, have been a conceptual menace, and they haven’t been built up enough that their sudden falling out has any meaning to the reader.

And yes, it’s nice that the conflict between Picard and the Borg is brought up (though as I said earlier, it feels like a later characterization of Picard and not of the “I, Borg” Picard), but this feels like an arbitrary development.  Unless the story actually follows through with Picard allying with the Borg, this seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing.  (And for an example of how bad that would be, see Hive #1.)

In short, it’s nice that these things happen, but I don’t see them, at least the first two, moving the narrative chits forward.

Amy and Rory actually do stuff in this issue.  It’s not interesting stuff — the Doctor convinces Picard to let them go on an Away Team mission, where they don’t do anything at all (except, curiously, behave like Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep).  When they went on the Away Team mission, I was hopeful that Rory would be captured by the Borg and assimilated, not because I want something bad to happen to Rory but because something needs to happen to increase the characters’ jeopardy and their involvement in the situation, and I was mildly disappointed that it didn’t happen, especially as the mission then led to a pointless conversation with Troi.

The artwork takes a turn.  Gordon Purcell, an artist with Star Trek comics credits going back to the 1980s, is now providing the pencil foundation for J.K. Woodward’s paints.  This looks to be a permanent change for the remainder of the series — Purcell pencils, Woodward paints — and the resulting artwork has a different flavor.  It looks similar to the previous three issues as Woodward’s paints keep it visually consistent, but and Purcell’s artistic quirks, like gangly characters and lots of finger pointing, are present.  The fourth issue isn’t as photo-realistic as the previous issues, and some of the character likenesses, especially Amy’s, are wildly off.

And finally, we get a cliffhanger.  It’s not the game-changing cliffhanger I was hoping for — this issue also doubles as the final issue in the first volume of the collected edition, so I was expecting something major to happen at this point in the narrative — but it’s certainly better than previous issues’ final images.

Overall, the fourth issue just there.  On its own, it’s adequate.  If the goal is to show the Enterprise crew and the TARDIS trio on the same page and nothing else, then it succeeded at that.  If it had higher ambitions, though, it’s another middling chapter in a disappointing series.  I’ll carry on with the series.  I can’t not read it, I’ve been a fan of these franchises for as long as I can remember.  But I’ll carry on without enthusiasm and without expectations.

What do I expect going forward?  The cover to the fifth issue shows Picard stepping out of the TARDIS.  Assuming that this reflects the issue’s contents, I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars”) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg.  The sixth issue depicts the Doctor and a Borg working together, so presumably the Doctor will be allied with the Borg (possibly led by Locutus) against the Cybermen.  And the seventh issue, which is the latest cover to be made public, shows the TARDIS at Wolf 359, which indicates that the key to stopping the Cybermen is in the past and the Doctor has to go and get it.

Maybe the Doctor should get assimilated by the Borg.  That would certainly be different, though if the Dalek Asylum’s nanomachines didn’t convert him into a Borg drone, then Borg nanites probably would assimilate him, either.  However, that would make a killer cliffhanger to issue #7, an image of the assimilated Doctor announcing his Borg identity.

No, I shouldn’t think that way.  I’ll only disappoint myself.

On BBC America’s “Asylum of the Daleks” Screening

Yes, I scored tickets to BBC America’s “Asylum of the Daleks” Doctor Who screening in New York yesterday.  You may have heard horror stories about acquiring tickets.  My luck may be lousy in everything else, but the one time it counted the luck came through. :)

I made two “immediate reaction” tweets.  The first: “Holy fucking god, what a stunning episode.”  The second, a reply to Steven Moffat himself: “‘Asylum’ was amazing — and it will break the Internet in half seven days hence.”

I can’t talk about the episode yet — Matt Smith, who was at the screening last night, basically pinky-swore the audience not to spoil its plot surprises — so I’ll talk a little bit about the experience and some non-spoilery, non-critical stuff about the episode.

I was not a fan of the sixth season.  I compared Steven Moffat to Brannon Braga, and not in a good way.  (I still stand by that assessment, by the way.) To me, season six points to the difference between “Steven Moffat, the writer of ‘Girl in the Fireplace'” (Freelancer, one script) and “Steven Moffat, showrunner of Doctor Who” (Producer, multiple scripts, herding cats), and I thought that with the sixth season he flailed in the same way that writers do with second novels and bands do with second albums — they’ve used up all their good material (in Moffat’s case, the fifth season) and either recycle old ideas or generate weak new ideas.  I thought the resulting was self-indulgent and poorly paced, a season where there were some individual moments but whose whole was far less than the sum of its parts, and the 2011 Christmas special didn’t instill me with confidence.

“Asylum of the Daleks” bodes well.  I’d even call it one of Moffat’s best scripts in years; at least his best since “A Study in Pink” for Sherlock, and as far back as “The Girl in the Fireplace” for Doctor Who.  (“Blink,” I think, is clever, but it’s marred by an ontological Gordian Knot that cannot be cut.) It’s not perfect — it has some typical Moffat-y problems, which I’ll mention — but it is hugely enjoyable and genuinely moving (I spouted waterworks on three occasions).  The opening scene on Skaro feels epic and portentious, the episode doesn’t let up, and it does something genuinely new and unexpected with the Daleks.

It’s not flawless.  There’s a narrative thread early on that gets dropped, I didn’t quite buy some of the character work (though “Pond Life,” the five-part web series on the BBC’s website this week, should address that issue), the story isn’t set at a concrete point in Dalek history (except that it’s at some point after “The Daleks’ Master-Plan” and War of the Daleks), I’m not clear on why the Daleks needed the Doctor to solve their problem in the first place (or even what their problem was), and there’s a bit with a piece of tech that makes no sense whatsoever.  However, “Asylum of the Daleks” also rewards the attentive viewer, not unlike an Encyclopedia Brown story.

I’m curious at the reception the story will receive, because it’s a story that will play differently to the Doctor Who Magazine-reading, internet forum-follow fan and to the casual viewer in ways that I simply cannot discuss at the moment.

As for BBC America’s event, I am seriously glad I went.  American Doctor Who fandom has become Beatlemania-for-nerds.  That’s the only way to describe it.  It’s something that Matt Smith himself remarked upon in the Q&A after the screening; he’d love it if Doctor Who filmed in New York permanently simply because of the reaction Doctor Who gets over here.

As a corollary to the that, in my completely unscientific opinion, I’m pretty sure that I was at least two standard deviations above the mean age of the audience.  At least two.  Possibly even three. :)

I arrived at the Ziegfeld Theater about 12:15, and when I arrived there was already an extensive line, and I suspect that some people had camped out overnight.  There was also a line on the opposite side of the street; these were people who didn’t have tickets, wouldn’t get into the screening, but simply wanted to be there and possibly see Matt Smith and Karen Gillan.

In the course of the three hours waiting in line, camera crews came down the line, pumping up the crowd and getting us cheering on camera.  I wondered if Matt and Karen would arrive before seating for the screening began (the doors for the 6 o’clock screening were to open at four), or if the line would be cleared and then they would arrive.  Unsurprisingly, it was the latter.  They arrived in DeLoreans much closer to six o’clock; by that time, the audience was ensconced in the auditorium.  I’m curious to see how the line footage is used by BBC America; I suspect that the footage of screaming fans will be matched to footage of Matt and Karen arriving, giving the impression that these happened simultaneously, accompanied with narration by this generation’s Howard Da Silva, Mark Sheppard himself.

The theater itself was awesome, except for the traffic flow.  To get from the lobby to the theater one had to walk through the souvenir line, the concession lines, and the line to the women’s restroom.

The Q&A was fun.  It was hosted by Chris Hardwick (a.k.a., the Nerdist), and some questions from the audience were taken for Matt, Karen, and producer Caroline Skinner.  Matt was asked who should be the next Doctor (a question he admitted was difficult — “I’m trying to talk myself out of work here!” he said).  Karen was asked what traveling with the Doctor had done to Amy (a question that “Pond Life,” the five-part web series this week, and “The Power of Three” will answer).  They were asked if they would do a Shakespeare film together, and when Karen suggested Macbeth, calling it by name, she was made to run off the stage, turn circles, and run back to ward off the evil spirits.  There were shout-outs to Matt and Karen’s agent, Matt’s mother, and Murray Gold, all of whom were in the audience.  And Karen Gillan was wearing an absolutely gorgeous dress.

BBC America has pictures from the screening on their Anglophenia blog.

A better season opener than “The Impossible Astronaut,” “Asylum of the Daleks” doesn’t reach the heights of “The Eleventh Hour.”  That said, Doctor Who fans, you’re in for a treat next week.  And if you’re not in the UK, you really need to stay the hell away from Twitter, Facebook, and the forums next Saturday afternoon, because “Asylum” will do what Mark Millar never did — break the Internet in half.  You’re best if you come to this episode cold.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #3
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Art by J.K. Woodward and the Sharp Brothers

Two issues into IDW Publishing’s Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 and I was feeling indifferent.  The first issue, discussed here, was okay but not especially engaging; the cover promised the Doctor and the crew of the Enterprise in a single adventure, and what we got instead was the Doctor having a runaround in ancient Egypt while the Borg and the Cybermen did Borg-y/Cybermen-y things, which felt like a weird way to launch a series that Whovians and Trekkies have wanted for years.  The second issue, not discussed (though some of my thoughts can be found on Stuart Ian Burns’ blog), was a Star Trek runaround, and while the fannish moments of the Doctor meeting the Enterprise crew finally happened midway through the issue, I still felt like the story wasn’t going anywhere as I turned to the final page — which then, quite suddenly, promised a whole lot.

stdw3As the third issue opens, the Doctor and the Enterprise crew discover, in orbit of Delta IV, an armada of Borg cubes and Cybermen ships.  Massively outgunned, Picard decides that retreat is the better part of valor, and he quizzes the Doctor on the Cybermen.  Meanwhile, Data does his own research, and he discovers that there are Starfleet records of the Cybermen — on Stardate 3368.5, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise, on a mission to investigate an incommunicado research facility, encountered the Cybermen on planet Aprilia III, alongside a mysterious man in a floppy hat and scarf who called himself “the Doctor”…

I like Assimilation2.  But I don’t love it yet.  And I think that the third issue encapsulates why.

After three issues, what are the Borg and the Cybermen up to?  We have no idea.  What is Picard planning to do to combat the Borg?  Again, no idea.  The pacing continues to be languid.  It still doesn’t feel like the story has started.  Instead of moving the plot forward and building tension, the three issues are giving us fannish moments (like a discussion of the Doctor’s age and the final page of this issue).

The tone is off, and this issue highlights that.  There’s a flashback to an adventure the fourth Doctor has with Captain Kirk’s crew (similar to the flashbacks in Tony Lee’s graphic novel, The Forgotten), and the artwork is done by the Sharp Brothers (Star Trek: Year Four).  In comparison to J.K. Woodward’s painted artwork, the Sharp Brothers’ artwork is penciled, with sharp and bright colors that evokes the original series.  The contrast compared to Woodward’s artwork highlights the odd tone of the story; while his artwork matches the tone of the story, that tone feels too dark for the “classic” period of Star Trek: The Next Generation and would suit better the movie-era of the Next Generation.

There are too many characters to work with effectively.  Amy and Rory barely appear, and they’ve done nothing of significance since the first issue.  (I expect that, around issue #5 or #6, Rory will be captured and assimilated by the Borg because that’s the kind of thing that happens to Rory.) Their non-presence contributes to the feeling that Assimilation2 is a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest-star the Doctor; I’m not getting a Doctor Who vibe from it right now.

That said, there are things I like about this issue.

The 23rd-century flashback, though brief, is nicely done, and it has a lovely moment of Kirk fighting the Cybermen, using all of his classic moves — the two-fist punch, the flying-leg kick.

The dialogue continues to ring true.

The mystery of the Doctor’s mismatching memories is intriguing.  (I expect the payoff will be, as Stuart Ian Burns suggested at the link above, that the Doctor is developing the memories he would have had if his adventures were in the Star Trek universe instead of the Doctor Who universe.)

The final page puts us on the cusp of a moment I’ve been expecting since the first issue.

I continue to hope that something will happen in Assimilation2, and if anything major and game-changing is about to happen, next issue will be the likely moment because the fourth issue cliffhanger also doubles as the cliffhanger to the first volume of IDW’s collected edition.  (In September, a week before issue #5 reaches stores, IDW is publishing a trade paperback collecting the first four issues of the series.) I’m still waiting to be wowwed by this; it hits my fannish buttons, but it’s not hitting my narrative buttons yet.  I like reading Assimilation2, but I want to love it.

Some continuity notes…

  • The stardate for Kirk’s mission to Aprilia III puts it somewhere in the vicinity of late-1st season/early 2nd-second Star Trek.  Due to the way stardates were used in the original series, you can’t really nail it down to between specific episodes.  On the other hand, Kirk lands on Aprilia III in the shuttlecraft Galileo II, the successor to the Galileo (which was active at least through “The Immunity Syndrome” in late season two).
  • Based on the fourth Doctor’s costume and his lack of companion, the adventure of Aprilia III probably takes place prior to “The Face of Evil.”  However, it could take place between “The Invasion of Time” and “The Ribos Operation” (which is where Jean Airey’s “The Doctor and the Enterprise” falls) and the Doctor simply left K-9 in the TARDIS.

ETA (7/21/12): Paul Simpson of Sci-Fi Bulletin (and the former editor of Titan’s official Star Trek magazine) reviews the third issue here, awarding it a 7 out of 10.

And Stuart Ian Burns continues his series of insightful reviews of the comic series with this review of this issue.  What follows below is the comment I left on his blog in response:

It is boring, isn’t it?

I see people raving about the third issue online, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  It’s amiable enough, I’m not totally indifferent to it (I’m reading it, after all), but I don’t feel any great love for it.  It’s just there.

I know this will read better in a single collected volume.  Most of IDW’s Star Trek work reads better that way.  (The exceptions are John Byrne’s work, any of the “anthology” series like Captain’s Log or Alien Spotlight, and recently the ongoing movie comic — which, as you say, started off poorly but has become enjoyable and interesting.) But that doesn’t absolve the individual issues of their inability to work on their own merits.  If I’m going to put down my money every month, I want to feel satisfied when I’ve read it.

Instead, the only feeling I have is anticipation (for something to happen) and dismay (since nothing’s happening).

It’s almost as if the writers decided that the pinnacle of Star Trek storytelling was the passage through V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the ultimate Doctor Who moment was that episode of “The Sea Devils” where it seems like Pertwee spends the entire episode sitting in the depressurization chamber, and they wanted to emulate all that.

Though the flashback was cool (Kirk’s two-fisted chop and flying leg kick were undeniable fannish moments for me, and I imagine there are readers who were humming the Kirk fight music), I think it was a misstep at this point in the series.  We’d just gotten the leads working together, now they knew their enemies were working together, and rather than explore that and move the narrative forward, we have a flashback to another crew and another Doctor.

Oh.  Except maybe that’s the point.

I’ve started thinking of this as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that happens to guest star the Doctor.  Star Trek stories have antagonists, but they often serve as a catalyst for the characters’ personal drama.  “The Best of Both Worlds” (to use a Borg example) isn’t really about the Borg, it’s about how Riker copes with an ambitious replacement and his own unexpected command.  You mentioned “A Matter of Time”; the situation that brought the Enterprise to wherever wasn’t the important thing, the real meat of the story was Picard’s debate over predestination and free will.  The antagonists are just a way of getting to the character drama in a Star Trek story.

(Which, by the way, is not something that always works.  In “Relics” the Dyson Sphere was infinitely more interesting than Scotty.  Yes, it was nice to see Scotty again, but dammit, I wanted to see more of the Dyson Sphere!)

The point is, I think it could be whatever’s causing the flashbacks the Doctor is suffering (since he’s now suffered two — the vision of the Borg in the first issue, and now the full-blown memory of his fourth incarnation) that’s important and the Borg/Cybermen alliance is merely incidental.  A catalyst for bringing the Doctor and Picard together.

Or I could be overthinking it.

I’ve also begun to wonder if Amy and Rory will play any meaningful role.  I harbor some doubts, because they don’t have a function in a Star Trek story.  The TARDIS has landed in a world that everyone knows; the questions the companion(s) would ask so the Doctor could explain are pointless because the audience already knows.  They’re in a story where the audience identification and expository functions of the companion(s) are unnecessary.

Yet, I still think that Rory will be assimilated.  Or, at the very least, captured.  I imagine it would have to play out like this.  The Enterprise sends an Away Team to a planet or a Borg cube.  But Picard sensibly refuses to let the Doctor and the Ponds go.  (They’re not Starfleet personnel.) The Doctor decides that he doesn’t like that answer, so he and the Ponds pop in the TARDIS and arrive on the planet/cube.  Riker gets stern — “Doctor, the Captain told you to say on the Enterprise — but everyone accepts this, until things go wrong and they’re all ambushed.  Rory gets captured.  The rest of the Away Team beams out.  End of issue.  Next issue, Picard lectures the Doctor, says he doesn’t trust the Time Lord, and the Doctor grudgingly admits that he made a mistake, but now that the mistake is done they have to put aside their differences and work together to rectify the situation.

The trouble with trying to guess where this story will go is that it’s still wide open.  How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe?  Why is the Doctor having painful memories?  Why are the Borg and the Cybermen working together?  And what do the Borg and Cybermen want?  Going back to what I was saying earlier about this issue as a misstep, at this point in the game the series should have started answering these.  Not full-on answers, obviously, but something.  Instead, we had the flashback, and we’re still running in place.

Still, I want to see the Doctor do Doctor-ish things.  The best thing, in my opinion, would be the Enterprise crew hopping in the TARDIS and going with the Doctor on a tour of important moments in Star Trek history.  (Think “The Chase” but not stupid, or “The Daleks’ Master-Plan” without Mavic Chen.)

Maybe, if this story is a Star Trek story with the Doctor as guest star, IDW will do a second next year that’s a Doctor Who story with a Star Trek crew in the Doctor’s universe.

On Things I’ve Been Reading

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #1
IDW Publishing
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Art by J.K. Woodward

When I was about nine, I started watching Star Trek.  I remember going with my dad to see Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for my birthday.  When I was about ten, I started watching Doctor Who.  I remember seeing “Pyramids of Mars” (which made quite an impression for many reasons, among them Lis Sladen in the white dress) and “The Five Doctors” (which made no sense to me because I didn’t know who any of these other Doctors were).  In high school, aged fourteen, I remember getting very excited for Star Trek: The Next Generation when it began.  On Saturday nights I’d watch that at 7 o’clock, and then late Saturday nights I’d watch Doctor Who on West Virginia Public Television.  Patrick Stewart in the early evening hours, Colin Baker late at night.  A difference of five hours, that’s how close the worlds of Star Trek and Doctor Who were for me.  Five hours.

What if these two worlds were closer?  What if the Doctor’s TARDIS, which can go anywhere in space and anywhen in time, slipped a track and landed someplace unexpected?  Someplace like Duckburg.  Or the unmarred Arda before the coming of Morgoth.  Or the Benny Vandergast Memorial Theater.  Or the bridge of the Enterprise-D.  Doctor Who is, in many ways, a narrative universal solvent.  The TARDIS can go anywhere.

Crossovers like this are the stuff of a thousand fanfics.  I should know.  I’ve written a few in moments of boredom or to scratch an itch.  I’ve read a few others out of curiosity.  (Currently, I have one of the most famous of the crossovers, Jean Airey’s The Doctor and the Enterprise, on my Nook thanks to an hour’s work with Calibre.) But even if CBS were game for a crossover between Star Trek and Doctor Who, since they’ve allowed crossovers with the X-Men and the Legion of Super-Heroes, I never thought the BBC would go for it.

I was wrong.  In February, IDW Publishing, the comic book publisher that carries both the Star Trek and Doctor Who licenses, announced they were publishing a crossover this summer.

Two weeks ago the first issue of IDW Publishing’s Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who crossover mini-series, Assimilation2 arrived in comic shops.  Due to some shipping nonsense, I finally got it on Wednesday.  Due to deadlines, I finally read it this morning.

It was okay.  I liked it well enough.  The dialogue rang true.  The painted artwork style was nice (but I think I’d have preferred a traditionally pencilled and inked comic).

But.

There’s always a “but.”

The cover, which features the eleventh Doctor and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, promises a lot, which the first issue doesn’t deliver.  This is a prologue (a Borg/Cybermen alliance attack Delta IV in Federation space), and a chapter one (the Doctor has an adventure in ancient Egypt), with a cliffhanger that puts the story on the cusp of what the cover promises — a meeting of the Doctor and Picard.  (And you can guess how that meeting will go.  The Doctor will think he’s in 1940s San Francisco when he’s actually on the Holodeck, Picard will think his Dixon Hill program has gone haywire and he tries to make the Doctor go away, Worf will come along and sort it out by tossing the Doctor in the brig because he’s breached the Enterprise‘s security, much wackiness ensues.) Even though the first seven pages do take place in a Trekian setting, Assimilation2 #1 really feels like little more than issue #17 of IDW’s just-concluded ongoing Doctor Who series.

I’ve seen people criticizing the first issue in various online fora because the ancient Egypt runaround seems so pointless, yet I expect that it will have some payoff eventually (that the Doctor has a telepathic vision of the Borg is certainly suggestive).  The issue is mainly set-up.  This issue introduced the Doctor and his companions to an audience that might be unfamiliar with them.  It’s a safe bet that the second issue will do the same with Captain Picard and his crew, and then the third issue will see the two science fiction icons — the Doctor and Captain Picard, working together in common cause to defeat their mutual enemies.  I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.

This issue on its own, though?  Reading the first issue of Assimilation2 is like reading The Lord of the Rings through “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”  Or it’s like trying to judge “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” solely from “World’s End.”  We don’t have enough to make a judgment of the whole.  At best, we can give this an incomplete.  Based on the creative team, I know the story will pick up.  At the moment, though, it’s difficult to recommend this issue to someone who wouldn’t already want to read it.  There’s just not enough there on its own terms.

Some continuity notes…

  • The stardate given on the first page — 45635.2 — places this midway through Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s fifth season between “The Outcast” (Riker falls in love with an androgynous alien) and “Cause and Effect” (Brannon Braga’s timey-wimey story where the Enterprise is stuck in a time loop).  This also places the story before “I, Borg,” though I’m not sure if that will be important.
  • Delta IV is where Ilia (the navigator from Star Trek: The Motion Picture) hailed from.  The Deltans are a very sexual race, and according to Roddenberry’s novelization of the film xenosex with a Deltan is so mind-blowingly awesome that it will drive a human insane, so Deltans are required to take an oath of celibacy.
  • The Cybermen have the Cybus Industries logo on their chestplates, so they’re from the alternate universe known as “Pete’s World.”
  • The Doctor mentions knowing Mark Twain, which reminds me that this takes place before “Time’s Arrow” as well.  It would be interesting if the Doctor and Guinan eventually have a conversation in Ten-Forward.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Guinan knew the Doctor.
  • Though he doesn’t appear in this issue proper, it’s worth nothing that Jean-Luc Picard, after the loss of his earlier command, the Stargazer, and before he assumed command of the Enterprise, traveled in the TARDIS for a time with the sixth Doctor and Frobisher, a Whifferdill in the form of a penguin.
  • Rory Williams, during the two millennia he guarded the Pandorica, masqueraded as Tip Dorrit in the mid-nineteenth century.  It gave him something to do.