Monday, April 24, 2006

Who, Williams, and Wall-Crawling Work

I have been watching the next-to-latest "Doctor Who" under what I understand are less-than-optimal conditions; namely, cut up for commercials by the Sci-Fi Channel. It also doesn’t help that the actual newest series has apparently already begun in the UK. So far it’s pretty fun, but admittedly my only other exposure to the Doctor consists of the ‘90s FOX TV movie and scattered "Mystery Science Theater 3000" references. (When the Dalek started spitting out “EX-TER-MI-NATE!”s I could only think of Tom Servo.)

So here’s my question: how connected is this show to the rest of Whovian mythology? I know all the Doctors are part of the same continuity (this guy is the ninth, right?) which goes back decades, so everything has to make sense somehow; but are there a lot of Star Trek-style in-jokes and references? Has the show started to repeat its plots (again, unfortunately, like Trek)? Is the music even similar? I don't feel lost, but I don't know if I'm missing any layers.

The second item is simply to wish composer John Williams a happy 65th birthday. He’s 5-for-45 on Oscar nominations, with his last win 12 years ago (Schindler’s List), and arguments can be made that he’s past his prime, but he’s also responsible for some of the most recognizable music in history. Many a long, lonely car trip in the past few years has gone by faster with an MP3 player full of Williams' scores.

EDIT 4/25/06: Actually, that John Williams turned 74 on February 8. This John Williams, the classical guitarist, just turned 65. I must have heard the birthday wishes out of the corner of my ear on the classical music station and confused one for the other. Still, happy belated birthdays to both!

Finally, Josh wonders (legitimately, I think) why the Peter Parker of Earth-Newspaper-Strip doesn't
use his wall-crawling powers to become the world’s greatest paparazzo. He could kiss the Daily Bugle goodbye and make the big bucks sending photos of Paris Hilton, Tara Reid, Lindsay Lohan, and other typical celebutants to Us and InStyle and the like [...] and then we’d have a whole story arc about the morality of his new way of earning a living. “They chose a career in the public eye … they’re asking for it!” Peter would say. “But Peter … I’ve chosen that life too!” Mary Jane would retort. Eventually, he’d be assigned to take pictures of his own wife, and they he’d have some hard choices to make.
I haven't really kept up with Spidey in a long while, but hadn't he give up freelance photography to become a teacher? (Before he became a full-time Avenger/Tony Stark aide and stopped worrying about money, that is.) I don't think this kind of approach was ever explored in the old days -- it sounds like a variation on the old "why doesn't he patent the web-fluid formula?" don't-go-there question -- but again, I dunno.


Captain Qwert Jr said...

Dr Who is light on continuity. His past is a mystery. His few recuring villians are just bastards with simple backstorys. Only a few even have names. The Master, Davros and his Daleks, and the Cybermen are just bad.

Most stories are Plot heavy. Not sure how it ran in Britain, but on PBS it seemed to be 4-6 ~30 minute episodes, that make up a storyline. Then it's back to the Tardis. No real soap opera, though sometimes there is a thread through a couple of storylines.
It's actually quite nice. You can start with watching with any episode.

plok said...

Hi, Tom. If you ask me, Doctor Who should be required viewing for superhero comics writers: somehow even after 26 years (and now, hopefully, 26 more), the Doctor's writers have managed to keep his universe from becoming cluttered and unmanageable in terms of continuity...even though every single episode involves time travel! Like, there aren't even any inconsistency problems with the imaginary science, everything fits in well enough, but not too tightly.

So, my answer is: the show is very connected to the rest of Whovian mythology. There is the odd winking referential bit (as opposed to the self-reference implicit in the reappearance of old villains...but actually I shouldn't say that too fast, because I have yet to finish viewing the last season, and I don't know if they go over the top with the winking stuff - I bet not, though), but it's mostly ornamental and doesn't screw things up. The plots have never really repeated, except in the way they have to in order to qualify as a science fiction adventure serial in the first place. So you are missing layers, but you don't need them; they're just an added bonus.

Above all (and this is a bit of a hobby-horse of mine, so look out), Doctor Who episodes are still being written (as most things in Britain are) in the good old teleplay style that you may be familiar with from original Star Trek episodes, and indeed most American TV scripts from before the 90s. I could go on and on about this style, it's strong on revealing character through action and dramatic tension, and it's strongly episodic. In a way, it's very simple too: your average "ensemble-cast drama" is not written in this way, the teleplay rarely takes an episode out to look at the janitors or the hero's girlfriend in closer detail, it has a tight focus and it sticks to it in such a way that the whole run of a series written in this way can be said to be "about something" - as, I would argue, ST:TNG is not about something, but about many things...or, perhaps, about talking about many things, gesturing at many things. I think anyone would agree, at least, that it isn't "about" Picard and Riker and Data in the same way that Star Trek was about Kirk and Spock and McCoy, who stood-in for basic ideas and attitudes and conflicts in a way their successors never did...never standing-in for them, but more standing around them...not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with that...

Told you it was a hobby-horse! But one more thing, to me this is all about how non-teleplay-style TV shows actually borrow a lot of their visual vocabulary from comics (especially Marvel comics of the 80s), to the detriment of the non-static visual communication elements. People always talk about how the comics medium does its own thing, needs to be read its own way, and has its own unique advantages and disadvantages...and this is right, but then so is the reverse: film and television are media with specific advantages and disadvantages too, and you can't just plug comics-derived techniques into them and expect it all to work the same way. I love the simple directness of the telefilm style, and will always consider it superior for certain purposes; there's a lot to be said for the comics tricks that have been ported into TV, but you can't say everything about them. Sometimes they make it easy to miss a point that should be right there.

Whew! That took longer than I thought. Also, just to say, I understand why Peter Parker became a teacher, but I do miss his photog days, it's another thing that makes him feel essentially young rather than middle-aged. I would've loved to've seen the paparazzi/MJ conflict you describe here. With great photographic power must obviously come great photographic responsibility; woulda been clever, too bad.

Maybe next year!

Tom Bondurant said...

Thanks, guys!

Qwert, are you still posting on TrekBBS? I lurked over there for a few minutes yesterday and it seemed more positive than not regarding the J.J. Abrams news. (Since we're talking about new versions of old shows...)

I looked up Dr. Who on Wikipedia and inadvertently got spoiled for a big change in the second season, so that's why I have not done more research.

Plok, I agree with your assessment of TNG-era Trek. I liked it a lot, for the most part, but it did tend to focus on the particular Captain and a couple of others, despite its best efforts at ensemble.

To me the "teleplay structure" translates into comics as "who does Superman fight this month?" However, with an emphasis on continuity, the question then becomes "what happens to Superman this month?"

Ach, too many words in this comment -- smells like another post is a-brewing....

Captain Qwert Jr said...

I still lurk a bit over at the Trekbbs. It's just that I consider the current sci-fi series on TV/film underachieving (Sadly Dr Who included), and have nothing really to say about them, except "I would have done this or that." I don't like having to make up my own stories. I want to be surprised,

As for the Abrams' Trek. I believe he is correct to go back to Kirk and Spock. America loves Kirk and Spock. The heart and soul of the series. I pray that young McCoy, has a big part too.

As for Dr Who. Everything you need to know has already been revealed. I suppose you can find the best episodes and watch them, but that's pretty subjective. "Genesis of the Daleks" is my favorate if you had to pin me down. I only truly lovedd the Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee years.

redsneakz said...

True, Williams has written some recognizable film music, and in its own way, it can be pretty moving. By the same token, though, he's "borrowed" liberally from Holst and Prokofiev and other early TwenCen post-romantic composers.

I realize that it's an absolute bitch to score a film (you've got about 3 months to do 2 hours of music, from what I've heard), but need it be so derivative every time?

Obscure fact: The "Peter Gunn" theme features a piano player named Johnny Williams. Yup, same guy.

Tom Bondurant said...

Yeah, I came not to bury Johnny W., but to praise him, since I did think it was his birthday. As an amateur musician in a family of musicians who also grew up with Williams' film scores, we all have pretty clear-eyed thoughts about his work and its origins. Still, we kinda like it.

Of course, one of Williams' most famous "steals" is the bit from Psycho as Han, Luke, and Obi-Wan climb out of the Falcon's hidden compartments. I'm sure there are others, but my musical education isn't that extensive.