Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bras In The Tardis?

The Doctors aren't all that different from one another. Put them in a situation and they'll say the same things. Have them confront evil and they'll want to stop it. Differences in methods, costumes and spunk among them are like shadings; if the actor got the shading wrong - like, for example, Colin Baker, though it turned out it wasn't his fault but the fault of a laidback producer and a script editor who wasn't good at editing scripts - then it feels like the show went way off the rails and the audience recoils. Regardless of who plays the Doctor, it should always feel like this was the same character William Hartnell played, because that's where the show's roots are planted - they've played off that ever since.

And another observation is that they all look like they could be related...if not direct descendants of Hartnell, then distant cousins of eachother. If you can find a black, hispanic or asian actor bearing a passing familial resemblance to those men, or a woman, and if they've got that distinctive spunk or chutzpah to them that reminds one of an outer space alien tourist in a blue box, wielding a vaguely phallic smartphone/flashlight/remote control resembling a vapor pen that it calls a "sonic screwdriver", then....

But then..who is The Doctor? I remember someone wrote on a message board long ago that the Doctor is "...a dodgy geezer in a stolen motor!" So how's that? Too simple? If Joseph Campbell were still alive (read The Power of Myth, it's a very good book, even though it doesn't talk about tricksters, per se, though the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight could count as one, and there's a retelling of that legend in the book), he'd identify the Doctor as the trickster hero of folklore - a character who just might happen to be heroic, but not in a basic, readily identifiable sense. The Coyote. Reynard the Fox. Anansi the spider. Hermes. Prometheus. Br'er Rabbit. Groucho Marx. The Spirit. Snoopy. Bugs Bunny. Among the major comic book superheroes, Spider-Man and The Flash sorta fit those roles, if you could see past their mopey personal lives, but then you also have Deadpool, Loki, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Bat-Mite, The Joker and Harley Quin - trickster villains, or trickster anti-heroes, in the case of all but The Joker, who's becoming too dark these days to root for out loud.

Tricksters are also identified as shape shifters. The Doctor's multiple regenerations certainly qualify as shape-shifting. And now the Doctor officially gets to shape-shift in the form of a human female, played by actress Jodie Whittaker, who appeared in Broadchurch, a series created by Chris Chibnall, who is replacing Steven Moffat as showrunner of Doctor Who. Jodie's first appearance was without dialogue in a teaser trailer that showed the Doctor walking through a forest on the way the Tardis, enshrouded in an overcoat and hoodie (the default wardrobe of predecessor Peter Capaldi's 12th Doctor), before stopping short and removing the hood to reveal the new female form..so very like a trickster. In classic folklore & mythology, there are only two females solidly identified as tricksters: Lillith and Isis. Isis was the good one...the original Wonder Woman of real-life mythology, who was a 70's Saturday Morning TV superhero, played by Joanna Cameron.

So..where am I going with this? Just that we got a peek at the new Doctor acting the way the Doctor would act in a teaser trailer for a new series/season of Doctor Who. And so far, so good. My honest reaction was that she reminded me of J.K. Rowling with a shorter hairstyle. Obviously, there's going to be moments where her Doctor will reflect on having lived many lifetimes as a male Time Lord, even having been a father and grandfather early in life. But the Doctor as a character has never been distinctly sexual/sexually aggressive, always avuncular..and with Whittaker, perhaps, matronly. It's the companions, however, who sometimes get randy with advances & innuendo (River Song, Rose Tyler, Martha Jones) or became objectified by fans and the show's production team (Leela and Peri). Even though David Tennant and Matt Smith's looked like they could be happy to oblige, the Doctor is not Captain James T. Kirk..or Samantha Jones. The Tardis is not a makeout wagon. Doctor Who sorta leans over the fine line between a family-friendly program and adults-only but never really acted like there was no such line. If the 13th Doctor has a male companion that takes a fancy to her, it's been implied that it wouldn't be the first time a male made advances, but the first time it's happening with the Doctor as a woman. Remember, this is the same character..I imagine there would be a moment where she'd note this distinction, but then move on, because it's always the adventure that's been the Doctor's real romance. Love & marriage are things that are the sizzle, but not the steak.

And the Tardis would have ladies lingerie available, because the Doctor was never adverse to having female companions. Of all the reactions on social media, I thought that was the stupidest, but there were two that were interesting. First is the idea that young boys lose one fictional male role model...well, there are 12 canonical incarnations for them to look at, surely? Unless you're counting future generations...well, that's the power of TV reruns for you. Sherlock Holmes predates several generations of young people. Ditto Indiana Jones and Encyclopedia Brown  and Perry Mason and Columbo and Dick Tracy and John Steed and Hercule Poirot and Batman and Superman - all solid male characters created before I was born. And so were Doctors 1-4...and eventually Doctors 5-12, who will still exist for young children to discover.

And the other argument concerns if we'll see an improvement in the stories. Now we're getting somewhere. Doctor Who is more popular than it ever had been, globally, whereas in the past, it was just a pokey cult TV series that wasn't accessible everywhere. Now, it feels like all the stories Steven Moffat wanted to present had been told the way Steven Moffat wanted to present them. It was the same way with his predecessor, Russell T. Davies - fans of the series were getting emotionally exhausted with his spaceships-crashing-into-volcanoes approach to telling Doctor Who stories had run dry..and when he left, nobody was sure if there was anything new to say..not entirely "...on-it's-ass," creatively, but needing a new storytelling style in order to continue.

So...what is Chris Chibnall planning to do? That's the real suspense, here. His early scripts for Doctor Who were middle-of-the-road, journeyman stuff. Proof that he knew what the show was about, but not what it could be under his control...I'm eager to find out.

Who knows?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Froggy Went A-Discordin'...

"...because that's the way the boss would want it."

Steve Whitmire's debut as the voice and puppeteer behind Kermit the Frog was in an hour-long TV special, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, which aired a few months after Jim Henson passed away and was obviously meant as a turning point to allow what had become a franchise to move forward, firstly by introducing a new Kermit. 27 years later, you could say that it has...and hasn't.

The story of how Whitmire became Kermit is, to me,  just as sketchy as the story of  how and why he was officially fired this past weekend by the Disney Company, which owns the Muppets. I always assumed that none of Henson's peers at the time - Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt (who was actually in ill health and passed away in 1992) - were keen on taking over as Kermit...and Steve Whitmire stepped forward. He always got the body language of the character right..but the voice and characterization veered more towards characters that Whitmire created and was adept at playing: Rizzo the Rat, Wembley Fraggle, Bean Bunny, Jake the polar bear. It certainly was necessary for him to reinvent Kermit a little to get a natural performance out of the puppet, so Kermit did become a slightly different character..maybe more neurotic, a little melancholy..kind of quiet...more of a milquetoast. I would say Jim was more adept at improv, which is why Kermit became a popular guest on TV talk shows...so, yeah, whenever you saw the Muppets appear on TV specials in the 1990s and 2000s, it was grounded in memories of the past. Whitmire's Kermit tended to just..run out of things to say that sounded like things Kermit might say.

And that's why I enjoyed the early episodes of The Muppets - the season-long sitcom that experimented with bringing the Muppets up to 2015 with all the necessary subtlety of a sledgehammer. The early showrunners aimed high and got burned when the ratings were lackluster and parents complained, perhaps expecting primetime episodes of Sesame Street and getting something edgier. For a few months, it felt like the Muppets were back...and then it was over.

My favorite characters of Steve's were Bean Bunny and Sprocket, the dog from Fraggle Rock. Rizzo was often paired with Dave Goelz's Gonzo, and that pairing made for a fun double act that made up for the absence of the Kermit & Piggy, Kermit & Fozzie scenes in most of the Muppet productions that followed. In fact, there's a lot more of Gonzo and Rizzo in later Muppet productions from the 90s. They've tried to recreate those routines recently, now with Eric Jacobson as Fozzie and Piggy. Jacobson's Miss Piggy sounds like it needs more practice, but his Fozzie Bear is perfect.

Reading between the lines, I say this shake-up happened because the Muppets were underperforming in comparison to the other Disney acquisitions - Lucasfilm, ABC, Marvel, Pixar - and a scapegoat needed to made. 27 years later and now you agree with the people online who thought his frog wasn't on-point with Henson's? Was it because he was the seasoned veteran among a bunch of newcomers and that respect allowed you to turn a blind eye to make any aboutface change..?

I do remember it being particularly odd that Kermit was relegated to an occasional supporting role in "Muppets Tonight" and was replaced with a character named Clifford as the show's emcee. That was the 90's incarnation of "The Muppet Show". It didn't work because it featured mostly new Muppet characters that had no built-in fanbase. Where's the figurehead? Was that an early indicator of a lack of confidence in Steve's Kermit? I could be wrong..but the statements made by Henson family members over the last few days imply a sense of relief after a long slow burn; Whitmire had long fallen out of favor with them..and they were happy to support their corporate parent company with the decision.

I need to rewatch Muppet's Most Wanted. I can't remember if the doppelganger frog, Constantine, played by Matt Vogel, did an approximation of Kermit's voice in any scenes, or was just with the Boris Badenov, "Moos end square-rel"-talk thoughout. Ah, the irony. Vogel is the new Kermit after playing an imposter Kermit. And his debut is coming soon on social media.

Confidentiality...I believe a lot of Kermit's best moments weren't really on The Muppet Show, because he was usually playing the straight man to the zanier characters, but on Sesame Street where he really shined, dressing up like Inspector Clouseau and buying "Kermit the Froog" t-shirts and having odd chats with Grover, who would call him "Froggy-Baby". Those segments used to be rerun on Sesame Street constantly up until the 2000s, when the Disney acquisition put a stop to it, but I wouldn't mind seeing some of that Kermit return.

It's not that easy, being a corporate mascot...ask the mouse.