DR. WHO: THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – SHAVE AND A HAIR CUT…………….???

 

SHORT TAKE:

Disappointing, lackluster reboot of Dr. Who into the first female incarnation of the main character, in a plot that is a routine set up without any real payoff.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone CAN go see this DR. WHO, but…(to use a different interrogative pronoun)…WHY?

LONG TAKE:

I went with an open mind, I really did. After all, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that, contrary to my long held opinion, a good superhero could be made featuring a woman when Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot knocked the socks off me with her powerful but feminine portrait of a righteously heroic super woman.

So it was with high hopes that I went to go see the premiere of the very first show featuring the very first woman Dr Who – that is with the exception of The Curse of Fatal Death, the parody filmed for the charity Comic Relief with Rowen Atkinson who ultimately morphs into Joanne Lumley in 1999.

If you like the cheap waxy chocolate in your Easter basket; if you make your milkshakes out of fat free ice milk; if you prefer plain unsweetened rice cakes for breakfast; if your refreshment of choice is a clear sugar free diet soda (why don't you just drink water?); if your musical taste runs to the elevator music version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" — then this is the Dr Who for you. All promise and little delivery.

SPOILERS

To start with, the pronouns present a challenge, but let’s do this – if I’m referring to Jody Whittaker’s Dr Who it seems fair to use the feminine. BUT if I refer to any previous incarnation, then the masculine grammatical reference should apply.

For those of you NOT familiar with Dr Who, please refer to my previous blog on Dr Who: Twice Upon a Time, which gives a quick "cheat sheet" introduction to the Whovian Universe.

For those of you already familiar with Dr Who, the premise of The Woman Who Fell to Earth, is that the first female Doctor (literally) falls to Earth – and physically – through a train roof, just as the passengers are being terrorized by an energy ball of tentacles. Companions happen upon her and follow like dust motes in the wake of a guppy and they decide to figure out what it is and its connection to another alien with teeth imbedded in its face. Meanwhile, an entire more interesting and better acted subplot involving a missing girl and her murdered brother are brushed aside like so much flotsam and the story drags to a conclusion with manufactured tension and a lead who can not even smile convincingly.

None of this is remotely quality Who.

Even the beginning flies in the face of the basic mechanics of the Who-verse. Everyone knows or suspects strongly that Dr. Who’s TARDIS gets him/her to where they are most needed. From the get go, as explained by Whittaker's Who, the TARDIS was wounded and dematerialized leaving the new Who to the tender ministrations of gravity. So Who's propitious appearance at the train to save the passengers seems more like coincidence than it should.

Next, while the Doctor has shown himself to be physically resilient, and crashing bodily into Earth like a thrown bowling ball is not necessarily the most injurious event he has ever survived, to fall to Earth from near outer space and crash THROUGH a train roof without so much as mussed hair is a bit much for even my considerable suspension of disbelief. 

Tennant, having burst through a skylight in The End of Time Part II looks like he's been on the wrong side of a blender.

And her adaptability to her new body misses SO much. Tennant noticed new teeth immediately before collapsing from the regeneration effort. Matt Smith examined his whole body in a humorous frenzy even as the TARDIS was exploding around him: "Legs! I've still got legs! Good. Arms. Hands. Oo! Fingers. Lots of fingers. Ears. Yes. Eyes two. Nose. I've had worse. Chin. [Noting its size]  Blimey. Hair. [presciently] I’m a girl. [feels Adam’s apple] No no. I’m not a girl. [Pulling a lock of hair forward to look at it, grumps] And still not ginger." When River Song morphed from young black teen to middle aged but shapely white woman we got more brilliant acting with Alex Kingston as she admires her own new hair then hollars from the bathroom: "Oh, that’s magnificent! I’m gonna wear lots of jodhpurs!" 

Jody Whittaker's Dr. Who's only comment is "Brilliant" and we're not even sure she's reacting to her new gender. Granted this is a flaw in the writing, but there's no indication from her acting or movements that she is: awed, amazed, dismayed, confused, curious, intrigued, or turned on by the fact that for the first time she is whole new GENDER! When in the past your previous selves have been surprised and dazzled by hair color and teeth size, and another Time Lord by the size of her own booty, you'd THINK a change in your entire sex would merit SOME attention. Even the spoof skit showed Lumley impressed with her new found…upgrades. In The Woman Who Fell to Earth her responses COULD have been tastefully done and REALLY funny. But it was like "Shave and a hair cut…………….." WHERE was the overwhelm? Where was the curiosity?

And her acting is – to put it kindly – bland. To NOT be so kind, she demonstrates all the emoting variations of an indulgent second grade school teacher.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip down memory lane:

Tennant:

Smith:

Eccleston:  

Hurt:

Capaldi:

Now here's the new Dr Who: Her busy face,  her studious face  her surprised face. Is she afraid to move her eyebrows? Or show any genuine enthusiasm? Or risk looking silly?

Where is the humor? Where is the childlike enthusiasm to which we can all relate? And while, again, this is largely the fault of the script, it's not even that the show takes itself too seriously. I've often told our kids – it's not necessarily WHAT you say, but HOW you say it that makes all the difference. And I can't help but nostalgically wonder how a previous doctor (pick one – ANY one) would have done the reading on these same fairly uninspired lines and what desperately needed, resuscitating life they might have given them.

The writing is mundane and pedestrian. The trailer even features a good example: "I'm The Doctor. When people need help I never refuse." This is not only lazy writing but it is said with all the conviction of a PSA.

There's a scene where she jumps dramatically and dangerously (in Capaldi's slippery ill-fitting dress shoes) from one crane to another about 15 stories off the ground, then simply talks and tosses something to the bad guy to win the day. It would have been far more interesting if she had realized she did not have the upper body strength in the female body she now has, admitted that and worked around it. Realistically she could have done exactly what she ended up doing – talking and tossing – only without the death defying leap. This is just manufactured suspense.

Even the title is not particularly creative, merely a take on an old David Bowie sci fi vehicle The MAN Who Fell to Earth. There's no connection except the paraphrase.

Her companions are ginned up from what looks like the politically correct pool of the week: an elderly white man, married to a caricature of the pushy black woman, with a black teen grandson and a young woman whose last name is Khan who used to be a classmate of the grandson. They are all intimately related to each other yet we are to believe it is all coincidence. It was so unlikely a group of connections that I thought, surely the links must be part of the plot twist. But no, again just lazy writing to avoid having to introduce these characters to each other and endure the arduous task of creatively writing ways and events for them to get to know each other. Yet none of them has any real chemistry with either each other or the Doctor. And when one of them dies…..

SORRY – SPOILER – BUT HONESTLY, "WHO" CARES?

…….I wanted to feel badly about it but the show gave us little emotional investment to spend.

The direction was unremarkable but adequate – sort of like a high end shampoo commercial.

There is no vision. There was no rhyme or reason. Dr. Who started out over a half century ago as Britain's answer to Mr. Wizard – a science show which presented interesting facts in an entertaining way. It has – up to now – held to the tradition of teaching …. something: how to treat your fellow sentient creature, clever ways to solve puzzles, return evil with kindness, self sacrifice to protect the innocent, theories on effects of time travel, how other creatures from entirely different perspectives might react to the human culture, simply – thou shalt not kill. But I got the impression Mr. Chibnall, the show's new writer, has not yet gotten the memo on this one. He wrote a couple of the mini-shorts "The Power of Three" and "Pond Life" as well as some pretty decent other shows: 42, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Cold Blood/Hungry Earth. But being able to pick up a basket of pecans does not mean you have the strength to carry the entire TREE. And carrying a FOREST is what shouldering the work of creatively moving forward with this formerly imaginative show, with more than 50 years of history and backstory demands from WHOever thinks they can captain this ship. Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat or Russell T. Davies, Chibnall is not.

There IS a lot of running, some red herring puzzles and a so-so denoument with forced tension and nothing to learn in the end. We don't even really find out what happens to the person she set out to save. And when the survivor moves in self-defense she chides him: "You shouldn't have done that." We go to an awkward visual cut to somewhere else on the soundstage and that's the last we ever see of him. Huh?

She preposterously builds a new sonic screwdriver out of dust, gizmos and a bag of metal coffee spoons lying around a cluttered human workshop. It might have been vaguely believable if she had used the tech that WAS potentially available from a discarded space "eggshell" but even that McGuffin wasn't utilized. If they are THAT easy to make why doesn't she make LOTS of them? Hand them out like party favors to her companions?

And to top everything else off they went out of their way to dis Christianity. Mostly, Dr Who, like Star Trek, leaves religion alone. But when one of their crew dies, the funeral is held in a church, but the cross beam of the cross behind the altar area is deliberately covered by carefully placed…balloons! Balloons? At a FUNERAL? And why HAVE the funeral in a Christian church if you are going to cover up the primary symbol of that institution unless you: A. Want to go out of your way to thumb your nose at the Christian faith, or B. You don't want to be bothered to think of any place else and you're too cheap to actually take the cross down. So disrespectful or indolent, take your pick.

And the death was stupid ANYway. The character threw themself into a dangerous situation unnecessarily then died clumsily. The death served no real purpose other than to cut the number of companions from four to three. "Thrift, Horatio, thrift." Fewer paychecks I suppose.

There are a zillion other dumb plot decisions: did she really wear that manky suit to the funeral? She doesn't even TRY to negotiate for the captured sister that one of the subplot characters died horribly trying to find. Since when does a Time Lord stick their finger up their nose to determine when they are going to faint? Did Chibnall think this was funny? Why on Earth would someone touch a glowing grid that appears out of nowhere? How DID he get his bike out of the tree? Did she not even CONSIDER her "friends" might be sucked into space with her using her jury rigged spit and bailing wire transporter? Why would she run on a wet crane in slippery dress shoes a couple sizes too big when she could have at least taken them off? What are the chances ALL the companions, randomly found, knew each other already without that fact being a plot point?

It all felt  – as though you were given Peter Davison's celery stalk with no dressing as your entire dinner or you were expected to warm yourself with only a bit of fringe off of Tom Baker's scarf – underdone, incomplete, ill-thought out, unfulfilling and unfinished (kind of like the way we all felt about the actor Christopher Eccleston's career as Dr. Who after he refused to be in the 50th Anniversary Special for no particularly good reason). So watching this Dr. Who I now know how Roger Rabbit felt when Judge Doom knocked on the wall and "inquired": "Shave and a hair cut," and he wasn't allowed to yell "TWO-BITS!"

So finally we are left with yet another interrogative pronoun and a burning question: WHERE is the real Dr. Who?! And will SOMEONE please say "TWO-BITS!"

THE MIRACLE SEASON – INSPIRING TRUE LIFE EXAMPLE OF OVERCOMING GRIEF THROUGH PURPOSE AND FAITH

SHORT TAKE:

The Miracle Season accurately and lovingly recounts the 2010 Iowa City West High School volleyball state champions' attempt to win the trophy a second time after the tragic death of their team captain and town’s indefatiguably optimistic and joyful Caroline Found.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everybody and anybody. Especially anyone interested in sports in general and volleyball in particular. Completely clean without a single bad word, zero hanky panky, and a genuine respect for religion. However, the youngest in the family might get bored.

SOME INDIRECT BUT UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS

LONG TAKE:

Movies have three big vehicles they use for bonding people together: putting on a show, sports, or a disaster (See my article on "Cataclysm as Marital Therapy"). The Miracle Season uses two of them, sports and disaster, to recreate a series of events which bond and heal a small town in Iowa, a heartbroken high school team, and friends and family near the epicenter of a tragedy.

The story recounts the real life events of the Found family and those who love them. Ernie Found (the versatilely talented William Hurt of everything from General and Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross in the Marvel movies to Nick the self destructive drug dealer in The Big Chill) is the devoted husband to his dying wife Ellyn (Jilliam Fargey) and the father of three young adults. The youngest, Caroline, "Line" to those who know her, (played by Danika Yarosh), is the Captain of the team and a loving, free-spirited, open hearted, energetic, joy-filled young woman whose wholesome enthusiasm for life and people is infectious and makes her a natural leader both of her team and in life to her friends. There is no spoiler, as it is the feature of the trailer that Caroline’s life was cut short by a vehicular accident.

Grief is the most challenging opponent for everyone in the film. In the movie It’s a Wonderful Life Clarence reminds George that: "Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" The Miracle Season recounts how those touched lives heal from the terrible wound left by the loss of this young lady.

Directed by Sean McNamara, who has concentrated on true-life inspirational stories like Soul Surfer and Hoovey, The Miracle Season centers around the 2010 Iowa City State Volleyball Champions. Caroline Found is the Captain of the team and the start of their season in 2011 is off to a slow start. They lose their first few games even before the tragedy. After Caroline’s death they forfeit the next game, as their coach notes that, "They can barely brush their teeth," let alone practice or compete. Appealing to Caroline’s best friend Kelley, (Erin Moriarty) long time Coach Kathy "Bres" Bresnahan (the terrific Helen Hunt who is at home in comedies like the charming TV show "Mad About You," dramedies like As Good as it Gets, dramas like Pay it Forward, and other inspirational films like Soul Surfer) encourages her not to give up in a "Win one for the Gipper" theme, which, ultimately falls short of what the team needs.

To add insult to injury, Dr. Found’s wife succumbs to her long illness the night after Caroline’s wake, Dr. Found’s faith sinks to a lifetime low, Bres' husband has left her, Kelley feels woefully unprepared to replace Caroline as Captain, and the girls can’t even get through practice without crying. With no where to go but up the rest of the tale addresses a courage subsequently shown by Dr. Found, the girls on the team, Kelley, and Coach Bres that all of us would be blessed to have. (NOTE: As a small but significant FYI, Dr. Found states he did not have a crisis of faith but understood the need to dramatize this point. Dr. Found's character in the movie gave voice to all of us who might question our beliefs when required to face such calamatous wrenching events, acknowledging the need to address this deep wound along with the others inflicted in terrible situations such as these, as well as the courage and resilience to think of others instead of one's own pain.)

Ultimately, everyone must learn to wrestle their own anger, pain, and self doubt before healing can truly begin. This would all seem like so much soap opera tear wringing, except that it really happened. Not many movies are made about this kind of event because, thankfully, it doesn’t happen that often. But, watching The Miracle Season, I was reminded of another movie that dealt with a similar tragedy.

United was a BBC film starring David Tennant (best Dr. Who EVER!) about the 1958 football season which followed a take-off air crash that claimed the lives of half the Manchester United football team, leaving two of the remaining team members too injured to ever play again. Nonetheless, the chief coach and assistant manager (Tennant) managed to pull together a team from the survivors, reservists and a few new signers which made it to the FA Final Cup in 1958.

Both United and The Miracle Season are beautifully and movingly done memorials to the tragedy and the stalwart perseverance, courage and fortitude shown by the survivors and their loved ones.

Rarely, outside of a Marvel movie, have fellow audience members stayed through the credits, the way I normally do. Although patrons sounded as though they had come down suddenly with a slight head cold and kleenexes were pulled out, to a person they stayed put as video clips, biographical notes, photos and interview bites were displayed alongside the cast and crew credits. Photos of Caroline Found, interview segments with Dr. Found, video of Mrs. Found’s trembling courageous smile as she painfully walked down the church aisle at her daughter’s wake,  sports announcers who did color, clips of the real team, and headlines about the team during this incredible season all testified to the detail accuracy of the film we had just watched. And, in what I thought was justifiable pride, the clip of the final point from the real game was played – and showed it had been dead on accurately and honestly re-created in the movie.

I have played volleyball in both high school and college. I was not very good. But I played enough to at least recognize good when I see it. The girls in the news clips were amazing and the actresses who played the girls in the movie did a fine job re-enacting some very tricky plays. I really enjoyed the presentation of the games. The writer neither dwells on nor avoids obscure minutia of playing techniques but employs volleyball-ese routinely in the dialogue. The director, McNamara, respects the audience and trusts his own editing and filming choices to believe that we viewers will get it – and we do.

They do not make the mistake of over-using the trope of players' overcoming flaws as pivot points of the story but doesn't ignore them either. He allows those small victories to organically build to the final outcome of the Championship moments.

Much like the effective scene in A Chorus Line where the same dance move is repeated in quick succession by a variety of the participants, we see the West team members at various times spike, serve, block, and  bench press. This visual exercise both exemplifies the unity of the teammates as well as serves to demonstrate their individual characters, and serves the pragmatic purpose of adding face time to each player, helping identify each player instead of having them blend unrecognizably into one blur of "team".

There is no Karate Kid bad guy. The only antagonists are illness and accident – the everyday ordinary crises we all face in one form or another, to one degree or another. The winning, as The Miracle Season so beautifully points out, is in how we handle the disasters we are given to face, the gratitude to God with which we face them, and the ability we show to continue to do our best regardless of the odds.

The Miracle Season is an inspiration, not just as a well made sports movie but as an example of shining through even the most terrible of personal tragedies for the benefit of others, if not for yourself.

Sports, at its best, pushes our personal limits, tests our spirit, challenges us to overcome our weaknesses, and reveals the best within us that perhaps we didn't even know was there. Sport champions, at their best, demonstrate these exercises in obtaining virtue. The champions in the Iowa City West high school volleyball team not only had to push through the physical pains of the game but had to learn to deal with the far more brutal agony of grief. Those who loved Caroline Found were champions, not for any accomplishments on the court but because they learned to face all of their pain and showed us how it's done in The Miracle Season.

FERDINAND – THE BULL IS NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO WAS CONFUSED

SHORT TAKE:

Ferdinand has a poorly thought out plot based upon the charming 1936 kids' book The Story of Ferdinand, of a gentle bull who would rather smell flowers than fight. John Cena does a fine job bringing the main character to life but his charming portrayal is buried under lazy writing, unappealing side characters, and an inconsistent universe.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

Little kids will get a kick out of it but it will quickly fatigue the older siblings and the attending parents who bring them.

LONG TAKE:

Every animated movie works within its own universe. For example in Snow White the animals acted like animals – kind of in tune with the leading lady but behaved much like the furry critters you or I might run into.

In Bambi or Finding Nemo the animals were again confined to animal limitations but the story was seen from their POV so we, the audience, could understand what they were saying and their mental capabilities were anthropomorphized.

Mickey Mouse, however, was an entirely different perspective. He stands up straight, wears clothes, speaks and actually has a pet. He and his friends are, basically, humans who look like animals. They drive cars, have opposable digits, live in human styled homes and speak the Queen's English.

Bugs Bunny is, again, another species. These guys are animals – they are hunted and it would not be considered murder – by Elmer Fudd (that is if he could ever catch the loveably infamous bunny). Bugs lives in a hole in the ground which he has dug, though it has rugs and chairs. Bugs not only speaks and walks on his back legs, wears clothes when the occasion demands it – though he usually sports only his "natural" fur – but he outsmarts every human that appears on the scene, plays a ukulele, makes snarky comments, coins witticisms and can do things nothing on Earth can. He can tunnel through the Earth at breathtaking speed, and survive falls and impacts which in a more realistically created world no living creature would survive. His movements can be unnaturally fast when the need arises at a speed Superman would admire – changing clothes, moving from one place to another, conjuring any number of Acme items to fit the needs of the moment – in seconds. In short, come to think of it – Bugs is not just ANTHROPOmorphized. Bugs is SUPERANTHROPOmorphized. In other words, Bugs is a creature not just given HUMAN attributes but envisioned with SUPERhuman attributes. Bugs is Superman and Harry Potter wrapped up in a fuzzy New York accented bunny rabbit suited con man.

All these worlds are very different from each other. And aside from the outliers, like Pluto in the Disney world – who acts like a regular normal, though unusually intelligent, dog, despite the fact Goofy is also a dog but anthropomorphized – these worlds generally do not merge.

I am a science fiction fan and am willing to accept all manner of outrageous premises…….IF the creators stay within the confines of the Universe they have created.

The problem with Ferdinand is that the writers couldn't decide on the parameters. It was the same problem had with The Secret Life of Pets. In both cases animals were established as normal creatures living with humans. They were assigned the normal limitations of animals supplemented by the extravagant definitions allotted through serendipitous and impossibly well timed environmental factors. They could, for example, blithely depend on perfect balance and the timely arrival of things such as clotheslines and moving girders to keep them aloft if they chose to scale down several stories of a building but they had trouble opening human doors without opposable digits, etc. BUT when Max, a terrier gets lost they come across a gangster bunny who can carve fully functional keys out of a carrot by chewing on them AND turn the key in the lock and other creatures can drive cars – completely outside the parameters of the universe they established. Finding Dory made the same mistake- by stepping outside of the rules of its universe.

And so it its with Ferdinand. Bulls and dogs and goats and hedgehogs act more or less according to their natural limits, and although we can understand them humans can not…that is until the writers paint themselves into a corner. Then suddenly critters can drive, convincingly do the hula in front of humans, and do a creative coordinated dance off including breakdancing with horses. One minute Ferdinand can not roll across a yard in imitation of a hedgehog, the next he is Moonwalking. This makes no sense.

In addition, the side characters, who in other movies so often steal the show, are off putting. The competitive German prancing horses next door act like an effeminate Nazi with his two fawning groupies. They gratuitously insult the bulls without context, purpose or wit. The goat, Lupe (Kate McKinnon), I assume is supposed to be their version of a "Dory" character – clueless but well meaning. Instead she is disgusting, creepy looking, annoying and unappealing. She drools, eats things then throws them up, attracts flies, sports two eyes that make her appear dead, has two protruding bottom teeth, and says offensive, occasionally inappropriate things.

The character of Ferdinand himself as voiced by John Cena is charming. I would love to see a sequel with this character but only with a far better script and almost none of the side characters. I did like Angus but am biased because he is voiced by my favorite Dr. Who persona – David Tennant – in full Scottish brogue.

And for all you sports fans Peyton Manning does the voice of Guapo.

In addition, the story leaves practical holes not really filled.

SPOILERS

Once Ferdinand escapes the bullring and his friends go to his home farm: HOW could a simple flower vendor feed all those enormous animals? Wouldn't the departure of his entire stock bankrupt the bull trainer? Even if Ferdinand used reward money (which we are never shown he gets so we're really spitballing here) for "defeating" the matador won't the bull trainer simply buy more bulls with it who will be doomed to the same fate Ferdinand and his friends escaped?

I know it's only a kid movie but those hanging points could have been EASILY dealt with even if only in credit sketches: the flower vendor hiring the bulls out to plow. The bull trainer turning his business into a petting zoo. I know it's just a kids' story but these loose threads were a distraction. The writers should have done SOMEthing to bring closure to this story.

In short – there's nothing really WRONG with Ferdinand. But there's not much really right with it either. Go read the book instead.