Author: Gabriel

Life on the Fast Lane

Life on the Fast Lane

My Recollection

Homer buys a bowling ball for Marge’s birthday. The raw sexuality of bowling. Homer no-selling getting hit in the head with a baseball.

The Episode

This episode was originally titled Bjorn to be Wild because it was about a seductive Swedish tennis instructor but that would have necessitated Homer buying a tennis racquet which would have required the audience believe he was remotely fit enough to play tennis. This was scrapped and Bjorn was turned into Jacques because French people are funnier by virtue of nobody knowing enough Swedish stereotypes. The episode was renamed Jacques to be Wild which is fucking stupid and so they settled on Life on the Fast Lane a timeless tale about the raw, almost feral erotic energy of the suburban American bowling alley. I was at a party once and a guy was bragging about getting his dick in one of the bowling ball finger holes. The abyssal silence after someone pointed out how fucking small those holes are is something I still think about.

The episode begins on Marge’s 34th birthday, a nice piece of canon utterly obliterated by the rampaging bull that is The Way we Was, and Homer forgetting it. This itself is a fine, and oft repeated, piece of Homeric stupidity but the gag is overdone by having Homer think it’s his birthday. As Homer grew from comic buffoon to a parody of a parody of a parody of a retarded person I can only begrudgingly respect Family Guy for at least making Peter medically retarded and getting it over with. This is an early glimpse of that level of stupidity but it does lead to the first instance of one of my favourite gags, the audible footsteps leading to the car as Homer races to the mall to buy Marge a birthday present.

Later episodes have focused on Homer’s failures to accomplish this basic task through the lens of a more believable character flaw. Sometimes he’s cheap or legitimately poor. Sometimes it’s the fact that he hasn’t planned at all that makes the gift a desperate, last minute thing. He’s selfish, certainly, but it’s a kind of ignorant selfishness that eschews the planning that would indicate active malice. Homer buying Marge a bowling ball, one engraved with his name, is a character damaging level of contempt and not a moderately understandable side-effect of comic boobery.

The pair are a somewhat tragic couple as the sitcom format can rarely give either their due spine or brain. The episode explores this well and, though it ends on a glossed over romantic moment to essentially reset the status quo, it’s done in a way that gives Marge a much needed sense of identity separate from the family structure. Marge’s response to Homer’s stupid gift, the hilarious decision to bowl out of spite, is the episode’s first look at this identity. This leads her to the Bowlarama, and to Jacques, the bafflingly seductive bowling alley guy. Jacques is another one of A. Brooks’ contributions but he’s not really given much to work with aside from “seduce Marge”. This binds a lot of what Jacques says to the context of the moment and stifles Brook’s natural absurdity leaving Jacques to be a fairly forgettable character. Aside from a few background appearances in later episodes, this is his one and only, and it’s unremarkable.

I’m operating on the idea that the whole concept of a bowling alley as a place where a Lothario will loiter to demonstrate his bowling skills and bang bowling groupies is an overt joke and not a reference to the now lost historical significance of bowling alleys. I refuse to believe that bowling alleys were ever a place that could encourage sex. It is impossible for the bowling motion to appear attractive to any sexual orientation or gender, you look like a bloated ibis trying to shake off a parasite, and bowling has the social capital of an ashtray full of light beer. The idea that a creature who looks like a haunted pear could be deemed seductive while excelling at a sport played primarily by cholesterol is too demented to be taken seriously but a fairly good gauge of how starved Marge is for the sense of value Jacques provides.

The episode differs from others that focus on the marriage in that it’s not about one party making amends but about how an event can drive a wedge into a relationship. The bulk of the narrative agency is in Marge, and Homer’s more passive, internal scenes serve as an excellent narrative balance point that keep the focus on the split as opposed to the sides in it. Coming off the stupidity of the ball itself, the internal focus  of Homer’s narrative moments keep the writers from making him launch into any screwball crap that would pollute the core of the episode. Aside from a small early gag where Homer tries to do dinner, his appearances hearken back to the realistic misery of a man too stupid to fix the problems that hurt him. He tries talking to Marge after she comes home from another sexy bowling lesson with Jacques, but simply gives up after briefly staring at the wall. “Nothing” is all he says when asked, and the fade out returns some dignity to the man that the ball purchase took away.

His discovery of a glove that Jacques bought for Marge is enough to send him into a deep depression that leads to one of the best moments in the episode. After Bart pelts Homer in the face with a ball during a game of catch, with Homer reacting to neither the ball nor the pain, Bart panics and gives Homer the advice that he’d once given Bart.

“You said, when something’s bothering you and you’re too damn stupid to know what to do, just keep your fool mouth shut. At least that way, you won’t make things worse.”

The moment is beautiful because it’s Homer’s advice, so everyone ignoring it turns it into good advice. Bart ignores it when he, in absolute panic, blurts it at his father with no idea of the situation let alone how this advice would apply to it. Homer ignores it, probably more willfully, as he takes a moment the next day to tell Marge how much he appreciates how she makes his sandwiches. It’s a gentle moment that fits the episode’s construction and counters the earlier scene where he actually did keep his fool mouth shut. Most of what happens is really the result of a lack of communication between the two, and the episode emphasises this by keeping Homer and Marge apart for the bulk of the scenes. Homer doesn’t try to make some great speech or promise anything he can’t deliver because season one Homer may be stupid but he’s smart enough to know that he’s stupid, it’s why he ignores his own advice, and there’s a vulnerability to his last ditch effort being something so innocent and innocuous that makes it more honest than any confident assertions of change.

Marge is a woman bound by innumerable ruts and stifled dreams so the personality that results from this is little more than a cheerfully blithe coping mechanism, a fact even she is unaware of. Her naivety is something the story emphasises as she’s easily overcome by Jacques’ paint-by-numbers seduction. But there’s something behind the facade her life has beaten into her, and this episode hides a glimpse of it in the space the narrative leaves unfilled. We never see why Marge changes her mind and the audience is never overtly reassured as to her commitment or reasoning. She is simply presented with a choice and makes it, her reasoning is her own and its invisibility to anyone else both emphasises this and casts the rest of the episode in a different light. We’re seeing the surface of Marge be easily overcome, and we expect a naive dingbat who thinks bowling is hurling a ball anywhere in a bowling building to be an easy mark for someone like Jacques. But at each point with him she is fully aware of what is going on. She reminds him she’s a married woman because she absolutely knows what he wants. She agrees to meet him anyway. None of her decisions were those of a rube being fooled, the Marge within was actively choosing. Her invisible decision at the end was the last in a series of them, it was just the only one influenced by Homer making an honest effort to appreciate her.

A sitcom relationship is always going to be a grossly stupid one as the combination of format stability and absurd hijinks is an impossible one to support. This tends to put a use-by date on characters, as they’ll either have to fold back in on themselves to keep the format going or be dragged down into the pit of stupidity. Marge and Homer have suffered these fates a the years have dragged on and, in all fairness, the first gentle descent did make for a funnier show during the high period. But comic gems like season 5 were elevated to cultural icon status because of the combination of depth and humour, and that depth is born in episodes like this one. Life on the Fast Lane is, save for a few moments, consciously unfunny but the reality of a relationship like Homer and Marge’s isn’t a funny one.

 

Yours in keeping his fool mouth shut, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The opening shot of the house is one that I don’t think was ever repeated and is canonically incorrect for a number of reasons.

Certain strains of humour and horror work best when we they work on what we can’t see. I’ve seen my brother slip over a few times and it’s funny. One time I took a shower and the bath mat was somewhere else so the floor was completely wet as I was leaving. I tried to warn my brother as he went in but he ignored me because we were arguing about something. As I’m walking away I hear: SQUEEEK, THUD, “GAAAAAAH!” and laughed so hard I cried. This is the principle the “running out of the house” gag works on, the THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD of Homer sprinting out of the house leading to the sound of a car screech away while the shot lingers on the silent family is funny where just showing him leave the house in a hurry isn’t. It’s a great joke template they expanded on a few times to great effect.

Homer buying Marge a bowling ball with his name on it is retarded and not comedy retarded. They kind of set up for it by having Selma remind Marge of Homer’s other shitty gifts but this still requires so much thought that it becomes actively cunty and not humorously stupid.

A restaurant where people sing at you seems fucking awful. I’m pretty sure these existed as some early 90s fad.

Taking up a whole hobby to spite someone is fucking magical and it’s made funnier by the fact that Marge goes to a bowling alley with a ball and seems to think you just throw the ball anywhere within the building. What did she think this was? Like some kind of Frisbee golf with a bowling ball?

The Simpsons and King of the Hill have both made jokes about how the wives have large feet. This must be some kind of joke template leftover from the 50s or something because Jesus fucking Christ, who cares? Unless you have actual flippers that aid your movement through water or feet that are like gorilla hands, women’s feet are only interesting to people who want to fuck them.

Jacques screaming, “FOUR ONION RINGS”  from the lane makes me chuckle. It’s an example of one of those innocuous phrases that kind of slips into a meme because its initial use is so peculiar it makes any subsequent use seem contextually valid by comparison.

The bowling references in the background art, like the 3 hole moon, were a novel touch for 1990, particularly as they were not part of a dream sequence.

 

From the Desk of Gabriel Morton: That could have gone better but it could have gone much worse.

From the Desk of Gabriel Morton: That could have gone better but it could have gone much worse.

[dictation mode activated]

The sun’s at my back and I’m happily striding toward the edge of the Open Zone, my Charles Grodin Millipede is now a Charles Grodin Butterfly and I’m pretty sure I’ve thrown up all the hands so today is turning out okay. Things got a little tricky there for a bit. I’d been in the brain tree for… Not sure how long actually. It felt like a long time but the sun didn’t go down and I’m known to get incredibly bored if not entertained by at least 3 different stimuli. Charles Grodin Millipede was eating brains, the kangabelushis were nipping away rather harmlessly, and there was no third thing so I must have tuned out. I think it was when I got hungry that I tuned in again. Also, Charles Grodin Millipede had started forming a cocoon from bits of brain tree brain which is not something millipedes do so it must have been something Charles Grodin did back when he was among the living. Say, maybe that’s where he went.

Bored superior life form must be a prized delicacy to the kangabelushis because their gnashing vigil kept up for the entire time. I’m convinced the nibbly rhythm must have contributed to my spacing out, reminded me a bit of the sound of a distant train rolling along the tracks which is weird because tracks haven’t existed for decades. Now that I was bothered by about 4 things, I figured that the kangabelushis weren’t going to just wander off and it was up to me to sort this out. My first plan, pelt the kangaroo/shark/Jim Belushi hybrids with some of the brains growing in the tree was a bust. Darn things were far too squishy to do any damage to Jim Belushi’s notoriously durable forehead and they weren’t interested in them as an alternative food. My second plan didn’t exist, because I’m typically able to complete all my goals with whatever first plan I knock together. This is a blessing and a curse as it means I’ve led the comfortable life of a genius but have never learned to do work that requires effort. I was hungry and at a bit of a loss so I decided to eat some of the brains as, sun be damned, it had to have been at least a day or two up that tree and I needed something if I was gonna figure me a way outta there.

You’re probably thinking that you wouldn’t eat brains you’d found in a tree, neither would I. You probably would also never be in the situations I find myself in as you’re too boring to register as even a side character in the great narrative of existence so your dietary superiority complex is just the hollow ring of an empty vessel struck by events it can’t fathom. But I’m a brilliant enough man to know when I’m wrong and in this instance you wouldn’t have been it. I’m not sure why I thought they’d just be brains. Sure, they looked and tasted exactly like brains but they were growing on a tree in a shielded realm full of humanity’s stupidest bioengineered shenanigans so of course they couldn’t just be fucking brains. They’re some kind of biomod lucky dip, eat a brain and win a prize sort of bizzo. Actually, now that I come to think of it, this explains why my millipede was able to build a cocoon and become a butterfly. So that’s the mystery of the Charles Grodin Butterfly resolved but the greater one of his disappearance remains open. Stay vigilant! He may one day return to us.

I was working on a plan to fillet and bind the brain tissue into a kind of patagium I could use to glide to safety when I first noticed what I thought was indigestion. It took me a while to register that it wasn’t indigestion, being that I could digest nearly anything before the advent of designer organs I have thus  lived unfamiliar with the experience. By the time I’d figured out that the sensation of being filled with a thousand grabbing hands wasn’t what indigestion feels like and that I was, in fact, filled with a thousand grabbing hands, their emergence was already upon me. I have no idea why hands. My best guess is that you aren’t supposed to eat more than one lucky dip brain as that amount of viral gene tampering is going to clash a little and create unexpected results. The first of said crawled out of my mouth, about the size of a cockroach, and fell to the brainforest floor beneath me to startle and confuse the kangabelushis.

I’ve seen some shit. I’ve been some shit. But most of this history of wild excess took place in otherwise controlled environments. When a hand crawls out of your mouth, you are naturally concerned. When it’s followed by a few more, you about shit yourself in panic as there’s no way to gauge if or when this is going to end. What if I was going to be stuck in a tree, diarrheaing hands everywhere until I died from dehandration? Was I going to turn into a hand? As if sensing my concern, a cluster of vomited hands, a lot of which were hitting the branch by this point, assembled into the a remarkable simulacrum of my deceased mother’s smiling face. I took this as a friendly gesture and relaxed my throat.

Smiling motherface of hands aside, vomiting a wriggling torrent of the buggers is an unpleasant procedure. The shifting mass of little fingers create a surface that combines both “writhing” and “firm” in ways I’d happily not feel combined again. Imagine porridge made of hands. Or oats with fingers. It’s both a pile of separate things and a homogeneous mass depending on how closely you are looking at it and this superposition upset my animal brain. Speaking of upset, so were the kangabelushis.

Madness has been the reward for any biologist fool enough to attempt a catalogue and codify the natural order of the Open Zone. Nothing can ever make sense because the system fundamentally recodes itself on a nearly monthly basis. The first time someone spotted the monthly routine, it remained static for about a year and the clever individual slit their own throat mere weeks before they were to accept an award for the discovery. I realize now that, while I had no reason to expect the hands to swarm and seemingly gain control of the kangabelushis I similarly had no reason to expect that they wouldn’t. The combination dome forehead and shark mouth probably comes in handy for something but it doesn’t come in handy for scooping up an agile mass of scurrying hand monsters operating with an eerie level of coordination. The combination groundhog, Christopher Titus, and manta rays would have managed, but not the poor kangabelushis. They hopped and breathily exhaled in what my semester of Belushi Studies taught me was a warning call but they settled into a dark calm as the hands swarmed them. Watching the process from my point up in the tree, the hands looked like a claymation as they interlocked over the kangabelushis and fused into a new skin. It reminded me of when that strangler fig consumed and briefly continued the career of Candice Bergen.

The handface dissolved and joined its brethren, with a wave I said goodbye to my mother and the team of kangabelushis now operated by my erstwhile upset stomach. I grabbed the cocoon and started on my way toward the edge, happy I’d both witnessed that and was soon to never have to witness anything like that again.

Withg the Charles Grodin Butterfly hatched, with the sun at my back, and the edge in sight [distant thunder] I think I’ll be back home in no time. I wonder what’s going on back at the office.

Gabriel.

 

The Telltale Head

The Telltale Head

My Recollection

The end is at the start. A serious tone. Not very funny.

The Episode

There’s a few reasons why a narrative may start at its own end before returning to explain how they got there. The first is that it’s a hook. Starting a story with something that demands an answer is an easy way to suck people in because seeing a what triggers our curiosity regarding the how. The second can be to add a framing device to the narrative, such as having a specific character retell what’s happened or otherwise function as the narrative perspective. The third is simply to add variety by differing from a standard narrative direction, and all three can be used in various mixes. This episode does all three and the first one it does quite well. Starting with Homer and Bart walking toward the centre of town, with the head of Jebediah, then getting confronted by the town who have already formed an angry mob really does make me want to see what happened. Easy hook. The second it fucks up almost immediately.

The thing about using a character’s perspective as a framing device for the plot is that they have to be there for the things that the audience sees, especially if the narrative is based on said character actually relating what happened to an in-universe audience. Bart wants to plead his case to his would-be murderers and begins to explain what happened, then the show has scenes that Bart wasn’t present for. This is not a big surprise as the narrative shuffle was something that happened late in production, meaning elements couldn’t be changed to fit the new perspective. That said, it actually does work as a clever way of covering for another problem which is the murderous mob.

In later episodes, the idea of Springfield being easily whipped into a murderous lynching party is, like a lot of the rubber band reality, an established absurdity the show can dip in and out of as necessary. Starting something like this is kind of tricky, though, particularly as season one’s more grounded approach to their world. Later seasons emphasised the comic stupidity of the mob, like when they went to get cider in Bart’s Inner Child, but this one is savage and humourless. They want to beat a child to death for vandalising a statue and that’s a tricky thing to show the start of without highlighting the stupidity of the idea within the context of a sitcom. This episode cleverly uses the nonlinear narrative to hide the start of the mob entirely. The mob is already formed at the start and by the time the show returns to the moment, the narrative has focused the audience on the matter of Bart’s reasons for decapitating the Jebediah Springfield statue. The lynch mob idea is now in the series, and frequently used again, without ever having to really validate it or take it seriously at all.

Aside from the narrative chicanery, when compared to Lisa the Iconoclast this episode is a novel example of the pendulum swing of historical studies. The Telltale Head presents Jebediah wholly uncritically, and Bart’s hallucination of him is an idealised one. It’s the complete opposite of the figure we eventually see, and have confirmed as real, in the later episode. History is a lot like this. Imagine the Twitter habit of competing hot takes but over decades and with academics. People will worship someone, then they’ll be recast as a monster, then they’ll be judged within their historical context and seen as good again. If this keeps up enough there’ll be some kind of split and different camps will form. A whole new area of study, historiography, emerged out of this. It’s the study of the study of history and as absurd as that sounds it’s actually a very dynamic and interesting discipline.

Aside from Bart’s story, there’s a few stray scenes which don’t coalesce into anything meaningful and they stand out because of that. There’s some canonically contradicted stuff about how the Simpson church disapproves of gambling which leads to a tension between Homer and Marge that goes absolutely nowhere and contributes nothing to the plot. These are too connected to be filler scenes with throwaway gags, and I suspect there was probably a B story conclusion here that was cut at some point. The fact that they’re a largely unfunny, stunted B story subtracts from an episode that is already very light on decent jokes but the primary story manages to make up the difference.

The story uses the “why over what” focus of it’s starting in medias res to craft an excellent character episode for Bart. Bart’s perpetual ten has morphed over the years, from what is clearly a child to a young adult with a series of girlfriends and this change happens fairly quickly. This was inevitable as there’s very little you can really do with a faithfully written ten year old (seriously, go look at a ten year old) not covered in Bart the Genius and Bart Gets an F (on second thought, do not go look at a ten year old). Concurrent to this was the evolving nature of cool and how that had to be balanced with Bart’s stories. This early cool was not the unflappable cockiness kind that has Skinner sign its yearbook, and this adds an important layer of vulnerability to Bart. This vulnerability makes his idolisation of the bullies introduced in this episode, the stalwart side characters Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph, make far more sense than in later episodes like This Little Wiggy. Bart’s love of the bad was always borderline parody, if not something unrealistic enough to be in a fundamentalist pamphlet on the effects of crime novels/crime movies/comic books/movies again/television/videogames. This episode, and similar from the early seasons, works because what later cool makes parody, current vulnerability makes real.

There’s a tension between the length of the series and the original ideas it has available to it that force status quo resets that grow more and more overt as the show drags on. There’s no effort to reset the status quo in these old episodes, just a general disregard for plot and character developments. Season two’s Bart Gets an F is all about Bart trying to leave the 4th grade, it’s been 26 years and that still hasn’t happened. Less overt than this were Bart’s character growth moments at the ends of stories like this one which work largely because the show doesn’t even try to revert them before the credits roll. After a while, it becomes obvious that Bart’s never going to really change, and that’s when the parody cool moves in and the vulnerable child vanishes. The vulnerability in The Telltale Head helps ground his character in the realistic childhood need for a distinct identity, one that manifests in the face of Homer’s dismal parenting as self-assertion through transgression, and this makes one of his most famous acts of misbehaviour his most genuine.

 

Yours in getting kicked out of every Space Mutants movie, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines and stray thoughts.

“You know son, when I was your age I pulled a few boners” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay lol

This episode actually has a title card, which I’m pretty sure we don’t see again until 22 Short Films About Springfield

The mob really is a malicious one and not a funny one which is bizarre for a lot of reasons, I mean, Grampa is in there and he wants to butcher his grandson. It gets worse and worse the more you think about it and that’s why the mob scenes are usually goofy so they enter the joke universe of absurdity. They’re a real threat here, the story and characters treat them as such, which would totally shaft most of the plot were it not snuck in so craftily and disbanded so quickly.

This episode has the first example of Smither’s crush on Mr Burns with the less than subtle line, “The feeling is more than mutual, sir” in response to Burns’ emotional outpouring. Smithers being gay for Burns is so goddamned old that nobody questions it but it’s such an odd thing to add to the series if you think about it. It began as Sam Simon’s idea to make him gay but to never directly draw attention to it. This went out the window immediately because there’s no way to make jokes about him wanting to fuck Mr Burns without explicitly drawing attention to it, so for a while he was essentially a Burns-sexual, with a major coming out episode revolving around Patty instead. By definition, allusions are not explicit but if you pile up enough of them, as subsequent seasons do, it becomes fucking obvious Smithers is just gay. More recent episodes have basically confirmed this.

The scene with the Sunday school teacher is funny both in content and because of her nebulous existence. The children are there occasionally, but largely they are in church with their parents and there’s never been a firm explanation as to why. Bart’s expulsion, mentioned in Bart’s Girlfriend, is about as close as it gets but that doesn’t explain Lisa so I’m marking it as early sloppiness. The content itself, is fairly funny too, because Bart’s absurd questions really are taken seriously by a lot of those Sunday school types.

When Bart asks where the bullies got their stuff, Dolph says, “Five finger discount, man” despite existing in a universe where everyone has only three fingers and a thumb. Jimbo would later use the idiom correctly in Marge Be Not Proud. 

That his full name is Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield amuses me greatly.

The guy who comes out to shoo the kids away from the statue uses looped audio and it’s noticeably mechanical.

Sideshow Bob shows up in this episode! His first appearance and with different hair.

 

 

 

 

The Sensorites

The Sensorites

Science fiction is a lovely genre because it can wrap great moral questions and challenges to social order up in stories about fuzzy, telepathic scrotum men. The Sensorites, named after said scrotum men, is a largely well meaning,  archetypal sci-fi story, burdened by counterproductive minor conflicts and plot points. There’s something about Doctor Who, outside of it’s more standard 4 part structure, that always seems to have either too much story or not enough. This isn’t to say the 4 parters were all well paced gold, but the series has the nearly unique habit of rushing things when there’s not many episodes (or the modern single), and then dragging heavily when there’s more. So many other programs, particularly in the modern era, hit a basic but effective formula that fits the 45 or so minutes they have to work with but Doctor Who regularly strays one side or the other. The Sensorites is one of those others. It’s split into two main parts, half on a ship and half on the planet of Sense Sphere, and while each could have complimented the other, the writer almost willfully avoids this.

The TARDIS lands somewhere (which is going to be the start of 90% of these) and the crew notice that, even though they’ve landed, the readings say they are moving. What’s noteworthy here is that both Ian and Barbara contribute meaningful observations to the scene, which prompts a small discussion about the previous adventures and how much they’ve changed as a result. It skirts being a hamfisted piece of exposition by being light on details. Barbara’s experiences with the Aztecs are mentioned, for instance, but they’re not described like a personality power-up that have given her x ability. They are simply comfortable with the situation, as The Doctor and Susan are, and this nice little moment both bonds the characters and allows the stories to progress with the humans as active agents as opposed to suffering reluctants. This is a necessity the modern series doesn’t need because The Doctor can accurately fly Companion Girl home when needed. That actually created a new and interesting dynamic, that of The Doctor and his danger being almost like a drug, that The Power of Three and Face the Raven both started to explore before absolutely shitting the bed.

There’s a docudrama on the guy who managed to build a clock that works on boats. He got a docudrama about him because this was actually a really important invention, because it meant people could calculate longitude and actually make their boats get where they were supposed to go. The guy wasn’t a clock maker, though, rather a carpenter, which lead to some unusual quirks in the machine. If it was late or fast by even a second, it was as good as useless because that difference would multiply across the travelled distance so you’d wind up way off course. The road to building something that has never existed before is one of natural errors and this complicated device was no exception. What was exceptional was how these errors were dealt with. Instead of rebuilding it from the ground up with tweaks, he’d add more components to work against whatever error the machine had. The result was a demented monstrosity a thousand times more complicated than it needed to be.

There’s a lot of that in the The Sensorites, the plot does strange things and rather than rewrite it to tidy it up it just does further, stranger things to compensate. The TARDIS crew explore the ship they are on and find a room with what looks like dead people. The Doctor concludes, based on stopped watches, that these people have been dead for at least 24 hours, a fact that clashes with Susan’s noticing that the bodies are still warm. Wow! What a mystery. Naturally, First wants to leave immediately but one of the “corpses” stirs because it turns out they’re just in a form of deep sleep. First corpse, Maitland, explains that they’re being kept in a form of stasis by the Sensorites because they’ve gotten too close to their planet, Sense Sphere. First, Sense Sphere being the home of the Sensorites is one of those dumb sci-fi tropes that never seems to go away. It’s people naming the planet for the species without any consideration of the internal logic of the story. It’s like Earth being called “People Ball”. Secondly, the Sensorites won’t let them leave, but they won’t kill them. They just keep putting them to sleep over and over again using mind powers.

This is the show’s first dive into the idea of telepathy, so they needed to demonstrate that the Sensorites controlled minds but they also needed the story to move so the TARDIS crew are immune for no reason. The Doctor wants to leave these people to their eternal nightmare, again, which is the first example of the show unnecessarily working against itself. The character scene in the TARDIS was useful because it allowed the writers to skip the  First Doctor’s story-disrupting habit of wanting to book it the fuck out of every situation he found himself in, which this story ignores to its detriment. While they do need a reason to not evacuate with the crew, the shown reason is a Sensorite stealing the TARDIS locking mechanism when the plot later says that there were no other Sensorites on board. The narrative could have used the TARDIS character scene to motivate The Doctor to stay and solve this problem. Instead it makes one error and then solves that with yet another.

Continuing this theme, the story goes out of its way to tell you that the crew have been in this limbo for a long time. Right now you are asking how they don’t starve to death. So was the audience, so we get told that the napping duo on the ship’s deck have distinct memories of the Sensorites feeding them. Right now you are asking how they took a shit. I don’t know. They didn’t cover that explicitly but the only available information suggests that the Sensorites took care of that too. This complication adds literally nothing to the plot at all. They could have actually been unconscious and only been there for a few hours. The Sensorites could have had them shut down the ships engines or deleted their memories. They had so many ways to not make me imagine how the Sensorites dealt with human poo-poos but the writer explicitly went out of his way to ensure that I did. Speaking of the writer, he’s actually a somewhat interesting bit of trivia by himself. Peter R Newman, this Michael York looking mystery, was so hard to find information on that there’s a documentary about the process.

“Mummy, I’m dirty and need changing. Change your good boy, mummy”

Writing a plot that makes sense is hard when you’re focusing on getting enough of your comatose scat-fiction into a TV show that you can jerk off to it but not so much that you get caught. Maitland gets mind controlled and steers the ship at Sense Sphere. Yes, “at”, not toward. In fact, this scene ends with The Doctor stopping the ship from crashing and no suggestion that anything else would have happened had he not. I don’t know why or how this was a plan. If you trained Aikido for decades and used it to gracefully draw the fists of every passerby into your face it would indicate you have a better grasp of how to win a conflict than the Sensorites. The characters later muse on this and assume that the Sensorites were never going to actually crash the ship, but use fear to control people’s minds. The minds they already control.  This is that longitude thing I was talking about, a clumsy added scene to correct what would have been a very simple change.

Now that they are close to the planet, some Sensorites make their way toward the ship. The story makes a point of having a high pitched whining noise indicate their approach, a daft physical impossibility that accomplishes nothing but highlight the fact that the Sensorite who stole the TARDIS lock was there when he shouldn’t be. This is making up for forgetting to wear your underwear by cutting a hole in the front of your pants. The Sensorites can also move through the vacuum of space just fine, which is an interesting idea that is never discussed again.

“Lemme in. It’s me, Susan”

The Sensorites explain that the reason they’re doing this is because the ship crew discovered a valuable mineral on Sense Sphere and they fear human interference in their planet after the last human visitors brought with them a disease. That’s a natural fear, perfectly reasonable, so it makes sense that the Sensorites would want to ensure that they don’t have humans mucking about on their planet. The Sensorite solution to this is to bring the humans to their planet, as they’ve built some kind of enclosure for them. A bit like in Bioshock: Infinite when the people who were so racist they built balloon cities to get away from the black people but then also brought a population of black people, there was probably a better idea out there. The Doctor has no intention of being anyone’s pet and this moves the narrative to its primary conflict, issues of trust between species when each has a negative experience telling them not to trust the other.

This basic plot is a lovely sci-fi archetype and is really well executed when the story focuses on it. The ugliness of prejudice is explored but so is how the some of these prejudices are understandable as they are the results of traumatic life experiences. But this is again needlessly complicated by having the “disease” be a small group of feral humans living in Sense Sphere’s aqueducts periodically poisoning the water supply, which isn’t brought up until the final bloody episode. The antagonistic Sensorite’s hostility feels understandable when his perception of humans is based on a negative experience he believes lead to a disease that’s killing his people, and when humanity looks like a bunch of thugs compared to his gentle, telepathic kind. But this lasts too long in the face of all evidence around him and the advice of his own leader and people. Had the hostile human camp been made known at least an episode earlier, it adds a complication to the plot that supports the narrative and themes. Peace between peoples is hard when your niceness is interrupted by someone who looks like you flinging shit everywhere, and this human ugliness would have served the exploration of a more universal prejudice as the real villain. Instead they pop up 12 minutes from the end of the last episode then do nothing but look stupid and get caught.

There are a lot of constraints in making film or television that one doesn’t have so much in something like a book. These constraints are a very visible part of Doctor Who and it’s because of this that they are largely not a meaningful point of critique. The Sensorites makes a good counterpoint to The Aztecs because the latter dealt with its constraints where the former fails even within them. The most one could defend this story with is that is had to be 6 episodes to fill the season out, which is going to result in extra plot complications that one would be wise to otherwise avoid. But even within that, this story has added elements that work against itself. One of the problems with modern Who is it blazes through ideas without ever letting them sit for long enough to matter. It’s just shouted superlatives and magic fixes, but at least there’s the sense that it’s because the story is only 40 minutes. The Sensorites has the time which it uses only to punch itself in the face.

Why go out of your way to have the humans asleep for long enough to require feeding when not killing them at all would have demonstrated the Sensorite softness just as well? Why have the ship driven at the planet, when you could have had it piloted toward it, only to have to have the characters explain that the thing that you just drew the audience into was nothing after all? Why show that the characters have ways of telling when the Sensorites are around when that only points to a plot hole? Why have an antagonist’s hostility make perfect sense and then turn him into a villain, only to reveal a valid reason for his hostility he didn’t know about 12 minutes from the ending of your story? One of the worst modern examples that comes to mind is in The Robots of Sherwood, where Robin Hood has to shoot a gold arrow into a space ship to prevent it exploding in the atmosphere and destroying everything. There’s a million ways one could write this to have it make at least basic sense, but the story opted for there just being too much gold. It could have hit a gyro or something, anything, but they actively said the stupidest possible thing. There’s mistakes, and then there’s stupidity made measurable through how easy it would have been to avoid it. Like the gold, a few sentences fixes a lot of this and if your story is a few sentences short of making sense and you don’t add them, you’re shit.

Conclusion

Aside from a few visible booms, flubbed lines, and an audible production assistant, there’s little of the prototypical Doctor Who problems here. The sets and Sensorites all look reasonably good and there’s not too much scenery chewing so the process of watching it is hardly an embarrassing ordeal. The Sensorites themselves are also a good species, having a sense of culture a depth a bit beyond the kind of one-note alien cultures that litter science fiction. They have been mentioned as being somehow related to the Ood, though I’d rate that a kind of lazy afterthought based on similarities in appearance and telepathic ability. Aside from that, it’s a kind of story modern audiences will have seen a million times and this execution is so frequently faulty that there’s not much to recommend.

The next story, Reign of Terror, is missing bits and I can’t find a copy with the animated fillers so I’m skipping it. I think it’s about The Doctor going mad like Alec Baldwin’s character in The Shadow did and cruelly governing a bunch of Frenchmen or something. I dunno, check the fucking wiki, I’m tired and am still picturing Sensorite’s squabbling over who gets to wipe butt.

From the Desk of Gabriel Morton: I Loved You in “Real Men”

From the Desk of Gabriel Morton: I Loved You in “Real Men”

[dictation mode activated]

[deep inhale]

Ahhhhhh… You know, Charles Grodin Millipede, there’s something to be said about air that still has stuff in it. It could be dangerous stuff but that was what the old world was all about. Unpredictability! Not the buttoned-down world filled with millenial–

[hideous primal squawk]

See now, that’s just shoddy. You can’t take a pterosaur and stretch Jennifer Lawrence skin over it. No craftsmanship. That’s what makes you special, Charles, it’s the little bits of effort that keep your face looking like you and what other point is there to all this? [scraping sounds] This is a big hill. Is it a hill or a mountain? There’s probably some kind of height line. I bet this is dead on it. I really should stop muttering to myself, treat this a bit like a documentary.

[throat clearing]

The beautiful Open Zone was created… many years ago as a spacious housing for the results of the Great Genetics Fad. Did you ever want to have your own sexpet, built to precisely your arousal patterns? Did you want wings? Did you want to create a shambling dick-monster to torment your neighbours? The Great Genetics Fad answered Yes to those and many other stupid fucking questions. Like the early 1990s, The Great Genetics Fad is rated as one of humanity’s cultural nadirs, an unstructured explosion of demented want with no artistic merit whatsoever. I disagree slightly but only because I consider saying, “I told you so” to people to be an art. It’s educational. I am a great teacher but even I kneel to the mightiest of educators the universe has ever produced: consequences, and “I told you so” is consequences’ photocopied class handout. Dingbats can piss their lives away what-iffing and no amount of reason or punching can change their mind. But let them bumble out and actually try whatever daft fancy has consumed them and watch the burning light of knowledge fry them to a learned crisp.

Probably my favourite was the furries, most of whom had never considered the realities of trying to talk, eat, or kiss with a snout you couldn’t take off. Ha! Those were some funny times.

And as conceptually puerile as a lot of these monstrosities are, I still see the little bits of art that go into them. It’s important to appreciate art without high or low distinctions, mostly because people will cluster into either camp so bravely trotting about both makes you look unique and clever.

God I’m bored. At least we’re nearly at the bottom of this thing. There seems to be some clear area over to my right, too, so I don’t have to work out my way around this damn mountain.

[distant thunder]

Goddammit. I don’t want to get wet.

“I can’t fly”

I know you can’t, Charles.

“You heard me, I can’t fly”

Why are y–

[slipping sounds]

Faaarkenshitwhoreabitchcunt

“Did she hurt you, Jack”

[dusting sounds]

No, Charles, and please stop digging your little legs into my neck meat.

I am down the last bit of the mountain. Somewhat unceremoniously but it WAS fast so you can only argue so much with results. I’m not used to so many uneven surfaces, everything out in nature is just a bunch of haphazard lumps. How the fuck is a person supposed to safely get about out here? DO THOSE TREES HAVE BRAINS?

Who the fuck makes a brain tree? Are these things alert? Is this tree smarter than me?

[squishing sounds]

ARE they brains or do they just look like brains? Christ this place is stupid. I’m starting to see why everyone hates it. Setting sun at my back, so we’re walking in the right direction at least. Just need to get a signal… [muttering sounds]

[unknown sounds – interpreting]

Charles, did you say ‘thumpeta thumpeta’?

“Two dollars? That’s all you’re gonna leave?”

No, you’re right, it was further away but now it’s getting closer.

Shit! Seek refuge in the brain tree!

[scrambling sounds]

Wow, look at ’em. Not a lot in terms of complexity of work but there’s a certain artistic merit to them, I’ll give them that. It’s basically a kangaroo with a shark’s head, kind of a pygmy great white looking thing, but that’s just the structure. Stretched over this is the face of Jim Belushi. It’s actually weird how well it fits. Has to have been an accident. That giant forehead of his matches the length of the shark form so well the thing looks like the real Jim Belushi but with a shark mouth. Eugh, the teeth look human but they’re arranged in rows like shark’s teeth. Why do they herd like that? Probably something leftover in the kangaroo though Jim Belushi may have had a herding instinct we didn’t know about.

“You lied to me first!”

Charles, shut-up.

[unknown sounds – interpreting]

They sound like someone playing a used fleshlight like a didgeridoo. Are they looking at me? Are those even the eyes? This place may as well be Guillermo del Toro’s head for all the weirdly placed eyes.

[unintelligible]

I’m up the brain tree pretty high now. I’m not that concerned about the Kangabelushi’s getting me as their lower portions are designed for efficient long distance travelling and not high leaps, so they’re kind of nipping about down below like a shitty magnetic fishing game. That said, those are some chompy mouths and I’d rather not chance it. Downside, of course, being that I’m up here and have no real plan as to how to fix this. The Charles Grodin Millipede seems happy enough and is eating some brain.

[long sigh]

It’s cliche to wish for all your cool weapons and stuff to be with you when you need them but dammit, I wish I had at least one of my cool weapons. Shit. I wonder what’s going on back at the office.

Gabriel.

 

The Call of The Simpsons

The Call of The Simpsons

My Recollection

They buy an RV, get lost in the forest, and Homer gets mistaken for Bigfoot. This is one of the first ones I had taped, so I watched it a fair bit. It feels like the first dip into the weirder stories and absurder jokes, which will make a nice change.

The Episode

The chalkboard gag is “I will not draw naked ladies in class” which strikes me as a tad adult for the show and very adult for where the show is at here. The sexuality in The Simpsons has always been the snuggle variety, even the episodes devoted entirely to it have never edged into the crassly adult. Bart’s sitting in class, drawing tits. I want to say it’s tits. I need to believe it’s tits. I can’t keep dong this if season one Bart is sitting in class trying to shade a vulva while Milhouse looks over his shoulder and asks for a copy.

This episode is the first to feature Albert Brooks as a guest star, the delightful being responsible for Brad Goodman, Hank Scorpio, and the one redeeming feature in the movie, the EPA Agent. The director’s commentary for Bart’s Inner Child mentioned that he just improvs like mad, usually bouncing off Castellaneta, and they just trim it down to what they want. You can hear some of this at the end of the otherwise poor The Heartbroke Kid and as limp as that episode was, the fade out riffing between Homer and Tab was fucking hilarious. It’s because of this that I generally consider a fair bit of the throwaway material that comes out of any of A. Brooks’ characters to be something he’s just blurted out himself, making his contributions some of the best small moments across the whole series. Here he plays Bob, the RV Salesman, but we’ll meet him in a moment.

The episode starts on a common story idea, middle class jealousy and particularly Homer’s insecurity in the face of Flanders’ better life. Bart is mowing the lawn with a fairly standard push mower while Rod Flanders, making his first appearance, drives by on an expensive looking ride-on. There’s a faint bit of out-of-character snark from Rod here although this is probably less “out-of-character” and more the behaviour of a normal child pre the Flanders’ fundamentalist turn. Flanderisation, the trope named for Ned, is the process where a formerly nuanced character degenerates into a parody as subsequent episodes and seasons focus on the stand-out elements. Like a lot of oversimplifications, this one gets inaccurately thrown around. There’s a difference between a character being whittled down and elements we’d never had a chance to see coming out. There’s little to nothing in the early episodes that contradicts Flanders’ being a weirdo fundamentalist, we just never really see any parts of his life that would show this. Adding further weirdo fundamentalist elements to his character is less a degeneration and more natural expansion of the idea, and the series has always given him his moments of depth to more than compensate. Rod is a better example, he’s a different character in the earlier seasons and gets warped into the creepy fundie kid as time goes on.

I knew a few of these back in primary school. One time we had an Aboriginal elder come in and tell us some stuff about their beliefs and one of them went crimson, screaming and crying about how it’s only Jesus. Literally had to be taken out of the room sobbing about Christ. He had the pale, frightened look of a child that was recovering from cancer even though he wasn’t and the outburst was so batshit insane that nobody, teachers or students, ever brought it up again.

As Bart is complaining about the family lot in life when compared to the Flandereses, Homer reminds him to be happy with what he has and not to try to keep up with other people. Cue Flanders driving up in the Land Behemoth, the RV that is parked in some mystery dimension for most of the series. Unlike a few one-off episode items, this one actually continues to exist, being seen in season 6’s Lemon of Troy and referenced as something Flanders never uses in season 11’s Grift of the Magi. Because a setup needs a punchline, Homer and the family immediately head off to buy an RV.

Here’s where we meet A. Brooks’ Bob, who I think actually shows up in a really late season episode but I’ll cross that shitty bridge when I come to it. It’s funny because his character is supposed to be a kind of predatory salesman who takes obvious boob Homer for a boob but this episode was 2 financial crashes ago so he comes off looking reasonable. Homer wants to buy The Ultimate Behemoth, to spite Flanders, but the evil salesman checks Homer’s credit rating and then refuses the loan based on information that suggests Homer is unable to pay. He even mentions that if he advanced Homer that much credit, he’d go out of business. This is because this episode comes from a time when debt hadn’t been turned into a product. In a modern episode, Homer would be given a loan he could never pay because the company that gave it to him would take that debt, cut it up into pieces, mix it with other debts, have a crooked company rate the debts as safe, then sell it off in portions to people who think these safe interest payments are a good investment. Then your economy collapses because a Bubba with no income, job, or assets can’t pay off the McMansion he bought.

Well, not the Australian one. Dollarydoos are indestructible and Australia’s population is a bit over a dozen on a good day so nothing of note ever happens here.

So, following a display of now extinct capitalist responsibility, Bob doesn’t sell Homer a million dollar RV and gets him to settle for a beat-up junker. It’s enough for Homer to wave in Flanders’ face and take the family out for a camping trip in the woods, so he does both.

It’s funny because the Homer’s purchase being a pile of crap feels like it’s going to be a plot point but it isn’t. The takeaway from this is that Bob’s RV is actually a great place to buy an RV. Nothing in the rest of the episode suggests that this RV was some kind of lemon that was palmed off onto the credulous Homer. It’s used, sure, but it works fine and would be fine for a family camping trip if it were driven by anyone but Homer, who nearly drives the family off a cliff. It’s a bit of cartoon reality that they’ve been driving in a beat-up RV for a few minutes and are now on a cliff so far from civilisation they’ve no idea how to get back, but here they are. “The Simpsons have entered the forest”, says Lisa.

Homer and Bart go to find civilisation while Lisa and Marge stay at their makeshift camp, oh and the writers decide to ignore Marge’s character and everything that happened in the last 5 minutes. During the drive, Marge is correctly assuming Homer doesn’t know what he’s doing and is constantly cautioning him. Somehow, Homer nearly killing them and leaving them stranded in the forest with only the clothes on their backs changes her mind completely and she happily believes that he’s an experienced woodsman. This extends to letting Maggie follow Homer and Bart as they go looking for help. There is no indication that Homer is even aware Maggie is following them, and Marge just shrugs it off like she’s secretly hoping Maggie vanishes so she can have some time to herself. It’s badly written and it’s done for no sane reason. It’s not like anything Marge and Lisa are doing can’t have Maggie there as well and the great payoff for separating Maggie from everyone is her befriending some bears. This is an early look at the power of Maggie’s pacifier, and the way that the world sorta bends around her, but it’s also a fucking stupid reward for throwing Marge into the retard-pit again. It gets about one good joke in but I suppose it was more about needing to fill time and having nothing for Marge and Lisa beside them being the competent pair.

Homer and Bart mistake Maggie’s pacifier sucking for a rattlesnake and run off, before falling into a river and over a waterfall. The pair wind up naked which is something I’ve always thought is a bit weird. I’ve never been over a legit waterfall, but I’ve been down waterslides and even some gentler rapids and never been in danger of losing my swimmers let alone a full set of clothes. I don’t think the writer, John Schwarzwelder, was molested by a waterfall but I believe he was molested close enough to one to make him believe they had the power to strip you and leave you alone and confused in a forest.

Homer and Bart’s journey through the forest is essentially a series of skits. Homer attempts to catch a rabbit for him and Bart to eat, but his trap is more of a rabbitpault and his second attempt, bumrush a shrub, results in him getting mauled by a variety of woodland critters. He then fists an active beehive, eating some bees as he gulps down the honey, and runs screaming into a mud puddle being filmed by a nature photographer. His stumbling out, covered in mud, incoherently shouting through a mouthful of bees and honey, results in the outside world thinking they’ve footage of Bigfoot. It’s about now in my first re-watch of this episode that I get a feeling of how actually incoherent the plot is. It has a touch of that Kill the Alligator and Run thing where story beats are such significant changes that the episode feels like several opening acts stitched together instead of one episode. Homer being mistook for Bigfoot is either a second act or a throwaway gag, here it’s the conclusion to an episode that pays just enough real attention to the idea of a human being mistook for Bigfoot to point out how stupid it is. Up to his getting shot with a tranquilizer dart, it all makes perfect, if cartoony, sense. But then scientists, including Marvin Monroe who has met him, continue to debate his status as a human.

There’s a limit to how far the rubber band can stretch and this teases what The Principal and the Pauper would later rub in everyone’s face. The extremely absurd, like a second Homer walking passed the window works because it exists as a joke within it’s own bubble universe and isn’t acknowledged by reality proper. Homer being mistook for Bigfoot when he’s a mud-covered, bee screaming atrocity is comic absurdity but perfectly within constraints. Being in a tube, in a lab, talking to people he’s met, who then give a press conference about how they can’t tell if he’s human or not does not. Absurd humour is like good surrealism, it needs the reality it’s subverting. Drawing the punchline of this joke out kills the reality and gives nothing in return, a lazy finish to a haphazard episode.

Jokes, lines and stray thoughts.

One of the features the RVs are sold on is having deep fryers and I don’t remember deep fryers ever being this big a deal. You can buy them now for 30 dollars, were they once some baffling piece of high-tech shit available only to the wealthy?

I really can’t get over how the unscrupulous salesman from 1990 is now the pinnacle of lending responsibility. Anytime after about 2006 and they’d have tethered Homer to a loan worth millions and then shunted that debt down the line.

“I’ve murdered us all” echoing around the valley makes me chuckle.

“It’s like a third sense” isn’t a very good idiot line because the number’s too damn low. Homer wasn’t a full-scale retard until much later and I’d expect him to reasonably name his fucking senses here. Making him overshoot to 7 or something, leaving a mystery 6th, or omitting it at all would have been better.

Okay, I’ve been waiting for this, this episode finally has a joke that made me think about it for ages and ages afterwards and it’s still as good as I remember it. While Homer and Bart are out being fellated by a waterfall, Lisa and Marge are being good at surviving in the forest and we’re shown this by seeing them tidying up around the camp as though they were at home. Marge picks up a squirrel. She doesn’t acknowledge that at all, neither does Lisa or the squirrel though it does do one of those little chirps. Then she sits it on a log next to an arrangement of similarly frozen squirrels.

The idea itself is very basic and even quite dull were you to write it down. Marge picks up a squirrel like she’s putting some abandoned toy back in its spot. Good absurd humour is a lot like good horror in that it works best on an almost subconscious level. Even though the action is front and centre, there’s no attention drawn to it. There’s nothing that alerts the viewer that there’s a joke happening and it only lasts 3 seconds so it’s an easy one to miss. There’s always an authorial voice in a text and this is most visible in comedy as the attention drawing shots, lines, pauses etc that indicate a joke is happening. You’ll see these even if the joke goes over your head. So there’s a craftiness at work when a show that typically draws your attention to the jokes avoids doing so at all. This masking of the authorial voice, the joke structure, lets what’s happening exist within the reality of the narrative and this subtly enhances the absurdity of the action. It plays the mind off against itself because it will fight to make sense of it but be thwarted at every turn. Nobody admits that it’s strange. The show doesn’t admit that it’s strange. It lasts for 3 seconds. Are you sure you even saw it? Are they dead? Did Marge just kill a squirrel with her bare hands and lay it beside others to eat later?  Like the Xenomorph scuttling about the Nostromo, most of it is invisible but its effects are profound and lingering.

Homer’s trap has no means of keeping it down or any kind of tripwire but the nice pause between the rabbit being flung and the eventual sound of it hitting the ground gives it a pop.

Castellaneta gets full credit for the amazing voice acting going in to Homer being mauled by the animals. It’s panicked, fearful, and disgusted all at once. The joke would be pretty dull without it.

I like the look into the absolutely dysfunctional relationship as the bears are wandering about with Maggie. Christ, what a dick.

Shooing the bears away with Maggie on top is a solid joke just for the way Maggie appears and nobody does anything. Her entire adventure goes wholly unnoticed by the cast which, character dents aside, is a reasonable Baby’s Day Out joke.

This was before the town had firmed into a solid regular cast so there’s a few things in this episode we don’t see much of again like stray newscasters and other people with Homer’s muzzle.

Look kids! Paper clickbait!

 

Yours in wanting a separate fryer for every part of the chicken, Gabriel.

The Aztecs

The Aztecs

The Aztecs is a great example of a lost form of Doctor Who story, the purely historical. The last one to ever be broadcast was season 19’s Black Orchid and the one prior to that was season 4’s The Highlanders. All other stories set in known human historical periods have all had some other sci-fi element like an alien piss-farting about where it shouldn’t be. There’s a good reason for this abandoning of one of the show’s core educational directions and The Aztecs highlights this well. This is not to say that the story itself is bad. The Aztecs is actually one of the highlights of the first season, featuring a well realized setting, understandable and almost sympathetic villain, great character moments, and even some historical accuracy.

Doctor Who is a program from the early days of television, made for a young audience with a shoestring budget. As such, you can’t expect its depiction of 16th century Mesoamerica to look like Apocalypto. Expecting it to is a fault on your part, as a critical assessment of how a text accomplishes something needs to be measured only against what was even possible. In this is a good lesson about approaching cultural history and things like the title of the first episode, The Tomb of Evil. Evil isn’t exactly the word I’d use for the Aztec culture or even the practise of human sacrifice, which they did a whole fucking lot of (hard numbers are tricky and disputed but about 20k a year is the one I’ve seen well argued). Human sacrifice was practiced in a lot of places but the Aztecs were about it in a way that really does stand out. There’s a lot of fascinating scholarship that explores the whys and hows of this so I recommend poking about. As for the charge of evil, it’s really more just garden variety cultural stupidity but one that, like the cardboard backdrops of the episode, finds explanation less in measurable malice or incompetence and more in the era and environment. This is a reality that factors into the plot and characters well.

On the measurable incompetence matter, this episode stands as a good example of making the best with what you’ve got. If I wanted to go out tomorrow with my camera phone and make a serious sci-fi movie that had the production values of Fifth Element, regardless of my intentions, I’m a measurable idiot. This is a real fault that someone can be critiqued for. Being aware of the limitations I’m working within, and either creating something less effect intensive, a-la Red Dwarf, or signalling my self-awareness with an ironic B-movie tone, the same garbage movie has to be judged differently. This episode’s writer/director team, John Lucarotti and John Crockett, avoid shots or scenes that would have been well outside the BBC’s capability. The result is a fairly tightly focused narrative whose simple sets work well because they’re never paired with embarrassingly bad effects shots. Think of it like capping your game at a stable 30fps because the unstable 60’s drops are more noticeable than a stable lower rate.

The narrative itself is actually fairly simple, being less about events and more about the characters those events are happening to, and there’s less daft stuff to point out (less, not none) so I’m not bothering with the episode by episode recap. After leaving Marinus, the TARDIS lands in a sealed Aztec tomb. Barbara tells us her focus for her degree was Aztec history and goes to explore. She is caught but, because she is wearing a bracelet she found in the tomb, believed to be the reincarnation of a priest, Yetaxa. The tomb door is a kind of one-way stone trap so the crew, the others having followed to find Barbara, have to maintain the charade while working out how to get back to the TARDIS. Barbara must deal with the episode’s antagonist, the High Priest of Sacrifice Tlotoxl, while maintaining the trust of a more open minded ally, the High Priest of Knowledge, Autloc. The Doctor is trying to find information about the tomb and befriends the widow of its architect, Cameca. Ian is presumed to be Yetaxa’s warrior and because of this draws the jealous attention of the warrior, and Cameca’s son, Ixtl. Also, Susan’s in a hut or something because Carole Ann Ford was on holiday. She has about 3 scenes of reciting Aztec stuff until she nearly gets them all killed in the end. On ya, Susan.

Like how shows about characters with bullshit superpowers need to find reasons to nerf them, Doctor Who often has to come up with some reason the crew can’t get just get to the TARDIS and bail. This got a little easier when The Doctor grew into a superhero, as then it was a simple matter of his motivation to face evil wherever he found it. This got complicated again in the modern series when he could actually control the TARDIS, as a teleporting cubbyhouse of infinite safety you can actually steer is another arse-ache to write around. The Aztecs works wonderfully because it makes returning to the TARDIS the core motivation, rather than a side issue, and one that sensibly drives the three main plot threads. The crew have to get back in but they need to maintain the illusion that Barbara is Yetaxa or they’ll get killed. Barbara has to be the one to do this because of her love and knowledge of Aztec culture. But that love makes her want to change the one part of it she hates, the human sacrifice, which puts her at odds with Tlotoxl, whose life is based around the rituals as they are. It’s his hostility toward Barbara that makes him push Ian and Ixtl into conflict, which connects back to Cameca and The Doctor. Keeping the smaller conflicts and arcs within this tight group means they enhance the story arc as opposed to distracting from it.

This is also a landmark story as it’s the first to broach the idea of messing with history, though it doesn’t do it terribly well. Barbara’s desire to eliminate human sacrifice from the Aztecs makes sense from her character perspective but the narrative doesn’t explore precisely what she thinks will happen if she does. Selfish things, like Rose saving her father, make sense because “daddy not dead” is a fairly simple result. But changing Aztec culture like this is a biggun with no understandable end game. Would it help them beat the Spanish or simply make them more fondly remembered in her time? Similarly, The Doctor’s demands that they not rewrite history is directly stated but given no supporting reason. The old “universe destroying paradox” MacGuffin is tired but necessary given I don’t expect a writer to actually know what happens when you fuck about with time. Suspensions of disbelief with things like this are an inherent part of any time travel story and it’s rarely a valid critical matter to point them out. Time travel fundamentally disrupts how humans experience the cause and effect flow of the universe, so there is an inevitable, and thus negligible, amount of hand waving that goes into it. We don’t get any of that here. The Doctor is serious when he says that they aren’t to tamper with time but that’s about it.

The character focus on Barbara is this story’s highlight. Jacqueline Hill does a fantastic job displaying the degree of confidence her character has developed after 6 stories as she has to balance the trust of Autloc and the mistrust of Tlotoxl while trying to change the Aztec ways and still maintain her position as Yetaxa. Ian is fascinatingly badass in this episode, fighting Itxtl with a remarkable degree of confidence to maintain the idea that he is the warrior of a resurrected high priest. Oh, and The Doctor likes Latinas.

If the internet has taught me anything, it’s that the best milfs are Italians and Latinas, and The Doctor seems woke to this wisdom as he’s quite taken with Cameca. The whole thing is a kind of G rated, old-people romance with The Doctor being largely unaware Cameca is so taken with him and wholly unaware his offer of a cocoa drink is also an invitation to wed. It stands out, though, as one of the very few times The Doctor has ever been remotely sexualized prior to the godawful Rose arc and somehow even shittier River Song arc.

I’m not going to do the modern series so I’ll address this here, The Doctor should never be sexualised. There you go, asexuals, have some representation, you weird little critters. He’s an aloof, alien archetype from a species that doesn’t reproduce sexually, whose development into a space god makes any romantic attachment jarringly out of character. His is an infinite, Zen love for life and existence. It can’t be focused down to a single being without polluting a defining part of his character and the idea he gets horny is similarly absurd. Rose is the best example of how stupid this is. She’s a 19 year old being with a lifespan of about 100 years who would be considered untraveled and dull by other humans, let alone a (at the time) 900 year old wanderer in infinity. I’m 34 and even I find 19 year old’s boring, Rose is a glorified sea monkey one forty-seventh of The Doctor’s age. Naturally, there is no narrative reason given for this beyond “she’s special” which is exactly the kind of meaningless thing someone with no redeeming features, life experiences, or interesting thoughts would think is enough to warrant romantic attention. This is why it appealed to the repellent fangirls so much and why it was grotesque, self-insert fantasy from its chubby hack writer.

Anything Russel T Davies can do, Stephen Moffat can do better and then catastrophically worse. Enter River Song, the personification of telling instead of showing. The idea is at least slightly better than having an infinite being fall in love with a drooling chav mong, but a better way of eating shit is still eating shit. Having anyone be a match for The Doctor in the modern series is going to be a real struggle, showing that kind of development will take time and a kind of deft writing ability that– oh, he’s just gonna say she’s super-duper cool and can do all the things The Doctor does but better and that’s it. Ah, grand. River Song is the kind of Mary Sue Mary Sue would actually write in her down time from saving the Enterprise and the kind of thing that appeals to girls who write long posts about how they’re not like other girls. I hold out a naive hope that Lady Doctor will be spared this insult but she’ll probably end up marrying a Dalek that gets woke after touching the tears of a fat girl.

A lot of the best parts of this episode are good examples of how the series can really benefit from having a more populated TARDIS (beyond giving the writers more sensible vectors for their shitty romance plots). It allows some focus shift and gives The Doctor and other companions time away from the spotlight. The modern Doctor/Companion dynamic is the singular relationship of the show and so if it falters even slightly, it takes the whole show with it. More points of interaction spread the load and allow for more nuanced characters we get to see have roles outside of audience question avatar, kidnap lump, or fated plot device.

Barbara shines here in a way that is entirely within the character as established and as grown over what the viewers have seen. There’s no grotesque camera winking about girl power because there’s no need to cover for a lack of character or narrative explanation. Barbara has both grown through her adventures and is within her knowledge base, so the hard work of keeping everyone alive while they try to find a way back to the TARDIS is something she is self-evidently capable of. Her bind of having to explicitly use the religious belief she is trying to shake Autloc of to resists Tlotoxl and change the culture is a marvellous tension that operates as a binding structure beneath the more active narrative beats. Tlotoxl plots against her with Ixtl, who The Doctor unwittingly helps because he’s Cameca’s son, which threatens Ian which forces Barbara to be more aggressive in how she challenges Aztec law. Susan exists.

About the goofiest things the story provides is Ian somehow knowing a Vulcan Nerve Pinch he uses on Ixtl, the solution to opening the door being a wheel The Doctor has to carve because the Aztecs don’t have it, and Susan throwing every plan into fucking chaos by diving in to prevent a sacrifice in an incredibly well thought out plan.

The arc is an inherently sad one because there’s nothing but inevitable doom. The Aztecs don’t stop their sacrifices and soon the Spanish will be here to gun and disease everything to death, we know this already. Tlotoxl isn’t an alien malevolence tampering where he shouldn’t be, he’s just a standard part of his cultural structure as much as any of the hundreds who have come before him. Autloc is probably the saddest as he has the wisdom to see farther than his own culture and ideas but has absolutely no means to change it, so he abandons his post to Cameca and retreats to the wilderness to ponder. The TARDIS crew escape but Tlotoxl performs his sacrifice and is now wholly unhindered by either Barbara or Autloc. Nothing has changed because nothing ever could. Susan exists.

I mentioned at the start that this is a good example of why there’s few to no historical episodes and it’s because the inability to change anything makes finding a focal threat difficult. Superhero Doctor can’t be used against even the worst of human history because he can’t change it. So it has to be something preventing them from leaving because actual history cannot be thwarted and this is a narrative point that has fewer distracting parts than malevolent alien force. While both equally formulaic, a wacky alien name and the costume/VFX departments give the malevolent alien presence enough spice to vary the formula. That said, it’s been decades, so I’m willing to bet it’s also a matter of nobody wanting to risk resting an episode on their writing alone. More monsters! Look, this one’s also the greatest killer in the universe, aren’t superlatives neat? Wow, we actually came up with a good one, lets do 3 more episodes with it and really grind anything good out of it. Don’t leave a single positive memory, excellent.

Conclusion

I really recommend this episode both because it’s an example of a lost story format and very good in its own right. The production values are still noticeable but the episode does a great job of working within them. The costumes and general appearances have a fair degree of accuracy, though tempered down a bit as you could totally see dicks with the actual shit, and the writer did read up on the Aztecs so it’s almost close to educational. It’s quality work all around. Susan exists.

 

Next story, brain monsters with weird facial hair! I think they’re related to the Ood. It’s The Sensorites!

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the desk of Gabriel Morton: Cave of Mystery

From the desk of Gabriel Morton: Cave of Mystery

[dictation mode activated]

Gah! Something is biting me! Eugh, millipedes, where the fuck– Why am I in a pit in a cave? Are these naturally occurring millipedes or did someone fill this specific divot full of them to fuck with me? I need to find my way out of [scraping sounds] CHRIST. Naturally occurring millipedes! Goddammit, I need some light. [slapping sounds] HA! And Janice said that bioluminescence was a fad! Allllllright, I just need to get my bearings and figure out what’s going on here. Aha! That’s how the little buggers are biting me. These millipedes all have Charles Grodin’s face. Okay, that means I’m pretty far west of the city, somewhere in the Open Zone by the looks of these things. Good work, I’ll admit, using the neck waddle to cover an extra joint gave them the ability to feed while still retaining that deadpan face. I loved your cameo in So I Married an Axe Murderer, sir.

[Grodiny sounds] [scraping]

Okay… Keep focused, Old Man, you don’t leave the city much, you’ve no idea what could be in here, and HR made you deactivate all your symbionts. So we’ll get through this and have a little chat to HR about why they were there in the first place and who’s an idiot who will never have a genuine reason to use them. You know, [small rocks tumbling] I agreed with the State that these things needed to be shooed out where they can’t meddle with the legitimate biosphere but it’s a real shame people couldn’t be a little more responsible with their Lego Genetic Abomination sets. Some of these things are fun and fairly harmless. Rue McClanahan-head bats! See, those are great for the younger kids. But all it takes is one 500 metre tall Vinnie Jones wrecking up the place and hard rules have to be put in place.

[flapping sounds] [southern vamping]

I wonder if the 600 meter tall Michael Chiklis they built to fight it is still out here?

Ohhhhhhkay, the bats are flying over there and it looks like there’s some light getting in so at least this is the kind of cave I can get out of.

I bet this was Janice. I wonder what time it is. Has to have been Janice. I hope I haven’t missed too much of the day. Odd that Janice would spend two Revenge Tokens that close together though. That bit looks steep. It’s not like her to do that so maybe she was trying to outhink me? [scraping sounds] [grunting] Been a while since I’ve done chin-ups and–huff [dragging sounds] Huh? Okay, for the benefits of the dictation implant, the bioluminescence on my left outer arm says, “IT WASN’T JANICE”

That’s exactly thing kind of thing Janice would write. But… buuuuuuut, she’s not good enough herself to tamper with my genes. She buys her stupid revenges online, the mulch-witted tart lacks the fundamental creative energy to pull something like this off…

[standing sounds]

Gaaaaaah! Ultra violet! Tan… TAN DAMMIT. Oh thank– Okay, for the benefit of the dictation implant, the tan on my right outer arm has left blank skin that says, “IT’S BEEN 1 WEEK”

Okay so it definitely wasn’t Janice, interrupting this much business is outside Union Approved revenge parameters and grounds for being shot out of an old-fashioned cannon. Okay, I’ve either been blacked out in a cave of genetic novelty items for a whole week or someone dumped me there recently. Gonna guess recently as I’m not now fuelling the growth of more Charles Grodin millipede eggs. Ah, a noble way to go. And people said those things would never survive on their own. Well, I’m annoyed but [thigh slapping sound] I am impressed. Someone’s gotta get up pretty early to get me like this.

I’m going to turn them into liquid and drink them but I’m sure they’ll delight in the honour.

But, first thing’s first, I have to get out of here and if memory serves there’s a combination kangaroo, shark, and Jim Belushi that gets about these parts in far more dangerous than you’d think herds.

“Jahé, everybody, jahé”

What the fuck was that?

“It means ‘hello’. I can say ‘hello’ in a lot of different languages. Not yours, but a lot of them”

Oh, aww, little guy quotes Midnight Run.

“You lied to me first!”

Haha! I like you, Charles Grodin Millipede. Fuck the rules, you can come with me as a pet. You’ll probably be good for something even if that’s just being thrown at a furious Jim Belushi creature.

So, Chuck, you and me are going to climb down this mountain and walk away from the setting sun. Hopefully I’ll be able to get some kind of a signal and we can get out of here after I’ve carefully concealed you in a banana leaf. After that, I’m going to get an idea what’s going on and have HR reactivate my symbionts.

I wonder what’s going on back at the office.

Gabriel.