Category: Gabriel VS.

The Crepes of Wrath

The Crepes of Wrath

My Recollection

Bart goes to France. The cherry bomb in the toilet always interested me because fireworks were outlawed in Australia so the idea that kids could get a hold of explosives was amazing. I would later download the Jolly Rodger Handbook and make a few of the more basic things that explode along with one remarkably effective smoke bomb. I stopped mucking about with it for fear of injury and because a I had a selection of dirtbag friends who were happy to do it all themselves. Nobody ever got seriously injured, though one time Shane tested his homemade mace on Kyle by saying, “Hey, Kyle” and spraying him in the face with it. It was mostly isocol, tabasco, and salt. I don’t know what the real ingredients of mace are but Kyle screamed and swung blind for a while so this was a fairly effective approximation. It also gummed up the water pistol it was in, so one screaming, blind Kyle was all it was good for. Not great for self-defense purposes but I laughed for 15 minutes, so at least some good came of it.

The Episode

The thing about season one is nobody quotes season one. It’s not that the episodes aren’t ever funny, but the forms of humour that more naturally arise from within the family narrative don’t lend themselves to focal lines. Most of season one has supplemented the lack of great comedy with the kinds of character episodes a show five seasons in can’t. The Crepes of Wrath is a bit of an oddity in that it’s a novelty episode that exists before the show could really commit to the premise or at least fill with good lines. It’s not technically the first of the international stories, that goes to Bart vs Australia, because it’s only Bart visiting France. This split in the family means the action that takes place in France is limited to a few brief scenes that are more about torturing Bart than they are about revelling in the writer’s grasp of international stereotypes. This was probably for the better, given that a combination of the season one writing staff and French jokes would probably be embarrassingly hokey. So the episode is a fairly weak. Limited by the narrative in its ability to really explore character and by its historical position in exploiting more memorable absurdist humour.

Bart arrives home from school to greet a pet frog that has never been referenced again. I get the feeling it’s some long-shot French joke, but its distance from that part of the narrative and later irrelevance suggest otherwise. It may have been an idea for Bart to either have a long term pet, or a series of them, that was abandoned. So now there’s a weird amount of attention to Bart having a pet Froggy that sits in the episiode like a Chekhov’s replica. Bart”s strewn detritus winds up sending Homer down the stairs, where he lays listening to a Krusty doll repeat, “I’d like to play with you” until the batteries die. It’s the best joke of the episode and Homer’s simple, squinting reply of, “The boy… Bring me the boy” when Marge and Lisa get home still makes me chuckle. Adding to this is that Bart is upstairs this whole time. An oversight on the writer’s part but it has a way of adding to Homer’s suffering as he’s either too injured or stupid to call for help, or Bart didn’t reply when he did.

When a real child misbehaves, it is typically spared the level of judgement reserved for adults as there is less expectation of complete agency; instead, behavioural management with the goal of correction becomes the focus. This always starts with environmental factors because, even at their most socially entrenched, these are easier to find and address than the dreaded alternative: nature. Bart has legitimate frustrations, injustices, and abuses that one would expect to see in a misbehaving child. The worst being the prison of his own identity. The self is something people defend, even to one’s own self-detriment, as a terrible but known self is less existentially terrifying than an unknown or changing self. The attitudes about Bart that surround him make even the thought of change the impossible ceding of vital land in an eternal war.

But…

Homer and Marge are neither bad nor inattentive parents, Lisa and Maggie are evidence of that, and later episodes confirm the dreaded alternative. Bart’s behaviour and personality are born out of comic necessity rather than an understandable result of his upbringing and this puts an irreconcilable tension at the heart of it. Bart’s behaviour is destructive, to himself and everyone around him, but sitcom fate makes growth or realisation impossible. Sympathy will never last in the face of constantly avoided, and very much deserved, meaningful consequences so the show does the only thing it can: hurt him. Bart cannot be fixed so he needs to be made to suffer. Even if it’s just to balance scales visible only to the omniscient audience, the child must experience real pain.

Bart suffers in this episode, and it is beautiful. Bart is every child that screams at the injustice of first world luxury, not because of an explanation that veers frustratingly into exploitable excuse, but because “FUCKWITTED CUNT” is written in his DNA. His torture in France is every time you’ve wanted to smash some perspective into a brat’s face. It’s the justice of injustice.

A piece of shit can make itself the focus of any teacher’s class time to the noticeable detriment of the ones trying to learn. To someone like Principal Skinner, Bart is a sinkhole people keep paying to cover even as it devours more of the town. Skinner’s hate for Bart is completely counterproductive but completely understandable, the three months without Bart will have been the easiest of his working life. This is also his most successful revenge. Typically Bart serves as the Roadrunner to Skinner’s Wile E. Coyote, which is funnier when it’s a mute bird who may not really deserve it. Bart blows up a toilet and injures Skinner’s mother so he has all of this coming. Speaking of Skinner’s mother, Agnes is first seen here and she is wildly out of character but considering the things that have been done to Skinner’s canon, this is trivial and easily ignored.

So Bart is mailed to France for 3 months while the family receives an Albanian called Adil Hoxha. Albania is kind of an odd duck. It stumbled into it’s own kind of Stalinist Communism after WW2 under Enver Hoxha (whom either Adil is named for deliberately or because it’s the only Albanian last name any of the writers researched) without any actual input from the USSR at all. The hostility it maintained toward the US was the result of indirect American political interference in Albania in the late 40s rather than as a part of Cold War allegiances. It wandered between Yugoslavian and Soviet influence over the years and, funnily enough, had its democratic revolution two weeks after this episode aired. I think it’s a bit of an odd choice of nation to supply a nefarious spy, but they had to give Adil some kind of great fault to make Homer’s preferring him over his own son a more visible moral fault.

Adil dupes Homer into taking him about the plant and taking photos of it for his sinister Albanian masters. There’s a sense that Homer is supposed to be an idiot here but when the intelligent alternative is a suburban dad suspecting a foreign child of being a spy, a plot that would be a message about prejudice in most other shows, the whole thing collapses. The reality of Bart is something Homer notices while Adil is in the house. Without the misfiring cylinder that is his own son, the house is one of near stereotypical familial bliss. Adil’s spy status is an absurd and desperate punishment for this, and serves only to highlight just how right Homer is. Bart, meanwhile, is treated worse than a mule by his French consequences, Cesar and Ugolin. A story that culminates in Bart’s realization that he’s the problem while on a trip to buy anti-freeze. There’s a catharsis to this, both for the viewer and Bart, and his acceptance gives way to the sudden manifestation of the French language skills that save him. It plays out a bit like sudden rain on Dune, but it’s necessary given the constraints of a 23 minute show.

Pursuant to my point about character immobility, Bart’s realization changes nothing. By the next episode, comic fate has reset him back to what he was before and this is why he was made to suffer and will be made to suffer again. Conversely, Homer doesn’t change his mind at all. Even after being arrested as a spy, Homer is sadder to see Adil go than he is happy to see Bart arrive. There’s scarcely even an attempt at having Homer undergo some kind of realization that he actually loves his eternal burden of a child. It’s an odd counterpoint to leave in the show, but better than the typical use of unconditional love to forgive behaviour that is certain to be repeated.

The anti-hero or heel who grows in popularity enters risky territory. An underdog can escape consequences in manners that would be wildly unfair for a champion. An environment of zero growth means smaller consequences and character moments can’t add up, so the show has to create character balance with blowoff episodes where their new god is tormented. Nothing changes in the narrative but the viewer’s scales get reset or tipped away and the process can begin again without fear of overload. The Crepes of Wrath serves as enough torment to make Bart’s bullshit palatable to the audience. It serves this function well but lacks much else to distinguish it. It’s a novelty episode that misses out on the novelty and a character episode with only half a cathartic epiphany. All we really have is the joy of watching a ten year old boy suffer.

 

Yours in needing civil defence plans, Gabriel

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts

 

Homer falling down the stairs is funny and a testament to Dan Castellaneta’s voice acting. There’s a high pitch to Homer’s shrieks of pain that help them straddle a difficult line of believable but humorously exaggerated.

Agnes Skinner is just a lovely old lady here, both because she needed to be to add to Bart’s crime and because they were yet to turn Skinner into a Norman Bates without the courage to do anything about it. DVD commentary mentions that this was probably the event that changed her, though this is more a throwaway joke than a real explanation. I can’t even bother to really address it outside of this as it’s irrelevant given what happens to Skinner’s back story later on.

Bart drives through several paintings of the French landscape by Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, and Manet. Running a nice mix of impressionist, post-impressionist, and post-post-impressionist (cubist) art styles.

Apparently Cesar shows up in an episode from season 27 but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Homer really doesn’t end the episode with any kind of revelation that he should love his child and I find that really funny.

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.

 

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bart The General

Bart The General

My Recollection

Herman saying that the pincer movement can’t fail against a 10 year old. Movie references. Nelson’s bi-racial buddies, more students we never see, victims of the move to modern animation.

The Episode

Ah, time to sit down and watch another episode of– shit this one’s in a hurry, it skipped the intro sequence and couch gag.

This episode feels more like an episode of Doug than it does The Simpsons. The first half is a standard run through an average child’s problems augmented by fantasy sequences to convey the emotional weight of the small made huge by limited perspective. The second half is the first step The Simpsons takes into the lucrative world of “references”. References are where one text references another by replicating visual, audio, or narrative elements. Wowza! I wonder if this fascinating new thing will take off.

Referential humor is something that gets a bit of a hard wrap and not undeservedly so, though I’d add that it’s less the existence of it and more the preponderance of it that draws negativity. Each, then, should be measured separately. It’s not a text’s fault if you’ve seen shitloads of the same thing in a week and it’s foolish to think that in a world full of active creators a random assortment of them should not do a thing because another random assortment has done it that week. It’s an invalid critical perspective. You’re the problem, so shake it off if you want to accurately assess something. This is not to say you can’t argue that a text is over reliant on them or uses them lazily, those are measurements within a text’s active control and are thus valid. But the tired old thing of not liking something because there’s a current surge in its popular use is childish contrarianism and not critique.

It’s a sign of how an early episode could have a real narrative focus, given that it had the luxury of fresh characters to explore, that you can summarize it in about a sentence. Lisa makes cupcakes for her class, Nelson’s friend steals them, Bart gets into a fight with the friend and then Nelson, and finally Bart enlists Grampa’s help to take down a neighbourhood bully.

GAZE ONCE AGAIN INTO THE WHEEL OF ETHNICITY!

GASP IN HORROR AS YOU SEE TWO CHARACTERS CURSED BY FATE AND WRITING STAFF ALIKE!

Nelson’s homunculoid little chums are what happens when you and your brother pick the same character. They are literally called Yellow Weasel and Black Weasel respectively because Groening had run out of family members and streets to name characters after. They stop being real people and become group shot filler pretty early.

LOAD THE HEADCANON

They are the result of Moe Szyslak sexually assaulting two women who had passed out in his bar.

The opening ten minutes are a fairly dry take on bullying from a child’s perspective with a not-quite-Kenobi-ish-enough-to-count-as-a-reference appearance of Homer in a thought bubble reminding Bart to punch balls. That moment itself is interesting more for it’s historical positioning as a very early example of how far rubber band reality can stretch than for how funny it is. Bart’s fantasies, about an unstoppable Juggernelson and his own funeral, smack heavily of Doug which, while it appeared 3 years later, made this stuff its bread and butter as The Simpsons moved on. This Dougian approach to Bart, noticeable here and in moments like his struggling with the aptitude test in Bart the Genius, was abandoned as Bart matured into something resembling a young adult trapped in a child’s body.

Homer’s advice of projectile spam and ducking mids doesn’t really work against a character with Nelson’s range and health so, on Lisa’s advice, Bart turns to Grampa for help. Early Grampa had an actual character trait in his endless letters of complaint, a trait that got moved to Flanders later on as the senility jokes became Grampa’s meat and potatoes. This is not Grampa’s first appearance but it’s his first point of focus in the series and there’s a note of meta to this introduction. One of the production notes the writers received was on the use of “family jewels” in reference to testicles, one they ignored to absolutely no penalty, and the term is amongst the words Grampa is demanding advertisers never put on TV again.

This is a real great line in public attitude stratigraphy, here in 1990 we have a note about the use of FAMILY FUCKING JEWELS being a bit much. Anyway, here’s a shot from Brother’s Little Helper nine years later.

Ah the degeneration of culture. Sure there’s morons inventing genders to cover for their absolute lack of personality but, on the plus side, I can watch shows with swears.

After Jasper successfully wrestles the still unnamed Abe’s newspaper away from him, Grampa admits he may not be the best source of help and takes Bart to see Herman. Herman, (based on Simpsons writer, great novelist, and noted loon, John Schwartzwelder) is an interesting case of a very early side character who fell into such a suitable niche that he’s neither moved nor had a whole episode devoted to him. Here’s where The Simpsons leaps into its first major intertextual piece where Bart’s turn as General draws from Patton and Full Metal Jacket, using scenes, lines, music, and shots from both quite heavily.

There’s a threefold use to references. The first is adding layers of depth to theme, character, and narrative via allusions or direct references to existing works. Sorta like taking someone else’s big Lego spaceship and jamming your smaller Lego spaceship on top of it to make it look like one bigger, cooler Lego spaceship. In comedy it’s a simple, arguably cheap and lazy, means of creating surprise by hiding a familiar thing in an unfamiliar place. Finally, they can be used to fill time. They operate on a continuum between covert and overt, allusion and reference, and each, admittedly vaguely defined, spot on the spectrum serves a different purpose.

If you wanna look clever, you want to be subtle about your references typically to the point of them being invisible to anyone but people also familiar with the subject you’re referring to. These will often go unnoticed and occasionally be mistaken for original work by the referring text. These are less common in comedy because anything too subtle won’t work as a joke, though esoteric stuff often pops up in throwaway lines as a treat for the few who pick up on them. Generally, comedy will overtly signal that a reference is happening to invite people in on the joke and this episode is a good example of this. These kinds of references occupy a kind of middle ground because, while overtly signalled, they fit within the existing context of the referring text’s universe and narrative. The creativity behind this fit is what raises a good reference joke over a bad one. The way the referred text and reference text fit together will itself structure a joke or broader comment, adding the kinds of depth typical to literary allusions. At the far end of overt are things like Epic Movie or Family Guy cutaways. The ____ Movie movies are perfect examples of the laziest of reference humour because the referenced things contain no extra work in either turning their existence within the referring text into jokes or thought about how they are supposed to add to the narrative. They are simply known things in an unexpected place. Family Guy’s have so little relation to the underlying universe that they are wholly removed from it, requiring their own diegetic bracketing. This contrasts with American Dad which, while superficially similar, has enough absurdity within the foundation of it’s narrative world to connect the bizarre jokes to it in a meaningful way.

I feel like this entire part of the story exists purely for this exchange between Nelson and Bart:

Bart: I’m afraid I’m going to have to teach you a lesson

Nelson: Oh yeah? You and what army?

Bart: This one.

It’s a quality moment but I feel like it’s let down a little by the lack of build up to Bart’s guerrilla army. His need to fight Nelson makes sense, but the threat of Nelson, who is introduced in this episode, to the other children isn’t that well established. The entire idea of a horde of children taking down a bully with water balloons is into the rubber band reality’s stretch, but you don’t need to pull it as hard if you set a few more things up. The episode would have been served better by, and had the time for, a moment where Nelson’s threat to the larger student body was shown.

The absurdity of this as a resolution is acknowledged by the episode, Nelson points out that the second he is untied he’s going to beat Bart up, but the actual ending of Nelson signing a post-war document of surrender isn’t much better. Bullying is effectively dealt with in really only two ways, long form social change and removing the bully. Neither of these are an option for a sitcom so they’re going to be stuck with a kind of hand-wave fix. Pointing out the ridiculousness of one doesn’t improve the other. Bart’s direct address to the audience about war is another oddity. This kind of thing was generally saved for the Halloween episodes which exist in their own side reality. It adds nothing but a reminder of how clumsy the early seasons could be.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s actually a few in this episode that got a good laugh out of me.

Homer appearing as an advice apparition to Bart and saying, “Remember the family jewels, son” kind of gets funnier the more I roll it around in my mind. Like when you say the word “truck” over and over again till it loses all meaning, the more you strip the context from this moment the funnier it gets. Imagine your dad communicating with you telepathically to remind you of testicles. Cause that’s all that’s happening here. He’s not reminding Bart to specifically punch testicles, he’s just reminding him that testicles are a thing. “Remember son, picture nuts”

Lisa describing Grampa as the, “toughest Simpson alive” then saying, “Yeah, remember the fight he put up when we put him in the home?” is a great cruel joke. I like throwaway lines whose brevity and unassuming presentation belie a really cruel scene. Lisa knows of her Grampa’s impressive strength and will to fight from the time she and her family physically ejected him from their home and locked him up in a retirement tomb. I imagine her cackling with laughter while doing it. This is a kind of iceberg joke. As a scene, it wouldn’t really work but as a sneaky reality hidden beneath a throwaway line we get a sense of an absurdity without the unpleasantness of witnessing it.

“Graaaaaaaaaaaaampaaaaaaaaaaa…”

Grampa saying “horny” makes me chuckle.

There was originally going to be a running gag where Herman had a different story for the lost arm every time he was asked but it was cut from an episode and never returned to again. As much as I like a running gag like that, Herman’s comfortable position as a seldom-use makes his losing his arm in a school bus accident and not a war suit him well.

Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel. Black weasel. Yellow weasel.

Birthday balloons are terrible water balloons. They don’t burst on contact, I’ve seen them engulf an 8 year old’s head like The Blob before driving the confused child’s head into the ground.

 

Yours in keeping my arm inside the bus at all times, Gabriel.