Sid Caesar died today, and as with Monday’s death du jour, Shirley Temple, I was surprised to learn that he’d still been alive. I missed Caesar’s heyday on Your Show of Shows by a good decade, so for me he was more a historical figure than a significant part of my TV viewing, but I’ve actually seen quite a lot of him recently.
That’s because I bought the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of the 1963 mega-comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Director Stanley Kramer brought together dozens of funnymen–and a few funnywomen–for his epic car chase, and Caesar had one of the largest roles.
If you’re not familiar with it, I won’t try to sell it as the most hilarious film ever, but it’s arguably the biggest movie comedy. That’s not just because of its colossal cast, but its running time (originally 192 minutes) and theatrical presentation (the super-widescreen Cinerama). Mad World was made and marketed as an event, and given a limited, reserved-seating “roadshow” release. Nearly a half-hour of material was trimmed for the later general release, leaving it at a still-bloated 154 minutes.
I recall seeing it a lot as a kid, at least a couple of times in the theater. This was back in the day when long movies were presented with intermissions. A lot of the comedy star cameos were lost on me, but I loved Saul Bass’ animated title sequence, as well as the endless vehicular mayhem.
The plot involves an unrelated group of motorists (including Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle) who witness the fatal crash of a crook played by Jimmy Durante. As payment for their attempt to help, he tells them of a fortune in stolen money hidden in a state park several hours’ drive away. The only clue to its precise whereabouts is that it’s buried under a “Big ‘W.’”
It’s a deeply cynical film. Sid Caesar’s character is initially the voice of reason, attempting to craft a fair method of splitting $350,000 among the eight people originally at the crash site, but disagreements fueled in large part by Ethel Merman’s harridan of a mother-in-law quickly turn things into “every man, including the old bag, for himself.”
And so the chase is on, with the former good Samaritans taking every opportunity to get out in front of the pack. Others are soon drawn into the hunt, including a conniving Phil Silvers and a fussbudget Terry-Thomas. Meanwhile, all are under the watchful eyes of the police, led by a soon-to-retire captain played by Spencer Tracy. The latter has been seeking the cache of loot for years, and is willing to see the contest play out in order to find it.
By the end, virtually everyone who learns of the money has been corrupted by it, even Dorothy Provine’s lily-white character, who wants nothing to do with it until she spots the Big W and realizes that she could buy her way out from under her horrible family. There’s a lot of tragedy roiling under the surface, and things end badly for most of the cast.
The big selling point of the Criterion release is that most of the footage cut from the original “roadshow” version has been restored, albeit in poor quality and sometimes with only video or audio present. It’s fascinating as a historical artifact, though to be honest, I think the material adds little aside from clarifying Buster Keaton’s brief role in the general release version.
I’ve already watched it twice, once for each cut, and am currently on the third go-round to listen to the highly-informative commentary track by Mad World aficionados including writer Mark Evanier. For me, there’s a megaton of nostalgia packed into this disc.
The main reason that I haven’t been blogging much lately is that most of my free time had been taken up by a boardgame design contest. The Champaign-Urbana Design Organization is sponsoring a competition called CUDO Plays, which encourages locals to collaborate in designing, playtesting and manufacturing their own games.
I’ve always had a lot of boardgame ideas percolating in my head, but have had a lot of trouble turning them into something playable. When the contest was announced last fall, I thought it might be the chance to finally complete such a project.
At the kick-off event, I found myself talking to a couple other random gamers (who shall be known as Bryan and Paul, as those are their names) and the three of us decided to form a team.
Bryan already had a semi-fleshed out concept for a game called Monsterville, which would’ve placed the players in charge of districts of a city besieged by monsters. For a brief time we turned the concept upside down and had the monsters running the town, defending it from humans. Eventually, we threw out both ideas in favor of something loosely inspired by one of my favorite films, The Cabin in the Woods.
Intermediate prototype design.
Cabin Full of Monsters casts the players as vaguely evil forces, each of which recruits a team of creatures to stalk and dispatch the unfortunate human visitors to a certain woodland cabin. The bodies of the deceased are then placed in one of four graveyards depending on the successful monster’s preferred method of mayhem: Terrifying, Surprising, Gory or Creative.
The game is meant to be semi-cooperative. The players must work together to keep any of the graveyards from being emptied (each turn, one or more bodies are removed for reasons that remain ill-defined). Should that happen, all players lose. On the other hand, all players can win if the supply of potential victims is exhausted, leaving only a “sole survivor.”
In addition, each player has an individual goal (for example, at least 12 points’ worth of victims in each graveyard), many of which overlap. After eight rounds, players check to see whether they’ve completed their victory condition.
Bryan and I share a love of monster movies, and we took the opportunity to fill the cabin with homages and in-jokes. Naturally, there are Cabin in the Woods references (Redneck Zombies, Unicorn, Merman). There are gamer memes (Gazebo, The Darkness). There are cryptids (Chupacabra, Skunk Ape). And there are swipes from movies including The Crawling Eye, Lifeforce, Death Bed and Flash Gordon (“No, not the Bore Worms!”).
The game required a crapton of art, and a local teacher named Carmen came to the rescue, recruiting her students to depict many of the monsters. The results were often wonderful, sometimes bizarre and always charming. (The Skunk Ape, a Down South cousin of Bigfoot, wound up as a literal half-skunk, half-ape.)
A lineup full of monsters.
Components include 192 cards; 160 tokens to represent victims, monsters and “blood” (the game’s currency); a large gameboard detailing the cabin and graveyard; and eight smaller boards for the individual players. Oh, and a cloth bag from which to randomly draw the victims. I asked a coworker of mine for help making a bag, and this is what her clever daughter crafted. (No matter what else happens with this game, I am keeping the bag!)
To make the tokens, we utilized the University of Illinois’ community “fab lab” and its handy laser cutter. One of the best things about this whole experience was learning about the resources available to folks who want to exercise their creativity, and I’m looking forward to making my own tchtochkes in the future.
It took a full four months from our first meeting to the final product, which we turned in to the competition committee last weekend. This coming Sunday we’ll get to see all of the finished designs and find out who won. For me, the real prize is seeing a complicated game to completion, and perhaps the opportunity to make my own copy to play with friends.
Some belated thoughts on the Doctor Who Christmas special, the 50th anniversary year, and Matt Smith’s tenure in general…
Smith’s final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” was–like much of his era–a slapdash construction, full of unsatisfying answers and ideas that appear clever until you think about them for, oh, a second.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable, just that it was another undelivered promise of the Smith/Moffat collaboration. It seemed less the culmination of a three-season/four-year story arc, more a realization of “oh, crap, I meant to include solutions to all of these puzzle boxes I’ve been leaving lying about.”
One lingering mystery–the destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS that resulted in the cracks in time permeating Season Five–was answered in a few lines of exposition. That the Silence was involved was, of course, pretty much assumed. But a tossed-off line about the “Kovarian faction” of the Church travelling back along the Doctor’s timeline to prevent him from reaching the planet Trenzalore in this episode was underwhelming. Besides, it didn’t answer the “how.” Blowing up the TARDIS is a big deal, how did they manage it?*
The revelation that the Silents themselves were confessional priests genetically engineered to allow the faithful to confess their sins without remembering they’d done so is one of those seemingly-clever ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. As Friend Dave pointed out to me, that’s not the way that confession works. And this origin doesn’t fit with their modus operandi in “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon,” in which we’re told that the Silents are parasites incapable of developing their own technology. They spent thousands of years secretly influencing humanity for the sole purpose of building a 1960s-era astronaut’s flight suit. That’s right, these members of a far-future, galaxy-spanning church required millennia to acquire a spacesuit.
That a televised story arc features blind alleys and obvious “making it up as we go” explanations isn’t unexpected. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of creative folks collaborating over a period of years and responding to changing production circumstances. It’s less forgivable, however, when all of the major plot points emanate from the singular vision of its showrunner, a writer (rightly) praised for the twisty constructions of his Davies-era Who scripts. How then to explain that something established in one episode (the Time Lords are frozen in time) is flatly contradicted in the very next story?**
On top of his pile of incomplete homework, Moffat decided to tackle the issue of the Doctor’s limited number of regenerations (established in 1976′s “The Deadly Assassin,” back when no one in their right mind would’ve thought we’d still be talking about this 38 years later). To be certain, this had been haunting the show as it prepared for the transition from the Eleventh to the Twelfth Doctor, and it’s understandable that an uber-fan like Moffat would want to be the one to solve it. It’s just that there was no need to do so this soon. Not only did it require the inclusion of a previously-unknown incarnation in the form of John Hurt, it hinged on a technicality–that the aborted regeneration seen in the David Tennant episode “Journey’s End” counted as one of the twelve allotted.
So, instead of having years to develop the concept of a “final” Doctor attempting to have his typical adventures knowing that he couldn’t count on regeneration to save his hash, it was shoehorned into an already overstuffed episode. Which would’ve been okay if the solution had been more interesting or unexpected than “the Time Lords did it.”***
Of course, the primary purpose of “The Time of the Doctor” was to give us an opportunity to say goodbye to Matt Smith. It was effective enough in that regard. For me, it’s just that I wasn’t all that invested in this Doctor. I’m more than ready for a clean slate.
As we move into the 51st year of Doctor Who, I have to say that on the whole I very much enjoyed the big 50. I would’ve preferred a proper inclusion of the surviving Doctors, but it’s hard for me to argue too much with a year that saw Paul McGann return as the forgotten Eighth, the effective reintroduction of fan favorite classic foes the Ice Warriors and Zygons, and shoutouts to stories ranging from “The Ark” to “Planet of the Spiders” and “The Brain of Morbius.” And, as I discussed a few weeks ago, 2013 was the year that Doctor Who stopped being that cult thing and became a legitimate worldwide phenomenon.
*Perhaps the business with the Doctor handing over his TARDIS key to Tasha Lem was meant to answer how Madame Kovarian gained access. Though it hardly seems necessary when you have minions who are forgotten the moment they are out of sight. This would’ve been a good place for a flashback to Season Five depicting the Silents sabotaging the works as the Doctor and the Ponds remain unaware.
**Similarly, Moffat conveniently forgets part of his own prophecy about the siege of Trenzalore, “when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer.” Yet the Doctor spends hundreds of years within the Truth Field, failing to answer the question posed by the Time Lords.
***And yes, it had been established that the Time Lords were capable of granting a new cycle of regenerations. I suspect that’s the reason for the unexpected callback to “The Five Doctors,” the story in which they make this very offer to the Master.
The Thiel household has a number of unusual Christmas traditions, such as the gay snowmen that enjoy a place of honor atop our living room television. But the one with the most staying power is our annual screening of a 1967 episode of Dragnet. The plot, in which L.A. police detectives Joe Friday and Bill Gannon track down a missing Jesus statue, might be the stuff of banal, treacly TV Christmas specials. However, viewed through the deadpan filter of Jack Webb, it becomes an inadvertent comedy delight.
Or maybe it’s just us.
Earlier this year, I transferred my aging VHS copy–recorded some two decades ago from a “Nick at Nite” holiday marathon–onto a shiny DVD, and I’d planned to upload some highlights to YouTube in clear violation of their copyright protection policies (which I believe actually include the phrase “wink, wink”). However, Hulu has saved me both the trouble and the potential legal entanglement!
Our story opens on the day before Christmas, with Friday working the day watch out of Burglary Division. His partner Gannon (M*A*S*H‘s Harry Morgan) enters carrying a desktop Christmas tree that’s basically a twig with a stand. “It sure brightens the place up,” Bill declares.
“I bought it from this round-headed kid named Brown.”
He sees Friday writing out a stack of Christmas cards, and says “You oughta get married, Joe. Only system. Eileen does all this stuff for me. Mails cards, laundry, only system.” One wonders how Eileen feels about the system.
Bill hopes to get off early, as he still needs to complete his holiday shopping. (Laundry detergent?) Joe, however, has already bought his girlfriend a gift: a stationary set.
Gannon: “Joe, you never learn.”
Friday: “What’s the matter?”
Gannon: “No woman wants a stationary set. You get her something personal.”
Friday: “It’s got her initials on it.”
Gannon: “No, no, no. You want something more sentimental. Romantic.”
Friday: “What’d you get Eileen?”
Gannon: “Well, it’s different in her case.”
Friday: “What’d you get your wife?”
Gannon: “A sewing machine.”
Friday: “That’s romantic.”
Gannon: “Well, it is, in a way.”
Friday: “Why didn’t you buy her a catcher’s mitt?”
This banter–which is downright frivolous by Dragnet standards–is interrupted by a call. Father Rojas from the San Fernando Mission Church has reported that their statue of the infant Jesus has been stolen! Even though it’s in Foothill Division territory, Friday decides to meet with the father.
Father: “I’m sorry to bother you men.”
Gannon: “That’s alright, Father.”
Father: “Especially now, the holiday season.”
Friday: “We cash our checks, Father.”
I feel like this is something more of us in the service industry should say.
“Thanks for coming to fix my toilet.”
“We cash our checks.”
“This ice cream cone is tasty!”
“We cash our checks.”
Soon, Father Rojas and Joe Friday are in a full-fledged quip-off:
Friday: “How late is the church open?”
Father: “All night.”
Friday: “You leave it wide open, so any thief can walk in?”
Father: “Particularly thieves, Sergeant.”
Even Friday doesn’t have a smart-ass reply to that one.
Gannon: “Just for a check on the pawn shops, how much is the statue worth?”
Father: “In money?”
Friday : “Well, that’s the point in pawn shops, Father.”
Father: “Only a few dollars. We could get a new one, but it wouldn’t be the same. We’ve had children in the parish; they’ve grown up and married. It’s the only Jesus they know.”
Gannon: “We understand.”
Father: “And we’ve had children who died. It was the only Jesus they knew. So many of the people who come here are simple people, they wouldn’t understand, Sergeant. It would be like changing the Evening Star.”
A frequent paraphrase between me and Mrs. Thielavision: “They’re a simple people; they wouldn’t understand.”
“No, really. They’re fucking stupid. It’s a wonder they know to breathe.”
The detectives promise to continue looking for the AWOL messiah, and, if possible, return it for Christmas Mass. But before they go:
Father: “It’s sad, isn’t it?”
Friday: “How’s that?”
Father: “In so short a time, men learn to steal.”
Friday: “Yes, but consider us, Father.”
Friday: “If some of ‘em didn’t, you and I would be out of work.”
The thought of continued employment comforts Father Rojas.
Hitting the pawn shops, Friday and Gannon make the acquaintance of the absurdly cantankerous Mr. Flavin, owner of Flavin’s Religious Art. (“Fifty percent European items!”) The thing about Dragnet is that I’m never quite sure when it’s trying to be funny, but the things that come out of Flavin’s mouth are so bizarre that even Joe Friday begins rolling his eyes.
Actual dialogue (paraphrased): “How’d you know my name? We never met!”
Friday asks the shopkeeper if he has a large statue of the baby Jesus, to which Flavin responds as if he’s never heard of such a thing:
Flavin: “You don’t want a large one unless it’s fer a church. That’s where you want a larger one.”
Friday: “Could we see it, please?”
Flavin: “I guess. It’s not my due to butt in, but unless you live in a big place, this’ll make your living room all a-kilter.”
Friday: “Yes, sir. Do most of the people who go to the Mission Church trade here?”
Flavin: “Good many of ‘em. Especially the kids.”
Friday: “Why kids?”
Flavin: “More religious! Check on yourself. See if kids aren’t more religious than you.”
Friday: “Might be so.”
Flavin: “That’s what’s wrong with the world!”
I’m pretty sure that no old person in the history of humanity has ever said that a resurgence of faith is the problem with the world. Especially not the owner of a religious paraphernalia store. However, Mr. Flavin is bugfuck nuts, so there’s that.
“You wouldn’t want this here Jesus! It’ll rob you blind!”
The interrogation continues:
Friday: “Do people ever come in and sell back a religious article?”
Flavin: “Like a prayer book or rosaries?”
Friday: “Yes, sir.”
Flavin: “Second hand, you mean?”
Friday: “Yes, sir.”
Flavin: “Not since I ever been around. It’s silly.”
Flavin: “People don’t have religious articles so they can get rid of ‘em. They have ‘em so they can have ‘em.”
Gannon: “But if a man had a statue and wanted to sell it, he’d come to a place like this.”
Flavin: “Sure, but he wouldn’t want to sell it.”
Friday: “He would if it was stolen.”
Flavin: “No, sir! If a man was to steal a statue, he’d be crazy or something like that. The only place he’d want to go is where crazy people are.”
Friday: “You may be right, Mr. Flavin.”
Flavin: “I don’t know what you fellas are looking for, but if it’s somebody who stole a statue, he’s crazy and you won’t find him. You won’t find him as long as you live, or in a million years!”
Friday: “That should cover it.”
Point to ponder: If crazy people are impossible to find, why do I encounter so many of them?
You too can enjoy a visit with Mr. Flavin! Click here!
Confronted by this unassailable logic, Friday and Gannon retreat. They continue to check religious stores, but “none of them were as encouraging as Mr. Flavin.”
The flatfoots return to the office to be met by one of the Mission’s altar boys, John Heffernan, played by a pre-Brady Bunch Barry Williams. When Joe tells little Greg Brady that he didn’t have to come in (“A phone call woulda worked”), the boy replies, “My father said to get on over. He said that any kid that uses phones is lazy.” My, times have changed.
“Is this about the time I stole that goat?”
Heffernan hadn’t noticed the statue being Jesus-napped, but mentions a man carrying a bundle. Friday jumps at the chance to lead the witness:
Friday: “How large a bundle?”
Heffernan: “It’s hard to say.”
Friday: “Come on, son! Was it large or small? The size of the statue?”
Heffernan: “About that big! Yes, sir!”
“Then, Marcia was hit by a football…”
The search for the man with the mysterious bundle–a church regular named Claude Stroup–leads them to a hotel for down-and-out old folks called “The Golden Dream.” Stroup is absent, and the desk clerk is worried that he won’t return in time to sing in the Christmas concert with the hotel choir.
The Three Tenors eventually went to seed.
Clerk: “I hope it’s nothing serious for Claude. Fella’s troubles oughta be over.”
Clerk: “Way back. Wouldn’t count now.”
Friday: “Tell us anyway.”
Clerk: “It was something back where he used to live. He robbed somebody or something.”
Friday: “What else?”
Clerk: “That’s all. It was a long time ago, way far back. But he forgot it all, the robbing and everything.”
Friday: “No, not quite.”
Friday: “He remembered it this morning.”
Joe Friday has heard of the presumption of innocence, but holds no truck with it.
Later, back at the station, Captain Mack attempts to send Joe and Bill off to pick up a captured fugitive, but Friday is adamant about finishing his work for Father Rojas.
Captain Mack: “What is it, a ten, fifteen-dollar chalk statue?”
Friday: “Since when’s the price determine a case?”
Well, considering that the Champaign police never called me back after my Halloween decorations were stolen, I’d say that price very much determines the case. But this is Dragnet, so instead Joe Friday adroitly guilt trips the Captain into letting him continue in the search for Jesus, leading to one of the queerest looks I’ve seen in a police drama.
Click here to watch Friday play “Good Cop, Guilty Cop!”
At 4:45 pm, there’s a break in the case: Stroup has returned to the Golden Dream. As Joe puts it, “The desk clerk was right, Claude Stroup looked like a man who’d had his troubles at bargain rates.”
“How many badges do you see?”
Impatient about being unable to present his sweetheart with her personalized stationary set, Joe Friday gets cranky:
Stroup: “Honest, I didn’t do nothing against the law.”
Friday: “You haven’t been accused. We want to talk to you downtown.”
Stroup: “No, sir, I’m not goin’. I’m not goin’ anyplace. I’m not goin’ to talk to nobody.”
Friday: “You’re half wrong already.”
And so Friday and Gannon drag his happy ass halfway across town. A couple of hours pass, and Stroup still refuses to talk. Ultimately, the real reason for his reticence is revealed: earlier that day he’d gotten into a minor parking lot accident with a borrowed car. The suspicious bundle was nothing more than his spare pants for the Christmas Eve concert. Joe glumly releases him, and tells Claude to go home. Not that he offers the poor guy a ride. Or cab fare. Go home, Stroup. Get walking. Bargain rates, indeed.
With the pawn shops closed and all leads dried up, the defeated duo return to Father Rojas with the bad news. Just then, a small Mexican boy enters pulling a wagon…inside which is the baby Jesus!
Jesus makes Paquito’s nose itchy.
The father recognizes him as Paquito Mendoza, one of the locals, and translates his Spanish:
Father: “He says that all through the years, he prayed for a red wagon. This year, he prayed to the child Jesus. He promised that if he got the red wagon, the child Jesus would have the first ride in it.”
Paquito: (speaking Spanish)
Father: “He wants to know if the devil will come and take him to Hell.”
Friday: “That’s your department, Father.”
Father: (to Paquito) “El Diablo, no.”
At which point, Vic always shouts, “El Diablo! Si!” And then she hisses. That’s what we Thiels call Christmas spirit.
Paquito returns the statue to the creche, to be watched over by its chipped and worn Nativity-mates.
God in His natural habitat.
Approving Donkey approves.
“No, you see, you are simple, Paquito. You wouldn’t understand.”
All is well. The Whos down in Who-Ville will wake up on Christmas morn and never face the prospect of being hopelessly confused by a Replacement Christ. Paquito gathers his wagon and hightails it back to his life of petty larceny.
Paquito will soon learn that there are no red wagons in Hell.
Gannon: “I don’t understand how he got the wagon today. Don’t kids wait for Santa Claus anymore?”
Father: “It’s not from Santa Claus. The firemen fix the old toys and give them to new children. Paquito’s family, they’re poor.”
Friday: “Are they, Father?”
Off to solve the Case of the Purloined Dreidel.
And with that, we draw a close to the Dragnet Christmas special. I hope that it will become a tradition in your household as well.
Like many, I was underwhelmed by the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film trilogy.* It’s significant that I only saw it once in the theater, and still haven’t bought the Blu-Ray.
I’m similarly with the consensus on part two, The Desolation of Smaug. It’s certainly a step up from An Unexpected Journey, even as it remains a long trek from Jackson’s triumphant take on The Lord of the Rings.
I think that it’s probably time that we stop referring to this as an adaptation of The Hobbit and call it “sorta suggested by” the book. It follows the same general premise of a bunch of dwarves and their reluctant burglar on a quest to recover a dragon’s hoard, but is so far removed from the source material that it’s very nearly an original story that happens to be set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
It’s one thing to shoehorn LOTR‘s Legolas the elf into the story, as the novels established him as the son of the Elvenking of The Hobbit. As an immortal, he surely would’ve been around when Thorin and his dwarves came calling.
But the addition of an elven love interest named Tauriel is a bit harder to accept. Certainly, Middle Earth is short on female characters, and as portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, Tauriel kicks all kind of orcish ass. Still, the romantic subplot between her and Kili the dwarf (or is it Fili?) is just…odd.
Another major deviation from the book is that the dwarves are given much more agency. In the original story, they were mostly peril monkeys in need of constant rescuing by Bilbo. Thorin’s claim on the treasure of the Lonely Mountain seemed especially weak considering how little he’d done to win it. But in The Desolation of Smaug, there’s a huge action set piece in which he and his crew lure the dragon into a trap.
Imagine, if you will, a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird in which Bob Ewell hires bounty hunters to track down Atticus Finch and Dill has a hot older cousin who pursues a secretive affair with Boo Radley. That’s the effect of watching The Desolation of Smaug on someone who grew up with the novels.
None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I won’t see it a second time. After all, I’ve only experienced the 2D version. There are still so many options: 3D, IMAX, high-frame rate and D-Box motion seat. There’s a Hobbit for everyone.
*Though now that I look back at my review, I see that my initial reaction was more positive.
From time to time, the Bonhams auction house offers up an assortment of Doctor Who related items. Next Wednesday another batch goes up on the block. And while it would be fun to own “Believed to be from Remembrance of the Daleks – a destroyed Dalek” (as it describes the blackened lower section of the unlucky victim of Ace’s beloved Nitro-Nine explosives), that’s not what had me desperately checking my bank balance.
No, here’s what set my twin hearts aflutter:
It’s the Taran Wood Beast! The scourge of the planet Tara! The darkness that slips between the trees! The creature that haunts my sweaty nightmares!
Sure, that may be overselling it. But my love of the Taran Wood Beast is well-documented. Okay, “love” may also be an overstatement, given that I once described it as “endearingly pathetic.” But that doesn’t matter. I wants it. My precious.
Here’s how Bonhams describes it:
Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara - A Taran Wood Beast costume, November – December 1978, comprising: a mask in the formed as scaled face (sic), protruding eyes and teeth, of synthetic fur, papier-mache, foam, latex, plastic and polystyrene, with tieing straps, with body/ jump suit, of synthetic fur effect fabric, and foam, with detachable section to reverse, with padded hands, and attached claws, house on a wicker mannequin, together with a reproduction image featuring the piece, head width approximately 20 inches (51cm)
It’s worth pointing that this is not, as they would have it, “a” Taran Wood Beast. This is the Taran Wood Beast. The original, you might say.
Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Beast:
Can you imagine the thrill of experiencing this face staring back at you from the corner of your very own living room? Can you imagine the smell of this costume after so many years? It would exude an odor recalling nostalgia and terror, or more likely, a damp, rotted badger carcass. The actual Taran Wood Beast probably has a fresher scent.
If my lovely wife Vicky bought this for me, I not only would love her for the rest of my days (which I already would, so I guess I’d doubly love her), I would wear it. For Halloween. For Arbor Day. For birthdays and bar mitzvahs, for casual Fridays and dress-up Thursdays. I would wear it so often that locals would say, “Oh look, Gladys. It’s the Taran Wood Beast again.” Followed by, “Let’s walk the other way.”
Yet, as much as the mere possibility of owning this lovely for myself excites me, it also saddens me. Saddens me because someone took in this poor beast for the past 35 years. They sheltered it. They loved it. And, whether they came on hard times or simply couldn’t stand the dead badger stench any more, they were forced to let it go.
Let’s get it out of the way: yes, “The Day of the Doctor” was a very satisfying celebration of Doctor Who. While I’ll get to a couple of caveats shortly, Steven Moffat ticked nearly all of the boxes and left me feeling very good about the future of my favorite TV series.
It’s all spoilers from this point forward, so don’t follow me into the Black Archive below unless you want to know it all.
(By the way, the above image is stitched together from several different frames to provide a better view of the Cyber-converted copy of “The Raft of the Medusa” on display in the Undergallery.)
While I was anticipating another look in at the final day of the great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords, what I did not expect was a rewrite. The Time War was the central event of the revived series, papering over Doctor Who‘s 16-year broadcast hiatus and providing character motivation for the battle-scarred Doctor, who had presided over its end by annihilating both sides of the conflict.
Now that has been undone, and while I might be annoyed by a such a “retcon” (a portmanteau of “retroactive continuity,” referring to the revision of established history within a serial narrative), I’m actually quite happy about it. The Doctor’s post-Time War trauma pretty much had been played out, and his quest to locate and restore his homeworld of Gallifrey will provide new story ideas. Furthermore, it puts behind us the notion of the Doctor as the “Last of the Time Lords,” the final survivor of an exploded planet à la Superman.
What I liked especially was that it allowed the Doctor to once again be the Doctor, the man who seeks a better way to save the day. We saw it in his peaceful handling of the Zygon invasion sub-plot, and again when he changed his mind about pushing the big, red, planet-shattering button.
I was very happy to see the long-absent Zygons get so much screen time; I’d assumed that they’d make little more than a cameo. While I was mildly disappointed by the non-appearance of their pet–the Loch Ness Monster–perhaps Moffat is saving that for a follow-up.
There were a few others who were sorely missed. Would it have killed Christopher Eccleston to put aside whatever resentment he feels toward Doctor Who long enough to shoot a regeneration scene? Not cool. And as punch-the-air wonderful it was to have all of the Doctor’s former selves arrive like the Cavalry, it’s really too bad that the present-day Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy weren’t allowed to participate.*
That said, I can’t complain too much. I hooted when the upcoming 12th Doctor (or is he the 13th?) Peter Capaldi put in a split-second appearance, and again when Tom Baker showed up as “The Curator,” hinted to be a future incarnation of the Time Lord revisiting one of his old faces.
Multi-Doctor stories are always fun, if for no other reason than to provide an excuse for his various incarnations to poke fun at and attempt to one-up each other. Matt Smith and the returning David Tennant clearly had a good time, and “War Doctor” John Hurt surprisingly fit right in as their younger/older self.
Although I would have been perfectly content with a mpb of former Doctors and companions having a runaround in the style of the 20th anniversary special, “The Five Doctors,” I have to admit that “The Day of the Doctor” was a far better story, and a fitting tribute to the world’s longest-running science-fiction TV series. While I don’t expect that I’ll be around for the 100th anniversary, for today at least I feel that a centenary celebration isn’t such a long shot.
*Yes, I’ve seen The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, the comedy short about the neglected Doctors’ attempt to crash the production of the 50th anniversary special. It’s cute, but perhaps not quite so funny the day after watching the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which ended the story of the early years of the production of Doctor Who with 1st Doctor William Hartnell being shoved aside to make way for a newer model. That said, I would love to think that it really was Davison, Baker and McCoy under those tarps in the televised episode.
Here, in no particular order, are 50 of my favorite Doctor Who stories.
“Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” — This is what I’m watching as I begin to type this list. The first season finale of the revived show is a brilliant fake-out. What seems to be a goofy tale about deadly game shows turns into a showdown with a half-million Daleks and the final moments of the 9th Doctor. Plus, it has one of my all-time favorite scenes: “But you have no weapons, no defenses, no plan!”
“Terror of the Zygons” — With one significant exception, this 4th Doctor classic is a triumph of 1975 production values: convincing rubber-suited aliens, gloopy organic technology and a spectacular spaceship explosion. It all falls down a bit with the puppet Loch Ness Monster. The Zygons themselves will make their long-awaited return in tomorrow’s anniversary special.
“Castrovalva” — The 5th Doctor’s introduction is special to me for being the first episode I saw with an audience of fans. The resurrected Master doggedly pursues his ailing nemesis back to the Big Bang and forward into a Escher-inspired dimensional trap.
“Smith and Jones” — NuWho at its lunatic best, with a mercenary police force of space rhinos teleporting a London hospital to the moon in their search for a vampire granny with a bendy straw.
“Hide” — From the most recent season comes this 1970s haunted house story starring Call the Midwife‘s Jessica Raine as a psychic paranormal investigator. It’s both creepy and surprisingly touching.
“Genesis of the Daleks” — It was twelve years before we learned the true story of the birth of the Doctor’s most persistent enemies. For my money, their perverse creator Davros is Doctor Who‘s all-time greatest villain.
“Inferno” — Admittedly, this 3rd Doctor story runs a bit long at seven episodes. It’s most notable for a side-trip to a fascist parallel Earth that the Doctor utterly fails to save from flaming death. “And they were all wearing eyepatches!”
“Midnight” — The 10th Doctor discovers that not having a companion to humanize him leads to distrust by a group of tourists beset by an invisible, impossible demon. Doctor Who does The Twilight Zone, and it’s just plain terrifying.
“The Five Doctors” — Tomorrow it will have been 30 years since Chicago enjoyed the worldwide broadcast premiere of this anniversary special. (Brits didn’t see it until two days later!) It’s a messy piece of fan service, with three Doctors–plus a replacement 1st Doctor and some stock footage of Tom Baker–teamed with old friends in a quest to the Dark Tower of Rassilon.
“Vengeance on Varos” — Granted, being the 6th Doctor’s best story is clearing a rather low bar. But I love this post-modern piss take on violent television, with its Greek chorus of passive viewers offering running commentary on the Doctor and Peri’s struggle against the money-hungry slug Sil.
“The End of the World” — While “Rose” was a very-nearly perfect reintroduction of Doctor Who to a modern audience, it was the second episode that said “look at what we can do now!” A party of bizarre aliens ranging from a giant head to a stretched piece of skin gather to witness the Earth melt away.
“Partners in Crime” — Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a series regular in a comedy romp about a relatively low-stakes alien invasion. A popular diet supplement promises that the fat will just walk away, and so it does…in the form of the adorable, dough-boy Adipose.
“The Robots of Death” — One of Who‘s most successful attempts at world-building is this Agatha Christie mystery set aboard a sand-mining ship serviced by ornate robots programmed never to go worng.
“The Eleventh Hour” — Matt Smith isn’t my favorite Doctor, but he’s terrific in his debut episode, particularly when interacting with seven-year-old Amelia Pond.
“Earthshock” — The Doctor’s second-most famous foes, the Cybermen, are mostly crap. But this is their finest hour, bringing inevitable doom down upon the Doctor’s closest friends. “Ex-cellent!”
“The Fires of Pompeii” — An episode which answers one of the nagging questions about the Doctor’s adventures: why is it that he can interfere in some historical events, but not others? There’s also a fun running gag regarding the TARDIS’ built-in language translator and Donna’s attempt to speak Latin to the ancient Romans.
“Blink” — Cause and effect loop around each other as the Doctor uses DVD Easter Eggs to communicate across the decades with a young woman menaced by living statues.
“The Time Monster” — This 3rd Doctor adventure isn’t well-regarded by most fans, but it’s the first Doctor Who episode I ever saw and therefore gets a pass. Atlantis, a Minotaur, the Master and a pair of Russian-nested TARDISes make for a hallucinogenic first exposure.
“Remembrance of the Daleks” — The notion of a manipulative 7th Doctor starts here, but I won’t hold that against it. The Doctor’s trap for the Daleks goes pear-shaped when two opposing forces of evil pepper-pots arrive in 1963.
“Night of the Doctor” — The mini-prequel to tomorrow’s anniversary episode is a wonderful, seven-minute slice of Who, with a surprise appearance by the neglected 8th Doctor and a callback to fan favorite story “The Brain of Morbius.”
And here are the other thirty!
“The Brain of Morbius” (I said it was a fan favorite.)
“The Time Warrior” (Welcome, Sarah Jane!)
“Gridlock” (A tribute to2,000 AD comics with a cameo from a forgottenWho monster.)
“The Seeds of Doom” (A Bond villain nurtures a world-eating plant.)
“The God Complex” (TakeThe Shining, add another Minotaur.)
“City of Death” (Douglas Adams wrote this comedy about an alien’s heist of theMona Lisa.)
“The Caves of Androzani” (The 5th Doctor goes out in a blaze.)
“The Aztecs” (The series’ first challenge to established history.)
“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (A marvelous Victorian adventure pastiche.)
“The Christmas Invasion” (The 10th Doctor proves what kind of a man he is.)
“Horror of Fang Rock” (A shape-shifting alien stalks a storm-tossed lighthouse.)
“The Green Death” (aka “The One with the Maggots.”)
“Rose” (A shop girl meets a stranger with a blue box and learns to run for her life.)
“The Curse of Peladon” (Royal intrigue at a conference of alien ambassadors.)
“School Reunion” (The hearts of a million fanboys flutter as Sarah Jane returns. And K-9 too!)
“The Happiness Patrol” (Mandatory happiness is enforced by a candy-covered robot.)
“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (The introduction of the roguish Captain Jack Harkness.)
“The Pirate Planet” (Another Douglas Adams script, this one about a planet-devouring planet.)
“The Curse of Fenric” (Vikings, vampires, Russians and an ancient evil converge in WWII Britain.)
“The Face of Evil” (The Doctor meets the savage Leela!)
“Planet of Evil” (A magnificent alien jungle set enlivens this spin on Forbidden Planet.)
“Pyramids of Mars” (If there’s a villain more frightening than Sutekh, I don’t want to meet him.)
“The Girl in the Fireplace” (The Doctor has a time-crossed romance with Madame de Pompadour.)
“Terror of the Autons” (The Master kicks off his decades-long vendetta.)
“The Ark in Space” (Proof, if any be needed, that bubble wrap is scary.)
“The Mind Robber” (The Doctor faces the surreal threat of becoming a fictional character.)
“Enlightenment” (Bored immortals stage a sailing race through the Solar System.)
“Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” (The Daleks and Cybermen talk smack to each other. And there’s something about Rose.)
“The Deadly Assassin” (Political conspiracy, Time Lord mythology and the Matrix 23 years before The Matrix.)
“Dalek” (After decades of being the butt of the joke, a lone Dalek proves that one is more than enough.)
I have to say that I have mixed emotions about this Saturday’s 50th Anniversary Doctor Who episode. Do I want to see it? Oh, very much so. But I know that no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m going to be a little sad afterwards. The anticipation; the flood of interviews, articles and retrospectives; I’ve loved every moment of the build-up to the 50th. By Sunday, it’ll all be over but the endless kvetching of Internet forums.
These past few weeks have felt like sweet vindication. As a kid, being into Doctor Who made me a weirdo. These days, it’s utterly mainstream. Okay, the majority of Americans still wouldn’t know a TARDIS from a teapot, but when I can walk into Walmart, or Barnes & Noble, or Gordman’s, and see Doctor Who merchandise right out in the open; when other pop-culture shows make reference to it without further explanation; when moms and kids and tweens and seniors all openly proclaim their love for it; I know that my time has arrived.
I’m just shy of 50 myself; I was most likely a blastocyst in my mother’s uterus when Doctor Who premiered in the U.K. Being an ocean away, my initial introduction to the Doctor came via television airings of Peter Cushing’s pair of Dalek feature films. A couple of years later I had my first chance to watch the real thing.
As I approach my own big five-oh, one of the things that I appreciate about Doctor Who is that it’s older than I am. For me, it’s always been there. It very well may outlast me. That’s a comforting thought.
I had hoped to embark on another one of my month-long blog-a-thons in commemoration of next Saturday’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but it was not to be.
This past month much of my free time has been consumed by a board game design competition run by the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization. My team’s entry is a horror-themed game loosely based on the movie Cabin in the Woods. “Cabin Full of Monsters” is a tongue-in-cheek contest in which the players recruit and equip teams of monsters and set them loose in the eponymous building. It’s coming along nicely, but it certainly has been a time suck.
So, here we are, six days out from what is not only the most significant moment in the long history of one of the BBC’s signature dramas, but perhaps the biggest event in all of televised science-fiction: a worldwide simulcast of the 50th anniversary episode to be seen in 75 countries, with 3D theatrical screenings in many of them. And I haven’t had much to say about it.