ALIEN NATION: THE COMPLETE SERIES
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"Alien Nation: The TV Movie (Pilot)," "Fountain of Youth," "Little Lost Lamb," "Fifteen with Wanda," "The Takeover," "The First Cigar," "Night of the Screams," "Contact," "Three to Tango," "The Game," "Chains of Love," "The Red Room," "The Spirit of '95," "Generation to Generation," "Eyewitness News," "Partners," "Real Men," "Crossing the Line," "Rebirth," "Gimme, Gimme," "The Touch," "Green Eyes"
DOCTOR WHO: THE COMPLETE FIRST SERIES
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"Rose," "The End of the World," "The Unquiet Dead," "Aliens of London," "World War Three," "Dalek," "The Long Game," "Father's Day," "The Empty Child," "The Doctor Dances," "Boom Town," "Bad Wolf," "The Parting of the Ways"
by Walter Chaw I'm a fan of Graham Baker's dreadful Alien Nation from 1988. Run the words of the title together and you get a not-terribly-clever yet not-entirely-awful summary of what the film is getting at when it's not busy being a ludicrous high-concept buddy cop flick pairing your typical crusty old vet with an earnest rookie who happens to be an alien with a spotted pate instead of a hilarious racial minority. (Shades of Dead Heat, where Joe Piscopo played a bug-eyed zombie.) It's a schlocky B-concept, granted, but the parallax view suggests that lurking in Alien Nation is a neat parable about the Chinese-American experience in San Francisco around the turn of the century and on through to the modern day.
Dubbed "newcomers" and saddled with ridiculous names by overworked and disinterested naturalization pencil pushers, they eat food that the "terts" find repulsive and apparently can't hold their liquor. They also demonstrate high adaptability in language and social integration, a solid work ethic, increased intelligence, a dark and hidden history of drug addiction and colonial abuse, mysterious physical attributes, the perception of arcane sexual practices and knowledge, and the perception that as a "favoured" minority, the greatest threat they represent to the status quo is perhaps their willingness to work harder and for cheaper. The first alien police detective is Sam Francisco (a brilliant Mandy Patinkin); the old racist gumshoe enlisted as his partner is gruff Sykes (James Caan, phoning it in); and it's good for just long enough that when it finally becomes another stupid police procedural, the distance it has to fall is that much greater.
Eric Pierpoint and Gary Graham take over for Patinkin and Caan, respectively, in the Fox Network's short-lived spin-off, the entirety of which (neglecting the string of TV movies that sought to tie up loose ends) recently debuted on DVD. The result of the concept's protraction into a weekly series is mainly that erstwhile subtext has been regurgitated into the text, making "Alien Nation" a proselytizing shell all of hambone pulpit-pounding, one composed of fossilized Civil Rights tableaux re-imagined for the modern day and much ado about the difficulty of raising teens. A moment in the pilot episode where Sykes pulls his gun, fires it off a couple of times, and then threatens to kill the young daughter of his partner Francisco on behalf of the segregationist humans protesting their kids' school marks the nadir of the show's deadening intentionality. Beyond its essential childishness, however, there's a heart beating for the resuscitation of the nuclear family dynamic. Sam's son Buck (Sean Six) has joined an ethnic gang and Sykes's daughter from a broken marriage is a wayward slut. Though the treatment of both is generally pure situation comedy ("C'mon, dad, I thought you were cool"), it's evident that series television is better suited to familiar family dynamics than it is to "I'll Fly Away" sociology.
In that spirit, the storyline of most interest to me concerns Sykes, the requisite bigot with a heart of gold, and his burgeoning romance with a Newcomer, Cathy (Terri Treas). If the treatment of interracial romance is handled with predictable naivety, at least its earnestness doesn't discredit the gulf that it tries to fill. Credit Graham and Treas, too, for a few moments of genuine connection in there amidst the hoohah. Less interesting are the centrepieces of each episode: a crime--without fail, Newcomer-related--occupies the proscenium while the continuing elements of various arcs are resigned to the margins. (In its way, it's no different from "CSI".) If only the writing wasn't, by and large, excrescent and self-important; moreover, if only the premise weren't doomed to camp.
What if camp wasn't the unintentional by-product of a low budget but rather the smarty-pants bedrock of an entire series? Enter the BBC's resurrection of the venerable "Doctor Who", which plays for long stretches like a "Mystery Science Theater" version intent on re-creating the lurid gaudiness of the original run without the accompanying sense of existential rot and essential disquiet. Watching vintage "Who" (especially the Tom Baker tenure with which Yanks are most familiar) is largely an exercise in something an old buddy of mine described as wondering if your mind was being controlled; watching the new series--and this might be more a product of years of desensitizing post-modernism--seems an exercise in ticking off all the moments you silently remark at how cheesy a line of dialogue or a special effect is before wondering, panicked, whether that means you've outsmarted the show or it's outsmarted you.
Such thoughts outweigh whatever minor pleasures there are to be derived from the new Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and his comely companion (this one named "Rose" (Billie Piper)), during which he encounters arch-nemeses the Daleks, arrogant Yanks in underground bunkers, and a clan of farting baddies dressed up as high-ranking members of Parliament. Such thoughts, and the way you fall out on them, are also the means through which you appreciate the series: as a campy in-joke, or as a reverential shrine to a campy in-joke. Because I never thought of the original series as something to be mocked (in truth, to this day, I find the rubber monsters and cardboard robots more menacing than a horde of computer-animated Uruk-hai), I took the former tactic and, as a result, found this new series to be ineffably disrespectful with every wink, every perfunctory romantic imbroglio, and every "last human" consisting of a stretched skin in a picture frame. Eccleston, for his part, is excellent, ably carrying the "dark side" of the Doctor on his slender shoulders in his discovery of the alleged Last Surviving Dalek--but he's left principally a re-actor to gobbets of sentient plastic (a mailbox eating Rose's boyfriend is the low point in a series featuring flatulent villains) and purposefully-unconvincing CGI creatures. These episodes take place after what we interpret to be an apocalyptic "Time War" in which species that move through the fourth dimension can actually be exterminated somehow. I'm reminded of George Lucas's mysterious-until-recently "Clone Wars" and shudder at the eventual revelations to what's contained herein.
Like "Alien Nation", the new "Doctor Who" compounds its problems by seeking to tackle various hot-button issues, devoting too much time to the insidiousness of organized religion, cable programming, and, in particular, game shows like "The Weakest Link". It's a reference to so particular a fad and personality ("Weakest Link" hostess Anne Robinson voices her very own "Anne Robot") that they must have known it would smell like moth balls and mildew the moment it aired. The whole enterprise, in other words, appears to be constructed around the hipness of the retrograde: Orbital's semi-ironic remix of the theme song stirs more nostalgia for the reverence of the old than admiration for the cleverness of the new. It's possible that "Doctor Who", itself about an ageless shapeshifter unique in the universe, could not have been reborn into the modern age with any other face. A shame that this version is ultimately about the fact that the only relationship our culture has with the past is one saddled with a crushing weight of sardonic superiority, as well as the fear of considering the pleasures of youth without the protection of condescension. Maybe it's just me.
The first disc of "Alien Nation: The Complete Series" contains the feature-length pilot, cobbled together as it is with outtakes from Alien Nation proper, in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer high on grain, compression artifacts, and haloing--the entire roster of ugly television-to-digital production maladies in one handy demonstration. (The accompanying Dolby 2.0 stereo audio, let's be kind, is flat and merely serviceable.) A few episodes (like the fourth, for instance, the superior dad/kid mythology "Fifteen for Wanda") are a little better by comparison, but that's damning with the faintest of praise. The Pilot comes complete with a commentary from series producer and some-time scriptor/director Kenneth Johnson that is so charming and self-effacing it caused me to briefly reassess the project--if only very briefly. Tales of what network censors forbade as too sexy or too violent run counterpoint to his warm recollections of on-set romances, the frustrations of working with miniscule budgets, and tight time constraints as well as a seemingly genuine fondness for the project years after the fact. I took his reminder that he was also the driving force behind "V" and "V"'s very own doomed spin-off to heart: anyone involved with "V" had something to do with some of the happier moments of my childhood. A very brief, vintage "Making Of" featurette is obvious padding and holds no profit for the wise.
Starting at the end, the final platter of BBC's five-disc "Doctor Who: The Complete First Series" compiles all of the mini-documentaries that appended the show during its initial broadcast as the 165-minute opus "Doctor Who Confidential". With sub-headings-as-descriptions like "Bringing Back The Doctor" and "Dalek," each of the fourteen featurettes covers a different aspect of the production; chief revelations here include B-roll footage of people having latex appliances stuck to their faces and the general opinion that everyone is having a marvellous time. The closing segment, "Backstage at Christmas" (8 mins.), is a sneak peak at "The Christmas Invasion," i.e., the first episode for David Tennant as the tenth Doctor (and successor, Spoiler Alert, to Eccleston's single-season run), doubtless whetting the appetite for cultists everywhere for a show that, in Britain, I think is about to start (or finish) its third season or "series."
Pop in Disc One to access additional special features. "BBC Breakfast Interview with Christopher Eccleston" (12 mins.) finds Eccleston in a contemplative mood, admitting that the only time that he ever watched "Doctor Who" as a child was when a Dalek was about to be laid bare outside its mecha-shell or when a regeneration was about to take place, since the possibility of fleeting ego personalities fascinated him. Specificities like Eccleston's "Northern" accent are brought to bear in a way that may not immediately be obvious to a Yankee interviewer--and I was gratified by the actor's interest in exorcising a bit of the misogyny of the original series in this iteration. "Destroying the Lair" (3 mins.) is a fairly useless bit that shows how CGI can simulate in a cartoony sort of way just about anything. "Making Doctor Who with Russell T. Davies" (7 mins.) is a video journal by the re-creator of the British institution, with the man himself acting, for the most part, as off-screen interviewer and handheld cinematographer until he passes the camera to his assistant, who walks him up and through the first read-through. Jovial, I guess, but mostly useless.
"Waking the Dead" (18 mins.) suggests a continuation of the previous (or prequel, if you will), with the OCD Davies journalizing his first interview day on through the thought processes of writing key episodes. Not entirely disinteresting, though I'd still reserve this for die-hard fans or aspiring crazy people. "Laying Ghosts" (8 mins.) continues the set's unhealthy fascination with the Dickens episode "The Unquiet Dead" (1.3)--many featurettes herein begin with the ghoul's wail from the series for no good reason but that Doctor Who fans are cheap dates--as Davies discusses his preoccupation with spiritual possession and Mediums. A block of "Launch Trailers" (3 mins. total) collect the little teasers the BBC ran previous to the long-awaited debut. Very serious, slightly dorky, in the BBC mold. A "Storyboard of the Trailer" (30 seconds) is exactly what it sounds like, flipped through automatically to the theme song.
Of the episodes themselves, each is presented in a lovely 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sourced from HD. It looks so much better than the "Doctor Who" of my youth that it fuels my contention that the cheese factor for this new series was largely intentional in a condescending, Phantom Menace fashion. ("It's for kids!") Colours are vibrant, bleed is minimal, and detail fine. I should say that the DD 5.1 audio is pretty unimaginative in its channel separation and use of the rear discretes, while the dialogue is relegated to the centre channel and submerged beneath the cacophonous, plastic-fantastic score. "Rose" (1.1) includes a merry yak-track by Davies, producer Phil Collinson, and executive producer Julie Gardner that devotes a lot of time to the relative affordability of CGI as if they were expounding to a roomful of monkeys on quantum mechanics. It's dispensable. "The End of the World" (1.2) has optional commentary from Collinson again, only now he's joined by visual effects producer Will Cohen, who dryly talks about how long it takes to make models while Collinson praises him. Everybody's favourite episode "The Unquiet Dead" sports a yakker by writer Mark Gatiss, episode director Euros Lyn, and the actor playing Dickens, Simon Callow. "Rather grim" is the overriding declaration of the three assembled; it's another low-key rap session that doesn't reveal much, and it's nigh impossible to distinguish, just by voice, who any of the three are at any point. Not that it makes a difference: "I think that this is thrilling," someone drones, while visions of Marvin the Robot dance in my head.
Disc Two's supplements begin with "Deconstructing Big Ben" (5 mins.), a blow-by-blow of how they crashed a fake space ship into a fake Big Ben without addressing why the Slitheen race has equipped their interplanetary craft with an air horn from a semi. Keep on truckin'. "On Set with Billie Piper" (10 mins.) was videographed by our saucy sidekick, demonstrating that Ms. Piper isn't terribly quick-witted and can't hold a camera steady to save her life. It's long (very long) and not edited according to a discernible structure. More "Trailers" (1 min.) for the show round out the surprisingly (and blissfully) light video-based extras on this platter. "Aliens of London" (1.4) sports a commentary by Cohen, the wry Gardner, and actor David Verrey that is, alas, more location-spotting and self-congratulation. After a while, long about the halfway point, the three lapse into discursive reverie; my favourite exchange? "Now, how did we do this effect?" Long pause. "What, this one here?" "Mmmmm, yes." Snoozeville. "World War Three" (1.5) contains commentary from Collinson, script editor Helen Raynor, and actor Annette Badland, none of whom devle into how the brilliant farting sound effects were accomplished. Collinson helpfully provides that this is the second-part of a two-part story arc and then offers that a slow-motion scene had to be slowed down a bit. "Dalek" features a yakker by actors Nicholas Briggs, Bruno Langley, visual effects supervisor Dave Houhton, and writer Robert Shearman. Of the yakkers so far, this one is most fulsome in that it takes an interest in structure and the rationale for showing the hero early in every episode (so the folks back home don't change the channel looking for "Doctor Who").
Disc Three's bonus footage consists entirely of "Mike Tucker's Mocks of Balloons" (6 mins.), a piece on the making of the barrage balloons in twelfth-scale miniature. Purpose? Uncertain. The dearth of superfluous documentaries does allow for an additional episode on this disc, the first of which, "The Long Game" (1.7), has a yakker by director Brian Grant, and actors Christine Adams and Bruno Langley. It's a restrained affair with many obvious mattes pointed out while the actors expound that the sets were neat and that the special effects were great. The bulk of it is a recollection of plot. "Father's Day" (1.8), a somewhat affecting episode revolving around the possibility of preventing the death of a dad (something handled to much greater effect and skill in Frequency), gets the commentary treatment from Collinson, writer Paul Cornell, and actors Shaun Dingwall and Piper. I would have liked more intimate conversation about the difficulty of this subject matter, but alas. The yak-track for "The Empty Child" (1.9) groups writer Steven Moffat, actor John Barrowman (introduced in this episode as the bi-sexual time-rake Captain Jack), and Houghton--the three combining for a warm chitchat with Barrowman stealing the show as a bloke not that far removed from his on-screen charmer. "The Doctor Dances" (1.10) sports Moffat, Barrowman, and Houghton again for more of the same.
Disc Four pads things out again with a trio of documentaries. "Designing Doctor Who" (21 mins.) goes into the detail of the building of the sets (primarily the interior of the TARDIS) with good humour and a lively pace. That said, if you're still with it by this time in the proceedings, you know someone who worked on it. "The Adventures of Captain Jack" (9 mins.) delves into the character and spin-off prospects for Capt. Jack. More series "Trailers" (2 mins.) finish off this bit. "Boom Town" (1.11) returns Badland, Barrowman, and Collinson to the mike while "Bad Wolf" (1.12) features, along with Collinson and Gardner, the return of Davies--who, for good or for ill, has the most to say. "The Parting of the Ways" (1.13), the episode I would have preferred to hear Davies's opinions about, gives us Piper, Gardner, and Barrowman. Eccleston's absence on these tracks is conspicuous mostly because I think of Eccleston as a sane, intelligent person who probably had a different idea about this series, though that of course is purely speculation. A small packet with episode information accompanies the gatefold case that houses "Doctor Who: The Complete First Series," with two collectable postcards likewise tucked neatly into the packaging. The whole lot is squeezed into a clear plastic slipcover that, according to wags, is alternately too snug and too easy to scratch. Ah, fanboys. Originally published: October 3, 2006.