Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Doctor Who

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

I am so grateful to have caught Hamlet on Masterpiece Theatre last month; it introduced me to David Tennant, which led me to Doctor Who. This is the television show I have been looking for without even knowing I was looking for it. If you combined all my childhood obsessions, and most of my adult ones, you’d more or less end up with this series. Despite the fact that Who has existed, in one form or another, for decades and is an enormous part of popular British culture, when I watch it I feel as if it could have been made just for me.

The titular hero of Doctor Who is an alien. To the casual observer he appears to be human but he is actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. When mortally injured he is able to cheat death by regenerating, a process which changes every cell of his body, altering his physical appearance and personality but preserving his memories and his consciousness. It’s a useful plot device and a clever trick to have on hand when an actor leaves the show and the Doctor needs a recast. To date eleven actors have played the Doctor. Though they vary in age, temperament and appearance they are all meant to be the same being.

The series returned to BBC in 2005 (the first time in over fifteen years since new episodes had been produced on a regular basis) with the ninth incarnation of the Doctor, played to perfection by Christopher Eccleston. He was roughly nine hundred years old and the last of his race, his home planet and every living thing on it having been destroyed in the Time Wars, which affected various parts of the universe but had no real effect on the Earth. The Doctor is not only the last of his kind but also, somehow, to blame for the events which led to the demise of his people. Alone in the universe he travels through time and space in his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), a sentient ship that appears, on the outside, to be a blue police box but is in fact a vast and wondrous vessel. While she never speaks a line of dialogue the TARDIS is every bit as alive as any other character in the Who-iverse. She is all that remains of the Doctor’s home and his affection for her is both real and endearing.

Because he’s a personable creature, and also a lonely old man, the Doctor invites new friends he meets in the midst of various adventures to accompany him as travelling companions. His preference trends toward human, as he has a particular affection for us as a species; specifically young, attractive, female humans, often with a boyfriend or family member coming along for the ride at various points. Sometimes other aliens, fellow time travelers, even the occasional robot dog find themselves tagging along as well. The show excels at establishing an odd sense of community amongst this small, disparate group. Travelling with the Doctor is kind of like belonging to some fun, exclusive, dangerous club. Because where the Doctor goes danger tends to follow… but he always makes danger look like so much fun.

From time to time the relationship between the Doctor and a female companion may turn romantic. The show is marketed towards children in Britain and considered family programming so things never get very explicit. There’s lots of hand-holding (usually while running from some sort of adversary), hugging and the odd chaste kiss here and there. From what I’ve read, this kind of thing only happens in the newer episodes and was never really an issue in the earlier seasons of the series. Personally I like my Sci-Fi / Fantasy Adventure tinged with some element of romance (especially when the Doctor is played by such charismatic and attractive actors). A romantic element can certainly be introduced without negating every other aspect of the series. For me it just adds another layer to the story. By examining the nature of the Doctor’s relationships with his various companions we learn more about him and more about them. Their interactions help define who they are as characters and make them seem all the more real.

Besides it’s not as if the Doctor can ever settle down and be a family man (though he can’t help but wonder sometimes what that might be like); he doesn’t age, at least not like humans do. He won’t die, at least not for a very, very, very long time. The lifespan of a human companion is little more than the blink of an eye to him. He can never live a human life. So while he may appear, to us, to be constant and eternal he can only ever offer something ephemeral to his friends. When you travel with the Doctor it’s great. It’s adventure and danger and wonder and vast unknown expanses of the universe, all right in front of you. But it’s not a permanent way of life. All journeys eventually come to an end. The way those journeys change the characters that embark upon them, both for better and worse, is probably one of the most compelling aspects of the show for me. That in the midst of all of time and space there are these tiny personal dramas taking place.

Doctor Who is Greek Mythology, Christian allegory, Superman, E.T., The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, The Time Traveler's Wife, The Twilight Zone, late-night creature features and historical costume dramas, all rolled into one. In reviving the series head writer and executive producer Russell T. Davies has somehow managed to make something that feels both modern and retro. The people feel real, the danger feels real but the creatures are often dated-looking and hilarious. Which somehow makes them even more terrifying. Though it's often clever and cheeky, it lacks the sometimes smug, post-modern edge of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and that is one of its greatest strengths (and that’s no slight on Buffy, who is great in her own right). It doesn’t just reference programming that I watched as a kid, it resurrects it. And applies enough grown-up sensibility to get me engaged, while never forgetting that it’s meant to be a wildly entertaining show. It may sound like it’d be a mess, sometimes it actually is a mess, but it’s always glorious.

And at the heart of it all is this man. This remarkable spaceman. The last of his kind. We never learn his real name but he’s given so many names throughout the series. The Doctor. He's a lonely angel and an angry god. A force of justice, rightness and benevolence in the universe. He is ancient but he retains a childlike sense of wonder. He is so much more than we can ever be but he sees the potential in us and he thinks we are miraculous. We think we need him but he needs us just as much, if not more. His greatest gift to mankind is the ability to show human beings just how amazing they can be. How much they can accomplish. How much they can become. For me, Doctor Who is, at its heart, a story about mankind’s relationship with the other, with divinity (if you believe in that sort of thing), with the whole of history and all of time and consciousness. What more could a viewer possibly ask for?

I wanted to write one self-contained entry on Doctor Who as a means of explaining why, for the past month, I have lived and breathed this show. Why I felt compelled to watch four seasons in less than the span of four weeks. Why I think it’s easily one of the best television series I’ve ever seen and why I cannot stop talking about it even though I realize that everyone I know is sick to death of hearing about it. One little essay is just not going to cut it. Consider this an introduction. There’ll be much, much more where this came from.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Third Man

I remember the exact moment that I fell in love with Joseph Cotten. It was Fourth of July, 2008 and Turner Classic Movies had chosen to celebrate our Nation’s birthday by scheduling a Hitchcock marathon, which I thought was a terrific idea. I was happy that I woke up in time to watch Shadow of a Doubt that morning; I had never seen it but my mom had recently watched it for the first time and raved about it, so I was anxious to check it out for myself. Cotten’s Uncle Charlie hooked me the minute he appeared on screen, lying, almost corpse-like, on a bed in a seedy motel, smoking a cigar. And when he opened his mouth to speak, with that sonorous, sinister but incredibly seductive voice of his, it was like being struck by lightning. I was gobsmacked. Who on earth was this glorious creature? And why hadn’t I noticed him before? I didn't even know if I’d seen him in anything else because surely, if I had, I'd have remembered him. I sat, spellbound, for the length of the movie, which I thought was fabulous in every way, and then I set about researching Mr. Joseph Cotten. I quickly realized that I had actually seen a handful of his movies and was surprised that he had failed to make more of an impact on me, especially considering that two of the movies I’d seen, Citizen Kane and The Third Man, were thought to be two of his very best roles.

Though I’d watched Kane a couple of times and found it entirely underwhelming (I really like it now but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it), The Third Man was a movie I’d remembered enjoying, even if I could remember little else about it. I caught it at Downtown West on its fiftieth anniversary run in ’99, mostly because I knew it was the movie Juliet and Pauline went to see together in Heavenly Creatures. I remembered Orson Welles, of course, especially the bit where the kitten sidles up to him in the alley and starts batting at his shoelaces, but Cotten had failed to leave a lasting impression, despite the fact that he’s in practically every frame of the film.

Joseph Cheshire Cotten was dapper and elegant. He was tall (6’2”) and he carried himself gracefully. He even had his suits specially tailored without pockets so that he would appear more streamlined. He had a handsome face and wavy hair. He was a little bit older than your average matinee idol when he began his film career (after a stint on Broadway with Kate Hepburn and Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story) but, otherwise, he had all the makings of a dreamboat leading man.

But here’s the thing about Cotten, and it’s one of the things I love most about him: not only could he disappear into a character he was playing, he could fade into the fabric of the film itself, so that other players, like his buddy Welles, could shine. A role like Uncle Charlie is brash and showy, which is why it got my attention, but a role like Jed Leland or Holly Martins is something much subtler and, I would think, much more difficult to pull off with success. Cotten almost never seemed to be trying to draw attention to himself but I think that makes him all the more magnetic. It also makes him well-suited to playing underdogs, sad sacks and dupes, which he did on a fairly regular basis and never with more success than in Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s sublime The Third Man.

Poor Holly Martins, pulp western author, drunkard, hopeless romantic, finds himself in post-war Vienna at the request of his longtime pal Harry Lime, who’s offered him a job with his medical charity. But by the time Martins arrives Lime is dead and the police are accusing the dearly departed of all sorts of nasty illegal activities. Martins ought to have the good sense to turn tail and head home to America but, maybe because he’s confused himself with a hero from one of his books, maybe because he likes the look of Lime’s girl, the lovely, melancholy Anna, he decides to stick around, butt heads with Trevor Howard's (quite wonderful) Major Calloway and restore his pal’s good name.

The movie, usually classified as film noir, works so well, in part, because it defies categorization. It’s tragic, romantic and darkly comedic. It’s mysterious and suspenseful. It’s a little like Casablanca, only most of the characters act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the greater good. Even honest, sensible Holly Martins is in it for himself, if only to feel a sense of pride for having done the right thing and helped the damsel in distress out in the process. Martins is a lot like another of Greene’s protagonists, The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle, who tries to impose his simple black and white worldview onto a situation with no easy solutions; these lines, paraphrased from The Quiet American, spoken in reference to Pyle, could even be applied to Martins himself: “I should have known that saving the girl and saving the country would be the same thing to a man like Pyle.” In both stories, the naivete (coupled with a skewed sense of moral rightness) of these quiet Americans, ends up having disastrous consequences.

Cotten certainly plays Martins as a fool but he’s a likable fool and his antics are entertaining and oddly endearing. Both Carey Grant and Jimmy Stewart were considered for the role of Martins and either man could have played the part convincingly but not as well (and I realize I’m terribly biased) as Cotten; Grant would have to have gotten the girl, in the end, and for the movie to work that just cannot happen (this wasn’t a problem with an actor like Cotten in the role, because he almost never got the girl) and Jimmy Stewart’s usual awe-shucks persona might have come across as over the top in the understated environment that Reed constructs. I think Cotten could better project the sense of defeatism that was necessary for the role. He can stumble about, earnestly, for the better part of the picture, trying to right the wrongs and save the girl, but you sense that, deep down, he knows he’s always going to come out on the losing end.

If The Third Man dealt in typical heroes and villains, Lime, played by Welles, would be the black hat to Martins white. He’s up to no good, for sure, but Welles makes him so gregarious and appealing (and, like Uncle Charlie, more than a little sinister-seductive) that it’s hard not to root for him a little bit despite the atrocity of his crimes. Because he’s a big personality it’s right that he has so little screen time; he doesn’t need any more than he gets to remain memorable to the viewer.

Alida Valli’s performance as Anna impresses me more every time I watch the movie. She’s perfect as a sad woman who is entirely resigned to the circumstances of her existence. Her love for Harry is genuine but tempered by practicality. She knows there’s no future for the two of them, she doesn’t even want one, but, no matter how dark his secrets may be, she goes on caring for him all the same.

I am so grateful that, eleven years later, I was able to see this marvelous movie on the big screen again, when I could better appreciate its brilliance (and seeing it in the beautiful AFI Silver, truly a treasure for any cinephile, only made the experience more special).