Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Doctor Who reviews: Last Christmas

Happy New Year!   I see that this blog has a few new people following it.  Welcome, everyone.  Also, a big “thank you” to Cats at the Bar for promoting In My Not So Humble Opinion, along with a number of other excellent blogs, on The Weggie List.

I finally had an opportunity to watch the new Doctor Who Christmas special, “Last Christmas” written by Steven Moffat and starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, and Nick Frost as Santa Claus.  Yes, “Last Christmas” actually features Santa Claus… well, kind of sort of.  As a number of the characters in this episode comment, “It’s a long story.”

The tone of “Last Christmas” is interesting.  It seems to draw influence from several different eras of Doctor Who: the “base under siege” serials of the late 1960s, the Gothic horror of the mid-1970s, the surreal, philosophical quality of the early 1980s, and the seasonal, celebratory quality of Moffat’s own past Christmas specials.  Moffat’s writing on “Last Christmas” very effectively entwines these disparate elements, creating a strong, cohesive episode.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Radio Times promo photo

So, to try to make that “long story” short: Clara, now back on Earth in 2014, is awakened in the middle of the night on December 24th to discover that Santa Claus, his sleigh, reindeer, and two elves named Wolf and Ian have all crashed onto the roof of her building.  Then the TARDIS reappears, and the Doctor urges her to ask no questions, and to get into his ship ASAP.

The two of them re-materialize at the North Pole, where a scientific expedition is under attack from alien life forms.  Four of the eight members of the team have been infected by creatures that have latched onto their faces.  It seems that the Doctor, Clara, and the other half of the team are going to meet with the same fate when Santa Claus, the elves, and an army of wind-up toys burst into the room, giving them all a chance to escape to another part of the base.

The Doctor identifies the creatures as Dream Crabs.  They are telepathic parasites that latch onto a host and literally eat their victim’s brain.  In order to render their victims compliant, the Dream Crabs “anesthetize” their hosts with incredibly realistic dreams.

The Dream Crabs bear a more than passing resemblance to a certain iconic sci-fi / horror creature designed by H.R. Giger.  Moffat lampshades this with some very humorous dialogue…

Albert: They’re a bit like facehuggers aren’t they?

The Doctor: Facehuggers?

Albert: You know, Alien. The horror movie, Alien.

The Doctor: There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.

Clara is attacked by one of the Crabs, which creates a dream world where she is back at home, it is Christmas Morning, and her boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) is still alive.  It is exactly the sort of perfect, idyllic fantasy that she would never want to leave.  The Doctor is unable to reach Clara with his telepathy; she keeps ignoring the messages he sends her brain, so caught up is she in the construct.  The Doctor realizes his only hope is a desperate one: he allows himself to be infected by another one of the Crabs, which enables him to bring himself directly into Clara’s dream.

At first Clara refuses to listen to the Doctor.  She will not accept that Danny is dead, even though the Doctor insists that her boyfriend sacrificed himself to save the Earth.  And then, surprisingly, Dream Danny announces “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor, I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky.”

Obviously we all know that this isn’t the real Danny, that it is a fantasy.  If Danny is agreeing with the Doctor that he really is dead, it is actually that part of Clara’s psyche which recognizes that this is all a fantasy and that is attempting to make her realize that she must reject it and wake up.  But the dialogue between Clara and Dream Danny is so well written, and is played so well by Coleman and Anderson that it actually feels like Clara is having one final opportunity to see Danny, to find some closure.  It’s a moving scene.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Danny and Clara

(And I’m relieved that we were not treated to some sort of deus ex machina where Danny was brought back to life.  His death was tragic, but very dramatic.  Returning him to life to give Clara a happy ending would have been a real cheat.)

This also reveals just how much the Doctor, beneath his cynical façade, really does care about Clara.  He is willing to allow one of the Dream Crabs to infest his mind, risking his own death, in order to try to save Clara’s life.

Clara and the Doctor are able to escape from the dreamscape, and the Crabs fall off their faces, crumbling to dust.  But then the Doctor begins to wonder if any of that was real.  After all, everyone in the polar base should have been incapacitated by the Crabs when they attacked earlier; it was only Santa’s arrival that saved them.  And where did Santa, a fantasy figure, come from?  The Doctor guesses that they are all, in fact, trapped in a fantasy.  “Dreams within dreams – dream states nested inside each other. All perfectly possible, especially when we are dealing with creatures who have weaponized our dreams against us.”

This is all confirmed by Santa and his two elves.  “Oh, for Easter’s sake! Of course you’ve been dreaming! Haven’t you been paying attention?  …How much more obvious do you want me to make it? Because I can text the Easter Bunny, you know.”

Santa is actually a dream construct that they have all created in order to protect them, to point out the unreality of what is taking place.  Finally having convinced the others of what is going on, the Doctor, Clara and the four expedition members all wake up to find they are still being attacked by the Crabs.  Once again they flee to safety, locking the Crabs in another part of the base.

The Doctor, ever impatient, is ready to leave the North Pole, convinced that the other four members of the expedition who are still infected by the Crabs are beyond help.  But then Clara asks him, if Santa was nothing but a dream, then how was it possible for him to have been on her roof earlier.  And it suddenly hits the Doctor: everything that has happened since he was first reunited with Clara has been a dream.  It’s all been a fake.

Star Trek DS9 it's a fake

Yeah, that never gets old!

The expedition to the North Pole never took place.  The infected team members are actually the four people the Doctor and Clara met, all of them caught up in a shared fantasy created by the Crabs.  None of them are scientists, but total strangers who have been separately attacked by the Crabs, drawn into this false reality.  And the Doctor and Clara are themselves, respectively, back at the TARDIS and at home, each with a Crab latched to their faces.

Wow.  To quote a line from Family Guy, “This whole place is a giant mind fuck!”

One of the Crab’s victims, Albert, is killed.  The Doctor realized that if they do not all wake up immediately they are also doomed.  Surrounded by zombie doppelgangers of themselves, the Doctor announces “Come on, it’s Christmas, the North Pole, who you gonna call?”  Their combined willpower conjures up Santa Claus, who whisks them all away in his sleigh.  And, one by one, each of them finally awakens back in their own separate, real lives.

It was revealing to see the reserved, solemn Doctor having a chance to take the reins of Santa’s sleigh and fly it through the skies above London.  Capaldi acts very much like a giddy child.  It’s one of those rare moments when we see the Doctor let down his guard, allow the weight of the world to slip off his shoulders, and genuinely have fun.

For a character that is (probably) not real, Santa Claus is a real joy.  Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame is wonderful, having fun with the role.  It was definitely perfect casting.  Watching “Last Christmas,” I pondered how Frost’s frequent collaborator Simon Pegg sort of drew the short end up the stick when he appeared on Doctor Who a decade back in the underwhelming “The Long Game.”  I hope one of these days Pegg has an opportunity to return to the show in a better episode.

Doctor Who Last Christmas Santa sleigh

The ending of “Last Christmas” has a bit more misdirection.  At first it appears that it has actually been decades since the Doctor has last seen Clara, and that in the real world, awakened from the Dream Crabs’ fantasy, she is now an elderly woman.  But this turns out to be one more dream-within-a-dream, and in fact it has only been a few weeks since the Doctor and Clara parted ways at the end of “Death in Heaven.”

From everything I’ve heard, the original ending of “Last Christmas” was going to have the Doctor saying goodbye to the now-old Clara.  Jenna Coleman had tentative plans to leave the series with this episode, but then she changed her mind, necessitating a rewrite from Moffat that reunited the Doctor with a still-young Clara, who once again joins him on his travels in the TARDIS.

While the character of Clara was uneven over Series Eight, that was really down to inconsistent writing, one of the few weak points in an otherwise strong year.  Coleman seemed to do the best with the material she was given.  On the better-written episodes she definitely was great.  So I do not mind seeing her stay on for another season, just so long as the quality of the writing is more consistent going forward.  When they’ve been given really well-written scripts, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman have made a superb team.

“Last Christmas” was definitely one of the better Doctor Who Christmas specials.  It was exciting and suspenseful and had a number of great twists.  It was sentimental and festive without being overly saccharine.  Moffat’s script was very strong, and the actors all gave great performances.

So that’s the wrap-up of Doctor Who in 2014.  However, we are left with a few lingering questions… Was the Promised Land that both the clockwork creatures from “Deep Breath” and the robots from “Robot of Sherwood” were seeking an actual place?  Since Danny is dead, does that mean his descendent Orson Pink who we met in “Listen” is now no longer going to exist?  In “Mummy on the Orient Express” who was the mysterious mastermind controlling the computer Gus and manipulating events from behind the scenes?  Let me know if I’ve forgotten any other subplots.

Sovereign Seven: “12th Night”

Chris Claremont is most prominently known for his extensive association with the X-Men franchise of comic books published by Marvel.  However, the prolific writer has worked on numerous characters and titles throughout the decades.  This was especially true in the 1990s.  After his 17 year run on Uncanny X-Men unfortunately came to an end due to disagreements with editor Bob Harras, in the succeeding decade Claremont was involved in a variety of projects.  Among these was Sovereign Seven, a title published by DC Comics that ran for 36 issues between 1995 and 1998.

Sovereign Seven 9 cover

Sovereign Seven was a bit of an odd specimen.  It was apparently set within the DC universe, and featured guest appearances by numerous established characters.  But the main cast who were co-created by Claremont & artist Dwayne Turner were copyrighted to Claremont.  In a way Sovereign Seven was off in its own sub-continuity, although occasionally some of the characters would pop up in books written by other creators, such as Mister Miracle and Genesis.  And the wrap-up in the final issue basically had Claremont ambiguously saying “Maybe all of this really did happen, and maybe it was all just a made-up story.”

Considering how notoriously mutable DC’s continuity has been over the past few decades, I’m content enough to regard Claremont’s Sovereign Seven stories as having been real events that took place in some corner or another of the vast multiverse.  Well, as “real” as fiction can get.  As Alan Moore famously observed, “This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?”

I’ve been meaning to do some sort of write-up on Sovereign Seven for some time now.  Despite its occasional uneven quality, as well as an abundance of Claremont’s dialogue ticks and favorite tropes (mind control, physical transformation, BDSM), it was on the whole an interesting, entertaining series.  I’d definitely love to pen an exploration of the complex, adversarial relationship between Rhian Douglas aka Cascade and her mother Maitresse.  But in the meantime, since it’s the holiday season, here is a look at Sovereign Seven #9, “12th Night” by Claremont, Turner & inker Chris Ivy.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 2 & 3

One of the brilliant qualities of Claremont’s work on the X-Men titles was that he wrote characters from diverse cultures & societies, examining how they interacted with each another and strove to understand their differences while finding common ground.  He took that to the next level in Sovereign Seven, as his cast members each came from different worlds, different dimensions.

Thrust together in their flight from the mysterious, insidious threat of “The Rapture,” these seven rulers & aristocrats found refuge on Earth.  Their new home was the Crossroads Coffee Bar, an inn & restaurant located in rural New England run by the enigmatic sisters Violet and Pansy.  The seven exiles had to learn about one another, as well as their new home world.  They also had to adjust from being heads of state & monarchs to assisting the two sisters with the much more mundane tasks of the day-to-day running of the inn.

Another aspect of Claremont’s X-Men writing is that in between major story arcs he would take an issue or two to tell more personal tales, or show the team during “downtime.”  That is also a technique that Claremont utilized in Sovereign Seven.  “12th Night” has the team between crises, helping out at Crossroads in preparation for the holiday celebrations, and having fun engaging in a snowball fight.  Claremont also utilizes this issue to touch upon Reflex’s religion.  The world, the culture, he comes from had its own version of Christmas, and he takes this opportunity to observe his faith.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 16

The most intense, isolated member of the team was undoubtedly Finale.  As the series unfolded, we learned of her tragic backstory, of the deep price the conflict with The Rapture enacted from her.  Claremont therefore uses “12th Night” to place her in more lighthearted circumstances.  Originating from a tropical water world, Fatale has never seen snow before.  Upon witnessing snowfall at Crossroads, an alarmed Fatale declares “The sky is falling!”  Claremont also allows her to briefly let down her guard.  Touched by a gift given to her by a new acquaintance, she allows herself to indulge in a movement of dance.  As Claremont describes it, “It is truly a sight of wonder and rare beauty to behold.”

As the holiday festivities unfold, Cascade cannot help but compare this to her past, the highly regimented existence she was forced to lead at the behest of Maitresse.  “We did nothing like this at home.”  Rhian, who is so used to living at the whim of her mother’s demands, is struggling find her own unique identity.  Also ever-present in her mind is the worry that her mother will find a way to follow her trail, escaping her other-dimensional prison.  Indeed, we see Maitresse attempting to enact just such a plan.

After an ominous encounter in the woods with an entity calling itself Triage, a being who promises to bring great strife to the Sovereigns, Cascade returns to Crossroads.  There she is pleasantly surprised to find a holiday party thrown in her honor.  At long last, however briefly, Rhian allows herself to relax and enjoy herself in the company of friends.

Sovereign Seven 9 pg 22

“12th Night” is a lovely tale.  Claremont very effectively utilizes the holiday season as a vehicle for exploring his large ensemble.  His florid prose is well-suited to generating a seasonal mood, and to delving into the inner workings of his creations. The artwork by Turner & Ivy very much captures the festive, spiritual atmosphere of the Crossroads community.  In particular, their two page spread at the beginning of the issue is beautifully rendered.

Sovereign Seven was an enjoyable title.  Claremont told some interesting stories working with several very talented artistic collaborators.  He did excellent work developing a unique cast of characters.  It has been at least a couple of years since I’ve read the series in its entirety.  I’m looking forward to revisiting it in the near future and offering up some commentary on this blog.

Doctor Who reviews: The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith’s four year tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has come to an end with “The Time of the Doctor.”  Not only that, but Steven Moffat has pretty satisfactorily wrapped up the plotlines and answered the major questions set out during that period.  I think this year’s Christmas Special was, all in all, quite good.  Not nearly as impressive as the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special last month, but that was a hell of an act to follow up.

The Doctor, accompanied by Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrives on the spaceship headquarters of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, one of innumerable craft now orbiting a planet from which a mysterious signal is transmitting.  The Doctor and Clara travel down to the planet to investigate it on behalf of the Church.  It is a world of almost eternal night with just one small human settlement, a village named Christmas.  The Doctor discovers the source of the signal in the basement of a house: a mysterious crack in reality, exactly like the ones that he encountered many years before.  Using a scavenged Cyberman head he’s nicknamed “Handles,” the Doctor translates the message: “Doctor Who?”  Suddenly the Doctor realizes exactly where he is.  The planet is Trenzalore, where he is fated to die.

Time of the Doctor

And here all the answers come out.  It transpires that the source of the cracks in time is the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, which as we saw in “The Day of the Doctor” was saved at the end of the Time War, frozen in a single moment of time and sent off to another reality.  The reason why the question is being broadcast is because if the Doctor answers, the Time Lords will know that they have once again located their home dimension and return.  The Church of the Papal Mainframe and the various other alien races assembled over Trenzalore desperately want to prevent that.  No doubt this is due to the fact that, as seen in “The End of Time,” at the conclusion of the war, faced with defeat at the hands of the Daleks, Rassilon and the High Council of the Time Lords were planning to enact the Final Sanction, wiping out all reality and ascending to a higher plane of existence.

In earlier stories, I’d been really confused about the fact that the religious order known as the Silence had created River Song in order to assassinate the Doctor, but later on she was imprisoned by the Church for apparently succeeding in that task (as we saw in “The Wedding of River Song,” the Doctor faked his death).  In “The Time of the Doctor,” it’s revealed that the Silence were a breakaway faction of the Church of the Papal Mainframe.  The Silence was so fearful of the Doctor ever going to Trenzalore that they were the ones who blew up his TARDIS in “The Big Bang” in an attempt to kill him.  However, not only did that temporarily cause reality to be destroyed, but it also retroactively created the cracks in time in the first place.  And by creating River Song, the Silence inadvertently gave him a friend & ally who helped him stay alive through numerous crises.  As the Doctor explains, the Silence was caught up in a whopping big predestination paradox, causing the very problems they were attempting to prevent.  Yowsa, what a bunch of bunglers!

So now that the Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, the main chapter of the Church decides that the only way to fix the mess their rogue members created and prevent the Time Lords’ return is to destroy the Christmas settlement and the crack in reality.  Allied with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and numerous other alien powers, the Church launches an all-out offensive.  The Doctor decides that it is his responsibility to protect the people of Christmas, and so spends the next several centuries repelling the invading forces.  In the process, after all his long wanderings through time & space, the Doctor finally settles down and adopts a new home. We see him growing older and older, eventually becoming an elderly figure.

The Daleks, not unexpectedly, eventually turn on the Church, transforming nearly all the members aboard their ship into brainwashed Dalek / human hybrids like those seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” (as the First Doctor keenly observed in the novelization of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by John Peel, “The Daleks don’t take allies – only victims”).  The Doctor manages to get through to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church, and she is able to overcome her Dalek conditioning.  (Tasha is an interesting, enigmatic character, well played by Bradley, and I would certainly enjoy seeing her return in the future.)  This leads to the Doctor fighting side-by-side with the Church and the Silence against the Dalek onslaught.

Time of the Doctor Tasha Lem

We also find out that the Doctor really has reached the end of his life; he has used up his allotted twelve regenerations.  He may call himself the Eleventh Doctor, but between the existence of the War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s non-regeneration at the beginning of “Journey’s End,” he is actually in his thirteenth and final incarnation.  He fully expects to die on Trenzalore, that the planet will be his final resting place, as seen in the future in “The Name of the Doctor.”  He is only trying to stay alive to keep the town of Christmas safe for as long as he possibly can, before what he believes to be the inevitable happens.  He tells Clara, “Every life that I save is a victory.”

If there is one obvious weakness to “The Time of the Doctor,” it is that the Doctor’s centuries-long stay on Trenzalore requires Clara to bounce back and forth between there and Earth.  Otherwise she would have grown old & died long before the end of the episode.  So first the Doctor tricks her into going back to Earth, but by leaping onto the vanishing TARDIS she is returned to Trenzalore three hundred years later.  Then the Doctor pulls the same trick a second time, but on this occasion she is brought back a few centuries later by Tasha, who does not want the Doctor to die alone.  Clara, with all this coming and going (to quote a line from “The Claws of Axos”) comes across like “a galactic yo-yo.”

Nevertheless, Clara is vital to the final outcome.  Just as she was the one who encouraged the Doctor to find a non-destructive resolution to the Time War, so too does she appeal to the Time Lords’ better nature here, speaking to them through the crack in time, asking them to help him because of all the good he has done.  In response, the crack vanishes from the house and reappears in the sky just long enough to send out the energy needed to grant the Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations.  The Doctor focuses this energy and uses it to obliterate the Daleks, and then returns to the TARDIS, waiting for the change to complete.

Yeah, perhaps it is a bit sappy, Clara’s appeal for the Time Lords’ sympathy.  But is has been shown over and over that one of the things that makes the Doctor a better person, that helps to prevent him from becoming some kind of lonely, angry god, is humanity.  So it makes sense that where the Doctor failed in his efforts to convince his own people to be a better species, it is a decent, kind human such as Clara who succeeds in guiding them towards the correct decision.

Clara is, I think, one of those characters who, if not played by the right actress, might come across as unbearably witty and sweet and clever.  Indeed, that was my first impression of her a year ago.  Fortunately Coleman quickly slipped into the role, making her an appealing, likable, fun character.  She certainly does good work in this episode.

I really appreciated that the Eleventh Doctor accepted his impending regeneration much better than his previous incarnation.  The Tenth Doctor’s final words were “I don’t want to go,” which I never liked.  In contrast, we have a lovely final scene for the Eleventh Doctor written by Moffat that Smith plays extremely well.  The Eleventh Doctor, while he is sad that he will soon be a very different person, acknowledges:

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

And then… exit Matt Smith, enter Peter Capaldi!  The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, quite confused and, after complaining that he doesn’t like the color of his new kidneys, looks at Clara and asks “One question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”  My girlfriend laughed, declaring that was a very Doctor-ish question.

Time of the Doctor Twelfth Doctor

So, yes, the pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” was rather uneven, what with the episode taking place over a period of several hundred years.  In spots it did feel drawn out.  And, as I said, the whole back and forth between Earth and Trenzalore with Clara might have been handled in a somewhat smoother manner.

Also, the ending was perhaps something of a deus ex machina, with the Doctor receiving twelve new regenerations and conveniently using the energy from the process to wipe out the Daleks.  However, it has been stated more than once in the past that the Time Lords have the ability to artificially create a new regeneration cycle.  They dangled that promise in front of the Master in “The Five Doctors,” and subsequently did exactly that when they resurrected him to fight in the Time War.  And the victory over the Daleks seen here did seem more believable & natural than the one back in “The Parting of Ways,” with Rose using the heart of the TARDIS to destroy them.

(Truthfully, though, if you look at the history of Doctor Who, going all the way back to the 1960s, in many of their appearances the Daleks have been written as invincible enemies right up until the final episode of each story, at which point some convenient plot device is used to defeat them.)

Anyway, while not a perfect episode, “The Time of the Doctor” was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable farewell for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.  And it left me anticipating Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays the role, and how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will evolve.

Christmas with the Devil

Christmas is not exactly my favorite time of year.  First of all, like Ben Grimm and Kitty Pryde, I happen to be Jewish.  Second, I look at how ridiculously commercialized the holiday has become, and I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would think in regards to the conspicuous consumerism being conducted in his name.  Third, it is one of those times of year when people feel obligated to be happy & joyous, because that is the image popular culture projects, and so they believe that there is something lacking in or wrong with their lives because they are plagued by myriad problems.

And then I was reminded of Daredevil #266, published by Marvel Comics back in 1989.  It’s definitely one of my all time favorite issues of that series.  Yesterday Ann Nocenti had posted about it on her Facebook page, revealing of this story:

“Reality was the inspiration.  I’d screwed up my life so bad I had nowhere to go on X-Mas, so stopped in a pub and had a memorable day with strangers.”

Daredevil 266 cover signed

“A Beer with the Devil” was written by Nocenti, co-plotted & penciled by John Romita Jr, and inked by Al Williamson.  It’s Christmas Eve, and Daredevil is in bad shape.  For the hero of Hell’s Kitchen, it’s the end of what’s been a horrific year.  After the devastating events of the classic “Born Again” storyline, Matt Murdock had been attempting to rebuild his shattered life.  His efforts were thwarted by Typhoid Mary, the femme fatale assassin in the employ of the Kingpin.  Typhoid orchestrated a campaign to attack Daredevil mentally, physically, and emotionally.  Barely surviving this brutal gauntlet, Daredevil then experienced the horrors of “Inferno” as the demons of Limbo assaulted Manhattan.  Now the shell-shocked, scarred vigilante sits in a bar, nursing a beer.  He is surrounded by other social outcasts who also have nowhere else to go on the holidays.

In the midst of this, a beautiful but enigmatic woman approaches Daredevil.  She starts to talk to him, telling a tale about betraying her husband.  The red-haired woman begins posing hypothetical questions, such as which is worse, stealing one dollar or one million, and then asking Daredevil if he believes he has made a difference as a hero.  Stating that “it’s too late for the world, the apple’s rotten, there’s no going back,” the strange woman seduces Daredevil, kissing him passionately.

Daredevil 266 pg 11

And while all this is going on, two brothers, Hector and Hugo, are drunkenly arguing.  Their squabble ends horribly, as Hector takes a broken bottle and stabs his brother in the stomach, killing him.  Daredevil realizes there is something wrong and violently punches the mystery woman away, and turns around to find a murder has taken place right under his nose, one he could easily have prevented if he had not been enthralled.

Daredevil turns back to the woman, whose shape shifts & changes, revealing her true form: the demon lord Mephisto.  The ruler of the underworld seizes the crimefighter, taunting and mocking him, throwing back in his face his actions as both Daredevil and Matt Murdock.  Mephisto appears to grow to immense size, and the bar is consumed by flames before the building comes crumbling down.  Claiming that Daredevil is powerless against evil, the devil finally vanishes, leaving Daredevil to plummet down to the street.

When Daredevil finally comes to in the snow, everything is back to normal, with no sign of any carnage or destruction.  Two concerned strangers from the bar help DD to his feet.  They ask if he wants to come with them to the soup kitchen for Christmas dinner, and he accepts.

Daredevil 266 pg 24

I can certainly relate to “A Beer with the Devil.”  There have been holidays past where I’ve found myself perched on a bar stool, drink in hand, ruminating on my solitude and unhappiness, wondering where my life went wrong, attempting to find solace among strangers.  As I said before, I think a lot of people feel that way around this time of year.

Nocenti’s writing on this issue is amazing.  She introduces the odd, colorful bar customers, effectively fleshing them out within just a few panels, given glimpses of entire lives lived outside the pages of this story.  They feel very authentic, just like the types of people you’d see if you walked into some hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment in Manhattan.  I’ve met quite a few characters like these during my bar-crawling days.

Mephisto is an interesting character to utilize.  As a Satanic figure, he is the exact opposite of the Messiah, the being whose birth Christmas is supposed to celebrate.  The lord of the damned would want to slander and blaspheme this most holy of occasions, to subvert the message of peace and hope.  Targeting Daredevil, tempting him, making him feel ineffectual, corrupting a noble soul who has already been through so much pain & suffering in order to finally tip him over the edge, is a very Biblical action.

And then, at the very end, Nocenti offers up a moment of hope.  A small gesture of human kindness, strangers extending a helping hand… that is the true spirit of the holiday.  It is a message all too often lost in the rush to buy the most presents or put up the most decorations.  Reflecting on that final page, I thought about my own present circumstances.  I have a lot of personal problems, along with many accompanying fears.  I have no idea what 2014 is going to bring for me.  But at least I know that this holiday season I’m not going to be alone.  I have my girlfriend.  Yeah, things are certainly not perfect between the two of us.  But when is any relationship ever without problems?  At least we have each other, which is much better than sitting on that lonely bar stool.

Daredevil 266 pg 30

The artwork on Daredevil #266 is wonderful.  John Romita Jr is one of those artists who always turn in very solid, professional work.  He isn’t especially flashy, but he gets the job done, effectively tells a story and establishes a real sense of atmosphere.  I think he is a rather underrated penciler.  “A Beer with the Devil” is one of the best efforts of his career, as he draws the mundane and the metaphysical side-by-side.  Romita’s redesign of Mephisto is amazingly horrific.

I’m a huge fan of Al Williamson, who was himself an amazing penciler.  Williamson specialized in sci-fi and space opera, memorably illustrating Weird Science, Flash Gordon, and Star Wars.  I wonder how he felt about inking Romita’s pencils for these grim, philosophical tales of gritty urban crime and, later on, the surreal journey that Nocenti took DD on when she sent him into Hell itself for a confrontation with Mephisto and his son Blackheart (see Daredevil #s 270 and 278-282 for that mind-blowing odyssey).  Whatever the case, Williamson was a great fit for Romita’s pencils, and the two of them were the perfect art team for Nocenti’s thought-provoking writing on the series.

At first glance, Daredevil #266 probably seems a very bizarre story to look at to celebrate the holiday season.  But actually it is a very appropriate, genuine piece of writing.  Rather than putting on a façade of joy and frivolity, “A Beer with the Devil” acknowledges that, yes, the world is deeply messed up, there is more than enough evil & hypocrisy to go around, and life just isn’t fair.  But, as the ending demonstrates, by offering a little bit of kindness and selflessness towards others, perhaps you can help make things just a tiny bit better, one day at a time.  And that might just be a sentiment Jesus would agree with.

Doctor Who reviews: The Snowmen

It’s about time I did a write-up of the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special “The Snowmen.”  Well, it snowed here in NYC last night, so that’s as good a reason as any.

Written by Steven Moffat, “The Snowmen” follows on from the events of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” which witnessed Amy & Rory being lost in time, with the Doctor fated to never see them again.  At the end of that story, River Song urged the Doctor not to travel alone, to find new friends to share his adventures with.  Well, in “The Snowmen” we find that the Doctor has ignored his wife’s advice, much to his detriment.  Alone, bitter over the loss of Amy, the Doctor has retired to London in the year 1892.  Consumed by melancholy, angry at the universe for continually taking away everything that matters from him, the Doctor refuses to become involved in events once again.

Clara, a barmaid who moonlights as a governess, discovers that something mysterious is going on, that the snow in London is beginning to behave in strange ways.  Encountering the Doctor, she is immediately intrigued by him.  She attempts to convince him to investigate the snow, but he will have nothing to do with it.  As Clara later tries to contact the Doctor again, she attracts the attention of the Silurian samurai detective Madame Vastra and her human companion Jenny Flint.  The pair has also been futilely working to shake the Doctor out of his brooding, and they come to realize that the intelligent, fiery Clara is just the person to finally drive some sense into the Time Lord.

It turns out the snow is being animated by a mysterious disembodied alien mentality.  This force first made contact with a lonely, emotionally isolated child half a century before.  The now adult Dr. Simeon is in collusion with the alien entity to wipe out humanity and replace it with a species of beings that are a hybrid of ice creatures and human DNA.  Finally roused from his lethargy by Clara, the Doctor sets out to thwart Simeon and his unearthly ally.

“The Snowmen” was, on the whole, a good episode.  It was certainly an improvement over the previous two Christmas stories, both of which were too saccharine.  The ending of “The Snowmen” did veer into this territory, with a rather sappy resolution hinging on the power of human emotion.  Admittedly Moffat did set this up early on when the Doctor explained to Clara that human mental energies are able to affect the properties of the snow.  But it did still feel rather like a deus ex machina.

I felt that the strongest aspect of “The Snowmen” was the return of Vastra and Jenny, previously seen in “A Good Man Goes To War.”  The pair must have become instant fan favorites with that episode.  I was certainly happy to see them back.  The previously implied romantic relationship between the two is now elaborated upon as their having married.  I appreciate that Moffat did a fair job showing them as a loving couple, rather than tossing in perhaps the more obvious gay jokes (such as those which seem to follow around Captain Jack Harkness when he pops up).  After all, when you have the union of a human being and a prehistoric reptile woman, the fact that both are of the same gender is probably the least unusual aspect of their relationship.

The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny
The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny

Returning with Vastra and Jenny is the exiled Sontaran warrior Strax, now working as the couple’s manservant.  When we last saw Strax, he was dead.  But sci-fi is no barrier to overcoming the afterlife, and in a throw-away line of dialogue the Doctor explains Strax has been resurrected.  Unfortunately for our Sontaran, he lost a number of brain cells in the process, and is now quite dim.  Moffat uses the character for comic relief here.  I think he was a joke that rather soon wore out his welcome, at least for me.

That said, it bears repeating that Vastra and Jenny are awesome, and I really look forward to seeing Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart reprise their roles again.  Others have already suggested giving them their own spin-off.  I do not know if they are ready to get an ongoing series, but definitely give them a miniseries or one-off special, at the very least.

(We are told by Simeon that many in Victorian London suspect Vastra and Jenny have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I would like to see an encounter between the author and the Sapphic detectives.  If anything, it would officially bring Conan Doyle into the Doctor Who television universe, as the novel Evolution by John Peel showed him meeting the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith.)

I was also impressed with Matt Smith’s performance in “The Snowmen.”  We have become so familiar with the character of the Doctor over the decades that it can be easy to forget that he is an alien being with certain negative qualities, and has the capacity to be quite unlikable.  The aloof, disinterested figure we see in “The Snowmen” really brings to mind William Hartnell’s initial characterization of the Doctor when we first met him back in the first season of Doctor Who.  Smith ably channels this darker aspect of the Doctor’s side.  It really ties in well with some of the other things done with the Eleventh Doctor, such as in “A Town Called Mercy,” where Amy pointed out how detrimental it is for him to travel alone for too long.

Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her debut as the Doctor’s new traveling companion Clara… sort of.  Viewers, but not the Doctor, saw that Clara is seemingly the same person as Oswin Oswald, the woman whose voice he heard throughout “Asylum of the Daleks,” and who sacrificed herself in the far future to defeat the Doctor’s arch-enemies.  Spoiler alert: Clara dies again, this time in 1892.  The Doctor, seeing her full name on her tombstone, realizes the two were one and the same.  It seems Clara somehow exists in multiple points throughout time & space, and the Doctor resolves to find her again.  Once again, as with “Asylum,” there is obviously so much more to Clara than she appears to be, and it looks like this is going to be a thread running through the remainder of the season in 2013.

Along with the rather convenient resolution that I mentioned above, I felt the weakest aspect of “The Snowmen” was Dr. Simeon.  The casting Richard E. Grant, a really fantastic actor, was a missed opportunity.  He does little more than stand around looking morose and ominous as Simeon.  There were the occasional hints that there was more to the character than just that, but Grant was unfortunately never given the opportunity to develop any of them.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  Throughout “The Snowmen” we see that Simeon is in charge of some sort of institute with the initials G.I.  It’s never explained what that stands for until the very end, when the Doctor looks at one of Simeon’s business cards.  G.I. = Great Intelligence.  I think I must have blurted out a “Holy shit” when that came on the screen.  The Great Intelligence was the villain from a pair of Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials aired in the late 1960s, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear.”  Suddenly it all made sense: the alien consciousness controlling events, the obsession with snowman-related servants, the wildly impractical plan to invade Earth.  Yes, all the earmarks of the Second Doctor’s old foe from those two stories.  I really should have seen it coming!

Anyway, while it was not an unqualified success by any means (I think Moffat was attempting to juggle too many balls at once) “The Snowman” was still quite good.  It effectively sets up some intriguing subplots for the next several episodes, gives us a look at a different side of the Doctor, and reintroduces Madame Vastra & Jenny.  On that last note, the pair is apparently going to be back in at least one more episode in 2013, if not more.  Looking forward to it.

Holiday daze

So, another year comes to an end.  I would be lying if I didn’t say I would be happy to see 2012 pass by.  The past twelve months have had so many personal highs and lows, a total rollercoaster.  I’m looking forward to 2013.  Hopefully it’ll be a better year, and I’ll be a better person, as well.

In any case, the last week has been pretty good.  Michele and I invited her parents over for dinner on Christmas Eve.  Michele is one hell of a cook.  This year she made a turkey, stuffing, homemade mashed potatoes, and several vegetables.  It was a really good meal.  The cats went totally crazy, of course!  Squeaky and Nettie love their turkey.  Squeaky even ended up jumping on the kitchen counter in an attempt to get at the turkey before Michele had even had the opportunity to cook it yet!  Anyway, there were plenty of leftovers, so the cats had a chance to gobble down plenty of turkey.  We also gave a few pieces to the turtle.  Yes, Meeshee Gamera refuses to eat vegetables, but she loves poultry.  We gave some food to Michele’s parents to take home.  From what Michele tells me, when they got home, Little Ginger the kitten went nuts when they fed her some turkey.

Michele's delicious turkey
Michele’s delicious turkey

Finally, a few days later, there was only a little bit left.  After I threw out the carcass, I made the mistake of leaving the remaining turkey on a plate by the stove, planning to give it to the turtle the next day.  Well, when I woke up the next morning, it was all gone, except for the wish bone.  Michele and I were looking at each other, puzzled.  “Did you eat it?”  “No, I didn’t, did you eat it?”  Finally it dawned on us that in the middle of the night one of the cats must have jumped up and taken it!

Between the cold weather and the turkey rendering us semi-comatose, we ended up watching a lot of television.  When Michele’s parents came over for dinner, I turned on Animal Planet for the Too Cute marathon.  That show features oodles and oodles of kittens and puppies.  I think I overdosed on adorable.  Then Michele put the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland aka March of the Wooden Soldiers on the DVD player.

Christmas morning was pretty much dominated by our yearly tradition of watching the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story on TBS.  Somehow, we never end up viewing the movie from beginning to end.  Instead, we catch 15 minutes here, a half hour there, and by the end of the day, when you add up all the bits & pieces, we’ve seen the entire movie at least once.  That really is a hysterical film.  As with so many other great cult classics, it apparently did poorly in the theaters, only to find new life on home video and television.

Other viewing material that day was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of Santa Claus, a truly bizarre 1959 Mexican movie which features the war between St. Nick and the Devil.  Yes, really!  It is a strange, strange film.  To quote Mike & the Bots, “This is good old fashioned nightmare fuel!”  Then it was time for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special.  It was pretty good, albeit uneven.  I may review “The Snowmen” on this blog in the near future.

Another show on Animal Planet that I’ve gotten into recently is Pit Bulls & Parolees.  I really like that one.  I think pit bulls are misunderstood.  If you treat them kindly and train them properly, they really can end up being very sweet, loyal dogs.  Another reason I like the show is that it gives people who have been to prison a second chance.  Maybe I’m too sappy, but I honestly believe that there are some people who have made mistakes, but who now genuinely want to turn their lives around.  I honestly feel that they should be given that opportunity.

I think the cats have been happy to have us home, since they’ve been leaping onto the couch to watch TV with us.  Nettie has been sleeping in my lap.  At one point Michele was relaxing on the couch under the blanket, and, as can be seen below, Squeaky curled up on top of her head.  I think she was actually very comfortable there.

Michele and Squeaky
Michele and Squeaky

In the last few days, Michele has gotten a nostalgic craving for that late 1970s series The Gong Show, hosted by Chuck Barris.  She’s been watching all of these clips of it on YouTube.  I’ve never actually seen the original version of The Gong Show before.  I saw a few episodes of the 1980s revival, which never impressed me, so I couldn’t understand what the big deal was.  But Michele pretty much forced me to watch those clips of the original incarnation and, yeah, it is a million times better.  I have to agree with her, the people involved in making the show must have been on some serious drugs!  Of course, while we were browsing through all these old television clips, we happened to learn that a serial killer was once a contestant on The Dating Game.  Oh, wow, truth really is stranger than fiction.  I’m surprised that this never inspired an episode of Criminal Minds.

So now it’s New Years Eve.  I have no plans yet.  Since I quit drinking, it just feels really weird hanging out at bars or parties with people who are getting smashed.  A couple of nights ago, we were at The Cobra Club in Bushwick again, hanging out with some of Michele’s friends.  It was fun, yeah, but after a couple of hours I just started to get edgy, being around all that booze.  And, y’know, if you aren’t drinking, bars are kinda boring.  I don’t know, maybe I just overthink these things.  Anyway, I’m not sure what I’m going to end up doing tonight.  Perhaps I’ll hang out with Michele for a little while and then call it an early night, catch the Twilight Zone marathon or something.  We shall see.

In any case, I hope everyone has a wonderful 2013.  See you next year.