Monday, January 26, 2015

That Inevitable Response to Watching Doctor Who

I watched the 2014 Doctor Who series, and I feel sorry for Peter Capaldi who appears to be getting typecast as an asshole in everything that the BBC produced in 2014. (He plays the same character type in Doctor Who as he does in The Muskateers.)

At best, the most recent Moffat season is a fedora wish-fulfillment story. At its worst, it's an abusive break-up and then wish-fulfillment reconciliation of a writer and his fandom. It begins with the writers yelling that we, the viewer, asked for this—and ends with them stating we're all lying to each other about how we've moved on and are doing fine, thanks.

But that's not why I don't like it. The utter hot mess of subtext from that series of Doctor Who is fascinating in a horrifying way. BUT I watched Doctor Who because of its joy; I was in it for the sense of wonder and kindness that it reminded us to seek out. I don't see that in Capaldi's Doctor. When he's acting joyful or kind, I don't believe he doesn't have an ulterior motive.

A character doesn't have to be nice; nice characters tend to be too busy being nice to be interesting. I will watch things if the characters are interesting, but I don't have a high tolerance for characters who are cruel. Doctor Who has become an increasingly cruel and manipulative show. Perhaps it was always like that and my critical viewing tools have become sharp enough to detect it sooner.

But this increasing delight in being mean to the viewer happened with Sherlock. It's been a common story denominator in both shows. Much like the way Sherlock treats John all through Sherlock Series 3, Capaldi's first series as the Doctor features a person who supposedly cares about someone lying about her or his motives—and not to "protect" the other person, but because s/he's only thinking about her or his feelings. It's textual. There's no attempt to hide it. 

Worse, Doctor Who tells us that it's not good but continues to do it anyway. When Clara gets called out for lying, Doctor Capaldi does this vomit-in-your-mouth speech about how he thinks too highly of her to let that break up their friendship... after he has gaslit her. The forgiveness despite the extremely questionable behaviour is the same thing we watched John do for Sherlock, and that's... not ideal. Friendships shouldn't cost things of those involved.

While they're not as graphically violent as Hannibal, Sherlock and Doctor Who suffer from the same problem: The wish-fulfillment of gradually convincing another person that they are exactly like you and therefore you "deserve" each other. (While the Doctor is not always actively trying to convince Clara of that, the subtextual similarities exist; it's the expectation that being the person who will be there no matter how terribly they're treated should be considered romantic or what makes someone good.)

This kind of story also leans heavily on the Dracula model of being seduced by what is not recognized as conventional or acceptable in society; the appeal of something that's been labelled "forbidden." It's the dark side of the superhero narrative that tells that we are special—exempt from consequences of conventional society. Hannibal is "cool" because he's too smart to get caught. Sherlock can be as mean as he likes, because he's the only one who can solve the crime. The Doctor defies labels of "good" and "bad," so he can adventure on without repercussions.

And if I believed Doctor Who—or Hannibal or Sherlock for that matter—was being written to have an interesting discussion of what happens when we refuse to engage as members of society then I'd watch more. But there are never new consequences to being the Doctor. They are always the same consequences, and he never learns from them. And the writing always forgives him for refusing to learn so long as he shows up and saves the Earth in the finale. 

Possibly worse, each of these shows are well-produced. They often feature stunning cinematography, great costuming and set design, and well-utilized musical scores. It's one thing to have a beautiful-for-the-sake-of-being-beautiful story; it's another to glamourize something that isn't healthy and shrug it off as being "entertaining" or "just for fun."

Indulging a character in a bad system or encouraging them to remain in it? I do not find these things fun or entertaining. These are the things that tend to make me bare my teeth and require a deep breath before I remind myself that you are welcome to like what you like but do not expect me to also enjoy it.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Favourite Albums of 2014

2014 was a year of many things, but one of them was a return to actively listening to and engaging with music. Music was an easier way to get input when I had less time to read. Here are my ten favourite audio stories of 2014.

1. HAERTS – Haerts

Haerts is almost everything I love about Bastille: Enormous sounds and complex arrangements, soaring vocals with choral harmonies. But Haerts' self-titled debut is slightly more top-level accessible; it flows one song into another from the first listen. It's constructed to be a repeat listen without sounding repetitive.

They sound a bit like Stevie Nicks, which gives the songs this timeless feeling without taking away from them being part of contemporary sound happening in indiepop. I hope they go big in 2015.

2. Wolf Gang – Alveron

Wolf Gang's Alveron has one of the strongest album narrative arcs I heard in 2014. It's an emotional journey to listen to this album, as it tells a story of what it's like to lose someone and process that grief and go back out into the world. A few tracks appeared on the Black River EP earlier (including Last Bayou, one of my favourite songs of the year,) but it was merely a taste of what was to come. From Now I Can Feel It to the title track, Alveron doesn't just shimmer—it glows.

3. Bastille’s VS (Other People's Heartache, Pt. III)

Technically it's an EP. The theme of this newest Bastille mixtape is VS. Each of the songs is about conflict. But they're also collaborations, which harkens to the rap and hip-hop cultural aspects of artists challenging each other to be better, and thus making the music as a whole better through these conflicts.

I've heard that people didn't like VS because they didn't think it sounded like Bastille, which I find confusing. It's a similar structure to the push-pull of the Bad Blood album—it's more evident with VS, as the EP brings the subtext comments up to the text level of the lyrics.

How do I know that I'm not projecting construction when there isn't any? The Driver. I have never heard anyone articulate the subtext of the film Drive better than this song does.

4. Little Daylight – Hello Memory

Little Daylight's debut was one of my most anticipated albums of 2014, as Tunnel Vision was about as perfect as an EP gets. Hello Memory doesn't disappoint—it shimmers and brims with youthful energy and joy. Aggressive synths, serious bass, and balanced lyrics; this is pop at its best.

5. Taylor Swift – 1989

Taylor Swift is the only country artist that I've followed with any kind of consistency in the past few years. (I'm dearly fond of her. She's a marketing genius.) 1989 has great arrangements and is constructed to be infectious. The stories are more mainstream pop, but there's a subtext to 1989 that goes full text in Shake It Off and I Know Places. But it was Blank Space that made me fall in love with the album. The only song I'm not super-keen on is Clean. It's a well-constructed song; it's just the weakest one on the album.

6. MØ – No Mythologies to Follow

MØ is moody Danish murder pop: A bit of synth and a bit of hiphop. All of the tracks are great and the album has a solid tonal consistency. It's dark. Noir. I love the night versions on the deluxe album that are stripped down acoustics. Don't Wanna Dance is probably my favourite track.

7. Noosa — Wonderland LP

Again, not a full album but nine great songs. Noosa has a haunting voice and a great vocal range. Her songs have that same fairy tale element of Hearts and Little Daylight. I kind of love Wildfire and Clocktower. She has that whimsy of Lenka, but is more electronic-sounding.

8. Lights – Little Machines

Lights creates ethereal pop and Little Machines is full of loopable tracks but Up We Go, Meteorites, and How We Do It will get you going. I'm not in love with the opening track—it goes on a little bit longer than I feel like it needs to—but Portal acts like a prologue to the rest of the album. From Running With The Boys onward, Little Machines is cohesive and addictive with the majority of the songs being joyful and optimistic.

10. Foxes – Glorious

Foxes is like the arrangements of Haerts crossed with Noosa. The songs are big and atmospheric with electronic leanings, but the vocals are more soulful melancholy (with an occasional twange.) The album is less even than Hearts, as there are tracks on Glorious that I don't care for but I'd argue the hits outweigh the misses. (I'm a tad miffed Warrior and Youth weren't included on the album, as they're stronger than a few of the songs that were.)

10. Robots Don’t Sleep – Mirror

What I enjoy the most about Robots Don't Sleep is that it's a layered sound with a wide-appeal. This is one of the few albums that I've played as a whole to friends. The clappy, loopable Trouble introduces the well-constructed album. (You might recognize the second track, Don't Wake Me, from season three of Teen Wolf.)