Doctor Who and The Rings of Akhaten: Imagine There’s No Religion

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten poster

Is the Doc­tor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most mis­un­der­stood? Almost two years ago, the Doc­tor urged his com­pan­ions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi rea­sons that chang­ing his­tory doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doc­tor defeated the devil before, in “The Impos­si­ble Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no com­punc­tions in also killing god.

I’ve now lis­tened to three fan pod­casts debat­ing the mer­its of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly sur­prised to dis­cover the episode has been met by Doc­tor Who fan­dom with ambiva­lence at best, and out­right deri­sion from the rest. I would cer­tainly not try to defend it as an instant clas­sic, but it cer­tainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal fail­ures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s wor­thy of praise for dar­ing to say some­thing poten­tially very con­tro­ver­sial. Per­haps it doesn’t say it very well (as evi­denced by the fact that none of the par­tic­i­pants in those three pod­casts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion rou­tine (not that there’s any­thing wrong with that rou­tine — as a life­long fan I love that routine!).

Out of all the var­i­ous opin­ions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Ver­ity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the lat­ter, who was pleased the show still has the poten­tial to be sur­pris­ing. But every­one, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major take­away from the episode: the Doc­tor essen­tially res­cued a civ­i­liza­tion from a par­a­site they wor­shipped as a god. He freed a soci­ety from their self-defeating reli­gion, and they thanked him for it.

Con­tinue read­ing

Douglas Adams: What a Wonderful World

Despite being the osten­si­ble pro­tag­o­nist of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent is remark­ably out of con­trol of his des­tiny. Through­out, he sur­vives var­i­ous calami­ties equipped only with only a Babel fish, towel, and implau­si­ble hap­pen­stance. But most of its cast of char­ac­ters are equally adrift in a sense­less uni­verse: Zaphod Bee­ble­brox is the ulti­mate irre­spon­si­ble slacker, just hang­ing out as the uni­verse unfairly hap­pens to pro­duce every­thing he needs. Ford Pre­fect just barely clings on to a dead-end travel writ­ing gig in the back­wa­ters of the galaxy. Mr. Prosser and Prostet­nic Vogon Jeltz are mere salary­men dis­pas­sion­ately dis­patch­ing their duties, too jaded even to evilly enjoy their cat­a­clysmic impact upon oth­ers (the sym­bolic mir­ror­ing between these char­ac­ters was laid bare in the orig­i­nal radio series, where they were both por­trayed by the same actor — curi­ously not the case in the TV show, when it ought to have been triv­ial to do like­wise, con­sid­er­ing how much alien makeup was involved).

If the many mis­for­tunes that befall Arthur seem mean­ing­less, and his escapes equally arbi­trary, maybe it’s because Adams was one of the world’s most famous athe­ists. He was friend and match­maker to out­spo­ken debunker of super­nat­u­ral­ism Richard Dawkins — indeed, he intro­duced to him to his future wife Lalla Ward (who played Romana dur­ing Adams’ tenure on Doc­tor Who, and is still revered today as “the lord high queen of the nerds” by Top­less Robot). It would be extremely con­ve­nient to draw con­nec­tions between Dawkins and the Hitchhiker’s char­ac­ter Oolon Colluphid, were the chronol­ogy not so incon­ve­nient: the series was writ­ten long before Adams dis­cov­ered Dawkins’ book The Self­ish Gene, and before they became friends after Dawkins wrote Adams an admit­ted “fan let­ter.” Colluphid, of course, wrote the highly influ­en­tial and con­tro­ver­sial tril­ogy Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Great­est Mis­takes and Who is this God Per­son Any­way?, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God — an oeu­vre only slightly less pointed than Dawkins’ own.

Lalla Ward and Richard DawkinsDou­glas Adams the match­maker: Doc­tor Who star Lalla Ward and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Richard Dawkins

Absorb­ing Hitch­hik­ers’ in prose, on stage, TV, or radio has long been the first baby step for many cur­rent and future athe­ists. The first few moments of all ver­sions of the story fea­ture numer­ous gags about God, the most well-known of which involves the infa­mous Babel Fish. When I first read the novel as a kid, I was of course pleas­antly grossed out by the notion of stick­ing a fish in your ear. Whether or not a child reader grasps the overt allu­sion to the bib­li­cal Tower of Babel, most would be versed enough in sci­ence fic­tion to rec­og­nize that Adams was mock­ing the accepted con­ven­tion that Eng­lish is spo­ken through­out the uni­verse. Star Trek and Doc­tor Who both made off­hand com­ments to explain the lan­guage bar­rier issue in pseudo-scientific man­ners, which is per­haps the health­i­est nar­ra­tive approach — why get bogged down in tech­ni­cal­i­ties, which only get in the way of telling a good story? But Adams decided to con­front the con­ceit head-on, and not only sub­vert it but also take it to a star­tling philo­soph­i­cal con­clu­sion. In lit­er­ary the­ory, this would be a case­book exam­ple of decon­struc­tion. Here’s the rel­e­vant excerpt from the orig­i­nal radio show:

The Babel Fish is small, yel­low, leech like, and prob­a­bly the odd­est thing in the Uni­verse. It feeds on brain­wave energy, absorb­ing all uncon­scious fre­quen­cies and then excret­ing tele­path­i­cally a matrix formed from the con­scious fre­quen­cies and nerve sig­nals picked up from the speech cen­ters of the brain; the prac­ti­cal upshot of which is that if you stick on in your ear you can instantly under­stand any­thing said to you in any form of lan­guage — the speech you hear decodes the brain­wave matrix. Now it is such a bizarrely improb­a­ble coin­ci­dence that any­thing so mind­bog­glingly use­ful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have cho­sen to see it as a final clinch­ing proof of the non-existence of God.

The argu­ment goes some­thing like this:

I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and with­out faith I am noth­ing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead give­away isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so there­fore, by your own argu­ments, you don’t. QED” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly van­ishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy” says Man, and for an encore he proves that black is white and gets killed on the next zebra crossing.

Most lead­ing the­olo­gians claim that this argu­ment is a load of dingo’s kid­neys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Coluphid mak­ing a small for­tune when he used it as the cen­tral theme of his best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.

Mean­while, the poor Babel Fish, be effec­tively remov­ing all bar­ri­ers to com­mu­ni­ca­tion between dif­fer­ent cul­tures and races, has caused more and blood­ier wars than any­thing else in the his­tory of creation.

– The Orig­i­nal Hitch­hiker Radio Scripts, Dou­glas Adams, p29-30

The Babel Fish from the BBC Series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe Guide entry on The Babel Fish

The above excerpt is from The Guide itself, the book within the book (another gift to lit­er­ary the­o­rists). The Guide is full of use­less infor­ma­tion, when not out­right incor­rect, but one won­ders if Adams was wist­fully imag­in­ing a more advanced alien soci­ety pos­sessed of greater sec­u­lar wis­dom than our own — one in which even lowly travel guides take it as a given that there is no Fly­ing Spaghetti Mon­ster, Invis­i­ble Sky Daddy, or Ceil­ing Cat watch­ing over us. What is espe­cially remark­able is how eco­nom­i­cal the above excerpt is. It’s ele­gant, con­cise, and above all, funny. In only a few lines, Adams co-opts two com­mon the­is­tic argu­ments into a log­i­cal equa­tion that ≠ God: so-called “irre­ducible com­plex­ity” and the ulti­mate get-out-of-any-argument gam­bit, faith. To him, faith and belief aren’t enough when it comes to the really impor­tant questions:

“Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irra­tional, arro­gant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for sev­eral rea­sons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a cara­pace for the pro­tec­tion of irra­tional notions from legit­i­mate ques­tions, how­ever, I think that the word has a lot of mis­chief to answer for […] I am, how­ever, con­vinced that there is no god, which is a totally dif­fer­ent stance.“
– Dou­glas Adams, inter­view with Amer­i­can Athe­ist, quoted in Dou­glas Adams and God — Por­trait of a Rad­i­cal Athe­ist by Nico­las Botti

To the above, I say “can I get an amen?” The word “belief” is appro­pri­ate for mat­ters of super­sti­tion, but not for mat­ters of sci­ence. The self-professed “rad­i­cal athe­ist” we hear from above is con­sid­er­ably more gen­tle and breezy when he play­fully tweaks reli­gion in Hitchhiker’s. But it’s easy to imag­ine how these books might incite the ire of the eas­ily offended Reli­gious Right cur­rently dom­i­nat­ing the US polit­i­cal scene. That is, if they were literary-minded enough to sit down and actu­ally attempt to read a book — any book — which clearly they aren’t. Con­sider how the Monty Python film The Life of Brian was famously protested against for pre­cisely the wrong rea­sons. Its detrac­tors assumed the film mocked Jesus (when it is in fact quite respect­ful), but failed to rec­og­nize that the Pythons’ true tar­get was orga­nized reli­gion itself. This also fas­ci­nated Adams:

“I am fas­ci­nated by reli­gion. (That’s a com­pletely dif­fer­ent thing from believ­ing in it!) It has had such an incal­cu­la­bly huge effect on human affairs. What is it? What does it rep­re­sent? Why have we invented it? How does it keep going? What will become of it? I love to keep pok­ing and prod­ding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fas­ci­na­tion is bound to spill over into my writ­ing.“
– Dou­glas Adams, inter­view with Amer­i­can Athe­ist

The same Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ists that decry the osten­si­ble witch­craft at the core of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Pot­ter books (whether they acknowl­edge Rowling’s own Chris­t­ian faith or not) would surely object to the capri­cious, overtly god­less uni­verse in which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is set.

Speak­ing of literary-mindedness, for a man who wrote for the all-ages adven­ture pro­gram Doc­tor Who, Adams incor­po­rated very lit­tle actual phys­i­cal vio­lence into Hitchhiker’s. It’s inter­est­ing that when Arthur and Ford are tor­tured on the Vogon ship, the means is not water­board­ing, elec­tro­cu­tion, or soli­tary con­fine­ment, but rather the read­ing aloud of poetry. For all the power of lan­guage to harm, Arthur and Ford are unable to talk their way out of their predica­ment. This sug­gests that in the Hitchhiker’s uni­verse, lit­er­a­ture is either obscure and irrel­e­vant (as seen in some of more unhelp­ful Guide entries, or when Arthur fails to enlighten some cave­men with a game of Scrab­ble), or out­right hos­tile (such as the afore­men­tioned Vogon poetry, and the offi­cial doc­u­ments that doom Arthur’s house and planet to demolition).

Adams had diverse inter­ests beyond tweak­ing the noses of the­ists, and incor­po­rated many gags into Hitchhiker’s that would appeal mostly to physi­cists and sta­tis­ti­cians. Two things in par­tic­u­lar that pre­oc­cu­pied him were meta­physics and com­put­ers, and he was able to put them together in the Deep Thought sub­plot. Curi­ous humanoids out­source their philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions to a sen­tient super­com­puter tasked with cal­cu­lat­ing the answer to life, the uni­verse, and every­thing. The answer “42” is just as mean­ing­less as the ques­tion “what do you get if you mul­ti­ply six by nine?” Accord­ing to my read­ing, math­e­mati­cians might make sense of this equa­tion if cal­cu­lated in base 10 — AKA the dec­i­mal sys­tem — and gam­blers would rec­og­nize 42 as the sum of all sides of a pair of dice. Unfor­tu­nately, these clever math­e­mati­cians and gam­blers would be no closer to an under­stand­ing of the uni­verse as any­body else. The pur­suit of the answer and then the ques­tion wasted bil­lions of years and immea­sur­able lives. Thus in one sin­gle plot twist, Adams pins a don­key tail on entire reli­gions and whole schools of thought — they’re not just absurd, but also extra­or­di­nar­ily harmful.

The sup­posed irrev­er­ent nature of British humor is a tired topic among Amer­i­can geeks that came of age quot­ing Monty Python and Doc­tor Who in out­ra­geously fake accents — even the most crass gags (I’m think­ing here of Mrs. Slocomb’s tales regard­ing her “pussy” on Are You Being Served) sound more witty, sophis­ti­cated, and eru­dite to us when spo­ken in for­eign accents. Here’s Adams on this very topic (regional humor that is, not cats):

“I think too much is made of the dif­fer­ence between US and UK humour. I don’t think there’s a dif­fer­ence in the way those audi­ences are treated. […] There are things the British think are as Eng­lish as roast beef that the Amer­i­cans think are as Amer­i­can as apple pie. The trick is to write about peo­ple. If you write about sit­u­a­tions that peo­ple rec­og­nize then peo­ple will respond to it.“
–Dou­glas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Ricky Gervais enjoys a pint at The Golden GlobesRicky Ger­vais enjoys a pint at The Golden Globes: “…and thank god for mak­ing me an atheist.”

The alleged great divide between Amer­i­can and British humor came back into relief again recently as Ricky Ger­vais closed the first of his Golden Globes host­ing gigs in 2011. Most of his allegedly uncen­sored celebrity barbs turned out to be merely tired stabs at low-hanging fruit (cer­tain Sci­en­tol­o­gists are gay, Char­lie Sheen is a junkie, Hugh Hefner is an old creep that gets laid more than you ever will, etc.) that only resulted in more rolled eyes than bruised egos. But what upset out­wardly pious Amer­i­cans most was his clos­ing quip “…and thank god for mak­ing me an athe­ist.” Any­one given to appre­ci­at­ing Adams’ cock­tail of absur­dism, logic, and phi­los­o­phy would rec­og­nize Ger­vais’ brand of humor here. Unfor­tu­nately, the loud­est voices in the cur­rent Amer­i­can land­scape are holy rollers with per­se­cu­tion complexes.

Per­haps Adams’ athe­ism was the moti­va­tion behind his per­sonal appear­ance as an arche­typal mod­ern man expe­ri­enc­ing an exis­ten­tial cri­sis in the begin­ning of episode two of the Hitchhiker’s tele­vi­sion series. If you believe Neil Gaiman, Adams stepped in sim­ply because the orig­i­nal actor was stuck in traf­fic that day, but I pre­fer to imag­ine a greater sig­nif­i­cance. Just as Radio­head would later employ Mar­vin the Para­noid Android as a metaphor for the themes of para­noia and depres­sion in their acclaimed album OK Com­puter, Adams plays a name­less every­man beset by the mod­ern con­di­tion. Tak­ing the long view of some­one edu­cated in evo­lu­tion (which an alarm­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans believe to be more sci­ence fic­tion than actual sci-fi), he decides that it was all a mis­take for life to leave the oceans in the first place.

Marvin the Paranoid Android from the BBC series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMar­vin the Para­noid Android, look­ing a lit­tle more chip­per than usual

But there’s a note of opti­mism to be had at the end of the series, which thanks to the won­der­ful nar­ra­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of time travel in sci­ence fic­tion, is not really the end but rather the begin­ning. Arthur, Ford, and the unde­sir­able dregs of an ancient humanoid civ­i­liza­tion land on pre­his­toric Earth and inter­min­gle with brutish cave­men (inter­est­ingly, very much the same thing hap­pens at the con­tro­ver­sial con­clu­sion to the 2003-09 TV series Bat­tlestar Galac­tica, except much less funny). The series signs off with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Won­der­ful World” — which works as both a sar­cas­tic com­ment on humanity’s hum­ble, decid­edly not divine ori­gins (we’re descended from inter­bred hunters & gath­er­ers, hair­dressers, and tele­phone san­i­tiz­ers) but also as a sin­cere com­ment on Arthur and Ford’s begrudg­ing friendship.

Thanks for read­ing Part Three of The Dork Report’s look back at Hitchhiker’s. Catch up with Part One, on its highly improb­a­ble leap from radio to TV, and Part Two, on its influ­ence & legacy.

Fur­ther reading:

Dou­glas Adams and God — Por­trait of a Rad­i­cal Athe­ist by Nico­las Botti

Amer­i­can Athe­ist inter­view with Dou­glas Adams

Offi­cial BBC site:

Offi­cial Dou­glas Adams site:

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report:


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Influence & Legacy

Douglas AdamsDou­glas Adams and the answer to life, the uni­verse, and everything

Dou­glas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted and extended into vir­tu­ally every media yet con­ceived by humankind — if more advanced species else­where in the galaxy are able to plug the story directly into their brains, they haven’t yet shared the tech­nol­ogy with us earth­lings. Back on Earth, Adams per­son­ally wrote the radio series (which many of those involved con­sider the defin­i­tive ur text), nov­els, a tele­vi­sion series, and com­puter game. Although nowhere near the level of cul­tural sat­u­ra­tion of its rough con­tem­po­rary Star Wars, it is fair to state that it is some­thing per­son­ally beloved by mil­lions, but also a rather valu­able fran­chise that placed quite a bur­den upon its cre­ator. Like George Lucas, Adams spent the rest of his life shep­herd­ing and pro­tect­ing, and yes, prof­it­ing off Hitchhiker’s.

Before and after Adams’ untimely death in 2001 — not that there is such a thing as a timely death — Hitchik­ers enjoyed a com­plex par­al­lel exis­tence in stage shows, licensed mer­chan­dise (includ­ing tow­els and rub­ber duck­ies), and addi­tional writ­ten works by other authors. The now-superstar author Neil Gaiman’s sec­ond book Don’t Panic — only slightly less hum­ble than his first, a Duran Duran hagiog­ra­phy — was a com­bi­na­tion biog­ra­phy of Adams and his­tory of Hitchhiker’s as a whole, clev­erly writ­ten in a rev­er­ent pas­tiche of Adams’ own style. DC Comics adapted the orig­i­nal sto­ries into comics form 1993–1997, after which things went rel­a­tively quiet until a 2005 fea­ture film failed to catch on with Amer­i­can movie goers. Direc­tor Garth Jennings’s movie has many flaws, the largest of which may sim­ply have been show­ing up too late to the fad­ing Hitchhiker’s party. But much of the cast­ing is inar­guably excel­lent, par­tic­u­larly Mar­tin Free­man as Arthur Dent and the voices of Stephen Fry and Alan Rick­man as The Guide and Mar­vin the Para­noid Android, respec­tively (read The Dork Report review). The movie may have failed to reignite fan fer­vor at its peak, but the nev­erend­ing tril­ogy got even longer when the Adams estate posthu­mously autho­rized a sixth prose novel by Artemis Fowl cre­ator Eoin Colfer in 2009.

Sam Rockwell, John Malkovich, Martin Freeman, Mos Def, and Zooey Deschanel in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyGet­ting the band back together for the 2005 fea­ture film

But the vast influ­ence of Adams’ orig­i­nal works is incal­cu­la­ble. I can’t speak to his influ­ence in his home coun­try, but he was an inte­gral com­po­nent of the holy trin­ity for a par­tic­u­lar strain of Anglophile geeks grow­ing up in Amer­ica in the 1970s and 80s: Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the holy Doc­tor Who, for­ever and ever amen. Rolling Stone mag­a­zine gave away 3,000 free copies of the first novel in 1981, guar­an­tee­ing count­less young unsuc­cess­ful bands called Dis­as­ter Area, one suc­cess­ful band called Level 42, and a gen­er­a­tion of col­lege kids heed­ing Ford Prefect’s sage advice to enjoy “Six pints of bit­ter, and quickly please, the world’s about to end.” The BCC tele­vi­sion com­edy Red Dwarf is a direct descen­dant (albeit, if any­thing, even more bit­terly bleak and nihilis­tic). As a cul­tural insti­tu­tion, Hitchhiker’s was still hip enough in 1997 to inspire the Radio­head song title “Para­noid Android”.

Adams, together with fel­low imp Tom Baker, for­ever stamped Doc­tor Who with its sig­na­ture blend of hard sci­ence, absur­dist humor, and barely sub­merged dark­ness. The ideal recipe is still debated to this day, per­haps most evi­dent in Christo­pher Eccleston’s par­tic­u­larly bipo­lar vision of the char­ac­ter as swing­ing wildly between anguished and giddy — at once griev­ing his com­plic­ity in the death of his entire species, but not so despair­ing that he couldn’t fall in love with a cute young blonde earth­ling named Rose Tyler (The Doc­tor! In love! Almost as unthink­able as the roman­tic mis­ad­ven­tures that would befall Arthur after the largely sex­less early install­ments of Hitchhiker’s). But in 1979, for those British fans that pre­ferred wit & whimsy over revers­ing the polar­ity of the neu­tron flow, they could switch the telly over to BBC Two to watch The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Peter Davison in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyFifth Doc­tor Peter Davi­son appears as The Dish of the Day in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

As my fre­quent Doc­tor Who asides above prove, it’s vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to dis­cuss Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with­out a few detours into Whov­ian mat­ters — not least because Fifth Doc­tor Peter Davi­son famously cameos in the tele­vi­sion series as the excep­tion­ally rare (and chatty) steak served at the Restau­rant at the End of the Uni­verse. I first read the nov­els as a kid, com­pletely unaware of their radio or TV incar­na­tions. I quite lit­er­ally pic­tured Ford Pre­fect as The Doc­tor (specif­i­cally, the highly eccen­tric Tom Baker’s unfor­get­table per­for­mance as the Fourth Doc­tor). When my local PBS affil­i­ate finally ran the TV series, I was quite dis­ap­pointed to find that David Dixon is very nearly the phys­i­cal oppo­site of Baker; and not nearly as… well, alien.

David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and Sandra Dickinson in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyDavid Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, and San­dra Dick­in­son in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy BBC series

Tril­lian, who appears for the first time in episode two, was another huge dis­ap­point­ment. Whether by her own act­ing choices, con­tem­po­rary cul­tural mores, or the whims of a randy cos­tume depart­ment, actress San­dra Dick­in­son pitches the char­ac­ter as even dumber and more sexed up than a typ­i­cal Doc­tor Who com­pan­ion, which is really say­ing some­thing (thank­fully, 21st Cen­tury Who Girls gen­er­ally enjoy much more sub­stan­tial char­ac­ter­i­za­tion). She and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Bee­ble­brox both sport exag­ger­ated Amer­i­can accents that make me scratch my head as much as our sil­li­est mock British accents must irri­tate actual Britons (adden­dum: I have since learned that Dick­in­son is actu­ally Amer­i­can, so I don’t know what it means that her accent sounded fake to me). Dick­in­son would later marry Davi­son, and their daugh­ter Geor­gia Mof­fett would in turn wed actor David Ten­nant (mak­ing the Fifth Doc­tor the Tenth Doctor’s father-in-law — and this is with­out any real-life time travel). It’s as if Adams is still work­ing beyond the grace as the behind-the-scenes match­maker keep­ing it all in the Doc­tor Who fam­ily — and I haven’t even got­ten around to dis­cussing Lalla Ward and Richard Dawkins yet.

Lalla Ward and Tom Baker in Doctor WhoDou­glas Adams as Doc­tor Who match­maker Part 1: Lalla Ward and Tom Baker

But the sin­gle great­est reper­cus­sion of Hitchhiker’s has noth­ing to do with Radio­head songs, the rel­a­tive eccen­tric­ity of Doc­tor Who lead­ing men, or spin­off mer­chan­dise. It is, sim­ply, the Apple iPhone. Allow me to be approx­i­mately the mil­lionth per­son to point out that the epony­mous guide itself has since become a very real thing, col­lect­ing lint in the bathrobe pock­ets of mil­lions of Earth­lings. It took a num­ber of iter­a­tions of numer­ous inter­lock­ing com­po­nents for it to hap­pen, and it’s not hard to imag­ine that Adams was a direct influ­ence on the vision­ary nerds that invented and assem­bled them. Com­put­ers were net­worked together in the 1960s, an infi­nite num­ber of Ford Pre­fects began to crowd-source Wikipedia in 2001, and then devices small enough to carry all of this around began to appear in the 1990s (I remem­ber really lust­ing after the mag­i­cal Palm VII, which was capa­ble of retriev­ing your email out of thin air). These ele­ments finally came together in 2007 with the first truly usable portable infor­ma­tion device, Apple’s iPhone — an inven­tion I’m sure Adams would agree is more use­ful than even the towel. Wikipedia’s the­o­ret­i­cally infi­nite hyper­linked data­base full of per­sis­tently and instantly avail­able infor­ma­tion proved about as reli­able as the Hitchhiker’s Guide, loaded as it is with dense entries on frip­peries like where to find the finest Pan-Galactic Gar­gle­blaster, while hav­ing lit­tle com­ment on an entire lifebear­ing planet like, say, Earth. To quote the first edi­tion: “Harm­less.” Sec­ond, exten­sively revised & expanded edi­tion: “Mostly harmless.”

Peter Davison and David Tennant in Doctor WhoDou­glas Adams as Doc­tor Who match­maker Part 2: David Ten­nant and father-in-law Peter Davison

So what is it that makes Hitchhiker’s so endur­ingly pop­u­lar? It’s not too dif­fi­cult to decode its DNA: Adams’ involve­ment in Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity sketch com­edy groups, his writ­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with Gra­ham Chap­man of Monty Python, and his appre­ci­a­tion of clas­sic sci­ence fic­tion (par­tic­u­larly Kurt Von­negut and the British insti­tu­tion Doc­tor Who). But Hitchhiker’s is not a sequel, par­ody, adap­ta­tion, or pas­tiche of any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. Although it plays with many tropes of sci­ence fic­tion, it was a gen­uinely new thing. Adams had the fol­low­ing to say of Amer­i­can TV audi­ences, but I think it’s valid as a uni­ver­sal statement:

“Audi­ences in the US (through no fault of their own) are treated as com­plete idiots by the peo­ple who make pro­grammes. And when you’ve been treated as an idiot for so long you tend to respond that way. But when given some­thing with a bit more sub­stance they tend to breathe a deep sigh of relief and say ‘Thank God for that!’”
–Dou­glas Adams, quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman, page 94

Adams gave peo­ple some­thing with a bit more sub­stance, and they seized upon it. His ideas were so orig­i­nal that Adams spent most of his lat­ter career patiently explain­ing where they came from. NPR’s Marc Hirsh has a more pes­simistic take, equat­ing James Cameron’s recent announce­ment that he would only make films set in the Avatar uni­verse to the trap that Adams found him­self in:

[Adams] spent the last 23 years of his life, start­ing from the orig­i­nal 1978 radio broad­cast, con­tin­u­ally rewrit­ing the same story over and over for dif­fer­ent media. And as much as I love the books and have enjoyed many of the dif­fer­ent iter­a­tions, I can’t help but think that that’s an almost tragic waste of tal­ent.
– Marc Hirsh, NPR (via Neil Gaiman)

True, he must have been frus­trated to not be able to move beyond Hitchhiker’s for most of his career, but one need only look at book­store shelves today to see almost every­thing he wrote still hap­pily in print, includ­ing two nov­els in a new series star­ring holis­tic detec­tive Dirk Gen­tly. Writ­ing and man­ag­ing the Hitchhiker’s empire was evi­dently a slow and painful task for him, and he wasted a lot of time strug­gling to bring Hitchhiker’s to BBC TV and Hol­ly­wood, with mixed results. But out­side of his nom­i­nal career as a writer, he would seem to have lived a rich life full of close friends (includ­ing lumi­nar­ies as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Dave Gilmour), good deeds (q.v. his book Last Chance to See, on endan­gered species), and think­ing deep thoughts.

Thanks for read­ing Part Two of The Dork Report’s tril­ogy (in three parts… so far) on Dou­glas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part One, on its highly improb­a­ble leap from radio to TV, and Part Three, on its sta­tus as gate­way drug for many future atheists.

Offi­cial Dou­glas Adams site:

Offi­cial BBC site:

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV poster

British view­ers may not blink twice, but it is always inter­est­ing for this Yank to note the priv­i­leged billing given to screen­writ­ers in BBC pro­grams. The open­ing cred­its for the 1981 ser­ial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy promi­nently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dra­mat­i­cally rocky logo, over­shad­ow­ing the cast, direc­tors, and pro­duc­ers. This is cer­tainly not the case for typ­i­cal Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleet­ing that it’s hard to spot even if you’re look­ing for it. Shows tend to be pop­u­larly known more for their cast or some­times the cor­po­ra­tion that pro­duced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned pres­tige sta­tus enjoyed by HBO). A pre­cious few cre­ators may have become known com­modi­ties in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writ­ers remain effec­tively anony­mous on Amer­i­can television.

Aside from BBC stan­dards and prac­tice for onscreen accred­i­ta­tion, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he mer­ited such recog­ni­tion for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and tele­vi­sion series (granted, some of these were col­lab­o­ra­tions, but the point still stands). All this while serv­ing as script edi­tor for the 17th sea­son of Doc­tor Who, which entailed sup­ply­ing three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addi­tion to heav­ily rewrit­ing many oth­ers. The Doc­tor Who tra­di­tion of divided loy­al­ties would con­tinue well into the 21st cen­tury as showrun­ners Rus­sell T Davies and Steven Mof­fat would moon­light on Torch­wood, The Sarah Jane Adven­tures, and Sher­lock. The only pos­si­ble con­clu­sion to draw is that doing Doc­tor Who is evi­dently easy, and pro­vides lots of free time for extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties. I’m sure Rus­sell and Steven will agree, right guys?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe open­ing cred­its of the BBC TV pro­duc­tion of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy assert that the orig­i­nal radio series is the defin­i­tive article.

By all accounts, includ­ing his own, writ­ing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sus­tained cre­ative frenzy that pro­duced Hitch­hik­ers in all its forms would have burned any nor­mal per­son out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a nor­mal per­son, but it made him a more finan­cially com­fort­able man that indeed never met another dead­line again: “I love dead­lines. I like the whoosh­ing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitch­hik­ers’ run­away suc­cess afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Mac­in­toshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapt­ing and extend­ing the Hitch­hik­ers uni­verse into more nov­els, audio books, an influ­en­tial text-based hyper­tex­tual com­puter game, and a stage show.

I per­son­ally con­sider the books to be defin­i­tive, mostly because that’s how I hap­pened to first expe­ri­ence the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its orig­i­nal incar­na­tion as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doc­tor Who, observed that the first two Hitch­hik­ers books aren’t tech­ni­cally nov­els, but essen­tially nov­el­iza­tions of his scripts for the radio show. Fur­ther bump­ing the books down the hier­ar­chy of rel­a­tive defin­i­tive­ness, the open­ing cred­its of the TV series pro­claim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it fol­lowed the novel, which itself roughly cor­re­spond­ing to the first four radio episodes. Got that?

The first episode was a (very expen­sive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was com­mis­sioned, each sub­se­quent episode begins with a clev­erly done recap, typ­i­cally fea­tur­ing excerpts from the tit­u­lar Guide that segue into a res­o­lu­tion of the pre­vi­ous episode’s cliffhanger. The inte­gra­tion of ani­ma­tion into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digres­sive writ­ing style, now de rigueur to audi­ences raised in an online, hyper­linked cul­ture. Per­haps the sole ele­ment of the TV series that every­one can agree is excel­lent is the faux-computer ani­ma­tion, which was actu­ally cre­ated man­u­ally using tra­di­tional cel ani­ma­tion tech­niques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyAn exam­ple of the ersatz “com­puter” ani­ma­tion cre­ated out­side the BBC by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Neil Gaiman ded­i­cates Chap­ter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitch­hik­ers phe­nom­e­non, to the painful pro­duc­tion of the tele­vi­sion series. Indeed, it seems to have man­aged to dis­ap­point just about every­one: fans, crit­ics, the BBC, and at least two war­ring fac­tions on the cre­ative team, includ­ing (and per­haps espe­cially) Adams him­self. He had wished to involve his trusted col­lab­o­ra­tors John Lloyd and Geof­frey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lif­ers that looked down their noses at mere radio peo­ple. Fur­ther doom­ing things, pro­duc­tion was han­dled by the BBC’s Light Enter­tain­ment divi­sion, despite the Drama depart­ment hav­ing all the expe­ri­ence and know-how any­one could ask for after hav­ing han­dled many years worth of Doc­tor Who serials.

Gaiman doc­u­ments a high state of ten­sion between producer/director Alan Bell and seem­ingly every­one else. Bell was report­edly skilled at bring­ing pro­duc­tions in on time and under bud­get, but less inter­ested in story or direct­ing actors. Gaiman quotes many vet­er­ans of the orig­i­nal radio series that felt Bell’s direc­tion and stag­ing was often art­less and unsym­pa­thetic to the unique mate­r­ial. The pedestrian-looking result­ing pro­gram must have stung, as the orig­i­nal radio team had all shown con­sid­er­able tech­ni­cal ambi­tion in real­iz­ing the unprece­dented sound design of the radio series (Geof­frey Perkins details the extra­or­di­nary labor it took to cre­ate vir­tu­ally all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Orig­i­nal Hitch­hiker Radio Scripts — con­trary to what one might assume, the leg­endary BBC Radio­phonic Work­shop didn’t con­tribute much). A sec­ond series was com­mis­sioned, but Adams’ stand­off with Bell con­tributed to its can­cel­la­tion before it came any­where close to begin­ning. Bell claims Adams missed his script dead­lines as usual, and Adams coun­ters he sim­ply would not start writ­ing until nego­ti­a­tions con­cluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advi­sors (this is a bru­tally con­densed ver­sion of the whole sad story, avail­able in full circa page 84 of the first edi­tion of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too famil­iar with the pit­falls of begin­ning work before you have a contract.

The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model land­scape of a quaint Eng­lish vil­lage, com­plete with ersatz sun­rise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ arche­typal every­man Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actu­ally resem­bles Dou­glas Adams in stature and coif­fure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casu­al­ties of two coin­ci­den­tal bureau­cratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dread­ful morn­ing, his pal Ford Pre­fect outs him­self as being a rov­ing reporter for the epony­mous pub­li­ca­tion The Hitch­hik­ers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hail­ing “from a small planet some­where in the vicin­ity of Betel­geuse”. Inci­den­tally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pro­nounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astro­physi­cists, “soon” means any­time between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Per­haps the exact date is avail­able on a slip of paper in a sub­base­ment of a Vogon plan­ning com­mis­sion office some­where in the galaxy.

But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it cer­tainly plays that way. Its prose ori­gins are betrayed by a few rec­og­niz­ably over­writ­ten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redun­dantly describe the hal­lu­ci­na­tions they suf­fer in episode two, as if the audi­ence couldn’t plainly see them for them­selves. The down­side is that the TV series comes across like an abridged great­est hits com­pi­la­tion of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illu­sion; lunchtime dou­bly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged great­est hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).

While the out­door loca­tion work is grounded in real­ity, the studio-shot sequences are the­atri­cal in pre­sen­ta­tion, with long takes staged against tra­di­tional three-walled stu­dio sets. The non-naturalistic light­ing often works against the story, espe­cially as Ford squints by the fee­ble light of a match to locate a plainly vis­i­ble light switch in the brightly illu­mi­nated bow­els of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admit­tedly just been through a lot) is unim­pressed with the “shabby” ves­sel. Know­ing the author and con­text, this word choice is very likely an ironic com­ment on the art direc­tion. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dra­mat­i­cally (such as the forced-perspective gang­ways sur­round­ing the mas­sive super­com­puter Deep Thought).

If you want to argue about how Hitch­hik­ers looks on tele­vi­sion, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doc­tor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy pro­duc­tion val­ues, but recall that it pre­miered in 1963, long before the styl­is­tic and tech­no­log­i­cal spe­cial effects break­throughs show­cased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent devel­op­ment that the pro­duc­tion qual­i­ties of sci­ence fic­tion on tele­vi­sion began to match the sorts of effects you can see in fea­ture films. In this viewer’s opin­ion, the cur­rent best-of-breed visual effects on tele­vi­sion haven’t yet topped Bat­tlestar Galac­tica (read The Dork Report review), which fea­tured outer space dog­fights that matched or exceeded what is rou­tinely show­cased in Hol­ly­wood fea­tures — per­haps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series cur­rently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMark Wing-Davey (and the faulty ani­ma­tronic head that cost more than his fee) as Zaphod Bee­ble­brox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As was (and is) the case with Doc­tor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point cri­tiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy spe­cial effects, even con­sid­er­ing the year (1981), medium (tele­vi­sion), and bud­get (low)? Inso­far was any­one could have pre­dicted audi­ence expec­ta­tions, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ price­less words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spec­ta­cle. Here’s orig­i­nal pro­ducer Geof­frey Perkins on the topic of the para­dox­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions and free­dom of the radio drama for­mat, and the unex­pected reper­cus­sions when the ser­ial was later adapted into other media:

“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a lit­tle extra throw­away joke which was to cause enor­mous headaches (sic) when the show was trans­ferred to tele­vi­sion. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] him­self (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a bet­ter per­for­mance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t func­tion prop­erly and used to loll on his shoul­der look­ing up at him, often end­ing up being oper­ated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.“
–Geof­frey Perkins, The Orig­i­nal Hitch­hiker Radio Scripts, page 50

It’s inter­est­ing, and I think sig­nif­i­cant, that he uses the word “trans­ferred” to describe the adap­ta­tion process. At the time of the pub­li­ca­tion of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the defin­i­tive article.

Thanks for read­ing Part One of The Dork Report’s tril­ogy (in three parts… so far) on Dou­glas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influ­ence and legacy, and Part Three, on its sta­tus as gate­way drug for many future atheists.

Offi­cial BBC site:

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Apart Hate: District 9

District 9 movie poster


Neill Blomkamp’s Dis­trict 9 is an old story told many times in fic­tion and his­tory: an unde­sir­able group intrudes upon the space and resources of priv­i­leged power pos­ses­sors. This story never ends well. Dis­trict 9’s highly alle­gor­i­cal cul­ture clash cor­re­sponds to great many groups that have suf­fered in through­out his­tory, many sadly ongo­ing: refugees, minori­ties, Roma, Jews, or immi­grants. But hey, this time it’s aliens!

Peter Jack­son pro­duced writer/director Blomkamp’s fea­ture length ver­sion of his short film “Alive in Joburg”. The con­cept is closely related to Gra­ham Baker’s 1988 sci-fi cop buddy pic­ture Alien Nation (devel­oped by Ken­neth John­son for a TV series the fol­low­ing year), in which a fully-packed slave ship is sud­denly aban­doned on Earth. The slaves may have been freed, but stranded in a hos­tile, crowded alien world with no room for them, even if the natives didn’t find them dis­taste­ful. Alien Nation found its drama in the fric­tion on both sides as the freed slaves are absorbed into human soci­ety in a vari­ety of ways.

District 9“When deal­ing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remem­ber that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

Dis­trict 9 is far more vague about its aliens’ nature and more cyn­i­cal about the pos­si­bil­ity of their inte­gra­tion. The ship they arrived in may not even have belonged to them, oth­er­wise they would pre­sum­ably have been more inclined to attempt to repair it or at least live aboard. Were they an exploited labor force, or what we would call slaves? If so, what hap­pened to their cap­tors? The trailer includes at least one scene not included in the fin­ished film, in which an alien inter­ro­gated by human police implies that they are pre­vent­ing them from repair­ing their ship, when all they want to do is go home. This sim­ple sen­ti­ment is never expressed by any alien char­ac­ter in the movie. In fact, more of them seem con­tent to sim­ply live in squalor. Why can’t or won’t they sim­ply tell us who they are or what they want?

Dis­trict 9 is com­prised of an awk­wardly stitched together mélange of gen­res, less seam­lessly than how Alien Nation merged the buddy cop drama with sci­ence fic­tion. For most of its run­ning time, Dis­trict 9 works as a faux­men­tary made of osten­si­bly found footage. The faux­men­tary has long been a for­mat for farce (q.v. Zelig and This is Spinal Tap), but in later years The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead (read The Dork Report review), and Clover­field (read The Dork Report review) all found ways to effec­tively employ the style for hor­ror, drama, and sci­ence fic­tion. The ongo­ing wave of real­ity tele­vi­sion and the run-and-gun hand­held style in vogue since Paul Green­grass’ kinetic The Bourne Supremacy are no doubt con­tribut­ing to the trend of includ­ing the “cam­era” as, essen­tially, a char­ac­ter in the film.

The faux­men­tary pre­tense is upheld for quite a while, until it sud­denly shifts to a priv­i­leged point of view for a scene in which three alien char­ac­ters speak­ing in con­fi­dence, with­out the vir­tual “cam­era” present. This shift is jar­ring, as we’ve pre­vi­ously wit­nessed every­thing from the point of view of the absent pro­tag­o­nist. It sig­nals the begin­ning of a more tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive, albeit one still visu­al­ized with the same aes­thetic. It’s as if Blomkamp stuck to a first-person point of view until it became incon­ve­nient, so sim­ply shifted to third-person while pre­serv­ing the same visual aesthetic.

If the audi­ence didn’t already con­tract whiplash, Dis­trict 9 then dips into the body hor­ror genre as Wikus (Sharlto Cop­ley) under­goes a meta­mor­pho­sis à la David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Even this doesn’t hold Blomkamp’s atten­tion, and the film about-faces once again, this time into a standard-issue sci-fi action flick like Aliens (with a dash of Black Hawk Down). For its grand finale, it sud­denly crashes back into fauxmentary.

District 9“Dis­trict 9 — Paving the Way to Unity.”

The shift­ing gen­res and points of view mir­ror Wikus’ char­ac­ter arc. Ini­tially a basi­cally sym­pa­thetic com­pany man, he turns vil­lain­ous in our eyes when he dis­plays vicious speciesism by destroy­ing an alien hatch­ery with undis­guised glee. His cos­mic pun­ish­ment is for his body to painfully mutate into that which he hates and fears the most (again, an arche­typal Croneneber­gian theme), after which he comes around to being sym­pa­thetic again. The end­ing is very effec­tive in remind­ing us how far Wikus has trans­formed, body and mind, since we first met him.

Dis­trict 9 is rid­dled with a num­ber of irri­tat­ingly illog­i­cal ele­ments, which are unclear if meant to be mys­ter­ies for the audi­ence to pon­der or if just out­right plot holes or implau­si­bil­i­ties. Most refugee sit­u­a­tions in human his­tory involve oppressed peo­ple with no polit­i­cal or mil­i­tary power. These aliens pos­sess fero­ciously pow­er­ful weapons, but don’t use them to fight for bet­ter con­di­tions or more food and resources. If they are so tech­no­log­i­cally advanced, why do they not also have some kind of func­tional soci­etal order, as opposed to the self-defeating chaotic shanty town they’ve con­structed for them­selves? Per­haps the tech­nol­ogy belonged to their mys­te­ri­ous and unseen cap­tors, or maybe their ill-behavior is explained by the break­down of order the occurs in any kind of refugee sce­nario. More ques­tions: How can one lit­tle alien child, born on earth, have the know-how to reac­ti­vate the moth­er­ship? Why did it take 20 years for any of them to har­vest the nec­es­sary mate­ri­als from their own scrap? Surely more than two adult aliens could orga­nize them­selves to bet­ter har­vest their own waste.

It would nor­mally be reduc­tive to search for a “moral of the story” from even the sim­plest film — the kind of assign­ment given to an ele­men­tary school read­ing com­pre­hen­sion essay. But since Dis­trict 9 is clearly mak­ing an obvi­ous point about racism and xeno­pho­bia, it has to be said that it shoots itself in the foot with its extremely prob­lem­atic depic­tion of Nige­ri­ans as gang­sters and can­ni­bals. Granted, the Niger­ian char­ac­ters don’t come off that much bet­ter than the white South Africans we see con­duct­ing cruel genetic research on both humans and aliens.

Set­ting the film in South Africa was per­haps the least sub­tle way pos­si­ble to present any kind of sci­ence fic­tion alle­gory for racism and xeno­pho­bia — at least since Star Trek: Enter­prise dressed rep­til­ian Xindi vil­lains in Nazi uni­forms in 2004 (just in case the slower mem­bers of the audi­ence didn’t pick up on the unsub­tle pun in the species’ name). It’s per­haps more com­fort­able to think that these types of sit­u­a­tions have occurred in iso­lated places through­out his­tory: in Nazi Ger­many, Rwanda, or Arme­nia. The alien refugee camps are of course most directly anal­o­gous to South Africa under Apartheid — the title itself allud­ing to the forcible evic­tion of Dis­trict Six in Cape Town to Cape Flats in 1966. By con­trast, Alien Nation made the more pro­found point that the same thing could hap­pen anywhere.

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Untangling The Terminator Timeline

The Ter­mi­na­tor fran­chise is cooked from a core recipe of cyborgs, time travel, bul­lets, and explo­sions, sea­soned with themes of des­tiny, para­noia, and techno­pho­bia. Sub­tract or sub­sti­tute too many of these ingre­di­ents and you wind up with some­thing not-Terminator. Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is the first episode to dare to omit the foun­da­tional time travel ele­ment. Its “present” is the post-apocalyptic future we only glimpsed in the pre­vi­ous films, and the clos­est thing to time travel is the very con­ven­tional sto­ry­telling con­ceit of a flash­back. It’s curi­ous that in a media land­scape where frac­tured, non-chronological nar­ra­tives are the norm (par­tic­u­larly on tele­vi­sion, most notably in Lost and Break­ing Bad) that the Ter­mi­na­tor series would retreat to a safer, more lin­ear nar­ra­tive structure.

While one might imag­ine that would result in a more straight­for­ward con­tin­u­a­tion of the saga, I found it raised more ques­tions than it answered. I’m either over– or under­think­ing things, or more likely expect­ing too much of a post-exhausted escapist action fran­chise, but the Ter­mi­na­tor chronol­ogy seems more entan­gled with para­doxes than ever. Let’s start with a con­densed overview of the four fea­ture films to date, com­piled from Wikipedia, Empire Online, io9, and the Ter­mi­na­tor Wiki. For simplicity’s sake, I’m omit­ting The Sarah Con­nor Chron­i­cles TV series and any other spin­off comics, games, nov­els, or what­ever other assorted ephemera that has since only mud­dled things further:


  • 1959 (T1, T2) or 1965 (T3): Sarah Con­nor born

The Ter­mi­na­tor (1984)

  • The present: 1984 (Los Angeles)
  • Judge­ment Day: August 29, 1997 (spec­i­fied in T2)
  • The future: 2029


  • 1985: John Con­nor born

Ter­mi­na­tor 2: Judge­ment Day (1991)

  • The present: 1995 (John Con­nor is 10)
  • Judge­ment Day: August 29, 1997
  • The future: 2029 (same date given in T1, but SkyNet is markedly more advanced)


  • 1997: Sarah Con­nor dies of leukemia (T3)

Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

  • The present: 2004
  • Judge­ment Day: July 24, 2004 (delayed from 1997 by events of T2)
  • The future: 2032

Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion (2009)

  • Pre­lude: 2003 (Texas death row, prior to the events of T3)
  • Judge­ment Day: July 24, 2004 (not spec­i­fied; I’m assum­ing it’s the same as pre­dicted in T3)
  • The present: 2018 (the ear­li­est vision of the future seen yet)

So across four films, our heroes suc­ceed in delay­ing the dread Judge­ment Day only once, and never out­right pre­vent it. Per­haps the supremacy of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is inevitable, like Ray Kurzweil’s pre­dic­tions of the com­ing Tech­no­log­i­cal Sin­gu­lar­ity.

Four TerminatorsFour movies, four Ter­mi­na­tors: T-600 (Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion), T-800 (The Ter­mi­na­tor), T-1000 (Ter­mi­na­tor 2), T-X (Ter­mi­na­tor 3)

Per­haps eas­i­est to straighten out is the evo­lu­tion of the vil­lain­ous SkyNet’s foot­sol­dier: the tit­u­lar Ter­mi­na­tor. At the time of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, SkyNet has only deployed the crude T-600, basi­cally a tank on legs that could be mis­taken for a human only at a great dis­tance. Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion also shows an inter­me­di­ate stage in SkyNet’s plan to cre­ate “infil­tra­tion units”, cyborgs that can ingra­ti­ate them­selves into human enclaves. The pro­to­type turns out to be not very reli­able — far more human than machine — so SkyNet’s skunkworks are already mass-producing all-machine suc­ces­sor, the T-800. Sarah and Reese suc­cess­fully destroyed one of these in The Ter­mi­na­tor, but frag­ments sur­vived destruc­tion and were (para­dox­i­cally) used to cre­ate SkyNet. So, not only is Judge­ment Day not averted, SkyNet is even more advanced in the ver­sion of 2029 seen in Ter­mi­na­tor 2 than the 2029 we see glimpses of in The Ter­mi­na­tor. Sarah and Reese arguably made things worse, for SkyNet devel­oped the more high-tech liq­uid metal Ter­mi­na­tor model T-1000. The events of T2 delay Judge­ment Day until July 24, 2004. Around 2032, SkyNet devel­oped the even more advanced T-X (a hybridized model uti­liz­ing both an endoskele­ton and a liq­uid metal skin) seen in Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines. SkyNet also evi­dences an enhanced sense of aes­thet­ics, as the T-X is markedly more sexy.

The adult John Con­nor we see in Ter­mi­na­tor 4 has not yet become the leader of the resis­tance that nearly defeats SkyNet in the future of The Ter­mi­na­tor. So, in Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, what does he think when he’s pre­sented with a plan to per­ma­nently defeat SkyNet? Does he know the plan is doomed to fail because he knows his future self will still be fight­ing SkyNet in the future? In which case, why bother to help? It might be in his best inter­ests to actively thwart the plan.

Also, how does SkyNet know in 2018 that John Con­nor and Kyle Reese must be assas­si­nated? Nei­ther has yet become a leader. Nei­ther has time travel been invented (yet), so SkyNet can’t know (once again, yet) what these two humans will become, or that SkyNet in the future will try at least three times to kill John before Judge­ment Day.

The easy way out of these ques­tions already exists in the Ter­mi­na­tor canon: accord­ing to the rules of time travel as estab­lished in the Ter­mi­na­tor uni­verse, the time­line is not fixed, and may be altered. This con­ceit only raises more ques­tions: if the plan suc­ceeds, he will never become the leader of the resis­tance. He will never send Kyle Reese back in time to become his father, and he will have never existed to put in motion his plan to save human­ity. If he suc­ceeds, will he be erased from his­tory? If so, why do we not seem him grap­ple with this inter­est­ing exis­ten­tial ques­tion onscreen? Would this not be the entire point of finally revis­it­ing the long-running char­ac­ter of John Con­nor as an adult? It would seem the film­mak­ers are more inter­ested in spe­cial effects spec­ta­cle than char­ac­ter or deeper themes.

Edward Furlong, Christian Bale, Nick Stahl, and Michael Edwards as John Connor in The Terminator moviesThree movies, four John Con­nors: Edward Fur­long (Ter­mi­na­tor 2), Nick Stahl (Ter­mi­na­tor 3), Chris­t­ian Bale (Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion), Michael Edwards (Ter­mi­na­tor 2)

All of which brings me to my biggest philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem with the core of the entire Ter­mi­na­tor con­cept: what makes John Con­nor so impor­tant? Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is the first install­ment in the story to finally depict him in action as the mature rebel leader SkyNet is so afraid of. But the most influ­en­tial acts of lead­er­ship we see are mere moti­va­tional radio addresses meant to inspire a defeated human­ity to keep fight­ing, a far cry from the mes­sianic mil­i­tary com­man­der that will sup­pos­edly lead human­ity to its sal­va­tion. His sup­posed des­tiny is described by the cyn­i­cal Gen­eral Ash­down (Michael Iron­side) as a reli­gious prophecy. I would have liked to see more doubt on the part of the resis­tance that he’s any­thing spe­cial, at least yet. But instead, he inspires blind loy­alty (except for a colleague’s act of spec­tac­u­lar treach­ery in releas­ing a cyborg mole, whom they have every right to believe is a SkyNet agent). Also, why doesn’t any­body just call him “John” or “Con­nor” or “hey you”? He’s appar­ently so impor­tant that every­one always refers to him by his full name, per­haps so the audi­ence is per­pet­u­ally reminded of his por­ten­tous ini­tials, which rather obvi­ously reflect the character’s cre­ator James Cameron, as well as another mytho­log­i­cal sav­ior of human­ity from two mil­len­nia past.

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Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation movie poster


Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion was released in a year curi­ously rife with apoc­a­lypse porn. The visions of world’s end in the­aters that year var­ied wildly in tone: every­thing from illu­mi­nat­ing art to alarmism to escapism. The com­pe­ti­tion to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which uti­lized the best spe­cial effects tech­nol­ogy money could buy to depict the sys­tem­atic destruc­tion of inter­na­tional land­marks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road (read The Dork Report review), which imag­ined the scat­tered rem­nants of human­ity scrab­bling to sur­vive in a world they may have them­selves dec­i­mated, but long past a point where blame had any mean­ing. Tech­nol­ogy is both destroyer and sal­va­tion in Ter­mi­na­tor and 2012, but largely irrel­e­vant to the strag­glers cling­ing to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inven­tions are gone, and give nei­ther aid nor harm.

For the Ter­mi­na­tor series to be such a long-lasting mass enter­tain­ment is odd, con­sid­er­ing it is set in a des­o­late, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. It would seem that a dis­trust of tech­nol­ogy and fear of world war is a per­pet­ual moti­va­tion to go to the cin­ema. James Cameron’s orig­i­nal sci­ence fic­tion night­mare is vin­tage 1984, with old-school opti­cal spe­cial effects and stop motion ani­ma­tion that, depend­ing on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of hand­made moviemak­ing. But its core con­cept was strong enough to become arche­typal of an entire genre, inspir­ing count­less deriv­a­tive works. The Wachowski Broth­ers stole it out­right for The Matrix, where self-aware com­puter pro­grams turn against the human civ­i­liza­tion that cre­ated them, like the Ter­mi­na­tors before them. The Ter­mi­na­tors stage a mali­cious holo­caust of pure exter­mi­na­tion, but the Matrix pro­grams instead vir­tu­ally enslave the human race while they feed on giant elec­tri­cal bat­ter­ies com­prised of farmed human bod­ies. While the epony­mous Matrix was a weapon of frat­ri­cide, The Ter­mi­na­tors were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the off­spring of human­ity are afflicted with pro­found Freudian com­plexes: they are fix­ated on con­sum­ing their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator SalvationThat’s so $&#%ing unpro­fes­sional, you $&#%ing cyborg infil­tra­tion unit!

The cast of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion was more pop­u­lated with famous names than it needed to be. Chris­t­ian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s sav­ior John Con­nor, and with apolo­gies to Edward Fur­long, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first mar­quee name. One need look no fur­ther to spot the biggest gam­ble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the pre­vi­ous three Ter­mi­na­tor films because they were fas­ci­nated by the good guy. From the very begin­ning, the big draw for audi­ences (and the plum role for any actor look­ing to make a splash) was the vil­lain. The epony­mous cyborg antag­o­nist James Cameron cre­ated quickly became iconic and launched body­builder Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger to Hol­ly­wood star­dom and, even more implau­si­bly, a polit­i­cal career.

Bale is com­ing from an entirely dif­fer­ent place than a ‘roided-up Aus­trian ama­teur thes­pian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Seri­ous Actor, from the very begin­ning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his mod­ern resur­gence in Mary Harron’s con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can Psy­cho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humor­less guy — pos­si­bly even unsta­ble — in most of his roles and even his pub­lic per­sona. Indeed, rumors of his ill tem­per were seem­ingly con­firmed by his infa­mous erup­tion on the set of Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion in July 2008.

Terminator SalvationThis is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Ter­mi­na­tor movies refer to these as “endoskele­tons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pes­simist might even imag­ine Bale’s histri­on­ics part of a pub­lic­ity cam­paign to cre­ate aware­ness and pos­i­tive buzz — not just for a movie that stu­dio exec­u­tives might con­sider an unsure prospect in need of a mar­ket­ing boost, but even to cement his own sexy rep­u­ta­tion as a loose can­non or Hol­ly­wood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a hand­some and over­paid celebrity wasn’t enough to pre­vent minor box office dis­ap­point­ment and tepid reviews, (a mod­est 52% on Meta­critic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid pres­ence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Ter­mi­na­tor film com­ing out, when pre­vi­ously only Comic-Con attend­ing sci-fi geeks had been pay­ing atten­tion. Per­son­ally, know­ing about Bale’s tantrum before­hand actu­ally took me out of the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing the film on its own mer­its. I was con­tin­u­ously dis­tracted by won­der­ing which par­tic­u­lar scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly per­sona might make him emi­nently suit­able for roles like the dri­ven resis­tance leader John Con­nor, but it makes his range seem quite lim­ited. He employs the exact same set of man­ner­isms he used for Bruce Wayne in Bat­man and The Dark Knight (read The Dork Report review): a hoarse voice, tensed pos­ture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion, but he is arguably not the real pro­tag­o­nist in either and is over­shad­owed by Two-Face (Aaron Eck­hart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Mar­cus Wright (Sam Wor­thing­ton) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showi­ness. Per­haps it’s a delib­er­ate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essen­tially sup­port­ing parts in which he allows his char­ac­ter to be sub­or­di­nate to a cast osten­si­bly billed below his name. Fit­tingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual sup­port­ing role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life per­sona com­pleted its redemp­tion arc, if his Ter­mi­na­tor role John Con­nor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator SalvationMoon Blood­good checks behind her for her character’s moti­va­tion. It’s got to be around this waste­land someplace.

I have noth­ing to back this alle­ga­tion up, but I’ve heard rumors that the orig­i­nal script for what became Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion cen­tered around the char­ac­ters of Mar­cus (Wor­thing­ton) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Wor­thing­ton and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the char­ac­ter of John Con­nor was rel­e­gated to a cameo appear­ance, but the role was greatly expanded when Chris­t­ian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the rel­a­tive rich­ness (albeit trun­cated) of the Mar­cus char­ac­ter arc, as com­pared to the one-note Con­nor. It would have served both char­ac­ters bet­ter had the movie focused on just one tor­tured male savior.

Direc­tor McG’s Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two orig­i­nal films, but it’s really not all that ter­ri­ble, and cer­tainly bet­ter than Jonathan Mostow’s Ter­mi­na­tor 3: Rise of the Machines. My the­ory is very sim­ple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Ter­mi­na­tor Salvation’s trail­ers and TV com­mer­cials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the high­light for the audi­ence I saw it with was the sud­den appear­ance of a famous T-800 model Ter­mi­na­tor, not entirely suc­cess­fully real­ized by apply­ing a CGI Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger head atop body­builder Roland Kickinger. If a lit­tle less than con­vinc­ing, it at least pro­vided some relief from the oppres­sive apoc­a­lyp­tic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamil­ton was a nice touch for nos­tal­gic fans. The always enter­tain­ingly eccen­tric Helena Bon­ham Carter appears in an sig­nif­i­cant cameo, with Bryce Dal­las Howard in a totally incon­se­quen­tial part that could have gone to a new­comer. Fol­low­ing the estab­lished rules of action flicks (per­haps best exem­pli­fied by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the req­ui­site cute kid, but thank­fully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator SalvationYes, Bryce Dal­las Howard is in this movie, for some rea­son. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduc­tion and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion frus­trat­ing. A global war against arti­fi­cially aware machines is con­densed down to a hand-to-hand bat­tle with a sin­gle T-800 on a fac­tory floor — a self-conscious retread of the cli­max of the orig­i­nal film. But per­haps this is a bet­ter dra­matic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which exces­sively mul­ti­plied the sin­gle alien threat of Rid­ley Scott’s orig­i­nal, effec­tively dimin­ish­ing the core premise that was appeal­ing in the first place: an almost inde­struc­tible crea­ture dri­ven by pure bio­log­i­cal instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Ter­mi­na­tor Sal­va­tion is a con­sis­tent prob­lem with many char­ac­ters’ com­i­cally blasé reac­tions to extra­or­di­nary sit­u­a­tions. Connor’s right-hand man Reese res­cues a guy who claims never to have seen a Ter­mi­na­tor before, or even know what year it is. But Reese sim­ply answers his ques­tions, and never won­ders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I under­stand Williams (Moon Blood­good) bond­ing with Mar­cus after he res­cues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human out­post when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond under­stand­able impul­sive­ness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curi­ous is an appar­ent lack of imag­i­na­tion in real­iz­ing futur­is­tic tech­nol­ogy. We’re told the Ter­mi­na­tors com­mu­ni­cate over old-school short­wave, so evi­dently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satel­lite net­work and blan­keted the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their recep­tion was as bad as Man­hat­tan AT&T sub­scribers. I won’t go into how the gleam­ingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touch­screen graph­i­cal user inter­faces designed for humans, or how Con­nor mirac­u­lously wit­nesses a nearby nuclear explo­sion with­out being atom­ized by the shock­wave, or at least going blind or con­tract­ing radi­a­tion sick­ness. Such a thin line between sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief (for the pur­poses of thrills & spills) and sheer stu­pid­ity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cyber­netic or not.

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A Man Alone: Babylon A.D.

Babylon A.D. movie poster


Vin Diesel has made some­thing of a spe­cialty in dystopian sci­ence fic­tion movies pos­sessed of aston­ish­ing visu­als but hor­rif­i­cally bad scripts (I’m look­ing at you, Pitch Black and The Chron­i­cles of Rid­dick). Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been type­cast as a weary but action-ready man of the future? Math­ieu Kassovitz’s Baby­lon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an inter­na­tional feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeu­vre, but also very much a direct descen­dent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Ele­ment. The pres­ence of Michelle Yeoh promises mar­tial arts ass­kick­ing that never really mate­ri­al­izes, and the pro­ceed­ings are given a mea­sure of class by Ger­ard Depar­dieu and Char­lotte Rampling.

Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.The gog­gles… they do nothing!

The movie pre­dicts an espe­cially bleak future for Europe, wracked by per­pet­ual war and ter­ror attacks that leave the urban land­scape look­ing like Chech­nya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluc­tant mer­ce­nary war­rior, some­thing like a mas­ter­less ronin from old samu­rai movies. I was pre­pared to like his char­ac­ter until he shoots a dis­armed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip. I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 min­utes lapses before the hero finally under­takes his task: to escort the genet­i­cally engi­neered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn waste­lands of “New Ser­bia” to New York. The per­sis­tent tone of a-man-alone cyn­i­cism is some­thing else Baby­lon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, espe­cially the Trans­porter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.

Michelle Yeoh and Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.

Some of the gen­uinely incred­i­ble shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the pro­mo­tional stills:

  • The open­ing sequence is an unbro­ken shot zoom­ing straight down on planet Earth, hom­ing in on Man­hat­tan and into Diesel’s eyeball
  • A 270-degree cam­era move incor­po­rat­ing a CGI heli­copter and an ancient con­vent carved into a stone cliff
  • An estab­lish­ing shot of an unspec­i­fied Russ­ian city built around a giant crater, its ori­gins unex­plained (but a likely allu­sion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Kat­suhiro Otomo’s Akira)
  • The entire island of Man­hat­tan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and com­pleted Free­dom Towers

The Manhattan of the Future Babylon A.D.The Free­dom Tow­ers dom­i­nate the Man­hat­tan of the future

Movies like Baby­lon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally suc­cumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father sud­denly mate­ri­al­izes, appar­ently solely to pro­vide a mas­sive info­dump of expo­si­tion. The long, com­pli­cated back­story was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the prod­uct of an incor­po­rated reli­gion whose CEO and High Priest­ess (Char­lotte Ram­pling) hopes to man­u­fac­ture a mirac­u­lous vir­gin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only cre­ates frus­tra­tion and con­fu­sion, and lit­tle emo­tional response.

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Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race movie poster


Death Race evi­dences a cyn­i­cal, shal­low, indis­crim­i­nate out­rage at… every­thing. In this future dystopia, the U.S. econ­omy col­lapsed in 2012, fol­lowed by soar­ing unem­ploy­ment, crime, and incar­cer­a­tion. Echo­ing Roller­ball and Run­ning Man, pro­fes­sional sport has merged with the penal sys­tem, pro­vid­ing both tele­vised enter­tain­ment and a jus­tice sys­tem in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key inci­dent that illus­trates the extent of this fallen soci­ety, the gov­ern­ment man­u­fac­tures a riot by shut­ting down a man­u­fac­tur­ing plant and lay­ing off all its work­ers. The incited riot­ers make con­ve­nient scape­goats for society’s short­com­ings, ulti­mately ben­e­fit­ting the gov­ern­ment. One of these inno­cent blue-collar labor­ers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a for­mer crook try­ing to make an hon­est liv­ing as a fam­ily man. Like his char­ac­ter Frank in the Trans­porter films, his crim­i­nal forte was dri­ving. Dri­ving very fast. Unjustly impris­oned at Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Franken­stein, a masked fic­ti­tious racer in the tit­u­lar Death Race. As with pro­fes­sional wrest­ing vil­lains and the Yan­kees, Franken­stein is a vil­lain per­fectly designed for the pub­lic to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Franken­stein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death RaceThis ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was orig­i­nally con­ceived as a higher-budgeted vehi­cle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was grad­u­ally down­graded to this video game pas­tiche helmed by Paul W.S. Ander­son. It’s a dubi­ous choice of source mate­r­ial, con­sid­er­ing that the orig­i­nal Death Race 2000 (1975), star­ring David Car­ra­dine and Sylvester Stal­lone, is one of the lesser-known apoc­a­lyp­tic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soy­lent Green, Roller­ball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade ear­lier. Car­ra­dine makes a voice cameo as the pre­vi­ous bearer of the Franken­stein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above point­ing out the crush­ingly obvi­ous, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist enter­tain­ments built upon bru­tal­ity, sex­ism, and shaky moral ambiva­lence. The osten­si­bly hell­ish Ter­mi­nal Island Pen­i­ten­tiary actu­ally appears rather chaste and peace­ful, mak­ing the sce­nario less dis­taste­ful to audi­ences. Rape is never a worry, and racially moti­vated con­flict is only faintly alluded to by the pres­ence of eth­nic gangs (white suprema­cists are obliquely referred to as “The Broth­er­hood”). The dri­vers’ copi­lots are “Nav­i­ga­tors” recruited from the neigh­bor­ing women’s prison. These stun­ning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to tit­il­late by the War­den (Joan Allen), in ser­vice of greater rat­ings. Speak­ing of, Ander­son misses an oppor­tu­nity to sat­i­rize tele­vised sport­ing events as well as The Wachowski Broth­ers’ Speed Racer or even Dodge­ball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death RaceGrav­i­tas or Botox?

Death Race is mind­lessly enter­tain­ing enough, until we’re asked to for­give unre­pen­tant mur­derer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gib­son) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is con­fused: given an unjust prison sys­tem that exploits the guilty and inno­cent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty pris­on­ers like Machine Gun Joe are so plen­ti­ful, why does the war­den have to go to the bother of fram­ing inno­cent peo­ple in the first place?

Statham sup­plies his usual per­sona of buff, terse, reluc­tant hero who has no time for girls (seri­ously, what is up with that? Trans­porter 2 even flirts with the notion his char­ac­ter Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre mis­cast­ing of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inex­pres­sive (lit­er­ally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the crim­i­nal waste of the pow­er­fully impos­ing Ian McShane. He was noth­ing less than awe­some in Dead­wood, bring­ing to life a crime lord more inter­est­ing than even Tony Soprano. McShane also ele­vated the short-lived TV series Kings, play­ing his part like he was in Shake­speare while every­one else was trapped in an ele­men­tary school play. But even he can’t do any­thing to res­cue this mess.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the Blu-ray or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon movie poster


Moon is a rare sci­ence fic­tion thriller that doesn’t derive its ten­sion solely from the spec­ta­cle of space­ships, robots, or off­world locale. Rather, it’s a psy­chodrama about para­noia, in the Philip K. Dick tra­di­tion of Blade Run­ner, Minor­ity Report, and A Scan­ner Darkly (not to men­tion the count­less movies Dick indi­rectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Mon­keys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futur­is­tic trap­pings hide sev­eral onion lay­ers of deeper themes: bioethics, tor­ture, labor exploita­tion, and ques­tion­ing the nature of the self and one’s per­cep­tion of reality.

Direc­tor Dun­can Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extra­or­di­nar­ily eco­nom­i­cal bud­get of $5 mil­lion, achieved largely by restrict­ing pro­duc­tion to sound­stages and sub­sti­tut­ing prac­ti­cal minia­tures for costly CGI. A ben­e­fi­cial side-effect is a pleas­ing tac­til­ity lack­ing in most con­tem­po­rary sci-fi films, where entire char­ac­ters and envi­ron­ments are now rou­tinely vir­tual. As a beat-up moon rover slowly trun­dles across the uneven lunar sur­face, kick­ing up dust, bump­ing and rat­tling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' MoonOur circuit’s dead, there’s some­thing wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones con­ceived the role with Sam Rock­well in mind. Rock­well was great in Con­fes­sions of a Dan­ger­ous Mind and Match­stick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen vir­tu­ally alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Acad­emy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occu­pant of a par­tially auto­mated base ded­i­cated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a com­pound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like tech­nob­a­b­ble but in fact the sci­ence is sound: Helium-3 is a real ele­ment believed to be plen­ti­ful on the moon and the­o­ret­i­cally may some­day pro­vide a sus­tain­able source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tra­di­tion, Sam’s employer Lunar Indus­tries turns out to be as insid­i­ous as the Weylan-Utani cor­po­ra­tion that exploits the Nos­tromo min­ing plat­form crew in Rid­ley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Indus­tries boasts of prof­itably sav­ing the Earth’s envi­ron­ment by pro­vid­ing clean power on the cheap, made pos­si­ble by engag­ing in prac­tices that are arguably immoral but com­monly accepted. The exploita­tion of cloned life is a direct par­al­lel to today’s out­sourc­ing of labor to devel­op­ing coun­tries with more lax human rights. If one won­ders how a future soci­ety might be so inured to cloning that they would con­done Sam’s servi­tude, media broad­casts over­heard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re opti­mistic and assume what he hear is real — it’s pos­si­ble they’re the fan­tasy of a dying man imag­in­ing his moral vic­tory). But per­haps it’s like how many in the west­ern world live now; we enjoy afford­able con­sumer elec­tron­ics and cloth­ing man­u­fac­tured by work­ers that lit­er­ally live inside their fac­to­ries, and don’t ask why our pur­chases don’t cost more. Jones told Sui­cide Girls that Moon is the first part in a pro­jected tril­ogy, so per­haps we will see pre­quels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' MoonGERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s mad­ness and phys­i­cal dete­ri­o­ra­tion is par­tially explained within the sci­ence fic­tion con­text as a result of the inher­ent insta­bil­ity of cloned life. Appar­ently, like early exper­i­ments with ani­mals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to dis­ease, organ fail­ure, and pre­ma­ture death (Dolly sur­vived about half the nor­mal lifes­pan for a sheep). Like the “repli­cants” in Blade Run­ner, these clones come with built-in expi­ra­tion dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Dis­cov­er­ing he is merely a com­mer­cial prod­uct with inbuilt obso­les­cence is just one of Sam’s prob­lems. His quar­ters and work­space look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dis­cov­ery One ves­sel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Dis­cov­ery One astro­nauts, Sam peri­od­i­cally receives pre­re­corded video mes­sages beamed from earth. These asyn­chro­nous con­ver­sa­tions are not unlike email, and a poor sub­sti­tute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the com­mon prac­tice of soli­tary con­fine­ment is increas­ingly rec­og­nized as a form of tor­ture. The har­row­ing New Yorker arti­cle “Hell­hole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psy­cho­log­i­cally sta­ble per­son can go mad in a mat­ter of weeks or even days with­out human con­tact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' MoonI am oblig­ated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke some­where in this review, so here it is

Sam’s inter­ac­tions with the base’s com­puter GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are like­wise reduced to the rudi­ments of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion; its “face” is com­prised of happy/sad/neutral emoti­cons. GERTY is a rar­ity in sci­ence fic­tion: a com­pas­sion­ate exam­ple of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Count­less movies (includ­ing 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Ter­mi­na­tor, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences to be inher­ently evil or, at least, dan­ger­ously unsta­ble. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Robby the Robot in For­bid­den Planet, or Wall-E: an arti­fi­cial cre­ation that rigidly fol­lows its pro­gram­ming, but whose para­me­ters allow it to exhibit gen­uine com­pas­sion and car­ing for its charge.

I loved the movie over­all, but was dis­ap­pointed by the lack of ambi­gu­ity in its sto­ry­telling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly drop­ping the word “clone.” Would it have been more inter­est­ing had there been hints of a pos­si­bil­ity that Sam might be delu­sional, hal­lu­ci­nat­ing a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been con­di­tioned by too many Twi­light Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shya­malan movies, but I expected a twist end­ing that never came.

I’ve touched on sev­eral of Moon’s more obvi­ous inspi­ra­tions, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like crea­ture mur­ders his orig­i­nal. Cloning is just begin­ning to enter the zeit­geist, hav­ing recently fig­ured into the brain­dead actioner The Island but also the more con­tem­pla­tive Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishig­uro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zom­bies or vampires.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the Blu-ray, DVD, or Clint Mansell’s excel­lent sound­track CD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.