TV Series Review: “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (Toby Haynes, UK 2015)

In 2004, Susanna Clarke unleashed her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a sprawling, 1000-plus-page epic fantasy on the world. Neil Gaiman hailed the novel as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years,” a time period that notably includes The Hobbit and all of The Lord of the Rings. The novel was an enormous success, with Clarke’s writing compared favorably with any in the history of the fantasy genre (and indeed it surpasses even some of the most celebrated) and her created world, one very different from any previously seen, hailed as one of the most intricate and deeply-constructed since Tolkien.

The novel was a dark version of historical high fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century where magic and a connection to a magical realm ruled by faeries is historical fact. “Magicians” are those who study the history of the craft, until one man, Gilbert Norrell, reveals that he is capable of performing magic of the type magicians have previously only studied. Norrell undertakes to return magic to his country but warns that the historical connection to faeries is dangerous and cannot be resumed due to the awful nature of those creatures. However, when Norrell’s quest meets with jeers and laughter from his government, he turns to exactly the magic he warns against, making a deal with a faerie to perform a feat beyond his skills–a decision that will eventually undo him. Another magician, Jonathan Strange, eventually arises, but questions Norrell’s hatred of faerie magic, which Norrell is never willing to explain. Continue reading

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Kill the Moon” (08.07, 2014)

Written by Peter Harness

Directed by Paul Wilmshurst

The conceit of this episode is fairly simple: the moon is actually a giant egg that hatches some sort of giant space dragon that is forcing its way out in 2049. The Doctor arrives with Clara and Courtney Woods (the troublemaking student we met last episode) in tow, figures out the problem, and then leaves it to the humans to decide what will happen.

The Doctor has always had a complex view of humanity. On one hand, he clearly loves humanity’s pioneering, inquisitive spirit. He praises its growth and ability to span the reaches of the universe, even against those who claim humanity as a disease. On the other hand, he is often dismayed at humans’ odd materialistic preoccupations and violent nature. This episode was in part an examination of the Doctor’s attitude toward humanity, his paternalistic “patronizing” (as Clara calls it) and clear disapproval of humans’ bloodthirst.

On that level, the episode works well enough, with the Doctor clearly disapproving of the fact that humans immediately want to kill the space dragon but also unwilling to guide them. And his sudden “hands off” approach to the humans’ moral dilemma is something that certainly only seems to appear at times when it is convenient for the Doctor to pass the buck on a decision that he does not want to make, leaving him wide open to criticism that Clara does not miss. When the situation is resolved, Clara and the Doctor have a fight the likes of which the Doctor may never have had with a companion before, and that scene is the one scene in this episode that stands out in a good way, with Jenna Coleman finally nailing a scene at the same time that Peter Capaldi does. Ending it all with us supposedly in suspense about the Doctor and Clara’s future (though Coleman being confirmed to be in the Christmas special certainly gives something away there) was also excellent–the overriding theme of this season has been how to resolve the contradictions at the heart of the Doctor, and here Clara finally realizes one of them and takes him on. To paraphrase Alice Cooper, how is she going to see him now?

The problem is that all of that is surrounded by a ridiculously obvious and facile discussion of abortion. The Doctor ensures that it is not only humans but females who make the decision about what to do with this egg, and goes out of his way to mention them being women at every given opportunity. Clara declares the space dragon inside the egg “life” while Lundvik declares it “a threat” and their discussion essentially takes the form of, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, or is that right?” which just makes for a dull, un-nuanced version of the abortion debate.

Further, Courtney Woods is a dull, useless addition to the TARDIS crew. She acts more like a ten year old than a 15 year old, complaining of boredom and incapable of leaving alone the controls on the TARDIS. She has nothing interesting to say and adds nothing to the Clara-Doctor relationship.

Overall, it’s an episode that’s really defined by one problem: it’s just dumb. The facility of its abortion debate and the inanity of its moral discussion is just so extreme that it becomes almost difficult to watch. The only saving grace is the strong ending, with the Doctor and Clara arguing.

Notes

  • Broken apart moon is a science fiction cliche that should be avoided.
  • Why didn’t he just call it a space dragon? That’s clearly what it was.
  • The mess of magazines on Clara’s coffee table seemed decidedly un-Clara.