Monday, October 22, 2007

The Right Honourable Lady

The following is possibly only of interest to hardcore Doctor Who fans and other Anglophilic sorts.

Last night I watched the first two episodes of The Amazing Mrs Pritchard on Masterpiece Theater. Despite my nearly boundless love for political dramas/thrillers/soaps/comedies (particularly those of the British Parliamentary variety) and despite my total admiration and worship for the divine talent and beauty that is Jane Horrocks (Little Voice! Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous!) I won't be watching the rest of the series.

Although the premise was potentially interesting -- ordinary supermarket manager fed up with clueless politicians declares herself a candidate for local MP, only to find herself succeeding beyond her wildest dreams and becoming Prime Minister by accident -- and Ms. Horrocks (here looking almost exactly like J.K. Rowling) was excellent as always, the script really let this down. The writer gave Mrs. Pritchard at least three different, mutually contradictory characterizations in the course of the first hour. Was she "just plain folks" whose common sense cuts through the obfuscation of old party hacks or was she a brilliant orator with a superhuman ability to memorize and recite the careers of potential rivals despite never having been interested in politics? The script couldn't make up its mind. Also, the storytelling consisted largely of expository dialogue telling us important things about the characters rather than showing them. And there was more than a little sexism in the way the initial conceit was presented. Yes, the series was written by a woman...but if you think a woman can't be sexist and perpetuate the same old lazy stereotypes of how men and women supposedly behave, then we live on different planets. (And I don't mean Venus and Mars.)

The doings of Parliament have inspired a lot of great television over the years. House of Cards and its sequels are one example on the dramatic side. The comedic tag-team of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister probably did more to explain the inner workings of governments and why things are the way they are than anything else on television. The prinicples discussed in YM and YPM are universal and apply to all democratic nations; the American viewer can get just as much of an education from them as the British audience. (One of the creators of YM went on to direct the surprisingly excellent Eddie Murphy film The Distinguished Gentleman depicting the same factors in play in American politics, albeit with a greater emphasis on the corrosive effects of money and lobbyists.) Even the main idea behind The Amazing Mrs Pritchard -- decent woman of integrity gets an education in how politics and government work while juggling ordinary home life with her husband and kids -- was already done better (and with considerably less condescension) in a little-known British sitcom called No Job For A Lady starring Penelope Keith.

Like I said at the start and have just demonstrated, I watch a lot of British television with political themes. But the above list conspicuously omits one of my very favorite television depictions of a British political leader: a character who was always realistically and convincingly depicted in every appearance, brilliantly written and acted, no matter how wild and outlandish the situations were.

Yes, my disappointment with Mrs. Pritchard last night made me think of another female Prime Minister of recent memory...and that's when I realized Russell Davies made a huge mistake in building his Doctor Who spinoff around Captain Jack Harkness and the oversexed boys and girls of the Torchwood Institute. Instead, he should have done a series about Harriet Jones.

From the moment we meet her in Aliens of London, she's a coherent, consistent, and believable character -- timid and unsure, but with a core of feisty determination beneath that, ultimately leading her to help save the world from an alien conspiracy. When the Doctor reveals that this newly elected junior back bencher from Flydale North is destined to become Prime Minister, it makes sense. We can believe it because the strength of the writing and acting has shown us her exceptional qualities; we didn't need to be constantly told because we'd seen it for ourselves.

Now, instead of a tired and obvious X-Files wannabe series, imagine how cool and unique it would be to have a series about political intrigues and governmental infighting against the backdrop of a world facing the prospect of invasion by aliens. Think of it as West Wing with science fiction. In addition to worrying about who's going to become deputy undersecretary of commerce, Jones also has to worry about fending off the Cybermen or the Sycorax without causing public panic. Questions are being asked in Parliament about budget can the PM answer the Opposition without exposing the secret anti-Dalek gun those hidden funds really went to? You could have your Torchwood or UNIT or what have you in the story as well, but PM Harriet Jones would be the focus of the series. Torchwood was a combination of a lot of second-tier SF series we've seen before, but this would have been something really fresh.

Well, I'd watch it, anyway.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

One billion

One billion seconds ago President Gerald Ford declared that the American Bicentennial would be marked by the ringing of bells.

A billion minutes ago the emperor Hadrian was born in Rome, the Maya first entered the valley that would someday be Mexico City and the temple in Jerusalem fell for the last time.

A billion hours ago Cro-Magnon from the east and Neanderthal from the south began a ten-thousand-year struggle for dominance of southern Europe as the glacier receded.

And a billion dollars spent in Iraq ago was the day before yesterday.

From a speech given to the Burbank Democratic Club yesterday by Elliot S! Maggin, one of my favorite Superman writers and now candidate for California's 24th Congressional District.

(Oddly enough, this is the same district former Babylon 5 cast member Jerry Doyle also sought to represent in Congress back in 2000. Seven years ago, Doyle ran as a Republican against a Democratic incumbent...but thanks to redistricting Maggin is now challenging a Republican incumbent who's been in Congress for twenty years, while Doyle's opponent is still in Congress as well. Ah, politics!)

Youngsters who wonder why the name "Elliot S! Maggin" sounds vaguely familiar should investigate some of his comics and comics-related work here.