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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 10, 2010

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Dr. Who, Climbing, and Tony Blair

When I first started going to science fiction conventions, I noticed people dressed up in odd costumes that were soon identified as coming from a British TV show called Dr. Who.

The premise sounded intriguing, though the name seemed more than a little dumb. The idea is that The Doctor is an effectively immortal being who takes human form in order to clean up whatever mess intrigues him. Like a doctor, he finds aspects of various societies that are sick and need healing -- and then, sometimes in a very messy way, he fixes them up.

The actor playing The Doctor changes from time to time, because his present body wears out or gets too badly damaged (or something), and so he regenerates in a new form. Since his friends and associates can't recognize him visually, he either proclaims himself or they see his spaceship -- an old-fashioned British police call box. Rather as if Superman had carried his phone booth around with him.

The trouble was, when I sampled the series back in the seventies I could never get very interested. The production values were appalling -- it looked as if somebody had painted cardboard panels with shiny metal paint and then put ugly masks on actors in order to make them into aliens.

Of course, that's what Star Trek did, too -- but I didn't much care for that series, either. Didn't it always look like every planet consisted of the same rocks and shrubs?

I also hated the acting in Star Trek (with the exception of Nimoy), and the writing was mostly obvious, and the world creation was lame, and ... basically, I figured TV sci-fi was even more worthless than movie sci-fi.

I was a print snob.

When it came to Dr. Who, friends assured me that the writing and acting were way better than Star Trek. But the episodes I started watching never caught my interest, and I gave up quickly, assuming it was Star Trek on a lower budget.

Still, since I'm in the sci-fi biz I do hear things, and I knew that starting in 2005, Dr. Who got a reboot. They didn't deny what had gone before, and they didn't repeat it, either. What changed this time around was that they got a bigger budget -- the sets didn't look cardboard anymore, and they got better masks to put on human actors to make aliens out of them.

I wasn't going to watch it, though. Life is short. I can't watch everything.

Then my daughter, who was home on a visit, roped me into sitting down in front of a computer and watching a downloaded episode from Season 3 of the new Dr. Who. The episode was called Blink.

And it was brilliant.

Oh, there were imperfections in the effects. But I really do forgive that quite readily if the writing and acting are good. And in this episode, they were beyond good.

Oddly enough, this is an episode in which Dr. Who himself barely appears. It is the only episode of the series written by Steven Moffat, and it is based on a short story he wrote for a Dr. Who fiction anthology. In short, it was "fan fiction."

(CORRECTION BY OSC: I made the mistake of trusting someone who said it was Moffat's only episode, without double checking. He has actually written many more than the one.)

It was also smart, funny, scary, disturbing, and heartfelt. It helped that the casting was absolutely brilliant, with Carey Mulligan in the leading role of Sally Sparrow. (You may remember her as Kitty in the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice.) It is hard to think of a more believable and engaging performer; and she was joined by other extraordinarily good actors, saying very well-written lines, creating meaningful relationships in a clever, paradoxical, wonderfully impossible story.

I was hooked.

I downloaded all of Seasons 2, 3, and 4 from iTunes -- these are the seasons featuring David Tennant as The Doctor. I have now watched all of Season 3, then went back and am nearly through watching Season 2.

I watch the shows on my iPod Nano. My wife and I took the television out of our bedroom nearly twenty years ago, partly because whichever of us fell asleep first would be bothered by the TV if it was turned up loud enough to hear.

But when I'm holding the tiny Nano in one hand and listening through earphones, I see the screen in all its details as well as if I were sitting ten feet back from a big TV, and I don't bother anybody else. It's a pleasant way to watch television. As long as you have a show worth watching.

And the new Dr. Who is that show. Naturally, some episodes are better than others, which means some are worse than others. Sometimes you have to laugh at the silly costumes for the monsters -- but most of the time, they mean you to laugh a little and so it's kind of OK.

But I have seen no episode yet that sinks to the level of Star Trek at its best, at least in terms of the writing and acting.

Since there'll never be another episode of Firefly, it's good to have Dr. Who still in production and going strong.

It's also a lovely thing to have the episodes of a TV series available for purchase online, and at an affordable price.

*

To an old acrophobe like me, there are certain things that I know will be unbearable. I can climb a couple of rungs up a ladder, as long as it feels stable, and if I really steel myself for it, I can even get up onto the roof of a single story building. Though once I'm there, getting down is a nightmare -- What, swing my body over the edge in hopes that the ladder is still there? Oh, right.

Worse yet, I'm a sympathetic acrophobe. This doesn't have anything to do with compassion, it just means that when I see someone else near the brink of a precipice, it makes me go nuts until I either see them step back and away from the edge, or go far enough away myself that I no longer feel responsible for them.

All this is by way of explaining why I don't ski or ride roller coasters. Even ferris wheels make me whimper a little.

So when a friend sent me a link to a website where you can experience climbing to the top of a transmission tower, my first thought was, "Do you even know me?"

But with the fascination that draws even acrophobes to the edge of a canyon or balcony, I clicked on the link.

The video begins weirdly -- some low-tech animations. Consider these the calm before the storm. Soon enough, you find yourself looking through a camera attached to the head or shoulder of a technician who is going to climb to the top of a broadcast tower.

The thing is taller than the Empire State building. In fact, when the video begins he has already ridden an elevator most of the way up. But now he's going outside the framework to climb to the very top.

The friend who sent it said, "As I first started watching this, I thought, How does he go to the bathroom? The farther up he went, the more I realized that's the least of his worries."

Each time you think, "Ah, this is the top," you find that no, that's just the top of the safe part. It gets worse and worse, narrower and narrower. In a wind, you know this thing would be whipsawing like a ... like a ... whipsaw.

I thought of someone climbing this in a snowstorm to keep a station on the air, and I thought: Nobody needs television enough to expect another human being to do this job.

This is scarier than any horror movie I've seen. And it's not fictional or faked in any way.

I'm the guy who walked out of both Alien and Aliens, and then watched the second half of each of them later. There's a limit to how much terror I can take.

So it's no surprise that I couldn't watch the whole video straight through. I used the slidebar to skip forward to the end. That's the only reason I didn't start screaming.

I know, I know -- those of you who scramble for the front seats in the roller coaster will watch this and say, "Is that all? That's nothing." But I'm one of the primates who is very glad our ancestors stopped brachiating through the trees. Not climbing to high places was an important step in our evolution.

*

As long as I'm directing you to hideous websites, here's one that will fill you with aesthetic terror rather than fear of falling. It's called "Cakewrecks," and that pretty well says it all. These aren't amateur cakes decorated by loving hands at home. These were actually intended for sale.

Do not go to this site if you are going to have to eat cake in the near future. http://cakewrecks.blogspot.com/ .

*

I liked Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister of England. The way he stood firmly with President Bush when it was time to take a stand against terrorist states like Afghanistan and Iraq reminded me of the days of transatlantic solidarity during World War II -- though Blair was actually more loyal and reliable as an ally to Bush than Roosevelt ever was to Churchill.

So when he came out with his memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, I bought it and read it. I had forgotten that it was Blair who saved the Labour Party in Britain. They had become demoralized during the Thatcher years, and -- like Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. -- they became more and more dominated by their extremist wing.

The result was that Labour stood, in the public's mind, for the wretched excesses of British unions during the days when they would shut the whole economy down so they could take ever more money for themselves, without regard to the needs of anyone else.

That image of selfish unionism was making it nearly impossible for Labour to come back to power, and to everyone's surprise, the Liberal Party (once the other half of the Tory/Liberal two-party system, but since then a weak, shadowy Third Party) began to have a resurgence.

Blair spoke truth to the Labour Party and, along with likeminded Labourites, created what they spoke of as New Labour. They party were no longer the puppets of the unions; they no longer intended to undo Thatcherism and resocialize the economy. Instead, New Labour would offer a middle way, good for business and good for unions and, basically, good for everybody.

And they won.

When Clinton and Obama ran as centrists, they were lying. As soon as both got into office, they revealed themselves to be socialists and politically correct extremists. (It was only after Newt Gingrich shocked Clinton by getting Republicans into control of Congress that Clinton moved back to the center and said, "I was here all along!")

But Tony Blair actually meant what he said. For this alone, statues of him should be erected throughout the civilized world.

He governed England as he had promised he would in the elections. And while I'm sure Conservatives in England and conservatives here would have been driven to fury by some of his policies, the fact is that he found a balance that England could live with, and the Tories (Conservative Party) could only yip and nip at his heels.

For years, when people asked me, "Why aren't you a Republican?" I'd reply, "I'm a Daniel Patrick Moynihan Democrat" -- a centrist, practical Democrat, liberal without being insane or fascistic in my desire to impose my views on others, the way the leaders of the Democratic Party are today.

But Moynihan is gone now, and too few people even remember who he was or what he once stood for. (What, a Democrat who was strong on defense?)

So as I was reading Blair's political autobiography, it finally dawned on me. What I am is a Tony Blair Democrat.

I know. He's English, I'm American. He's Labour, not a Democrat at all.

There is no wing of the Democratic Party committed to trying to govern the whole country -- in America, they're just a bunch of fanatical elitists, grimly determined to use any means, especially antidemocratic ones, to remake us in ways that they know are "good for us."

But there should be. What America needs right now is not some Republican who weeps whenever he hears the name "Reagan." What we need is a group of politicians in one of the parties who, instead of pursuing ideological purity, seeks to govern by the consensus of the rational members of both parties.

Instead of swinging back and forth from one extreme to another with each election, we need a steady course right down the middle. If I were a Republican, I'd be a Bush or McCain Republican.

(They were not RINOs, by the way -- Republicans In Name Only. They were RWACs -- Republicans With A Chance of getting elected by attracting votes from moderate Americans who don't subscribe to either party's "pure" agenda.)

America is a fairly conservative country, on average. But most people have some views in one camp, and some in the other, and some that no party even notices. Tony Blair was the kind of politician who thought that such reasonable people might very well turn out in large numbers to support politicians who spoke to their moderate desires.

He was right, at least at the time. And, though he was eventually turned out of office the way Churchill was, he had a good long ride -- and rewrote the political map of England in the process.

The book may contain more detail about British politics than most Americans are likely to enjoy -- though he does have a preface for Americans that tries to lay some groundwork. Nor do I agree with every political position he took.

Still, he was and is a good man who kept his word when he came to power, and he did a pretty good job of governing, which puts him way, way above average. I recommend the book, if only to see how a rare bird like that was ever able to get off the ground and fly!


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