Friday, August 21, 2009

Weekend Assignment #281: Writers or Actors?

Let's get right to it:
Weekend Assignment: #281: Who has a greater impact on your decision to go to a movie or watch a tv show, the actors you see on the screen, or the behind the scenes writers, producers and/or directors?
Extra Credit: Who is your favorite actor?
By the time I hit high school, my allegiance with respect to the creative forces behind my favorite tv shows was solidly behind the show's writers and, by extension, the producers. My heroes were Gene Roddenberry, David Gerrold, Harlan Ellison and Larry Gelbart, not William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and Alan Alda. Oh, I liked and respected all of those actors, particularly Nimoy (who was also a writer) and Alda (clearly a highly intelligent and articulate guy). But they merely said the words that the writers dreamed up. I cared about the dreams and the dreamers of the dreams, not the dreams' human delivery systems.

That was a long time ago. My primary interest is still with the people behind the words; without J K Rowling (and Steven Kloves) there is no series of blockbuster films for Daniel Radcliffe to star in. But over the years my respect has grown for good acting as well. I can tell you about the top five writers of Quantum Leap's most important episodes, each writer's particular forte and certain recurring themes; but none of it would have worked without Scott Bakula's extraordinary acting skills. That show depended on Bakula's ability to convincingly portray Sam Beckett, a man who takes on many personae in his involuntary travels through time and other people's lives. In one key episode, "Catch a Falling Star," Bakula plays a scientist who is pretending to be an actor who is playing Cervantes as he portrays Alonso Quixano who believes himself to be Don Quixote, and those layers of identity are there on the screen. In another story, "Lee Harvey Oswald," Bakula is absolutely chilling as Sam is gradually taken over by the insane, obsessive personality of the infamous assassin.

These days, of course, my favorite tv show is one that started back in 1963, and that I've been watching on a more-or-less regular basis since about 1988. Last night I was watching the only surviving episode of The Enemy of the World, a Doctor Who serial from December 1967 through January 1968. In it, the late Patrick Troughton plays both the cuddly Second Doctor and his doppelganger, a Mexican mad scientist and would-be world dictator called Salamander. Troughton's portrayals of the two characters are so utterly distinct from each other that one almost forgets that the same actor inhabits both of them. The evil Salamander is unmistakably a completely different man - except, of course, when the Doctor impersonates him!

And yet, Troughton's outstanding work in this story isn't the primary thing that struck me as I watched what still exists on video, and filled in the gaps with audio, still photos and the Target Books novelization. I was more amazed by the story itself, written by early Doctor Who script editor David Whitaker. Ostensibly a children's show, Doctor Who became quite breathtakingly violent for those six weeks, especially in Episode One of The Enemy of the World. The Doctor arrives on an Australian beach with gleeful plans to frolic in the surf and build a sandcastle. Seconds later he's being shot at with realistic, real-world guns. His companion Jamie manages to knock out one of the would-be assassins before a woman named Astrid rescues the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria in her helicopter, which quickly acquires bullet holes in its gas tank. One of the gun-toting dissidents soon lies dead on the floor of Astrid's bungalow, and the others are killed when they steal the helicopter and it immediately blows up. In subsequent episodes, a political leader is shot in the back, his potential replacement is poisoned, a refugee from a nonexistent war is fatally attacked with a crowbar, and Salamander himself falls out of the TARDIS into the time-space vortex. I doubt that another Doctor Who story gets quite that nasty until Resurrection of the Daleks in the mid 1980s. The violence is placed in context as story pulls the viewer along with lots of interesting twists and turns, showing us Salamander's ruthlessness and duplicity as well as the evil intent of one of the Doctor's ostensible allies. The story has good science fiction ideas, interesting character studies and even a wonderfully humorous sequence featuring a cook whose pessimism rivals that of Narnia's Puddleglum.

And my favorite actor? I have to go with David Tennant, who (unless there is a Children in Need charity scene) has just four more appearances as the Doctor to be aired before Matt Smith take over the role. (There are three more Doctor Who specials scheduled for 2009, plus a two-part appearance in the children's spinoff show The Sarah Jame Adventures.) Much as I respect Scott Bakula's versatility, I have to say that Tennant is even more amazing. The Doctor is an extraordinary character with a huge range of emotions. David Tennant gives us all of them. We can read our favorite 900-something-year-old alien's joy and sorrows, his great age, his intelligence, heroism and enthusiasm, his vitality, loneliness and weariness as appropriate, all in David Tennant's eyes and expressions. Like the Second Doctor and Salamander, there is an unmistakable difference between the Tenth Doctor and David Tennant, a huge contrast in voice and visual characteristics, in attitude and gravitas. Tennant is a highly intelligent and thoughtful actor, a huge Doctor Who fan from childhood to adulthood who understands the character to his core. He makes the show a joy to watch, even when the script is problematic, although frankly there are few modern Doctor Who episodes I would rate lower than four out of five.

I've also watched David Tennant in a Harry Potter movie (as Barty Crouch Jr.), as a driving instructor, as Casanova, as a man trying to save the life of a goldfish and as Einstein correspondent Arthur Stanley Eddington. To be honest, I couldn't quite sit through the Casanova miniseries because the sexuality made me squirm, but Tennant is nevertheless one of the few actors I at least try to watch in roles other than the ones for which they are famous. His recent portrayal of Hamlet is being filmed for tv and will be on PBS, a fact that will probably force me to reassess my mild antipathy toward that particular play. (I'm a thousand times more enthusiastic about Shakespeare's comedies than his tragedies, but that's strictly a matter of personal taste.)

How about you? Do you go see a movie because Brendan Fraser, Tom Hanks or Kate Winslet is in it, or are you more likely to be enticed by names like Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman? Do you follow a new tv show because Joss Whedon is involved with it, or are you more interested in watching the scantily clad Eliza Dushku (for example)? Tell us about it in your blog, and please, please include a link back to this entry. I'll be back next Friday with a roundup of your responses. Like this!

For Weekend Assignment #280: Volunteers, I asked about your experience with charities or causes. I'm happy to say we got some really interesting answers. As always, I highly recommend that you check out everyone's respective blogs for the full responses, but here are the excerpts:

Julie said...
I'm a parent. I did five years on the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization, which is independent of the PTA) board. I did it because I believe in education, and felt that as a work at home parent, I could afford the time.

And boy, did it become a time sucker. I ended up spending massive amounts of time on the annual school supply sale, even when it wasn't my job. I put together a yearbook, a student directory, took pictures for the yearbook, helped with every darn thing under the sun at school, and what did I get for it?

Florinda said...
I sometimes like to think that the fact I've spent most of my career in the non-profit sector is a form of civic-mindedness in itself. One way to compensate for the essential soullessness of bean-counting for a living is to count the beans of organizations that serve a greater good, I guess. I felt the most strongly about this when I worked for the Memphis Zoo, where my work helped quantify how well it was accomplishing its missions of education and conservation, and I remained a paying member of the Zoological Society even after I'd left the city.
Mike said...
I've never actively campaigned for a candidate or volunteered like Karen does, but I was part of one a long time ago. Back in the late 70's a family acquaintance was running for governor in Illinois. You know, back before Illinois had such a bad rap. Of course I was only eight at the time, so it may have and I just didn't know.

There were also a few comments by Alan on the political content of my own answer to the question:

Alan said...
Having followed the US debate on healthcare I’m astonished by the amount of disinformation about the NHS being peddled by right wing groups. As if having free universal healthcare is somehow a bad thing.
The argument is false anyway as, from what I gather, Obama is not even suggesting anything approaching a British system.


I should qualify that last statement. It may resemble the NHS in that he is offering an insurance scheme but the likeness would be on a superficial level only. By its very nature any scheme would have to take into account the current system of health insurance and the whole infrastructure which goes with it (drug supply etc.) and the individual needs of the US, which are specific to that country. A sensible debate would help.

My Round Robin entry will follow in a couple of hours.



Unknown said...

Hi Karen,
Scott Bakula is definitely my favorite actor as well as one of the nicest people I know so yes, I'll watch almost anything he's in. Even saw Lord of Illusions although I hated that one. Not my cup of tea. But some movies I'll watch because I've read the book. The Time Traveler's Wife was one of those and so are the Harry Potter movies. I'll usually go to a Pixar or Disney movie because they do quality stuff - UP was one of those - although Monsters vs Aliens stunk.

Guess I have to say except for Scott, it's the subject matter that draws me into a movie, not the actor. TV - it's the writing definitely. That's first. If it's not well written, I don't stick around to see how good the actors are - usually.

Karen Funk Blocher said...

Hi, Jo - good to see you! I know exactly what you mean about Lord of Illusions. I managed to sit through it and even sorta kinda enjoy it, but it is SO not my sort of movie and only Scott's involvement could get me to watch such a thing. Good point about Pixar - it's rare for a studio's reputation to be enough to almost guarantee high quality, but Pixar fits the bill.

Thanks for stopping by!

fdtate said...

I didn't have much to say about the topic, but was very wishy-washy in saying it.

Florinda said...

I picked a side, and here it is.

Amy said...

I participated for the first time. :)

Mike said...

Okay, I'm up. I didn't think I had an answer until I started typing. :)