The Quest is the Quest: Recovering Missing Doctor Who Episodes

Doctor Who, "The Enemy of the World"

The Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria hold on for dear life.

The announced recovery, and immediate merchandising, of nine previously missing episodes of Doctor Who has sent fandom into dances of joy. The whole saga reveals questions about the shifting value of media works, the hidden economies and politics of global television, and narratives of discovery.

First though, let me give the very short version of how dozens of episodes of Doctor Who (as well as many other 1950s and 1960s programs) went missing from the BBC Archives in the 1970s, and how fans and media historians have spent decades trying to find them. (The long version is to be found in Richard Molesworth’s unparalleled history Wiped!, which will no doubt have to go into a third edition after this week’s revelation. DoctorWho.TV also has a nice, new brief account up). It was standard practice of the BBC until the mid 1970s to junk most of its tapes and even films once their apparent usefulness (as either archive material ready for reuse, or commercial assets ready to sell to broadcasters outside the UK) had expired. There were seemingly sound reasons for this at the time in terms of resource management. Videotape was particularly expensive in the 1960s, and master tapes were routinely wiped and reused. Kinescopes–16mm film copies of live or taped TV programs–were only useful as long as they could be licensed. While the syndication market had certainly taken off by then, validating a shelf life of a few years, the longer-term value of television, either culturally or industrially, had yet to be realized at that point. Something can’t be effectively protected if it’s not valued (as we’re learning all the time about the planet itself, unfortunately). This policy reversed in the late 1970s, at which point the BBC realized it was losing its heritage, and efforts began to recover what was lost.

40 episodes of Doctor Who have been found since 1981, leaving 97 left missing, remaining to be found, or, more intriguingly, actually found but yet to be formally announced (as rumors circulating around fandom for the past year or two would have it; see below). The sites of these recoveries have been wildly varying, but all point to the cultural and economic power of British colonialism, even in the 1960s and 1970s (especially in Asia, Africa, and Australia and New Zealand), and the unpredictable and serendipitous fates of such systems when they end. Regimes most often don’t come to a clean stop, but rather tail off and fragment, leaving a mess for successor regimes to either ignore or sort out. Historians, museums, archives, and collectors of every interest have experienced or are familiar with stories of rescuing important artifacts or documents from trash heaps, attics, walls, or even on their way to incinerators. Such has been, and will continue to be, the case with recovered Doctor Who episodes, which have been found so far in dusty, forgotten storerooms or buried anonymously in collections, sitting for decades. While it seems incredible that these nine episodes (11, actually, including copies of the two that already exist in the archives) sat in a Nigerian television relay station untouched for over forty years, anyone who’s had to move out of a house or office after years or even decades knows just how much stuff–random stuff–can accumulate with minimal notice.

The discovery narratives themselves then take on the trappings of treasure hunting, clandestine meetings, and even subterfuge. Chance encounters lead to valuable finds. Furniture is moved, and out pop film cans. Secretive collectors have to be discreetly wooed. At its most romantic, this often veers into Indiana Jones or Maltese Falcon territory (and I have to think that the revelatory scene in that story must have actually played out at times in the hunt for missing episodes). Thus, this endeavor itself, when coupled with the sense of loss and tantalizing possibility (i.e., what the story could be, based on the bits and pieces that survive), elevate what once was (and let’s be honest here) a workaday, ephemeral television show into a religious text (in the sense of offering “proof” to reassure believers). The continuing belief, bubbling through fandom even after this week, that yet more episodes have actually been recovered, also adds a complicated filter of suspicion towards the BBC, perhaps still not forgiven for losing the episodes in the first place: they have them, so why can’t they tell us?

As with any “lost” cultural artifact, I’m glad these episodes are back. Indeed, since they come from a particularly “lost” era (1966-68) of my favorite TV show, I’m flappy-hands-of-joy ecstatic. I’ve only seen one of the recovered episodes so far, the first part of “The Enemy of the World,” but I’m already reassessing my thoughts on this story and this time in the show’s history. I’m sure the remaining episodes will open up more windows I didn’t even realize were shut. That said, in all our nostalgic glow and historic intrigue for the episodes themselves, we need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the broader contexts of the “loss” and “recovery” of a cultural product, and the complex relationship of media objects to our identities as fans and as stewards of forgotten or even disavowed cultural regimes.

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The Fandorica Opens: On Gallifrey One 2012

As expected, I had a fantastic time at Gallifrey One’s Network 23 Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles. There are already many great write-ups online (check the list at the bottom of the post), all well worth reading. This review differs in that I’m trying to balance my fan and academic perspectives on the event.

The obvious point of comparison is with academic conferences. I’ve been going to both fan and academic events for almost the same amount of time (over two decades), and in many respects, fan conventions have a remarkably similar vibe, but with the critical difference of less anxiety and judgement. As with academic conferences, the main engine of cons is social: striking up conversations with strangers, or just picking up where you left off with old friends. While there are differences–not everyone can be on a panel or have an awesome costume or hang out in the green room–cons are a far less hierarchical space than any academic conference. Almost nobody’s actual real-world career hinges on their demeanor or appearance at a con; given most of the con goers, including many of the celebrity guests, hang out in the lobby talking and drinking till the wee hours, this is a very good thing indeed. Because of this lack of rank, discussions at Gally were always as relaxed, open, random, profane and long as they could be (once past that nerdy awkwardness that all of us shared, and that Radio Free Skaro podcaster Warren Frey pointed out is now, bizarrely, a trendy affected hipster trait). Indeed, many of the best conversations I had at Gally did not even involve Doctor Who, or television.

Tiki Dalek

The Tiki Dalek, or, as I called it, Gilligan's Dalek (Flickr photo credit: jtrummer)

As at MLA, NCA, SCMS or every other academic gathering, there were also many discussion panels at Gally. However, rather than a series of anxiously scripted presentations, panels were instead joyfully rambling gatherings that nonetheless produced much more engagement than the usual scholarly session. A panel of SF writers discussing managing their creative lives was particularly energetic and direct, offering up seasoned, pragmatic, and occasionally contentious advice on work-for-hire, creative control, and finding an agent. Interaction between panelists and audience throughout the weekend was always informal, with a minimum of restraint, especially given the rapid 55-minute sessions. Understandably, some sessions, in the large main room, functioned more formally, with media-savvy fans interviewing guest actors, directors, and writers. But even then, discussions were lively and intriguing, as was especially the case in the revealing “Doctor Who in the 60s” panel which featured long-time fan/producer/writer/editor Gary Russell interviewing original 1963 actor William Russell and director Waris Hussein, and 1965 companion Maureen O’Brien. While certainly not all panels were as coherent or engaging as they could have been, that’s always the case at SCMS and every other academic gathering I’ve ever attended as well. In that regard, thankfully Gally doesn’t go rigidly non-stop from 8 till 6 in two-hour chunks, but rather has a more open and sociable schedule that encourages sleeping in and staying up late. Nothing “officially” started till 10am at the earliest each day, and in addition to the perpetual “lobbycon” (the unofficial party that ran nonstop in the Marriott lobby from Wednesday through Monday nights), there were many late-night events and panels, a few starting as late as 1am, each night of the con.

Moreover, the vibe at Gally was also very distinct from that at Comic-Con, and most other cons, for that matter. While the sheer scope of Comic-Con insures its own particular appeal to geekdom (myself included; this year will be my fourth), it’s also a much more impersonal experience. One cowers at the foot of the temple of pop culture amidst tens of thousands of teeming pilgrims at Comic-Con. In contrast, Gally, while growing rapidly (with a record 3183 coming this year, a 45% growth from the previous record set in 2011), still feels homey and informal, rather than public and anonymous. It’s a huge party, vs. a massive festival. In comparing the events, a few of us reasoned that the physical exhaustion of just one day of Comic-Con is about equal to that of three days of Gally, with the net enjoyment of the latter much greater than the former. Moreover, given that all involved at Gally love love love Doctor Who, there were no turf battles over space or influence of particularly distinct demographics or fandoms (as has unfortunately been the case at Comic-Con, especially in the recent years of its massive growth).

That said, as undeniably enjoyable and community-building an event as Gally is, there are certainly a few issues with the way time and space are manipulated there (see what I did there?). Despite an overwhelmingly positive and welcoming atmosphere, and a near gender balance (on the whole; see below) and diversity of sexualities, the con is still not as racially diverse as I thought it would be. Then again, neither are academic conferences, unfortunately. Diversity of fandoms is also an intriguing tension, as Emily Kausalik examines in her account of the weekend. Gally provided panels on many avenues of interest–from interviews with the series’ actors to discussion of its works in other media forms to explorations of its production history to critiques of its representations of sexuality to discussions of fancraft–but this resulted in some Balkanization along interest and (to an extent) gender lines. I missed a few more typically female-oriented fannish panels (on topics like shipping and cosplay) that I had planned on attending in favor of hanging out with several of my old, and admittedly mostly male, fan friends. Again, a situation not unlike SCMS, sadly. I owe fellow acafan and feminist Doctor Who blogger Courtney Stoker a particular apology for missing her late-night cosplay/crossplay panel in that regard, but look forward to her write-up (until then, here’s a great interview she gave to io9, along with some excellent photos).

Courtney Stoker as the TARDIS

Acafans cosplay too! Here's Courtney Stoker, as the TARDIS (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

Speaking of cosplay, this was an area which frankly blew me away at Gally. I’ve been going to cons off and on for over 25 years, and have  probably seen thousands of costumed fans. But the creativity and craftspersonship I saw at Gally was at another level of awesome. There were the expected sea of scarves, bow ties, fezzes, and skinny bespoke suits that you’d expect from the most popular Doctors. But there were also many companions, obscure villains, and even more obscure one-off characters, all in amazing detail. Most impressively, however, were the overwhelmingly female cosplayers who “versioned” particular characters or themes. I lost count of how many incredible crossplay and femme Doctors, Captain Jacks, Daleks, and even TARDISes I saw; the pictures here indicate just a fraction what went on all weekend. The typical Comic-Con costumes seem like castoffs from the Halloween rental store by comparison.

The great level of dedication and love shown to Doctor Who by the most devoted fans–most clearly in cosplay and other fanart, but also in more archival endeavors, such BroaDWcast‘s mission to catalog every run of the classic series in every country–is probably what most discomforts academics. However, it’s also fandom’s greatest similarity with academia. Who other than the academic or fan devotee would trawl through dusty archives looking for discarded bits of knowledge, or frequently re-read or re-watch a text with an eye for new analyses and interpretations, or critique and reconfigure the very acts of devotion? While I still don’t agree that everything is/could be fandom, or that “acafan” is a useful long-term designation, I left Gally more encouraged than ever that these worlds are not only compatible but could powerfully work together. I’m working on a few projects that hopefully do just that.

In the meantime, of course, I’ve already registered for The 24 Hours of Gallifrey One in 2013, celebrating 50 years of Doctor Who. Hopefully I’ll see you there as well!

Eleven and the Girl Who Waited

The Amy Who Waited and a Femme Eleven (Flickr photo credit: bio_grrl)

More Gally coverage…

Twitter hashtag: #gally (unofficially; the con itself prefers #gallifreyone, but most of the attendees favor #gally)

Forum: Gallifrey Base (the largest, and one of the longest-running, Doctor Who online communities)

Some Reviews:

Emily Kausalik, “Gally Rewind: A Tale of Two Cons” (with an excellent back-and-forth between Emily and Courtney Stoker in the comments)

fangirlknitscarf, “Geek Girl Gushes: Gallifrey One’s Network 23”

Kyle Anderson, “The Wrath of Con,” Nerdist.com

Armillary Observations, “The Maturing of Doctor Who Fandom, or 3 Reasons Gallifrey One is a Must-See for Who Fans”

Crave Online, “Gallifrey One 2012 Video Interviews”

Teresa Jusino, “Gallifrey One 2012: The Who-iest Place on Earth,” Tor.com

Andrew Reynolds, “Gallifrey One Review,” Kasterborous.com

Going Back to Gally

DK and Dalek

Aca and fan at Comic-Con. That's me on the right.

This weekend I will be in Los Angeles at the 23rd annual Gallifrey One convention. Gallifrey One, or “Gally” as its attendees call it, is the largest, longest-running Doctor Who convention in the world. I’m finally going back after a six-year absence, during which time the revived series (starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and, currently, Matt Smith in the title role) has achieved massive global and American success. This in turn has fueled attendance at the con: at my last Gally in 2006, attendance was about 750; this weekend, over 2500 people are expected to turn out.

This is my fourth Gally. I attended the very first one way back in 1990, and did not attend for years due mostly to living in Madison as a grad student of limited means for the remainder of the decade (though I did regularly attend the midwestern DW/SF con of that time, Visions, held down the road in Chicago; the original site, last updated in 2000, is still up). I finally went back in 2005 and 2006, but haven’t been able to justify the time or expense since then, until now.

So, why go back? This is complicated, but cuts to the core of my identity.

While I’ve long loved SF and SF media, I’ve always had a mixed relationship with organized fandom. I’ve known and admired many amazing people actively involved with fandom (some of whom for over twenty years), and shared their passions and interests in person at cons, through newsletters and zines, and online. However, at the same time, I’ve also always been unable to “fully commit” to fandom. In large part, this has been a matter of time, particularly during grad school, and when my children were very young. But overall, I’ve realized this reluctance is more a longstanding result of my scholarly orientation, which, while generally supportive of the political idea of fandom, has not been especially welcoming to its affective expression. The party line in cultural studies has generally gone like this: fandom is great if it’s for or against something substantial (and especially subversively); but fandom for fandom’s sake is kinda embarrassing. Cultural studies’ primary theorist Stuart Hall crystallized this sentiment in his 1981 article “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” which ended with his dismissal of the idea that popular culture mattered beyond the political.

While this view of popular culture, and fandom specifically, has certainly changed in cultural studies over the past three decades, and “fannish” modes of engagement have become arguably dominant across media culture, there remains a whiff of suspicion in academia about active participation in affective cultural engagement, as if you can’t “cross the streams” between the two worlds. Attempts to bridge these gaps, most notably through the concept of the hybrid “academic fan” or “acafan,” have explored intriguing conceptual territory over this period, yet have remained unsatisfying, as the series of discussions at Henry Jenkins’ blog last summer bore out. (bonus: here’s my colleague Suzanne Scott on her own misgivings about the term and fannish identities) I’m uncomfortable with the term “acafan” primarily because it leaves out many other possible perspectives (producer, consumer, citizen, viewer, owner, etc.), reducing the range of viable encounters with media texts to a narrow band of intellectual and/or affective engagement.

Rather than continuing dodging the issue, however, I’ve come around to embracing the contradictions; it’s either that or continued frustration, after all. I am an academic. And a fan. In that order as well, for what it’s worth. Moreover, I am also a producer of media content and media knowledge, a consumer of media products, a media mentor to my children and students, and a citizen of media-facilitated states. There is no one “hat” I, nor anyone else, can decide on. Accordingly, I’m trying to grasp experiencing the world through these multiple conceptions. My growing appreciation for comics has led me to new courses and research projects, but it has also given me a greater understanding of the variety of cultural production, distribution, and consumption in the digital age; fostered an addiction to Wednesdays at Keith’s Comics in Dallas, and inspired me to attend the San Diego Comic-Con every July, as both a scholar (observing the cultural economies of fandom up close) and a fan (standing in line for hours to see Matt Smith and Karen Gillan). When I talk about my experiences at Comic-Con in class, students always ask if I go to enjoy it or study it. I always say, “Yes!”

My return to Gally this week extends this embrace back to my roots with old friends, and my first fandom, Doctor Who. The scholar in me is looking forward to seeing how the con has grown and attracted a new generation and new modes of fandom; the fan in me just wants to hang out, meet friends, and talk about Doctor Who, SF, and whatever else comes up for three days. I see this as not only reconnecting with this milieu, but forging new models of engagement across these streams. Indeed, with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who looming in 2013, I’m hoping to make enough connections to spark a new collaborative project (that’s both “aca” and “fan” in the best ways, but also engaged with broader contextual issues), but more on that later…

I’ll report back on Gally. In the meantime, I challenge all of us to think more about how our streams cross (outside of academia, fandom, and every other box we live in), and how to cross them with others.

Comics, History, TV, Politics and other Things We Used To Take For Granted: dkompare vs. 2011-12

While this blog hasn’t seen anything new for quite a while, I’m still here. It’s been a busy 2011, albeit one that has missed this outlet thus far. A new school year always means a new chance to embark on new projects, or re-embark on old ones. So here we are.

As you can see from the lack of new CSI reviews, my interest in writing granular single-episode criticism more or less vanished. While I certainly respect the diligence of the many critics currently writing in this form, and enjoy reading their work, I’ve found it difficult to maintain engagement at that level. I’m admittedly even finding it difficult to maintain engagement in even watching television (not just CSI) at that pace anymore, let alone writing about it. So what you’l mostly find here instead this year, in the interest of more consistent output, is a wider, big-picture scope.

One of the areas I’m going to address more directly this year is comics. While my film and TV viewing is still in flux, I’ve returned this year to the relative pleasures of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” as Scott McCloud put it in his famous definition in Understanding Comics. More specifically, I’ve returned to the medium’s traditional place on paper. While I’m certainly intrigued by the aesthetic, cultural and industrial possibilities of digital comics, I appreciate the particular, irreplaceable qualities of ink on paper. Just as some insist on the primacy of film as a “big screen” event, I’m still quite attached to actually holding comics in my hands. That said, I’m much less medium-phobic about the written word, which might as well be digital.

My renewed interest in comics is broad, taking in the form in its many iterations. While I considered abandoning superheroes entirely after years of disappointing and redundant mega-events, I’ve decided they’re still a fascinating component of the medium, and popular culture more broadly. Still, “capes” are only a sliver of all that’s out there in comics; imagine if the full extent of television studies was the traditional multi-camera sitcom. We–and I include myself in this admonition–have neglected the range of comics for much too long. The recent Cinema Journal In-Focus essays on comics’ place in media studies reiterated the importance of both broadening and deepening our understanding of the medium. So there will be a major emphasis on comics this year, beginning with some thoughts on the issues brought up in CJ, followed by an examination of DC’s controversial “new 52” reboot of its entire universe.

Beyond comics, I’m continually interested in what I like to call Things We Used to Take For Granted, like cable TV subscriptions, blockbuster movies and pop stars. These and similar practices and concepts have been shifting for quite a while, but I suspect the next 5-10 years will see some significant changes as creators, consumers and industries adapt to new circumstances. To take one example, we cancelled our cable subscription in April, so these four months have been a relative terra incognita for this TV scholar, who’s frankly never gone without it. It’s compelled us to explore alternatives to the expectations that “cable TV” has long promised, a journey I highly recommend (not least of which because it will save you $50-100 a month).

Additionally, lest you think everything’s all new and shiny here, you’ll see a renewed commitment to history. At the risk of sounding too much like those stodgy commenters in articles on digital humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in our rush to do more, faster, and probably with fewer resources, we run the increasing risk of neglecting our histories. In this new era of the thoroughly “digital generation” (born since 1993), my primary concern in this regard is for my students, and particularly the coming generation of media scholars. As I stated in my reflections on the field of media studies at last spring’s SCMS conference, all of us are stewards of scholarship, and of the very idea of higher education. While we should of course continue to explore the ramifications and qualities of “the digital” and new technologies in media and in our lives, we shouldn’t sacrifice our understanding of the past. Sometimes I fear that access to the past will become another one of those Things We Used to Take For Granted, and that we’ll lose it entirely if we’re not careful.

Finally, a word about politics. In case you haven’t noticed yet, these are trying times. They’re certainly the most trying times in my forty-odd years of existence. Moreover, the scope and depth of the issues we face are catastrophically ill-served by what passes for context and understanding in what’s left of the news business (that Thing We Used to Take for Granted as “journalism”). The only thing more disappointing? The deepening inefficacy of the political class, which in this country at least, now runs the gamut from timid corporate apologist on the “left” to bellowing apocalyptic fascist on the “right,” with a grotesque array of slick operators and tea-stained brownshirts in between. The events of the last decade (and particularly of the last three years) have convinced me the problems we face are far, far beyond any party affiliation, nationality, religion, gender, or category of identity. The good news is that the tools to deal with them are right in front of us. So, while you might not expect such commentary from a media scholar’s blog, it’s all connected; indulge me.

So: welcome to 2011-12! I’ll be right back. In the meantime, check out the discussion I had with Alex Juhasz and Jay Bushman about the contentious concept of the “acafan” (i.e., the academic who also self-identifies as a fan…and/or vice versa) over on Henry Jenkins’ blog. I haven’t yet caught up with the other discussions in this ambitious summer series, but I’ll offer some extended thoughts on them here as soon as I do.

"I wear a lanyard now. Lanyards are cool."

CSI 11.12 – A Kiss Before Frying

Greg and Ellen

"Forget it, Greg. It's Vegas."

The pastiche was once a radical choice in mainstream television. Layering the tropes of different (and usually older) genres atop familiar storyworlds offered intriguing challenges for writers, cast and crew, and challenged viewers’ ability to juggle multiple references and allusions. Experiments are peppered throughout the 1950s through 1970s, but it was in the 1980s where it became one of the key markers of a series’ aims for “quality.” Shows like Moonlighting, St. Elsewhere and thirtysomething ostentatiously aired the occasional episode drenched in pastiche, self-consciously reveling in the exercise. A few entire series in those years and thereafter (e.g., Max Headroom, Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks) even made such exercise their primary flavor. It’s not for nothing that these moments have long been hailed by media scholars as postmodern exemplars.

By now, however, these episodes are hardly radical. They’ve moved through a baroque phase and have now settled into being just another sort of pleasant, easy-to-enjoy, unthreatening bit of television. Older viewers have seen the likes of this for going on 30 years, after all. If anything, they’re now even more reassuring than normal episodes, in that they trade largely on nostalgia (not only for the past, but for the distilled present). After 11 seasons, CSI is certainly no stranger to these waters, with everything from Frankenstein to Rashomon to (of course) Casino and even Word Wars getting pleasantly Bruckheimered. Thus, it is to the series’ credit that they know that we know the score, and instead of trying hard to surprise us, they let us kick back and watch it all unfold, just as we’ve seen it many, many times before.

In this case, the source material is proto films noir: i.e., the classic detective films of the 1940s (best exemplified by The Maltese Falcon) filled with odd characters, double crosses, and dark secrets. The grainy, brutal, and quick circa 1940s-looking monochrome opening tipped us off, but the second the woman claiming to be Ellen Whitebridge (a fantastically Hammett-like name) slid into the lab (on a tour) and made eyes with Greg, the pieces all fell into place. He was smitten. A schoolteacher moonlighting as a burlesque performer, she was a classic femme fatale, seemingly pure (as the driven snow, they used to say), but “drawn that way” (as soul-sister Jessica Rabbit once described herself).

There were some effective moments of uncertainty, at least initially. The shock revival of the grotesquely burned first victim was a nice “gotcha!” moment, and the side trip into the South African apartheid enforcer feinted to an entirely different kind of revenge story. But the revelation tying the cryptic footage from the teaser to the present was as comforting as the umpteenth novel from your favorite mystery writer. While hardly plausible, the clues add up, and the show delivers the familiar flavors with verve. We know just what’s going to go down as soon as Greg gets that call in the last few minutes, and that’s perfectly fine. It lacks suspense, but scores some style points.

Particular notice to Eric Szmanda, who still rarely gets the leading turn to this degree, but delivered nicely here; renowned neo-burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, coolly vamping it up as both Ellen and her doomed grandmother, Agnes La Plouffe; and writer Evan Dunsky, who duly laid on the clichés yet never made them too tacky (a lesson Weddle and Thompson still need to learn on their run on the show). Great, genre-specific lines include Greg telling Nick: “She’s a beautiful woman who has no idea how beautiful she is,” Catherine comforting Greg at the end: “I’ve been blinded by lust once or twice…I’ve got an eye for the rotten ones,” and Ellen’s lovely parting line, “For what it’s worth, I’ve loved you since Tuesday.”

Again, none of this was earth-shattering, but that’s not the point anymore. This was a series unwinding a bit more in its old age, taking us on a familiar trip, and letting us relax and enjoy the scenery.

NOTES:

Semi-Obligatory Grissom Reference: None. Holding back for 1.13, “The Two Mrs. Grissoms,” probably.

Going Off Shift: Although it ended badly for him, it was nice to see Greg get to unwind on screen, getting flirty over martinis and dinner with Ellen. Sara again did not appear in this episode, but will have much to do coming down the road.

Morbid moment: Stolen from Se7en, true, but the “I’m not dead yet!” shocker in the open was a nice surprise. I loved Dave’s deadpan response as the almost-corpse is put an ambulance: “Call me if his condition worsens.” Similarly, Ray had fun putting together his own electric chair and zapping a gel dummy.

I remember this one time…: Lots of apocryphal Old Vegas lore undergirding the revenge tale; I wonder if the life of Bugsy Siegel is just fair game for such speculation. In addition, both Catherine and Nick offer Greg some earned advice (seen several times over the years) on getting carried away with lust.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell


CSI 11.11 – Man Up

Nick pays off Greg

Worth $100?

One of the truly great things about Las Vegas (in myth, and to an extent, in reality) is its invitation to let it rip. “Sin City” beckons, and we can’t resist. “C’mon. Go for it!” This license is still one of the most compelling aspects driving CSI, enabling hapless characters to embroil themselves in all manner of ostensibly “bad” behavior. When the fatal “bad” decision crystallizes years of frustration and inadequacy, as has been the case many times throughout the series (including already this season), the moment, and consequences, are even more intriguing.

Such is the case for this episode, a mid-season trifle, but a pretty tasty one nonetheless. While the broad threads of the A-plot have certainly been seen time and again on CSI (guys from out of town go a little wild, local sex worker ends up dead), as I indicate above, I never tire of this plot. And here we get an oddly arch treatment of the whole endeavor. Not comic, per se, but faintly ironic. The whole thing starts from a level of detachment, with Greg, Hodges, Mandy and Nick at the lab, debating whether or not a “body” appearing in a photo on sleazy Vegas true crime website is real or not, with all the zeal of discussing a mildly entertaining YouTube video. Nick and Greg have a $100 bet over this, and it sets off the whole investigation; they wouldn’t have even discovered the body otherwise.Throughout the episode, Nick, Greg and Brass have seen this all before, and although they’re never outright dismissive, they pursue the case with a detached bemusement. Seeming far from his usual empathy, Nick basically shrugs and nods at the killer’s confession.

That is, he lowers the stakes, further undermining the killer’s ridiculous motive (i.e., he was tired of being branded a “loser”). What really makes this work is the emptiness and joylessness of the Vegas adventure plotted by the three Chicago guys. Like all hopped-up frat boys in Vegas (even ones in their 30s, as these three are), they think they’re doing their own version of The Hangover, when really they’re just being massive pains in the ass. The casting here worked particularly well, with Rich Sommer more or less channelling a 21st century version of his Mad Men sad sack Harry Crane (gone homicidal), Kevin Weisman giving us a pathetic, hungover, “F it all” take on the lovable Marshall Flinkman (from Alias), and–swear to God it works–freakin’ Carrot Top, as himself, apparently a bored, hard-partying Vegas celeb who lets his fans drink him into a stupor in a limo and post the photos on Facebook.

As with the plot, so with the narration. Again, like the regulars, we’ve seen this all before, but director Alec Smight and the cast and crew still get a little more out of even the usual investigation montages (the sequence with the cash from the ATM was particularly well done). Accordingly, this is perhaps my favorite episode this season: far from great, but standard-issue CSI at its best.

That said, the B-plot, involving Hodges busting a couple of textbook redneck salvage yard operators, is pointless and so dull that even a spectacular head-on bus collision is wasted as an aside. It could have been plopped down anywhere this season. Appearing suitably bored, Ray just stands around letting Hodges do the heavy lifting (fair enough: every lead should have a few “mail it in” opportunities each season, I suppose). Still, Hodges, out in the field, actually gets to be Grissom-like in his final confrontation with the greasy pair.

NOTES:

Obligatory Grissom Reference: None. Hm. Maybe they’re finally moving on?

Going Off Shift: Hodges’ vintage motorcycle infatuation is apparently part of his post-Wendy crisis, which he realizes when questioning the dead biker’s ex (a Wendy lookalike), much to Ray’s embarrassment. Sara does not appear in this episode.

Morbid moment: The gore was light this week. That said, the fake murder re-enacted in an actual murder (of the same woman) a day later was a nice wrinkle.

I remember this one time…: Catherine claims to have come up with the idea for the Greek warrior costume (at one of her Dad’s casinos) when she was a kid.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell


CSI 11.6 – Cold Blooded

Ray examines the T RexThis is a typical two-case outing, with two unrelated cases offering distinct flavors of CSI: serious and silly.

Here, the latter is provided by the murder by T. Rex of a jealous paleontology student after an animatronic dinosaur show. This provided plenty of eye candy for promos, and, as with the gator a few weeks back, lots of opportunity for puns and allusions. Ray is paired with Hodges, who, of course, geeks out at the prospect of seeing these virtual lizards up close. The student’s death by teeth turns out to be due to his girlfriend deciding to go “carnivore” and reject his nerdy vegan ways. Bizarre and completely implausible, but not nearly enough so. The coding of a “natural” female sexual desire as carnivorous-like-a-meat-eating-dinosaur was offensive, but that was to be expected. What was unexpected was how flat all this was. Ray looked bored all the way through.

The serious side drew from a series staple, the old case. Like the return of the repressed, prior cases and convictions inevitably seep or crash back into the present on CSI, drawing our heroes into unresolved traumas. The trigger this time was a case involving two missing girls from “five years” back (though not from a televised episode, for a change), where a killer confessed and was convicted, but the bodies never found. The father of one of the girls turns up dead, and the mother of the other is the prime suspect. What eventually transpires shows how grief can be ruthlessly exploited, and closure never quite resolved. While this storyline should have used a bit more Catherine, who spent most of the episode on the sideline in her office, it was quite rightly centered on Nick, who is our default, grim Bearer of Bad News.

While the dino-plot was too pedestrian, the case of the missing girls was fairly compelling stuff. More than anything, though, this episode showed how multiple cases like this should be the norm, rather than the exception, to allow for variety and for just enough narrative space to work well.

NOTES:

Obligatory Grissom Reference: None, for a change, not even from Hodges.

Obligatory “Celebrity” Cameo: Ladies and gentlemen, Katee Sackhoff, playing against type as tough, feisty and physical. “I’ve been working on my sensitivity,” she quips, right before kicking in a door. That’s our Katee!

Going Off Shift: Hodges takes pictures of himself with the dinos.

Morbid moment: With the dinosaur death played for laughs, the genuinely awful revelation of both the dead girls was a graphic reminder of memory and grief. The slo-mo montage of the discovery of the second girl, and Nick’s notification of her mother, was a standard moment, but that was the point: this is something these guys do all the time, and it never gets easy.

I remember this one time…: We had a flashback to “five years” ago, and the initial case involving the girls, but not from a televised episode.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell