Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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When I came downstairs to eat what I continue to call breakfast—despite it being closer to 2:30 pm than, say, 8:30 am—this is what was in the “classroom.”

March 26

Nell appears to have discontinued the “Word of the day” for now. She also left the title of my afternoon classes to our younger daughter’s discretion. However, the press of the latter’s still-active social life kept her from formulating a suitable name, so I stepped in to fill the void.

And, in fact, when the girls and I convened, closer to 3 pm than 2:30 pm, we began by reading aloud from the Constitution of the United States:

  • Article I, Section 7, Paragraph 1
  • Article I, Section 8

US Constitution–Congress Roles

The rest of the lesson may be found here: March 26

The traditional processes by which the United States House of Representatives (“House”) passes legislation was met with a metaphorical yawn, but the workings of the United States Senate (“Senate”) generated a bit more enthusiasm. Our younger daughter, in particular, was quite interested in the twists and turns of getting the Affordable Care and Patient Accountability Act—better known as Obamacare—passed, and she was riveted by the pivotal role Arizona Senator John McCain played in saving it. I did my best to act out McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” vote.

Nell and I are continuing to learn how best to structure what, when and how we teach our daughters—when they are not working and learning on their own. Seeing how fragile our younger daughter—who has attention deficit disorder and a not-yet-formally-diagnosed learning disability—is by 5 pm, I mixed things up a bit.

I also wanted to avoid snapping at them for the third time this week.

Rather than discuss American politics for an hour, have an hour-long break, then reconvene for another hour-long session on applied math, I divided my discussion of the House and Senate into two parts: roles and elections. The break was only 20 minutes long, and we were finished for the day by 5 pm.

As you see, I spent some time discussing gerrymandering. Our older daughter was appalled at my drawing of a salamander—calling it a “giant worm”—and my rendition of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She took it upon herself to fix the latter, adding her own personal touches.

Gerrymandered

I am pleased to report this was one of our best classes thus far—and that includes both halves.

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Even with the altered routine, however, our daughters began sniping at each other as they ate their dinners and watched some television. The proximate cause was a tussle over who would hold the remote control; our older daughter usually does, but tonight her sister really wanted it. As a result, our older daughter called her sister a “brat,” something she has been admonished many times in the past for doing. In return, our younger daughter used the parental trick of calling an obstreperous child her first, middle and last name—but she used a shrill and piercing tone of voice.

They were sitting just outside of my home office—a converted sun room which Nell wistfully calls “the nicest room in the apartment”—when I heard the outraged cry of “Blanky Blank Berger!” Not in the best frame of mind, I came out of my office to express my displeasure at the younger daughter’s tone and to make clear she is not the parent, Nell and I are.

And, wow, did I lay it on thick. I reminded them in my firmest and harshest Daddy voice how we were in this for the long haul, and we needed to do this all together, and I do not even remember what all else. Younger daughter was now crying—but mostly because of the injustice that I had not tumbled to the fact her sister had called her a brat. Once that penetrated my skull, though, I reprimanded our older daughter. Walking in from the kitchen, Nell reinforced my disapproval. When I suggested the older daughter had earned a consequence, her mother suggested loss of the ChromeBook for the rest of the evening. However, once the defendant correctly pointed out the usual consequence for calling her sister a brat is to cough up five dollars to that sister, Nell realized she could not arbitrarily change the rules like that; a few minutes later, our younger daughter had a five-dollar bill sitting on the table in front of her. And the entire episode, which had lasted barely ten minutes, was quickly forgotten.

This small slice of family drama reveals that, after two weeks, sheltering in place is beginning to take its toll. Thus, when the Amazon Fresh order she had placed very early Tuesday morning arrived Thursday evening, Nell thoroughly scrubbed the black-marble-topped “island” in our kitchen before placing any grocery bags on it. She washed all the berries in a colander then put them into a large Tupperware container. She also wiped down every package of food prior to our putting them into their respective storage places. Later that night, meanwhile, as I set up the kitchen for its nightly cleaning so I could watch with Nell the second episode of season one of Broadchurch—which Nell has been asking me to watch for years, if only because of how many actors and actresses who have appeared in Doctor Who are in it—my frustration level boiled over into a series of angry “Oh, for f—k sake!” expulsions. For the record, I am loving the series—its leisurely-unfolding murder investigation and emphasis upon revealing the darker secrets of a supposedly idyllic small town compare favorably to the first season of Twin Peaks.

It does helps tremendously that the weather has been relatively warm and sunny the last few days, and we have three porches opening off our two stories; climbing multiple flights of internal stairs on a regular basis is a good aerobic workout—really, it is. Throwing a stick in our smallish back yard for our soon-to-be-six-year-old golden retriever over and over and over again works as well.

We also have a breathtakingly spectacular view of downtown Boston. Three weeks ago, if we looked through our kitchen window, we would routinely see three or more moving dots of white light as planes took off from Boston Logan International Airport. Now, it is unusual to see even a single plane in the air. That said, I cannot decide if there are fewer lights visible at night in downtown Boston’s office buildings or not.

I think there are fewer lights at night these days.

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When I came downstairs on Friday afternoon, there was no schedule on the flip chart—it was a quiet morning in Nell’s classroom—but our younger daughter had livened up that room in our unique way.

White board March 27

Earlier that day, Nell had ventured to our preferred CVS to pick up some prescriptions. This was the first time she had driven her car in 15 days, though I had moved it onto the street a few times so I could use my car—we have tandem parking—and the outing significantly improved her mood. As often as she and the girls go for runs in our neighborhood, sometimes you need actually to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, I was wicked excited to start class at 3 pm because I had prepared what I hoped would be a genuinely fun exercise—one that did not involve coin flipping, die rolling or card shuffling: a 30-question, multiple-choice quiz game.

Quiz Game 1

My heart sang when our younger daughter came out of the disordered cavern she calls a bedroom, took one look at my computer screen—I had again lugged my desktop computer into the classroom—pumped her right arm and exclaimed, “Yes!” Her sister reacted positively as well.

The rules were simple. I alternated which daughter would answer the question— older daughter went first based upon the scientifically-rigorous method Eenie Meenie Minie Moe. The questions covered everything we had discussed in the previous two weeks—political theory, American politics, statistics and the history film noir. Each question was worth one point and had four possible answers, though one answer was deliberately patently absurd; they had the desired effect of making the quiz feel less like work and more like a game. Finally, if one daughter did not answer a question correctly, her sister had the opportunity to answer it.

In the end, after a boisterous 45 minutes of laughter, our older daughter won 16-12, with two points going to Daddy because neither daughter answered two questions correctly. Her “prize,” besides bragging rights, was a giant box of Cheerios I had recently discovered in the revolving cupboard in the kitchen. Huffily reminding me, “I no longer eat cereal, I eat OATMEAL,” she declined her prize, which now sits discreetly on the kitchen counter next to my coffee maker.

There is just no pleasing some people.

And with that our second week of home schooling came to an end.

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As I said, we are still figuring out how best to home school our smart and curious daughters. After two weeks of political science and math—not coincidentally, my initial choices for my Yale major—I have settled upon the following tentative weekly schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic  videos.

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

Onward and, you know, forward we go.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing III

In two previous posts (I, II), I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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On Friday, March 20, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 20

And this homage to the brilliant Netflix series Stranger Things by our 4th-grade daughter was on the always-popular white board; apparently she still retains the obsessive love of the show I instilled in her, and one I discussed last December.

Upside Down Nora

While that same daughter had something of a rough morning, our 6th-grade daughter had a terrific morning; the latter girl is genuinely enjoying her workbooks and other projects. Providing ample time for each daughter to exercise and/or FaceTime friends helps immensely as well. That said, it was our younger daughter who, in the evening, asked if we could have “school” again tomorrow (Saturday). I am certainly happy to oblige—I have a review “quiz game” I have been thinking about putting together—but Nell and I suspect her outlook will be different in the morning. Still, to the extent these “classes” are about imposing structure and routine in the era of social distancing, maybe we should do some form of group learning activity every day, including weekends.

As I noted in the first “dispatch,” I planned to teach basic politics/government for an hour and basic applied math for an hour every weekday afternoon—except Friday. To break up the monotony, I will teach a hopefully-more-entertaining form of history on Fridays.

It is no secret I am a massive film noir fan. In October 2018, I had the opportunity to teach a course titled “What Is Film Noir” through Brookline Adult and Community Education. I only had six students, and I had a series of technical glitches trying to show movie clips—using my own DVDs—using Nell’s ancient laptop, but I nonetheless immensely enjoyed those four Wednesday nights.

Our daughters have actually watched a handful of classic films noir: both girls have seen The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; Laura; The Naked City; Strangers on a Train and Rear Window; as well as long chunks of Out of the Past. Our older daughter has also seen Double Indemnity. They each spent some time at the first-ever NOIR CITY Boston in June 2018, watching the aforementioned Murder, My Sweet and helping their father sell Film Noir Foundation merchandise; this was my “reward” for having help to set up the festival. And they have certainly heard their father talk at great length about the subject.

It thus made perfect sense when it was time for “Daddy Prepatory” yesterday afternoon for me to set up my desktop computer in the “classroom” and open the PowerPoint slides from my first class. While I basically jumped ahead to slide 22 (of 130), in which I begin to tell the history of film noir as an idea, we did linger briefly on two photographs I had used to help to establish my bona fides to teach this class in 2018.

What is Film Noir

The first one I took in July 2017. It shows part of the “film noir” section at the now-defunct Island Video Rentals on Martha’s Vineyard.

IMG_3137

The second photograph was of yours truly attending NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, California the following winter.

IMG_3603

The two-part class went extremely well, with both girls asking insightful questions for the most part; our younger daughter did try to invoke Stranger Things once or twice, along with other more recent bits of pop culture. In the first hour, we focused on how “film noir” was a label first imposed after the fact on a particular set of American crime films, starting with two French film critics in 1946. After a 30-minute break, I told them two different, albeit broadly overlapping, “origin stories” for film noir:

  1. Traditional story: it was an inevitable organic artistic movement
  2. What in my opinion is a more accurate modification: it emerged from economic and creative necessity with the rise of B-movies in the 1930s

To be fair, by the middle of the second origin story, the usual doodling-based fidgeting had become sitting on the floor playing with our golden retriever, so I wrapped up quickly.

And with that we ended—possibly—classes for week one of our necessary experiment in home schooling.

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In my previous post, I briefly discussed some thoughts I had about the efficacy of using a designated test to determine whether a person has a condition such as the novel coronavirus. Specifically, I introduced the concepts of sensitivity (the percentage of persons who have the condition who test positive for it) and specificity (the percentage of persons who do not have the condition who test negative for it). And, given how hard it is to have 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, I asserted epidemiologists generally prefer to have higher specificity (i.e., fewer false positives), which is achieved by loosening the criteria used to identify the condition. This preference stems from the relative rarity of most conditions epidemiologist study, which results in having many more false positives than false negatives.

Being the sort of person who does these sorts of things, though, I decided to use Microsoft Excel to test this idea. I set up a series of 2×2 tables such as the following in which I varied four values: sensitivity, specificity, prevalence (a proxy for whether everyone is tested, or only those persons deemed likeliest to have the condition) and the total number of tests performed.

Truth

Positive Negative
Observed Positive 142,500 42,500 185,000
Negative 7,500 807,500 815,000
150,000 850,000 1,000,000
Sensitivity 95%
Specificity 95%
Prevalence 15%
# Tested 1,000,000
Ratio FN/FP 5.7

What I was primarily interested in, beyond the raw number of false positives (FP) and negatives (FN), was the ratio of the former to the latter. Table 1 summarizes the results; the number of tests administered did not alter these ratios given the same set of sensitivity, specificity and prevalence values, so I omitted it from the table.

Table 1: Ratio of False Positives to False Negatives Using Different Combinations of Sensitivity, Specificity and Prevalence, Based on 1,000,000 Tests

Prevalence Sensitivity Specificity FP/FN #FP #FN
15% 95% 95% 5.7 42,500 7,500
90% 95% 2.8 42,500 15,000
95% 90% 11.3 85,000 7,500
80% 95% 1.4 42,500 30,000
95% 80% 22.7 170,000 7,500
33% 95% 95% 2.0 33.350 16,650
90% 95% 1.0 33.350 33,300
95% 90% 4.0 66,700 16,650
80% 95% 1.5 33.350 66,600
95% 80% 8.0 133,400 16,650
50% 95% 95% 1.0 25,000 25,000
90% 95% 0.5 25,000 50,000
95% 90% 2.0 50,000 25,000
80% 95% 0.25 25,000 100,000
95% 80% 4.0 100.000 25,000
85% 95% 95% 0.18 7,500 42,500
90% 95% 0.09 15,000 42,500
95% 90% 0.35 7,500 85,000
80% 95% 0.04 30,000 42,500
95% 80% 0.71 7,500 170,000

A test with sensitivity<80% and/or specificity<80% should not be utilized. Also, for any prevalence, the ratio of FP to FN will be the same across cases where sensitivity=specificity, albeit with different raw values.

Here are the primary conclusions from Table 1:

  • The lower the prevalence—or, in the case of COVID-19, the less you restrict testing only to those deemed likeliest to have it—the higher the likelihood you will have many more false positives than false negatives, irrespective of sensitivity and specificity
  • Within a given prevalence level, FP/FN is
    • Lowest when specificity > sensitivity
    • Highest when sensitivity > specificity
    • In the “middle” when sensitivity = specificity
  • The total number of “false” values (FP + FN) is
    • Lowest when both sensitivity and specificity are equal and close to 100%
    • Highest when sensitivity >> specificity

I saw a report on Twitter that 33% of persons testing positive were false positives. Based on these 20 scenarios, that would seem to indicate a situation where a fairly wide swath of the population is being tested (prevalence=15%), both sensitivity and specificity are at least 90%, and sensitivity > specificity. That percentage, which is not THAT meaningful, to be pehonest, would decrease if specificity were equal to or higher than sensitivity.

If you want to explore other scenarios like this, here is a protected copy of the workbook.

Disease Testing Worksheet

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

Ranking every Marvel Cinematic Universe film

My memory is slightly fuzzy on this point, but I believe I had already heard of the excellent British comedy Coupling the night I happened upon the hysterical Series 4 episode “Nightlines” sometime in late 2004 or early 2005; the show first aired on May 17, 2004. Despite being completely unfamiliar with any of the characters or previous storylines, I have rarely laughed that hard before or since.

And I was hooked, to the point where I have seen all 28 episodes multiple times. In so doing, I learned the name of the man who wrote every episode: Steven Moffat.

A little over five years later, in the late spring of 2010, a friend sent me this short video to watch. This was what finally convinced me to set aside my reticence and watch an episode of Doctor Who; please see here and here to see how THAT turned out.

Among other things, that video marked the advent of Moffat as Doctor Who showrunner, a fitting reward for writing some of the best episodes of the post-2005 revival to that point. It also meant that by the end of 2010, two of my favorite television shows—period—had Moffat’s fingerprints all over them.

This probably made it inevitable, especially given my lifelong obsession with detective fiction, that I—along with my wife Nell—would eventually start watching the television show Moffat co-created and co-wrote with Mark Gatiss,[1] the one which debuted on October 24, 2010, just six months after his tenure as Doctor Who showrunner began:

Sherlock

Though I had seen him act before, in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock marked the first time I was aware I was watching an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch.

Flash forward to early January 2020, by which point I had seen every episode of Sherlock, as well as every episode of Coupling and post-revival Doctor Who. Having worked through my obsession with Stranger Things, I was casting about for the next film or television series over which to obsess. I was well aware of the pop culture phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but until then I had not been especially interested in watching any of its 23 interconnected films. Curiously, one of our daughters had already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as portions of Avengers: Infinity War, while the other one had seen Captain Marvel on the big screen with one of her best friends. As much as I had enjoyed the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, though, none of the other characters who seemed to inhabit the MCU—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor—particularly spoke to me. And that could well be because my primary association with those characters was spending five days as a nine-year-old in early January 1976 staring blankly at Captain America on my Mighty Marvel Bicentennial wall calendar as I recovered from one of the worst flus I have ever had.

Well…there had been one mild exception. When Doctor Strange was released in 2016, starring Cumberbatch in the title role, I was intrigued. Nell and I had loved Cumberbatch in Sherlock, and there was something about his being both a doctor—my Twitter handle is @drnoir33, after all—and a “master of the mystic arts” that felt like a fresh twist on the classic superhero epic battle trope.

Plus, I was really curious about the sparkly golden circles he kept making with his hands.

Which is how I found myself watching—and genuinely enjoying—Doctor Strange roughly six weeks ago. Following a pre-credits fight scene and the opening credits, we meet Doctor Stephen Strange as he prepares for surgery. A short time later, nearing the end of the procedure, he asks a fellow physician to play the “challenge” round in a musical trivia game. After easily identifying “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione, along with its correct year of release—1977, not 1978—Strange is asked about all the “useless” knowledge he has.

His flabbergasted response recalls my own immersion in musical esoterica: “Useless? The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn!”

Doctor Strange FunkoPop

As we have been told for years about Pringles, you cannot stop at just one MCU film—especially not when your wife has a massive lifelong crush on Robert Downey, Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man in nine MCU films. Subsequent days of film watching culminated with the four of us watching the wholly-satisfying, 3-hour-long Avengers: Endgame on the evening of February 16, 2020; for me, I now only have Spider-Man: Far From Home left to watch. And we are already making plans to see Black Widow when it is released in May 2020.

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In two previous posts, I gathered online film rating data to rank…

As I watched the MCU films, I decided to perform a similar analysis of this set of films.[2] Opening a blank Microsoft Excel worksheet, for each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Date of release (according to the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb)
  • Year of release (ditto)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • Estimated budget (ditto)
  • Gross worldwide earnings (ditto)
  • IMDb score and number of raters
  • Rotten Tomatoes (RT) Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users rating the film 3.5 or higher on 0-5 scale), average user rating and number of user raters

I collected budget and earnings data because I was curious whether, and how much, estimated profit—gross earnings minus budget—was related to perceived quality. Data are current as of 1:30 am EST on February 24, 2020. Analyses were performed using Microsoft Excel (Office Home and Student 2016) and Intercooled Stata 9.2[3].

History of a financial juggernaut.

As Table 1 reveals, the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off on May 2, 2008 with the release of Iron Man. Produced for an estimated $140 million, it ultimately earned nearly $585.4 million worldwide; the resulting $445.4 million profit was more than three times what the film cost to make. At the end of the film, in the first MCU post-credits scene, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) first reveals something called “the Avenger initiative” to Downey’s Stark.

Table 1: MCU Films by release date and financial status

Title Release date Run time (mins.) Estimated budget Gross worldwide earnings Estimated profit Profit/

Budget

Iron Man 5/2/2008 126 $140 million $585,366,247 $445,366,247 3.18
The Incredible Hulk 6/13/2008 112 $150 million $264,770,996 $114,770,996 0.77
Iron Man 2 5/7/2010 124 $200 million $623,933,331 $423,933,331 2.12
Thor 5/6/2011 115 $150 million $449,326,618 $299,326,618 2.00
Captain America: The First Avenger 7/2/2011 124 $140 million $370,569,774 $230,569,774 1.65
Marvel’s The Avengers 5/4/2012 143 $220 million $1,518,812,988 $1,298,812,988 5.90
End of Phase 1
Iron Man 3 5/3/2013 130 $200 million $1,214,811,252 $1,014,811,252 5.07
Thor: The Dark World 11/8/2013 112 $170 million $644,783,140 $474,783,140 2.79
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 4/4/2014 136 $170 million $714,421,503 $544,421,503 3.20
Guardians of the Galaxy 8/1/2014 121 $170 million $772,776,600 $602,776,600 3.55
Avengers: Age of Ultron 5/1/2015 141 $250 million $1,402,805,868 $1,152,805,868 4.61
Ant-Man 7/17/2015 117 $130 million $519,311,965 $389,311,965 2.99
End of Phase 2
Captain America: Civil War 5/6/2016 147 $250 million $1,153,296,293 $903,296,293 3.61
Doctor Strange 11/4/2016 115 $165 million $677,718,395 $512,718,395 3.11
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 5/5/2017 136 $200 million $863,756,051 $663,756,051 3.32
Spider Man: Homecoming 7/7/2017 133 $175 million $880,166,924 $705,166,924 4.03
Thor: Ragnorak 11/3/2017 130 $180 million $853,977,126 $673,977,126 3.74
Black Panther 2/16/2018 134 $200 million $1,346,913,161 $1,146,913,161 5.73
Avengers: Infinity War 4/27/2018 149 $321 million $2,048,359,754 $1,727,359,754 5.38
Ant-Man and the Wasp 7/6/2018 118 $162 million $622,674,139 $460,674,139 2.84
Captain Marvel 3/8/2019 123 $175 million $1,128,274,794 $953,274,794 5.45
Avengers: Endgame 4/25/2019 181 $356 million $2,797,800,564 $2,441,800,564 6.86
Spider Man: Far From Home 7/2/2019 129 $160 million $1,131,927,996 $971,927,996 6.07
End of Phase 3

Six weeks after Iron Man hit theaters, The Incredible Hulk was released—and while it turned a modest $114.8 million estimated profit, it remains the only MCU film to have a lower estimated profit than estimated budget. Perhaps this is why the third MCU film, Iron Man 2, did not arrive in theaters for nearly two more years; while not as successful as its predecessor, its estimated profit was still more than twice its estimated budget. The same was true of the next two films, which introduced Thor (and Clint Barton/Hawkeye) and Captain America; we had already met Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in Iron Man 2.

On May 4, 2012, these six “Avengers” would unite in the most successful MCU film to date: Marvel’s The Avengers. This was not only the first film in the franchise to earn more than $1 billion in estimated profit—a staggering 5.9 times its estimated $220 million budget—it is fully 23 minutes longer than the first five films, on average; it also contains my favorite post-credits scene. Avengers provided a highly profitable end to what is now known as “Phase 1,” with the six films combining for more than $2.8 billion in estimated profit.

Phase 2 launched almost exactly one year later with Iron Man 3, the second consecutive MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit and have a profit/budget ratio (PBR) of at least 5.0. The next five films, ending with the more explicitly-comedic Ant-Man, all had a PBR of at least 2.79, with Avengers: Age of Ultron becoming the third MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit. Overall, the six Phase 2 films earned nearly $4.2 billion in estimated profit, as the franchise steadily increased in popularity. Besides Ant-Man (and, by implication, The Wasp) this Phase also introduced War Machine/James Rhodes, The Falcon/Sam Wilson, Vision/Jarvis, Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, Rescue/Pepper Potts, Winter Soldier/James “Bucky” Barnes and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and (though not yet an Avenger) Nebula.

Phase 3, the final Phase of what is known collectively as “The Infinity Saga,” began with the release of Captain America: Civil War on May 6, 2016; this film was the longest film to date, at 2 hours, 27 minutes, and it featured the debut of Spider Man. The aforementioned Doctor Strange was released six months later, also introducing Wong, with three films—one introducing Mantis and another introducing Valkyrie, Korg and Miek—following in 2017. The release of Black Panther on February 16, 2018 not only signaled the impending showdown with Thanos in the subsequent Avengers: Infinity War, it also introduced four more Avengers: the titular Black Panther/T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri and M’Baku, bringing the total to 31. Black Panther and Infinity War would become the fourth and fifth MCU films to top $1 billion in estimated profit; the latter’s estimated $1.73 billion in profit easily made it the most profitable film in the franchise to date.

Following an Ant-Man sequel and the introduction of Captain Marvel, the interlocking storylines reached their crescendo on April 25, 2019 with the release of Avengers: Endgame. This latter film, the most profitable of all time at an estimated $2.44 billion—6.9 times its $356 million estimated budget, was just over three hours long, continuing a trend of increasing run times; the previous nine Phase 3 films average 2 hours, 12 minutes in length. Overall, the 11 Phase 3 films accrued $11.16 billion in estimated profit—meaning the average Phase 3 film netted more than $1 billion—bringing the total estimated profit across all 23 MCU films to $18.15 billion, for an average of more than $660 million per film.

As for the sheer length of these films, they combine for 2,996 minutes of run time: 2 days, 1 hour and 56 minutes in total. So, you could knock them off in one weekend-long epic marathon, though I would not recommend it.

Online ratings and increasing public awareness.

Table 2 presents five online ratings and three counts of online raters for the 23 films in the MCU.

Table 2: Ratings Measures for MCU Films

Title IMDb Score

(# Raters)

Tomato-

meter

Mean Tomato-

meter Rating

(# Raters)

RT Audience Score Mean

Audience Rating

(# Raters)

Iron Man 7.9

(898,514)

94 7.7

(278)

91 4.3

(1,082,398)

The Incredible Hulk 6.7

(416,152)

67 6.2

(231)

70 3.7

(739,115)

Iron Man 2 7.0

(686,963)

73 6.5

(297)

71 3.7

(480,400)

Thor 7.0

(711.939)

77 6.7

(284)

76 3.8

(247.469)

Captain America: The First Avenger 6.9

(701,165)

80 6.9

(267)

74 3.8

(188,979)

Marvel’s The Avengers 8.0

(1,218,614)

92 8.1

(384)

91 4.4

(1,135,342)

Iron Man 3 7.2

(721.159)

79 7.0

(318)

78 3.9

(484,684)

Thor: The Dark World 6.9

(565,662)

66 6.2

(271)

76 3.9

(310,425)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 7.7

(698,659)

90 7.6

(295)

92 4.3

(281,813)

Guardians of the Galaxy 8.0

(996,682)

91 7.8

(322)

92 4.4

(255,076)

Avengers: Age of Ultron 7.3

(700,440)

75 6.8

(360)

83 4.0

(288,171)

Ant-Man 7.3

(533,917)

83 6.9

(321)

86 4.0

(166,462)

Captain America: Civil War 7.8

(621,385)

91 7.7

(406)

89 4.3

(179,582)

Doctor Strange 7.5

(554,767)

89 7.3

(364)

86 4.1

(109,969)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 7.6

(624,996)

85 7.3

(403)

87 4.2

(108,403)

Spider Man: Homecoming 7.4

(472,178)

92 7.7

(384)

87 4.2

(107,475)

Thor: Ragnorak 7.9

(534,496)

93 7.6

(409)

87 4.2

(93.959)

Black Panther 7.3

(565,228)

97 8.3

(494)

79 4.1

(88,211)

Avengers: Infinity War 8.5

(748,778)

85 7.6

(455)

91 4.5

(57.790)

Ant-Man and the Wasp 7.1

(277,244)

88 7.0

(417)

76 3.7

(24,169)

Captain Marvel 6.9

(395,538)

78 6.8

(504)

48 2.9

(94,460)

Avengers: Endgame 8.5

(670,991)

94 8.2

(504)

90 4.5

(68,431)

Spider Man: Far From Home 7.5

(264,988)

91 7.5

(427)

95 4.6

(69,222)

 Table 3, meanwhile, summarizes all 14 measures.

 Table 3: Summary MCU Film statistics

Measure Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 2014.7

(3.4)

2015 2008 2019
Length (mins.) 130.3

(15.5)

129 112 181
Estimated Budget $192,782,609

($55,961,802)

$175,000,000 $140,000,000 $356,000,000
Gross Earnings $982,024,151

($576,952,326)

$853,977,126 $264,770,996 $2,797,800,564
Estimated Profit $789,241,543

($52,6038,263)

$663,756,051 $114,770,996 $2,441,800,564
Profit/Budget 3.8

(1.6)

3.5 0.8 6.9
IMDb Score 7.5

(0.5)

7.4 6.7 8.5
# IMDb Raters 629,584.6

(216,222.3)

621,385 277,244

 

1,218,614
Tomatometer 84.8

(8.9)

88 66 97
RT Critic Rating 7.3

(0.6)

7.3 6.2 8.3
# RT Critics 363.7

(80.2)

360 231 504
RT Audience Score 82.4

(10.5)

86 48 92
RT User Rating 4.1

(0.4)

4.1 2.9 4.5
# RT User Raters 289,652.4

(308,813.2)

179,582 24,169 1,135,342

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly packed values are around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the packing. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are  within 3 SD.

Two conclusions emerge from these data:

  1. As a group, these films are relatively well-regarded
  2. There is minimal variation in how well-regarded these films are.

The median IMDb score for the MCU films is a more-than-respectable 7.4, meaning half the films have a lower score and half have a higher score. Only four films have a score below 7.0: The Incredible Hulk at a good-but-not-great 6.7 and three films at 6.9. The median Tomatometer score was a very-high 88, with a solid average RT Critic rating of 7.3. Only Hulk and Thor: The Dark World have a Tomatometer score less than 70 and an average RT Critic Rating below 6.5. Finally, the median RT Audience Score is an impressive 86 and the median RT User Rating is a very solid 4.1. Only Captain Marvel has an RT audience score below 70 and an average RT User Rating below 3.5, a medicore 48 and 2.9, respectively.

For comparison, the median IMDb Score, Tomatometer, RT Critic Rating, RT Audience Score and RT User Rating values for the 557 films I analyzed in my “guilty pleasures” post are 7.2, 85, 7.1, 76 and 3.5, respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame both have an IMDb score of 8.5, with two other films scoring 8.0.  Fully 10 films have Tomatometer≥90, topped by Black Panther at an eye-popping 97. Black Panther also has the highest RT Critic Rating at 8.3, followed closely by Endgame and The Avengers. Seven films have RT Audience Score≥90, topped by Far From Home at an astonishing 95. Finally, Infinity War, Endgame and Far From Home all have RT User Ratings of 4.5 or 4.6.

As for how little variance there are in these rating measures, all five standard deviations were lower than or (RT User Rating) identical to those for the far more disparate 557 films I analyzed in the earlier post. Broadly speaking, these films are clustered around an appraisal of “good, just shy of great.” Even the (relatively) lower-rated films like Hulk, Dark World and Captain Marvel are far more “meh” than “awful,” while films like Black Panther, The Avengers and Endgame approach “critical darling” status.

The three “number of raters” measures also have relatively low variance. Perhaps because it is the more-established online movie information resource, there are consistently many more IMDb Raters than RT User Raters. At the same time, while none of the 557 films discussed in the earliest post had more than 342 RT Critics, fully 13 MCU films do, topped by the 504 who weighed in on Captain Marvel and Endgame. Curiously, while the number of both IMDb Raters and RT User Raters appears to be lower for more recent films, as one would expect, the number of RT Critics actually seems to increase over time. Correlations (“r”)—a measure ranging from -1.00 to 1.00 of how closely two variables are linearly related to each other[4]—between date of release and each of these three measures confirm this: the former two are negatively correlated (r=-0.47 and -0.78, respectively) with date of release while RT Critics is very highly positively correlated at 0.88.

**********

To assess these films in a more sophisticated way, I used a statistical technique called factor analysis, which groups variables into underlying “dimensions,” or “factors,” used the 14 variables in Table 3. Each variable has a “factor loading” for each factor, essentially its correlation with the underlying dimension. This technique[5] generated three factors accounting for 90% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (accounting for 39% of total variance) is dominated by gross worldwide earnings (0.96), estimated profit (0.96) estimated budget (0.93), run time (0.84) and PBR (0.77); number of RT critics (0.61) and IMDb score (0.56) also load relatively high on this factor. As this dimension mostly combines the cost and profitability of each film with its length, I label it “Epicness.”

The second factor (30%) is dominated by RT audience score (0.91), average RT user rating (0.88), Tomatometer (0.85), RT Critic Rating (0.81) and IMDB Score (0.74). This dimension is clearly “Perceived Quality” (PQ).

The third factor (21%) is dominated by year of release (0.88), number of RT audience raters (-0.84), number of RT critics (-0.74) and number of IMDB raters (0.72): precisely the same pattern outlined above. This dimension is effectively “Recency;” I do not dwell on it below, echoing the “guilty pleasures” post.

Table 4: How MCU Films Compare on Three “Ratings” Dimensions

Title

Epicness

Perceived Quality Recency
Iron Man -0.66 1.19 -1.97
The Incredible Hulk -0.81 -1.55 -1.25
Iron Man 2 -0.12 -1.27 -1.01
Thor -0.80 -0.61 -0.54
Captain America: The First Avenger -0.96 -0.55 -0.39
Marvel’s The Avengers 1.05 1.01 -1.64
Iron Man 3 0.68 -0.73 -0.92
Thor: The Dark World -0.35 -1.30 -0.48
Captain America: The Winter Soldier -0.64 0.97

-0.30

Guardians of the Galaxy -0.54 1.24 -0.48
Avengers: Age of Ultron 0.96 -0.76 -0.41
Ant-Man -1.05 0.15 0.35
Captain America: Civil War 0.33 0.62 0.19
Doctor Strange -0.67 0.44 0.55
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -0.36 0.30 0.73
Spider Man: Homecoming -0.42 M 0.64 0.80
Thor: Ragnorak -0.48 0.76 0.81
Black Panther 0.47 0.49 1.06
Avengers: Infinity War 1.87 0.32 M -0.03 M
Ant-Man and the Wasp -0.74 -0.35 1.68
Captain Marvel 0.68 -2.47 1.50
Avengers: Endgame 2.98 0.47 0.33
Spider Man: Far From Home -0.66 1.19 -1.97

Table 4 reveals how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) all 23 films are on these three dimensions.[6] Values≥1.0 are boldfaced, and values≤-1.0 are italicized; median value is marked with an “M.”

When reading these values, keep in mind that each of these factors is as “disentangled” from the other two as possible, though Epicness and PQ still overlap to some extent. This is why, for example, Infinity War and Endgame have by far the highest “Epicness” scores—they are the longest films with the highest budgets earning the most money—but do not have as high PQ scores despite their generally high ratings: they are far more “epic” than they are “high quality” according to these data. And it is why Guardians and Iron Man top these films on PQ—they are the highest-rated films which, while very profitable, were not quite on the scale of the final two Avengers films; the well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier falls into this category as well. Somewhere in between are epic, but not well-regarded films like Ultron and less-epic, but relatively well-regarded films like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange.

The only film, meanwhile, with value≥1.0 on both measures is The Avengers, while the only film to have positive values on all three measures is Civil War.

At the other end of the spectrum, not surprisingly, are films like Hulk, Dark World, and Iron Man 2 that made far less money and are relatively lower-rated, as well as the anomalous Captain Marvel, which turned a tidy profit despite the lowest PQ score by far. In fact, every film between Iron Man and Avengers has negative values for all three measures, as does Dark World.

Summary. For those new to the MCU, these data suggest starting at the beginning, with Iron Man then jumping ahead to The Avengers; you do not miss much along the way, with the mild exception of First Avenger, which introduces key characters and plot points. Watch Winter Soldier and Guardians next, then Civil War. I personally would watch Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther after that, if only because each is interesting in its own right and, like First Avenger, relay key characters and plot points. And then you can conclude with Infinity War and Endgame, bearing in mind their combined run time is 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Or, you can choose your own MCU adventure, which these data strongly suggest you would enjoy.

Until next time…

[1] I strongly recommend Gatiss’ three-part series on the history of horror films. Part 1 may be found here.

[2] Only to learn Leonard Maltin stopped publishing his annual Movie Guide in 2015. ata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[4] Essentially, a positive correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one does as well, while a negative correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one decreases.

[5] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to three factors.

[6] Using the “Predict” command—regression scoring method—in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

**********

In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

**********

Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

**********

Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.

Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

**********

But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

**********

In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

**********

I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

**********

I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

**********

That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

**********

There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

A Surrealist Epic Post-Thanksgiving Poem

Since we first started hosting Thanksgiving dinner in, I believe, 2012, I have been responsible for the epic cleanup. As with all good rituals, it started as a one-off: I put Nell and the girls to bed and said good night to the last of our guests to leave with the understanding I would finish cleaning the living/dining room and kitchen.

This meant two things.

One, pulling out my portable CD player and earbuds and four older CD mixes. Forget whistling while you work: there was full on singing and dancing. Cavorting, even.

Two, it was not enough simply to run the dishwasher, make things passably tidy and leave the rest until morning. No, I had to restore the living/dining to its pre-meal state, which included moving furniture to its normal location; wash, dry and put away every single pot, dish and piece of flatware; store every leftover; and clean (within reason—I could not run a dust buster or vacuum cleaner) the two rooms, including taking out the garbage and recycling.

If memory serves, that first cleanup took about three-and-a-half hours, with dazzling results; if there is such a thing as kinetic zen, this is it.

And a ritual was born.

In preparation for Thanksgiving 2019, I curated a playlist of 55 tracks totaling 3 hours and 50 minutes on my classic flywheel iPod. I usually make the playlist a bit too long, finding myself wandering around listening to the last few tracks, but this year I actually had to restart the mix, playing the first two tracks again while I took out the garbage and recycling.

Darn, what a shame.

To honor this mix, of which I am quite proud, I decided to create a surrealist epic poem consisting of representative (read: the ones I most enjoy singing) lyrics from each track in sequence. As three tracks are instrumentals, two serve as overtures to the two parts of the poem, and one introduces the dramatic conclusion.[1]

It is no secret I have eclectic taste in music, though given my recent obsession with Stranger Things (after enjoying David Harbour as the guest host on Saturday Night Live on October 12, 2019, Nell and I watched all 25 episodes in seven weeks), there is a heavy emphasis on the generic classifications of “New Wave” (11 tracks), “Post-Punk” (4) and “Synthpop” (3); seven other tracks could easily be classified under this rubric as well, for a total of 25. Moreover, 30 tracks were released between 1980 and 1989; the show is set in 1983-85 (11 tracks). That said, eight tracks from the 1970s fall into a broad Soul/R&B/Funk/Disco category, six other tracks from that decade fall into a broad folk rock/singer-songwriter/soft rock category. Finally, four of the seven tracks released between 1990 and 2016 fall into a grunge/Alternative Rock category, two are from movie/television soundtracks and, last but far from least, is the joyous Americana of “Square Glass in the Wall” by the Four Legged Faithful.

Given the inherent spirit of randomness masquerading as creativity, I illustrate this epic poem with our eldest daughter’s unnamed creation from November 28, 2014, the day AFTER Thanksgiving that year.

IMG_1455.JPG

**********

Part 1

Overture: Theme from Stranger Things by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein

 

Well lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re doing

Yeah lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re seeing

What you’re doing.

 

I know you

Were expecting a one-night stand

When I refused

I knew you wouldn’t understand

I told you twice

I was only trying to be nice

Only trying to be nice

Ooh, I didn’t mean to turn you on.

 

So grab your friends, get the train comin’ through

Climb on board, where you leave’s up to you

Leave your worries behind

‘Cause rain, shine, don’t mind

We’re ridin’ on the groove line tonight.

 

Ohh, if I had my wits about me now

About me now

I would tear across the waterway somehow

Oh somehow

The body has never turned its back on me this way

Dare I say

Something was wrong.

 

The wild dogs cry out in the night

As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company

I know that I must do what’s right

As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.

 

Every day, every night

In that all old familiar light

You hang up when I call you at home

And I try to get through

Ant I try to talk to you

But there’s something stopping me from getting through.

 

Nothing lasts forever

Of that I’m sure

Now you’ve made an offer

I’ll take some more

Young loving may be

Oh so mean

Will I still survive

The same old scene?

 

We must play our lives like soldiers in the field

The life is short

I’m running faster all the time

Strength and beauty destined to decay

So cut the rose in full bloom

‘Til the fearless come and the act is done

A love like blood

A love like blood.

 

And I was here to please

I’m even on my knees

Makin’ love to whoever I please

I gotta do it my way

Or no way at all.

 

Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach

As I want you to be

As a trend, as a friend

As an old

Memoria, memoria

Memoria, memoria

And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun.

 

The body’s weak, the shadow’s strong

Walk through the fire

Through the dust and ashes

While the building crashes

Walk through the flame

Lion show no sign of fear.

 

I find myself on canvas

I find myself on stage

Can you see me?

Are you near me?

And I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me

I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me.

 

I might like you better if we slept together

But there’s something in your eyes

That says maybe

That’s never

Never say never.

 

This old town’s changed so much

Don’t feel that I belong

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs

And now you’ve come along, yes, you’ve come along

And I never met a girl like you before.

 

Politician’s promises

Have made all of us doubting Thomas’

And as we all adjust our confidence

Still in you I trust

In you I trust

In you I must

I trust you more each day

You seem to mean exactly what you say

Friend and lover, lovely friend.

 

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

They can change their minds but they can’t change me

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

Oh, I know I could share it if you want me to

If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you.

 

Get around town, get around town

Where the people look good, where the music is loud

Get around town, no need to stand proud

Add your voice to the sound of the crowd.

 

Where are you going now, my love

Where will you be tomorrow?

Will you bring me happiness?

Will you bring me sorrow?

Oh, the questions of a thousand dreams

What you do with what you see

Lover, can you talk to me?

 

But no matter where the days have left you

Every day ends at the street café

The street café

And no matter where the road may take you

Every time it brings you back to the street café

Yeah the street café.

 

Get on up, on the floor

‘Cause were gonna boogie oogie oogie

‘Till you just can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

You can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

Listen to the music.

 

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter).

 

Shadows from the buildings creep along the parking cars

While the women spank their babies and the old men just drink all day in bars

And the people that “never see it” always end up as the ones who’ve seen it all

And the liquor store is crowded, while an empty phone booth rings another call

And the hills that used to all seem green now look an ugly brown

And no one ever found any movie stars on the stormy side of town.

 

All the love gone bad turned my world to black

Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be yeah

Oh oh ooh

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life

I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why

Why, why can’t it be, oh can’t it be mine?

 

Rough boys

Don’t walk away

I wanna buy you leather

Make noise

Try and talk me away

We can’t be seen together

Tough kids

What can I do?

I’m so pale and weedy.

 

I have waited a lifetime

Spent my time so foolishly

But now that I found you

Together we’ll make history

And I know that it must be the woman in you

That brings out the man in me

I know I can’t help myself

You’re all my eyes can see.

 

Dream on white boy, white boy

Dream on black girl, black girl

And wake up to a brand new day

To find your dreams have washed away.

 

Now the thing that I call livin’ is just bein’ satisfied

With knowin’ I got no one left to blame

Carefree highway, got ta see you my old flame

Carefree highway, you seen better days

The mornin’ after blues from my head down to my shoes

Carefree highway, let me slip away

Slip away on you.

 

So you’re left standing in the corner

You keep your face turned to the wall

A fading dream

A fading memory

A shooting star that had to fall

Mama Mama I keep having nightmares

Mama Mama Mama am I ill?

Mama Mama Mama hold me tighter

Mama Mama do you love me still?

 

Is there something you should tell me?

Is this the time of bliss?

Should I live without you?

I dare not contemplate.

 

Part 2

Overture: Theme from The Shadow by Jerry Goldsmith

 

This is not a horse race where winners beat the time

This is not a funeral with mourners in a line

This is not a sitcom where everything’s alright

This is not a prison with terror through the night

Go… don’t you go

Won’t you stay with me one more day?

 

You don’t pull on Superman’s cape

You don’t spit into the wind

You don’t pull the mask

From that old Lone Ranger

And you don’t mess around with Jim.

 

You function like a dummy with a new ventriloquist

Do you say nothing yourself?

Hanging like a thriller on the final twist

You know you’re getting stuck on the shelf

Come up to me with your “What did you say?”

And I’ll tell you straight in the eye, “Hey!”

D.I.Y.

 

There’ve been times in my life

I’ve been wonderin’ why

Still, somehow I believed we’d always survive

Now, I’m not so sure

You’re waiting here, one good reason to try

But, what more can I say?

What’s left to provide?

 

New cities by the sea

Skyscrapers are winking

Some hills are never seen

The universe expanding

We’re gazing out to sea

Blue dolphins are singing

Minds swim in ecstasy

Clear planet, ever free

Topaz.

 

Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue

Playgrounds will laugh

If you try to ask

“Is it cool?”

If you arrive and don’t see me

I’m going to be with my baby

I am free, flying in her arms

Over the sea.

 

Ooh, I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love

Ooh, I feel love, I feel love

I feel love, I feel love

I feel love.

 

And we would go on as though nothing was wrong

And hide from these days we remained all alone

Staying in the same place, just staying out the time

Touching from a distance

Further all the time.

 

And in the morning when he’s gone

Please don’t sing that sad sad song

I don’t want to hear it

Forget about him

Let him go

It won’t hurt what he don’t know.

 

Dance with the boogie get high

‘Cause boogie nights are always the best in town

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing.

 

Hey Jimmy

They’re calling you back

They want you to come back

And take out the garbage

They want to talk to you

About something

They found in your drawer

Under a Hustler magazine.

 

And just when I think

Everything is in its place

The universe is secure

The whole thing explodes in my face

It’s just another-

It’s just another day…

It’s just another day.

 

I can live without love

If I wanted to in this lonely room

But I don’t want to so I leave it up to you

To wash away my gloom.

 

I tried but could not bring

The best of everything

Too breathless then to wonder

I died a thousand times

Found guilty of no crime

Now everything is thunder.

 

This life I’m living’s getting so hard to feel

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you

The days are empty and the nights are unreal

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you.

 

You said you want to reach the sky

So get up

The feeling’s right

And the music’s tight

On the disco nights

Just say you will

Just do what you feel

I’m for real.

 

It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate

Telling me that Heaven can wait

Telling me to get it right this time

Life doesn’t mean a thing

Without the love you bring

Love is what we’ve found

The second time around.

 

In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream

I lost my shirt

I pawned my rings

I’ve done all the dumb things.

 

Oh, all alone, in my bed at night

I grab my pillow and squeeze it tight

I think of you

And I dream of you, all of the time

What am I gonna do?

I want your love.

 

Here’s that rhythm again

Here’s my shoulder blade

Here’s the sound I made

Here’s the picture I saved

Here I am.

 

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better

Makes me happy

Makes me feel this way

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better than you.

 

Shopping Center crazy

I need some fast relief

The boss says, “Boy, you’re lazy”

But I’m just bored beyond belief.

 

[Musical interlude: Theme from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension by Neil Norman]

 

What’s a poor boy to do when he’s fallen in love with you?

Help me make it through the night.

Everything’s gonna’ be alright.

Yeah…

You take me to the top.

Perhaps, just as Jews on Passover spread the reading of the Haggadah across multiple family members and guests, you could use these stanzas to defuse your next fractious gathering. Simply have each person present read a stanza, cycling through everyone until the final one. I expect the utter nonsense of the successive passages will serve as a much- needed distraction.

And, of course, here is the actual playlist:

Stranger Things Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein 2016
Lately INXS 1990
I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On Robert Palmer 1985
The Groove Line Heatwave 1978
Square Glass In The Wall The Four Legged Faithful 2012
Africa Toto 1982
Nowhere Girl B-Movie 1982
Same Old Scene Roxy Music 1980
Love Like Blood Killing Joke 1985
Turn Me Loose Loverboy 1980
Come as You Are Nirvana 1991
Walk Through the Fire Peter Gabriel 1984
Between Something and Nothing The Ocean Blue 1989
Never Say Never Romeo Void 1982
A Girl Like You Edwyn Collins 1994
In You I Trust Rupert Holmes 1979
I Got a Name Jim Croce 1973
The Sound of the Crowd The Human League 1981
Carry On Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 1970
Street Cafe Icehouse 1982
Boogie Oogie Oogie A Taste of Honey 1978
Don’t Talk To Me About Love Altered Images 1983
Stormy Side of Town Stan Ridgway 1986
Black Pearl Jam 1992
Rough Boys Pete Townshend 1980
Feels Like the First Time Foreigner 1977
Original Sin INXS 1984
Carefree Highway Gordon Lightfoot 1974
Nightmares A Flock of Seagulls 1983
Beyond Doubt Gene Loves Jezebel 1986
The Shadow Jerry Goldsmith 1994
Stay Oingo Boingo 1985
You Don’t Mess Around With Jim Jim Croce 1972
D.I.Y. Peter Gabriel 1978
This Is It Kenny Loggins 1979
Topaz The B-52’s 1989
Strawberry Letter 23 The Brothers Johnson 1977
I Feel Love Donna Summer 1977
Transmission Joy Division 1979
When It’s Over Loverboy 1981
Boogie Nights Heatwave 1976
Jimmy Jimmy Ric Ocasek 1982
Just Another Day Oingo Boingo 1985
Love Or Let Me Be Lonely The Friends of Distinction 1970
Let Me Go Heaven 17 1982
Missing You Dan Fogelberg 1982
Disco Nights (Rock Freak) GQ 1979
Twist of Fate Olivia Newton-John 1983
Dumb Things Paul Kelly and the Messengers 1987
I Want Your Love Chic 1978
Stay Hungry Talking Heads 1978
Ain’t Nobody Rufus & Chaka Khan 1983
Rage In the Cage J. Geils Band, The 1981
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Neil Norman 1984
Take Me to the Top Loverboy 1981

You are welcome.

Until next time…

[1] I am deeply indebted to LyricFind for help in deciphering many of these lyrics.

The Noir of Who: Part 4

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts.

You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here. 

You may find Part 2 (characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong) here. 

You may find Part 3 (doubling/mirroring) here. 

You may find the last installment of the essay, Part 4 (fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate) below. I will make a PDF of the complete essay available on this site shortly.

Please enjoy.

**********

The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 4

After watching the “death” of the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio, Utah (“Impossible Astronaut”), River is stunned when a two-centuries-younger version of the 11th Doctor walks out of a nearby diner bathroom. After slapping him, this exchange occurs:

The Doctor: Okay. I’m assuming that’s for something I haven’t done yet.

River: Yes, it is.

The Doctor: Good. Looking forward to it.

River’s relationship with The Doctor is so convoluted each maintains a journal (resembling the TARDIS) to track when they are. When the 10th Doctor first meets River in his timeline, it is the last day of her life: the word “spoilers” epitomizes their interactions.

Film noir similarly disoriented viewers with non-linear narratives. Single continuous flashbacks (Double Indemnity, The Guilty, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Possessed, etc.) were sometimes divided, as in They Won’t Believe Me. Rebecca embeds a flashback within a flashback, while The Locket embeds a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. There is the drunken recollection of murder in Black Angel, an alternate-timeline dream sequence of The Chase, and characters-as-children flashbacks from Ruthless and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. But these pale next to the multiple flashbacks, from different points of view, in I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), The Killers (both versions), Mildred Pierce, and, of course, Citizen Kane.

“Blink” contains the definitive Doctor Who statement on temporal complexity. Having been sent with Martha Jones (and without the TARDIS) by a Weeping Angel to 1969, the 10th Doctor seeks help by filming his responses to a written transcript onto what will become a DVD “Easter egg.” Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) watches the clip in 2007, mystified how The Doctor can respond, 38 years earlier, to everything she says; her words, meanwhile, are transcribed by Larry Nightingale (Finlay Robertson) onto a copy of The Doctor’s end of the conversation. In the final scene, Sally hands her copy of the now-complete conversation to The Doctor, who has not yet been sent to 1969, completing the narrative loop.

On the DVD clip, The Doctor says:

“People don’t understand time. It’s not what they think it is…It’s complicated. Very complicated…People assume that time is a strict linear progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”

The 12th Doctor breaks the fourth wall in “Before the Flood” (October 10, 2015) to provide this example of the bootstrap paradox: taking Ludwig von Beethoven’s music to Beethoven’s time, finding no such person existed, then publishing the music under the name “Ludwig von Beethoven” (who, then, wrote the music?). These explanations do little to assure us time travel’s paradoxes “by and large work themselves out” (“Hide”).

While Doctor Who’s fractured timelines mostly serve as entertaining narrative devices, they can have painful consequences. In “The Girl in the Fireplace” (May 6, 2006), the 10th Doctor, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Mickey find a fire burning in an 18th-century French fireplace—on a crewless 51st century spaceship. They talk through the fireplace to a young girl in 1727 Paris named Reinette Poisson (Jessica Atkins)[1]. When The Doctor revolves through the fireplace wall moments later, months have passed on Reinette’s side. Rotating again shortly thereafter, an adult Reinette (Sophia Myles) is so delighted to see her childhood friend she kisses him passionately (a series first), leading the latter to say—when queried by a manservant—“I’m The Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour.” The ship contains random portals into Madame de Pompadour’s life; one traps The Doctor in the past until he locates Reinette’s original fireplace. Before making one last revolution, he says:

The Doctor: Give me two minutes. Pack a bag.

Reinette: Am I going somewhere?

The Doctor: Go to the window. Pick a star. Any star.

But the faulty wall decrees that when he returns moments later for him, years have passed and Reinette has just died (aged 45), leaving a heartbreaking note for her “lonely angel.”

Fate’s malevolence is even more apparent when a character attempts to alter fixed points in time. In “Father’s Day” (May 14, 2005), Rose saves her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) from being killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to a wedding in 1987, leading vulture-like Reapers to kill humans to “heal” the time rupture. Realizing who the young woman who saved him is, and what she has done, Pete allows himself to be killed by the car after all—though at least he does not die alone this time. In “Vincent and the Doctor” (June 5, 2010), after spotting a monster in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers at a London exhibition, the 11th Doctor takes Amy to 1890 to meet him (Tony Curran). Aiming to prevent his suicide that July 29, they bring Van Gogh to the same exhibition, where a curator (Bill Nighy) proclaims him “not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.” Moved as Van Gogh is by this affirmation, he still takes his life, as a devastated Amy soon learns. And in “The Waters of Mars” (November 15, 2009), the 10th Doctor arrives on the first human base on Mars the day in 2059 it was mysteriously destroyed. Base commander Adelaide Brooke’s (Lindsay Duncan) heroic death inspires her granddaughter to pilot Earth’s first lightspeed ship, triggering space exploration by her descendants. When the virus-infected humans that destroyed the base threaten Earth, The Doctor must choose between rescue and not altering a fixed point in time. With no companion to ground him, he cracks:

 “There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people. And those people were in charge of those rules. But they died. They all died. And do you know who that leaves?!? ME! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!”

laws of time will obey me

Safely returned to Earth with two colleagues, Adelaide worries The Doctor has altered history for the worse. Taking matters into her own hands, Adelaide shoots herself, essentially restoring the original timeline—and shocking The Doctor out of his arrogance (“I’ve gone too far.”).

The Doctor’s inevitable regeneration (a form of death), though is the definitive fated moment in the resurrected series. As the 11th Doctor plaintively observes to Clara in “The Time of the Doctor” (December 25, 2013), “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment…like breath on a mirror,” echoing Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final words in the neo-noir Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in the rain. Time to die.” And when the 12th Doctor was convinced by the 1st Doctor (David Bradley, “Twice Upon a Time”), also resisting regeneration, to accept his fate, he still claimed “one more lifetime won’t kill anyone…well except me.”

Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), more of whose stories were adapted into films noir than any other author (arguably 17 just between 1942 and 1956), provided the definitive noir statement on death. Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr. wrote it was…

“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’[2]

The 10th Doctor most actively resisted this fate, famously crying “I don’t want to go” just prior to regenerating (“The End of Time, Part Two,” January 1, 2010). He told Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbens; “The End of Time, Part One,” December 25, 2009) his regeneration will be signaled by “four knocks.” Eventually (“End of Time, 2”), he faces a choice: save Wilfred by exposing himself to a massive dose of radiation or let him die (as Wilfred suggests—after, you guessed it, knocking four times on the door of the booth in which he is trapped). Wallowing in self-pity, The Doctor declares “Well, exactly, look at you. Not remotely important. But me…I could do so much more! SO MUCH MORE! But this is what I’ll get, my reward. But it’s NOT FAIR!” That he ultimately saves Wilfred, calling it “an honor,” does not excuse his arrogant petulance.

Of course, the most catastrophic alteration of a fixed point in time in the resurrected Doctor Who is River NOT shooting the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio: all of history happens simultaneously. Once the younger 11th Doctor discovers his scheduled demise, he spends Series 6 trying to “outrun” it. Finally realizing running is futile, he accepts his fate…though not before figuring out how to survive.

You may not be able to outrun destiny, but you can occasionally delay it.

**********

It took only nine episodes for Doctor Who to reach its aesthetic noir pinnacle. The two=part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” 2006 Hugo Award winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, are the first of six episodes (“Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and 2008’s “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”) Moffat wrote before becoming showrunner in 2010. Gorgeously photographed in electric blues and muted browns by Ernest Vincze (2006 BAFTA Cymru winner, Best Director of Photography—Drama), the story unfolds over a single night during the 1941 London Blitz.

Chasing an unidentified cylindrical object, the 9th Doctor and Rose park the TARDIS in a shadowy London back alley. While The Doctor seeks answers in that most noir establishment, a nightclub, Rose spots a small boy (Albert Valentine) on a roof wearing a gas mask and calling for “Mummy.” Climbing light-slicing fire escapes after him, she winds up dangling from a barrage balloon during a German air raid before Captain Jack rescues her. The Doctor, meanwhile, follows teenaged Nancy (Florence Hoath) to a house with a supper abandoned due to the raid, which Nancy shares with other kids “living rough.” The Doctor joins them, inquiring about the gas-masked-boy following Nancy asking “Are you my mummy?” As the boy (who we soon learn is Nancy’s brother Jamie, killed by a German bomb the night the unidentified object landed) seeks entry, Nancy warns The Doctor not to let Jamie touch him, lest he become “empty” as well. Following Nancy’s advice to visit “the doctor” in Albion Hospital, The Doctor wanders its shadowy halls to find hundreds of patients with precisely the same injuries—down to fused gas mask—as Jamie. Captain Jack confesses he tried to con The Doctor and Rose into buying the cylindrical object, a “harmless” Chula battlefield ambulance, before transporting them to his ship. Realizing Captain Jack’s ship (also Chula) is loaded with nanogenes, microscopic robots which heal living tissue, The Doctor concludes the nanogenes from the ambulance saw mutilated dead Jamie in his gas mask and thought that is what humans look like. They then “healed” other humans by turning them into Jamie. When Nancy tearfully claims it is “all my fault,” The Doctor finally understands: “Teenage single mother in 1941, so you hid, you lied, you even lied to him.” At The Doctor’s urging she embraces Jamie and tells him, “I am your mummy, I will always be your mummy.” In a moving sequence, the nanogenes recognize the “superior information” of the parent DNA.

everybody lives

Running to the child, The Doctor pleads, “Oh come on, give me a day like this, give me this one” and pulls off the gas mask to reveal a fully-healed, slightly confused boy. The Doctor then uses “upgraded” nanogenes to restore everyone, proclaiming: ”Everybody lives! Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!”

That moment of supreme jubilation, however, the idea that “just once” nobody died when The Doctor triumphed, only underlines just how much classic film noir influences the resurrected Doctor Who.

Until next time…

[1] For the record, she did not actually gain the nickname “Reinette” until 1731, when she was 9. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/pompadou.html Accessed June 30, 2018.

[2] Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.