Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?

Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness): too much slapstick and not enough depth may ruin the show

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness)” (2017)

Once again gatecrashing the most unlikely places – like right in the middle of a steaming sauna session – comes Adam Conover in his latest crusade to dispel popular misconceptions about everyday issues. Here he tackles health fads such as detoxification methods and colonic irrigation, the truth about monosodium glutamate, and the power of the placebo effect on human health. His latest victim is cute blonde bunny Julia who has to write a magazine article investigating these and other trendy health crazes. Not surprisingly Adam demolishes the whole detoxification trend by demonstrating that many techniques and methods that claim to draw “toxins” out of the body through the skin only draw out perspiration or dirt already on the skin’s surface. Colonic irrigation in particular gets quite a bucketing from a guest gastroenterologist who warns that the technique can actually be harmful to the gut. Adam concludes this segment by showing that the body already gets rid of unwanted substances through the lungs, liver (and into the colon) and kidneys.

Next, Adam explains the history of the discovery of monosodium glutamate and how one letter written by a doctor to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 set off a train of events and hysteria that all but damned MSG as a suspect ingredient that caused headaches. Julia protests that she does get headaches from eating Chinese food (which often has added MSG for taste) – this is more likely due to the food having been cooked with too much salt and oil making it heavy and greasy. Unfortunately any physical reactions will be attributed to MSG which may or may not be present: this phenomenon (of attributing an effect to a wrong cause when there is only a correlation between consuming food with MSG and suffering headaches afterwards) is known as confirmation bias. Adam states that MSG is a naturally occurring substance found in many foods like tomatoes and that the body itself makes it.

The rest of the episode is taken up with an explanation of the placebo effect and how it can affect results of medical experiments as well as people’s overall health.

Each topic tackled in this episode is worthy of a deeper and longer investigation and the segment about MSG could be extended into an inquiry into how all too often a mildly positive correlation between two items or events is mistaken for cause-and-effect. Indeed the whole narrative of how MSG was demonised on the basis of one report, how that demonisation birthed an industry profiting from people’s fears, and what the unproved connection with Chinese restaurant food implies about the news media’s agenda in stoking racial prejudice (especially prejudice towards a country regarded with suspicion by the US government, as was the case with China back in the 1960s when the MSG demonisation began), is worthy documentary material in its own right as an illustration of the role Western media plays in creating and fomenting propaganda.

As in other episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything”, the companion chosen for Adam is too thick-headed to be plausible. The show’s format and its slapstick comedy presentation are becoming more annoying and trite than funny and make the show ripe for parody. This would be a sad state of affairs as much of the information the show presents is worthwhile and can rarely be found on other, more serious television programs.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs): exposing a dark racist underbelly of US suburban living

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 10: Adam Ruins the Suburbs)” (2017)

Dedicated as it is to overturning comfortable assumptions and stereotypes about everyday life, the comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything” turns its attention to that most American cultural institution – the suburbs – and mows down three ideals upholding suburbia and the beliefs and values associated with them. Comedian host Adam Conover confronts a homeowner trying to start his lawnmower on Sunday morning to explain how lawns came to be part of the housing package, how their inclusion reflects and upholds the values of elitism, social competition and conformity, and the threat they actually pose (through water consumption and the use of herbicides and pesticides) to local environments and ecosystems. Conover then explains how cul-de-sacs and (by extension) the design and planning of American-styled suburbs harm people’s physical health and mental well-being by discouraging physical activities like walking and forcing them to use cars, and by separating homes from local shops and businesses, schools, parks and other community facilities. Children face traffic hazards so their parents bundle them into the home where they spend hours playing computer games. Elderly people who can no longer drive end up imprisoned in homes they can no longer maintain.

If all this weren’t bad enough – and Conover doesn’t have the time to explain how the phenomenon of suburbia (and even exurbia) arose as a result of deliberate decisions on the part of past US government policies, often in collusion with private companies, to privilege the use of cars over public transport – the episode then explores the dark racist side of suburban planning and how it and bank home loan policies discriminating against African Americans and other minorities led to institutional segregation (in which African Americans and minorities ended up stuck in inner cities while white people fled to the suburbs) and created two urban Americas existing in parallel, in which white children go to well-funded schools with good teachers and facilities, and non-white children attend schools with inadequate or broken facilities and mediocre levels of instruction from poorly paid teachers in insecure jobs. Over time, black people and other minority groups were unable to build up family and personal wealth that would enable them to escape the problems, crime and violence of inner city living, and this condemned them to continued institutional poverty. In part, the discrimination also led to the other extreme of governments over-compensating these disadvantaged groups by encouraging profligate borrowing that in turn precipitated the subprime mortgage loan crisis and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

While the episode is entertaining and informative, it really does not go far enough to explore how US suburbia and the attitudes and values underpinning this phenomenon have been generated by government and corporate collusion and how they continue to survive and flourish through a combination of ignorance, reliance on a biased news media that encourages fear of other people, especially if they are of different skin tone or religion, and collusion between governments at all levels (national, state, local) and corporations to keep people divided and separate along racial lines, all the better to exploit them for profit. Any faults with the model of suburbia resulting in health problems like obesity or depression, public health issues like drug addiction, or high rates of traffic accidents, are usually blamed on the victims or just ignored. The notion that owning a house in the suburbs with two huge gas-guzzling cars equates to self-reliance and freedom is chopped at in the episode but otherwise the myth’s origin and how it is sustained by the media go unexplored.

The episode happily closes with suggestions as to how suburban dwellers can try to improve their communities by adopting new models of suburban design that encourage physical activity and interaction with others.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School): throwing Christopher Columbus and King Tut under the Magic School Bus

Amy Winfrey, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School)” (2017)

In this completely animated episode, Adam Conover joins a teacher, her students and the Magic School Bus to dispel popular misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen and to demonstrate that grammar rules are for the most part irrelevant and serving mainly as guides to facilitate communication between and across sub-cultures. Aimed at a teenage audience, the episode is streamlined into treating just three topics, one after the other, and compared to other “Adam Ruins Everything” episodes isn’t quite so hyperactive.

In the first part of the episode, Christopher Columbus is revealed as a far from benevolent character who “discovered” America – indeed he never even went near the mainland United States but landed instead on the territory of what’s now the Dominican Republic. There, believing he had reached India, he named the native Taino people Indians. Even then, Columbus didn’t show much respect for his hosts but rather, over several trips between the Caribbean and Spain, proceeded to rob the Taino of their lands and enslave them. The indigenous population dropped in numbers alarmingly and eventually their Spanish colonial masters had to rely on the African slave trade for labourers to do their dirty work. The present-day adulation of Columbus stems from a deliberate public relations campaign cooked up in the late 19th century / early 20th century at a time when Italian immigration into the US was high; being of Italian descent himself, Columbus was adopted by American federal and state governments as a representative of Italian-American potential and to ease tensions between the immigrants and native-born Anglo-Americans.

The pharaoh Tutankhamen is shown to be significant mainly because his tomb, hidden in the Valley of Kings rather than in a lone-standing pyramid, was overlooked by grave robbers over hundreds of centuries; thus in 1922 when a British expedition came across his tomb, it was intact and filled with thousands of valuable treasures. The pharaoh in real life didn’t really have a chance to enjoy all that wealth: ascending to the throne as a 9-year-old boy, he had to take advice from adult viziers and the high priests of the ancient Egyptian religion. His reign was very short as well – he died at the age of 19 years. No wonder that compared to other pharaohs, Tutankhamen’s life was so unremarkable.

The last sliver of this episode demolishes the notion that grammar rules play an important role in safeguarding the English language from improper use and argues that English is a continually changing and complex language. Grammar rules are shown to be illogical and inconsistent – we say “myself”, “yourself”, “ourselves”, so why not “hisself” and “theirselves”? All that grammar rules do is ease communication and interaction among communities that may speak and use English in different ways and who need common ground in using English when their members meet and interact.

For many viewers, this episode will be more enjoyable than others where live action Adam is in danger of parodying himself. The pace is more leisurely and less hyperactive, and the animation is very well done with a homely look. I wish there were more such animated episodes of this series.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital): challenging beliefs and misconceptions about hospitals and medical treatments

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 3: Adam Ruins the Hospital)” (2017)

Hosted by eponymous comedian and writer Adam Conover, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a comedy / education TV series that aims to challenge commonly held beliefs and misconceptions about many aspects of everyday life, in particular the everyday goods and services that people take for granted. In this episode, Adam visits Rachel (Melissa Tang) who has arrived in a hospital to get treatment for a head cold and perhaps get her mammogram done. In a relentlessly cheery fashion, Adam helpfully informs Rachel (and the show’s intended US target audience) how and why inflated hospital costs have led to medical care being out of reach for the majority of Americans, with the poor being hit the hardest of course, why antibiotics are not as effective as they used to be and may in fact be worthless, and that mammograms have been oversold to women fearful about their health with consequences that may actually be as harmful (if not more harmful) than breast cancer itself.

Potentially the most interesting part of the episode is the chat about ascending hospital costs and how hospitals determine the cost of medical (including surgical) procedures to patients. Most US hospitals refer to chargemasters (often their own) which are lists of medical items billable to patients or their health insurance funds. The prices of items are usually inflated way beyond what their actual cost so that hospitals can offer “discounts” to patients who belong to certain health funds. In addition, wealthy patients or insured patients can bargain down the cost of an item with hospital administration staff while the poor or uninsured patients have to pay full prices. Disturbingly, in most US states (apart from Maryland) hospitals can set their own chargemasters and there is often no regulatory authority that would oversee chargemasters and force hospitals and other medical treatment centres to make these publicly available so that people can shop around and make price comparisons. Unfortunately the swift pace of the episode means that the issue of escalating hospital costs can lose viewers if they happen to look away for a few seconds, and the treatment of the issue looks a little superficial. I’m sure also most viewers would have wanted to know how this state of affairs came about and who was / were responsible for this shambles.

The issue of declining antibiotic effectiveness is crisply well done with animation demonstrating how bacteria can become resistant over time to antibiotics. Once again though, there’s not much on how people themselves can ensure antibiotics are not abused (by feeding them to farm animals whose meat ends up in butcher shops and delicatessans) at a personal level such as washing one’s hands thoroughly and not overusing anti-bacterial soaps and handwash, or at a community level by protesting the use of antibiotics meant for humans in commercial agriculture.

Finally the question of how effective mammograms really are in detecting breast cancer in women before they notice symptoms comes in with an interview with Dr Joann Elmore who explains that there’s not much statistical difference between the number of women who discover they have breast cancer through mammograms and the number who find their breast cancer without the help of mammograms. She also explains that breast cancer cells may behave very differently, some being more aggressive than others. There is the possibility that some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer via mammogram who do not actually have the disease or have a slow-growing cancer, and can end up subjected to major medical procedures that are completely unnecessary and which could jeopardise patients’ long-term health.

The information is delivered in a fun way with slapstick and serious medical advice given equal time. With his surf-wave haircut, guileless manner and a mouth that never stops moving, Adam ploughs through three quite meaty medical issues with a raging and sneezing Rachel in tow. I’d have liked the episode to be a bit longer – another 15 minutes please? – with more information on how the US has ended up spending more on per capita healthcare costs than any other First World country. Yet Americans seem no healthier than other First World nations and could possibly be some of the least healthy people on Earth. The connection between excessive per capital healthcare costs and American’s decreasing well-being certainly merits attention.

The Congress: good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology undone by a confused narrative

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Futurological Congress”, in which the central character suffers from both delusional and actual mental states, Ari Folman’s film is split between live action and animated action reflecting its heroine’s existence in both the real world and the virtual world and her own mental state, wavering between delusion and reality. Robin Wright (played by the real Robin Wright) is an actor notorious for her fickleness and unreliability that have cost her many lucrative film roles, to the chagrin of her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), and which have reduced her to living in a caravan with her children Sarah and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter suffering from Usher’s syndrome which is slowly destroying his sight and hearing. Try as she and Dr Barker (Paul Giamatti) might, the boy’s condition is irreversible and her circumstances force her to agree to a humiliating proposal by Miramount film studio representative Jeff Green (Danny Huston) to sell the film rights to her digital image and emotions in return for a huge sum of money, on the condition that she never act again. Considerable wrangling between Robin on the one hand and Al and Green on the other takes up about a third of the film and this section is filmed in live action, culminating in the scene where Robin is being digitally screened and Al subtly manipulates her into displaying her emotions by professing his apparent (if actually harsh and castigating) affection for her and revealing to her her fears.

Having sold her image and emotions to Miramount – the studio uses these to create a science fiction character “Rebel Robot Robin”, starring in a franchise of SF films, against the original Robin’s wishes – Robin spends the next 20 years caring for her ailing son and devoting her life to good works. She then travels to Abrahama City to renew her contract  and to speak at Miramount’s “Futurological Congress”. At this point the film turns into an animation with all the crude riot of colour and Hollywood 1930s animation style it can muster. Robin learns that Miramount has developed technology enabling anyone to turn him/herself into a digital likeness of her (Robin) and while she agrees to allow this in her new contract, at the Congress itself, she denounces this technology that commodifies individual identity. At this point, rebels opposed to the technology invade the Congress and Robin only narrowly escapes with the help of animator Dylan (Jon Hamm) who has always loved her digital image.

From here on, the animated Robin has several adventures in both the real world and the digital world (plus another digital world which could be a representation of a state beyond death – she does appear to die in one scene) in which among other things the real world is revealed as a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin in which real human beings stumble around as though zombies, living in poverty and delusion, while a small elite (including Dr Barker) lives in airships floating above them. At this point, Robin determines to find her son Aaron but this means having to leave Dylan, with whom she has fallen in love, permanently.

The film pores over themes such as the loss, manipulation and crass commodification of individual identity; the domination of the cult of celebrity in Western societies; the use of drugs to escape reality and enter an artificial world where identities can be changed as casually as clothes; and various freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom to be and freedom to choose one’s path in life. One notes the irony in which Robin’s freedoms are constrained by her past actions, the unfortunate circumstances and Al’s manipulative chatter that force her to agree to sell her name and image and to pour out her emotions to Hollywood for peanuts, yet future others are free to buy her digital avatars and become them, if only temporarily and at a price. Hollywood is satirised as a greedy corporate machine. In later scenes, the film makes some subtle criticisms about how a techno-fetishistic society cannibalises past pop culture figures to prop up a shallow belief system, in which to possess the appearance of something is considered as authentic as being, and how this supposed culture substitutes for an actual impoverished culture in which a small elite exists in comfort and prosperity at the expense of a permanently deluded and severely enervated majority.

While Wright, Giamatti, Huston and Keitel are all very good actors, their talents are very much squandered in this film which -ironically enough – spends more time wallowing and losing its way through the crude animation sequences and not enough on the live action scenes where it seems the real horse-trading of one’s identity and authenticity is taking place. Ultimately one comes away from this film feeling that over two hours’ worth of viewing have been wasted on very muddled work. Good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology are undone by a confused narrative that probably should have ended or taken a very different direction – and one not necessarily animated – after Robin’s scanning. How ironic that with its themes this film should have foundered on its dependence on a live action / animation split.