The Final, Final Cut?
A Meandering Coda from Pink Floyd
Well. That may have been one of my all-time favorite seasons of Doctor Who.
That is no faint praise. I have been watching the show since I was six, and the season that just wrapped up is the 34th. Doctor Who is now in its 51st year (the anniversary is coming right up), there have been more than 800 episodes, and 12 actors have stepped into the title role, with varying degrees of success. It’s gone from a cult show to a worldwide phenomenon in the last few years, and now sports production values far beyond anything the program has ever seen. And the showrunner is now uber-fan and certified genius Steven Moffat, who has guided our little show to previously undreamt-of heights in the past few years.
But this season… this season was awesome. The extraordinary Peter Capaldi made a striking debut as a brusque, unfriendly Doctor with a fast wit and a tendency to emphasize the big picture over human feelings. His Doctor is impatient, even downright rude, but Capaldi plays this part with such panache that he is never unlikeable. You’re not sure if you should trust him, but then there’s that twinkle in his eye.
As great as Capaldi has been all year, Jenna Coleman has been even more impressive, bringing Clara Oswald to life as a three-dimensional character. She is in every way Capaldi’s equal this season, and her emotional arc – yes, a companion with an emotional arc! – was well-drawn and fully satisfying. And Samuel Anderson, given the short end of the stick as Danny Pink, still developed a tremendous character, building him slowly and subtly. The nature of the show meant that we didn’t spend quite enough time with Danny and Clara to sell their relationship, but Coleman and Anderson made me feel it anyway.
Blessedly, amidst all this wonderful character work, the show remained as insane as it always is. The season began with a dinosaur tromping through Victorian London, and ended with a visit from Santa Claus. In between, we met Robin Hood, saw the Doctor as a young boy, watched a dragon creature hatch from the moon, met an invisible mummy on the outer space version of the Orient Express, fought two-dimensional creatures, watched as a forest sprung up across England overnight, and at the end, met (SPOILER ALERT) a female incarnation of the Doctor’s best enemy, the Master. There isn’t another show I can think of that would do all that in 12 episodes.
And ah, the Master reveal. That was (ahem) masterful. Michelle Gomez played the absolute hell out of the part, striking the balance between madness and calculated villainy better than anyone in the role since Roger Delgado. Reading some of the reaction has been depressing – old-school fans rightly sense that this makes a female incarnation of the Doctor inevitable, and they’re scared by the idea. I say bring it on. It’s clear that the production team will cast the right actor/actress for the part, as Gomez proved. And it would be further evidence that this is a show that can do absolutely anything, at any time. Which is why I love it.
I have some problems with the finale, particularly the “power of love” stuff that has cropped up since the show’s revival in 2005. The Master’s plan, though typically nuts, didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the hoops I had to jump through to get to the emotional payoffs were often too great an effort. But the final scenes (before Santa), with the Doctor and Clara bidding farewell? Those may have been the best, most powerful scenes in all of Doctor Who. Beautifully written, acted with phenomenal grace, Capaldi and Coleman doing amazing work. I have gone back and watched just those scenes seven or eight times. They’re perfect.
And then, Santa. Yes, we get Nick Frost as Santa Claus on Christmas day, putting a bow on what has been an absolutely extraordinary run from my little show. Long live Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and long live Doctor Who. See you at Christmas.
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Speaking of long-lived British institutions, there’s a new Pink Floyd album.
Floyd has been around almost as long as Doctor Who, forming in 1965 as one of the most psychedelic bands in the London scene. Within two years they’d lost Syd Barrett and gained David Gilmour, and the classic lineup (also including Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason) was in place. And then they proceeded to make records like no one on earth had ever made records before. Say what you will about The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and on and on, but there is nothing else quite like them. They developed a signature style – usually slow and spacey, songs building gradually, melodies unfurling patiently, Gilmour’s thick and watery guitar solos intertwining with Wright’s swirling keyboards. Others who take up that style now are walking in Floyd’s footsteps. They’re without a doubt one of the most influential bands in modern music history.
I knew none of that when I first heard “Learning to Fly” at the age of 12, in 1987. I just thought it was an awesome song. I also had no idea I was hearing the first single from the post-Waters Pink Floyd, which must have been a shock to longtime fans. A Momentary Lapse of Reason was quite unlike any of the Floyd albums before it – Gilmour became the dominant force, his guitar filling all the empty spaces, his utilitarian voice singing these more accessible, poppier tunes. (Would Waters have stood for “One Slip”? My guess is no.) Still, this was the Pink Floyd I first fell in love with.
The Division Bell came out in 1994, when I was a sophomore in college. It was essentially the same record as Momentary Lapse. I knew enough by then to know that while Division Bell was a pretty good album, it wasn’t a good Pink Floyd album. That said, I don’t know if it felt like a finale to me then, but it does now. Gilmour wrestles throughout with his relationship with Waters, concludes that they all need to “Keep Talking,” and ends things with “High Hopes,” probably the best late-period Floyd song. As time wore on and no new music appeared, I found myself more and more happy with Division Bell as the last Floyd album, a status that seemed to solidify when Wright died in 2008.
So what am I to do with The Endless River, the just-released 15th (and final, they swear this time) Pink Floyd record? I found myself torn on it before I’d even heard it. For starters, it’s not really new – this is an assembled collection of material recorded during the Division Bell sessions, with new performances grafted on top. The idea was to find everything of releasable quality that Wright performed and create something new from it. Just as an idea, this could go either way – it could be loving tribute to a departed bandmate, or it could be a cash grab perpetrated by two people whose names would not sell this material on their own.
At best, The Endless River is a coda to the Floyd saga, not a full-fledged final act. Save for the last track, it is entirely instrumental, and more than that, almost entirely formless. Wright’s keyboards waft in and out, usually holding a single chord or two, while Mason’s drums tumble in here and there, playing at their usual snail’s pace. And in the absence of any lyrics or melody, there is Gilmour’s guitar, slathered over every surface. There are occasional breaks in the endless guitar solo, but they’re not long – Mason takes center stage for a minute on “Skins,” for instance. Mostly, though, it’s monochromatic, like an entire album of “Cluster One” from Division Bell.
In case it wasn’t clear that The Endless River is an album of leftovers, there’s an outtake from “Keep Talking,” the song that included guest vocals from Stephen Hawking. Here he is again on the unfortunately titled “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” his voice recorded 20 years ago, set to the same keyboard washes and guitar noodles as the rest of the album. The instrumental portion of the album goes on for three and a half sides – roughly 45 minutes – and all you really need is a six-minute bit on side one, fittingly called “It’s What We Do.”
And then the record ends with “Louder Than Words,” the one song with lyrics. And of course, they’re self-referential, intended as a fond farewell from the band to itself. “We bitch and we fight, dis each other on sight, but this thing we do,” Gilmour sings, concluding that the music Pink Floyd makes is “louder than words, the sum of our parts, the beat of our hearts…” It’s saccharine and kind of goofy and lacking in all subtlety, but at least it seems heartfelt. With this song, I’m willing to give Gilmour and Mason the benefit of the doubt – I think they see The Endless River as a labor of love, and a tender goodbye to Wright and the band.
Given that, I’m inclined to be lenient, despite the fact that this album is a snoozer. I imagine it’s different for Gilmour and Mason, who wanted one last visit with their longtime friend, and also the chance to draw Pink Floyd to a close on their terms. As I am neither Gilmour nor Mason, though, I feel like The Endless River simply isn’t for me. It’s a patchwork quilt of leftovers masquerading as an album, a formless mass of sound that goes nowhere and does nothing. It certainly adds nothing to the legacy of Pink Floyd, and I don’t see myself listening too often in the future.
The Endless River fails at its most important task: it never provides a reason for its own existence. And in the end, I find myself wishing it didn’t exist. It’ll be there now forever, sitting at the end of the Floyd catalog, acting all important and essential when it’s neither of those things. It’s just kind of… there. Which is something Pink Floyd has rarely, if ever, been.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.