The Autumning Empire

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Freud, Marx, And The Awful Truth About Rudolph’s Red Nose

 Rankin/Bass’s 1964 TV holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has stood the test of time. Indeed, you’ve probably seen it more than once. Perhaps you approach it with joy, and even deep nostalgia as your number of viewings rise into the double digits. Maybe you’ve shared it with your children, and made it an annual holiday family night. And you might even watch it ironically, chortling over its cheesy songs, primitive production values, and ridiculously dated kitsch.

 But after you’ve turned the television off, finished up the eggnog, and hopped into bed, no visions of sugarplums dance in your head. No, something is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Like its protagonist, something marks this holiday special as different, aberrant, and even terrifying. So it’s time to stop pretending and face the brutal facts. Some boils disappear of their own accord; Rudolph is one that must be lanced with a sharp and pointy needle. Get ready, America. And let the puss run where it may.

Even from a very early age, I found this show profoundly unsettling. It is only in hindsight (and after several more viewings) that I have been able to ask the question that should be asked by every American humanities, economic, and psychology undergraduate today: what would Freud and Marx have said about Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The question is impossible to answer with any degree of certainty.  But we owe it to ourselves to try.

Perhaps we are on safer ground if we wonder which of the narrative’s details might have captured the interests of these two giants of critical thought. It is with that in mind that I record, and reflect upon, the following facts:

1. Let’s start with a few Freudian observations. The plot of Rankin/Bass’ Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer revolves around one society’s cruel, obsessive insistence upon a rigid code of physical normality. Indeed, abnormality is the cardinal sin of the reindeer boysNorth Pole’s Christmastown. While the 1949 song (by Johnny Marks and Robert L. May) only has the other reindeer “laugh and call him names,” the 1964 script by Marks and Romeo Muller has Rudolph spending his childhood closeting his deformity. Upon reaching puberty, his shameful secret is discovered, and the young reindeer is effectively driven out of society.

2. The fixation on abnormality appears to be exclusively male. Indeed, Rudolph’s love interest (and presumably future mate) Clarice finds him more attractive when discovering the truth about his red nose. And bizarrely, it is the father figures in Rudolph’s life such as Donner, Santa, and the reindeer coach who beat the drum of shame, and in the latter’s case, encourage Rudolph’s peers to humiliate and ostracize him.

3. Perhaps the most curious figure in Rankin/Bass’s North Pole is Santa Claus himself.  He is remarkably unremarkable, ornery, and ordinary. This Santa is not the “jolly old elf” of Clement Clarke Moore’s ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas. Nor is he the terrifying, Orwellian figure of awe and omniscience in the Coots/Gillespie hit Santa Claus is Coming to Town (who “sees you when you’re sleeping/[and] knows when you’re awake.”) No, the Santa of your favorite holiday special is a harried and frustrated 1960s businessman. Bereft of magic, or even kindness, he is motivated by one thing, and one thing only: the bottom line. Boys and girls, Santa Claus works hard to bring you all of those toys. Very hard. He has lots of responsibilities, and that’s why he’s so cranky all the time. I’m sorry, but is it really so miserable making children happy? What, are we supposed to feel guilty? It’s as if Santa Claus is merely a role that this unhappy man is annually forced to play. (While others call him “Santa”, he prefers the quainter moniker of “Kris Kringle”). This misery is further (and strangely) dramatized through a bizarre eating disorder that leaves St. Nick emaciated 364 days out of the year, only to be fattened in up in the nick of time by a wife whose life mission is encouraging her husband’s eating binges.

Santa & WifeThe relationship between the Clauses demands further scrutiny. Conventional on the surface, it is not particularly happy.  The preoccupation with food and weight is unusual; I’ve never seen it dramatized in any other program for very young children. The fact that it is the male figure whose body image is so central to the success of the holiday (and marriage) makes the relationship even more odd and disquieting.

But the weirdest part of this marriage lies in the apparently affectionate nicknames that the Clauses bestow upon one another: “Mama” and “Papa”. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mean…I guess that’s ok. But doesn’t it strike you as odd that this is a family without any offspring? Sure, you could argue that the elves are like their children, or that the whole set up makes the Clauses figurative parents of the entire world. Still, the issue is unresolved, and before you can say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” you might begin to wonder: “What’s the real need that all of this food is replacing?”

4. The conformity and fear of abnormality themes are echoed in a subplot, which has no antecedent in the song. The curiously Hermeynamed elf “Hermey” (yes, that’s his real name) is at odds with his overbearing, Strindbergian father figure, ominously credited only as “Head Elf”.  Head Elf serves as Santa’s enormously powerful minister of production and culture, working as both shop foreman and elf choir conductor. Muller and May have him endlessly chastising his younger charge for his failure to keep up with toy production. Hermey appears to be cursed with an oral fixation, which apparently can only be satisfied through a career in dentistry, a profession off limits for elves, who must only make toys. While the obsession with production and usefulness would appear to fall under Marx’s bailiwick, the rigid obsession with normality takes us right back to Freud, and it forms a parallel narrative that eventually unites Rudolph and Hermey as outcasts of society. Forced into a literal and metaphoric wilderness with only each other for support, the two sever their ties to Christmastown, and like Lear and his Fool, throw themselves upon the mercy of Nature.

5. Rudolph and Hermey’s decision to go into the wilderness is a clear turning point. But here is where the show’s creators stumble.  If society is rejected, what is embraced in its place? Rankin/Bass and co. couldn’t make up their minds, so they had it both ways. In the original 1964 airing, Rudolph and Hermey sing a reprise of the Misfit song, effectively owning their outcast status, and wholeheartedly rejecting any need to conform to any normative paradigm.

Rudolph and HermeyThis evidently was too radical a choice for the program’s creators, and the after the first broadcast, the song Fame and Fortune replaced the reprise. The shift is extremely telling. Rudolph and Hermey are no longer rejecting society. Now they are actively seeking its approval in their quest to become rich celebrities, as they imagine being embraced by the world that once rejected them. Fame and Fortune was played on network broadcasts for the next 32 years.

6. The shift towards capitalism as a redeeming force is emphasized by the pair’s discovery of (and metaphorical adoption by) Yukon Cornelius. Much more a stereotypical Santa figure than the story’s real one, Yukon accepts Rudolph and Hermey with no apparent conditions. But as his name suggests, he is an obsessive prospector, driven by greed for silver and gold. The wilderness that Rudolph and Hermey run toward, therefore, is not bereft of capitalism. Rather, it represents return to the mythical frontier of America’s 19th century, unlimited in its entrepreneurial potential.

7. Like almost every hero’s journey, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer involves a confrontation with a terrifying monster. But it is not the Abominable Snowman who fills the Humbaba/Caliban role. “Bumble”, as he is affectionately called later, proves to be a red herring, a convenient device for the cliffhanger before a commercial break. No, Rudolph and Hermey confront not one, but an entire community of terrifying monsters when they land upon The Island of Misfit Toys.

Those searching for a stroke of genius in this holiday classic need look no further. Haunting, dark, and strangely moving, the misfit toys represent Rudolph and Hermey’s deepest fears. The metaphor of the island could not be clearer. The inhabitants’ separation seems permanent, and this may be no accident. Apparently, Santa and Rudolph’s last minute rescue was another ’65 afterthought; the show’s 1964 original airing sparked a letter writing campaign that asked for the redemption of the island’s toys to be more clearly dramatized.

But the tacked on resolution lacks the impact of the heroes’ first arrival on the moribund island. The sequence begins just beforeIsland of Misfit Toys sunset, and has horrific resonance for anyone who has been ostracized or abandoned as a child. It is one thing to be humiliated on a playground, or rejected by your parents. It is something quite different to feel that this aloneness will last forever and ever. Even king of the island, the toys’ host and benefactor, appears to be living isolated in an enormous, empty palace.

How telling is it that our heroes ask to stay on the island, and even more telling that their request is denied? However bizarre and freakish Rudolph and Hermey may be, they are deeply invested in the society that has rejected them. More importantly, they have assimilated its values of material and production based worth. Again, don’t be fooled by Rudolph’s fear of being discovered by the Abominable Snowman. The hero’s decision to return to Christmastown is clearly precipitated by his gaze into the abyss of The Island of Misfit Toys, and the need to resist the temptation to become one of them.

8. Once Rudolph returns to Christmastown, the remaining pieces of the puzzle fall quickly into place. Regretful, but not entirely repentant, society seems willing to tolerate his abnormality. It is only (and here, the story follows the song) when this abnormality becomes useful to the capitalist model that it is wholly embraced. Rudolph’s nose guides Santa’s sleigh, Hermey’s oral fixation finds an appropriate outlet in dentistry, and “Bumble” is cheered only after performing the critical task of placing the star on top of a very large Christmas tree. Not even the misfit inhabitants of the island can be redeemed until children are found to consume them.

LinusProduction and consumption, then, are the foundations upon which Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer rests. To be sure, its aggressively pro-capitalistic message is offered openly and without any intentional irony. If no toys are delivered, then “Christmas is cancelled.” This stands in stark opposition to the other major holiday specials of the period. Dr. Seuss’s Whos in How The Grinch Stole Christmas joyfully celebrate the holiday after all of their gifts are stolen. Charles M. Schulz has Charlie Brown rail openly against the commercialization of yuletide, with Linus reciting Luke’s gospel verbatim near the climax of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

None of this sentimental nonsense pervades Rudolph. Christmas is nothing more than children getting toys, and lots and lots of them. Society errs in rejecting Rudolph, not because the rejection is morally wrong, but because his abnormality is a technological innovation, much like the products manufactured and sold by the show’s original sponsor, General Electric. Seuss and Schulz were both intentional ironists with deep moral (and in the latter’s case, religious) agendas. They were also producers of important and enduring children’s literature, sharing a profound sense of responsibility to ethically engage their readers and viewers.

But it was a different story for the Rankin/Bass creative team. Indeed, Rudolph’s tale comes from a bestseller that May created
during the Great Depression for Montgomery Ward. To paraphrase Herbert Hoover: the business of Christmas is business, and those who ignore it do so at their peril. While Seuss and Schulz tell us how we should celebrate Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer tells us how we do celebrate it. The program’s charms are cynical, kitschy, and speak to us with a terrible and familiar clarity. And as American consumers, who are we to argue? Just remember, boys and girls, it’s essential to be useful, or at the very least desirable. After all: everyone wants a Jack in the Box. Nobody wants a Charlie in the Box.

David Berkson

December 21, 2011

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Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.


The Narrative of Blame: When Democrats Betray Democracy

I don’t read The Huffington Post to have my opinions challenged. I read The Huffington Post to have my opinions confirmed. Or at least massaged with a recap of the latest SNL sketch or last night’s rant from Samantha Bee. So imagine how I felt when I started reading a piece from HuffPost that began with a warning. It read:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

U-oh. That certainly did sound like trouble, now, didn’t it? Here was hard hitting journalism that refused to pull its punches. The Huffington Post wouldn’t be massaging any of my left-of-center prejudices. Not this time. Thus, I’d been duly warned. Yet I decided to ignore that warning. And that’s where my troubles began.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My troubles actually began with the piece’s title: Things I Blame For Hillary Clinton’s Loss, Ranked.


With the 2016 presidential election more than a month behind us, it is incredible that anyone’s still looking for someone to blame for Hillary Clinton’s upset defeat. Right minded liberals and progressives might instead want to fortify the castle against that fire-breathing dragon, Donald Trump. The title of the HuffPost article tries to answer the wrong question: “Who’s responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss?” when liberals and lefties should be asking: “Why and how did Donald Trump win?”

But if we start to answer that question, well…then we might start really pissing people off. We might look back on the last year and a half and get a little introspective. We might reflect upon our own classist condescension towards all those stupid Donald Trump supporters, and wonder how we got it all wrong. We might even get a little bit pissed at ourselves.

Naah. I sure didn’t do anything wrong. Why not just point the finger at somebody else? It is time, my friends, for the Narrative of Blame.

Now, to be fair to Max Weiss, the author of the Hillary Clinton Huffington Post piss-off piece, his list of villains isn’t entirely unreasonable. In casting blame for Clinton’s loss, Weiss mentions voter suppression, without a doubt the most alarming and pernicious threat to what’s left of our tottering democracy. Weiss also blames misogyny, writing:

 …they see (Clinton) as shrill and scolding and corrupt ― not sufficiently warm, not the kind of person they want to grab a beer with.

But the article is riddled with inconsistency and laziness. For one thing, Weiss blames the election results on Clinton’s campaign, while going out of his way to let Clinton herself off the hook. This bizarrely – though perhaps unintentionally – suggests that someone other than HRC was in charge of her own presidential bid. Perhaps Hillary’s detractors aren’t the only sexists in the room.

Still, that’s just bad and careless writing, no shock to those of us familiar with the work of The Huffington Post. So where’s the piss-off? Where are the audacious and offensive claims that necessitate such a dire trigger warning? For that, I direct you to Weiss’s arch-villains, the scourges of left-of-center liberalism and spoilers of 2016:

Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.

As I told you, Weiss pulls no punches. So as I reprint his argument, let me also reprint his warning:

I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, but so be it.

 Here’s what Weiss has to say:



I think Sanders, who fortified the recurring narrative that Hillary was a corrupt neoliberal and part of a rigged system, did more damage than anyone else. He turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.

 Yes, he ultimately campaigned for Hillary, but did so half-heartedly, through pursed lips and slumped body language, bashing Trump but rarely praising Hillary. One could almost see the thought bubble over his head: “This should’ve been me.”


DC: Green Party Presidential Nominee Jill Stein Makes Announcement On 2016 Race

That publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman gave disenchanted Bernie or Busters a place for their protest vote, and continued the absurd narrative that Hillary was just as bad as Trump.

 And then, just for good measure:

You’re on my list too, Susan Sarandon.


 Let’s put aside how Clinton’s bid for the White House was derailed by Sarandon, an actress whose most recent high-profile film was a cameo in Zoolander 2. Instead, let’s look at Weiss’s principle scapegoats: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s major rival in the 2016 Democratic primary, and Dr. Jill Stein, who ran as the Green Party candidate.

If you voted for Clinton or Sanders or (psst! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m voting for) Stein, you’re probably familiar with the Narrative of Blame, which goes something like this: Hillary Clinton had a great shot at becoming our 45th president. She came to her historic bid for the job with impressive and even unprecedented qualifications. The Republican field was full of crazy, ignorant, sexist, racist, xenophobic demagogues – with the exception of Jeb Bush, the David Brooks of electoral politics. No election was more important than this one. So Clinton had to become president. Not only that: she deserved it.

But like a brood of miscreant brats at Thanksgiving dinner, the Left just wouldn’t stay at the kids’ table and shut up and behave. Led by that cantankerous democratic socialist Bernie Sanders  (not even a Democrat!), these misinformed millennials and radicals couldn’t see the big picture. Let’s look back at Weiss’s condescending language:

(Sanders) turned millions of young people against Hillary — and countless independents, no doubt, too.


“Turned against” her, huh? How dare Sanders ruin Clinton’s spotless track record with the Left? If only those young people had thought for themselves. Or, better yet, thought like Max Weiss.

Continuing the Narrative of Blame: Clinton ultimately prevailed in the primaries, and Sanders begrudgingly offered up his support. But he was so half-assed. He didn’t really want her to win. And Democratic (not to be confused with democratic) victory was so important, because Clinton wasn’t squaring off against anyone. Her opponent was Donald Fucking Trump: a cynical robber baron whose exploits beggar a Warren Harding wet dream. And then Jill Stein, that “publicity-seeking, bourgeois woman,” (strike 2, Mr. Weiss: you might want to check out your own misogyny, buddy) had to come along and ruin it all by giving those bratty young Lefties someone who they actually wanted to vote for. Hillary Clinton could have won. Hillary Clinton should have won. But thanks to vote-stealing party poopers like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and their self-absorbed, misguided followers, Hillary Clinton didn’t win. She lost.

Sound familiar? Like most compelling and persuasive narratives, the Narrative of Blame has its elements of truth. It’s also deeply problematic. Worse, it’s downright dangerous, a tragic case of Democrats betraying  their own democracy. Let’s take a look at the Narrative of Blame’s major problems:

  1. A presidential race is just that: a race. It’s a competition, not a coronation. Hillary Clinton was indeed the most qualified candidate, but that doesn’t mean that she automatically deserved to win. (Back in 2008, didn’t John McCain have more experience than Barack Obama?) So who’s responsible for Hillary’s loss? Certainly not Hillary herself. So it’s Bernie Sanders’s fault. And it’s Jill Stein’s fault. Add Donald Trump to that list and the argument makes perfect sense: had Hillary Clinton run for president completely unopposed, she probably would have won the election.

  2. The Narrative of Blame assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein would have cast a vote for Clinton if only her left-leaning opponents hadn’t shown up and ruined everything. But the facts simply don’t bear out that argument. Omri Ben-Shahar of Forbes Magazine writes: “…Hillary Clinton was less attractive to the traditional Democratic base of urban, minorities, and educated voters.” In other words, voter turnout for Clinton was low. Significant numbers of traditional Democrats found staying at home preferable to voting for Hillary. Add good a old fashioned dose of voter suppression to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a Trump victory.

  3. The Narrative of Blame alternately assumes that anyone voting for Sanders or Stein should have cast a vote for Clinton because she had the best chance of beating Donald Trump. Well, it’s true. Clinton did have the best chance. But for some people that reason wasn’t enough. Feel free to dismiss the folks who saw HRC’s history of free trade, right to work, anti-union, pro-Wall Street, super predator, tough on crime history as the ultimate deal breaker. But if you want to defeat Donald Trump in four years? You’re gonna need those folks. Hate them all you want, but the brutal outcome of this last election prove that you’re going to need them, and in very large numbers. What’s your plan for winning them over? With dismissive, ageist prods to shut up and get with the program? That strategy didn’t work out so well this time, did it?

  4. The Narrative of Blame grabs at cheap fallacies like the ad hominem attack. It’s not enough to take issue with Sanders’s and Stein’s actions or policies. Let’s go after their corrupt motives, which we know about because…well, we just do. Was Sanders’s support for Clinton “half-hearted”? Yes, I’m sure it was. You might purse your lips if a bunch of leaked emails proved that the DNC had actively worked against your campaign. Is Jill Stein a narcissist? My god, who the hell cares? Do you know a politician who isn’t self-absorbed? You want character references? Fine, I’ll give you one: when Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, Jill Stein offered to step aside as the Green Party candidate and let him run in her place. Sanders declined, instead honoring his pledge to support the nominee for the Democratic Party. If you want to start sliming someone’s character, why not join the Republican party and start shrieking about Clinton’s emails? At least you’ll finally have the satisfaction of being on the winning side.

  5. The Narrative of Blame is undemocratic. It favors the Democratic Party over the democratic country. To decry the Electoral College while urging progressive candidates not to run, or badgering people to vote for a candidate whom they find unacceptable? That’s not just un-democratic: it’s deeply hypocritical. If your only interest is getting a Democrat into the Oval Office, that is certainly your prerogative. But at least be honest and admit that you – like your Republican enemies – are choosing partisanship over democracy.

This, then, is the final fallacy of the Narrative of Blame. It fails to recognize the greatest tragedy of 2016: our democratic institutions failed us – or more accurately, we failed our democratic institutions. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the Electoral College – an institution created in part to protect us from opportunistic demagogues – will make sure that Donald Trump is our next president.


Moreover, millions of people who wanted to vote – and tried to vote – were unable to cast their ballots due to voter suppression. And after all that, the Democratic Party’s most partisan supporters continue to marginalize progressive voices and candidates who work for social justice outside of our broken two-party system. Malcolm X once said that he preferred the white conservative over the white liberal because at least the white conservative showed his teeth. If more democracy threatens you, you’re perfectly free to tear down the reputations and rights of those who dare to use their voices and votes to encroach upon your all-important agenda. But have a little integrity and start showing us all your teeth.

So yes, Mr. Weiss. Your article did piss me off.

But not for the reasons you thought.

So be it.

David Berkson

December 9, 2016

You can contact David Berkson at or @DavidBerkson on Twitter. You can also “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook.


12 Facebook Quizzes You’ll Never, Ever Take

NarcissusBefore the dawn of the written word, ancient Greeks told the tale of the self-besotted Narcissus, eternally gazing upon the reflection of his sweet and comely visage. But imagine what Narcissus could have done with Facebook. Or Buzz Feed. Or Quiz Bone. Then, oh then, might his sweet and beguiling likeness have been reflected back into his own hypnotic eyes by every computer screen and website upon our ever shrinking planet. For when we look into the the abyss of the ubiquitous Facebook Quiz, we see reflected back our inner most natures, our selves, and our souls. Which character from Harry Potter are you? Which Beatle? Or Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader? The list is as endless as Narcissus’s own self love. But as the man from the Underground famously once said: there are some things which a man is afraid to admit… even to himself. With that in mind, The Autumning Empire is both proud and afraid to present 12 Facebook Quizzes that neither you nor Narcissus will ever, ever take. So don’t look too closely into that river of pop culture; you never know where you might fall!

12. Which David Brooks New York Times Op Ed Article Are You?


How about the one that’s poorly written and cites absolutely no facts to support its dominant culture bias? You know. That one.

11. Which STD Are You?

Aw man! I was really hoping for chlamydia! But instead I got non-gonococcal urethritis. Can I take that quiz again?

10. Which State Representative From South Dakota Are You?

Wait. There’s more than one Dakota?

9. Which Shakespeare “Problem Play” Are You?

I’m sorry! Do you have a problem with All’s Well That Ends Well?

8. Which Lame-Ass, Middle Of The Road Liberal Excuse For Barack Obama Are You?

I was shooting for, “He inherited a big mess,” but instead I got, “The job of the president is very, very hard.”

7. Which Broken New Year’s Resolution Are You?

Wait, is it February already? God, I am such a loser. Jesus.

Pol Pot6. Which Genocidal Dictator Are You?

Not happy with Pol Pot, huh? Who did you want? Hitler? Oh my god, you did want Hitler, didn’t you? That is just…I’m sorry. I really have to go back to my cubicle. Now.

5. Which Whit Stillman Movie Are You?

Ok. Who’s Whit Stillman?

4. Which Terrible Johnny Depp Performance Are You?johnny_depp__willy_wonka_by_nyuxd94-d4xrep0

How dare you? How dare you? Johnny Depp is an amazing actor! You’re just jealous ’cause he’s hot!

3. Which Joe Biden Article from “The Onion” Are You?

Ah, how about the one where he’s washing the car? I vaguely remember that being less un-funny than the others.

2. Which Edward Albee Play Dwelling In Well Deserved Obscurity Are You?

Did he write anything besides The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Oh. Right. Seascape. Yeah.

1. Which Woody Allen Movie Are You?

Dude, nobody took my Woody Allen quiz! How come? What’s wrong with Woody Allen? Seriously. Am I missing something?


David Berkson

February 10, 2014

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.


The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.Wow! The 2014 Oscar nominees have just been announced, and nobody is more excited than The Autumning Empire!

But how can we express our excitement, especially through social media where our opinions are so highly valued and so thoroughly masticated, swallowed, and digested? Never fear! The Autumning Empire is here with your very own Academy Award Social Media Mad Lib! Simply cut and paste the Mad Lib below, insert the appropriate parts of speech and numbers into those parenthetical sections, and presto! You have an opinion! Better hurry, though! You wouldn’t want to be bested by your “friends” now, would you? There’s lots of “nominees,” “but” “only” “one” “winner”!

2014 Social Media Oscar Mad Lib!



But what’s up with (ROBERT REDFORD)? Why’d they (VERB) him? That Academy! Every time they just (VERB) him and (VERB) him and (VERB) him! He was so good in “Barefoot in the Park”! I’m sure he was just as good in (THAT FILM I KEEP MEANING TO SEE BUT NEVER WILL). Oh well! Just goes to show you that the Oscars (ADVERB) get it (ADJECTIVE)!



David Berkson

January 16, 2014

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Breaking Bad’s Big Lesson For 2013

imagesThis was supposed to be a list. You know, one of those pop culture end-of-year lists. I had planned on calling it, “Five Most Important Things That Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.” It seemed apt. 2013’s end may signify any number of cultural milestones, but it’s an understatement to say the that final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad is one of the most important.

But I didn’t get far with my list. Well, that’s not exactly true. I got really far with just one item. Don’t get me wrong; Breaking Bad will continue to teach us many things beyond the year 2013. But as I tried to piece together what is unique about this program’s remarkable five-year run, the most important item on my list became the only thing. Here then is the top one thing that Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.

1. Sentimentality Corrupts Great Art

Breaking Bad excelled in many areas. But it also avoided lots of unnecessary mistakes. Narrative fiction has a host of pernicious traps that lie in wait for all who dare the journey. And the most pervasive of these traps, the one that snares the most wily and intrepid of storytellers, is the ancient snare of sentimentality.

I don’t want to go too far here. Art and sentimentality are not mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with the two of them getting in bed for an occasional drunken fling. But the minute they start shacking up, or god forbid getting engaged or even married, it’s a sure fire sign of disaster. Yeah, I know. Dickens and Capra were masters of sentimentality. But these were not men; they were sorcerers tampering with a dark, seductive magic that most of us just can’t handle.

vince-gilliganVince Gilligan instinctively understands this truth. With Breaking Bad, he and his team created a world where viewers became deeply and emotionally involved without ever having to feel…well, dirty. Breaking Bad never cheats. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler, and Hank  all come off as real people, people we feel that we know. And we care about them, in spite – or perhaps because – of their deep and tragic failures.

Those of us who enjoyed and endured the last appearance of Matt Smith on Doctor Who know how important it is for an actor’s departure or series’ end to come with a sense of closure. But what does this mean, and how is that sense of completion achieved? Usually by indulging in our culture’s favorite pastime: looking backward. Unfortunately, the past’s seductive landscape is mired in the sweet and enveloping quicksand of sentimentality. Remember when? Remember how?  Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that – oh, damn it all to hell, I promised myself that I just wouldn’t cry!

The fact that Breaking Bad avoided this quicksand tells us everything we need to know. After lying to, exploiting, and all but destroying his family for an Empire of Meth, a broken Walter White speaks with his wife Skyler one last time. Like the swan songing protagonists before him, Walt attempts to answer the question: what did this journey mean? But he’s cut off by his wife, whose interjection triggers this painful, quiet exchange:

Skyler:  If I have to hear…one more time…that you did this for the family-

Walt:  I did it for me. I liked it.  I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.

In fifty-nine seconds and twenty-eight words, Walter White gives his wife and viewers what we’ve been dying to hear for five whole seasons: the whole truth and nothing but.

What does Walter White receive in exchange for his frankness? The hope that his wife might not go to prison. A few precious seconds visiting his daughter’s crib side. And one last, secret look from afar at his bitterly estranged son. Throughout the series’ run, I found just about every scene between Walts senior and junior all but unbearable to watch. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dad myself, but I found something deeply unsettling and tragic in this father’s betrayal of his son. Even Walt’s relationship with Jesse, his all but adopted son, played out with greater fairness and equity. At some point every boy must watch his greatest idol fall, and we saw it happen at its most poignant and wrenching.

breakingbad514Walter White’s final farewell to his family leaves the viewers with a host of unanswered questions. Does Skyler forgive him? Do we forgive him? Can we forgive him? Do we want to forgive him? Are we even in a position to forgive, since time and again we freely handed over our sympathies this manipulator, liar, and murderer? Once upon a time, this game was played with the sly and cunning mastery of Alfred Hitchcock; Breaking Bad took it one step further by mapping out the suspense over a five year period.

The Walt and Skyler farewell is but one of countless similar exchanges seen over the series’ run. Virtually every deeply emotional, heartfelt moment is punctuated with at least one asterisk. As a result, our own emotional responses to the scene may or may not mirror those of the on-screen characters. We are therefore required to make our own decisions about how to respond. This makes for volatile, painful viewing. If the creators of the show aren’t telling me how to feel, then I’m sort of on my own, then, aren’t I? By demanding that we examine our loyalties and feelings, Breaking Bad held the mirror up to nature, and in so doing, avoided the dark arts and sweet seductions of sentimentality’s lure.

Art, at its best, provokes doubt. Sentimentality, at its worst, demands belief. This demand is firm and unconditional; you must believe, you will believe, and believe it right now. Believe that fairies are real. Believe that true love conquers all. Believe that if you just try your best, you can make it here in America. And if you don’t believe? If you decide to get all cocky and bow out? Go ahead. Do it. Protest the manipulation. But you’ll come off like an awful spoilsport, won’t you? No one gets thanked at a rained out picnic. And if it’s hard for you to believe? Hey, don’t worry. There’s an arsenal of weapons just waiting to bludgeon you into willing and passive submission. The swelling orchestra. The tearful close up. The supremely accomplished actor like Tom Hanks, who is so well practiced at giving your heartstrings that firm and encouraging tug. Come on! It’s just a movie. Or a TV show. Or a song. Why over intellectualize it? Why intellectualize it at all? Can’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy it?

Breaking Bad’s steadfast, disciplined refusal to go this route made it one of the most emotionally complicated narratives I’ve experienced in a very breaking_bad_walter_white-540x303long time. The show was not cold. Indeed, it’s hard for me to think of any story that surpasses Breaking Bad in its invitation to gut wrenching empathy and an all but impossible compassion.  The program was never lazy, and led its viewers by example. More importantly, it respected us by refusing to dictate what we should believe or feel. That’s more than you can say for most TV shows and movies. Strange. We’d never let a parent or partner tell us what to feel , yet we’re perfectly comfortable putting that responsibility in the hands of complete strangers, and paying them handsomely for the privilege.

Look, I cried at the end of E.T. right along with the rest of you, so I’m sorry if this tirade makes me sound like a heartless bastard. But history tends to be pretty tough on cultures that are addicted to sentiment. And if the first thirteen years predicts anything about the next eighty-seven, then 21st century America is in for a brutal beating at the angry hands of history. We can only hope that Breaking Bad will be counted in the great and final tally. Then, historians of the future can look backwards and say, “For one five year moment, the Autumning Empire held up the mirror, took a hard look, and just once had the courage to say: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’”

David Berkson

December 30, 2013

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Smaller On The Inside: Steven Moffat And The Incredible Shrinking Whoniverse


I’m pitching a script idea for Doctor Who. This mind-bending tale will be the first full episode starring Peter Capaldi’s newly minted 12th Doctor. Episode One has him kidnapping Doctor Who’s head writer/show runner Steven Moffat from the BBC, and bringing him back to ancient Greece, where the two men meet Aristotle. There, the great philosopher and author of Poetics teaches Steven Moffat how to construct a plot.

Blink_(Doctor_Who)Stay with me now, because it doesn’t stop there: get ready for the paradoxical, timey wimey twist. Unfortunately, the trip to antiquity leaves Doctor Who‘s head writer un-persuaded. Apparently, Steven Moffat isn’t impressed by the idea that a character’s actions should be logical, and follow naturally from the actions that precede them. And so the Doctor – in a desperate bid to save his own creative master (and indeed, himself) – travels forward to the BBC studios of 2007. And that’s where Steven Moffat meets a younger version of…himself. Forty-five seconds of light-hearted comic relief ensue as the two of them realize: “Whoa! This is really happening!” Then Moffat 07 shows Moffat 13 some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever written: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and of course “Blink.” It’s a poignant moment. After all, Moffat is (or was) the author of all of these wonderful stories. But before this episode swells to its paradoxical, sentimental climax, the Doctor forces both Moffats to do the same thing I had the misfortune of doing last night: watch the worst Doctor Who Christmas special ever made. “The Time of the Doctor.” God bless us. Everyone.

14609“But wait!” you may reasonably interject. “The worst ever? How is that possible? Haven’t we already seen the worst Doctor Who Christmas special? Wasn’t that ‘Voyage of the Damned’? Or was it ‘Runaway Bride’? Or maybe it was that very special Doctor Who ‘Christmas Carol.’” Ah Jesus, why pick favorites? Aren’t all Doctor Who Christmas specials terrible?* Doesn’t each inhabit its own special Whoniverse of never ending awfulness? Why not be generous? After all, it’s the holiday season.

But no. No no no no no no no. This is different. And it’s bad. Very bad. “The Time of the Doctor” is awful in ways that the others just can’t match. See, it’s not only that the show’s content is exceptionally poor. No, what is so deeply troubling about this story – if you can even call this thing a story – is that it seems to be not an aberration, but a new standard, an ominous harbinger of the terrible stuff to come.

Many years ago, in the middle of viewing an unforgivably bad film, my date turned to me and said, “Some movies you forget after you see them. This is a movie that you forget while you’re watching it.” So it is with “The Time of the Doctor.” I pity the professional TV critic whose job it is to write plot summaries scotch taped to opinion. It’s telling that in this case, many reviewers didn’t even bother with the plot. Tim Martin of The Telegraph simply threw up his hands, and tried instead to figure out what the hell the Doctor Who people were thinking:

I imagine Steven Moffat and co frantically entering text into a huge and messy Word document marked “Later”. Every time a narrative lapse gets handwaved away, every time an episode thunks to a halt with its story strands waggling, every time the Gordian plot-knot gets sonic-screwdrivered into submission for the 60-minute limit, the writers just tap the remnants into Later. What’s the deal with the creepy brain-wiping creatures known as The Silence? Later. The name of the Doctor? Later. The Catholic Church as intergalactic paramilitaries? Later. The 13-regeneration limit hanging over the series since the Sixties? Yup, stick it in Later.

A writer’s job is to tell a story. Once upon a time, Steven Moffat did this brilliantly. It’s hard to imagine Aristotle finding fault with any of the aforementioned ground breaking Moffat episodes. Indeed, the world’s first drama critic probably would have delighted in these dark and imaginative morality tales; Aristotle would have suspended disbelief.

But lowering the “threshold of acceptability” does not mean throwing it out altogether. Yet this is precisely what Moffat did when he crossed his own threshold from an occasional Doctor Who scriptwriter to the man in charge of the show. Moffat’s deal with the devil appears to have been made on the installment plan: “The Eleventh Hour” – Matt Smith’s first full episode as the 11th Doctor – is a beautiful piece of writing. But the seed of perdition had already been sewn: the so-called  “Crack in the Universe,” the first of Moffat’s incomprehensible story arcs, eventually severed disbelief’s suspension cords, and brought the whole thing crashing to the ground with an overhyped, sickening thud.

And then came the Murder of the Doctor. And the Impossible Girl. And the endless barrage of mind bending paradoxes that turned the rule of the Blue Box completely upside down. For all of its bells and whistles, a typical Doctor Who episode is now smaller on the inside than it is on the out.

Nowhere is this more depressingly clear than in “The Time of the Doctor.” Moffat appears to have abandoned the bloated ambition of his doctor-who-giftsoverarching story lines – which on some level, you have to sort of admire for their Gen X brand of Dickensian hubris. In their place he’s put a checklist. Weeping Angels? Check. Daleks? Check. Small spark of sexual tension with slender twenty-something companion that won’t ever go anywhere? Check. Because Steven Moffat’s not just the Doctor Who head writer and show runner. He’s the driving force behind a multi-million dollar entertainment juggernaut. And the business of show business is business. You don’t believe me? Check out the presents under my family Christmas tree: Doctor Who t-shirts. Doctor Who key chains. Doctor Who 50th anniversary encyclopedia retrospective 270 page book things. Doctor Who Christmas ornaments. Man, no wonder these guys are so big on Christmas specials; what better time to push all that profitable promotional merchandise? I guess taking charge of a business means you itemize, prioritize, and list, list, list – even when it comes to the sacred art of story making.

Don’t get me wrong. I like BBC One as much as the next guy, and if I’m doing my part to keep them afloat, who am I to feel guilty? But the sun must eventually set on the Whovian Empire, and that day may come sooner than we think. Every show has its worst episode. But this one should – and could – have been better. Come on! Didn’t Matt Smith deserve a better send off? And to the man’s credit, he all but saved the sinking ship with his heartfelt, odd ball, son-of-Crispin-Glover antics that have made him so beloved of fans and newcomers alike. “Matt Smith – he is astonishing!” cried the 7th Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. “His face has so much experience in it, and his performance is just excellent in how you feel how ancient he is.”** Too bad Moffat couldn’t give Smith a better script when he said his bon voyage.


So goodbye Doctor Eleven. Hello Doctor Twelve. Is it just me, or is the midnight hour for this franchise beginning to feel a little bit ominous? Peter Capaldi has all the talent, humor, skill, and gravitas to make this Doctor work. Too bad that Moffat doesn’t appear to share that confidence. Capaldi’s first appearance felt…well, a little frenzied. A quick fix it to be discarded in that ever growing “Later” file. Perhaps Moffat has finally become lost in the Byzantine labyrinth he’s been constructing since 2010.

Peter-Capaldi-Doctor-Who-Time-of-the-DoctorThe most telling line of dialogue in this special comes from Capaldi himself: “Just one question. Do you know how to fly this thing?” This is literally the Doctor referring to his TARDIS, but it might as well be Steven Moffat inquiring about the overall direction of the show. Jesus Christ, does anyone know how to fly this thing anymore? If not, we can only hope that the TARDIS crash lands in Greece, 335 BCE. There, while the Doctor repairs his time machine, Aristotle can repair Steven Moffat by teaching him what he used to know so well: how to write a good story. If and when that happens, perhaps Moffat can tend to that ever hemorrhaging and ever shrinking Whoniverse by finally closing up the crack.

David Berkson

December 27, 2013

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*Oh, alright. Most are terrible. A friend pointed out to me that “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is not in fact terrible, and after a another look, I’m inclined to agree that it is indeed quite charming. But does one good deed justify a legion of atrocities? You be the judge.

**Kistler, Alan. Doctor Who: A History. Guilford, Connecticut. Lyons Press, 2013.

Peter Pan In The Land of Genocide: A Tale of Three Doctors

the-9th-10th-11th-doctorsTime is relative, especially when it comes to pop culture, and most especially when it comes to fiction. Even the most timeless classic bears the unmistakable imprint of its age. Sure, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* is set in Korea, but it’s really about Vietnam. You don’t need to be a student of film or history to know Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby wasn’t made during the decade in which it’s set. Even William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells us far more about Elizabethan succession anxiety than the fall of the Roman Republic.

And so it is with Doctor Who. For half a century, the popular BBC series has given us hundreds of episodes in which its eponymous hero transcends the very the laws of time itself. But here’s the rub: none of those episodes, not one of them, can share in the Doctor’s vast and mighty power. Ironically, each story is trapped in its own fixed place in time –  a mirror of its age, a slave to the decade, and sometimes the year, in which it was made. Call it Time And Relative Dimension In Culture. In the end, that big blue box and its long-suffering pilot are time’s servants, not its masters.

So what exactly are we talking about? Hairstyles? Special effects? Not so special effects? Fezzes and bowties and big knitted scarves?  Well, sure, I guess we could talk about that. But Doctor Who deserves a closer look. Once considered a cult classic, the franchise’s 50th Anniversary Special now holds the Guinness world record for the largest audience of a simulcast TV drama. No longer a rarified artifact of geek culture, Doctor Who is now mainstream, the abstract and not so brief chronicle of our time.

HartnellWhen talking about Doctor Who, we’re actually looking at two distinct cultural phenomena. The first began as a BBC series in 1963, and ended 26 years later in 1989. The second Who phenomena* is a  J.J. Abrams era reboot (or in this case, regeneration) that began in 2005, and now grips both sides of the Atlantic. What does the new Who look like? Whenever a franchise gets recycled, its producers come a courtin’ with this solemn oath: we’re gonna take this thing in a whole new direction, AND be totally respectful of the series’ past. The results are sometimes ridiculous and unfortunate. (Like Disney’s The Lone Ranger.)  But back in 2005, Doctor Who’s executive producer/head writer Russell T. Davies actually kept his promise.  Armed with a creative team steeped in Whovian mythology, Davies kept many of the original show’s trademarks: the sonic screwdriver, the mechanical Daleks, the original soundtrack, and the beloved, squeaky TARDIS.

Number 9But the ninth incarnation of the series’ Doctor was something fans hadn’t exactly seen before. The froofy costumes and avuncular mad scientist affects were stripped away. In their place stood Christopher Eccleston, a well-known and respected film actor with a long, impressive resume. If anyone would take this show in a new direction, it would be its newly regenerated protagonist.

He was a sober figure. “… (Eccleston) has a very serious screen image,” said Davies. “There’s a lot of fun and humour in his portrayal, but of course when the Doctor is angry or passionate we get that other side of Christopher, which has helped make him one of Britain’s finest actors.”

In some ways, the 9th Doctor took the character in a direction that wasn’t new, but very, very old. Fans listening carefully could hear the faint patrician echo of Doctors One and Three. The 9th Doctor is a man of grim determination. His occasional flashes of humor barely mask the grimace of a formidable, sometimes heartless adversary. “Have pity!” cries his arch enemy, an imprisoned Dalek. “Why should I?” answers the Doctor, torturing his prisoner by process of electrocution, “You never did.” Eccleston’s is a Doctor of war, the last of his race, a scarred and lonely soldier whose square, singular focus on the present is understandable when we hear his apocalyptic vision of past and future:

You think it’ll last forever. People and cars and concrete. But it won’t. One day it’s all gone. Even the sky. My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned like the Earth. It’s just rocks and dust. Before its time.

The 9th Doctor, then, is a man of the time and culture that spawned him. In January of 2005 – the only year Eccleston played the Doctor – George W. Bush took the oath for his second term as President of the United States. Three months later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair got sworn in for term number three. There’s a long list of men and women responsible for the bloody, pointless war in Iraq, and Bush and Blair sit right on top. One month and two days later after Blair was sworn in, bombs ripped through London’s public transportation system, leaving 52 people dead, and many more injured. Blair blamed Islamic extremists for the act, and – sounding an awful lot like Doctor Number Nine – vowed: “We will not be intimidated.”

Everybody Lives

The 9th Doctor has many moments of warmth and compassion. But even then, his message is clear: things are as they must be. When his companion, Rose Tyler, manipulates the Doctor to take her back in time so she can prevent her father’s death, the Time Lord chastises her: “My entire planet died, my whole family. Do you think it never occurred to me to go back and save them?” His acts of heroism live in the shadow of tragedy’s looming inevitability. After saving a relatively small group of Londoners during the 1941 Blitz, he cries in a fit of messianic triumph: “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once! Everybody lives!” It’s the 9th Doctor’s finest hour, yet he can’t help but remind us that it probably won’t happen again.

Public and critical reception for this darker Doctor were, for the most part, positive, and the series was renewed for another season. But Eccleston stepped down. For all he brought to the role, Doctor Who just wasn’t his gig. His successor was quickly announced: a thirty-four year old Scottish actor named David Tennant. Tennant had followed the show since childhood, and seemed remarkably eager for the challenge. But following Eccleston’s act appears to have been a daunting prospect. “…there’s an awful lot to live up to here. I know everyone loved Chris, and so did I, but hopefully I won’t disappoint people.”

tennantHe needn’t have worried. A 2012 poll conducted by Entertainment Weekly would later show David Tennant to be the most popular Doctor of all time. But our past was his future, and even the show’s creative team found it necessary to prove Tennant man enough for the job. In fact, Tennant’s first appearance has him wondering aloud what “sort of man” he is. His final answer comes with an Eastwoodesque sneer, as he sends an enemy plunging to death: “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”

What makes the 10th the most popular Doctor ever? Internet theories are far-flung and ubiquitous, but I think that it boils down to this: fans are generous with Tennant because he’s so generous with them. If you want to see a man in love with his job, watch some 10th Doctor episodes, especially the earlier ones. Here was a Doctor who reached out to his allies, his adversaries, and his audiences. Even if this Doctor isn’t your favorite, Tennant’s sheer charisma and joie de vivre are pretty tough to resist.

But charm has its price, and the fee for Tennant’s was exacted on the surprisingly early occasion of his fifth appearance as the Doctor. In “School Reunion,” he joins forces with old companions Sarah Jane Smith and the robot dog, K-9. It is a fond and sentimental backward look at classic Doctor Who episodes, especially those from the vintage Tom Baker years. Warm and fuzzy would become a hallmark of Tennant’s Doctor. Try to imagine Chirstopher Eccleston picking Elisabeth Selden off the ground, beaming “My Sarah Jane!” as the music swells to a heart warming climax.

K9And that’s where the trouble begins. Not all of Eccleston’s episodes are great – or even good – but like their hero, most focus on a reasonably self-contained plot line. Not so with Tennant. The stories, the Doctor, and the actor who plays him become increasingly sentimental, self-absorbed, and above all: self-referential. Three seasons of the 10th Doctor feel less like a coherent story arc, and more like the uncovering of treasured family knick-knacks. “Hey look! The Cybermen! Why don’t we bring them back? The Sontarans? Aw, man! They were awesome! Why don’t we do one episode – or two, or three, or four – about them? That’d be cool!” Tennant’s tenure, then, is Doctor Who’s post-modern era, unceasingly asking the burning question of our age: remember when?

By the time Tennant was replaced by Matt Smith in 2010, Doctor Who’s course was set to forward into the past. New executive producer/head writer Stephen Moffat accelerated the pace: a 10th Doctor episode pays tribute to the memories of several seasons or episodes past; the 11th Doctor episodes get sentimental over events that took place a mere five minutes ago.

But when you’re watching an 11th Doctor episode, it’s kind of hard to figure out what exactly did happen five minutes ago. I realize that Steven Moffat’s taken quite a beating for his rambling, incoherent story arcs, but so far that just hasn’t stopped him. Jesus Christ, what the hell are we to make of some of these episodes? If the 10th Doctor’s all about the sentimental journey, then an 11th Doctor story such as “The Pandorica Opens” is a horribly botched magic trick, an Escher copy gone wrong, an awesome late night brainstorm that got filmed before anyone bothered to script it.

PandoricaCall me old fashioned, but science fiction does not give you license to make up a bunch of random rules as you go along, and then break them whenever it’s convenient. That’s not science fiction, it’s bad fiction, and Steven Moffat ought to know better. This man is the author of “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” and “Blink,” justly hailed as some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever made. “Blink” in particular is a textbook example of sci fi at its best. It begins by establishing a rigidly defined set of rules, then insisting that its characters play by all of them. The result is a taut, suspenseful tale in which the Doctor (not even the episode’s protagonist) has limited power to assist the people most in need of his help. It seems incredible that this script was penned by the same guy who gave us “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and the eminently unforgivable “Let’s Kill Hitler.” But perhaps that crack in the universe is a metaphor for Moffat’s bifurcated creative psyche.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around. The hands of Russell T. Davies are also steeped in the blood of bad fiction. His overweening 10th Doctor space operas like “The Last of the Time Lords,” “The Stolen Earth,” “Journey’s End,” and “The End of Time,” sorely test the patience of any reasonable viewer in search of a story that makes one ounce of logical sense.

Davies and Moffat are smart, imaginative men. Why have they written so many bad scripts? The answer lies in the much hyped, much watched 50th anniversary special. Like most Doctor Who episodes, “Day of the Doctor” is a mixed bag. Fans of David Tennant and the quirky, unpredictable Matt Smith can’t help but smile at the sight of these two eager hams finally sharing the screen. It’s a wonderful reminder of what these men bring to the show that Eccleston never could: pure love for the role and the series. Let’s be thankful that Eccleston passed on the chance to appear on the special: he would have been an awful drag and a dour old chaperone. Science fiction does not have the right to be bad, but it does have the right to fun, and even – occasionally – silly.

Day of the DoctorAnd David Tennant? Matt Smith? Those guys are silly. Really silly. “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that?” cries John Hurt’s so called ‘War Doctor.’ “They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!” And indeed, Doctors 10 and 11 are just a couple of boys, aren’t they? A pair of lads having fun, intergalactic Peter Pans who whisk their doe-eyed Wendy companions from one Never-Never Land to the next, clinging to the TARDIS as a fountain of youth in the hope that they’ll never grow up.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. Probably not. The youthful impishness is what draws us to the 10th and 11th Doctors. But perhaps we should be troubled. Nostalgia – such a mainstay of current pop culture – is rooted in the fear of growing older. The same is true of Doctor Who’s incomprehensible storylines. It’s not just that they’re terrible, it’s the way in which they’re terrible. Here’s the basic formula:

  1. Some awful catastrophe threatens to bring about the end of an important character/the planet/the human race/the entire universe.
  2. The catastrophe almost occurs. In many cases, it does occur. Either way, all is lost.
  3. A miracle saves the day, preventing, or even – and this is what happens with far greater frequency in later episodes – reversing the catastrophe. No rational explanation; it just simply happens. No major character dies (unless it is the end of the season and time to replace an actor).

So it is for “Day of The Doctor.” Fans are finally brought to scene of the Time War, the battle that destroyed the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey. It is the site of the genocide that deeply haunted the Doctor Number Nine. And so, when we’re finally brought there, to the tragic moment of irrevocable loss, we discover…

…that it never happened. The war? The genocide? Oops! My bad. We just thought that it did. According to Wikipedia, the episode’s three Doctors: “freeze the planet in time within a secondary/pocket universe.” Then, through another act of intergalactic magic, the doctors explain that they’re going to forget that they’ve ever done this (so that all the previous episodes still make sense). You got that? They’ll remember the genocide, but we’ll all know that it never really happened.

Now again, I hate to sound old fashioned, but why choose to tell a story about genocide if you aren’t prepared to deal with it? It’s one thing to miraculously bring one or two characters back to life through a little bit of sci-fi magic. But genocide? Really? Whatever, man. I guess it’s just a TV show. Just goes to show that we’ve come a long way since 2005. With far fewer troops in Iraq** and Afghanistan, the trans-Atlantic mainstream is no longer pre-occupied with global politics, or – more importantly – the First World’s responsibility for how they play out. The Gallifrean genocide myth was created at a time when it was impossible for anyone to ignore the realities of war. Now, if you have the luxury of being able to indulge a binge on Netflix, it is entirely possible to ignore those realities.  But the folks at Doctor Who have been stuck with a genocide narrative that audiences now don’t want to hear. Better to just pretend that it never even happened. This is where nostalgia and deux ex machina endings work together: they encourage us to selectively remember the past, and anesthetize us to the horrors of the present.


But as of Christmas, 2013, there’s going to be a new Doctor in town. It’s impossible to predict with any certainty what kind of change the 12th Doctor will bring, but one thing’s for sure: Peter Capaldi’s no Peter Pan. Moffat has insisted that the fifty-five year old character actor is the only man he considered for the part of the 12th Doctor. Indeed, Moffat seems ready to take the show in a completely different direction, promising fans that “now it’s time for the old beast to snarl.”

Really? Wow! Who’s he going to snarl at? And why? I guess we’ll know soon enough. And like most Doctor Who fans, I’m willing to sit through just about anything. But if I have any hope for the 12th Time Lord, it’s this: that somewhere in his voice we hear a little bit of the old snarl from 2005.  Escapism is great, but this series, in its best moments, has shown us that we can do better. Maybe Doctor Who is finally ready to liberate itself from this fixed point in time, and start telling us truths we might not want to hear.

David Berkson

December 18, 2013

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* The two series were bridged by a 1996 TV film starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor. 

** There are currently no British troops in Iraq.

The U.S. Must Strike Now. But Not Against Syria

FlagThis week, members of Congress will make what is possibly the most important vote of their careers. They will decide whether or not to support President Obama’s call for military action against the oppressive government of Syria. It’s a momentous choice, and while some legislators have already made up their minds, for those who are still on the fence, the decision is pure agony.

It need not be. The choice is stark and simple. The United States is the world’s greatest – and perhaps only – superpower. We have an obligation to stand firm against the forces of evil. We cannot sit idly by while a nation commits human rights atrocities. America must act, and it must act now.

But not against Syria. True, its government has used chemical weapons against its map_of_syriaown people. True, its army routinely detains, tortures, beats, and kills unarmed civilians.  True, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has turned his country into a charnel house, a black hole of human rights, and an international pariah.

But there yet looms a larger threat: a rogue nation that puts our very planet on the very brink of collapse and ruin.  Aggressive and belligerent to the point of bellicosity, this country repeatedly ignores international calls for multilateralism, cooperation, and basic human decency. It chokes the world in a vice-like grip of greed and insatiable avarice. It is the number one threat to our global security, and yet accountable to no one.

It is the United States of America.


We cannot let this stand. Americans must stand firm against tyranny, imperialism, brute force and naked aggression. Diplomacy has failed. The choice is clear. The time has come for the United States of America to take action against the United States of America.

Let me be clear: I am not asking Congress for a declaration of war. This will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq, or even Libya. There will be no boots on the ground. But the time to move is now.

Is the American public ready for this? More ready than you might think. 49% of all Americans support a strike against our own military. Besides, when it comes to right and wrong, you don’t go around asking permission. You’ve got stand tall and be tough. But if hearts and minds needs be moved, so be it. The United States has never shirked whipping up public support when it comes to demonizing our enemies. And since the United States’ greatest enemy is the United States, it’s only fair to lay before the public the worst of our government’s innumerable atrocities:

The United States is a Human Rights Pariah

The United States is one of 195 signatories to the Geneva Convention. Yet the  Washington Post identifies 367 men who are currently being detained in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. These individuals have not been formally charged with any crime, let alone brought to trial, and many have been there since the camp was established in 2003. Reports of prisoner abuse and torture are rampant. Amnesty International said: “Guantanamo has become the gulag our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law.”

U.S. President Barack Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to close the Obamadetention center. Five years later, the camp is still open.

America’s Carbon Footprint is Destroying the World

Believe it or not, the US is not #1 in everything. We rank 38th in healthcare, 17th (in the developed world) for education, and 27th in infant mortality. But as polluters, we run a close second only to China, which produces 6,018 million tons of greenhouse gasses per year, as compared to America’s mere 5,903 million tons.

But did China get there all by itself? No way, baby. Who do you think funds the activities that produce those greenhouse gas emissions? U.S. Corporations, that’s who. Every time you purchase a product with the words “Made In China” engraved on non-recyclable plastic, feel proud that you’ve done your part to contribute to that country’s sky rocketing pollution. Take a look at CNN’s staggering list of U.S. corporations that export jobs to China: Google, Apple, Target, Toys ‘R Us, Verizon, 3M – even American Greetings employs people in China. Ironic, isn’t it? But what a great way to avoid all the pesky labor and environmental restrictions that cut into these corporations’ astronomical profits. So go ahead, People’s Republic: toot your own made-in-China horn as the world’s greatest polluter. Just don’t forget the U.S. companies that help put you on top.

The U.S is a Global Military Menace

In 2011, the United States spent $711 billion on defense. That’s more than the next 13 countries combined, which spent $695 billion. Not $695 each. $695 billion combined. In this area, at least, we are indisputably numero uno.

Defense Chart

Now, you’d think that a country that spends this kind of dough on weapons would feel more secure, not less. But that’s not how it’s panned out since the end of the Second World War. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, the U.S. carried out a pointless, bloody, and unpopular war in Vietnam. The American government was a great friend and supporter of pinochetAugusto Pinochet, the infamous Chilean dictator who murdered and “disappeared” thousands of peaceful political dissidents. It also supported South Africa’s racist apartheid government, and listed Nelson Mandela’s ANC as a terrorist organization. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported right wing military juntas in Central American countries such as El Salvador and Honduras. In both 1991 and 2003, the United States invaded and waged undeclared wars in Iraq. (The pretense for the second invasion – complicity in the 9/11 attacks and a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction – proved to be one hundred percent false.)

And today? The United States repeatedly carries out drone strikes against no less than seven countries, including Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan. These attacks have killed hundreds of children. Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, describes “a whole new depth of outrage,” experienced by those on “the receiving end of the missile,” because “the guy pulling the trigger” is in a “position of safety.” Rather than keeping us safer, Bowden argues that the drone program empowers America’s to act with impunity, and is used as a pretext to commit terrorist acts against civilians. Thus, America is in the awkward position of being a threat to everyone. Even itself.

What do you want? More? How’s this: the United States is a country that spies not only on its enemies, but on its allies and even its own citizens. What does that sound like to you? A beacon of freedom and democracy? Or an eastern European Soviet backed police state?

So when the world is faced with such a monster, who is there to save the day? The United States. Only America can stop America. As the world’s greatest – and perhaps only – superpower, the United States alone has the power to degrade and wipe out the overwhelming strength of its own bloated military.

Now, I’m not suggesting this is going to be easy. As our president is so fond of saying, there are gonna be some tough times ahead. But this is a Gergensituation where America simply cannot afford to lose face. As David Gergen says, “The danger is the more reluctant you are, and the more deliberative you are, the danger is you start looking weak.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for us to face the real enemy. And it’s the best of all choices. Striking a blow to America’s military might will involve no collateral damage. Not one bomb need be dropped; no bullet need be fired. Such action will save countless lives  abroad, not to mention those of the brave men and women serving in our military. It is time for America to liberate America from the stifling grip of tyranny. Think about what the saved hundreds of billions of dollars in military spending could buy: affordable, single payer healthcare; new roads and bridges; well funded education; and an end to our mounting deficit. Gergen is right: we can’t afford to be weak. The best part is, we can do it without the United Nations or the help of a single other country.

Because in the end, the only one in the world who can put a stop to America’s war machine is America itself. It’s time to get busy. Please contact your senator and congressperson today, and tell them to vote “no” on U.S. military action in Syria.

David Berkson

September 9, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Hello, Mr. Chips! The Autumning Empire’s Back to School Guide for Teachers

Mr. Chips
Wow! Where did all the time go? Seems like summer just got started, and here we are in mid-August! That means it’s not just back to school for students, but for teachers, too! Now, educators, you all know perfectly well that teaching isn’t just a job; it’s a calling! Still, even the most idealistic of our ranks may feel some degree of anxiety as that impending first day approaches. But never fear: The Autumning Empire is here! Let us be your teacher’s assistant with these fifteen indispensable tips to help you prep for the upcoming year:

  1. Re- watch Dead Poets Society, a heartwarming story of a man who achieves what no other teacher has by getting a group of sensitive, privileged, teenage boys from New England to appreciate Western literature.
  2. As you sit down to prepare your course material, spend 2 hours cleaning your desk and sharpening your pencils.
  3. Enjoy a restorative day at the beach. Gaze at the calming waves. Remember that at any minute melting polar ice caps could create a devastating tsunami that’ll wash you and your loved ones out to sea.
  4.  Move to Albuquerque and start cooking meth to help pay for your chemo.Bad
  5. You know that novel that you’ haven’t been writing all summer? Well start writing it. Now.
  6. Become critically injured in a parachuting accident; then have Oscar Goldman’s crack surgery team at the OSI bring you back to life through the miracle of prosthetic bionics.
  7. Remember that there is no higher calling than giving young people the skills they need to pass a standardized state test.
  8. Relax. Nah. Just kidding. I had you there for a second, though, didn’t I?
  9. Make a list of professions that pay better than teaching and require far less education.
  10. Remember The Alamo. Just be careful how you teach it in Arizona or Texas. Seriously. Consider yourself warned.
  11. Follow Jack Black’s example in School of Rock by using students to form a band in which you are the wacky, irreverent front man. That’s really what the students are there for, anyway, isn’t it? To make you look good?Black
  12. Get out your old copy of Led Zeppelin II and crank it. It may not help. But it sure won’t hurt.
  13. As the anxiety of the impending school year causes you to vomit uncontrollably, comfort yourself with the realization that it’s bringing you this much closer to your summer weight loss goal.
  14. Look at your fading 2008 and 2012 campaign bumper stickers; bitterly realize that your life as an underpaid, overworked professional educator under President Obama is no better than it was under President Bush.
  15. Scream.

August 14, 2013 

Disclaimer: this Autumning Empire post is a piece of satire. We neither condone nor recommend the manufacture or consumption of illegal drugs in New Mexico or elsewhere. Similarly, we condemn procrastination, anxiety induced vomiting, and over-rated star vehicles for Robin Williams and Jack Black.

We are, however, dead serious about Zeppelin. 

ZepDude. Those guys were awesome.

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

The Krypton Code of Silence: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About 9/11

Man of SteelIf you’ve noticed a disturbing trend in summer action films, you’re definitely not alone. Earlier this month on Vulture, Kyle Buchanan wrote a piece that finally gives voice to our moral misgivings by asking: “Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11? ”

Using Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as his point of departure, Buchanan indicts all our summer action fests, writing, “Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.”

American movies have been serving up generous helpings of mass carnage since Gone With the Wind. What’s new is a calcifying indifference to the human cost of violence. Buchanan cites cineplex orgies such Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers, World War Z, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But he saves his most blistering attack for Man of Steel:

(Superman) seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; Man of Steel 2similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, goes further, calling the film’s “intentional” referencing of 9/11 as “evil” and “sick.” These strong and convincing charges are made on the latest installment of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m a huge fan of this show; it’s the only podcast I listen to every week. And I’m an even bigger fan of Weldon: he’s one of the few pop culture critics out there who’ll rip into the moral core of a movie or TV show without getting self righteous. But as I continued to listen to the conversation, I realized that something wasn’t sitting right. For some reason, I had a feeling that an important part of the equation was being left out or ignored.

Spiderman 2After a while, I figured out what it was. A little later in the podcast, Man of Steel is pejoratively compared to two other superhero films that were made a few years back. Chris Klimek, a guest on the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel,  recalls two extraordinary moments of ordinary heroism dramatized in Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively. Each film has a moment when at least one non-super hero character steps up in the face of danger and chooses to do the right thing. With no super powers or gadgets to protect them, these ordinary crowd members stand up and show us that we, too, can be heroes. What makes these cinematic moments so special is that they have “nothing to do with Batman” or Spiderman, but are, as Klimek puts it, a way of saying to the audience: “Hooray for us.”

I’m not sure if this is what he was going for, but by citing these two films, Klimek takes the 9/11 theory and turns it upside down. Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2 was released in 2004, three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the theatres is 2008. Both films are much closer to 9/11 than this summer’s Man of Steel. If what we’re seeing on our screens today is the movie industry’s response to 9/11, then why has it taken Hollywood so long?

The answer is: it hasn’t. If you want to see Hollywood’s real response to 9/11, look to those earlier superhero films from the mid-2000s. To get a sense of how the attack initially impacted us, let’s look at the speech Bill Clinton made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, while Spiderman 2 was playing in theatres:

Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all just wanted to be one nation. Not a single American on September the Clinton12th, 2001, cared who won the next presidential election. All we wanted to do was to be one country, strong in the fight against terror, helping to heal those who were wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones, reaching out to the rest of the world so we could meet these new challenges and go on with our democratic way of life.

That’s not to say that in the days, months, and immediate years after 9/11, contempt for human life was completely absent from the world of American pop culture. (Anyone remember 24?) But the beauty of those earlier superhero movies is that they offered us something else: hope.  It’s the real life heroism of 9/11’s first responders – the firefighters, the policemen, and the medics – that Rami and Nolan paid tribute to in their mythical metropolitan chaos. It is saying a lot that a film as grim and nihilistic as The Dark Knight could give us even one of those moments – one that Klimeck remembers as earning audience applause when it first played in theaters.

So if films from the mid-2000s represent Hollywood’s response to 9/11, then what are we to make of today’s blood free genocidal building smashing action porn? Bill Clinton’s 2004 speech gives us another clue:

(President George W. Bush) had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies… (by) attacking Iraq…

Oh right. Iraq. Afghanistan. Those would be Washington’s response to 9/11. Buchanan hits the bull’s eye in his use of the term “collateral damage.” It is a well worn phrase employed by our military, the world’s largest, when referring to civilian casualties when we are the aggressors. Man of Steel and films of its ilk may think that they are about 9/11, and their use of its iconography must surely be intentional. But what the summer blockbusters of the 2010s truly represent are America’s  numbness to a perpetual state of war.

“There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them.” Kind of sounds like the American public. After all, Zack Snyder isn’t just a Hollywood director. He’s a United States citizen. That means he’s had over a decade’s worth of practice at ignoring the human cost of war.  The combined financial cost of both Iraq and Afghanistan  will run anywhere between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. As for collateral damage in Iraq, estimates range from 113,185 to 123,900 civilian deaths since 2003. For Afghanistan, the number is somewhere between 16,725 to 19,013 since the war began 13 years ago in 2001.

Oh, well.Seems like yesterday’s news, doesn’t it? With the U.S. reducing its military presence in both countries, Americans list foreign policy at the bottom of their list of concerns. How can our summer blockbusters reflect two wars that everyone wants to forget?

By helping us to forget them. By erasing the blood from the moral equation of violence. Battles don’t kill people; they just smash a lot of buildings and blow things up. Ten years ago, it was possible to believe that truth, justice, and the American Way were all members of  the same happy family. Today, a majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. What is the Obama administration’s most ambitious foreign policy goal? Hunting down the man who exposed its secret spy program. Complain if you want to, but most Americans support our in his quest to track down Edward Snowden and put the criminal behind bars.

And so, once again, when Buchanan writes about our alter egos, he reflects a hidden and deeply troubling truth that plagues our national character:

“Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now…

…they can only avenge them.”



David Berkson

June 25, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Art House 007: How Heineken Poisoned the Well of the West’s Most Beautiful Franchise

This piece was read by the author at Late Night Library’s 2nd Anniversary Party “Read It Like You Mean It” on April 26.

The Autumning Empire

James Bond fans are angry. Very angry. At a time of economic chaos and global uncertainty, we need archetypes that are consistent and reliable. Can you imagine Homer Simpson eating caviar? Hamlet making a fart joke? Carrot Top making a successful joke at all? No, this is not the time to “experiment,” “shake things up,” or “think outside the box.” Yet the creators of Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, have done just that. In a scene that’s created no small measure of hullaballoo and controversy, audiences will now be forced to watch Daniel Craig’s 007 drink not the customary shaken-not-stirred vodka martini. No, instead fans throughout the world will be treated to the spectacle of the world’s greatest secret agent and super spy sipping on…a Heineken.

Why? In the name of god, why would anyone allow this to happen? The answer is simple: money. This is product placement, nothing…

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