March 26th, 2011


And my inner editor smiles (Doctor Who)

Here's an unexpected pleasure I discovered as I finally (I know, FINALLY) start concertedly watching the revival of Doctor Who:

Whoever writes the closed captioning actually pays attention to it.

I turn subtitles on for a lot of shows: it can help with accents, and also if I decide to watch a show a step faster than normal speed, the captions are usually still on-screen and legible. At times when I was powering through Lost to prepare for its final season, I watched the show that way. Knew I was giving up on the show's neat sound, music, and nuances of the acting (really), but it helped me get to certain story beats more quickly. I can't do that with Farscape, because the DVDs I've gotten of it haven't had any closed captioning.

But what's worse (for a relative value of "worse"): no caption or half-assed caption writing?

Captions can't always match what the actors say, especially when dialogue is quick and complicated. So what the actors say can get condensed. You can always get rid of words and get your point across quickly. I like that a key line Sean Connery says in Finding Forrester is "I'm that one." (And as the late punster Bob Thaves pointed out in Frank and Ernest, you can reduce Moby-Dick to "Sail tale. Frail male fails, pale whale prevails." THAT STILL AMUSES ME.) But I've seen enough bad caption writing to be a little wary of it. Sometimes it's ridiculous, like the subtitles on Hong Kong action films. Back in the mid-90s I saw an Asian-market print of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master 2, with its mess of different languages across both the bottom and the sides of the screen, and some of the English translations were ridiculously wrong. That also runs into cross-culture translating, too, of course: I remember seeing a Chinese period piece, a film that ended with the 1930s Japanese invasion of China, with the English subtitles saying such modernisms as "What's up with that?" and "Grin and bear it." Sometimes there's only so much one can do when captioning to get the point across, but I still notice when it's not done well.

The neat trick that Doctor Who is doing with its captions is that its condensed dialogue -- often needed, as Christopher Eccleston can indeed talk very, very fast -- is interesting on its own. The sentence structure might get changed, but you still get what you need to know, and with flair.

Here's to paying attention.

And by the way? Overall, this show is genuinely fun. I know, old news to many, many, many of you, some of whom have seen Doctor Who episodes from the early-to-mid 1960s. My exposure had been touch-and-go sporadic: mainly a few episodes of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) from the late 1970s. The one full Classic Doctor Who story I know I've seen is "City of Death," a story Douglas Adams helped write under a pseudonym in 1979. Not wanting to dive into the four decades of filmed Who -- that's potentially TOO MUCH WHO, and I'd worry about A) getting lost or B) wanting to watch ALL THE WHO EVER+ (26 Classic Who seasons! Some 1960s movies! That BBC-American TV movie from 1996!) -- I decided to start with the 2005 relaunch, which was designed to be a relatively easy point of entry into the story. OK, I'll be watching more. Just don't hurry me.

(Though maybe being ready to watch the upcoming episode by Neil Gaiman would encourage me to watch more. Speaking of someone good at condensing words...)

+ I know, not possible, as some of the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were erased or otherwise destroyed.