The Slow Blunder
The New Pornographers' Snoozy Challengers

There are only six complete Patrick Troughton Doctor Who stories in the BBC archives, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that one of them is The Mind Robber.

This is a story like no other in the original show’s 26-year run. Start with the format – it’s five episodes, instead of the usual four or six, a strange decision forced on it when the previous story, The Dominators, ran into script problems. The result is a hastily-written, tacked-on drug dream of a first episode that, oddly enough, actually sets the tone pretty well. Then The Mind Robber ran into its own production problems, and the decision was made to shrink each episode to 20 minutes, instead of the usual 25. So it’s a five-parter that plays like a four-parter, with a strange prelude stitched to the beginning.

But that’s nothing compared to the story itself. The Doctor and his companions (the ever-faithful Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot, science whiz from the future) find themselves outside of time and space, in a realm they soon learn is populated entirely by fictional characters. Like, they meet Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels, who only speaks lines from the novel. They wander around a forest of oddly-shaped trees, before they decide to climb one and discover that the trees are letters, and they’re on a printed page.

And it keeps getting weirder. Frazer Hines, who played Jamie, contracted chicken pox during one of the production weeks, and this is the kind of story were they found a way to replace him with another actor for one episode, and make it work. The cliffhanger of one of the episodes is Jamie and Zoe being pressed into a giant book. There’s a recurring pulp super-hero character called the Karkus, and while the Doctor can make mythical creatures like Medusa go away by reminding himself that they’re fictional, that trick doesn’t work on the Karkus because the Doctor’s never read his comic strips.

Everything about The Mind Robber is deliriously insane and imaginative. It’s probably the most original Doctor Who story I’ve seen, and just when you think they can’t pile any more crazy on top, there’s another mad moment (like a fight between Cyrano de Bergerac and Sir Lancelot) to add to the pile. I’ve seen all of the Troughton stories out on DVD at this point, and The Mind Robber is my favorite because it illustrates what I love about this show – you can do anything with it. The format is infinitely flexible, and the only limits are budget and imagination.

Case in point – the next story is an eight-part, slow-moving dissection of a subtle invasion of Earth by the Cybermen. It is completely different in tone and execution from The Mind Robber – it’s almost a different show entirely. But we’ll talk about The Invasion next week.

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I’m having a rough week, so this one’s gonna be quick. First, some things I’m excited about in the coming weeks:

The final Ministry album hits on September 18. It’s called The Last Sucker, and it completes Al Jourgensen’s “George Bush Sucks” trilogy (with Houses of the Mole and Rio Grande Blood). Will it actually be the last Ministry album? Don’t bet on it, but I’m always interested to see how artists fare when they choose to bow out on their own terms. Also that week, new ones from Thurston Moore, Mark Knopfler and Eddie Vedder.

September 25 is awesome, with new ones by PJ Harvey, Nellie McKay, the Weakerthans, Devandra Banhart, the Foo Fighters and the Flower Kings. Then October brings the Fiery Furnaces, the Autumns, the Good Life, Coheed and Cambria, Ween, R.E.M.’s first live album, and solo debuts by Serj Tankian of System of a Down and Dan Wilson of Semisonic. Oh, and on October 9, the first new record from Marc Cohn in nine years. Should be a good month.

And now, one review, and I’m going to bed.

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The age of the supergroup is long past.

There was a time, though, when bringing together artists from various successful bands was considered a good idea. Crosby, Stills and Nash. Cream. Blind Faith. Bad Company. Even, to some degree, Led Zeppelin. Few would argue that these bands were not worth the effort it took to bring their members together.

But then came Asia, and the Firm, and Damn Yankees. Even the much-vaunted Traveling Wilburys records were underwhelming, considering their pedigree. And now we have crap like Audioslave and Velvet Revolver further tarnishing the supergroup name. Forming these groups used to be like putting together a fantasy baseball team – if you had the best players, you’d likely get good results. I’m not sure why that was ever true to begin with, but it’s a laughable idea now.

Which is why the New Pornographers are such a treat. The octet has, in the past, bristled at the term “supergroup,” since before forming, the individual members weren’t well-known outside of Canada. But come on. We have superb singer-songwriter Carl “A.C.” Newman, songstress extraordinaire Neko Case, and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar in the same band. That’s a supergroup. And the fact that they’ve managed to make three increasingly excellent, democratically created records is kind of miraculous.

I suppose, then, that I shouldn’t be too surprised at the relative mediocrity of their fourth, Challengers. The New Porn magic couldn’t hold out forever. What is surprising, though, is just how quiet and subdued this album is. The songs are simple, the acoustic guitar is prominent throughout, and only infrequently does the record spring to life. The last New Porn album, 2005’s Twin Cinema, was just unstoppable – one amazing melody after another, played as if each one were the last the band would ever turn out. Challengers is kind of a lazy Sunday afternoon in comparison.

The album starts with four such snoozers, one after another, and while these songs have charms, it takes a few listens to uncover them. The title track, in particular, has a nice melody and some subtle banjo flavoring. (And a lyrical nod to the old Marvel comic Challengers of the Unknown.) But “Myriad Harbor” is just boring, a Velvet Underground tribute that goes nowhere very slowly. There’s nothing particularly bad about the other three, but stacked on top of one another right at the outset, they don’t exactly roll out the red carpet for the rest of the record.

Thankfully, it picks up from there. “All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth” is the first tune with a pulse, and it’s a corker. I’m not sure why the usually reliable Newman didn’t have another eight of these tucked away for this session, but he didn’t. The only other rocker on Challengers is “Mutiny, I Promise You,” with its odd beat and killer chorus. After “Earth,” were back to blasé territory with the wooden “Failsafe,” although the slow epic “Unguided” is pretty successful. The record sputters to a close with two drifting, string-laden ballads, a soppy finish to a decent but disappointing release.

Neko Case is almost sidelined for the whole of this album – she contributes no songs, and her sterling voice only comes to the fore on a few tracks. Could this be a sign that she’s disconnecting from the group, following her own blossoming solo career? Possibly. History shows us that it’s rarely possible to keep a supergroup going for very long. Challengers shows us the cracks in the foundation for the first time, and while it’s still a pretty good record, future generations may look at it as the point where the New Pornographers began their decline.

Let’s hope not, because when these disparate egos work together, they’re spectacular. Challengers could be a bump in the road, or a sign saying “bridge out ahead,” and only their fifth album will tell us which one it is.

Next week, I have no idea.

See you in line Tuesday morning.