Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Doctor and the TARDIS: Deus ex Machina

He is, as the Face of Boe has said, the lonely god, the wandering god. But he is not entirely alone. The Doctors may change, over the years, but the TARDIS remains, constancy in his chaotic life, the agent of chaos through which he creates stability.

For this is the true secret of the TARDIS: she is not broken at all, but a sentient being in symbiosis with the Doctor. He has an unparalleled urge to do good, to fix what is broken in the universe and get it all back on track, though he might not always know it, so she indulges him. He chooses a time and place to which he wants to go, and she finds the nearest point of trouble and takes him there. He may complain, and it may result in high Companion turnover, but he loves every minute of it. This is especially poignant with the Tenth Doctor, as he relearns his love of putting things right.

The Ninth Doctor needed Rose, needed someone who would just go along with him because it seemed like a good idea. He had made such terrible judgment calls, lost so much, he just needed someone who could show him the beauty and wonder of the universe again. The Tenth Doctor was a little more together, a little more willing to try his hand at changing things and interfering. Rose, however, was still trying to live as she had with Nine, bouncing around exploring more than actually changing things. This is why Martha was so good for Ten- she has such an impulse towards helping, herself, that she reawaked it in him. He began to actively seek ways to help once again.

The TARDIS, of course, always knows what the Doctor needs. She takes him to his Companions, each of whom is a perfect foil for the Doctor in some way (i.e. Rose could show him how to be happy again, Martha challenged him mentally). She helps him find what he really wants, which is a way to help. Even when all he wants is an escape, she finds a way for him to help someone, which in the end makes him feel better than a simple holiday would. More than all that, though, is an incident from the very end of Nine’s story.


The Doctor is seemingly doomed. He has sent Rose away, and locked the TARDIS so they don’t come back for him. In reverse order, Rose: saves the Doctor; leaves herself clues on how to do it in all the time/places they’ve traveled together; takes in the Time Vortex at the heart of the TARDIS (essentially becoming part of it); opens the Vortex; and finds/solves the clues. The TARDIS needs an agent, a being with arms and legs and eyes, in order to do what she wants. In this case, that means saving the Doctor, and incidentally herself, by switching her symbiosis from the Doctor to Rose for a little while. She could then bring them all back together, and fulfill Nine’s other greatest wish, to see the Daleks destroyed before his eyes.

This, by the way, is the reason Ten’s Regeneration is a little jumpy and uncertain: It is linked closely with the TARDIS herself, and she had recently expended a great deal of energy on dealing with Rose and the Daleks and all.

***End Spoiler***

In the end, though the phrase “wandering god” most definitely applies, “lonely god” does not, quite. The Doctor and his TARDIS are as close as a happily-married couple, and it is truly a Pantheon of two.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I love the sound of the TARDIS

Furthermore, I adore the direction they're taking the tenth Doctor. He's been through so much in his 900 years, and even more in the last three or four (all numbers/dates subject to interpretation- this IS a Time Lord).
I've just finished Series 3, and oh, Holy Hannah! I've gotta start with the new Master. Delicious! First of all, he has some of the same body language and thought processes as the Doctor, highlighting the fact that they're really just two sides of the same coin. The Doctor interferes because he's trying to help, and the Master interferes because he likes to meddle, and he wants to be in charge of everything. Unfortunately, the Master's newest regeneration is blatantly insane; he's a megalomaniac and a psychopath. Some of the previous regenerations were a bit crazy, but you got the sense that there was a plan. The new one just wants to rule everything, and doesn't care how he gets there. And the terrible things he does to the Doctor! Ohhh, and the way the Doctor sets it right! Gorgeous! But then the Doctor is left to deal with the fallout...
Well, you know, it was bad enough when he thought he was the only Time Lord left, but then to find out there is one other, and it's his ancient foe... How horrible and wonderful that would be! And he tries so hard to help him, to rehabilitate him, and the Master just doesn't care, doesn't want any help, doesn't even want to be around if he can't be in charge and on top of the world. Of course, if one Time Lord can hide in this way, surely others could too. For the Doctor's sake, I'm not willing to believe that there are no others anywhere. I mean, Time Lords! The whole of space/time to hide in, and the technological capacity to change their biological makeup or create a little box outside of time to hide millions of Daleks in! They're out there somewhere, in little pockets and hidey-holes, and the Doctor will find them, gather them, and rebuild his society. I'm sure of it.
The Doctor is making great strides forward anyway. Losing Rose was rough on him, but I think Martha is even more suited to be a Companion. She's sharp, quick on her feet both physically and mentally, and an excellent observer. She also challenges him more than Rose did. I do feel sorry for her that he's so busy thinking about Rose that he doesn't really see Martha for a long time, or realize her feelings for him for a lot longer. I really want him to acknowledge his own feelings more, though. He keeps so much bottled up, in order to appear strong and in control. But you can tell Martha is good for him because he's actually said the word "Gallifrey" to her, and described the place a little, neither of which he ever did with Rose. It's cheesy, but I think in some ways, Rose was an anchor, keeping him from losing himself in revenge or misery, and Martha is wings, helping him get out and explore the universe as he used to love to do.
Finally, one of my favorite parts: Captain Jack. Well, really, the whole suite of "alternative" sexualities that populate the show. (also, Jack is HOT, but that's a side issue) First there was Jack, back in the first series, who flirted with anything that was sentient and bipedal. Then he kissed Rose, and immediately the Ninth Doctor. Yum! (I have a friend who insists they were a trio, and I don't really disagree) Then, early this series, there was William Shakespeare, who flirted heavily with Martha. When the Doctor called him on it, he flirted with the Doctor, who actually somewhat responded. Then there were the old lesbians, who insisted that they were married, and clearly had that old-married-couple dynamic. And now Captain Jack has come back, but the Doctor is more impatient with his flirting ways, and less responsive. Granted, that's for complicated reasons, including the effects of Rose and the time vortex, and the fact that Jack reminds the Doctor that Rose is beyond reach, but when Martha says something about fancying the Doctor, who doesn't see her, Jack indicates that he's in the same position. I gotta say, I was really hoping Jack and the new Doctor would kiss, since that would be hella hot, and also I think good for the Doctor, but there were good story reasons why they didn't, and I'm ok with that. There were also crazy revelations about Jack and another character we've known since episode 2 or 3 (ie 9th Dr), but I'm not going to go into that yet.
I'm not sure this fits the "alternative" sexuality topic, and I'm sure it's less of a big deal in Britain, but this season had a lot of couples with a black man and a white woman. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it does intrigue me, since even now that can be a hot-button issue in the States, and no one on the show even seemed to notice, let alone care, which is cool
In summation, I'm incredibly glad it all comes back at Christmas, since I don't think I could wait til next summer for more of the gorgeous, wonderful 10th Doctor.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What do you care what I do in my free time?

Another minor detail that bugs me. This one came up in the Heroes marathon I was watching this weekend, but it's a perennial theme in Charmed. Now, I'm not claiming that the latter is literature, and I'm withholding judgment on the former for now, but people do watch these things, and gain life lessons from them, so this has impact. The phrase and concept I take exception to is the taboo against "personal gain". Now, granted, if you're only using your powers for selfish things, with no regard for who you hurt along the way, you belong in Arkham Asylum. But if you're generally fairly selfless, and help people as much as you can with your powers, what's the harm in making your own life a little easier or more pleasant too? I guess part of it is that TV tends to be a little simplistic, but out here in the real world, anyone who gives and gives and gives and never gets anything back gets burned out on giving pretty quickly. Ask any hospice worker or Child Protective Services official- you have to take personal time, and do nice things for yourself, at least once in a while. Of course, friends and family can also pamper you, but the idea that you cannot do anything for personal reasons or personal benefit is patently ridiculous, and possibly dangerous to those who would follow the advice of these shows.
Furthermore, Charmed presents its three main characters as Wiccan, and there is nothing in Wicca to say that magic cannot be performed on yourself, for whatever reasons. In fact, if one were seeking, say, love, Wiccan tradition frowns on performing a love spell on someone else, and instead advocates performing magic on oneself. You would perhaps start with a bath with essential oils and/or herbs to boost confidence and allure, then do a candle spell to make yourself receptive to love, and to be able to recognize and embrace it when it comes along. This might include a stone or other good luck charm which you would then carry with you to attract potential lovers, and also to remind yourself of the confidence of the bath and the receptivity of the candles. All of this could easily be considered personal gain, but Wicca has no problem with this, as long as you are improving yourself and not coercing anyone else. I suppose a superhero code might be a little different, but Superman is always saving Lois Lane, which may well put him out of position to help others in the city, or those in other countries. Batman may not actively get anything out of his crime-fighting activities, but there is a definite sense that he does it more because he's bored than out of any goodwill towards humanity. Selflessness over selfishness is always a good choice, and I can't condemn these shows for advocating it, but I do feel that they go a little far in pushing the idea down people's throats.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Something odd

OK, so it's a little thing, but it bugs me. Most of Babylon 5 is so well thought out, and all the alien cultures are so internally consistent, that little lapses in logic really stand out. The one that really bugs me is as follows: they live on a space station. All resources, like water, must be shipped in from planets. Food must either be grown or shipped in. Therefore, one would think that they would hoard these things, make sure to finish every crumb on their plates and every drop in their glasses. But no! People walk away from meals all the time, often in public cafes and such. Sometimes they order drinks, including alcohol, which I would assume to be expensive and difficult to obtain, then leave the room entirely before taking more than a sip. Sometimes they are mostly done with a drink or a meal, and they have a reason to leave, but don't take the last couple of bites or last gulp of drink as they go, which seems incredibly wasteful, especially out in space. I've seen people do that last bite/gulp thing a lot, in real life and in other shows, and its lack here disrupts my suspension of disbelief to a distressing degree.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Beware the shift in technology

In reading Landow’s talk of digitizing print books, I think immediately of a Buffy episode which articulates the turn-of-the-millennium conflict between print and digital media. Landow asks why we would do it, why retype a book or scan it onto a computer, and Buffy and her friends provide some, if not all, of the answers why, and one reason why not, though that might not apply in the real world.
Mr. Giles has a job as the school librarian, but that is just so he can be close to Buffy all day, since he is her mentor, trainer, and information source, known as a Watcher to her Slayer. (Also so he can be near the Hellmouth, which is located directly below the library, but that’s another issue) He has an enormous collection of rare and ancient books, codices, and manuscripts, dealing mostly with demons, spells, and other magical subjects, of which he is justifiably proud. The Slayer and her friends are not nearly as careful with these tomes as a scholar would like, and so he decides to scan them into the computer for searchability. If Giles had been less secrecy-conscious, or Willow more independent-minded, they could have made a website and database from this information, and helped other demon hunters around the world, possibly even other Watchers and their Potential Slayers. Giles himself has said that many of his volumes are unique or the only surviving copy, and certainly his girlfriend, computer teacher and self-professed “techno-pagan” Ms Calendar, has done online research to help them with cases. However, I understand that such things were left out to streamline story, so I can't really object.
The problem must come, of course, and in this case it is that one of the texts is a powerful summoning spell, and the process of scanning it acts like reading it, and the demon materializes within the school network. It is unclear whether or not it can get to the rest of the Web from there, but he concentrates on Willow anyway, so it seems to be a moot point. He woos her and nearly kills her before Buffy rescues her and banishes him. The overt lesson is that people you meet on the Internet are generally not what they appear, especially if they won’t send you a picture or talk to you on the phone, but there is another lesson. Knowledge is power, and the Internet makes it very easy to share both, so you have to pay attention to what you put on the computer, because it can take on a life of its own very easily.

Culture, not just pop culture

If you ask a Literature professor what separates an airport pulp novel from a Classic, generally the answer involves some or all of the following: layers of meaning, allegory and metaphor; truth about the human condition; characters we can identify with, that we root for and suffer and struggle with; and story that holds up over multiple engagements (readings, or, in our case, viewings), even years apart. I contend that the same holds true for audio-visual media like TV and movies. In Buffy, for example, the characters certainly learn. Their whole lives are a process of learning more about the world and themselves, and in watching them, we learn about the world too, often without even realizing it. Through them we remember (or anticipate) the pangs of young love, the thrill of graduation, the trepidation of college, moving out, one’s first job… In short, the characters stand in for us. They are fully-fleshed, complex- even one-note jokes like Larry the football jerk turn out to have unexpected depth. Larry is using his jerkishness to cover his fear of coming out of the closet, and after he admits to someone that he is gay, he becomes a much nicer person, a transformation a friend of mine went through in high school too.
Babylon 5 likewise has something to say about humans and how they interact with each other and the larger world (or universe). There is deep poignancy in the choices the characters must make- there is never an easy, black-or-white choice, but rather a range of shades of grey and even a rainbow of colors. Some characters make what seem like the best choices, for the best reasons, only to have terrible consequences result, and be aware of their own culpability. Others make choices recklessly, with no concern for their own or others’ safety, and find that they have made a positive difference. Most commonly, however, on the show as in life, there are only the bad choices and the worse choices, and the characters have to find a way to make it work out decently well. Friends die or leave, and the survivors have to get on with their lives, but there is life and hope and good times as well. Love can blossom in the most unlikely of situations (and pairings), and acquaintances or even enemies become dear and trusted friends. Misunderstandings occur, but eventually grievances are aired and everyone basically likes everyone else again.
In some ways, TV shows are actually a better way to tell a complex, nuanced story. Aside from the elements actors bring- a face and voice to go with a personality- we can get to know the characters better over twenty-two 45-minute episodes than over 350 pages. There can be stories of greater depth, and larger scope, stories that take time to build and flesh out and foreshadow.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Background on Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about a lot of things. There is the first and most blatant metaphor, which is that high school is a hellish place, full of personal demons and the monsters other people become. However, there are more subtle elements, about the pitfalls of growing up, and the trouble we get into as we age, and our hormones change, and we begin to pull away from parents and grade-school friends. For instance, Buffy herself loses her virginity on her 17th birthday, to the only vampire to have a soul (forbidden love), but his afterglow causes him to lose his soul. In the show, a soul is a metaphor for a conscience, a sense of morality, and without it, he is literally a different person, cruel and violent, which echoes a common complaint of hundreds and thousands of young women- "He was a completely different person after we slept together". Buffy's best friend, Willow, is dating a boy who becomes a werewolf, another metaphor for the wild teen years.
After the high school years, the issues become a little more blatant, but still handled slightly obliquely. When Willow's boyfriend decides he can no longer control his wild instincts (a female werewolf is a trigger in this- potential infidelity as a breakup cause), she begins to explore a wider world. In the process she joins a different religion than her parents' (she was raised Jewish but embraces Wicca, the same path I followed) and falls in love with a woman. Willow cautiously and nervously comes out of the closet to Buffy, and Buffy's first reaction is shock- she calls Willow "Will", as if that will make it easier to think of her as in love with a woman. However, once she recovers she is very happy for her friend, and soon there are on-screen kisses and cuddles, and even a scene in which Willow and her girlfriend perform a spell which is clearly a metaphor for sexual contact, with heavy breathing and arched backs, though only the palms of their hands touch.
Buffy's main focus is the vampires and demons she fights, but she also has to deal with real-world issues. Some of these issues are layered with metaphor, like the Mayor, whose motivation is to become a Demon and devour the town. This is the literalizing of the idea of the corrupt politician, who just wants more power and doesn't care who he hurts on the way. Some are stark and harsh, like Buffy's mother's illness. She is diagnosed with a brain tumor, is operated on, and comes home with a clean bill of health. She is just beginning to recover and resume her normal life when she has an aneurysm and dies. Buffy is the one who finds her at the beginning of the episode, and the rest of the episode focuses on the terrible practicalities of autopsy, funeral arrangements, and survivor's guilt. It is an episode without music of any sort, so we are focused on the words people say, and, more importantly, the silences. There are many awkward silences, and moments of uncomfortability. There are also awkward conversations. One such involves a character who was a demon and has recently become human. Her mission as a demon was to inflict pain and death on humans, but she rarely stayed, and never thought of them as people. However, she has become friends with Buffy's mother, and, like a small child, she wants to know why it has to happen, why this vital, loving woman has to cease. She is struggling with something we all have to wrestle with at some point, the loss of innocence, the understanding of death as part of life in this world. Willow's girlfriend, on the other hand, lost her own mother during high school, and so she has wise words, and can comfort Buffy to some extent, reassure her that her expressions of grief may well take odd turns, and that's ok.
All of this is a guide for us the viewers. We come to know and love these characters, to cheer for their struggles and mourn their losses, to grow and explore the world with them. We relive the awkwardness of first love, or, for younger viewers, get some idea of what to expect and what to avoid. We empathize with the drive to move out from under our parents' roof, the stress of finding a job that can support you, the wonderful-scary feeling of finding the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. The show is a fun-house mirror, our own worries and hopes distorted, writ large, but still recognizable as human impulses. This is the strength of Buffy, and why it is truly literature, and not just pop culture.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Literature, redefined

Stories that have something to say are no longer confined to the page. They are on the screen, in all its iterations. The big screen, the small, and the interactive, are all valid ways to touch people and convey greater ideas. I will focus on Buffy to a large extent, just because there are seven seasons to draw from, as well as enormous amounts of secondary scholarly writing. However, for the moment I am also absorbed by Babylon 5, which has a much more concentrated mythology and story to tell. I'll probably have a rant at some point about Star Wars and the epic tale that the first trilogy was, and how epic the more recent trilogy wanted to be, and how and why it failed. Eventually I may actually talk about my own epic story in TV show form too. We shall see.