Showing posts with label Doctor Who. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Doctor Who. Show all posts

Friday, April 12, 2013

Downton Abbey and Mayhem

Word 201 is...


Mayhem, as you may have surmised from the Allstate commercials featuring the ironic personification of mayhem ("I'm a branch about to fall on your car", etc), is a willful and permanent crippling, mutilation or disfigurement of any part of the body - especially involving the loss of a limb or a digit. In other words, needless, willful damage or violence.  Which brings us to Downton Abbey...

Several months have passed and I believe most of us Downton fans (or addicts, as the case may be) are aware of how the third series ended.  Matthew Crawley, happily married and new, proud father, dies in a car crash.  The final image is of lifeless Matthew, lying in a growing pool of blood, his eyes opened.  Not moments before, he'd been holding his baby son.  Naturally, this has sparked a wide range of outbursts from fans of the show.  My father exclaimed, "he was the only one in that family who made sense!" 

Dramatic death is the plot-mover and shaker in Downton.  The show opened with the death of the then-heir Patrick on the Titanic.  A few episodes later a young Turkish nobleman died suddenly in bed (whose bed being the compelling secret of the series).  Series Two saw the first world war, bringing on the death of a beloved footman and Matthew's apparent paralysis (which he later miraculously overcame) and the Spanish flu which killed off Matthew's fiancee, Lavinia.  Series Three saw Lady Sibyl die in childbirth, leaving behind her husband (the former chauffeur) and her baby daughter.  Mayhem is unavoidable here, the life blood of the show.

Matthew Crawley's final moments with Mary and son

It does seem remarkably unfair to have killed off Sibyl and Matthew in the same series, and neither instance was very pleasant.  Yet, on a more pragmatic note, Jessica Brown-Findlay and Dan Stevens both wanted to move onto other projects once their contracts had expired.  The story lines had to shift to accommodate them, even if devastating those of us who finally FINALLY saw joy come to their respective characters.  If an actor feels the call of Broadway, as Mr. Stevens certainly has, he should be free to follow that call wherever it leads him.  We've seen this before: in The X-Files, Agent Mulder is abducted by aliens so that David Duchovny can focus on a film career; in Doctor Who, the Doctor has regenerated many times now*, a death loophole that frees the actor but lets us keep the character in a brand new incarnation; Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation; Charlie in Lost; Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1... the list goes on...

The Tenth Doctor regenerates.
The ordinary mayhem of non-renewed contracts brings opportunities for the creative minds behind these shows.  Interesting opportunities.  Story, in whatever form, has the unique ability to shift direction, flexible and resilient against such challenges.  It shows me that any obstacle I may encounter with a plot line in my own fiction is not The End of All Things, but a chance to bend the story onto a new vector I had not considered.  It's a matter of realizing - hey, there's a dead-end here, but I can 1.) build a door right here, or 2.) find that secret passageway I know is hidden around here somewhere... what a thrill to find the solution right there, waiting.

For Downton, rumor has it that the fourth series will focus on the grief and recovery of Lady Mary, Matthew's widow.  As an aside, I have a soft spot for haughty, stern, self-righteous Mary; as a character she has grown through her mistakes and her sorrows.  And the question now can be about her ability as a character to grow stronger from this tragedy... remaking her, revitalizing her and revivifying her as her story continues on.

Matthew's exit is unavoidable but may contain blessings in disguise. The creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, remarked that the happy Matthew had to go, because happiness is next to impossible to write. And to this end, killing Matthew when he was at the peak of happiness seems to have been the best option.  He died happy and a success, instead of fading away out of monotony or boredom into a shadow of himself.  Explaining Matthew away in a divorce would be cruel judging from the richness of the story he and Mary have shared for the last three years.   

If the spirit of the story is preserved, if other characters are allowed to grow in new ways to become better versions of themselves, then I look forward to the fourth series of Downton Abbey.  Even if more mayhem awaits us in the form of stock market crashes and love affairs.

* On terms of Doctor Who - a totally different animal - there were similar reactions when David Tennant left the show.  The Doctor, having been fatally dosed with radiation to save a companion, regenerated dramatically into Matt Smith's Doctor.  While at the very core he is the same man, alive, well and frenetic as ever, something very real died in his explosive regeneration. His is a death: a chapter closed and forever cut off from new adventures. (... unless they involve the fiftieth anniversary special, that is.  Doctor Who is infamous for its loopholes.)  But, as we are reminded by the watchful Ood Sigma, the story itself does not end.  Doctor Who simply experienced a changing of the guards: new Doctor, new head writer and producer (Stephen Moffat).  It was the same and not the same, and that is okay. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unctuous (j)

Adventures in Logophilia, Day 147:

unctuous (adj)

Greasy, oily, smug.  Falsely earnest.  The cigarette-smoking man (The X-Files).  Thomas Barrow (Downton Abbey). The Master (Doctor Who). 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dreams, Visions & Reality (Jillian)

Dreams and visions are part of the ineffable human experience - the voice of our subconscious working through problems, presenting us with improbable but not impossible challenges, worst-case scenarios.  They reveal our anxieties, force us to confront them in our waking lives.  A life line.  The red cord we follow through the Minotaur's labyrinth. Naturally, they find their way into our stories as that nebulous, unexplained but felt stuff.  Scientists still cannot fully explain the function of these workings of the subconscious, but deep down we already know what dreams are saying to us, how they're guiding us, and that we'll follow. 

It can be argued that dreams and visions are an overused device in writing and films - a short cut out of a plot tangle or tacked onto the end of a story as a sort of apology for the improbably of a scenario.  Dorothy wakes up in her own bed surrounded by her family, as if they'd been there the entire time, as if Oz didn't exist.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2


Twilight Breaking Dawn: worse case scenario.

You've heard my opinion that films and stories as a general rule are different animals.  They have to show things in different ways: images versus words.  The narrative of the book is no longer first person but completely, intimately and cosmically omniscient.

The last film of the Twilight series deviated from the book one particular note. Bella is newly a vampire, and Bella and Edward's daughter has caught the attention of the malignant Volturi coven who have come to destroy their family.  In the book, the confrontation between the Cullens and their friends and the Volturi is little more than a trial and testimonials in the snow, wrought with tensions that are eased only by frank discussions, and Bella's preparedness to protect everyone she can.  The book preps us for a battle that never comes.  The film, on the other hand, shows us the battle that would have been: a battle begins with the beheading of Carlisle Cullen. 

Gasps in the theatre.  The battle sequence was intense, the body count high with Carlisle, Jasper and others among them.  Only at the end, when Edward and Bella successfully tear Volturi leader Aro's head from his shoulders do we realize that this entire battle has taken place in Alice Cullen's head and Aro has seen it all.  Of course! Perfect sense! I thought; Alice has the ability to see the future, and Aro is a mind reader.  We breathe out our relief as we realize that Carlisle and Jasper are still alive, that Edward and Bella's daughter is safe and that the Volturi have no reason to stay.  For now.
I can see why there would be skepticism about this vision.  It does seem to lean toward a cheap gag, a way to fill in the action-vacuum left by the novel, and play Gotcha! with the filmgoers.  The temptation is to say "that entire sequence was a LIE!" But... it worked for me... because this dream-battle was already a possibility, and most certainly experienced.  Sometimes you need to see the train wreck in order to prevent it from happening.  Did it happen?  No.  Does it matter?  Yes: it's all the better for having not happened.  Is it a lie?  Nope.

Doctor Who


Worse case scenario: the Doctor in the Master's birdcage.

Doctor Who uses this quite frequently.  Series Three saw the world taken over by the Master who opens a paradox to the end of the universe, tortures the Doctor and imprisons him in a bird cage.  Martha turns the Master's psychic network against himself and time reverses back a year - back before the world completely fell apart.  Only those standing at the "eye of the storm", on the ship where the Master launched his evil plans, remember what they'd gone through.  The world is none the wiser.  Did it happen then if time reversed itself?  Just ask the Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack. 

Life on Mars (UK)


Sam Tyler: Am I mad, in a coma, or have I traveled in time?
Another example - and possible SPOILER ALERT for those of you haven't seen it and want to see experience it spoiler free - involves the UK television show Life on Mars (which ended in 2005).  The question driving the series was whether Sam Tyler, a detective inspector who wakes up inexplicably in 1973 Manchester, is dead, in a coma or has actually traveled in time.  The writers do an excellent job of keeping us guessing and speculating.  Don't read the next paragraph if you're in the midst of a first-time viewing.

We come to learn that Sam's experiences in 1973 are (supposedly) the result of a brain tumor, and that his final challenges gear him toward a successful surgery and finally waking up.  When he does, he finds the "real" world colorless and lonely.  Sam, longing for the friendships and the hirsute situations of 1973, jumps off of a building, essentially committing suicide in order to return.  He does return to 1973 as if nothing had happened, to tie up loose ends, (finally) kiss the girl and drive off into the sunset.  Is the glimpse of happiness a lie?  Well... I thought of it as Sam returning to the world that was most real to him.  Crossing the threshold does signify a death, but not of Sam.  Instead, it is the death of what he has always believed is reality.  Sam's tumor-coma-dream pointed him back to the dream itself, asking us the question: what is our reality? 

The X-Files: "Dreamland"; Harry Potter
Mulder as Morris Fletcher.

There's another example - neither vision nor dream, but reality gone completely upside down.  In Season 6 of The X-Files, Mulder switches bodies with the despicable lie-mongerer Morris Fletcher due to a time-displacement accident at Area 51.  Mulder, looking like Fletcher, has to convince Scully of his true identity, while Fletcher, looking like Mulder, takes over Mulder's life, desperate to escape his own.  In other words, the worst has happened (not so bad as the Master controlling the universe, but...).  Mulder is without Scully and the X-Files, and no matter what he does, he cannot set it right.  Fletcher, content in Mulder's shoes, ensures it stays that way. The situation - hilarious as it at times - is completely unsolvable until the time displacement errors (long story) reverse on their own.  Life resumes and no one remembers, but there are hints that things did change: a penny and dime stuck together and the new furniture in Mulder's apartment.  Did it happen?  Yes.  Do the characters need to know?  No, but we need to know. 

A function of dreams - particularly nightmares - is theorized to be how the brain works out worst-case scenarios, trains us and prepares us to face the anxieties that taunt and haunt us in our waking lives.  Sometimes it's hammy and glitchy. Other times it is profound... while being forever baffling.  Is it real?  Is it not?  Is it The Matrix or a different level of consciousness?  If you've seen Christopher Nolan's Inception, you know how entire films can make us think about this long after our minds have been blown away in the theatre.  We will never stop asking those questions.  And that's a good thing!

In Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, you may remember that Harry, after facing Voldemort for the last time, finds himself in an empty train station with Dumbledore.  Dumbledore is dead but conveying his wisdom to Harry from beyond the grave, answering what until now has been an uncertain question: will Harry live or die?  Is this heaven or some sort of waiting room?  Harry asks Dumbledore if seeing him in this empty place is a dream or if it is real.  Dumbledore says that it is both.  This has become one of my greatest fantasy-writing mantras.

Dumbledore: of course it's real.
The magic of story telling is not to ask whether or not something TRULY happened, but what said event says about the characters, their possible limits, and how they fulfill and surpass our expectations.  Dreams are real, a crucial element of the human psyche.  A dream sequence will fall flat if it fails to speak beyond "what if" and make us ask that question of our ourselves.  Did it happen?  What is reality, anyway?  What does this say about that particular character, what he's capable of, where he's going, what he could never do?  Those questions continue on, and make me want to write until my hands fall off.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 46: moonset (j)

The word for day 46 is...

Moonset (noun) is the setting of the moon below the horizon.  Indicating that the ghosts, goblins and vampires have gone to bed. 

This word has particular poetry to it - a realization that it's not just the sun that rises and sets.  In the Doctor Who episode "Smith and Jones", the Doctor and Martha team up when the hospital they're in is transported inexplicably to the moon.  At one point the Doctor marvels; they are standing in the "earth light."  How beautiful a simple change of perspective can be.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 14: Tommyrot

Today's word is...

Tommyrot (noun) is a British term for nonsense - tommy meaning "fool".  Other words with similar meanings are codswallop, balderdash, poppycock and blatherskite.  All with a distinctly Victorian, Dickensian, nonsensical music to them.  I fell in love with the word in the third episode of Doctor Who Series 1, when the Doctor is explaining the existence of ghosts which haunt a funeral home and Charles Dickens himself snorts the word.   

I love these words that invent themselves, make little sense, but having so much meaning nonetheless. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 8: Entropy (Jillian)

Today's word is...

Entropy (noun) is a degree of disorder in a system; an ultimate state of inert uniformity.

So... it is fairies, then? 

Michelle sent me a lovely card once with a quote from A. A. Milne, which has followed me around ever since.  He says, "One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries." This quote was accompanied by an illustration of an 18th century gentleman in an untidy office reading a book with a cup of tea and smiling in contentment. 

It was once explained to me that entropy is what happens when neglect to pick up your room.  I don't know if this was an elementary school science-y thing or what, but all I know is that I cannot come into my bedroom these days and attribute the clutter of neglect to anything but the entropy fairies.  This is how shoes wind up under the bed.  They're taken off and kicked aside.  Papers aren't tidied from a morning of blogging.  Over here is a plate that once held my breakfast.  Under this thing is a copy of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" that I'd printed out 1 August, forgotten since then.  It's like finding a favorite shirt that you've wanted to wear for weeks deep under layers of laundry; it emerges from the wash in a fanfare. 

I think we whimsy hunters are like that, too, when we think about a nugget of knowledge and seek to find out more about it.  And the internet with its twitterings (I like that word better than tweets, by the way, I'm not just being silly), pinterest-ventures and facebookings, is Entropy itself.  You can find anything in that gargatuan sphere!  Anything!  From a tutorial on how to bind your own journals to timelines of the First World War to fan chat rooms for Doctor Who where fans hang out their windows and snap pictures of a Tardis that has magically appeared for filming in the neighborhood.  As intimidated as I am sometimes by the vastness of the internet and my comparative smallness, I know in general it can be a good thing. There are corners on the web to look in and poke about and find little seeds that will eventually grow to fill the garden beds of a story.

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 7: Petrichor (Jillian)

Today's word is...

Petrichor (noun) is the smell given off by the first rain after a long dry spell. 

I apologize once more for my calligraphy.  That c is rather lopsided and it throws off the whole word. Ah, to err is human. 

Anyway... petrichor.  This harkens back to last season of Doctor Who, the episode written by Mr. Gaiman entitled "The Doctor's Wife."  Petrichor was part of the psychic door code on the TARDIS.   In order to open the door to one of the old control rooms, Amy must think of "the smell of dust after rain."  This is why I love Doctor Who.  And Mr. Gaiman's poetry-in-prose.

Oxford Dictionaries says this is a rather new construction from the 1960s.  Petro, meaning rock.  I gave it to a background character in my recent novel - back ground as in, he lived five hundred years before the characters did, but he founded an important abbey and he needed a last name, and petrichor for some reason was on the tip of my tongue.  No matter how old the word actually is, is a marriage of science with poetry.  I can't say why I'm drawn to words like petrichor and downwelling, except that perhaps these words point to simple but vivid descriptions of things that I would other wise find trouble putting into words.  They're also mysterious.  Did the scientist (I'm only assuming it was a scientist) who invented this word realize how it rolls off the tongue?  Perhaps he didn't know, but that leaves the door open for us.  Not to reinvent meaning, but to add dimensions and colours and shadows to it.  The smell of dust after rain could very easily become some legendary person's name, the name of a ship at sea or a new shade of blue.  The possibilities are endless.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Adventures in Logophilia Day 3: Widdershins (Jillian)

Today, I started with one of my favorite letters of the alphabet, the mysterious and oft-forgotten W. (Every one has a favorite!  Come on!  You know you do!) I came across...

Widdershins (adverb and possibly an adjective), meaning in a left-handed, wrong or contrary direction, or counterclockwise.  According to Oxford Dictionaries, it is a Scottish word indicating the direction counter to the sun and therefore unlucky.

Widdershins puts a chill through me, like a spell as been cast.  Proof that words are made to invoke physical reactions as well as linguistic meaning.  It's opposite day. Everything that could (and possibly couldn't) goes horribly wrong.  The world has been turned topsy turvy, gone amok, changed completely in a short space of time - either for what it never was or what it always was.  Alice slips through the rabbit hole and a looking glass.  Richard Mayhew helps a dirty runaway on the street and as a result finds his life disappearing, his friends forgetting and blind to his existence.  (Neil Gaiman, in my opinion, as a master of all things widdershins.  Case in in point, the above-mentioned Neverwher, and Stardust and Coraline.)  Rose meets the Doctor, windowshop manakins begin to come to life, aliens are suddenly real, and the Doctor is living proof of things that are supposed to be impossible.  Widdershins is the new normal, the atmospheric character of the setting of a story.  Oh, it's not nonsense.  It's utter brilliance.


There are advantages to the seemingly mindless office task of alphabetizing paperwork, I've found.  Why?  It gives one good practice, a daily refamiliarization with the Order of Things.  It's amazing how often we can make mistakes about something that is otherwise incredibly basic.  How else can we sharpen our skills without a little practice?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Word-Delving: what is "alien"? (Jillian)

In my recent adventures, I've taken to asking (seemingly) obvious questions of words I thought I understood. Language is organic and fluid, mysterious and multi-faceted. Naturally, there is never a dull moment with the lexicon.

This week's question is about the word "alien." In our culture we are so accustomed to the word that it automatically means one of two things: 1.) illegal or out-of-place immigrant in another country, or 2.) any non human, extraterrestrial being of the "little green men" or Klingon, Vulcan or Dalek category. Number 2 is a relatively new development, if you think about it: what with the dawn of flight and space exploration, Area 51 and alien-abduction hysteria.

But looking at Shakespeare or the Bible, "the alien" is usually the former definition: a dispossessed, homeless person in a foreign place. So using "alien" to refer to extraterrestrials is actually quite logical. They're not from earth. They don't belong. They are strange. They are "not like us."

But... does alien mean more than that? Looking up "alien" (as an adjective) for a Latin translation points to peregrinus: foreign, strange, etc. It is related clearly to the Latin word for "other", which is alius: "different." So that's all it means, pure and simple. In this century the word has been associated with "scary non-human" - it is amazing to think how a meaning could change, grow and accumulate (sometimes strong) connotations.

The above photo is, of course, the Doctor. For those of you who don't know, contrary to his outward appearance, the Doctor is not a human being. He is an alien with two hearts, psychic abilities, and who doesn't age, but regenerates into another man when his body is damaged. Among other pieces of evidence.

Why am I thinking about this? I have been thinking lately about how "alien" is a bit outdated - that "little green men" connotation. After all, we're surrounded by the weird and the unusual all day, every day. "Alien" to me has become very much a below-the-skin, can't-put-a-finger-on-it sort of thing... probably because of the significant influence the likes of Doctor Who has had on my creative thinking in the last four years.

Far more powerful than green skin or a cyclops-eye is the unshakable feeling that creeps exist among us (just watch Criminal Minds - but not too much, mind - and you'll get the picture) in human form. What if the extraterrestrials we always feared are among us, and either don't know it or are entirely indistinguishable from our office and flat mates? Battlestar Galactica dealt with this issue, as did the thankfully short-lived ABC remake of V.

Instead of "alien," I've been playing with that simpler word "other"... because in that sort-of context it could mean many things, and it is both terrifying and intriguing poetry that leads us toward the question of what it actually means to be human.

Here's for the lexicon!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The New Doctor (Jillian)

I read bits of an interview this week with Matt Smith, the eleventh incarnation of our beloved Doctor. The more I know about him, the more I like him... and the more curious I am to see him in the TARDIS.

Apparently, he carries a sonic screwdriver with him at all times... to twist around in his fingers or play with. He was recently stopped at Heathrow for walking through security with it on his person, and he's broken at least four of them so far.

And - I love this - in order to get acquainted with his new role, he wrote short stories involving adventures of the Doctor with Albert Einstein as his sidekick. His inspiration: the famous photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stories Since Last We Met (Jillian)

I am very much aware that the creative world has been active in the months we Daedalus writers have been silent. Silent yes, but not idle.

New Moon (sequel number 1 to Twilight) emerged with rousing fanfare in November; despite criticism, it remains true to its novel and I enjoyed it immensely. My love of Twilight cannot be shaken by grumpy people who can't see the deeper layers of a beautiful, albeit imperfect, story. It is arguably the most painful of the saga, but the world deepens and makes it bearable. The Volturi, particularly Aro (Michael Sheen), balanced ancient-ness, style and down-right creepiness - the art of inflicting terror through serenity.
Then there was Avatar. I have to admit, I approached it with some skepticism, and though I saw the ground-breaking film under uncomfortable circumstances (second row + 3D glasses = headache) it was an enjoyable experience. I might not agree with the more preachy aspects of the film - soldiers ready to plunder the native Na'vi's world - but James Cameron created a massive world and filled it… and put characters in the midst of the world who were ready to explore it, drink it in and become part of it. I am not completely convinced that 3D is the future of entertainment however. In most cases, it is an added layer of fluff to a film already saturated with computer effects… and it only works if you're sitting in the middle of the theatre.
January came and so did the "End of the Time." The string of Doctor Who Specials came to an appropriately exhilarating end, as Russell T. Davies, who-writer extraordinaire, and the magnificent David Tennant, fly on to other things. I will probably spend a full post expressing my love for this awesome episode, but for now, I must report that the tenth Doctor did not go out with a whimper, but with a bang. The Master was resurrected. The Time Lords schemed to reawaken. The Doctor agonized over the man who would "knock four times" and announce his death. It was an episode of raw emotion, exquisite sacrifice and long-awaited goodbyes to companions scattered out across the stars. Sung to sleep by Ood-song, a new Doctor was born. For now I will say that I am at peace with this end, that the chapter is complete, and I am looking forward to see what Series Five has to offer. But I am still raw, still finding myself reeling about the poetry and the grace and the connected (and unconnected dots) of "The End of Time". I think I will be for a long time, in a good way.
Other events: I saw Lost last night, though I hadn't seen the previous two seasons, and had to make do with the re-cap episode. I have to admit, the story is interesting, but I see why I quit it after Charlie died; the story is severely out of balance between its questions and answers. I know; it seems to be the mode of Lost. One must be "lost", as well. But I don't like being jerked around indefinitely (which is why this final season is a godsend). I have been immersed in Doctor Who's season-long mysteries: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Saxon, and "the stars are going out." Perhaps it has been easier with Who, because I trust an answer is actually there, thinly veiled in the cosmos. But is there an answer for the chaos that is Lost? Or will it diminish with only few stones unturned? I suppose there is no way to find out but to endure it for another season. Or perhaps I'll just watch Robin Hood instead. ;)

Speaking of Robin Hood, the third season finally came to DVD, and I am thrilled. Yes, a very important character died at the end of the second season (I won't say who in case you haven't seen it), but the show goes on… and characters are living in the aftermath. Jonas Armstrong is the perfect balance of boyish and broken. Richard Armitage gives Guy of Gisborn a conflicted soul. Keith Allen is hilarious as the evil, evil, EVIL Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin's gang is wonderful, and the right balance of brave and funny. Not to mention it reflects the 12th century in a very honest, creative way, even with modern undertones. I can't wait to see the fourth season!
So, that is Fall and Winter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why NOT combine jewel thieves, flying buses, wormholes, and man-eating aliens? (Michelle)

So, a few days ago I watched an interview with Russell T Davies in which he discussed the (then) upcoming (now past) Doctor Who Easter special, "Planet of the Dead." This is (more or less) how he summarized it:

So, the Doctor gets on a bus which, by coincidence, has also been boarded by an international jewel thief. They're actually in the middle of a police chase when the bus is transported through a wormhole to an alien planet, and they have to somehow get this bus moving when it's buried in sand, and the Swarm is on the way, so it's a race against time...really, a cautionary tale about the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

Perhaps this sounds like drivel to you, but plots like this are the reason I doubt that I will ever get tired of Doctor Who --- it is composed of sheer narrative exuberance. This is how Doctor Who "saved my writing": at a time when I was very, very tired, and very, very sad, it helped me remember that story-telling is, above all, tremendous fun.

Russell T Davies' creations constantly remind me to enjoy my writing and my imagination, because the stories seem to start from this place of, "Hmm, what would I like to write about? Oh! I know! Jewel thieves! That's fun...and...wormholes! That's fun too! And desert planets! We could even film in Dubai, maybe..." And yet, from this place of ludicrous, larger-than-life, over-the-top, incredibly hyphenated narrative exuberance, comes what Julie Gardner calls "full-blooded emotion." It's possible to enjoy a rip-roaring good yarn and at the same time think about really important things like, say, the transience of the created universe.

Er...I'm trying to think of some clever way to end this post, but all my ideas are sort of trite. Another "All hail the BBC?" Another apology for posting on Doctor Who again? Mostly, I'm just wondering why I feel the need to start so many posts with "So." I think it's some leftover Anglo-Saxon impulse. Perhaps I should switch to "Hwaet" whenever I want to say "So."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tasty Nomenclature (Michelle)

What’s in a name? I loved Jillian’s post on the subject and couldn’t resist writing one of my own. I’ve been thinking lately about how much I love elaborate, baroque names. They stick in the mind, and there’s no danger of a character or a place or an event with a nice tasty name drifting off and becoming non-descript, bland, or unreal.

I made a very incomplete list of some good names.

Dickens is the king of them, of course:
  • Teachers: Mr. Machoakumchild, Mr. Headstone, Mr. Wackford Squeers
  • Lawyers (shady and otherwise): Mortimer Lightwood, Tulkinghorn and his assistant Clamb, Mr. Jaggers, Mr. Vholes
  • Men of business (shady and otherwise): Wilkins Macawber, Uriah Heep, Harold Skimpole, Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Smallweed, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Krook, Mr. Ryderhood, Mr Venus and Silas Wegg
  • Ladies and gentlemen: Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet; Miss Havishem; Mr. Twemlow
  • Poor souls: Miss Flite, Jo, Charlie Neckett, Oliver Twist, and, naturally, Little Nell

Russell T Davies can be quite Dickensian about his epithets too, as they range from silly to histrionic, tongue-twisting to beautifully, contrastingly simple. I love the way he blends in scientific terms with the lexicon of fantasy as well. Who says television dulls our sensitivity to language?
  • Tandocca Radiation
  • Jaws of the Nightmare Child
  • Shadow Proclamation (which in my opinion was much cooler just as a suggestive name—see picture, when the mystery became an old lady with a rhino…)
  • Human-Timelord Biological Metacrisis
  • Chameleon Arch
  • Slitheen
  • Toclafane
  • And the counterweights to such vivid tongue-twisters: Time War, Reality Bomb, Void Ship. It also makes a nice contrast that his characters frequently have very simple names: John Smith; Martha Jones; Rose Tyler; Harriet Jones; Donna Noble.

Reading Terry Pratchett has also given me an occasional grin over the names:
  • The Counterweight Continent
  • Ankh-Morpork
  • Susan Sto-Helit
  • Mr. Teatime (pronounced TAY-uh-TEE-meh)
  • Agnes Nitt and her alter-ego Perdita
  • Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick
  • Hogfather and Hogswatch
  • Twoflower the Tourist (who becomes, for a few seconds in The Colour of Magic, Zweiblumen)
Most of my own characters and places, I’m sorry to report, have very bland names. But occasionally I come up with a corker. I won’t be listing them here, though!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Damsels in Distress (Michelle)

I’ve been musing on damsels in distress lately. Let me give you fair warning that this post will go on for a bit, but I've got a lot of ideas about said damsels to work out. As a writer of fantastical and perilous situations, it seems sometimes like I can’t live with ‘em and I can’t live without ‘em.

Damsels in distress are deep in the bones of Western literature at this point—maybe Virgil didn’t feel he needed a blonde woman going “Save me!” but by the time we get to the 13th century, they’re pretty firm fixtures. Your hero has a woman he fights for—a lady fair. Oh, there are variants: sometimes she’s really ugly. Sometimes she’s treacherous. Sometimes he needs her more than she needs him. But she’s always there, getting into scrapes and thereby allowing him to demonstrate his masculine prowess.

And there are reasons it works—reasons far too deep and lengthy and controversial and hard to express to get into here—but let’s all admit that it is so satisfying when Edward saves Bella from the potential rapists in Port Angeles; or when the Doctor shouts, “Now there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”; or when Mr. Darcy pays for Lydia’s wedding so that Elizabeth’s life won’t be ruined…on and on and on, all the incarnations. At its best, the tradition of the damsel-in-distress can do some very nice things to develop a character or a relationship. What jump-starts a confession of love better, for example, or proves its sincerity, than a perilous rescue?

The weaker-vessel-female thing also has some very lovely manifestions, in ballet or figure skating or fairy tales. There’s also a fun strain of irony in those manifestations, as we all know (or should know!) the strength and physical prowess it takes to be a ballerina, or the hardiness of heart required to survive a fairy tale. So the illusion of weightlessness in such stories is always just that—she only appears to be a creature of glass. If we don’t forget that it’s an illusion, it can be a fun game to play among ourselves.

“If we don’t forget.” But oh, how we forget. And the damsel in distress becomes so very problematic.

The first problem you probably saw coming a mile away. In many of the traditions, the damsel has no character. She becomes nothing more than an object to be won, a cipher for the hero to project himself onto. In actual fact, medieval romance perpetrates this kind of bland commodification much less often than 1930s heroic films or Walt Disney movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Remember the ridiculous women of Errol Flynn films, or to take a more elevated example, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. I love A Tale of Two Cities, please don’t mistake me, but does that woman have any characteristics besides golden beauty and undiscriminating goodness?

And you’d be surprised how quickly the cipher damsel can take on darker characteristics. Take all the collective fantasies about sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise immobile women—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pygmalion—who must be restored to life. In a lot of the original versions of these stories, it’s not a nice little kiss that awakens these women, either, but fully fledged sexual conquest. I’m not of the camp that says these stories should be utterly jettisoned, as I think there are many interesting things going on in them besides a necrophilic impulse, but the pathological passivity of these women in many of their cultural incarnations—particularly the Disney ones!—shouldn’t be overlooked.

Or look at this Fuseli painting again: It’s not hard to see that while the source of the horror is supposed to come from the dark powers encroaching on the pure woman, there’s quite a voyeuristic sexual charge coming out of the threat to her as well. Why save her, when you could watch what happens next?

Then there are the scores and scores of Victorian poems involving ladies fair who die, the countless pre-Raphaelite paintings of dead or dying women, the images of Leda all painted from a masculine perspective in which the woman who is raped by a swan gazes lasciviously out of the canvas while it happens. Sorry to disturb you, but this is the heritage of anybody who writes in the Western tradition. Granddad left us more stuff up in the attic than the Mona Lisa.

So where does that leave a writer?

Contemporary adventure films always have to confront the damsel-in-distress tradition. Often, I think, they do it extremely unsatisfyingly, even when writers are clearly trying to be PC. Indiana Jones gets plucky companions, but the scriptwriters seem to mistake shrill shrewishness for feminine strength. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another form of misogyny. Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise is also clearly a direct attempt to circumvent the damsel-in-distress tradition (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset!”), but to me and almost everyone else I know, she registers only as irritating. And as for the tough-and-rough women of sci-fi (Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider? Charlize Theron’s assassin in Aeon Flux? River Song in Doctor Who?), with their lycra costumes and dominatrix overtones, they’re fantasies just as disturbing as all the sleeping princesses in all the towers you could imagine.

Where's the good news, Michelle? Well, despite all appearances, I do actually think that this isn't a hopelessly screwed up motif. There are some examples of fiction, ancient and new, that offer some possibilities for hope.
The best and most broadly applicable answer is probably just to write rich characters. As I said earlier, if the damsel tradition is used judiciously in a relationship that is developed sufficiently in other ways, it can be very moving. If the damsel motif is so deeply ingrained in the Western tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s pretty deeply ingrained in the Western man, and that this is one way that a character born and raised anytime after the 13th century would communicate love. So, yeah, Edward wants to save Bella, and as long as he’s not objectifying her, we can and should accept it as an expression of love. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Doctor is always trying to save his companions in NuWho (that’s kind of his thing, anyway); that Darcy gets all protective of Elizabeth; that Tristan comes swooping in to keep Yvaine’s heart from being cut out…etc, etc, etc. I’d sure appreciate that if my heart was going to get cut out, after all, and all the women saved in these stories have sufficient personhood that we experience these moments as expressions of feeling rather than defense of possessions.

Another contemporary film that has effectively dealt with the damsel issue is, bizarrely, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiscz. The filmmakers let the man demonstrate his physical prowess as he’s always done, but provide the woman with a definite character and unique contribution to the situation. So, Brendan Fraser got to swoop in and save a woman who’s as hopeless in a crisis situation as I certainly would be, but she’s the one who is able to figure out what was going on by virtue of her archaeological expertise. (Again, though, this requires script development: it’s not enough just to put Jessica Alba in glasses and a lab coat and say, “See? She’s a scientist!")

There are also older stories that complicate the issues very satisfyingly. Jane Eyre springs to mind, with its constant fluctuation of power between the two protagonists, ultimately leading them beyond questions of power into love. In The Lord of the Rings, too, I love the character of Eowyn, who clearly can save herself with a sword but also suffers from a deeper spiritual distress (totally lost in the movie). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale also portrays a woman who triumphs by the strength of her own character even as we wait for her to be reunited with her warlike husband. If memory serves, Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide is also interesting on this score, as is Book III of the Faerie Queene, featuring Britomart, the female knight who is questing for her beloved.
Possibly it just says more about my personality than anything else that I prefer stories that work within the tradition to enrich and subvert it rather than stories that declare open war on it. Still, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White prove, the good and the bad in culture can be inextricably tangled.

That is certainly the case for all those poor damsels in distress. Let’s save em, shall we?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Doctor Who: the Question of Identity (Jillian)

I have been waiting to babble about this for a long while. I want to thank Billie Piper for saying what I've felt sincerely for months now: the Doctor should never be played by a woman. "Forgive me, I know it's not a feminist thing to say, but it's like saying, 'Let's make James Bond a woman.' It's a man's role."

For those of you who don't know, for months after David Tennant announced he would be leaving the show, a long list of possibilities emerged to replace him as Doctor Eleven. Before Matt Smith was confirmed, there was an interest expressed by several (including Russell T Davies) to have Catherine Zeta-Jones take over the role.

I will be frank. The day the re-creators of Doctor Who decide that he will regenerate into a woman, I will be done with the story. Why? I do not believe this is an issue about feminism or politically correct sentiments. This is a basic tenant of the Doctor's identity. He has been a man for ten regenerations from personality to personality from Time Lord to Time Lord. It is not the same issue as the Doctor asking Rose (right after he regenerated into David Tennant): "Now be honest, how do I look?... Am I ginger?" It is not so simple. In fact, it is complicated... perhaps too complicated. When you change the gender of a character, everything changes. And that is not simple a "rule" that applies to the Doctor and James Bond, but to any character.

I have come to believe that masculinity and femininity are simply not interchangable. And the Doctor so far this revival has not exactly been sexless. Out of the many episodes where the Doctor and Rose struggle with their relationship, or Martha pines away because the Doctor won't even look at her... with a girl in every fireplace... a smarty pants, a lady-killer... the "fire and rage" and the broken soul of a lonely wanderer, a father without children... all these and more point to the reality that the Doctor is undoubtedly a man. In nearly every episode, the inevitable question about the enigma of his identity must be asked: "Who are you?" His answer has been expressed in a variety of ways, but one definitive answer that pops into my head in this moment is from "The Girl in the Fireplace": "I'm the Doctor! And I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!"

The Doctor is an enigma, multiple facets brought out by many different men. The mystery deepens around his name, the lives he's led, the people he's met, the enemies he's battled, the people he's lost. We see him clearer with each mystery. He is many men. And once, you could even say he was a woman - when Donna absorbed his regenerative energy - we did have a taste of this particular what-if. But there can't be more than a question. The Doctor is a fixed point in his story. Perhaps he reflects pieces and echoes of the companions that have shared the TARDIS with him over the years. But he retains a few fixed points of his own. And this has to be one of them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

James Moran and Writing for the Screen (Michelle)

I have been very sick this past week and have resembled nothing so much as a particularly large couch cushion (but only in my more energetic moments). Until I am feeling well enough to generate actual thoughts, this will have to serve to sustain the blog:

From the treasure trove at Den of Geek, Here's an interview with James Moran, another screenwriter, on the joys and perils of screen-writing. Moran has written for such sci-fi gems as Torchwood and Primeval, but to be honest, what makes him cooler than most of us is that he wrote the Pompeii episode in Series 4 of Doctor Who.

Be warned: he does occasionally talk about things like how hard it was to get to the screen, which is not what this blog is for. So, if you feel that may depress you, no one will judge you if you do not read the interview.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Twilight: On Ice? (Michelle)

A friend sent me this link --- suggesting that Twilight would work best as a figure skating pairs routine --- to make me laugh. Which I did. I hope you do too.

BUT. Maybe it's just all the Nutcracker I've been watching lately (my niece and nephew not being satisfied to watch it just once or even 300 times) but I'm starting to think this is a good idea. It would make a good skating routine or even ballet.

Ballet and ice skating, after all, rely heavily on the fiction that the woman weighs nothing more than a feather, while the man is stronger than a thousand would be fun to have that be an actual tenet of the plot of a ballet. And look at this picture: he looks like he's about to bite her neck anyway, and this ballet has nothing to do with vampires at all.

There's also something about Twilight that belongs firmly in the age of Tchaikovsky, Victoriana, and the damsel in distress. Vampires, after all, do feel most at home in the 19th-century Gothic novel. Doubtful? Check out this horribly disturbing Fuseli painting.

But all those weird Gothic accoutrements in very poor taste aside: there's something profoundly non-verbal about Meyer's novels. The strength of them, as has been observed a hundred times, isn't in the writing style so much as the story. They addict because they tell a good, classic beauty-and-the-beast tale, really. So, why not cut out the words altogether and embrace the theatrical, quasi-operatic proportions of the whole thing? (The dark side of all this is that we're much more likely to end up with Twilight: The Musical a la The Phantom of the Opera in a couple of years than we are to end up with a decent ballet...shudder.)

I wasn't going to post on this, because I'm not sure exactly how it relates to writing per se (should I really be recommending the excision of words on a blog devoted to writing???)...but I keep thinking about it, for some reason, and I think it's feeding some thoughts about the problematic "damsels in distress" in our culture that I may blog on in the future.

As long as we're talking Victoriana: only 4 more days until the Doctor Who Christmas special, when Cybermen meet A Christmas Carol!!! Cannot wait. (Couldn't resist, either, apparently.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death Grip (Michelle)

I just rewatched the end of Series 2 of Doctor Who ("Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"). I don't know how many times I've seen this now, but it's still just as fresh. I'm laughing at the 3D glasses, pumping my fist at Cybermen v. Daleks, and crying at the end.

And it's not just "Ohhh, it makes me cry every time, the Doctor and Rose are sooooo cuuuuute." It feels like Russell T Davies has turned me inside out; David Tennant is magnificent, Billie Piper is understated, and I'm hearing Rilke in my head. It's practically a transcendent experience for me, and my brother-in-law on the couch next to me is looking at me like I've gone slightly insane. He's right; it shouldn't be this amazing, should it? It's not exactly Shakespeare!

Some stories just don't let me go. Doctor Who has a death grip. It feels utterly pathetic to be so involved in a story,and I'm trying to remind myself that it's the same thing that makes it possible for me to make my own stories. It just has an annoying way of making me look a fool at the same time.

Why am I advertising my foolishness on the blog? I guess I'm croaking Russell T Davies and David Tennant again to the admiring bog.

Keep ahead of all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that is just now passed.
In winters you are so endlessly winter, you find
that, getting through the winter, your heart
on the whole will last.

(Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13, trns. C.F. MacIntyre)


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click