Sunday, September 18, 2011

Everyone's a Destroyer of Worlds These Days

Great minds think alike, and so does Chris Chibnall, sometimes.

At the dog-end of last year, I posted my comments on Tat Wood's redux version of About Time 3. If you didn't read it, or don't know what most of those words mean, then I shouldn't worry if I were you. (If you know what I'm talking about, and weren't here at the time, then you can find it some way down this blog.) The upshot is that I made some notes on "Planet of the Spiders", particularly the essay on regeneration, and whether it means immortality or just immortality-barring-accidents.

Here's the very last paragraph of my About Time 3 notes. It's taken on an extra significance over the last ten weeks.

"Meanwhile, the ruminations on the nature of Captain Jack's immortality make me remember Pinter's poem about a cancer being 'a cell that's forgotten how to die'. This raises the possibility that if Jack's own wrongness is a threat to the health of space-time, as both the Doctor and the TARDIS seem to believe, then it may be capable of spreading. Sure enough, one of Jack's gang in Torchwood (Owen) "coincidentally" becomes almost-immortal after spending time in his presence, as a result of the most thoroughly pointless story-arc in television history. Therefore, the events of "Exit Wounds" can be thought of as a form of chemotherapy, only less entertaining. And if that's true, then it might be necessary for Time Lords to change - which is to say, to take on a new biological identity when they regenerate rather than rebuilding their bodies according to the old pattern (something which seems to be possible, if we're forced to believe "Journey's End") - in order to avoid having a carcinogenic effect on the universe. Which makes more sense of the 'cheating death' comment."

In light of "Miracle Day", can we believe that this was the plan all along, and that I cleverly pre-empted it...? Bollocks, can we. But what three people have individually picked up - Big Russell, Horrid Chibnall, and myself - is something that's been happening all across modern fiction, and fantasy in particular. The assumption is, remarkable powers aren't just for heroes any more.

Careful, now. We're told, in our good-vee-evil world, that everything is about "heroes and villains". This is a post-monotheist way of seeing the world, though: not only were other cultures less inclined to be one-or-the-other, they never would've used "hero" and "villain" so carelessly. "Hero", in the Greek sense, is one who goes to extremes rather than a goodie. Anyone reading the Iliad, expecting to find good and evil, might be surprised to discover that even the losing side - y'know, the one Homer wasn't on - is described in glowing terms. The baddies in classical myth tend to be monsters, representations of nature at its most vicious, not people with dodgy morals. "Villain" is a medieval term that suggests "peasant", i.e. it's about class, our modern use of the word as "evil" being another product of posh people re-writing histories. I've never believed in good and evil, in heroes and villains. Fiction survived without that face-off for thousands of years. Even Doctor Who was typically more about thought versus thoughtlessness, learning versus beasthood.

Extraordinary powers, whether they be granted by the gods (conventional mythology), by science (SF, including those cases where the powers are innate in aliens), or by something-in-between (comic-books, hence Spider-Man falling between "radiation" and "totem magic" as an explanation), are traditionally granted to heroes. "Heroes" meaning "extremists", which includes villains, as we now understand the term. No, let's put it like this: the chosen few. You're always given these abilities by the divine, or by science-posing-as-divine, or by history-posing-as-divine if it's Rushdie's Midnight's Children. The Doctor has always been presented as a mythic Messenger of the Gods, Hermes going on Lucifer. You can argue amongst yourselves whether you prefer him as Hartnellish Advisor, Smithfreak action-hero, or Bakeresque science-adventurer. The point remains that throughout most forms of human culture, and in most of human history, superhuman powers have been reserved for those who were specifically Touched...

...until now. It'd be glib to say that in the twenty-first century, we no longer believe in heroes. But it is true, if you take it not to mean "we don't believe in good people" (we clearly do, and rightly so) but "we no longer believe in extremists". "Extremists" is a word we've come to associate with terrorism - in itself, a term that's lost all meaning - and yet, most of the people we've come to respect were extremists. Beethoven was an extremist; Gandhi was an extremist; Luther was an extremist; the Doctor, in any phase of his existence before c. 2008, was an extremist.

Yet now, in fiction, power has become democratised. It hasn't in reality, of course. It'd be absurd to claim that real-world power is somehow more sterile and corruptive than ever, but it is more sterile and corruptive than many of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. We no longer believe in heroes because we no longer believe in extremes. Whether this is a blessing or a curse, you can judge for yourselves. What it does mean is that we no longer believe in Special Powers for Special People. Aren't we all entitled...?

Comic-books have, as ever, been ahead of the game. Super-powers have been "leaking" into the mainstream for some time: whereas old-school superheroes tended to be individuals chosen (by grace or some intelligent god-force) to be champions of the world, there's now a tendency for large-scale world-shaping events to guarantee everyone a metahuman party trick. The obvious starting-point for the new era of mass superhumanage was Alan Moore's Top Ten, although the capstone has probably been Marvel's "Spider Island", in which the entirity of Manhattan gains Spider-Man's abilities. As ever, though, the real test is what the comic-book parodies in the filmed media do. Heroes told you where this was going. And now, depending on what programme you watch and which home-cinema channel you subscribe to, anyone can turn out to be a superhero. The hapless guy who makes vacuous comments about his ex-girlfriend while defeating an extra-terrestrial enemy... the family next door, each of whom has a different power... Will Smith dressed as a tramp...

And us, all of us. "Miracle Day" makes us all immortal. There's always been something intrinsically wrong with Captain Jack, even beyond the usual wrongness of those with fantastic natures, and it doesn't just stem from the arbitrary ending of "The Parting of the Ways". For an immortal, he's not prone to act much like an immortal. For someone who's been alive for millennia, he doesn't know much that we don't know. The description of him as a "fixed point" works: he's a singularity of smiling smugness. The description of him suffering for thousands upon thousands of years (consider what his brother does to him in "Exit Wounds") doesn't work at all: he's too full of anger to have learned the zen of aeons, too happy-go-lucky to fear endless imprisonment. With "Miracle Day", the world turns inside-out, but - even if this was never part of the original design - it always had to. We don't believe in this man as a hero. We don't believe in him as a chosen of the gods, even if those gods are a weird combination of Billie Piper and an ambiguous Bad Wolf. Not just because he's indistinguishable from the Saturday-night game-show host with John Barrowman's face, not just because anyone who watches Animals at Work might expect the devious mind behind the Three Families to be Cheeky Monkey. But because we can't believe in that power any more. Especially not in him.

And not in the one who currently claims to be the Doctor, either. As Tat Wood pointed out in About Time, the Doctor is perennially "passing": since 1963, he's been a Thing From Somewhere Else pretending to be human, and getting it slightly wrong. Scripts for the modern version try to play this up (sometimes absurdly so, particularly in the case of stories like "The Lodger", where he gets it so wrong that he seems to have no memory of twenty-first-century Earth whatsoever), yet the impression we get of the Smith version is a young man being wacky in order to look alien. It's the inverse of the previous ten sub-lives. At the same time, Moffat's vision is of the Doctor as an absolute legend, as that wonderful, superhuman being who will make monsters scared and shake the universe.

In other words, he's being presented to us as a definite hero, in a sense that the Greeks would have understood perfectly... when everyone else in the world is starting to grow out of the definite. However many other sins Torchwood has committed in its Espenson phase, Russell T. Davies got that much absolutely right.

We're all getting ready to be godlike now.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Our World

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Monday, September 05, 2011


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