Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.

 

Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.

Years of Experience

I forget exactly where I was or what I was doing, but I recall the experience quite well as, earlier this week, I saw someone in passing that, for a split second, I just knew was an acquaintance from long ago. Except that acquaintance lives several hundred miles from here and the odds of it being that person were quite unlikely. We’ve all had that experience, but, no matter how many times that it happens to us, it’s still like the surprise ending in a book that we didn’t see coming. We fall for it every time.

More and more frequently lately, I’ve been thinking to myself that people that I meet, new acquaintances and colleagues, remind my of someone that I knew some time ago but with whom I’ve lost touch. Sometimes it’s a similar haircut, or a mannerism or speech pattern. Whatever the cue, it occurs to me that, the longer that we live, the more likely we are to say something similar to “you remind me of someone that I knew…” We’ve experienced enough relationships that we begin to see more in common with those we know. We’ve experienced more of humanity.

Experience isn’t just an attractive quality for employers, you know. We gain experience in life each day. Remember the first time that you stayed in a hotel? You had a better idea of what to expect the next time, and after two or three stays, you had even picked up some packing tricks and preferences. Travel is, I think, one of the easiest examples to which we can point of this, but it’s certainly not confined to travel. Anything in life that we experience is foundational in some capacity for other things that we will experience and work through later. That’s important, because it makes things later in life easier to handle. Difficult circumstances have some sense of providence when we can remember a similar moment in our lives when things turned out to be okay.

I watched a news report this week about a Massachusetts scientist who has claimed to have developed the long-awaited cure for aging….actually an age-reversing treatment, if the contents of the report are to be believed. The promise here, as I heard it, are cures to diseases that have previously eluded us. Apparently, though, the animals’ physiology got younger during tests.

Science frequently dances around philosophy.

What concerns me about this treatment, or rather the premise supporting it, is that it misses the truth that age is a privilege. Age, as it gathers more experiences and makes us more likely to find resemblances between new faces with old faces, gives us wisdom. At least, it will if we’re open to it doing so. Just as we can think of that person to whom we go for advice because they’ve lived through something that we are beginning to experience, we, in turn, will be able to impart our wisdom to other willing listeners as we get older. A beautifully clever design, this human life-cycle.

Of course, my point here pre-supposes that there will, in fact, be willing listeners when we’re older, which may not be the case.  We may be too enraptured with the idea of eternal youth, instead. Or at least dramatically extended youth.

I’m not exactly old and wise, and I’m not trying to sound that way. I am, however, old enough that I am beginning to experience some physical ailments that I wish were easily cured. In fact, I even joined a health club recently. Want to see something out of place? Me, in a health club full of power lifters and people who run 300 miles to warm up for their real workouts. And then drink protein shakes.

And that’s great. We should take care of ourselves, and I have been remiss in not doing so. If, though, our health and youth are our ultimate concerns, the things that we hold onto above all others, and they end (because they will), what then? Youth and health are, by definition and design, better in the beginning than the end. There’s a brilliance in that, really. Because as they decrease, wisdom increases.

As we get older, we get wiser, just as those before us have done.

I think we need to recover our respect for that.

Against Doctor’s Orders

A few years ago, in what seems like a far away time, Karen and I had a really great apartment on the top floor of a building of really great apartments. The apartment had a sunroom. I was usually home from work early in the afternoon then, and I would often sit in the sunroom to read or pray or think. I remember watching the parking lot below, and seeing people returning from work later and later into the evening. They always looked tired, weary. I always knew that I really didn’t ever want to be one of those people.

I was…so naive.

At some point over the last three years, the un-thinkable happened. I became a workaholic. I know that it happened during our brief adventure in North Carolina, when I was freelancing for a living and keeping my skills up to date in a career that changes at a pace that is simply ludicrous. I was, however, prepared for this from much earlier in life.

My background, after all, is in theatre. For those of you who think that artistic pursuits are somehow cushy or marked by a lot of flexibility in time, permit me to dispel this myth. I worked 60-hour weeks in theatre. There was no such thing as being ill. We joked that missing rehearsal was only acceptable if you were dead, and that required a 24 hour notice. Even earlier than this, though, I observed my father working very hard. My mother chose to stay at home when I was young, and he took his responsibility to provide for his family very seriously.

Both of these experiences gave me a work ethic, and I’m very grateful for that. The thing about working for yourself, however, is that you work a lot.  60-hour weeks were again often the norm. And, while I love what I do, my family suffers.

Turns out they’re not the only ones.

I have a day job again since we’ve returned to New England, and I seriously intended to let that reduce the number of hours that I spend working. Of course, there’s always a side project popping up, but, for the most part, I was looking forward to a 40-hour week again. Occurring simultaneously, however, is our oldest daughter’s first year of school. This means that she’s bringing home various sorts of bugs and illnesses to which Karen and I succumb. A few weekends ago, she brought home the flu. The nasty bug made it’s way through the household, but didn’t stop there for me. Within two days, the doctor advised me that I had pneumonia. I had never had pneumonia before. I’ve heard that it’s bad, but I gathered that it can be treated like everything else. So, I dutifully finished my course of antibiotic, took a total of two days away from work, and dove back in. Then went out of town for a weekend with the family. Then worked a small theatre weekend project. Then went out of town again for a conference.

And then, basically, collapsed.

When the doctor said that it took a long time to recover from pneumonia, he wasn’t kidding. This recovery is taking a long time. Of course, had I listened to him to begin with and taken a week out from work instead two days, I likely wouldn’t be quite so hesitant to get off of the sofa now, nearly three weeks later.

So, I knew that I work too much, but it turns out that I really work too much.

The good news is that I’ve had a lot of time to catch up on my reading, which has been nice. It also means that I’ve had time to journal, and to reflect on things. One of my realizations has been that, in the evening when the kids are in bed, I’m a bit lost when I don’t have work to do. I have been for some time. That’s a sad state of affairs.

Being forced to slow down has been a good thing for me. Difficult to cope with, but a good thing. I hope that, when I’ve recovered, that I can stay…recovered.

We’ll see.

Data-Driven Mystery

There’s a phrase…I’m certain that you’ve heard it…that says something to the effect that magic is simply science that we don’t yet understand. The underlying premise of this statement is that we can explain everything if we try hard enough, if we think logically enough. This is a premise that leaves no room for the unknown, that makes failure to understand something wrong, perhaps even difficult to forgive.

I’ve been really drawn to the fact that Marvel’s on-screen adventures, both large and small, have began to explore paranormal characters of late, largely because these characters are in such stark (pun only slightly intended) contrast to the technology-driven and scientifically altered characters that have dominated the broader audience’s exposure to these heroes to date. Part of the reason for my affinity toward these paranormal adventurers is that they are a metaphor for something beyond the physical, a deeper part of our existence that is outside of what we can measure, touch and feel, something so far removed from my profession.

As Lewis told us, the physical part of our world is only a part of the whole, and so much less real in so many ways than the spiritual.

When I was young (read: I’m totally still this way), I used to love post-apocalyptic stories in which science and magic co-existed in the world that had emerged from the ruins (think the world of Thundarr the Barbarian, as an off-the-cuff example), because they symbolize the truth that the physical and the spiritual work together, complement one another. Without either, humanity doesn’t work. To abandon one, or to minimize one in favor of the other, is to set the stage for us to be less than intended. As much as I love my toys, I’m reaching the conclusion that technology ultimately leaves us empty, because it focuses exclusively on the realm of the physical. Technology is our own finite creation. We’ve built it, we can know everything about it. Technology leaves us in the role of God, but pre-supposes that we are gods over a tiny kingdom that appears to us so much larger than it actually is.

Working in technology is creative, don’t get me wrong…as creative as any of my other pursuits. I get to write code that builds some really cool things. Technology, however, takes a poor view of mystery, because mystery implies something that we do not understand. Software can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be released with things that we don’t understand, so not understanding is weakness. If mystery remains in a project, then it is removed and replaced with a different approach that does not contain mystery. Technology is physical, and not only can it be quantified and measured, but must be. The spiritual cannot be. It must leave room for mystery.

Mystery, in technology, cannot be permitted to exist. Interestingly, we view technology as an extension of our lives, lives in which we thus have a perceived need to measure and quantify everything. We don’t want to permit mystery anywhere else, then, either.

Yet mystery is beautiful, because it helps us to understand the limits of our own lives. The fact that our control is illusion, that we are not, in fact, gods.

Because when we understand that, we begin to recognize that there is something so much bigger than us, something beyond our physical world, something that we cannot measure. What we don’t know is as beautiful as what we know, because what we don’t know leaves room for belief.

And belief leaves room for faith.

And faith leaves room for us all to be so much more compassionate, understanding, and…human…than we currently seem to be. I’m sure we can find data support that.