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.

When All Time is Screen Time

I wrote once before about how I saw our culture of ever-present televisions screens moving toward, and yet narrowly avoiding, the dystopian predictions that once lay 20 minutes into the future. I occasionally wonder, of late, if we’re about 15 minutes after that.

I spend many of my waking hours in front of a screen. It’s the nature of what I do for a living. Our schedules are busy, and I notice our daughter craving attention more, and resenting the screens that pry our attentions away from her…until she has the opportunity to watch what she wants on a screen. Then, prying her attention away becomes the task at hand, fraught with a host of unpleasant crying and occasional tantrums.

Given how guarded we were with her screen time initially, I wonder how far we’ve fallen.

A few weekends ago, we were traveling to visit family. My parents took all of us out to one of their favorite restaurants, where we attempted to have conversations and catch up…the purpose, after all, of those sorts of trips. The issue was that there were large flat screens positioned for each vantage point of the restaurant, each showing different programming, so that, regardless of where one sat, one had television to watch. I tried very intentionally to remain focused on the conversation, but the television drew me back within seconds of each attempt. The hour that passed during that meal was essentially lost, at least for me, as I heard little and contributed less, victim to the distraction of the closed-caption onslaught of images that drew me back, back, back.

And, when I did manage to return, I found our daughter showing the disappointment which has become all too familiar, so strongly desiring my attention to shift to her.

A former physician for our family had a large waiting room. What I remember most about that waiting room is the cacophony. There were, again, flat screens on each wall, all muted and closed captioned, with a radio station playing from above, as well. Add the conversation around you from others waiting, and I did well to hear my name called. That waiting room was an exercise in creating a true attention deficit disorder.

The city where we lived shortly after moving to New England had a very attractive coffee shop. The atmosphere was quiet, the hearth comfortably warm, the drinks of high quality, the surrounding conversation always good, except for…the television in the corner that was always tuned into, of all things, Fox News. Want to kill a wonderful atmosphere? Blaring news programming will be most effective.

The point is, whenever the television is available, it wins. No matter how devoutly we may wage war against it in favor of giving our attention to those we love, the programming will always be too strong an opponent. So, while I’m not given to using war metaphors for my examples, I’ve determined that the only manner in which to effectively combat such an enemy is to avoid the conflict altogether. When we don’t have an option? When the enemy awaits us, innocently disguised as the normal expectation in a waiting room or a restaurant? We lose. We’re set up for failure. It’s over before it began.

And I watch our daughter’s excitement when I am finally able to close my computer for the day and divert my eyes from the screen to meet hers, to engage in her world of play and imagination. Hers is an excitement that’s wonderfully contagious, and yet the kind that is borne of finally being able to grasp something that has previously proven so frustratingly elusive.

I watch this, and I realize how widespread the casualties of this war are, and how very, very important it is that we find a way to escape with what Salinger so well described as having one’s f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

What Doesn’t Fit?

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist.

I do, however, watch, read, and write science fiction with a good deal of passion, and so I try my best to understand science. This usually isn’t a problem because I grasp theories and concepts pretty quickly, I just sometimes need them explained to me in more simplistic terms than the jargon of their discipline.

Here’s the thing with science-fiction, and I think that I can say this with some reliability as a source since I’ve been immersed in the genre from a young age: nothing kills the validity of the book/film/episode like an inaccuracy in the premise. Science-fiction is built on concepts of things that are somewhat scientifically plausible, and asks “what if?” they became a reality. In space opera science fiction, this can be worked around a bit by positing a world in which enormous scientific advancements in humanity have made what were once outlandish theories into everyday life. Hard science fiction is more immersed in the data of scientific hypotheses…and, I confess, often over my head in most realms. I can be conversant in some things however, and sometimes things are used incorrectly in a way that anyone could guess with only a little thought.

This popped up in an episode of the Alphas that I watched over the weekend, in which an inaccurate application of sonar was used as a critical plot point. What was really curious about this mistake is not that the ability of the character in question was implausible from a scientific point of view, but rather that it likely would not be called sonar. The wording in the script created the issue.

Any scientists that may be reading, watch the episode (season 1, episode 9) and correct me if I’m wrong.

When I’ve directed plays, one of the most common problems I’ve worked with in new actors is consistency in characterization. There’s a moment of synergy that happens when an actor finds the character so fully that the character is on stage instead of the actor. I used to call it the “spark” when I watched a play…the moment when you find yourself believing that you are watching the character instead of an actor. There can be a moment of lapsed concentration, though, a split second in which the actor does something as they would do it instead of the way the character would do it. Sitting and crossing your legs, for example, when the character wouldn’t cross their legs or sit that way. When these split-second lapses happen, it breaks the illusion of the play. The audience will almost always notice, even if they can’t pinpoint why the scene suddenly feels wrong.

Presenting scientific inaccuracies in science fiction has a similar way of breaking the illusion. Even when dealing with the completely speculative theories of fringe science, the premise has to be explained in a manner that makes it somewhat plausible to the audience or reader. I suppose it bothers some of us more than others, but I think anyone watching or reading science fiction would find themselves aware of something wrong in the scene without necessarily immediately being able to identify what that something is.

Inaccuracies in acting can spoil a scene on the stage, and inaccuracies in writing or directing can spoil a scene on the page or screen. Research and editing fixes these inaccuracies easily enough, though. Perhaps it’s an issue of not rushing a finished product in order to ensure enough time for this research and editing? That would mean a world without deadlines.

I could certainly live with that.

Photo Attribution: INTVGene  under Creative Commons

How Many Have You Read?

Snow Crash Just a short list to end the week with. NPR posted this list earlier in the week, which is a listener-generated list of the top 100 science-fiction novels that everyone should read. I’m proud to have several of the books listed here (at least in the top 50) to my reading credit, and, in some cases, I can honestly list some of these books as being among the most influential books I’ve ever read. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Foundation series were all books that I read during periods of my youth that were very formative to my writing life, and also to my reading tastes.

There are some books that I’m surprised that aren’t on the list, as well…Henliein’s Friday, for example, which is the book that caused me to fall in love with the genre as I now know it.

In any case, though, there seems to be books here for both the serious science-fiction fan, and the science-fiction novice. Tell me, which ones have you read? And do you find any of your all-time favorties on here?

Appreciating the Puppets

So, I’m apparently on a “write about super heroes and science fiction” trend.

As family keeps arriving to visit the new baby, there are many movies to be watched during baby’s nap times. And, because I have the coolest extended family ever, Dr. Who is, of course, an obvious choice for said movies. Specifically, this week we voted for classic Dr. Who movies with Tom Baker as the Doctor. Of course, such classic films from the 70’s bring about comedic commentary on what a colleague referred to as “cheesy” special effects…in this case, a giant alien grasshopper-looking creature and a metamorphosing man who’s green alien appendage looked suspiciously like colored bubble wrap.

I was reminded of another science fiction program to which I held long term loyalty (and occasionally enjoy re-watching), FarscapeFarscape preceded widespread use of computer generated effects by some time. I have especially fond memories of watching new episodes in my old bachelor apartment in my first days of life-after-college. The series, produced by Jim Henson Productions, featured puppet-style aliens that were quite impressive. Of course, modern make-up had long produced outstanding aliens in series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space NineThis was because this type of creative make-up and building of puppets was the norm at that time, and those who practiced the art were quite good.

During my theatrical adventures, I’ve worked with some amazing make-up artists. I’ve been aged and made younger. I’ve had a gruesomely realistic rope burn placed on my neck when I played a character who had returned from the dead after being hanged. There’s something really special about the kinesthetic process of building special make-up effects, puppets, and masks. I loved that this art translated so beautifully to the screen, as well as the stage.

And, today, I just don’t see it any more, or at least not as prominently. There are now science-fiction programs featuring completely computer generated characters and backgrounds, in which the actors film almost exclusively in front of a green screen. I admire the ability of the actors to do this. I miss, though, the artistry of the puppets and amazing make-up effects used to create alien races and all manner of wild visuals. I respect the skill of the animators and graphic artists, don’t get me wrong. Tron remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic achievements of our age. Digital artists are of just as amazing a talent as make-up and costume artists, and I find it particularly beautiful when all of these disciplines work together.

I just miss the exclusivity of the puppet-building, make-up brush-wielding, alien creators of science-fiction programming of yesterday. Call it nostalgia. Call it old-school. There was just something about those giant puppet aliens. Don’t you think?

Photo Attribution: X-Ray Delta One