Epics in Space!
A while ago I was chatting with an acquaintance online, who had asked me what kinds of science fiction I liked. I tried not to ramble too much, so I listed off some sub-genres along with a comment that I like a lot of different things. Though the person I was chatting with described themself as a sci fi fan, they had never heard the term “space opera” before, and asked me if it was a kind of sci fi musical. So I had to explain that the opera in space opera was related more to the type of stories that a lay person might associate with opera, and how the term was a derivative of the term “soap opera.” The stories are colorful, dramatic, often having sweeping epic feel to the plot (think pirates, or wars, or the succession of thrones), and where most of the action happens in space.
Turns out that this guy’s idea of science fiction was a bit different than most, because when I asked his favorites, he listed Game of Thrones, the Sookie Stackhouse books, and the Darkover series—which I think of as fantasy, rather than science fiction.
Clearly, as with any label, there is going to be some dispute about whether a particular work of art fits into the category, and whether the category itself makes sense. And sometimes part of the issue is like the confusion of this guy: the term “space opera” is more closely related to the old Latin meaning of “opera” as a plural of “opus” than the modern meaning of a type of musical performance. So a modern English speaker misunderstands the term. A similar kind of confusions is probably why there don’t seem to be any books being labeled “planetary romance” lately. For full explanation of this, take a look at this post by Cora Buhlert: The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance.
The term “romance” in this case refers to a literary term from the 17th century, which can be defined as: “a fictitious narrative depicting a setting and adventures remote from everyday life.” Which is why, by the way, a lot of what we would think of as science fiction of the late 19th Century and very early 20th Century was sometimes labeled “scientific romance.” It had nothing to do with two people falling in love, but rather an adventure with either circumstances, setting, or characters that no one would describe as mundane.
If you haven’t read Buhlert’s blog post (which you should do, because it’s good), let me quickly explain that a planetary romance is generally a science fiction adventure story set on a single world. And more specifically, where the culture, geography, and/or history of the world play a prominent role in the story. There is more than a bit of overlap between planetary romance and space opera, which Buhlert details better than I could.
Thinking about labels always sends me down multiple rabbit holes. I have very strong feelings about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, yet I once freaked out a friend at my strong insistence that Babylon Five was techno-fantasy, not science fiction. My argument was that just because it is using science fiction tropes, settings, and accessories, the fundamental world-building (the origins of the Vorlons and the Shadows, and more importantly the ancient races all the way back to the First Ones) were mythological, not scientific. It’s one thing if a story was written at a time when we didn’t know the age of the universe, and we were still trying to figure out evolution. It Straczynski had written Babylon Five in the 19th Century rather than the late 20th, then yes, his world building would have been right in line with current scientific thought.
Now, I made that argument at a time in my life when I was feeling a particularly pedantic and was doing a much poorer job of repressing my inner asshole. I don’t begrudge anyone calling it science fiction, and there has never been a science fiction tale written that got every last bit of science right. More than one person has proposed a definition of science fiction thusly: “in which imaginary science is posited, and the subsequent story follows the imaginary science consistently.” Which is one way to avoid the critiques about faster-than-light travel, which appears ever more unlikely as our understanding of physics improves, for instance. But once we let the label get that flexible, we have to ask ourselves: just how much differently can the science in your imaginary world be?
Is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series science fiction? In that story, the world is an enormous disc balanced on four elephants standing on the back of a turtle that is flying through interstellar space, with a tiny satellite sun orbiting the whole turtle-elephant-disc assembly (and planets such as our, orbiting much larger stars, are simply eggs that will one day hatch into baby turtles with elephants and discs upon them). Pratchett sets up rules about how magic flows from the central spire of the mountains at the center of the disc, and other things that he then tries to stay consistent as he tells his tales. So, could it be argued as an edge case science fiction tale? Well, we can certainly argue about it, but I want to go a little further out there.
Spoiler Alert: From here on, I will be talking about plot points of Good Omens. Proceed at your own risk.
I posit that the novel Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is science fiction. It imagines that the entire universe (including the fossils that seem to be hundreds of millions of years old) was literally created a mere 6000 years ago, and that angels and demons are real, and that the creator has an ineffable plan for it all. It further imagines that at least some prophets really can see the future, and that the apocalypse described in the New Testament book of Revelations is a real thing that will happen once the anti-christ comes to power.
And everything that happens in the book tries to stay true to those assumptions. That being the case, one could argue that not only is it science fiction, but that is is a planetary romance. Why? Well:
- It is set on only one world, Earth,
- the central plot is driven by the fact that both the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale have become very fond of Earth, its the people and their cultural artifacts (food, fine wine, music),
- and the forces that oppose them are the heaven vs hell apocalyptic stuff baked into the Earth at its creation
I recently wrote a review of the Good Omens mini-series, in which I confessed that I hadn’t read the book until earlier this year (and that I liked it so much that I read it again, then downloaded the BBC radio play version and listened to that). So I watched the mini-series the weekend it debuted, and this last week-end I rewatched the whole thing. There are lots of things I noticed the second time through that I missed the first, and I think it is definitely worth watching more than once!
Now, even though Neil Gaiman (who co-wrote with the late great Terry Pratchett the original novel published in 1990) wrote the script of the new series and served as the showrunner, I knew that there would be changes from the original. Some of those changes were necessary to update the story from 1990 (minor example: the home of the demon Crowley in the book is described in great detail, but the show’s version looks very different; the book’s version of the flat sounds very much like cutting-edge interior decorating of the late 1980s, while Crowley is always embracing the latest in cool, so his home decor will look very different in 2019, so the set designer changed it), others were to fill in gaps, or to even out emotional arcs that play differently on screen than on paper—those were all to be expected. Some of the differences fall into a different category.
Some of those differences jumped out at me during the re-watch, and I was trying to figure out how to put that type of change into words, when I found this blogpost on the Wisteria Lodge tumblr: Crowley & Aziraphale: Book vs. Miniseries. Before I jump into this, I want to steal a disclaimer from the Wisteria Lodge post:
(and just to be REALLY CLEAR, I love them both. But the differences are fascinating, since it’s the same author adapting his work after almost 30 years. And how often do you get to see *that*?)
How someone perceives the personalities of the characters in the series will vary from how they appear in the book if for no other reason than to see an actor embody the character, and infuse the character with their own understanding is going to be different than what any individual reader imagined while reading it, right? But as the author of the linked blog post points out (and you should go read the whole post yourself, it is really good!), the central characters of Crowley and Aziraphale are written differently.
The author of the blog post lays out differences in the characters they saw. For me, the thing I noticed was the series!Crowley became more cynical and more angry over the centuries. Tempting Eve to take the apple was just a bit of fun, and he never expected that god would throw the humans out of the idyllic garden and into the harsh world because of it. Meanwhile, book!Crowley’s level of cynicism doesn’t ever overwhelm his baseline facade of cool detachment.
Similarly, book!Aziraphale isn’t all sweetness and light. Yes, he’s the softie who gave the flaming sword to Adam and Eve so that they could protect themself, but in the book he also has no compunction with using his powers to frighten away mobsters. And he’s also the one who suggests killing the 11-year-old anti-Christ. In the book it is Aziraphale who sincerely makes the argument that it is for the greater good. In the series, those arguments were given to the Archangel Gabriel. Series!Aziraphale has been trying to stick to the divine plan for the last 6,000 years, and remains convinced until rather late that heaven will listen to reason if only things are explained to them. While book!Aziraphale knows that that will never happen.
The novel was definitely about questioning authority and questioning the roles society assigns you and questioning the definitions of morality. There was also a lot of commentary about the nature of power structures, the nature of ignorance, and the power of denial. And all of that is still in the series, but the subtle shift, most evident in the slightly different characterizations of Aziraphale and Crowley, and how their arcs play out, shifts more of the emphasis onto not just questioning authority, but holding authority accountable. It’s not just questioning roles assigned to you, but asking why those roles never allow for vulnerability. And it doesn’t just question the definitions of morality, by the time the show is over it demonstrates that the traditional picture of the forces of heaven isn’t different in any important way from the forces of hell.
Love plays a much more overt role in the themes of the series than in the book. Adam’s love for the part of the country where he grew up, his love for his friends, his love of the idea of what his dog should be, and so forth all play a big role in averting the apocalypse. Then there is the mutual love and respect of Aziraphale and Crowley (and you can’t just call it friendship: Aziraphale threatens to never speak to him again if he doesn’t think of something, and Crowley stops time itself and then gives the 11-year-old anti-Christ the pep talk he needs to avert the apocalypse; that’s love). And of course, it’s Adam’s realization about the importance of his earthly parents loving and caring for him, and how it trumps his Satanic heritage is the heart of the resolution.
Over all, I think while I still love the book immensely, the mini-series gives a more mature and nuanced take on the serious topics which are being tackled with all this silliness and cheek.
In subsequent years I started hearing the word being used pejoratively on the playground (this would be late sixties and through the seventies), and clearly the word meant either “idiot” or “dork” or “jerk.” By middle school the insult began to be a bit more sexual, but still definitely an insult, sort of a combination of “c*cksucker” and “wanker.”
Many lexicographers express skepticism that Bugs Bunny is to blame for the shift in the meaning of nimrod, but then fail to offer a compelling alternative explanation. Several of them trot out a line of dialogue from the obscure 1933 play, The Great Magoo. The word nimrod is clearly used as an insult, but it is specifically a reference to a man who had fallen in love with the showgirl, and that he’s another in a long line of nimrods pursuing her. The problem is that while it is being used as an insult, clearly the insult is still a reference to Nimrod the Mighty Hunter—in this case someone who sees this woman as a prize to be captured.
And since all of the lexicographers agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning became common in the early 60s, it’s a little difficult to believe a play that flopped 30 years earlier was the source.
Another example that is trotted out is a series of humorous stories published in a British periodical in the late 19th Century which ran under the pseudnym of Nimrod. Each story is told in the first person and recounts another humorous misadventure while attempting to participate in a fox hunt. But that’s even harder to believe that the 1933 play, first, because of the longer period of time but also because all the dictionaries agree that the “synonym of idiot” meaning is chiefly a U.S. usage.
I’ve seen at least one person simply express skepticism that a single line of dialogue from a single short film could have the effect. I have several responses to that. First, it is three different Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the insult occurs (amusingly enough, only one of them is it used to describe Elmer Fudd, the other two times are both used against Yosemite Sam). The other thing is that from the late fifties through the seventies, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.
In 1956 Warner Brothers licensed the rights to all of their Looney Tunes cartons made up until mid-July 1948 to Associated Artists Productions. A.A.P. began syndicating them to local stations, and by 1958 were able to claim that the highest rated local shows in every metropolitan market were those that included at least some cartoons. No one had cable, and people could only get three to five local stations over the air, so your choices for entertainment were limited. And the syndication deals weren’t exclusive, so I remember that at one point in my elementary school years, where there was one show on one channel that ran every weekday morning around the time we were getting ready for school that included several Looney Tunes cartoons, plus a half hour show that ran every weekday at 4:30 on another channel that was all Looney Tunes cartoons, and another half hour of Looney Tunes that ran on a third channel every weekday at 5:30.
In addition, in 1960 Warner Brothers started producing and selling to various networks a program that combined cartoons made from mid-July 1948 on. First as a primetime weekly Bugs Bunny Show, then it moved to Saturday mornings. As I said, for a while, Bugs Bunny was everywhere.
According to at least one dictionary specializing in slang, the “synonym of idiot” meaning of nimrod was used prevalently by U.S. teens and pre-teens in the 70s and 80s. All of us kids watching Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 60s and 70s could account for the new meaning of the word arising in our age group quite nicely at that time. Whereas the obscure 1933 play and the humorous 19th Century British magazine origins just don’t make any sense as an origin for American schoolyard slang in the 70s, do they?
Finally, another reason to believe the fault lies with misunderstanding a sarcastic usage of the word is because it has happened in English many times. For example, terrific used to mean terrifying (terrific is to terror as horrific is to horror, as a friend so eloquently put it). How did terrific come to mean the opposite? Simple, the sarcastic or ironic use became far more common than the original meaning. Sometimes language just takes a left turn at Albuquerque, eh, Doc?
She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f
He managed to get me to watch an episode or two with him that summer, because he had a lot of the season on video tape. I don’t remember hating it, but it also didn’t really grab me. Season two started that fall. I remember one particular evening when I got home for chorus rehearsal that Ray was telling me about the show and how much he was looking forward to next week’s episode, because there had been a cliffhanger.
Two nights later, Ray had a seizure and went into a coma. Then he died, and I fell apart.
Some time after he died, I was alone in the house doing something, and I heard a noise from another room. I went to see what was going on, and one of the VCRs was rewinding furiously, then popped its tape out. In 1997 DVRs didn’t exist. We owned three video cassette recorders, though, and Ray had a complicated schedule of pre-programmed recordings, and a pile of labeled tapes. He would swap out tapes at different times in the week, so that the different machines would record the next episode of whichever series was kept on that tape.
And I hadn’t been keeping up.
This was maybe two weeks after Ray had died. I was still deep in the shell-shocked stage of grieving. So the idea that I hadn’t kept Ray’s rotation going seized me as a terrible thing. I was letting him down! I had let the wrong shows get recorded on the wrong tapes! Who knows what else I had messed up? Never mind that Ray was beyond caring about these things. I wasn’t rational. When someone you love dies, even the most stoic and logical person has some moments of irrationality over take them.
So I tried to sort out what was going on with the tapes. And that’s how I ended up watching all of the season two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with about half of the season one episodes out of order (because his labelling system wasn’t always discernible to anyone but him) in a very short time.
There’s a lot of things that happened to me in those first few months after Ray died that I don’t remember clearly. But one of the few crystal clear moments was one point when I was staring at the TV and I said aloud, “Dang it, Ray! You were right. This show is incredible!”
I was addicted.
Don’t get me wrong, the show has problems. I can rant for hours and hours about how monumentally awful were most of the decisions the writers made in season six, for instance. And the many ways that season seven doubled down on some of the failure. Even before the universally despised season six, there was the incredible frustration of how the first half of season four showed such brilliance and promise of taking things to a new level, then collapsed into a world of disappointment and lost opportunity. And oy! Trying to make sense of both the explicit and implicit contradictions about the nature of magic, demons, the biology of vampires…!But there were so many things the show got right. One of the things they got most right is casting James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the undead set (and if you don’t know who they are, your life is sadly lacking in Sex Pistols, is all I’m saying). There was a point, after I had acquired the complete DVD set of season two of the series, where literally at least once a week I re-watched the episode that introduced Spike and Dru, “School Hard.” They were evil and cold and vicious and Dru is crazier than a coked out mutt in a hubcap factory. But they were also madly deeply in love. Spike rather proudly proclaimed himself love’s bitch in a later season, “at least I’m man enough to admit it!”
What made the show work was the relationships between the characters. Joss Whedon and his crew created a world in which a small, pretty girl regularly kicked the butts of evil creatures. A world where the real problems that teens try to deal with often made the monsters seem trivial by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness were metaphors for the problems humans face coming of age, yep. And sometimes the parallel between the mundane story lines and the supernatural ones were a little on the nose.
But then there were the moments of brilliance, such as when everything had been taken from her: her first love turned evil, her best friend lying dying in a hospital, she’s been kicked out of her home, everything she cared about either broken, dying, or lost; the villain has fought her back into a corner and is berating her about all she has lost and all who have abandoned her. “What have you got?” he asks with a sneer, as he thrusts what we think is a killing blow with an enchanted sword. She catches the blade between her hands, looks him in the eye with the most amazing fuck-you glare of determination and says, “I’ve got me.” Then proceeds to kick his butt and save the world.
Those sorts of moments, where a simple refusal to give up in the face of impossible odds, and the many times that various characters in the story sacrificed for their loved ones and found a way out of a hopeless situation—they were what made the ups and downs of the show worth it. And I want to be clear: one of the things they did right more than once was not that the characters found that one last glimmer of hope in the midst of despair and defeat; rather, the characters made their own hope. Yes, Buffy was about empowerment. Buffy was about the damsel being able to rescue herself. Buffy was about turning notions of victims and saviors on their heads. Buffy was about seeing that the questions of good vs evil aren’t always black and white; that part of being a hero (and a big part of growing up) is about learning to make your way through all those shades of grey without losing yourself.
But mostly, Buffy was about love, chosen families, and not giving up.
I don’t think I realized that Williams was the host of a weekly musical variety show until he changed networks in the late sixties. As far as I know, our family never watched his show except for the one Christmas-themed episode each year. There were a lot of variety shows on network TV back then, and there were several that we watched faithfully every week. I’m not sure why Andy’s wasn’t one.
And the Andy Williams Christmas shows were hardly the only Christmas-themed specials and musical programs we watched every year. I know I loved watching all of them. When I was about 10 or so one of my cousins went on a bit of a rant of what a freak I was because I liked watching specials—why would anyone want to watch people sing, for instance? But I realize the Andy William’s specials stuck out in my head precisely because we had the albums, which included some of his own original songs (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “A Song and the Christmas Tree”), so I could listen to them until I’d learned the lyrics, but also learned a lot of the harmony and counter-melodies and other vocal flourishes. So when those particular production numbers came up on screen, I could follow along.
I understand, now, why the cousin (and other relatives) thought I was a freak. I was the kind of boy who danced and sang along with the big theatrical production numbers in movies and on variety shows. I thought nothing of behaving that way in front of the family television. Which was quite entertaining for my adult relatives when I was a cute four-year-old, but much more disturbing as I got older.
When I got my own record player so I could listen to music in my bedroom, the Christmas season was when I’d close the door and imagine that I was the star of my own musical variety show, with the elaborate sets and costumes and the large groups of dancers and singers backing me up. I was worse than that. With careful use of a portable cassette recorder, the big stereo in the living room (when I was home alone), and some of those studio musician instrumental-only Christmas albums, I recorded my own Christmas shows. Not just me singing along with the instrumental albums, but then playing that recording over the stereo then with the recorder and a second (and third, and sometimes fourth) tape, recording myself singing the harmony parts along with myself.
Freak might have been putting it mildly.
I watched Williams’ faithfully into my teens. Even the really disastrously bad one that involved the cast (along with special guests Captain Kangaroo and Gomez Addams) are transported to Rock Land and Doll Land and I don’t remember where all else in a strange attempt at an original Christmas fable that made no sense…
When Williams’ weekly series ended, he signed a deal with the network to produce three or four seasonal specials a year, and one of those each year was a Christmas special.
Williams’ work weren’t the only Christmas albums I sang along with. And they aren’t the only old albums of that vintage that I’ve since tracked down and added to the insane amount of Christmas music that resides on my computers and phone. But even now when I find newer recordings by modern singers and bands that I like, I find myself imagining those songs performed on a stage in the style of one of the Williams’ Christmas episodes, with the costumes, sets, fake snow, and multi-camera coverage.
And sometimes, especially if I’m listening during the long walk home each night from the office, you may still catch me at least doing jazz hands while I sing along. Might as well make a production out if it, right?
I much prefer some of the earlier pieces written on the topic: 2013’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Gay Christmas Allegory, for instance. Or 2012’s Coming Out In Christmastown. Then there’s 2011’s I’ll Never See Rudolph the Same Way Again Less involved is 2005’s Is Hermy Gay? Sixteen serious questions raised by the 1964 holiday classic Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. In Michael Salvatore’s novel Between Boyfriends there is an entire chapter in which his protagonist talks about recognizing at age 6 the gayness of Hermy and Rudolph (and specifically that he was like them).
I even wrote something about it once. I thought I had published it on my Sans Fig Leaf page, but a search of my old archives proved it was even longer ago than that. It must have been when I blogged on Geocities, which means it was sometime before April, 1998! And it also means I don’t have a copy of it any longer. Which might be a good thing.One of the reasons I don’t think of Hermy and other aspects of the 1964 Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer as subtext is because every time my family watched it during my childhood, Dad would make jokes about the “fag elf.” In addition to the annual repeat of crude comments about Rudolph and Clarice when the narrator refers to Rudolph having grown up, at least one year he wondered aloud about the relationship between the “fag elf” and Yukon Cornelius in rather graphic terms.
I was four years old when the Rankin-Bass special first aired on NBC TV. I don’t have specific memories of that first broadcast, but because a few years later I have very distinct memories of being dismayed that one song and scene which I have very clear memories of weren’t in the show, I know that I had to have watched the original broadcast. In the original broadcast, Santa is never shown going to the Island of Misfit toys to deliver them to children. A scene showing that was added in 1965. They made room for it by replacing Rudolph and Hermy’s “We’re a Couple of Misfits” musical number with a shorter song, “Fame and Fortune” and by removing a scene at the end where Yukon Cornelius discovers a peppermint mine. Over the years other changes were made to the original show, including a re-edited and shortened version of “We’re a Couple of Misfits” being added back in. And other techniques to make room for more commercials resulted in the music that remained sometimes sounding warbling and distorted.
But to get back to the subtext question: I think you would have to be extremely naÏve not to recognize Hermy, at least, as gay. Certainly my dad thought it was obvious!
Years later, someone asked Arthur Rankin, Jr, whether there was a gay message to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and he denied it. However, while Rankin and Bass ran the studio and were intimately involved in directing and producing the many shows their company made over the years, the actual scripts were almost always the work of Romeo Muller, a gay Jewish man from the Bronx. Mullee, along with artist Jack Davis, and actors Paul Frees and Paul Kligman are usually credited with the many Jewish allusions and subtexts that are obvious in other Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, such as Santa Claus is Coming to Town (the Burgomeister Meisterburger had toys burnt in a town square in a scene that looks a lot like footage of historical Nazi book burnings, and his guards all wear actual Prussian uniforms, for goodness sake; and don’t tell me that the Winter Wizard isn’t supposed to sound like someone’s Jewish grandfather!) or The Little Drummer Boy. So it doesn’t seem that big of a stretch to imagine that Muller wrote Hermy as gay.
In 1964 and for a few decades before that, movies, television shows, and plays often featured a stock character referred to now as The Sissy. The Sissy was a closeted predecessor of the Sassy Gay Friend. Some people argue that Hermy is just another instance of the Sissy, but there’s one problem with that interpretation. The Sissy was never a hero or the sort of supporting character with his own subplot. He might be a friend and ally of the hero or the heroine (much more often the heroine), but he was merely there to deliver jokes or be the butt of jokes. Meanwhile, I think what made Hermy worthy of commentary by my dad (while he almost never made comments about the archetypical Sissy in other shows) is that Hermy in not comic relief. Hermy has his own subplot. He doesn’t just help Rudolph find acceptance, he realizes his dream. He escapes societal expectations of being a toymaker and becomes a dentist.
You can argue that this is just a parallel to Rudolph’s journey from ostracized freak to valued leader of Santa’s team of flying reindeer, but they wouldn’t have had to give Hermy those Paul Lynde speech patterns, bright pink lips, and that very twink-like swoosh of blond hair (when the only other elves who have hair are definitely women) to do that. Hermy was an obvious, if closeted, queer character. And instead of being the butt of other characters’ jokes, he was the secondary lead. He’s the one who defeats the Abominable Snowman, after all!
I won’t get into all the reasons that the actual villains of this story are Santa, Donner, and Comet. Other people have covered that pretty well. Just as many have argued that the lesson of this special (and the 1949 song, and the 1939 book) is that deviation from the norm will be punished unless it is exploitable. Yeah, there are some problematic aspects to a lot of these old stories.
I still love this version, though, and not the least of the reasons is because the “fag elf” gets a happy ending.
I was reading this blog post: Constantine or when the imitators eclipse the original about why an adaptation of a classic might be well done, but still seem derivative (and not of its source material). It reminded me of once when I read someone’s post about being disappointed about a Theodore Sturgeon book from the fifties, because it seemed to be a rip-off of the X-men. So I explained that it was the other way around: the original X-men comic book was created more than a decade after the Sturgeon works in question, and the same reason many people called Sturgeon’s stories classics, meant that lots of stories written since then have incorporated (and in many cased improved upon) his original ideas.
Once I noticed the phenomenon, I started seeing it everywhere. A story that had first introduced a particular concept or literary technique is hailed as a classic or breakthrough, but a decade of more later when hundreds of stories, movies, television episodes, et al have been influenced by it, the original pales by comparison.
I think Buhlert, the author of the above linked blog post, is correct that this phenomenon is a big part of why the recent television adaptation of the comic book character John Constantine flopped. But I also think there is more to it than that. I complained at the time that the showrunners had explicitly stated that this John Constantine, unlike the character in the comic books, was definitely not bisexual. And I don’t think the decision was a bad one because I think adaptations ought to slavishly follow the original. Nor do I think the decision was bad merely because as a queer person myself I take queer erasure personally.
It was a bad decision artistically because it was a symptom of a bigger problem. The people adapting the character and the character’s story failed to understand the essence of the character. Constantine isn’t merely a mystical version of a noir detective. While the character appears to dwell in that aesthetic, there is a significant difference. The archetypical noir protagonist is alienated and filled with existential bitterness, striving against random uncaring fate. Noir protagonists (and noir story lines) lack hope. Noir protagonists are frequently doomed because they are manipulated by others, traditionally a femme fatale.
The art style of Hellblazer, the comic series that starred Constantine, was very like a film noir. And Constantine’s cynicism looks an awful lot like the typical noir protagonist to the casual observer. But Constantine wasn’t alienated. Alan Moore, who created Constantine, once said that he was aiming for a character who knew everything and knew everyone; a character who was charismatic and never at a loss for what to do. That made Constantine, in several important aspects, the opposite of a noir protagonist. Constantine doesn’t struggle against random, uncaring fate—he often struggles against supernatural forces that are emphatically intentional in their disruption of mortal life—not at all random.
Constantine cares about people; he’s not alienated, he’s connected. And while manipulation happens in Constantine stories, it is usually Constantine doing the manipulation, rather than being the victim of manipulation. His cynicism comes from observing, again and again, that people he cares about always die. The noir protagonist’s cynicism, on the other hand, is usually the result of being betrayed or failed again and again by people they trust.
For example, in one issue of the comic, the King of the Vampires kills a man that Constantine had hooked up with the night before. When the King asks Constantine if the dead man was a friend, Constantine’s reply is, “He’s dead now, so he must have been.”
Sidenote: It has been said that noir’s roots are irrevocably American. I agree with Buhlert’s assessment that Constantine is quintessentially British, and that he works best in a British setting. And even when his stories don’t have a British setting, he is better when being writing by a British author (in my humble opinion). The showrunners’ decision to move Constantine to the U.S. certainly didn’t improve the chances they would catch the essence of the character.
To get back to my main point: You can have a straight character who has all of those characteristics, but the same sort of shallow misunderstanding of the character which leads someone to say, “we can drop his queerness” also led them to miss all the other things that made Constantine different from the noir archetype. When you combine that with the phenomenon that much of urban fantasy has adopted the aesthetic of the original Hellblazer comics, it just increased the likelihood that what they produced would come out as a bland copy of something we’ve seen a thousand times before.
So years ago I was a faithful viewer of the comedy series “My Name Is Earl,” the story of a not terribly bright petty criminal who became convinced that because of all of the awful things he’d done in his life, he was destined to try to make up for them or karma was going to keep punishing him. So he made a list of all the bad things he’d done, and with the assistance of his brother, Randy, and Randy’s sometimes girlfriend Catalina set out to make amends. Earl and Randy are also frequently both helped and hindered in their quest by Earl’s ex-wife, Joy. Everyone is frequently helped and oddly rescued from various situations by Joy’s current husband, Darnell aka “the Crabman.”
The series was a silly look at life in the fictitious Camden County, which was inhabited by a strange assortment of characters. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, though I was always amused by the fact that the one person I knew who most disliked it said he hated it because it was completely unbelievable, yet he himself is always telling stories about his ridiculous in-laws and the unbelievably stupid problems they got themselves into. Which made me decide that either a) he had a really big blind spot, or b) all those stories he liked to regale people with of his supposed true family misadventures might have been more than slightly exaggerated.
Regardless, I really enjoyed the not-cynical way that “My Name Is Earl” demonstrated in its storylines again and again that most humans are muddling along as best as they can, seldom realizing just how much our lives are interconnected, and how much we contribute (in both good and bad ways) to the lives of others.
Then one spring we learned that it wasn’t going to be renewed for a fifth season… Read More…
I enjoyed the show. So did my (now late) husband, Ray. We tuned in faithfully each week, chatting about various aspects of the show as we watched. I’d been such a big fan of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that of course I was interested in this show. Ray, on the other hand, barely remembered the other series (and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was a few years younger than I, or if maybe his family simply hadn’t watched it), but he was a fan of mysteries and sci fi and “spooky stuff” so was just as interested in the concept of the show before we had even seen it.
The show’s mysteries were interesting. Sometimes very creepy, sometimes sad. There was just the right amount of human and pathos in the most serious shows to keep you hooked. And then occasionally there were episodes that were primarily funny.
They avoiding the obvious “she’s always a cold-hearted skeptic”/”he’s a passionate true believer” dynamic that he seemed implied from the beginning. Mulder wasn’t a true believer. He frequently repeated the line, “I want to believe.” As we learned about the childhood disappearance of his sister, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it, we understood why he needed to believe that there were things happening beyond the simple, rational explanations with which so many mysteries are dismissed. And Scully, of course, wasn’t cold-hearted, and while she remained skeptical, she wasn’t close-minded.
The show did a really good job of portraying different ways that a sense of wonder (and sometimes dread) could manifest when we are confronted with situations that don’t have an obvious, simple, and safe explanation.
I really loved the show in the early seasons. I recall especially being on the edge of my seat at the end of the season two finale, barely able to contain myself waiting to learn what the answer to the cliffhanger would be the next fall. Things started to go awry, for me, during the third season, and by the fifth or sixth I was finding myself irritated by the show more often then entertained. I might have given up if not for a friend who suggested this way of looking at it: “I’ve decided to think of it as two completely separate shows happening in parallel universes. They happen to have identically named characters played by the same actors, but they are other wise unconnected. One is the quirky, cool ‘there are more things than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ mystery of the week show that I adore; and the other is the awful, poorly written, contradictory, batshit alien conspiracy/maybe we’re all crazy show that I hate—and I have to put up with the latter in order to keep watching the former.”
And that helped a lot. Don’t get me wrong, the conspiracy related to aliens was there from the very beginning, and I was onboard with watching them confront and explore that. The problem, from my perspective, was that unlike their monster of the week kinds of episodes, they never seemed to have a clear idea of what was actually happening with the conspiracy. Years later we might call their problem the “Lost syndrome,” because like that more recent show, the writers seemed to be throwing contradictory and confusingly cryptic clues at us without a clear idea of what the “real” explanation was.
I think that the show’s original creator did have an idea of what the explanation was, but either he allowed other writers who didn’t know to go off on misleading tangents that couldn’t be reconciled as simply red herrings, or perhaps he didn’t know how to keep the series going if he ever revealed the answer.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I watched the first episode of the new mini series a few weeks ago. And I have to admit, that opener left me with a lot more dread than hope. Then the second episode was a bit better, like one of the typical mystery of the week shows I used to love.
And then we got to the third episode, “Scully & Mulder Meet the Were-monster” and I was in heaven. It was funny. And with a lot of Easter Eggs that weren’t annoying. Two actors who played stoned teen-agers who witnessed a mysterious event back in the very first season, returned to play the same characters, no longer teens, who are out in the woods huffing spray paint when they witness another event. There was a homage the Kolchak in the story, an incredible amount of humor, yet it was an incredibly dark commentary on real life at the same time. It was really, really good, and included everything I had loved about the best of the earliest episodes. And I was incredibly happy to see, online over the next several days, the number of review sites and sci fi/fantasy enthusiasts who had enjoyed the episode the same as I had.
At its best, the X-Files was about things in life—sometimes awful, tragic things—that don’t fit neatly into our preconceptions of how the world can be. More importantly, it is about the way we try to understand those things—how we confront mystery, tragedy, disappointment, horror, and betrayal—and how we cling to meaning and hope in spite of it. It’s about finding the human connection, finding the reasons to hope, finding the things to cherish, and never losing our curiosity.
And it’s also, sometimes, about really creepy monsters.
A lot of Tumblr is about reblogging and liking stuff other people have posted. Or more realistically, reblogging stuff someone you follow reblogged from someone the follow who reblogged it from someone else, ad nauseum, that someone else posted.
A certain amount of commentary happens, though the tools aren’t really designed to foster conversation. But that’s another topic for another day.
The post, also shown in the screenshot above, came to my dashboard by one of those multi-reblog chains, and it much more succinctly demonstrates the point I expounded on in Invisible? Refusing to see what’s already there… which I also alluded to a few days ago in Confessions of an incorrigible shipper.
The original post was put up last July, as seen here.
Whether you call it a double standard, unacknowledged straight privilege, heterosexism, or homophobia, it’s all the same.