Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying

Image 20170224 22983 kskule.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Westworld: how far away is this future?
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Amy C. Chambers, Newcastle University

This article accompanies episode 10 of The Anthill podcast on the future.

From Humans to Westworld, from Her to Ex Machina, and from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to Black Mirror – near future science fiction in recent years has given audiences some seriously unsettling and prophetic visions of the future. According to these alternative or imagined futures, we are facing a post-human reality where humans are either rebelled against or replaced by their own creations. These stories propose a future where our lives will be transformed by science and technology, redefining what it is to be human.

The near future science fiction sub-genre imagines a future only a short time away from the period in which it is produced. Continue reading “Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying”


I’ve just finished watching the first season of E4’s Misfits, which I sought out following Richard Morgan’s recommendation a few months ago. It had, I confess, flown entirely beneath my radar, but it’s also a show whose pitch doesn’t sound terribly promising: a bunch of ASBO kids on their first day of community service get caught in a mysterious storm that gives them all superpowers. Wackiness ensues.

An obvious reference point, you might think, is Heroes, and to start with Misfits does seem a bit like a version of that show self-consciously revised to be “young”, “edgy”, “urban”; or, less kindly, crude and juvenile. Each character’s power turns out to be related to its owner’s desires: Kelly (“the chavvy one”, as the Guardian puts it) can hear other people’s thoughts, Simon (“the weird one”) can become invisible, Curtis (“the angry one”, although I’d have gone for “the guilt-stricken one”) can turn back time, and Alisha (“the slutty one”) drives people into a sexual frenzy when she touches them (or, if you prefer, Wikipedia’s chaste description: “sex pheremone manipulation”). That leaves Nathan, “the Irish one who talks too much”, whose only powers seem to be creative obscenity and an inability to ever take anything seriously. Each gets a turn in the spotlight, over the course of the season’s six episodes, during which they start to come to terms with their changed circumstances; in each episode, too, the gang have to deal with someone else who’s been affected by the storm. But there’s no deliberate heroism involved, no forming a super-team: the five of them are pretty much just trying to get by, hanging around the community centre, partly because they don’t want to attract attention, having been forced to kill their original probation worker when he went into a murderous rage after the storm, but mostly because they’re not heroic types. There is, of course, more to them than their initial cliched flaws, but with the arguable exception of Curtis they discover no great reserves of inner virtue — admirable behaviour comes in brief flashes, if at all — and those flaws remain a part of who they are in ways that suggest we’re meant to understand, but not forgive. Socially inept, lonely, bullied Simon, for instance, attracts a certain amount of sympathy, but when a woman shows some interest, it doesn’t occur to him that he shouldn’t sneak into her house at night and, in a thoroughly creepy scene, film her sleeping. All of them demonstrate a basic lack of empathy when assigned to help out at a pensioners’ social. And so on.

It’s quite refreshing, actually. The whole thing also has a low-key aesthetic that seems clearly driven, at least in part, by a lack of budget, but the casual, character-led style works for the show. (And arguably the least successful episode is the finale, which attempts to stage a more traditionally large-scale confrontation.) It helps a great deal that the writing is both reasonably clever — Curtis’ time-travel-centric episode is a lot of fun — often very funny, mature when it needs to be and all in all not nearly as Torchwood as the premise suggests. In fact, as the season wore on, much more than Heroes I was put in mind of Buffy — high praise indeed, but it becomes clear the show’s fantastical engine is the sort of metaphor-driven coming-of-age exploration that Buffy made its own, and there are moments, particularly in the Nathan-centric second episode and the Simon-centric fifth, when Misfits shifts from drama to comedy to horror and back again with a familiar agility. It’s such moments that make it less of a surprise that Misfits beat out Being Human, The Street and Spooks to win a BAFTA for Best Drama earlier this year; and it’s such moments that’ll have me tuning in for the second season later this year.

Fezzes are Cool

Abigail Nussbaum did not like this year’s Who:

So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat’s first season at the series’s helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn’t trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough? Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong? The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series’s most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless. At some point, I stopped caring about Davies’s stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it’s not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again. Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show’s saving grace under Davies’s reign, have been allowed to fester.

I find myself in previously unexplored territory with respect to this year’s Doctor Who: I really enjoyed it. As someone who never had a strong relationship with old Who, who admired RTD’s pre-Who work but was mortally disappointed with the actuality right from the word “Rose”, and who watched partly out of a desire to see the good episode of any given season, and partly out of a desire to keep up with a genuine sf cultural phenomenon, this is something of a surprise. In fact, my situation is almost precisely the opposite of Abigail’s; instead of wondering whether the change in production team has made glaring previously forgivable flaws, I find myself wondering whether it’s papered over previously unforgivable flaws. I find myself wondering whether, essentially, Doctor Who has just worn me down, so that I accept it for what it’s been all along.

I find myself wondering this, in part, because at this point I think I could happily watch Matt Smith read the proverbial telephone book. I could disagree with much of Abigail’s assessment of the Eleventh Doctor’s inconstancy pretty much assertion by assertion — the key difference between the Saturnynians and the Silurians, for instance, is that the latter have a valid claim to the Earth and the former do not — but she’s obviously right that he is “a mass of mannerisms”. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature. I don’t care that he’s not someone to identify with; I care about him because I’m fascinated by his mercurial nature. I don’t care that he overshadows the other characters, because as far as I’m concerned Who‘s characterisation has never risen above the cartoonish anyway, and the Eleventh Doctor is, so far, a cartoon that’s proven to be enduringly watchable. So I’m sure I do forgive this incarnation of the show failings that I wouldn’t have accepted in Russell T Davies.

At the same time, however, I’m not sure I can agree with Abigail’s take on Moffat’s plots:

What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn’t very good at plotting, possibly because he didn’t tend to do it very often. “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” have only the barest hint of a plot, and it’s the same one for both of them–the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor. What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat’s previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t agree with her definition of plot. My understanding of plot is the one that crops up on this website about writing, among others: that it concerns the organization of the events in a work of fiction, as opposed to the story, which is how those events would proceed in raw, unembellished form. So I’d turn Moffat’s strength and weakness around, compared to Abigail. He clearly does return to the same set of ideas quite frequently, and work to find new ways to iterate them, and sometimes this is more successful, and sometimes less so. But I’d also argue that saying Moffat is good at structure is the same as saying he’s good at plotting, at the mechanics of putting a story together. And I’d argue that whichever word you use, this season bears out that Moffat is good at it; it feels to me a much more cohesive work than any of Davies’ seasons did, and than a lot of other TV series in general. True, under Moffat Who has shifted even further into fantasy — if I have a reservation about the season, this is it; that, like Alastair Reynolds, I might wish for a show that placed a bit more emphasis on the brilliance of rational enquiry — but it does a reasonable job of being coherent on its own terms. The biggest of the authorial fiats are established early on. The Doctor is a spacetime event complicated enough to close the cracks in the universe. Anything that can be remembered can be recovered. There’s no reason these things should be true, but because they’re established in episodes where it’s not essential that they’re true, by the time they’re needed in the season finale I’m happy to allow them.

It’s not just plot that I feel binds this year’s episodes together, though. There’s an overarching concern with how stories get told and what they signify, for instance. I can feel enough loose threads nagging at me there that I might even rewatch this season, at some point, and see if something can be woven from them. But more than that, even, what this season of Who has conveyed to me, for the first time, is what the joyously seductive confusion that is the Doctor’s life, or the life of this travelling with the Doctor, might feel like. I think the purest sense-of-wonder moment Russell T Davies managed came at the end of his second episode, in the juxtaposition of the death of the sun several billion years in the future with a crowded London street in the present day. To say that Moffat’s Who actually makes use of time travel is, for me, to say that it’s built around those juxtapositions, the repetition and magnification of them; and so it seems somehow right that Moffat’s Doctor himself is a continual stream of unexpected incongruities, who lives by them and is bored to tears, as in “Vincent and the Doctor”, when they cease. Where Abigail and I agree, in the end, is that I also think Moffat has written the Doctor he wanted to write: one for whom anything is possible, and everything must be fun.

Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

In another world, Dollhouse is one of the best and most significant TV sf series ever made. In our world … well, we got what we got. It’s still Whedon’s most ambitious and provocative metaphoric construct, but rather deeply flawed; something of a stitched-together monster shambling towards the finish line. The second half of the show’s second season is, though only “fast” by the glacial standards of most American serial television, rather inelegant; as with Serenity, you can see where they’d have stretched things out, given more time (that “three months later” was a dead giveaway), and where compression has prevented them from dotting every narrative i and crossing every t. And, perhaps most damaging, there’s a lack of attentiveness to the givens of the original premise, the pervasive, corrosive suffering that comes from treating identity as a commodity, in favour of Excitement. (Of course the show was never all that attentive to such things; but less and less as time has gone on, I feel.)

So we come to “The Hollow Men”, which wraps up the present-day thread of the story with Our Heroes taking out Rossum’s HQ, and at this point if you don’t buy into the underlying argument being developed, things really have become somewhat incoherent. But thematically it’s all there. The story we have been watching, the story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow), turns out to be a story told by the villain, all the characters – dolls like Whiskey and originals like Topher alike – dancing to his tune, as they have had dolls dancing to theirs. And said villain himself isn’t exactly a free agent, rather running scared of the brainpocalypse, trying on the one hand to bridle the technology he’s brought into the world, to delay the inevitable, and on the other to create an escape route. It’s for the latter that he tells his story, constructing the “specialness” of Caroline and of Echo out of his own obsession, which of course makes it meaningless – hollow – a closed loop. So the confirmation that the genie is out of the bottle is predictable, but worthwhile, the last nail in the coffin of Echo-as-saviour. Nobody in Dollhouse is free; society is the shambling beast, working out its death knells through the characters. The slingshot of the last two minutes takes us ten years into the chaotic, dystopian future, the setting for “Epitaph Two” which will (presumably) provide some mitigation of all this bleakness; although I for one hope that it calibrates the amount of consolation it provides very carefully.

Children of Earth

Torchwood posterThere are times when Russell T Davies’ work — and for all that John Fay and James Moran have writing credits on the middle episodes of Torchwood: Children of Earth, the finished product does feel very much like Russell T Davies’ work — seems to be the work of a man obsessively iterating a set of concerns that deserve the attention, and times when it just feels repetitive. Which side of the line any given story falls on, of course, depends on the execution, and partly it’s about the reappearance of themes, rather than devices. By the time you get to Doctor Who‘s season four finale, an army of metallic aliens invading Earth from some kind of Elsewhere starts to feel somewhat familiar, for instance. “Planet of the Dead”, earlier this year, appeared for all the world to be an attempt to see how many previous plot points could be repeated in the course of a single story. But I think Children of Earth works, much more than not, despite the fact that Who did an aliens-want-children plot barely six months ago, despite the fact that the questions it asks have been asked before, because it found a new angle from which to approach those questions.

Most obviously Children of Earth is “Midnight” — that story about the worst self-destructive tendencies of humanity, and for my money, the best episode of Who‘s fourth season — retold as an epic. In both stories, the assistance of an outside agent who could assist humanity is rejected (the parallel between Jack and the Doctor is unavoidable by the end of Children of Earth, I think); and we are shown what happens when humanity stands alone. They are the flipside of The Second Coming, which asserted the ability and necessity of humanity to stand on its own two feet, without (in that case) God. To frame Children of Earth as drawing its core concerns from this strand of Davies’ work is perhaps merely to observe what much commentary on the series has observed, that it is not Torchwood as we know it (depending on your perspective, for better or worse; on the latter, see also comments here, and if you want to depress yourself, Moran’s description of feedback he has received here). And there is also the fact that the crass camp of the first two seasons, which seemed at the time to be part of the point of the show, is very noticeable by its absence. Yet Children of Earth also more fully expresses ideas that have been central to Torchwood from the start, and only relatively lightly touched on in Who, most notably the consequences of Captain Jack’s ambiguous Angel-like past, and the costs of putting regular humans on the front line in a fight against alien threats.

What Children of Earth is most memorable for, perhaps, is changing the focus of that last question slightly, to ask who decides where the front lines are. That means, on one level, Jack Harkness, and to what extent he is responsible for the vulnerable humans he recruits to fight alongside him; and it means, on a rather bigger level, those at the top of governmental and military organizations. Much is made, throughout the series, of questions of expediency and expendability. We are told that the Civil Service, as personified by Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher (a really excellent turn from Peter Capaldi), are the middlemen of British government, and they are here used by the Prime Minister in an attempt to keep his hands clean: but, under no illusions what this means, he tells Frobisher directly that “all I’ve done is put you on the front line”. The cost for Frobisher is, ultimately, as high as that implies; it is nearly as high for his temp assistant, Lois Habiba, and for Torchwood, on the front lines in a different sense, it appears to mean the end of the line entirely.

Torchwood itself, I would suggest, is acknowledged here to be the tin-pot personal outfit it has been since after the battle of Canary Wharf. “What do you think Torchwood is now?” Frobisher asks, in “Day Five”. “Do you think you’re still players?” Whatever institutional power it had in the past, it strikes me that the incarnation of Torchwood that we have seen through these three seasons is held together pretty much by Jack Harkness’ bare hands, out of a belief in its necessity. Children of Earth is where his grip slips, where his cavalier choices bite him. The undercutting of his heroic “I’m back” in episode three, having replaced his totemic coat – followed by the undercutting of the Doctor-ish trope of “let’s go stand up to them”, rushing in to confront the aliens — is one of the most savage, and satisfying, progressions in the series. And back at the top of the ladder, the scenes in “Day Four” in which the COBRA team talk themselves not just into capitulating to the 456’s horrific demands, but into seeing a political opportunity in that capitulation, are some of the most chilling, not because they are “realistic” — they are not — but because the characters in the scene embody a kind of twisted, prejudicial realism that is all too common.

None of this, of course, would be worth talking about if Children of Earth showed the same lack of basic narrative and technical competency that so blighted earlier Torchwood. Fortunately, it’s a step up in those regards, as well; there are flaws, but none so terrible as to derail the whole enterprise. From “The End of the World” through “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library”, Euros Lyn has often been one of new Who’s more successful directors, and his work here is solid, giving many scenes — in particular those in the 456’s room — the space and framing they need to be effective. And I’ve already singled out Peter Capaldi for praise, but most of the rest of the guest cast are also very good: in particular, Cush Jumbo’s Lois Habiba pulls off “I’m a temp, it’s what I do” where Catherine Tate failed, Katy Wix is agreeably down-to-Earth as Ianto’s sister, and Nicholas Farrell is believably trapped and calculating as the PM. (This is not to say the regular cast are bad — Eve Myles is probably the best I’ve seen her — but they are, perhaps, outshone.) Nor was the pacing of the story bad. It could perhaps have been cut down to four episodes rather than five, given that episode two consisted mostly of characters running around in an attempt to get back to where they started, and that the “previously on” for that episode was arguably more effectively creepy than the whole of episode one, but the key scenes were given the time they needed to breath. I’m thinking here, of the extended first contact and negotiation scenes in “Day Three”; the COBRA scenes, again, in “Day Four”; the one-on-ones in “Day Five”; and a good number of the scenes involving Ianto’s family. All of these are leagues more involving than anything Torchwood has managed, or even attempted, in its previous incarnations. Of course, Murray Gold and Ben Foster’s score is still intrusive and garish, but you can’t have everything; and at least they did away with the music for the scene in “Day Five” in which the PM tells Frobisher his children will be inoculated.

The flaws in the series, as so often in Russell T Davies’ work, seem to me (if not to others) to be primarily to do with a failure to stick the dismount. I should say, before I get into my reservations, that I still rate Children of Earth as good, and not even just good-for-Torchwood; I think it’s the most interesting, and most nearly successful, work that Davies has had a credited writer’s role in since The Second Coming. The ending, for example, is much better set up than in any of Davies’ Who finales — and hence its manipulativeness is much less distracting. The revelation that the 456 are drug addicts (presumably, given the observation that there are at least three life-forms in their box, they make a habit of sampling different species to get different highs) is not only astonishingly creepy in itself, but renders them satisfyingly banal, and neatly justifies their ham-fisted tactics, and their leaving what looks like an obvious backdoor into their brains lying around to be exploited. (The aliens are all-around better handled than they usually are on Who or Torchwood, I think; still monstrous, but mysteriously so, tantalizingly so.) So many of my objections are niggles. I didn’t like the use of the contact lens cameras in “Day Five”, for instance, because it was the result of a scene we didn’t see all of, a flourish that was only possible because Davies didn’t play fair with the viewers. There was perhaps too much focus on Ianto’s death, eliding the deaths of everyone else who was in Thames House at the time. I wasn’t convinced by Gwen’s final decision to keep her pregnancy; her cold “Is that right?” in response to Rhy’s insistence that “You’re not getting rid of it” had more credibility. And there are some elements that simply felt too clean, too neat: the rounding up of children in “Day Five” proceeded with too little effective resistance (and was perhaps too uniform); and at the end of “Day Four” I couldn’t help feeling that a virus which kills you that fast shouldn’t leave you looking that pretty.

My two more substantive criticisms, I think, have to do with the contract that appears to be made by the narrative. One is the treatment of children: this is a story in which children are, without exception, tokens, or “units” as COBRA euphemistically describes them. They are utterly at the mercy of, first, the 456, and second, the British government. This powerlessness is surely the point; the horror of the pathology that leads to exerting such control over children is surely the point. And yet it undermines the final emotional climax: how much more would Steven’s death have hurt, I found myself wondering, if we had a sense of him as a person, rather than just “Jack’s grandson”; if we had a sense of who was being lost, rather than what. (This is to say that I can’t quite read that absence of identity as increasing the horror of that specific scene, though it does increase the horror elsewhere in the series, so perhaps it is just a necessary trade-off.) My other problem is with the final resolution: it seems that, apparently, Torchwood never went public with their recordings of the COBRA meetings — either those recorded by Lois, or those recorded by Bridget — which strikes me as brushing consequences under the rug, rather. You can, indeed, construct reasons internal to the story why this choice might be made — it’s the best option for continued stability, for instance — but they are not articulated on-screen; which leaves it feeling like a decision made for reasons external to the story. That is: I understand why you might choose to write this ending for a spin-off series, because you don’t want Doctor Who to have to deal with a Britain, and indeed rest of the world, in which trust in the political system has entirely broken down, and very possibly resulted in violent unrest, but it doesn’t feel entirely natural to Children of Earth as told to that point.

As Saxon Bullock suggests, this is the first time that Torchwood has felt as though it matters; but I’m coming close, here, to arguing that Children of Earth would have worked better as a standalone story told in an independent universe; that it would have been better to divorce it from Torchwood entirely, rather than reshape Torchwood so that it could tell this story. Indeed at first I did think that. On reflection, there’s one significant reason why I’m glad they didn’t, which has to do with What Happens Next. (Because if ratings are any indication, there will be a next series, no matter how final it feels now.) Weighing together The Second Coming and the various messianic moments in new Who, there seems to me to be some ambivalence in Russell T Davies’ work about the relationship between baseline humanity (or children of Earth) and outside agents (be they God, or the Doctor, or simply immortal). And if Children of Earth is perhaps his most cynical exploration of that relationship to date, it seems to me that it sets up an opportunity: a story that is perhaps lower-key, but crucially only about contemporary humans confronting the alien. And while that is often, for Davies, a bleak prospect — witness Rupesh’s line in “Day One” about the doubling of the suicide rate since first contact, as humans struggle to come to terms with their small-ness and the universe’s big-ness — I don’t believe it is always, or necessarily bleak. The Second Coming is, after all, about humanity growing up. Future Torchwood could, from a different angle, be about that process, too; and in doing so within the Who universe, could continue to matter.

2-for-1 on Unpopular Fannish Opinions

1. Star Trek is not that good. It has its virtues, certainly: a certain amount of verbal and visual pizzazz (the closing credits look like a series of John Picacio paintings); decent performances, if not really ones that I feel able to hold close to my heart (Karl Urban probably the best, for my money); headlong, yet not quite hectic velocity, even if sometimes sustained by utterly extraneous set-pieces (Kirk being chased by ice-planet monsters, say). I laughed, I enjoyed, and I haven’t felt as strongly that I was watching a culturally significant piece of science fiction since Doctor Who’s “Rose”. And yet. It is really, epically, heroically stupid, and I’m not even talking about the science (though the disregard for scientific plausibility felt distastefully wilful at points, in contrast to the disregard-for-sake-of-plot that defines the archetypal moment of Treknobabble), but about the plot, which rests on convenience and coincidence upon convenience and coincidence. Think about it for more than thirty seconds and the whole house of cards fall down.

More fundamentally, I find myself uneasy about what that nagging feeling of cultural significance might mean: something in the cross-breeding of shameless, box-ticking nostalgia and gung-ho shininess doesn’t sit well with me.. This is something of a surprise. I’ve never thought of Trek as being particularly important to me; I’ve seen a lot of it, of course, but with the exception of Deep Space Nine much of it was watched just because it was there, not because I was actively seeking it out. And yet. Much has been made of Star Trek as a return to a bright, colourful, boundless universe, a celebration of an optimistic vision of the future, in contrast to the miserabilism of (say) Battlestar Galactica. But the brightness and colour of Abrams’ Star Trek indicate a fun film, no terrible thing in itself except that it feels like a hollowed-out version of the vision that made Trek first appealing, which was – and I can feel myself turning into one of the Onion News Network’s outraged Trekkies as I type this – that it was inspirational, aspirational, a vision of a better world. This Trek doesn’t feel like it’s set in a better world, particularly; as has been widely observed, diversity is somewhat noticeable by its absence. I find myself missing that nerdy, unfashionable (and, let’s be realistic, often terrible) aspect of Trek much more than I would have expected. I cannot see this incarnation of the franchise, for instance, centering one of its instalments around diplomatic shenanigans and a peace process, as The Undiscovered Country did – indeed, I expect Star Trek 2 to be KLINGONS RARR (with a side-order of Uhura coming between Kirk and Spock). And that feels like a shame.

2. Dollhouse is not that bad. It has multiple and serious flaws, certainly; even allowing for everything positive I’m about to say, there is a hesitancy to the show’s development of its argument, a caution that often looks like damaging reticence. I would go so far as to say that the first season is, taken in the round, a failure, with only two episodes – Joss Whedon’s own “Man on the Street” and “Spy in the House of Love”, written by Andrew Chambliss – that really work, a second tier — “Needs”, “Briar Rose”, “Omega” — that have some things to recommend them, and a majority that range between half-hearted and shockingly inept. But my feeling is that it’s an interesting, worthwhile failure, not a worthless one.

Three reasons. First, the premise – what happens when identity becomes a commodity? – is simple to grasp, and strong; fertile angles of attack fairly spring out of the ground, and you can see where the writers were going with episodes like “Stage Fright” and “True Believer”, even if they singularly failed to make anything of them. Second, it is more ambitious than anything else Whedon has done in what is, I think, a key area – a structural critique is built into the bones of the show, whereas both in Buffy (with the Watcher’s Council) and Angel (with Wolfram & Hart) such elements were grafted on later, never entirely successfully. My knowledge of Marxist theory could kindly be described as rudimentary, but consider: Dollhouse concerns the exploitation of one class of people by another; the exploited class is literally alienated from their work, with no sense of the overall nature or purpose of the system within which they reside; the individuals in this class are literally treated as things, as dolls, and are made to believe they are freely choosing what is in fact being forced upon them; and through this make-believe, the dollhouse itself provides a frame story that alienates us, as viewers, and makes us aware of much of what happens in each episode as a constructed text. (The clearest example of this being Mellie’s parody of empowerment in “Man on the Street”, but I think it’s there in every episode; it’s always clear that the clients’ fantasies – the stories the show tells – arise out of a basic power imbalance. I even think there is a strand of self-critique on Whedon’s part running through Dollhouse, having to do with the value and authenticity, or lack thereof, of the fantasies of empowerment he has previously created.) So I think it functions productively as a particular critique of the society we live in, which is why I was so pleased that the finale showed an imprinted doll claiming the identity that had been imposed upon them: for the metaphor to work fully, we have to understand the subjective experiences of the imprints as valid, they have to be like us (hence, perhaps, Boyd’s comments that the dollhouse are murderers as well as pimps). Third, although there is much in Charlie Anders’ analysis of the show at io9 that I disagree with – particularly with regard to the characters, where I think what’s interesting is not that the dollhouse employees are morally ambiguous, but that they have good, even likeable qualities despite their decisions not being in the slightest ambiguous, being entirely reprehensible – I think she puts her finger on something important when she notes that the focus of Dollhouse is not going to be Echo/Caroline’s journey to regain her individuality, but an exploration of the corrupting effects of doll technology. I don’t believe it’s intended to end with liberation; I don’t think it could do so, not without dishonestly stuffing a genie back into its bottle. I think it’s about an inexorable slide towards the dystopic future we’ve had signalled a couple of times now, in which individuality is extinguished, and everyone is interchangeable; a pure science fiction horror story, about the absence of political agency.

(That said, of course, if someone at Fox happens to be reading, and is dithering between renewing this for a second season, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles for a third, then go with Sarah Connor, and don’t look back.)

Heroes Revisited

I was pointed at this interview earlier this morning, in which Bryan Fuller explains what he wanted to achieve with his return to Heroes:

I just really wanted to get everything back to a character base. I think character was shoved aside for plot. The second year with the virus was interesting, but then it got complicated and techno-babbly. With “Villains,” it started out interesting and then became about formula. When they started talking about how we were injected with our powers and it became sci-fi ghetto storytelling, I became disconnected. Mohinder went from a noble scientist to being a mad scientist with Jeff Goldblum hair and wardrobe. Claire became so strident and unlikable because she was just whining, bitching and holding a gun. I was just concerned the wheel had been jerked so sharply in the wrong direction with what had worked about the first season, which was ordinary people with extraordinary powers. Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window, and everything was extraordinary. That was my frustration.

Funnily enough, much as I would usually object to generalizations about “sci-fi ghetto storytelling”, in this case, if I assume Fuller is using the term in the sense I would use it in — to denote lurid, sensationalist storytelling, which goes for cheap manipulation and spectacle over character consistency or logic — then I actually agree with him. “It got complicated and techno-babbly”; “Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window”; these things are true, are they not? Heroes‘ third volume, “Villains”, was bad, and those are some of the big reasons why. Not that complicated, extraordinary stories are bad in themselves, but that Heroes didn’t manage to tell those stories well, ending up with dumb and/or outright offensive stories. Now, if Fuller’s using “sci-fi ghetto” to denote all science fiction, it’s annoying, but at face value, I’m OK with it. (If he’s got previous, and has said something silly like, I don’t know, Pushing Daisies isn’t really a fantasy, it’s a human story, then don’t tell me.)

But then, I’m very nearly at the point of being won back over by Heroes, so I’m inclined to cut Fuller some slack. Yesterday evening I got myself caught up to the most recent episode, “Into Asylum”, which is the most interesting the show has been for some time; but even the early episodes of this volume, before Fuller’s re-involvement, were a step up from “Villains”. You have to accept that Heroes is not the sort of global story it once pretended to aspire to be, that it is now just about one well-off white extended family with superpowers … but at least the show is now not pretending it’s anything else, and on those terms, I’m enjoying it. More than at any time since the peak of the first season, “Fugitives” finds Heroes telling more focused, controlled stories. They’re not trying to do too much in an episode; they’re not afraid to rotate characters out for an episode; and they are, slowly, getting the characters back to comprehensible relationships.

They fixed Peter! Narratively, I mean, though I’m also finding him somewhat less annoying than he used to be. And it’s a really good fix, too, that keeps the core of the character and his ability without letting him dominate the proceedings. It’s a shame they didn’t come up with it immediately after the end of the first season; it would even have made some sense as a reaction to going all ‘splodey. Similarly, Sylar is largely enjoyable to watch again, particularly now that he’s — at last — got past his family issues. (I assume the Smallville crossover fic has already been written, yes?) I’d be concerned that the latest power they’ve had him acquire makes him too powerful, if (a) he weren’t vain enough that it’s entirely plausible he won’t use it that much, (b) it’s not actually an easy power to use, and (c) the power itself, and the mutant of the week he acquired it from, weren’t such a perfect metaphor for what I take to be the recurring arc in this volume, which is redefinition.

That is to say: they keep giving characters really quite good scenes, or at least scenes whose heart is in the right place, in which they are asked who they really are, or what they stand for, or are given an opportunity to choose. Claire in the comic book store in “Cold Snap” (though that is otherwise a very weird scene which seems out of place in the larger arc), Claire talking to Nathan in “Into Asylum”, Sylar and his dad in “Shades of Gray”, Peter and Angela in the church in “Into Asylum”, to an extent powerless Hiro. I think Claire’s arc has probably been the standout in this volume so far, in that she’s actually getting to move on in ways the other volumes promised and then reset. There could be another reset coming, of course, but it’s hard to see how, particularly when it comes to, say, her relationship with her mother as it was developed in “Exposed” (and, I have to say, Mrs Bennett really got to shine in that episode). The character conflicts also make more sense: I thought “Cold Wars” was a very solid piece of television largely because I actually believed the arguments between Peter, Matt and Mohinder.

And they’re back to having actually cool and satisfying plot twists and set-pieces, ones that feel like integrated, natural developments, rather than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Tracy and the sprinklers was awesome. Rebel’s identity was double-awesome. Having the puppeteer turn up on Claire’s doorstep was a really good idea, and made me forgive the predictable nature of her plot in “Exposure”. Matt and Daphne’s final scenes, even, were pretty good. Hiro and Ando, sadly and frustratingly, remain the weak link. The introduction of baby touch-and-go had me rolling my eyes, because it was obvious where it was going, and yet another in a series of storylines that position Hiro and Ando as the comic relief, when all anybody wants to see is Hiro actually being a hero. But even within those scenes there were some good, solid character moments — Hiro telling Ando about his mother — and cute moments — Hiro talking to the baby won me over, particularly when he tried to teach it “Yatta!” — and I’m glad the baby’s power was only partially effective on Hiro. It’s also true that Ando’s development has been more successful than I feared; the India subplot in “Building 26” gave him some good material, and maybe eventually we’ll get something more like an equal partnership between the two of them.

There are, of course, still plenty of flaws; there’s inevitably something in each episode that I find unconvincing or poorly thought-through. It’s probably still more of a failure than a success, in fact, but at least now it’s an interesting failure again, and those fascinate me. It takes a lot to make me give up on a TV show — in recent times, only Lost has managed it that I can think of — but rarely do I feel that I’ve gained anything by sticking with a show that’s declined. Heroes may turn out to be one of the exceptions.

Dollhouse: “Ghost”

Scattered thoughts on this:

1) The biggest surprise, I think, is the tone, which is very different to all of Whedon’s other TV shows. There are almost no overt jokes (indeed, the most Xander/Wash-like character is described in the casting notes as someone “whose talents exceed his morals”), and the whole episode reeks of unease, and not just in the new-show-finding-its-feet way. The show’s premise — set within an organisation that reprograms beautiful young women and men (“actives”) to meet the needs of exclusive clients — unavoidably draws your attention to, and makes you question, what it is you’re enjoying about what you’re seeing, and why.

2) That, of course, is what’s not a surprise about Dollhouse — it was clear from the first announcement of the show that the whole thing was going to be a metaphor for how social roles are imposed on everyone — but I’m impressed that they made as much as they did of the tension between exploitation and empowerment offered by glossy action-adventure TV. When Echo takes on a new assignment, she’s essentially being transformed into the omnicompetent protagonist of a new show (and I did appreciate that what Whedon chose to showcase in the pilot is a thinking protagonist), but the constant, nagging undercurrent that refuses to let you embrace events on the screen is that the whole thing is a dishonest fantasy.

3) The trajectory for the first few episodes at least is plainly going to be Echo discovering her own identity, which could water down that tension somewhat; but a more immediate problem is that until that happens, Dollhouse is a show with no central character. This had sort of occurred to me beforehand, but it’s one thing to think about it academically, and another thing to see it on screen. At the moment, Echo is a blank. We get a couple of glimpses of the person she was before signing up for the Dollhouse (something she clearly did out of desperation), and one of the sub-plots of “Ghost” is the induction of a new Active into the team, so we get a sense of how Echo’s origin story might have looked, but other than one moment of inquisitiveness, there’s no sense of her, right now, as a person in her own right — which of course contributes to the unsettling nature of the episode.

4) I guess the question I’m circling around is, what on Earth does Whedon thinks is going to bring a mass audience back for a second episode? Dollhouse doesn’t even have a clear style of its own at this stage — while I think there’s a decent chance I could recognise a frame from one of his other shows on the basis of the lighting and framing, and I know I can recognise the score music, this seemed much more generic. (The Dollhouse itself looks a bit like Wolfram and Hart’s office in season five of Angel, for instance.)

5) This is not to say I didn’t like it; I did, or perhaps more accurately, I was intrigued by it. Though apparently set in the present Dollhouse is, in a way that even Firefly was not, actual science fiction. Nic called it a thought experiment, and I think that’s right, to the extent that that’s the level you on which you have to buy into it in order to want to watch more. Given I often read on the level of idea, rather than character or story, that’s not a problem for me — I want to see Whedon’s takes on all the problems of identity that this sort of sf traditionally deals with; one thing that strikes me, for instance, is that given Doll technology exists, there is a level on which none of the characters can be trusted to be who they appear to be, which could, if Whedon and the other writers want, make Dollhouse an even more destabilizing show to watch than it already is — but I’m only too aware that most other people don’t consume narrative in that way.

6) Judged purely as a single episode of TV? It was OK. None of the cast amazed me, though Dushku was better than I’d expected. In principle I approve of the fact that it’s “Remote-free TV“, but in practice I’m not sure it made the best possible use of the additional minutes; indeed it felt a little slow at times. I liked the little moment of dissonance when Echo-as-negotiator claims “I’ve been doing this all my life”, and I appreciate that her force of personality is meant to outweigh the obvious incongruousness of someone so young making such a claim, but I’m not sure it quite came off. And the choice of an abduction/abuse plot was perhaps a little more heavy-handed than was required; in a way something more obviously glossy might have been more effective.

7) So yes, it’s doomed. Half a dozen episodes, maybe? But I’ll watch them all, and hope that I’m wrong. I enjoy, and think I understand, the grammar of a Joss Whedon TV show more than is the case with most other TV; as is perhaps obvious from the fact that I’ve written this post at all.

8) Of course, I could just be over-thinking it.


Things I would totally write posts about if I weren’t spending all my time either playing Final Fantasy XII or keeping up with commitments elsewhere, a partial list:

1. Survivors. Watched the final episode last night; I’ve seen the odd post about the series, but did anyone else watch it through to the end? I was much more impressed than not, I have to say. I’m not keen on the Secret Conspiracy, which makes me wary of the second series, since it looks set to play a greater part in the story than it has done so far; and sometimes the plots are a mite predictable. But sometimes they’re not, and I think all the central characters are well-realised. And I’m a sucker for community- and society-building stories, anyway.

2. The return of Battlestar Galactica. While I empathize with reactions like Abigail’s, in that I invariably find that reading what the people making Galactica have to say about it diminishes my enjoyment, if I ignore what they’re saying I can still find much to appreciate. In the first episode of season four round two, for instance, I didn’t much care for the manner in which the reval that ended the episode was handled — clumsy, I thought — but I do like the reveal itself. I like that, this time, it has a greater weight for the previously-revealed cylons than for the humans; I like that the the relationship it references becomes a model for the whole human-cylon relationship (particularly given what we appeared to learn elsewhere in the episode about the relationship between the populations of the twelve colonies and the skinjob cylons). I’m glad that it doesn’t invalidate major character development. And I also find it satisfying, in a perverse way, that I found it initially disappointing, and only found things to appreciate on reflection, because it seems to me that disappointment was an effective way of mirroring the series characters’ disappointment at the end of the previous episode in the audience. I don’t believe for a second that the makers intended that effect — I can’t have that much faith in TV showrunners — but I think it’s there nonetheless.

3. Further adventures in Theory. I’ve still got comments on the previous threads I should respond to, and indeed it’s not like I’ve read much more of the book yet (see above re: Final Fantasy and other commitments). But at the moment I am wrestling with Structuralism. As related, I am not convinced by some of the arguments for the creational power of language (I don’t think we divide the spectrum into individual colours entirely arbitrarily, purely as a matter of language; I think we divide it up the way we do because certain physical phenomena filters light into particular bands of wavelengths, and it is useful to have words for those bands), and I find some of the examples of structralist criticism given to get a bit, er, abstract. But at the same time I am sympathetic to the idea of a mode of criticism that is about relating texts to larger structures — not surprisingly, since I buy into Damien Broderick’s concept of the sf megatext (at least as I understand it from reading discussions of the concept), even if it does take me away from the text I start with.

4. Reading, and particularly reading of shortlists, as social behaviour; although on this one I’m not sure I have anything to add, so much as I want to point it out as a concise statement of something I am often conscious of. The urge to write reviews, in this model, is something of a totalitarian impulse, an urge to make, or at least persuade, people to talk about what you’re interested in talking about. (So is there an extent to which I approve of the BSFA novel shortlist because it consists largely of things I’ve already read? Maybe.)