Archive for October, 2009

Yesterday invovled a rather interesting trip to Oxford – not just the town itself, but the actual university, as the whole point of going (apart from the opportunity to ogle the stonework) was for Toby to meet some logicians. This meant visiting New College and, once we’d taken in the atmosphere, dinner at the high table. I hadn’t really groked that this would be the case, and despite the abundant evidence supporting the notion that England Is Cold In Autumn, I also neglected to take a jacket. Combine this with a limited travel wardrobe, and the result was me sitting at table on a raised dias in a 600 year old building, drinking expensive wine and talking to academics while wearing a ‘Joss Whedon Is My Master Now‘ t-shirt.

Not surprisingly, this left me feeling a tad underdressed. The fact that the mathematician sitting opposite was a Buffy fan and promptly initiated a conversation about favourite episodes and seasons was both startling and a relief; learning that the Dean was a devout fan of The Wire may actually have caused me to do a double-take. I’m not sure why, though. It’s not like I’ve never had dinner with academics. It’s just, you know, Oxford. Had I gone in with any assumptions about probable topics of conversation, they would have involved a discussion of neo-Platonism, arguments about Rousseau and a lecture on transfinite infinities, not how much of a shame it was that Firefly was cancelled. (Which, totally, it was.)

We also discussed the hibernation rituals of tortoises and the appointment of an executive committee to choose a name for the college’s new kitten. Seriously, on both counts. The logician Toby was there to see has three pet tortoises, one of whom is called Xeno. Apparently, once they start trying to hibernate by digging into the garden, they are gathered up, shelved in an old refridgerator in the garage and left alone for five months, to eventually awaken from their prolonged stasis without having lost so much as an ounce of body fat. There was absolute certainty on this last point, as they are weighed before going into the fridge, and then again on removal. As for the kitten, some of the students have taken to calling him Socrates, but as some of the academics were concerned as to whether they might dislike his eventual, official name, steps have been taken to ensure that it will be chosen from a short list pre-approved by the faculty. Neither is Socrates the first ever resident cat: the previous incumbent had no sense of direction, the Dean said, and was frequently getting lost in the pharmacology department, which was far enough away that money was regularly spent putting him in a taxi back to the college.

So, Oxford. Beautiful place!

*blaring of trumpets*

Solace and Grief

Walking home through Bristol last night after Friday drinks with philosophers, Toby and I had occasion to stop by the waterside and eat a late dinner. More specifically, Toby ate while I, having stolen some of his hot chips, wandered over to say hello to a very patient police horse. His female rider was keeping him at a standstill near where we were sitting, chatting to her three male colleagues, all of whom were on foot. Given that this was a busy part of town at a busy time of night, there was a near-constant stream of civilians wandering past, most of whom stopped to give the horse, whose name was Imperial, a pat on the neck or nose.

As I walked up, two young men in hoodies were doing just this – or rather, one of them was. The other was keeping a nervous distance, fists clenching and unclenching as he bounced on the balls of his feet, clearly wanting to be off. The policemen were teasing him about this, which he took in good humour, but not for the reason I first thought. His friend was content to pat the horse, chatting to the policewoman rider.

‘Is this Imperial?’ he asked. She confirmed that it was. To my surprise, he then asked after two other police horses by name – apparently, this was their usual beat. The policewoman laughed and said that one of them had a new route, while the other was getting old, with a sore back.

‘Sarge will have a plod ’round on him,’ she said, grinning.

At this point, the man turned to his nervous friend and rolled his eyes.

‘Come on, mate – he’s harmless. Pat the horse!’

‘No!’

‘Bloody hell.’ He shook his head, turning to me. ‘Man’s a soldier, and he’s scared of horses. Thinks they have eyes like sharks.’

‘They do!’ the friend insisted. Nearby, the policemen laughed, and I realised this was what they’d been teasing him about. ‘Can we please go for a drink now? Another drink?’

‘Not until you pat the horse!’

‘You’re soldiers?’ I asked him. He reached up and stroked Imperial’s nose.

‘Yeah, both of us.’

‘Where have you been?’

‘Afghanistan.’

‘Well, that sucks.’

He smiled, a bit sadly. ‘Yeah. It does.’ Then he sighed, indicating his mate. ‘Bloody Afghanistan, and he’s still scared of horses!’

‘Come on,’ I said to the friend, ‘look, he’s perfectly safe. Drunk girls are patting him! I’m patting him! Not so long ago, being a soldier would’ve meant riding one of these!’

His eyes widened, head shaking. ‘No way! He’s all…all huge and hoof-y! He’s bigger than me! Can we please just get another drink?’ This last to his fearless friend.

‘Pat the horse, mate,’ one of the policemen said, ‘and then he’ll buy you the drink.’

The soldier looked between them, still uncertain.

‘Go on,’ his friend said. ‘Face your fears.’

He looked at the policewoman rider, and at me.

‘I’ll get bitten.’

‘You’ve got more chance of being bitten by a dog,’ I said, ‘and those are much smaller.’

‘Here,’ said the rider, tapping Imperial’s shoulder, ‘pat him here. Even if he wanted, he couldn’t reach to bite you.’

The soldier closed his eyes, inhaled, opened them again and lunged briefly forwards, arm outstretched to its fullest extent. His fingertips brushed the horse’s shoulder.

Everyone cheered. He grinned, and his mate threw an arm around his shoulder.

‘Come on. I’ll buy you that drink.’

Here’s an uncontroversial statement: different people find different things sexy, just as different people find different things repulsive, outrageous, risque or tawdry. This is why so much of the porn industry nowadays is devoted to kink and specialisation. People are weird, and so, quite often, are our fantasies. It’s a thing.

When I walk into a newsagency and glance at the lads’ magazine section – Zoo and Maxim and so on – I’m usually blinded by a sea of very large bosoms in very small bikinis, hoisted proudly on the torsos of half a dozen tanned and pouting women. These mags are sold over the counter, but while I’m not grossly offended by the sight of mostly bare women, I tend to think the content is more pornographic than not. That’s less a moral judgement than it is a statement of fact: no matter how much skin they may or may not be showing compared to their hardcore counterparts, the models are there to be looked at in a lustful context.

When trying to determine whether something is pornographic, it’s certainly logical to consider why it was created in the first place, and for what audience. In many respects, I’d argue, this is actually more important than what is (or isn’t) on display, but there’s always going to be dissonance between the reaction an image is intended to provoke and the reactions is actually provokes. Because people, as has been mentioned, are weird. We get turned on by weird and unexpected and – sometimes – terrible things. And that’s what throws a spanner in the works when it comes to the current debate on child pornography.

Paedophilia is an awful thing, one that leads to awful crimes and ruined lives. It is a violation of trust and a sexual circumstance in which it is actually impossible for one of the parties to consent, meaning that it should never be condoned or legitimised. We have a social responsibility to protect children from sexual predators. And yet, in trying to do this, we have managed to paint ourselves into a legislative corner, one  in which any image of a child becomes pornographic, regardless of the context in which it was taken.

Because children – and children’s bodies – aren’t the problem. Taking a photo of a child is no more synonomous with making child pornography than being a child is synonomous with being a sexual creature. This is an instance where only two things are capable of making an image pornographic: the perspective of the viewer, which is entirely removed from the original context of the photo, and those disgusting occasions on which an abuser has recorded images of their crime. The latter instance is both vile and undeniably sexualised. But the former is where we hit a snag: because it forces people to be concerned, not with the content of a given picture, but the likelihood that someone will view it in a sexual context.

At the moment, in our zeal to protect children, we are dangerously close to smothering them. It is no longer acceptable to show up to your child’s school sports day and take photos: parents are concerned with how the images might be viewed later. But do we stop the sports day entirely for fear of what perverts on the sidelines might take away in their memories? No: and yet, this is exactly the same logic used to justify the current stance on photographing children. The more we behave as though the general populace cannot be trusted to be in the same room with our children on the offchance of what they might be thinking, the more we buy into the mindset that children need to be locked up, protected, sheltered, kept from the public eye.

On the surface, that might not sound so bad. But take that last sentence and replace the word ‘children’ with the ‘women’, and you have a viable description of the logic behind societies whose female populations are required to stay covered up at all times. Men cannot be trusted in the presence of women, this argument goes: it is futile to pretend otherwise, and much easier to make the women invisible than it is to change the attitudes of the men. This is a mentality which ultimately punnishes those whom it claims to protect, by restricting their actions and, by default, assuming that they exist in a constant sexual context. For many reasons, this is not a perfect analogy, but given our current social struggle to decide how much freedom children should have online, outside the home and in their decision-making, it strikes me that our debate over the definition of child pornography stands as a parallel issue.

Ultimately, we live in a changing world. We worry about online predators grooming or luring children away; we worry about the digial distribution of photos of children, and how our knowledge of their possible misuse might taint our perception of their contents; we worry about stranger danger, and whether it’s better to let our kids walk home by themselves and gain a bit of independence, or whether we should constantly be holding their hand. We are making decisions with the best of intentions, but I also worry that we are approaching things the wrong way. Life will always hold dangers, no matter how effectively we seek to curb them: nothing will ever be entirely safe. With new technology opening up the world in an unprecedented way, our instinct has been to clutch tightly at what we hold most dear, trying to protect it from these new, expanded threats. But the more we grip and shelter, the harder it eventually becomes to let go, and the more difficult it is for children to grow up into confident, capable adults. There is both nobility and necessity in our desire to preserve the sanctity of childhood, but in so doing, we should never forget that childhood is something to eventually be outgrown. The real world never goes away, and the more fearful we are of its dangers, the closer we come to never understanding it at all.

Dollhouse: Season 1

Posted: October 7, 2009 in Critical Hit, UK - 2009

Warning: spoilers and intense geekery.

Hidden underground and spoken of only as urban legend, the Dollhouse, run by Adelle deWitte, is a place of needs and fantasies. Populated by Actives, volunteers whose memories are routinely wiped to allow their brains to be imprinted with new, custom-made personalities, the Dollhouse can provide anything from a hostage negotiator to a dominatrix for any engagement specified by their (extremely wealthy) clients. Kept in a blank, childlike state when not on missions, the Actives are supposed to have no residual personalities – but one doll, Echo (Eliza Dushku), begins to challenge that definition. As FBI Agent Paul Ballard endures the ridicule of his collagues to hunt down the Dollhouse, Echo begins to experience flashbacks to her previous life. What is real purpose of the Dollhouse? What role does the Rossum Corporation play in its operation? And what secrets are hiding in Echo’s past? 

What with one thing and another, I only began watching Season 1 of Dollhouse this week, when our DVD copy arrived. I finished it last night, which meant that my efforts at falling asleep afterwards were thwarted by a strong desire to sit and think about the show. From the moment Dollhouse was announced, it has been the subject of extremely mixed reviews: people both love and hate it, but there’s also a strong middle contingent who like the later episodes, but not the first five, or who are resentful of various elements. One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen centres on the fact that Echo, the protagonist, lacks a personality, making it impossible to care about her development. Given that strong characters are a Joss Whedon hallmark, this has also lead to complaint within the geek community that Whedon has abandoned his strengths, and further, to the opinion that many people are only watching Dollhouse out of loyalty to his earlier work – that is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.

Given that I’m a fan of all those ealier shows, and having been knee-deep in negative press since day one, it’s something of an understatement to say that I’ve brought nerves and tredpidation to Dollhouse. I was braced for it to be awful or melodramatic, perhaps after the fashion of the Jasmine arc on Season 4 of Angel, of which I was not overly enamoured. In accordance with the views of various blogs, I was prepared to endure confused plotlines, bad characterisation, a proliferation of unnecessary detective/cop elements, cheesy sets and untenable ideas – not all at once, of course, because everyone percieves things differently, but I was keeping an open mind as to where the flaws would lie. In short, despite my great affection for Joss Whedon, I had donned the mental equivalent of mourning garb. Watching would be like attending a funeral: there would be moments of great beauty and sadness, but overall, the sense would be one of loss, missed opportunity and things gone wrong.

Instead, I loved every minute of it.

The writing is brilliant – wry, wacky, intelligent and with that subtle thread of poetry I’ve come to expect from Whedon’s work. The sets are beautiful. The acting is brilliant, as is the versatility and range of the actors. Superficially, it’s different from anything Whedon has done before, but the soul of the show is built around questions of identity, moral grey areas, the boundaries of science and the essence of human nature, which, quite arguably, are at the core of all his previous endeavours. In accordance with the universal dictum that nothing is perfect, the fight scenes, though choreographed with a certain savage beauty, are irksome. Unlike the equivalent biffo in Buffy and Angel, their length and extreme violence lack the justification of supernaturally strong protagonists. A better move might have been to borrow from Firefly, where the encounters were short, brutal and tended to result in actual, visible injuries. But as gripes go, disliking the fight scenes is hardly pivotal: what matters are the plot and characterisation, neither of which suffers for having Paul Ballard thrown into one too many tables.

 For me, there is no truth to the assertion that Dollhouse is a major departure for Whedon. Going back to his earlier shows, it’s easy to see a genuine and prolonged fascination with questions of identity, choice, morality and human nature. Looking at Buffy, the show is rife with scenarios designed to make the audience think about who the characters really are. Though its mechanisms are different – robot copies, soulless vampire dopplegangers, split selves, bodyswaps, magical compulsions and spirit possessions all stand in for the mindwipes and personality imprints of Dollhouse - their purpose is the same: to show us the impact of different personas inhabiting the same body. In the Season 4 episode Who Are You, for example, Buffy and rogue slayer faith Faith swap bodies, allowing each to see how the other is nominally treated. By viewing herself from the outside, Faith literally comes face to face with the truth of her own crimes, such that, when she is forced to attack her own body, she lays into it with a vengeance, screaming obscenities, not at Buffy, who she is osentisbly fighting, but at herself. Compare this scene to the end of Omega, the 12th Dollhouse episode, where Echo’s body plays host to an amalgam of every personality imprint she’s ever used, while her original, pre-Dollhouse persona, Caroline, is downloaded into the body of a random girl. Echo tells Caroline that, in signing up for the Dollhouse program, she has effectively abandoned herself: that the person speaking is not a person at all, but only a ‘porch light, waiting for you to come home.’

Angel, too, plays similar games with our notions of identity. In Season 5, Fred’s body is hollowed out and ultimately stolen by the demon Illyria over the course of two episodes, A Hole in the World and Shells. Fred’s soul is destroyed, but Illyria still has access to her memories and can, indeed, mimic her behaviour exactly, forcing a constant evaluation of her own identity. At the same time, Fred’s lover, Wesley, finds himself constantly haunted by the physical presence of the woman he loved. Illyria is drawn to Wesley, and offers to become Fred in order to comfort him, but Wesley refuses: it might be the same body, he says, but Fred’s soul is gone, and anything Illyria offers him is a lie. By contrast, Episode 9 of Dollhouse, A Spy in the House of Love, sees a lonely Adelle trysting secretly with Victor, having fallen in love with one of his imprinted personalities. One poignant scene has Victor suggest the two run away together: Adelle knows this is impossible, but still talks longingly of a world without clocks, where it it just the two of them. The pretense ultimately proves too much for her: by the end of the episode, she orders the beloved personality shelved, all while watching Victor, now in his doll state, walk obliviously by.

It’s harder to make comparisons with Firefly. Not only was it shortlived, but it was also a different sort of show, arguably constituting a greater thematic departure from Buffy and Angel than Dollhouse has done, though certainly not in any negative sense. Even so, the episode Our Mrs Reynolds still manages to provoke questions of identity, when Saffron, ostensibly a naive young woman, stows away on Serenity, claiming to have been married to Mal the night before in payment for the crew ridding her settlement of bandits. As things turn out, ‘Saffron’ is a highly trained conwoman and assassin: her transformation from one persona to another makes for a fantastic twist, but also serves to highlight the difference a change of behaviour makes in our perception of the same person. To all intents and purposes, ‘Saffron’ never existed – like Echo’s personality imprints, she was a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean there’s noting underneath. More generally in Firefly, the technology used to turn River Tam into a psychic is an interesting predecessor to the Dollhouse chair. Both are tools with an immediate, illicit application linked to the murkier, higher purpose of a shadowy organisation: the Rising Sun Corporation in Firefly, and the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse. Given Joss Whedon’s penchant for naming all things with a purpose, the phonetic similarity hardly seems a coincidence.

To my way of thinking, the most powerful Dollhouse episodes in Season 1 are Echoes and Needs (7 and 8, respectively), which recall the very best of Whedon’s not inconsiderable abilities. As part of his continued seeking after identity, a favourite technique has been the addition of some new element, be it magical or chemical, which causes the characters to behave differently. In Echoes, this is a drug which causes a loss of inhibitions: Adelle, Dominic and Topher act like stoned children, while the supposedly immune Actives undergo traumatic flashbacks to events they were meant to have forgotten. In Buffy, there are many equivalent examples to choose from. Chief among these are Band Candy (Season 3), in which a shipment of enchanted chocolate causes the adults of Sunnydale to revert to their teenage personalities; Something Blue (Season 4), where a grieving Willow accidentally lays a series of magical compulsions on her friends; and Tabula Rasa (Season 6), wherein a memory spell backfires, causing every member of the main cast to forget who they are. Angel, too, has similar moments, although these play as direct counterparts to earlier Buffy episodes: Spin the Bottle (Season 4) sees our heroes revert to their teenage selves, while Life of the Party (Season 5) has Lorne in Willow’s shoes, unwittingly causing his friends to take his instructions to their literal extreme.

 There’s a lot of mischief to these episodes, a topsy-turvey examination of the logic behind our actions, and - perhaps more significantly – the fact that our logic changes over time. Remove the guidance of earlier lessons, these stories suggests, and our behaviour certainly alters – but what of our personalities? In her original life as Caroline, Echo was strong, capable, a lateral thinker, compassionate and determined. We are given glimpses of this in flashbacks, but her core behaviours are also evidenced at moments of vulnerability, when the brainwashing of the Dollhouse breaks down and her real personality emerges. The extent of this phenomenon is explored throughout Dollhouse, but particularly in Needs, when several of the Actives are allowed to escape. The purpose of the exercise is to bring them emotional closure: once they find what they want, a sedative in their brains kicks in. They are then retrieved and restored to the Dollhouse, ready to be wiped.

What’s so intriguing about the show is the success with which it juggles the morality of the Dollhouse. We do not hate the sharp, wry Adelle, who runs the house, nor do we depise Topher, the babbling boy genius in charge of the imprint technology. Neither are we comfortable with the practise of what is, essentially, slavery. From flashbacks, we know that Echo signed a contract to spend five years in the Dollhouse, and that she knew exactly what she was getting herself in for. At the same time, we know that Sierra, at least, had no say in the matter, and that Adelle is not beyond turning her enemies into dolls. In at least one instance, we have seen an Active complete their term of service and leave, fully paid and unharmed, despite having no memory of what they’ve done. But this is still not an ideal solution: as Echo/Caroline struggles to assert her personality, it becomes clear that she won’t be whole until all her memories are restored to her – not just the ones she came in with, but knowledge of everything that’s happened to her since then. There are moments of moral clarity, and moments when we know, with absolute certainty, that something is wrong. But between these extremes are many shades of grey, and one which, so far, Whedon is doing an excellent job of exploring.

For all my doubts and preconceptions, I enjoyed every episode of Dollhouse. This is intelligent, challenging television, and an in-depth look at some of Joss Whedon’s most favoured and long-standing themes. I haven’t started Season 2 yet, not having access to it, but if what I’ve seen thus far is anything to go by, we’re in for some clever, moving and thought-provoking narratives – which is exactly what Whedon has always excelled at providing.

Heading just finished Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why vampires, zombies and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but a few) so comparatively underrepresented?

There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies and werewolves exist outside of any specific religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been demonised by and therefore incorporated into many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and nereids are part of Greek mythology;  fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology; and djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.

While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to the reimagining of fantastic creatures for new stories - indeed, they frequently contribute to a rich sense of worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces writers to address the traditional context of (say) angels before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak - rather, it’s a question of associated beliefs. Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon. Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not infer the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf narratives, the fact remains that neither species is an intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it comparatively easy to remove. Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.

Put simply, it is easy to turn vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because they lack concrete allegience to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and recreate dryads as the sole magical species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in bigger, more magical worlds.

What does everyone else think?