Non-spoilery thoughts on current Doctor Who

I’ve read some valid criticisms of Doctor Who‘s currently airing season. The two episodes we’ve seen, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon” both have significant plot holes. Yet I find I am loving these two episodes more than I did almost anything in the previous season.

I agree with the plot holes that others have pointed out. And I’m trying to figure out why they largely don’t matter to me. I think it’s because I watch Doctor Who to get a feeling. And as long as I have that feeling, I don’t care what is happening on the screen.

So, Sigrid, what feeling is that, and how is it being generated by Doctor Who?

Vague descriptions of character interactions of the current season follow, with no plot specifics.

Doctor Who is a tragedy in the classic Aristotelian sense.

“The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics. He defines tragedy as ‘the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself.’ He continues, ‘Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments, and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression.’ The writer presents ‘incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to interpet its catharsis of such of such emotions’ (by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action).” (source CUNY Brooklyn English Department)

The course of The Doctor as we see it is tragic in this sense. He is a person of renowned and superior attainments. His fortunes, however often he triumphs in specific moments, are and have been a reversal or downward slide over many long periods of his life. He is alone, his people are dead, and the mistakes he has made in his life are vast, far-reaching, with galactic consequences. The plots have great magnitude; the stakes are always high. The stories arouse fear — great whacking amounts of fear, if you’re me — and pity. I pity The Doctor. I also pity his Companions. At the far end of every wonderful and successful adventure is a waiting end. Eventually, that specific Companion will no longer be there. Even in the rare cases whereupon the Companion leaves voluntarily and happily, a great sense of loss is felt by all parties. And the Companions don’t leave in that state very often.

I really, really like this particular Whovian form of tragedy. I get that catharsis at the end of the stories. Everything was terrifying and tragic, death and despair were all about, and then somehow The Doctor and his Companions pull out a save. I can live with the saves being so flimsy and jury-rigged as to be a nigh-literal deus ex machina. What I want is that child-like feeling of relief.

This is, after all, supposedly a children’s show. The Doctor is a parent. All-powerful, all-knowing, inexplicable, callous, ever-present yet unseen, reigning wrath and safety down in equal measure. He’s a sort of parent I hope to never be, yet I cannot ever know how my parental reign is viewed by my children. The Doctor doesn’t explain, he ACTS, and at the end you are warm and safe and ready for another adventure.

I crave those moments when The Doctor stands up straight, looking sad and noble and grimly determined, and casts yet another villain into the fate they have inadvertently wrought for themselves. I live for those moments when The Doctor effectively says, “if you weren’t a homicidal jackass you would not BE in this position, but you are and you are getting what you deserve.” Yet I also live for the moments when The Doctor is frightening, alien, and cruel. Because he is. Because what he is, what he does, is jerk everyone around. Best intentions, sure, but he leaves wrack and ruin in his wake. I never, ever, ever, want to heard the TARDIS. I like my life, I love my family and my children, and if I hear the TARDIS it means horror and death are right behind. I loved the Matt Smith Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” because it shows The Doctor at his most interferey and callous. He is doing it for the greater good, yes, certainly. But he is still re-writing a man’s life without that man’s consent. The hubris of it all is measureless.

And that’s The Doctor. I grin when he tells the villain that they have no idea how much trouble they are in now that The Doctor is angry. but I shudder, too. Because that much power in one man is … unconscionable.

I am liking the current season because Rory and River appear to be aware of this. They are willing Companions, yes. They love and respect The Doctor and are on his side. But they both understand he is a trainwreck in their lives. They are both perfectly aware that he will destroy them, by sheer accident, simply because he is there. And they are choosing, eyes open and understanding, to continue.

This, to me, is the true heart of the Doctor Who tragedy. All these smart, wonderful, vibrant people who are riding with Phaeton in Apollo’s chariot to devastation, of their own choosing. And this is why the current season is working for me despite the plot holes, why it’s working for me far better than last season. I never got the sense, last season, that Amy Pond ever really understood what was happening to her. I never comprehended her motives, she seemed a sort of black-box of Girl Adventuress. This season — so far — I have Rory and River. And they walk willingly forward into tragedy. I’m a sucker for that. And, who knows? Maybe Amy Pond will grow on me.

So, I’m optimistic so far. Optimistic that I, at least, will get what I love out of Doctor Who. Here’s hoping.

Ke$ha, Team Rocket, and homeschooling

J and I were talking yesterday about cultural literacy. At playgroup on Tuesday, one of the kids asked what this gully in the woods was, and J replied it was where the old trolley line used to run, and the kid asked, “what’s a trolley?” Now, the child in question is, I think, six years old, and “trolley” is not an everyday word or concept. But it started J, and then myself when we talked about it, to thinking.

There is no worthless information.

I just seconds ago, saw on Twitter that someone purchased some of Justin Bieber’s hair for $40,000. You may think this is worthless information. But in my life, in teaching my children about the world, this information is a source of wisdom. It shows that people make poor financial decisions when their emotions are involved. It shows the power of celebrity. It shows, with a bit of explanation from me, that there’s a sucker born every minute and that there always has been. It shows, with a different bit of explanation, how celebrity is changing in the age of the internet. A change, I might note, that is no change at all to my kids. This is their world; they don’t recall the age of mass-broadcast television or radio.

The Bieber hair example is a bit extreme, and I did not actually stop and explain it to the kids or make a teaching point out of it. But while going over the BBC website before breakfast I did have the kids watch a clip, in addition to the news from Libya, about the New York 1970s SoHo art scene. There is no worthless information.

This attitude I have towards knowledge, this is not a value universally held among people I know. It’s not even universally held among homeschoolers. I suspect it is valued more among academics and geeks. I look at the kids I know, the ones who are my kids’ ages, who can’t read yet and I am vaguely horrified. It’s not that they are behind in any sense. I mean, in a typical school curriculum in the U.S. first and second grades are spent learning to read. This is normal, acceptable, and on-track. It’s that they are wasting valuable reading years. Think of all the books going UNREAD.

It’s not just books, though, that hold information. There’s music — classical, pop, musicals, whatever. There’s movies and television — documentaries, sure, but also Disney and Gnomeo and Juliet or Spy Kids. All of these things, if they provide no other information whatsoever, can be an example of what NOT to do or say.

For example, last night on the way back from circus class we were listening to the kids’ most recent pop music playlist. I make these playlists on my Zune and we listen to them when I drive them around. This particular mix had Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R.” After listening to it three times at K’s request, M said, “the people in this club are kind of like Team Rocket, aren’t they?”

I nearly did a fist-pump of joy.

Team Rocket, for those not immersed in the world of Pokemon, are a Pokemon crime syndicate. They are self-absorbed, stylish, ruthless, arrogant, and goal-oriented. They are also an attractive sort of bad guy, with good clothes and hair — they are more mature, or they try to be.

The gist of the Ke$ha song is that the people in the bar or club are going to drink and dance as much as they like, uncaring of anyone else’s opinions or judgment, and refuse to apologize for who and what they are.

“Yes,” I told M. “The people in this song are kind of like Team Rocket.”

There is no worthless information. Recognizing selfish, self-absorbed people, even when they sound interesting and are having a lot of ostensible fun, this is a valuable life skill. My GOODNESS, I wish I had picked it up sooner.

I’m not saying that my kids won’t make poor relationship mistakes in the future, ahahahhahahahha, no, I am not claiming that. But this, this is a start, a step in navigating the extremely complex world of social networks and interactions. Those things are hard, the skills are learned from practice, usually on real people. And if my kids can get an assist from Pokemon and Ke$ha, good for them.

This week’s tv shows

Saturday is the day that I catch up on the previous week’s tv shows, while at work. So yesterday I watched Fringe, 30 Rock, Hellcats, The Vampire Diaries, and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.

I’ve been reading the manga series Nana, and just finished volume seven. And on Twitter yesterday it was proposed that Savannah from Hellcats, Hatchi from Nana, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries should all be roommates and have adventures together. I have a real fondness for this character type — the girl who appears flighty and ditzy, the girl who places a high value on appearing positive and cheerful, the girl who seems trivial, but who then turns out to have a powerful determination and inner strength, far greater than suspected.

I particularly like this character when she’s paired with a female friend who initially seems tough as nails, with goals and determination, who guards herself and looks like she knows who she is and what she wants, but it turns out is emotionally more fragile than she seems and has trouble being strong when her plans go awry. In Hatchi’s case that’s Nana O., for Savannah that’s first Alice and then Marti, and for Caroline — well, she doesn’t actually have that dynamic at the start of the show. Elena sort of fits that part, but not really. I don’t think Elena is fragile in the slightest.

I like this character, and this dynamic, because it show different ways for women to be strong, different ways of being a good friend or a bad one. This character exists within and places value on a conformation to socially approved femininity, and that doesn’t make her less strong. I was thinking about this while watching this week’s 30 Rock, “TGS Hates Women.” The episode is a complex look at feminism and the entertainment industry, summarized here by Sady Doyle. But the part that is relevant to Hellcats is, there’s clearly more than one way to be a woman, a feminist, to be strong. Which also came up in the most recent Spartacus: Gods of the Arena episode, as Lucretia finally revealed what I suspected all along — namely that she is completely ruthless, really smart, and can play a long game.

The twin and conflicting obligations of friendship are in all of the shows I’ve mentioned — to support your friend in reaching their goals and to be happy for them, while also calling them out when they are screwing up. The tension between those things, the different choices the characters make, and how they all live with the consequences is a great story engine. Hellcats in particular does a great job with this. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.

After the Hero’s Journey

Tiger Beatdown has a post up about Joan of Arc, and bravery, and what Joan is a saint of, and those who run towards the gunshots. This is fitting in very well with a conversation I was having with Caroline about a type of story and character exemplified by a phrase from the tv show The Wire. That phrase is, “giving a fuck when it is not your job to give a fuck.”

I like that sort of story quite a bit. A story about a character who is not involved in whatever bad thing is happening, who has the opportunity and the perfect excuse to walk away but chooses, instead, to give a fuck. I think, on reflection, this is why I like Doctor Who. The Doctor as I best know him — Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh — has made a career out of stepping into things he could just as easily leave behind. This is also why I like superhero stories. Superheroes are largely people who have chosen to make a career out of stepping into other people’s problems and doing what they can to help. I like those sorts of people.

It’s not the same thing as altruism. Altruism, I am suspicious of altruism. I prefer it when I can see that a stranger’s kind actions are motivated by self-interest. I feel I can rely on your self-interest more than I can on your altruistic whim. The GaF sort of people are not doing this because they love others so much. They do it because they need to feel good about themselves, and this is the way they accomplish that. The cops on The Wire need to think of themselves as po-leece. It’s how they get through the day. And part of being police is stepping into other people’s messes. The Doctor interferes because he feels guilty and responsible and interfering mitigates that. He also derives a sense of victory, of skill and mastery, from defeating others. And he gets companionship from those he saves. Superheroes are motivated by a variety of reasons, but part of designing the character is coming up with why they do it.

It’s knight-errantry, is what it is, and I like those stories. But the GaF character and story also goes a certain distance towards solving, or lessening, the Protagonist Problem.

I can’t remember where I read about this, probably on LiveJournal somewhere. The gist of the Protagonist Problem is this: If you base your story on the Hero’s Journey, then every supporting character in your story is really there only as a prop or obstacle in relation to the Hero. So how do you make complex supporting characters? The corollary to the Protagonist Problem, and the reason it interests me, is that the vast majority of protagonists in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books are straight white men. So all the women, people of color, glbts, children, elderly, and disabled are, if they appear in the story at all, props filling a role in someone else’s story. How do we fix this?

One commonly suggested solution is to make the protagonist something other than a straight white able-bodied young man. This tactic is valid and I endorse it. But it doesn’t always fit the story. Another approach is the GaF story. The GaF story isn’t necessarily about the protagonist’s journey. It can be about the community the protagonist enters. It can be about a web of relationships, about the tug of conflicting loyalties and demands. The GaF story can, in fact, almost completely ignore the heroic protagonist and tell the story of the people affected by his or her actions.

Greg Rucka’s Gotham Central is a GaF story on a number of levels. On one level it’s about cops, people who have chosen a profession that requires them to insert themselves into other people’s problems. On another level it’s the story of the community that suffers and benefits from superhero interference. And on a third level it’s the story of the network of relationships the cops have with each other, and how they are constantly balancing their desire to give a fuck about each other with their desire to respect each other’s privacy and autonomy.

Of course Gotham Central has protagonists. And there are character arcs, and possibly even a Hero’s Journey for some of the cops, if you squint and look hard. But the comic is not about growth and change; it’s about keeping on, about living every day, about small victories and medium defeats. It’s a comic about endurance, not accomplishment. It’s a comic for grown-ups who have figured out that they are not on a Hero’s Journey. No one is going to make them king.

But that’s the wonderful, lovely thing about the GaF stories — you don’t need a journey towards Super Specialness to be a hero to someone. You don’t need to have purple eyes, or a magic ring, or a mysterious
birthright.

This may seem to be an odd thing to say about a story type that I claim to find in superhero fiction. But while I did start reading superhero comics for the special powers, I no longer find that the powers and specialness are what I need out of the genre. I don’t read X-Men to find out how someday I will find the group of people who truly understands and appreciates how special and powerful I am, and how the things that made me weird and freakish are actually good. I read that story — I needed that story — when I was a teenager. But these days I read the story of a group of people who continually choose to attempt to do good in the world when they have every reason to leave it behind. I read and love Batgirl, and Birds of Prey, and New Avengers. What I love about these books isn’t the superpowers. It the choices. These are the people who run towards the gunshots.

All you need to be a hero, in these stories, is to give a fuck about somebody else when you could just as easily walk away.

Unplumbed steampunk depths

When I look at the steampunk stories that are out there, I think that we are nowhere near through mining this genre for what it can tell us about ourselves. There is so much more to it than airships and railroads. History is always weirder and more complicated than you think.

1. Everyone knows that the Victorian Era was awash in new technologies. Steam engines, telegraphs, phonographs, the mechanization of industries. But it was also an era of intense scientific belief in what was then referred to as Other Powers. Spirits, souls, telepathy, distance viewing, remote healing, and a host of paranormal and supernatural phenomenon.

People believed in these things because it made scientific sense to do so. After all, the principles of electromagnetism were not fully understood, yet telegraphy worked. People could communicate across the globe in minutes. It was a breathtaking example of either man’s mastery of nature or of the wonder of the Creator’s divine world, take your pick. Scientists could manipulate metal rods from a distance — who was to say that they could not manipulate the organs of the body in a similar manner?

The same unknown vistas of science and technology that give us the steampunk tales of airship wars and mechanical men gave the Victorians themselves tales of communication with the dead and the power of mesmerism. It was all science, and at the same time it was all faith. The Victorians believed that science was enabling them to participate in the mysteries of God’s creation. That God was comforting his creatures when he allowed the souls of the dead to give messages to the living. They believed, and had no real reason to think otherwise, that these messages were delivered to the medium through the electromagnetic waves of the air in the same way a telegraph was sent from one operator to the next. And, as with telegraphy, a skilled operator or medium was better at receiving and sending clear messages than a new or untrained one.

The Free Love movement was a part of this, as was suffrage for women, the abolition of slavery, and temperance. (Yes, free love. Believe me, there is nothing new under the sun. Whatever radical and preposterous ground-breaking social notions Young People think up, someone hundreds of years ago did it first. The technology and means may change but the intention does not. Especially if it has anything to do with sex, drugs, or killing.) All of these things were based in a melange of religious fervor and scientific support. It was God’s will that human beings should improve themselves, to be as close to holy as was possible for base flesh. Therefore humans should all strive to perfect themselves internally and in their relationships with others. It made sense to not artificially restrict such divine emotions as Love — such restrictions led to a smothering of natural feeling and stifled God’s intentions, you see.

I could go on.

2. It has been pointed out by others (and I don’t recall where I read this and therefore cannot quote the person directly, but the idea is not original to me) that the Gilded Age in America (corresponding to the late Victorian Era in England) bears a strong resemblance to our current time. Intense religious fervor. An enormous and growing divide between those with wealth and those without. Questions about the role of expanding empire. Fear of and reliance on the press. Despising and attacking immigrants for their foreign-ness and strange religious practices. A sense that everything is changing too fast. These stories of steampunk are relevant to us, here and now, in ways I think the detractors miss. Fantasy and science fiction have always used the tongs of other worlds and time to address the complicated issues of the day. These particular tongs are well-suited to our current situation, as contract workers in Qatar and Abu Dhabi live in abject squalor while building magnificent paens to wealth and power.

3. There is a whole world out there, you know.

While England was being England, and New York was being New York, the rest of the world was also a part of the late 1800s. Britain conquered and then held The Raj. The wars against and genocide of the Native Americans took place in North America. King Leopold of Belgium held the Congo as his personal rubber plantation. Africa was divided among European colonial powers. The Boer Wars. The Boxer Rebellion. The Great Game for Central Asia. The Russo-Japanese war and the Sino-Russian war and the Sino-Japanese war. The mapping of the source of the Nile. The search for the headwaters of the Amazon.

If the theme of the late Victorian era is “Europeans got EVERYWHERE, oh my god,” then what of the places they got to? The people they encountered in the Punjab and in Brazil were not idiots — they tried to take everything they could from the Europeans. They tried to learn everything they could for the betterment of their countries and peoples. Other lands hungered for the power of European guns and the perceived power of European religion.

In conclusion, I’ll say it again. History is weirder and more complicated than you think. But throughout it, people are still people. They aren’t stupider than people today, nor are they smarter. They aren’t more or less venal. They aren’t more or less sexual. There is so much more to get out of the late Victorian era than goggles — though, don’t misunderstand me, I love the goggles, and own a pair. It was a chaotic, fervid, rapidly-changing time in which everything seemed uncertain and humanity was determined to make the world anew. Whether a Raj in Sind or a poppy farmer along the Yangtse or a rubber harvester on the Congo or a Bostonian blue-stocking, all of these people saw the world unfolding in strange and terrible ways. Ways that they sought to comprehend and control with whatever new tools science and faith gave them.

The steampunk world is vast and wonderful, and I cannot wait to see what happens in it next.

High-functioning sociopath

I watched the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” of the new Sherlock Holmes series Sherlock on the PBS website yesterday. The show is well-made, I like the technical quirks of updating it, I like the actors, and the cinematography is good. I look forward to seeing half-recognized actors from other British shows appearing in upcoming episodes.

I do love a good Holmes.

I was thinking about this, pondering it. Why on earth do I like this guy? I think the biggest part of it is that I really, truly met Holmes via Laurie King’s series of Holmes-Russell books. The first, Beekeeper’s Apprentice, introduces us to a retired Holmes in the early 1900s, and to the original and entirely captivating (to me) character of Mary Russell. The two form a partnership in detecting, and their adventures and relationship are the subject of the rest of the series.

In the Beekeeper series, Holmes is a cantakerous man, set in his ways, a genius who lacks a personal touch. Yet we see him through the eyes of an equally brilliant, equally awkward, equally damaged person, Mary. The books present Holmes as complex and flawed, with value beyond that of his intellect. Certainly, he is an ass, but he recognizes this and makes amends over time.

I think that this rendition of Holmes is always in the back of my mind when I read or see other versions. I think that I, as a viewer or reader, insert that humanity into him regardless of the presentation. So, there’s that. In my head he’s an ass, but he’s an ass with lots of hidden good qualities.

Yet Holmes is not the only ass I like in fiction. I also, for instance, Like Dr. Leitman on Lie To Me. And I think it’s for the same reasons. Both characters are right.

I don’t mean they are good, though they mostly work for law and order and justice. I mean they are Factually Correct. It is a geek social fallacy that social value can be purchased or gained by intellectual superiority. While I try to avoid this sort of thinking, there was a time in my youth when I pined for this to be true. (This was before I met people loads smarter than me.) Yet, though I recognize that Leitman and Holmes are jackasses I never want to meet, I still find them awesome as characters. I sorta wish I could be like them, only better at wielding the power I would have.

Because their gifts really are shown as superpowers, frankly. Leitman’s ability to read micro-expressions is based on a real ability, but the show treats it as telepathy. Ditto Holmes’s ability to detect physical evidence and deduce its meaning. Real skills, made magic. It all amounts to really really REALLY good cold reading. And I have always wished I was better at cold reading.

When I was a kid, a teenager, and a young adult, I was fairly poor at understanding social cues. I pined for someone to just explain to me what the hell was going on, and what I was supposed to do. Just TELL me, I would shriek in my head, instead of playing these stupid GAMES. As an adult, I recognize that the things I thought were games were, in fact, the purpose of the social exchange — assessing status, determining whether further intimacy was desired in the relationship, deciding whether this new person was wanted or unwanted in the social sphere. But I didn’t get that, and when I did get it I wasn’t very good at it.

When I saw people who were good at social interactions, it looked like magic. Normal social skills looked to then-me the way cold reading looks to me now. And I craved for those abilities.

Watching Holmes on Sherlock rekindles that desire on my part to be really really REALLY good at reading people. Except I would use the information better than Holmes, I tell myself in my head. There’s a moment on the show when a character calls Holmes a psychopath. Holmes snaps at the man, “High-functioning sociopath!” and returns to his existing conversation / ranting. I am not certain that high-functioning is a term that rightly applies to sociopathy. (Perhaps it does, I haven’t done research on this.) But if there is such a thing, I would believe that it looks like Holmes. A brilliant man who doesn’t see human emotions and relationships as real. And I wonder, watching the show, whether it is possible to possess the skills Holmes does (or Leitman) and not be an ass. Or a high-functioning sociopath.

Still, I watch the show and my geeky heart is with Holmes. He is right. He knows everything. He is incredibly confident, with an arrogance that is justified. (And how I would love for my own arrogance to be justified.) He can do things that no-one else can. He is special. (And how young-me ached to be Special, in that purple-eyed red-haired magic horse mutant powers Mary Sue way.) And I know (from the Beekeeper books) that Holmes has human thoughts and feelings hidden away, which he will show when the time is right, with the person he trusts, who will be Watson. (And on some level so many of us geeks yearn for the One Person Who Sees Our Value Despite Our Socially Inappropriate Manner and Can Be Trusted With Our Heart.) Sherlock Holmes really is, on some level, my personal geeky-teen wish fulfillment fantasy. No wonder I like it.

I’m looking forward to watching the rest of Sherlock. I think I’ll go order the dvds now.

Not a victim: The Runaways

I recently watched the movie The Runaways. Starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, this movie tells a version of the story of the 1970′s teen all-girl band, The Runaways. The movie was based in large part of the autobiography of singer Cherie Currie (played in the film by Fanning,) and had considerable input and assistance from Joan Jett (played by Stewart.)

The thing about this movie is, there’s no way it could have been more exaggerated than what really happened. I also recently watched the documentary, Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. Directed by Vicki Blue, aka Victory Tischler-Blue, a former bassist from the band, the documentary features Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford — everyone except Joan Jett — discussing in very frank terms what their life as a teenage band was like. As well as the relationship with their manager, Kim Fowley. Fowley himself also appears in the documentary.

That’s the band. From left to right, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Joan Jett. They were between, oh, sixteen and nineteen years old when they played with this lineup. In both the non-fiction and fiction accounts of the early days of the band, everyone recalls Kim Fowley telling them that he would make them famous. He did; they were, and in some circles still are. The Runways changed the face of rock-and-roll. But Fowley’s other promise — that he would look out for them on tour — was not so clearly upheld.

I also recently watched The Runaways while listening to the commentary track. The commentary is provided by Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Joan Jett. They are all, it is clear from the recording, sitting in a room watching the movie together. It’s also clear that this is the first time they’ve seen this cut of the film, and they are not certain whether this will be the theatrical and dvd release or whether more editing is still in progress. The commentary is frank, profane, and fairly intimate. All three women try to explain how they feel about the project, about the band, and about the characters. Now, I’m generally not a really huge fan of actor commentaries because so many of them focus on what was important to the actors on a given day — how late filming went, how uncomfortable the makeup was, how many revisions the script went through. But, while there is some of that on this commentary, there’s also a lot of thoughtful explanation of the meaning and intention of the scenes.

Thoughtful, but not really articulate.

I was impressed with the intelligence of all three women as they discussed the film. Yet none of the three were particularly good as explaining what they were trying to say. I found myself calling out words to them as they fumbled and struggled to express what they meant. I have to say, I wasn’t really surprised by that, though. Jett has always interviewed as someone who would rather let the music speak for her. And Fanning and Stewart are still somewhat young, and both their lives have been largely consumed by careers as child actors. I was pleased to find, though, that neither Fanning nor Stewart come across as dumb — as long as one is willing to overlook Stewart’s near-constant profanity.

That’s Kristen Stewart on the left, and Joan Jett twenty years ago on the right. Stewart pretty clearly idolizes Jett, respects the hell out of her, and was honored and terrified to make the film. It was fascinating, though, listening to the respective reactions Stewart and Jett had to the moments in the film in which the character of Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning who was sitting in the room with them, has sexual relations of various sorts with the much older guys surrounding the band. Stewart gets angrier and angrier over the course of the film, until she shouts at the guy on the screen to get the profanity away from her. She clearly feels that the relationships are wrong. That Currie was taken advantage of, or abused, or lacked the power in the dynamic. Stewart wants to protect the Currie character. Wants to save her.

Jett, on the other hand … Joan Jett was actually romantically and sexually involved with Cherie Currie at the time. The movie, the documentary, and all the autobiographies agree on that. Jett doesn’t talk about it, but she acknowledges it. So, what she is watching, in this room with these two young women, is the character of her ex-girlfriend having sex with these vastly older men. Something that Jett was absolutely aware of at the time. Did she think Currie was being molested? Raped? It doesn’t seem that way, though Jett doesn’t really talk about it much. It’s a long, long time in the past, and none of them stopped it at the time.

Of course, they were all drunk or drugged most of the time. Jett mentions that while cocaine is a much more cinematic drug, “we were all ‘ludes people.” Underage, drunk, and on drugs, their powers of consent were significantly impaired by today’s standards. Consent to the sex, consent to the travel conditions, consent to the interviews and the photo shoots and the performance schedule, consent to any of it. While I watched Edgeplay and The Runaways, I shared Kristen Stewart’s reaction to a lot of it — get the hell away from them. I wanted to stab Kim Fowley every time he went off on one of his abusive, profane, demoralizing, de-humanizing tirades at the girls. I wanted to stab all the roadies who had sex with them and gave them all the drugs they wanted. I wanted, like Stewart so clearly does, to protect them.

Yet none of The Runaways seem to think they needed protection.

Well, maybe Jackie Fox does. Lita Ford wouldn’t have traded any of it for anything else. Sandy West, as much as she felt things could have been better for them, treasured her time in the band and spent the rest of her too-short life attempting to continue a career as a musician. Cherie Currie has managed to make a life for herself with some acting, some performing, and is now a chainsaw artist. She doesn’t hold any grudges, not even against Kim Fowley — who she really doesn’t like.

At the end of the movie, the Kim Fowley character (played by Michael Shannon) says that he expects all the girls to end up pregnant in trailer parks now that they’ve fired him. Joan Jett’s only remark on that was a quiet, vicious, low-voiced, “I showed him.”

None of The Runaways think of themselves as victims. They signed up to be made famous, to be in a world-famous and game-changing rock-and-roll band. They were, and they did, and they accepted the conditions under which they achieved those things — however abusive Stewart and I think those conditions were. Were they victims? Were they collaborators? Or were they autonomous human beings who could make their own clear-eyed choices, however bad I think those choices may have been?

Do you remember being sixteen, seventeen? Do you remember being twenty? Do you think you were making fully autonomous choices as a competent human being? Did you think so at the time?

Would you do it differently now?

Would you, though? Honestly? Without the choices you made then, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Without the choices Jett made, we wouldn’t have Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, we wouldn’t have “Cherry Bomb” or “I Like Playing With Fire.” We likely wouldn’t have a vast amount of Riot-Grrl-style rock. Without the choices Stewart has made, she wouldn’t have the money and fame from Twilight that lets her make Adventureland and The Runaways. Maybe she’ll regret making the Twilight movies in thirty years, but I kind of doubt it. It will be a part of who she is, a part of what brought her to whatever future lies in store. The choices everyone made brought Stewart to getting private guitar lessons from her idol, Joan Jett, on the set of a movie they both dearly wanted to see made. I doubt either of them would unmake those choices.

No plan survives contact

I have no idea what the authorial intention of Simoun is supposed to be. It’s the story of a war taking place on an Earth-like world, where the pilots of the Simoun craft are pairs of virgin girls who have not yet chosen their adult sex. I don’t know the intention of this story. I find the ideas of the gender system fascinating, the implications intriguing. But the execution of it is … fetishized and slightly creepy. Was it supposed to be that way? Am I reading things in that I was not intended to?

In some sense it doesn’t matter. No artistic work survives contact with the audience.

I remember, watching A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was a teenager, the two lessons I got. First, you can always rely on yourself. Second, adults are never to be trusted. This is … not, perhaps, the message intended. At the least, I believe the message was meant to be descriptive of the way the world can sometimes be, not prescriptive of the way it ought to be.

I think about this when I watch my kids reading or watching something. I watch them watching a documentary about the Forbidden City, and I wonder what the hell they re making of all the bits about eunuchs. I watch them watch Pirates of the Caribbean, for the kajillionth time, and I wonder what messages they are taking from this fiction.

I took M to the Theater Nippon anime room at CONvergence this past weekend. We watched, together, random snippets of different anime shows. He loved them all. I don’t know if I should care about the more problematic aspects of the anime — the messages about women’s bodies as objects, for instance. Does he see that? Does he notice it at all? Or is he instead seeing that small people and children have great power, that perseverance and will enable you to do great things?

I know I watch things, read things, and see what I want to see. I have read all of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle three or four times. The story I am reading is about Eliza, with some bits about Jack. I vaguely remember there’s a lot to do with Daniel, when I am reminded of that fact. But the story I am reading is that of Eliza’s journey to conquer Europe in order to end slavery. The plot does not survive contact with the reader.

This, too, is The Doctor

Big Finish Productions recently put out three new Seventh Doctor audioplays. I hadn’t gotten them right away since they didn’t feature Ace or Hex. Instead, the companion on these adventure is Elizabeth Klein, the Nazi scientist featured in the previous audioplay Colditz. (Now infamous for having David Tennant in the cast, playing a Nazi.) I had liked Klein okay, but not enough to rush out for the new adventures.

My mistake.

What I had not realized is that in these plays, Klein is not a willing Companion. Has that happened, before, much? Has The Doctor kidnapped someone who travels with him in resentful false camaraderie, biding their time until escape? The Doctor is . . . extremely sure of himself, when he forces Klein to come along. he is so damn certain that he can make her see his view. What hubris, sir. What titanic hubris.

I love that this, too, is part of The Doctor. I love, treasure, seeing his terrible ideas. When he forgets his own rules — that creatures get to make their own path as long as they don’t commit genocide, damage the timestream, or any number of other exceptions that seemed important at the time … Oh, wait. That’s right. If there are rules, they largely exist at The Doctor’s whim. And most of the time, mostly, that works out to everyone’s advantage. But sometimes, The Doctor is a flaming idiot. He needs that. We, the audience, need that. We need to remember that the soul of the show is the relationship between The Doctor and his Companions, not The Doctor’s infallibility.

(Also, the first story in this trilogy, A Thousand Tiny Wings, is one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-produced Big Finish plays I’ve ever heard.)

Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video

I recently got a few of the Field Notes notebooks, checking them out to see if they’d make decent replacements or additions to my Moleskine notebooks. So far the Field Notes has a significant advantage, which is I can keep one in my back pockets comfortably. I have been keeping a list of things I need to do, ideas for future writing projects, people’s phone numbers, etc. I’d been using the Evernote website and phone app. However, I realized that while I sent myself notes from my phone, I never checked the site again. So, pen and paper it is.

The list is long, my friends. Long.

But at least I am not on the phone with local grocery stores, looking for a specific product, like J currently is. I can hear her in the office as she is trying to explain the product we are looking for.

I have a few deadline-type-things coming up, but before I dive into those projects I wanted to briefly comment on the Lady Gaga video for “Alejandro.”

I’ve seen various people Around The Internets mentioning that there is nothing new in having fetish imagery, religious imagery, or fascist imagery in your videos. Yawn, I have heard people say. Try again, Lady Gaga, they say.

I rather think this is completely missing the point.

What is transgressive about the video for “Alejandro” is that cross-dressing and homosexual behaviors of the male dancers. Women have been making out with each other in music videos for ages. That’s old hat. It takes a video like “Telephone,” with it’s extremes of gender identity, to make women-on-woman sexuality interesting. (I believe that the extremely butch woman in that video identifies as a woman, not as trans or as a man — if I am wrong about that, someone tell me in comments?) But the male dancers in “Alejandro” wear high-heeled shoes, they bottom to Lady Gaga, they simulate fucking each other, they kiss, they wear high-waisted shorts that look like male corsets —

That’s still all pretty damn transgressive.

The sexuality of nearly-naked men in music videos is rarely feminized. I’m having trouble thinking of a single example. Even in Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” to which “Alejandro” keeps getting compared, the male dancers are powerful icons of masculinity. They are slaves of the machine, but they are not getting pegged while wearing high-heels.

The iconography of “Alejandro” is not original. Even the machine-gun bra is homage, not originality. But Lady Gaga is making a point about the object of our collective sexualized gaze. The objects of her sexual actions are the men. They are props in her dance, objects in her meta-narrative point about making music videos.

I also suspect she’s making a point about her own press and hype, about her reputation as a groundbreaking pop star. And I suspect her point is that she knows perfectly well the tradition to which she is indebted, and that she respects the work of those who have come before her. Madonna, David Bowie, Queen, the Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Prince — all the epic music video stars whose efforts helped create an art form.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this video is just a bit lazy. But I think I’m right and that “Alejandro” is far more trangressive than it’s getting credit for.

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