Recently, Supernatural aired its 200th episode, and as it was a metafictional episode dealing with fandom, fan fiction, transformative works, and the interaction between show and fandom, it resulted in a rather lengthy review from me, where I explore some of my thoughts on the interaction between Supernatural and its fandom, and the interaction between show and viewer in general. Read the review below; originally published on Blogcritics.
On Tuesday night, Supernatural aired its 200th episode. It’s a landmark that few shows achieve, and many celebrate the achievement with a very special episode (Stargate, for example, made fun of every sci-fi show known to man, including itself). Supernatural chose to celebrate the occasion by doing something that’s become its trademark over the years: a metafictional episode that’s so meta it makes your head hurt.
This time, the meta madness took the form of an all-girls school putting on a Supernatural play (well, after 10 seasons, at least someone clued in the writers that most of the fandom is female. It took a while!) based on the in-canon Carver Edlund books (otherwise known as the Winchester gospels), and adding some of their own….interpretations. After all, Chuck stopped writing after “Swan Song,” so it was up to these fictional fans to tell their own story of events – which apparently includes robots and tentacles.
Conveniently, there’s also a case in the same town that brings the Winchesters there; unsurprisingly, it turns out that the play and the case are related, and not for the first time, the Winchesters run into their own lives, with their usual trademark faces of astonishment mixed with annoyance. It turns out that the play is haunted, and the culprit is Calliope, the Muse, who helps a work of literature be brought to completion, then eats the author (maybe it’s the literary grad student in me, but there was a wry voice of humor in my head whispering “Death of the Author.” Thanks, Barthes). The only way to catch Calliope and defeat her? Well, that requires getting her to show up, and that means putting on the show and believing in with all their heart.
It’s an obvious and transparent culmination to the story: the only way to save the day and defeat the monster is to stage the story, to believe in Supernatural with all of your heart, and to remember everything that made you fall in love with the story in the first place. It means acting the hell out of the story, “putting all the sub in that text,” as Dean puts it, and making the show go on. This episode’s been billed as a “love letter to the fans” for the past few weeks, and it’s obvious why: because it’s not just the show, but the fans’ love of it, that quite literally saves the day. That’s pretty inspiring.
At the same time, though, it wouldn’t be a 200th episode without a celebration of the show itself that we’ve all fallen in love with, and that’s where it all fell apart for me. It didn’t feel like a celebration of the show I had come to love and the community I had come to be a part of. I mean, sure, Robbie Thompson (the show’s resident meta episode writer) got a lot of things right: the fandom’s still lamenting that Adam’s in Hell with a sort of wry humor, the drama teacher’s comment about there being “too much drama” is a pretty perfect description of the Supernatural fandom, and all the monikers the fandom comes up with, from “Samulet” all the ship names such as “Destiel” and “Samstiel” (for the uninitiated, “shipping” the romantic pairing of fictional characters by fans). The episode had some great funny moments – including Thompson taking the mickey out of the show’s own storyline by having the fans react to it and call it really awful fan fiction. And it also had some touching moments: one of the ending scenes, for example, had the entire cast singing a cover of “Carry On Wayward Son” with Sam and Dean watching, visibly touched – and it brought back all those feelings I had as I feel in love with this show and listened to this song on repeat.
And yet, I didn’t see a celebration of what made Supernatural so great and what made me fall head over heels in love with it. I wanted to be moved and touched by this episode, because this show has meant the world to me – but somehow, that show didn’t quite understand what makes it so special. In fact, it seems like the show’s vision of what makes the show so special is “two brothers against the world.” That’s the heart-felt “boy melodrama” moment that Sam and Dean watch towards the end of the episode, as the fictional Sam and Dean drive away together in the Impala, reveling that it’s “the two of us against the world.” The episode itself ends with that exact scene: Sam and Dean driving away together in the Impala, the two of them against the world, as Dean hangs a replica of the Samulet in the mirror. It’s pretty clear: we fell in love with the story of two boys who made their own family.
Except that that’s not what I fell in love with. It’s only a small piece. I didn’t just fall in love with the boys – I fell in love with a story about family, and family “don’t end with blood,” as Bobby said. I fell in love with Castiel and Bobby Singer. I fell in love with Team Free Will taking on the world together – and yet this landmark episode didn’t even include Misha Collins, who plays Castiel. That’s despite the fact that every time the “two brothers against the world” storyline started getting old (notably, seasons three and seven), it was Collins who resuscitated the show. In season seven, when Supernatural tried to go back to the two brothers format and get rid of every other character, ratings plummeted like a roller coaster, before shooting up again when Castiel returned. Both Castiel and Misha have been part of the family for years, with Castiel being so popular that a character originally contracted for a handful of episodes stayed around for six years. And yet, despite Collins’ requests, he didn’t even get to be included in the episode. So much for family.
Sure, the first few seasons were about the Winchesters against the world – and those Winchesters managed to single-handedly start the Apocalypse, which they ended because they branched out on their concept of family, including Bobby and Castiel and Ellen and Jo. At first it was just two brothers fighting monsters – but then the story got so much bigger. I recently rewatched “Lucifer Rising,” which I believe to be one of the masterpieces of Supernatural, and I was reminded all over again what I fell in love with: two brothers and an angel who fought for Free Will and humanity and made an epic story out of it. Dean and Sam and Castiel standing up and rebelling for what they believed in. And I saw so little of that being celebrated in “Fan Fiction.”
And to me, this was indicative of a much larger problem that, as a member of the Supernatural fandom, I’ve felt brewing for a while now: a fundamental disconnect between show and fandom. And this episode? It just felt like a pretty damn heavy reinforcement of that disconnect.
After all, the episode is a pretty thinly veiled allegory of the interaction between show and fandom. There’s the Winchesters, who are writing their own life story, and who represent the writers and producers, and then there’s the fans, who write fan fiction, have their own interpretations, and read into the subtext. And, as Dean says, pretty obviously, towards the middle of the episode: “You have your version, and we have ours.” The message the writers are sending is pretty obvious: it’s okay, fandom. Keep shipping, Keep reading into it. Keep finding that subtext and keep enjoying it. But it’s just subtext. It’s your version – and it’s pretty different from our version.
The problem? It’s that the line between the fandom version and the show is pretty damn messy. It’s that the subtext that the fans can interpret into their own version was intentionally included in the show by the writers, and yet keeps being denied. “Fan Fiction” was full of references to subtextual romance and “shipping,” with the writer/producer of the play itself admitting that they explore the “Destiel subtext” in Act Two. Dean encourages it to save the day: “You keep putting the sub in that text,” he says directly to the actress playing Castiel, encouraging her to play up the “profound bond” between Dean and Castiel. Go for it – as long as you recognize it’s only subtext, of course. Play it up as much as you like – but only because it’s your version, not ours.
But that doesn’t change the fact that our interpretation doesn’t come out of a void; it emerges from the things that the writers intentionally write into the show – and then deny. It doesn’t change the fact that Robbie Thompson tweeted “Destiel isn’t canon?” – and then went on to delete that tweet the day the episode aired. It doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us started shipping Destiel because there are scenes in Supernatural that almost literally came out of The Notebook – and now we’re told that we’re fans with our own “interpretations” of the “subtext.” It doesn’t change the fact that Dean and Cas have the exact same conversation as an explicitly romantic couple on the same show – which makes telling us “we have our version, and you have yours” an incredibly frustrating denial of the romantic aspects that the writers explicitly put into the show (that is, barring the possibility that they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing). The whole dynamic screams some pretty ugly words that I won’t get into – but to summarize, it feels like the episode puts any queer or romantic readings of the show squarely on the fans’ shoulders – without taking responsibility for the mile-long list of romantic TV Tropes in Dean and Cas’ relationship.
It’s all okay, say the writers. Keep shipping. Keep putting the sub in that text – in your version, that is. In the end, it’s pretty much an entire episode dedicated to validating the fans in their fan-fiction writing, in their shipping, and in their interpreting. In the final scene, Chuck Shurley (who everybody decided long ago is God, and is also the writer of the novels about the Winchesters’ lives) comes to the play as the author, and, in answer to “What do you think of our version?” says “Not bad.” Well, that’s pretty validating.
But in the end, that comes as pretty damn condescending. Fans – readers – are going to have their own interpretations no matter what. They’re going to imagine what their favorite characters had for breakfast, fill in the blanks that the author didn’t get in, and wonder about the possibilities, because that’s in the very nature of fiction. That’s how it works. Virgil didn’t need Homer’s permission to write fan fiction about Aeneas, and Milton certainly didn’t ask God for permission to write a twelve-book fan fic about Satan. Thanks for your blessing, Supernatural, but in the end, we really don’t need it. As Barthes put it a while ago, the Author is Dead, and the readers will see the story as they do.
What we’d rather have than this validation that we can have our fan fiction and you can have your story is recognition that there’s a relationship between the two. We’d like you to acknowledge that a lot of us ship Destiel because of the damn romantic scenes that you wrote. We’d like you to recognize that what you push onto us as “reading into the subtext” feels like some pretty damn intentional writing on your part that you just refuse to acknowledge. What I’d like to have, for once, is a meta episode of Supernaturalwhere the fans get something right instead of having “our own version.”
The Supernatural fandom’s pretty evenly divided down the middle right now, with some people loving this episode and some being incredibly disappointed. I’m not sure which camp to be in – because I love Robbie Thompson’s episodes, because he clearly did want to write a love letter to the fans, because it was clearly good natured – but at the same time, I’m really, really tired of the same song and dance of subtextual suggestion and then denial. And the place that leaves me is the same cynicism I’ve had in regard to this show for the past year or so.
Well, it’s been a while.
I may have been rather a delinquent in terms of writing posts on this blog, but fear not, I’ve been consuming copious amounts of media, and do have a rather lengthy list of blog posts that are just waiting a finishing touch before they’ll see the light of day.
My latest show – one of those passing obsessions that’ll flit away as soon as I’ve finished all three seasons, no doubt – is Revenge, about which I want to write a few words today.
Revenge is, quite simply, a genderbent modernization of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Count of Monte Cristo, in case my kind readers require a quick refresher, is pretty much the story of revenge in the Western canon. It’s the tale of Edmond Dantes, who is falsely imprisoned for treason because his “friends” covet his beloved, Mercedes, and/or want to make a name for themselves by betraying him and thus rising through the ranks. Eventually, Dantes escapes, undergoes a transformation into the wealthy and erudite Count of Monte Cristo under the tutelage of a man named Abbe Faria, and returns to wreak revenge on those who wronged him – in dastardly, manipulative ways.
In this modernization, the role of the Count of Monte Cristo is taken on by Emily Thorne, a woman whose family was framed for murder when she was young, and who’s come back to orchestrate her revenge. Though the adaptation is quite loose, there’s some parallels and allusions that are hard to miss. Aside from the very obvious and prominently placed copy of The Count of Monte Cristo on a bookshelf in a scene, there’s Emily Thorne herself – originally Amanda Clarke, she’s changed her name and identity and acquired the wealth and knowledge necessary to orchestrate her enemies’ downfall. She has a mentor named Takeda – her modern day Abbe Faria, and even a beloved she left behind named Jack Porter.
The show itself, as might be evident from its title, Revenge, skips over the beginning and ending of The Count of Monte Cristo (the conspiracy against Emily’s family is told in flashbacks, and the “meaning of life” stuff that makes Dumas’ novel so excellent is passed over as well). Instead, it draws on the meaty middle portion of the novel: the manipulations, skullduggery, backstabbing, and intricate plotting that form the revenge plot itself.
In short, Revenge is, like a large portion of The Count of Monte Cristo, a soap opera, full of plot twists, complicated relationships, and cliffhangers. In fact, what’s interesting is the way that this show modernizes The Count of Monte Cristo’s story of revenge; after all, bringing down a rich CEO or destroying a politician’s career are much more relatable to the modern viewer than revealing a character’s treasonous ties to Napoleon Bonaparte or his role in the French sacking of a Middle Eastern city. I’m a big believer in timeless stories – but I do also believe that sometimes a modernized adaptation can speak loads about the original and put it into perspective – and this is one case where modernizing the story just makes it more interesting.
What I find even more interesting about this show, though, is the “genderbent” part of it. Genderbent is a fandom term that refers to switching the gender of a character on a television show – usually by making certain characters from a largely male cast female. In this case, it is The Count of Monte Cristo himself, the protagonist who’s returned for revenge, who’s transformed into a woman – Emily Thorne.
I actually think this is huge, for the one reason that Emily Thorne isn’t really a hero. She’s an antihero. She’s a character who’s constantly struggling between her dark side (her desire for revenge, her hate and her ruthlessness) and her good side (her conscience, her love for her childhood sweetheart, her friendship with partner Nolan Ross, and the temptation to let go of her revenge and just live happily ever after with someone she loves).
In short, she’s a pretty morally grey character – framing someone for murder one episode and wholeheartedly comforting someone she cares about over the death of their dog the next.
This is huge because women in the media tend to get relegated into one of two camps: the prize/sexy lamp/plot device for the male character, or the villain. They get to be either the innocent victim, or, if they show manipulation, independence, ambition, and (god forbid) sexuality, the irredeemable villain. Male villains get moral grey area and compassion (for an excellent example, see Loki from the Marvel Universe. He’s literally a mass murderer and all the fandom can talk about is how his feelings got hurt. Or look at Crowley from Supernatural. He’s another mass murderer, so why are our protagonists still hanging out with him?) Female villains? Well, those tend to get unceremoniously killed because they can’t have redeeming features. It’s a double standard shared by Hollywood and fandom itself.
And here we have Emily Thorne. She’s hell-bent on revenge. She’s ruthless. She’s manipulative. She’s deadly. She has ruined people’s lives and orchestrated their downfalls. She’s struggling between her quest for revenge and her humanity.
And she’s the main character. We’re supposed to cheer for her.
You know who usually gets to be the antihero who struggles with their good and evil sides, the morally grey character we’re supposed to have compassion for?
Damon Salvatore. Severus Snape. Lucifer. Han Solo. From a certain point of view, Sam and Dean Winchester.They get to be dark, brooding, sexy, and male.
You know who doesn’t get to be the antihero, struggling between their good intentions and their evil actions, who gets to be pinned down into an irredeemably evil role?
Female characters. Like pretty much every single woman on Supernatural.
And here you have a female antihero. A brilliant, manipulative, ruthless woman who is also the protagonist.
In fact, this show seems to turn the Count of Monte Cristo – and its whole gender paradigm – on its head. It’s the revenge-bent protagonist who’s female, while the beloved that this protagonist leaves behind, the beloved that represents love and humanity and conscience? His name is Jack Porter, and he’s a guy, and he really, really doesn’t get to do much except be a foil for Emily.
And it is so, so refreshing to see a female character who has so much evil to her, who has so many crises of conscience and struggles over her humanity – and who’s the female character that we cheer for. It’s so refreshing to get a female character that gets to escape the usual gender paradigm of the media, where women are either victims or irredeemable villains.
So far, I’ve only seen one season of Revenge – but I get the sense that much isn’t going to change. After all, so far Emily Thorne has demonstrated an ability to beat up people twice her size, orchestrate the arrest of an innocent man, trick a businessman into going bankrupt, broken into a countless number of houses and buildings, blackmailed a number of characters, and not gotten caught one single time. Sometimes it’s so refreshing to have a female character who’s actually, like, competent.
I know it’s been a while since I last updated. I’ve got a number of posts in my drafts folder, but, me being the perfectionist that I am, I keep waiting until that moment when the writing has reached the status of perfection (possibly an unreachable goal, and a goal I should work on being less obsessive about). In any case, I wanted to make a quick post to say that I’m still updating this blog, and have a number of posts waiting to see the light of day – including thoughts on Torchwood, Star Trek, and Motor City Comic Con. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, feel free to check out my writing over at Blogcritics or at Den of Geek, where I”ve been posting a number of reviews. One of my reviews has also recently been published on io9 (a fact about which I”m ecstatic!), and since this makes quite a lengthy list of places I’ve been published, you can see them all in a more organized form at my other blog.
While thinking through a new article idea today (about Sherlock Holmes, of course, and yes, I have about five of those), I started thinking about detective fiction, detecting, and the process of reading. While there’s still much thinking to be done before I come to a thesis on that particular topic, I did remember a piece I’d written on the subject a few years ago. I thought it’d be relevant to dig it out and repost it, as I do quite like the piece. It is entitled, as one might surmise…
The Sherlock Holmes Method of Literary Analysis
It was at some point during the twenty-four-hour cycle we call “the day,” and the line between night and morning was becoming just as blurry as the text before my eyes. The play count of several select songs on my iTunes had increased significantly, contributing largely to my feeling of accomplishment, copious amounts of graphite had been left on the pages of a well-worn book in the form of notes and underlining, and I was almost finished with my essay on Wilde’s artistic philosophy as presented in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was in that bleary-eyed state that I went for a stroll through the utterly deserted Hyde Park in Chicago. As a part of my brain wondered whether there was another human being left on the planet – hardly likely, it seemed in that complete and utter emptiness – the rest of it considered how well some of Sherlock Holmes’ statements about crime solving applied to literary study.
Of course, that idea is nothing new. That’s what the whole idea of playing “The Game” is about.
If you don’t know what “The Game” is, allow me to explain.
“The game is afoot!” figures among those famous Sherlockian quotes that pop up ubiquitously along with “elementary” and “you see, but you do not observe.” To Sherlock Holmes, that phrase meant that there was a crime to be solved, a challenge to be faced. To us Sherlockians, the notoriously obsessed, it also means that there’s a mystery to unravel. It means pretending that Sherlock Holmes was real and applying his sleuthing skills to fill in the gaps in the Canon. Gaps such as trying to figure out what happened to Holmes’ cocaine habit after The Final Problem, or finding the location of Watson’s strangely mobile war wound.
But what occurred to me during those early morning hours is that those sleuthing skills apply not simply to speculating about how many times Watson was married (between two and six, depending on whom you ask). They apply to writing the kind of literary criticism that the aforementioned essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray involved.
“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts,” Holmes states in A Scandal in Bohemia.
The above quote embodies the first rule of the study of literature. One does not come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support that thesis in the book. One lets the book speak. Each quote, symbol, image, color, literary reference, each word, really, is one piece of data. All the pieces of data must be weighed and examined. Then (in my case, at least), lots of logorrhea must ensue, during which thoughts become theories and theories are refined and perfected. And then a thesis emerges. Which makes it sound, of course, like throwing a bunch of pieces of data into a brain-machine, cranking it up, and coming out with a thesis. That’s not inaccurate: Holmes is described by Watson as a reasoning machine, and I like to be able to immodestly say that I emulate his methodical process.
But the ability to reason like a machine is not the only important one. In The Sign of Four,Holmes outlines “three qualities necessary for the ideal detective.” They are: “the power of observation, the [power] of deduction, knowledge.” The literary critic is also a sort of detective, searching for Truth (or a publishable thesis, as the case may be), and those three qualities are invaluable.
Observation: to know what to look for, to notice themes and images and be able to pick out the significant phrases from a text. To notice the imagery of light in a text dealing with knowledge, or in a science fiction novel – such as the fire at the end of Frankenstein. Knowledge – the knowledge of what those themes and images mean, of literary history and context and the influence of both upon the text in general, of what the author knew and how that could have influenced him or her. The knowledge that light is a metaphor for knowledge, for example, or that the word “miracle” comes from the Latin word “to look.” Deduction – the ability to apply knowledge to observations and make deductions. To deduce, for example, that Frankenstein’s death in a fire at the end of the novel symbolizes his destruction through knowledge.
All of that makes it sound, of course, as if books have one clear, unarguable message; that each classic contains one Truth that is as impossible to contradict as the results of Sherlock Holmes’ hemoglobin test. Which just really isn’t true. Literature does have wrong answers, I would argue, but it doesn’t have one right answer. It has right answers. It’s the search for those answers, and what they mean to us, that makes literature meaningful. A wonderful teacher once said to me that when you come up with a thesis that applies to a work of literature, it “clicks.” Really, I think this is true. There will be certain theories about literature that will feel “right.” They will feel like the truth, even if it’s the truth of one’s subjective world, and Sherlock Holmes just might have had something to do with finding that truth.
Anyone who’s known me over the past few years can testify to my growing love of science fiction. Though I’d dabbled in the genre previously, it’s only over the last few years that I truly began to realize its potential – and this interest, I think, came to a culmination with my love of Star Trek. It’s what truly revealed to me that science fiction was the literature of ideas, more so, I think, than any other genre.
But, for the longest time, I struggled to understand why this was; to come up with a general, unifying principle for what quality of science fiction gave it the depth and perspicacity to explore ideas and possibilities so well. I began to get a small inkling with Star Trek: The Original Series, and the way it constantly used myth, metaphor, and allegory, such that the story transcended the events of the narrative to reach a greater height of symbolism and allegory that made it meaningful on several levels at once. That’s particularly evident in episodes such as “The Enemy Within,” where a transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves, good and evil. In a Jekyll and Hyde sort of story, the plot itself centers around putting Kirk back together, because he needs both his good and evil sides in order to function; but on another level, it serves as a sort of metaphorical examination of the good and evil in every human being, as a product of our human complexity.
But this, too, I didn’t feel truly capture the possibilities of science fiction, or what made it so good at probing the depths of really complex ideas. Seeing plot as metaphor and allegory is all very well, but it didn’t feel like the full extent of what I was looking for.
Yesterday, I had a bit of a eureka moment. I figured out how science fiction works.
I’m aware that what I’m doing here is reinventing the wheel, so to speak. There’s been a lot of theorizing done on science fiction already, and some preliminary research has led me to find the words – and the theoretical framework – for what I came up with myself. So, this post is not in any way a claim to innovation; it is rather my own attempt to work through these ideas for myself. I’m aware that I have a lot of reading ahead of me on these topics, and I would hazard a guess that much of what I’ll say here will coincide with that reading. Still, I’d like to offer these thoughts for what they are – a simplified version, perhaps, of an already existing theoretical framework. I’d also like to, in keeping with the theme of this blog, apply that theoretical framework to a few of the shows I’m devoting this blog to, as a way to comment on certain episodes as well as to illustrate what I mean.
So…drumroll….the way I conceive of science fiction as working, the fundamental, driving force behind it, is, in my view, the concept of defamiliarization. It likely applies equally well to fantasy, which, along with science fiction, forms a genre I like to call speculative fiction; in fact, I see much of fantasy doing with magic what science fiction does with science and technology, but this is both a point of contention for some people and a bit peripheral to my argument.
Defamiliarization – or, in the original Russian, ostranenie – was a concept first theorized about by a Russian formalist critic named Shklotsky. It is exactly what it sounds like – the process of making the familiar unfamiliar in order to reveal something about it. Of course, Shlotsky himself wasn’t talking about science fiction, and he limited his theory to things like poetry and drama. He was interested in the political possibilities for social critique that this offered, and he focused mostly on things like language and style as ways to make something unfamiliar. But, despite the limited application he seemed to see for these ideas, I think it’s one of the most brilliant concepts in literary theory. Only by taking something that we’re intimately familiar with – so familiar that we can’t really see it and comprehend it for what it is – and making it strange and unfamiliar, portraying it from a different perspective, can we really learn something new. An incredibly simplistic analogy would be the idea that one must step back from a work of art to really see it; however, here it’s not really a process of stepping back so much as fundamentally re-orienting the direction from which one sees the work of art in order to see it in a new way.
Science fiction, I think, expands this possibility of making the familiar unfamiliar so much further than Shklotsky originally envisioned, precisely because the possibilities and tools offered by science fiction to make something unfamiliar range so far beyond things like style and language. Science fiction opens up, literally, a universe (or more) of possibilities. Anything can be made unfamiliar not simply from being described in a different way, but from being portrayed in a completely different setting. Things we’re familiar with on earth can be displaced onto other planets, human characteristics can be projected onto alien races, things like gender, sexuality, and race can become aspects of alien civilizations in order to appear strange or alien, anachronism can about as the civilizations of other planets develop different from ours, and the scope of possibilities – all of time and space – is simply astounding.
That is not to say that “literary fiction” doesn’t have its values (I guess literary fiction is the term for things that aren’t genre fiction, like science fiction and fantasy, but don’t even get me started on categorizing fiction). There’s certainly validity in realistically, believably describing characters, events, and historical (or contemporary settings). An intimate psychological portrait of a character or an incredibly perceptive description of a historical or physical setting can be incredibly revealing, and certainly science fiction, too, strives to be psychologically believable and realistic in its worldbuilding. But, no matter how detailed, and perceptive, and accurate and well-written the stories of literary fiction are, we are going to inevitably be insiders to them. We’re going to come with pre-conceived notions about a historical setting or figure, a culture or nationality, class or race, gender or sexuality or profession, or any number of things. They’re going to come to us attached to current political debates or ideological and political histories that we simply cannot escape.
Science fiction gets rid of that. It offers us a completely new perspective, removing many of our political, social, and cultural preconceptions, because while we can project those prejudices and preconceptions onto the familiar, it’s a lot harder to project them onto the unfamiliar.
For example, a novel such as War and Peace is historically detailed and psychologically intense, and in so doing, reveals things like the nature of war and the structure of society and social relationships. It’s revealing because it’s intensely descriptive and psychologically perceptive, but any reader reading it will still come to the novel with preconceptions – about the Napoleonic Wars (which we’ve all studied in history class), about nineteenth century social institutions, about Russian culture (if one is an American reader), about realism in the Russian novel. We’ll have a certain familiarity with the content and certain categories to think through it – we’ll understand it through the lens of the European history we’ve learned, through our understanding of social institutions, through our conception of how gender was understood in the nineteenth century.
But what science fiction does is remove a lot of those categories and that framework, so that we can think about some of the same issues (for example, the nature of war, or social institutions, or psychology and gender) without the cultural and historical and political baggage that is inevitably going to be attached from setting something in a “real,” familiar world.
The most poignant example I can think of this is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, titled “First Contact” – the episode from which this blog derives both its name and its theme. The episode shows the Enterprise trying to do exactly what the name implies – make first contact with an alien civilization, the Malcorians. They monitor the Malcorians’ media, go undercover to try to understand their culture, and finally, they make contact. The Malcorians are just on the verge of discovering warp travel (which seems to be Star Trek’s criterion for making first contact), and while some parts of their society are excited by the possibility of going out into space and meeting new cultures, there are other factions that are frightened and confused, both by the technology involved and by venturing out into space. We learn that Malcorian culture is founded on the belief that they are superior beings in the galaxy, and naturally there are factions who believe in a better use of resources than venturing into space. Some characters are portrayed fairly steadfastly anti-technology in the first place.
Of course, from the viewer’s perspective, it’s incredibly easy to judge the Malcorians. After all, we’re invested in watching a show that’s about “going where no one has gone before.” We’re emotionally attached to the concept of exploration and the wonder of discovery and of other civilizations, which Star Trek is based around. Of course we’re going to sympathize with the Enterprise crew rather than the more judgmental opinions of the Malcorians.
But that’s precisely what makes this episode so brilliant – because the Malcorians are a reflection of us. The point takes a while to hit home, but eventually it becomes evident. After all, humanity itself is a pretty self-centered species. It took us until the Renaissance to figure out that the Earth went around the sun – and, consequently, that our little planet was not the center of the universe. It caused a lot of controversy at the time. Even today (and, presumably more so in Roddenberry’s day), there are still people (even in countries with access to very good education) that insist that the Earth does not go around the sun. In my experience living in the United States, that’s more true, perhaps, than in other countries; despite out much-lauded first amendment, our culture is still pervaded with religion and anti-scientific rhetoric. We’re constantly arguing about how much money we should give to NASA. There’s a very American belief that we’re the best country in the world (despite statistics to the contrary), and if we did go to space we’d presumably carry that belief with us. The first thing we did when landing on the moon, after all, is stick an American flag there. We’re used to conceiving of ourselves as the only beings in the galaxy, of our planet as the be-all and end-all. Which really kind of makes me shudder about what would happen if we ever did meet an alien civilization – humanity doesn’t exactly have a good track record with meeting the new cultures they discover.
Which is precisely what makes this episode so effective – this process of defamiliarization. Malcorian culture is fundamentally similar to ours – from the fear and unwillingness to venture out into a universe of which we might not be the center, in some factions, to a love of discovery in other groups of people. And yet, at the same time, the Malcorians are just different enough, just unfamiliar enough, that we feel, to a certain extent, removed. We’ve never heard of the Malcorians. Their appearance is different from ours. Their physiology is different, a point brought home in the beginning, when Malcorian doctors attempt to treat Riker and find his heart “in his digestive tract.” Their technology is different – they’re on the verge of warp capability, which alienates them from us humans in the real world (presumably NASA hasn’t built that warp drive yet) as well as from the humans we’ve come to love in Starfleet. They live on a planet we’ve never seen. In essence, the Malcorians are fundamentally different – and yet not. And that’s what causes this defamiliarization, this double-take when the viewer realizes they’re at the same time familiar and unfamiliar, like us and yet not us.
And, given this unfamiliarity, we can take these issues for what they are, removed from our preconceptions. We can see the issues that plague our humanity while removing all the cultural, religious, and political baggage that such an issue would inevitably raise in our society. The issue of our place in the universe, of humanity venturing out into space, of how we would view alien civilizations – is removed from the problems of how big a budget we can afford to give NASA, or the limitations of Earth’s resources and economy, or the religious rhetoric that’s inevitably going to trickle in when we discuss the nature of the universe. The whole issue that is so important to humanity is addressed, and yet taken completely out of its context, made unfamiliar, so that we can reconceive of the way we see ourselves and address these problems. As a viewer, we’re set up to judge the Malcorians, to some extent, to disagree with the anti-scientific rhetoric of some members of its society and feel pride at their discovery of the warp drive – and then, upon seeing ourselves in the Malcorians, reflect upon ourselves. The episode sets us up to almost judge ourselves, us humans, in the same way we’ve judged this alien civilization, to see our own pride, egotism, fear, and hesitation, and reconceive these flaws and our priorities as a race of beings.
And, hopefully, we become inspired to do better, to venture out into the stars after getting rid of the conception that we’re better than everyone else that might exist in the galaxy. The episode ends with the Malcorians deciding to put off going out into space, to dedicate more money to education, to make the youth of their civilization understand the marvels of science and technology and the possibilities in the universe that lies beyond. And perhaps that’s what this episode is telling the viewer, too, in a more subtle way – that perhaps we should embrace science and technology more, become more open minded, learn about the universe out there from down here on the planet – before we dare venture out. We need to grow up as human beings before we can explore what’s out there, and the episode tells us that precisely by taking everything out of context.
Many of Star Trek’s episodes use precisely this process of defamiliarization to address a variety of issues; this approach pervades the series. This episode is only one of hundreds of examples, perhaps one of the best ones because it’s so relevant to the core themes of Star Trek and how the show affects us as humans. But this approach is evident everywhere – not just in the plots, but also in the characters. For example, each Star Trek series has a non-human character as part of the main cast, a character who reflects our humanity to us precisely by not being human (Spock on TOS, Data on TNG, Seven of Nine on Voyager…). In these characters, our humanity is so often defamiliarized by being projected onto another. Spock, though a logical Vulcan, is constantly attempting to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides, reflecting back to us our own conflicts between reason and emotions. Data, though not human and incapable of feeling, constantly seeks to be human and do what humans do – he dates, creates a child, forms friendships, has sex, and tries to make jokes, all in the name of understanding these aspects of being human. But he comes to them from an outsider’s perspective – in dating, he has to write protocols for his conduct within the relationship; he’s not capable of feeling amusement, and so tries to make jokes though he cannot actually experience the concept of humor; he creates a child by making a copy of his positronic brain because he cannot truly reproduce, but seeks to recreate himself. These things lead us to question why we value all these activities, why they make us human, what it is that we value about them. And, taken out of their context, approached in different ways (such as reproducing through, quite literally, copying one’s brain), it asks us, for example, why we want to reproduce. What is it about our humanity that we want to perpetuate every time we have a child? Why do we laugh? Why do we need humor?
These questions are endless – as endless as the universe itself (which, according to Bill Nye, “fucktuples in size” every second or so), and so is science fiction’s ability to address them.
And now that I’ve briefed you all, do excuse me. I have a distant planet to visit.
There are a number of revered traditions in the Sherlockian community – with its history of more than a century (and with the Baker Street Irregulars now in their seventies) – those traditions have had a long time to accrue. One of those traditions – which I’ve written about often, is that of playing the Game.
Another tradition, which is more relevant to this post, is that of choosing the best article in the Baker Street Journal every year and honoring it with the Morley-Montgomery Award.
I have the great pleasure of announcing that I am the recipient of said award for 2013. This is news that was announced at the Baker Street Weekend and has made its way through Sherlockian circles, as well as those of my friends and family by now, but if any have not heard….yours truly is quite honored.
I also post this again because my winning article, A Study in Scarlet and the Study of Mankind: Sherlock Holmes and Pope’s Study on Man, is now available at the Baker Street Journal website. The article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of the BSJ, but, should you not possess a subscription, the article itself is on sale at the journal’s site for $5. (I have no idea where the money goes, but I presume to some sort of Sherlockian fund, perhaps for next year’s winner).
Obviously, there’s more than three of them in the latest Sherlock epiosde, but a particular three caught my eye – ones that I consider to be slightly more obscure, and slightly more interesting than a simple adaptation of plot or name. Here (a bit belatedly) are my favorite subtle nods to the Canon in this episode.
John’s International Reputation
In the aftermath of John and Sherlock’s stag night, we see the two of them lying drunkenly on the stairs of 221b; Sherlock asks John “do you have an international reputation?” after bragging about his own. John, modest as ever, says that no, of course he doesn’t have an international reputation.
How very wrong he is, and how that made me shout with glee. John “three continents” Watson. The nickname stems from a line in The Sign of Four, where Watson himself says
“In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face…”
And there you have it, ladies and gentleman; John Watson is a player, a lover, a ladies’ man, with experience on three whole continents and, presumably, a number of different nations on each continent. He’s so very modest about it (despite his string of five or so wives, which probably explain everything), but a man who’s slept his way through three continents must have a reputation.
And there, I think, is another subtle nod by Sherlock at the Canon and at John’s supposed reputation.
Sherlock’s a Drama Queen
At least, that’s what Watson thinks. “You’re a drama queen!” he shouts at Sherlock at the climax of “The Sign of Three,” and yet again he’s hit upon the truth.
Throughout the Canon, Watson makes it a point to underline just what a drama queen Sherlock Holmes actually is. Canonically, he really, really can’t resist a dramatic situation: throughout the stories, he stages big, dramatic reveals; in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” he actually sneaks a stolen jewel into the thief’s pocket, tricks the thief to admit that possession of the stone would be incriminating, and then dramatically pulls the aforementioned stone out of his pocket. He spends a whole story putting on an act and pretending to die, parades through the stories in a variety of believable disguises ( clergymen, manual laborers, and women among them), and…oh yes, there was that actual time he “died,” which was also just an act. Watson constantly compares Holmes to “a conjuror performing a trick” (“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”), and, most significantly, he claims “the stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoned, when he became a specialist in crime.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
Sherlock Holmes is, indeed, canonically a drama queen, and I thank John Watson for pointing that fact out.
Or, alternatively, the poor, long-suffering Sherlock’s woes. One of the themes of the Canon (or, at this point, one of the clichés) is that of Watson writing up a case only to have Holmes complain about the “romanticism” in it and all that emotional and unnecessary stuff in the story. Poor Holmes, having Watson tinge his pure science of deduction with feelings. From the very second Holmes story ever published (The Sign of Four), Holmes complains about the way Watson writes up their cases, including their very first one, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes insists that the whole romanticism thing is about as bad as working “an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” but Watson, bless his heart, insists that “the romance was there.”
So when Holmes, during his wedding speech, states several times that “John a romantic,” I think it’s an allusion to more than John’s sentimental tendencies (though it’s that, too). It’s a nod to the canon, and to the fact that Watson does, indeed, tend to see everything through an emotional lens, and that’s how he writes his stories. Sherlock Holmes, even if he feels (and of course he does), tends to view the world through a more rational, and more scientific lens, and that’s of course why these two characters complement each other so well. So, it’s a nod to that, too – the differences between these two people, but also their similarities.
A fun fact: canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ birthday is on the 6th of January.
Of course, it doesn’t actually say this anywhere in the Canon. Nevertheless, we Sherlockians, who have undertaken the challenge of The Great Game, have deduced that Sherlock Holmes’ birthday must be on January 6th.
In honor of this fact, every year in January, Sherlockians from all over the world gather in New York for the Baker Street Irregulars Weekend (which is less a weekend and more like five days of Sherlockian shenanigans). Though the Baker Street Irregulars themselves convene on Friday for a by-invitation-only dinner, the other events are open to all Sherlockians.
This year, for the first time, I have the chance of attending the Weekend. I’ll be flying out tomorrow and staying all the way through Sunday, and in the meantime attempting to fit in as many events as humanely possible. Though it remains to be seen how much free time I’ll have in between running all over Manhattan in the cold, but the plan is to blog my way through the weekend. I won’t be the only one doing so – I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere will doubtless be dedicating a few posts to the weekend. Nevertheless, I, too, plan to make my small contribution to commemorating the weekend with thoughts and reminiscences. If you’re interested, to stay tuned – all my experiences of the Weekend will be posted here in the coming days.
As a final note: I suppose this is not exactly directly related to television itself, though the argument could be made that it is indeed related to a particular television show named Sherlock. Nevertheless, at this point Sherlock Holmes has become such a cultural icon (references to whom seem to exist in every television show ever made, ever), that it seems more than appropriate to blog about this cultural phenomenon here.
Watching Sherlock is often like a scavenger hunt. It’s written by people who are intimately familiar with the Holmes Canon (though I question some of their interpretations of it, such as their opinions on Irene Adler, but that’s a different story), and always manage to add deft little hints and subtle references to the canonical stories in addition to the more glaring references. Watching for them is always an extra layer of enjoyment to the already enjoyable episodes. And, though I suspect that I’m neither the first nor the last person who’s made this kind of post, I thought I’d make a list of (and short commentary on) what I found to be the most interesting nods to the canon in “His Last Vow”.
Charles Augustus Magnussen
This is the fairly obvious reference, but let’s delve into it a little more.
One of the most interesting stories in the Canon is “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” It’s frequently cited as a favorite, and with good reason. It’s a fascinating story in which Watson and Holmes take the law and justice into their own hands: recognizing that blackmailer Milverton cannot be taken down by traditional means, they resolve to break into his home with the intention of stealing back incriminating documents to preserve a lady’s honor. Breaking and entering isn’t all they do, though; they take the law into their hands even further when they end up finding Milverton, a gun being held to his head by a lady he blackmailed (a scene easily recognizable in “His Last Vow” as the scene with Mary Morstan in Magnussen’s office). Instead of intervening, Holmes and Watson watch calmly as he shoots him point-blank, deciding that his death (and her honor) are for the greater good.
The story raises a lot of fascinating questions about the role Sherlock Holmes plays in finding justice. Does he simply seek knowledge and the truth, or is it his duty, in solving cases, to serve justice rather than truth? It’s a thorny problem that becomes most apparent here, and Sherlockians love to debate the morality involved. It’s a problem that also seems to come up in “His Last Vow,” though less glaringly – Holmes clearly shot Magnussen to protect John, Mary, his brother, and the country at large, and yet he committed a murder. (If you’re looking for shades of grey, you’ve found them. Go forth and discuss!)
What’s most fascinating, though, is that the above makes Milverton one of the scariest, deadliest villains in the canon. He even outclasses Moriarty, because Moriarty was a plot device invented by Doyle to kill off Holmes. Moriarty doesn’t really have a personality in the Canon, and it’s only in show that he acquires one, thanks to Moffat, Gatiss, and co. Milverton, however, holds the entirety of British society in the palms of his hands, and he has no qualms about it – to the point where Holmes must take the law into his hands.
So when Sherlock Holmes says “I’ve dealt with murderers…psychopaths….none of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen,” he’s pretty exactly right. Milverton/Magnussen is about as terrifying as Moriarty, if not more. In the canon, Holmes compares him to the devil himself, and I think it’s actual canonical reference, rather than television melodrama, that makes Sherlock describe Magussen in such terrifying terms. He was one scary villain.
Sherlock’s Engagement to Janine
If you thought that was what one might call a “dick move,” you are correct. Sherlock Holmes pretended to date, and then proposed, to Janine for the sake of getting information and breaking into Magnussen’s office. It’s really, really not a nice thing to do.
It’s also completely canonical; in fact, it’s a rather funny scene from the aforementioned Charles Augustus Milverton story:
“You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?”
“You’ll be interested to hear that I’m engaged.”
“My dear fellow! I congrat-“
“To Milverton’s housemaid.”
“Good heavens, Holmes!”
“I wanted information, Watson.”
While the scene itself is quite amusing, one cannot help but pity the poor housemaid, who is not heard from again in the story. Thankfully, in this particular adaptation, Janine is more than a match for Sherlock, and takes her revenge without being too evil about it. Still, Sherlock Holmes has a canonical reputation for being a very unpleasant person when he needs to solve a case or get information, a point clearly made here. Nevertheless, Sherlock also has a capacity to care very deeply about John Watson, despite his not-so-gentlemanly behavior to Janine- another point the episode clearly makes.
Cottage on the Sussex Downs
“I’m buying a cottage,” Janine informs Sherlock as soon as he wakes up from being shot. After a back-and-forth full of quips and insults, Sherlock inquires “where’s the cottage?”
“Sussex Downs. It’s gorgeous. There’s beehives, but I’m getting rid of those.”
It’s an off-hand reference that’s easy to miss, but it’s actually quite clever. In the canon, Sherlock Holmes retires (a rather sad ending for the great detective. I’d have preferred for him to go out with a bang, but that’s me) to the Sussex Downs, where he spends his time keeping bees. Now, I’m now quite sure why this reference came up in this particular context, and it remains to be seen whether this cottage or Janine will show up again, but even if it’s an off-hand reference that will never be returned to again, it’s an interesting one.
When Mary Morstan hands a flash drive with her “real” (well, that’s questionable but let’s assume they’re real) initials on it, they say A.G.R.A. We don’t find out what they stand for (much as we don’t find out very much about Mary at all), but the initials themselves are a reference, once again, to canon. A simple one this time: “The Great Agra Treasure” is a chapter from The Sign of Four, the Holmes novel in which Mary Morstan is introduced (and in which Watson falls in love with and marries her).
The Empty House
“The Adventure of the Empty House” is the story in which Sherlock Holmes returns from the dead. He dresses up as a bookseller, Watson doesn’t recognize him, he shows up at Watson’s place, Watson faints, and then it’s all good…they team up again, and go after Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right-hand man. They lure him out by putting a silhouette of Holmes in the window of 221b, knowing that sharpshooter Moran would be looking for an opportunity to kill Holmes, and observe the events from an empty house across the street from 221b.
If you’re reading that and raising your eyebrows, you’re correct, because almost none of that showed up in any way in the previous two episodes. There was no empty house, and, even more suspiciously, no Moran. Thankfully, said empty house finally shows up in the episode, in the form of a façade hiding train tracks (a clever adaptation, I thought). Inside that empty house is a silhouette that looks like Sherlock Holmes, but actually isn’t; this time, it’s meant to lure out Mary Morstan.
Given these similarities to “The Empty House,” though, there’s one thing missing: Moran. Canonically, we know he’s a sharpshooter, and quite deadly – rather like Mary, who manages to toss a coin into the air and shoot it accurately. Coincidence? I think not. My personal theory is that Mary Morstan is indeed Sebastian Moran, but that, like so much other theorizing, is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, this episode finally touches on many of the canonical aspects of Sherlock’s return, and I’m glad of it.
Sherlock’s (lack of a) drug habit
Edit: it’s been brought to my attention that many viewers consider that Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, back to doing drugs in this episode. I must, respectfully, disagree – my interpretation of the episode is precisely that Sherlock Holmes has not returned to his habit, a fact I find significant, and which – given the conflicting interpretations – I think it may be interesting to delve into.
Early on in the episode, we find Sherlock Holmes in a den of druggies, presumably high, though he insists that he’s working on a case. John and Mycroft are both angry but unsurprised- after all, Sherlock’s drug habit is canonical: in the second Holmes novel, he calmly injects himself with a “seven percent solution” of cocaine while Watson off-handedly asks “what is it today, cocaine or morphine?” That drug habit is something Sherlock also references, most notably with the drugs bust and “three patch problem” of A Study in Pink.
However, there are a few aspects that make me think Sherlock Holmes is not on drugs. There’s the fact that they can’t find any in his apartment (for the big secret he’s hiding in his bedroom is Janine). Most importantly, though, Sherlock has a canonical tendency to do drugs when he’s bored because there’s no case. It’s something Sherlock himself admits to in this very episode: he solves cases “as an alternative to getting high.” Now, in this case, he is on a case. He’s after Magnussen – making it, to me, unlikely he’d be doing much more than smoking a cigarette. Plus, the whole idea was to make project the image of a druggie in order to make Magnussen underestimate him – hence, actually being high and impeding his ability to think seems pretty counterproductive. Of course, there’s also the scene with Molly, which to me seems a little ambiguous – I can’t quite make out the tone in which she says “clean.” Admittedly, she’s angry and slaps him -but Molly also has a history of being in on a lot of Sherlock’s elaborate schemes, and I find it more than plausible that she wanted everyone to believe Sherlock was on drugs (John included, because apparently John can’t be trusted with…well, anything).
Why do I think that’s interesting? Because, canonically, Sherlock Holmes’ drug habit disappears during the Great Hiatus. When Watson first meets Holmes in the canon, Holmes is doing drugs left and right (this was legal back in the Victorian period). It takes Watson a while to catch on, and he sort of informs Holmes off-handedly how harmful it is, but doesn’t really worry about it too much. Then Holmes “dies,” disappears for three years, and comes back completely clean. His drug habit is never mentioned again. It’s just …not there. It’s easy to write that off to Doyle’s absentmindedness, but fans have come up with a number of much more plausible and interesting theories. One of them, detailed in the pastiche “The Seven-Percent Solution,” suggests that Holmes sought help for his drug problem from Freud. Whatever the explanation may be, however, the point remains that Sherlock Holmes’ very famous drug addiction completely (and rather unbelievably) disappears during his “death.” To me, the reference here is that everyone seems to expect Sherlock to be continuing his drug habit – the people closest to him included. But if you look closely (to me, at least) – that drug habit is gone. Sherlock’s different.
The East Wind
In John and Sherlock’s final scene, Sherlock tells John “the east wind takes us all in the end.” It’s a phrase he mentioned earlier in the episode, and he explains that it’s from a story Mycroft used to tell him:
“The east wind…this terrifying force that lays waste to all in its path…seeks out the unworthy and plucks them from the Earth.”
This sounds like it comes out of nowhere, but, like so many other things in this episode, it’s yet another canonical reference – this time to “His Last Bow,” the story whose title was transformed into the title of this episode. The story in itself is rather lackluster, but it does feature Sherlock Holmes as an undercover agent among the Germans during World War I, and the general theme of the story is that a new age is coming, a new world. Sherlock Holmes is ready to step into that world, to accept the changes that are coming (and WWI was truly a turning point in European history – a war of a magnitude and a brutality unseen before on European soil).
At the end of the story, Holmes asks Watson, “stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.” (Quite reminiscent of Sherlock’s statement at the end of this episode that it’s likely the first time he’ll ever see John). In the canonical story, Holmes calls Watson “the one fixed point in a changing age,” before poetically going on about the future:
“There’ s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.”
There’s a number of literary explanations to be derived from this reference that are beyond the scope of this post – after all, I’m not here to theorize about what’ll be happening in season four (at least, not yet. That’s to come). Nevertheless, I think it’s telling. We’ve seen so many changes happen over the past few seasons, including changes to the character of Sherlock himself, and I think we’ll see even more transformations coming. (Incidentally, that’s why I don’t believe Moriarty is actually back, despite what the cliffhanger says. I think what’s coming is some kind of change that we couldn’t even begin to predict, to the story and the characters).
There’s likely a number of other interesting references here and there throughout the episode, but these are both the ones that come to mind and the ones that I find most interesting from a literary point of view.