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I admit, the above is possibly the most clickbait-y title I’ve ever used, and it’s a lead-in to some shameless self promotion.
I recently had the opportunity to contribute, alongside a number of other wonderful and erudite Sherlockians, to an anthology called About Sixty: Why Every Sherlock Holmes Story is the Best. I argued for my favorite story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here’s a sneak peak at why this story is not only the “best” (a slippery term), but also, in my view, the most culturally significant:
The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the most famous of Sherlock Holmes stories; it is certainly the most famous novel, and with good reason: if one were to choose a single story that perfectly embodies the cultural significance of Sherlock Holmes, then as well as now, this would be it.
The novel recounts how Watson and Holmes travel to Dartmoor to investigate the mystery of the “Hound of the Baskervilles,” a legend of a fantastic hound that has been reportedly killing members of the Baskerville family, and unearth a murder motivated by the desire for an inheritance. In short, it is a story in which the rational Sherlock Holmes is pitted against the supernatural, in the form of an ancient legend and a familial curse. This trope, or theme, of the ultra-rational Sherlock Holmes confronting the unexplainable supernatural, is one of the most popular in Sherlockian adaptations, pastiches, and retellings, returning again and again in every form and genre conceivable. And unsurprisingly: it gets at the heart of what Sherlock Holmes means, what he stands for.
For the answer as to how and why, though, you’ll have to check out the book. It’s released tomorrow, October 11th, and is available for purchase from Wildside Press. All proceeds go to the Beacon Society, which promotes the teaching of Sherlock Holmes in school, so that we can indoctrinate youths into the lifestyle that is Sherlockiana from an early age.
This is also the first time I’ve been published in a book, rather than a magazine or journal, and it’s also an exciting time for me! I look forward to sharing my thoughts with the world, though I admit, having something go out into the world in print and remain there forever does not come without a bit of trepidation!
Each ship chooses a particular day that is in some way special and memorable in the history of that ship, and that fandom – having to do with how it came into being and what it means. In the case of Star Trek, for example, I recently witnessed “Space Husbands” day a couple of days ago, on the anniversary of the airing of “Amok Time” – the Star Trek episode in which Spock essentially has to have sex and die and then rolls around in the sand with Kirk (no, I’m not kidding). With that kind of homoeroticism (thanks, Theodore Sturgeon!), who can avoid shipping the two?
Well, September 18th is considered by the Supernatural fandom – or at least that contingent of it that loves Dean/Cas – to be Destiel day. It was on September 18th, 2008, that Castiel first walked onto the show and told Dean “I’m the one that gripped you tight and raised you from perdition.” Now, this obviously sounds pretty…suggestive, and their relationship didn’t get any less suggestive after that. Instead, it blossomed and flourished. Dean taught Castiel what it meant to be human, what it’s like to have choice and free will, why people and families and life matters more than paradise. And Castiel taught Dean how to change his worldview, how to trust, how to have faith, and how to believe in himself. The two of them went on a journey from being faithless to having faith, thanks to each other – but not faith in God or some other supreme being that washes his hands of the Apocalypse. They learned to have faith in each other, and together they formed what we call a “profound bond.” They changed each other’s worldview in so many ways, and what else could I ask for in a ship?
I could wax poetic about these two for paragraphs, post many a screencap, analyze the romantic tropes in their relationship, talk about the representation of queer characters, explore how the relationship of these two ties into the themes of the show. Unfortunately, that would take way too long, so my small paragraph of waxing poetic will just have to do as a celebration of the profound bond between an angel and a human. So instead, I’ll leave you with a quote from the first page that comes up when you good “The greatest love story ever told”:
The story of a man afraid of flying, and an angel afraid of falling, who somehow met in the middle. The man who denied the existence of angels came to love one. The angel who never felt began to feel. The man who was saved from an eternity in Hell by an angel. The angel who fell in every way imaginable for a man. The man, with a clear path to escape, decided instead to stay in Purgatory for a year, searching for his angel, praying to him every night. Begging. When he found him, he held him; he told him that he needed him, that he’d get him out, even if it killed them both. The angel rejected his faith, his family, his home, and everything he knew, so he could keep the man safe. They stay together despite fate, despite what they are, because they refuse to be pulled apart.
Yes, that’s the top definition of Greatest Love Story Ever Told on Urban Dictionary. It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google it. I rest my case.
A couple of months ago, I attended a fantastic conference at Cornell University on “Seriality.” The conference was just what it sounds like: academics gathering together to discuss serialized narratives, television, sequels, and any other art, literature, or culture in which we can see “series.” But, as it dawned on me, the conference had a larger theme to it. It was, essentially, a conference on patterns: how and why they exist in the products of the human imagination, and how they regulate the way we relate to the fiction in question. And ever since that conference, I’ve been seeing patterns everywhere.
Partly, that’s because the patterns are there to be seen. From time immemorial, art and storytelling have existed in a variety of serialized formats that suggest such patterns: television shows are obviously serialized, movies constantly spawn sequels, novels used to be published in serialized form, and books today still have chapters or form parts of larger series, photographs and paintings are often done in series (triptychs, paintings of the four seasons, Andy Warhol’s repetitive portraits and other such “series” fill the art museums in Europe), epics are usually made up of “books” of roughly the same number of lines, and myths and fairy tales often repeat the same plot patterns. In short, repetition in a way that is recognizable enough to form a pattern underlies our storytelling, no matter what format it’s in.
The fact that so much storytelling exists in series or patterns, either “real” or perceived, has a very good biological explanation: human beings are wired by evolution to be pattern-seeking animals. This was necessary for us to survive: if there was danger, we needed to be able to notice the pattern of when it occurred and create a pattern of behavior to avoid it. Noticing patterns was beneficial to our survival, and so we notice them when they exist – and often when they don’t. And I think that’s why there’s always patterns and forms of serialization in our narratives – because as beings wired by evolution to find patterns, I think we find it a natural next step to create those patterns ourselves whenever we create art or fiction.
In a larger sense, I think this is part of a human need to put everything into categories as a way to understand the world around us better. We live, after all, in a constantly changing world – and the thing that has ensured our survival, from a scientific point of view, is our ability to adapt. Put another way, it is our ability to mediate between the familiar and the new – and here, patterns help once again. (I have to admit that at this point I’m just extrapolating from what I know of science). As the world changes around us, we create patterns to understand and explain that change. We’re consistently seeking the familiar in the new, by applying familiar patterns to new events – or creating patterns that we can use to explain new events and make them familiar.
In short, to quote Michael Crichton (a new literary favorite of mine) and his brilliant-but-cynical scientist figure Ian Malcolm, life exists on the edge of chaos: we need change or we stagnate and die. But we also need stability, because too much change is dangerous and can kill us because we can’t adapt. In order to survive, we have to live between the familiar and the unfamiliar – in all respects of our lives. Patterns are part of this- they’re literally a way to navigate the thin line on the edge of chaos, the thin line between change and stagnation. Patterns allow us to comprehend the unfamiliar in familiar ways. And even today, in a highly modernized society in which evolution no longer exerts the same pressures, things are still constantly changing; technology, for one, is evolving at an exponential rate. And in that kind of world, we all need something familiar to cling to, and here our reptile brains probably help us out. They give us ways to think about the world, patterns to see (even if those patterns don’t exist in reality). Of course, this has a downside, in that we can form – and cling to- preconceptions about the world that are difficult to let go of.
However, what I find most interesting about this particular topic is how this biological drive, which has ensured our survival, also deeply affects the way we tell stories and create art. Because pattern-seeking was so fundamental to us being selected-for by evolution, it became a fundamental part of our existence – and so even today, we literally need patterns to interact with the world around us.
And that need for patterns, I think, extends to fiction. I mentioned above that part of our pattern-seeking nature involves finding the familiar in the unfamiliar – or creating the familiar in the unfamiliar. This is also the “mantra,” so to speak, of Adaptation Studies – a field of academia which examines the way that stories get adapted into new mediums and in new social and cultural contexts, and the way that social and cultural “pressures” change these stories the way that evolutionary pressures provide change. The study of adaptation, according to Linda Hutcheon’s seminal book, is the study of repetition without replication – or, in other words, the familiar in a different context, or the unfamiliar in a familiar shape.
This balance of familiar and unfamiliar (this fictional edge of chaos, so to speak), exists at every level of narrative. When we write fiction, we expect certain story structures: plot with a rising action, a climax, and a resolution, character development, setting. But we also expect new things: different plots, different resolutions, different characters and settings. Any writer has to strike a delicate balance between giving the reader something (s)he hasn’t seen before (otherwise, the story ends up being a cliché), but familiar enough that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable (it is rather comforting for the reader to be able to place something in a genre, for example; that’s why TV networks aren’t big on picking up shows that aren’t easily classified according to their categories). This also explains movements like modernism and the avant-garde, which seek to upend any notion of the familiar and play with our expectations of literature- for example, books written with words only using the vowel e, entirely blank canvases called art, fiction with no punctuation, Joycian stream-of-consciousness writing. These kinds of artistic experiments only work because we have pre-established expectations of literature in our heads – that is, familiar patterns that we expect from fiction, and which every fiction elaborates on or, in the case of modernism, rejects.
That’s why even my dad, who is a computer programmer and not a literary/humanities person, can often predict the endings of TV shows and movies we watch together. He doesn’t read a lot of books these days because he’s usually so busy inventing computer languages, but, being a software engineer, he thinks in terms of patterns and algorithms. And for him fiction – especially serialized narratives like television – are algorithms, and because he’s watched so much TV and bad action flicks, he can predict the endings because he knows the algorithms. We’re on the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation right now, and I’d guess that he’s predicted the endings of about half the episodes.
In short, once you start looking at literature as something that constantly makes use of patterns, it makes so much more sense. And once you understand the human need for patterns and series, then pretty much any kind of entertainment (including the formulaic and serialized kind) takes on meaning, so that you no longer wonder “why would anyone watch something so boring/repetitive/formulaic?” They watch it because it’s formulaic, and that formula is comfortable. Formulas and patterns make the world make sense- and the same is true of CSI.
In essence, humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and I’m going to take a step forward and say that we don’t just search for patterns- we get a sense of pleasure from finding them. Now, I don’t exactly have scientific proof to back up this latter claim, so it’s just speculation on my part. However, based on my own experiences, as well as the scientific data I have quoted, it seems like the obvious conclusion. If we’re wired by evolution to find patterns, and if, as Ilana pointed out in her talk, some people watch for the formulas, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a certain kind of pleasure derived from discovering the formula and fitting each new episode to one’s understanding of the algorithm that was used to create it.
This is something talked about by Ilana Emmett at the aforementioned conference, who referenced a critic (his name has, alas, slipped through my note) who theorized about the way that television creates patterns. Serialized television is essentially based on patterns and algorithms – especially shows with standalone episodes like crime shows, procedurals, and medical shows. Each episode follows a certain pattern: solving a murder, producing a medical diagnosis, figuring out and killing the “monster of the week.” A lot of these shows – CSI, ER, NCIS – are often written off as “formulaic” – because they are.
But that very formulaic nature is what makes them fascinating from a literary-scientific point of view, because they reveal the way in which our fiction relies on patterns – essentially formulas, hence the description of TV shows as “formulaic– to create viewer investment. In fact, as Ilana mentioned, some people essentially watch for the formulas. Thus, in addition to the pleasure of watching the plot of an episode unfold in itself – i.e. solving the murder along with the on-screen detectives- there is the pleasure of noticing the pattern as you consume more and more episodes. That’s where the investment of a lot of episodic shows comes from: not just the setting, characters, and writing, but also the sense of acquiring and building a pattern through watching multiple episodes. The more episodes you watch, you more clearly you see the pattern, and there is a distinct pleasure in noticing that pattern. For example, about a season into Castle, I realized that the first suspect they talk to is usually the person that did it. This is almost invariable. One would think that this takes away some of the magic, and in a way it does – but in another way, there is a sense of pleasure at “earning” something once one uncovers this formula.
That’s why we watch serialized television – because it gives us the familiar, in terms of characters, but also a familiar plot formula – but changes it just enough each week to feel fresh and interesting. Repetition without replication, indeed- repeat something enough that a formula can be found, but do not replicate it lest boredom ensues. So much of television is serialized in an episodic way (i.e., each episode works as a “standalone” and episodes can be watched in any order) because the distinct pleasure is in watching this large number of short stories, each of which follows a specific pattern, and finding that pattern. That’s why the word “formulaic” is not necessary derogatory when applies to fiction – formulaic is precisely what it aims for, when fiction is looked at the right way. Literature needs to be formulaic to a certain extent in order to be successful – because as human beings ,we need that sense of the familiar, of a pattern, in order to derive pleasure from fiction.
This post has used an approach to fiction that combines literary analysis with, essentially, neuroscience – two fields that aren’t exactly combined very often. As I’ll write about in an upcoming post, I think combining science and the humanities in ways like this could be immensely productive in academia, and I’d like to see it explored more.
I’ve made it no secret that, since relocating to Philadelphia, I haven’t been the biggest fan of the city. But there is one place in this wannabe Metropolis that is my paradise, my guilty pleasure: f.y.e., or, as I call it, the Geek Emporium. It’s stuffed full of DVDs and Blu-Rays of my favorite TV shows, soundtracks, action figures, posters, decals, and all sorts of other geeky crap that just makes you want to spend all your money because they have all your favorite geeky stuff. The best part? They have used DVDs and excellent sales on them, so that I”m slowly accumulating a collection of my favorite TV shows.
And that, my friends, is why I have not been posting (well, that and the horror and hell that is graduate school). I’ve been binge watching everything, because there is just so much amazing stuff out there. But, as I’ve been spending time at the Geek Emporium or streaming on Amazon, I find myself confronted with questions that I”m sure have been written about endlessly ever since streaming sites came about:
Is it worth buying DVDs or Blu-Rays in the first place, when almost everything can be watched via streaming on Netflix or Hulu? Should I purchase DVDs for those few shows that aren’t on streaming sites, or for those rare times when I don’t have internet access? Having a DVD collection is difficult for someone who travels so much, so should I buy new copies with digital versions rather than used copies that require me to physically carry DVDs everywhere? And most importantly, what is the hype about Blu-Rays and why can’t I stick with good old DVDs? Am I going to have to update my DVD collection in 10 years because my Blu-Ray player won’t read DVDs? In short, with all the myriad ways to watch your favorite TV shows, which is the most rational and cost effective from a purely logical and economic point of view? (Am I overthinking this? Should I just buy shows I enjoy?)
That, my friends, is the dilemma for today. Keep your fingers crossed for me as I finish up the semester, after which I promise a whole onslaught of new posts about a dozen different shows that I’ve binge-watched in the attempts to get through grad school. I have lots of ideas and lots of thoughts on what Foucault said about power and sexuality, and I hope to use the summer to relax, watch more shows, and write up all those thoughts that grad school doesn’t leave me time for.
It’s, as usual, been a while since my last post. In the past few months, I”ve had the good fortune to begin graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, which has been amazing, rewarding, educational, and wonderful – I’ve had a chance to learn so much about so many of my interests, including a number that I post about here. HOWEVER, it also meant that all of my time was eaten up, so all those blog posts that I have saved on my computer that are about 90% done? Yeah, no chance of finishing those. Now that I”m on vacation, the situation is similar- I have a pile of final papers to write, barely any room to breathe, and no time whatsoever. Nonetheless, I’m hoping that I can carve out some time during my holiday vacation to finish up those almost-finished posts and post them here, so, hopefully, stay tuned!
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.
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.
After much detecting and deducting, we Sherlockians have deduced that the great detective’s birthday falls on this day, January 6th.
Happy birthday, Mr. Holmes! As your obituary has never appeared in any paper, I must conclude that you are still alive, and, though already immortal in the minds and hearts of readers, you are approaching immortality in the more literal sense of acquiring age as well.
It’s perhaps fitting that the very post that inaugurates this blog is a post on what is, arguably, the television episode that began television history.
Star Trek is a television show that changed both television and how we understand it. It is, arguably, the very first television show that had a fandom in any real sense of the word. It’s also arguably one of the first television shows that tried to say something, that realized that television was as valid a medium for dialogue and ideas as epic or poetry or the novel. So I would be remiss if I did not comment in some way on the very first episode of Star Trek ever filmed.
This episode – “The Cage” – is technically the unaired pilot. It was not shown until the 80s – though NBC commissioned and paid for it, they were not impressed, and commissioned a second pilot instead. And it’s not difficult to tell why they were unimpressed – it’s definitely not impressive as far as Star Trek episodes go. The characters are a bit – wooden (Captain Christopher Pike especially lacks the charisma we’d later get with Kirk), Spock shows emotions, there’s even more cheesy melodrama than usual, the uniforms are cringe-worthy, and, despite the female First Officer of the Enterprise (which the network later scrapped) there’s also some uncomfortable comments about how Pike feels about “women on the bridge” – not including his first officer. All in all, it’s not exactly awe-inspiring, and my response when I watched this for the first time (with a friend in Seattle) was “I need more alcohol to get through this.”
We didn’t obtain alcohol, but I did get through the episode. Thinking back on it, I’m still not impressed by it as an episode – it hardly has the intellectual and philosophical complexity of so many of the ensuing episodes, even ones from the first season. (Ironically, NBC decided that this episode was nevertheless too “cerebral” despite all the literal fighting of monsters involved). Nevertheless, it’s clear that this is an episode that contained the seeds of what Star Trek would later come to be. It may not have had the intellectual complexity, but it certainly had many of the themes and ideas that later came to define Star Trek and what it stood for.
The essence of the plot of “The Cage” is one that’s come up again and again in Star Trek: our stalwart captain and his companions beam down to a planet where, in one way or another, they end up in a comfortable captivity. Their needs are provided for, their lives are safe (if they cooperate) and they will never want for anything again, but they are unfree. It’s a theme that comes up again and again, in “This Side of Paradise,” “I, Mudd,” “Metamorphosis,” and a number of other episodes I could rattle off the top of my head. The Enterprise’s officers constantly encounter versions of comfortable, sometimes almost paradise-like captivity.
And always the idea is the same: mankind is not meant for that captivity. Mankind is meant for something else.
In fact, the premise of Star Trek is precisely that: that mankind is meant to explore, to reach for the stars and the unknown and to discover both the universe and himself in the process. The Enterprise is a ship of exploration, just as the series is a story of exploration. Again and again, Kirk talks of how humanity is meant to strive, how existence extends beyond physical needs to the spiritual need for growth and discovery:
“Our species can only survive if we have obstacles to overcome. You take away all obstacles. Without them to strengthen us, we will weaken and die,”he tells another creature intent on keeping them captive and yet provided for in “Metamorphosis.”
That is the essence of Star Trek: a vision of mankind as requiring challenges and growth in order to survive, a vision of mankind always striving and changing.
And that’s the essence of this very first episode of Star Trek as well. It begins with a tired, slightly world-weary Captain Christopher Pike thinking of settling down. In the next few scenes, he beams down onto a planet whose inhabitants, the Talosians, offer him something that is almost like the settling down he’s thought of. In what could probably be read as a parody of the American ideal, he’s offered a beautiful woman, whom he has a chance to protect (fulfilling all kinds of alpha-male instincts and ideals of masculinity), he’s encouraged to choose the woman as his partner, produce offspring, and live comfortably with her.
In fact, one particular scene looks almost like a caricature of the 1950s, like those old advertisements of happy white American families enjoying themselves and fulfilling an American ideal that had little to do with reality. There’s an idyllic picnic, lush greenery, plenty of food, and a beautiful woman who’s offering him a family and children (that American ideal, again, of the nuclear family, with parents and children). There’s a punishment for refusing that ideal, too.
Captain Pike refuses. He rejects this ideal at every turn, constantly questioning what’s happening, trying to think his way through it and out of it, trying to fight or talk his way out of the situation. He’s constantly doing something, striving, fighting, and in the process constantly seeking his freedom. He doesn’t appear to be in the least tempted by what he’s offered – like Kirk, who would later succeed him, he’s an adventurer and explorer, not comfortable in captivity.
He represents what the Talosians discover about humanity at the very end. Looking through humanity’s thoughts and the ship’s data banks, they make an important discovery:
“The customs and history of your race show a unique hatred of captivity. Even when it’s pleasant and benevolent, you prefer death.”
It’s bluntly put, but it’s an idea that the plot of the entire episode has been intent on making: mankind is meant for something greater than comfortable captivity. This is the vision of humanity that Star Trek stands for, a vision that Roddenberry had from the very beginning: a vision of humanity always striving rather than stagnating, however easy and comfortable the latter might be. And so, though the episode itself is unimpressive, though it has numerous discrepancies difficult to reconcile with the rest of the canon, it still gives a glimpse into the very beginning of Star Trek. And it seems fitting, in speaking of the episode, to finish with these words, spoken by Kirk in “This Side of Paradise”:
Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through, struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.
That is the ideal I see in every episode of Star Trek, from the very first one, and it’s the one I believe wholeheartedly in living by.