Synthesis 7: I must’ve called a thousand times

wotw11605Somehow, I’d forgotten that. I remembered, of course, that both seasons had done an episode where the alien plot involved using their technology to built a Blotto Box (an apocryphal General Mischief Device capable of destroying telephony equipment over the lines), but what’s really surprising is that both seasons specifically did an episode where the alien blotto box plot is largely secondary to a character-driven plot about a guest character who’s suffering from severe mental trauma leaving their familiar surroundings and trying to get by out on the street with no support system or companionship.

I mean, that’s weird, right? Two times they had this very sci-fi idea of using Science-Flavored-Bullshit to esplode telecommunications equipment remotely, threatening the entire communications infrastructure, and two times the actual episode is an intimate affair focused tightly on the guest characters. It didn’t escape notice at the time. There were complaints about “The Defector” being essentially the same plot as “The Meek Shall Inherit” on that mailing list thread I pretended not to understand at the end of the Antithesis article.

Normally, this is the point where I start talking about how, despite telling basically the same story, the approach is radically different from one season to the next because the first season is set in an ’80s world of optimistic resignation to a sudden apocalypse, while the second is set in a ’90s world of grimdark pessimism about a malingering one. But the truth is, once you get beyond the conceptual level, these two episodes really aren’t telling the same story at all. Kemo’s engram, for instance, remains a recurring and persistent threat throughout the episode: it actually keeps killing people after its first appearance, and unlike the Mortaxan weapon, it actually kills named characters with whom the regulars interact. From the point of view of the Blackwood Project, all that the aliens do in “The Meek Shall Inherit” is to delay Harrison’s attempts to place a long-distance data call and try to steal a truck (Come to think of it, they never actually learn why the aliens are in the truckyard). There’s your excuse for no one noticing the similarities between first and second season plots: the humans frequently end first-season episodes with only a partial understanding of what it was the aliens were up to.

Charles McCaughanThe whole plot with Sylvia is entirely unlike the one with Kemo. Kemo’s story arc is really far closer to “The Prodigal Son“. He’s an outcast from his people, ostracized for being a “freak” and a “half-breed”, and now he seeks to undermine his own people’s leadership to bring the war to an end. But for all that the second season is supposed to be more grim and dark, Kemo, obviously, is the sympathetic one, while Quinn is delightfully, ostentatiously villainous. I could imagine either character returning later in the series as an ally, but Kemo would do so as the legitimate, “noble villain changes sides and demonstrates a way for human and alien to live together in harmony” while Quinn would clearly be more, “unscrupulous villain enters an alliance of convenience while plotting his sudden yet inevitable betrayal.”

But “The Meek Shall Inherit” remained the more obvious point of comparison for most viewers, and the reason for that has to do with the expectations of the target audience. Here’s the operative question: what are these respective episode about?

How you answer that question depends a lot on how you approach the show. And to illustrate that, let me vaguely recall an argument I had years ago with someone who didn’t think that the modern incarnation of Doctor Who was nearly as good as the original. His argument was that the stories were childishly simplistic, and to illustrate his argument, he summarized that the first-series episode “Dalek” thus (More or less):

A Dalek from the time war is found by a rich asshole. It escapes, killing a lot of people along the way, and then commits suicide for no good reason.

By contrast, he offered up an explanation of the first-season serial “The Daleks”:

The Doctor tricks his companions into exploring a technologically advanced city where they are captured by the Daleks. Since they are also dying of radiation poisoning, Susan braves the jungle outside to find medication and meets the peaceful Thals. The Thals try to make peace with the Daleks but are ambushed. In order to retrieve a missing component of the TARDIS, the Doctor manipulates the Thals into fighting the Daleks, with one party braving a dangerous passage guarded by horrifying monsters. The Thals defeat the Daleks just in time to stop them from irradiating the planet.

Obviously, asserted the fictionalized straw-man version of my interloquotor, the original series story was far more deep and complex, while the modern story was a triviality. But, of course, most people who have actually seen the 2005 episode would find that first capsule summary, while strictly technically accurate, misleading to the point of dishonesty. So let’s try another one:


That’ll buff out.

A Dalek from the Time War is found by a rich asshole. For the first time, we see the depth of the Doctor’s post-traumatic stress over the events of the war when the sight of a living Dalek throws the peaceful man into an actual murderous frenzy. While said rich asshole demonstrates that his own inhumanity is comparable to that of the Daleks, the Dalek demonstrates a surprising grasp of human psychology by manipulating Rose into touching its casing, so that it can use her temporal energies to restore itself. However, it gets more than it bargained for when, as it tries to escape, it finds itself compelled to act on human motivations and from a human sense of empathy. Rose’s prompting helps the Doctor to realize that his animosity toward the Dalek undermines his most core values. In the first appearance of one of the longest-running recurring themes in the series, a Dalek who breaks free of its insular Dalek mindset is driven inescapably toward its own destruction, and it ultimately begs to be euthanized, rather than continue to live in its altered state.

And contrariwise, you could give a far less sympathetic summary of the 1963 story:

No one will be seated during the thrilling "sitting around" scene.

No one will be seated during the thrilling “sitting around” scene.

Everyone goes exploring a spooky alien city and then they get captured and sit around slowly dying for an hour before they escape. The Daleks shoot some guys and everyone runs away and then they spend another hour arguing about what to do next. Then there’s this random cave crawl that’s just there to waste half an hour and then they defeat the Daleks mostly by shoving them.

I mean, okay, the unsympathetic read of Serial B is still longer than the unsympathetic read of episode 1×06. So is the three hour ordeal of actually watching the thing. Neither version of either description is per-se wrong, but they reflect very different ways of addressing the question, “What’s this story about?”

There’s any number of ways to characterize the difference. “Literal” versus “Literate”. “Frock” versus “Gun” (This is a much looser fit than the others). “Hard” versus “Soft”. “STEM” versus “Humanities”. “Rational” versus “Emotional”. “Masculine” versus “Feminine”. Which terms you like to use will almost certainly come down to which side of the schism you’re on, since almost all of the pairs implicitly assume one side or the other to be “more” right.

It is a simple fact of life that “traditional” Science Fiction, what’s generally considered the “golden age” stuff is in large part not actually interested in telling stories. I’ve had this proclaimed to me proudly by fans of it: “Proper Science Fiction, not that baby stuff for girls and humanities majors, isn’t about people, it’s about ideas and science!” The great thrust of “traditional” science fiction is predicated on the assumption that what makes a story good is not the way in which it is told or that it induces catharsis or meets an emotional need in the reader, but rather rests solely in the cleverness of its ideas and how logically they are spooled out to their conclusions. I’ve said before, I think, that structurally, an awful lot of “traditional” sci-fi stories are more akin to jokes than narratives: they consist of a vestigial narrative which exists not to function as a narrative normally does, but to organize a lengthy setup which culminates in a punch-line, and the merit of the story hangs solely in how clever the punch-line is. For a science fiction story, the punch line is usually something like, “It was Earth all along” or “Turns out he was in Hell the whole time” or “And then the aliens eat them” or “No, John, you were the demons. And then John was a zombie.

I follow the site 365 Tomorrows, which publishes a short science fiction story every day. Most of them are “traditional” sci-fi (to the point that walking through their archives you’ll occasionally hit a run of stories that are shockingly racist or sexist in a really old-school way, particularly some form of “Basically the Vietnam war straight up happened again. Only in space this time.”), and that’s cool. I can enjoy the odd bit of traditional sci-fi, especially if it’s short. A few weeks ago, they ran possibly the most egregiously “traditional” story I’ve ever read, banal enough that I’m surprised terrible people didn’t nominate it for a Hugo. Your unsympathetic capsule summary would be, “The author is very proud of having realized the first thing they tell you in intro to Astronomy, about how traveling in space is traveling in time and really wants to explain it to you.” Less vaguely, one character simply expositions to another the scientific principle on which their job works, which he for some reason doesn’t already know.

I’m getting a little away from myself here. The point is, the appearance that “The Meek Shall Inherit” and “The Defector” are substantially similar derives primarily from choosing to construct the answer to, “So what’s this episode about?” from a very traditionally sci-fi point of view: they’re both about an alien plot to take over human telecommunications systems and blow them up. And yet, through a really weird coincidence, the other thing that the two episodes have in common is that they aren’t really about that after all.

So where do we find ourselves? Somehow, we’ve stumbled back into the thesis that haunted us all the way through Captain Power: we are watching a show — two shows, really — implode because they’re haunted by the future. It is 1989 and 1990. The science fiction trends that will carry us into the 1990s aren’t here yet. The audience for a show like this in 1989 and 1990 just aren’t prepared for the answer to “So what’s this episode about?” to have so little to do with the Big Sci-Fi Alien Idea.

Here, then, is the weirdest thing of all. For once, I don’t get to compare two episodes across the season and say, “The basic story is the same, but the two seasons take a completely different approach”: this time, it turns out that, while they started from the same Big Sci-Fi Alien Idea, the basic story is completely different, and yet, for whatever reason, both episodes approach it in the same way: as a side-story that exists primarily to set the stakes for an episode that is primarily a character drama.

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