A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Early access to all videos for Patreon subscribers: http://patreon.com/froborr
A panel I gave at Anime Boston 2016, talking about Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Early access to all videos for Patreon subscribers: http://patreon.com/froborr
“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin…”
Due diligence: I am a backer of Phil’s Patreon, and received the ebook version of this for free as a backer reward.
2015 was a year of struggle within science fiction and video games, the two major topics of this book. Two bands of “puppies,” the Rabid and the Sad, tried to hijack the Hugo nominations process and stuff the lists with their preferred form of science fiction, by which we mean fiction that, at best, expresses conservative values, and at worst endorses Christofascism. Meanwhile, GamerGate, the sustained terrorist campaign against women in video games that began in late 2014, stubbornly refused to die.
Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs is author, critic, and blogger Phil Sandifer’s counterattack. It opens with a series of chapters, mostly adapted from posts on his blog, that look at science fiction in 2015 and the regressive Puppy backlash from a progressive perspective. The first chapter, which gives the book it’s title, is an analysis of the Rabid Puppies which argues, quite effectively, that they are not just regressive but fascist; in particular, Sandifer discusses their version of the stab-in-the-back myth at the heart of fascist rhetoric, and compares their movement to the criteria for fascism suggested by Umberto Eco, finding that they clearly fulfill all but one of the criteria and arguably fulfill the last as well. This is followed by an interview with the leader of the Rabid Puppies, Theodore Beale, revealing him to be at once fascinating and repulsive. Following up on the interview is a transcript of a podcast Sandifer recorded immediately after, in which the participants discuss, reframe, and joke about the interview, and then after that is Sandifer’s response to author John C. Wright (one of the Rabid Puppy authors and a commentor on Beale’s blog) calling for his death.
These initial chapters thus pass from unsympathetic analysis, to direct engagement, to mockery, to dismissal and rejection. They are intelligent, well-argued, and utterly scathing; a beautiful catharsis after a year in which the world often seemed to be sliding backwards into the void.
The book transitions over the next few chapters into a series of reviews. The first few reviews are still in the mode of responses to the Puppies: a discussion of the winner of the 2015 Best Novel Hugo, The Three-Body Problem, and the complicated question of who that’s a victory for; a review of Seveneves that brings in Beale’s attacks on the book and what they reveal about his toxic views of masculinity and involvement with GamerGate; and an utterly delightful study of Janelle Monae’s ongoing song cycle The Metropolis Suite as a work of afrofuturist science fiction. That last marks the point of transition–its only real connection to the Rabid Puppies is that it was brought up in the first chapter as an example of something wonderful that goes against everything they want and believe.
From there we get to honestly the least interesting part of the book, a series of reviews in the same style as the previous one, but lacking the edge of Sandifer’s engagingly mocking, furious hatred which enlivened the Rabid Puppy-focused chapters. There’s then a bit of a divider near the center of the book in the form of a short story, one of Sandifer’s rare forays into fiction; interesting enough, I suppose, but it’s not going to get nominated for any awards (unlike, say, the first chapter, which I would not be surprised to see nominated for a Related Work Hugo).
After the story are a series of short chapters exerpted from his ongoing Super Nintendo Project, a combination memoir and history of the Super Nintendo, which Sandifer cheekily describes as a “magical ritual to destroy GamerGate.” The second of these chapters, on Final Fantasy II, is a fascinating look at the relationship between the way games reward players, tedium, poverty, and the price points for Super Nintendo games, which contained much that rang true for me–which given that I was a child living in poverty when I first played Super Nintendo games, including Final Fantasy II, should say something. I actually have a great deal more to say on this topic than will fit in a review of the book, but it’ll all be in a future episode of re:play. (Specifically, right after I get Mog.) The other major standout from this section is its last chapter, on Mortal Kombat, which much like the earlier chapter on Seveneves takes the opportunity to look at the model of masculinity it represents, and the fetishization of pointless, empty, childish violence, as formative in the development of the attitudes that would fester and burst out 20 years later as GamerGate.
The next and longest chapter is the one where I eat crow: The Last War in Albion is, contrary to what I said in my review of Sandifer’s earlier book A Golden Thread, very good and not difficult to follow at all, as this chapter demonstrates, so long as one reads a minimum of an entire chapter in one sitting, rather than broken across fragmentary blog posts separated by days.
The final section of the book focuses on the work for which Sandifer is best known, his critical study of Doctor Who. It includes three chapters on writer Peter Harness (one analyzing his work on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Doctor Who, and two interviews with him), and concludes with possibly my favorite thing Phil’s ever written, the complete text of his short book Recursive Occlusion, a review of the classic Doctor Who serial “Logopolis” as a microcosm of Doctor Who, framed as a mystical journey through the Tarot and Sephiroth, and structured as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I’ve been clamoring for an ebook version of this since its 2014 release, and here at the end of Guided by the Beauty we finally get one.
This is a perfect ending to a book that began with a study of frightened neofascists throwing a tantrum because the world is moving on without them into something they do not understand and are too hateful to accept. We end on a deliberately outre celebration of the weird and wonderful, which simultaneously reaches into the mystical past and expands outward and upward into the future, which denies authority to the extend of not even giving it to the author, allowing instead the reader to choose their own path. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that lends truth to Sandifer’s claim that the Puppies have already lost.
So, over on Mark Spoils, which is a sort of shadow-site to the Mark Does Stuff empire, I’ve started blogging my way through Fringe, a show I have never seen and did not know about. So here’s the collection of entries on last week’s viewing.
So first off, here’s what I knew before I started:
Spoilers below the cut!
In her TARDIS Eruditorum entry on “A Good Man Goes to War,” El Sandifer laid out the theory of narrative substitution, which she identified as the definitive technique of Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner. A narrative substitution is, as the name implies, the substitution of one narrative for another; specifically, it is the creation of an expectation that a story will be one kind of narrative, only to reject that narrative (usually on ethical/political grounds) and tell a different kind of story.
In “Face the Raven”/”Heaven Sent”/”Hell Bent” (which I am choosing to treat as a single three-part story despite “Face the Raven” having a different writer and director than the other two) there is a series of substitutions, each rejecting the previously established story as an insufficient answer to a single question: how do we get rid of Clara?
Which is a question that needs to be answered. Jenna Coleman, her actress, is leaving the show, and even if she weren’t, every companion has to leave eventually. And it’s not like it hasn’t been explored before; both Oswin Oswald and Clara Oswin Oswald, “echoes” of Clara that predated her first true appearance on the show, died at the ends of their episodes, “Kill the Moon” has Clara announce her departure after a fight with the Doctor, the Series Eight finale ends with what appears to be a final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara as they each pretend to no longer need the other, and the following Christmas special contains a sequence in which the Doctor meets and says farewell to an elderly Clara.
But each of these departures was rejected as inadequate. The problem of Clara is that she was originally introduced as a narrative substitution; she is presented as a mystery (“Why is the Doctor meeting identical women with similar names in very different times and places?”) and the Doctor (and audience) is then rebuked for treating a person as a mystery when the answer turns out to be “She’s a perfectly ordinary person who made a very brave and dangerous choice.” The downside of this substitution was that Clara had to spend an entire half-season appearing to be the most generic companion ever; it’s really only after the Eleventh Doctor regenerated into the Twelfth that we could finally start seeing how extraordinary this “perfectly ordinary person” could be. Clara is a fierce protector of both the people she loves and the innocent; she is someone whose heart has been broken and healed; someone who loves children and teaching, fights fiercely for justice, loves traveling and experiencing new things, has an open mind, lies glibly, can see the humanity in a grotesque alien and the monstrosity in someone who looks completely human, and uses words as her main weapon.
She is, in short, the female Doctor fans have been clamoring for (well, the fans worth knowing, anyway) for years. All she’s missing is a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion of her own.
Given that, how can we say goodbye to her?
Well, she’s a human daring to be the Doctor. A mere mortal posing as a Trickster God. So that gives us our first answer; in “Face the Raven” she has Rigsy transfer the death sentence laid on him by Mayor Me to herself, hubristically assuming that she will be able to cheat the inevitability of death itself (since that is clearly what the Raven represents here). But she can’t; only a true immortal like the Doctor can. Her hubris is lethal; as Me reveals when the Doctor persuades her to lift the sentence, the complex rules of the Raven mean that Me could have lifted it from Rigsy, but now that he has transferred it to Clara she cannot. (Why Rigsy can’t is not explained, but must simply be accepted, the rules of death being as immutable and unfair as death itself.)
And then the first narrative substitution kicks in, as the Doctor rejects that Clara has done anything wrong, rejects the very moral schema in which hubris is a punishable crime (as of course he would and should), and instead begins learning and planning to go after the (unidentified at this point) people who used Me to bring this about and get his attention. Hubris has been rejected as a narrative, but instead we are getting a simple fridging: Clara dies not because of who she is and what choices she made as a character, not in a way that is at all respectful of her agency, but as a plot device to move the Doctor’s character along to the next plot point in his story.
Clara is having none of that, and soundly rebukes the Doctor before his rampage has even begun. Instead we get her death as the anti-fridging; she embraces that her choices have brought her to this point, orders the Doctor not to take revenge on her behalf, steps out proudly to stand and face the Raven where all others have run, and dies on her feet.
“Heaven Sent” opens with the Doctor trying to reject this again, announcing that he is doing exactly what Clara told him not to, ordering the unseen creators of the castle to fear him. But this is quickly subsumed by the puzzlebox of the castle itself, which by the time the Doctor finds clothes hung by the fire, identical to the sopping wet ones he’s wearing, and then after putting the dry clothes on replaces them with his own wet ones in exactly the same position, is clearly that Moffat standard, a complex but very clever puzzle with a timey-wimey solution.
And then it isn’t, as it becomes clear that this puzzle has no solution. This is just the Raven again, the inevitable death, the futility of trying to escape. The castle, the Doctor realizes, isn’t a puzzlebox but a torture chamber, specifically designed to make him suffer. It is a reification of his grief for Clara, the inescapable prison of mourning someone who is lost. Only that’s not a narrative that can survive long in Doctor Who either; he imagines Clara telling him to move on, and futility is answered not with the cleverness to solve a puzzlebox, but the determination and sheer bloody-minded stubbornness to punch the same spot in a diamond wall for billions of years. There is an old and rather inaccurate saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result; here we see that cleverness is only enough to figure out the trap. Actually getting out requires insanity, doing something completely futile so much that it stops being futile.
Which brings us back to the revenge narrative. The Doctor may have let go of Clara, but he did so with the rage and passion to push himself through a wall of diamond and into the next episode; in “Hell Bent” that same rage provides the motivation and his secret knowledge of the Hybrid, the mystery dangled in front of us all season, his leverage in conquering Gallifrey.
And then the whole narrative up to this point, both the “Face the Raven” substitution and the “Heaven Sent” substitution, is rejected. The Doctor doesn’t really know what the Hybrid is better than anyone else, and he hasn’t been trying to avenge Clara; all of this was a plan to bring Clara back. To use Gallifrey’s resources to pull a Chrono Trigger, returning to the frozen instant of her death to snatch her away from the Raven in a way even it can’t follow. His plan succeeds; he and Clara work together to descend into the Cloister, steal a new TARDIS, and run away.
But then Clara’s heart doesn’t resume beating. Another substitution, as this becomes a story familiar from the Russel T. Davies era of the show, a story of how being with the Doctor is wonderful, but ultimately unhealthy. The Doctor is all about escape, which is precisely what he and Clara were doing on Gallifrey, “stealing a TARDIS and running away.” And escape is not always possible or advisable; “Hope is terrible on the scaffold” as Ohila tells him. He has to let go of Clara; she is dead, has been dead for billions of years, and the Doctor is tearing the universe apart in his denial of it. As Me points out, the two push each other to extremes, which is probably why Missy got them together in the first place.
This was a recurring problem of the Davies era. The Doctor changes his companions, opens to them an entirely new world. Rose ultimately threw herself into that world completely and was swallowed up by it. Martha ultimately rejected it completely, choosing to leave the Doctor and live out her life on Earth, even joining UNIT, an organization which exists to maintain a barrier between the world of the Doctor and “normal” life on Earth. And Donna… Donna was an ordinary woman who proved extraordinary given the chance, a normal human who became the Doctor. Like Clara, she wouldn’t stay forever, but would never leave. She’d rather die than lose her experiences with the Doctor–so the Doctor took the choice away from her, wiped away her memories, destroyed what she’d become in order to keep something that looked like her alive.
Now, briefly, we see Moffat telling the same story, and he rejects it. Firmly and absolutely, Clara refuses to become the next Donna. The past is hers, and she will not allow the Doctor to take it away from her. She would rather die; that is her choice, and her choice is really all that matters here. The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara, their argument over the neural block, is a profound rebuke to the staggering violation the Doctor committed against Donna in “Journey’s End.” Like her death in “Face the Raven,” Clara refuses to allow her agency to be stolen from her in order to give the Doctor something to be sad about in the rain. Her past belongs to her, and so do her present and her future.
So: Clara retains her agency. Both vengeance and grief are rejected when they are more about the Doctor’s story than about saying goodbye to Clara. And death is an inevitability that cannot be cheated.
But this is Doctor Who, and summer can last forever if you steal a time machine. Clara’s death is a fixed event, which means that until she decides to finally go back to Gallifrey (which, I suspect, will be around the time her memory fills up and she realizes her choices are to die or to become like Me), she cannot die. So she steals a time machine and goes off to explore the universe with her companion, Me.
Like I said, all she needed was a TARDIS, immortality, and a companion. The Doctor-Donna was wrong, the hubris of the Tenth Doctor made flesh, and had to be destroyed. The Doctor-Clara is wrong, the hubris of Clara Oswald made flesh, and it is glorious.
After all, another word for hubris is rebellion; another word for reaching above your station is transcendence. Clara Oswald rejects your narrative, and substitutes her own.
Bravo, Mr. Moffat.
Edited 7/6/19: Corrected El Sandifer’s name and gender and made a couple of other minor grammatical edits.
I was hoping to have something a little more in-depth to say today, but then I got hit with a bout of insomnia last night, so I watched the first eight episodes of iZombie instead. It was good. Really good. Like, Veronica Mars when she was still in high school good. Basically Veronica Mars meets Dollhouse without the squicky consent issues of the latter. Well-written, well-performed, great balance between ongoing story and mysteries-of-the-week.
(No but seriously. “Has me thinking about my Hugo picks” level of good, here.)
Well, not the movie, but the general consensus (with some exceptions) seems to be that the movie is neither good nor necessary, and it’s not on Netflix, so I am probably going to give it a pass.
Some mildly disorganized thoughts on the ending below the cut: Continue reading
I mentioned in my video on Gravity Falls episode 1 that it lacks a certain quality I struggled to define, but which is possessed by many other cartoons I enjoy. It is a quality possessed by several of the best cartoons, such as Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Friendship Is Magic, but while clearly quite good, Gravity Falls seems to lack it (at least in the five episodes I’ve seen so far). On the other hand, Phineas and Ferb, which is really not a good show (although it is one I enjoy enough to have watched most of it), has the quality, whatever it is.
So this post is me trying to figure out what that quality might be by comparing shows that do and don’t have it. I’ve come up with a few possibilities–things that are shared in common between the four shows that I mentioned which possess this quality, but are not present or less present in what I’ve seen of Gravity Falls. Most likely it is a combination of multiple factors, maybe all of them, in different amounts.
What I’ve come up with:
Again, this shouldn’t be taken as a measure of quality. Gravity Falls is a good show, and I enjoy it. Just not in the same way or to the same degree as the shows which do possess these qualities. And I still feel like I’m missing something; that je ne sais quoi remains elusive.