Froborr Watches Fringe, S1E1-4

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:

  • It’s by Abrams, Kurzman, and Orci, aka The Team That Ruined Star Trek.
  • No one except Mark Oshiro has ever said anything about it, ever.
  • Mark really, really likes it.
  • Parallel universes?

Spoilers below the cut!

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Journeys end, but hell bent we continue on

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.

iZombie is really very good

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.)

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Babylon Prime and afterthoughts

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of “original”) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here. However, since that original post I have acquired the actual treatment by JMS and am therefore working from that, rather than summaries. Thanks again to Glenn for giving it to me!

Babylon Prime

Although Babylon 5 was originally planned to end with defeat and destruction of the station, JMS’ plan was immediately to move into a sequel series, essentially additional seasons under a new title, Babylon Prime. 

Known: This series would open with Sinclair, Delenn, and their child in hiding, together with Garibaldi and a Narn (“a friend or relative of G’Kar”). They meet with the Grey Council-in-exile, who refuse to do anything to help Because Prophecy, and express the need for a base of operations. They go back in time and steal Babylon 4, but there are time distortions that cause problems. (Interestingly, even in this early stage B4 goes into the future relative to the date it’s being sent to, then settles down in the correct date.)

This time travel would cause Sinclair, Delenn, and the baby to age very quickly, so the baby would actually be an adult for most of the series. Meanwhile, Londo would become Emperor and be implanted with a creature that spies on him and reports his activities to the Shadows. Londo captures Sinclair and Delenn, but then rebels against his not-actually-called-a-Keeper at unspecified “terrible personal cost” and frees them. Meanwhile, their son becomes “something greater than human.”

Earth wins the second Earth-Minbari War and Sinclair’s name is cleared. Babylon 4 takes part in a great battle that ends with the final conquest of the Shadows, and the victors form an interstellar alliance led by Sinclair and Delenn’s son. Delenn leaves Sinclair to resume her position on the Grey Council and help her world heal. The series ends with Sinclair retiring to an uninhabited world and going fishing.

Speculation: The most likely place for Delenn and Sinclair to hide out is Epsilon III, where Draal can protect them. Likely additional candidates for their allies include Ivanova (if she survived the destruction of Babylon 5), Kosh (if he survived the end of the Shadow War), Draal, G’Kar and the Narn resistance, Talia/Lyta, and possibly Vir (though he is unmentioned in the treatment).

Some version of Talia/Lyta becoming a living telepathic doomsday weapon would likely have still occurred in this series, given that both Lyta’s closeness with the Vorlons and Talia’s telekinesis are set up in the pilot and Season 1, respectively.

In all likelihood, the “terrible personal cost” for Londo freeing Sinclair and Delenn is the same as in the broadcast series: his death at the hands of G’Kar.

Two things stand out as intriguing: Babylon 4 still swings into the future as a result of the time distortion, meaning that wasn’t actually an obvious patch between a “Babylon Squared” that assumed it was being stolen to fight a war in the future and a “War Without End” that had it stolen to fight a war in the past. Also, Sinclair and Delenn’s son being “greater than human” recalls Ironheart–it suggests perhaps that his role as spiritual leader who has odd powers and ultimately ends up leading a new alliance was ultimately divided between Sheridan and Lorien.

Afterthoughts

Frankly, while better than what we got of Crusade, this entire treatment is basically crap. With the sole exception of the Catherine Sakai as mole thing (which itself, recall, was speculation) none of this sounds likely to be as good as the series we got. It’s much more straightforwardly about good against evil and the Shadow War, G’Kar’s arc is jettisoned almost entirely, the Earth Civil War (which in my opinion was a better storyline than the Shadow War) is entirely gone, the ancient cycles of violence and “get the hell out of our galaxy” are gone, the massively powerful elder races whose technology is millions of years more advanced than the younger races are defeated in a war, Ewok-style, rather than persuaded to go away on moral grounds… this is simply not very good.

The timeline surrounding the theft of Babylon 4 is clearer and more sensible in this version, true. In “Babylon Squared,” it’s pretty heavily implied that the station is being pulled into the future. The retcon in “War Without End” requires that Draal first pull the station into its future so that passengers can be offloaded, then throw it into the past, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. On the other hand, the treatment suggests an accidental trip into the future, so maybe that’s what was going on in “Babylon Squared.” On the other hand, the price of that sense is losing Sinclair-as-Valen and the reveal that all that Minbari prophecy is just him remembering the future. Which makes Sinclair Merlin, bringing in all the references to the Arthurian legend, of which there is no trace in the treatment. Plus, I love a good ontological “paradox.” (As I have noted a few times on this site, it’s only a paradox if you believe that information cannot be created ex nihilo. As someone who creates information of one kind for a living and of a couple of other kinds as my primary hobbies, I take rather a large amount of exception to such claims.)

It’s notable, too, that this belies a number of claims by JMS regarding how closely he stuck to his original plans. For example, he has claimed that he knew what the last shot of the last episode of the series would be before Season 1 began. However, if he meant the end of the planned Babylon 5 series, then the shot of the station being destroyed while a single shuttle leaves occurs a few minutes before the end of the aired finale and in a very different context than originally planned (the actual final shot of the series, if credits are not included, is the sun rising over Minbar as Delenn reaches out for it; if the credits are included, it’s a split screen of a young Londo as he appeared in the first season and the aging Emperor Londo seen in the flashforward in “War Without End.”) If he meant the end of Babylon Prime, then there is no equivalent scene at all to Sinclair fishing.

There’s also his claims in response to fan comments on the apparent contradiction between JMS’ statement that after Babylon 5 finished he planned to stop writing for television and the announcement of the Crusade spinoff. JMS claimed that he had “always” said there was one possible spinoff idea he might explore given the chance, but that otherwise the end of Babylon 5 would be the end of the series, and indeed early on he did make claims that the series would consist of a planned five-year arc, possibly followed by a spinoff. Given this treatment, however, it seems clear that the spinoff he referred to in those early comments was Babylon Prime, and as such his citation of those comments in defense of Crusade is at the very least equivocation, if not outright prevarication.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Babylon 5, nor is my point to suggest that JMS is a bad person or anything of the sort. Babylon 5 is truly great work, and JMS has done some other really great work in TV and comics (such as The Real Ghostbusters or the fantastic Rising Stars comic series). His scriptwriting textbook is excellent, as well. I am merely observing that some of JMS’ statements regarding the series seem very likely to be deceptive statements with the aim of making it look more planned than it really was; as such, it calls into question his reliability as a source on the genesis and development of Babylon 5.

What we have here, ultimately, is a classic example of why at least the soft form of Death of the Author is necessary.

The Babylon 5 that (thankfully) never was: Season 5

Continuing my series attempting to reconstruct how Babylon 5 was originally (for certain values of original) “supposed to” go. More detailed explanation and Season 1 are here, although note that since writing that original post I have gotten access to JMS’ “original” treatment and am no longer working from summaries.

Known: Season 5 opens with the return of G’Kar with evidence of Londo’s alliance with the Shadows and their meddling in the Centauri-Narn conflict. The Minbari military caste stage a coup and take over, resuming the war with Earth. The Centauri lay claim to the neutral sector that includes B5, which Earth contests, leading Londo to break off diplomatic relations. Shortly thereafter a massive Vorlon ship carrying most of their civilian population is destroyed by the Shadows, although Earth is framed. Londo helps in the attack, though without the knowledge that it will result in hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths.

The series ends (yes, ends) with the Minbari attacking and destroying Babylon 5. Sinclair, Delenn, and their baby escape on a shuttle and flee into hiding, with every remaining power in the galaxy considering them enemies: the Minbari because of Delenn’s ties to the deposed Grey Council and the Warrior Caste’s belief that the prophecy is one of destruction, Vorlons because they believe Sinclair helped Earth destroy their ship, Shadows and Londo because they believe Sinclair and Delenn suspect who really did it, and Earth because they’ve been fed false intel that Sinclair betrayed them.

Speculation: Given how much happens in this season, and how little happens in Season 4, it seems likely that some of this would have been moved earlier. Any of a Centauri attack on Babylon 5 as part of them seizing the sector, the fall of the Grey Council, or the destruction of the Vorlons would have made good season finale material (though the last might be too soon for the war to end in this version of the story).

Given his human-Minbari hybrid wife and the renewal of Earth-Minbari hostilities, it seems likely that Earthgov’s false intel makes Sinclair out to have betrayed them to the Minbari. Likely sources for the intel are the Minbari, Centauri, and Shadows, all of which have good reason to want to isolate Sinclair and Delenn and thereby cut them off from Earth support.

It’s up for grabs whether the warrior caste are being manipulated by the Shadows in this version of the story. They almost certainly weren’t in the actual series, but by this point the treatment and the show have nothing in common except Delenn’s pregnancy.

And yes, this colossal downer really is how the series ends in the treatment. But it’s not how the treatment ends–that still has another page and a half, almost a quarter of its length, to go. We’ll cover that in the next and final installment of this series.

Concluded next week!