The Uncomfortable Racism of C.S. Lewis Aug30

The Uncomfortable Racism of C.S. Lewis...

Since childhood, I’ve had a strong attachment to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. My aunt gave me a set of the books, which currently sit in a place of honour in my office. I’ve read and reread the series throughout my life with a sense of wonder and delight. As my critical reading skills developed, and as I began to understand systemic power dynamics, my naïve love of Narnia gave way to a more complicated and nuanced relationship with the stories. I realized they could be almost heavy-handedly allegorical at times. The characters, particularly in the final novels, are overly broad, almost parodic. And don’t get me started on Lewis’s class assumptions or Susan and Lucy’s exclusion from battle. But the most troubling aspect of the series came to light a few years ago when I was first teaching a class on Lewis and Tolkien. Most of the students, like me, had been introduced to Lewis’s novels as children. A few had passed the series on to their own children, even grandchildren. One student, however, had taken the class to fill an elective and had no prior knowledge of Narnia or Middle-earth. In our conversation about The Horse and His Boy, this student commented, “Well, I found this one a little bit racist.” The other students jumped to Lewis’s defense with well-meaning but well-worn excuses—“He lived in a different era with different attitudes about race and other cultures.” Too often we’re afraid to question ourselves, afraid that if we acknowledge something troubling we open the door to undermining our whole belief system. I, too, a lifelong fan, found myself parroting this same line of thinking: “We need to read this in its historical context.” After class, however, I went back to the text,...

How Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Saved My Life (Sort Of) Jul10

How Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Saved My Life (Sort Of)...

My friend Chris introduced me to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) after we became friends in university, and the show changed my perspective on community. Chris was an active tape trader. The show wasn’t easily available in Canada, so Chris used a wide network of associates, trading things from his impressive collection of VHS tapes, laser discs, and, later, DVDs to get episodes. I still have a banker’s box full of Seasons Eight through Ten of MST episodes I inherited from Chris in my office. Soon, word of the show spread through my apartment building and every week a group of 20 or more university students would gather in the living room of my two-bedroom apartment to watch Joel/Mike and his robot pals make fun of some of the worst movies ever made: The Skydivers, Mitchell or, my personal favourite, Manos: the Hands of Fate (Manos literally means “hands.” So the actual title of this film is Hands: The Hands of Fate. The only thing you need to know about this piece of celluloid sludge is that it’s about a fertilizer salesperson from Texas). As someone who grew up well before “geek” was the term of endearment we’ve all embraced, liking geeky things could be incredibly isolating. In the pre-internet era, there wasn’t an easily accessible network of fan communities. There may have been comic conventions in some of the larger urban markets, but they were primarily about comics (as the name does suggest, though it has since grown to mean so much more). I certainly remember being teased because I liked science fiction and comic books. I had specific friends who shared interests, but my fandoms were usually limited to one or two people. I had a couple of friends who really liked Star Wars,...

The Mysteries of the Secret Sister Feb06

The Mysteries of the Secret Sister

“For there is no friend like a sister…” —Christina Rossetti In the latest—and perhaps last—series of BBC’s Sherlock, co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat deftly wade into the murky waters of Holmes non-canon by introducing Sherlock’s third sibling as the series’ Big Bad. The show has included an extended subtextual examination of family dynamics—Sherlock’s sibling rivalry with his older brother, Mycroft; John and Mary’s marriage and family; Sherlock and John’s chosen family; and Sherlock’s role as John and Mary’s “child.” With the revelation of Eurus, another, smarter Holmes[i], Sherlock further develops its ongoing interest in familial bonds, both blood family and chosen family, while providing Holmes with a much needed foil of equal, perhaps superior, abilities who threatens his emotionally detached perspective. His sister is not only Sherlock’s greatest adversary, but, by forcing him to confront his feelings by engaging his sympathy and empathy, also serves as the catalyst to his maturation. One of the major limitations of adapting the Holmes stories is the lack of strong antagonists, ones who can match Holmes’s superior mental (and, when it’s convenient, physical) prowess. When Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his “Napoleon of crime,” Professor James Moriarty, the sole purpose was to find a way to end the series Conan Doyle had grown tired of writing. Moriarty, though universally hailed as Holmes’s arch-nemesis, appears in only one short story, “The Final Problem” and in a late and very inferior novel, The Valley of Fear. But even within these original short stories, Moriarty’s place as Holmes’s equal is subtly drawn by characterizing him as a symbolic brother, a technique Conan Doyle used a number of times throughout the stories and identified by Michael Atkinson in the excellent The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes and Other Eccentric Readings. In Moriarty and Holmes, we see traces of ancient brother battles, Cain and Abel, Gilgamesh. Sherlock made excellent use of Moriarty (played with menacing camp by Andrew Scott), emphasizing his importance as Sherlock’s equal by alluding to his presence and showing his influence throughout Series One and Two, and then (sort of) bringing him back at the end of Series Three as a surprise postlude. But, like the canonical Holmes stories, once Moriarty exits the narratives, all other criminals seem somehow second rate by comparison. She has a unique way of challenging Sherlock’s very identity and ways of perceiving the world. In introducing Eurus, a Holmes sister, Gatiss and Moffat create an antagonist who pushes Holmes not only mentally but emotionally and further some of the interesting feminist groundwork laid in Victorian-era special, “The Abominable Bride.” She actualizes the archetypal relationship Conan Doyle often uses—she’s his actual sister and therefore his equal—but she has a unique way of challenging Sherlock’s very identity and ways of perceiving the world. Her attempts to battle Holmes require him to push himself further, engaging honestly with the strong emotional connections he has made despite his cold, logical perspective. As emotions are traditionally considered “female,” the revelation of a secret sister allows Gatiss and Moffat to reimagine the overly masculine source material in which Holmes is frequently dismissive of women and emotions to explore the power of feelings. Eurus pushes Holmes with logical problems behind a backdrop of emotional manipulation. With each puzzle, Holmes must also directly confront his own powerful feelings and attachments; he must face an endangered child, choose whether to kill Mycroft (his blood brother) or John (his chosen brother), and (most gutwrenchingly) manipulate Molly Hooper into saying “I love you.” One of the strengths of Sherlock has been its awkward relationship to the course material. While generally faithful to spirit of the law, though not the letter, Gatiss and Moffat have created an intelligent and engaging show that’s as much an exploration of human relationships as it is of mystery. They took minor characters like Mycroft (who only appears in two stories and is mentioned in two others)...

Apocalypse? We’ve All Been There Dec26

Apocalypse? We’ve All Been There...

Maybe it’s the recent American election, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. This is not the first time in my life that my thoughts have been preoccupied with this. I recall when I was young, maybe 12 or 13, hearing about some preacher in the US who had proclaimed that the world was going to end. I remember my father, who was travelling on that appointed day, telling me, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not, but if Jesus comes know I love you.” This incident only occasionally comes up in therapy. As someone who grew up at the tail end of the Hal Lindsay, Thief in the Night brand of evangelicalism, I certainly remember an apocalyptic tone to some of the sermons I heard, but that was the only time I can recall, as an impressionable teenager, wondering, “is this it? Is the world as I know it going to end?” Since then, various prophecies about the coming apocalypse have come and gone. Some people were sure it was going to happen in 2000 and stockpiled food and supplies. More recently, California-based minister Harold Camping predicted the world would end in 2011 (first in May, then revised to October). I have also learned about the long eschatological tradition within Christianity—starting from the early Apostles, to the end-of-the-world cults pre-1000, to the Seventh-Day Adventists—that certain groups of Christians have been wholly preoccupied with figuring out the details. The apocalypse is not the sort of thing we should spend all our time worried about. Knowing something of this long tradition of apocalyptic thought in Christianity has not made me feel less uneasy when these “prophetic” messages make the news. In fact, it’s usually embarrassing. Some group...

Fear of the Other: Luke Cage, Racism, and Prejudice Nov21

Fear of the Other: Luke Cage, Racism, and Prejudice...

Since finishing the first season of Luke Cage, the latest in a series of Marvel/Netflix co-productions, I’ve been thinking about the various ways fear works within the show. It’s mostly used as a motivating factor for various characters, notably Luke. But it also works as a subtextual social commentary—fear of those who are different; fears of increasing crime and escalating violence in cities; the African American community’s fear of police victimization and violence. The nearly indestructible protagonist, like Cage, complicates an audience’s responses of sympathy or concern—it’s hard to worry about a bulletproof hero who can punch holes through walls. Although Cage does eventually face a physical threat late in the season, the show builds sympathy through Cage’s emotional fears, fears of stepping into the spotlight and of being known. Though Luke gets drawn into the violence on Harlem streets, and has the abilities to protect people (like his Asian landlords who, despite having lived and worked in Harlem for decades are treated as outsiders), he doesn’t want to get involved. After the events of Jessica Jones, Cage lives a below-the-radar existence in Harlem, working (for cash under the table) in the kitchen at Cottonmouth’s club and sweeping up hair at Pops’ Barber Shop. When Pops, who knows about his powers, challenges Luke to use his abilities to help his community, Cage admits the source of his reluctance: fear of public recognition, the fear of stepping into the spotlight. He may be able to survive buildings falling on his head, but he doesn’t want people to know about it. It is only after a particularly troubling death that Cage steps into the public spotlight—eulogizing his fallen friend and calling out his friend’s killer in one powerful speech about community. It’s hard to put yourself...

“Are you alive?” Cylons, Consciousness  and Humanity in Battlestar Galactica Oct24

“Are you alive?” Cylons, Consciousness and Humanity in Battlestar Galactica...

Though the Cylons haven’t been seen in over forty years, a representative from the Twelve Colonies annually visits a space station to maintain diplomatic relations. This is the first scene of the Battlestar Galactica TV movie reboot. Sitting at a desk, a human representative thumbs through a file on the Cylons, the drawings depicting the familiar “toasters” of the original series. When the doors at the other end of the room open, much to this man’s surprise, two new Cylons enter. They’re different than the drawing—bigger, sleeker, their hands alternating between guns and fingers—but their shape is recognizably machine. The two Cylons take position on either side of the door as a third figure enters: a statuesque blond woman in a red dress. She walks over to the startled envoy, sits down on the table in front of him, leans in close to his ear and asks, “Are you alive?” This question serves as the lynch pin for the thematic aspects of the show. We learn that some Cylons have evolved beyond metal and circuitry; thirteen replicated humanoid forms that have infiltrated the Colonies and are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The revelation of who these humanoid Cylons are makes up much of the series’ storylines as many aren’t aware of their own identities as Cylons. Some, upon discovering their true origin, attack their former friends; others, most notably Athena—a version of Cylon Eight who is aware of her Cylon nature but exercises free will—choose to live as human. Athene even takes a human partner and gives birth to child.  In defying her “programming” and deciding her own course of action, Athena is “alive,” which is most clearly evident by her giving birth. And this all speaks to the most remarkable aspects of Battlestar Galactica:...

Stranger Things: The Villains in Authority Sep23

Stranger Things: The Villains in Authority...

While many nerds were losing their collective minds over whether or not Suicide Squad would be any good, Stranger Things slipped in and caught people off guard with its interesting cast of lesser known child actors, 80s nostalgia, and a contemporary view on conspiracy and power. One of the reason Stranger Things resonates with contemporary audiences is because the real villain of the show is not the unnamed monster from the Upside Down, but the nefarious government officials who run the Hawkins Laboratory, conducting the secret experiments that release the Upside Down monster into our world, and indiscriminately eliminating innocent people to prevent those secrets from getting out. Sure, the monster is scary and dangerous… but not as dangerous as the people, hidden in plain sight, whose unchecked authority and power make them untouchable. Most of the accolades for Stranger Things have focused on the show’s recreation of the look and tone of the 80s. The show is a loving homage to films like E.T., Stand By Me, and Firestarter. In fact, Wil Wheaton, former child actor and ubernerd, has declared that Stranger Things might be this generation’s Stand By Me. And while Stranger Things captures the look and feel of those films, its depiction of clandestine agents and corrupt government officials is more a product of our 21st century mindset. The films that inspired Stranger Things rarely depict authority as dangerous or malevolent.  In E.T., when the government takes the alien for testing and observation, they do so with the best intentions based on what they know. Though their methods seem barbaric, particularly to the children, the government officials are actually trying to understand an alien creature that, for all they know, could be dangerous. At best, the authorities are reactionary and unimaginative. Similarly,...

Superheroes Who Didn’t Make the Cut Aug26

Superheroes Who Didn’t Make the Cut...

With the worldwide success of the Avengers franchise, applications for non-existent openings have been coming in from all over. Fans of the comics know that there have been a few less-than-stellar Avengers over the years (*cough* Gilgamesh), but these never before seen applications never left Jarvis’s desk. These “heroes” won’t make the Avengers. Noodle Man Real name: Tom Perkins Powers and Notable Talents: I have harnessed the power of limp noodles. Method of Transportation: Noodle-cycle; my mom’s Acura. Catchphrase: Uh oh, spaghettiOs! Menno-Momma Real Name: Elveria Rempel Powers and Notable Talents: Guilt; passive aggression; baking Method of Transportation: Access to the church mini-van Catchphrase: “Call your mother!” The Snuffer Real Name: Leon Murdock (no relation) Powers and Notable Talents: Whenever I am around, some lights mysteriously, and without warning, go out. I’m not sure why, and I can’t predict which lights will go out, but I thought that might help with the element of surprise. Method of Transportation: City transit. Catchphrase: “Lights out?” White Man Real name: Chester K. Smith Powers and Notable Talents: Privilege. Method of Transportation: I am propelled by my sense of my own importance. Catchphrase: Let’s Make [x] Great, Again… for me! The Mosquito Real name: Classified Powers and Notable Talents: N/A Method of Transportation: N/A Catchphrase:...

Keep On Keeping On Jul08

Keep On Keeping On

When Umberto Eco sought the feedback of friends and colleagues for his manuscript, The Name of the Rose, many, while praising the creativity of the narrative, commented on the difficulty of the first 100 pages, which described life and practices in a medieval monastery. Editors, fearing readers would give up reading before the mystery actually began, also suggested Eco rework the dense opening. Eco refused. As he explained in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose, “if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the mountain.” In framing the sort of mindset necessary to get through this part of the novel as a journey, Eco alludes to the kind of perseverance he expects. I got thinking about these difficult 100 pages and the sort of perseverance required to get through them earlier this month when I was loaning some books to a friend for summer reading. I handed The Name of the Rose over and commented on how much the novel means to me. “But the first 100 pages are really hard—the author tried to weed out people who shouldn’t read his book.” After thinking about that for a moment, my friend handed the book back to me and said, “Maybe not.” I’ve seen the same responses for not attempting to read Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, even Stephen King. So what makes some people able to persevere through long and difficult material? Put another way:...

iZombie’s Lessons in Empathy Jun17

iZombie’s Lessons in Empathy...

I’m not a very empathetic person. There, I said it. I mean, I’m a not robot, but other people’s emotions have always made me uncomfortable (I have a strict “no crying in my office” rule for my students).  I have difficulty relating to other people’s experiences because I have trouble seeing the world through their eyes, their feelings. I think I can be sympathetic, feeling pity or sorrow for another’s misfortunes, but empathy is much, much harder for me. And it’s my own struggle with empathy that makes The CW’s iZombie such an interesting show. For the uninitiated, iZombie is a unique spin on the traditional zombie narrative: zombies exist but can (mostly) pass in regular society if they feed on brains. Brains not only prevent zombies from becoming the mindless instruments of death we all know and love, they also transfer the memories and disposition of the former owner to the zombie. When Liv Moore is infected, she takes a job in the city morgue to have a steady supply of brains. She uses these memories of murder victims to help the police solve crimes, all the while trying to uncover a larger zombie conspiracy. As ridiculous as this premise sounds, the show’s strength is in its exploration of larger issues. Liv’s decision to avoid her friends is based on what she considered best, and fails to take into account the other people’s wants and needs. In the pilot, when Liv realizes that she’s a zombie, her first course of action is to remove herself from her various relationships for the safety of her friends and family. Liv’s motivations are largely altruistic: she no longer thinks of herself as human, she doesn’t feel like she is safe to be around, and isolating herself is the...

Cheat Taxes, Not Death Apr15

Cheat Taxes, Not Death...

When I was young, I wanted to live forever. That would be so cool, I thought. I could use all that time to learn languages, read all the books I ever wanted to read, see all the movies I wanted to see. Let me be clear here. When I talk of immortality, I mean physical immortality. As in NOT dying. I’m not talking about an afterlife or heaven. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to hang around on earth and continue living this life. Now, obviously my definition of “cool” left much to be desired, but I think there is something quite profound about my childish wish to live forever. Though I didn’t realize it at the time (I hadn’t gotten around to reading all those books), the desire for immortality is at the heart of various myths, legends, and stories: from the Gilgamesh’s question for immortality in the epic that bears his name, to the quest for the Holy Grail, to the stories of alchemy and the mythical fountain of youth. Many people have told stories about the search for a method to cheat that most mysterious of all human experiences, death. And I think that it’s that very thing that makes death so important: it’s something we all go through. They say the only two certainties are death and taxes. Well, some people have been able to cheat on their taxes. No one I know has cheated death. In an attempt to live forever, Voldemort loses his human life. And I don’t think my younger self was out to cheat death. I can’t remember thinking that. Certainly I am not aware of an experience of death that would have triggered that kind of response. I just felt there was so much...

Let’s (Not) Start at the Very Beginning: The Origins of Jessica Jones Mar25

Let’s (Not) Start at the Very Beginning: The Origins of Jessica Jones...

Jessica Jones has done something unique in terms of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Peggy Carter, the show is connected to the world of the Avenger films. However, it works as a mature (and I can’t stress that word enough) stand-alone creation, developing its own individual characters and stories. Perhaps more interesting, Jessica Jones complicates the usual superhero narrative arc we have come expect and might suggest how future Marvel stories should be told. Even though Jessica Jones does not have the name recognition with the general population as Spider-Man, the Hulk, or Captain America, the show doesn’t spend much time explaining who she is, how she got her powers, or why she feels the need to use her abilities to help people. But in terms of Kilgrave, the show’s villain, origins are very important and his origin story is used to develop further the true terror of his powers of manipulation. Kilgrave uses (a version of) his story to evoke sympathy and to manipulate Jessica, as well as the audience. Origin stories have an important place in comic books. These narratives serve the functionary role as a necessary prologue for the real adventures of a hero. And it’s only expected that those narratives would be featured in film and television adaptions. Filmmakers continue (often unwisely) to return to origin stories when making superhero films, often shoehorning that narrative into a large story. Many were justifiably annoyed that the producers of The Amazing Spiderman opted to rehash the well-trod details of Peter Parker’s transformation into the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman, particularly as Sam Raimi had covered the same material only a decade earlier in Spiderman. What we say about our own origins and how we frame our origin stories shape the...

Where’s the Love in Mad Max? Feb22

Where’s the Love in Mad Max?

When I read that writer/director George Miller was going to return to his post-apocalyptic roots and make another Mad Max film, I didn’t think much about it. The original films were fun, cult stories but not so amazing that I would get excited for a sequel. Even Miller’s eclectic but solid body of work (everything from Lorenzo’s Oil to the talking pig classic, Babe: Pig in the City) didn’t prepare me for one of the deepest films of recent years. People have remarked on its strong ecological and feminist messages, its reimagining of the action genre, its inventive practical effects. I’ve been wanting to write about Mad Max: Fury Road for a while now, but despite its obvious richness, no topic has seemed quite right. When Our Fearless Leader (OFL), Allison, proposed the topic “agape,” I quickly crossed Mad Max: Fury Road off my list again: “It’s an awesome movie, but where’s the love?” Theirs is a love of choice, not attraction, and it’s marked by sacrifice. Then I started re-reading C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves to figure out a possible direction for an article. Lewis uses the traditional English translation of agape, “charity,” and describes it as unconditional gift-love, a selfless love that places the best interests of the other person first. And then I thought more about Mad Max: Fury Road. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Isn’t that movie all about this kind of selfless charity?” Furiosa’s sacrificial love for Immortan Joe’s Five Wives embodies agape. It causes her to abandon her own position of power and influence in order to help them flee.  She risks everything to get these young women to safety. Furiosa initially seems to believe that selfless love can only exist in a specific place, her own birthplace: the utopian, matriarchal Green Place. There, she thinks, the Many Mothers will care for the Brides with selfless charity. However, when we learn that the Green Place is gone, a dissolute wasteland, and that the Many Mothers have been displaced and now scavenge for existence, we come to realize that Furiosa has already embodied this type of love. She’s created a community on wheels with outcasts and runaways. Part of the reason I think Mad Max: Fury Road has this interest in agape is the length the film goes to undermine any suggestion of romantic love between the two main protagonists. Sure, there’s the romance between the displaced War Boy, Nux, and one of the fugitive Brides; that love—eros—represents a kind of freedom from the authority of Immortan Joe, freedom to choose a partner.  But this type of love is not transformative. It’s secondary to the community-minded love embodied by Furiosa and, later, Max, which is as capable of transforming the wasteland as the water Joe denies his people. Agape isn’t something you get, it’s something you share. In “Mad” Max Rockatansky, Furiosa finds a compatriot and friend.  They have no reason to trust the other; their individual experiences have been disappointment and abuse. Their relationship is not characterized by eros, but by mutual respect and a deep trust. Theirs is a love of choice, not attraction, and it’s marked by sacrifice and putting the best interests of the other above the needs of the self. We don’t usually see this type of love in action films, which typically link a hero’s worth to his (almost always his) sexual prowess. Max’s lack of interest in physical love is treated as a joke—at one point we think that Max is staring longingly at one of Joe’s Brides; however, as the camera moves, we realizes he’s actually staring at the water she is using. After defeating Joe and upsetting the oppressive power structure of The Citadel, Max and Furiosa part. Uninterested in the attention of the crowd, Max slips away after giving Furiosa a parting nod. While the slaves of The Citadel rejoice in the life-giving water...

The Rorschach Test: Watchmen, Truth, and Lies Jan18

The Rorschach Test: Watchmen, Truth, and Lies...

I first got into comics when I was in junior high. It was a good time for comics, the simpler days before Marvel’s Ultimate complicated the continuity of the Marvel Universe, before upstart companies like Image and Valiant further challenged what it meant to be a superhero. The additions to my collection were based primarily on my interest in individual superheroes rather than the quality of the narratives. I was an undiscerning reader: I read The Amazing Spiderman, The Uncanny X-men and a few other Marvel titles because I liked those characters. I bought various Batman titles because Batman’s cool and Superman titles because… well, I don’t know why I bought Superman titles. I have never understood why anyone liked Superman. And then someone told me about Alan Moore and I picked up Watchmen.  I wasn’t prepared for what I read. It was so many different genres all wrapped into one: mystery, revisionist superhero narrative, political treatise, alternate history. Watchmen was my first exposure to a comic raising deep moral, ethical, and philosophical questions, often questions without clear answers. And it remains one of the few comic I return to again and again because of how Moore treats those questions. When all the conspiracies within Watchmen have been uncovered, when Ozymandias’s plot to create world peace in an alternate 1985 has been revealed, truth and deception remain powerful thematic elements. Once the truth that Ozymandias has framed Dr. Manhattan for nuclear attack on New York in order to unite the United States and the USSR is revealed, the heroes must wrestle with the information they possess in the light of the new-found peace that could stabilize the world. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see the dangers of Rorschach’s black and white perspective....

A Gremlin’s Guide to Gift-Giving Dec21

A Gremlin’s Guide to Gift-Giving...

For the past five or six years, my mother-in-law has been trying— unsuccessfully, I might add—to start a new Christmas tradition of giving only handmade gifts within the family. The admirable idea behind this is the desire to resist the increasing commercialization of Christmas by giving thoughtful, personalized gifts without spending a lot of money. It draws the sharp and important distinction between the importance of “gift-giving” as an integral part of Christmas and “commercialization,” with an emphasis on consumption and greed. The importance of gift giving as an aspect of the holiday season precedes the Christianizing of the winter solstice festivities. In the gospel account of the nativity, the Magi from the East brought gifts— gold, frankincense and myrrh (“but don’t worry too much about the myrrh next time”)—to the Christ child to acknowledge the importance of his birth. And we’ve all had to suffer through the terrible, endless carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Rand’s decision to purchase the Mogwai is deeply suspicious. Only a few Christmas movies (my preferred favourite holiday tradition) touch on the theme of gift giving with any real intentionality. There’s A Christmas Story, of course, which is more about being wary of what you ask for—You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie! But the only Christmas movie I can think about that treats seriously the importance of gift-giving is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984). Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my holiday watching tends towards the more metaphysical stories about the cosmic importance of the individual: A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, etc. And yet, when it comes to a reflection on the importance of gift-giving, few films come close to the astute allegory that is Gremlins. When you strip away all the rubber monsters and...

Retreating into mercy Nov11

Retreating into mercy...

One of the main characteristics that makes the Doctor a unique sci-fi hero is his non-violence in the face of danger. Whereas Han Solo prefers a good blaster (and shoots first!) and Mal reckons a good ol’ punch in the face will resolve a problem better than yammering ever could, the Doctor uses intelligence and reasoning, luck and audacity (and sonic devices) to vanquish his often brutal enemies—the Daleks, Cybermen, and even the Master. Since the show’s original premiere on November 23, 1963 (a day after the assassination of US president John F. Kennedy shocked the world), there has been much made of the Doctor’s refusal to meet violence with violence like a more traditional “heroic” character. The two-part episode, “Human Nature/ The Family of Blood” from the third series of the reboot offers a deep reflection on the Doctor’s non-violence. Here the Doctor is merciful, while John Smith (the human he transforms into in order to hide from the Family of Blood, an alien race hunting his life essence), is not. As a human, John Smith is a “good man” but flawed, predictably returning violence for violence—like so many of us do. The Doctor knows he can win, but opts to lose himself in order to avoid destroying his “enemies.” At the beginning of the episode (written by Paul Cornell and based on his own Seventh Doctor novel, Human Nature), we find the Tenth Doctor living as a teacher in an early Edwardian British public school under his well-worn alias, John Smith. He has repressed his Time Lord identity into a fob watch, forgotten all but dreams of his adventures. He and his companion Martha are in hiding, on the run from the Family. It is not until the end of the episode, after the...

Humanity and braaaaains Oct09

Humanity and braaaaains...

When Our Fearless Leader (my new nickname for our managing editor) announced the theme of plagues and health for this issue, I thought: “What a perfect time to write about zombies.” The more I thought about it though, the more I asked myself, what isn’t a perfect time to write about zombies? There are just so many possibilities with the undead. Part of what makes zombies such a rich subject is that they connect to fears about the darkest possibilities of humanity—humanity at its most base and inhumane, lacking compassion, reason or understanding. Zombies can represent the mindlessness of our cultural landscape and our unthinking response to that landscape. Over the past ten years—following an abundance of zombie movies, novels, comics, and video games—dozens of authors have connected the undead to topics such as philosophy, economics, and theology (the theologians especially love the scene in Matthew when the dead rise from their graves after Jesus’ resurrection). But for me, the most interesting connection to draw is still the link between the undead and disease, which has, since the 1970s, become a core aspect of the zombie mythos. Zombies are assumed to be the result of some sort of unknown (possibly engineered) and highly contagious virus. This pandemic aspect not only adds to the horror (now we’re not only at risk of being killed, possibly eaten, but also of being infected), but defining zombies as contagions creates room to explore questions about humanity and evil. Movies like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… and shows like The Walking Dead and its recently aired prequel Fear the Walking Dead use zombie narratives to wrestle Zombies can reveal our helplessness in the face of global pandemics.with large ethical issues: if zombies are created by infection (as opposed to voodoo,...

Blurred identity: Orphan Black Sep21

Blurred identity: Orphan Black...

One of the most engaging aspects of the first season of Orphan Black, the acclaimed Canadian and British sci-fi co-production, is the intersection of two main themes around individual identity. The first of these themes is the ongoing question of the characters’ identities, notably Sarah Manning’s (Tatiana Maslany) search for answers about her own origin, about who she is and where she fits in a deeply layered conspiracy involving illegal human cloning. The second theme, one that works on the subtextual level, is an exploration of the performative nature of identity for the actor. When an actor plays a role, she “becomes,” on some level, that character. This is most obvious when considering the amazing work of lead actor Tatiana Maslany. In each episode, Maslany shows off the kind of range that few film and television actors get to demonstrate in a lifetime. Each clone is a separate role for Maslany, a unique and nuanced character, with distinct mannerisms and personality traits. At the heart of the first season’s narrative is Sarah’s story of identity. It’s a standard sci-fi/fantasy trope, which I call Potteritis, in which the main character thinks of herself as insignificant; she’s usually orphaned and alone, believing there’s nothing special about her and that the world would not notice if she just disappeared. Through a series of events and revelations, she discovers that not only is she special, she’s the key to something much bigger than she could ever imagine. Orphan Black examines the nature of human identity, what we project about ourselves and how others perceive us. In the pilot, “Natural Selection,” Sarah Manning arrives at “the big city” train station and sees a woman who looks exactly like her step in front of a train. Sarah makes the split...

A laughing matter? Jul09

A laughing matter?

“But you must never imagine that just because something is funny… it is not also dangerous.” —Mr. Croup, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere How many times does a Mennonite laugh at a joke? Two times. Once when the joke is told. Once when it’s explained to them. Within many Christian circles there seems to be an unwillingness to engage with humour and comedy. In fact, I don’t recall any discussions about comedy or the nature of laughter in my lifetime of church-going. Besides an amusing list of bulletin typos or the odd joke at the beginning of a sermon (and the less said about these the better), humour doesn’t have much of a place within the church. Some view humour with suspicion, at best a distraction, at worst idleness. Why is there such ambivalence about laughter and the art of making people laugh? In the 1980 historical murder mystery, The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco suggests one perspective on this unwillingness to engage in deeper thinking about comedy. While investigating some murders in an Italian abbey, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, discovers the importance of some illuminated manuscripts of the abbey’s. While visiting the scriptorium, William encounters Jorge, the blind librarian whose opinions on the evilness of laughter surprise the Franciscan. In Jorge’s opinion, laughter distracts the faithful from the serious-mindedness of the gospel: “The comedies were written by the pagans to move spectators to laughter, and they acted wrongly. Our Lord Jesus never told comedies or fables, but only clear parables which instruct us on how to win paradise, and so be it… laughter shakes the body, distorts the features of the face, makes man similar to a monkey.” Of course this isn’t the only perspective held within the church. When I was a...