Thursday, April 26, 2007

A cultural analysis of Doctor Who and Star Trek

From a cultural standpoint, it makes no sense to me why Star Trek is an American science fiction fantasy and Doctor Who is a British one. You’d think it would be the other way around.

Let’s look at the British, who are said to be more class-conscious than Americans. They have a monarchy, the House of Lords, and a history of limited social mobility. At first glance, they seem to be all about adhering to hierarchy. You’d think they would be the ones to dream in terms of rank and duty when it comes to escapist TV. That they would be the ones to create the fantasy of living on the Enterprise, a spaceship that looks an awful lot like the setting many people work in.

But they didn’t. They came up with Doctor Who, an unemployed individualist who roams aimlessly throughout space and time wearing whatever he wants. Excuse me, but there’s been a mistake here. That should be our fantasy. We’re the ones who are supposed to be all about informality and living outside stuffy social conventions.

With its short-napped carpet and drab colors, all the Enterprise needs is cubicles and Styrofoam coffee cups to pretty much recreate the office settings in which many of us toil and suffer. Those uniforms, the ones on the TV shows at least, appear to be made of the same material as the ones worn by fast food employees. This does not look to me like fiction created by yahoos who left the Old World to roll like a lawless wave over the continent, stealing land from the natives and answering to no one. We’ve produced cowboys and carpetbaggers, been a nation of fortune seekers and nonconformists. But now you can’t ride west on a Conestoga to stake a claim anymore. We’ve tamed ourselves, or been tamed by those who managed to find themselves in charge of things. So how come when we get home from our dumbass Secret Santa parties and performance reviews we want to sit down and watch other people at work?

To me, being a member of the Enterprise crew would be almost as bad as being Borg. No wonder Seven of Nine switched loyalties so easily. The crew lives at work. They have to follow orders and file reports. And for the vast majority of crew members, the ones with lower rank who never make it to the bridge, their lives must be incredibly boring. Sure, maybe they can look out the window and see enemy ships firing away and know things aren’t good, but they probably don’t know the finer details of what’s going on, and they’re supposed to just go about their jobs like it’s none of their business. They’re stoic in their devotion to duty. Everybody on Star Trek seems to be preoccupied with upholding professional roles with the utmost decorum. Rarely does anyone kid around, swear, flirt with any real enthusiasm, say anything off color, etc. And there’s always a plan on Star Trek. They’re always leaving one place and trying to get to another on time.

What a fucking nightmare.

They seem to derive all their satisfaction in life from the fact that they are proud to be members of Star Fleet. They are such elitists that all they need from life is to belong to this Ivy League-like alumni group of Starfleet Academy graduates. Or they believe so much in the Star Fleet mission, they just love being a part of it. They don’t always agree, but they remain staunchly loyal to each other.

That’s the kind of horseshit thinking that we Americans fought the Revolution to overthrow.

I like the Doctor Who character because he chooses to run around with people he enjoys, and eventually he parts ways with those folks (his assistants) before the relationship wears too thin. Mostly he chooses females, and the question of whether or not he’s dating them adds a fun ambiguity to the show. If I remember correctly, Janeway’s rank prevented her from dating anyone on the Enterprise, and she had to seek romantic solace on the Holodeck. In my mind, that’s just high-tech masturbation, which is not very glamorous. It’s mean to the character, too, and possibly evidence of sex discrimination. You can’t tell me Captain Kirk abided by the Don’t Fuck Beneath Your Rank rule. And as for the sexual tension between Captain Picard and Dr. Beverly Crusher, that was next to no fun because they were both such bastions of good Star Fleet character they didn’t flirt much.

Once you join Starfleet, you put on that uniform and leave much of your individuality behind. Doctor Who might go from having a reporter assistant in camo pants to a jungle/cavewoman assistant in a suede bathing suit. Most recently he traded up a shop girl for medical student. The diversity of these characters and the fact that they don’t have to conform to any organizational standards or codes of conduct keeps the show refreshing.

It’s not like Doctor Who is a hedonist with no responsibilities at all. He feels obligated to save the earth or whatever planet he’s on if the need arises, but it’s not such a pain in the ass when you know nobody expects you to do it. And if you don’t know when you get out of bed in the morning that you’re going to have to save the world, you don’t waste all morning dreading it.

The doctor is more entertaining because he has no rank. In fact, his credentials as an actual doctor are in question. He carries no gun and mostly just bullshits his way through confrontations. Wouldn’t that be great if we didn’t have to get degrees, practice at the shooting range to stay sharp, or move up the ranks?

Rarely do characters in the Who universe follow orders. In fact, if they’re given an order you can almost go ahead and assume they’re not going to do it. He might get pissed off, but the Doctor does not regretfully tell them he’ll have to put disciplinary letters in their permanent files. I think Picard’s underlings would have told him to cram the disciplinary file up his ass sideways if they weren’t trapped on the same ship with him and his security officer.

Perhaps these examples of Science Fiction dreams are compensatory. I’ve read somewhere – forgive me but I don’t remember where – that people tend to dream of what they don’t have because the unconscious needs a sense of balance. So in the land of individualism, we dream dreams of characters giving themselves to a collective, to Star Fleet. And the more socially striated English unconscious dreams in a much less structured fashion.

Or maybe over here we’ve become so obsessed with guns and military whoopass we can’t even dream without them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Trouble Comes in Threes

Friday afternoon after work, I misplaced my keys in such a creative fashion that I haven’t yet been able to locate them. Sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning, someone stole the statue of Kwan Yin that graced the planter next to our driveway. According to the superstition that trouble comes in threes, I could be at high risk for losing something else if “losses” is the theme of this bout of trouble. I prefer to lump these misfortunes under the more general heading of “pains in the ass.” That way, I can count this horrific allergy attack I’m having in with the losses and call myself done with this series of three. I can petition that it counts because I’ve lost my sense of health and well-being. A mean-ass, people-hating species of tree is out there ejaculating showers of poisonous pollen. When one peers through a microscope at individual grains of this pollen, one can see that in fact they are tiny Brillo pads, which scour respiratory tracts and chafe eyeballs.

On the other hand, I might have to lump the allergy difficulties under “health afflictions,” along with the ear and the yeast infections from which I have suffered of late. In that case, I’ve finished the health-related trouble and still have yet to finish the losing things trouble.


Oh, wait a minute. Maybe I can count the check I wrote to pay for the Reflexology workshop I attended. It was an intentional loss though, so it might not count.

Carl Jung referred to the trouble comes in threes rule in his writing. I think it was in his book Modern man in Search of a Soul. He may have brought it up in reference to his concept of synchronicity. If you’re like me, you were introduced to the idea of synchronicity by the band the Police circa 1985, and associate it with the Loch Ness Monster. So here’s a proper definition, complete with MLA citation:

Main Entry: syn·chro·nic·i·ty Pronunciation: "si[ng]-kr&-'nis-&t-E, "sin-Function: noun Inflected Form: plural -ties: the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality —used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung "synchronicity." Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 24 Apr. 2007. .

In my mind, synchronistic events are like foreshadowing in novels – they presage something that’s going to happen or is happening somewhere far away that you don’t know about yet. Or they’re weird coincidences you can’t explain, but give you a feeling that there’s a spooky pattern to events in the universe. It’s an eerie or exciting feeling that the universe is paying attention to you.

My friend Rufus O’Hale and I recently had a discussion about synchronicity at work one day during lunch break. We sat on the curb around the corner from the front door. He smoked cigarettes and I ate crackers. I can’t remember why synchronicity came up, but I talked about an I-Ching reading I got years ago that specifically told me my boyfriend would marry someone else. This was weeks before I found out he had another girlfriend and did, in fact, marry her.

Rufus said one time he was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when a smelly, disheveled, and drunk man came in and began shouting. Since Rufus wasn’t getting into the meeting, he decided to take advantage of the distraction and leave during the hubbub after the loud drunk was shown the door. Rufus found him unconscious on the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs. The man’s coat had fallen open and Rufus could see that they were both wearing the same shirt. He interpreted this as the universe’s way of saying, “This could be you on the sidewalk sometime in the future if you don’t change,” and he went back to the AA meeting.

I thought that was a pretty good story and made a mental note to remember it. There was a pause in our conversation and for some reason I glanced overhead to see the silhouette of a medium-sized bird flash across the sky. I got a bad feeling about it at the same time that I heard Rufus erupt into “What the hell was that?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Something just hit my arm.”

“A bird just flew by.”

“I think it hit me.”

I was just thinking about how unlikely that was when Rufus looked on the back of his shirt sleeve and moaned. There was a turd stuck right behind his shoulder. It was almost large enough to have come from a cat. A chill went up my spine.

We decided not to speculate about what that might mean.

The Law of Conservation of (fill in the blank)

About a week before the shootings at Virginia Tech, I noticed the man who sat across from me at work (a temp job) had stopped showing up. I asked the woman who sat next to him about it, since they ate lunch together and talked a lot and I figured she’d know what happened to him. She didn’t.

The next day, somebody else said they’d seen him on the news. He didn’t come to work because he had a court date and then he went to jail. He – I’ll call him Randy X -had been convicted of soliciting sex from a 14-year-old girl. Randy X got busted in one of those news stings where they get somebody to trawl for potential sex offenders on the Internet by posing as a girl in her early teens looking for middle-aged action. I’m assuming Randy X must have been on the local news last year after he was filmed showing up for his date and got arrested.

He must have lost his prestigious job after that. I was wondering why somebody with a PhD in his field was temping. He stands to spend a long time in jail, and even if he gets a light sentence, his future job possibilities are going to be limited. I hate it for his family. Randy X’s son is about the same age as the girl his dad wanted to go out with. What kind of hell must he be going through at school over this?

What creeped me out was, I liked Randy X. He was a quiet, sweet man. Sometimes we’d exchange looks whenever his hypersensitive neighbor made yet another comment about how annoying the squeaky chair across the room was, kind of like we were sharing an inside joke. It’s not like I didn’t believe there might be potential perverts in the room, either – it’s just that he’s wasn’t even close to making it on my Most Likely to Sexually Offend list. I felt stupid.

Then all that drama in Blacksburg unfolded. One of the first things I thought of when I saw it on the news was, hey, if I can sit across from a sex offender and not have a clue, I could almost as easily sit across from somebody who could walk in here and shower the room with bullets. After that, when I heard all the opinionating going on about how universities should screen out crazies like Cho, I was disgusted. The people who say that must never have had the experience of living on campus in college. That’s when you learn that a shockingly high percentage of the population is mentally ill. And if you aren’t mentally ill before you move into the dorm, you could become that way after three months of living with somebody who tries to steal your boyfriend, always manages to find and drink your tequila no matter where you hide it, and makes your phone bill more costly than your tuition.

Mental health is a changeable state, and telling people “Hey, you have a history of instability, so you can’t come to school here” is not a good long-term solution because higher education allows a lot of unstable people to get out of the home lives that made them unstable, and it gives them skills to get a job and become more stable in the future.

Everybody’s looking for somebody to blame in the Cho situation. Our culture has forgotten that there’s no way to manage the chaos that’s inherent in the universe. We’re lucky to be here at all. Mentally healthy, law-abiding citizens tend to think their own personal virtue is what has kept them out of the loony bin and on the right side of the law. But to a certain extent, they have won a crapshoot of inherited and developmental factors. (For example, it’s a lot easier to develop satisfying social relationships when you’re not autistic. It’s easier to stay out of jail when you don’t have a compulsion to have sex with children). They’re simply lucky they aren’t walking in Cho’s or Randy X’s shoes.

There is a fundamental law of the universe – The Law of Conservation of Chaos and/or Assholes, which dictates that the elements of tragedy and antisocial behavior cannot be created or destroyed, and are a constant in our universe. In other words, a certain number of things have to go wrong and a certain percentage of people must fuck things up. So to all the Chos and Randy Xs out there: Thank You. Thank you for wearing the crazy/asshole hat, because your doing so decreases the chances that I will have to.

Demon vs. Divine possession

I was thinking about my last entry and it made me wonder. Why do Catholics have “demon possession” and Protestants have “getting filled with the spirit?”

I have witnessed the latter, which is divine possession and considered a good thing. It’s probably almost as scary as the demon kind for this spectator, though it doesn’t seem to last as long and doesn’t require the intervention of clergy before it stops. When I’ve seen it, it took place during a church service. There was a lot of energetic singing and call and response type stuff going on. I heard the noise level to my right shift, so I turned. A group of people formed a circle around somebody on the floor who I got the impression was flailing around. After a few minutes people helped her up and appeared to be congratulating her. All I could think as my breathing grew shallow and sweat popped out on my forehead was, “What if that happens to me in here?” I didn’t know a soul there. Who would help me to the floor if the spirit took a notion to fill me and I fell out? What if I hit my head on the way down? What would these strangers think? Etc.

Once I went on a cross-country camping trip with a friend named Lorene. In the middle of a dark night in Georgia, she started speaking in tongues. To make matters worse, a hellacious thunderstorm was going on outside. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so terrified. Most of her utterances were gibberish, but occasionally she’d throw in a phrase ornamented with Biblical-sounding names. Between outbursts she’d heave impossibly long, rasping inhalations. I was afraid to wake her. I was afraid to run away. I was afraid if I reached for the zipper on the tent, a claw would encircle my wrist in the dark, and I knew if that happened I’d have a heart attack and die. I would almost rather swallow hot coals than be that scared again.

The next morning when I told Lorene what happened she was incredulous in a really obnoxious, dismissive fashion. She did it three more times before we got so pissed at each other in the Rockies that we turned around and came home to Greensboro, ignoring the speed limit and stopping only for gas. Flooding had followed us out there, and wildfires sprouted in our wake as we came back. It all happened over ten years ago and sometimes I still wake up at night thanking God I am no longer on that trip.

Takeshi, my friend from Japan, told me that the fear of demonic possession must be a cultural thing. The Japanese don’t take The Exorcist all that seriously. However, they do have an equivalent fear involving curses from beyond the grave. The films The Ring and The Grudge were remakes of Japanese movies. They’re both about curses and Takeshi said they have about the same emotional impact on Japanese people as Exorcist –type movies do on Americans.
Well, this all makes me ask myself, what is the point of either kind of possession? First of all, what is the point of getting filled with the spirit in church? I asked my uncle Windsor, who used to attend such a church, and he couldn’t quite tell me, or I couldn’t make sense of what he said. So I’m left to assume it must be because it’s something like fun. I try to imagine it – getting to take a short break from your own personality and the responsibility of conducting your physical being in a dignified fashion. The support and nurturing care of the church members around you while you take this break. The feeling that you’ve touched the divine.

Windsor said he used to go to church with a woman who faked it for attention – getting filled with the spirit I mean. So he got fed up with it and didn’t catch her when she fell out one time, and they got into an argument about it, and I think he quit going to church after that.
Now, with demonic possession, the fun is probably all being had by the demon. Or is it? Perhaps the human being gets to enjoy the fuss vicariously. When you’re demon possessed, people pay attention to you. You have a license to be rude. And if you’ve felt in lacking in attention and respect from others before, you find that people attend to and respect the hell out of everything you do once the voice of Satan announces itself from your throat.

Something scary: go to Youtube and search for "Japanese ghost videos." Don't watch any right before bed, though. Takeshi said all of that stuff comes from Japanese TV specials that air every year around the anniversary of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. All Those creepy photos and videos might be of people who were vaporized and don't yet know they're dead.