Little Sister

Nearly a year after it originally aired, today I finished watching season 1 of Wynonna Earp, the television show based on the comic book series of which I had never heard. One of my favourite things about the show is that it is not pretentious or smugly confident about its own quality. I had been watching Riverdale, a show that is so completely convinced of its own cleverness that even the prettiness of Cole Sprouse can’t save it; although I associate this smugness more with Doctor Who and Sherlock and it is precisely what led me to give up on those shows. Wynonna Earp seems to have accurately approximated how good it is – a bit silly, low budget, but fun and with a solid story – and to have embraced that level of quality to allow it to have both a sense of humour while taking its ridiculous core concepts seriously. It’s a balance that I haven’t felt a genre show has got quite right since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with the possible exception of Hannibal, if you consider it to be a genre show). It’s not the only comparison one can make between Wynonna Earp and Buffy, and part of the reason I like Wynonna Earp so much is because it comes out of these comparisons surprisingly well.

This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (primarily season 7); I don’t think anything I say about Wynonna Earp could be considered a spoiler.

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How to solve a problem like Helena?

This post will contain spoilers for Orphan Black seasons 1-3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3-9 (yes, including the comic book continuations to a point), and Angel seasons 1-4. And, it turns out in the writing of it, Being Human series 1-3 (the UK version).

I had originally planned to write this blog after the penultimate episode of Orphan Black season 3 (“Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”), but I watched it too late in the week and so I waited until I’d seen the finale. The finale doesn’t change much of what I have to say, although it does provide a fun quote and some additional material. What I have to say is this: Helena is becoming a problem. Here is why.

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Being Buffy

I’m pretty certain that when Being Human begin, long ago in 2009, it held no aspirations to being Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It might have done – I don’t doubt that Toby Whithouse was aware of Buffy, and RTD made it perfectly clear that Buffy was an influence on the re-boot of Doctor Who back in 2005. And why shouldn’t we strive for perfection in everything we do?*

But while Buffy’s metaphor was supernatural occurrences for teenage problems, Being Human chose the supernatural flat-share, the group of people throw together by fate trying to keep themselves going despite the fact that the world was against them. As Willow’s magic became a drug addiction (and later, somehow, also female power or something?) Mitchell’s bloodlust was essentially sex or porn addiction. George was unable to cope with the fact that there was violence in him, and that was why he kept on repeating it. Annie was on the other side – stuck in a relationship she couldn’t accept as abusive, even though she was being hurt – to the point that she had already been killed. The fourth episode (written by the cousin of a friend I hadn’t met at that point) took this reality to its extreme, and was the best episode of any TV series of which I can think off the top of my head (except, perhaps, “The Women of Qumar“) On top of this, the show was witty, well acted, and looked (when they were careful with the werewolf transitions) fantastic. In general, it wasn’t a violent show – it was a funny show, a thriller if anything, and often touching. And Mitchell was definitely the best looking vampire in a post-Angel world.** It was, on British TV, the closest thing I had seen to the logos – the Seraphim of supernatural TV.

That was its first series. Six episodes – and to be honest, what was going to go wrong began in the last two. The second series could no longer hide the influence of Buffy, and directly referenced it in the first episode – although Nina the werewolf was actually in Angel. Overall, the series tried to be Buffy series 4 – arguably the worst series of Buffy*** – introducing a private army/government anti-supernatural thing. The lack of a clear agenda, especially apparent in the character of George, matched with writing focused on cool events (Box Tunnel, for example) the impact of which didn’t seem fully though through, introducing potentially interesting characters which then didn’t get used properly, and generally meandering meant that the show lost its appeal. Worst of all, it wasn’t funny. One of Buffy’s chief attributes was its ability to match being funny with being dramatic and believable – the only way to go with a supernatural show is to have absolute conviction in your monsters, but a sense of humour about life.**** It makes it seem real.

I think that my love of the first series could only have got me through one awful series, so fortunately the third series was a bit back on track. Resurrecting an old villan after only fourteen episodes is a little bit rubbish, but they did it surprisingly well. It leaned too close to the fluff of Buffy, the action which kept it fun rather than the emotional core which kept it brilliant. Introducing vampire killers seems to imply that Buffy remained an influence. And I really enjoyed Becoming Human, and look forward to Craig Roberts appearing in series 4. But the ending – sappy, aimless, unrewarding and a let-down. Which is unfortunate, as it tarnishes my memory of an otherwise good series.

The new series began last night, and I watched it tonight on iPlayer. The episodes now have names – pointless names, with hammer blows of symbolism (“Eve of the War” – ugh, though you will have to watch it to get that one) rather than subtlety or wit (“Out of Mind, Out of Sight”, anyone? …. OK, I concede that point). The awful future timeline running through the episode was a step which I really think should have been avoided – Toby Whithouse has spent too much time with the Doctor recently, I suspect – and my inability to understand WHY these vampires care about a couple of werewolves and a ghost made it difficult to enjoy. But now we’re past the overarching plot, the mythology and history (which Buffy built up, over lots and lots of time) have been thrown at us, and we can enjoy the touching family drama of a ghost, a werewolf, and their saviour baby.

The best thing – or perhaps the worst thing, I haven’t decided yet – was the secondary plotline with Hal, his werewolf, and their ghost. This was Being Human where it had worked. Where they hadn’t gone over-the-top with silly organisations and vampire terrorists. Where they had just kept it to a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost, sharing a flat in Southend. That was the show I wanted to watch. And, with any luck, it is the show Being Human will become. These new characters are the reason why I’m looking forward to this series, and why I will keep on watching.

And anyway, it turns out that the Seraphim is actually Misfits, which even in its sub-par third series remained fun and watchable. Perhaps Being Human will improve now one of its leading cast shares DNA with Misfits’ main character?

* I may be making a hash of Plato’s theory of forms here, but as I understand it (coming mostly via St. Augustine and reading The Republic well before Doctor Who was regenerated) there is an ultimate form of everything, the logos, from which everything else is a mere reflection. So just like a drawing of a chair is to a chair, all chairs are to the ultimate chair, the logos of chairs. It might be that the logos is just the supreme being. Anyway, when it comes to supernatural TV (and maybe all TV) I believe that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the logos. To be honest, it’s pretty much true even if the logos is God.

** Fine, post-Spike world, if we MUST.

*** Personally, Buffy series 4 is one of my favourites. I like how calm it is, and how it works together with the fantastic first series of Angel. But I understand that this is not a widely held view.

**** This applies to science fiction and other drama as well. The West Wing stands out for its sense of humour too.

The Woman

Sherlock returned to the television this weekend, and is available on iPlayer until 22nd January if you haven’t seen it. It adapted the story of A Scandal in Bohemia, which I haven’t read, but which features Irene Adler, the woman who out foxed Sherlock Holmes. And, as is the raison d’être of the show, it updated her for the 21st century. Personally, I enjoyed the beginning of the episode, which resolved the cliffhanger at the end of the first series (although I was very annoyed by that cliffhanger in August 2010, how could you have a cliffhanger after three episodes?!) and went on to show Sherlock and John gain notoriety, ultimately ending with a trip to Buckingham Palace and employment by someone, no idea who lives there. I also enjoyed the end of the episode, when Sherlock figured out one of the mysteries running through the episode. But the middle I felt dragged a little – the overall plot lacked structure, and ran like a series of encounters between two characters which, to have the proper effect, really needed either different events or a voiceover to bridge them. The banter between Sherlock and Irene and John and Mycroft was good, there were enjoyable things about the episode, but from a narrative perspective I wonder if this story wouldn’t have been better cut up and distributed across a longer series, or even (heaven forbid) structured around advertising breaks which might have given an element of structure to proceedings.

A more series complaint about the episode was raised by this commentator on the Guardian website. I’m not sure how far I agreed with the article, then a quick glance at the comments revealed that I didn’t want to agree with those people, which meant I probably agreed with the article. However a few notes jarred with me. Firstly, and perhaps understandably, my adoration of the Doctor/Amy/Rory period of Doctor Who means that I haven’t noticed Steven Moffat’s “failure to sketch a compelling central dynamic between the lead and his companion”, although I accept that I might be blinkered on this front. I would agree that, while I adore Amy, I wouldn’t be confident in describing her as a good female role model the way I would Buffy Summers, for example. However, bringing the Doctor, or rather Matt Smith’s Doctor, into the equation does show off a deficiency in arguing about the tendencies of a writer from a limited selection of their works: how do the characters from Coupling,  or Sally Sparrow, or any other women Moffat has written in Doctor Who fit into this equation? I would imagine the parallel to Irene Adler in the mind of the commentator, although this is not explicitly stated, is River Song. I the dynamic between the sexually repressed but incredibly intelligent Doctor and the more expressive and freely sexual (as well as incredibly intelligent) River is perhaps the PG version of Sherlock and Irene’s relationship in “A Scandal in Belgravia”; there is in turn the casual flirtation between the male lead and his companion, which is ruled out for one reason or another but continues to provide a note of humour in any episode written by Moffat.

The rest of the argument goes on to suggest that the portrayal of Irene Adler is sexist for various reasons, which I initially found convincing. The first counter argument I would suggest, however, is that there is any intention of sexism of Moffat’s part. In fact, I would suggest that the most fertile ground for inadvertent sexism in the modern world is when a man attempts to create a strong female character. If it goes wrong, it begins to look like a male fantasy (and the comments about the final scene of that episode of Sherlock are perhaps the most accurate accusation) – but then again that’s what this is, fiction written by a man. Sherlock is the hero, of course he will eventually outwit Irene (even if that’s not the point of the original story). If an Irene Adler is to appear who is a good, strong, female role model then perhaps the best way to do that would be to have a woman write her – but this amounts to saying that if you don’t like what we’re doing do it yourself.* In a Skype conversation with a friend about this article earlier I blamed “an industry which fails to properly serve its female writing talent, and a society which remains unequal”. Perhaps this is the case, I feel less confident about it now.

A further counter, which is focused more on the episode of Sherlock itself (and contains spoilers, so look away now if you haven’t watched it), would be that Irene’s sentiment is not the weakness which Sherlock states that it is. Or rather, it is not a weakness in her, but in him – throughout the episode we have seen how she manages to outwit him through manipulation of his feelings towards her. In fact, one might be tempted to argue that in presenting Sherlock (and the Doctor) as an incredibly intelligent man whose weakness is his sexual inexperience that, as an intelligent man, I could be offended by the presumption that this would be MY weakness (if I had any evidence to the contrary. . .). But I wouldn’t press the point. It is the realisation that he has been beaten because of how he feels about Irene that allows Sherlock to figure out the final clue to that last puzzle – her weakness is sentiment, but so was his. The point, I would suggest, is that these two have more in common than they realise.

Then there are the two points which hold most sway (and there are still spoilers here, by the way): that Irene Adler is reduced to bit-player in the squabble between Moriarty and Holmes (to which I have no counter but narrative, and personally I think the narrative would have been better without it); and the final scene, in which Sherlock saves her from being executed in the miscellaneous east: “a double-bill of two of patriarchy’s top-10 fantasies. All those troubled by female sexual power – or the persistent punctuation of orgasmic text alerts – were treated to the sight of the vamp laid low, down on her knees, about to have her block knocked off by a great big sword. And, at the same time, our hero miraculously appeared to save his damsel in distress.” This one is awkward. Firstly, I would suggest that this was obvious from the moment Mycroft said that Sherlock couldn’t have been involved (of course he was you idiot!). And perhaps it was intended to indicate that Sherlock’s spiel about sentimentality was just talk – he’ll still turn up to help her when she’s in trouble. He needed to show sentiment, and this was how they did it. Sexist, yes, but I would still suggest inadvertent.

I hope that this doesn’t make me sound like too much of an apologist – while I’ve exploited some weaknesses in the argument I appreciated that the article from which the blog has been extrapolated makes some very good points and highlights some of the sexism in what I would say is the second best modernisation of the Sherlock Holmes story on television in the early twentieth century. To discuss the best for a moment, Irene Adler is referenced twice explicitly in House M.D., firstly in the surname of the first patient we see House and his team take, and second in the fifth series, when Watson Wilson creates a fictional patient with her name. But she is perhaps updated in the form of Stacy Warner, the woman who defeats Gregory House, and perhaps that is the good modernisation of the character for which we are looking.

I posted that article on facebook to gauge people’s reactions, and my sister commented that she didn’t know why people obsessed so much over such a minor character. This is interesting to me too, but I understand that a lot of this goes on in Sherlock Holmes, who has developed so much as a character beyond the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle to the extent that “Elementary” really could be his catchphrase, and the deer stalker hat his icon, despite never appearing in the original works. Not that I’ve read any of them. I will perhaps write more on this when I have.

* The most efficient immediate counter-argument of which I can think for this is that if the aforementioned Buffy Summers (created by a man, Joss Whedon) is accepted as a strong female role model, then her female-created parallel would be Bella Swann. I haven’t read the Twilight books, and I expect I will read A Scandal in Bohemia long before I get around to them. But perhaps there is enough insinuation here to allow anyone who reads this to come to their own conclusions about what I mean.