Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade of Story

The past decade saw science fiction and fantasy storytelling come into prominence. A lot of it was bad or questionable, but some of it was among the most compelling storytelling of the decade, reaching the most people and influencing many lives.

Among the noteworthy events was the completion of the Star Wars saga and the successful reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. Of course, for many readers of this site, the big event was the fall and rise of Star Trek, largely chronicled in this blog's posts (of which, by the way, this is #1001. Patrick Stewart's knighthood was 1,000.) The rise of TV and film producer/director J.J. Abrams is a related phenomenon of the decade.

Another revival of the decade was Doctor Who. With the storytelling and creative guidance of writer-producer Russell T. Davies, and lead actors Christopher Eccleston and especially David Tennant, Doctor Who was a huge creative and popular success. Those of us outside it mostly have little idea of how pervasive the influence of Doctor Who is in the UK. What's also notable about this revival is how steeped the creators of the new series were in the stories and the tradition of Doctor Who, which ran new stories continuously from late 1963 to 1989--more than a quarter of a century--before being revived in 2005.

Right now, this New Year's weekend, the BBC is almost totally devoted to Doctor Who, as the David Tennant era ends with his final story on New Year's Day. In the U.S., the series is now carried on BBC America, which will run this episode, "The End of Time, Part 2," on Saturday. The previous story, "The Waters of Mars," was the highest rated show ever on BBC America, and it will also be showing nothing but Doctor Who for the first 46 hours of 2010.

But with major changes--a new exec producer, new Doctor and companion, new logo and redesigned TARDIS--how Doctor Who will fare in the new decade is an open question. This is especially true in the U.S., where BBC America is available to fewer viewers than the Sy-Fy network, which previously carried the series. For example, it's a premium channel on our local cable, and the additional money you have to pay to get the mostly garbage that goes with it just isn't worth it.

For all their creative and popular success, and the richness of tradition and past story they have, these sagas are all in some sense revivals or continuations, and this was pretty characteristic of the decade. However, it was an original story that was far and away the decade's most popular: the saga of Harry Potter.

This has been recognized in many end-of-decade evaluations. For example, Entertainment Weekly calls Harry Potter the greatest entertainer of the decade. JK Rowling was far and away the best selling author in the UK, by an order of magnitude. Though the book series was completed, the final two films will hit theatres in 2010 and 2011.

We recently watched all the Potter films in order, and it is amazing how unified they are, how much that became important in the 6th film was foreshadowed in the first. It's also interesting to note resemblances between these two titans of UK storytelling, Harry Potter and Doctor Who. Harry has his magic wand, while the Doctor has his magic sonic screwdriver, for instance. There's a bit of time travel in Harry Potter, and "magical creatures" in Who. And of course, there's David Tennant, who as the villainous Barty Crouch, Jr., does a kind of perverse regeneration, when he transforms from the good wizard he is impersonating back to his evil self.

Small wonder that Russell T. Davies considered a crossover story, in which the Doctor found himself in JK Rowling's Harry Potter universe. Davies also thought about a crossover episode with Star Trek, during the run of Enterprise. Though the Battlestar Galactica series had an actual tie to Star Trek, with former Trek writer Ron Moore, these three--Star Trek, Doctor Who and Harry Potter--have more in common in terms of approach and attitude. (They are similar as well to another saga successfully transferred to film in the past decade: Spiderman.) They all emphasize the possibility, the necessity as well as the difficulty of ethical choices. As Sirius Black says in a Harry Potter film, we all have good and bad within us, and our choices are who we really are. The same is said in different ways in Doctor Who, Star Trek and Spiderman.

The dominance of science fiction and fantasy in our storytelling can be healthy. There is a kind of distancing that allows us to talk about our contemporary world. They tell us not only what we're thinking but what we're feeling--our dreams and our nightmares. This isn't always comforting--as what the popularity of zombie and vampire stories may say about fears of the future--but it is useful, and important to talk about.

But for all the images from the cultural and contemporary unconscious, these sagas in particular (Star Trek, Doctor Who, Harry Potter) give important weight to consciousness. They provide models of action, attitude and ethics, however metaphorical, within complex story worlds that mirror the ambiguity of our own world while helping us to highlight what's most important. So it seems to me that the prominence of this kind of storytelling, and these three sagas in particular, represent one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dour and despicable decade.


Doug said...

I've never commented before but I've been reading your blog for several years now... I always enjoy what you have to say about ST, and I'd say in particular your thoughts on the 2009 movie were spot on. Also: Long Live Doctor Who! Here's hoping Matt Smith can live up to the very high bar set by his predecessor... Happy 2010 to you, and keep up the intelligent blogging!

Captain Future said...

Thanks, Doug. I appreciate you checking in, and happy New Year to you as well.