Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gilligan's Island as the Skipper's Fantasy

So is it just me or is Gilligan's Island really just the fantasy of the Skipper?

Gilligan's Island tells the familiar tale of a group of unlikely castaways stranded on a deserted island. The ship's captain ("the Skipper"), his first mate, a movie star, a millionaire, the millionaire's wife, a professor of an unnamed discipline, and some random woman named Mary Ann. The castaways have numerous adventures on the island, highlighted by frequent hijinks.

While the viewer is meant to take the story as a simplistic comedy, upon deeper inspection the story begins to unravel and it becomes clear that all of the characters and set pieces are simply the hallucinations and fantasies of the Skipper.

Some may ask, "Why the Skipper?" The Skipper is the only character on the show, save Gilligan, who's presence on the island actually makes sense. Why would any of the other characters have decided to take a "3 Hour Tour" on the Skipper's crappy little fishing boat? What is far more likely than all of these random folks deciding to hop aboard the S.S. Minnow is that they are figments of the Skipper's imagination designed to counter his raging inferiority complex.

The Skipper is a troubled angry little man. Even in the show, which is merely his hallucination, he is prone to childlike temper tantrums. He is an older single man who is out of shape and has to rent out his fishing boat for tours. His best years are clearly behind him, and he has amazingly little to show for it except a crappy boat and a stupid hat. He's an almost tragic figure and the ideal candidate to have a massive inferiority complex.

One day, perhaps in a drunken rage, he crashes his boat onto a deserted island. He then proceeds to imagine a group of unlikely companions. In his mind, these rich, famous, and intelligent people likely came aboard his stalwart vessel because he was the world's greatest sea captain. Once the group has crash landed onto the island, they come to rely on him and look up to him as the leader of their faux community. For a person with an inferiority complex, this sudden influx of power and respect, especially from such well to do members of society, would be a great boon.

The presence of Gilligan makes sense in this context as well. Gilligan is the Skipper's imaginary foil, designed to make the Skipper look even better in comparison. Every time Gilligan bumbles, the Skipper can swoop in and save the day, thus further proving his superiority to the other imaginary castaways.

The series' ending also makes sense in this context. In show's last episode, the castaways are rescued, but end up returning to the island after discovering they preferred island life to life back in the real world. This ending makes no sense for characters like the millionaire and his wife, who went from a life of great leisure to eating nothing but coconuts and relying on a bicycle made out of bamboo for power. But it does make sense if the Skipper is the only actual character. Upon returning to the mainland, the Skipper is thrust back into the harsh reality of being an outsider and a loser. This is a stark contrast to the "life" he had built for himself on the island where he was a confident and desirable leader of a community. The Skipper heads back to the island, so he can continue to live in his perfect fantasy world, rather than continue a life he was unable to deal with in the real world.

Or I could be reading entirely too much into that...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Superman Earth One Review

DC's latest attempt at "modernizing" the Superman mythos has sold out at most retail outlets, and has inspired numerous reviews that all share one common flaw. While they all recognize that the book is generally not very good, they all miss the book's largest flaw- the narrative's central emotional conflict is handled terribly and resolved in an anti-climactic way that only further exacerbates the problems with the false emotional conflict.

Superman Earth One tells the story of Clark Kent come way of a Twilight novel. He's a young hard body who is terribly unhappy. You see, Clark has all these powers, but he can't figure out what he wants to do with them. In an interesting twist to the Superman mythos and one of the best scenes of the book, he tries his hand at numerous professions, ranging from professorial athlete to research scientist. Clark just wants to fit in, something he has never been able to do because of his powers. (Query if this is a tacit removal of Clark's time at Smallville High School from the new "modern" Superman origin.) But, he's under massive pressure from his parents to use his powers to become a superhero.

The pressure being exerted by the elder Kent's creates the false emotional conflict that permeates through the rest of the book. Why on earth do they want their child to be a superhero? (Going as far as making him a costume and giving him stern lectures on why he should never wear a mask.) The Kent's insistence that this is the most noble and best way for Clark to use his powers comes off as strange, and really makes little sense in a world where cape wearing vigilantes do not exist. Surely there are numerous ways Clark could use his powers for the betterment of mankind that don't involve him wearing spandex and punching bad guys. At one point in the book he shows a great knack for science by solving an equation that allowed researchers to create cold fusion. Wouldn't using his powers in this way help more people and be far more noble? The foundation of the central emotional conflict of the book, whether Clark is going to "take the hard route" and become a superhero or "take the easy way out" and use his powers in other ways, is just nonsensical. It's based on the false premise that somehow superheroics are better/more noble/more helpful to the world then any number of other imaginable uses of Clark's powers.

As emotionally conflicted characters are wont to do in modern teenage dramas, the reader knows about this conflict because Clark whines about it. It's not hard to imagine that by the book's end, the constant whining about how hard it is to have super powers has made Clark thoroughly unlikeable.

So we have an unlikeable protagonist suffering a false emotional conflict, what could the writer do to make things worse? Have the conflict solved almost entirely through forces beyond the heroes control. Clark ultimately makes the decision to don the cape when an alien armada threatens to literally blow up the planet Earth. Clark of course decides to fight off the alien menace, and subsequently decides to become a superhero. But is this a satisfying resolution to the book's emotional conflict? No, not at all. It only serves to make Clark a more unlikeable character. What else was he going to do when placed in the situation where only he could stop the planet from blowing up? There's no real choice. Death or superheroics? I guess I'll take a set of spandex please.

By removing choice from the resolution of Clark's emotional conflict, the book strips away the facet that makes Superman an interesting and enduring figure in American fiction. Superman works as an enduring character in American fiction because he represents the mythology that people are inherently good. When given the powers of a god, Superman uses them only to better the world around him. He makes the choice to do so, even though it would be easier and more personally satisfying to use his powers in other ways. It's the choice between altruism and selfishness, not the choice of using his powers to be a superhero or using his powers to follow some other career path, that make him an interesting and meaningful character.

Superman Earth One essentially misses the point of what makes Superman so super by forcing Clark to become a superhero. If he hasn't made the choice to use his powers to help the world around him, then he really hasn't developed as a character past the unlikeable whiny emo kid from the beginning of the book. At the end of the book he's just an unlikeable whiny emo kid in a cape, not a young man coming into his own and making hard decisions about his path in life.

The false emotional conflict and its poorly handled resolution are the actual problems with Superman Earth One. That is not to say that the other numerous criticisms that have been leveled against the book are wrong. The pacing is off and Shane Davis' art has never looked worse, but these problems pale in comparison to the major substantive storytelling problems.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Jetsons and The Flintstones as an Argument in Favor of Gross Income Inequality

So I may be reading too much into this, but aren't the Jetsons and the Flintstones a giant argument in favor of gross income inequality?

The Jetsons and the Flintstones are essentially the same show, each involving a family with contemporary culture, values, and problems, one taking place in a futuristic setting and the other in a prehistoric one. As the show's were produced by the same company they were able to crossover in a 1970's made for TV movie. When the two families encounter one another they find that they share a common language, morphology, and culture. They have similar phraseology, are able to fit into each other's clothing, and even listen to similar music. An average viewer might reasonably believe that this means that the Flintstones are living in the past and the Jetsons in the future, but wouldn't the striking number of similarities instead indicate that the two families are, in fact, living in the same time period? What if instead of a time machine, the families were instead just using some kind of teleportation device that was transporting them from the Earth's surface to the Jetsons home high above the sky? What if the Flintstones are part of an almost slave labor sub-class who is forced to live in substandard conditions to support the frivolous lifestyle of the upper class living in the sky above them?

So many quirks of both shows begin to make sense under this explanation. For example, The Jetsons offers the viewer no explanation as to why "everyone" has chosen to live in apartment buildings in the sky, and the viewer never sees what is going on under the cloud cover below the family's apartment building. (A passing reference in the Jetsons movie seems to indicate that this is due to pollution, as the buildings are shown rising above a thick layer of smog. This may help explain the "prehistoric" setting of the Flintstones, which is a world ravaged by the pollution created by the upper class living in the sky.)

This explanation also explains where the material to make Sprockets comes from. How would a society who lives entirely in the sky mine the minerals necessary to make sprockets? The explanation is quite simple. The minerals are coming from the Earth's surface, where Fred Flintstone tirelessly mines day after day after day.

But what is subversive about the Flintstones is that, even though they are clearly the exploited underclass being taken advantage of by a cruel upper class, they are a generally happy people. They are amazingly poor and unable to afford the many luxuries the upper class living in the sky has, like robot maids or flying cars, and yet they never wallow in self pity about their economic situation. Instead, the show displays them thriving and enjoying their station in life, as if they were completely content being members of the poorest working class. To them, the gross income inequality present in the world, where some live in futuristic splendor while others literally sleep on rocks, really doesn't seem like a big deal. Sure, they may not enjoy as high of a quality of living and their education system is clearly lacking (as is evidenced by Fred and Barney's numerous idiotic schemes), but the show brushes all of these issues under the rug, as if to say, "look being poor isn't so bad."

Further supporting the animators argument that gross income inequality isn't really such a big deal, they frequently show that life in the upper class isn't all it's cracked up to be. While Fred Flintstone is generally jolly, George Jetson is a cranky little man who never seems quite happy with the numerous luxuries being born into the upper class has afforded him. The rich in the Jetsons/Flintstones universe suffer just as many, if not more, problems than the poor living below them. In this way, the shows seem to be arguing that being poor isn't really that big a deal. By displaying George's constant problems and annoyances, the creators are saying, "look being rich isn't that great anyway," while all the while Fred and his family merrily trot along through their lower class existence.

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it ....

Why Do The Transformers Hate The Mentally Challenged?

So is it just me or do the Dinobots on Transformers teach kids that its okay to discriminate against the mentally challenged?

The Dinobots are a small group of Transformers created on Earth by the scientist Wheeljack. They are the first attempt by the Autobots to create new Transformers since fleeing Cybertron. Since the Autobots lacked all of the high-tech resources they had on Cybertron, the Dinobots turn out to be less than perfect creations. In fact, they seem to be functionally retarded. They can only speak in broken English, have poor motor skills, and are unable to grasp all but the simplest of concepts. (Note that the cartoon show departed from the characterization established by the comic books on this point. There, the Dinobots are extremely intelligent and gifted warriors.)

Having created their own "special" children, how do the Autobots react? With ridicule and disdain. The Dinobots are the constant the butt of the other Autobots' jokes. When "raising" the Dinobots proves too hard, the Autobots send the Dinobots to their own "special" island. In the Transformers movie, when the Autobots are forced to retreat from a battle, the Dinobots are placed in a separate ship from the normal fully functional Autobots.

What makes this harsh treatment worse is that the Autobots are the source of the Dinobots disability. While in real life there are many factors that can cause cognitive disabilities in children, the Autobots knew they were making mentally disabled "children," and yet they continue to ridicule their poor creations.

So when little Billy makes fun of the "weird kid" on the bus, maybe this is where he got it from. Or I could just be reading too much into that ...

The Transformers as Pro-Communist Propaganda

So I may be reading too much into this, but isn't the Transformers a gigantic piece of pro-communist propaganda?

Transformers is about an intergalactic civil war between two factions of robots from the planet Cybertron-the Autobots and the Decepticons. It's meant to be taken as a basic morality play for children. Each episode is about the evil Decepticons coming up with a nefarious plot, and then the good Autobots thwarting it. Wash, rinse, repeat. But looking a bit deeper into some of the subtext of the show reveals a deeper layer.

The Decepticons are consistently displayed as evil, and yet they display many distinctly capitalistic traits. The Decepticons are made up primarily of the military class of robots from the planet Cybertron. Their culture is based on an extremely hierarchical structure founded upon traditional "survival of the fittest" principals. Megatron leads because he is the strongest of the Decepticons. When he dies, the Decepticons engage in a battle royale to determine who should replace him. Subsequently, Megatron's replacement is himself replaced after be bested in an, albeit extremely brief, confrontation with a stronger Decepticon. Their culture is entirely merit based, with the strong advancing while the weak are cast aside (or literally thrown out of the side of a moving train in one episode).

Decepticon society is colonialistic. The primary source of conflict between the Autobots and the Decepticons is the Decepticons' desire to constantly expand the Transformer empire in search of resources. In an extremely capitalistic way, the Decepticons' modus operandi is to seek out a new planet, subjugate the planet's inhabitants, strip away the resources of the planet, and then move on to the next planet. The Decepticon's feel entitled to these resources because they are stronger/smarter/more technologically advanced then the people they are taking the resources from.

Compare this with the Autobots. While the Autobots are portrayed as the consummate heroes, their culture is socialistic enough to make even the most left leaning of American politicians blush.

The Autobots were Cybertron's working class. Prior to the beginning of hostilities with the Decepticons, the Autobots were laborers who seemingly toiled away endlessly expanding Cybertron's infrastructure. During peace time, the Autobots lived in awe of the Decepticons, who Cybertronian culture viewed as being a higher echelon of society (primarily due to the Decepticon's ability to fly). The Autobots, angered by the Decepticon's foreign policy and dictatorial rule, rise up in an attempt to overthrow the cruel capitalistic upper ruling class.

Autobot culture runs almost completely contrary to Decepticon culture. While Optimus Prime is clearly the leader of the group, the Autobots are almost uniformly treated as equals regardless of their inherent worth. Their culture is the complete opposite of a meritocracy. The show frequently beats the viewer over the head with this message, as perennial loser Bumblebee (the show's bungling comic relief character) constantly finds new and creative ways to be captured or otherwise mess things up. While Decepticon culture would likely castigate Bumblebee over these infractions, the Autobots continue to accept him as an equal member of their community. Unlike in a more capitalistic society (or Decepticon-ian?) Bumblebee suffers no real problems due to his almost complete inability to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

So be mindful next time you catch an old episode of Transformers that the good guys you are rooting for are, to quote one of my high school teachers, "dirty rotten pinko commies." Meanwhile, the bad guys, who's presence makes you want to boo and hiss are the one's advancing the virtues of capitalism.

Or I could just be reading way too much into that...