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Summer of Fantasy: Some Notes On the Virtues of Tragedy - The Annals of Young Geoffrey: Hope brings a turtle [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Young Geoffrey

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Summer of Fantasy: Some Notes On the Virtues of Tragedy [Aug. 4th, 2007|08:27 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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Note: The following contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and the first three seasons of the revived Doctor Who - yes, for all of them. Read on at


It is a truth unfortunately not universally acknowledged that Drama possessed of an exciting Plot must be in want of a tragedy.

I recently posted some admittedly lacklustre commentary concerning my disappointment with the final volume of the Harry Potter series. I also recently had returned to me, after many years in foreign hands, my copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's minor classic, The Hobbit.

Last night, after a largely unproductive day, I took said volume in hands and began to re-read it; this evening, following a slight-more productive day, I finished it and, though it did not leave me in tears, it nevertheless moved me and in so doing provided some further insight into why Rowling's seven-volume epic left me not only cold, but frankly disappointed.

Re-visiting the adventures of Bilbo Baggins also saw me pondering once again why it is that Russell T. Davies' revival of the venerable Doctor Who franchise works so well - particularly in the first two series, featuring the companion, Rose, as compared to the third series.

Simply put, where Tolkien and Davies get it right and Rowling gets it very wrong, is that to truly move the reader (or viewer), Drama must include some form of tragedy. Without that, the audience is left without any sense that the foregoing action - no matter how gripping it might have been during the journey from here to there - had any real meaning.

In Tolkien's The Hobbit, the hero, Bilbo Baggins, reluctantly sets forth on a Quest (now a staple of the genre the book arguably spawned) that leads from one danger to another. In Baggins' case, he does so in the company of 14 companions and is greatly changed by the end of the book. Further, three of his companions do not survive the story at all - though, this being a a children's fairy story, those characters are but sketches and move the reader only a little.

In his classic follow-up, the vastly more ambitious The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien eschews death as Tragedy in favour of that book's nominal hero's inability to return home and to stay there. By novel's end, Frodo Baggins has been so altered by his adventures that he is in the end forced into a permanent exile that one can easily read as a metaphor for death, among others. Personally, I take it is a metaphor for the tragedy that is the end of childhood's innocence, while others spin it in religious and, no doubt, stills others do in other ways. Regardless, I know of no reader who loves the book who is not in some ways moved by Frodo's departure from the Shire over the sea.

Meanwhile, over on the boob-tube, Russell T. Davies has proven that he too understands that no Drama - even one leavened with a healthy dose of humour and action and one aimed primarily at kids - is satisfying if the at least one of the heroes does not suffer some loss along with the requisite victories.

For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it is an ancient franchise that first aired in 1963. It concerns the ongoing adventures of a 900 year-old Time-Lord, an alien who, though he looks human, has two hearts and can change his body whenever whenever he is sufficiently injured (or whenever an actor wearies of the role). Between the time the program was taken off the air in 1989 and its revival in 2005, The Doctor's back-story has been significantly changed - his home planet and all of his species but him were destroyed - which in itself leads to a sense of tragic depth in the character.

The first two seasons of the revival are a minor masterpiece of television story-telling. Featuring a very slow-to-develop (or at least, to be acknowledged) love-affair between The Doctor ("Just, 'The Doctor'.") and the young woman named Rose, the 27 episodes are, first, a classic coming-of-age story, as Rose evolves from a naively adventurous girl into a young woman able to take command in the most harrowing situations imaginable.

It is also a love-story, rendered tragic not by death but by permanent and (apparently - this is a fantasy series, perhaps unfortunately) permanent separation. Both characters survive, but both are heart-broken and I dare any of you to watch the final episode without getting at least a little misty-eyed.

The third series also features loss, though it did not work well for this viewer. The Doctor's latest companion, the medical student Martha Jones, saves The Doctor's life during their initial encounter and soon (far too soon, to my mind) falls in love with him. But The Doctor never shows the slightest interest in being "more than friends" and, at the end of the series, Martha's self-respect gets the better of her desire and she refuses to continue traveling with him.

I believe Davies meant that moment to be moving, but it didn't work for me. In part because of the speed at which the (non) relationship developed (unlike the Rose series, the viewer does not get the sense that much at all happens between episodes) and in part because this viewer simply found Martha kind of annoying. But your mileage may vary and Davies clearly still understands that Loss is as important, if not more, to a good story than the necessary Happy Ending to an ongoing adventure story.

Which brings us to J.K. Rowling and why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is worse than a disappointment, but in fact is a cheat.

As those of you who have been following the series will recall, the sixth book ended with the death of Dumbledore (the books' father-figure and Gandalf-surrogate) at the hands of the nasty (but always well-trusted by Dumbledore) teacher, Snape.

As things turned out, book seven revealed (no surprise to this reader) that Snape was not a traitor after-all, but was operating on Dumbledore's instructions. Worse, Dumbledore's death - though not quite negated - was diminished by his ongoing existence as some kind of a ghost, with whom Harry himself has a long conversation towards the novel's awfully un-climactic climax. This device, which permitted Dumbledore to Explain All, of course also had the effect of negating the emotional resonance of his death in the first place.

To cap things off, Rowling has the god-awful taste to include a final, post-climax, chapter, oh! so prosaically titled, "Nineteen Years Later". Here we learn that Harry marries Ginny, with whom he sires two wizard-children of his own. The novel closes with Harry and Ginny seeing the youngest off to his first year at Hogwarts, then returning to the wizardly equivalent of of a bourgeois home in Richmond Hill.

In the world according to J.K. Rowling, tremendous adventures and saving that world from a Monstrous Evil as a mere child are not life-changing at all, but only some kind of unchaperoned excursion on the way to marriage, a couple of kids and the proverbial house with its white picket fence.

Where Tolkien and even Davies (dealing as he is with a franchise) understand that nothing is ever gained without some kind of price attached to it, Rowling would have us believe that even the most horrific experiences can be survived with no cost at all.

[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2007-08-05 03:42 am (UTC)
Interesting. I'm inclined to agree with you about Rowling, if not about S3 New Who (which I thought was better than S2 despite some very real flaws). And there's a similarity between both finales that I think Davies got mostly right and Rowling got wrong.

The tragedy in "Last of the Time Lords" isn't between Martha and the Doctor, it's between the Doctor and the Master. Martha's story isn't tragic. The Doctor's emo genocide issues are. So the tragic finale isn't Martha leaving—that's just the segue into the next season—it's the Doctor having his one chance of not being alone taken away from him. Much of S3's apparent aimlessness makes sense when you get that they were telling one story and another popped up in the last three episodes. (Not that the arc wasn't planned, or you wouldn't have "Vote Saxon" in the first episode or the end of "Gridlock," but it was unevenly structured. Probably because the actors weren't available earlier.) At least Davies got that he was telling a story about the Doctor always being alone, and set it up early enough that the pay-off made sense.

Rowling's problem is similar in that she started telling one story—Harry's—and at some point Snape took over. But because she was already wedded to Harry's POV and bildungsroman, she had a Structural Problem. And because she's richer than God and doesn't need to listen to editors or anyone else, she solved the problem by completely sidelining the Snape/Dumbledore stuff and throwing in the godawful epilogue. All of the interesting parts were happening off-stage, and Neville shows infinitely more character growth than Harry. She could have fixed that either by not having Snape be the real hero of her series, or by making Harry more interesting in the last few books, or alternating points of view so that we could see what was happening at the school, or all kinds of other things. But she got locked into telling a rather dull story instead that didn't quite work because we could see all the edges of the interesting stories poking out underneath.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2007-08-05 04:22 am (UTC)

Doctor, Doctor (and to Hell With Harry)

The more I think about it, the more I just don't give a shit about Harry Potter, so I'm going to limit my reply about Rowling to say, I think you're right, and leave it at that. Oh, and there's nothing more boring than a really boring 125-page battle-scene.

You're also right about Martha's story not being tragic - I was way overstating that case.

Leaving Martha out of it (as I want to do - some time ago, you asked "What's wrong with him?" in terms of why he didn't go for her. From a non-critical point-of-view, I decided I didn't like Martha in episode 3, "Gridlock", when she clapped her hands, jumped up and down and squealed like a 6 year-old when The Doctor saved the day. An appalling (to me) device she repeated more than once as the series went on, to the point where her coolness in the finale didn't come close to winning me back. But I digress), you're also right that the tragic story in that arc was that of The Doctor's loneliness.

But to my mind, the interesting (not to mention too much of the humour) stuff in the 3rd series was overshadowed by noise and histrionics. The Doctor keeps getting hurt and screaming, keeps (apparently) dying, is tortured ... too much (melo)drama and not enough fun. Remember "The Impossible Planet", when The Doctor and Rose land in the base?

Doctor: "She seems kind of ... queasy, indigestion or something like that."

Rose: "Well, if you think there's gonna be trouble we could always ... get back inside and go somewhere else."

Both: "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!"

I thought the 3rd series was too often missing that sense of adventure as fun. But I'm digressing again, aren't I?

The tragedy in "Last of the Time Lords" isn't between Martha and the Doctor, it's between the Doctor and the Master. Martha's story isn't tragic. The Doctor's emo genocide issues are. So the tragic finale isn't Martha leaving—that's just the segue into the next season—it's the Doctor having his one chance of not being alone taken away from him.

To get back to it, you're right, but I don't think Davies pulled it off all that well - again, because of the histrionics getting in the way of character development. In that vein, I think things would have worked better dramatically if there had been more time to get to know Martha's family (especially her mum), as we had the chance to get to know Jackie. Maybe if the story had been told over 26 episodes rather than 13?
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[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2007-08-05 01:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Doctor, Doctor (and to Hell With Harry)

I loved Martha (Rose lost me in "Tooth and Claw" where she acted like a total brat for no reason) but the problem with her was that she didn't want anything. From "Father's Day" on, we know exactly what Rose wants, and what makes it sadder is that what she wants is a child's fantasy—her father alive, her parents back together. This being the Whoverse, it gets dangled in front of her and snatched away a lot; she eventually gets it, and (this is what annoyed me about the finale) she no longer cares because her happy family fantasy has been replaced by the fantasy of getting a mortgage with the Doctor. (What would have fixed S2 for me was if it was Jackie saving Rose at the end instead of Pete.)

Martha, conversely, doesn't want anything. Well, she wants to be a doctor, and she wants the Doctor's Timebabies, but she's one her way to the former and the latter doesn't make sense because the time line is too compressed. Developing her family life would have helped (I could have sworn they had something cool planned with her brother), but what they really needed to do was make something missing from her life.

They could have fixed the plotting problems really easily, too. Introduce Yana and Jack halfway through the season, so Boe!Jack's warning actually makes sense. Make Yana a significant enough character that we care about him. Then have "Human Nature/FoB" happen, because alert viewers would go, "Oh, John Smith's vacant behaviour is a bit like Yana's...hmm!" And then "Blink" throws everyone off by being really good, and the last three episodes don't feel quite so rushed or thrown together.

The other thing I'd do, because I'm a total sucker for tragedy above humour (though it's best when they go together) is that I'd make the Master's plan about bringing Gallifrey back instead of destroying the Earth via little sphere things. That's what I'd do if I had a paradox machine and an extinct species, anyway.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2007-08-15 04:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Doctor, Doctor (and to Hell With Harry)

I loved Martha (Rose lost me in "Tooth and Claw" where she acted like a total brat for no reason) but the problem with her was that she didn't want anything.

And I pretty much hated Martha (okay, "hate" is too strong a word, but you know what I mean) from Gridlock on. Too much drooling hero-worshiping after knowing him for far too little time.

As for Rose in "Tooth and Claw", I think calling her a "brat" is a little strong. Trying to get the Queen to say "We are not amused" is pretty juvenile, but - you know - she is supposed to be only 19.

But all of this love and hate is really getting outside the perview of criticism, isn't it?

Meanwhile, I am much in accord with your suggestions as to how things could have been fixed. I also had the sense, initially, that Martha's family would have been a lot more developed and it seemed as if what's-his-name just kind of forgot about his sub-plots or else (as you suggested elsewhere) actors' availability became problematic.

On an entirely different subject, I just came home with some new spices. You should come over for dinner and beers one night after your return from wherever it is you've gone.
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[User Picture]From: sck5000
2007-08-06 07:08 pm (UTC)

ad hominem attack

Everything about your demeanour suggests you could be thrashed soundly at tennis by a midget, clown, or blind donkey. Everything about your eyes, elbows and femurs tells me you could be particularly humiliated on Tuesday, first thing in the morning, by just about any sleepless old man with a heart condition who will dominate you through the full 25 inches he towers above you.

What was this post about anyway? More Harry Potter? Harry Potter is the literature of sexually-confused furries. It teaches impressionable young boys that if they are outcasts in society it is because they are racially superior and should work on increasing their destructive ability at all costs in order to one day impose their agenda of ethnic cleansing; and it teaches insecure young girls that they can achieve popularity by subsuming themselves to the phallic "wand" symbol, which is the source of all true power. This JK Rowling fellow is a perverted misogynist and probably also a murderer and repressed pedophile. I read that he changed his name to disguise his Aryan blood and it was proven by reliable Internet sources that if you add up the numerical values of the letters in his name and then rearrange them with different values, it spells "Mein Kampff", which is German for "I hate Whitey."

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From: vernski
2007-08-14 05:36 pm (UTC)

Re: ad hominem attack

Yeah, what Sauron said.
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[User Picture]From: sck5000
2007-08-14 08:56 pm (UTC)

Re: ad hominem attack

What is a Sauron. Is that that slimy creature that spends all his time slinking through mud puddles coveting a ring in Lord of the Flies? JRRR Golding is a racist homophobe who spends all his time pursuing his only hobby of making fun of cripples and midgets. That scene where Frodo gets his glasses broken by those other kids on the island is proof that he is a secret believer in eugenics. It is not a coincidence that Gandalf and Golding have the same number of letters, syllables and vowels in exactly the same places, because Galdalf is his hero alter-ID who wants all genetically inferior people enslaved to a master race. What kind of name is Golding anyway. He wants pogroms.

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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-14 11:36 pm (UTC)

Re: ad hominem attack

Actually, JRR Goldberg was that guy in that show called Dallas that got shot in the 80s. You must be thinking of JRR Steinbeck, that chick that wrote "Gone With the Wind.

Sauron, as I'm sure you are aware, is the evil eye.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2007-08-15 04:24 pm (UTC)

Re: ad hominem attack

I think you're talking about JRR Gatsby, that lout who is forever running people down with his motorcar.
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[User Picture]From: sck5000
2007-08-16 06:25 pm (UTC)

Re: ad hominem attack

This spreading of disinformation is typical of your ilk. I think you want pogroms reinstated too. But it didn't work in the US and it's not going to work here. Al Capone distributed the liquor anyway and beat your fascist ways. The right to drink was originally enshrined in our constitution until Freemasons and Marxists worked together to get it removed by switching the documents, but where are your precious Masons now buddy, and Groucho never worked again.

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[User Picture]From: amaaanda
2007-08-14 05:34 pm (UTC)

Replying to your other post...

... because I really love that idea and I wanted to let you know that not only will I try doing that, but I look forward to reading yours.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2007-08-15 04:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Replying to your other post...

Thanks. As I presume you know, I am now two-for-two on the damned things. And even better, drafted an entire essay yesterday, which I hope to polish up this afternoon.

Will you be posting your pages as well?
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[User Picture]From: aurillia
2008-04-26 09:19 pm (UTC)
Most books I can read critically, but there are a handful that I enjoy despite their flaws. I know it, and I don't really care, but I liked your point - I think it was yours - that Harry was superceded as hero by Snape, and the climax was anti-climactic because, well you've already covered that. I still enjoyed it, but I wish she'd left out the epilogue. I know she wrote it years and years and years ago blah blah blah, but it was unnecessary - it's always better to leave things to people's imaginations and let a story continue unending that way.

I missed the entire Christopher Eccleston series of Doctor Who. *sigh*
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-04-28 10:00 pm (UTC)

Not Me ...

I think I understand your ability to enjoy a "guilty pleasure", despite its short-comings; I have some of my own, but HP7 wasn't one of them. But we can at least agree on that ... well, bizarre epilogue.

And the Ecclestone Doctor Who is well-worth seeking out, if you're fan. Not all of it good, of course, but some wonderful episodes.
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