SciFi Friday: Human Nature and The Dark Side

SciFi Friday is a weekly feature at Liberal Values which primarily looks at science fiction television, but sometimes deals with just science fiction and sometimes with just television. Some weeks I look at whatever news there is during the week, and some weeks, like Ira Glass, I have a theme. This week’s theme is human nature and the dark side in four acts, looking at Doctor Who, The Sopranos, Jericho, and Heroes. So far this season I have been vague in discussing Doctor Who for the benefit of those who might not watch it until the U.S. run this summer as opposed to downloading episodes. This week I must issue a Spoiler Alert and caution those who plan to watch later not to read this section. The comments on the other three shows also contain spoilers if anyone has not seen the most recent episodes.

The two part story on Doctor Who, Human Nature and Family of Blood, is considered by many reviewers to be among the best episodes ever. The story, based upon a 1995 novel, reminds me of one of the greatest episodes of Star Trek. As with this story, The City on the Edge of Forever, written by science fiction author Harlan Ellsion, broke from the usual series format. While the stories are totally different, both have the lead character travel back in time to become involved in a romance. In each case there is a reason that the romance cannot continue, and both stories are influenced by a world war to come. The original Doctor Who novel of Human Nature is available for download here.

In Human Nature, The Doctor faces a powerful enemy who can track down its victim anywhere in space and time. Next we see The Doctor appearing to be unaware of his identity, working as a teacher at an English school just prior to World War I under his occasionally used identity of John Smith. Martha Jones is working there, and ultimately we find that she is aware of the situation and is watching over The Doctor.

The story is gradually explained in flash backs. The Doctor became human to make it difficult for The Family, who is searching for a Time Lord, to track him down. Martha has been left a set of instructions, and a way to return the Doctor’s memory of being a Time Lord in case they were found. Later the strategy becomes clearer as we find that The Family only has a limited life span, but if they find a Time Lord before dying they could become immortal and terrorize the universe forever. Once The Family died, Martha could restore The Doctor, whose memory was contained in what appeared to be an old watch.

There was a problem in the instructions left for Martha which The Doctor did not envision. He fell in love with a school nurse, much to the distress of Martha who is herself in love with The Doctor. There is another complication as John Smith sees the restoration of his identity as The Doctor being the equivalent to his death and initially resists this. This is made even more difficult when he is given a vision of living a long life as a human married to the nurse he fell in love with if he remains as Mr. Smith.

This story allows us to learn more about The Doctor as we literally see his human side. In the past, The Doctor has mentioned a desire to settle down and live a normal life, but we know that is impossible for him. The Doctor has also alluded to the need for human companions to help contain his dark side, and this also comes out in this story.

For a moment we are given the impression that Mr. Smith has decided to remain human when he goes to The Family’s ship and appears to surrender the essence of his self as a Time Lord which is contained in the watch. It turns out to be a trick as the watch is a fake and The Doctor uses this distraction to tamper with controls on their ship. Martha, acting as narrator, explains what happens next:

“He’s like fire, and ice, and rage. He’s like the night and the storm and the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And… he’s wonderful.”

The Doctor gives The Family the immortality they desired, but his dark side comes out as they are granted an immortality consisting of various forms of eternal imprisonment. Someday you may see signs of this in any mirror.

The Doctor returns to see the nurse who fell in love with John Smith. He offers to have her join him as another companion, but it is John Smith, and not The Doctor who she is in love with. It is as if Lois Lane rejected Superman if she couldn’t have Clark Kent. The Doctor, when asked, did say he could become John Smith again, but he would not. He will remain The Doctor, even if it means never again experiencing human love.

Tony Soprano is also becoming increasingly alone. Recently he killed Christopher, and it has become more clear than ever than his son will never be able to take over for him. Others high in his organization are being killed as the long simmering war between the New Jersey and New York mobs becomes hot. But that’s the dark side, which is not the whole story to The Sopranos.

The Sopranos were in many ways a normal human family. We saw the effects of Tony’s relations with his family. We saw him put his mother in a nursing home before her death, and we saw him taking his daughter Meadow to look at colleges. It was just a typical suburban family, except for his job. Last year, after Tony was shot, he even had dreams while unconscious of being a normal salesman, similar to The Doctor’s temporary life as a human.

Tony was troubled by his life, and the first episode began with him seeing a psychiatrist. Dr. Melfi’s role in the series probably ended last week as she dismissed Tony as a patient, realizing that her talks with him were just allowing him to justify his sociopathic actions and become a better gangster. This does raise questions as to whether she was right to drop him like this, or whether she should still have helped him with his personal problems as much as she could. It also isn’t certain if it was the literature on sociopaths which made Dr. Melfi make this decision or whether it was really the disapproval of her peers which led to this decision.

Tony’s apparently normal life in the suburbs came to at least a temporary end last week with Phil Leotardo of the New York mob deciding to go after Tony, forcing him into hiding. It is hard to see this ending without the death of one of them. If Tony does survive his organization will have been seriously damaged, but he will still have his family. That might be a fitting end for the series as it mirrors the decline of the mob in the United States.

Jericho began with a city which survived after much of the country was destroyed by nuclear bombs set off by terrorists. The first portion of the series was primarily about normal humans coping with the situation. Gradually we saw the dark side as they faced threats from out of town. The season ended with a cliff hanger in which a neighboring town was attacking them. We were left with hope as one character convinced what remained of the United States army to intervene, but we are not sure if this is for the best. This remnant of the army is led by the former director of homeland security who appears to have been involved in the terrorist plot. We are reminded that this is not the United States government we know when we see their flag with vertical stripes.

This was an excellent cliff hanger, but turned out to be the series finale as the show was cancelled. During the episode, the people of Jericho responded to an ultimatum to surrender with the message “nuts.” Fans of Jericho took up this message and sent 50.000 pounds of nuts in protest. CBS gave in with this announcement. They have agreed to produce seven episodes at mid-season next year, but are calling on fans to bring in more viewers if there are to be more. To facilitate new fans picking up the series, they will continue to stream them on line, rerun the series over the summer, and release the DVD of the first season in September.

Heroes was far more successful than Jericho and its renewal was not in doubt. Heroes dealt with humans with superpowers, but despite their powers they were still governed by human nature. Some were good, and some were controlled by their dark side. As with many people, the nature of some was in between. Claire’s father first appeared to be evil, but in the end this was far more complex. Nathan was gradually made to appear evil, but ultimately he was instrumental in saving New York from the explosion

I had wondered why it was necessary for Nathan to fly Peter above the city to prevent its destruction when Peter exploded. Peter could take on Nathan’s power to fly and could have done this on his own. Series creator Tim Kring told TV Guide, “You know, theoretically you’re not supposed to be thinking about that.” When told that viewers were thinking about this, Kring provided more of an answer:

When assured that viewers are, Kring confirms that — as many have theorized — radioactive Peter’s other powers were “incapacitated” at that pivotal moment, and “somewhere in there is the explanation” for having Nathan grab his bro and do the “flying man!” thing. “But the real explanation is that we wanted Nathan to show up and [save the day]!”

“Yes, I will admit that there’s a very tiny window of logic there,” Kring continues with a laugh. “But what can I say? It’s requires the proverbial suspension of disbelief.” Which, when airing opposite 24, a season finale is certainly allowed.

It is a little too convenient for a key power to become “incapacitated” at such a pivital moment. Similarly, characters with the needed powers often popped up just as needed. Such holes in the story line made the season finale a bit disappointing, but it was such a fun ride to get there that this might be forgiven.

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