Historiography (With Comics)

I encourage anyone who wants to write SFF to read history, and to go beyond popular history to good scholarly history. Historical scholarship has its challenges for non-specialists, though, first among them: historiography.

It’s a rather intimidating word. The bane of history majors everywhere and a source of confusion to ordinary folks who pick up an academic history book trying to learn a little more about people and places in the past. It doesn’t have to be so intimidating, though. Historiography just means the ways in which we explain history.

There are many different theories of history with bewildering and unhelpful names: Marxism (which is not the same as Marxist economic theory), the Annales school, Whig history (which has nothing to do with wigs), and many more. Each of these theories encompasses a different set of questions that historians ask about the past, a different way of organizing evidence, and a different approach to interpreting cause and effect. At the most basic level, though, they are all just different ways of explaining change.

The study of change is, fundamentally, what the study of history is about. The past was not the same as the present. People lived in different ways, they held different beliefs about the world and made different decisions. When you take all of the individual choices that individual people made while going about the business of their daily lives and add them all together, the result is large-scale changes over time.

Different historical theories see that change differently. While every school of historical thought has its own specific approaches, some of the basic differences can be summed as the difference between seeing history as a pendulum, a circle, or a line.

Pendulum

Pendulum theories are based on the idea that most societies most of the time are basically static. People get up, go to work, come home, go to bed, and not much changes from one day, year, or generation to the next. Occasionally something will happen that upsets that equilibrium, like an outbreak of deadly disease or the introduction of a new crop, and it takes time for people to adjust to the new circumstances. Eventually, though, things settle down and people get back to the business of getting up, going to work, coming home, and going to bed. The population recovers as survivors acquire immunity to the disease or markets catch up as farmers start growing the new crop instead of some old ones.

From this point of view, the thing that’s important to study is the resting state of the pendulum, the condition that everything will tend back towards when its not being knocked about. We study history in order to understand basic things about human nature and society. The things that bump the pendulum are less important than where it will eventually come back to.

Circle

Circle theories believe that rather than one natural state to which societies return, there is a cycle that societies repeatedly go through. Each generation is shaped by the circumstances it grew up in and makes different choices than the generation that came before, but eventually things come back around again. A generation of spendthrifts, for instance, leaves its children in debt. When those children grow up, they tend to pinch their pennies. Their children grow up free from the fear of privation and more willing to take risks. Some of them get rich and raise children who grow up spoiled and irresponsible with money, which starts the cycle again.

To historians of this persuasion, the study of history is not about identifying a basic state we will return to but recognizing where we are in the cycle so we can better prepare for what comes next.

Line

Line theories believe that history is going somewhere and it won’t turn back. Small changes accumulate over time. Every choice that people make creates a new set of circumstances that future people have to respond to, and things will never go back to the way they were before. From this point of view, changes in society whether small, like a new drink becoming popular, or big, like industrial production taking over from individual crafting, has consequences that roll forward and are impossible to ever entirely undo. The demand for tea in England, for instance, created new incentives for trade, which led to new imperialist policies in Asia, which destroyed some local governments and elevated others, and so on. Even if Brits someday stop drinking tea, none of these effects will be undone.

Some line historians see the line pointing towards progress and an ultimate good for all humanity; others see it pointing towards degeneration and the collapse of the human race. Others simply see it as a process of ongoing and inevitable change. The point of studying history for all of them, though, is that we can make better choices for the future by understanding how we got to the present. The past is never going to come around again, but if we can tell which way the wind is blowing, we know which way to spit.

If this still seems a bit too theoretical, here’s an example in practice. How would historians of these different persuasions approach a particular historical event? Let’s take, say, the American Revolution.

To a pendulum historian, not much really changed because of the revolution. After several years of fighting that killed many people and interfered with daily life, Anglo-American men replaced one distant aristocracy with a slightly closer one who only inherited land and wealth, not land, wealth, and titles. For many colonial denizens, the revolution simply changed who they paid their taxes to and which politicians they grumbled about over their beer after coming in from the fields or workshops at the end of the day. For women, poor folks, enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, and anyone else outside the landowning elite, hardly anything was different in the years after the war compared with the years before it.

To a circle historian, the revolution was an example of an ongoing pattern in which the inability to reconcile political differences leads to violence. Stresses had been building up over time as the British government had different needs and priorities than the American colonists. Eventually these stresses reached a breaking point where negotiation and accommodation failed. The only way forward was turn to violent revolt. This pattern had played out before in English history going back at least as far as the Magna Carta and would continue to play out in American history, leading to the Civil War and to unrest in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The same cycle of stress, failed attempts at reconciliation, and violent upheaval has occurred all across the world in societies large and small

To a line historian, the revolution was a turning point which changed everything that came after. There are many different ways of understanding that change. One historian might call it the beginning of American exceptionalism while another might see it as a step in the disintegration of European empires in the western hemisphere. Another historian might see it as cutting off American law from the progress Britain was making toward ending slavery, or changing the focus of American trade towards the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. Whatever the focus, the war created a new set of circumstances that led people to behave in new ways.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Not all histories fall neatly into one of these categories, but these basic ideas are at the core of many. Understanding what kind of history you’re reading can help you get what you want out of it, and knowing what kind of histories are out there can help you find the one you’re looking for. Happy history reading!

Comics by Erik Jensen

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 6

Our rewatching and rating project carries on with season 6 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our ratings for this season’s episodes:

  1. “A Christmas Carol” – 7
  2. “The Impossible Astronaut” – 6
  3. “The Day of the Moon” – 7
  4. “The Curse of the Black Spot” – 4
  5. “The Doctor’s Wife” – 4.5
  6. “The Rebel Flesh” – 4
  7. “The Almost People” – 1.5
  8. “A Good Man Goes to War” – 6.5
  9. “Let’s Kill Hitler” – 6
  10. “Night Terrors” – 2
  11. “The Girl Who Waited” – 2
  12. “The God Complex” – 3.5
  13. “Closing Time” – 4
  14. “The Wedding of River Song” – 3.5

The average episode rating for this season is 4.4, which is a rebound from last season’s 3.7, but still well below the first four seasons.

This season has its good moments. The production team seems to have gotten a better handle on things and most of the episodes feel polished. The actors seem more comfortable in their roles and more willing to stretch their interpretations of the characters. A few episodes deliver new and creative stories. At the same time, a lot of this season feels underwhelming or poorly thought-out.

Our lowest-rated episode for the season, at 1.5, is “The Almost People,” the second part of a grimy industrial-punk story about goop-doppelgangers (goopelgangers?) gone rogue in a future acid-mining operation that for some reason happens in the remains of a medieval monastery. (Someone on the Who team clearly has a thing for goopelgangers: see season 4’s “The Sontaran Strategem” and “The Posion Sky.”) The first part was a bit nonsensical and left a lot of unanswered questions hanging (Why is acid-mining such a big deal in the future? Why use goopelgangers for it? Why are they in a medieval monastery? How did any of this get past health and safety, let alone the heritage council?), but at least it promised the possibility of a good old classic sci-fi “Who’s real?” and “What is the measure of a human?” story. The second part, though, just kind of falls apart and doesn’t pay off. Like last season’s “Flesh and Stone,” and “Cold Blood,” the second half of the story gets sidetracked into serving the season-long arc.

There are brights spots this season, though. Things start off at a strong 7 with an ingenious Christmas episode in which the Doctor finds himself traveling back in time to play Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future and save the soul of a heartless old plutocrat just in time to save a crashing spaceship with his friends Amy and Rory on board. A two-parter follows, “The Impossible Astronaut,” rated 6, and “The Day of the Moon,” another 7, about the Doctor’s friends trying to save the Doctor from being killed by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit and in the process discovering the sinister Silence, who erase themselves from the memory of anyone who sees them. These episodes are a good mix of horror, action, and comedy, and the Silence make interesting counterparts to the Weeping Angels: while the Angels disappear when you look at them, the Silence disappear when you look away.

Although this season has its ups and downs, it also has some larger problems. One is the ongoing obsession with an arc story, which gets significantly more convoluted in this season, sometimes to the detriment of what could have been decent stand-alone stories. New-series Doctor Who has a pretty bad track record when it comes to season-long arcs. Most of them feel obligatory and ratings-driven rather than organic and meaningful. Arc-dependent episodes have consistently been some of the worst, while the best episodes have been those that have nothing to do with the arc. I’d be happy to see Doctor Who stop trying to be Lost and focus on being Doctor Who.

Another problem, which appeared in earlier seasons but gets significantly worse over seasons 5 and 6, is the amount of time and narrative attention given to other characters talking about how great the Doctor is. It was used as a cheap get-out-of-plot-free card at the end of season 3’s “The Last of the Time Lords,” in which a world full of people thinking good thoughts about the Doctor powers the deus ex machina ending, but in season 6 it becomes a recurring theme as ubiquitous as the whooshing of the Tardis. Even River Song, who started off as a fascinating character in her own right, gets reduced to a chorus girl singing the “Oh, Doctor, you’re so amazing” refrain this season. This character shilling goes along with the continuing attitude that special people get a pass on basic human decency to make some scenes really uncomfortable to watch.

How do the rest of you feel about this season? Got any favorites (or anti-favorites) you want to share? We know that not everyone shares our tastes or out perspective on Doctor Who, so let us know in the comments what you loved or didn’t about this season.

Image: Doctor Who season 6 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Waiting for Mandulis

Then bright Mandulis came from high Olympus

bearing his bright cheeks and walking by the right hand of Isis.

You boast how you provide for the people,

how day and night and all the seasons revere you

and call you kin, Breith and Mandulis,

stars, emblems of the gods rising in heaven.

– Paccius Maximus

(My own translation)

These lines come from a poem written by a Roman soldier named Paccius Maximus and painted on the wall of the temple to Mandulis at Kalabsha, in modern Sudan. We know very little about Paccius besides what he tells us in this and one other poem, but based on some clues he is believed to have been a local African officer in the late Roman army.

Mandulis, often associated with his twin brother Breith, was a Nubian sun god. It’s interesting to note how Paccius readily connected Mandulis with both the Olympian gods and the Egyptian goddess Isis, easily harmonizing Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Nubian religious traditions. His poem gives us a glimpse at how culturally complex and interconnected the world of the Roman empire was.

But, as fascinating as Paccius’ poem is, it’s on my mind today for a different reason.

It snowed here last night. Again. That’s the fifth snowstorm we’ve had this March.

You see this stuff? You see it? I’m sick of it. I like winter just fine, but it’s time for this winter to be over.

Mandulis, wherever you are, we could really use you and your bright cheeks right now. Any time you want to come start providing for us people here, buddy. Any time. I’ll be waiting.

When the suckage just sucks too much.

Transmog: The Wearing of the Green

Spring is almost upon us and its time to break out the green. We’ve put on our best spring transmogs just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

Erik here.

Here’s my Tauren warrior in what I call her Boreal Defender set.

And here’s my Dwarven hunter wearing her Luck o’ the Dwarvish set.

Eppu here.

Despite her resplendent golden, white, and turquoise dress, my fire mage also rocks green.

WoW StPats Mog Fire Mage

And my rogue decided to dual-wield golden hammers with green stone accents.

WoW StPats Mog Rogue

Here is her full set.

Do you typically do a special mog for spring?

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Race in Antiquity: Skin Color in Art

“What race were the ancient Greeks and Romans?”

It sounds like a simple question that ought to have a straightforward answer, but both the question and its answer are far more complicated than they appear. In these posts, I dig into the topic to explore what we know, what we don’t know, and what we mean by race in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Part 4: Skin Color in Art

In the previous post, we looked at how Greeks and Romans wrote about skin color. Today we look at how they represented it in art.

In looking at how ancient artists handled skin color, we have to begin by recognizing that not all ancient artworks have come down to us intact or preserving their original colors. We must especially shake off the association of ancient art with gleaming white marble. Marble was favored for sculpture in the ancient Mediterranean because the stone is slightly translucent and it reacts to light in a way similar to human skin, but marble statues were not usually left white. They were painted, often in bright colors which have faded or disappeared entirely after thousands of years of exposure. To get a more accurate sense of how ancient artists represented skin color, we have to choose our sources carefully and look for types of artwork that hold color better over time or that have been protected from exposure.

Although people of the ancient Mediterranean were aware that human skin tones could vary widely, they did not attach the same meaning to this variation that we tend to today. Since skin color was not a primary way of marking ethnic identity, artists could use it to convey other meanings, or simply for decorative effect.

It was a widespread custom in the ancient Mediterranean to use skin color as an indicator of gender. Men were often portrayed with dark reddish-brown skin, women with pale yellow-white skin. This artistic convention reflects a conventional ideology in which the socially acceptable activities for men were agriculture and war, outdoor occupations which exposed them to the sun. Women were similarly expected to stay indoors, working in the home and preserving their pale skin. For a man to be pale suggested that he worked indoors at trades that, though necessary for society, were less prestigious. Similarly, for a woman to appear dark-skinned suggested that she had to work outside the home, implying that her household was not rich enough to be self-sustaining. When patrons directed artists to depict them with conventional skin colors, they were responding to the social pressure to look their best. We cannot assume that artworks like these represent the actual appearance of their subjects.

Funerary statues of Rahotep and Nofret via Wikimedia (Egyptian Museum, Cairo; c. 2500 BCE; painted limestone)
Portrait of a couple from Pompeii via Wikimedia (Pompeii, currently Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli; 1st c. CE; fresco)

 

Skin color could also be used to indicate other features of identity. Darker skin, for instance, was associated with age, lighter skin with youth. Children were often depicted with light-colored skin, regardless of gender. In this portrait of the family of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Septimius’ skin is distinctly darker than his wife Julia Domna’s, but their son Caracalla’s skin is even a little paler than his mother’s. (Their other son Geta’s face was obliterated in antiquity after Caracalla became emperor and assassinated his brother).

Portrait of Septimius Severus and family, photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro via Wikimedia (currently Altes Museum, Berlin; c. 200 CE; painted panel)

 

The degree to which skin color was emphasized as a feature in art also varied between cultures and across time. These two examples of Etruscan tomb art from Tarquinia show how much variation there could be even within the same community. While both follow the dark men / light women pattern (gender is also marked by differences in clothing, hair style, and activity) one makes the distinction very stark and schematic while the other is much more subtle.

Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Leopards, photograph by AlMare via Wikimedia (Tarquinia; 480-450 BCE; fresco)
Banquet scene from the Tomb of the Shields via classconnection (Tarquinia; c. 340 BCE; fresco)

 

In many cases, the skin color of human figures in ancient art is dictated by the choice of medium more than by a desire to convey any message. The two sides of this vase, for instance, present similar scenes, the hero Heracles at a feast, in opposite color schemes.

“Bilingual” vase, composite of photographs via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin; 520-510 BCE; pottery; believed to be by Andokides Painter)

 

This statue of the Tetrarchs, four emperors who governed the Roman Empire in a short-lived experiment in joint rule, is carved out of porphyry, a very hard stone with a dark purple hue. This stone was chosen for several reasons, partly because of the traditional association of purple with imperial power and partly because the dense, hard stone suggested the strength of the institution the joint rulers were trying to create. A realistic depiction of skin tone was not a priority.

Tetrarchs statue, photograph by Nino Barbieri via Wikimedia (currently St. Mark’s Square, Venice; early 4th c. CE; porphyry)

 

When depicting beings beyond the human realm, skin color could carry many other meanings. The Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, was traditionally depicted with green skin, symbolic of regrowth and new life. In these wall paintings, the green-skinned Osiris appears in two different scenes in the company of other gods.

Wall paintings from the tomb of Horemheb, photograph be Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Wikimedia (Valley of the Kings; c. 1292 BCE; fresco)

 

Similarly, the Etruscan god Charu, who was responsible for guiding the souls of the dead into the afterlife, was typically shown with blue skin, representing decaying flesh.

Charu from the François Tomb, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Vulci; c. 330 BCE; fresco)

Sometimes ancient artists used skin color to indicate ethnicity in ways that are easy for us to recognize, such as this vase representing two women’s faces. The light-skinned woman’s features, such as her pointed nose, thin lips, and wavy hair, suggest that she is meant to be of European descent while the black-skinned woman has features characteristic of a sub-Saharan African origin, such as a flat nose, fuller lips, and tightly coiled hair.

Janiform aryballos, photograph by Jastrow via Wikimedia (from Greece, currently Louvre; 520-510 BCE; pottery)

 

In other cases, we cannot be entirely sure what the skin color in ancient art is meant to convey. This fresco from Minoan Knossos depicts bull leapers in distinctly different skin tones, but it is difficult to be sure what significance, if any, that difference has. It may be meant to show differences in gender, although the figures’ similar proportions, clothing, and hair do not confirm it. It might be intended to indicate people of different ethnic origins. Alternatively, it could be simply for aesthetic variation. We do not know enough about Minoan culture and its conventions for representing ethnicity, gender, and other identities in art to be certain.

Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco)

 

As with literary descriptions of skin color, we have to approach ancient artistic representations with a cautious awareness of how far removed we are from the cultures that created them. The artists who made these images and the patrons who commissioned them did not share many of our basic assumptions about what skin color means and how it should be represented. Their cultural context was unlike ours and they created their works to communicate with other people of their place and time, not to send time capsules to us millennia later. It is not enough for us to stroll through museums or flip through the pages of art books looking for faces that look the way we think people of different ethnic origins ought to look.

Ancient art is not a representative snapshot of ancient demographics. Art represents what people consider important, not necessarily the reality of the world they live in. In a world in which privilege, power, and identity were not wrapped up with race in the same way they are today, the representation of race in art was much less of a priority. Just because ancient artists, like ancient writers, often chose not to depict skin color as a defining mark of ethnic identity does not mean that they did not live surrounded by people of all different hues with ancestries spanning the globe. As with how we read literature, we have to learn to read ancient art in new ways if we are to make sense of it as evidence for the diversity of ancient Mediterranean societies.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Doctor Who, Season 5

In between seasons 4 and 5 of new-series Doctor Who there is a series of specials starring David Tennant, but our copy of the discs turned out to be defective, so while we wait for a good opportunity to replace them, our rewatching and rating project carries on to season 5.

  1. “The Eleventh Hour” – 3
  2. “The Beast Below” – 3
  3. “Victory of the Daleks” – 4
  4. “The Time of the Angels” – 6
  5. “Flesh and Stone” – 1.5
  6. “The Vampires of Venice” – 2
  7. “Amy’s Choice” – 2
  8. “The Hungry Earth” – 5
  9. “Cold Blood” – 2
  10. “Vincent and the Doctor” – 5
  11. “The Lodger” – 4
  12. “The Pandorica Opens” – 5
  13. “The Big Bang” – 6

The average rating for this season is a rather dismal 3.7, a big come-down from season 4’s 6.9. Nothing rises above a ho-hum 6, and almost half the episodes this season rate less than a 4, which is pretty much our minimal cut-off for ever wanting to see an episode again.

This season of Doctor Who poses one big question, and that question is: what on Earth happened to Stephen Moffat?? Many of our favorite episodes of previous season were written by Moffat: “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” in season 1, “The Girl in the Fireplace” in season 2, “Blink” in season 3, “Silence in the Library” / “The Forest of the Dead” in season 4. All these episodes were intricately-constructed masterpieces in which every piece fit, every tantalizing question had a satisfying answer, and the gee-whizery of the sci-fi was balanced with sensitive emotional stories. We had great expectations for Moffat’s first season a showrunner, and instead we got… this? The writing is clunky, the plots are full of janky bits that don’t fit, the characters are unpleasant, and the whimsy feels forced. We wonder whether the demands of production didn’t leave him time to develop his scripts more fully, or if perhaps the quality of his earlier scripts depended in part on good editing by the previous production team.

The new cast doesn’t improve matters. We don’t care for Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor, which relies too much on surface wackiness and feels emotionally hollow. But even worse is the new companion, Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. All credit to Ms. Gillan for her acting, but the character is written as a whiny, self-centered bully. Both of these characters reflect an unappealing turn in Moffat’s writing, also visible in his series Sherlock: the belief that if a person is very clever or otherwise special, they get a pass on basic human decency. That’s a position we can’t get behind.

The lowest-rated episode of this season is “Flesh and Stone,” at 1.5. It’s the second part after the rather decent “The Time of the Angels,” following the Doctor’s adventures with a band of futuristic warrior priests in an underground labyrinth filled with Weeping Angels. The first episode give us a reasonably good set-up which the second just fails to pay off. The momentum built up in the first part sputters out as the second part pays its dues to the season-long “crack in the universe” arc. The Weeping Angels were one of Moffat’s most interesting creations in “Blink,” but they would have been better left alone than recycled for this episode.

The best episodes, both at 6, are “The Time of the Angels” and “The Big Bang.” “The Big Bang” does a better job of delivering the old Moffat magic with a complicated time-woven story about the Doctor and his friends racing to stop the end of the universe that was set off in the previous episode. It has some good moments and finally gives Amy’s Stockholm Syndrome victim boyfriend Rory something to do, but it never quite rises to its potential.

All in all, a real let-down of a season for us, but we know there are other folks out there who feel differently, including fans of Amy Pond and Matt Smith’s Doctor. What episodes this season did you love (or not)? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Doctor Who season 5 via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

To the Lady Queen

An official from a Western superpower arrives in a rich and powerful African kingdom and offers his respect and support to a royal woman. It may sound like Everett Ross from Black Panther, but it’s actually two millennia older:

Good fortune to the Lady Queen, may she live happily for many years. Acutus came from the city and [saw the place (?)] on the 15th of April.

(My own translation)

This inscription, the southernmost Latin inscription yet discovered, comes from Musawwarat es-Suffra in modern-day Sudan, which in antiquity was part of the kingdom of Kush. Kush, often called Meroë by Greek and Roman authors after its capital city, was a powerful state on the central Nile river. After the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, the Roman Empire and Kush fought a brief border war, but the Kushan Queen Amanirenas soon made a peace treaty with Rome that was respected by both sides for centuries to come. (Greco-Roman authors mistakenly call Amanirenas “Candance,” which is not a name but a Kushan title for a royal woman.)

This inscription, which is in rather poor condition and cannot be read fully, probably dates to sometime in the third century CE. The Acutus who dedicated it was most likely a Roman envoy (“the city” being Rome) who had come to Kush on diplomatic business. His effusive good wishes to another (unnamed) ruling queen were in keeping with how Roman ambassadors demonstrated respect for foreign rulers. This inscription shows that Rome regarded its relationship with Meroë as worth maintaining with proper diplomatic dignity. Kush profited handsomely from facilitating trade between the Roman Mediterranean and both sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean, and had every reason to encourage ongoing good relations.

The history of interactions between Europeans and Africans is filled with bloodshed and inhumanity. It is understandable how appealing Black Panther‘s fantasy of an isolated African state untouched by European invasion or interference is to many fans. But it is also worth remembering that isolation is not the only option, and history also contains examples of European-African contacts that were peaceful and respectful.

Image: CIL III 83 via Adam Łajtar and Jacques van der Vliet, “Rome-Meroe-Berlin. The Southernmost Latin Inscription Rediscovered (“CIL” III 83),” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 157 (2006), 193-198.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Some Random Thoughts on Black Panther

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Erik’s random thoughts:

  • This is the movie that Thor was trying to be: a Shakespearean family drama about an exiled hero coming to terms with the destiny of his people and his father’s failures in the midst of a gorgeous futuristic city-state. (On a side note: does anyone actually remember the original Thor movie or have we collectively agreed that the franchise starts with number 3?)
  • I love the architecture of Wakanda. It looks like the product of thousands of years of African tradition with the highest of modern technology, just as it should.
  • Even for a fantasy of African exceptionalism, the story does not shy away from the bitter real history of imperialism, exploitation, slavery, and its modern-day consequences, and the movie is richer and stronger for it.
  • Shuri is awesome. Her combination of flippancy in the face of tradition, passion for technological tinkering, and powerful love for her family and home make her a delight to watch. I think she’s my favorite character in the whole movie, and that’s not an easy pick in this one.
  • Could we have T’Challa and Shuri take over the Tony Stark role in the Marvel Universe, please? I appreciate what Iron Man did to kickstart the MCU and hold the early installments together, but I’ve had enough of him now. I honestly don’t think I can handle one more movie about Tony Stark’s emotional issues. T’Challa can be the guy in the super suit who cracks wise while leading the fight and Shuri can be the tinkerer who keeps upgrading everybody’s gear.
  • Even in a franchise that includes a movie about waking up one morning to discover that literal Nazis have taken over the US government, Black Panther feels like the movie we most need in 2018: a meditation on the temptations of division, resentment, and revenge and the hard choice of embracing a flawed and fractured world with hope. As crucially as Black Panther contributes to the representation of black people in genre media—and by Bast it does—it has a lot to say outside the dialogue of race as well.
  • For the record: as a white man, I have no problem whatsoever identifying with the characters of this movie. I’m not talking about Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross, either—Zuri is my guy.

 

Eppu’s random thoughts:

Note: These thoughts are based on one viewing. I’m fully aware that some of them are just scratching the surface and that I need to see the move (at least!) a second time and mull things over properly.

  • If I had to use one word to describe Black Panther, on a meta level it would be confelicity: I am so, so, SO glad for those black people who are exited, overjoyed, and exhilarated over seeing a full cast of people that look like them acting with grace and agency, not minimized but celebrated! On a story level, I’d use equality.
  • I knew from reading non-spoiler reviews beforehand that the movie passes the Bechdel test, so I didn’t even bother tracking it. It was very nice not to have to care.
  • If it was nice not to have to care about whether the Bechdel test passes or not, it was outright GLORIOUS to see that WOMEN ARE PEOPLE in their own right, with their own interior lives, not just breasts and posteriors for men to ogle. And such a spread of different women, too, each doing their thing according to their interests and skills. Because that’s who we are, and what we do, and have done for millenia, and it’s damn time that the self-absorbed, able-bodied, white cis hetero men in Hollywood respected that. (Yes, I know that the Black Panther team behind the camera included many, many people of color, including women, but that’s not the default, is it.)
  • And of course it’s not just that women are people in their own right, but that there are so many diverse black women. Have you any idea what a disservice (to put it mildly) your typical Anglo-American fiction does to women of color, especially black women? I didn’t until I started paying attention. It’s atrocious and shameful.
  • Black Panther was visually beautiful. Beautiful! It was so beautiful my brain experienced a moment of “this looks wrong” when stepping out of the movie theater into the dim and snowless February evening in Massachusetts.
  • Also, the sets and costumes were breathtaking just like I thought. Everything looked like it was produced by a living culture, with layers of history and development alike.
  • OMG, the tech. Those dragonfly helicopters! Attack rhinos! I kinda want those 3d phone calls! No—scratch that. The maglev trains and über-advanced health care. Like now.
  • The opening sequence (T’Chaka voiceover telling a story to young T’Challa) and the end credit visuals I thought nodded back to the superhero fight statue end credits for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Yet neither ever lost sight of the fact that they were for and about Black Panther.
  • A superhero movie with a male lead confident and mature enough to listen to others ROCKS! (Hat tip to Justina Ireland for pointing out T’Challa’s ability to listen as a core personality trait.)
  • I liked Martin Freeman’s character Everett Ross in this movie. He started with “I know what I’m doing, piss off little people” claptrap. In Wakanda, however, he quickly—and without too much whining—realized how out of his depth he was and spent a good while looking and listening and learning. In the final battle, he redeemed himself to some extent in my eyes when he hopped back into the fighter jet holo-interface to destoy the final cargo plane after he’d discovered that the base he was sitting in was under attack and that there was less than a minute before the gunfire broke through. And never, ever was he written or played as a Mighty Whitey.
  • It was also good to see a thoroughly accomplished man (T’Challa) grapple with impostor syndrome (not ready to be King). We don’t see or hear much of that; mostly it’s women who are saddled with it in the public discussion.
  • I liked T’Challa’s relationship with the rest of his family members, but I LOVED every moment between him and Princess Shuri. They so clearly love and respect each other as equals—with different skill sets, sure, but equals nevertheless—plus jostle around like real-life siblings.
  • Finally, all of the acting was so good. I won’t miss Andy Serkis’s character. At. All! Props to Serkis, his incredible performance made the dude truly terrifying and disgusting, but I’d rather watch the competent and kind Africans, thank you.

Shuri and T'Challa gif

Images: Black Panther poster via IMDb. Shuri and T’Challa gif via media.riffsy.com.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Imagining a Minoan Home

Imagining the mundane details of daily life in past cultures can be difficult. Everyday things like houses, clothing, and daily routines tend not to be well-represented in textual or archaeological sources because they were so ordinary that no one thought to write about them or take care to preserve them. Yet these are exactly the sorts of everyday details that can be most useful when looking to the past for inspiration for worldbuilding. To try to understand what daily life looked like in the past, we often rely on chance finds and careful reading of sources that weren’t intended as guides to the mundane.

For example, we have only a limited idea of what an ancient Minoan house may have looked like. The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and some of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea in the first half of the second millennium BCE, at its height between roughly 2100 and 1400 BCE. Minoan palaces have been thoroughly excavated at sites such as Knossos and Phaistos, but what about the homes of ordinary people?

We have a few valuable sources of evidence. One is this pottery house model found at Archanes, on Crete. This model shows many features that must have been part of everyday Minoan architecture: solid lower-story walls and a breezy columned upper story, windows barred with slats, a projecting balcony, and perhaps a small walled garden. (The entry door is on the other side of the model; the upper story is modern reconstruction.)

House model, photograph by Zde via Wikimedia (Archanes, currently Archaeological Museum, Heraklion; c. 1700 BCE; pottery)

To get a sense of how houses like this fit together to make up a village, we can look to the site of Akrotiri, a Minoan settlement on the island of Thera (now called Santorini) that was buried in a volcanic eruption sometime around the late 1600s BCE. Despite the destructive effects of the eruption, excavation at the site has found a tightly-built settlement of multi-story houses connected by streets and drainage channels.

Photograph of Akrotiri excavation by F. Eveleens via Wikimedia

 

More evidence comes from a fresco that was preserved on the wall of a house at Akrotiri, depicting a panoramic view of the island. This segment shows the town. While the image is a little hard to interpret, we can clearly see a densely-built settlement with houses made of regularly cut stone sitting on many levels. These houses display many of the same features as the Archanes house: low doorways, porticoed porches, windows covered by slats, and people looking out from balconies or rooftops.

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

Akrotiri fresco, photograph by Dirk Herdemerten via Wikimedia (Akrotiri; c. 1700 BCE; fresco)

When we put all these different sources together, we can begin to imagine everyday life in a Minoan house: the shady lower floor and the breezy upper floor, the slivers of sunlight coming in through the window grilles, the gurgle of water running by in the drain channel right outside, and the endless chatter of the neighbors on their overhanging balcony. For creating any sort of pre-modern culture in a warm, dry setting like the Mediterranean, it’s not a bad start.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.