Visualizing the Roman Emperors

Sometimes, putting information into a visual form helps you make sense of it. I’ve been studying, writing about, and teaching the history of the Roman Empire and its emperors for more than two decades now, but taking my knowledge and making it visual helped me grasp the significance of some of the long-term patterns I’ve know about for so long. In this chart, you can see the stumbling uncertainty of the early empire, the stability of the second century, the chaos of the third century, and the complexity of the late 200s to early 300s.

(It’s a big image; you have been warned!)

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The Curious Case of Wikipedia, My Book, and Odoacer’s Mother

I recently had the odd experience of discovering that my book Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World is cited as a source on Wikipedia, and then realizing that it is cited as a source for something the book does not actually say.

The reference is on the page about Odoacer, a “barbarian” king who ruled portions of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century CE. Here’s the sentence in which I am cited, at least as it appeared in early September, 2020:

Historian Erik Jensen, avows that Odoacer was born to a Gothic mother and that his father, Edeco, was a Hun.

 

This sentence cites page 16 of Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World, but here is what page 16 actually says:

Classical ideas about identity […] allowed for fluidity and ambiguity, on both the individual and societal level. The last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, is an individual example. Though Superbus was identified as Roman, his father Tarquinius Priscus was an Etruscan, whose own father, Demaratus, was a Greek: in three generations of the same family we find three different ethnic identities. At the other end of Roman history we find Orestes, a provincial Roman who joined Attila’s Huns and later made himself de facto western Roman emperor. He was succeeded by his son Romulus Augustus, the famed “last Roman emperor,” who was soon dethroned by Odoacer, a Goth whose father Edeco had been a Hun.

 

Do you notice what’s missing? I said nothing at all about Odoacer’s mother.

We know virtually nothing about Odoacer’s mother. Some ancient sources describe her as coming from the Sciri, one of the numerous Germanic-speaking groups who emerged on the eastern Roman frontier in the third and fourth centuries, but, like all too many women in history, she is almost entirely unrecorded in the sources.

Whoever added this sentence to the Wikipedia article made an assumption not supported by my text. It’s an understandable assumption, of course, in a modern context. Modern definitions of ethnicity tend to rely heavily on ancestry and descent. If we know that someone today identifies as, say, Irish, and their father is Lebanese, it’s a fair bet that their mother is Irish, because their Irishness has to come from somewhere. Similarly, if Odoacer was a Goth and his father was a Hun, it may seem natural to assume that he must have gotten his Gothicness from his mother.

But these kinds of assumptions don’t work in the ancient world. While ancestry was an element of ethnic identity in the ancient Mediterranean, it had much less weight than we give it today. And that, in fact, is the entire point of passage cited: we simply cannot assume that one ancient person’s ethnic identity necessarily tells us anything about how their ancestors or their descendants identified themselves.

Now, to be fair, in talking about Odoacer as a Goth and Edeco as a Hun, I was simplifying a far more complicated and tenuous set of scholarly arguments. This is how these figures are identified in some ancient sources, but there are arguments not just about how we should describe Odoacer and Edeco but even about whether we have correctly identified these individuals and their relationship to one another. These questions are particularly vexed both because the surviving primary sources for late Roman history in the West are so fragmentary and because the various groups that emerged on the late Roman frontiers were often loosely defined alliances rather than rigidly established ethnic tribes. Goth and Hun, in particular, were names that were readily adopted by people of many different backgrounds and cannot be assumed to tell us anything about the ancestry of any given individual.

So I’ll accept the blame for simplifying an issue that should not have been simplified and writing a sentence that suggested more certainty than the sources will really sustain. I will try to take this as a lesson for the future to be more careful about the dangers of choosing brevity over clarity. I hope this can also be a cautionary tale for us all: check that your sources actually say what you think they say.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Artemisia: Between Greece and Persia

We know little about the life of Artemisia I (early 5th c. BCE – ca. 460 BCE) apart from one event, but that event and her participation in it give us a valuable insight into how Greeks lived at the frontiers of the Persian Empire.

Artemisia was the daughter of Lygdamis I, the first satrap of the city of Halicarnassus under Persian rule. Halicarnassus was a city on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey, one of many culturally Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea in the region more broadly known as Ionia. Like other such cities, Halicarnassus’ population was a mixture of local peoples—mainly Carians from the surrounding mountains, in the case of Halicarnassus—and the descendants of Greek settlers and merchants who had migrated to the Anatolian coast over several centuries. Artemisia’s family was a product of such interactions, as her father, Lygdamis, was of mixed Greek and Carian ancestry, and her mother was from Crete.

Lygdamis passed his power down to Artemisia’s husband, of whom we know nothing else except that he died soon thereafter, and Artemisia herself came to power in his place, probably acting as regent for their young son Pisindelis. Artemisia ruled Halicarnassus as a satrap, or local governor, on behalf of the Persian kings. Her most famous deeds came in this role.

When the Persian king Xerxes mounted his invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, he called upon the Ionian Greek cities to furnish warships for the campaign. Despite Athenian efforts to persuade the Ionians to defect or hold back in the fighting, Ionian Greek ships and their crews participated eagerly in the Persian invasion.

As satrap of Halicarnassus, Artemisia had the responsibility to furnish her share of ships for the fleet, but she went even further, personally commanding her own contingent and serving Xerxes as an adviser during the campaign. The historian Herodotus describes her this way:

She led the forces of Halicarnassus, Cos, Nisyurs, and Calyndus, crewing five ships. Of all the ships in the fleet, besides the Sidonians, hers were considered to be the best, and of all the allies she gave the king the best advice.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.99

(All translations my own)

Herodotus credits Artemisia with an exceptional display of skill and cunning in the midst of the Persian naval defeat at the battle of Salamis:

I cannot say exactly how any other ship, whether Greek or barbarian, did in that battle, but this is what happened to Artemisia and won her even greater respect in the eyes of the king. The Persian fleet was in chaos and an Athenian ship was bearing down on Artemisia’s. There was nowhere for her to flee to since her ship was hemmed in by friendly ships and close to the enemy lines, so she made a decision which turned out very well for her. Pursued by the Athenian, she rammed a friendly ship at full speed. This ship was crewed by the Calyndians and carried not only many Calyndian men but also their king, Damasythimus. I cannot say whether there had been some quarrel between Artemisia and Damasythimus when they were stationed at the Hellespont, or if she had planned to attack him, or if it was just by chance that the Calyndian ship was nearby. In any case, when Artemisia rammed and sank that ship it turned out well for her in two ways. In the first place, when the Athenian captain saw her ship sink one of the barbarians, he thought she was either on the Greek side or was coming over to their side, so he broke off and turned his attention elsewhere, and so she got away. In the second place, even though she was doing harm to his own fleet, she won high praise from Xerxes.

They say that as the king was watching the battle and saw her ship ram the other one, someone by his side said: “My lord, do you see what a good fight Artemisia is putting up and how she has sunk one of the enemy’s ships?”

The king asked it if was really Artemisia and the bystander confirmed it, since he knew the markings of her ship well and assumed that the ship she destroyed must be an enemy. As I said, all this turned out to her benefit, since no one from the Calyndian ship survived to accuse her.

In response to this observation, it is reported that Xerxes remarked: “My men have become women, and my women have become men!”

– Herodotus, Histories 8.87-89

Artemisia displayed similar shrewdness when, after the defeat of his fleet, Xerxes consulted his advisers on how to continue the war in Greece. When the general Mardonius offered to remain in Greece and keep fighting while Xerxes himself returned to Persia, Artemisia offered this advice:

When consulted on the question of what to do, Artemisia said: “Sire, it is hard to give good advice in such a case, but what seems best to me is for you to march home and leave Mardonius and whatever troops wish to remain with him here, if he is willing to undertake this task. If Mardonius is successful and accomplishes what he says he can, the credit for it will belong to you, since he is your servant. If he is wrong and things go against him, it will be no great disaster for you and your house. As long as you and your line endure, the Greeks will often face great struggles, and no one will much care if anything happens to Mardonius, nor will defeating your servant count as a great victory for the Greeks. You, however, will depart having accomplished what you set out to do, which was to burn Athens.”

Xerxes was delighted with this advice, since he had been thinking exactly the same thing. He was gripped with such fear that he would not have stayed in Greece even if all the men and women in the world had recommended it. He thanked Artemisia for her advice and entrusted her with taking his children to Ephesus, since he had some of his illegitimate children with him.

– Herodotus, Histories 8.102-103

Now, Herodotus—a fellow Halicarnassian—may be accused of partiality and playing up Artemisia’s involvement in the war effort, but the kinds of deeds he attributes to her are telling. Artemisia was actively engaged in Xerxes’ war, but she was also politically canny and willing to seize her own advantage when it came. Given the opportunity to demonstrate her utility to the king, she took it and personally led her forces as part of the Persian fleet. Finding herself in a difficult position in battle, she saved herself at the cost of a friendly ship. When consulted for her advice, she told the king what he wanted to hear and was rewarded with an important commission.

Many Greeks were in positions like Artemisia’s when it came to the Persian Empire. Persia was large, powerful, rich, and right at the Greeks’ doorstep. Persia was a huge market both for Greek exports and for the services of Greek artists, crafters, and mercenaries. For all that historians have tended to celebrate the Athenians and Spartans for resisting Persian invasions in 490 and 480-479, far more Greeks worked for the Persian kings than ever fought against them.

The boundary between Greece and Persia was porous. Many people went back and forth across it as their own interests dictated. While modern narratives have tended to paint the division between Greece and Persia in stark terms, the reality was much more gray than black and white. Not everyone who negotiated the space between Greece and Persia did it with the skill and panache that of Artemisia, but she was far from alone.

Image: A modern artist’s impression of Artemisia, detail from “Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis” via Wikimdeia (Maximillianum, Munich; 1868; oil on canvas; by Wilhelm von Kaulbach)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Rating: Castle, Season 8

The eighth and final season of Castle, sadly, is a bit of a flop. Here’s our rating for this season’s episodes:

  1. “XY” – 1.5
  2. “XX” – 0
  3. “PhDead” – 4
  4. “What Lies Beneath” – 5
  5. “The Nose” – 5
  6. “Cool Boys” – 3
  7. “The Last Seduction” – 6.5
  8. “Mr. and Mrs. Castle” – 3
  9. “Tone Death” – 8
  10. “Witness for the Prosecution” – 6.5
  11. “Dead Red” – 7.5
  12. “The Blame Game” – 4.5
  13. “And Justice for All” – 6
  14. “The G. D. S.” – 3
  15. “Fidelis ad Mortem” – 4
  16. “Heartbreaker” – 4
  17. “Death Wish” – 4.5
  18. “Backstabber” – 3.5
  19. “Dead Again” – 8
  20. “Much Ado About Murder” – 5
  21. “Hell to Pay” – 5
  22. “Crossfire” – 1.5

This season’s average is 4.5, the lowest of any season of Castle, and the problems are not hard to spot. Squeezed between the attempt to wring just a bit more drama and action out of some old and used-up plotlines (the conspiracy around Beckett’s mother’s murder gasps its last; intrigue shenanigans throw Castle and Beckett’s relationship back into will-they-or-won’t they spasms) and the introduction of new characters and story ideas that don’t get room to develop (Hayley Shipton, a British ex-spy who gets caught in the orbit of Castle’s expanding private investigator business), there just isn’t much room for this season to stretch its legs.

Shake-ups in the production also mean we lose Captain Gates and don’t see much of Dr. Parish, two of our favorite side characters. There were even rumors going into this season that Beckett might not return, which would have been disastrous. Fortunately, that didn’t come to pass, but Beckett spends so much time this season angsting about the conspiracy-that-will-not-die and her relationship with Castle, we lose a lot of the spark she used to bring to the series.

The bottom of the barrel this season comes with the opening two-parter, “XY” (1.5) and “XX” (0), in which we separately follow Beckett on the run from the endless conspiracy and Castle trying to find her. The conspiracy episodes of Castle never work well for us, and this one feels particularly like a desperate attempt by the writers’ room to concoct another arc story, having done several to death already. There was a time when continuity between episodes was a rarity on tv and arc stories were new and exciting. Now every series has an arc, and we’re more excited to see standalone episodes that have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.

Fortunately, this season hasn’t entirely lost the Castle magic, and we do get a few good old quirky murder-of-the-week episodes. The two best of this season, both at 8, are of this kind; “Tone Death” takes the team into the seamy underbelly of competitive a capella singing, and “Dead Again,” about a safety inspector who keeps surviving what should be fatal attacks, prompting Castle to wonder whether they’ve stepped into a superhero’s origin story. These episodes have the fun mystery caper action we expect from the series.

It’s not the best way to close out the series, but it seems like the production had some troubles behind the scenes at the end. We can be glad for the good episodes we did get this season, even if it’s one we’ll only be rewatching selectively.

Image: Beckett and the boys, from “Tone Death” via IMDb

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

A Bird in the Hand

The fall is coming, and for a lot of us this fall will be bringing anxiety and stress. So, for a moment of relaxation, enjoy this scene of hunting wildfowl in the marshes, from the tomb of Nebamun, a scribe who lived around 1350 BCE in Egypt.

Hunting scene from the tomb of Nebamun, photograph by Marcus Cyron via Wikimedia (currently British Museum, London; c. 1350 BCE; paint on plaster)

And for added joy, just look at that cat! Have you ever seen a cat so happy as when it has two birds in its claws and a third in its teeth?

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Arcanus, Miles Arcanus

The Roman fort at Vindolanda in northern Britain, established in the first century CE close to where Hadrian’s Wall would later be built, has yielded an amazing variety of documents written on wooden tablets. These sorts of tablets were used for everyday writing in parts of the Roman world for things like personal letters and shopping lists. I’ve talked about a couple of the finds from Vindolanda before (here and here), but today I’ll turn to one of the more perplexing finds from the site.

Vindolanda tablet 162 is a small strip of wood with two words on it: MILES ARCANU[S]. Miles is clear enough: it means ‘soldier,’ which you would have found plenty of in Vindolanda. Arcanus is more of a puzzle. It can be a personal name, although it’s not common, and it could have been the name of a soldier stationed at Vindolanda. The usual word order in that case, though, would be Arcanus miles, ‘Arcanus, the soldier.’ But as a word on its own, arcanus means ‘secret’ or ‘hidden.’ The clearest reading of this tablet is: ‘Secret soldier.’

What is a secret soldier? The answer may lie in a mention from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in his Res Gestae, written in the fourth century CE, referring a group in Britain called the areani. The word areani is itself a puzzle: it exists in no other recorded Latin text. It would seem to mean ‘people of the bare lands’ or possibly ‘people of the sheepfolds,’ and might be a reference to people who lived in the wilderness near the Roman frontier. One widely (though not universally) accepted suggestion, however, is that areani is a medieval scribe’s mistake for arcani, ‘secret ones.’

As for who these secret ones were, Ammianus gives us a pretty clear idea:

Their duty was, by hastening far and near, to keep our generals informed of disturbances among nearby tribes.

– Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae 28.8.3

(My own translations)

This account pictures the arcani/areani as scouts or spies who operated outside the frontiers to gather intelligence on potential military threats. One product of their work may also be preserved at Vindolanda, a fragmentary tablet which seems to preserve a piece of a report on the fighting capabilities of the native Britons:

the Britons are naked [or lacking armor?]. They have lots of cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords. The Brits do not take position to throw javelins.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 164

We don’t know how widely the arcani existed in the Roman Empire, at least as an organized group. They are documented only in Britain and might have been a peculiarity of that frontier. One of Rome’s weaknesses as a world power was a lack of any centralized gathering of intelligence on the frontier and foreign peoples, and the emperors were often poorly informed as to what was happening at the edges of their empires. On the local level, though, Roman commanders on many parts of the frontier made use of scouts and patrols to keep an eye on the border regions that fell under their purview.

If this kind of scouting is what the Miles arcanus text refers to, why would the text itself have been written? Surely it isn’t a very sly spy who carries around a tablet saying: “I’m a spy.”

The dangers that this particular secret soldier faced, though, did not necessarily all come from the British side of the border. Roman soldiers on frontier patrol had a habit of abusing their power for personal gain, roughing up the locals and shaking down merchants. Another fragmentary letter from Vindolanda appears to be the draft of a complaint from a merchant to the provincial governor about just this sort of bad behavior by a soldier (the beginning is damaged, so we know less than we would like about the event in question):

… he beat me further until I would either declare my goods worthless or else pour them away…. I beg your mercy not to allow me, an innocent man from abroad, about whose honesty you may inquire, to have been bloodied with rods like a criminal.

– Tabulae Vindolandenses 344

Under such conditions, someone whose business required them to travel around beyond the frontier, probably blending in with the locals, but also report back regularly to a fort full of Roman soldiers, might be well advised to carry around something to prove that he was who he said he was: a spy for Rome.

Image by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Doricha: Mastering the Art of Cosmopolitanism

There is little we can say for sure about the life of Doricha (sixth century BCE, approximately contemporary with the poet Sappho). Most of what we know about her comes from legends and tales that make her larger than life. Even so, those legends in themselves tell us something important about the world of the Mediterranean in the Greek archaic age.

Doricha was a courtesan (hetaira in Greek) who worked in the city of Naucratis in Egypt. Courtesans were a class of sex workers in the ancient world, but unlike lower classes of sex workers, who provided sexual services in return for fairly standard rates of pay, courtesans offered and expected much more. A courtesan would do more than have sex with a client (although that was part of what she offered); she offered companionship, conversation, artistic performance, and social grace. What she received in return was often not so clearly specified. It could include money, but also gifts of jewelry, clothing, furniture, and food. She might enjoy a house paid for by a client, or even live with him long term. Courtesans often had ongoing relationships with a select few clients, and part of their work was to build the illusion of a purely romantic and emotional relationship around what was at base an economic transaction of pay for services. This was demanding work, and not everyone could do it well. A successful courtesan had to cultivate an aura of mystery and glamour. At the same time, courtesans were exposed to all the same pressures and dangers that women offering sex in exchange for money have always faced in male-dominated societies. Yet for some women, those who were lucky and who were good at their jobs, work as a courtesan offered a path to personal independence and financial security that few other women in the Greek world could claim.

Doricha was both lucky and good at her job. Originally from Thrace, she arrived in Naucratis as a slave being put to sex work by her owner, a Greek merchant from Samos named Xanthes. While working in Naucratis, she met Charaxus, brother of the poet Sappho, who was trading wine from the family’s home on Lesbos to Egypt. Charaxus was so smitten with Doricha that he bought her freedom from Xanthes. (When he got home, Sappho had some choice things to say about how he had spent the family’s hard-earned money on his business trip, bits of which survive in some of the fragments of her poems.) She then chose to remain in Naucratis and keep working as a free woman the trade she had begun as a slave. She became so successful that at the end of her life she wanted to leave a lasting memorial of her wealth. According to a story told by Herodotus, she spent one tenth of her fortune to make a massive pile of iron roasting spits and deposited them at Delphi, the site of the famous oracle, where Herodotus reports that they were still to be seen in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Like other courtesans, she cultivated an intriguing persona to appeal to her clients. This persona included an alias, Rhodopis, meaning rosy-cheeked in Greek, by which name she is better known. (It was not unusual for ancient courtesans to use aliases, for all the same reasons that women today performing as strippers or porn stars do.) This mysterious persona influenced how her life was told and retold in later generations, and a number of folktales became attached to her story. One claims that while she was a slave in Samos, the fable-writer Aesop was at the same time a slave in the same household. While this one is not impossible, the coincidence stretches belief (and it is not even certain among scholars today that Aesop was ever a real person). Other stories are attached to Doricha’s later life and are even more unbelievable.

One popular tale is the earliest known version of the Cinderella story:

They say that one day, when Rhodopis was bathing, an eagle snatched her sandal from her serving maid and carried it away to Memphis. There the king was administering justice in the open air and the eagle, flying over his head, dropped the sandal in his lap. The king, moved by the beauty of the sandal and the extraordinary nature of the event, sent all through the country to find out whose it was. She was found in Naucratis and conducted to the king, who made her his wife.
– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

Another popular myth among Greeks held that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was Doricha’s tomb, built for her by the king after her death. (Herodotus correctly points out that this story was impossible as the pyramid actually belonged to the king Mycerinus, who ruled Egypt some two thousand years before Doricha ever got there, but he also documents that it was a tale widely known among Greeks. Herodotus 2.134) Doricha’s life was one that seemed fabulous, bordering on the mythic. Some of that wonder is down to Doricha herself, who certainly seems like she would have been an interesting person to know, but the tales about Doricha also reflect the wider Greek experience in Naucratis.

In Doricha’s day, Naucratis was a newly-founded Greek colony, and a unique one. Over the course of the archaic age (roughly 750-480 BCE), Greek cities founded numerous colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Some of these colonies were large settlements devoted to controlling farmland and producing food, which was a scarce resource back home in Greece, and some colonies either began with or in time acquired a military might that was able to dominate and subjugate the local peoples, but not all colonies were of that kind. Many were small, fairly humble trading posts or Greek immigrant neighborhoods already busy foreign cities and ports. In these colonies, good relations with local people as hosts and trading partners were essential. Naucratis was in some respects like these trading colonies, and one of its important functions was as the official port of trade for Greeks in Egypt. (Herodotus 2.178-9)

Naucratis was also different. It was the only foreign settlement in Egypt officially sanctioned by indigenous kings, and it had begun not as a trading post but as a settlement of Greek and Carian mercenaries in Egyptian service. The kings of Egypt found the Aegean world to be useful recruiting ground for professional soldiers. Greece had all the qualities that powerful states have historically looked for to find mercenaries: it was poor, politically disorganized, and wracked by violence. The result was a large population of experienced fighters who had no stable home or livelihood. Naucratis became not only a place where Greek merchants could bring goods that were in demand in Egypt, like iron, wine, and olive oil, but also a place where Greek soldiers who fell on hard times could go to find ready employment in the Egyptian army.

For the Greeks, Naucratis was the gateway to Egypt and to the possibility of striking it rich, whether as a courtesan, merchant, or mercenary. The tales told about Doricha reflect this sense that Naucratis was a place where amazing things could happen, where one could imagine starting out as a slave and ending up the rich and beloved consort of the king. Most people who came to Naucratis, of course, never had such success, but Doricha is evidence of what was possible there for the talented and lucky. While her story may have been exaggerated over time, it is clear that she managed an enviable rise from low status to exceptional wealth.

Opportunities of this kind were available in the Greek colonies for those lucky enough and determined enough to make the most of them, but making it big in a place like Naucratis required one skill above all: the ability to work across cultural boundaries. Doricha was originally from Thrace. She made her name by serving Greek merchants in Egypt, and at the end of her life she proudly proclaimed her success by making a dedication in the international sanctuary at Delphi, a place frequented not only Greeks but by people of many cultures around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. The legends about her life imagine her becoming the beloved of the Egyptian king and being commemorated with an Egyptian tomb. All of the other merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortune in Naucratis had to negotiate similar boundaries. Doricha’s life is an example of what could be achieved by those who mastered the art of cosmopolitanism.

Image: “The Beautiful Rhodope in Love with Aesop” via Wikimedia (1780; engraving by Bartolozzi after a painting by Angelica Kauffman)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Doctor Who Has a Villain Problem

Doctor Who‘s go-to villains are boring. Daleks are boring. Cybermen are boring. The Master is extra super boring with a side of tedious.

The problem with these staples of Doctor Who is not that they are bad villains in themselves. Omnicidal mechanized life forms like the Daleks and Cybermen are a staple of science fiction. Star Trek has done a lot of good work with its Borg, who are just Cybermen with the serial numbers filed off. (For anyone wondering, Cybermen first appeared in the original Doctor Who in 1966, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.) As for the Master, you can hardly throw a sonic screwdriver in sci-fi without hitting a gloating egomaniac who acts as a foil to the hero. The problem with these villains is that they are a bad fit for Doctor Who.

A large part of Doctor Who‘s charm is the pacifism of its hero. As a hero who refuses to pick up a weapon and is always looking for a peaceful solution, the Doctor is, if not entirely unique, a refreshing rarity in science fiction, a genre often bristling with laser blasters and photon torpedoes. Through all the character’s many regenerations, this has been one of their defining characteristics: they approach the unknown with wits and words, not guns and bombs. An explorer, a tinkerer, a scientist, a detective, a negotiator—the Doctor is anything but a warrior. They are at their best not fighting an enemy but solving a problem.

Some of the great episodes of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation have been about precisely that: solving a problem. Even when the Doctor is up against some opposing force, they approach it not as an enemy to be beaten but as a riddle to unravel. Antagonists like the nanogenes that turned blitz-era Londoners into gas-masked zombies in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) or the clockwork robots haunting Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) were not evil, just malfunctioning technology that the Doctor could fix or disable. Some of the Doctor’s great opponents have indeed been evil, or at least menacing, like the Weeping Angels in “Blink” (season 3) or the mysterious word-copying entity of “Midnight” (season 4), but the Doctor finds ways to defeat them that don’t involve fighting. These kinds of episodes are what we come to Doctor Who for.

Daleks and Cybermen are different. They cannot be negotiated with or peacefully fixed. They are, as written, super-powered beings whose only goal is to wipe out all other life in the universe. The only sensible response to them is simply to blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs you have on hand until there is nothing left of them to blow up. If the Doctor did that, though, they wouldn’t be the Doctor any more, and we would lose what we love most about the character. Which means that whenever Daleks or Cybermen show up, you can count on one of two things happening: the Doctor will magically jigger together some handwavy way of getting rid of them without killing them (which is unsatisfying), or some other character will blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs they have on hand (which rather feels like cheating). Daleks and Cybermen just don’t make for good Doctor Who.

(Also, Doctor Who has really stretched the limits of how much I can tolerate villains with annoying voices who narrate everything they do out loud, but that’s a separate issue.)

The Master is even worse. Daleks and Cybermen at least have coherent goals, however generic. The Master seems to exist simply to annoy the Doctor. Every atrocity they commit, every murder and overly-complicated scheme, serves only one purpose: to make the Doctor feel bad. The Master’s entire motivation stems, as far as I can tell, from one time when they and the Doctor were both Time Kids and the Doctor missed a play date, or something—that is all the depth the character ever gets (at least in the new series). There is no problem here for the Doctor to solve. Nothing to fix or negotiate, just an obsessed stalker whose go-to move is genocide. The best response to the Master would be to shoot them as soon as they turn up and keep shooting them until they run out of regenerations, but that’s not Doctor Who and I wouldn’t want Doctor Who to become a show where that would happen.

Doctor Who is all about saving the day without resorting to violence. Pitting its hero against enemies who allow for no non-violent solution defeats the purpose of Doctor Who. Give us more mysteries, more problems, more foes who can be diverted or negotiated with, not more implacable monstrosities.

Image: Cybermen confront a Dalek, from “Doomsday” (Doctor Who, season 2) via IMDB

Here there be opinions!

Rating: Castle, Season 7

Castle comes roaring back in season 7 with the best showing since the first season. Despite a few missteps, this season really delivers. Here’s our take:

  1. “Driven” – 3.5
  2. “Montreal” – 6
  3. “Clear and Present Danger” – 6
  4. “Child’s Play” – 10
  5. “Meme is Murder” – 1
  6. “The Time of Our Lives” – 6.5
  7. “Once Upon a Time in the West” – 9
  8. “Kill Switch” – 10
  9. “Last Action Hero” – 10
  10. “Bad Santa” – 7.5
  11. “Castle P. I.” – 10
  12. “Private Eye Caramba!” – 10
  13. “I, Witness” – 6
  14. “Resurrection” – 0.5
  15. “Reckoning” – 1
  16. “The Wrong Stuff” – 8
  17. “Hong Kong Hustle” – 6
  18. “At Close Range” – 4
  19. “Habeas Corpse” – 7
  20. “Sleeper” – 4.5
  21. “In Plane Sight” – 8
  22. “Dead from New York” – 4.5
  23. “Hollander’s Woods” – 3

This season’s average is 6.2, much better than the previous season’s 5.4, buoyed up by no less than five episodes scoring a full 10.

Season 7 shakes up the established formula as Castle and Beckett get married and Castle starts his own private investigator business as a way of continuing to work cases after being barred from officially consulting with the department. These developments give the characters some new areas to explore and lead to some great episodes. Other changes are not so productive. After resolving the case of Beckett’s mother last season, the writers felt obliged to shove in another long-running personal mystery for the team, which leads to Castle disappearing on his and Beckett’s wedding day only to resurface two months later with amnesia. This storyline never gains any traction, only acts as dead weight on the season, and eventually just sputters out to an uninteresting conclusion.

The season’s worst episodes, though, are a blast from the past, as Castle’s personal serial killer returns yet again in “Resurrection” (0.5) and “Reckoning” (1). There’s nothing new to see here, just the same old overused bag of tricks. “Reckoning” at least ends with a satisfying conclusion as the team finally pulls itself together to deal with the killer once and for all, but it’s a real slog to get there.

But we can forgive this season its missteps when it delivers an amazing five (five!) episodes that win full marks from us. “Child’s Play” has Castle and Beckett looking for clues to a murder among schoolchildren. It is always a delight to see Castle’s goofy joy at dealing with children, and Nathan Fillion plays him with a warmth and humor that are so rare to see in men on screen. “Kill Switch” puts Detective Esposito in a tense stand-off that gives one of our favorite side characters a chance to shine. “Last Action Hero” is a fun-filled homage to action movies as the team investigates a crime among a group aging action stars. “Castle P. I.” gives the characters some room to grow as Castle starts up his private investigator business. And “Private Eye Caramba!” delves lovingly into the melodramatic world of telenovelas. With a mix of the serious and the silly, these episodes deliver the whimsy and crackling case-solving we love Castle for.

Image: Castle and Beckett investigate a murder in a Mars mission simulator in “The Wrong Stuff” via IMDb

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