Stitches, Harrison Jones, and a Theory of World of Warcraft Nostalgia

One of the big recent developments in World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s announced plans to create Classic servers on which players can play “Vanilla” World of Warcraft, that is, the original game as released in 2004. It is something that a fair amount of people want, as demonstrated by the fact that people have been playing homemade versions on pirate servers for years. I first started playing WoW in 2006, shortly before the release of the first expansion. Although I’m not much interested in playing on a Classic server myself, I do feel some nostalgia for the original game as I first experienced it. I’ve been thinking lately about that nostalgia and what it is that makes me remember those early experiences with such fondness.

The Way We Were

Part of my nostalgia for early WoW is separate from the game. I started playing during my last few years of grad school, when I was writing my dissertation. WoW offered a break from the long daily slog of research and writing. I also have fond memories of the tv shows I watched then, the meals that Eppu and I shared, the podcasts I listened to on the commute to and from my adjunct teaching job in the next state over, and other things that distracted me from the work. Also, fairly soon after starting to play, I joined up with a guild (a collection of players who shared an in-game chat channel and played some of the game’s harder content together), and some of my good memories are not so much of the game as of the friends I made through it.

But there is also something about the game itself that stays in my mind. I am nostalgic not just for who I was when I first played WoW but for what WoW was when I first played it, and I’ve been trying to pin down just what it was about the game that made it feel so different from the other games I played then and have played since. The conclusion I’ve come to is: the ideas were good, but the execution was flawed.

2004 was a different time, in gaming terms. While massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) had existed before, in titles like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, the MMORPG genre was still relatively new and unfamiliar to most gamers. The Blizzard team that created WoW didn’t have much to go on in figuring out what an MMORPG should be like. Playing through that original game, you can tell that they weren’t working toward a polished vision but were doing their best to translate experiences drawn from single-player games, pen-and-paper role-playing, novels and comic books to a multi-player online format.

Into the Woods

The game world is divided into numerous regions, called zones, each of which has its own map, terrain, and set of quests for characters to complete. Most zones also have their own theme, aesthetic, and background story. One of the zones that my first character encountered early on was Duskwood.

The way is clear, the light is good, I have no fear, no, no one should…

Duskwood was a creepy, dark forest, halfway between fairy tale and Gothic novel. One lone human village, Darkshire, held out against a menacing forest full of werewolves and a decrepit graveyard that spawned undead monsters. The road to Darkshire was a long, lonely path through the woods. Now and then, on either side, your character might see a distant lantern winking in the darkness, but wolves and giant spiders prowling the forest edge encouraged you to stay on the path. Once you got to Darkshire and started doing quests, you began to discover the horrors of the place bit by bit. One long series of quests took you back and forth between the village and the graveyard, doing favors for a crazy old man who lived out there, but if you paid attention to what he was asking you to do it gradually became clear that he had sinister intentions. At the climax of the zone, the old man unleashed Stitches, a fleshy undead monstrosity that lumbered towards Darkshire to attack the town. In your culminating act of heroism before leaving for the next zone, you helped the townsfolk stop Stitches and defend Darkshire.

The aesthetics of the zone were amazing. Everything from the creepy music to the small points of warm light made by the Darkshire torches against the looming forest contributed to the overall feel of Gothic horror. I still remember the thrill of waiting for Stitches to shamble out of the darkness as the NPCs (non-player characters) in the zone called out warnings from the road. The idea of the zone as a sort of Frankenstein by way of “Little Red Riding Hood” was brilliantly conceived.

The locals are restless

The execution, though, was full of flaws, missteps, and poor choices. From the perspective of modern MMORPG design, it is clear to see what Duskwood did wrong. A large part of the zone is taken up with the road into Darkshire, where nothing happens and there are no quests to do or monsters to fight. Once you’ve taken that first trip to town, it’s just wasted space. Another large chunk of the zone is taken up with a mountainous area where higher-level players could sometimes fight a dragon, but which players at the level of the Duskwood quests had nothing to do with. Numerous quests, including the long Stitches chain, sent players repeatedly back and forth from one end of the zone to the other, so that a large part of players’ time in the zone was spent just traveling. Now, there are two ways in which WoW characters can travel faster: by riding a mount, which increases your movement speed, or by taking a flying “taxi” service from one designated flight point to another. In WoW‘s original design, characters at the Duskwood level did not have access to mounts, and there was only one flight point in each zone (Duskwood’s was in Darkshire). That meant that an awful lot of time wasted just running back and forth rather than fighting monsters, completing quests, exploring new areas, talking to NPCs, or anything else more interesting.

The execution of the Stitches quest chain, the core of the Duskwood experience, was also shaky. Getting the full effect of the slowly creeping horror required paying attention to subtle cues from NPCs, something that was easy to ignore when focusing on collecting the right parts from the right monsters to complete the latest quest. If you didn’t know Stitches was coming, you might not realize to stick around in Darkshire and wait for its onslaught. With multiple players in the zone, the Stitches attack would be triggered whenever any player got to the right stage of the quest chain, even if there were other players still on earlier phases. The result was a regular stream of attacks that could get annoying: Stitches was notorious for slaughtering lower-level players on the road to Darkshire (death in the game is not the end for your character, but getting yourself resurrected and ready to get back to questing costs time and in-game money), and, while waiting for Stitches to arrive, some of the NPCs in Darkshire would go on alert and stop responding to characters who were trying to do quests for them.

Many other zones in Vanilla WoW were similar: there were fascinating aesthetic and narrative ideas and you can see what the design team was trying to create, but they didn’t always know how to execute their vision or realize how their design would play out in practical terms.

Goblins, Why Did It Have to Be Goblins…

In the decade-plus since its release, WoW‘s design team has learned an enormous amount as the wider gaming community has developed more collective experience with what works and what doesn’t in an MMORPG. The functional design of more recent zones is much more polished, but that practical experience hasn’t always been put to use in the service of equally good aesthetic and narrative ideas. One place where the ideas failed to live up to the execution is Uldum.

Meow like an Egyptian

Uldum was one of five zones introduced in the Cataclysm expansion, which came out in 2010. Uldum is a desert zone, a fantasy version of ancient Egypt inhabited by cat people. Compared with old Duskwood, Uldum was polished and smooth: quests were laid out to lead your character in a logical progression around the zone, other players’ actions did not interfere with yours, and crucial story transitions were carefully planned so that the world could change as your character progressed through the story. Half of the zone’s quests revolve around helping the cat people prepare for a civil war. The other half of the zone, though… Well… It’s different.

There’s a character in WoW called Harrison Jones. He’s an Indiana Jones parody. Harrison Jones had existed before Cataclysm but he was only used sparingly, in one-off joke quests. In Cataclysm, Harrison Jones took over. Half of Uldum was devoted to an extended parody of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a Hitleresque goblin antagonist who spoke with an outrageous fake German accent. The questline made extensive use of new technology that allowed the game to render cutscenes—where the game pauses and shows you a short movie—that included your own character in with the NPCs. The execution of this quest chain was flawless, even innovative, but it was still at heart just an over-long Indiana Jones gag.

The Harrison Jones story also thoroughly undercut your character. Rather be the hero of your own story, you became Harrison Jones’s bumbling sidekick. All of the important story moments were up to him, while you were just there to do the grunt work. This storytelling choice did more than make for a boring, aggravating questing experience; it crushed the suspension of disbelief on which the game relies. We play in order to lose ourselves in a fantasy world, to imagine ourselves as heroes whose actions make a difference. Harrison Jones aggressively stomped on that illusion by turning our heroes into unimportant side characters and the game world into one long, tedious joke. The polish of the execution only served to make the hollowness of the idea more obvious. In Duskwood, even though we weren’t any more in control of the story than in Uldum, at least we got to explore it and experience it on our own terms. In Uldum, we’re just along for the ride.

I did Nazi that coming

In Duskwood, as elsewhere in the Vanilla world, the ideas were good, even if the execution was flawed. As the mechanical design of the game has gotten better, we’ve experienced a different kind of flaw. When WoW goes wrong today, it’s less because bad execution gets in the way of a good idea than because good execution exposes a bad idea.

Sunsets and Car Crashes

The difference between Duskwood and Uldum, I think, helps explain why I have such nostalgia for Vanilla WoW. In Vanilla, we had to struggle through a lot of poor mechanical design, but the reward for that struggle was a narrative and aesthetic experience that was bold, creative, and expansive. The experience was a bit like scrambling up a rocky cliff face and seeing a gorgeous sunset from the top. The climb itself wasn’t always fun and we might not want to do it again, but the effort it took was part of the experience that made the sunset worth seeing. Uldum, by contrast, was like driving a brand new car straight into a tree.

In the years since Vanilla, the mechanics of the game have been improved in numerous ways. The experience of playing is now smoother, more reliable, and cleaner than ever. I’m happy with that. I don’t miss the old design’s flaws and missteps. Despite some serious mistakes, like Uldum, the aesthetic vision of the game has not, on the whole, gotten worse. Most of current WoW‘s zones combine smooth mechanical design with a polished, well-developed narrative and artistic sense.

My nostalgia for the original game is not because there is anything wrong with the current game. I wouldn’t trade the current play experience for Vanilla. But the maturing of WoW‘s mechanical design means we have fewer experiences of laboring against bad mechanics to see good ideas shine through. There was something rewarding about old WoW that really can’t be recovered.

Will I ever play on a Classic server? Who knows? Maybe. I might make a new character and putter around a little bit, visiting old quests and NPCs who aren’t around any more, reminiscing about what it was like the first time I walked down a certain road or killed a tough monster. But that’s the problem with nostalgia: you can’t discover something a second time. My nostalgia for Vanilla WoW is tied up with overcoming problems that I’ve now gotten used to not having to deal with at all. If I go back and play original Duskwood again, my experience won’t be about uncovering the secrets at the heart of the dark forest, it’ll be about cursing the designer who made me walk all the way from one end of the zone to the other again, just to be squished by someone else’s Stitches halfway there. I could only consider seriously playing on a Classic server if the improved mechanics of the modern game were brought into it, but that would defeat the purpose of a Classic server.

Still, there are clearly plenty of people who feel differently, enough of them that Blizzard is making servers just for them. I wonder what it is that appeals to those players. What are they nostalgic for that’s worth going back to? What makes playing through the clunky mechanics of the old game worthwhile from their perspective? If you’re one of them, please share. I’d love to hear about what draws you back to Vanilla.

Images: Screenshots from World of Warcraft

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

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Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Romans?

“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 6: Who Were the Romans?

In the last post in this series, I explored the question of who we mean by the ancient Greeks. It’s a more complicated question than it seems and doesn’t offer any easy answers. When we turn to the Romans, find that, if anything, Roman identity was even more complicated than Greek.

The history of Rome was one of expansion and contact with a larger world. The city of Rome itself was located at the crossing point of two important routes of travel: the Tiber river, which ran from the Apennine mountains to the sea, and an ancient trade route that ran along the western coast of the Italian peninsula. Early Rome flourished from the trade that ran along these routes, and a degree of openness to outsiders was part of Roman identity from its earliest days. Indeed, the city of Rome itself was formed out of several originally independent hilltop villages that merged into one city-state as they grew. The people of Rome were Latins and they shared an ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity with the people of other nearby Latin cities. There was never a time in Roman history when Roman identity did not embrace people of multiple different origins.

The early Roman state was ruled by kings. Roman kingship was not hereditary; rather, on the death of a king the people of Rome elected a new one. Many of the kings recorded in Roman legends are likely entirely mythical, but the myths have important implications for how early Rome related to the outside world. Few kings were from Rome. Instead, the list includes Sabines (from the hills east of Rome), Etruscans (from the prosperous cities to the north), and Latins from other communities. Indeed, it appears that the early Romans may have favored outsiders for their kings in order to avoid conflicts between the aristocratic families of the city over the office. (Livy, History of Rome 1.10-49; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.36-58, 3.36-46, 4.1-28; Eutropius, Compendium of History 1.1-8)

Roman of later ages continued to assert their connections to other peoples. Roman priests adopted Etruscan methods of interpreting messages from the gods. Even long after Rome had conquered the Etruscan cities, Romans continued to practice what they called the “Etruscan method.” The Claudian family, one of the most powerful noble clans in Rome and part of the first dynasty of Roman emperors, proudly declared their Sabine origins. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Life of Tiberius,” 1; Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.1)

Being open to the world was not just a Roman habit; it was key to the success of Rome as an expansionist state. Rather than subjugate or exterminate the peoples they conquered, the Romans incorporated them into their state, extending legal and political rights and creating incentives for the conquered and their descendants to think of themselves as Romans. The practical benefits for the empire were considerable. Provincials who felt like part of the empire were less likely to revolt. They provided a practically inexhaustible stream of new recruits for the Roman army. The best and brightest gravitated towards the city of Rome where they became the leading lights of Roman art, literature, scholarship, and law. Some of the great names of Roman history came form the provinces, including the comic poet Martial, who came from Spain, the biographer of the early emperors Suetonius, from North Africa, and the jurist Ulpian, from the old Phoenician city of Tyre. Even emperors could come from the provinces. By the end of the third century CE, Rome had been ruled by men from Thrace, Illyria, Arabia, North Africa, and Gaul. (Martial, Epigrams 10.65, 10.103, 10.104; Herodian, Roman History 7.1; Epitome de Caesaribus 31; Eutropius 13, 18; Zosimus, New History 1.13; L’anneé épigraphique 1953 73)

Many people who remained in the provinces also claimed Romanness as part of their identity. Being Roman did not necessarily exclude other identities, and it could mean different things to different people. Being Roman was part of the complex set of identities that people could assert, adapt, question, and repurpose as they saw fit, in much the same way that people today who identify as American, or British, or Hungarian can have very different ways of understanding and expressing those identities. A gravestone on the Danube frontier identifies the soldier it was set up for as both a Roman and a Frank. An orator who came from the Aeduan tribe of central Gaul declared: “What people in all the world is more in love with the Roman name than the Aedui?” Throughout the empire, people who spoke Latin but were not Roman citizens, or who had Roman citizenship but dressed in British style, or who wore Roman clothes but spoke Greek could all call themselves Romans with an equal claim to that identity. At the same time, not everyone who lived under Roman rule or participated in Roman culture wanted to be thought of as Roman. There were those who rejected Roman identity entirely, or embraced it only when circumstances demanded it, like Saint Paul, who asserted his Roman citizenship only when threatened with torture. (Acts of the Apostles 22; Panegyrici Latini 8.2; Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum III 3576)

Like Greekness, Romannes had never been conceived of as an ethnic or racial identity. There was never a moment in Roman history when those who called themselves Romans believed that they were a genetically distinct people, separated from the rest of the world by an uncrossable barrier. Although Rome’s empire was created and sustained by acts of violence against outsiders, some of them arguably rising to the level of genocide, Roman culture did not invent or impose racial categories on its victims in the same way the modern empires have done. The question of whether someone was Roman or not was never one that could be answered by the characteristics of a person’s body or an examination of their origins and ancestry. As with the ancient Greeks, any questions we pose about the race of the ancient Romans must contend with the ways in which those who identified themselves as Romans thought about themselves and the world around them.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Portrait of two brothers from Roman Egypt, via Wikimedia (currently Egyptian Museum, Cairo; 2nd c. CE; distemper on wood)

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.

Quotes: The Dumb Countryside

It’s my stupid birthday again and—poor me!—I’m being dragged off

to the dumb countryside away from my Cerinthus.

Is there anything better than the city? Is the old farm

off by the lazy Arno and Arretium’s fields any place for a girl?

You’re making such a fuss over me, Mesalla, settle down!

Uncaring uncle, this is no time to hit the road!

My heart and mind will stay in Rome even if you take me away,

but you just won’t let me have my way.

– Sulpicia, Poems 2

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is one of the few women whose writings have come down to us from the Roman world. She lived around the late first century BCE. We know very little about her except that she lived with her uncle, Mesalla Corvinus, who was a close friend of the statesman and orator Cicero. In this poem, a teenaged Sulpicia complains about being dragged off to the family’s country estate to celebrate her birthday, leaving her lover Cerinthus behind in Rome.

Cerinthus may not, in fact, be a real person. It was common for Roman poets of the time to write poems to or about imaginary (or at least heavily fictionalized) lovers. The most famous may be Catullus, whose poems chart a tempestuous affair with a woman he calls Lesbia. Often, male poets wrote about their longing for absent lovers or complained about women who stayed away too long. Sulpicia takes that genre and turns it on its head, writing from the point of view of the absent lover and pointing out that it wasn’t her fault she had to be away. A young woman of her age in high Roman society, dependent on the charity of well-meaning but obtuse relatives, had very little control over her own movements.

Roman poetry also often voiced a nostalgic longing to escape the bustle and filth of Rome and return to an idealized country life. Sulpicia turns this convention upside-down as well, disparaging the countryside as dull and lifeless and longing to stay amidst the excitement of the city. And well she might—the charm of the countryside for rich men was in large part the idleness enabled by the labor of slaves, tenant farmers, and the women of the household. A young woman like her would have few opportunities for being on her own or doing what she liked there.

What reads at first glance like a spoiled teenager’s tantrum reveals itself as a clever critique of popular poetic conceits. It’s a shame that more of Sulpicia’s poetry hasn’t survived, but what we have provides a valuable alternative view to set alongside the work of her male contemporaries.

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

In Defense of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy

There’s a lot wrong with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, make no mistake. It is an overstuffed, poorly structured jumble of unnecessary action sequences, juvenile humor, and tedious subplots, all ending in an interminable final battle that makes neither narrative nor tactical sense. Still, not all the problems are of Jackson’s making, and there are some things it does right that deserve notice.

Many of the structural weaknesses in the plot come from Tolkien’s original. The Hobbit was a children’s book about Bilbo Baggins and a band of Dwarves having a series of random encounters on their way to a spectacularly poorly planned heist. The characters are for the most part so flat as to be interchangeable and the plot is little more than an excuse to trundle from one retold Nordic folktale to another. I loved the book as a child and I still have a great fondness for it, but it does not have the depth or cohesion of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s writing team put in heroic efforts to make thirteen distinct characters out of Tolkien’s lyrical list of Dwarf names and to fill in much of the background story that makes sense of Bilbo’s disjointed adventures. (On the other hand, this fleshing-out work is also the source of many of the movies’ problems. On one hand, developing the Dwarves’ characters too often just provided more opportunities for out-of-place slapstick. On the other hand, filling in the gaps in Tolkien’s plot led to inventing new characters, which Jackson’s team too often fell in love with and allowed to take over the story.)

Despite these problems, some of the best moments in the trilogy are iconic scenes from Tolkien’s original that were put on screen with very few changes. Scenes like Bilbo’s riddling contest with Gollum in the depths of the Misty Mountains, Gandalf’s wily approach to Beorn, and Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug are rendered with a fidelity that shows a real love and respect for Tolkien’s creation. They are a delight to watch, even if they can’t make up for the rest of the films around them.

Even the less authentic scenes are often elevated by the quality of the performances. Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee reprise their roles as Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman with intelligence and gravitas. Andy Serkis gets to present a less desperate, more playful version of Gollum while Orlando Bloom performs a younger Legolas who is, as Tolkien said of the Mirkwood Elves, “more dangerous and less wise” than the character we remember from The Lord of the Rings. The newcomers to the series give it their best, too. Martin Freeman shows us how Bilbo finds his courage and taste for adventure without ever losing his Hobbitish love of home and comfort. The Dwarf actors, for all that they mostly get used for broad comedy, give their characters an individuality and personality that Tolkien never did. Benedict Cumberbatch is smoothly menacing as the voice of Smaug. Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast does a bit too much slapstick, but he also gives us a wild fresh take on wizardry that sits at the other end of the spectrum from Saruman’s aloof grandeur.

The sets, props, costuming, and other art direction live up to the high standards set by Weta in the first trilogy. From the ancient depths of Erebor to the workaday fishing village of Lake Town, from the rugged traveling gear of the Dwarves to the cold glamour of the Elvish king Thranduil, there isn’t a place, character, or object on screen that doesn’t show the art department’s commitment to creating a world that feels real and lived-in. Over it all, Howard Shore’s music is as rich and operatic as ever.

But the best thing about the Hobbit trilogy, though, the thing that redeems the whole troubled production and its many missteps, is not the films themselves but the discs full of extras that come with the extended editions. Most studios are content to slap in a few deleted scenes, a handful of trailers for unrelated movies, and maybe a couple five-minute promo interviews with the big-name stars talking about how awesome the movie is (seriously, movie studios, you don’t need to market your movie to the people who have already bought the DVD), but not Jackson & Co. Each of the Hobbit films comes with hours upon hours of in-depth documentaries on every aspect of the production, from concept art to final edits. These documentaries do more than go behind the scenes in the usual self-promoting Hollywood way. They also show us the false starts, the mistakes, the ideas that went nowhere and the things that went seriously wrong. You get a fuller appreciation of the good things in the movies when you see how hard it was to get some of them on screen.

The extra features are also well designed for usability. Everything is subtitled, which is great for those of us who don’t always hear well. The menus are easy to use and it’s obvious which item you’re choosing, unlike some discs which make you do a lot of tedious scrolling back and forth and use only a slight difference in color to tell you what button you’re about to hit. Every section tells you how long it is, so you can plan your watching accordingly. The Hobbit extras are the gold standard of how to do bonus features and I wish that more studios and franchises would take as much care both in what they offer for extra material and the functionality of their products.

The Hobbit trilogy is not great cinema. The whole does not measure up to the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are in themselves fascinating and beautiful. They make it worth going there and back again.

Image: Promotional still from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey via IMDb

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

Gender-Flipped Black Panther

One of the great things about Black Panther is that it allows plenty of room for both male and female characters, but what if we flipped them? Here’s our imaginary cast for a gender-flipped Black Panther.

Halle Berry as T’Challa / Black Panther

Taraji P. Henson as Killmonger

Jon Michael Hill as Nakia

Idris Elba as Okoye

Emily Blunt as Eve Ross

Alfre Woodard as W’Kabi

Donald Glover as Shuri

LA Weekly Donald Glover

Ann Wolfe as M’Baku

IMDB Ann Wolfe in Wonder Woman

Whoopi Goldberg as Zuri

IMDB Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost

Denzel Washington as Ramonda

IMDB Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli

Amanda Abbington as Penelope Klaue

Fandom Observations Amanda Abbington in Sherlock

Viola Davis as T’Chaka

The Hollywood Gossip viola-davis-at-the-2015-oscars

Images: Halle Berry in Perfect Stranger via IMDB. Taraji P. Henson in Empire via IMDb. Jon Michael Hill in Elementary via IMDb. Idris Elba in Pacific Rim via IMDb. Emily Blunt in The Five Year Engagement via IMDb. Alfre Woodard in Luke Cage via IMDb. Donald Glover via LA Weekly. Ann Wolfe in Wonder Woman via IMDB. Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost via IMDB. Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli via IMDB. Amanda Abbington as Mary Watson in BBC’s Sherlock via Fandom Observations. Viola Davis at the 2015 Oscars via The Hollywood Gossip.

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.

Representation Chart: Star Trek

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. This is the first of a series breaking down, in basic terms, who’s represented and who isn’t.

Here’s Star Trek. I’ve included the credited main cast from all the live-action television series.

Notes

Characters included

  • Star Trek: Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Checkov, Uhura, Sulu
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: Picard, Riker, Data, Wesley, Troi, Yar, Crusher, Pulaski, Worf, La Forge
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: O’Brien, Bashir, Odo, Quark, Kira, Dax, Sisko, Jake
  • Star Trek: Voyager: Paris, Doctor, Neelix, Janeway, Torres, Kes, Seven, Tuvok, Kim, Chakotay
  • Star Trek: Enterprise: Archer, Reed, Tucker, Phlox, T’Pol, Mayweather, Sato
  • Star Trek: Discovery: Saru, Tyler, Stamets, Lorca, Tilly, Burnham

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Messing with numbers is messy.

Race in Antiquity: Who Were the Greeks?

“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 5: Who Were the Greeks?

As we have discussed before, modern racial categories are not easy to apply to the ancient Mediterranean world. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Roman had complicated ideas about their own identities, but those ideas do not readily line up with the ways in which we modern people define race. If we want to better understand the identity of the ancient Greeks—in ancient or modern terms—we first have to know who we’re talking about. That may sound like a silly question. Isn’t the answer obvious? The Greeks! But who was a Greek?

This is a more difficult question than it may seem. In the modern world, nations have citizenship laws to regulate who is, say, an American, a Canadian, a Belgian, etc. Even today, though, not everyone’s identity is easily defined. Immigrants, expatriates, refugees, and other people who travel between nations can have complicated relationships to the places they come from and the places they end up. Individual feelings and societal attitudes are not always in line with the letter of the law.

The situation was even more complicated in ancient Greece. The people of ancient Greece were never politically unified on their own initiative. Individual city-states like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes had their own citizenship laws, but these regulations varied widely between cities and changed in response to political pressures. Spartans who fled from battle could lose their citizenship. In Athens, challenging a rival’s citizen status was a common tactic in the tussle of political and family feuding. New citizens were enfranchised to serve political and military needs. The nearest thing there was to a central arbiter of Greekness was the Hellanodikai, the judges who oversaw the Olympic Games, in which only Greeks were allowed to compete. The judgments they made, though, were individual and only applied to the athletes. Decisions could also be swayed by political considerations: the Hellanodikai judged King Alexander I of Macedonia (great-great-great-grandfather of Alexander the Great) to be a Greek, while holding that the people of Macedonia themselves were not. (Herodotus, Histories 5.22)

The standards used for arguing about Greekness could also change with time and circumstances. In the sixth century BCE, most discussions of Greek identity were framed in terms of descent, specifically descent from particular mythic ancestors. The crucial figure was Hellen (a son of either the god Zeus and a human woman, Pyrrha, or Pyrrha and a human man, Deucalion—and not to be confused with the beautiful Helen, who sparked the Trojan War). Those who claimed descent from Hellen were counted among the Greeks, while those who did not were excluded. One of the fullest renderings of this tradition is in the poem known as the Catalogue of Women, a sixth-century poem known today only in fragments, which presented an account of the Greek heroic age structured around the genealogies, marriages, and progeny of certain women. This poem identified various groups of Greeks with three sons of Hellen: Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus.

The Catalogue, though, was not the final word on Greekness. As a primarily oral tradition, Greek myth had no canonical texts, and the family lines of gods and heroes were always up for debate. Other sources rearranged the family trees to change the determination of who did or did not count as Greek. (Thucydides, History 2.80.5-6; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.11.1) Nor did ancestry remain the only way of asserting Greek identity. In the fifth century, many writers also began to refer to shared language, culture, and ways of life as defining who was Greek. (Herodotus 8.144) By the fourth century, we find the Athenian orator Isocrates explicitly rejecting common ancestry as a way of determining who was a Greek or not:

[Athens] has caused the name of “Greek” to apply not to a tribe but to a way of thought, so that those who are called Greeks are those who share our education rather than those who share our origins.

– Isocrates, Panegyric 50

(All translations my own)

In the Successor Kingdoms of the Hellenistic age (the remnants of Alexander’s empire in the Aegean, Egypt, and southwestern Asia), Greekness took on new meanings. In Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings, “Greek” was an administrative rather than ethnic designation applied to anyone who was not a native Egyptian. Thus not only immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were classed as “Greeks,” but also, for instance, Jews, Syrians, and Persians. Being designated Greek carried certain legal and tax benefits, so even members of the native Egyptian aristocracy who supported the Ptolemaic regime were granted Greek status. In the Seleucid kingdom, centered on Mesopotamia and Syria, Greekness was a communal rather than individual status. Certain cities founded by immigrants from Greece and Macedonia were recognized as “Greek,” which brought some administrative benefits to everyone who lived there, regardless of their origins.

Many different people lived with identities that were more complex than simply “Greek” or “not Greek.” From the seventh century BCE on, many individuals with special skills left the small, economically underdeveloped cities of the Aegean to find employment elsewhere, including mercenaries, physicians, courtesans, artisans, and actors. These emigrants settled in places ranging from the Iberian peninsula to the Iranian plateau and integrated themselves into local societies. Their descendants tended to adopt local names, languages, and cultures, such as Wahibre-em-Akhet, the son of two Greek-named parents who was buried in Egypt in a traditional Egyptian sarcophagus. Larger groups of emigrants founded colonies around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. While some of these colonies asserted a strong sense of Greek identity, many had more complex cultures, such as the Geloni of the Black Sea steppes, a fusion of Greek settlers and local peoples who spoke a Greek-Scythian creole language. (Herodotus 4.108)

Many people from the greater Mediterranean world also settled in the Greek cities of the Aegean. By the fourth century BCE there were Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities in Athens that were substantial enough to successfully petition for the right to build temples to their own goddesses, Isis and Bendis. (Inscriptiones Graecae II2 337) The Carthaginian philosopher Hasdrubal moved to Athens and, in 129 BCE, became head of Plato’s Academy. Like Wahibre-em-Akhet in Egypt, Hasdrubal accommodated himself to the local culture by adopting the Greek name Clitomachus. (Cicero, Academica 2.31; Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 4.10) At the other end of the social scale, the Aegean cities of Delos and Rhodes were major centers for the slave trade. Captive people from origins stretching from Gaul to Persia and Scythia to Egypt are recorded passing through their harbors. Farther afield, Hellenistic-era Jews claimed to have proof that they shared a common ancestry with the Spartans and that sons of the Jewish patriarch Abraham had accompanied the Greek hero Heracles on his adventures. (1 Maccabees 12.5-23; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.240-41, 12.225-27)

Greek culture and identity did not stand alone and aloof from others. The sense of cultural interconnection and flexibility was expressed in Egypt by a poem written in Greek but addressed to the Egyptian goddess Isis which explicitly identified Isis with the goddesses of several other peoples:

The Syrians call you Astarte, Artemis, and Nanaia,

the people of Lycia address you as Queen Leto,

men of Thrace call you the mother of the gods,

and the Greeks name you great-throned Hera, sweet Aphrodite,

good Hestia, Rhea, and Demeter,

but the Egyptians call you The Only One, for you are the one who is all

other goddesses named by humanity.

– Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 8.584.18-24

The multiplicity of ways in which Greekness could be claimed may be best exemplified by comparing two examples. On one hand, there were descendants of Hellenistic settlers in India in the last centuries BCE and early centuries CE who had assimilated into Indian culture but who still identified themselves as “Yavana,” the word for Greek in the local language. This term appears in inscriptions on offerings made to Indian gods in local temples. In terms of culture, language, and ways of life, these Yavana had become thoroughly Indian; it was only through their ancestry that they still identified as Greek. On the other hand, the philosopher Favorinus, in the second century CE, argued that he counted as Greek despite his Gaulish ancestry because he had adopted a Greek culture, language, and way of life. (Favorinus, Corinthian Oration 25-26)

Greekness was never a racial identity; it was a cultural identity, and one that was open to many different interpretations, not all of them compatible with one another. Any questions we ask about the racial identity of the ancient Greeks are bound to have complex answers. Nor are we, as modern people, in a position to dispute the lived and felt identities of ancient peoples. To impose our own rules on whose Greekness was legitimate and whose was not would simply be begging the question. The idea that people can be categorized into coherent ethnic groups with well-defined boundaries that were stable over time and across great distances is a figment of the imperialist and Romantic nationalist imagination. If we are serious about investigating the identity of the ancient Greeks, we have to be prepared for the bewildering and irreducible complexities involved in defining exactly who we mean.

Other posts on Race in Antiquity:

Image: Corinthian capital with seated Buddha, via Wikimedia (originally Gandhara, currently Musée Guimet, Paris; 3rd-4th c. CE; stone)

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 7

We’re back at it, rewatching and rating season 7 of new-series Doctor Who. Here’s our take on this season’s episodes:

  1. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” – 1.5
  2. “Asylum of the Daleks” – 6
  3. “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” – 5
  4. “A Town Called Mercy” – 5
  5. “The Power of Three” – 2
  6. “The Angels Take Manhattan” – 3
  7. “The Snowmen” – 6.5
  8. “The Bells of Saint John” – 6.5
  9. “The Rings of Akhaten” – 3
  10. “Cold War” – 5
  11. “Hide” – 6.5
  12. “Journey to the Center of the Tardis” – 2
  13. “The Crimson Horror” – 4
  14. “Nightmare in Silver” – 4
  15. “The Name of the Doctor” – 3

The average rating for this season is an unimpressive 4.2, a slight comedown from season 6’s 4.4, though better than season 5’s 3.7. On the whole, this season just feels half-baked. There are some great ideas here that are just wasted on meandering, unfocused, episodes. An evil living sun! A Martian warrior on a Soviet submarine at the height of the cold war! Dinosaurs on a freakin’ spaceship! All of these ideas must have sounded great when first pitched, but the episodes developed from them just feel like underdeveloped first drafts. There are also some episodes that start out with great potential and then just flop. Mysterious black cubes appear all over the world and no one knows what they do! A pulp crime novel predicts the future! Despite their promising starts, these episodes just fizzle out in the end. Many of these episodes feel like they could have been standouts if more attention had been paid to developing the script.

At the bottom of the heap this time around is the Christmas episode “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” at 1.5, about the Doctor trying to inject some delight into the lives of a grieving family by giving the children a magical trip to a winter wonderplanet. This episode’s problems are many, including misplaced comedy, uninteresting characters, and mediocre child acting. The biggest problems, though, run deeper. The whimsy is forced, and the story never quite decides how close it wants to hew to the C. S. Lewis original. Unlike some of this season’s other disappointing episodes, it’s hard to see this one’s problems being solved with another draft or two.

For best episodes of the season, it’s a three-way tie among “The Snowmen,” “The Bells of Saint John,” and “Hide,” all at a decent-if-not-outstanding 6.5. “The Snowmen” finds the Doctor grieving the loss of his companions Amy and Rory by hiding out in Victorian London, while sentient snow threatens a family whose governess is one version of Clara Oswald. “The Bells of Saint John” brings the Doctor and Clara together properly with a story of a nefarious company stealing people’s minds through wi-fi. “Hide” is a ghost-hunting story with a time-travel twist.

All of these episodes have their strengths. “The Snowmen” does a better job playing with it’s Mary Poppins inspiration than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” does with Narnia. It also allows Clara’s character plenty of room to breathe and brings back the ever-delightful Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. “The Bells of Saint John” is a tightly-paced paranoia thriller with lots of good action (even though the wi-fi mind-stealing plot never makes the least bit of sense). “Hide” begins as an atmospheric haunted house story that slowly unfolds to reveal surprising layers of complexity. While they all could have done with a bit more development, there are satisfying moments in each.

There are also some good long-term developments this season. Curious, resourceful Clara is a much more enjoyable companion to watch than Amy the bully. There is also much less hero-worshiping of the Doctor than in previous seasons.

That’s our take on Doctor Who‘s seventh season. What’s yours? Do you have favorites (or unfavorites) this season? Let us know!

Image: Doctor Who Season 7 cover via IMDb

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

Some Random Thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Eppu’s random thoughts:

I went in knowing nothing for sure and having read only non-spoilery impression pieces and bits of barely-even news. A heads-up: half-baked musings to follow, plus at least one f-bomb.

  • You must know the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to follow the Avengers: Infinity War story—none of the characters or their histories are introduced. Which makes sense: the previous movies are all in their way leading to AIW, and there’s no way you could introduce everyone and still have enough time left for a new story. Good for fans, not so good for regular moviegoers.
  • Superhero stories aren’t fully my cup of tea, not like for instance Jane Austen is, but my inner nerd is very pleased to have such an unprecedented series of high-quality movies like this.
  • I knew AIW was going to be stuffed to the gills with details, dialog, and derring-do, and indeed it was. Yet, strangely, it felt like we were in a holding pattern throughout the movie. You can tell it’s just the first act of a two-parter.
  • I missed so many lines among the sound effects. How about some subtitling in the theaters, USA? They’re helpful for all sorts of people, not just the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • The death toll started climbing earlier and got higher than I thought, even before the ashing at the end.
  • The writers started pushing Vision and Wanda Maximoff together already in Civil War (which they also co-wrote) but I never could buy their relationship. It felt forced then, and it still feels forced in AIW.
  • My favorite scene is when Black Widow, Captain America, and Falcon turn up to help Scarlet Witch and Vision in Edinburgh. Such seamless teamwork—so awesome!
  • Another awesome thing: Spidey got a nano suit.
  • I know it’s not what the movie actually did, but there was so much of it that the fighting felt almost unending. On the other hand, they did a fairly good job balancing the multiple storylines / locations for such an overstuffed movie.
  • There’s still way too much Stark. Like Civil War, AIW‘s not supposed to be yet another Tony show but of course that’s what they’ve made it into. On the other hand, Iron Man and Doctor Strange worked pretty well together despite—or maybe due to?—both being rich entitled jerks. In a way, they almost canceled each other out.
  • Also, the annoying git otherwise known as Peter Quill was pleasantly diluted by the presence of so many other characters. That man-child needs to fucking grow up. (Unpopular opinion: the Guardians of the Galaxy movies barely made it to “Meh” and certainly didn’t rise beyond.)
  • AIW did some unusual character pairings that worked really well: Stark and Strange plus Thor and Rocket come immediately to mind. Rhodey and Sam had a few promising moments while handling air defence during the Wakandan fight, but it didn’t amount to much.
  • Sadly, pretty much all of the Black Panther characters felt tacked-on and not properly integrated. However, it was marvellous to be back in Wakanda. We barely saw Shuri, though, and that’s just plain wrong. (Imagine her and Peter Parker geeking about tech together!)
  • OMG, Nat and Okoye and Wanda teaming up! Give me a buddy movie for those three any day! And throw in Maria Hill, too, please!
  • Another great thing was the deliberate refusal to overuse the Hulk. Instead, they gave Banner a suit version of Veronica the Hulk-buster.
  • Others have noted this, too, but some of the special effects looked clunky and unfinished (especially next to the finished ones). Many of Proxima Midnight’s scenes were affected, for example. (Speaking of her—was anyone else reminded of demon hunters from WoW?)
  • Considering how much Doctor Strange did in his eponymous movie, he contributed seemingly little to the world’s defense. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of his magic in part 2; what shape that takes remains to be seen. Especially since so many popular characters were turned to ash (like Spider-Man who we know will return in a sequel of his own next year), we cannot but see a lot of un-ashing.
  • What ultimately turned me off reading super comics is what I call the escalation-squish cycle: the tendency to time and again up the stakes ridiculously high, kill or shelve multiple characters, destroy cities or planets or whatnot, and then undo everything with a gimmick of the month. There’s only so much of it that I can take. Unfortunately it seems MCU may be headed in that direction. I hope not.
  • Major grumble here: Whose stupid-ass idea was it at the this-really-is-the-end fight to have our heroes go at Thanos one at a time, in a stupid-ass single-file? They’re not that dumb. Stupid-ass, lazy railroading. *grumble!*
  • I knew beforehand that AIW would end with a cliffhanger. I guess I was expecting the ending to be a bit more explosive and not as quiet as it was.

In the end, AIW just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Here’s hoping part 2 will pick up the slack.

 

Erik’s random thoughts:

To a certain extent, it feels unfair to be critiquing Infinity War at this point, since we’ve only seen half the story. Still, my overall reaction is disappointment. There are some particular reasons for this feeling, which I’ll try to lay out here.

  • Most of the movie is spent watching characters flail around, trying to respond to a desperate situation and not accomplishing much. Even when it looks like one character or group of characters has taken a small step towards posing a meaningful challenge to Thanos, their gains are quickly nullified. While it’s true that some amount of failure is necessary for drama and there’s nothing interesting about watching heroes who only ever succeed, there’s nothing interesting about watching heroes who only ever fail, either.
  • A lot of the heroes’ failures feel unearned. Again, while it’s more common to complain about unearned successes, dramatically interesting failures need to be warranted by character and plot. Too much of the failure in Infinity War feels like it is driven by the writers’ desire to build up Thanos as a villain. It feels cheap.
  • Put these observations together with the fact that for there to be any MCU at all after part 2, much of what happened in part 1 will have to be undone, and a lot of the movie ends up feeling pointless. Why did we sit through all of this if none of it matters in the end?
  • Thanos is interesting as a villain. His motivating emotion is not anger or greed but sorrow and the desire to spare other people the anguish he and his planet went through. Still, we spent too much time listening to him monologue. In a movie already packed to overflowing with other characters, he took up too much air.
  • I never liked the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the way the team was written in this movie, I could see their appeal. Except for Peter Quill. He is still just as much of an impulsive, self-centered man-child as ever and I cannot stand one second of him. (To be fair, world events in recent years have severely depleted my patience with impulsive, self-centered man-children.)
  • For a movie that had such serious problems with its overall story, many of the individual scenes were beautifully written and perfectly acted. At the small scale, this movie works like a charm; it’s at the large scale that it falls flat.

Image: Avengers: Infinity War screenshot via IMDb

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