This began as a blog post with an agenda. It ended up as a bit of stream-of-consciousness writing that has a faint hint of a unifying motif. And yes, “stream-of-consciousness writing” is code for poorly-written, rambling drivel.
The theme for today’s blog post is disappointment. That and stupidity. Now, I know you’re thinking, “Oh, no! Here he goes again, wagging away about how miserable his life is!” And while Disappointment and Stupidity: The Harish Alagappa Story would be a highly appropriate title for my autobiography, my disappointment here is directed at someone whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate; the one and only, Neil Motherfuckin’ Gaiman (FYI, “Motherfuckin’” is not Neil Gaiman’s real middle name, which apparently is… Richard. Anti-climactic, that). Nimish Batra; if he still read this blog instead of living the good life in New York, which involves taking instagram photos of Manhattan in the rain, working in an office that overlooks the WTC site, and watching a 33-year-old Thierry Henry regularly school American football players (that’s Americans who play football and not people who play American Football, a sport that if I hereafter talk about on this blog, I will refer to as “the oddly homoerotic handegg lobotomy sport”); would have at this juncture liked to point out that he’s met the Gaiman, gotten a whole bunch of his books autographed, and even managed to earn a response from him on Twitter. Speaking of Nimish, his Facebook posts are, to my immense surprise, cheerful and upbeat. It is strange to see him so happy all the time. But back to Gaiman.
My disappointment stems from his work on a recent episode of Doctor Who, which was the second time he’s written an episode for that show. His first episode, The Doctor’s Wife, was highly anticipated; I mean, when the guy who wrote this and this (and this, that, and the other) pens an episode for a show that is the ultimate in geekgasm-inducing (yes, I know I used the word geekgasm, and yes, I feel horrible) science-fiction fantasy, it is not unreasonable to expect the result to be something that will cause one’s brain to spontaneously leap 200 feet in the air and scatter itself over a wide area. Amazingly, the episode didn’t just match our insane expectations, it exceeded them by a larger margin than the one that divides Neil’s writing skill and mine. The Doctor’s Wife had everything that an episode needs to become a Who classic; brilliant writing, timey-wimey-ness, and a core idea that makes you go, “Damn! How the hell didn’t I think of that!”. Which is why his second foray into Whovian authorship was so disappointing. I’m not going to go into the details of why ‘Nightmare In Silver’ was “meh”, there are plenty of blogs that you can find for that purpose. Instead, I’m going to express my disappointment at one of my favourite writers, a man known for re-inventing genres and producing works of unsurpassed genius, for using a trope – no, a cliché, tropes can be good – that one sees all to often and isn’t just insulting and demeaning, but also highly unrealistic. In ‘Nightmare In Silver’, Neil Gaiman wrote an angry teenager who, even in an unusual and potentially life-threatening situation, is whiny, ungrateful, and obsessed with some ridiculous emotional conflict.
Angie, a teenager whose governess is the Doctor’s current companion (and Rose 2.0 candidate) Clara Oswald, has just discovered her baby-sitter occasionally runs off with a 1,000-year-old alien who has a blue box that can travel to anywhere in space and time. She blackmails her nanny (in an implausible but plot-propelling fashion) to take her along. The alien and governess do this. So far, so believable (by Doctor Who standards). They end up on a planet that was supposed to be an amusement park, but is a desolate wreck occupied by two groups of people; some weirdo with a mechanical turk that’s actually a Cyberman, and, importantly, a platoon of military people wearing camouflage that has no relevance to their surroundings except that it clearly identifies them as military personnel. She sees the Doctor use psychic paper to shoo the army people away, she sees the Doctor panic when he first sees the mechanical Cyber-turk, and can clearly see how visibly disturbed he is by the presence of the damn thing. The Doctor tells her to wait in a room while he investigates. Oh, and the entire time, she’s accompanied by her younger brother, who, as per another trope, is the brainy pick of the litter. Angie gets frustrated of waiting, leaves her brother alone on an alien planet, wanders off to where the military personnel are, enters their base, and loudly announces to them, “I’m bored!”.
It’s a trope you see all the time when there’s a teenage character in a plot, especially on film. I assume most of these stories are written by people who have teenage children and are probably just venting. But seriously, can they not see the flaw in the train of thought that goes, “Fucking teenagers, they’re are always wangsty, right? So why would they stop being wangsty when they’re in a strange place and/or a perilous situation! I’ll show them how their behaviour will land them in trouble! Then they’ll learn!” It presupposes that teenage wangst is a stronger sentiment than one’s basic instinct for survival, but also shows a startling lack of the writer’s ability to relate to when they were of that age. I was a teenager. Some say I still have the mental capacity of one. Before I was a teenager, I saw my elder sister as a teenager. I love my elder sister and she’s a really nice person and all, but between 1998 and 2004, she was a fucking terror. She has, I would like to clarify, mellowed down a lot since then. And I don’t think I was much better at that age, except I didn’t use my voice as much as she did and instead did all my screaming and shouting in writing, some of which was mercifully on paper and is hence lost in mists of time, but sadly on other occasions, I vented my teenage frustrations on a blog that I am tempted to delete every time I think about it.
Yes, I agree, teenagers are angry all the time, and most of the while they’re not 100% sure why they’re angry, or indeed at whom. Yes, they get bored easily and do not like listening to authority figures telling them what to do. Yes, they think they know everything about the world, but are in many ways painfully ignorant and naive. But they’re also, for the most part, not completely and entirely unaware of reality. When I was 15 years old, I had a pretty decent idea of what was happening around me. When, in 2003, I was travelling with my family in some extremely rural part of the Tamil Nadu coast, I saw a man carrying what at a glance looked like a gun. I whispered to my father, “Are we in LTTE territory?”. He nodded a yes. I didn’t shout, “Look! A guy with a gun! He’s probably an LTTE member! Fuck you Tamilians for sympathizing with a terror outfit that uses child soldiers, you piece of shit! Gawd, I’m so angry!” Nevertheless, in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 , it makes perfect sense for Jim Lovell’s teenage daughter to be so obsessed with the fact that The Beatles broke up that she doesn’t want to go to see her father’s video broadcast from outer space en route to the moon. Somehow, in every disaster movie, there has to be a scene where the noble hero is trying to tell his, usually estranged, teenage daughter, “Honey, there’s an asteroid approaching the city/ a volcano’s erupting / Cthulhu has risen! We have to get outta here!” The daughter’s response is usually along the lines of, “No! You were never there for me! I hate you! I want Mom! Beiber 4eva!” When I was 15, if I was in danger, I wouldn’t care if Saddam Hussein came to save my life, I would want my life to be saved. Also, why are these narcissistic, survival instinct-lacking teen characters almost always girls?
It’s paradoxical how on one hand adults have the notion that teenagers are somehow so obliviously self-absorbed that they can’t perform basic acts of logical reasoning in dangerous situations, while at the same time teenagers are expected to show discipline, focus, and dedication while taking some of the most important decisions of their lives, viz. what career do they want to pursue, which college do they want to go to. Additionally, even though my teenage sister was a terror whose favourite pastime was to annoy me, I can assure you that she would never leave me alone on a dangerous alien planet just to go wandering off because she was bored. Fifteen-year-old elder sisters have at least that much of a sense of responsibility. And no matter how much teenagers hate authority figures, when they are in an alien situation (literally in the case of Gaiman’s episode), they listen to those authority figures. It’s not a culture gap or anything, it’s plain fucking common sense. I’m sure that during 9/11, teenage girls didn’t walk up to random police officers or firemen and announce loudly that they’re bored.
This is, of course, symptomatic of a larger trend of poor writing that tries to add emotional depth to a story by having characters bring up previous emotional conflicts in situations where sentimentality or focusing on the characters’ relationship with each other is just daft. Based on what I’ve noticed, during a time of crisis, people tend to forget previous relationship issues and work together. It’s not just a general statement about human behaviour, it’s a survival trait. 70,000 years ago, if a hunter you didn’t get along with shouted “There’s a lion behind you!” (I’m presupposing language had reached a sufficient level of complexity by this point), you didn’t say, “I’m not listening to you, okay!” You ran for your effing life and, if you impossibly survived, potentially even thanked the chap. Emotional conflict for the sake of it, making people bring up relationship issues in situations where no sane person would bring up relationship issues is in many works a bigger plot-hole than any bending of the laws of physics or egregious bit of historical inaccuracy. But oddly, no one calls bullshit on writers who frequently indulge in this, and some critics even praise this as “highlighting the difficult relationship between the two characters”. Not sure what else there is to say, really. I’m aware of the irony of making an argument against emotion while discussing a Doctor Who episode about the Cybermen, and just to make it worse, I’m going to end on a note from a different franchise. When human beings, of any age, are in a life-threatening situation, their reactions are more Vulcan than we give them credit for.