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The magical humanists

October 30, 2012

The first half of Series Seven of (New) Doctor Who has come out over the last few months, and of course I’ve been keeping up with it. In a seemingly unrelated development, I’ve also been re-watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I first saw it ~2005). Then I began noticing certain similarities between them.

Of course these are both “sci-fi/fantasy” shows, and so similar in that way, but they have much more than that in common. It only scratches the surface to call them both (overly?) self-conscious fantastical tragicomedies emphasizing arc-based continuity and character development, and even that sounds less like a location on a taxonomical map (sci-fi v. fantasy v. western v. horror v. …) and more like an attitude taken towards the world. Which is to say, it sounds like a genre along the lines of Shakespearean tragedy, or metaphysical poetry, or the comedies of remarriage, or magical realism. My question is: what is that attitude?

Two points usually aren’t enough to triangulate much of anything. We can get three by looking at these shows’ creators; incidentally, this website puts both Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat (showrunners for Doctor Who 1-4 and 5-7, respectively) fairly close to Joss Whedon (showrunner for Buffy). Since we can’t talk about the artist without talking about the art, this means thinking about their other shows, in particular, Whedon’s Angel and Firefly and Moffat’s Jekyll and Sherlock. (I haven’t seen Davies’ Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures and so won’t discuss it. It would be an interesting test to see if what I say below applies to it as well.) I’m going to assume you’ve seen at least some of these; I really do suggest seeing all of them. They’re all quite good (and all on Netflix).

So here’s six shows; if we can come up with a detailed enough description that still applies to all of them, that seems decent evidence for their being all somehow related. At this point I’m going to borrow Stanley Cavell’s idea of genres as centered around guiding myths: each instance of the genre is an attempt to retell the myth. This means we do not come up with a checklist and say anything with a high enough score is “in the genre”; rather, we need to be able to understand each member of the genre as retelling all of the generic myth. When one member apparently lacks an element shared by all the others, we must see it not as departing from the myth, but rather as revealing its deeper structure. For example, before Kurosawa we would say Westerns have to be set in the West; he set a Western in Japan, and so revealed that what really matters is that they rest precariously between order and chaos.

Without further ado, here’s a first shot at outlining the “myth” of this genre; to further explicate it, I will also outline it’s “ethics,” by which I mean something like it’s implied philosophy of life, and it’s “logic,” by which I mean the tone it necessarily adopts to communicate these other two. This will go on at some length; my hope, however, is that it can be the basis for further short posts on this theme.

Plot: superhumans, inhumans, transhumans

A tortured but ultimately good super-human fights evil, assisted by his/her much more normal friends, each of whom still turns out to be somehow special, and necessary for the central figure’s success.

  • Buffy in the early seasons of Buffy is for the most part not a super-human but just a normal girl with superpowers; but even then much attention is paid to how her being the Slayer stops her from having a normal life, and later (seasons 6 and 7 especially) her separation from the rest of humanity becomes much more of an existential dilemma. The humanity of the super-human character must itself be up for debate.
  • On Firefly River Tam is not the main character, and the heroes fight evil less than they run from it; but the flight can be understood as a tactical retreat, due to the fact that the super-human character is not central, and flight is replaced with fight once River Tam’s super-human status becomes central in the follow-up movie Serenity. The super-human character, while the logical center of the show, is not necessarily the dramatic center.
  • On Jekyll the hero does not have a stable group of comrades-in-arms, but the show centers around his attempt to defend his family, keeping the strong emphasis on companionship while denying the comforting presence of actual companions, thus greatly increasing the sense of tension on this show as compared to the others. The role of the companions is as much to calm the audience as it is to calm the hero.

The evil to be resisted has as its primary aim the destruction of humanity, often physically, but more crucially spiritually: they desire to “perfect” humanity by eliminating what makes us human; at the same time they themselves cannot deny everything that makes them human without ceasing to exist.

  • The villains on Sherlock do not seek to destroy humanity, but the central subject of the show is how the world of inhuman cat-and-mouse games in which the super-human characters live threatens the ability of anyone caught up in it to retain their humanity. This modification brings to the fore a fact present in all of these shows: it is the hero’s super-humanity, as much as the villains’ inhumanity, that threatens the humanity of everyone else.
  • The longer running shows, Buffy, Angel, andDoctor Who, lack a central villain, but most of the major villains can be understood along these lines. The most memorable are either faceless masses (of vampires, demons, Daleks, Cybermen), in which case they are still understood primarily in terms of the threat they pose to humanity, or characters in their own right (Spike, Drusilla, Darla, Anya, the Master, Dalek Khan, Davros), in which case they become a way to probe inhumanity in much the same way these shows’ central characters probe superhumanity. These turn out to be much the same thing. Thus Spike is able to be converted from villain to secondary hero with little difficulty.

This battle has as backdrop a fantastical universe which is itself a character: it is expansive beyond reckoning; promises discovery (scientific, technological, magical), with an emphasis on gratuitous exploration rather than practical application; threatens to make possible even worse inhuman villains; and never makes a whole lot of sense.

  • The only thing close to an exception is Jekyll, which puts little emphasis on wonder and much more on the dangers of science; but even there, the evils of science are juxtaposed with Jekyll’s fantastical love-superpower, and we are clearly intended to feel awe in the face of how ineffable and terrifying the biological roots of human love are. If this modification teaches us anything, it is this: these shows present the universe as a great unknown ripe for exploration, but the emphasis always comes back to us who are doing the exploring.
  • It should also be noted that on Doctor Who many of the so-called “villains” are actually manifestations of the universe, demonstrating its awesome and terrible power. For example, the Vashda Nerada, or the Weeping Angels. The recent villains The Silence seem to be both, an interesting development; but we have yet to see where that plot line will end up.

Philosophy: humans existential, love hope and curiosity

The focus, as has become clear, is on the place of the human in the universe. What is that place? All of these shows reject anything that smacks of metaphysical essentialism; I doubt any would accept “human” as meaning more than something alone these lines: “exists in space and time as a free being, existing to be born and to die, to act and be acted upon, to have as possibilities both corruption and redemption.”

  • The primary philosophical instinct, then, as with most science fiction, is a kind of libertarianism. At its worst, this means a rejection of authority for the sake of rejecting authority. It can also be merely occasional sniping at authority, or demonstrations of the dangers of totalitarianism (Doctor Who and Firefly are both fond of these).
  • Family is important, but family structure is infinitely flexible. Both Buffy and Doctor Who have gay characters, and put much emphasis on them. Jekyll is the only one to go very far towards explaining this: love is seen as a powerful biological instinct, which cannot be denied, but which is nevertheless dangerous.
  • Though “human” is refused any essential meaning, there is a constant anxiety over whether humanity can be lost; is there any modification that can make me no longer me? These seem to me to be mainly worries about the nature of the universe–does the universe make possible any form of life that would be so utterly alien that we could not accept it as like ourselves?–and about the power of technology–if such forms of life do exist, can we make ourselves into them? If so, should we?

These shows have answered this question, I think, through a clear shift from metaphysics to ethics. They may not say what it means to be human essentially, but they’re very clear on what it means to be human ethically: humans are virtuous, possessing the cardinal virtues of love (biological), hope (practical), and curiosity (cosmological). These virtues come naturally to humans, it seems; Rousseau trumps Augustine. But they can still be lost, and it is in losing them that we cease to be human.

  • Love means biological instinct. As Jekyll explicitly says, and the rest tacitly accept. “Love” here isn’t love of stranger, it’s love of family and friends. We should be willing to do almost anything to defend them. Though violence is morally dubious, and perhaps always unacceptable (at least on Doctor Who), it’s still sometimes the only way we have to save the people we love, and that justifies it at least emotionally.
  • Hope means trusting people to do what is right and never taking the least bad option. The tragic inhuman villains (Spike, Darla, Anya, the Master) are always given another chance, and if Buffy faces a choice between saving her friends and saving the world, or the Doctor must choose between saving earth and saving the universe, the choice is always refused: the hero must believe he can do both, and even if the refusal has terrible consequences, it is not simply wrong; after all, it was done with hope.
  • Curiosity means both skepticism and naive eagerness. Question authority, compliance is complicity, stability is laziness, adventures are real life. But while bounds on curiosity are always chafing, they are obligatory if demanded by the other two virtues; and moreover there is a vaguely defined line beyond which curiosity becomes dangerous. On Buffy Willow crosses it when she starts using Black Magic; on Doctor Who the Doctor eternally walks the line between them; on Firefly it becomes clear that sometimes a life of exploration (“you can’t take the sky from me”) is really a life of retreat. Still, even when curiosity leads to evil, we find it hard to blame the explorer; they were just exploring. It’s not as if they sought power.

Presentation: irony, character

These shows are, most obviously, extremely self-conscious, and constantly self-mocking. They are layered with many levels of irony. It would be easy to accuse them of just being “unsure of themselves” (does the show itself want me to be frightened or to laugh?), but I think there’s much more than this at work.

  • First, by drawing attention to their own fictional status, whether through the “Scoobies” on Buffy, through incorporating Robert Louis Stevenson as a character on Jekyll, or having Doctor Watson blog about solving mysteries on Sherlock, the shows reveal their philosophical commitment to the idea that there is nothing essential to humanity. You are only defined by the story you tell about yourself. That, in turn, means that any story that does not acknowledge this is dangerous, totalitarian. The villains always take themselves extremely un-ironically; we, however, are meant to take the threat they pose seriously, but not meant to take them seriously. Hence on Doctor Who the Daleks, scourges of the universe, are giant salt-shakers; hence when Angel turns evil on Buffy he completely hams it up playing the absolute evil destroyer of the universe. This requires a strange double-perspective, but it is one we are consciously asked to adopt.
  • Third, refusing to commit is required when you live in an uncertain universe. The tone can never be wholly tragic or comic because it can shift between them at any moment: something extra-bad always happens on Buffy’s birthday, Tara (Buffy) and Fred (Angel) and Wash (Firefly) die after the victory is won; it is after the victory that the Angel gets Rory (Doctor Who), and only moments before the end of Series 1 of Sherlock that everything suddenly goes to hell. In this sort of world the best principle is grim laughter, as with the one-liners on Buffy and Angel, or the Doctor’s simultaneous almost-blind optimism and terrible realism.
  • Finally, irony is the only possibility left when the “mythology” the shows construct for themselves is self-contradictory, and the plots make little effort at realism or even coherence. Doctor Who admits that its universe is a “timey-wimey ball”; Buffy and Angel include a lot of nonsense talk about “dimensions” that we’re obviously not supposed to look at too closely; only Firefly seems to really make sense, as a world, but it’s still very self-conscious about what matters being “space+cowboys,” not any of the details of world-building. On Sherlock especially, the plot twists rarely make any sense, especially not as actual “mysteries,” but we’re convinced not to care through the show so obviously not caring. The reason, I think, is clear: the mythology exists only as a backdrop to provide interesting color, and the plot exists only as a way to maneuver characters into interesting situations.

So the style of these shows, though it dwells in the fantastic, the “magical,” always comes back to character, to the “human.” Character is central to most good things (think modernist novels), but also most bad things (think soap operas). How do we know which these are? What do these shows do with their characters?

  • Human character is understood mainly in terms of relationships, emotions, which are awkward and painful, and can only be lessened through self-consciousness and patience, but which even then will be very painful. This pain is often inflicted on the audience, as in the awful awkward teenage drama in Buffy. That drama isn’t accidentally awkward; we’re supposed to be pained, I think, and to be frustrated with them for not just figuring out their lives and getting back to fighting evil already. But the shows’ claim is that they can’t just get back to fighting evil because emotions, while painful, must be addressed. Indeed, even though they fluctuate constantly, it’s just weird not to follow your heart (hence Buffy moves on rather quickly from her supposed “eternal love” for Angel, and the Doctor picks his companions virtually at random but has an unreasonably strong devotion to them).
  • The difficulty of emotions is portrayed as the simultaneous necessity and difficulty of communicating them. Hence the stylistic strangeness of Buffy-speak; hence the best episodes of Buffy are often the ones where a random restriction is placed on how people can talk (“Hush”: no talking!; “Once More With Feeling”: everything must be sung!); hence in Doctor Who every disagreement, every misunderstanding can be solved by the hyper-articulate Doctor, such that force (or, more often, trickery) is only ever required to deal with incurable evil; hence on both Angel and Firefly the protagonist’s main feature, a lack of desire to communicate, is both a heroic trait and one of the ways in which he is super-human and potentially inhuman.
  • The focus is on emotions involving relationships; more sublime emotions, desires for things like wisdom, art, God, are mostly unknown. They surface mainly in the omnipresent emphasis on exploration, but desire for “more” does not seem to dominate anyone’s life; the Doctor, perhaps, but in him it is mixed with a world-weariness, a sense that no matter how much there is to see, he has already seen it all. A sort of intellectualism does surface in characters like Giles or Willow on Buffy, or almost everyone on Sherlock, but it is understood mostly instrumentally: it’s good if used to fight evil, bad if not. I can remember few if any artist characters, and religion is portrayed almost exclusively negatively, as a hindrance to exploration. The most powerful impersonal feeling in these shows is perhaps guilt: Angel’s melancholic guilt for his demonic past, Spike’s more choleric guilt for the same, Mal Reynold’s guilt for not having fought till the bitter end, the Doctor’s cosmic guilt. Such guilt is certainly not seen as normal; it’s the burden of those few tortured super-humans.


Well. Is that enough to convince you that this genre exists? If so, we should give it a name. If the title of the post did not clue you in, I’ve already started calling those who write them “magical humanists”; the stories themselves are perhaps “magical humanist adventures.”

If not, I’d be interested in your reasons. A likely objection is that, even with how much I’ve written, I’m still not being specific enough: there are tons of other writers whose work fits this description. This may in fact be true. But there are certainly many it excludes. It would, I think, be an interesting question to ask: for a particular X, is X a magical humanist? Other interesting questions: Why this genre here, now? Is there anything beyond luck behind these examples all being television serials? Is this genre, as a genre, any good?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Stephen Dean permalink
    November 9, 2012 7:32 am

    I think what you are seeing here may be the postmodern children to the modern sci-fi. The epitome of the modern sci-fi will always, to me, be the original Star Trek.

    Now the original Star Trek had no “super” protagonists, but it did have super villains. But that was part of the point. Star Trek portrayed a world, a universe, beyond our understanding and knowledge, but full of possibilities. It is seen as part of the what makes us human to understand, explore, and overcome obstacles. The opening line set the stage: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

    Humanity is portrayed as the conflicting regimes of logic and emotion bottled up in one entity. This gives us our weaknesses, but is ultimately our greatest strength. This is played out time and time again among the three main characters: Bones (the doctor) is intelligent but highly emotional. Spock is supremely logical but struggles with the ‘out-of-box’ thinking and creativity that emotions give others. Kirk is a balance – the philosopher/captain who is also a man of action.

    The show was humanist in the sense of “man is the measure of all things.” – there is no concept of ‘higher’ concerns beyond ours. But there was more we were to live for.

    The eschatology of this world was simple: races naturally progress from un-enlightenment to enlightenment. Our descendants can navigate the stars, and conquer as-yet-unimaginable obstacles. In the Star Trek world, every problem can be solved with a mix of creativity, bravery, humor, and science. By implication, of course, we can certainly navigate the issues we face in our world the same way. There was a telos, a goal, and a point to our existence, and that goal is to help move us all into a bright and glorious future.

    But the shows you describe seem more postmodernist than Star Trek. First, the shows you outlined seemed skeptical of the role of progress and science, in particular, or of any overarching goal in general. Second, they seem preoccupied with emotions – emotions in relationships, emotions of guilt, awkward emotions, etc. In Star Trek, emotions made men complete, but were always serving a goal: making men complete, helping to attain an end, or needing to be overcome for the greater good. Reading between the lines, I’d almost think that in the shows you outline, the emotions *are* the center of meaning.

    So the general framework remains – facing new and previously unimagined obstacles, and finding new ways to overcome them. But the difference is the point of it all.

    Another way of phasing this difference could be this. Once a goal and end of mankind has been removed, then what is left but our own desires and feelings? These place their own “demands” on us, and navigating them can be tricky. Hence the drama of the postmodernist sci-fi.

    I may be reading too much into your summary. What do you think?

  2. November 9, 2012 11:25 pm

    I think you’re essentially right to say that these shows are the “postmodern” descendants of things like the original Star Trek. Star Trek justified its humanist morality through naively universal truth-claims; these shows justify their humanist morality through self-conscious emotionalism.

    So these shows are postmodern. The real question, to my mind, is what exactly do we mean by that? Postmodernism had already basically “arrived” by the 1960s, so why didn’t sci fi become postmodern then? One answer would be that “pop culture” takes a generation to catch up. But that sounds really suspicious to me. I’d rather look at Joss Whedon, Stephen Moffat, etc, as the genre-fiction equivalents of the “theory generation” ( I want to say that they’re not just meekly inhabiting postmodernism, but rather are somehow responding to it just as a lot of these popular-among-sophisticates realist novelists are responding to it. But I’m not sure I can articulate what that response is.

  3. Stephen Dean permalink
    November 10, 2012 6:33 am

    Why wouldn’t the gradual movements in our pop culture be a good explanation? It seems likely to me.

    I was less interested in the fact that these shows are postmodern children, and more interested in what your post helped me realize about the difference between modernism and postmodernism. In particular about how that difference is playing out in these shows and in our culture.

    I am reminded of the existentialist movies of the 70’s, and how the hero (or anti-hero) was always smarter than his elders. He recognized their reason for living was a sham, foundationless and empty. But he’d have nothing to replace it with. He was always personally adrift. Mrs Robinson or Rebel Without a Cause come to mind.

    Similarly, it seems to me something is truly lost when postmodernism has jettisoned all external telos. When no external demand requires of us sacrifice. At least, none is seen as legitimate.

    To the postmodernist, the modernist is naive.

    To the modernist, the postmodernist is petty.

    To me, they’re both right.

    Which brings me back to my first question. When I was younger, the standard question that initiated dialog was, “What do you think…?” I am old enough to have experienced the cultural change. Now my friends all ask, “What do you feel…?”

    And there’s a generational difference. Most I know my age and older simply state their disagreements flatly. Nearly all my younger friends feel obliged to preface their disagreements with an affirmation of the legitimacy of the feelings of the other. It’s as ubiquitous as greeting someone with “Hello.” Not going through the (sometimes lengthy) preface is rude.

    Culture has changed. Emotions now rule.

    Had you asked me a couple days ago to describe postmodernism, this wouldn’t have been on the list of attributes I would’ve recited. Now it will be.

  4. November 10, 2012 3:43 pm

    Oh, no, I’m not trying to say that the “gradual movements in our pop culture” explanation is wrong, exactly. In fact I completely agree that “thinking” being replaced by “feeling” is exactly what’s going on here, and I think you’re right that that’s an integral part of post-modernism.

    Here’s an interesting thought: do your friends ask, “What do you feel about X?” or do they ask, “How do you feel about X?” I suspect the latter is more common, that moving from “think” to “feel” is at the same time moving from “what” to “how.” Though I’m not sure what that ends up meaning. Is it a move from content to process? Hm. Now I want to start initiating discussion with, “How do you think about X?”

    One point. Is the jettisoning of external telos the same as the refusal of any sacrifice as legitimate? They seem related, but not exactly identical. It’s philosophically coherent to say that there is no such thing as “sacrifice” while still having objective standards. Let’s posit that “sacrifice” means foregoing good X in favor of the more important good Y. This implies there are multiple goods. But if there is in fact only a single good, Z, and X and Y are goods only because they help us reach Z, then they can never be in conflict; if it seems we have to give up X in order to have Y, and Y is the “higher ranked” of the two, then in fact X wasn’t an option to begin with, and so nothing was actually sacrificed. (I realize this is rather sketchy. I can try to flesh out the argument (which is not original to me) if you’re not convinced it’s at least a possible position to hold.)

    Anyway, what I’m getting at is this: postmodernists reject sacrifice as legitimate, but they don’t deny that sacrifice is possible. They just refuse to accept it. I think this has less to do with jettisoning telos, and more to do with insisting on there being multiple teloi, and also insisting that must not be in conflict, and also insisting that nevertheless they don’t unify into a single ultimate telos. So, they deny that X and Y can be in conflict, but they don’t posit a Z. (If they did posit a Z, it would be “what I want,” but I don’t think they’re conscious of the centrality of “what I want” to their position.)


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