Clock Winds Down

As with every month, we reach the end feeling there are still too many hours of exploration left. Too many films and programmes and books and other distractions that are relevant to the theme, but with no time machine in sight to go back and somehow fit it into our schedules.

This is that end.

We leave you with lists!

Amber’s Top Time Travelling Teams (That Don’t Include The Doctor)

In order of cinematic release/initial air date, here are the five films (and one programme) whose travelling teams make me happiest or whatever-feeling-is-appropriate-est. And I spared myself some agony by making this specifically not about Doctor Who.

Time Bandits (1981)

The Time Bandits teamI first saw this film as a child, so I appreciated that one of our time travellers was, like me, a human child in the real world who got to escape into an adventure. Beyond that, this is a crazy crew who seemed unlikely to succeed (for so many reasons), but they do it anyway. They’ve got rough edges (and some rough middle parts) and might not be the team I’d want to travel with, but so delightful to watch!

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1985)

The Bill & Ted's teamSpeaking of delightful to watch, Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted “Theodore” Logan are also that. For me, part of the appeal is that they remind me of skater boys I hung out with. Not the brightest, but good-hearted. I am a sucker for a good heart. The occasional presence of Rufus, Napolean, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, and (my favourite, played by the awesome Jane Wiedlin) Joan of Arc adds a sort of frantic fun to what could arguably be classed as a feel-good film.

(Arguably Keanu Reeves’s best performance, though I’m torn with Alex Winter because he got to be a Lost Boy…)

Quantum Leap (March 26, 1989-1993)

The Quantum Leap teamA lot of times, “odd couple” sort of situations don’t really work for me. But the nice mix of brilliant and kind time traveller Sam with irreverent and brash holographically-projected-into-the-past Al works well. Part of that might be that the framework here isn’t a sit-com but a drama. Add in the fact that, whilst they work to save the world over and over again, they are both striving to get Sam un-stuck from his time travel, and you’ve got a more interesting context for this team. I might have occasionally crushed on Sam or gotten emotional over his exploits and his situation.

Back to the Future (3 July, 1989)

The Back to the Future teamI couldn’t show my face certain places if I didn’t mention Doc and Marty. Fortunately, I’m happy to mention them, even without that threat. Whilst I think all the things in my list are important, this one was arguably the most important of the lot (and that release date tells me it was a summer blockbuster thing). The lunacy of Doc was great for laughs, whilst the “normal kid” character of Marty made it easier for us to non-mad-scientist types to feel connected to the story. Who didn’t walk away wanting a DeLorean and a hoverboard? Or maybe even a mad scientist friend to help change our present via a past adventure…

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

The Safety Not Guaranteed teamThis film wasn’t one I anticipated liking as much as I did. And the thing that really made me love it was the team of Darius and Kenneth. Honestly, I’m a bit of a sucker for weirdos and their budding relationships. Plus, I’m a sucker for the way Aubrey Plaza plays disaffected. And the character of Kenneth, whilst we have reason to suspect his sanity, is a likeable guy. Are you starting to see that I’m a sucker for good guys? Someone disaffected and someone good in a film that’s not exactly mainstream is a good start for me.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Our team here for the actual time travelling are Wolverine and Kitty Pryde (aka Shadowcat). I love superheroes, and I really love X-Men. (Being not-normal is a good thing? Tell me more…) Even if most of the action we see is Wolverine, what I love is that his big, tough guy self is only able to do this with the help of a smaller female. I wish we lived in a post-sexist world where that sort of thing wouldn’t matter to me, but we don’t and it does. And the way she pushes on and, in her own way, shows she’s just as tough as burly Wolverine? Yeah! Plus, thanks, Kitty, for having a power that lets us see younger Xavier and Erik (aka Magneto) and Hank (aka Beast) and and and…well, now that I’ve wandered from time travelling teams to pretty people, time to let Cat do her winding up list…

(Of note, though I’ve stuck with time travel and not just things where time is squishy, I do want to call out that Quicksilver’s speed allows him to interact with things in a way that would make him out of sync with “normal” time and certainly involved in some wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff…Just with a little more sneering than we’d see from the Doctor.)

X-Men from the past and the future

Cat’s Top Making-A-Change Time Travel Films

One of the greatest tropes with time travel is the desire to go back and change things. To make the small adjustment that will alter life for the better. In short, when faced with options to redirect the course of history, we suddenly all become the Doctor going back to kill Hitler. Usually anything with time travel brushes this off with dire warnings about not changing anything (think Butterfly Effect), but sometimes stories lean into that possibility, creating a narrative that cannot exist without that one express foundation: change everything. Here, following Amber’s method of release date, are some stellar uses of this idea in film (and one where I stretch the definition a bit to include a great movie). We’ve already covered some films that do this very well indeed: X-men: Days of Future Past12 Monkeys, most of the Back to the Futures. These are the ones without their own dedicated web space on our page.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

T2All of the Terminator movies follow the same trail. Save John Connor, save the world. It might be more appropriate to list the first film in that regard, because it introduced the idea and feels like the stakes were even higher, but I think the second movie is a little more fun. There. I said it. It’s not often I give James Cameron any credit for anything, but he can churn out an exciting action sequel better than most anyone. T2 also has fantastic effects, particularly groundbreaking for that time, and who doesn’t love using Arnold for good, not vengeance?

Groundhog Day (1993)

groundhog-dayIt’s going to be difficult to refrain from all-out fangirling right here, because this is one the best movies of all time. Actually, I’d wager it’s one of the most important movies of all time. Expertly crafted by the late, great Harold Ramis and screenwriter Danny Rubin, Groundhog Day manipulates time to teach greater lessons about humanity. When Bill Murray as Phil Connors, narcissistic TV reporter extraordinaire, is forced to repeat every Groundhog Day for what Ramis claims is anywhere from 10-40 years (and other folks have done more in-depth estimations with that timeline) he is strong-armed into examining the purpose of humanity. As part of that, he’s forced to change his self-centered ways. Groundhog Day uses time manipulation to stare down the barrel of what exactly us crazy humans are doing here on this planet. The results are staggering. Nothing religious, nothing preachy, but overall themes of love and service and decency resound against a backdrop of the most hilarious writing and acting you ever did see.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

midnightThis might be cheating, but Midnight in Paris‘s sojourn into the past is used to teach lessons and change the course of a life, so I’m keeping it. This is also a great example of a time usage we haven’t discussed too much, save for the sci-fi themes in my Doctor Who post: the modern man blasted into history. As one of the lighter and (in my opinion) less odious of Woody Allen’s movies, Midnight in Paris succeeds in crafting a beautiful history while gently explaining why that past isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Owen Wilson’s Gil might have completely romanticized Paris in the 1920s, but it soon becomes clear that his magical time traveling car is not there to solely indulge his whims and add fruit to his fancy. It appears to show Gil that not all that glitters is gold. Like Groundhog Day, this films exists to teach a broader moral to those watching. Those who always live at the mercy of past, even in positive ways, are doomed to ruin the present.

Looper (2012)

looper

Alright, let’s get off this touchy-feely theme of personal growth and get back to nitty-gritty time travel for the course of history. Rian Johnson is one of those ridiculously talented writer-directors (please watch Brick; it will blow your mind). With Looper, using time travel as a way to change the trajectory of the world isn’t good enough. No, he has to take the endless possibilities with time travel and couch the message of changing history within a mind-bending action flick that plays with multiple timelines, each one having weight in the current story. Maybe confusing, but since the results are so slick and, well, cool, it’s hard to complain.

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

I have always been a time traveler.

It’s the way my brain works, constantly circling back through my history. Where was I a year ago? Two years ago? How have I changed? Where was I then? Every moment measures against the one before, even so incrementally—from now to yesterday, one month, a year, five years. How did I spend Halloween as a child? What was I doing a year ago today? And more importantly, have I grown?

meThis manifests in an uncanny mind for dates and occasions. I remember the dates of those huge relationship moments, my first kiss, first betrayal, first moment of soul-crushing “what am I even doing right now?”. Those are compared against each other every year (spoiler: for most I prefer where I currently am on that date). But there are less monumental moments that stubbornly resist slipping away. There’s the day a friend cancelled on a concert during a season of incredible loneliness, and I can’t forget the date when I sobbed on my dorm room floor over the abandonment. There’s the perfect day of napping on blankets in the park after camping, sun and water and the freedom of summer. There’s childhood and the formation of adulthood, all housed in some wrinkle or turn of brain matter.

It gets a little chaotic living throughout time. There’s a tension between how much attention I’m giving to the present and how much of myself is mired in the remembrances of the past.

I’m not the only time traveler. It seems like there are a couple different ways to manifest this fascination with what’s come before.

One way is to let the past consume you and to drag it like a fifty-ton albatross on your back. This type of time traveler is the over-enforcer, not learning from the magic of flying through the eons, but forcing the ages to bend to a personal view of what life should be. It’s Doc Brown going to the Wild West and putting flux capacitors on trains. Yes, let’s drag along all the accoutrements of what we want and completely debilitate any lessons to be learned in the time-hopping.

"Perfect on Paper" -- Ted (Josh Radnor) and the gang celebrates Halloween, on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, Oct. 31 (8:00-8:300 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.I think the perfect example of this is Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, particularly in the Slutty Pumpkin storyline, a.k.a. the most anti-climactic payoff of a bit throughout the show (and that’s saying something for a program that regularly introduced great concepts only to drive them into the ground). After meeting “the Slutty Pumpkin” at a rooftop Halloween party and promptly losing her number, Ted becomes obsessed with finding this girl he’s pinned hopes and dreams and impossible expectations on. For the next several years, he shows up at the same place with the same stale hanging chad costume. Dated, hopeless, and obstinately past-bent, Ted encapsulates the danger of the wistful time traveler. Sometimes the machine gets broken, the expectations get too large, and they can leave you irreparably damaged. Or at the very least, looking like a fool in a costume of outdated cultural references.

This is like obsessing over that first kiss, or setting aside August 18th as a remote date because that’s when you got your heart broken. There’s joy in bittersweet look-backs, but there’s dangerous track ahead if that wistfulness gains control.

The best version of nostalgic  time-traveling comes when the moments and the weight they carry are allowed to coexist alongside each other, the sweet memories rubbing elbows with the present and making it all the better.

HereRichard McGuire’s comic Here shows this remarkably. Originally published as a six-page spread in 1989, then expanded into full color and 300 pages in 2014, Here breaks with linear development in favor of illustrating how time and space work with each other. Here takes place entirely in one space, showing one room (or, where one room will be/was), and illustrating its existence throughout hundreds and thousands of years. McGuire doesn’t tell a story through characters, there’s no connecting narrative thread, it’s just the space and whatever occupied it in 1963, or 1607, or hundreds of years in the future. Sometimes a single panel will possess several fractures, showing the different eras bumped up beside each other, a cut out of the 1930 surrounded by events from 2003, showing that age old tale—the more time changes, the more time stays the same.

It’s a view that could be interpreted cynically. That we as humanity are insignificant blips, that our actions don’t have repercussion, that, regardless of ambition or genius, we are all boats borne back ceaselessly against the tide of time. But there’s another, far more comforting view, the kind of lovely, hippie, metaphysical lens that indicates, hey, we’re all part of this tapestry. We’re weaving something. In the crazy quilt of life we are slight patterns contributing to a whole.

2001This is the time traveling I approve of, and the type I strive to do in my constant rememberings. I’m not trapped in the past. I’m whizzing past the wormhole of time, instances stacking on top of each other, connecting with my past, using the lessons in the present, and seeing them all as shades of the future. I look at the entirety and can’t help being awed.

Timey-Wimey Stuff

Time and space seem to be part of each other’s DNA, woven into the thought process. So when you have someone who travels through space, but is a time lord, you’ve got every cause for fantastical adventure covered. I’m one of those terrible people who came into Doctor Who with the series reboot, and I did not force myself to become a completist. Listen, there is a lot of media out there, and when I think of all the years of good TV throughout history my head explodes, and this is why I can’t handle watching Star Trek even though I’d love it, and also I don’t have to explain myself to you (although apparently I do). Anyway, I started Doctor Who with my first and still favorite Nine, and have kept it up to varying degrees of enthusiasm since.

Doctor Who is an alien, so a lot of the episodes have that space-oriented bent, but I love the time travel elements. Particularly when they go into the past—seeing the way the writers get to play with history, inserting the Doctor and alien elements and twisting these great events for modern storytelling, it’s a thrill. Doctor Who likes to play with the other end of the time spectrum, waging guesses on what the future might hold, but for now I want to focus on my personal favorite past-dated episodes. If that’s not enough to sate your Time Lord thirst, I’d highly suggest finding your own favorites on this ridiculously comprehensive interactive map of all the Doctor’s time travels. Welcome to your own lost time. But wait for that, because, and without any further ado, I present my favorite time episodes for each modern doctor.

NINE: “The Empty Child”empty

During his all too brief run as the Doctor, Christopher Eccleston had a surprisingly amazing selection of time traveling episodes. It might have been Davies coming out of the gate strong to reintroduce the character and concepts to the viewing public. Whatever it was, it was marvelous. I almost went with “The Unquiet Dead” here, out of Dickens love and how wonderful Eccleston plays in that time period. And “Father’s Day” is one of those thoughtful, heartbreaking pieces that majestically sets the tone of the Doctor and his limitations. But in terms of sheer staying power, “The Empty Child,” an eerie mystery set during the London Blitz, wins hands down. For one, it deserves major props for introducing everyone’s favorite scandalous chap, a certain Captain Jack. And for another, this had visuals and a narrative that established the new generation’s particular brand of doing good with a slight edge. “The Empty Child” changed the way I look at gas masks. I dare you to hear the phrase “are you my mummy?” without getting the chills.

TEN: “Blink”

blinkOh, David Tennant. The most beloved of all, his time larks were many and varied. Whether he’s charming Madame de Pompadour, infuriating Queen Elizabeth, or solving mysteries alongside Agatha Christie, Tennant’s Doctor has no qualms with sticking his nose into history and muddling around in the past. Which is why it’s so surprising that my favorite time episode barely features the Doctor. It might be low on the titular character, but “Blink” stands supreme as a great Doctor Who episode and a terrifying use of time travel. Even I can’t begrudge giving Stephen Moffat his due with this one. The man did good, even if he can’t carry a series-long arc to save his life. But this one-off is Moffat at his finest. There’s a crazy intricate premise, with the introduction of the time-distorting Weeping Angels. There are crazy high stakes, since one touch from the angels zaps a victim back in time, never to return. Together, those elements create a classic Moffat episode, a single idea just interesting enough to captivate and devastate anyone watching.

ELEVEN: “A Town Called Mercy”A_Town_Called_Mercy

There are better episodes and better uses of time—including the Weeping Angel-centric “The Angels Take Manhattan”—but it’s only natural that my list would navigate towards my own personal interests. After all, I was nearly tempted to call “The Shakespeare Code” a top Ten episode, my love of the Bard almost edging out my complete distaste for Martha (and seriously, how awful is her mooning over the Doctor in that episode?). I’m a complete sucker for Western aesthetics, so placing the Doctor within that no-holds-barred world absolutely delighted me. I thought it was a good way to show times clashing against each other, and the cyborg thing was pretty dang cool. But what I really loved about this was the way it captured the spirit of moral ambiguity that is the trademark of Westerns. In a wild world, who can truly judge?

TWELVE: “Robot of Sherwood”

robot-of-sherwood-pic2This is another example of my own personal biases tilting the scale towards this episode. I’m a complete Robin Hood fan. It was my favorite Disney movie growing up, I read the stories over and over until my copy was tattered (but I’d always stop before the end, while the gang was still fun and before sorrow and betrayal), and when the BBC made their own series I was an intense fangirl. So it stood to reason that I would love the Doctor facing off against my dear Sir Robert. I would also argue that this is one of the first episodes with Peter Capaldi that fell into a rhythm with his new Doctor, getting comfortable with who he was and how he interacted with the world. Everything up to it felt like introduction. This is how the age thing works, this is how he works with Clara, and this is how we’re going to use him and say goodbye to Eleven just a little more. But with “Sherwood,” we got a glimpse of a comfortably caustic nature and slight egoism that felt more lived in. All the reassertion that Robin Hood is no creation, but actually as lovely and brilliant as I always dreamed? Just the icing on an already wonderful cake.

The Lonely God

Arguably the most popular time traveller at time of writing is the Doctor. And, with over 50 years under its belt, Doctor Who is a topic we can’t ignore in a month that’s all about time travel. And I wouldn’t want to ignore it.

You might recall from March that the Doctor is one of my alien role models. So it won’t surprise you too much to know that, with much glee, I took some time just a couple years ago to re-watch all of Doctor Who and its spinoff series. But before I get to talking a little about each, I’ve just written this month’s intro and the topic of why this appeals to us is on my mind. You will get a little of that through this (and through what I said about the Doctor in my role models post), but one thing they’ve really got going for them is that they can do just about anything with this programme. They can go anywhere in time and space. Anywhere. The tone they’ve established lets them play it fun or play it serious. There’s a lot of freedom there.

All the Doctors
Now, in spite of what you’ll read…some of my feelings are better labelled as “concerns” or “reasons I want to punch a writer.” But, overall, I love this show. And I’m likely to stick with it. Even if they don’t share my fantasy of Tilda Swinton as the Doctor with a companion who’s not sure if she’s a boy or a girl…or a definitely physically female Doctor who is still very much the Doctor…or one who is as sexually ambiguous as Jack Harkness or who isn’t white or maybe isn’t quite so obviously human or or or….one of those options that takes advantage of the fact that a Time Lord can, when they regenerate, choose to be something that is physically completely different from what they’ve been before. (But, seriously, make Tilda the Doctor and I’ll give up music for long enough to play her Companion…Did I mention I can act?)

Right. On to a little about each programme.

Doctor Who
David Tennant as the DoctorOh, Doctor…Listen, with 50+ years of programmes, it’s hard to sum it all up. But I think I can repeat myself a little and we’ll call it good. The Doctor and his curiosity…and his optimism…and his determination to do right…The Doctor and his inability to not get involved in historical events (even when he knows he ought not) if he thinks he can save someone…Plus, with so many regenerations, there’s a Doctor whose personality fits whatever mood I have. And it sure doesn’t hurt that the one I find most physically attractive also struggles with some big sadness that speaks to me. By creating a character that isn’t likely to die, they could have set themselves up for too much repetition and stagnation. Instead, they can change the Doctor or his Companions before that happens. (Not that they always do…but they could. Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about Clara…Ugh. Clara.) And they can always show me a new wonder, a new world, a new species, a new problem to solve. Oh, how I love this programme.

Torchwood
The original Torchwood teamWhilst not devoid of humour, Torchwood seems to really flourish in the anguish and the darkness of the Whoniverse. And they did this with unabashedly marginalised or flawed characters. (Note: marginalised does not mean flawed.) There were plenty of capable (whilst realistically flawed) women. There were characters—including men—who weren’t straight. (Not just Jack Harkness either.) They made us ache over man’s inhumanity to man, over our greed, over the stupid things we do because we are just humans trying to find happiness. And, as long as they don’t do another that involves Hollywood, I’ll always be on board to let them kick my heart.

The Sarah Jane Adventures
Sarah Jane and a trio of teensLike many viewers who were already familiar with older Doctor Who, I was thrilled to see his previous Companion, Sarah Jane, show up to work with the Doctor again. And I suspect that’s why Sarah Jane got her own programme. Whilst it was aimed at people younger than me (early adolescents?), I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It never went as deep or dark as Doctor Who or Torchwood, but it was pretty solid for a young adult programme. Remember, if you choose to watch this, that it is a young adult programme. But if, like me, you were delighted to see Sarah Jane again, this will be a treat. Should you find yourself mourning the early death of Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane, perhaps enjoy this as a way to get some last moments with her and her beautiful light. If nothing else, this programme made me enjoy Sarah Jane’s appearances in Doctor Who, whether in the classic or the newer series, a little more.

K-9
K-9 and his human palsYou might think that, by the time I got to this, I’d be worn out on Doctor Who. Or maybe you think I’m doing that thing where you save the best for last. And you’d be wrong on both counts. However, my love does not run so deep as to make me enjoy this lame spinoff. This one…this I watched all of just for the sake of completion. I kept trying to find reasons to like it, but, wow, I was so pleased when I was finally done with it. If you are considering being a completionist, consider this paragraph your permission slip not to watch this one. Of course, I was never charmed (aside from some brief nostalgia) by the little robot dog. Sorry, K-9. You’re a good dog, but I’m a bad person. (Don’t worry, internet, I’m not generally immune to cute animals. I am, as far as you know, human.)

Now, I’m going to go dream of a TARDIS showing up to take me into wonders and dangers I’ve never seen and hope the Doctor gets me home in time to publish this little love letter to him.

Screen Suckers

I might have waxed poetic about the written vampire before, but as I said in that post, there is something to be said for the onscreen demon. Watching a vampire incarnate, all charm and danger and sex appeal on the television screen, well. It conveys this excitement that literature cannot always guarantee. Besides, the freedom of the camera allows for slightly more depth. Visual clues can hint at scope for evil in a mere camera pan, a twitching lip can signal eternal hunger, a twinkling eye can add personality to the tortured soul. That being said, there are favorites. Amidst the Dracula knockoffs, the Hammer films, the eternal sexiness of Damon and Stefan and Bill Compton, there are some celluloid vamps that deserve my special attention and love.

“Bad Blood”, The X-Files

vampireThis might seem like cheating, putting an entire episode of a TV show, one not even primarily concerned with vampires, on my list about favorite vampires. To those naysayers, I have one response: it’s my list, and if you don’t approve of including The X-Files at any opportunity we have some core fundamental differences, and I might recommend a different pop culture site. “Bad Blood” is one of the first things that comes to mind with vampires on screen. A lot of that has to do with its place in The X-Files canon, as this Vince Gilligan-penned* script shows a Mulder/Scully counterpoint that must be experienced, setting the two against each other as they recall the events in Cheney, Texas, adding their own peccadilloes and interpretations.** This is episode is also unique in its portrayal of vampires. Yes it’s humorous, a rarely seen trait I’ll touch on more in a moment, but it also plays up the stereotypes while keeping an underlying menace. These vampires seem campy but still pack a punch.

* Yes, that Vincent Gilligan

** “And it wasn’t even real cream cheese; it was light cream cheese!”

Viago, What we do in the Shadows

viagoSpeaking of the humorous vein of vampire screen lore, something we’ve alluded to but haven’t quite discussed, Viago is by far my favorite. A close runner up is Paul Reubens in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, with his extended death scene, but Viago wins the chuckle-off between the two. What We Do in the Shadows is a recent film, still in theatres near you if you’re lucky, but it’s well worth recognition. A hilarious mockumentary that gives Christopher Guest films a run for their money, Shadows follows vampire roommates as they traverse their afterlife. Viago is one of the youngest, a mere 183-years old, and still hangs on to some of the genteel markers of the Victorian age. A polite, fastidious vampire, Viago’s humor comes from his naturally sweet personality, especially as contrasted by the necessary bloodthirstiness of vampires. Watching him narrate his “hunting” process might have been the hardest I’ve laughed in a while.

Claudia, Interview with the Vampire

claudiaAll vampire stories tend to skew towards one type: young and sexy. With the promise of eternal youth, why wouldn’t vampirism be attractive? What a tempting offer, to be at your prime forever. Claudia, the scheming “child” vampire played by Kristen Dunst in Interview with the Vampire, disabuses viewers of that notion with remorseless efficiency. Killed by Louis and revived by Lestat, the five-year old begins her eternity simply enough, learning about the world and murder from her two older companions. But then she grows mentally throughout the years, entering maturity internally while externally remaining cherubic. The division drives her mad. Having the capability of an eternal being while trapped in the body of a minor leads Claudia to become one of the most vindictive, heartless creatures. Incidentally, that’s what makes her so fascinating to watch.

Nosferatu, Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979)

nosferatuNosferatu is the original on-screen vampire. F.W. Murnau’s unapproved rip-off of the Dracula story introduced viewers to a stalking menace. The original is a gorgeous movie, currently found on Netflix, and if you have the disposition to sit through silent films it’s well worth your time, building an astonishing air of menace that aged beautifully. But if silent isn’t your thing, consider Werner Herzog’s version, which more than preserves the fear and desperation of the original. Klaus Kinski is absolutely astounding as Nosferatu. While the original Max Schreck was rumored to actually be a vampire, I willingly believe it with Kinski. He achieves an entire era of hopelessness through one frame, the pale face and staring eyes striking terror and pity in the heart of any who look upon him. As he ushers in plague and walks suddenly into frame, Kinski’s Nosferatu is the epitome of ageless villain.

Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

BuffyThe ultimate bad boy, the king of quip, the punk prince of darkness, and hands down the best vampire in the Buffy-verse. Eat your heart out, Angel (and Angelus, while you are almost interesting, you just don’t measure up to this amount of wonderful). Spike isn’t just the best vampire on TV, he’s the best vampire to watch. He fits all requirements a fan could possibly have: he’s totally violent and insane, and yet there’s heart. He has the slight stalker tendencies that make every Twihard’s heart flutter (I won’t elaborate further on those Buffy-bot years), but they develop into a rich tortured soul, the demon besieged by a bad case of the loves. Watching Spike progress throughout the seasons, all snark and sexiness, is enough to justify the vampire’s eternal life on screen. Writers take note: this is how you do a vampire. And trust me, with Spike, I’d like to.

 

Subtitles Don’t Suck

Keep Calm and Love VampiresSome of our topics are those we know we want to cover even before we sit down to map out each month’s posts. And some of them come as we look at what’s been left out and what, in the moment, we are saddest to leave out. This is one of the latter. To make sure that this and my other posts were made with the content fresh in mind, I watched loads and loads and loads of things. Aside from being awesome for its own sake, I learned a little about my own tastes and found some threads between things I might not have otherwise. No complaints here.

Last week, I told you a little about my tastes and I pointed you at some of my favourite English language vampire films that you might not have seen. I mentioned there that it was lacking a few titles to make it my comprehensive favourites list. Some of those missing weren’t major cinematic releases (at least not, as far as I know, in English-speaking countries), and those are listed here.

Today, I want to take a look at vampires through the lens of some non-English language media. Seven films and one programme…yikes! But still not every possible thing, because the whole world has vampire stories to tell. I find that the less culturally familiar expectations, ideologies, and thoughts of such films and programmes can increase the escapism of a piece. So, let’s escape with some bloodsuckers who don’t speak our language.

I’m going to opine a bit, so I ought to remind you that vampire stuff is a matter of taste. Last week’s post about English language independent vampire films I really adore should have given you a better idea of what I prefer. It may help you decide whether my tastes are applicable to your viewing habits. Most of what I’m including here is stuff I rather enjoyed. Some of it was…mediocre. I know myself well enough to have avoided things that I was likely to find thoroughly uninteresting.

Note: I would really have liked to have seen A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and include it here, but I haven’t had a chance. Good to have something left on my media to-do list though, right? (I also tried but failed to get my hands on Frostbiten with English subtitles, but it’s funny, so maybe for the best….)

Update: Just before the month ended, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night showed up on Netflix. Hurrah! I’m not going to bulk up an already long post, but see this one. (And find me the soundtrack, okay?) Another great female vampire in a Persian film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Persian film before…

Let the Right One In (or Låt den rätte komma in): Sweden
Screenshots of the kids from Let the Right One InThis was one of the first few things that came to mind when I chose this angle on the topic. I loved this film. For those of you unfamiliar, this is, basically, a coming of age story—you know, the type where a young protagonist meets his first love…and she happens to be a young girl-sized vampire called Eli (pronounced like “Ellie,” English speakers). Re-watching this time, I was struck by Eli’s obvious upset after having to feed herself and the way that she knows better than to be involved with a human but can’t help herself. The film is broody and moody (and quite a number of scenes occur in places that are woody), and proves that I don’t need my vampire to be someone attractive to and age-appropriate for me. I normally wouldn’t care much for a coming of age film…but they put in vampires and made it something that I will watch on purpose and without anyone else suggesting it. Maybe because the normal adolescent feelings aren’t something I want to deal with unless there’s a supernatural angle to make the intensity and ill-fitting-ness feel like it’s appropriate to the situation. (Though I do love when a film manages to remind you that it might actually not be cool to live forever, especially if you had to live forever on the threshold of puberty. Ugh.) Or maybe I just can’t think anything is sweet unless it involves a bloodsucking creature of the night.

Vampire Princess Miyu (or 吸血姫(ヴァンパイア) 美夕): Japan
Vampire Princess Miyu and her friendI hadn’t seen this anime in years, but it was another that quickly came to mind for this list. I didn’t remember anything other than thinking Miyu, our vampire lead, was adorable and that she had a habit of giggling. The internet tells me that there were two versions of this made. The 1988 version, also known as the OVA (short for original video animation) has the giggling. It also has only 4 episodes and a less cute, darker story arc. I’m focusing here on the longer (26 episodes total)  1997 version, though I enjoyed and recommend both.

Miyu isn’t your standard Western vampire with your standard goals. It’s not spoiling anything if I tell you she’s a young girl (or appears to be) and she’s our heroine, fighting a different supernatural foe (that’s her fate) each episode. It starts out seeming pretty light, but takes some turns for the darker and more complicated. (I wouldn’t say this is for kids…teens and older, maybe? If you liked Serial Experiments Lain, one of the main creators of that was, apparently, a force in this as well. Though this doesn’t get nearly as surreal as Lain.) I don’t know that I think it’s incredible, but it was enjoyable and steps outside the usual in a manner preferable to some of the others I watched in this vampire binge. For those of you who love cute schoolgirl plots in your anime (plots that, so we’re clear, don’t get sexual), there’s some of that in here for you. Plus, here’s another vampire who goes out in the sun. Always a bonus for me.

We Are the Night (or Wir sind die Nacht): Germany
Promo shot of the faces of the 4 vampire womenAs with the previous two, this film was quickly added to my list of subtitled delights. I know I’ve (unintentionally) mainly stuck to female vampires so far this month, but for those of you who want vampires you can ogle, at least the vampires in this one aren’t kids. Though one of the things I’m sure I’m subconsciously enjoying is the way that being vampires finally seems to give some less-privileged people a chance at being empowered and not at the mercy of men and a male-centred society. Yeah, I went there. But I’m just dipping my toe in “there.” Unlike the four women at the centre of this film. They’re definitely enjoying the vampiric traits that helped them out from under the gender-based oppressions of the times they lived in. Which isn’t to say that this film is just for the women, definitely not, but that they might enjoy some bits of it a little more. That said, other cool features of this film…We get a glimpse at the world as if seeing it via a vampire’s eyes. We get to see the aspects that, as one character notes, every woman would kill for, but we also get to see some of the downsides (we aren’t being sold a feminist utopia). We get to watch them teach a newbie what she can do, so we get shots of fun abilities being tried out that might not have come up normally. This lets the filmmaker show us their vision of what vampires are like. I love little touches like seeing the transformation that comes from being turned into a vampire or the unique “kickback” from administering the changing bite rather than the killing bite. We get to see a range of personalities and levels of acceptance of their nature and their peers’ actions in our vampires. As a fan of individualism, I appreciate that each of our four vampires has their own personality rather than one homogeneous take on their species. There’s death, brutality, and a little gore right alongside beauty, yearning, and a glimmer of hope for the humanity of the inhuman. (This more than most others caused me to get really hung up on the question of how vampires would primp. Because I can’t buy into my own inevitable future as a vampire if I don’t know how I’ll keep myself made up the way I like.)

As noted last week, whilst they’re quite different films, I think this would pair well with Byzantium for those of you who like to do double features.

Night Watch (or Ночной дозор): Russia
Night Watch vampire says "You know what our Hunger is..."Before we get to the vampires, I want to make sure to mention the fine job done on the subtitles for this film. That’s not sarcasm, either. Having now watched quite a number of subtitled films all in a row, I’ve seen all sorts of good and bad examples. And they’ve made sure that the subtitles on this one are part of the film. They’re a bloody work of art, and I want you to appreciate that. So, aside from subtitles…This film is a sort of gritty, modern fairytale about power, on a personal and a societal level (but not in the sort of moralising way that will take away the fun). The vampires in this one are a mixed lot and commonplace. Few, if any, are living the life of pampered, superior beings. Plot-wise, it’s probably helpful to know that this is based on the first in a pentalogy of books. You are going to get something of a cliffhanger. In good news, the cinematic plan (and, no, I don’t know if it covers all 5 books) was for only two films. Hunt down Day Watch and you’re sorted. (I made sure to re-watch that as well to confirm there were no relevant, tasty bits for this post. There were not, but that doesn’t mean that I think you shouldn’t watch the film. You should.) The real stand out thing for me with these vampires is that they can send out a call for their victims so they don’t have to go hunting (somewhat similar to what the lead vampire in the second—and truly horrible—Lost Boys film could do). And they can see themselves in mirrors sometimes. For this one, even if you’re not huge on vampires, I’d say check it out to enjoy the larger supernatural world it shows is imposed on the one in which we live.

Rigor Mortis (or 殭屍): China
IRigor Mortis screenshot: a creepy face hung with coinsnitially, I wondered if I’d misunderstood and this was actually a ghost story. Instead, it is one of the most alien of all the things I watched or read for this month and probably also the grimmest. I’m sure my very limited familiarity with the culture made it creepier, but maybe there are creepy implications I missed because of that? Either way, I’m glad I watched…but I’m not sure what I can tell you without spoilers. A retired actor moves into (what seems to me) a run-down building where sinister things are afoot. Not a film for my easily scared friends, but I’m calling it a must-see for my other vampire-loving mates. And don’t be like me and multi-task, because you might miss some really well-done visuals, some of which are nicely subtle.

I should mention that the very end made me angry. Which makes me extra angry, because poor endings can ruin entire films…Though the way it’s described in the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, I might be reading the intent of the last scene incorrectly. Totally possible given my limited cultural perspective, so I’m going to believe that…(Check Wikipedia if the very end also made you angry because you thought they were using an over-used cop-out of a trope.) Wikipedia also tells me that this was an homage to the Mr. Vampire films, of which the lead actor in Rigor Mortis was the lead. So there’s likely loads more I’d have appreciated if I’d seen the Mr. Vampire films…

Strigoi: United Kingdom/Romania
Screenshot: young man Vlad considers himself in a mirrorThis one, I acknowledge, is a little bit of a stretch (strigoi aren’t technically the same thing as vampires and the film is written in English). But! Strigoi are vampire-like creatures from Romanian folklore and are one of the inspirations for Dracula, the film takes place in Romania and uses Romanian actors, and the writer’s husband is Romanian (and she wrote this in English because she knew her Romanian wasn’t good enough for the wordplay and slang that are such a part of the language). This film about a young man who returns to his village to find things aren’t quite right is billed as a comedy, but I find that aspect of it subtle and well-done, so don’t let that put you off if, like me, you find vampire comedies don’t often work for you. There are actually scenes that I wouldn’t think of as comic if it weren’t for the music during them. It was during this film that I finally realised that the thing where a new vampire who doesn’t know what they are but just feels hungry, so hungry, and doesn’t know why is one of the normal experiences for many vampires. They (vampires in general) are beings of hunger. Hungry for blood, often hungry for other corporeal delights (quite often symbols of sexual hunger), and emotionally hungry (for companionship or revenge or thrills if they’ve been around long enough for the boredom to kick in). For the strigoi, the only real benefit to their condition seems to be immortality. There are some interesting twists and definitely a perspective on the topic that’s not like the others I watched. One of its non-standard ideas (though not entirely unheard of) is that some are born vampires and others become vampires after they die. As in Night Watch, we have a range of types of vampires, mainly not living in anything at all near luxury.

Cronos: Mexico
Cronos screenshot: an old man considers a big, golden bugHere’s another unique take on what it takes to become a vampire and what it’s like to be one. It’s Guillermo del Toro, so you already know this isn’t going to be a suave and sexy kind of vampire story. And, really, when it’s a bug to blame for vampirism, can it be sexy? (And, really, when it’s Guillermo del Toro, a bug seems like a pretty unspectacular creature…) Extra un-sexy to me when it’s a bug that’s not biting anyone I’d consider age-appropriate. For me, this was enjoyable but not in a “you must see this!!!” way. Probably not something I’d watch again.

Thirst (or 박쥐): Korea
Promotional shots of the priest and a womanThis was the other film that I watched that was, for me, mediocre. A priest becomes a vampire due to a disease. He keeps the core of his personality and morality, but finds it challenged by the physiological changes and demands that come with being a vampire. It also has some of the least sexy sexual stuff that I think was supposed to be sexy. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. I don’t know…but the person who made these choices is definitely not invited to have sex with me (nor is anyone who finds these scenes sexy…we are clearly on different pages). Also possibly a cultural issue is that I kept wondering if some of this was supposed to be funny. I’m honestly not trying to mock it…I’m just baffled and, in spite of the fact that I feel like this had some promise, it didn’t really click with me. I watch plenty of long films, but something in this one (the erratic pacing or maybe just a story that wasn’t sufficiently engaging) had me feeling very done at only an hour in. (I looked at the clock, sure it must be wrapping up, found I had an hour left, and was filled with dread.) This one gets the award for Least Good Result In Spite Of Plenty Of Potential. Or something less wordy.

 

Count Smackula

One conversation that Cat and I have had multiple times is one where we are mutually upset about what TV and films have done with Dracula. Whilst I think Cat’s enjoyment of the book is greater than mine, I do like the book and I do think it was an important point in the history of how vampires now exist in the public consciousness. Cat already covered that…so, today, we’re going to pretend to be restrained as we touch on the two adaptations (and we use that word with…well, with some looseness in the case of the film and with barely-repressed laughter in the case of the programme) that bother us.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992 film)

Cat: First off, I have to give some sort of credit: this is by far the most faithful film adaptation of Dracula the world has ever seen. It includes all three of Lucy’s suitors (even, as one of my film professors was always excited to say, the Texan! There’s a Texan in Victorian England!). It has both Mina and Lucy, not some strange amalgamation of them. And it includes the basic story beats—a sojourn in Transylvania, the long slow death of Lucy, and the final showdown. Yet somehow all that initial faithfulness just makes the film’s ultimate betrayal of story and tone all the more painful.

Coppola’s direction makes this far too lurid, and, as such, far too obvious. The book does have some moments of bloodshed and mayhem—like the staking of Lucy, which I have to say the film got spot on—but there’s nothing like the waterfalls of bright red corn syrup that constantly flow throughout the film. The same thing happens with the harkersexiness of it all. Three vampire brides hesitating alluringly at Jonathan’s throat become three Turkish belly dancers instigating an orgy. A tall hooded figure leaning over the prostrate Lucy becomes a werewolf going to town on her. Lucy herself goes from sweet bimbo to queen of innuendo. It makes her role way more slut-shaming than the book’s actual metaphor, which actually argues that anyone can fall prey to the unnatural appetites of the Count. The way Coppola portrays her, Lucy totally had it coming, I mean, did you see how she was dressed? And I’m not just being a prude. Obviously I’m of the opinion that vampires have an innate sexiness and brutality that make them interesting, and I’m all for that being used in the appropriate situation. But when you’re adapting Stoker’s novel? Not appropriate. The beauty of the novel is the subtle horror. Dracula is all the more terrifying for the things we don’t see. For the deathly promises he whispers in your ear, not shoves down your throat. Stoker instills fear by putting the reader on edge, building scenarios that are pieced together separately and made all the more terrifying for the slow reveals. In tone, it’s closer to a dry Brontë novel (the lurking fear in the pit of your stomach) than something by Stephen King (the car’s aliiiiiive!). Coppola makes everything so over-the-top that the film plays more as comedy than horror. A man turning into a humanoid structure of rats? That’s comedy gold!

But my main complaint is the damn framing device. Coppola decides to take an already-overloaded story and pile a pointless narrative on top—the narrative of Dracula as Vlad Dracula, the Turkish invader who only became a vampire after his one true love, Elisabeta, accidentally committed suicide. Thus, all his actions from that fated Turkish olddracbeginning are only motivated by him mourning his lost love. Who turns out to be reincarnated in Mina Harker! Twist! Again, this is all not included in the book, nor hinted at even, and works only to coat the entire story with a sickening veneer of saccharine. I won’t even touch the fact that Dracula was not Vlad the Impaler (though he wasn’t). Even without the historical inaccuracy, this convention doesn’t work. It makes Dracula a tragic figure, a man spurred on by love. It’s a modern vampire convention to make the beast sympathetic. We love that in our current vampire stories, but it’s not Dracula. Drac isn’t spurred to London in hopes of reunification with his wife. He doesn’t seduce Mina by dances and the floating candles from Hogwarts. He’s trying to seek fresh blood. In the book, Dracula is primal, not lovestruck. And making Mina a willing victim of Dracula completely destroys her significance to the story. Mina is supposed to be the perfect balance between modern and traditional. She’s the ideal. She’s set up as the ultimate woman: caring in a motherly way, intelligent and familiar with new technologies, a doting wife, sexually experienced, but religiously pure. Making her an ancient damsel-in-distress throws a wrench in all that character construction. In short, the whole “Love Never Dies” tagline of the film is a travesty and makes me want to puke.

Amber: Cat pretty much nailed it. But I want to make sure to point out that this film is basically a high budget fanfic of the type that’s supposed to tell the same story but in a way that we have sympathy for the villain. Look, I’m all about those, but why can’t you just make DRACULA? Cos this wasn’t Bram Stoker’s Dracula; this was Coppola’s Dracula fic. But at least this Dracula could go out in the day, which is canon, unlike the whole cool-but-not-canon plot about trying to address the sunlight issue in the programme…

Dracula (TV programme, 2013-2014)

The cast looking very sexy and promisingAmber: Initially, I was kind of excited. I’m a fan of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and had seen him do enough “sexy and dangerous” to believe in him as Dracula. Just look at some of his hungry and calculating moments in Velvet Goldmine. The trailers looked sensual and plush…And, here’s the thing, if they hadn’t called it Dracula, it probably would have been mostly okay with me. They had a reasonable budget (or the ability to fake it), some talented actors, some interesting twists (given my main interest on my current re-read of Dracula is the gender role stuff, watching them give some power to a woman, even if it sometimes felt a bit ham-handed…well, that was nice…also, as a big Tesla fan, I was into the technological innovation thing), and one of the few non-useless Renfields ever to grace the screen. And given one of the things I’m constantly annoyed at in terms of standard practices when people do adaptations is how they take away all the real power and intrigue of Renfield as Stoker wrote him, I was pleased with this capable and clever Renfield. Anyway, yes, they had good things here. But!

Dracula and Mina looking unflatteringly distressedBut this was not Dracula. They took names, they placed it in London, but they otherwise leave the book out of the picture, if you will. I know they wanted the name recognition, but vampires are big enough (and JRM isn’t exactly an unknown actor) that they might want to freak out a little less over that. I mean, really, I can sum it all up as: THIS WAS NOT DRACULA. This wasn’t even the character of Dracula in an alternate universe. This isn’t the same person. As I re-read the book last month, I was constantly pausing to shriek at things that prove that. My current big one is that Dracula makes it clear to Harker that he wants to blend in, calling out in particular his desire to have no discernible accent when he speaks English. So, yeah, the clear move for the programme to make was a Dracula who has a really huge American accent—look, I’m not asking for JRM’s lovely normal accent, but we know he can do a posh British accent—and couldn’t stand out more unless he wore a sequin-covered suit and was also a one-man band.

And, just in case they’re thinking they’re going to try to revive it…Listen, in addition to just giving the characters different names (which will appease me a lot), could you also try to get corsets that fit the women? There were times I was sure Lady Wetherby was going to lose her lovely breasts to some of the ill-fitting corsets into which they shoved her. And whilst the men’s costuming is pretty good, the women’s is not right for the period. If you’re making a period piece and asking me to suspend disbelief for the vampire-ness of it, which I will gladly do, please at least get things like costuming correct. And…well, now I’ll shut my gob and give Cat a chance…

(However, dear reader, I feel constrained to make a recommendation. If you’re looking for a TV programme with a dark aesthetic, set in Victorian times, and containing a strong female character and assorted other supernatural things– including vampires, I must suggest Penny Dreadful. That programme is brilliant.)

Cat: Amber has covered all my book whingings well, and seriously? Not using JRM to his full potential? What a travesty. My main complaint with this sad pile of drivel is that it was a waste. A waste of prime, Victorian vampire potential. I went into this willing to suspend my belief and my novel-loving soul. After all this was TV, my other main love, and I am not blind to the ways a story has to change to fit the television landscape. To make Dracula last throughout several season there would need to be more. So much more, in fact, that this is an area where all the exaggeration of Coppola’s version would have been a welcome addition. Instead of going full-vampire, this Dracula went full-business, and I went full-yawn. Boring subplots about financial intrigue, boring subplots about Mina’s medical career, and boring whining about Dracula’s lost love (oh yeah, don’t worry, the TV show took all that malarky from the Coppola film). Not only did this program fail as a Dracula adaptation, it failed as anything interesting.

Animals Under the Martian Heel

Aliens may be awe-inspiring, but more often they play the terrifying threat to human tranquility.  All that power translates into impossible odds, and there’s nothing quite like watching the plucky underdogs of humanity standing against beings of arguably-higher intelligence. It gets our heart rate pumping and our superiority complex firing on all cylinders. But which invaders have proven the best threats? Are there aliens whose menace, to put it bluntly, rules?

5. The aliens in Attack the Block

AttackFinalLowRes

Art by Alex Pardee

 This is a case where the aliens are cool, but wouldn’t be anything particularly special. But the film they’re introduced in is so special, so glaringly unique and fun, that they demand to be included. If you haven’t seen Attack the Block, please remedy that, because this little British gem takes the invader alien trope and makes it a non-stop blast. With a rookie director and a cast of unknowns (save for Nick Frost), this story about a bunch of hooligans who start out mugging people and end up defending their apartment block from vengeful space creatures breathes life into a genre fraught with melodrama. What’s lovely about the film is the way it makes the awful sympathetic. The marauding street gang become the heroes. Even the invaders have a soft fluffy motive—it doesn’t take away from the terror of them stalking the apartment dwellers, but it adds depth to the heartless Earth-conqueror trope.

4. The Network, from The World’s End

This is another one where I’m including it partially because the film is so, so good. The grand finale of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy isn’t just an incredible alien story—although yes, yes it is—it’s an incredible story of human malaise, weakness, and the strange metamorphoses of self-esteem and friendship. Simon Pegg gives the performance of a lifetime as aimless Gary King, with Nick Frost as the perfect adult foil in Andy Knightley, all proper life experience and barely simmering rage.  When the chums face the Network, an evil alien collective hell-bent on”civilizing” humans by replacing them, their barbaric yawps against a relentless system capture the essence of humanity, stubborn and bullheaded as we are.  The World’s End succeeds not only in having a rip-roaring scifi adventure, but also in having a rawly human story about coming to grips with age and the passage of time.  A film that can combine space aliens with the alien parts of human progression is a winner in my book.

THEWORLD

3. The Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My husband challenged me on the Vogon inclusion, but in the end I don’t care what he says, I’m counting them as invaders. At the very least they are eliminating human life and and threatening the existence of Earth, so even if they aren’t technically invading terra firma, they are absolutely invading humanity’s sense of safety and security and life.  So here they are, on the list.

VogonaieIt would feel strange to talk about alien lifeforms without some nod to Douglas Adams,* and, to me, the Vogons are one of the most delightful twists on alien threats.  It’s so bureaucratic, so droll, and their unseemly visage is just the wart on top of the boil. Making the otherworldly stand-in for unfeeling corporations, the humanoid embodiment of slugs is so on the nose and yet exhibits the Adams brilliance (and special shout out to Henson’s Creature Shop for designing something so beautiful in its grotesquerie). These invaders are wonderful because they encapsulate the regular invasions that manipulate our life—boring, staid, and often with terrible poetry.

2. The aliens from Independence Day

It’s impossible to talk about aliens with an agenda without bringing up the aliens from Independence DayID is the epitome of alien movies, and if you don’t agree let me show you the technological door, because you aren’t welcome here. Will Smith at the height of his powers. Bill Pullman as a president whose speeches make grown men break down and weep like the giant babies they are on the inside. And Jeff Goldblum. JEFF GOLDBLUM, rocking that intergalactic Mac OS like a boss. But the aliens themselves are the paragon of invaders. With an off-putting form, borrowing from xenomorphs and the mystical strangeness of the deep sea squids, those aliens inspired terror. I think that the moment when our heroes stumble upon communication with the beasts, via one unlucky scientist, is the first jump moment I experienced in a film (it’s either this or some scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Or something from The Last Unicorn). No image instills terror quite like those large spacecrafts obscuring the sky, and no moment inspires patriotism more than their defeat. Welcome to Earth indeed.

1. Invader Zim

ZIM

Invader Zim has to be the number one. I mean, invader is in his name. Also, I think he’s by far the most ruthless invader of the bunch. Essentially, his only characteristic is his quest to destroy Earth and prove his worth to the rest of the Irken’s (an alien race determined to conquer the entire universe). The fact he infiltrates Earth by adopting the disguise of a poor, defenseless child is proof positive of his brilliant maliciousness. Armed with the insane robot Gir, thwarted at every turn by the giant-headed Dib, and only truly foiled by meat products, Zim is everything an invader should be—relentless, unhinged, and utterly awesome.

*Almost as strange as it feels realizing that we haven’t touched on Star Wars, Star Trek, or The X-Files in this alien-centric month.

Guiding Stars

I’m a little distressed at how few (too few) aliens and alien-related topics we can actually fit into one month’s schedule. And then I do the maths and see that the amount we each get to cover is half the size of “too few.” Which is why we’ve kept track of things we didn’t make it to and will likely have another Alien month some time. This is what we keep reminding each other as we, over and over again, realise there’s something we haven’t found a way to fit in that totally owns us.

Now, here I am, down to my last post for the month (thank goodness we’ve got a vlog coming next Monday!), and I need to make the most of it without writing a novel. To help me stay kind of concise and to hit on some aliens of import to me, I’m going with a Top Five. Except that I’m doing a Top Six (unless Cat catches me and protests…I swear I tried to cut it down to five).

Ziggy StardustObviously, aliens were a big part of my life from as far back as I can recall, so you won’t be surprised to learn that this is my list of my top alien role models. I’m focused on those from younger years and those that sprang to mind with no prompt other than the topic title. They’re presented in order of discovery, not import. Prepare for some potentially questionable choices!

Ziggy Stardust
(from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie)

If you were with us last month for Glam month, you already know how important this particular David Bowie character is to me. But it goes beyond enjoyment and the glam inspiration. The first time wee Amber closed her eyes and imagined her future, it was the Ziggy Stardust version of her rocking out on an arena stage. In case you didn’t read the Glam month stuff or you don’t keep constant track of my thoughts…Ziggy helped set some of my ideas about gendering of looks and behaviours, about rigid sexualities, and about being imaginative with my own looks.

SpockSpock
(from Star Trek, the original series)

Can we all pause a moment to feel sad for the loss of Leonard Nimoy? So sad. You see, right around the time Ziggy was inspiring my passion, I was also acting alongside Star Trek (the original series) reruns. (By which I mean standing in front of the telly and mimicking the characters. I like to think my acting skills even then were sufficient to not make it entirely annoying.) Spock, and then other Vulcans, helped me to hold to some self-control and logic. Plus, he was this alien on a human ship. By this point, I knew I wasn’t just like the other humans, and I thought I could learn from him how to navigate that situation. I was also inspired by his friendship. Sobbing like a baby as he said goodbye to Kirk in Wrath of Khan helped me remember that I could have logic and also be a good, loving friend. That he was part human became important as I tried to make peace with my own humanity and the way it seemed to play against my desires to be so much more than human. (Special shout to Spock’s mother for helping me be more okay with my humanity.)

DianaDiana
(from the original V mini-series/programme)

I should explain myself. Imagine that you’re just starting to realise that men have more power than women and that your beloved scifi is, in fact, also similarly skewed. And then you stumble across this programme where the main leaders you see are female (if not at first, very quickly). And one of them is an alien scientist (you love science) who, like you, is dark-haired (you’re also starting to realise that blondes are privileged). And they really can’t seem to destroy her (even though she is a bad guy and can, therefore, never win). And she is in charge of spaceships. And she is strong. Yeah, instant adoration. Even after her true intentions were revealed. Especially once she booted out the man who was her boss. (Also, I haven’t always been as nice as I am and people who knew past-me aren’t surprised by this…Man, she was vicious, brutal, cunning.) And, yes, I shrieked with delight when she showed up on the V reboot…When I think of aliens I aspired to be, she is always first to come to mind.

DelennDelenn
(from Babylon 5)

After the last entry, you’ll be pleased to see that it’s basically benevolent from this point. Basically. Delenn is the leader of her species’s religious caste, and brings some serenity and some attempts to find peaceful resolutions. I was at a place where I was ready for some serenity and to see, as I saw in Delenn, someone who was also strong. As with Diana, she wasn’t cowed or kept down by the men around her. Important to the me that was struggling with hating that she was a girl was the fact that Delenn had all this power and was still very feminine and didn’t squash down her emotions. She also accepted a transformation that would make her more human-like in order to do some good in the universe, and this was key to me in that aforementioned struggle to make peace with my own humanity. I unabashedly admit that I have copied the way she holds her hands in repose for use when I meditate. When I first started meditating, she was one of two figures that I felt were good examples as I tried to find my serenity. (The other is farther down this list.)

The Doctor (Twelve of him)The Doctor
(from Doctor Who)

First off, I’m telling you right now that I’m not going to compare the different regenerations of the Doctor. I have a favourite, but that’s irrelevant, because he isn’t the only one who puts the Doctor on this list. I know it seems a bit obvious, but I liked the symbolism of how each Doctor looked differently and acted a bit differently, just as we humans are multi-faceted and capable of changing which facets are our most dominant, even if we only get one body to do it in. Again, timing was important. I feel like it took me into my late teen years to really embrace the greatness of allowing oneself to be multi-faceted, allowing oneself to explore new facets or to change when one you were putting foremost didn’t feel like your best fit. I’ve also always appreciated that the Doctor, in a violent and dangerous universe, is mainly full of wonder and tries to save people (and spare enemies) cleverly rather than going in guns blazing. A younger me had to put some effort into not going for the attack. And every age of me has loved this grown man who helped me maintain a sense of wonder.

ZhaanPa’u Zotoh Zhaan
(from Farscape)

Zhaan is another spiritual-ish figure. She committed a justice-inspired murder and ended up in prison. And went mad. And then turned to spirituality to pull herself together. She was, after that, a mainly spiritual and serene being with a violent current running through her core. Zhaan taught me, along with Delenn, to stand up for my spirituality. Taught me that the ugly bits in my core weren’t always just something to be ashamed of (they could even be useful). She made me ponder the strengths of my friendships and the causes I threw in with. And when she, a member of a plant-based species who are generally vegetarian, needed meat because she was starving…I know it will sound silly, but ceasing to be vegetarian was a big deal thing for me. And if the compassionate Zhaan could sometimes embrace her need for meat, maybe I wasn’t horrible for doing so. (That’s right: I unabashedly find my morality, among other places, in scifi programmes.) Plus, as someone whose very fair skin has resisted any efforts to even carefully enjoy sunlight, I envy her sunlight-induced ecstasy. And was inspired to see what ubiquitous things (like the sun, but not the sun) could move me deeply (though not necessarily to that level of ecstasy, because the last thing I need is one more way to be awkwardly, deeply FEELING in public). Also, honestly, how cool does she look? If I were another colour, blue like her would be one of my top picks!

Star Stuck

Let’s get right to it and see what happens when an alien finds themselves stuck with, well, another alien. No amount of stalling will spare you from the ending…

Everything I’ve chosen is old enough that I’m hoping my SPOILER ALERT is unnecessary. Really, I’ll be a little sad for you if you’ve missed any of the five things I reference.

Stuck With Them

The Last Starfighter promotional image (Alex Rogan gazes skyward)The first set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are Earthlings (that’s us) suddenly among people not from Earth. The case where we are the alien and it wasn’t on purpose. In this set, we’ve got a token human as our point-of-view character to help us engage with the story. Once they leave the Earth, they might be our only point of familiarity (until we are shown the ways in which another species might have similar traits or concerns). I’m going to set aside the cases where the aliens are entirely malevolent or where we’re out there and know there could be alien life. For me, the fascination is with what happens when this wasn’t the plan. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just two stories: the film The Last Starfighter and the TV programme Farscape.

In both, our token human is someone we might expect to adjust a little easier than the “average” human without being too different from average. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a teenager who is really into trying to get a high score on a video game and who’s dreaming of bigger and better than his very-small town life. When he gets the high score and discovers—via being picked up by an extraterrestrial agent—that the game was a recruitment device to find pilots for an interplanetary war, he’s surprised but manages to get it together quickly enough to be helpful.

John Crichton, astronautIn Farscape, John Crichton is an astronaut who accidentally gets hurled through a wormhole during an experimental flight. Again, sure, he’s got some adjusting to do. But he’s an intelligent and capable guy who, obviously, already had his eyes on the stars. Fortunately for us, as he meets loads of different species over the life of the series, he’s one of those lovely open-minded humans. With Crichton, as with Alex, our experience is shaped both by their capability to survive and thrive and by their open natures. Their willingness to work through fear and surprise, to be open to the other species they meet, gives us a more positive window into their stories. (If they’d been full of fear and suspicion, acting in hate, we too would have hated the aliens and found the stories chances to feel superior to or afraid of Them.)

Aliens from The Last StarfighterBoth Alex and Crichton also meet multiple sorts of aliens rather quickly. The lone human scenario can be a great way to let us (and the writers) experience many species. I don’t know about you, but that’s got great potential for enjoyment and making my brain soar into its own flights of fancy. The Last Starfighter has the advantage of being so short that it avoids the pitfalls that arise when trying to build realistic alien cultures (something especially likely when trying to build multiple realistic cultures). Farscape mitigates this by keeping our main exposure to that of Crichton’s new crew. They interact briefly with other species, but we mostly get to know a band of self-confessed misfits and outcasts. From my perspective, and looking at this from the view of how the human’s perspective impacts our experience, this is also a great way to show us that, just like humans, some aliens are good and some aren’t. Again, no furthering of a xenophobic agenda. Hopefully, if humans ever do meet aliens, experiencing the stories of Alex and Crichton will keep us from jumping immediately to “kill ‘em all!”

Farscape aliensThe last part of this sort of scenario I want to touch on is the homecoming, because, obviously, that’s what those unexpectedly stuck outside their lives want. Again, seeing the stories through these two characters gives us a different experience than if we’d been on the run from dangerous predators the whole time.

For Alex, having completed the mission for which he was taken, he can now return to his home (easily dropped off) without any sense of guilt. We’re thrilled he’s won, but we’re with him in being a little unsure that going home is the best ending. So, rather than looking forward to him running away from the aliens and settling happily back into Earth life after the adventure helps get his hunger for something bigger out of his system, we’re hoping he makes another choice. Even though the writers gave him a human love interest that they’ve made us want him to stick with. Yeah, he left to battle an enemy and we know it’s not safe, but there’s got to be more to the story, at least for him. (There was actually a sequel scheduled to happen at one point, but I’m afraid this was all the story we got.) What happened to Alex? You really should go watch and satisfy your curiosity.

More Farscape aliensWith Crichton, he’d been through so much and had constantly been looking for ways home. We really wanted him to find that way. And then he did…and we realised that we had grown as fond of his new friends as he had and we kind of didn’t want to see the team broken up. We don’t forget the dangerous and ugly parts of his experience, but we also realise that the life he has out there is something we can’t really rival on this pale blue dot. (And the only way we get to keep sharing in those wonders is if he keeps experiencing them.) And maybe, just maybe, having learned this lesson through Crichton and Alex, it’s a little easier for us should we unexpectedly find ourselves on an interstellar adventure.

Stuck With Us

The second set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are extraterrestrials stuck on Earth. They are the outsiders and, in the cases I’ve chosen, not invaders or actual threats. And here we have plenty of humans to relate to, but we might not like what we see. Just like we saw that, among the multiple species of alien Crichton and Alex encounter, some are good and some aren’t…It turns out that we humans aren’t all good. In fact, be prepared to see just how ugly we can be. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just three films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Escape to Witch Mountain, and District 9.

Bowie in human and alien formsThe Man Who Fell to Earth was based on a book of the same name (which I read ages ago but, as previously noted, my recall for books is rubbish). . The story is a grim one, centred on Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien posing as a brilliant, human inventor. He was heading to Earth to get resources that would save his own planet from dying, but he crashed. Now, he’s got to hide his identity whilst earning the capital to build a ship he hopes will get him home.

As long as humans think he’s just rich and eccentric, they’re intrigued but he gets the privileges of the rich, white, and attractive. However, in spite of him never doing anything harmful to humans, all it takes is the knowledge of his alien origin and the government moves in, with the help of a human who should know better but betrays him, and breaks him (physically, mentally, emotionally). He’s entirely rejected by even the woman he trusted most. This isn’t a happy film and, worse, his betrayals ring true. Faith in humanity battered.

Escape to Witch Mountain promotional picture (Tony, Tia, UFO)Did you laugh when you saw I’d listed a children’s film? Just enjoy this less-grim break, because the brightest point in this section shows up in Escape to Witch Mountain. (This one was also based on a book, which I haven’t read but might need to add to my reading pile…) I re-watched the original a few months ago (thanks, Netflix!) and found that it was far less cheesy than I’d worried it might be. Missed this one? Don’t worry; I’ll spoil it for you.

For the bulk of the film, we don’t know that Tony and Tia are aliens. In fact, we think they’re just charming orphans. And, as long as everyone thinks that, it’s fine. They’re well-behaved and cute and only the orphanage bully has an issue with them. But, once again, when they start to show their inhuman sides, it gets less cuddly. In fact, in this case, it’s almost worse, because the humans don’t see an alien threat; they think they’re just looking at fellow humans with unusual abilities. But none of us are actually surprised to learn that we’re willing to be horrible even if we just think another human is, in a non-extraterrestrial way, alien to us somehow, are we?

Escape to Witch Mountain screenshot: Tony, Tia, cute cate who looks beseechingly at the cameraLuckily for us, this is a children’s film, which means that not everyone is bad. There’s a kind older man with an initially gruff exterior who helps them escape the rich, old, white man trying to exploit the kids. Even when the pieces come together and we learn they’re aliens whose people crash-landed on Earth, gruff old Jason O’Day still thinks they’re the neatest kids. As he reunites them with their remaining people, it’s clear that everyone hopes to see each other again. Not all of us are horrible! The aliens are still marooned but reunited in a happy little valley with their people! All is not grim!

Did you enjoy that little respite, that piece of hope that maybe we wouldn’t be entirely inhuman should we meet aliens? Get ready to get over it, because I’ve saved the grimmest for last. (I’ve included an extra picture from the film, complete with a cat, whose beseeching look suggests he knows you need rescue too. You deserve a cat for all the horrors of humanity you’re reading.)

News clippings from the District 6 Museum with non-fiction stories of inhumanityDistrict 9 is the most contemporary of my examples, and we see that we’re as sure as ever that any aliens marooned here would be sorry. The film is based on a short film previously created by the director and quite unabashedly, for those who pay attention to human events, inspired by events in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid era. So, to be clear, we start out knowing that this is definitely about how inhuman humans can be, even to each other.

In this case, it’s bad from the get-go. The poor aliens in this film look, by human standards, scary. Which means that, even if they were the sweetest beings and showed up with cancer cures and wealth for all, humans would treat them poorly. Instead, their ship is crippled and they’re stuck here. Stuck here and forced to live in a ghetto, experimented on, and seen both as a danger and as garbage. If you watch this and don’t feel horrified by humanity, I hope we never meet. Especially now that I’ve pointed out the very obvious fact that this is based on how actual humans were treated by actual other humans. Shame, shame!

District 9 alienBut, just to drive home the horror of humans, the plot includes a human who starts transforming into an alien after exposure to an alien chemical (that the aliens were carefully keeping away from humans, but humans came in and messed things up and brought this on themselves). And do you know what the other humans did as soon as they realised what was happening to their brave and, let’s be frank, injured-in-the-line-of-duty soldier? They decided to vivisect him. But, wait, we’re about to look even worse, because when this soldier escapes and goes to the very aliens he messed up for help? THEY HELP HIM. Are you ashamed of us yet? When the aliens find a way to escape Earth (the only actual bright spot in this film), I can’t be the only person not entirely concerned with whether or not they’ll do as they promised and return to heal the soldier. Faith in humanity destroyed.

Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth, in the torture chairI loved this film, but it’s so grim that it’s one I would own and never watch again. Unless I were already depressed and figured it couldn’t get worse. Seriously. (But you should totally watch it. Maybe it will shame you into being one of the good humans…)

And now that I’ve gotten myself down, I’m afraid I don’t have a pithy summary. I just hope, for the sake of everyone, that we’re the ones who get stranded. That we get a chance to show how big we can be instead of being likely to show just how very small we are. (Let’s end with one more relevant Bowie picture. That always soothes me…) Now, go out and be the best kind of human you can, whether it’s to other humans or to aliens. That will help scrub some shame off our collective souls…