Odds and ends at mid-stream

Just got done a marathon watching of seasons 1-3 of Babylon 5. Only to find out that season 4 isn’t out yet on DVD and that SciFi channel is now back to showing season 1 this month. *sigh*. Despite the tediousness of season 1 of the show, season 3 is pretty exciting in that painting-a-huge-epic-landscape sort of way. And I always like hearing about the making of the show from its writer/producer/creator. Hearing the commentaries from the actors is annoying, on the other hand. The B5 actors spend most of the episodes MST3King their own work. It’s just another job to them. This was less true of Adrian Paul’s commentary on the season 2 Highlander DVD set. He talked a lot about the behind-the-scenes details in an interesting way.

I’m not sure if JMS is trying to present this story as an attempt to give a “realistic vision of the future” or as a simple allegory for human nature or something in between. He does talk a lot about his world being more “realistic” because life on Earth isn’t Utopian, political corruption and power struggles abound (more realistic than what, we don’t have to look far to know).

Like Star Trek aliens, his aliens are so gosh darn human in different respects that you want to vote “allegory”. But if either JMS or Gene Roddenberry and his heirs had tried to present an alien that genuinely alien would their show have lasted very long? I was just watching the original Alien Nation movie last night, and despite the assorted “differences” they gave to the Newcomers, in the end they were still Ozzie and Harriet eating gerbil guts and drinking sour milk, or Big Mob Boss alien guy with the fancy expensive coat and limo. Human, all too human.

The question that arises for me, watching the first three seasons of B5, is whether the “younger races” are in any sense masters of their fate. They will win the war against the Shadows, but is it because of anything they did, or have they been pushed and prodded and told what to do by the Vorlons? Is the supposedly epic story of human/Minbari/Narn heroism and human/Minbari/Narn failings and yada yada that is Babylon 5 really just a millenia-long pissing contest between the Shadows and the Vorlons, with the younger races as puppets?

And could I mix my metaphors even more?

I guess what I’m wondering is if Sheridan, Dellen and the others will really truly contribute to their own destiny in any meaningful sense in the seasons to come. Well, I’ve only seen seasons 4 and 5 in bits and pieces, so I’ll have to wait and see how it all comes out.

I haven’t gotten very far into the first book of the Harry Potter series, but I can already tell why it has appeal. JK Rowling is a very entertaining and humorous writer, and she uses themes that appeal to most kids, and many adults who enjoy the fantasy/sci-fi genres: the Cinderella/Ugly Duckling theme(s). Harry is of course Cinderella, the unwanted, “ugly” family relation who gets treated like shit. Then one day, the fairy godparent comes along and guides him to his greater destiny, leaving the unappreciative truly ugly family with their noses in the dust. Harry Potter is the ugly duckling: a child misplaced among people who are not his own kind. They see him as ugly and inferior, when in fact he belongs to an entirely different species, and among his own kind, he is considered beautiful and powerful. His kind are in awe of him.

This is powerful stuff to people who have always felt out of place and picked on. If I had just picked up this book totally unspoiled for how it proceeds and how it ends, I would be hooked. I always related to the ugly duckling story. Someday I would be among people who would appreciate me! Not you sorry ugly lot who are kicking me around the school yard for not being pretty enough.

Not that I’m not hooked. This is wonderful stuff, as of page 55.

But see, in the ugly duckling story, once the bird finds out he’s a beautiful swan, the story ends. We all assume he lives happily ever after. But the story of HP and the Philosopher’s Stone only really truly begins when Harry steps into his birthrighted world. Then things get iffy.

Because the story of the outsider finding his true home has appeal, but what happens when he becomes the insider, and not only the insider, but a legend, adored and coddled? What if “The Ugly Duckling: the Sequel” tells the story of how U.D., now a beautiful swan, gets all the swan chicks and gets all the swan goodies from adoring fellow swans whether in fact he deserves them or not?

That was what bugged me about Harry Potter the movie. Harry goes on to Hogwarts. He gets picked on by the snotty wizards and witches that he refuses to befriend(**) for about two seconds, and then spends the rest of the movie getting off scot-free for all the rules he breaks (e.g., using a magic broom when specifically told not to by his teacher, sneaking around campus after curfew, going into forbidden rooms and getting access forbidden information), maybe getting a few points knocked off his House total, but in the end racking up coincidentally just enough bonus points for his House from his doting school teachers to win best House at the end of the school year for some (albeit heroic, but some of it trivially so) deeds he’s done.

Suddenly, I can’t relate to Harry, not because he’s a hero, and not because he breaks the rules, but because he does these things as the ultimate insider. You get the feeling he could do just about anything he wanted without real reprecussions, without real consequences. In what sense are the odds truly against him? From the bad guy, who is at best ephemeral in the first book? From the fact that he still doesn’t seem to be in conscious control of his own powers and yet manages to foil every situation he’s in with magically appearing swords and other deus ex machina?

I guess what I’m asking here, from people who’ve read the books, Is Harry Potter a Mary Sue? No specific spoilers, please, if you comment.

Hmmm. I know I’m only on page 55 and he’s not even at Hogwarts yet so I should stay my tongue. Or my keyboard, as the case is. I’m told the book is very different from the movie in the exact respects I’m complaining about, so I should just plunge on and read.

So I will.

(**and having the elite “aristocratic” students be actually inferior snobs while Harry wisely decides to befriend the mundane regular joes who turn out to be wiser and more gifted–how American is that? And refusing to join their student aristocracy does him no harm, because to the true ruling class of the school–the faculty–he is already family.)

13 thoughts on “Odds and ends at mid-stream

  1. I hated Philosopher’s Stone!! I thought Harry was the ultimate Mary Sue who not only had a tragic background, but could get away with everything because of the tragic background. I loved Snape the most in the book because I thought everything he said about Harry was right, and I was pretty mad that everyone seemed so one-sided — either they were with Harry or they were bad and evil (with the one exception of Snape).
    I do think Harry gets better as a character in each book though, and I’m absolutely in love with the third and fourth and fifth books as of now.

  2. Re: So…
    Yeah, pretty much. I don’t remember much of the movie, but I had a very distinctly negative reaction to Philosopher’s Stone the first time I read it.

  3. Re: So…
    That sounds like my reaction to the movie. I sort of got what the hype was about, but in the end, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Didn’t stop me from going to see the second movie, but I haven’t yet tried to tape/buy the movies for my collection, which normally I would do for a fantasy story with all the thematic elements and special effects etc that this one has.

  4. Hmm…
    Gosh. I’m not sure I should tackle the “Is HP a Mary Sue?” question here (I’m on a school computer at lunch break, and there are people waiting in line for a computer to clear up…) but I will say, Harry really grows as a character after the first novel. So far, the fourth is my favorite; Harry strikes me as a fully realized individual (golly, I’ve used that phrase a lot this weekend!) only after the third novel.
    On a related note: I read the first four HPs long before I got into Buffy. Mom and I went to see the second HP movie last Nov, when it was released, and I found my watching-experience totally polluted by my Buffy habit. I kept expecting consequences, or some sort of ‘price,’ every time a character used magic – and there really weren’t any. The characters generally could wave their wands around and yay, everything is all fine and dandy (various amusing ‘accidents’ notwithstanding, of course.) I didn’t feel that so much when I read HP5 this summer, because the later books are darker, and have a more adult feel to them. But it remained a lingering concern.

  5. Harry Potter book 5
    Well, one of the main reasons I finally decided to break down and jump on the HP bandwagon at all (I resisted it for six years now) is because of what I’ve heard about Harry Potter book 5. Harry getting cranky and morally ambiguous? It’s right up my alley.
    I just have this weird thing about cranky, morally ambiguous but supernaturally gifted teenagers.

  6. Re: So…
    Right… I personally don’t think the HP series gets very good until the third book, so I’m actually mildly anticipating the third movie, which is also being made by a different director. There was something about the first two movies that I didn’t quite like, a feeling that it was a bit too pedantic maybe? I mean, it felt as though the director was just trying to cram everything on screen without interpretation or what not, not like Peter Jackson’s version of LotR. Although then that’s a whole new ball game with fans quibbling about changes ;).

  7. Exactly!
    I mean, it felt as though the director was just trying to cram everything on screen without interpretation or what not
    Through most of the first movie, I kept asking “Now what exactly just happened?” “Why did it happen?” “Where did that come from?”
    I got the feeling the movie was made for the readers of the books. They could fill in the background details for themselves, and people new to HP were left to go, “huh?”
    Of course, I had a similar reaction to Babylon 5. If you have to go to a website and get everything explained to you, the producers/directors aren’t doing a good job of explaining it themselves.
    I think that’s somewhat true of “Buffy” and “Angel” though, as well. I always like the episodes better after I do my episode analysis of them, because I watch the episode with deep scrutiny over and over until I “get” what happened and why.

  8. Re: Harry Potter book 5
    Oh yeah, cranky Harry of book 5! I was disturbed at how appealing he suddenly became to me.
    I treat the movies as Cliff Notes versions, kind of a greatest hits compilation to get me to reread. At first I loved the books because they reminded me of being 12 years old, devouring books and actually being excited about school, but as the series has gone on I’m quite impressed with what Rowling is doing. So much of the happy fun Mary Sue-ish stuff is there for a reason. I’m very interested to see how far she’s going to take it. I’ll say no more except to say wait until you get to the third book!

  9. Re: Exactly!
    Hrm, that’s interesting re Babylon 5 and Buffy (well, more with Buffy since I haven’t seen Babylon 5). Some episodes of Buffy I love in and of themselves, with or without analysis… in those cases, the analysis of deeper themes and etc. are merely icing on the cake (OMWF, for instance, because I love musicals, and the Body, for complete visceral impact). Others… well, others just don’t make sense at all from the storytelling point of view, which is when I think the writers fail, because while deeper meanings and all are good, they get in the way if they can’t be incorporated into story and character arcs, imho.
    Makes you wonder about how good some of the greats of literature are… I mean, I loved Pride and Prejudice when I read it for fun, but other greats like Ulysses I can admire after analysis and from a great distance, but I don’t actually *like* them.

  10. Re: Harry Potter book 5
    I’ll say no more except to say wait until you get to the third book!
    So I’ve been told by others as well…!

  11. How Buffy
    …and having the elite “aristocratic” students be actually inferior snobs while Harry wisely decides to befriend the mundane regular joes who turn out to be wiser and more gifted–how American is that?
    How Buffy is that? LOL. ;o)

  12. Re: How Buffy
    Well, you expect to see that coming from an American-made show like Buffy. It’s part of US culture to be suspicious of elitism. Less so in Anglo/European culture where beliefs about the worth of particular classes still held sway right into the 20th century.

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