Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Lack of Married Couples in Speculative Fiction

*Note: The following contains spoilers for season six and beyond of Buffy, and seasons five and six of the new Doctor Who*

I've noticed a very strange trend of late, though the trend itself is not new. There are very few happily married couples in speculative fiction, especially in television.

Now, by "happily married" I don't mean that life is perfect for them, but I mean that they, generally speaking, have a strong connection between the two of them. In short, they aren't constantly second guessing if they love each other or not.

One very obvious example of this, and the one that bothers me the most are Rory and Amy on the current season of Doctor Who. Season five of Doctor Who heavily featured the two of them. Amy begins the season running away with The Doctor the day before her wedding, and right from that moment all the way through to the final episode the season spoke about their relationship. It teased the idea that Amy may leave Rory and was falling in love with The Doctor, but after a turn partway through the season where Rory was erased from existence (not only was he dead, but he had never existed) it turned right around, and Amy found herself crying without knowing why and other heart wrenching moments. Eventually though, Rory got better and came back. Oh, and then he shot Amy, mortally wounding her.

Luckily there happened to be a regeneration box nearby which brought Amy back to life. Unfortunately it would take two thousand years, and so Rory who was at that time immortal decided to stay with the box and protect it for two thousand year and oh my gosh this recap of a great story arc sounds stupid if you haven't seen the show. The point is, it ended with the two of them having proven their love for each other, and getting married. Happy ending right?

Well no, unfortunately the first half of season six has featured several points where Rory is still in doubt whether or not Amy really loves him or the Doctor after she chose him. This irritates me. As much as I like drama, this is the exact same story we saw in season five repeated again. Luckily the midseason finale of Doctor Who seems to have settled this arc, but the fact that they kept it alive shows me a troubling misconception that seems to be filling media right now.

Joss Whedon, who infamously feeds on the tears of fanboys and girls everywhere, has a famous quote. "Happy people make bad television." It really summarizes his philosophy on fiction, and more importantly it really summarizes the fault many writers have fallen into. You see, happy characters do, in fact, make bad television. Or film. Or any kind of fiction, really. No one wants to watch people go around being consistently happy. Shows such as Buffy are mainly about horrible things happening to the main character, deaths of friends and family, and then watching him or her work through it. That creates drama, and, if done properly, it creates a character who the audience not only identifies with, but empathizes with. We'll call them the Woobie from here on.

Watching horrible things happen to the Woobie is painful, and difficult, and emotional. The audience empathizes with the Woobie, and in some cases even put their own emotional troubles onto the Woobie if done really well. Also in some cases, watching the Woobie ride out their fantastical situations can help the audience understand how to make it through their own problems, even though they are much more grounded in reality.

The Woobie is a powerful tool, and it makes the concept of happy people making bad television. However, a very common pitfall that many writers tend to fall into is assuming that relationship drama is the only kind of drama that exists. This is false.

An example of this, coming from Joss Whedon's own show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Specifically between Xander and Anya. Now first of all, if you've never seen a Whedon show, you need to understand that one of his strengths as a writer is amazingly well developed characters. His characters can make even the worst episodes or seasons (looking at you season four of Angel) enjoyable. The character of Xander was one of Buffy's two best friends from the beginning of the series, one of the shows few characters who was an ordinary human. Anya, on the other hand was a former vengeance demon who had been turned into a human. Over the show anya went from being a selfish evil, well, demon, into being a human who, while still selfish and petty, showed a lot of character development. A large part of this was the relationship between Anya and Xander, that ended with Anya and Xander getting engaged at the end of season five.

For those who don't know, Buffy was actually cancelled and resolved after five seasons, and thus the show would have ended there with the two of them getting engaged, if the show had not been picked up by another network. When the sixth season premiered, it was obvious that the writers had very little idea of how to continue. While personally I loved season six and seven, they were less warmly received by many fans.

Unfortunately, one symptom of the shows sudden renewal was that Xander and Anya would not, in fact, get married. Thus after two and a half seasons of growing the characters and building them up as a strong couple despite all odds to the contrary, they began to show doubts.

*Video contains some mildly crude content*

That song I just posted was the only good thing to come out of this story arc. While the arc was, perhaps, more well executed than it could have been if it weren't being written by some of the best television writers ever, it still ended in disaster. Eventually the two of them continue doubting themselves for the first half of the season until Xander leaves at the alter, in a moment that was very out of character. After this Anya's character was, in my opinion, butchered. She forgot everything she had learned while being a human, and the rest of the show became a bitter mess. Understandable perhaps, but painful to watch, and not in the good way I listed above. I maintain that the show would have been better if the two of them had ended up together.

After all, plenty of storylines were going on at the same time, albeit not directly related to the two of them, and without going off into another long explanation, some really bad crap happened to both Anya and Xander over the last season of Buffy.

There is, however, at least one shining beacon of a happily married couple in speculative fiction. Zoe and Wash. Now, while there was admittedly one episode where Wash was jealous over Zoe's relationship with her old friend Mal, the captain of Serenity, the show never treated the two of them as anything but perfect together. While you might suspect this made the characters boring, not so. Firefly being another Joss Whedon show, both characters are beloved, particularly Wash.

Zoe and Wash were, in my opinion, the prime example of a happily married couple in speculative fiction. Bad things happened to them, but instead of arguing and bickering about it, they got through it together. They were always in love, and the show acknowledged that without forcing them to prove their love for each other every five minutes. If more writers took notice of the two of them, I think we'd all be the better for it.

Ok, I've been building up to it, let me finish by slamming the lack of understanding of how to write characters well home. One More Day.

Half the people reading this shuddered, and the rest will understand why in a few moments.

So, for those who don't follow comics, let's talk about Spider-Man shall we? He's a beloved character, arguably Marvel's most famous creation, and has a very successful film franchise. For those not familiar with the comics, Spider-Man, well, Peter Parker, and Mary Jane have been married in the comics for quite some time. Or, I suppose, were. They were married. Because Spider-Man sold his marriage to THE DEVIL.

Couldn't make this stuff up if I tried folks.

Yeah. One More Day was a 2007 four part comic event where, I say it again for emphasis, Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil.

Well, technically the demon Mephisto but let's not argue semantics. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and weighs the same as a duck, it's a witch, and should probably be burned.

Now I'll admit I haven't read it myself, but the plot synopsis and fan reaction is enough for me to be nursing a headache just thinking about it. Short version is this: Aunt May is shot and killed by a bullet intended for Spider-Man. Spider-Man, feeling guilty and as though her death was his fault decides to find a way to bring her back, instead of coping with her death like a normal person. So he talks to Mephisto who says that Spider-Man is soooo happy that it disgusts him and if he sells his marriage he will bring Aunt May back to life. And Spider-Man agrees.

If you really need to understand why this is monumentally stupid, watch the following video by Linkara of Atop the Fourth Wall.

...Yeah. Not Spidey's finest moment.

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