Downton Vs. 165 Eaton Place

I knew the minute the bickering started, we were in for quite a show. Last spring, both the BBC and ITV announced their intention to air independent productions based on the social class systems in the early part of the 1900’s — ITV premiered its seven hour Downton Abbey in the autumn and the BBC has unveiled the new series of Upstairs Downstairs this past week. Naturally, there are bound to be comparisons… and finger pointing… and accusations… I just did not think the stars of the individual projects would become involved. Jean Marsh started it by accusing Downton of robbing plot ideas from the original servant / upper class series she starred in, in the 1970’s. Eileen Atkins chimed in, stating that in her opinion, Downton was rather “boring.” (Which makes me think she is suffering from a case of professional jealousy, because the series is anything but dull!) Then Hugh Bonneville tweeted his disgust at Jean Marsh for dissing their series, intimating it was not up to her usual graces… and then the critics took sides. Some are lavishing praise on the BBC production, others are saying it’s a dour experience after the genius of Downton.

So what do I think? Well, that is complicated but I will do my best. I think it is inevitable that comparisons be drawn, because many of the plot points are strikingly similar and I can see why the BBC would be miffed… they usually set the standard in film productions and now to come in second on the heels of a tremendously successful series that impressed everyone who saw it, they no longer can claim superior production skills. I have seen Upstairs Downstairs, and here are my conclusions.

To succeed at anything, you must do two things for your audience — entertain them and as such, make them like your characters (or in the case of Thomas in Downton, enjoy hating them), and make the plot complicated enough to peak their interest but not so much so that they become confused. Downton succeeds at this, Upstairs does not. One hour into the latter, I loved several of the characters, liked several more, and hated two in particular. That set the stage for increasing emotion as the story wove on and I became involved with their lives. One hour into Upstairs, I semi-liked several of the characters and felt nothing for the rest. Having never seen the original series, the nostalgia they indulged in with Jean Marsh’s character was completely lost on me and I felt nothing for her. Not good. Fortunately, the issue of liking or not liking characters is somewhat resolved in the second hour, when someone truly likable enters the house — a Jewish woman working as a maid after losing her home in Germany. Her friendship with the Indian servant set my screen on fire, because it seemed as if something important and interesting were happening at last! This contrasted beautifully with the continued flame between Persephone and the chauffeur, and his political involvement, and made the second episode outstanding. The third is rather bland in comparison in my opinion, although it does contain a particularly rousing final twenty minutes.

But here’s the thing… in television, many audiences are not going to stick around if you don’t hook them in the first hour. Had Upstairs began with episode two, I think it would have earned far less criticism and far stronger numbers in the ratings, as well as set it apart from Downton in its decision to go in a much different direction.

Then there is the problem of politics. Upstairs does not handle this aspect very well — in fact, if you do not have an intimate knowledge of British politics leading up to WWII, surrounding the death of one king, the pronouncement of another, then his abdication, and so forth, as well as a grasp of Nazi sympathizers in England, you are going to be totally lost. The series never bothers to explain anything, just continues in it in the hope that the audience will know what is happening. Their introduction of a monarch is not well expressed, and left me wondering just which of the royal princes we were dealing with (turns out after some research, it was the youngest!). I believe in giving your audience a certain amount of trust, but you also need to help them along a bit here and there. Never assume anything — either that your audience knows or doesn’t know, just give enough information to support the plot. Downton on the other hand, skimmed the politics of the time just enough so that we were aware of all the issues England was facing and even involved in them here and there, but were never lost, confused, or bored by them. The sinking of the Titanic changes everything for the Crawley family forever — and it is no more than a passing mention, a delicious whisper that peaks our fascination. I suppose my conclusion would be, if you are going to go heavy into politics, make sure anyone can follow it, or they’ll become confused and shut it off. No book or film should force their reader or viewer to implement Google midway through.

One might assume I don’t care for Upstairs at all, but this is not the truth: the first episode left me underwhelmed and the second was marvelous, even though the direction it went is somewhat shocking — Persephone has the makings of a Fascist, or in plain terms, a Nazi sympathizer, and that is a bit difficult to swallow, particularly if she does not reform at some point. (We may or may not discover what comes of her, based on if the BBC has enough nerve to continue with a second installment.) The third episode was a bit trite but had some remarkably good moments — delivering a baby in a bathroom (by a mother in law and a servant, no less), the discovery of the dark secret in the family, and Persephone heading off to Germany. Interestingly, a lot of comparisons have been rightly drawn between the two series in this regard, as both feature upper class young women becoming interested in political movements in which the family chauffeur is involved: Persephone in Upstairs, and Sybil in Downton. There are a few notable differences, even though both are ultimately socialist in nature — Persephone comes from an impoverished background, or as she complains to the chauffeur, “everyone I own someone else has bought for me.” Sybil by comparison is a Lady and has grown up in the midst of wealth. Persephone actively becomes involved with the Fascists, while Sybil is merely curious about the Socialists; Persephone becomes intimate with the chauffeur, whereas we only have vague hints that perhaps one day Sybil might have romantic feelings for the chauffeur. I might also venture to add that the chauffeur in Upstairs, Spargo, I disliked until late in the third episode, whereas I had a soft spot for Branson in Downton from the start.

If you can avoid comparing the two series, you will ultimately be much better off — each has its strengths and its downfalls, and while I do pick somewhat on Upstairs, that is not to say Downton is completely perfect either (some of its plot points could have come in sooner, and others go nowhere at all). Both are entertaining, engaging, and have tremendous talent in them. Each has a plot driven forward by politics and personal dramas, and each has characters you do become fond of, and marvelous little moments of interaction that are just plain charming. Downton has astounding characterization and that is its strength, whereas the strength in Upstairs lies in its more surprising instances — the bird in the linen cupboard, for one. And I imagine that each will continue to improve in my estimation with repeat viewings – Upstairs in particular will seem more whole in one setting than spread out over several nights, but that still will not eradicate its fault of attempting to accomplish far too much in a meager amount of time.

When I first heard that the BBC was pulling its funding for costume dramas in favor of dramas centered around the two world wars, I let out a sigh of disappointment — but if this is any indication of what in the pipeline for future drama, it’s a decent start. I’m becoming fond of the automobiles and furs and satin gowns. But as to which of the two miniseries is better, I will leave for you to decide!

PBS starts Downton Abbey Jan 9th and will premiere Upstairs Downstairs on April 10th.

Doctor Who, A Christmas Carol

I don’t mind saying that one of the lovely little Christmas traditions I have picked up over the last few years is waiting around for Doctor Who to turn up. I was particularly intrigued to see what Moffat would do with his chance to write a special and even more intrigued when I learned he would be borrowing a notion from Dickens and expounding on it. The result was, I thought, a lovely blend of nostalgia, emotion, and imagination.
Amy and Rory are stuck on a space liner about to crash due to the disruptions of the engines based on a heavy fog over a planet. The miser who controls the fog has no interest in causing it to drift and thus letting the space liner land and not even the Doctor can convince him to change his mind. It is Christmas Eve and thus the Doctor has a challenge before him — inspired by a Christmas carol he hears in the street, he decides to play Ghost of Christmas Past and revisit the old man’s childhood, inserting him into it and changing not only his life experiences, but the future as well. This leaves Amy to later play Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Doctor to return as the Ghost of Christmas to Come. Once he reaches the past, and the child who will grow up to be a right old grouch, the Doctor discovers many things… including a beautiful woman encased in ice and… well, a shark.

I admit it. I am now a full-blown geek, because rather than snorting at the absurdity of it, when I saw a swarm of minnows crowding around one of the street lamps in the fog, I was delighted and cooed, “Oh, that is so cool!” I knew there would be “bigger fish,” but did not expect the shark. Since childhood, I have had a mortal dread of sharks. It took me twenty years to watch Jaws and even then, I was terrified and refused to budge from the couch throughout, all the while screaming about what morons they were to go out in such a tiny boat! (I still maintain that was stupid.) So when the shark swam in through the bedroom window and just about took the Doctor’s face off, I let out such an almighty shriek that my poor cat ran for the other room, scrambling to gain her footing on the hardwood floor. I loved it, of course, but that does not erode the fact that I was petrified. Yet… I totally was with the kid; even though the shark tried to eat the Doctor, it was just a shark, it was going on its instincts, it was hungry… and I didn’t want it to die.

Yes… I am the sort of person who captures spiders and sets them loose outside rather than stepping on them. PETA would love me… if I didn’t think they were a bunch of hypocritical morons. Don’t laugh.

Back to everyone’s favorite Doctor…

There were a lot of things I thought were marvelous about this episode — obviously, the fish in the fog and the shark, but also the haunting sadness that Moffat writes so well, in this case encasing a woman in ice and awakening her each Christmas Eve, but then reminding us that she is going to die. That’s just bloody mean and marvelous all at once. Although my one major nitpick is that Moffat seems to have forgotten the actual passage of time … we meet the woman’s sister and her kids at the start, don’t we? Wanting the old man to release her for just one night? Collectively, if the woman was frozen when the old man was still a kid, wouldn’t her sister be 60 or more years older at the beginning of the episode than when we see her back in time? I get overlooking minor details, but that seems rather… major to me. Like, glaringly obvious and why did not one single person working on this episode notice that? Either way, brushing that aside…

Oh, gosh, this episode was funny. I literally burst out laughing when the Doctor came down the chimney. “Yeah, landed on the roof, saw the chimney, couldn’t resist!” His mention of the creatures that live in closets but during the day sleep in your mattress, then following it up with a classic, “Oops… I probably should not have told you that.” Then his reference to Mary Poppins, him getting married to Marilyn Monroe, and of course the psychic paper pulling an EPIC FAIL that is… well, epic.

Doctor: “I am a mature and responsible adult!”
Kid *looks at psychic paper* “All I see are a bunch of wavy lines.”
Doctor: “Yeah, it shorted out… finally a lie too big.”

Oh, Doctor. It is so marvelous having you back, even if it is just for a short time. But I do have one question, one that may be meaningless or mean rather a lot in the new season… if the audience saw no fish nibbling on him, yet he kept smacking at them, does that mean we couldn’t see the fish or that something else was going on? Something that may return to haunt us in a few months when once more we are thrust into his world?

A Bishop Family Christmas

I had all sorts of things planned for this blog over December but the holidays caught me by surprise. Between being sick for a fortnight and putting out two issues of our business publication in-between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was doing good just to update Charity’s Place every weekend. I actually finished my last gift two days ago! It was a genius idea, and it’s still a marvelous idea… I just did not plan and execute it in as timely a manner as I had hoped. (If it gives you any hint, I have had the crafting supplies since Halloween. Ah, life, and the best of intentions… but I got distracted. You try running the world, or at least sitting around thinking about how much better you would run it than everyone else who is running it!)

Hey, at least I got my packages all mailed and a few here and there came in for me. I decided to open gifts from friends early, because I have the patience of a two year old when it comes to surprises. My brother heartily disapproves of this, because it’s just not right. You open presents on Christmas Eve in our house and not a minute sooner! (Where that tradition started, I do not know… probably from some impatient individual in my ancestry that greatly resembles me!) And now my note board in the office is covered with Christmas cards and photos out of the cards, including one new family with their newly adopted child from Ethiopia! My tree is up and has been for quite some time. The cat has already climbed it three times and pulled off at least three of the painted bulbs. I do a Phantom of the Opera theme every year, so it is decorated in gold, silver, and ruby tones, with roses tucked into the branches.

We sadly have no snow this year and are not likely to. The barrenness of our surroundings is a tad disconcerting, considering we live in ranch and farming country where moisture is much needed to ensure good grasslands and a proper harvest next year. I live “ten thousand miles from anywhere,” or so a friend once told me. I think he was joking. Then again, since he only visited the ranch once, maybe not. At least he made it. Most people ignore the maps we kindly give them, or think that is a suggestion rather than mandatory, and wind up hopelessly lost. I admit, it has provided me with an immense amount of entertainment over the last few weeks. You wait around for company to show up for whatever Christmas event is going on and about half an hour after they should have arrived, you get a phone call that sounds a lot like this:

“Uh… where are we?!”

“I have no idea. Where are you?”

“Well, we saw a farm house… a ways back…”

“Did you follow the map?”

“Uh… kind of?”

And then they go over a hill away from a cell tower and their cell phone drops the call. Eventually, either someone goes to get them or they find their way to a landmark.

“Hey, I see a herd of buffalo!”

Great. Turn right at the tepee and you’re halfway there!”

“… is that sarcasm?”

“….”

Holidays are a busy time for me because I am usually baking. I can make anything guaranteed to expand your waistline, and do it perfectly. Even on the occasions when it looks like muck (such as this morning, and my first attempt to make a Danish Kringle … oh, saints above, what a mess…) it still tastes amazing. I rather suspect that I am only gifted in making sweet treats and breads, because “real food” never comes out as good, but if I do indeed have a knack, perhaps I can work on turning that in low-carb directions at some point in the future. I was up this morning at 6:30 am folding pastry, if that gives you any hint as to where my priorities lie. (And no, I am not the size of a small barn just yet… thank goodness for long walks with the family dog! It takes an immense amount of energy to bundle up like an Eskimo and waddle your way over a couple of miles! … and no, that is not a joke.)

Tonight will be the usual festivities of Christmas quiche and Cherry Coconut bars for dessert (… which I have never made before either; let’s hope it turns out better than the Kringle did!) and the giving of presents. I am usually more excited to see if other people like my gifts than I am to open the ones with my name on them, perhaps because I’m an introvert who hates being the center of attention, even around her family. Tomorrow, we have dinner with Grandpa. So long as we can avoid talking about politics, or religion, or theology, or the president, or relatives, or … well, anything aside from food, dogs, making furniture, and redecorating, we should be okay.

All of that blathering to say with all my heart…

MERRY CHRISTMAS! (Or rather, since I have always been a tad rebellious and rather British in spite of living in America, “HAPPY CHRISTMAS!”) I hope this long weekend is full of delights for each and every one of you.

Final Season: Smallville & Manipulation

Myers-Briggs has ruined my life. Forever. But more on that in the “Mastermind” section beneath the cut!

Midwinter hiatuses are no fun. Most of my shows are taking a month or more off after this weekend. I’ve become used to it, but still… six weeks without any of my shows sounds a tad depressing (unless of course you fill the rest of this month with Christmas movies!). In this post I will get a little nostalgic, discuss an important engagement on Smallville, and reveal my surprising new insights into my favorite bald-headed villain. The plain fact of the matter is that I’ve started rewatching this series from the beginning and am picking up on things that weren’t evident to me ten years ago, before I learned about personality types… but first, last night’s midwinter finale.

The Story This Week:

In a beautiful and romantic (even for a cynic like me) scene, Clark Kent proposes to Lois Lane and she accepts him outside “their” phone booth, amid a snowstorm of falling rose petals (awww). Tess arranges an engagement party with friends, Chloe sends Lois a mysterious amulet and her well wishes, and … then all hell breaks loose. The government is cracking down on heroes, Captain Tigh… err… some dude from the military is trying to eradicate them all, and riots are breaking out on the streets due to paranoia. Olivier tries to stop a man from mugging a woman on the street and winds up getting a beating from a mob. Tess, Lois, and others are arrested by the military and held for questioning, but Lois escapes — only to nearly lose her life and be saved by Daniel Jacks–err, Hawkman, who dies as a result. The episode ends with Hawkman’s funeral and a glowing orb going off in his tomb, leaving all of them unconscious.

My Thoughts:

If there is one thing Smallville does well, it is proposal scenes. Even though part of me will always hate Clana, the proposal in the Fortress of Solitude between Clark and Lana was the high point of the 100th episode. Lex’s proposal to Lana surrounded by ten thousand red roses was equally stirring. It seems fitting that Lois would be proposed to on a chilly evening outside a particular phone booth in Metropolis with rose petals instead of snowflakes. So yeah, proposals in this show are amazing… the actual weddings, not so much. (Can anyone say Chloe’s wedding? Yikes.) Nevertheless, I kind of hope the series finale includes one because I think that would be an amazing way to end the series, with Clark and Lois tying the proverbial knot and promising to love, honor, and keep one another forever. Because in spite of my protests, deep down I really am just a sap at heart.

This season has had a lot of ups and downs for me — overall, it’s been marvelous with one or two sticking points. I think the concept of Darkness invading just as the heroes are being forced to rise is a really good plot device, and I loved Hawkman’s line about having seen this kind of hatred and fear before — during the Spanish Inquisition (Isabella, I love you to pieces, but… really?) and then again during the Holocaust. It’s an interesting concept that humans can be horrible on their own but there are times when evil is more frankly much more prevalent (ancient Rome, anyone?), and while I do not agree with many of the series’ concepts, I do believe the worst evil is “controlling” other people. That is what has marked dark civilizations for centuries — powerful governments oppressing the public, and in a way that seems to be seeping into the show’s message this season — ironic when you consider the mood of the public at the moment, and the fact that many Americans are starting to resent our government becoming ever-bigger and attempting to control more of our lives. The irony of having Lois wanded as she went into work was not lost on me, given the recent airport security controversies. “It’s all for your own good,” my foot. The show generally trends liberal but in this respect has surprised me — pleasantly.

I think that in spite of the marvelous proposal scene that my favorite moment, however, was the shot of Lois being propelled out the window and falling — twisting, and turning helplessly, toward her demise — and an instant later, Hawkman plunging after her, with his outstretched wings aflame. I have always been a sucker for symbolism and references to Roman history and Greek mythology, so the intentional nod to Icarus was beautiful. (Icarus is a myth about a man who attempts to escape an island on wings made of wax, but flies too close to the sun and they melt, plunging him to his death.) I rather suspected that particular character would die at some point, in keeping with this season’s concept of death and rebirth, but it was sad nevertheless… yet when he unfurls his wing and reveals to Clark that Lois at least has been saved… well, that was even more touching.

It is going to be a long six weeks… made less so by revisiting the original episodes.

Masterminds:

I have had a lot of people ask me what my deal is in loving this show so much — it’s a bit corny, it’s kinda lame, and the writing at times is downright atrocious (let’s not even talk about season nine… or how Lex/Lana ended… because I really do not need to rant this morning). But the truth is… this show was there for me during a hard time in my life. It allowed me to escape and fall in love with these characters and believe in heroism. And every single time I get depressed, which for a melancholy individual like me is quite often, this show can bring me back up — even the episodes that frustrate me resonate in my soul, because it means something to me. I can stick one of the early seasons into my machine, sit down, and for a few hours it’s not about me, or my concerns or fears, it’s just about finding happiness. I cannot explain it, but this show means an immense amount to me and always will. That’s just how it is.

Rewatching the early seasons has reminded me how good the series was in its childhood. It was much more simple and character-based than it is now. The stories were fun and independent of one another, revolving around the antics of teenagers. Clark and his adorable fondness for Lana (hey, it only started to annoy me when they got older and entered a never-ending cycle of angst! I liked it at the start!). Lex learning to be friends with Clark. Lana attempting to figure out who she is as a person. Chloe and her Wall of Weird. In a way, I really miss how it used to be, before it got complicated and mature and involved. When it was just about relationships and friends and family and occasional financial woes, it was very impacting and uplifting and stunning — the contrast between the Kents and their love for Clark, and Lionel’s hatred and contempt for his son, particularly struck all the right chords. Yet in some ways, I’m glad the series did grow up — because I grew up with it, and many of the situations faced by the characters in terms of emotions and changes in their lives happened in sync with me (even though I am a couple of years older than Clark).

The older you get, the more you learn; the more life experience you have, the more you begin to see things differently — and I am now noticing things in particular about Lex. Six months ago, my life changed incredibly because of one simple thing — I took the Myers Briggs Personality Test and discovered what “type” I am. That opened my eyes to why I do certain things, why particular situations and relationships drain me emotionally, and why my motivations, interests, and obsessions are what they are. My type is extremely rare among the general population — I think we comprise something like 2% of the surveyed population… which explains why throughout my life, I have always been something of a mystery to people. I am an INTJ, which means I am very introverted (I scored quite high on that portion of the test), I have keen natural instincts about people, places, and things, I internalize my emotions and do far too much serious thinking for my own good, and I make my decisions based on logic rather than emotion. The plus is that we are highly reliable, easily intellectual, and very creative — the down side is that we can come across as cold, calculating, and manipulative if we “go bad.” My personality type is nicknamed the “Mastermind,” because to be quite frank, most literary and cinematic villains are INTJ’s. (Yeah!! rock on, awesome villains! … oops, sorry.)

Among the famous individuals (real and imagined) that are classified as INTJ (including Thomas Jefferson — no wonder I love him!) is… surprise, surprise… Lex Luthor. I wasn’t sure that Smallville‘s Lex would fit in with that, but as I rewatch the series… he does. Lionel accuses him of making too many decisions based on his emotions but I disagree; he is emotional, and at times that influences his choices, but most of his business and personal decisions are utterly logical and in some respects, that is why they fail to resonate with other characters, because they are emotion-based personalities that cannot figure out why Lex is doing these things. (He knows what he’s doing. We usually do. You just fail to appreciate our genius.) ANYWAY… what I have noticed is that Lex is not nearly as innocent as I remember. My mind recalls early Lex as being rather innocent and the victim of circumstances out of his control (yeah, yeah, I bought into that liberal philosophy — shut up), or being accused of doing bad things that he did not actually do.

Uh… yeah… not so much. Looking at him as a potential Mastermind, I am reading so much more between the lines. Was his gift of a truck to Clark in thanking him for saving his life really just gratitude, or a hook to become friends with someone who interested him? Did he really want to help Jonathan Kent with his financial situation just to be nice and as an investment, or did he want a reason to be around the Kent farm more often? He even manipulates Lana a bit in the first six episodes — albeit, in Clark’s favor, by dropping hints about Whitney’s behavior (thus encouraging her to find out the truth about the cornfield) and inferring that she has chosen the wrong boyfriend. I used to think him pushing Clark to steal Lana away from her boyfriend was just out of caring about his friend, but now I’m not so sure… and I also suspect that Lana winding up without a date to her birthday party has everything to do with Lex. Whitney instead goes to a tryout for a state football team the same night as her party, and we learn later that mysteriously, someone dropped out, permitting him the chance. Lex threatens to erase a reporter’s identity and blackmails him into digging up dirt; he also threatens a notable “mad scientist” with outing him for sleeping with his college students, unless he does research for Luthor Corp. And does anyone really know for certain that Lex knew nothing about Level 31?

Thanks, Myers-Briggs… thanks a lot. You’ve opened this Mastermind’s eyes enough that she can tell when another Mastermind is at work, and cannot pretend his bad childhood and lousy parents had anything to do with how he turned out anymore. See, I used to search for emotional explanations for my behavior too and now know there aren’t any; it’s just the way I am. Lex has no excuses! And… I am finally seeing why a large portion of people never trusted him and why they could not comprehend my fondness for him. I must admit, however, that it has not diminished, just increased my respect for him as the smartest character in the show. Hey, it takes brains to be manipulative!

Hmm, in that respect maybe Jonathan Kent’s paranoia is even justified…

Editorial: Christmas Ghosts

Without a doubt, the most famous Christmas story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Adapted into numerous films, plays, and radio presentations, it is cemented in our minds as “the” definitive wintry tale. It is the story of a wealthy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who through the intervention of three ghosts comes to comprehend the true spirit of the season and changes his ways. While it is a story about redemption, it is also frightening at times, which makes it unusual in Christmas literature.

Or… is it so unusual?

While Dickens may have set the standard against which seasonal ghost stories are measured, he did not originate the tradition. American writer Washington Irving noted the reading of ghost stories at Christmas in his works and to this day the British continue to indulge in them.


What is it about Christmas, a time of happiness and joy, and remembering the birth of Christ, that brings to mind ghost stories? The answer lies with the Victorians. While the holiday was celebrated prior to the 1800’s, many of its traditions were shaped during that period. Christmas trees were first introduced in the early half of the century by Prince Albert, and it was not widely celebrated as a festive holiday until Dickens generated interest in surrounding it with feasting, games, and family through his descriptions of such glad gatherings in A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers.

One of the popular forms of entertainment were penny magazines in which many writers (Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and others) became famous. They sold especially well at Christmas since even poorer families could afford to purchase them. The Victorians were fascinated by supernatural events and printing tales about monsters, vampires, and ghosts became lucrative. No one knows for certain how the tradition got started, but Dickens forever defined it with A Christmas Carol, which sold out its initial printing run of 6,000 copies in only five days. Publishers scrambled to print more and it gained great popularity not only in high society but also the lower and middle classes. The tale reflects certain aspects of the author’s own life (the living conditions of the Cratchit family are much like his own impoverished childhood) but also contains a subtle condemnation of known public figures and the overall mentality of the Victorians. Dickens was waging a war on the behalf of “the poor man’s child,” and the sad plight of Tiny Tim reflects his anger over extreme poverty and workhouse conditions. One factory owner was so moved by a public reading of the story by the author that he not only broke tradition in closing his business on Christmas day, but also gave all his employees a turkey!

Although ghost stories are not Christmas tradition here in America, A Christmas Carol remains popular due to its universal themes of forgiveness and redemption. The story is about “spirits” but the mentality and message are very Christian in origin. Scrooge is selfish and bitter until confronted by the spirit of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who is bound in eternity in chains forged through his selfishness in life. He returns to warn Scrooge not to follow suit. The Spirit of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey of regret in showing him everything he has lost through his decision not to love his fellow man. Scrooge feels guilt and repentance in the presence of the Spirit of Christmas Present, and begs for forgiveness when the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to him his eventual sad and lonely death contrasted with the heartfelt sorrow over Tiny Tim’s passing. Scrooge goes from selfishness to regret to repentance to salvation, which completes an immediate transformation in his life and reflects the message of Christianity, since it is a journey all Christians must take.

Many have argued that Dickens wrote the first nonreligious Christmas story, starting a trend of secularism that continues to taint the holiday to this day. Even C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “The Decline of Religion” that Dickens replaces angels “by spirits of his own invention.” Yet it may be due to the use of ghosts instead of angels that the story remains widely popular. Hollywood may not have adapted the story over and over again, ensuring its continued success, had it been more openly religious. Thus, we do have “spirits” instead of angels but the touching theme of redemption continues to be told and re-told to audiences during the holidays.

Whatever our preference, whether we indulge in “other” Christmas ghost stories or not, there is something deeply moving about one man’s journey from selfishness to redemption. It is if nothing else a reminder to echo Tiny Tim in his eager prayer of, “God bless us, every one!” ♥

Final Season: Smallville & Lionel

I consider myself supremely fortunate in spite of slogging through my second head cold of the season. (It is determined to get me down, but I refuse to surrender!) Last night, I watched two superb episodes of my two favorite sci-fi shows. In Sanctuary, we were given Victorian flashbacks and the return of John Druitt, as well as all kinds of romantic angst that will have me reeling for weeks to come. And in Smallville, I was reminded just how much I missed Lionel Luther, known online to many as the Magnificent B**stard. There’s a reason he is magnificent, and John Glover had that on full display last night…

The Story Last Week:

I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry tears of mirth last week, in which we got yet another sermon on conservation and the evils of the military. Colonel Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica dropped in to torture Olivier Queen and Aquaman for information, which included dunking one in a tank of water for prolonged periods of time and baking the other under heat lamps. How Oliver got there is that he signed up to work with the government instead of going rogue as a hero, hoping to not only test the waters (ha, ha) but pave the way for others and gain inside information. Everyone of course told him it was stupid, but being Olivier he did it anyway. Meanwhile, Aquaman continued blowing up oil rigs to preserve the planet (uh… did no one tell the writing team that doing that causes oil to leak? or did they not bother to, you know, watch the news for six months while we were all freaking out about the British oil spill?), this time with his new wife — a beautiful girl but I don’t remember her name.

Clark actually earns kudos from me in this episode by telling Aquaman that destroying private property is not the answer. Finally. A few seasons ago when he, Oliver, Aquaman, and Flash all blew up a Luthor Corp base just to stop what was going on there, the red lights in my brain that are sometimes preoccupied with problem solving flashed and I screamed, “DESTRUCTION OF PRIVATE PROPERTY! DOMESTIC TERRORISM! AND I’M SUPPOSED TO CALL YOU HEROES??” But this time around, Clark lived up to his reputation as the future Superman by suggesting other methods other than costing billions of dollars in repairs and loss of jobs. Lois also met Aquaman’s chick and told her off, which was nice… very Lois Lane.

The Story This Week:

Tess, being the only surviving heir of Lionel Luther, is sent a pretty mirrored rock with a symbol on it, but before she can explore more fully she is sent an SOS by Clark, who wants to meet at an abandoned Luthor Corp building. He has discovered that one of the Alexander clones is missing and when he realizes she is behind it, Clark has a tantrum  that includes finding the mirrored Kryptonite rock and twisting it — thrusting him into an alternative universe and bringing the “other” Clark back to this world. In the AU, he was found in the field by Lionel Luthor instead of the Kents and has been raised to be a brutal, evil creature only interested in his own power. Lionel is still alive, but AU Clark has killed Lex (but not before Lex branded him on the arm with yellow kryptonite — fabulous, that). Clark is horrified at the darkness of this new world — one in which he seems to be sleeping with his stepsister Tess, feuding with Lionel, oppressing and killing people in Metropolis, and is hated by Olivier Queen and his fiance, Lois Lane.

Meanwhile, back in the real world the “new” Clark is busy making the most of his situation — and Tess tries to lead him on by pretending she is “his” Tess. But it doesn’t take him long to discern the truth and she, Oliver, and Lois must work together to defeat him.

The Symbolism:

Stories of alternate realities are very sci-fi but this is one of the better representations of it that I have seen. The AU Tess tells our Clark that, “this is a darker version of reality than yours,” and it’s very true — not only is the filming much darker and more sinister, but the motivations and behaviors of everyone in the alternate universe are very brutal indeed. Lionel seems over the top but really, I don’t see him as much altered from the original Lionel in the early seasons of this series. Later seasons tried to redeem and soften him, for reasons I do not understand, perhaps as a contrast with the increasing darkness of Lex… but I never fell for it. Lionel is after all the man who murdered his own parents, then used electro-shock therapy in an attempt to manipulate Lex into forgetting the truth. He tried to have Chloe killed after she worked with the authorities against him. He had numerous attempts made on his own son’s life — he played his illegitimate children against his legitimate children, was cruel to his wife and mistresses, and emotionally devastated his son. He also blackmailed the Kents, so the fact that all the “good guys” just accepted his redemption and invited him into their little club had me seriously questioning their sanity.

This Lionel gives us a clear indication of what Lex grew up around — an unforgiving, brutal, immoral man. I think the worst part of the episode was when he gave an incapacitated Clark a sound thrashing with his belt. I cringed throughout. But I do have one major, major problem with this episode — it’s not something that will color my opinion of it, but merely indicative of a false (and I might add, liberal) belief that the show has operated on from the start: that nothing is your fault, your parents are to blame. Clark concludes at the end of this episode when all is well once more that his assumption about Luthor blood being bad was wrong; that it was Lionel who was evil. This is true, but the byproduct is excusing the behavior of the children in light of their parents’ influence. The promise in the AU was that had Clark been raised by Lionel, he would have been evil. But I do not buy that. Who you parents are, the standards you are held to, the morality or lack thereof, all do make a difference, but you are still you. Some people are predisposed to be influenced, others are not. Some children in that environment might become hard and cruel, while others wouldn’t.

Clark to me has always had a well-defined sense of good and evil, and yes, part of that is owing to the marvelous parenting of Jonathan Kent. (Sorry, I’m not going to give Martha much credit here… most of the time she’s a good mother but she strikes me as kind of a dim bulb, if you catch my drift. Her mooning over Lionel Luthor doesn’t strike me as vastly intelligent.) But it’s also because he is Kal-El. It’s who he is. It is his purpose. It is his personality.

I believe that we are responsible for our own choices, and should not place the blame on anyone else. If the psycho-babble were true about the parents or situations in your childhood being entirely to blame for your behavior as an adult, then two children raised in the same environment would be the same in their adult years — yet that has been proven untrue many times, with children taking different paths. I know a set of parents who raised three daughters — under the same rules, the same religious practices, the same compassion. One of the daughters turned out badly, the other two did not. It was not the fault of parenting, it was the one daughter’s personal choices and her predisposition toward manipulation and lying. Blaming evil inclinations and choices on anyone except the person who commits them is denying personal responsibility. We are taught and do learn from our parents, good things as well as bad, but it does not change who we are and what we are inclined toward as individuals.

Would Clark have been different had he been raised in Lionel’s household? Yes, absolutely… but I suspect that unlike the series depicted, Clark would not have lost his humanity.

Would Lex have been different raised by the Kents? Yes, absolutely… he would have been far happier and a much better human being. But his choices are his alone and not Lionel’s fault.

Immaterial Thoughts:

Until this episode happened, I had forgotten how much I miss the Luthors. It sounds horrid to admit it but having them around is what really made the series stand out for its younger seasons. The pansy villains that have replaced them cannot hold a candle to the charisma and horrors of Lionel in true form — he has always been enticing, fascinating, manipulative, and downright scary. Having him back is… fabulous. And OH MY WORD. The last thirty seconds of this episode had me shrieking and hitting my DVR’s “rewind” button, when we discover he has crossed over into our reality, he looks into the camera, and says, “I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.” Hands down the best surprise and dramatic ending to an episode in the series’ history. It was brilliant. Genius. Fabulous. Sinister. GAH.

I think Tom Welling should give up on playing good guys after this series ends and go in for playing villains because every single time he is asked to raise the bar and give a truly harrowing performance, the man brings it in perfect form. His AU Clark made my skin crawl. I was literally scared of him and that doesn’t happen very often. His red kryptonite performances in the past have been good, but nowhere near this good. Yelling at Tess, chucking Lios across the room… I wanted to see him die. So bravo, Tom!

Oliver strikes me as something of a wimp in the AU… what was up with him??

The fact that Clark asks Lois both times to look into his soul and know him is so romantic. I loved that. And his declaration of, “I do not want to live in a reality in which you hate me.” I normally hate sap but that was a really good line. I could gloat about how that line was better than anything he ever said to Lana… but that would be mean. It looks like next week we’re back to dealing with the military, but oh, well… the high was tremendous while it lasted.