The Doctor, the Widow, and the Reconstruction of British History

Fiction is not just the opportunity to make up history, but to reconstruct the way we wish to remember it.

One need not look much further on this side of the Atlantic than an American World War II film to see a world in which Germans are beaten heroically and with no moral ambiguity. The difficulty of war is brushed over.

In reality, the time period is one of the bleakest moments in the twentieth century. The death toll, the suffering, the emotional and physical turmoil–why would you want to re-live it in fiction when you can re-write it? I guess this is why Doctor Who (2005) touches on the London Blitz so often, where the denizens of the city put up with bombs raining down from the sky at night without losing morale. A time of terror, through the show, looks increasingly like a fairy tale.

This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” is not the first episode to revisit war-time Britain. The memorable two-parter from season one, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” has the Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) racing around London to fight an alien disease where symptoms include growing a gas mask face and repeating the phrase, “Are you my mummy?” before becoming a brainless, war-time zombie. It’s a scary first outing into this particular time period, but horrifyingly appropriate.

The happy ending in the second half of the story arc, “The Doctor Dances,” is mainly effective because the happiness is, against all odds, earned. A moody, Gothic atmosphere is alleviated when the gas mask plague turns out to have a cure, one that even restores a background character’s missing leg. The Doctor, enormously happy, goes on a tangent to explain that miracles where “everything turns out fine” are rare, but possible.

Like the actual survival of London in the era, we are reminded that good things can and do happen in the darkest of times. This is one of the strongest episodes in the Doctor Who canon.

These so-called rare happy endings that the Doctor talks about, however, become more numerous as he revisits the time period. For many viewers, it lessens the impact of the first visit to WWII England to watch the Doctor succeed against the odds again. And again.

While the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) doesn’t come back to the World War II era, his predecessor can’t seem to leave it alone.

Not only is the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) personal friends with Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice), one of his first adventures with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) as his new companion is at the heart of the bombings in “Victory of the Daleks.” It’s an episode with a lot of neat ideas, including the Daleks as an “invention” of the British military and some exciting strategies and plans by the government against Germany, but it becomes forgettable fairly quickly.

Compared to the atmosphere of “The Empty Child,” this is more of a Boy’s Own Adventure Story. There are fighter jets in space and unambiguously evil daleks that need to be destroyed by the true blue British. It’s not the story of people swept up in events they can’t control, but an adventure where evil is rooted out and justice is achieved. Tragedy is shifted toward the background with a side character’s significant other dead in the war, a sadness de-emphasized but present.

Another sudden happy ending: a robot who thinks he’s human (Bill Paterson) is saved by the humanity in his fake memories. In this scene, the Doctor and Amy lean over the man as he fights to find a reason to live despite his artificial nature. Here, we find a parallel to the lesson of the episode: fiction saves us. Yes, an alternate history where human triumph over both daleks and Germans didn’t happen, but doesn’t it paint history in rosier tones to briefly imagine it did? At least for a moment?

“Victory of the Daleks” isn’t as poignant an episode as “The Empty Child,” but it’s not meant to be. It’s a piece of pulp fiction, a throwaway with the drama of the Blitz hushed to a background hum. The important thing isn’t that the British survived in a powerless situation, but that they gained victory. World War II is again visited in “Let’s Kill Hitler” with a similar, adventure-is-fun-and-exciting attitude.

These London Blitz episodes all culminate in the most recent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” the most cheerful look at the time period yet. It’s not just a sci-fi story but a fairy tale, another encounter with an alien race as the darkness of World War II rages in the background.

The title and bare bones of the plot are taken from C.S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” where a family is evacuated to the countryside and encounters another world outside of reality. This time, however, a character is already dead. Madge (Claire Skinner) struggles to tell her children that their father has been killed coming home for Christmas in his airplane. Much like the background drama in “Victory of the Daleks,” her loss is a shadow over her character.

She doesn’t have to tell them.

A fun, gorgeous plot unfolds, with sentient Christmas trees and planet harvesting machines. And Madge is inside a giant robot suit for a little while. It’s fantastic. Then she ends up going back in time, with the help of the Doctor, to save her husband from dying, instead bringing his plane to a safe landing at home.

The story is a little bit more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. People don’t quite deal with loss, but fix it. Where “The Doctor Dances” has characters barely recover from disease and “Victory of the Daleks” has the British triumph in a time of crisis, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” resurrects the dead.

Each encounter with the Blitz is viewed through a softer lens. The United States focuses on a narrative where a single country sweeps in to help end the war, a less than accurate revision that plays up one army’s honor. Meanwhile, Great Britain makes itself a happy ending in its historical science fiction, stripping away all the anxieties of an era and giving a time period hope when there was little to be found.

A show about time travel, Doctor Who gives us the parts of history we want to see, a narrative of heroes and happy endings. The real sorrows of war are left for other, darker works of fiction and the pages of history books.

Community is Love, Zombies and All

Community is love.

Or rather, it’s a show about love, just not the romantic kind. Sure, Joel McHale’s protagonist, the vain disbarred lawyer Jeff Winger, but the real love story is the bond the characters create within a study group at, it may be assumed, one of the worst community colleges in the country.

This sugary sweet message, of course, is expertly covered by self-aware, smart humor and cruel jibes at the main flaws of the characters. It’s that same gentle heart, however, that carries Community through one of its best and bravest episodes, the 2010, “Epidemiology,” in which the slice-of-life sitcom becomes a sincere supernatural horror show.

I say “sincere” because there’s no genre ambiguity. Community‘s zombie episode does not end with “it was all a dream.” A virus that creates zombie-like symptoms in its victims–unbridaled rage, slurred speech, a taste for flesh–exists within this otherwise normal world. What makes it all work is the emotional report between the characters, specifically Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi).

The hetero-life mates of the group, Troy, former high school athletic star, and Abed, socially disinterested nerd, are the unlikely best friends that have emerged from the show. Their bond is the kind Community is built to explore: disparate strangers drawn together and finding common ground despite the odds.

In “Epidemiology,” just as the “taco meat” of the Halloween party begins to show its adverse effects, Troy’s hurt pride at now being seen as a “nerd” for hanging out with Abed takes center stage. Their Alien-themed dual costume shot down by the girls at the party, Troy struggles to distance himself from the brotherly connection he’s formed with Abed.

Everyone else also struggles to distance themselves. From the zombies with which they’ve been quarantined.

As both hijinks and the horrors ensue, seen as the characters watch their friends turn into brain-numbed monsters, the core group is picked off one by one until only Troy and Abed are left. Abed diligently helps Troy escape through an open window, away from the zombie horde, sacrificing himself for the safety of his friend.

“I love you,” says Troy. Donald Glover doesn’t play the line for laughs as he watches the creatures descend on the pal he dismissed earlier.

“I know,” says Abed in Pudi’s patented deadpan.

The exchange is, of course, a reference to the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), before Leia watches Han Solo become frozen in carbonite. It’s also one of the most emotionally honest moments of the entire series.

The characters aren’t just sharing a joke with each other, they’re sharing a joke with each other while their established sitcom world crumbles around them.

Community is about forging the sort of friendship that strengthens you against the outside world, from making labels like “nerd” immaterial to carrying one through life-or-death emergencies. Troy and Abed’s bond symbolizes the fraternity that the show wants its core members to achieve: a friendship so strong, it can even outlast Apocalyptic, genre bending zombies.

Of course things aren’t really Apocalyptic. Troy comes back to save the day, accepts he’s both a nerd and a friend to these people, and is nearly killed in the process of saving everyone else’s life. While the “it was all a dream” trope isn’t rolled out, the characters are conveniently induced with amnesia to forget the incident.

It’s an easy ending but it’s pulled off well because we know the zombies weren’t there just for the sake of a Halloween special. They were there in order to cut to the very core of the show, giving the characters the most dire of situations so that we can see the honest affection they have for each other underneath.

The Daleks Are People

Given the infinite variety of aliens that all of time and space allows one to encounter, it’s strange that the Doctor continually revisits Earth.

Past incarnations of the titular character of Doctor Who have spoken affectionately of the human race while commenting on their superstition and violent tendancies. They’re not as cruel as alien races like the Daleks or cold as the Cybermen but they’re far from perfect. At least the Doctor tries to leave each companion better off than before he met them.

Companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), for example, discovers that beyond her meek exterior she’s capable of inspiring thousands, and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) gives up a life as a con man in order to better serve his fellow human beings. Meeting the Doctor gives them varying degrees of luck, but ultimately they end up in better, more helpful circumstances.

Logically, the show’s producers just want the audience to relate to the “entry point” characters that team up with the Doctor. A human companion is more relatable than a fish-headed alien, after all. From a story-driven perspective, though, perhaps the focus on, or redeeming of, the human race may have a darker origin.

In the first episode of the three-part season finale of 2007, “Utopia,” the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant), Martha Jones, and Jack Harkness travel to the literal end of the universe. Billions of years in the future, all of space implodes around them and they watch as the humans who have survived desperately look for a new home.

These humans resurface in the present as the evil and child-like Toclafane, an alien race of small, metal orbs. Housed in each metal shell is a human head, driven by bitterness and madness to travel back in time and destroy its own race.

The description of the Toclafane, human but no longer humane, mutated flesh inside mechanical life support systems, sounds eerily like a far more famous Doctor Who villain. The Daleks, introduced when William Hartnell was the first Doctor, are small tanks that speak in angry screams, demanding racial purity and calling all other species inferior.

How much worse of a gut punch would it have been if the enemies in 2007’s season finale weren’t the as-yet-unseen Toclafane, but the Daleks? The twist would have revealed that the Doctor’s long-hated enemy was human all the time, belonging to a distant but inevitable future. A twist like that would have been heart-wrenching.

It also would have messed up the already difficult continuity of the rest of the show.

The only reason the Toclafane are able to go back in time is due to a Paradox Machine, one that allows them to simultaneously kill their ancestors and remain alive. If Daleks really were the time-traveling descendants of the human race, they would have started to wipe themselves out the very moment they began to attack Earth.

Doctor Who, however, is never short on alternate realities and time loopholes. The possibility that they’re somehow human-related is remote but not unlikely within the confines of a long-standing, science-fantasy universe. Regardless, the Dalek characters were created in the post-World War II era of Britain and supposedly inspired by Nazis and radical fascism. They’re already from the worst of humanity.

Consciously or otherwise, the Doctor wants to keep us from being heartless, avoiding the fate of becoming Dalek-like if not physically Dalek. He comes back to the human race repeatedly because he knows how miserable and evil we’re capable of becoming and wants to inspire us to become something better. His fight to do so, though, may be as futile and brave as stopping the end of the universe.

Romancing the Time Lord: Why Rose Didn’t Work

Doctor Who is a very old show about a very old man who doesn’t look his age. He wanders space and time in a blue box, often regenerates into different (usually British) forms, and will occasionally have a companion dependent on his knowledge as they visit different places.

At his inception, he’s unambiguously an intergalactic professor with a willing pupil.

The Doctor Who 2005 reboot, however, has had trouble managing this line. Decades later, television has changed and audiences require fast-paced plots and active heroes. Consequently, the actors who have played the most recent incarnations of the Doctor have all been much younger in order to appear more proactive.

Their companions have remained young, too.

Christopher Eccleston, the ninth actor to take on the Doctor role, initially has a very fatherly relationship with Rose (Billie Piper). He’s a mysterious man of the stars and knowledgeable about a universe that Rose, a shop worker and jaded Londoner, is all too willing to explore. Their platonic relationship makes sense: he lives in a world she’s just beginning to discover.

Their progression to a deeper, more romantic relationship is subtle at first. Rose asks the Doctor to take more chances, get involved with the human world. In turn, he encourages her to think beyond her narrow experiences, perhaps inspiring the character of Rose to risk her life for him in “The Parting of the Ways.”

Eccleston ends his tenure as the Doctor by kissing Rose, removing the energy threatening to overheat her brain. It’s an overtly romantic act, as well, one that briefly forces the viewer to forget the Doctor’s companion is nineteen-years-old.

Rose isn’t even supposed to be very mature for her age. For example, she endangers the whole of reality when she goes back in time and tries to save her dad’s life in “Father’s Day” despite warnings. She acts the way an actual young human woman would, of course, but it seems odd that she would be considered a viable match for the Doctor. It’s not an exceptionally creepy relationship at this point but it is a bit strange.

Rose’s relationship with the Doctor doesn’t become truly jarring until she begins a much more overt romance with the tenth regeneration, David Tennant. Soon the gulf between their ages and attitudes becomes evident.

The Doctor isn’t always in control of his own actions or emotions, a fact periodically mined by his various actors, but he’s usually in control of everything else. Or, if not in control, knowledgeable about it. Companions like Rose seek to learn from his experiences.

Despite Billie Piper’s capable performance, Rose is not meant to be a knowledgeable character. She’s an entry point for the audience in the 2005 series, a viewer that watches the main character up close. Her role is to remind the Doctor about human sympathy, but he, a centuries-old alien in what could be considered a human suit, is not her equal.

In the 2006 episode “School Reunion,” the Tenth Doctor has to explain why he can’t travel around with a single person forever. “You can spend the rest of your life with me,” he tells Rose, “but I can’t spend the rest of mine with you. I have to live on. Alone.”

I would like to expand on this and say that the reason the Doctor and Rose can’t be together is because he’s a god. He takes too much time shaping her to be her lover.

The show solves this romantic dilemma with a human-fused David Tennant clone, a Time Lord with the lifespan and knowledge of a mortal. Rose accepts the clone immediately in a somewhat awkward moment in the show’s history, especially when she kisses her new swain in front of the original Doctor. It makes sense, however, that Rose is more likely to find love with a human contemporary.

The show is now experimenting with River Song (Alex Kingston) as the Doctor’s love interest. Unlike a regular companion, she doesn’t appear every episode and doesn’t seem very dependent on the titular character for guidance. Also, due to the magic of time travel, she knows the Doctor’s future self. Recent developments hint she may not even be fully human.

There’s a sense that the Doctor and River are, in many ways, on the same level.

The most recent of the regularly-appearing, human companions to show overtly romantic affection is Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and then only briefly. When she becomes particularly aggressive in her advances in the 2010 episode “Flesh and Stone,” the Eleventh Doctor admonishes her with, “But you’re a child!”

If only he had said the same to Rose.

Judd Apatow Admits Women Can Be in Leading Comic Roles, Too

“And lo,” said Hollywood’s prodigal son/producer, Judd Apatow, I shall now help make a raunchy R-comedy with female leads!”

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The audience looked on what he had produced, and said it was good and gave the film an enormous opening weekend.

The critics looked on what he had produced, and said it was nice, casual, weekend fare, though with vomit and sex jokes.

The history of cinema looked on what Apatow had produced and said, “Guys, I think he just took the same framework of the feel-good, gross-out movies he usually does and swapped out the roles with ladies.”

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Within the context of producer Apatow’s career, this is exactly what Bridesmaids (2011) feels like: a benevolent gift to critics by a minor Hollywood deity. In a film industry that almost exclusively concentrates on stories about men and their accomplishments, it’s certainly nice to see a comedy starring women who aren’t just bent on getting married but have lives, motivations, and unfortunately comical problems outside of their relationships with men. The movie itself is fun and, in Apatow tradition, even sweet, but its contrast with Apatow’s fifteen other male-driven produced films leaves a bitter taste.

Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, a former bakery owner who, bereft of her dream job, has come to rely on the company of her best friend, Lillian Donovan (fellow SNL cast member, Maya Rudolph). When Lillian becomes engaged, Annie isn’t jealous over the fact she’s getting married, but desperately afraid that she’s losing her best friend to another life.

The emphasis of friendship over romance has played an important role in other Judd Apatow works. These movies include Taladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2006), where a race car driver briefly loses his wife to his best friend but forgives him very quickly; Superbad (2007), involving two teenage boys who renew their bond but fail to lose their virginity to their dream girls; and Pineapple Express (2008), the a stoner buddy-heist film where the “romance” is primarily about two men getting to know each other.

Female characters in these movies are girlfriends, wives, crushes, and grandmothers, with perhaps the exception of comedian Rosie Perez as a corrupt cop in Pineapple. The action is about the men and their relationships with one another.

In Bridesmaids, Apatow and his merry men of Hollywood production just swap out the male characters with ladies. Melissa McCarthy is hilarious as Megan, an awkward, bawdy, and heavy-set female friend with surprising dimensions. The character can also be seen, though, as a fill-in for for an actor like Jonah Hill, who’s usually cast as the “awkward, bawdy, and heavy-set” guy with few other defining characteristics. It’s both impressive and depressing.

This isn’t to accuse Judd Apatow of hating women or any assumption as sour as that. Almost all of the fifteen films he’s produced have had strong female characters somewhere.

Nowhere, in my opinion, is his writing overtly sexist. Knocked Up (2007), which he also directed, has been accused of that. Yes, a female character acts shrewish and pesters the leads (ironically, she’s played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife), but her persona evolves over the course of the film, underscoring the movie’s themes about maturity.

The real problem of Knocked Up is that, despite being about pregnancy — an event often associated with female adulthood, if not one of its defining characteristics — the story is almost exclusively about leading man Seth Rogen’s problems and struggles to become an adult. Yes, the female characters have some nice scenes together, but Rogen and his friends’ maturity issues dominate the movie.

This is one of the nice things about Bridesmaids. In it, Kristen Wiig is the one struggling to grow-up. It’s her issues of maturity that are called into question when she agrees to participate in her friend’s wedding. She has to get over her own insecurities before she can be happy about the marriage. The initially emotional conflict turns physical in a particularly awkward scene involving an enormous bridal shower cookie and Annie’s growing frustrations.

It’s an intimate but hilarious portrait of a woman falling into a pit and having to dig herself back out. resonates regardless of gender.

Though yes, I’m sure most of the audience draw has something to do with fart jokes. Also, Jon Hamm as a sexual deviant.

It took more than half a decade for Apatow to think to make a movie with leading women. I’m glad this movie is out, I’m glad it’s getting a sequel, but I’m not singing Apatow’s praises for finally remembering that women can be leads, too. Saying that, though, I’m looking forward to more bridal movies that aren’t just about romance, more Kristen Wiig, and more mainstream comedies with strong female roles.

When Child Prodigies Fail

It’s difficult not to become involved in a story about someone who peaks too soon.

Theatrically, and cruelly, it’s pleasing to watch a smarmy young person realize his best years are behind him by the time he hits his mid-thirties.

The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s 2001 comedy-drama about a family of child prodigies, epitomizes the pain of growing away from a particularly successful childhood.

Ben Stiller, whose off-putting intensity in comic performances suits this role just fine, plays

Chas Tenenbaum, eldest of the children. A financial genius and child entrepreneur, Chas still suffers the recent guilt of his wife’s death. The way he mourns is both tragic and absurd, drilling his children and dog on how to react in every possible emergency, from fire to break-in. In an effort to insure against disaster, Chas devotes himself to pattern.

He regresses in maturity, too, becoming more like a teenager as he rebuffs the attempts of his father (Gene Hackman) to bond with his kids. Chas lashes out at brother Richie (Luke Wilson), and his mother’s fiancé, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), in a juvenile attempt to assert his dominance over minor chaos in his life.

Chas and his sons wear matching red sweat suits and, in a memorable scene, seem unable to sleep without being in the same room. In flashbacks as a child, he usually wears a suit and tie; as a full grown man, he rarely changes out of his sweatshirt. He may still be a successful business owner, but everything else in his world has stalled.

Margot Tenenbaum (Gwenyth Paltrow) is caught in a similar loop but her success has become more subjective. She spends her days soaking in the bathtub and hiding her long-standing tobacco habit from her husband (Bill Murray). A scholarship-winning playwright as a girl, her forays into theater during adulthood gain lukewarm reception.

She, like Chas, wears a sort of uniform that compliments an arrested development. She practically swims in her enormous fur coat and her raccoon eye make-up, a style purposely reminiscent of German singer Nico, belies a teenage mentality she hasn’t left since the separation of her parents.
Once she learns her brothers have returned home in the film, her eagerness to do the same and leave her husband behind momentarily breaks the perpetual sulk of Paltrow’s performance. Margot clings to the remnants of her childhood more readily, a time when, though not exactly happy, she was accomplished.

Richie, in theory the best adjusted Tenenbaum, has been worst affected by his ideal pre-adolescence. His athletic prowess seems wrapped around the presence of his sister, Margot, his old escort on the tennis circuit and his inspiration for a brief foray into painting. A small anecdote during the film features the two running away together to live in the museum.
Their intellectually-inspired adventure and their sheltered early lifestyle has turned Richie’s familial affection for Margot into full-blown lust.

While not exactly bad in theory, especially considering that Margot’s adopted, the love he has for his sister is perhaps the Tenenbaum children at their most stunted. It leads Richie into early retirement from his tennis career after his heart is broken over Margot’s marriage. Instead of building off his success, he drifts aimlessly around the world on a ship.
Once home with his siblings, most of his time is spent in a small tent inside his room where he plays records from childhood. Chas has started a family and Margot has a career, but Richie has become a shell. A happy youth has seemingly emptied him of anything, or any emotion, but his feelings for Margot. The extent of his vulnerability is revealed as the film progresses.

I admit that during my first few viewings of The Royal Tenenbaums, I did not consciously register the extent to which the high-profile childhoods of the characters affected their adult psychology. I was too distracted by other subplots, like Etheline’s romance or Royal’s aborted attempts at acting like a father figure. Also, it’s a comedy, and the private tragedies of the Tenenbaums didn’t seem to matter as much as the jokes at their expense.

I did not become aware of the fragility of Chas, Margot, and Richie until reading the last of J.D. Salinger’s fiction. In high school, I began reading his work, but only recently finished the remaining tales of the Glass family. Deeply talented and temporarily famous siblings, Salinger revisits these characters in a number of novellas and stories as they grow into unremarkable and often sad adulthoods. Several, like Franny and Seymour, suffer mental breakdowns; others deal with personal tragedy that reveals the full extent of their fragile psyches. Their talents have, like the Tenenbaums, compromised their ability to cope. Salinger’s Glass family illuminates Anderson’s fantastic film.
It’s not hard to be naturally talented, but it’s tough to discover these abilities do not insulate one from the trials of growing up.
There are, of course, worse things than being born gifted and given the chance to develop said gifts, but few traumas rival the naked vulnerability experienced when moving from a reasonably promising prepubescence into an unreasonable adult world.

The Dark Underbelly of Adventure Time

Every story has a setting, but what does a series do when the setting hints at a far darker origin to a series of light, charming tales?

“Adventure Time” premiered as a short by creator Pendleton Ward in 2008 as part of the deeply-missed Random! Cartoons.

It certainly is random: a boy with a strange hat and a magic dog battle an evil ice king. Solid line animation (and a cameo by Abraham Lincoln) and a fluid story (again, see Abraham Lincoln) turned the short into an online hit.

By 2010, Pendleton Ward had a TV show on Cartoon Network.

A heroic boy and his magic dog, alone, make for some strangely thin material, so the rest of the show rounds out their lives. Finn the human is in the business of saving princesses in the Land of Ooo, a strange world populated with living balls of fluff, candy people, rainicorns, and the occasional enormous slug. Jake, meanwhile, is Finn’s best friend, adopted brother, and dog-companion.

The world of Ooo at first looks like it changes with each episode. Sometimes the technology is advanced, with holograms, music mixers, and intelligent computers (specifically the video game consul roommate of the heroes, Beemo), but there are no cars or phones. Magic is fairly common place, though, ranging from infernal (2010 episode “It Came From the Nightosphere”) to table top game (“Wizard”). It looks uncomplicated.

Anything goes, really, as if half a dozen versions of D&D games were being played at once over a soundtrack of indie-folk pop. It’s innocent fun, bizarre at best and fairly innocuous at worst.

Then there are the weird moments that make viewers who are paying attention go, “huh.”

In first season episode “Business Time,” Finn and Jake discover a bunch of businessmen frozen in an iceberg. On the surface, it’s a silly stick-it-to-the-man episode. Other, older viewers who are paying attention may wonder why we haven’t seen any other human characters before this point, only ones that are vaguely human-shaped.

Other hints are dropped through the series, too, like “Memories of Boom Boom Mountain,” where it’s implied Finn was orphaned as a child. It’s crammed in between potty humor and a living mountain, but the implication sits at the base of the episode.

Then comes “Susan Strong,” where Finn finally admits that he’s never met another human. He tells one of his many love interests, Princess Bubblegum, that when he thinks about this too much, he becomes sad and “soul-searchy.” No other explanation is given.

This is, of course, the lead-up to an episode about trying to educate a young woman (the titular Susan) about the perils of the surface world. Jake discovers a hatch to an underground bunker where people who look very similar to Finn live in fear. The hatch is unlabeled in the actual cartoon, but in the storyboards, it clearly says BIOHAZARD DANGER. Saying too much more gives away the ending, but it’s definitely confirmed that humans are a rare thing in Ooo. It may not have always been like that, though.

So Ooo is a post-apocalyptic world.

Was it once Earth? Or has it always been a fantasy world, with dragons and dancing video game consuls? Any series but a comedy would have made this story a top priority. Instead, it’s relegated to the background, a piece of scenery as strange as a candy town.

But the story is there, specifically in the opening credits. The title sequence reveals a bunch of dead trees, unexploded bombs, and a broken TV (along with a bunch of other weapons) before it reveals the magic world of Ooo. It’s a stark opening image and only onscreen for a few seconds. In the context of an otherwise gleeful series, and overshadows a little more than it probably should.

“Adventure Time” is also a show about the unexpected, though, whether it’s vampires or lumpy space princesses in distress. A weird, dark layer beneath all the happy strangeness may be just the thing to engage the right kind of viewers, whatever their ages. Enjoying a children’s series set in world that’s been built on the ashes of another may seem bleak, but it could help define a new era of television storytelling.