Peep Show: Not What It Sounds Like

By Marten Dollinger, Movies Section Editor

Anyone with a passing familiarity with contemporary British comedy probably has a fifty percent chance of knowing That Mitchell and Webb Look, most likely due to the individual sketches popping up on YouTube in the past few years. Slightly less known is their award-winning but not exactly breakaway hit Peep Show, starring the same comedians and written by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain. The series has aired on the British public broadcast station Channel 4 since 2003. Winning several comedy awards, Peep Show has been renewed for an 8th and 9th season, making it something like Britain’s best kept secret in television. This is largely due to the fact that it’s kind of weird. It’s shot using POV angles, and nothing else. Other than that, it’s pretty much your standard sitcom. The style may alienate a wider audience, but those it charms, in combination with Mitchell and Webb’s success on their own series, brings Peep Show a kind of support-base not dissimilar to that described by the Thousand True Fans model, albeit on a much larger scale. 

Peep Show is shot exclusively through POV angles, putting the viewer in the place of whichever character we’re meant to be following at the time. This is done using cameras mounted on hats, held over the shoulder, or placed directly in front of the actor. The effect is not original, and the creators cite Being John Malkovich as the inspiration for this particular use of the shooting style. The series also makes heavy use of voice-over, further strengthening the feeling of being inside the mind of whichever character through which we’re currently seeing the world.

We generally see this world through the eyes of Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) or Jeremy Usborne (Robert Webb), in a traditional sitcom setting of two not-quite-middle-aged roommates just trying to get by and overcome whatever insecurities they may or may not realize they have. The first season is chock-full of awkward situations, generally associated with one or both characters’ romantic failures. In fact, if it weren’t for the POV gimmick, Peep Show wouldn’t have all that much to differentiate it from other sitcoms. The overall effect is kind of Spaced meets The Office.

What we have, then, is a not really original shooting style with a not exactly groundbreaking set of stories. So whence the sustainable popularity and awards? While the style isn’t original, it has never been used entirely on its own, and when you think about it, there are only so many ways to write a sitcom. It’s the combination of the obscure visual mechanic and the tried-and-true sitcom tropes that make the show work like something new and original without being terribly new and original. Co-star David Mitchell has this to say about Peep Show, and sitcoms in general: “They’re about people feeling like they’ve failed and being trapped and fearful of things getting worse and aspirational about things getting better. We were about to use those classic constants without being accused of being unoriginal because the look and feel of it was so original.” Take a second to think about your favorite sitcom, and then every other sitcom you watch. They all pretty much follow this pattern, right? Each one just has its own gimmick. Cheers was at a bar, Friends had that theme song, How I Met Your Mother has the story-telling thing, The Big Bang Theory has geek references,The Office has the documentary crew, and Peep Show has that same sort of voyeurism, but without the crew.

What makes Peep Show special and successful in a very specific way is its comedic prowess combined with a shooting style reserved for either very short takes or the avant-garde. Basically, you have an audience that probably loved both versions of The Office, enjoys That Mitchell and Webb Look and probably anything Simon Pegg does, and, most importantly, buys the DVDs. Just over a million viewers isn’t generally enough to keep a show on the air, but when all of those viewers are pretty likely to buy the DVD of the series, there’s a bit more leeway. The aforementioned Thousand True Fans theory comes in here. In a nutshell, the theory states that you don’t have to be super-famous to make it as an artist, you just have to be famous enough. Specifically, you need to pick up at least a thousand “true” fans, who will each pay at least a days wages over the course of a year buying your stuff or coming to your shows. This is just a larger, televised version of that model; Peep Show has basically attained cult status while still on the air. On this scale, the show’s success depends on the few viewers supporting the series enough to bring it back each season. It also has a boost from Mitchell and Webb’s growing profile as a comedic duo.

Weird as the show is, Peep Show is just another sitcom. It’s a handful of people living out their lives and having silly things happen to them for our amusement. Ordinary as it is, people love the gimmick and the comedians enough to keep it on the air. It keeps the voyeuristic feel of The Office, only arguably in a more pure form, since we’re voyeurs to the mind of the characters, and we see directly how other characters act with them. Or maybe not, and it’s just novelty. Either way, exactly enough people love it to keep it around. Perhaps further research will unveil why this works in the UK, but Firefly still hasn’t come back for another season.

Dinosaurs: Feminism isn’t just for humans anymore

By Allison Novak, Staff Writer

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Dinosaurs. It’s a show about a family of dinosaurs — the Sinclair family of Robbie, Earl, Fran, Charlene, and the baby. The Sinclairs live in a world that bears a strong intolerance and ignorance for itself, while also blatantly abusing its natural resources. Because of this, most episodes of the show deal with social issues overlaid by typical sitcom fodder. Dinosaurs is a show that provides a social commentary in the guise of children’s television; among other topics, they’ve dealt with divorce, drug abuse, feminism, gay rights, and the environment — one of the more prominent being feminism.

Consistently the attitude of anti-woman’s rights goes unchecked by the society at large; there are several episodes around this theme. One in particular, ‘What Sexual Harris Meant’, involves Monica, the most feminist character on the show. Monica is a (gasp) divorced dinosaur who is a strong, powerful working woman. She is frequently looked down upon for having a job and no mate, and her first introduction into the series involved her explaining why she divorced her husband, to Fran’s disbelief — Monica got a divorce because she wasn’t happy.

This theme is the focus of the episode ‘What Sexual Harris Meant,’ which focuses on both sexism and women’s rights. Monica gets a job as a tree pusher with Earl, only to have the foreman repeatedly hit on her. When she turned him down, he fired her. She brings him to trial, only to be called a prostitute and told she deserved it.

This is a dark and topical turn for Dinosaurs; it’s a very real subject with a very real place that typically isn’t discussed in ‘children’s shows’. Perhaps the biggest message of the episode is Charlene changing her apathy of how her sex is treated and starting to care.

Things never quite get better, despite the push for change. Fran makes an allusion to the fact it will take a long time — one that works doubly well because we know it’s still a struggle modern day. It leaves questions — if the dinosaurs didn’t die, would it still have been a struggle of thousands of years? Was the death of a society what pushed us back?

Dinosaurs is a show that disappeared into memory of Generation Y until recently. With the advent of Netflix and DVDs, these shows are taking a new life of their own as the children that grew up with them watch them again and see the underlying themes. The advent of these shows coming back into popularity is ‘Near-Term Nostalgia’, or nostalgia for recent (all things considered) events. People who are in their late teens or early twenties are nostalgic for their childhood, in the same way that someone in their 30s or 40s would be.

In the midst of all this, they relate to our current time by showing that even millions of years ago, there were the same social problems that we have. Dinosaurs is not a show for kids, despite the puppets and jokes. It’s different than the shows that make claims to be political or social; Dinosaurs made no such claims. Instead, it is unapologetic in what it represents. The fact that a show that is represented as a children’s show can make such statements — and get away with it — is a testament to the show itself.

Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes Part II – The Ferengi

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

Last week, I continued where my Connecticon and Revoluticon panels had left off, giving a brief overview of gender relations among the Romulan and Cardassian races on Star Trek. This week, we take on one of Star Trek’s most fascinating and problematic races, and find a surprising amount of resonance with our times. I’m speaking, here, of the Ferengi.

Although they haven’t gone through as dramatic a change as the Klingons or the Romulans went through from the original Star Trek to The Next Generation, those who know the Ferengi only from their frequent, zany visits to Deep Space Nine might have a hard time reconciling this with their debut appearance in the first season TNG episode “The Last Outpost.” These Ferengi, intended as more of a menacing villain than a source of comic relief, are more animalistic and barbaric, clothed in animal furs and armed with pain-inducing laser whips. It is in this episode that we learn that Ferengi women are confined to the homeworld, treated as property, and not allowed to wear clothing.

Although several characters, most notably rough-and-tumble female security chief Tasha Yar, do express some level of disgust at this revelation, it is not totally out of place as a trait associated with a villainous race. Villains are supposed to make us fear them, so having them support cultural practices we find abhorrent makes sense — just as the totalitarianism of the Romulans, the brutality of the Klingons, and, well, just about everything about the Borg exist to make us root for the good guys, so the misogyny of the Ferengi gives the Enterprise and her crew the higher moral ground. The problem comes as the race becomes more developed and more sympathetic, and the writers attempt to reconcile this with their attitudes towards women.

By the time Deep Space Nine debuted, the Ferengi had gone from slightly silly fearsome barbarians to a full blown parody of consumerist America. Every aspect of their culture aside from greed is quickly and completely shut down, and we get a society governed by “The Rules of Acquisition” (rule number one is “Once you have their money, never give it back”). The pilot introduces us to three individuals who will become the eyes through which we discover more and more of Ferengi culture. Quark, a stalwart believer in the ways of Greed and Profit; his brother Rom, an “idiot” with a secretly compassionate soul; and Rom’s son Nog, a cunning petty thief who eventually becomes the first Ferengi in Starfleet. Like B’Elanna and Worf, the evolution of these characters is fraught with conflicts between their morals and their heritage.

The first real examination of Ferengi women comes in the episode “Rules of Acquisition.” Quark is asked by the Ferengi leader, the aging Grand Nagus, to represent him at an important trade negotiation. He is joined by Pel, an ambitious young waiter with a keen business sense. As the episode continues, it is revealed that Pel is secretly a woman, dressed as a male to be allowed to make a profit and to see the galaxy. The ruse is discovered by the Nagus, who demands she return to the homeworld and surrender the profits. The episode focuses on Quark’s moral dilemma of whether or not to betray someone who has helped him to further his own profit, and as such largely avoids focusing on the disenfranchisement of Ferengi women. The attitudes exhibited by the main cast here are extremely problematic.

Jadzia Dax, a highly competent and intelligent woman with experience being both genders, is weirdly not incensed to learn of female Ferengi’s effective enslavement, instead spending the episode giving Pel romantic advice on the erroneous assumption that he is gay (she picks up on the fact that Pel is in love with Quark, but not on the fact that she’s female). This is jarringly out of character for Dax — in her interactions with the Klingons, she is happy to completely ignore any of their cultural precepts which she finds stupid (see her behavior towards Lady Martok in “You are Cordially Invited”)^. But there is not even the stock speech about the Prime Directive and not interfering in other cultures — Dax simply accepts the deplorable civil rights situation as a fact of life.

Later on in the series, we discover that Quark’s mother, Ishka, has taken to wearing clothing and making business transactions without even bothering to dress in drag. It is in this episode that we get the first voices saying “hey, this is wrong,” but even here, the focus is more on issues of family loyalty than on basic human rights. In fact, Quark (and to a lesser extent, Rom) continues to be visibly disgusted at the idea of a female wearing clothes or earning a profit, despite having lived the last three years of his life on a space station commanded by a woman. Now, having Quark continue to stand up for Ferengi ideals was in some ways essential to the character’s evolution (and Deep Space Nine was all about character arcs), but the result, when taken holistically, is a “heroic” character whose misogyny can be hard to swallow. As late as season six, Quark can be seen soliciting female employees for sexual favors and threatening to fire them if they don’t comply,^ and filming Major Kira with the intention of making a sexual holoprogram of her for a client, without her permission. In the rare episodes focusing on him as romantic lead, he frequently talks about sex as a business transaction (Nog does this as well.) But the disturbing thing about all of this is it’s completely played for laughs.

Yes, Quark’s sexual harassment of employees and blatant violations of a female coworker’s privacy are all comic relief. Even the episode in which the enfranchisement of female Ferengi finally occurs, “Profit and Lace,” is a farce where Quark spends much of the episode in drag, resisting the advances of an old Ferengi patriarch. And while the experience is meant to teach him a valuable lesson, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Because the fact of the matter is, there are still places in the world where women are considered property and aren’t meant to be seen by anyone but their husbands. And even here in the United States, there are a remarkable number of men who still want to limit women’s freedoms. Workplace sexual harassment is still a huge problem, and our culture is a long way from gender equality.

Star Trek is known for bringing perspective to complex social issues. And in the case of women and the Ferengi, there was a real opportunity to tell relevant stories about sexism in our world. And they instead chose to make light of serious social problems. While there are things about the Ferengi on Deep Space Nine and Quark’s internal struggle that I find really compelling and interesting and even funny, the feminist stuff did not hit its mark. And I look at that as a missed opportunity.

Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes, Part I: Gender among the Romulans and Cardassians

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor

As I have mentioned on this blog, I have now twice run panels on feminist aspects of Star Trek, focusing specifically on the Klingon race. I chose Klingons because of their overt associations with masculinity, but also for several other reasons – they are perhaps the most iconic, and therefore accessible race, and also one of the ones we know the most about. They are represented by series regulars on three of the five franchise shows, and appear as the primary antagonists of the other two.

But at both panels, audience members expressed a desire to see the same kind of analysis applied to other iconic Star Trek races. Well, we here at The Analytical Couch Potato believe in giving the people what they want, so here are some observations to get the ball rolling. This week I look at the Romulans and the Cardassians, and next week I’ll tackle the Ferengi.

Before I get into the specifics of the other major alien races, I’m going to take a wider view and ask a question we should consider for each of them: why? If humanity has gotten over its misogyny by the time it reached the stars, why has it been so hard for everyone else? What does it say that no inherently matriarchal societies have risen to prominence? In short, how is Star Trek’s world building shaped by the assumptions of the patriarchy?

The fact of the matter is, Star Trek is a product of 20th Century American culture, and 20th century American culture is, by and large, misogynistic. Uhura being an officer on the Enterprise bridge may have been revolutionary for its time, but she was still a glorified receptionist with little relevance to the plot. Later Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, despite being as capable and confident as their male counterparts, were routinely undervalued and given very little to do for much of their series. Voyager (the first Trek with a female executive producer) gave a nice amount of focus to its female leads, but also heavily sexualized Jeri Ryan’s body in increasingly unsubtle attempts to attract more viewers. Trek may have preached equality, but it was very much still a TV show primarily by and for a male-dominated world.

Because of this, we need to look at how various alien women are portrayed from a production standpoint, and how they do and do not correspond to the gendered expectations of our time. I’m going to start with a race that seems the most in defiance of these conventions – the Romulans.

The Romulans occupy an odd space in Star Trek lore. They’ve appeared on all five shows, but have never contributed a regular or even a particularly sympathetic recurring protagonist to any of them. As such, we don’t get as much of a glimpse into their culture as the other three races I’ll be discussing. What we do see suggests gender relations more in line with Starfleet than the Klingons. As mentioned previously, we see women commanding their ships (This in an era where even Starfleet ostensibly did not allow women to command Starships.). We also see both women and men among the Romulan senators, and there are mentions of an Empress (though the primary canon gives little hint as to the extent of her powers.)

Unfortunately, there’s not too much else to say about the internal Gender politics of the Romulans beyond that they appear to have the smallest gender bias of any Star Trek race. But in the contrast between TOS’s unnamed Romulan commander and her spiritual descendants on the later series does give some interesting insights. TOS’s Romulan Commander is an oddity, a woman in a position of power, but proves to have little in the way of agency. Like her Starfleet counterparts, she wears a mini-skirted version of the uniforms worn by her male compatriots, and wears impractically long hair and make-up. Despite her power over her male comrades, she is still primarily a love interest, albeit for Spock rather than Kirk, and her inability to resist him is ultimately her downfall.

Later Romulan women are impressively not sexualized, in a way which is anomalous in comparison with just about every other major race. They are tough and often ruthless, wearing short, masculine haircuts and dressed in identical uniforms to the men, complete with shoulder pads that mask their figures. Compare this to the Klingon women we see, who sport impractical boob windows and inexplicable armor skirts, or even Major Kira’s form-revealing military uniform. While the Klingon women possess an almost animalistic sexual aggression, Romulan women post-TOS show no romantic interest in anyone (though, it is worth noting, neither do the Romulan men.)
It is possible that this uniformity is in fact a political allegory – the Romulans have always carried a cold-war metaphor, and the lack of individualism fits in well with the Maoist reverence for the State which Romulan military characters seem to possess. In this way sexual equality is almost vilified – “look at this oppressive society, where the women have to dress like men.”

The Cardassians are much like the Romulans in many ways – both species are megalomaniacal, xenophobic, and somewhat totalitarian, relying on powerful intelligence agencies the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order. However, while the Romulans appear happy to ignore gender differences almost completely, the Cardassians still divide gender roles very strictly – albeit down a totally different line than humanity. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Destiny” it is revealed that Cardassians consider science and technological achievement to be “Women’s work” while men are far more prominent in the military. Within the civilian government and the Obsidian Order, both genders are seen to be equally represented.

Despite their cultural similarities to the Romulans, Cardassian women are not desexualized in the same way. The first Cardassian woman we see (as well as the only female military commander) is Gul Ocett in the TNG episode “The Chase.” Although Ocett wears armor similar to that of male Guls, she has long hair and wears make-up (and eye-shadow like coloration applied to the spoon-like indentation on her forehead.) From an in-universe perspective, it seems odd that long hair and make-up would be seen as universally female regardless of species, and that a strict military culture would allow such deviations in appearance.

From an out-of-universe perspective, it continues to reinforce the way in which gendered signifiers have become ingrained in our culture. Jewelry, make-up, and long hair have only symbolized femininity for an extremely narrow period in our history; it’s ludicrous to assume they would continue to in the 24th century, much less evolve independently that way on other worlds. But these visual cues inform the audience that they are looking at women, even when the individuals in question are grey-skinned lizard people.

In the second part of this article, I’ll examine Star Trek’s most misogynistic race, the Ferengi, and try and reconcile some of the more problematic aspects of their portrayal. In the meantime, I hope I’ve helped some of you look at the show in a new way.

Sound off: In the comments, let me know if there’s another race you want to see discussed. Or give me your thoughts on Romulan women post TOS.

Occupy Republic City! Or, Why You Should Join The Equalists

Editor’s note: this piece was written by guest writer B. Lana Guggenheim. Guggenheim is a loudmouthed Jewess who enjoys blogging for social justice, watching Avatar, and eating. She will be studying international conflict in LSE this fall. In her spare time, Lana co-captains the steampunk airship Liberi Lupi (a group dedicated to addressing issues of colonialism, racism, and cultural appropriation in steampunk) and enjoys watching Asami kick butt. You can find her rambling about life, fandom, and puppies on

Korra responds to an anti-bending protester.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, for all its innovation, had a fairly straightforward premise (hero must stop the bad guy and save the world), with an easily recognized, even stereotypical, arch-villain. We know the Fire Nation in general, and specifically Fire Lord Ozai, are the bad guys, and we root for their downfall. We are presented with instances in which Fire Nation individuals are neutral, or outright helpful to the Gaang — such as Jong-Jong, and eventually Iroh and Zuko — but never do we doubt that the current governmental regime of the Fire Nation needs to fall in order for Good to Win.

The Legend of Korra is different. We are presented with a seemingly similar setup to A:TLA, in that the hero, Korra, must beat the bad guys, Amon and the Equalists, in order to save the city. However, from very early on, we see clues that the bad guys aren’t actually bad. Because while it is made abundantly clear that the Fire Nation are colonialist aggressors in that series’ world war, the Equalists claim the role of the no-longer-quiescent victims of society, and name the benders as the oppressors. Or, to compare it to real life, the benders are the powerful of society, the movers and shakers, and the non-benders are everyone else. The 1% and the 99%. This makes the Equalists analogous to the Occupy movement.

In episode one, where Korra first interacts with an Equalist agitator, she states in response to the agitator’s rant against bending privilege that “bending is the most awesome thing ever!” She then goes on to admit that she’d use her abilities to silence the opposition. Korra herself provides a perfect example of both the ignorance of the supreme privilege that bending gives her, and a willingness to abuse that privilege. (She also demonstrates to the audience that she is understandably naïve in terms of politicking, having allowed herself to be drawn into such an obvious conversational pitfall.)

More examples of the physical superiority of benders over non-benders abound throughout the series. The bending triads’ power over hapless non-benders; the admittedly awesome-cool-super-amazing metal-bending police force; the tragic backstory of Mako and Bolin, and Asami, where both families lost parents to rogue Firebenders; Tarrlok’s anti-Equalist taskforce, where a small trained group took out an entire Equalist stronghold; and Lin Bei Fong’s final offensive against the Equalist at the series’ end. Lin Bei Fong’s last battle is a particularly impressive example of her metalbending prowess, in that one lone, middle-aged woman took down two fully manned and weaponed airships. Such a world in which such feats are possible  demands that non-benders rely on benders to protect them from other benders abusing their privilege. This is a precarious situation; the police aren’t always there, or even there on time (such as when Korra beat up the bending mafia squad in Episode One), and neither are friendly benders always on hand to protect a vulnerable non-bender’s butt. In such a world, a non-bender, while not legally discriminated against, is a de facto second class citizen, unable to adequately protect himself or face down benders on an even playing field.

Benders’ power and privilege didn’t arise in LoK; there were nods to it in A:TLA, such as when Sokka states outright that he feels sub-par compared to the other members of the Gaang due to the lack of his bending abilities (Season Three, “Sokka’s Master”). However, it is clear that in Republic City, the power disparity between benders and non-benders has increased and indeed been woven into the very fabric and structure of the city. Not only have powerful bending techniques become more widely dispersed (compare the relative rarity of lightning-bending and blood-bending from Aang’s time to their relative commonality in Korra’s time), but the social power/privilege disparity between benders and non-benders has increased, as certain jobs are closed to non-benders, as are areas of prestige, such as Pro-Bending. This disparity gets even worse when the Council enacts curfews and restrictions against the city’s non-bending population, resulting in a martial-law apartheid between benders and non-benders, to the point where even being a non-bender automatically puts you as suspect as being an Equalist. (A tactic which no doubt drove many on the fence straight into Amon’s arms.) It is hardly surprising that such an inherently unequal society gave rise to a backlash movement like the Equalists.

This is not to imply that non-benders have no agency. In both A:TLA and LoK, non-benders are shown to kick some major butt. A:TLA had notables like Jet, Ty Lee, Mai, and, later on, Sokka, who used non-bending martial arts to hold their own against benders and fight for whatever causes they so choose. Indeed, Ty Lee’s chi-blocking is a defensive weapon taught to non-benders en masse by the Equalists because of its effectiveness at temporarily neutralizing a bender’s ability. Technology has also been shown to be the great equalizer. As the technical prowess of the Avater-verse progressed, it can be surmised that bending ability, while increasing in power over time, becomes less important relatively as technological apparati allow for benders and non-benders alike to accomplish various tasks previously only done conveniently by benders. Notably, in terms of combat, the Equalists have mastered the weaponization of electricity, something that only a firebender has the potential to redirect or otherwise defend against.

Shown: Asami showing her agency using
fancy steampunk technology.

Of course, there are two main obstacles for a non-bender arming themselves thus, either with knowledge of chi-blocking or with one of those steampunk-esque electrocution gloves. One obstacle is that both are only available through the Equalists. Many people I talk LoK with will admit that as non-benders, they’d want to learn chi-blocking, but wouldn’t go so far as to join the Equalists. But when the only people willing to teach you these defensive moves are Equalists, what are your options? And even learning chi-blocking is a suspicious act, proven when Korra, with Tarrlok’s task force, breaks up nothing more than illegal chi-blocking classes, jailing all the participants. It says a lot when the only chi-blocking classes on the block are run by Equalists, and it says even more that these classes themselves are illegal.

Above: Mako can lightning bend the Equalists’
main weapon against them. Even these weapons
are not a foolproof trump card. 

The second obstacle is money. The electric gloves cost money to make, as did all the other fancy electric Equalist toys. If one wanted to purchase such a glove (I’d assume on the black market), one would require enough financial liquidity to afford it. Even the Equalists’ main funder, Hiroshi Sato, was only able to invest in this technology due to his moneyed status. His daughter, Asami, is competent and knowledgeable, but her martial-arts prowess is due to the fact that her father had the ability to pay for it, and she had the luxury time to learn it. Private (legal) self-defense classes cost both time and money, and are thus a function of those with wealth.

All this means there are few options available for a lone, working/middle-class non-bender. Protection lies in groups, and only one group provides non-benders with the tools to defend themselves from abusive benders: the Equalists.

Viewers will agree that Amon’s/Noatauk’s goal to erase all bending from the planet is a non-practical, immoral way of solving the issue of bending privilege. What Amon is doing — forcibly removing benders’ ability to bend, publicizing the fact, and declaring war on the bending population of Republic City — is nothing more or less than terrorism. And, as we all know, terrorism is wrong. This terrorism, and the terror it successfully inspires, prevent Korra and Team Avatar from treating Amon and the Equalists as anything other than an existential threat, the Bad Guy to be stopped, rather than symptoms of a social issue so deep-rooted, only the Avatar can solve it. This terrorism, as far as storytelling goes, is what drives viewers to root for Korra, even as she refuses to understand the nature of privilege, specically the insidious, all-encompassing nature of bender privilege, which she has in spades; and the fact that she is an active perpetrator of this oppressive, unequal system, not its victim.

However, despite the evil execution of Amon’s/Noatauk’s anti-bending ideals, the Equalist movement remains an expression of the tension and dissatisfaction with the status quo between the benders and non-benders, the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, the 1% and the 99% of the Avatar-verse. The Equalists are the Occupy movement with teeth, and Korra and Team Avatar, heroes though they are, are ultimately fighting on the wrong side, on the side of 1% instead of the 99%. The social tension due to this social disparity remains unresolved, and even with Amon gone, the question of equality remains.

Torchwood: Everyone Loves Death and the Undead, Right?

Editor’s note: This article was written by guest writer Genevieve Pecharka. Genevieve is a former English major from the College of Wooster, who recently began channeling her talents into the reading and production of legal nonfiction at Duquesne University. When she feels crazy researching municipal law, she watches British television or goes hiking. 


Each episode of Torchwood seems to begin with it, end with it, or revolve around it. At first blush, this doesn’t seem odd: many popular shows focus on violence, ghosts, and death.

But Torchwood, bypassing the oft-seen Dead People in favor of People Who Should Be Dead But Aren’t, frequently offers sharp commentary on mankind’s relationship with the dying, and with death itself. Its fascination with death goes deeper than the mere morbidity or gore of most shows, and its vicious analysis of the dead makes most takes on paranormality or the afterlife look limpid and pale in comparison.

Let’s take a step back, though. Isn’t Torchwood just a spin-off of the primarily lighthearted Doctor Who? The Doctor always provides an inspiration for life and happiness, and the fulcrum character of the Torchwood team, Captain Jack Harkness, has the gift of everlasting youth.

So is he the antipodes of the youthful Doctor, whose numerous regenerations often awaken his darker nature, but never seem to affect his glee for adventure, for discovering the “human” side of the life he knows will eventually end?

Since the vast majority of Torchwood fans (presumably everyone but American viewers who recently stumbled upon HBO’s airing of the latest series) come to the show after watching Doctor Who, they will want to make an easy contrast. That Jack is darkness where the Doctor is light, and that Jack’s immortality is a curse, where the Doctor’s is a blessing.

But there is more to a comparison of Doctor Who and Torchwood than simply two obverses of a coin.

Yes, the Doctor and his Companions are merrily childlike, and the show is sometimes cheerful to the point of silliness. But Doctor Who is not focused solely on the happiest of worlds. Dark humor is one of the show’s cornerstones, and neither the Doctor nor his show lack maturity or fear the topic of death. If fans of the show didn’t enjoy a bit of sorrow or grief once in a while, they wouldn’t stay fans for long.

If the Doctor is meant to be the light in a universe of darkness, perhaps Torchwood simply takes this darkness to a new level.

The series begins, after all, when Cardiff police officer Gwen Cooper witnesses the Torchwood team’s use of the Resurrection Glove, a piece of alien technology which can temporarily bring someone back from the dead. The Glove returns again later in the same series, resurrecting a former Torchwood member who committed suicide, and almost killing Gwen in the process. Twenty episodes later, in an unusually grotesque illustration of the Undead, yet another deceased Torchwood team member is brought back from the dead, but without any of life’s amenities. “I can’t sleep, shag, or drink,” he says bitterly, after a miserable night of celibate, sober solitude. “I’d rather be dead.”

The Torchwood team members use the Resurrection Glove on a former team member.

Then the plot of the most recent series, called “Miracle Day,” is entirely based on the premise that humans can no longer die. Going far past where most television shows dare venture, Torchwood illustrates a horrendously overpopulated world where humans are classified into one of three categories, Category One comprising Those Who Should Have Died. “Overflow camps,” deliberately reminiscent of Dachau and Auschwitz, rid the world of its unhealthy populace.

And Torchwood, mercilessly forcing its viewers to see the very worst of humanity (therefore seeing mankind in quite the opposite light of Doctor Who), doesn’t even allow the traditional escape into the blessings of death. Upon returning from beyond the grave, Suzie Costello, later echoed by Jack Harkness, explains desperately that “There’s nothing. Just … nothing.”

Is Torchwood unnecessarily dark? Well … the easy answer is no — that the show exists for Russell Davies (one of the keystone writers for Doctor Who) to comment on humanity’s problems through the medium of science fiction, but without threatening the gleeful legacy of the Doctor.

From ‘Miracle Day’: a horrifying gas chamber where the Almost-Dead are kept.
And this much may be true: certainly the very worst of human nature is exposed in Torchwood’s third series, “Children of Earth,” when the politicians of Britain decide to sacrifice the welfare state to save the country from an alien threat.

But that doesn’t explain the legions of television watchers who flock toTorchwood, attracted to not only its disturbing and borderline offensive content, but to its dark characters and complicated commentary on life after death.

One overreaching answer lies in Eric Wilson’s treatise, “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away.” Wilson suggests that post-1900, the major death-related trend became the saving of lives, rather than the honoring and fascination with those who have passed away before us. That the idea of our children someday living forever is such a relatively newfangled concept that some people are still naturally drawn to the macabre, the horrifying, and the violent.

Wilson’s position isn’t entirely original, and he cites many poets within his work, the greatest of whom is arguably T.S. Eliot, but the idea of humanity being unused to life is intriguing. Perhaps, despite dealing almost exclusively in death and violence, Torchwood is so successful because it caters to precisely the facet of life for which we dark humans seek: an answer to “What comes after death?” There is not merely death, but undead; not the lack of life, but afterlife.

No simple answer exists, of course. Quite simply, Torchwood has its roots in Jack Harkness’s death, and in Queen Victoria’s resolution that no more human deaths would result from the Doctor meddling with aliens on earth. But the show also glorifies life, the brutal, nasty, adventurous, and sometimes achingly beautiful eighty-ish years that are precursor to rot, dirt, and the grave.

Panel Report: Korra and Real Life Influences

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

In our first panel of the day for Saturday, Nathan, Alex and I took the stage to lead a packed room full of Legend of Korra fans (many of them in costume) in discussing the Nickelodeon show’s social implications.

I opened the panel by asking audience members to list some of the differences between Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This led into a discussion of how technology and social change were shaping Korra’s world.

We had some ideas coming into the panel about how the Equalist movement does and doesn’t mirror the populist movements of today, like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. We asked the crowd if they thought the Equalists had legitimate complaints – if non-benders really were an oppressed group.

The response couldn’t have been more varied. Some people pointed to the capable non-benders in Last Airbender and suggested that Amon essentially created the inequality as a means to seek power. Others expressed solidarity with the nonviolent civilians of the Equalist movement. When we asked the crowd whether people would join up had they been born a non-bender in Republic City, the hands were about half and half.

Next we talked about the avatar’s actual role in society, and what happens when she enters a more modern system of government that isn’t designed to incorporate a warrior/priest who’s above the law. It’s significant that Korra’s first act on arriving in Republic city is to get herself arrested for property damage.

We spoke about the make-up of Republic City’s council, and whether it was significant that non-benders seemed unrepresented. And we talked about how the “unity” of the four nations was really a result of Fire Nation imperialism, and if we would see more of a cultural affect of that in coming seasons.

The discussion segued from populist movements into technology: Is the new tech in Korra really an equalizer? Again we had a lot of great discussion and voices on both sides of the issue. We compared the industrial tech of Korra to the information age tech of today, in it’s capacity to equalize the common people with the people in power.

We considered what the march of technology would mean for bending into the future – most bending might become obsolete, but metal and lightning bending might become even more powerful.

Someone pointed out how the technology seemed to be used mostly in the military, but someone else jumped in to point out that that’s how it’s often worked in our world too. Military technology matriculates into civilian life.

And finally, we had a discussion about gender and shipping, and whether the focus on relationships undermined Korra’s status as a strong female protagonist. We heard good points from both sides, and we all agreed that this would be one thing we’d be watching closely for in future seasons – a real Korra/Asami relationship above and beyond Mako would be a good step.

All in all, it seems like in our hour together we were able to discuss almost every aspect of The Legend of Korra, and hear from a good chunk of the 100 or so highly intelligent Korra fans who turned up. For those of you who came, thanks for talking to us. I hope the rest of our readers have a chance to join us in the future!

Was there a highlight from the discussion I neglected to mention? Tell me in the comments!