Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

My rating: *****
Spoiler alert

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One of the users on reviewing the 2007 TV series The Dresden Files bemoans the fact that her shelves are littered with DVD sets of prematurely cancelled series and suggests that cancelling some of the endlessly tedious reality shows might free up some funds for the continuation of more interesting television. It doesn’t pay to be a non-mainstream viewer of science-fiction fantasy. One is constantly being lured in by a few tantalising episodes and then left high and dry without a resolution. Odyssey 5 was a particularly fine example of this kind of lack respect for audiences by television producers. It couldn’t even be argued that the ratings were bad on this particular series – they were in fact extremely high, but the American cable channel Showtime, which commissioned the series, underwent a change of management and the usual problem –namely an administrator who doesn’t like science fiction – nipped it in the bud.

Fan campaigns to petition against cancellation have now become an obligatory part of the televisual landscape and I was entirely unsurprised to see that The Dresden Files was not exempt from this routine ritual. Even if fans know the exercise to be largely futile, they can find no other outlet for their frustration. These campaigns only work in rare cases and often sadly to the detriment of the series. The extra half seasons that were granted series such as Remington Steele and La Femme Nikita actually betrayed their viewerships, and fans of the characters and storylines were left with a sour taste in their mouth which forevermore impacted on their enjoyment of the earlier seasons. One exception to this is the 2006 series Jericho, which after garnering a second season as the result of fan campaigning, managed to produce a season which, amazingly, was far superior to the first and actually provided some resolution.

At least the writers of The Dresden Files play fair with the audience and provide a decent ending in the last episode of the season which alleviates some of the frustration of having yet another cancelled series on one’s hands.

The enormous number of user reviews on of the DVD release of The Dresden Files would seem to indicate that the Sci-Fi network was perhaps hasty – even on its own economic rationalist terms (if in fact that’s what was at issue) – in cancelling the series. Numbers of these reviews, of course, quibble with the way the television series had adapted the original books by Jim Butcher, but again such controversy is ritual. For myself, enjoying a TV series is no guarantee that I will like the source material. As a case in point, I found the television version of Wire in the Blood far more interesting than the novels by Val McDermid on which it is loosely based. Similarly I found the first Jim Butcher book mildly enjoyable but much preferred the approach and charaterisations in the television series.

But onto the actual subject matter of the series.

The Dresden Files is, I think, the first TV series made post 2001 – apart from Wire in the Blood – which I have actually wanted to view more than once with frequent pauses and repeats of scenes. It is a fairly unique and successful blend of the private eye genre and fantasy – the protagonist, Harry Dresden, for all his genre conventional trappings as a Chicago private eye is actually a wizard and sports the appellation, ‘Harry Dresden Wizard’ on his office door and business cards. As I was watching the series I was struck by its curiously old-fashioned feel. I felt as though I was almost back on comfortable cultural territory – a territory which has been replaced since the beginning of the millennium, in American television at least, by something which I experience as alienating.

There are a number of things I like about the central character, in particular his knowledge of his own weakness and his constant and considered efforts to resist the directions in which this weakness takes him. He continually and deliberately resists the temptation to use his magical powers either as an opportunity to manipulate others or to occupy the high moral ground. Any inclinations he might have in these directions are kept in check by his first hand knowledge of the disastrous and tragic extremes (the almost, but not quite, inadvertent murder of his uncle by black magic) to which such hubris can lead. He is constantly reminded of his crime by members from both sides of the fence in the magical community either to cast continual suspicion over his intentions or to incite him further down the path of dark magic. In choosing to save others by using his unique abilities he is doing no more than saving himself.

The English actor Paul Blackthorpe who plays Dresden (with a somewhat eccentric American accent) says that what attracted him to the role was the fact that Dresden was a reluctant hero, engaged in a difficult struggle with his own past and family background. Dresden is a marginal figure who exists in an uneasy truce with both his own magical community and with the mainstream forces of law and order. (He often acts as a consultant to the police – mainly in for the form of a female detective, Murphy, – whenever anything ‘weird’ surfaces.) Both camps remain deeply suspicious of him for different reasons, but this does not deter Dresden from an often thankless and painful quest with frequent errors of judgement on his own part, to lend assistance to others. All of this is, of course, in the best hard-boiled post War private eye tradition.

Also worth mentioning is his relationship with his unusual offsider and mentor, Bob, played wonderfully by Broadway actor, Terrence Mann. Bob (aka Nrothbert of Bainbridge) is in fact the ghost of a medieval English sorcerer who has been condemned for all eternity to occupy his own skull as a ghost as a punishment for dark practices, notably using black magic to resurrect his lover – a female sorcerer. Bob, who has acted as Dresden’s tutor from a young age, provides both technical and moral guidance while also struggling with the complexities of his own past and his powerless condition as a ghost. As the series progresses, the bonds of real affection and friendship that tie these two men become apparent. The TV version of this character is far more interesting than his equivalent in the original books. In Butcher’s novels, Bob is no more than a skull, but for television the writers decided that more was needed.

These various elements are perhaps amongst the reasons why the series seems so oddly old fashioned in a contemporary American televisual landscape populated by an endless procession of series with flashy visual effects tightly focused on solving puzzles. Such series feature drearily one-note characters who are more interested in personal survival than in what they can do for others. One can cite as examples, Lost, Heroes, Flash Forward, House, The Fringe and any number of medical, police, forensic and acronymic series- CSI, NCIS and so on ad nauseum. If the characters in these series do engage nominally in ‘helping’ others it is because of their rigidly and institutionally defined status as doctors, FBI agents, police, assorted forensic and other scientists, members of family units and so on. Further to this, the assistance they offer others is all too often simply the almost inadvertent side product of their interest in solving puzzles, (crimes, mysterious occurrences, tricky illnesses and so on). Character ‘complexity’ is achieved by either granting the characters unpleasant ‘flaws’ which these characters do little to try and keep in check – but just experience as givens -, or by granting them irritatingly quirky and eccentric traits. These static character traits become no more than devices for keeping the puzzle based plots moving along. All the creative effort goes into solving puzzles, none into actually achieving anything as a human being making a willed and active contribution (as opposed to one determined in advance by institutional rules and personal past history) to collective social existence.

In other words, there is no sense that these characters are involved in projects to deliberately create themselves and to make choices about their self-construction in a positive sense. There is nothing there for the viewer to learn, no handy techniques one can appropriate in one’s own quest to actively form oneself. On the other hand, there is plenty about technical problem solving in relation to the physical world and the management of populations. There is nothing in relation to the social world – apart from ensuring individual survival at the most basic level.

Much of this is both a reflection of general social and cultural trends as well as a reflection of the writing and production processes involved in making these series. Writers, technicians and film makers churned out by various educational institutions have been taught sets of rules about technical processes but not provided with any social or cultural context or training beyond simplified demographic analysis and targetting. Sophisticated forms of historical, philosophical, political and related forms of cultural reflection are not on the study agenda. This leads to a very impoverished view of the human condition. It is interesting to note that some leading television writers (for example Anthony Horowitz of Foyle’s War) have in recent years started to advise young writers to get out and travel and to engage in cultural and artistic experiences to try and broaden their horizons so that they actually have something to write about.

Although I love all the trappings of science fiction, action adventure and crime fiction, the real interest in watching these genres and what will make me re-watch any given series is just one thing, and that is how people actively and deliberately construct their relationship with themselves and others. Science fiction and crime present extreme scenarios in which to observe human beings perform in limit situations. Watching solutions to abstract empirical puzzles palls after a while, but the kind of deliberate work people perform on themselves and their relations to other people is endlessly interesting. The outcome doesn’t need to be good but it does need to be the result of people making real decisions in relation to their actions and the consequences thereof. One can then perhaps borrow from some of these scenarios the ‘cultural tools’ Foucault talks about which one can use oneself to undertake the kind of work one wishes to undertake in relation to one’s own existence. Mind bogglingly tedious instructions on how to make institutions more efficient is – for me at least – less than riveting viewing, I want to see how other people solve the problem of personal and social existence through a willed process of difficult personal decision making.

I have limited interest in observing the strategic placement of static ‘character’ elements like pawns in games ultimately aimed at solving the puzzle of how the institutions can function most efficiently and to maximum profitability (in terms of both financial viability and placement in a well oiled social hierarchy).

For all their rejection of some of these contemporary themes the writers of The Dresden Files, still feel that it is constantly necessary to explain why Dresden would bother to help complete strangers given his marginal situation. At one point, Morgan a powerful wizard who is an enforcer for the magical oversight body The High Council asks Dresden why he persists in helping those ‘who don’t know him, don’t like him, and will never understand him’. Dresden’s reply is that somebody has to do it. Morgan counters contemptuously that he is doing nothing more than try to save himself and atone for his past crime.

I am reminded here of a comment Foucault made in his History of Madness about the medieval Christian view of charity. Both the recipient and the donor benefited – the former materially and the latter in terms of his or her eternal salvation.

This imperative to explain help offered to strangers has always been a theme in American television but to a far lesser degree perhaps before the current decade. A sense of a broad social contract has always been far weaker in American than in European culture. For example, the 1973 series The Magician with Bill Bixby elicits lengthy (and not entirely convincing) explanations from various characters as to why a stage magician would even consider wanting to help a variety of complete strangers. European and British television doesn’t generally feel under an obligation to justify attempts to be of assistance to one’s fellow human beings outside the rigid boundaries of institutional obligation.

If we bring this discussion back to the forms of neo-liberalism I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, in an entrepreneurial world you would be ill advised to help somebody who could be a potential competitor and profit at your expense. In addition to this, anybody needing help beyond what is codified by various well-defined institutions only has their own gross mismanagement to blame and is not deserving of help. Assistance to others can only sensibly be attempted within the confines of the multiple judicial institutions and regulations which have been set up to ensure that human sociability doesn’t degenerate into a complete blood bath.

The Dresden Files ends with a nice touch with Harry Dresden destroying a powerful but evil object that he could use to his possible advantage down the track. One has come to expect characters to always hang onto such advantages – why throw away a potential plot device or opportunity for ambiguity?

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