Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Tempest and the Time Lord: Shakespeare and Sci-Fi

"Shakespeare, in this, the last play completely from his hand, is inventing science fiction."  So writes the acclaimed Shakespeare scholar A.D. Nuttall in his now classic book, Shakespeare the Thinker.  He starts off his chapter on The Tempest with some dialogue between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

Nuttall was referring specifically to an interchange between Prospero and Ariel, when the spirit goads Prospero into feeling some human pity.  Ariel has described how, at Prospero's instruction, he has driven several of the Italian nobles to near madness.  In lines before the ones that Nuttall quotes, Ariel suggests that "your charm so strongly works them, that if now you beheld them, your affections would become tender."

"Dost thou think so, spirit?" Prospero says. "Mine would, sir," Ariel replies, "were I human."  It is indeed a familiar sort of exchange involving the logical Mr. Spock, or later, the android Data, who has no emotions but aspires to be human.

Nutall also mentions the most obvious science fiction parallel--the movie Forbidden Planet, released by MGM in Cinemascope and color in 1956.  It has direct and intentional parallels to The Tempest: a Prospero figure (scientist who taps into the technology, power and intelligence of a vanished alien civilization) marooned on a planet with his young daughter who falls in love with one of the men who arrives from Earth.  The Ariel figure is Robby the Robot, and Caliban is symbolically the evil force that turns out to be the scientist's own denied negative side, his Id or Shadow, made immensely more powerful by the alien technology.  (There is a sense in The Tempest that Caliban reflects Prospero's dark side.)

The alien race in Forbidden Planet thought it was on the brink of perfecting its society--suggesting the Utopian theme in The Tempest--but its attempt ended in instant self-destruction.  Something similar happens in the Josh Whedon sci-fi film Serenity (2005) in which a solar-system government seeds the atmosphere of an idyllic planet with a chemical to make the population less aggressive, to further its objective of making a "better world."  But the chemical makes 90% of the population so passive that they waste away, while 10% become the fierce cannibals that still savage the system.  The name of this planet is Miranda.

Nutall relates the fantasy world of The Tempest's island to our sense of science fiction.  "Classic science fiction, as written by H.G. Wells, gives us alternative worlds in which things we have never experienced are imagined in circumstantial detail."  And it is true that for the modern temperament, it became easier to imagine an android than a spirit, a Spock than a sprite.  But after Harry Potter and the Hobbit films, and all the other popular fantasy stories of the past decade or so, we don't seem to find spirits and magic too unbelievable.  We can accept alternative worlds without machines.

Wells' first great story was The Time Machine, which made the transition from fantasy to science fiction while retaining mythic power.  It is however a more recent time machine traveler who provides another connection to The Tempest.

When the longest-running science fiction TV series anywhere (1963-1989)--UK's Doctor Who--was revived in 2005, each season featured at least one episode in which the Doctor and his companion visit a historical figure in the past: Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie, etc.  In the 2007 season, the Doctor (played by David Tennant) takes his companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) to 1599 London, where they attend a production of Love's Labours Lost at the Globe Theatre, and meet William Shakespeare.

These tend to be lighter episodes, though there is always a menace, and in this one they banter with Shakespeare quotes--some of which Shakespeare hadn't written yet.  There's a lot of historical accuracy in it all, and part of the plot centers on the actual mystery of whatever happened to Love's Labours Won, a title appearing on a contemporaneous list of Shakespeare's plays, but of which nothing else is known--no text, no accounts by anyone who saw it, if it ever actually existed.

Clearly the episode's writer, Gareth Roberts, relished relating aspects of Shakespeare's plays and life to the story, which involved aliens who manifested as witches, using Shakespeare's words to open a rift into which their evil hordes could invade and destroy the Earth.

But what to call these alien witches?  Shakespeare provides the perfect name in The Tempest: the evil witch who had imprisoned Ariel and had sired Caliban: Sycorax.  The name would then tie the adventure that the Doctor and Shakespeare had to Shakespeare imagining The Tempest:  the tale of a man with the power of a god (a thematic problem in the Tennant years on Doctor Who) who is accompanied by a daughter (a young woman companion), etc.  The battle with the witches would be backstory.  (In the episode, Shakespeare triumphs with the help of a word from J.K. Rowling, to further the magic connection.)

Unfortunately though, Sycorax was already taken.  Russell T Davis had used it the year before for the first aliens that the David Tennant Doctor faced.  Roberts had to settle for inventing his own, the Carrionites--descriptive but not Shakespeare.

However, he didn't lose out completely.  After the climactic scene during the only ever performance of Love's Labours Won, the adventure is over, and Shakespeare is sitting on the Globe stage the next day, chatting up Martha Jones. The Doctor wanders in from backstage where he's found a prop that he says reminds him of a Sycorax.  "And I'll have that off you as well," Shakespeare says, meaning that this word Sycorax is something else he's going to appropriate from what the Doctor and Martha have said and done.

So the connection is made anyway, and when Shakespeare writes The Tempest in 1611, he's apparently allowing himself to recall the fantastic events of 12 years before (notice that Prospero has been on the island for 12 years!), perhaps conflating the magician he knew of called Doctor Dee with the Doctor of Tardis, when a Lord of Time visited the great Globe itself, and left not a rack behind.  

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