Saturday, April 10, 2010

"His was the most...human"

I tend to blame my predisposition towards sentimentality on my ethnicity. Like the man says, the Gaels are the race that God made mad, since all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad. There is no point in trying to hide it, so I try to have fun with it, and am quite open in telling people that I am likely to well up watching a long distance commercial if given half a chance.

Actually, the old Bell commercial where the young fellow calls up his grandfather and tells him he is at Dieppe...that's...p-pretty good too...look away, already...

(The sound of a throat clearing.)

Anyways, io9 did a fantastic entry last week listing their picks for"The Biggest Tearjerkers in the Sci-fi Pantheon". It is a good and comprehensive list that covers a lot of years in both television and movies, from the film version of Flowers for Algernon, through the Star Trek deaths of Edith Keeler and Spock (good grief, just thinking of "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes as I write this is making my eyes sweat), and up to more recent offerings like Serenity and even Lost.

Besides being a very good list, the comments the writer makes are fantastic, like this one for Wall-E:
"Seriously, if you didn't well up when — after Wall*E put his life on the line to help Eve locate Earth — the frantic Eve races to his old trailer-home and repairs him with a lightning speed only the desperately in love have and Wall*E comes back online...wrong....

J-Just give me a minute."

Some of the comments made by other readers are really good too.

I've still never seen Starman, which makes absolutely no sense since I love both John Carpenter and Jeff Bridges. I have only seen one episode of Doctor Who in its entirety, which is daft, given the popularity and success of its most recent 'incarnations', and the examples that made the list seem solid as well.

When I started thinking about the list though, it struck me as odd that nothing from Star Trek: The Next Generation made the list, especially one of my favourite episodes, "The Offspring". (SPOILERS FOLLOW)

In "The Offspring", android Lt. Data creates an android modelled partially after himself, which he refers to as his child. In addition to your standard-issue fish-out-of-water hijinks with his daughter Lal attempting to understand human behaviour, there are some wonderful questions raised about what a child is, and what parenting really means.

The main conflict in the episode comes when a Starfleet admiral begins to insist that Data send his daughter to the Daystrom Institute (nice touch there, evoking the episode "The Ultimate Computer" from the original series), which has the unexpected side-effect of generating anxiety in Lal, with tragic consequences.

One of my favourite Picard moments ever is when he risks his career to defy the admiral, without grandstanding or theatrics, and calmly tells him, "Order a man to turn his child over to the state? Not while I'm his captain." But it's the tragedy that really resonates.

I remember talking about the episode with some colleagues at work, at Softwarehouse, and mentioning how I got a little vaklemt at the ending, which provoked a little mocking from one of my co-workers along the lines of "Man, if an episode of Star Trek can get you that worked up, I dunno..." At the time I shrugged it off without abandoning my position, casually pitying my workmate as an emotionally blunted and generally unfulfilled individual. As I read the io9 article, I found myself wondering if it was really as emotionally effective as I remembered, so I ended up watching it with the girls last night.

What the hell was I thinking?

Did I honestly figure that an episode which made me pull a hankie when I was still in university would have less of an effect on me now that I am a parent? Madness!

Now, it's still just entertainment, and it is not as though I completely fell apart in front of the girls, but there's that double tap at the end, where Lal tells Data, "I love you, father," and... oh, just see for yourself:
Sorry, something in my eye there...that's better.

Afterwards, I expressed some surprise (and maybe a little disappointment) that Fenya and Glory weren't a little more affected by the episode. Let's bear in mind here, that we almost had to stop watching The Neverending Story a couple of months ago because Glory was a tearful wreck after the horse was lost to the swamps, so it is not as though these are emotionally blunted individuals here. But I think it is natural for children to have more empathy for animals than they might for a robot who just happens to look like a young adult. (And to be fair, it's a pretty chilling scene; I kept thinking 'they keep dragging this out, but there is just no way they are going to kill this poor anim...oh shit, they've done it') As a matter of fact, the same thing happened when they watched E.T. recently. "You know," I told them earnestly,. "Spielberg made sure they filmed that goodbye scene at the end of shooting so he could get an awesome and honest emotional response from his child actors, and here's you guys without any facial humidity at all! How the hell does that work?"

A shrug from Fenya. An "I dunno" from Glory.

"Are you kidding me?" I said, "Just look at the face on Drew Barrymore there, it... she...(choke)"

"Are you okay, Daddy?"

"(Cough)Yeah, Daddy just had a peppercorn stuck in his teeth, that's all. I gotta go..."

Maybe getting older (and hopefully wiser) has broadened my experience enough that I respond to things more empathetically now than I once did. After all, I have a larger collection of memories to draw upon and can perceive connections, especially personal ones, more easily than I once did. Maybe that's all wisdom is: a larger and more dense network of memories and associations.

Becoming a father in 1998 also altered my perceptions in a fundamental fashion, and has changed the way I approach a lot of things, even mundane ones. It's affected my emotional responses even more substantially. Just as an example, when I think in dispassionate terms of what actions I might be capable of in defense of my children, it is enough to horrify myself. It's not enough to make me regret them, but still.

Ah, well, if we weren't contradictory, we wouldn't be very good humans, would we?

At any rate, good entertainment should provoke us emotionally as well as intellectually, so reading io9's list and the comments from other readers was a real treat. Take a look if you get the chance, and maybe add a comment if you find any other oversights.


  1. Amazing Grace affects most people that way. If it doesn't, you need to be examined to make sure you're not a pod-person.

  2. I have to admit I got a bit weepy near the end of Babylon 5 when Sheridan's time was up.

  3. That was a great episode, too. Practically the only B5 episode my wife liked (and the first one she ever saw). I think it set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the show for her.
    When he wakes up, and says "It's time," and Delenn's reaction... Very well done.

  4. A friend pointed out that he got choked up at the end of Terminator 2. You know, when The Terminator was being lowered into the molten metal. John and Sarah Connor had to destroy the thing/person who saved them. He said that he was all right until the 'thumbs up'.