Sunday, 30 September 2012

SpaceSquid vs. The X Men #42: Basic Errors

20 INPUT "Are we sure you want to do this?", A$
30 IF A=N GOTO 520
40 INPUT "Are you quite sure?  This is going to be really, REALLY boring.", B$
50 IF B=N GOTO 520
60 PRINT "Fine. Just don't come crying to me once you realise you've wasted your time."
70 PRINT "Without question, the central aspect to Sage (also Tessa, no last name supplied) is the time she spent as an undercover agent of Xavier's from before the very first issue of 'Uncanny X-Men' (or just' X-Men' as it was at the time).  This was revealed in the somewhat unlovely 'X-Treme X-Men' series that kicked off in 2001, more than twenty years after she first appeared. In-between, she was the primary confidant and servant to Sebastian Shaw, Black King of the Hellfire Club (well, usually)."
80 PRINT "The thing is, though, none of that was remotely evident at the time. It's not at all hard to come up with multiple examples of altercations with Shaw that could have ended up with an X-Man or a New Mutant killed, and in none of these cases did Sage think it worth sending warning ahead. Even worse, as UXM.Net point out, had Sage told the team Mastermind was gradually turning Jean Grey's mind into Eton mess, it might have saved a great deal of bother for an awful lot of people (they do their best to come up with a justification, but - and your mileage may vary - I don't buy it for a second)."
90 PRINT "What can be said about Sage, then, depends almost entirely on whether or not you can swallow the idea that a character whose inaction nearly cost the lives of various mutants, and allowed Jean Grey (or the being everyone thought was Jean Grey at the time) to explode into a madness that ultimately killed billions of sentient beings, was working for the X-Men all along."
100 INPUT "Sound plausible to you?", C$
110 IF C=N GOTO 130
120 IF C=Y GOTO 160
130 PRINT "Yeah, I don't blame you.  And the problem here is that once you put aside that idea out of sheer disbelief, there's really very little left to hang the character on.  Each new revelation about her past just compounds the problem.  This in itself wouldn't necessarily be too great a problem, except that the Sage biography put together by UXM.Net (a resource even more valuable to this series than normal this time around, since I gave up on 'X-Treme X-Men' pretty quickly and in some disappointment) demonstrates that the vast majority of storylines focusing on Sage revolved around new information surfacing regarding her past.  Once you've concluded that said past doesn't make any sense in any case, there's a real difficulty in connecting with any of this."
140 PRINT "But the fact that Claremont (the only writer who really seemed that keen on using the character very much) revisited this well so many times seems to me symptomatic of the real problem with Sage, which is that as a character, there's just not enough there."
150 GOTO 190
160 PRINT "Well, OK.  That's not how I see it, but it certainly isn't difficult to find people less concerned about such contradictions than I am.  Moreover, I'll readily concede that if a writer wants to use a character retcon at the start of a '00s so as to make their new comic more interest, and realises it will cause problems with two decade-old events in an entirely different book that they wrote in any case, "Fuck it" is a legitimate artistic stance to take on the matter."
170 PRINT "And if that is how you see all this, then the idea certainly has legs. There's perhaps little original in the central idea of a hero having been so deep undercover for so long in a villain's lair that plenty of sympathetic people are wrongly after their head, but then there's all sorts of plots across the line that would be revealed as far more hoary than they seem once you took all the mutant powers out of it.  We needn't worry about the concept's provenance right now."
180 PRINT "What remains relevant, of course, is whether or not the idea is smartly done.  Here, in fact, I can't really say much, given I've read so little of those stories.  My own experience with 'X-Treme X-Men' and its general reception doesn't exactly fill me with hope, but I've no real evidence to go on.  That said, at least some of my doubts in this regard spring not from what the stories themselves contain, but my problems with the nature of Sage's character itself.
190 PRINT "The problem with the concept of Sage in terms of who she is - rather than who she was, which seems to have done all the heavy lifting during her time on the team - is two-fold.  Or maybe not, depending on how you look at it.  There's definitely two major problems, but one is entirely contained within the other, like a Russian doll of conceptual difficulties."
200 PRINT "First, consider how Sage's mutant powers operate.  Firstly, she has a photographic memory.  Which is cool and all, but so did Doctor Sam Beckett.  And Doctor Sheldon Cooper.  That's not a character hook, that's a coat of paint on a hook you've installed already.  Which, in this case, is that Tessa is capable of processing information from a position of perfect logic - essentially, as though her brain were a computer. That's much more interesting, but only potentially. Just by way of example, a woman who can control the weather or a man who can transform his skin into steel are ideas that are going to work immediately. Ruthlessly logical thought processes is more of a seasoning; something you add to food that already has to be there and be appealing if you're going to end up with a tasty dish.  Oh, and sometimes she has telepathy, which is probably the second least interesting and imaginative mutant ability imaginable, after generic energy-casting."
210 PRINT "My point here is no to argue that all X-Men must have unique and fascinating power sets in order to be interesting.  Indeed, as the years have gone by and more and more mutants have been created, it's increasingly difficult to come up with abilities that are original without being self-consciously weird or ludicrously specific.  But as that has become increasingly obvious (and of course M-Day has reduced this problem to at least some extent), the solution applied by many writers is to just make sure the characters themselves are interesting, independently of how their powers operate.  Which is probably how it should have been done all along, and what led to the best results when it was applied.  I'm not the biggest fan of Gambit, by any means, but I can recognise why so many love him, and it's not that he creates bombs out of objects.  It's that he chooses to use cards as ammunition, and that this choice acts as a window onto his whole outlook."
220 PRINT "So it's not that I find the mind of a Vulcan and the memory of an elephant just too boring.  It's that once you remove Sage's past, Claremont seems to think those powers alone are enough to keep people interested.  And that doesn't work.
230 INPUT "I didn't mention Vulcans as a quick aside, in fact. If we're going to talk about how to make logical thinking interesting to the observer, I'm not sure one can consider a better test case. So, here's a question: who's your favourite green-blooded main character?  Spock (type 'S'), Tuvok (type 'T'), or T'Pol (type 'DD')?" , D$
240 IF D=S GOTO 270
250  IF D=T GOTO 330
260 GOTO 400
270 PRINT "Well, obviously. Neither Tim Russ nor Jolene Blalock could fairly be called poor actors, but neither of them got anywhere close to the kind of still gravitas offered by Leonard Nimoy. There's no doubt that watching Nimoy's restrained performance was frequently a treat.  But of course, that immediately sketches out the problem we have with regards to Sage: no-one is playing her.  Everyone is still on paper.  It's taken artists generations to figure out ways to generate the illusion of activity and passion within the panels of a comic strip, which makes Sage feel like more of a regression than anything else."
280 PRINT "That's only half the problem, though. The other thing missing from Sage's adventures is someone to take the Dr McCoy role. The genius of the original Star Trek was to pit McCoy and Spock against each other, with Kirk in the middle.  When done right, it was never possible to point to either character and state they were entirely in the right.  Kirk, as captain, needed both passion and logic (which might have been more strong an subtext had he not also needed far more than his share of exotic space booty, but let's put that aside).  Again, this requires a strong actor (and DeForest Kelley was exceptionally strong) to make work, and isn't a model anyone should expect to have worked on the page, even if Claremont had been interested in trying it, rather than just have everyone constantly suspecting Sage of being evil."
290 INPUT "To read the Tuvok entry, type 'T'. To read the T'Pol entry, type 'DD'.  To move on from the consideration of Vulcans, type 'M'.", E$
300 IF E=T GOTO 330
310 IF E=DD  GOTO 400
320 GOTO 500
330 PRINT "Interesting choice.  Actually, I don't dislike Tuvok as much as I do, you know, everything else to do with 'Voyager', but I'd argue he worked better in concept than execution (again, I'm not inclined to blame Tim Russ for that). There are two things that are genuinely interesting about Tuvok, though really they're the same thing from two different angles. There are at least two instances in the first season alone (about the only one I remember particularly well, since I saw it twice) in which Tuvok comes up with something that sounds utterly illogical, but argues his case to the hilt.  He doesn't do too bad a job of it, either, which leads me to my point. Tuvok does exactly what needed to be done with the Vulcans by demonstrating that the value of their logical strings are only as useful as the axioms they started with in the first place. 'Enterprise' took this further by introducing the axiom that humans are a bit of a pain in the arse, but let's stick with Tuvok right now."
340 PRINT "The idea here is a fascinating one; a race of totally logical beings that will still end up disagreeing based on their initial assumptions.  Indeed, Tuvok already demonstrated this by going undercover as a Maquis and Chakotay and Torres (among others) not being suspicious in the least. Either they're idiots, all Vulcans support the Maquis, or these variations are commonplace."
350 PRINT "So how does this have anything to do with Sage? Well, because of what it says about Tuvok, which is that his most interesting character traits lay in how he differed from a previous character who we'd been led to think he wouldn't differ from at all.  This isn't an idea that can keep a character interesting indefinitely (and indeed Tuvok didn't), but it's at least something, and Sage never had that. The only people we have to compare Sage with are actual PEOPLE, which is where the problem comes in."
360 INPUT "To read the Spock entry, type 'S'. To read the T'Pol entry, type 'DD'.  To move on from the consideration of Vulcans, type 'M'.", F$
370 IF F=S GOTO 270
380 IF F=DD  GOTO 400
390 GOTO 500
400 PRINT "Heh.  'Go to 400'. If this were a Fighting Fantasy game book, you'd have just won right now.  Of course, what you've won here is some nice boobs."
410 PRINT "I'm kidding, obviously, even if I'm perhaps the first person in the world to work a titty joke into his BASIC coding (note: there's no way I'm the first person in the world to do that). That said, I don't think there's any real doubt that for an awful lot of people, T'Pol's gender is a non-trivial part of what makes her appealing.  And the fact that out of all Star Trek female stars, she has the most... 'comic-like' proportions (other than Jeri Ryan, of course) makes her particularly relevant when talking about Sage, the umpteenth example of the mutant gene having a notable and impractical effect upon human mammary glands."
420 PRINT "I realise that what I'm about to say is unabashedly a straight male perspective.  Then again, I AM a straight male, and there's no getting around that.  More to the point, I'm who both superhero comics and sci-fi TV shows are generally aimed at - an observation, of course, not a note of approval - so while my perspective is no more valid than that of anyone else, it is more in tune with the vast majority of authorial intent - again, I'm noting this, not nodding approvingly. From this viewpoint, then, the pitch line for T'Pol is this: she's a creature of pure logic, but also disgracefully hot."
430 PRINT "Already we begin to see a problem. To the best of my knowledge, Tim Russ isn't considered a remarkably attractive man. Even if he was, the decontamination body-rubs T'Pol had to both receive and perform more than once during the 'Enterprise' run most certainly demonstrated that this was not intended to be business as usual - to the show's significant discredit."
440 PRINT "But this gets us to a central problem with Sage as well. In the world of comics - as oppose to the otherwise all-human crew of the original Enterprise - the idea that anyone would come up with male X-Man who's only unique skill was to be very logical would be utterly ridiculous.  That's not a superhuman ability, it's the stereotype of an academic. The implication that by putting that brain into an attractive woman constitutes sufficient hook for a character strikes me as problematic to say the least. I know gorgeous women who can think rings around me, who have a skill for mathematics I can only dream of.  The idea that this is remarkable because of how they look bothers me, and neither 'Entrprise' nor Sage seem free of this idea, especially when you consider a major part of T'Pol's development was that her desire to have sexy times with Trip interfered with her ability to think straight.  Hell, we've all been there, but again, the optics are problematic."
450 "If this sounds a bit like I'm slamming T'Pol, and trying to paint Sage with the same brush, then that's not unreasonable. I maintain though that if one were to swap around the powers of, say, Sage and Xavier, then no-one would think the founder of the X-Men to be remotely interesting."
460 INPUT "To read the Spock entry, type 'S'. To read the Tuvok entry, type 'T'.  To move on from the consideration of Vulcans, type 'M'.", G$
470 IF G=S GOTO 270
480 IF G=T  GOTO 330
490 GOTO 500
510 PRINT "Which, blissfully, brings us to the end of our discussion.  Sage was an acceptable second-tier villain, but a tepid main character, and the difficulty in transferring her from the former to the latter role really makes one wonder how Claremont could possibly have thought it worth the effort."
520 PRINT "We have now survived Sage. Let us never speak of her again."
530 PRINT "Next time we take a look at another female former member of the Hellfire Club now living with the X-Men, and luckily Grant Morrison will be on hand to demonstrate how this is supposed to be done."
540 STOP


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