December 06, 2010

The magic door

I previously mentioned the delightful romantic dramedy I'll Still Love You in Ten Years.

To summarize: imagine that Leonard Hofstadter and Penny (but make her a young editorial assistant) from Big Bang Theory get married. She de-geekifies him, he becomes rich and famous, they end up loathing each other. So he borrows his old professor's time machine and goes back to when they first met in order to break up the relationship.

(Incidentally, I identify completely. This is exactly how geeky introverts think.)

The restrained NHK style gets it exactly right, pushing the physical relationship off to the side and focusing on what makes people fall in love despite themselves, without getting too full of its philosophical self. Ten years ago, it would have made a great Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle. As a stage play, it'd be a nice answer to Saturday's Warrior.

There's only one small special effect in the whole series--a 1000 yen coin from 2020 disappears when the disrupted timeline is restored. We never see the actual time machine. We're only shown a small theoretical prototype in the professor's lab. It's simply stipulated that the time machine exists.

In other words, it's a magic door. That's all we need.

The "magic door" approach comes from an episode on Red Dwarf where the crew discovers a "space-time portal" that will permit them to travel back in time in order to warn themselves of the disaster that will befall them a few weeks hence.

"What is it?" Cat wants to know.

Lister offers up the typical technobabble explanations of it being a "interstellar dimensional space-time continuum" or whatnot. But with every explanation, Cat only gets more confused and keeps repeating, "But what is it?"

Finally Lister says, "It's a magic door."

And Cat says, "Oh, a magic door! Why didn't anyone say so!"

Call it the Goldilocks problem in science fiction and fantasy: explaining too much or explaining too little. Fantasy with pretensions to "hard SF" often succumbs to the former (Star Trek). A good example of the latter is Jin, an otherwise excellent time travel drama from Tokyo Broadcasting System.

Dr. Jin Minakata (Takao Osawa) is a 21st century surgeon who gets caught in a "time slip" (as it's called in Japanese) and saves the life of Saki's (Haruka Ayase, on the left) brother before fully realizing where he is, and before realizing that he has just done something thought utterly impossible back then.

(Incidentally, Osawa and Ayase also pair up in Ichi, a pretty good Zatoichi spin-off, with Ayase playing against type as the blind-but-lethal swordswoman.)

Following the iron-clad rule that time travelers must travel to interesting times and immediately meet interesting people, as soon as he figures out he's in 1860's Edo (Tokyo), he promptly runs into Sakamoto Ryoma (exuberantly played by Masaaki Uchino, Rika's time-traveling husband from I'll Still Love You in Ten Years).

The episodic conflicts involve Dr. Minakata figuring out how to use his skills with mid-19th century technology. Though Japan had yet to go through its industrial revolution, it still had some of the best specialty steel, silk and ceramics makers in the world. So Minakata could have many of his surgical instruments custom made.

He next sets out to invent penicillin. Granted, the most drastic improvements in health over the past two centuries came from public sanitation. But the Edo government was about to collapse, so a major public works project wasn't in the cards. It's a clever choice, as is having a soy sauce factory handle the mass production.

Although the plots have to be manhandled a bit to set up the medical case for each episode, they're well-researched (at least I found them convincing) and completely fascinating. It makes for a good basic course in pharmacology and emergency medicine. I'd like to see what Dr. House could do in a Civil War-era hospital with 21st century knowledge.

The series conflict involves Minakata's 21st century fiancee, who is in a coma after an operation he convinced her to undergo. He has a photograph of the two of them, taken at her bedside. As he begins to treat one particular patient (the geisha on the right, who's the splitting image of his fiance), the photograph begins to change.

In time, his fiance appears to return to health. And then starts to disappear. Minakata concludes that if he cures his patient, a series of cause and effect will cause her to vanish from history. Add to this his knowledge that Ryoma was assassinated in 1867. Does he act in the present or preserve the future he knows?

It's an interesting set of conflicts and dramatically very well done. There's only one problem with the series: there's no magic door.

A magic door is vaguely implied in the pilot episode. But later, what was implied doesn't seem to exist. The premise gets shuffled off stage with a bunch of literary handwaves and pretty cinematic flourishes and a WTF metaphor about a fetus in a bottle that never made any sense (I don't think it made any sense to the director either).

Maybe Minakata hit his head and he's the one in the coma. Maybe he's not a man dreaming he's a butterfly, but a butterfly dreaming he's a man. Whatever. However clever it looks on paper, this "We're too good for concrete fantasy" business gets my goat. My magical realism better have magic. If here be dragons, I expect real dragons.

Though in this case I suspect they're trying to keep all their options open by not committing to any one plot device. Unfortunately, when it comes to the integrity of a narrative, that kind of halfheartedness never serves storytelling well.

The series is good enough that you can answer their hand wave with one of your own and keep watching. But lacking a physical hook on which to hang the premise--an earthquake, say, or an errant MRI machine--despite the satisfying conclusion, the protagonist's lack of other options detracts from the dramatic impact.

Perhaps the manga on which the television series was based handles it differently. And because most series television in Japan consists of a dozen episodes and that's it (or a dozen episodes a year, very frustrating with ongoing series), it's possible they could come back for a season two (and TBS has just announced there will be).

But they'd still have to come up with a magic door.

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# posted by Anonymous karry
"Incidentally, this is exactly how introverts think."

What ? That sentence doesnt make any sense and seems to be simply RIPPED out of context. Introverts think what exactly ? About what ? And why ? And why do you stoop to such generalisations ?
12/08/2010 2:19 AM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Because it's a running theme on this blog (I've tweaked the aforementioned sweeping statement to make the self-reference clearer). See here and here in particular, or click on the introversion tag.
12/08/2010 9:02 AM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I'm always fascinated by the magic door problem. It's also one reason I have a hard time writing science-fiction.

With fantasy, I was brought up on magic rings and amulets and people, so I feel quite confident inventing a magical something that makes the plot work (although sometimes I have to spend a bit of time ironing out the rules).

With sci-fi, however, I feel like the magic door has to be plausible.

This, of course, is not true. Even if one ignores Star Trek (which is just fantasy in space), I'm not sure how plausible Asimov considered his sci-fi. Well, actually, he may have thought it was plausible, but I'm not sure he thought it was actually going to happen.

I'm always hampered by what I actually think is going to happen. Which, by the way, is never a utopia or dystopia. It's just . . . life, more or less.

In order to invent sci-fi magic doors, one has to have a kind of "Heh, que sera sera" kind of attitude: what COULD go wrong or right. At least it seems that way to me.

As it is, I stick to brain-stuff when it comes to sci-fi, the space inside our heads, not the space outside our bodies. I don't understand hyperdrives. Which is probably why I like Star Trek. The characters go, "Blah blah blah hyperdrive," which I ignore and then they do something that actually interests me.

Hyperdrive = magic door

So does "Space Time Continuum."
12/09/2010 8:38 AM