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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Review: The Last Battle

I’ll start with a confession, which seems fitting given the content of The Last Battle. It hasn’t been until this most recent re-read that I realized – I don’t really like this book. It’s sad. It’s grim. It’s weird. It’s a story about how all our main characters die and the fantasy world we’ve adored is utterly destroyed. And no, all that talk about how it was just the Shadowlands; a dim reflection of the true glory of heaven doesn’t cut it – because that’s not where I spent the last six books.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Woman of the Month: Elisa Maza

I'm transporting this mini-project over from my Tumblr, in which every month I picked six fictional female characters as my chosen "calendar girls" (not as dodgy as it sounds). It was basically just an excuse to showcase some of my favourite characters, but thanks to time restraints I haven't been able to post any since May.

But I enjoyed doing it, and I'd like to carry on the tradition here. So even though I'm going to cut down on the numbers involved, limiting myself to only one woman per month, I'll continue to celebrate my favs right here. The only rule I've set is that I can feature only one female character per show.

And first up is:

Elisa Maza from Gargoyles

Disney has FINALLY seen fit to release the second half of the show’s second season, something that’s been at least three years in the waiting. On watching the final twenty-one episodes, I was struck all over again by just how well this show has held up. In terms of its scope, continuity, foreshadowing, character development and plotting, it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not just one of the best cartoons, but the best shows, period.

And one of the best things about it was its female characters. So many complex, interesting, fascinating women – and it’s telling that the one who is generally considered the weakest of the female cast is still a mutated cat-girl who can shoot lightning out of her hands. Yeah.

And heading this collection of amazing women is one Elisa Maza: a kind-hearted, open-minded, mixed-race NYPD detective who befriends a temporally-displaced clan of living gargoyles and helps them adjust to 20th century life. There really are no words to describe how fantastic this character is.

It’s worth saying that as a kid growing up in the nineties, I assumed (as many might have done at the time) that she was a white woman with an olive complexion. It wasn’t until her father and mother (who are undeniably depicted as Native American and black, respectively) were introduced that I realized she was a WOC.

Sadly I have no recollection of what my reaction to this was, but I bring it up to point out that Elisa’s existence really was extraordinary – all the more so for being treated as no big deal. Modelled after her voice actress Salli Richardson, who is also the child of mixed-race parents, Elisa’s background is never explicitly discussed at any point during the show’s run – it’s simply there, treated as an intrinsic part of who she is. It’s melded elegantly into her storylines, particularly with later episodes in which her heritage and her relationships with her parents/siblings is focused on.

She was awesome, and the most flattering thing I could say about her is that as a kid, I totally took her for granted. And that’s a good thing, because one day depictions of women like this should be the norm, not something to be grateful for.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

Okay, so let’s get a few things straight. First of all, I am a casual viewer of Doctor Who. I watch, I enjoy, I recognise its cultural significance, but I’d hardly call myself a fan. To be honest, I watch for the same reason I watch Sherlock and Game of Thrones – so that I can understand what people are talking about on my Tumblr dash.

Second of all, I’m caught between dislike of Moffat’s favourite tropes (which are endlessly regurgitated in his scripts), grudging respect for some of his original and brilliant ideas, and a growing sense of discomfort with the on-line vitriol that’s hurled at him. Criticism is fine, and so is a general dislike of the persona he exhibits during interviews (because my god he’s said some twattish things), but I have no wish to get personal on this blog.

Neither do I want to invest too much time on a show that doesn’t exactly enthral me, though I want to make SOME sort of contribution to the discussion.

So – in honour of the twelfth doctor – here are twelve simple observations about Deep Breath.

1. Peter Capaldi. He’s good. A little weird, but good. I guess a part of me is still bitter about him getting snatched from The Musketeers, but it’s nice to have an older man playing this iconic character (and no, I never considered Christopher Eccleston particularly old, and this casting is a nice call-back to William Hartnell).

2. Clara Oswald. It’s taken half a season and a few specials but finally she has something in the way of a personality. It’s a totally informed personality (she’s a control freak? Since when?) but hey – it’s better than being the bland enigma she was introduced as. I mean, she actually lost her temper. And later she was genuinely afraid. Like an actual person.
Oh course, the real irony is that Jenna Coleman is rumoured to be leaving at the end of this season.

3. Victorian Era. Why is it always the Victorian Era? I’m wracking my brains to think of another time period that’s played such a big part – or in fact, any part – during Moffat’s tenure and nothing’s coming to mind. And yeah, some of this is due to the fact that the Paternoster Gang are situated in that particular time and place, and I’ve no doubt the show’s budget plays its part as well. But come on – this show has all of time and space to explore. Why restrict yourself to the Victorians?

Or maybe it’s just an excuse to keep putting Jenna Coleman in period gear. In which case, fair enough.

4. Plotwise, this was very much a mashup of The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink. Only instead of the Madame de Pompadour it’s the Marie Antoinette and instead of “don’t blink” it’s “don’t breath.”

Still, the animatronic restaurant was neat, especially all the clicking, creaking noises, and the sequence when Clara and the Doctor try to leave the restaurant reminded me of a computer game I used to play when I was a kid – with every step you took towards safety, your enemy moved closer to you.

5. The transition phase. Switching from one Doctor to another is always interesting, mainly because it’s difficult to get a grasp of any new Doctor’s personality straight away. We usually only get a few glimpses of it as he works through the regeneration’s adrenaline rush, and it’s the actor’s task is to come across as weird and kooky yet grounded and reliable at the same time.

Capaldi definitely played up the dark and somewhat unpredictable angle, and I like that he didn’t seem particularly concerned over whether or not he’d be appealing to the audience.

But what really struck me is that this is the first time since Rose and the Tenth Doctor that we’ve had a new companion cope with the change. And though the two were both were understandably confused and upset, it’s in the difference that the real interest lies – whereas Rose got herself a (generally speaking) younger and hotter Doctor, Clara is disappointed with the fact that her new one is significantly older and stranger looking (again, generally speaking). I can't help but feel that this was an admonition at the audience as well as Clara, though I've never seen anything on-line but enthusiasm that Peter Capaldi was taking the role.

Still, it was nice to see Matt Smith in that brief cameo one last time, imploring her to stay with him. And dammit, Moffat is good at making the most of the time-travelling aspect of this show. Why shouldn’t the old Doctor call his companion before he regenerates? That’s a great idea!

6. So did you notice that the new Doctor is old? And that he’s Scottish? And that Vastra and Jenny are married? Because nobody could seem to shut up about it.

7. Moffat veers between three types of dialogue: the witty comeback, the droll observation and the cutesy poo catchphrase. It gets so tiring sometimes, and nothing at all like how real people speak. And sure, you could say that on a science-fiction show about a time-travelling alien there’s a need for snappy dialogue, but at the same time your characters have to ground the proceedings instead of coming across as action figures.

8. And too often Moffat explains how clever he’s being instead of just being clever. That whole bit with Vastra and the veil for example. The whole thing comes across as a treatise on the profound psychological implications of the Eleventh Doctor choosing a young face and how this one looks old because he doesn’t care what people think of him and Clara is a shallow, silly girl for not immediately accepting him. Really?

Moffat’s too fond of spelling out these little lessons in ponderous tones instead of just letting it be. I don’t really CARE what the Doctor looks like now or what kind of profound insight Moffat has to share on the matter. He may think that the Doctor looking older has to mean something, but it doesn’t really. It’s just that one actor left and another took his place. The first actor was a young man and this one is older. That’s all.

As it is, it feels like a retcon reminiscent of all that wand lore J.K. Rowling shoved into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Now suddenly a Doctor’s face provides some deep insight into his character? Since when?

9. And on that note, the interlude with the tramp in which the Doctor goes on about how he’s seen his face before would appear to be setup for why a man who looks exactly like this Doctor has already appeared in The Fires of Pompeii and on Torchwood: Children of Earth.

And again, it’s completely unnecessary. Look, we know that sometimes actors get recycled. It’s okay. We don’t need an explanation for it. Especially since the explanation is bound to be something stupid.

10. And to follow on from that, Moffat is also fond of linking plot-points together. Sometimes it works well, such as using the cracks in the universe to explain why the giant mecha robot in Victorian London disappeared from everyone’s memories. But sometimes it feels like he throws them in randomly in order to come back to them later and pretend it was part of his master plan all along. In this case, he links the mysterious “woman in the shop” who gave Clara the police box number way back in The Bells of Saint John to the equally strange Missy in this episode’s final scene.

Oh, and let’s not forget his fondness for wordplay. Again, sometimes it works well (something old, blue, borrowed and blue for the Tardis) and sometimes it’s ludicrous (SHERlocked), but here it’s pretty middling. Missy apparently put the Impossible Girl advertisement in the paper with the instruction: “see you on the other side.” Turns out that it refers to the restaurant on the opposite side of the page, a needlessly convoluted puzzle that requires Missy to have full control over the placement of advertisements in a paper that she somehow knew was going to end up in both Clara and the Doctor’s hands.

Why not simply send them both a letter? I guess because she’s characterized as an ego-centric game player, but there’s got to be easier ways!

12. So, I was pretty lukewarm about all this, and I’m afraid this review might sound less enthusiastic than I necessarily mean it to. I didn’t think this was a particularly good episode; it had a lot of weird stop-start pacing and a lot of it seemed designed to look cool rather than have any particular importance to the plot (the spontaneously combusting dinosaur, the hot-air balloon made of skin), but it was an entertaining enough ninety minutes. Let's see how it all pans out...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Outlander: The Way Out

In this third episode, the show seems to be settling into its themes and story, with Claire still negotiating elements of 1743, but gradually learning how and when she can assert herself.

In a nice touch, the episode opens with a scene from World War II, where Claire bids farewell to Frank at the train station during which he quietly points out: “this is backwards.” It is indeed a role reversal of gender types, as most train station farewells depict the man in the train and the woman running alongside, waving her handkerchief as the steam billows around her.

This flip on expectations was on display throughout the episode, from Jamie and Claire’s rapport of equals, to Geillis’ clever handling of her husband, to Claire’s daydream of Mrs Fitz turning on her in fear ultimately contradicted by a scene in which the older woman supports Claire’s plea to let her tend to a sick boy.

With that in mind, there’s plenty of female solidarity on display here, from Claire attempting to be Laoghaire’s wingman (woman) in her attempt to snag Jamie’s attention, to Geillis convincing her husband to go easy on the young thief born partly out of Claire’s concern, and the aforementioned support Mrs Fitz gives Claire in the face of the ominous priest.

I like that we’re still getting glimpses of Claire’s old life in the midst of his 18th century story. The 1940s was very much a period of transition and seeing Claire struggling to cope with the differences between the centuries is brought into stronger relief by the fact that she’s not from our time. It’s a period piece within a period piece, and in a way that gives Claire the advantage of not being too shell-shocked from the loss of modern technology, whilst still being shaken by some of the customs that go on around her.

Just think about how different this show would be if Claire came from 2014 instead of the 1940s.

She’s also intelligent enough to realize some of the dangers inherent in the past; namely the marriage of superstition and sexism that could very easily lead to the conclusion of: “witch!” Her daydream about Mrs Fitz turning on her with fear and loathing was indicative of this latent fear (one that was portrayed without any need for a voiceover!), and though she ends up as an ally to Claire, the priest’s anger and embarrassment that he’s been shown up by a woman will surely be back to haunt her.

(As an aside, I think they went a bit overboard in the depiction of this guy – not just the dismal attitude, but the heavy dark shadows around his eyes. He was practically the Grim Reaper!)

I’m also a bit worried about Geillis. The woman oozes mystery, and yet seems to be testing Claire somehow. Between her red hair and her herb-craft she’s a shoe-in for the role of witch, and her interest in Claire leads me to suspect that she suspects there’s more to her new friend than meets the eye. Given that the harpist at the end was singing a tale that reflects Claire’s experiences, perhaps there’s a chance that this sort of time-travelling malarkey has happened before.

But most of this was the details. The main gist of the plot involved Claire attempting to get into Colum’s good graces by working as an obedient healer – yet her success with Colum’s leg pain and the boy’s “possession” only makes her more valuable to the community. In the latter case she and Jamie form something of an investigative team when it comes to exploring a place called Black Kirk, where boys go to “prove their manhood” and consequently get gravely ill.

The townsfolk put it down to demonic possession, but Claire naturally concludes they’ve been eating something that’s bad for them. Due to her already-established skills at botany and her historical foreknowledge (though she slips for a second and asks if the monks come from “Germany” instead of “Prussia”) she identifies Lily of the Valley, a plant that’s very similar to the harmless wood garlic.

It was a great way of crafting a plot that catered to a character’s abilities without feeling hopelessly contrived (off the top of my head, Once Upon a Time too often contorted itself in the attempt to make a plot hinge on Belle’s love of books).

Ultimately this episode explores the world that Claire has found herself in, even as she tries to escape it. It delves into the good and bad qualities of a community and those who are shaped by it, so even as Claire is witness to a terrible brutality (the young thief who gets his ear nailed to a pillar) and animosity (the antagonist priest) she’s also privy to vulnerability among its strongest members (Colum and Jamie’s self-consciousness about their respective injuries), familiar patterns of behaviour (Geillis gently manipulating her husband without him realizing it, Laoghaire making a pass at Jamie) and moments of unexpected insight (the Scotsman at the table telling Claire that Jamie needs a woman, not someone who will be “a girl until she’s fifty” and Mrs Fitz making a stand for her nephew’s life in direct contrast to Claire’s worst-case-scenario daydream).

And then there’s that which comes entirely unexpectedly but naturally – a rapport with Jamie that allows the two of them to communicate without words, to effortlessly pull off a rescue of the young thief from the pillar, and to talk as equals without emasculation or posturing. As with last week, I’m still not entirely captivated by the romance (yeah it’s weird, as I know that for some people it’s the only reason they’re watching) but I’m glad that the show is taking its time in establishing their attraction to each other.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Exploring Tropes: Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Meet Biff.

He’s worried about an upcoming flight on a commercial airline, so decides to consult the local fortune-teller to get some idea of what to expect. She gazes into his palm and intones: “there will be a terrible accident....”

Beside himself with anxiety, Biff certainly isn’t paying much attention to the road when he drives to the airport the following day. In fact, he’s so distracted that he doesn’t notice the large truck coming straight toward him at the intersection. Boom.

Bye Biff. If only you hadn’t gone to see that fortune teller, you would have landed safely in Florida.

Is there anything more infuriatingly satisfying or satisfyingly infuriating as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? I mean, these things seem specially designed to make you tear your hair out in frustration while simultaneously forcing you to marvel at the devastating irrevocability of the universe. It’s a one-on-one grudge match in which free will meets destiny and both self-destruct in each other’s faces.

These things pop up everywhere, and for a species that so often extols the virtues of free will, free choice, free parking and the somewhat ill-defined concept of freedom in every other department of our lives, we can’t seem to escape our storytelling fixation of dooming characters all to the all-powerful workings of fate.

For when this trope is in play, it’s not enough that our protagonist is bound by fate, oh no, she makes herself into the very instrument of the fate she is trying to avoid. By actively trying to avoid her destiny, she instigates the events that will force it to unfold. The more she struggles against it, the more inescapable the net becomes.

It would appear Fate and Irony are old drinking buddies, and when a Prophecy joins them at the bar, they band together to troll anyone who overhears them.

Closely aligned to You Can’t Fight Fate and Because Destiny Says So, a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy has two crucial components: firstly, that someone is actively trying to prevent a prophecy (usually a pretty dire one) from happening, and secondly that the actions they take end up creating the very circumstances they were hoping to avoid.

Yeah, it’s a bitch – but the only other option is to simply do nothing.

In a real life scenario that tactic might just work... but you can’t get away with it in fiction. On a Doylist level, it would result in a very short and boring book. On a Watsonian level, characters involved in trying to avert a prophecy are either too paranoid to realize the trap they’re walking into, or Genre Savvy enough to take sensible steps to counteract the inevitable sequence of events, think that they’ve managed to outwit fate, and then blunder straight into the prophesied situation anyway, usually thanks to totally unforeseen forces outside their control.

Damn, looking at it written out like that really makes me wonder why this trope is so prolific. Where’s the appeal in the assertion that we are all helpless pawns when up against the power of fate? In which our ability to shape events based on our own personal choices is an illusion designed by be shattered by story’s end?

Maybe that’s not the point. A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is often used to explore a character’s reaction to it. Is it with paranoia, defiance, nihilism or something else entirely? How would you be changed by foreknowledge of some terrible event in your future? Would you accept it, or would you fight it (knowing that the fighting might well force you directly into it?)

So let’s look at some examples of this trope in action and see if we can find the answer. As ever, these are the most illustrative examples of the trope, chosen so that we can see how a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy can be used in a variety of different ways in fiction.

1. Oogway’s Prophecy in Kung Fu Panda

This is a good one to start with, for this Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is used as a relatively minor plot device. The characterization that it initiates is not based in reacting to the prophecy itself, but rather in the lead-up and consequences of it being fulfilled. In fact, you could remove it from the story completely and there would be no significant change in the characters, plot or themes.

Like I said, it’s just a plot device.

Here’s the setup: Years ago the vicious and dangerous Tai Lung was imprisoned after laying waste to the valley. Now the wise and sage-like Oogway has come to the Jade Palace to bring Master Shifu some grave news. Oogway has had a vision that Tai Lung will escape his incarceration.

Horrified, Shifu calls for a messenger bird and sends him to Chorh-Gom Prison with orders to crack down on security. The messenger – Zeng – arrives, only for the prison warden to be so insulted by Shifu’s orders that he insists on a tour to demonstrate just how secure Tai Lung is. Within the massive stone complex Tai Lung is held captive by weights and heights, drawbridges and elevators, chains and a shell-like casement that paralyzes everything but his tail.

Escape is impossible – but then one stray feather floats from Zeng’s wing, landing in reach of Tai Lung’s tail. It’s all he needs to open up the casement that holds him, starting a chain reaction that culminates in his freedom (I’m understating it; this sequence is awesome).

If Shifu hadn’t heard the prophecy, he would have never sent Zeng to investigate; if Zeng had never been sent to investigate, Tai Lung would have never broken free.

Why does it work so well? Because it’s so simple, so understated. Shifu never even realizes that he was the one to ensure the prophecy’s fulfilment, and it’s not mentioned again for the rest of the film. You may have even missed it the first time around, though Oogway quietly lampshades the trope by saying: “one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.”

Judging from the gleam in his eye, Oogway knew exactly what he was doing when he shared his vision (if there even was a vision), accurately predicting that even though Tai Lung would escape, it would ultimately lead to the rise of the Dragon Warrior and Shifu finding inner peace.

It’s a great example of how you can use a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy to push along a plot without relying on it as the central component of the entire story. And when you think about it – that’s rare. Self-Fulfilling Prophecies are usually character-defining devices, standing front and centre of any given story; a definitive experience in any character’s life. Though this one certainly had ramifications, it could have just as easily been omitted (say, if Tai Lung had escaped entirely on his own) but serves as a neat little manoeuvre to get the ball rolling.

2. Rumplestiltskin’s Prophecy in Once Upon a Time

Of all the innovations that Once Upon a Time originally had, Rumplestiltskin was one of its best. His backstory was rich, his relationship with his son poignant, and his Machiavellian manipulations one of the show’s highpoints.

On a show that features a lot of flashbacks, there’s plenty of wriggle-room in which to explore and expand a character’s backstory. Occasionally the writers go too often to the well, making family trees far too convoluted to be feasible, but midway through season two, they decided to showcase Rumplestiltskin’s fateful decision to desert the army and return home to his wife and newborn son.

Up until this episode, we knew several things about Rumple’s experiences in the Ogre Wars: that he was enlisted, that he dropped out, and that he was branded a coward for it. This episode does nothing to alter those basic facts – what it does do is change the entire context of them.

Here’s the set-up: Rumplestiltskin is excited about joining the army and fighting in the Ogre Wars, seeing it as a way of escaping the shadow of his father’s cowardly reputation.

But once stationed on the front Rumplestiltskin is ordered to guard a caged prisoner: a little girl with her lids sewn up and a pair of eyeballs in her palms. Calling herself a seer, she proves her credentials by accurately summing up Rumplestiltskin’s backstory: “the son of a coward, raised by spinsters, scared of ending up just like his father,” before telling him that his wife Milah is with child.

She’ll say no more until she gets a drink of water, and when Rumplestiltskin complies she tells him: “your actions on the battlefield will leave [your son] fatherless.”

She throws in a Prophecy Twist for good measure, telling him that the army will ride cows into battle. When Rumplestiltskin realizes that this is a euphemism for the saddles on the newly-arrived horses, he’s convinced that he’ll die in battle the following day. He takes a mallet and smashes his own foot, returning home to a furious wife and newborn son Baelfire.

But as the audience already knows, this decision costs him dearly. Branded a coward by the community, he loses his wife and reputation, turns to dark magic, terrorizes his son, and starts a domino effect that leads directly to Baelfire getting swept through a portal into another world – and thus growing up fatherless.

Why does it work so well? It’s a classic, inserted neatly into an established backstory that enriches it without contradicting anything that’s gone before. Rumplestiltskin’s story is probably the most interesting in the show, comprised of one long series of manipulations and betrayals from various beings that are beyond Rumplestiltskin’s control. He never actively goes looking for trouble, it’s the Shadow and the Seer and the Dark One that find him, leaving him to react (badly) to their influence.

So the tragedy of Rumplestiltksin’s life is that he’s just as often the victim of other people’s machinations as his own bad choices, though when he once more crosses paths with the Seer he’s given a rather disturbing response to his claim that he never had a chance of knowing how things would have turned out. She tells him that: “knowing would not have made a difference; you still would have been powerless to escape your fate.”

That right there is one of the most troubling components of this trope: for who’s to say that even if the subject of a prophecy doesn’t respond to it, it won’t come true anyway? If Oogway hadn’t told Shifu about Tai Lung’s imminent escape, would he have escaped anyway? And if Rumplestiltskin had ignored the Seer and marched into battle, would he have died in battle and left his son without a father regardless?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And unlike Oogway (though much like most other oracles) the Seer is an enigma. What exactly was her motive in reaching out to Rumplestiltskin? Was it simply for a drink of water? Did she want to rile him enough so that in the future he would kill her and take away her burden? Or did she just like messing with people?

The disadvantage of using a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy as a plot device is that quite often the contributor of the prophecy ends up being a Flat Character; the mouthpiece for the important plot point and nothing more.  And when you realize that nothing in these stories would ever happen if not for the oracles sharing their prophecies (often to unwitting listeners) the question arises as to WHY these individuals chose to disclose them.

That’s a question that can also be asked of our next example.

3. The Crystal Cave’s Prophecy in Merlin

Yes reader, I returned to Merlin in order to complete this list, though I’m still trying to get this show out of my system.  There was a time when it could convey some frustratingly good material (which only made the eventual lack of effort all the more painful) and the episode The Crystal Cave provides a damn near perfect model of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

The mysterious oracle, the reluctant participant, the growing paranoia, the tightening of the noose, the misunderstood resolution, the examination of free will versus destiny – it’s all present and accounted for. It even has a little mini-self-fulfilling prophecy just to introduce the concept, and is altogether so well-put together that it’s nearly impossible to grasp that this was the same show that had two whole episodes centre on a troll that ate shit.

Here’s the set-up: Merlin and Arthur are on the run from bandits when they stumble into the Valley of the Fallen Kings. Arthur is gravely injured and looks near death when a mysterious man calling himself Taliesin appears and uses magic to heal him. With Arthur still unconscious, Taliesin urges Merlin to enter a nearby cave.

Against his instincts, Merlin begins to examine the myriad of crystals that cover the walls, seeing within them plenty of strange images, most of which involve Morgana (who by this point is an enemy of Camelot living within its walls). In order, they are Morgana calming a skittish horse, Morgana drawing a jewelled dagger, Morgana in a red cloak walking down a hallway, a finger dripping with red blood, Merlin crying out with fire burning behind him, and finally Morgana stabbing Uther in his sleep with the dagger.

After tearing his eyes away from the images, Merlin collapses in what seems to be terror and pain, demanding to know what has just happened. But Taliesin has vanished.

Like most targets of dire prophecy, Merlin reacts with paranoia and fear. He believes that the images he saw in the crystals are imminent, and that it’s his task to stop Uther’s death from occurring. Any reassurance from Gaius is quickly obliterated after he hears that Arthur plans to give Morgana a dagger for her birthday, followed by the sight of Morgana struggling with her horse in the courtyard.

Yet there is a brief reprieve once he sees the dagger that Arthur has picked out for Morgana: it’s plain and small, nothing at all like the jewelled one in the vision. Merlin is so relieved that he makes an off-hand comment about how women like jewellery – which of course, inspires Arthur to switch the dagger for a more ornate one.

It’s a perfect mini-example of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

By this time Merlin is in a panic, so much so that he doesn’t realize the implications of being directly responsible for at least one of the visions coming true. He ends up camping outside Morgana’s room in order to monitor her throughout the night.

Meanwhile, Morgana receives a message from Morgause, requesting that they meet in the forest. Slipping the dagger into her belt, Morgana leaves her bedroom in the middle of the night, leaving Merlin to naturally assume that she’s on her way to assassinate Uther. But by using his magic to slam a door in her face, he accidentally disrupts a heavy candelabrum that pushes her down a stairwell. She ends up cracking her head open on the stone floor.

Merlin has averted her attempted assassination (or so he thinks) but is guilt ridden over her impending death. Having wanted only to prevent something much worse from happening, he chooses to heal her. Unfortunately, this does not occur until after Uther confesses something on her deathbed: that she’s his biological daughter.

Restored to health and realizing that Uther will never acknowledge her as his own child, Morgana now has the perfect motive to kill him in his sleep. Morgause sneaks into the castle to hear the news, rejoicing that her sister now has a legitimate claim to the throne and killing a guard as she escapes the castle.

As Gaius and Merlin tend to the man’s body, Merlin gets a glimpse of his hand – it’s the same image from his vision, though it’s not blood that drips from his fingers, but wine. He rushes to Morgana’s room, fulfilling the final images of himself wreathed in flames (Morgana tips over a candle) and Morgana marching to Uther’s room (furious at Uther’s rejection of her), but at the last second Merlin manages to avert the assassination. Morgana raises the dagger, but Uther waking up in shock is actually the result of Merlin breaking the window.

Now he’s left with the sobering truth: that he was the one who brought about this destiny, and that Morgana now knows Uther is her father – endangering Arthur, the only one who stands between her and the throne.

Why it works so well: Arthurian legend is full of misleading prophecies and Merlin has already featured several episodes that play with the characterization and tropes apparent here. It’s very in character for Merlin to respond in this way to a prophecy, for when given the choice, he can never NOT act on something (he similarly finds himself unable to simply let Mordred die). Likewise, Morgana’s impetuousness and self-righteousness is very well established by this point.

More than that, the show itself has (up until this point) been remarkably consistent when it comes to portraying the fulfilment of portentous dreams and visions. Every glimpse of the future that anyone has experienced comes to pass, though not necessarily in the way they expect it. The Crystal Cave therefore comes across as a primer’s guide to Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, with all bases and outcomes accorded for, and complete with that little mini-prophecy over the dagger that serves as a neat bit of foreshadowing for the final act.

The self-fulfilling aspect of the prophecy is clear enough, but what we’re left with is the lingering question of what exactly Taliesin and the Crystal Cave were hoping to achieve by having Merlin look into the crystals in the first place. Presumably they wanted Morgana to learn the truth about her parentage (or else why lead Merlin into the cave?) but why exactly was it so important to them that Merlin kick-start this train of events?

Like Rumplestiltskin’s seer, their motives remain a mystery.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the crystals were (in Gaius’s words) “treacherous”. The visions they depicted were deceptive in regards to the stages in which they took place, as the first set (Morgana with the horse, the dagger and walking down the hallway) took place some time before the second ones (the bloodied hand, Morgana holding the dagger above her head, Uther waking up in shock). Even the fact that the guard’s hand was covered in wine instead of blood demonstrates how untrustworthy the Crystal Cave is.

Unfortunately, the show never offers up any other insight on either Taliesin or the Cave. Though Taliesin says that “perhaps there was a reason you were brought here at this moment in time,” we’re left to conclude that the reason must have been to kick-start a domino effect that eventually ends with Arthur’s death.

It’s a case of somebody having a prophecy flung at them without their permission by an oracle with obscure motivation, leaving them to struggle with damage control afterwards – a direct inversion of the next example.

4. Demona’s Prophecy in Gargoyles

Gargoyles was wasted on children, it really was. Having watched it growing up in the nineties, the experience of coming back to it as an adult was like being slapped in the face – if being slapped in the face was a pleasant experience. The foreshadowing, the literary allusions, the themes of prejudice and tolerance, freaking Demona!! Seriously, all this was for kids? Man, they get the best stuff.

The show contained a number of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, but what sets them apart from the others on this list is that many of them were brought about by the element of time travel, with the characters themselves inadvertently setting a course toward their own destinies (as opposed to the intrusion of an oracle).

When it came to the show’s utilization of time travel, creator Greg Weisman veered more toward R.T. Davies’s Stable Time Loops than Stephen Moffat’s Timey Wimey Ball, though such things were pulled off with infinitely more care. Such was the case in the episode Vows, and for the sake of simplicity, I’ll tell it in chronological order (whereas the episode starts in the present-day before moving backwards in time).

Here’s the setup: A clan of gargoyles live uneasily alongside humans at Castle Wyvern. Though their leader Goliath maintains a steady truce, his partner Demona (as she will eventually become known) is starting to bristle at the intolerance and fear her people are subjected to.

And then one night she’s visited by her future self, wielding an instrument known as the Phoenix Gate (allowing its bearer to transport backwards and forwards through time) and claiming that she has grave news. Her future self takes Demona to a point in time after her clan has been destroyed; each gargoyle smashed to rubble while they slept. This, her future self warns her, is what awaits the clan if she continues to trust humankind.

It’s a warning – a prophecy – that damns her. Though intervention from Future!Goliath sets time back on its rightful course, a fatal seed of doubt has been planted in Demona’s mind.

It’s only a matter of time before she orchestrates a Viking raid on the castle, one in which she and a human cohort sabotage the castle’s defences, instruct the Vikings to attack during the day (when the gargoyles are in their stone sleep) and plan to claim the castle for their own once the humans have gone. By this point Demona is sick to death of the treatment the gargoyles endure at the hands of humans, but after watching Vows it’s also easy to infer that she’s haunted by her future self’s premonition.

And of course, her plan goes terribly wrong. Though Demona planned for all the gargoyles to be absent from the castle on the day of the attack (chasing a fake trail left by the Vikings), Goliath opts to take only his mentor, leaving the rest of the clan vulnerable. And though her human ally promises to protect them while they sleep, the entire clan is pulverised by the Vikings’ weapons, their leader not willing to risk their anger come nightfall.

Demona only escapes by taking refuge on the beach the night before, sparing her from the inevitable massacre that follows.

Meanwhile, once Goliath and Demona return to the future, they realize that nothing has changed. Demona’s life still took its tragic curse precisely because she decided to go back in time – and in fact, this is the very reason she did so in the first place, mocking Goliath with her assertion that manipulating her younger self into becoming who she is now was her plan all along.

Why it works so well: Granted, this example could have just as easily been defined as a Stable Time Loop as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. But I wanted to put it here because it is quite literally self-fulfilling. Demona spurred her younger self into taking drastic action against the humans, deliberately neglecting to tell her younger self the specifics of how and why the massacre came about.

That a person could be the instrument of their own tragedy, to play the part of the oracle that delivers the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy to their younger self, to blame humans for their woes and let their younger self use that misdirected rage to warp her own sense of right and wrong until she becomes the very person that she once feared and hated– that’s Shakespearean in its tragic grandeur, and Demona hasn’t even met Macbeth yet.

Of course, things still might have happened this way even without Future!Demona’s interference (as anyone would naturally assume before watching Vows), but this added time-travel adventure certainly fleshes out her motivation and tragedy to an even deeper extent. I guarantee you’ll never forget that heart-rending moment when the younger Demona tells her future self: “I do not wish to be you!”

And I haven’t even touched on some of the other wonderful elements strewn throughout this episode: how Demona learns how to use the Phoenix Gate (she watches her future self do it and memorizes her words), how David Xanatos becomes a millionaire (he hijacks Demona’s plans and ends up sending a priceless coin to his future self from the past) and how Hudson manages to help Goliath in both the past and the future (his behaviour is subtle, but the second time around it’s clear that his contemporary self knew all along what would happen if Goliath attended Xanatos’s wedding).

It’s incredible that all this was packed into under thirty minutes. Like I said, wasted on kids.

5. The Oracle’s Prophecy from The Matrix

Here’s a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy that’s short and sweet, which as an added bonus, is lamp-shaded by the participants.

Here’s the setup: Machines have taken over the world and enslaved all of mankind. Not that they know it – from infancy to death 99% of the world’s population live out their existence inside what’s known as The Matrix, a computer programme that makes everyone inside it believe they’re going about normal lives when in actuality their bodies are being used as batteries to fuel the machines. Yeah, it sucks.

But years ago one individual managed to break free of the Matrix’s control and start waking up others from their machine-induced slumber. After he died, the Oracle foretold that one day he would return, and that it would herald the end of the Matrix once and for all. Clearly a lot is riding on this prophecy, and Morpheus – the man prophesied to find the One – is certain that he’s found him.

Neo, the potential Chosen One, is taken to see the Oracle in order to have his future read. She is described as a guide, someone who “knows enough”, and when we finally see her she appears both mysterious and mundane at the same time: a grandmotherly figure baking cookies. Yet her omniscient is proved when she kicks a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy into gear.

“Don’t worry about the vase,” she says, a comment that makes Neo look around in confusion and upset a vase sitting on a small table next to him. It hits the floor and shattered instantly. “I said don’t worry about,” she continues. “What’s really going to bake your noodle later is: would you have still broken it if I hadn’t said anything?”

There you have it: a perfect Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in less than sixty seconds, with the added bonus of the Oracle actually lamp-shading how fatalistic it all seems.

Why Does It Work So Well? It’s cute, it’s funny and it’s quick, but this particular Self-Fulfilling Prophecy is also important in regards to the larger context of the film. It serves as a way for the Oracle to prove her credentials when it comes to manipulating cause and effect, and so set Neo up for what she has to tell him. On giving him a fake examination (and guiding him through the beats of their ensuing conversation) she informs him that he’s not the One, and that an Either-Or Prophecy is before him: he can save his own life, or he can save Morpheus’s.

By the end of the film we learn that Neo is the One, and that the Oracle was deliberately deceiving him as part of ploy to make him unlock his full potential – something that could only be done by having him chose to save Morpheus’s life.

In short: she lies. I mentioned earlier that Oracles are inherently mysterious, and that much of the time there’s no real understanding of their agenda or the reasons behind why they decide to share their fateful prophecies. But here is an Oracle with a personality and a plan, someone who knows how to use her omniscient knowledge to make others do exactly what she wants.

It’s a mingling of immutable destiny and free will that we seldom see when this trope is in play; one in which the giver of the prophecy is just as important as its subject.

Is Neo the One because of her words, or despite them? Would he have taken his chosen course of action regardless of her prophecy, or did he do it solely because of it? Is the Oracle banking on the certainty of fate or the decency of human beings to act in a particular way? What was stronger in this scenario, destiny or free will? And would Neo have still broken that vase if she had kept her mouth shut? 

This example had to be on the list not only because it opens up so many fantastic questions, but because there’s just as much emphasis on the Oracle as a character. I’ve banished the sequels from my memory, but as a standalone movie The Matrix provides a wonderful example of an oracle that manages to be more than just a plot device.

6. Oedipus’s Prophecy in Oedipus Rex

Well, it’s only fitting to end with something from Greek mythology, for it’s from here that the trope originates. Lovers of tragedy and irony, the Greek playwrights and storytellers strived to tear at your heartstrings, and as an added bonus, weren’t afraid to throw in incest, patricide and self-mutilation.

Is there a more tragic Greek hero than Oedipus? Theseus brought it on himself, Achilles was a jerk, Bellerophon should have known better, and Jason was always a bit of an idiot – but Oedipus? If ever a fictional character was kicked in the nuts by a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy it was this guy. He’s probably the first figure who comes to mind when you hear the term, for everything in his life is defined by a terrible prophecy spoken over him while he was a child.

(Or perhaps you just recognise the name from the time Buffy, Willow and Xander performed the Sophocles play back in high school).

Here’s the set up: In the city of Thebes a child is born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta, only for a terrible prophecy to be spoken over the infant boy: that one day he will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. In a desperate attempt to avert this prophecy, Laius has the boy’s ankles pierced and tethered together (to prevent him from crawling away) and gives him to a servant to leave on Mount Kithairon.

There he is found by a shepherd and passed from one to the next until he’s given to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who raise the child as their own, naming him Oedipus, which means “swollen foot”.

He grows up happily enough, until the day a drunken man at a feast accuses him of being a bastard. Though his parents deny it, Oedipus seeks out answers from the Oracle of Delphi, who shares with him the prophecy that one day he will kill his father and marry his mother.  Determined not to return home, Oedipus continues toward Thebes.

At a three-pronged crossroad, Oedipus gets into an altercation with a man riding a chariot over who has the right of way. Losing his temper, Oedipus kills the man, totally unaware that it is King Laius of Thebes – his own father.

He continues on to Thebes, currently plagued by a terrible sphinx that asks a riddle of all travellers and kills them if they cannot answer it correctly: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?" Oedipus is the first person to realize the answer is: “a man.” Having defeated the sphinx, he continues on to the city where it’s been decreed that any man who can rid the city of the sphinx will become King of Thebes and marry its recently widowed Queen Jocasta. This Oedipus does, and the prophecy is (unknowingly) fulfilled.

It’s not until many years – and many children – later that the truth is revealed, leading to Jocasta hanging herself and Oedipus blinding himself and leaving the kingdom to enter self-imposed exile.

Why does it work so well? It’s hard to imagine anyone going to see this story performed for fun, as it’s such a sad and sordid tale. And yet Sophocles’s Oedipus the King is hugely popular, both today and back when it was first written (in fact, it won second prize in the City Dionysia at its original performance!) It’s now considered one of the finest Greek tragedies of all time, capturing all the themes that we’ve come to expect from this particular subgenre and delivering a deeply cathartic experience.

As far as adaptations go, I’d definitely recommend the 1968 version. It was filmed in Greece and stars Christopher Plummer as Oedipus, Lilli Palmer as Jocasta, and Orson Welles as Tiresias. Structured almost as a mystery, in which Oedipus seeks to uncover the truth behind the death of the previous king and the current plague that’s threatening the city, you can feel the dread beginning to mount as the players inch closer to the truth.

The drawing out of the revelation and the delaying of the inevitable is excruciating, as is Oedipus’s mounting despair and desperate need to know the truth: “Oh Zeus, what plaything will you make of me?” Some of the line deliveries are spine-chilling, such as Tiresias intoning: “you and your most dearly beloved are wrapped together in hideous sin,” and “no man alive shall see his life so ground away.”

Even better, Oedipus’s temper is continually demonstrated during the investigation as he lashes out at his brother-in-law and various witnesses, though there’s a heart-breaking tenderness to his interactions with Jocasta (who has a long braid thrown over her shoulder/around her neck to foreshadow her eventual hanging).

It’s these flashes of rage that exemplify the central theme of any given story that includes a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy – that of free will versus fate. In this story it is Oedipus’s own fatal flaw that contributes to his tragic downfall, even as outside forces beyond his control force him into the doom that defines his life.

Which is more responsible for what happens to Oedipus? After all, Oedipus chooses not to return to Corinth after hearing the oracle, just as he chooses to head toward Thebes, to kill Laius, to marry and to take Jocasta as his bride. But all these choices were brought about by the terrible prophecy that drives him on. Was any of it avoidable, or was it simply meant to be?

The moment of final realization is heart-stopping and Lilli Palmer’s Jocasta in particular reacts to the truth with what is perhaps the finest bit of acting I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, Christopher Plummer’s Oedipus stands there, learning from a shepherd that he was meant to die as a baby in order to prevent his terrible life from ever happening, able to do nothing but let it all sink in...


It’s for moments like these that the concept of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies was invented.


So there you have it; six of my favourite Self-Fulfilling Prophecies.

But what is it that makes them so tantalizing? Why do writers keep adding that wicked twist to the way characters react to predictions? As the trope been around since Ancient Greece (at least) it obviously has a great deal of power and sustainability.

Some might say it’s a treatise on the irrevocability of fate. Even when you know what’s going to happen to you, you still can’t stop it from happening to you (and in fact, you’ll be the one who actually makes it happen). You’re free to act as you wish, but your foreknowledge ensures that you’ll end up doing exactly what fate decreed. 

So the moral seems to be that even when you think you gain knowledge, you’ll still lack the understanding in which to deal with it. When you include a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy into your story, you’re consciously or unconsciously making a statement about the futility of free will and the entrapment of fate.

But I also think that the trope relates to that other great Greek theme: hubris. To desire foreknowledge, to go in search of foreknowledge, and then to be destroyed by that foreknowledge seems to suggest that some things just aren’t meant to be known – at least not ahead of schedule. It is our fear of the future that leads us straight into what we dread most.

Of course, we’ve seen that there can be plenty of variations on the different components of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. If you’re thinking about adding one to your own fiction, then consider the following elements:

1. The subject.

There is a huge difference between a character who goes in search of foreknowledge and one who has a prophecy sprung upon them. If you’re going to use a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in order to examine the difference between free will and predestination, then consider how your protagonist goes about learning the prophecy in the first place, and the nature of the choices they make in their attempt to avoid it. Are they are Merlin or a Demona, a Rumplestiltskin or an Oedipus?

Your protagonist should raise the question that always lingers around Self-Fulfilling Prophecies – that even if the receivers of these prophecies HADN’T decided to act against them in a futile attempt to outwit them – who’s to say that they wouldn’t have come true anyway? What is it about their personalities (Oedipus's temper, Rumplestiltskin's cowardice, Merlin's inability to do nothing) that makes them victims of foreknowledge?

2. The agents of fate. 

That’s a term I’ve just made up to describe all those soothsayers, oracles, prophets, seers and augurs who get the ball rolling in regards to plot. In all cases, the prophecy itself is the trigger, whether it be Oedipus screwing his mother or Tai Lung escaping from prison or Neo knocking over that vase. If the assorted seers had just kept quiet, then disaster would have been completely avoided. So why do they have to go and open their big mouths?

The answer on a Doylist level: plot – duh. But on a Watsonian level? Is there ever an in-story explanation behind these oracular characters sharing their fatal knowledge? Oogway of Kung Fu Panda and the Oracle of The Matrix add weight to the theory that all such prophets are fully omniscient instigators of whatever predictions they spout. But the likes of Merlin’s Taliesin and Once Upon a Time’s Seer are a different story, with their agendas kept totally shrouded.

When depicting an oracle, ask yourself: What is their motivation? How much do they really understand regarding the prophecies they speak? About what the protagonists will do with that information? Where is their knowledge even coming from? Are they sharing these particular prophecies because they know what will happen or because they want to make it happen? Are they benevolent, malevolent or totally neutral?

These are highly mysterious beings, and you could end up with a pretty fascinating character if you examined them in more detail.

3. Fall out

So you’ve chucked a prophecy into your story –what happens next? Are you going to come down on the side of fate or free will? Ask around and people will embrace the idea that they are in control of everything they do in life. Yet in our fiction, whenever the concept of prophecy or destiny turn up, things will always fall in favour of fate.

So in crafting your own Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, it’s important to keep in mind that their appeal lies in our powerlessness to beat them. By their very definition a prophecy HAS to happen, or else it’s just meaningless words. And as strange as it sounds, there is a sense of security in knowing that something, however horrible, is bound to happen. In life, there is only one fate accorded to every one of us: we will die one day. Perhaps that inevitability is the source of all our interest in prophecies and destiny.

So what have we learned here?

The moral of the stories mentioned on my list seems to be to leave the future where it belongs. Stop demanding answers. The choices we make now, with the information we have, is the wisest way to shape the future.  Self-Fulfilling Prophesies are just a trap.


And hey, if you’re ever the subject of a prophecy, there’s always the chance you’ll end up fulfilling it yourself. My advice? Follow your conscience, stick to common sense and try to get on with your life. Because you don’t want to end up like the people on this list. Most of them at least. Neo did okay.