Sunday, January 3, 2016

One Tale Told, Retold

In 1977 we were in transition between Virginia and Minnesota. I was already in Minneapolis; the family was still in Fairfax, VA when Star Wars made its debut in March of that year. I went to see it at a drive-in movie on an impulse: an advertising placard caught my eye as I was driving to my temporary apartment. The film made a great impression on me—not its science fiction aspects, which were quite stunning, of course, but rather something that was altogether novel in the environment of that time. The film deliberately presented to our popular culture the transcendental aspect of reality, and did so in a straightforward, serious, and approving manner. It was the Force—which was with you.

I did not know then what has taken place since. The story has been retold seven times since then—with essentially the same plot and by archetypal character: Good versus evil, and the Good triumphant by the slenderest of margins.

In the transition between 2015 and 2016, another show, Downton Abbey, is beginning its last season on this side of the divide. It is another case of one tale, retold each season. Such a feat is possible if one’s drawn to the story by the characters; Downton’s characters have much more human depth than Star Wars’, to be sure, but the repeating plot, with endless variations, is once more a kind of departure from our flagging faith in Progress and return to eternal values. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We haven’t seen Season VI of Downton Abbey, but we’re fairly sure that its story line will faithfully echo all earlier seasons: same conflicts, same resolutions. One watches such shows not for the predictable plot but just to see how life unfolds, infinitely variably but ever the same.

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