Friday, October 30, 2020

ARTICLE: Lonely Deakin: The Silent Epidemic

(This article was originally published in Wordly Magazine in May 2020.  You can read the original article here:

Loneliness seems to be an epidemic in our society and, at university, it’s an insidious problem that often appears invisible. Portrayals of campus life in TV and film soon give way to the sobering reality that, for some of us, attending university can be a painfully solitary experience.

James Patrik Lonely Deakin

As a student of Psychology, these ideas began to percolate as I perused the Deakin Love Letters Facebook page. Like a KFC dinner, it’s a guilty pleasure. It often succinctly and effectively captures the zeitgeist of all campuses on any given day. Before too long, I began to notice an emerging trend in some of the comments and posts: lonely students, crying out for simple companionship and human contact. Sound familiar?  Examples of students in second, third, and even fourth year who had ‘no one to talk to’ became commonplace. I was shocked. How could this be possible?

It was sheer dumb luck that I made some friends in my first week at Deakin. It was affection and a considerable amount of effort that helped keep us together. Two years later, we’re a surrogate family, even welcoming a new member into our fold. Typically, we see each other multiple times a week, simply hanging around, conversing on subjects both profound and trivial. Common interests certainly helped cement our friendship. A shared passion for science fiction, anime, and junk food continues to be the glue that binds us so profoundly.

Speaking solely for myself, my friends have been an emotional bulletproof vest—a flak jacket protecting me from self-doubt, stress, depressive episodes, and the ever-present urge to quit university and get a job at Kmart.

Cheesy as it may be to admit, what we have is unique. Special. Why don’t others have it?  What’s stopping people from making friends? Why are they so lonely? To answer these questions, I decided a frank conversation with my own group was in order. They, too, have had little luck forging new connections outside our circle.

Unsurprisingly, the blame was quickly laid at the feet of social media, and by extension, increased internet use. This perspective is hardly novel, but hearing it articulated by my peers was surprising. 

One friend offered, ‘People don’t have the social skills they used to because of social media.  Fear of other people is heightened once the safety net of the phone is removed.’

‘It’s nature versus nurture. Some people have grown up online. It’s a place where they can behave differently. In the real world, they have to deal with facial expressions and concepts like sarcasm. Conversation can be difficult if you don’t know how to read social cues.’

While laziness surrounding social obligations seemed to add to the problem, my friends were quick to point out that anxiety, a fear of judgment, and good old-fashioned garden-variety shyness were also contributors.

‘People are standoffish and unwilling to make the first move. But then again, so was I. Is that shyness?  It seems like people are very guarded, emotionally.’

One can’t blame a new student from being apprehensive. Commencing study at university is—for most people—a life-altering experience. I can relate. Fuelled by palm-sweating anxiety, I spent my first full week of classes frantically talking to everyone I could in an attempt to forge a connection. Needless to say, I wasn’t always successful. Over-excited (and wearing far too much aftershave), I probably scared some people away!

During O’Week, I decided to enquire about some of the more structured social activities offered by Deakin. A friend who lived on campus for a year offered his perspective:

‘These types of events are fine, but they often cater to the most extroverted types of people. To those who are more introverted, they are off-putting. It doesn’t work for everyone.’

Indeed, it seems like those at the more introverted end of the spectrum constitute a kind of ‘silent majority’ at Deakin. In my own group, activities are often low key: writing, creative endeavours, movie nights, and pointless trips to Chadstone. None of us really enjoy drinking, and our time together is often relaxed and laid back.

‘We introverted people are everywhere—hiding in plain sight,’ offers another friend who would rather spend his evenings watching films than going out.

So, what’s the solution? To anyone new to university, I would humbly offer the following advice: find your people. They’re out there. People like you—no matter how obscure you think your interests are, someone on campus will share them.  Be brave and invest in the search.

Use your fear and know for certain that you are not the only one feeling it. If you’re unsure, simply ‘fake it till you make it’. Act with confidence and, sure enough, real confidence will eventually find you.

Don’t rely on class time to make friends. Sure, they can be a good place to meet people, but classes are tightly structured, leaving little space for conversations to breathe. Try and take that budding rapport to the next level by asking someone to join you for coffee, getting together to study for an upcoming exam, or even walking to and from class. 

Lastly—don’t give up. For those with genuine social anxiety, this may be easier said than done.  University can sometimes seem like a large, scary machine filled with thousands of people. That just means you have an even greater chance of success—greater odds that you will find someone who enjoys the same things as you. University life doesn’t have to feel scary, and you need not walk the path by yourself. Finding yourself a friend could be one of the greatest things you could do for your mental health.

Friday, October 2, 2020

REVIEW: Doctor Who 2008-2010 Specials

For the last two years my friends and I have been on a mission to re-watch the new series of Doctor Who.  The terms of our endeavour are simple – every episode (and minisode) of the revived 2005 series until we are caught up with the current instalments.  Predictably, it’s been a divisive experience – everyone has their favourite characters, storylines and moments and, in a room full of self-confessed nerds - passions run high.

Well into coronavirus lockdown, we rounded the corner to series 4.  It was the first time we’d reached something approximating group consensus.  We each fondly recalled the initial broadcast of the season in 2008 and the esteem in which the popular zeitgeist regarded the show.  Series 4 appeared to be Doctor Who at the height of its critical acclaim with David Tennant reaching near Tom Baker levels of popularity.  Comedienne Catherine Tate joined the cast full time providing the Doctor with a companion who was unafraid to point out his foibles.

Doctor Who Specials James Patrik

The episode themselves were a winning bunch, and in my opinion, represent the most consistently excellent streak of the series.  “The Unicorn and the Wasp” was a unanimous favourite, as was the superlative “Turn Left” with only “Midnight” generating significant debate and splitting opinion.  But it was the series’ two concluding episodes that engendered the most favour.  Sure, they’re a little self-referential and heavy on “fan service”, but the “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End” two parter feels like a reward for ardent fans who’d been there since “Rose”.

Roping in characters from contemporaneous spin offs Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures (while plugging into those show’s own internal continuity seamlessly), “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End” feel more like a series finale rather than simply the end of a season.  Make no mistake, these episodes are top shelf science fiction television.  Cinematic in execution and expansive with their scope (and cast), they are the best exemplars of the broad theatrics and global stakes that became a pleasing trademark of Russel T Davies’ writing.  As well as delivering emotional catharsis for Tennant’s 10th Doctor (and his unresolved feelings for former companion Rose Tyler), it finds room for Daleks and even Davros – not seen since 1988 – played with manic malevolence by Julian Bleach. 

Crisis averted, and Davros dispatched (for now, at least), companions and friends each make their exits in a bittersweet coda which leaves the 10th Doctor alone once more.  Roll credits.  But wait…

It’s in viewing these episodes out of context in a marathon that the problems with the specials make themselves most obviously apparent.  They feel like a deal driven mistake or a contractual obligation of sorts.  A transparent attempt to gain more mileage out of Tennant’s popularity by a production team nervous about the future of the franchise. 

I suppose It’s understandable.  It’s been widely reported that the BBC considered cancelling the show at the time, unsure that any actor would be capable of filling David Tennant’s now battered pair of converse shoes.  So, the “Specials Year” proceeds unevenly, beginning with “The Next Doctor” (an irritatingly manipulative title).  Despite the appearance of the excellent Cyber Shades and the simmering rage of Dervla Kirwan as Miss Hartigan, this is a story that smacks of disappointment.  Once Jackson Lake is revealed to be a poor unfortunate amnesiac, the dramatic tension of the episode dissipates, culminating in a lacklustre finale.

“Planet of the Dead” certainly delivers on sheer spectacle.  With a foreign filming location (Dubai) and finally upgraded to high definition, Doctor Who has never looked or sounded better.  In many ways this episode is quite the visual feast – the metallic Sting Rays of San Helios providing a terrifying addition to the franchise’s pantheon of monsters.  Its agreeable to see Erisa Magambo back in action and the hysterical Malcolm provides a dose of comic relief (and possibly meta-commentary on fandom), but it’s all in service of a story that feels far too trite.  The image of a flying double decker bus is seared in my memory as a creative low point of the year.

Its “Waters of Mars” that finally ups the ante, delivering a handsome slice of grown up science fiction encased within the “base under siege” trope which Doctor Who practically invented.  Lindsay Duncan’s formidable Adelaide Brooke stands toe to toe with the 10TH Doctor – questioning his now dubious morality.  Indeed, it’s an episode whose themes of determinism versus free stand in stark contrast to the cartoonish imagery of its immediate predecessor.  Fan consensus seems to favour this episode as the best of the specials and I’m inclined to concur - especially with its low key (yet jaw dropping) denouement.

Somewhere within the bloated two episode run time of “The End of Time” is contained a decent story.  Unfortunately, David Tennant’s run stumbles to a close with two episodes that often feel directionless and vary wildly in tone.  The morose 10th Doctor - now fully conscious of his impending regeneration - attempts to stop the Master (a revived John Simm) from replacing the planet’s population with clones of himself.  Add to that, an extended 20-minute epilogue in which the Doctor revisits all of his old companions – and I mean all of them.

This sequence feels emotionally redundant – we had already bid most of these characters a proper farewell in “Journey’s End” – do we really need to check in with Mickey Smith one last time?  Most egregious of all is the 10th Doctor’s final scene – his regeneration.  While the notion of sacrificing one’s life for someone else is a noble one, the 10th Doctor seems to do so begrudgingly, making time for an indignant rant about how he could have been “so much more”.  It’s an awful moment.  Instead of meeting his end with bravery or dignity, the character goes out a sobbing mess, petulant and fearful of oblivion.

Still, these five episodes show flashes of brilliance, even if they do interrupt the momentum of a binge watch.  I’ve always personally felt that “Waters of Mars” would have been a perfect regeneration episode for the 10th Doctor – his hubris finally exacting a cost in the form of regeneration.

Like most television, Doctor Who is art and should be applauded or critiqued within the context it was created.  The specials aired months apart at a time when taking a year off was an unknown concept to fans who were still relatively gun-shy following the original series’ cancellation in 1989.  Out of context, watching the episodes one after another felt like a difficult slog – no more than a protracted wait for a new Doctor in the form of Matt Smith.  Despite my criticisms, I feel that the ability to voice them in itself is a luxury.  Gone are the days of Doctor Who being broadcast one season after another, with intermittent breaks now a regular occurrence (and a fact of life where modern television is concerned).  As fans, we can at least be grateful that the creative team at the time – including the inimitable Russel T Davies – saw fit to at least provide fans with some content to sate our appetites.  With the production currently on pause due to the unfortunate state of the world at the moment, we should only be so lucky now.


SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins