Friday, February 14, 2014

Time flies like an arrow

So, Wonder Wife and I have finished watching the complete Dr. Jin, a Korean television show based on a Japanese manga about a modern-day brain surgeon cast back in time to Seoul at the end of the Joseon era, roughly the 1860s. We've had good luck with what I call Seoullywood - for my money, Korean films and TV, particularly the sci-fi, are consistently imaginative and entertaining, and Dr. Jin sure delivered for us.

Jin, initially somewhat cold and arrogant, becomes the very model of medical altruism as he struggles to treat patients with 19th century technology (abetted by a small bag of medical supplies that conveniently traveled with him - more on that later.) Over the course of the season, he handles two subdural hematomas, a cholera outbreak, a case of syphilis (caught from a Westerner, and for which he manufactures penicillin sixty years ahead of time); a tumor on the neck, and a caesarian section, as well as numerous sword and gunshot wounds and the initial emergency tracheotomy that establishes his reputation as an exceptionally skilled doctor.

Of course, a medical drama must be part medicine and part drama, and there's no lack of soap opera here: Jin is attracted to a noblewoman (from a disfavored house) who looks just like his fiancee in the current day, and his first and best friend is a distant royal relative destined to become the Prince Regent in a regime change. There's a puppet king, a scheming Prime Minister and his lackeys (including the Royal Doctor), a stalwart but conflicted police officer, a wise gisaeng (kind of a Korean geisha), a gangster with a heart of gold, and the brother of the noblewoman, who is a scholar by day and a bandit/proto-socialist revolutionary by night. Personal and political intriguing follow Jin's arrival, with Jin sometimes guided by and sometimes confused by his knowledge of the future. It sounds like a total romp, and it is. I'd recommend anyone check it out.

Thee series's only failing (for me) is its model of time travel. It didn't give Wonder Wife too many headaches, because there's not a lot of jumping around - Jin is just stuck in the past - but the show raises a few questions about how it thinks time travel actually works. (What follows is somewhat spoilery but I doubt that will ruin the enjoyment of anyone who seeks the series out.)

This chart shows the three common conceptions* of time travel:

The Fixed Timeline theory lends itself to deep drama dripping with irony: at is most mawkish, it is represented by things like you can't prevent the Titanic from hitting the iceberg, and in fact your misguided attempt to take over the wheelhouse to save the ship actually causes the accident. In the beginning, we think Dr. Jin is going to be following this model: he saves a woman from a head injury, and she is caught in the cholera outbreak; he manages to keep her alive through the disease, but then she dies in fire. Only then does Dr. Jin think that maybe she was not supposed to live on. We see the same forces at work in the political events depicted  - no matter how much Jin influences major actors, circumstances always intervene to force a return to the historical record of events, culminating in a French invasion of Ganghwa Island in response to persecution of Catholics.

But we see some Dynamic Timeline elements at well, so this deterministic interpretation does not obtain totally. In one episode, Jin meets a boy with the same family name and wonders if he's an ancestor. When the boy is injured playing with a toy Jin gives him and Jin must operate (of course), Jin starts becoming immaterial as the boy begins to fail. This cheesy version of the paradox effect never happens again, but there is an even more tangled feature to the overall situation.

Jin initially falls back in time when an unidentified patient from whom he had removed a weird tumor steals some medical equipment and goes to the roof of the hospital muttering "I must go back." In an attempt to prevent him from jumping off the roof, Jin falls, holding the medical bag - and lands in the past. It becomes clear - when we learn that Jin is developing a tumor - that the unidentified patient was -- will be? -- Jin. If this premise were played out, we would have the solipsistic circumstance in which Jin causes Jin to go back in time so Jin could come back to the present to cause himself to go back in time. (See, this is where WW's head would start to hurt.) This is the more complex kind of paradox that is generated from sophisticated treatments of this model.

Unfortunately, the series does not sustain this model, and in the end, clumsily falls into the Alternate Timeline model. (Major spoiler.) Jin does return to the future and becomes an unidentified patient who has a tumor removed - but then his identity is discovered and all is set right. He is back in the present and does not go stumbling up to a roof with a bag of medical supplies. He reads some history books closely and finds subtle differences between what he recalls from school and what he reads. He seems to be in a different future, and just shrugs it of with the Korean equivalent of "oh, well." (To make things worse, he is visited by a ghostly version of the Joseon Prince Regent for a farewell chat in a cringe-worthy scene reminiscent of the worst George Lucas excess.)

But don't let this last complaint sour you on the series: Dr. Jin is 99&44/100% fun. The Joseon-era escapades are wonderful, with good production values, engaging characters, and some nice action sequences, as well as all the medical melodrama you can handle. As they say in Korean: !

(That's "yes," pronounced a lot like "yeah.")

*There are a few good discussions of this topic to be found on line: I recommend Larry Niven's piece and Dr. Kaku's.

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