Within stories set in fantasy worlds the reader relies on the author to construct normalcy for the setting.  Frogs don’t talk in real life, so if you encounter a talking frog, you would justifiably consider it highly abnormal, but when you read about a fictional talking frog in a totally fictional world, you rely on the narrative to tell you if the frog should be read as abnormal, or if it’s a perfectly normal part of the setting.  In fantastical stories which are set in versions of the real world with fantastical elements, either urban fantasy or science fiction, how normalcy is constructed within a story becomes more complex.  When parts of the reader’s everyday reality are present then what they consider normal and abnormal in their own lives is also going to play a role in the story.  The way normalcy in constructed within these speculative fiction stories can confirm the viewer’s version of normalcy, they can contradict the viewer’s version of normalcy or they can coexist with the viewer’s version of normalcy.

Within the combined universe of Torchwood and Doctor Who, the normalcy of the real world defines normal within the story.  Both stories have point of view (POV) characters who are considered normal people; the world they inhabit prior to being introduced to the fantastical elements of the story is shown to be similar to the world of the viewer.  The more fantastical elements of the story are then set up as specifically abnormal and remain that way throughout both series.

The first episode of season one of the new Doctor Who series, “Rose”, opens with a montage which portrays the daily life of the character Rose, who becomes the POV character for the season.  During the montage she wakes up, travels to work in a service job, eats lunch with her boyfriend, returns to work [1].  This establishes Rose as normal and allows readers t extrapolate from what they know without any more details.  Rose’s life is normal.  This is made more explicit in “The Army of Ghosts”, which opens with a clip of Rose travelling through London on a bus before meeting the Doctor in the previous season.  Rose’s voiceover contextualizes what is happening in the scene as: “For the first nineteen years of my life, nothing happened, nothing at all.  Not ever.” [2]. With the implication that the ordinary events of her life do not need to be described.  She then continues; “And then I met a man called the Doctor.” [2].

The Doctor leads an explicitly abnormal life, both in the sense that it is very different from that of his companions and the viewer would expect, and in the sense that he also considers it abnormal.  He describes a normal life as “the one adventure I can never have” [3].  Another character, reflects that “The Time Lord has such adventures.  But he could never have a life like that”, in reference to an ordinary life.  The Doctor, is so far from normal, that normal is actually impossible for him.  The Companions, who do have access to normalcy, have two separate aspects of their lives “Real life, and Doctor life” [4], there is no option offered to have a combined life.

The companions’ “real” and “Doctor” lives [4] are physically separated by the text.  When the companions leave to travel with the Doctor, they literally leave their homes to travel to far off places and times in the TARDIS.  If the Doctor comes to them, it is usually due to an invasion of hostile aliens or something equally disruptive.  In these cases, even though the Companions may be physically present in the same time and place as their “real lives”, the events and routines which comprise normalcy are suspended in favour of invasions of Slitheen [5,6], Cybermen [2], or mysterious black cubes [4].  During these events the characters themselves conspire to keep the normal and abnormal elements separate.  The Doctor and his Companions are aided in this by two government organizations, UNIT and Torchwood which both engage any abnormal incursions to remove them from normal spaces as fast as possible, but also cover up the events so that the majority of the normal population will remain entirely ignorant of the abnormal one.

The agency Torchwood, which is examined in its own television show acts as an encapsulated version of the separation of normal and abnormal elements within the larger Doctor Who universe.  The members of Torchwood work out of a base under the city of Cardiff, so even though they work in a familiar location, they remain, like the Doctor’s Companions, physically separated from the city’s normal inhabitants.  The initially normal POV character Gwen Cooper, who is recruited from the police in the first episode says of the other Torchwood employees “You’ve been hidden down here too long.  Spending so much time with the alien stuff, you’ve lost what it means to be human” [7].  Like The Doctor, Captain Jack Harkness, who is the leader of Torchwood and a time traveller from the future, openly acknowledges his own abnormality and asks Gwen to “remind us.  Tell me what it means to be human in the 21st century.” [7].

Like the Doctor’s Companions, Gwen has access to both an abnormal life with Torchwood, and a normal life, personified in her boyfriend, Rhys Williams, who is entirely normal and unconnected to Torchwood.  This differentiates Gwen from the other members of Torchood, none of whom have long term partners at the start of the series and none of whom ever have long term romantic relationships which occur outside of either the other Torchwood staff, as with Jack Harkness and Ianto Jones [8], or other abnormal characters as with Toshiko Sato and Tommy, a soldier from World War One, kept in cryogenic stasis [9].  Jack warns Gwen, in the episode “Day One”, not to be consumed by her job because “You have a life, perspective.  We need that… Go home Gwen Cooper; eat lasagne, kiss your boyfriend, be normal.  For me.” [8].  Jack, like the Doctor, is well aware of his own abnormality.

Even though Torchwood is one of the agencies which works to separate the Doctor and the abnormality he brings with him from the normal world, and are coded normal in reference to the Doctor, they are not normal by comparison to the viewer or the normal characters of the show.  Gwen’s struggle to maintain her relationship with Rhys, which begin almost as soon as she starts working for Torchwood, exemplify this.  Torchwood literally stands between the normalcy of regular life and the abnormality of the Doctor, which places them in a liminal state; more normal than The Doctor, but not actually normal.  Within the universe of Doctor Who and Torchwood, normal is not defined in a binary manner but with varying degrees of abnormality stretching away from normal.

However, abnormality can also be defined in reverse, as is the case with the Harry Potter universe.  Harry Potter, who’s POV the reader follows through the story, begins the story in the Muggle world, which is, from the reader’s point of view, normal and moves into the magical Wizarding world, which isn’t, but within the story it is the magic using Wizards, not the Muggles, which are considered normal.

This impression is created partly by volume.  Harry spends the vast majority of each book interacting with Wizards, so that the majority of people he, and therefore the reader, interacts with regularly wear cloaks, carry wands and don’t find anything particularly remarkable about owls delivering post [11].  His various friends and acquaintances are also all eager to inform him of the standards of normalcy of his new world.  When Rubeus Hagrid, who is responsible for introducing Harry to the Wizarding world, finds out that Harry is unaware that he is a wizard, his response is “Do you mean ter tell me… that this boy – this boy!  – knows nothin’ abou’ – about ANYTHING?”  When Harry informs him that he is not entirely ignorant and ‘can, you know, do maths and stuff.”  Hagrid ‘simply waved his hand.’ [11].  In dismissing the primary school curriculum, which represents the standard, basic knowledge that all people in British Muggle society are expected to have as irrelevant, Hagrid succinctly warns readers to reset their expectations.  Hagrid, the ‘Keeper of the keys and grounds at Hogwarts’ [11], also acts as a gatekeeper into the magical world.  He acts as the first source of the new norms which both Harry and the reader are expected to use.  This is reinforced by Hagrid’s highly unusual appearance.  Harry’s first knowing encounter with the Wizarding world is with “a giant of a man…His face… almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard.” [11].

To reinforce the idea that it is the Wizards, not the Muggles, who represent the internal standard of normalcy, there are very few Muggle characters and although their behaviour is ostensibly normal, their characterization is not.  The Dursleys, Harry’s Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and his cousin Dudley view and present themselves as ‘perfectly normal, thank you very much.’ [11].  However, it becomes rapidly apparent that the Dursleys are not normal at all.  Dudley is overweight and a bully who ‘hated exercise – unless of course it involved punching somebody’ [11].  Aunt Petunia is ‘the nosiest woman in the world and spent most of her life spying on her boring, law-abiding neighbours.’ [12].  Uncle Vernon’s normal days involve yelling at multiple people in his job at Grunnings’ drill company and when Harry begins receiving letters from Hogwarts he panics to the point that he ‘got out a hammer and nails and boarded up the cracks around the front and back doors so no one could go out.  He hummed ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ as he worked, and jumped at small noises.” [11].  All behaviour which very few people, Muggles or not, would consider reasonable.  Vernon’s sister Aunt Marge is similarly portrayed as needlessly cruel, she ‘delighted in buying Dudley expensive presents while glaring at Harry as though daring him to ask why he hadn’t got a present too’ [12].  She is also atypical in appearance, ‘very like Uncle Vernon; large, beefy and purple-faced, she even had a moustache, though not as bushy as his” [12].  Frank Bryce, has been ostracized by his community as a suspected murderer since “War turned him funny, if you ask me” [13] and his devotion to the old house and grounds he maintains “amounted almost to an obsession” [13].  Both the campground manager Mr Roberts and the Muggle Prime Minister are objects of humour.  Mr Roberts is cheerfully oblivious to his campsite being filled with wizards, and the Muggle Prime Minister spends every appearance in a state of bewildered alarm.  He asks questions which, while internally reasonable, always take place a good deal after the readers have already learned the answers, giving the impression that he is stupid and slow on the uptake.  Hermione’s parents, the only Muggle characters presented without any form of notable dysfunction, have no dialogue.

The normal wizards are rigidly separated from the abnormal Muggles by the text.  When Harry is in the Muggle world, he is denied access to all magic and Wizarding elements until he is actively transitioning back into the Wizarding world, and once he has re-entered the Wizarding world, he has minimal to no contact with the Muggle world.  For the reader, this clear separation, which lacks any of the gradations of abnormality seen in Doctor Who or Torchwood, helps to prevent any confusion between their normal standards, and the new ones they have been introduced to.  Within the text, this rigid division is maintained by a specialist government organization, the Ministry of Magic [11].  As with UNIT and Torchwood, it is the relatively normal group, which polices the division of the normal from the abnormal.

Rather than simply creating a world with both normal and abnormal elements, the Harry Potter universe also provides a new set of norms to judge them by.  Both the structure of the text and the actions of the characters are used to first create these norms and then to police them, by associating old norms with traits which most people already consider both abnormal and negative.  The universe of the television show Sanctuary, like Harry Potter and Doctor Who contains both normal and fantastical elements, in this case, a parallel ecosystem of supernatural creatures called Abnormals, but fails to create a rigid distinction between its normal and abnormal elements.

The viewers are first exposed to these abnormal elements through an ostensibly normal POV character, Will Zimmerman, by Helen Magnus, a key figure who is coded as abnormal.  This opening mirrors the interaction between the Doctor and his Companions on Doctor Who.  However, the differences between normal and abnormal on Sanctuary are, right from the beginning, much less clear than those on Doctor Who.  First, while Will is not an Abnormal by the standards of the show, he is not considered normal and struggles to fit into normal society.  In the pilot episode he has already been thrown out of the FBI for his odd theories and is shown struggling to fit into a local police force [14].  His overall unease with daily life is symbolized by chronic insomnia, which resolves once he enters the Sanctuary [15].  Helen Magnus is a similarly liminal figure, officially abnormal but with strong links to normalcy. While she is technically an Abnormal, she was born as a regular human, and became an Abnormal through her own experimentation, which is typically not the case [16].  But she passes very well as a normal person, her only Abnormality being her very long life span.

Normal and Abnormal characters in Sanctuary are also not strictly segregated in either time or space.  Abnormals, by contrast to the aliens of Doctor Who or the wizards of Harry Potter, are highly integrated into human society, but not evenly distributed throughout it.  Instead, Abnormals are associated with the fringes of society.  They interact primarily with the poor, as with the immigrant family in the pilot [14] or the largely homeless Folding Men [17], or with criminals like the smuggler Jimmy [18], or the thief Bruno Delacourt [19] and are tend to cluster in unstable neighbourhoods, like the Fifth Ward, where The Sanctuary is located [20].  Abnormals in these groups and places all interact freely with normal humans and are treated as honorary ‘normal’ members of their communities, but the communities they live in are highly marginalized by normal society as a whole.  This is another area where Magnus and her Sanctuary occupy a liminal role.  She is able to interact with marginalized individuals, either Abnormals like Jimmy and Bruno, or humans like the weapon’s dealer Silvio [21, 22], but she is also equally able to interact with very privileged members of society, like Lilian Lee, the head of the United Nations Security Team [23].

Even though many people in the Sanctuary universe interact with Abnormals in the course of their everyday lives, they are largely unaware of it, due to the work of the Sanctuary.  Like UNIT, Torchwood and the Ministry of Magic, the Sanctuary exists to “protect the two dominant species of this planet from one another” [24].  But while in the universes of Doctor Who and Harry Potter, the normal elements of society are responsible for policing the abnormal ones, in Sanctuary the Abnormals are self-policing.  Helen, who runs the whole Sanctuary is an abnormal, but images of the other heads of house (the leaders of individual Sanctuaries) show that many are more obviously Abnormal, including the amphibian Terrence Wexford, who briefly runs the New York Sanctuary [25] and Onryuji, the head of the Japanese sanctuary who has opaque, swirling eyes, which he hides behind sunglasses [25].

The placement of Abnormals within society in Sanctuary highlights a division between normal and abnormal which is hidden in the other two texts.  Within the everyday elements of speculative fiction texts, there is already an established division between the elements of our everyday lives that we consider normal and those we don’t.  In Sanctuary, Abnormal creatures associate primarily with abnormal or marginalized people.  This ties the elements of the story which are abnormal in a fantastical way to another kind of abnormal element; those which we expect as part our day to day lives, but nonetheless, would be considered outside of the norm, like criminals or the very poor.   Which effectively highlights the presence of this division.

How fantastical forms of abnormality are constructed within a text reflects how abnormality is viewed in it.  In Doctor Who, the abnormal elements are highlighted, but they are also celebrated.  The Doctor and his Torchwood equivalent Captain Jack Harkness are abnormal outsiders, but they are heroic outsiders.  Doctor Who, via the character of the Doctor is also quick to highlight and celebrate human exceptionality, emphasizing on several occasions that “there is no such thing as an ordinary human” [26] and that in “900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before” [27].  Highlighting the abnormal elements of the heroes provides a basis for embracing the diversity of more ordinary characters, and by extension, readers and viewers.

In Harry Potter the opposite approach is taken.  Harry, the apparent outsider is reaffirmed as both normal and heroic, while the initially normal seeming Dursleys, and other Muggles are simultaneously shown to be both abnormal and objectionable.  Challenging norms and standing up to authority figures is a major theme of the Harry Potter series.  Over the course of the series, Harry goes on to repeatedly challenge authority figures and break rules and is usually shown to be correct in doing so.  The initial inversion of the readers internal ideas of normalcy provide the mental basis for Harry’s continued challenges to the replacement ideas which are provided by the text.  Having initially accepted Harry’s norm as superior to their own, readers are also primed to accept it over Draco Malfoy’s [11], Voldemort’s [11-13, 28] or The Ministry of Magic [28].  They are also, by extension, encouraged to carry that same willingness to challenge normalcy in favour of goodness and heroism back into their own lives.

Sanctuary takes a third approach, aiming to expand the whole concept of normal.  Even though Will (and by proxy the viewer) initially sees the Sanctuary as hiding an abnormal element of the world, as he settles in, he gradually adopts a new form of normal which includes both the norms of his old world, and the more fantastical ones which he has been introduced to by Helen Magnus.  Will initially views Abnormals as monsters and reacts to them with fear and disgust [14], but over time he comes to appreciate, and eventually becomes good friends with his abnormal coworkers, Helen [16], Big Guy [14] and Henry Foss [16].  When Sanctuary shows Will coming to “embrace the full spectrum of our reality” [14], by accepting Abnormals as normal, it is also asking its viewers to be more accepting of the marginalized and societally abnormal groups of people with which Abnormals are metaphorically associated.   




[1] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 1 “Rose” (2005)

[2] Doctor Who, Season 2, Episode 12 “The Army of Ghosts” (2006)

[3] Doctor Who, Season 2, Episode 13 “Doomsday” (2006)

[4] Doctor Who, Season 7, Episode 4 “The Power of Three” (2012).

[5] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 4 “Aliens of London” (2005)

[6] Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 5 “World War Three” (2005)

[7] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 2 “Day One” (2007)

[8] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 8 “They Keep Killing Suzie” (2007)

[9] Torchwood, Season 2, Episode 3 “To the Last Man” (2008)

[10] Torchwood, Season 1, Episode 3 “Ghost Machine” (2007)

[11] Rowling, JK (1997) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Bloomsbury; UK, London

[12] Rowling, JK (1999) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Bloomsbury; UK, London

[13] Rowling, JK (2000) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Bloomsbury; UK, London

[14] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 1 “Sanctuary for All (Part 1)” (2008)

[15] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 3 “Fata Morgana” (2008)

[16] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 7 “The Five” (2008)

[17] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 8 “Folding Man” (2008)

[18] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 9 “Penance” (2009)

[19] Sanctuary, Season 4, Episode 6 “Homecoming” (2011)

[20] Sanctuary, Season 3, Episode 4 “Trail of Blood” (2010)

[21] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 2 “Sanctuary for All (Part 2)” (2008)

[22] Sanctuary, Season 1, Episode 5 “Kush” (2008)

[23] Sanctuary, Season 3, Episode 12 “Hangover” (2011)

[24] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 2 “End of Night (Part 2)” (2009)

[25] Sanctuary, Season 2, Episode 12 “Kali (Part 1)” (2009)

[26] Doctor Who, Season 3, Episode 6 “The Lazarus Experiment” (2007)

[27] Doctor Who, Christmas Special “A Christmas Carol” (2010)

[28] Rowling, JK (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Bloomsbury; UK, London



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s