Sugod, Mga Sugo!
Speculative Fiction In Filipino Popular Television
by Emil M. Flores
Speculative fiction or SF is a blanket term used by writers and scholars for the genres popularly known as "science fiction" and "fantasy." I will use this term because it is a broader term, thus avoiding the intricate definitions of both popular terms. I also use this term because one television show in my discussion, "Krystala" seems to be an amalgam of science fiction and fantasy due to its use of another popular genre, the superhero. For this short discussion, I will focus on two popular Filipino television shows, "Mulawin" and "Krystala." I will also focus more on the speculative aspects of the shows even though the soap opera aspect is very much integral to them.
To keep things simple, author Orson Scott Card calls speculative fiction "the literature of the strange" meaning the stories "take place in a setting contrary to known reality." This definition includes stories set in the future (the more common view about science fiction), stories with alternate histories (What if Rizal wasn't killed?), stories set on worlds (whether alien or an imaginary medieval Europe), fictional prehistoric or lost world stories, and stories that go against a known law of nature (stories with magic, time travel, invisible man stories etc.)
Card also states that SF (speculative fiction) is "defined by its milieu." This point is similar to John Clute's assertion that SF "argues for a changed world." This change can be brought upon through fantastic or scientific means. This is what separates the two as Card states in his simplified differentiation:
"If you have some people do some magic, impossible thing by stroking a talisman or praying to a tree, it's fantasy; if they do the same thing by pressing a button or climbing into a machine, it's science fiction."
In Philippine popular media (film and television in particular) SF is mainly used for a single purpose: escape. Indeed, many critics have lamented the sate of Philippine cinema and television, calling it escapist. It is rare that SF is used to examine or make a profound statement about the human condition as has been done in other counties. However, if entertainment is the primary goal of the project, then SF provides it. And in the process, the shows still demonstrate how Filipinos use SF in their stories.
The television program "Krystala" follows the current trend of superhero shows but can also be considered a television continuation of the superhero films from the 1950s. Not even the American heroes can boast of a series of superhero films per decade like Darna. As with the quintessential superhero Darna, Krystala follows the Filipino superhero concept of a person with a pure heart being given magical powers to fight evil. As with most Filipino heroes, she plays the role not necessarily a champion of justice but of a savior. She is chosen by a white fairy to save the land from the dark demonic beings. The hero's origins are mythical in nature and even take on a quasi-religious aspect with her foes looking like the Catholic devil (Harimon) and dark druids. The set up was promising enough with aspects of Philippine folklore combined with anime sensibilities demonstrating current hybrid trends. Later on, a science fiction flavor was added with the arrival of a soldier from the future and a future offspring, which served to complicate matters. As artist Alex Ross points out, the superhero genre is essentially and amalgam of fantasy, science fiction, action and adventure and so even if the later episodes veer away from the original fantasy concept, it is in tune with the genre (Darna fought both aswangs and aliens for example).
Thus, the world of Krystala is open enough for creatively designed and named foes (the batwoman Kabagona, gravity controlling villain Gravigat etc.). However, in many instances, the soap opera elements overpower the SF or superhero motif. Online superhero fans have complained that in early episodes, we see the heroine mop floors and be oppressed rather than see her have adventures as her super powered alter ego. More focus is given to her love life rather than her mission. In a subplot, (an obvious ploy to get the fans of a popular love team to watch the show) the romance between Mysterio, the soldier from the future and his Korean dalliance is threatened not because of Mysterio's mission (plus the fact that he's from a different timeline) but because of the girl's father in Korea wanting her to marry someone else. In the superhero genre, it is important to balance the adventure and the more personal stories. And even the personal drama and complications must come from the superhero aspect. Otherwise, it becomes a soap opera disguised as a superhero show. Hopefully, as the confrontation with the major villain comes, the show will pick up on the superheroics. Then again, the show seems to be popular enough among soap opera fans so perhaps that is the main goal.
The television program "Mulawin" creates a magical world were human-animal hybrids and fairies abound. The speculation seems simple enough. What if there were other creatures created by Bathala and they coexisted with humanity albeit in a remote place? The speculation may have begun with bird people and then moved on to cat people and fairies. Like with any good SF, the creators of the show took time to create its mythology with its own rules and limitations. This is important to SF. In order for the strange world to be realized, it has to have its own rules and the narrative has to play by those rules. The motifs also have to be consistent. The Mulawin's costumes, weapons and names (Aguiluz, Alwina, Aviona, Bagwis, Pagaspas etc.) are all connected to the bird of prey motif. The other beings are also consistent in design and characterization.
While there is a clear distinction between good and evil (Mulawin vs. Ravena) characters switch sides (and change their appearance depending on which side they're on) due to very human traits (jealousy, anger, betrayal, resentment of family or loved ones) satisfying the soap operatic expectations for the show. But the show is not a soap opera disguised as an SF show. In fact, the soap operatic emotions are heightened by the SF elements. And for the most part, the SF elements move the narrative and create the complications. For example, Aguiluz is appointed guardian of the scared tree and yet has to abandon his post when his love Alwina is threatened. His being guardian enhances his gift of foresight and thus, he knows that Alwina's death will surely come to pass. This particular situation satisfies the soap opera conflict while remaining within the SF world.
As with most Filipino heroic stories (Darna, Captain Barbell, Ang Panday, Krystala), the main characters play savior roles. This reflects what Filipinos expect from heroes, they do not fight for justice nor are they conquerors. They are instruments of salvation. And yet, when they make a mistake, they are judged severely and even reviled. The townsfolk have high expectations from their heroes and when bad things happen which may be out of the heroes' control, they blame their own chosen heroes.
In the beginning, Mulawin almost fell into the melodramatic plot plaguing most soap operas (love triangle, oppressed poor girl etc.). But when the mythology was explored more closely, when the milieu was brought to life, it has proven to be a solid SF show appreciated not only by the mainstream mass audience but also by SF fans who would normally be interested in American, British or Japanese SF offerings.