The Force Awakens Into Darkness: Series 10

Anyone else notice the hyperspace effect from the third Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer looked...a little familiar? 

Here's what it looks like compared with the warp effect from Star Trek Into Darkness and the Doctor Who time vortex. 

I like to believe they're going to rendezvous for the universe's most amazing timey wimey crossover event!

Doctor Who Reminds Us That Anxiety Isn’t Something to Fear, It’s Rocket Fuel

Doctor Who just started series eight (“season eight” for the yanks) with a newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor played by Peter Capaldi. We’re a few episodes in and so far it’s been a bumpy ride. My favorite Doctor Who stories are about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, stuff that makes you think or gives you something to aspire to. I haven’t seen much of that yet. But this week’s episode, “Listen”, got very close. The Doctor did in seconds what I spend hours doing with my patients — teaching people that anxiety isn’t something to fear, it’s rocket fuel.

No spoilers ahead, just psychological analysis. 

“Let me tell you about scared...”

Doctor Who, Listen,   There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. 

I’ll skip all the timey wimey plot details. Basically, The Doctor is investigating invisible monsters, the kind kids worry might be under their beds at night. Midway through the episode, The Doctor finds a young boy who’s just come face to face with such a monster. The boy’s obviously afraid. This is what The Doctor says:

Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.

With this new way perspective, the boy is able to get through the situation, despite his terror.

Some have called this the “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” Doctor Who episode. But that’s not entirely correct — The Doctor tells us we don’t have to fear fear itself, we need to feel it.

As someone who’s spent their career studying anxiety and its treatment, I can tell you The Doctor is totally right.

Anxiety is Rocket Fuel

Emotions quickly communicate information. Sadness means a loss has occurred (your best friend moved away). Anger tells us we’ve been wronged (someone at work ate your leftovers without asking). Laughter lets people know that even though a social norm has been broken, things are okay (a friend walks, almost falls, but catches their balance right at the end). What about fear? It prepares us for danger.

When we feel the presence of something scary, our bodies turn on the fight or flight response. Its job is to gets us ready to battle nearby dangers, support people who need help, or escape to safety as quickly as possible. That’s why your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, your muscles get tense, and you start to sweat. All of these changes are the “rocket fuel” The Doctor spoke of, the things that help us run faster, jump higher, and fight harder.

Anxiety also warps your psychology. Your mind exaggerates details (making a scary dog look larger than it is), imagines the worst-case scenario (the dog is going to bite you and you’ll die), and forces you to ignore everything but the thing that scares you (you don’t see the dog is securely held by a leash).

In the short term, all of this is a very good thing and protects us from predators (lions) and dangerous situations (walking across a rickety old bridge). A normal amount of stress also helps us get things done, whether it’s studying for a test or paying the bills. Stress, fear, and anxiety are our companions. Without them, our species wouldn’t have survived for very long.

Research now indicates that stress is more than a survival mechanism. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how stress also makes it easier to get support from friends and family in her fantastic TED talk. Here’s an excerpt:

[Oxytocin] is a stress hormone. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

You Can’t Avoid Rocket Fuel, Better to Ride It Out

Doctor Who, Meditation on top of TARDIS outside Earth

If stress, fear, and anxiety are normal and helpful parts of the human experience, than why are anxiety disorders one of the most common mental health problems impacting children, teenagers, and adults?

Some people are more sensitive to anxiety. All those physical and mental changes we talked about, the stuff that comes along with the rocket fuel, those sensations are stronger in people who have a vulnerability to anxiety. Others have gone through difficult experiences — maybe they were bullied, saw a traumatic event where someone’s life was in danger, or were in a situation that went drastically wrong. There’s also the possibility that someone might not know what to do when they’re anxious and feel out of control when fight or flight is triggered.

When anxiety limits what you can do in your life, or makes everyday activities painful, that’s when you’ve got an anxiety disorder. Most people with anxiety disorders cope by avoiding situations that cause them distress (like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3). But there’s no way to completely avoid anxiety, it’s a normal everyday human emotion. Avoiding situations increases anxiety sensitivity, making the problem a lot worse in the long-term. What’s the solution? Experience the anxiety and ride it out.

This type of treatment is called exposure therapy. It’s based on the biological process of habituation, how humans get used to things that stay the same. Think about the last time you jumped in a pool. The water felt cold at first, right? But the longer you stayed in, the warmer the water felt. The actual temperature never changed but because you stayed in the situation your body got used to it. We use this same process in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people become comfortable with anxiety, accept anxious thoughts, and face anxious situations. It's the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

That’s why I love this week’s Doctor Who — it reminds us that everyone, including Time Lords, get anxious and that’s totally normal. In fact, it’s pretty cool and super helpful.


For more on anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure treatment, watch my interview with Huffington Post Live. To hear more about Doctor Who Series 8 and the Twelfth Doctor, download episode 32 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.

The Best Science Fiction Music From 2013

Before moving forward with 2014, I want to look back one last time at 2013. 

I'm not going to list 2013's scifi winners and losers (Blastr already did that), rank its coolest fandom moments (I agree with Tony "Crazy 4 Comic Con" Kim's list), or the describe the best psychological studies from the past year. 

Since I've already started counting down the best science fiction film and TV scores of all time, I thought it would be fun to recap 2013's coolest scifi music. 

Here we go!

#7: Doctor Who - Series 7, Murray Gold

Doctor Who

2013 was the year I made first contact with Doctor Who. While Doctor Who's 7th season received mixed reviews, Murray Gold's score remained solid and continued to be some of the best music composed for TV. The music blends in some older themes Gold developed for previous seasons and introduces new darker themes which setup the events of the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary and the departure of Math Smith's 11th Doctor. My favorite tracks include "Clara?", "Infinite Potential", "A Secret He Will Take to His Grave", and "Remember Me". I know "Clara?" technically came out during the 2012 Christmas Special, but hey time is all wibbly wobbly, right? If you're a Whovian, check out the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection Soundtrack.

Europa Report

I'm a big fan of Bear McCreary! His score for Battlestar Galactica topped my list of the best scifi music from the 2000s and I love what he's done with The Walking Dead. Europa Report's score combines some of the somber tones McCreary developed for Battlestar with the dread of Walking Dead. The film isn't long, so there isn't much variety to its score, but I enjoyed hearing the different ways McCreary played with a singular theme in "Lift Off", "Landing on Europa", "Mausoleum", "Europa Report (For Solo Piano)", and "A World Other Than Our Own".

Pacific Rim

I had a lot of fun watching Pacific Rim and a big part of that was Ramin Djawadi's awesome score. I've really enjoyed what Djawadi's did with the Game of Thrones score and was surprised by the variety of music he created for Pacific Rim. From the rock and roll theme (featuring Tom Morello's killer riffs), to the optimistic "Gipsy Danger", the spacey "Shatterdome", the tragic "Mako" theme, the competitive "Physical Compatibility", and the pure popcorn fun of "Kaiju Groupie", the music of Pacific Rim has something for everyone.

Gravity

A big part of why Gravity was such an awe-inspiring experience was Steven Prince's score. Since director Alfonso Cuarón remained true to the fact that sound cannot travel in the vacuum of space, the only sounds we heard in Gravity (beyond the actor's voices) were Prince's music. There's a lot of similarity between Gravity and Europa Report's scores, particularly in how synthesized sounds are used to intensify suspense. What's interesting about Gravity is how quickly the music transitions between horror and tranquillity, and then back again. Sometimes the score is a little distressing to hear, but there's something about it that keeps me coming back. Check out "Debris", "Don't Let Go", "I.S.S.", "Parachute", and "Gravity".

Oblivion

Oblivion's score is somewhat of a decedent of Tron: Legacy. Both films were directed by Joseph Kosinski, who tapped electronic bands to write each score (M83 with Joseph Trapanese for Oblivion and Daft Punk for Tron: Legacy). I love the integration of electric and traditional instruments, the variety of music on the score, and just how clean everything sounds. My favorite tracks include "Jack's Dream", "Waking Up", "StarWaves", "Earth 2077", and "I'm Sending You Away". I probably won't watch the film again, but I listen to the score all the time.

Man of Steel

#2: Man of Steel, Hans Zimmer

The most controversial film score of 2013 was Hans Zimmer's music for Man of Steel. It was criticized as being too moody, too light on themes, and too heavy on percussion. A lot of the controversy was the result of Zimmer following John William's original Superman score, which is one of the greatest themes of all time. /Film's David Chen perfectly captured the differences in the scores in his comparison of the original and new Superman themes:

"If Superman: The Movie is about arriving, about this guy coming to Earth, sharing his amazing powers with us, and saving us…[then] Man of Steel is about yearning, longing, the desire to fit in, an unrequited love of a people."

Zimmer's Man of Steel score fits this version of Superman and sets a bold standard for the DC cinematic universe to come (something we've all been yearning for). Listen to samples including "Elegy from Man of Steel trailer" by L'Orchestra Cinematique's and Zimmer's "Look to the stars", "This is Clark Kent", and "What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?". I can't wait to hear how (presumably) Zimmer integrates this score with Batman's for the upcoming movie.

#1: Her, Arcade Fire, William Butler, Owen Pallett

Spike Jonze's Her

Her was my favorite scifi film of 2013. The score, a collaboration between Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett (featuring a song by Karen O) is beautifully simple. It features instrumental variations on many of Arcade Fire's recent songs including "Porno" and “Supersymmetry”. 

The problem is Her's score isn't' available for purchase ANYWHERE! I kept postponing this article until I had the chance to listen to the score again, but for some dumb reason Warner Brothers hasn't released it. Until they do, you'll have to do with the video below which was posted by Arcade Fire this week.

Even though I've only heard it once, the music of Her left a big impression on me, enough for me to rank it the best of 2013.

Honorable Mentions

James Newton Howard's score for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire almost made my list, but many of the themes were extensions of what he did for the first film. I liked Ryan Amon's Elysium score, but it lacked a a cohesive theme. I've been very critical of Marvel for neglecting to connect themes across their Avengers films, but Brian Tyler created some fun music for both Thor 2 and Iron Man 3.  

Notable Exceptions

Along with Bear McCreary, Michael Giacchino is one of my favorite modern composers. His score for 2009's Star Trek set the right tone for the relaunch of the franchise. But there's something missing from his Star Trek Into Darkness score. It does extend Kirk's theme from the first J. J. Abrams film and I really dig the "London Calling" theme for the villain (along with a fantastic nod to The Original Series in "The San Fran Hustle"), but the heart of 2009's score is gone. Maybe the problem is the frenetic pace of the movie. Like the film, I have a lot of fun with the score but it's doesn't live on in my mind like its predecessor. 

What were some of your favorite scores from 2013? Let me know in the comments below.

Doctor Who Taught Me How to Embrace a New Culture

Doctor Who  celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

My geek flag is firmly planted in space science fiction. I became a psychologist because of Star Trek. Firefly helped me understand myself. And I use Battlestar Galactica to teach suicide prevention. When my mind wanders, it gravitates to the final frontier.

Science fiction isn't just about space though. I've grown to love stories about dystopias, robotics, and time-travel too. That's why I was intrigued when BBC relaunched Doctor Who in 2005. I never saw the original Doctor Who series, but I knew it integrated many aspects of science fiction and was beloved around the world. 

I made it through 2 episodes of the new Doctor Who series before I quit. I didn’t understand the rules of the universe and was turned off by the cheap visual effects. I love British humor (I grew up watching Mr. Bean and Are you Being Served?) and I'm a huge fan of campy scifi (Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element are amazing movies), but Doctor Who was just too weird for me. 

This was the moment I decided to stop watching  Doctor Who .

This was the moment I decided to stop watching Doctor Who.

Even though I gave up on the Doctor, I couldn't quite escape him. My friends pestered me to give the show another chance, readers of this website kept asking me to write about the Doctor, and each time I spoke publicly about the psychology of science fiction someone in the audience ALWAYS brought him up. I read a few Wikipedia articles about Doctor Who, enough to drop references to sonic screwdrivers and the TARDIS. That got me by for a while. But when Geek Therapist Josué Cardona publicly called me out for not understanding Doctor Who on his podcast a couple of weeks ago, it become painfully clear to me that I wouldn't have any credibility as a science fiction psychologist until I understood what made Doctor Who so popular.

The more I learned about  Doctor Who , the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

The more I learned about Doctor Who, the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

I reached out to the Whovians in my life and asked them why they cared so much about the show, people like The Memoirist and The Superherologist. They told me about the Doctor's constant spirit of adventure, how he always did the right thing no matter the cost, and his imaginative intellect. That gave me a familiar context for the character – basically a mashup of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and Sherlock Holmes, which sounded awesome! After my buddy, Bill, told me about BBC's tiny budget, I felt like a jerk for judging the show based on its special effects alone. What really hit me was how another friend, Anne, described her interpretation of regeneration – "like the Doctor, we can all shed dysfunctional parts of ourselves, keep our strengths, and build towards a better future." That's the same idea behind Star Trek! The more I listened to people who loved the Doctor, the more familiar he became.

After publicly shaming me, Josué was kind enough to guide me through the best episodes of the show, like "Blink", "Father's Day", and "The 11th Hour". He gave me context and answered my questions. I initially committed to watching only 5 episodes, but now I've seen 17. Sure the order I saw episodes was a bit wibbly wobbly, and I’m still confused about the mythology, but I get the appeal now. As Craig Ferguson said, Doctor Who is about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” What’s not to love about that?!?

For a kid who grew up being judged for looking different and having geeky interests, it was stupid for me to reject Doctor Who just because it was unfamiliar. But that’s how our psychology works – we like things we’re used to. The Doctor taught me that the only way to boldly go is by immersing ourselves in the unfamiliar and listening to people who see things differently than we do.