Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.
by Michaele Jordan
We in the United States tend to think of ourselves as being the leading edge in SF/F. After all, we invented it, right? We produce hundreds of titles every year. It’s a commonplace in our movies. It turns up regularly on TV. WorldCon is usually held here; out of seventy-two WorldCons (that’s counting this year’s Loncon 3), only sixteen have been held outside the US, and of those, only three were in countries where English is not the first language, the rest having been divided between Australia, Canada, England and Scotland. So we own SF/F, right?
Wrong. SF/F is alive and well in the non-English speaking world. And I don’t just mean Japanese anime, as some might claim that’s a world unto itself. I mean live-action science fiction. (There are, doubtless, books, too, but I haven’t read them yet.) There are in, fact, currently more TV shows about time travel in Korea than here. So if you have despaired of extracting any sense from Sleepy Hollow, just set up your TV to stream, and enjoy.
You might start with the The Great Doctor, produced and directed by Kim Jong-Hak, which ran 24 episodes, from March until August in 2012. (There’s a juicy Hollywood style scandal surrounding its demise, but that’s another column.) Much of this show’s charm lies in its numerous historical references to well known people and events.
I’m not pretending that 14th century Korea hasn’t been extensively romanticized. There probably weren’t any powerful magic-users complicating the already Byzantine politics of the era. But much like in a Robin Hood movie, the names and relationships are drawn from the history books -and drawn carefully, with considerable authenticating detail. Plus, the powerful magic users are very well dressed. Production spared no expense on period costume and décor.
King Gongmin, played by the charming and extremely short Ryu Deok-hwan, was an important historical figure, who initiated the breakaway of Korea (or Goryeo) from imperial Yuan (or Mongolian China). He really was married to the Chinese princess Nogoog (or Nogok), and while she may not have been as beautiful as actress Se-Young Par, there is evidence that he was genuinely devoted to her. He also faced an historic Jo Il-Shin (played Byung-joon Lee) who tried to usurp his throne.
And there was most certainly a brave general Choi Young, hero of the Red Turban rebellion, to save the day. (The authentic Choi Young was actually ten years older than Min-ho Lee and probably nowhere near as good-looking, but this is TV.) General Choi is not just a national hero in Korea. He was officially deified for his courage and fidelity, and there are still shrines today where you can pray to him. His second wife’s maiden name was Yoo. To be fair, his second wife was probably not a time traveler, as is Ms. Yoo Eun-Soo (played by Hee-seon Kim) in The Great Doctor.
In Korea, medical dramas are popular. Also romances. And reincarnation. This leads to stories where a doctor is sent back in time to fall in love while agonizing over the inadequate sanitation and the risk of changing history. General Choi Young may have dared the pulsing “gate of Heaven” (really a time portal) to save his queen, but having dragged back the first doctor he saw, he inevitably fell in love with her in between protecting her from poisonings and palace insurrections. Did I mention there’s lots of intrigue?
The theme is reiterated in Dr. Jin (which ran 22 episodes in 2012). Dr. Jin Heuk (played by Song Seung-hun) is a neurosurgeon who is mysteriously flung 150 years into the past, after a car accident leaves his fiancée comatose. But, of course, love is waiting, in the form of his fiancée’s look-alike and previous incarnation, Hong Young-rae (played by Park Min-young).
Nonetheless, it’s easy to tell the two apart. The Great Doctor is set 500 years earlier than Dr. Jin and Dr. Jin includes fewer documented historical characters (possibly because it was adapted from the Japanese manga by Motoka Murakami, and had to be converted from Edo to the Joseon Dynasty). Also, unlike Eun-soo, the cold perfectionist Dr. Jin has to learn compassion.
The Rooftop Prince (20 episodes, aired in 2012) reverses the formula. Crown Prince Lee-gak (played by Park Yuchun), still grieving over his wife’s suspicious death, finds himself unexpectedly transported to a rooftop 300 years in the future. Naturally he is accompanied by his devoted entourage. (Joseon royalty never traveled without a retinue.)
Lee-gak proves to be a previous incarnation of Tae-yong, who was murdered two years previously by his cousin Tae-mu (Lee Tae-sung). Tae-yong’s grandmother is delighted to have her missing boy back. Tae-mu is less pleased.
Nor is Lee-gak the only dual role. Tae-mu has been having a secret affair with his secretary Se-na (Jeong Yu-mi), who is-wouldn’t you know-the reincarnation of Lee-gak’s late wife. Said late wife’s sister has also been reincarnated as Park-Ha (Han Ji-min) on whose rooftop the Prince appeared. She also turns out to be Se-na’s long lost sister.
There are no doctors in this story, and no political intrigue. But there is plenty of skullduggery, corporate and otherwise. I can’t call it space opera; it lacks the necessary starships. Call it temp opera, then? Or simply delicious fun.