A Sentinel Is Not a Television Set

by Rat Creature

One of my major pet-peeves with fan fiction for The Sentinel are 'sensory shortcuts.' One might expect Sentinel fiction to be full of lush sensory details, but unfortunately that isn't the case. The most notorious shortcut is "he dialed ...(insert any sense here) up/down." This description, or rather non-description, makes it sound as if a sentinel had real knobs inside his head. A sentinel is not a television set.

Admittedly, the dial concept is canon, but not in this way. In canon, IIRC, dials are mentioned three times in two episodes: In "Out of the Past" Blair shows Jim to use the image of a dial to control pain which possibly caused the side effect that his other senses are also dulled (though that could have been also simply exhaustion). In "Love Kills" when Simon is worried that Jim is incapacitated by his memory related sensory spikes, Blair explains to Jim "We're talking about your senses here. They're to protect you and the tribe, all right, and you can dial them back. And I can help you." and later he uses the words "Come on, Jim, dial it back. You can control this. Dial it back." as Jim tries to control a sensory spike. We never see that Jim uses 'dials' to control his senses in a normal situation, in his everyday use of his senses. Just in extreme situations like pain or sensory spikes. Far more often we see him using breathing exercises, or no apparent special technique at all.

Of course, many sensory scenes on the show are visual effects, mostly showing Jim focusing on certain things he noticed peripherally before. Those could be interpreted as him using a 'dial.' It is not the concept that Jim can control the input of one single sense that bugs me, but that very often those phrases with dials in them are not followed by any interesting sensory description.

The single most major attraction The Sentinel has for me as a series are the senses, and I want those to feature prominently (or at least be present) in the fiction. That includes descriptions of how Jim perceives his environment and his senses, when the scene is from Jim's POV, and of how Blair perceives (and sometimes guides) Jim using his senses, when the scene is from Blair's POV. It doesn't matter if Jim uses his senses on a crime scene, to eat a doughnut, or while having sex, but they are an integral part of him that I want to see integrated into the fiction, and not just in shorthand references, where I'm supposed in to fill the blanks.

And the 'dials' aren't the only sensory shortcut, though they are the most popular. Another one is 'piggybacking.' Mentioned in the episode "Hear No Evil", Jim uses his "eyes to guide his ears." He uses his sight to direct his over-sensitive hearing, to gain control without the white-noise generators, which prevented him from "getting into the garage with his hearing." It is not made entirely clear if he could have had the same range without piggybacking, had he already had full control over his more sensitive ears, or how exactly he linked his senses. Lots of interesting possibilities for fan fiction, but still 'piggybacking' is mostly just used as a shortcut to explain an even wider sensory rage, often with any two senses. While I can imagine the ability to focus the hearing into certain directions with the help of the eyes -- though even then I'd prefer not to have to fill in the mechanics for myself -- I have a much harder time when it's sight and smell, for example. Fiction should provide descriptions how the 'piggybacking' works, what exactly it does, and why it is needed, outside this specific canon incident, when it was used to get Jim's over-sensitive hearing to cooperate. And it should have some description that equals the visual clues we get in the episodes. Without the author telling me I have no idea how two senses linked together feel, except maybe filling in descriptions I read from people describing their LSD trips...

The terms 'sensory spike' and 'overload' are used as another shortcut. Of course it is canon that Jim is occasionally overwhelmed by his senses, but depending on the episode those incidents were vastly different from each other, and the fact that the show has provided us with a special vocabulary is no reason to skip the description. The sentence "Jim's hearing spiked and he covered his ears in pain" expects me as a reader to fill in all sorts of things, instead of making me feel what Jim experiences. How am I supposed to know what this sensory spike is like? Is it more like the memory induced ones in "Love Kills", the drug induced ones in "Night Train", or like what Alex experiences because of a loud noise in "Sentinel, too", which Jim calls sensory spike when seeing her reaction?

And while in this pet peeve rant I won't touch the fact that Jim experiences 'zone-outs' far more often in fan fiction than in canon, it is worth mentioning that his experiences (or non-experiences) before, during and after a zone-out often lack description as well. Again, this deprives the reader of one of the most interesting aspects of The Sentinel.

Where 'dials', 'piggybacking', 'sensory spikes', 'overloads' and 'zone-outs' are at least based on canon, there are even more shortcuts in fanon, the most notorious being 'the-heartbeat-thing(tm).' This piece of Sentinel fanon, which has Jim listening to Blair's heartbeat to control his senses, is often discussed in relation to (mis-)characterization, with the hazards and opportunities of a symbiontic sentinel-guide relationship. But at the same time it functions as shortcut writing. Not only is it supposed to evoke a close emotional relationship, it is also often used instead of a real description of how Jim manages sensory input. I remember some stories really exploring this concept, describing how 'Blair-background-noise' works as a focus for Jim, but the majority of stories just mentions this and expect me to fill in the blanks, all those gritty, bothersome details.

I want the author to provide these details. Why would want I read Sentinel fiction if I have to fill in all the interesting unusual sensory descriptions and sense-related explanations for myself? I don't want just a couple of keywords as cues to fill in the rest. Senses are a major theme of The Sentinel, and it deserves better than to be written in shorthand.