(This essay is very, very rough, but I wanted to get it up today. I’ll no doubt have more to say on this over the next few days, especially in the post on Logopolis I’ll be putting up on Mindless Ones).
One thing that a few people have said about some of my Doctor Who posts is that it seems like I don’t even like Doctor Who. Now, from my point of view this is clearly ridiculous — I am currently looking up from my computer at a K1 robot, a Dalek, a TARDIS clock and a postcard of Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, while just behind me are two Doctor Who posters and a K9 toy — but it’s possibly interesting on this, the programme’s forty-ninth birthday, to see what it is that I actually do like about Doctor Who.
Firstly, there’s the visceral stuff — I grew up watching Doctor Who and as such I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to things like the sound of the TARDIS, the words “I am the Master, and you will obey me”, K9 saying “Master”, the Daleks, the Cybermen…just put any of these together and you hardly need to worry about a plot. So long as I don’t engage my higher faculties, these things are a direct line to the happiest moments of my childhood, and I can love them uncritically. It was this that kept me watching through the first series of David Tennant’s Doctor, before I came to the conclusion that this was not really enough on its own.
Secondly, there’s the genre. I don’t here mean science fiction — I like science fiction, but I’ll come to that a bit later — but children’s telefantasy and adventure. I had a conversation with my father after the death of Davy Jones where he was talking about growing up in the 60s and said “Of course, back then there was almost nothing on the TV worth watching if you were a kid. There was Doctor Who, The Monkees and Batman, Top Of The Pops if there was someone good on, and then a few years later there was The Prisoner and Monty Python, but that was really it.”
That pretty much sums up my entire…not my aesthetic, as such, but the central core of my tastes. The more like those things something is, the more likely it is I’ll enjoy it. It’ll have to do more than that in order to persuade me it’s actually good, but if you start out in that rough genre, you’re at a tremendous advantage. Doctor Who has often aspired to be more than that, but so long as it does a decent job of being “a bit like The Prisoner and a bit like The Monkees” then it’s at a tremendous advantage for me.
Then there’s the mode of 60s/70s TV. As Tilt Araiza has put it, “Doctor Who is not great TV, rather it is from the age of great TV”. The most notable difference between Doctor Who and the other shows mentioned above, if you watch them back-to-back, is that Doctor Who is a TV show while they are film shows.
This is a distinction that the Radio Times used to make, because it was a crucial distinction when watching TV. Doctor Who was made in a style that is now only used for sitcoms, game shows and soap operas — shot multi-camera, on video, with very few edits and in a theatrical style where the cameras are, to a large extent, taking the place of the theatre audience. That style was the default mode for British TV in the 1960s and 70s.
The other programmes listed above were shot on film, in the American style (apart from Monty Python and Top Of The Pops) and as such had a different look — more possible camera angles, faster and tighter edits, and a more pseudo-naturalistic acting style (because the cameras could accomodate the actors rather than vice versa).
Now, to my mind, these are two different media, with different stylistic conventions. When British TV was made on film for the American market (like The Prisoner) it was done in a curious style half-way between the two, because it was being made by people whose experience was mostly in the British TV style, but in general you can split the two pretty easily. And these days, only “film series” are made, and TV is essentially a dead medium.
And as someone who appreciates that old, dead medium, Doctor Who is a treasure. Like Hancock or I, Claudius or the Nigel Kneale version of 1984 it shows the possibility of TV as broadcast theatre, rather than as broadcast cinema — it’s a programme that is driven almost entirely by dialogue and performances, rather than by editing and visual style.
And speaking of dialogue and performances, there’s the character of the Doctor. This is the first unique aspect of the show — something that no other TV programme had. The Doctor is a strange mixture of different, apparently incompatible, genre archetypes — the wise old wizard and the trickster and the ultra-rational detective and the man of action — which end up meaning that he comes out as an actual character something like a real person, a real rarity in genre TV. I used to describe the character as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Groucho Marx”, but of course there’s at least as much of Harpo in there as Groucho. But the Holmes comparison is a valid one — the Doctor’s character changed over the years, emphasising different elements, but there’s a continuity of character there too. Paul McGann, Colin Baker, Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell, say, are all playing something that is recognisably the same character in the way that Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett are. Pat Troughton, even given a horrible racist script like Tomb Of The Cybermen, or a piece of sexist, warmongering filth like The Dominators, could make it work because he played against the script, playing the character the writers didn’t bother to write.
(You can tell a lot more about my own character than I’m strictly happy about just by knowing that the Doctor when I was in my most formative years was Colin Baker).
In the post-2005 series, Christopher Eccleston and Matt Smith have both clearly been trying to play this character, but have been hamstrung by scripts that bear no relation whatsoever to it. David Tennant just played a totally different, and far more annoying, one.
If you get the character of the Doctor right, you don’t really need to do anything else for the programme to work. That said, sometimes they did anyway, because the final reason is that sometimes…just sometimes…it had actual ideas. The default state for Doctor Who was always to be just an exciting adventure series for children of all ages, and that’s absolutely fine — plenty of enjoyable TV was made by people like Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Terry Nation and so on, people who were essentially hacks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hack. Someone has to make that stuff).
But there were also those who, while still wanting to make adventure TV, wanted to explore actual ideas. There’s a whole line of these — mostly writers, but some script editors, producers and directors too. David Whitaker, David Maloney, Bob Holmes, Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Douglas Adams, Christopher Bidmead, Christopher Bailey, Philip Martin are the most important names in this tradition (and when we get to the books and audios, we can add in Lance Parkin, Lawrence Miles, Robert Shearman and others).
The odd thing is that despite these men’s (for, unfortunately, Doctor Who was made in very sexist times, and other than Verity Lambert all its primary creative forces were male) differences, they all pointed in something like the same direction philosophically.
And this is the really big difference between the show today and the programme they were making, and the reason why the latter is superior. Because Doctor Who used to be a programme that had a distinct viewpoint, one that is now more or less absent from any of our media.
What we have to remember is that Doctor Who in its original incarnation was made during the Cold War, and that among other things the Cold War was a battle of ideologies — on the one side was America, standing for Freedom, Democracy, Militarism and Rich People Having Everything, while on the other was the Soviet Union, standing for Socialism, Progress, Dictatorship and Killing All The Dissidents. While Britain was definitely on the US’ side, neither side looked hugely appetising to British sensibilities.
And science fiction TV shows that. There’s a phrase I got somewhere that’s very true — while both countries were against totalitarianism, in the US the totalitarianism they were most against was Communism while in Britain it was Fascism. In the US there was Star Trek — a future where every problem has been sorted out and the US way of life has conclusively won. This is progress in the way it’s thought of by US SF fans — everyone realising that a sort of militaristic libertarianism is clearly right, and losing all other cultural differences apart from cute accents.
Doctor Who, on the other hand, takes its cues from the Enlightenment — but in a rather strange way, filtered through Platonism, Buddhism, and the kind of computer-programmer aesthetic that brought us things like Godel, Escher, Bach. While progress in Star Trek terms means “the final frontier”, and everything progressing to a predetermined end point which is just like America now but a bit nicer, in Doctor Who progress still happens, and is still A Good Thing, but it’s the process of progress that is important, not the end result. In fact there can’t be an end result — if you have one, you’ve stopped progressing, and that’s the same as death. The ultimate Doctor Who horror is mind control, because thinking and changing are the most important things.
But that’s a viewpoint that’s no longer really acceptable within our media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a generation has grown up weaned on the stupidities of Fukuyama and his End Of History. We’re now living in a world in which the last sentence of 1066 And All That is considered actual truth — the future will not be different, it’ll just be an endless liberal democracy (small l, even smaller d) run on capitalist lines pretty much identical to today. While Star Trek looked to a better future, and Doctor Who looked to a different future, current culture only has a place for a future that is now. We live in the best of all possible worlds, and so why would we want to go off travelling through time and space?
So do you even like Doctor Who?
Bits of it.
I’m really quite fascinated by your description of TV as broadcast theatre, Andrew–I’d love to see you flesh it out more in an essay. I’d like to know how you draw the line between the “film” and “TV” states, since as I’ve intimated before it seems like there’s a very murky line between the two. To fit your criteria, does it have to be broadcast live? Does it have to use multiple-camera in place of editing? Does there have to be an audience?
Last time you brought this up you talked about how the theatrical tradition meant TV could use a suggestion of things rather than a pure visual representation, and I said I thought there was still a trace of this in SF shows up until the last ten years or so, even quite expensive ones–the classic “using bumpy foreheads to represent aliens” is a good example of this, as, I think, are matte paintings used to create environments. These aren’t *purely* suggestive, of course, but there’s still some of the same idea that the audience should buy into it and use their imagination rather than expecting something “realistic”. It’s a factor of budget and technological limitation, of course, but I still think it’s there.
I’m also wondering if you’d heard of this: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0235376/ ? I haven’t seen it myself (I wasn’t able to watch it live when it broadcast, which seemed like part of the point, so I never caught up on it) but it seemed like an interesting attempt to capture the tradition you’re talking about here…
I hope Andrew doesn’t mind me fielding this one, but I think what he’s getting at is something that’s multi-camera, three-walled sets and shot on videotape. It doesn’t have to be live, but the scenes themselves will play out in real time, which has some effect on the performances.
Videotape is much maligned as being “cheap looking” but there’s an intimacy to it that is the right choice for certain types of drama as it has the feel of events unfolding, rather than events that once happened (compare the 70s Upstairs Downstairs to the 2010s revival, one a character-based, human interest story, the other a high-gloss, made primarily for export commentary on the famous bits of history).
It doesn’t work for everything, if you want to see “electronic theatre” failing, take a look at series 3 of The Avengers or Adam Adamant Lives to see shows straining against the necessarily slower style of their medium.
Fail Safe is an interesting one, because having seen both the film and the TV play, I prefer the TV version. Despite being in black and white, that interlaced look (videotape look sounds silly when I mean something live, but that’s what I mean) has this immediate, “in the same room” as the events feel that the film didn’t have. BBC4 did its own live drama in 2004 or 05 (a remount of the first Quatermass story) but put it out in progressive, “film look” killing the live atmosphere stone dead.
On a totally indulgent side note, and since I’m far more familiar with Star Trek than Doctor Who, I’ve been catching up on “Deep Space Nine”, a show I initially abandoned when I was a teenager, and I’m intrigued by the degree to which it subverts and comments on the classic fundamentals of Trek’s utopian future. Arguably every “space” show in the last 20 years or more has been a response to Star Trek, but it’s really interesting to watch a Star Trek show itself respond to the classic series. Most of those other shows take the position that Trek’s utopia is laughable and we’re all going to have lots of problems in the future (which is almost inarguably true, but usually done rather heavy-handedly) but DS9 is interesting because it has to work within the established world of Trek and can’t turn everything completely upside-down. It’s taking a stance that’s closer to “OK, so we have a Utopian, all-American future. How did we get there? And might we be ignoring certain issues?” It’s interesting because it still presents a positive future, but one that maybe needs to be re-examined.
I definitely agree the time is right for a more positive, forward-thinking, imaginative SF series–I feel like the recent renewed interest in space exploration might lead to something along those lines. It is telling, I think, that this is possibly the first time in decades that there hasn’t been a “space” show on American TV that I’m aware of–traditionally there’s always been something to fill the “Star Trek” role, if not Star Trek itself.
“The ultimate Doctor Who horror is mind control, because thinking and changing are the most important things.”
Yes indeed, and good point about Doctor Who and Star Trek working as antonyms. To me Star Trek’s “boldly going” is about mapping the uncharted and imposing order. (Well that and copping off with green-coloured girls, but then Star Trek files that under the same heading.) Doctor Who is about exploring and re-establishing the predominance of chaos in the face of order. Star Trek reduced to a phrase would be “phasers on stun.’ Doctor Who reduced to a phrase would be “embrace the chaos.”
I will give a silver sixpence to any boy or girl who is able to tell me which of these I prefer.
I don’t think that’s right at all. Kirk, at least, is very much a damn-the-man, anti-establishment rebel who plays by his own rules, and he absolutely does a lot of instigating chaos, particularly on planets whose cultures have grown stagnant and oppressive due to the influence of godlike entities. In fact, having only watched classic Trek all the way through for the first time as an adult, I was kind of astonished at how much of the stuff we associate with Trek’s basic philosophy–from Spock’s logic to the Prime Directive–seemed to exist as much as dramatic obstacles to be circumvented or fought against as something that was seen as positive. On the whole, while original Trek definitely revered Kennedy-era liberal democracy and American military adventurism, it had an undeniably subversive, anti-establishment, “cowboy” streak. In other words, the classic American mindset, with all its contradictions.
I’m pretty sure the whole idea of Trek’s society as a pure ideal of greatness came quite a bit later, around the time of the movies, after Trek had been elevated by a decade or more of reverence, and even then–by the time of The Next Generation and so on–it’s main principle wasn’t so much “imposing order on chaos” as it was “maybe we can work together to solve our problems?” Which still left plenty of room for Kirk to haul off and go on renegade missions. TNG, of course, was more committed to the idea of playing nice and obeying the rules, so there you may have a point. As I say below, though, I’d argue that the anti-authoritarian streak creeps back in in full force by the time of DS9.
Interesting points, Prankster. Just out of curiosity, are you disagreeing with the general idea that Doctor Who and Star Trek can work as antonyms, or just the way I’m characterising the show? Whichever, I’ll try to say something a little less glib about it.
There’s an old Andrew Rilstone piece (which I’m afraid I’m far too lazy to dig up and link to) commenting how Doctor Who was almost auto-innoculated against parody, as it’s central premise was so bizarre to start off with. Whereas Star Trek must have suffered innumerable parodies by now. (Including most of the later films but never mind that.) But actually I’d concede I am a fan of the show, even if I prefer the good Doctor. I think it’s just harder to pin down what’s actually good about it, rather than merely entertainingly bad.
I’ll try to give an example. Andrew comments above how the character of the Doctor could carry the show during the inevitable weak-script weeks. Similarly there’s an emotional triangle between Kirk, Spock and McCoy which is at the heart of the show. And even as you laugh at Shatner’s… um… idiosyncratic acting style, there is something about that triangle that genuinely works.
However, it’s hardly an equilateral triangle. I don’t think you were supposed to buy into Spock’s logic any more than you were McCoy’s emotionalism. It was always Kirk’s porridge that was just right. Similarly, overcoming the Prime Directive is virtually a running joke. These apparent obstacles, checks and balances are routinley overcome. It’s like the point in a cop show when his superiors order him off the case. It never has any material consequences. Perhaps the point where the cover came off is at the end of the first movie, when Starfleet commands the Enterprise to return to Earth and Kirk responds “request denied.” Kirk’s a Captain and the Doctor’s a renegade, and I don’t think that’s a trivial point. (Of course we shouldn’t overlook the Doctor being a cosmic toff. As Andrew says, such contradictions are part of the character.)
Rather than the sequel shows (which I took little interest in, if I’m honest) it might be interesting to compare him to New Kirk in the reboot movie. Of course there Starfleet does stymie Kirk for much of the running time, and to my eyes he’s nearer the character you describe. But that just reminded me of Dubya, or at least the media reflection of him – this wild reckless youth, who doesn’t play by the rules, whose defiance of convention comes up trumps. Here’s something I wrote about it at the time.
I think you might be thinking of his review of Amy’s Choice?
That’d be it! Thanks, Mike!
By chance, I happened to re-read it the day before yesterday.
I was disagreeing with your characterization of the show. I might be overstating Kirk’s rebelliousness, but the whole idea of cultures growing stagnant and Kirk taking it on himself to destabilize them is very much a recurring theme. I also think Trek has just as many fundamental good qualities as Who, including, as you say, the three leads and their relationship. And while we’re in agreement that the “perfect future” stuff was something more seen in retrospect than engaged by the writers, there is undeniably a spirit of optimism and progressiveness that powers the show.
Many people have written about how Who has been so many different things and evolved in so many different directions, but to my mind original Trek is almost as much in conflict with itself. Roddenberry clearly was a socialist democrat who believed in military adventurism (I’d argue he was more mainstream in the 60s, some of the more offbeat stuff that crept into his thinking–a slightly creepy collectivism, for instance–having come later) but the show had libertarian and counterculture writers as well. Likewise there are episodes like “The Way to Eden” which is pretty contemptuous of the youth culture of the time, yet a lot of other Trek stories seem to embrace it in more subtle ways, particularly the idea that there’s something ridiculous about authority and that love, peace and harmony can triumph over evil (and “Way of the Gun” sees the crew using passive resistance and an oddly Buddhist mindset to overcome violence.) There are episodes that can be read as both for and against the Vietnam war (which is really what the Prime Directive was about in the first place) and episodes that are both for and against organized religion. As for Spock, he definitely seems to have been created as a straw man, and yet it doesn’t take too long before the writers seem to start siding with him on a lot of things–again, he almost seems to be the representative for the counterculture at times, his spirituality being almost as big a point as his logic. In “Space Seed” Spock is appalled to hear everyone else speaking well of Khan, and I can’t imagine we aren’t supposed to, at the very least, sympathize, if not completely agree. (And it’s interesting to me that the supposedly detached, logical character is the one taking the firm moral stance while the more emotional humans can admire the historical monster, if somewhat back-handedly; conventional storytelling would have flipped that to show the perils of logic removed from humanity, but here it seems like humanity is the one that’s in danger of falling under the sway of a charismatic figure.) Of course there are plenty of “silly Spock, there’s more to life than logic” episodes as well, but the character was no Agent Scully, there just to voice the “wrong” opinions. (Actually I’d argue even Agent Scully wasn’t an Agent Scully, but I’m drifting from the point here.) The battle over “The City On The Edge of Forever” is probably the purest expression of the clash of ideals going on behind Trek.
Oh, and I have to note–the idea of a post-scarcity society, which looms so large over discussions of Trek, doesn’t really seem to be present on the original series. It’s implied by the replicators and so on, but the way everyone’s needs seem to be taken care of could be chalked up just as much to the fact that this is a pseudo-military organization as to anything else. Isn’t there discussion of mercantile arrangements in the early episodes? Isn’t Harry Mudd basically a con artist? What’s he swindling people out of if not their money? And I could have sworn Scotty or someone mentioned getting paid, though of course he could have been speaking figuratively.
No argument that Trek is generally more authoritarian than Who, though…of course, it’s that American thing where the hero gets to be the boss, and generally uses his authority well, but the people above HIM are bureaucrats who keep getting in the way.
(Oh, and Lucid, as mentioned above, I’m currently in the process of working through “Deep Space Nine”, partly inspired by the review series at the AV Club. While I can’t seriously recommend any of the other Trek shows–I have a nostalgic fondness for TNG, but I can’t honestly call it “good”–DS9 is surprisingly great, and often functions as a very thoughtful re-examination of where Trek’s ideals stood at the end of the 20th century. It may not be for everyone, but I think it’s honestly worth a look if you like SF TV.)
More interesting comments from Prankster! To be honest I’m not sure if I’m up to answering them properly, partly due to shortage of time and partly because it’s been a while since I last saw the show. (It used to be on UK TV like clockwork, but I’m guessing it’s now on some satellite station I don’t receive.)
You’re of course right to say that different episodes represent different points of view. But those other episodes feel kind of oppositional to me, like the show’s occasionally capable of generating auto-critique, rather than genuinely being polyphonic. (The classic example for me would be ‘Errand of Mercy’, which not just screws with the notion that Kirk and co are the ones who save the day but effectively labels them part of the problem.) With Who there is something more nuanced. When for example the Doctor says “to kill the Daleks, have I that right?”, it’s of course effective through being unexpected – it comes from outside the conventions of genre action shows. But it comes from within the character of the Doctor. It’s something he would say. He’s closer to the Organians of that episode than to Kirk.
There’s two ideas which I think are associated, and I’m antagonistic to them both. That progress is a road, linear and universal, and that it’s inherently a good idea for outsiders to arrive and hurry laggards along that road. But then both shows are probably guilty of that. It might even be arguable that it’s worse in Who for being less blatant.
Are there any Next Gen fans in the house? Then we could get into a proper slagging match, just like you’re supposed to do on the internet! I would agree with the ‘post-scarcity’ thing coming after the original series, where Scotty is always shouting about the laws of physics and those dilythium crystals permanently on the point of giving up. It bothers me in the Next Gen, both politically and dramatically. Okay they finally came up with the Borg. But there seemed episode after episode where they plain forgot that conflict was the essence of drama and things merely meandered along.
An old flatmate was a big Next Gen fan, which probably exacerbated my opposition to it – I became very “no Kirk, no thanks” about the whole thing. Ironically at the time I was most antagonistic to Deep Space Nine. “To boldly go bloody nowhere” I’d shout at the opening credits as I marched out of the lounge. But after seeing Battlestar Galactica I’d quite like to go back and see how Ronald D Moore started out. Maybe one day…
On second thoughts, there’s actually quite a formal similarity between ‘Errand of Mercy’ and ‘Planet of the Ood.’ In that episode the Doctor doesn’t get wrong-footed like Kirk, but he’s as surprised to see all the impetus suddenly taken away from him. I’m still clinging to my general point but I probably need a better example…
Thanks. You raise interesting points but I think you’re actually viewing the classic series through too narrow a filter (again, as I admit, this filter is probably created partly by later Trek and by the “common knowledge” of what Trek’s about).
I think Trek was very much “polyphonic”, if I’m understanding your use of the word correctly. I brought up “The City on the Edge of Forever”, which was of course the source of an EXTREMELY lively backstage clash which was as much about philosophical debate as it was egos. Ellison ended up steamed that his story, which he’d intended to be anti-war, ended up seemingly taking a pro-war position–but it also, ironically enough, arrived there through a “don’t interfere, even if it means people die” stance, which when applied to the Vietnam war seems completely contradictory. That’s got to be partly due to the fact that Roddenberry wasn’t much of a writer, and seemed to know it–the show was as much D. C. Fontana’s as his, and the individual writers were pretty clearly bringing their various philosophies to it.
Likewise, both of the ideas you seem to attribute to Star Trek–linear progress towards Utopia and the value of outsiders arriving to “hurry laggards along”–are both explicitly refuted over and over again on the show. Looking at TOS in isolation I honestly couldn’t tell you if its core values were for or against these ideas. In later years, yes, they were codified, but in particular the Prime Directive seems more like a *bad* idea that Kirk was in the right to break as often as it was seen as an important rule that had to be obeyed. The only thing that establishes certain episodes and ideas as “oppositional”, as far as I can tell, is Roddenberry’s, and fandom’s, retroactive dictat–but at the time it seems like there were plenty of people on the writing staff who disagreed, and this disagreement founds its way into the show.
And if you’re saying Kirk wouldn’t have paused before wiping out the Daleks, man, I couldn’t disagree more with that. Trek is *all about* moral dilemmas and the way real life rarely presents us with simple heroes and villains. If anything, this is an aspect of the franchise that’s grown STRONGER, from Wrath of Khan to even the relatively sedate likes of TNG, which, whatever else you want to say about it, was pretty insistent on the idea that there weren’t any good guys and bad guys, and that fighting even the seemingly most “evil” enemy tends to extract a high moral cost. In fact, Picard faced an almost identical moral dilemma to the Dalek thing in “I, Borg”, in which they were given the opportunity to wipe out the Borg using a computer virus. And getting to DS9 again, that’s a show that regularly delved into the tension between the desire for peace and mercy and the concern that if you don’t hit your enemies hard enough, they’ll come back and kill more people. The later seasons especially. I suppose that classic Trek could be said to be somewhat less sophisticated in this regard, but it definitely returns several times to the theme of looking for “outside the box” solutions to conflict–think “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “Day of the Dove”.
At the end of the day I’m not sure what criteria you’re using to declare Trek a certain way, when there’s just as much evidence that its core philosophy swings a different way. I think “Polyphonic” is absolutely a fair description of Trek, for all that we’ve tried to put it in a box in later years. I think it has exactly the same complex, messy, shaggy sense of clashing ideas as Who, and in fact may be more impressive for the fact that there were only 3 seasons of it vs. 26 of classic Who.
(And for what it’s worth, DS9 is just as epic in scope as other Treks, even though the characters have a more firmly established home base. They get their own ship in S3, and once they’re freed from having to share continuity with TNG the story ends up sprawling across the entire galaxy. I suppose the later seasons are less about exploring, per se, but that’s because the characters are caught up in a massive conflict. The idea that the show is about an interstellar bus depot is pretty far off.)
”…again, as I admit, this filter is probably created partly by later Trek and by the “common knowledge” of what Trek’s about.”
In my case,I bypassed that filter through being a middle-aged git. I was watching the original series well before Next Gen was around. I don’t associate Next Gen with the original series much at all.
However, it’s plausible I was instead watching it through a ‘Brit filter.’ Star Trek and Doctor Who were the main SF TV shows of my youth, so the idea of them as antonyms may have lodged itself early in my case. And of course seeing it as militarily optimistic (“things’ll be okay once everyone else comes to respect our superiority”) fits all the British stereotypes of America.
Looking back I realise I was always aware of the kitsch aspects of the show, at the same time as I was merrily oblivious to those in Doctor Who. But at the same time I always watched it, while I didn’t always bother with Lost in Space or something. (Now if someone comes up with a spirited, insightful reading of the polyphonic qualities of Lost in Space I’ll really be impressed!)
”At the end of the day I’m not sure what criteria you’re using to declare Trek a certain way, when there’s just as much evidence that its core philosophy swings a different way. I think “Polyphonic” is absolutely a fair description of Trek”
I suppose the only real way to do it would be dull accountancy, counting up which episodes swung which way. And you’d need a clear majority in the gung-ho camp to call the other side “oppositional.” (If it was anywhere near 50/50, you’d be right!) Of course many episodes won’t divide neatly into little piles like that. You’d also need to be wary of token feints. Who, for all that I’m defending it, was full of those. It’s ostensible anti-militarism often came down to a simple offer of piece, turned down by the those evil aliens, allowing you to break out the big guns.
…which I think is about all I have to say about this for now. I very much enjoyed reading your comments, Prankster.
Uh, make that “a simple offer of peace.” Jelly babies, sometimes involved. Cake, not so much.
All this Star Trek talk is fascinating…although: Gene Roddenberry, not a good writer?! As a writer in the teleplay form I think he’s exemplary…
Be that as it may, I’d suggest that the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship works as well as it does because it contains within itself a psychological conclusion that’s also a psychological breakthrough or triumph: Kirk always finds a way to make a decision because he isn’t just an admixture of logic and emotion, but a synthesis. I’m fond of saying that most-if-not-all SF is still about how man can avoid becoming like the powerful machines that serve him, but in Star Trek this issue is always front-and-centre, and part and parcel with Kirk’s unending series of Tough Calls. To avoid becoming mere machines, human beings have to change because they can’t go back to their juvenile non-starfaring past…but how they’re to change is up to them, and there are many options. So I’m gonna come down on Prankster’s side in that I don’t believe Star Trek generates any autocritique, but I’ll also come down on Lucid’s side in that I think it really is primarily about mapping unknown places and putting them in some kind of order. Kirk doesn’t really have a status as rebel against the Establishment, because he is the Establishment — he has an awful lot of legitimate authority, and Starfleet appears to give its starship Captains an enormous amount of latitude, so to my mind Kirk isn’t a rule-breaker but a rule-writer, an elite voice in the formation of Federation policy, and thus a tempering influence on the Machine. Both Spock and McCoy enjoy absolutely unshakeable integrity in their different “home courts”, and frequently they’re both right when their positions conflict…Kirk has the obligation to be right too, while at the same time reconciling their opposed points of view, which is kind of impossible but he does it anyway, and that’s what makes the magic work. So it’s definitely not a post-scarcity universe in the original series, because there’s always some kind of scarcity somewhere, and Kirk is doomed to find it in an endless irony that recalls the problem of power that technology brings. I don’t think Kirk would wipe out the Daleks, but I’m sure he would never have the problem taken out of his hands — one way or another, Star Trek is all about the quality of the decisions Kirk makes, and whether his answers to questions are good or bad. The Doctor doesn’t operate within this constraint, naturally: his problem isn’t the problem of how Man is to remain Man, so he’s free to do other things that Star Trek can’t do.
That final paragraph is perhaps the truest thing you have ever written, encapsulating what is wrong with a lot of contemporary attitudes. So many things – tv series, films, novels etc. – traffik in this notion; the good, the bad, and the mediocre all together. It’s not as if you could point to one group and say “it’s just *them*”, no, it is endemic. Interestingly, it’s perhaps especially dangerous for “liberals” (not Liberals, if you know what I mean!), to say that something isn’t right may get you tagged as a nostalgist or a conservative or – ooh – unhip so there’s the temptation to say nothing or to go with the flow – wherever it is flowing – which really is deadly, truly a dangerous form of conservatism (it’s alway worth reflecting that some things *should* be conserved and kept alive rather than abandoned and left to wither, labels are dangerous too). Television or what have you is (of course) a reflection of the wider culture(s) so it’s concerning when it becomes mulch, I think.
On the subject of television, if it’s on television it *is* television. I am rather sick of people working in tv describing their work as filmic, shot on film (or on that “film-look” shit) it may be but it is *television* I find it both pathetic and, frankly, moronic when they insist on denigrating the medium in which they work as if television doesn’t have its myriad strengths. I thoroughly agree with your comments on the idiosyncratic viewpoints that have marked much great television and the implicit fear of difference that underlies a lot of modern tv (I want to lay into the garbage that is Merlin for no particular reason other than its utter souless, unimaginative crappiness tho’ I suspect you would like the fact that it has the ludicrous concept of a non-“white” Guinevere and a literal “black” knight, I know it’s a mythic version of British history but that’s just dumb and dishonest, if they had fun with it it’d be different but they are so po-faced. If you’re going to tackle something do it with verve otherwise it’s just weak –
tea pc and you may as well not bother. I don’t know why they didn’t just make it an original story in a generic fantasy world rather than Merlin as it is it just looks like the makers didn’t want to be accused of making Midsomer Murders. At least Merlin would have a reason for the series being conspicuously “white”, unlike that dubious ITV junk, that said everyone in Merlin manages to be equally dull no matter their colour. Equality? Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned noticing these things but I don’t want to be disingenuous or dishonest. I notice they didn’t cast a non-white actor as Merlin though. That might have been interesting). Televisual should be a proud term, unfortunately too many of those working in tv don’t seem to appreciate the medium. Which is weird.
I think it telling that if a person such as yourself criticizes, say, modern Doctor Who or the Abrams abomination they call Star Trek (Classic Coke Kirk was never as much of an ass as the fratboy New Kirk; “Hey they blew up Vulcan but at least it wasn’t *Earth*, and anyway those Vulcans were jerks/aliens/foreigners/others anyway!”; fascinating that they killed Spock’s *mother* but “she’s just a woman, right? And Daddy’s still alive as is Spock’s asshole chum. Hurrah!”; is it possible to be racist about fictional races? Well that film is!) you’ll often be attacked and traduced for standing out and being “negative” or not realizing those things are “fun”. So much for individuality and thoughtfulness. Ah, enough of my confusing nonsense.
Huh, a non-white-guy Merlin might’ve been a bit interesting at that!
I’m beginning to think that the conservation/innovation polarity might be radically outdated…obviously it was never necessarily so great to begin with, but then neither was the idea that private vices make for public virtues, and that one went from “not necessarily so great” to “manifestly, damagingly false” in just the last little while, to the point where no one can really accuse an objector of being nostalgic or reactionary or anti-progress or anything like that. And at the same time we have social policy matters leaving the realm of conservation vs. innovation as well: as it now seems laughable to oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that we didn’t used to have it, that whole counterargument absolutely irrelevant because it really isn’t about being on the right side of history or being alive to the zeitgeist, it’s about not being an asshole. So, perhaps the idea that there exists some flow that it’s possible to go with, is an idea that’s had its day for real? In 2012 all the trends are scripted, and all that isn’t scripted is marginalized so therefore not a “trend”…in the imagination of the scripters. So there’s nothing new or exciting about “filmic” TV, yeah; I firmly believe they do it because it’s easier.
Sorry, lost the thread a bit there…what I was trying to say was that anyone who makes the “you’re just an old fogey” retort to this kind of criticism stands a good chance of being completely hoodwinked…
There’s also the cry of “it’s not meant for anoraks like us, it has to appeal to a general audience”. While it can be a bad thing for a show to be too insular, that argument can also be used to argue that the people who are least invested in something are the ones who should have their sensibilities taken into account first and foremost.
Something of the sort seems to be active in Moffat’s Who, which perhaps is what led him to imagine Sherlock Holmes as A Thing Nerds Like rather than a thing everyone likes…the goal seems to be to “mainstream” nerdish enthusiasms at best, to mount a cultural coup at worst? “Here’s Sherlock Holmes as an SF conceit”, is what Sherlock says to me regardless of its modern dress, and that’s definitely an interesting approach even if the show kind of sucks…hmm, even if the show sucks because of the interesting approach. I mean, Sherlock Holmes reimagined as a thing for “anoraks like us”, just so it can be “mainstreamed”? Very long walk for a cup of fairly poor coffee, when Sherlock Holmes is actually a giant mass-market phenomenon you can barely go wrong with…!
Actually, I’d disagree that film series like The Prisoner represented a halfway house between the styles. The filmed series of the 60s look cinematic to me and it’s not unusual to find people like Charles Chrichton and Leslie Norman directing them, the Quota Acts having created a sufficient studio boom that the UK still had a massive talent pool for film. I think the half-and-half style comes in in the 70s and Thames’ Euston Films imprint, shot on grubby 16mm and edited almost like a new report. Film without an emphasis on cinematography, if you like.
@plok – have you met the human race?! there’s *always* some kind of flow to go with ;). Even ideas that have *manifestly* had their day or are so malign as to not even deserve to be described *as* “ideas” tend to keep up popping up like malevolent Jacks-in-the-Box, I think. Not to be depressive or anything you understand… Thinking back on my non-white Merlin notion, that’d really run the risk of bringing the silly “magical black man” trope to life literally! Dubious indeed… Except it’d be better than the terrible bland nonsense that is the actual series.
Did the Euston Films series have any less focus on the photography than any Michael Winner or Confessions film? Grubby 16mm or no, Euston were aiming for that raw look and were in fact influenced as you know by various features of the time (Friedkin’s documentaryish shooting of The French Connection, say). The British shot-on-film series of the ’60s at least the more idiosyncratic ones created something that had *some* cinematic influence but were indubitably *television*. Neither the Diana Rigg-era Avengers or The Prisoner would work as movies, they are reliant on their particular form and are wholly of their medium; of course it depends what one *means* by “filmic”. Most of those who use the term mean cinematic, that is “of the cinema” rather than shot on film. Of course, it’s fascinating to see the *real* half and half approach of the ’60s etc., the mix of videotaped studio scenes and filmed location work (or particular effects scenes). Doctor Who was particularly good at this, look at Seeds of Doom (Doctor Who, Hammer Horror, Avengers, Day of the Triffids, The Thing from Another World, and Euston Films all in one!) or David Maloney’s serials. But I’m rambling…
I’m still going to say, yes, the filmed series of the 70s stopped short of cinematic*, even by the low standards of the Terrible British Sex Comedy. The pilot for the Sweeney (which, of course, was an edition of Armchair Cinema, ambitions worn on sleeve right there) does stand up next to Get Carter and its ilk, but that falls away with the series and by the time you get to something like Minder**, the filmed series is very much its own thing in a way that I don’t think the 60s ones are (shows like The Human Jungle or Gideon’s Way look identical to the supporting features of the same era – I’m on a British B-picture and 60s film series binge at the moment).
Don’t get me wrong, I love the 16mm style, yet another colour lost to the palette of British TV.
* I say stopped short rather than fell short because I don’t think they were necessarily failing in their ambition, just that they settled into a different style
** Not the best series Verity Lambert ever produced, obviously that was Budgie
Oops, the second part of that was for Tilt Araiza.
@plok – nice characterization of Sherlock. I think that current trend is for almost everyone to say “hey, I’m a nerd, I’m a geek!” or whatever horrible term is presently popular but at the same time the likes of Moffat, Davies, and arguably even “Geek God” Whedon want to subtly or not so subtly elevate themselves above the common “geek” herd with much talk of the “mainstream” audience as if there is such a monolith. All geeks are created equal, but some geeks are more equal than others. The panicking over normalizing and being “normal” is all over Moffat like flop sweat or stink on a sewer rat. I think. Heh.
@Tilt Araiza, your comments on the worrying over the sensibilities of the “general audience” above all else are spot-on and acute as are Plok’s. What’s particularly interesting about that focus is the implication that this monolithic “general audience” is somehow not insular while the insularity of we weirdoes is apparently obvious and undeniable. Charming.
Where the “general audience” stance really hurts is when people use to defend factual programmes that operate under the assumption that the audience knows nothing about anything, which means you have to explain the basics before you can get to anything of substance or even get something flat out wrong safe in the knowledge that you can swat away corrections of “not everyone knows everything about this subject”. A cable channel has just made a documentary containing “rare” footage, one bit of which is supposed to have lain “in a dusty vault unseen for nearly 50 years”. Said footage was shown on network TV 12 years ago. To complain is nitpicking. See also an article in The Guardian about Yellow Submarine which boldly states “before Yellow Submarine, animation was a mild, goody-goody world of personality-free gloved mice and cartoon bears stealing picnic baskets” by someone qualified enough to write on the matter but who appears to have never even heard of UPA, neve rmind Halas and Batchelor.
We’re ending up with a situation where, to make a documentary on a subject, you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to know more than someone who knows nothing.
Just want to say that I don’t really have the time to jump into the discussion — I’m still ill with the aftereffects of the flu, I’m working on a BIG post on Logopolis for Mindless Ones, and I have some actual work-work to do over the weekend too — but I’m finding it absolutely fascinating.