Matthew is going to love the categorizing-gobbledegook in this one, I predict.
Let me compare it all to music, just briefly, in a bit of a rhyme:
“I remember when “Pop” was on one side of the record store, and “Rock” on the other. And I remember — how I remember! — the First Pop War. Its flags, its body-count, its head-wounds in basements. Its tattered eyeliner. Its pointy-toed feet.
And I remember the days of “Alternative”‘s birth. The sea of failed punks, the shirts with false chains. When Fresca was cool. When bands were named “Silhouette”. The days before Nutrasweet.
What was it worth?”
Science fiction, Bloggers. The fight keeps changing.
In the days of my youth, so long ago now, there was a persistent and fierce debate about how much, and to what degree, science fiction should be kept separate from fantasy. For some reason, this was important at the time.
Such pointless arguments.
In related news, just recently I had occasion to remark on the old Buck Rogers show from the Glen A. Larson idea-abbatoir of the late Seventies, and how I felt some affection for it now…even though I hated it at the time.
Well, but maybe I’m just looking on that effort now, in the same way that I looked on the old Buck Rogers strips then?
Whatever, let’s talk Dr. Who. When the series was rebooted with Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor, I was thrilled. Everything that I had loved about old “real” Who was there…the melodrama, the quotable lines, the “silly” villains, the good writing and better acting…why they even had the occasional cardboard set. And in this lousy world of recycled genre we live in, where even the best attempt at revivification turns out to be no more than pastiche of pastiche…”upstream” pastiche, might we not call it?…I finally thought, wow, finally! We’ve finally pierced the membrane of the New Traditionalism, finally! We’ve finally managed, finally, after all these dreary nostalgia-experiments, to resume the past.
I am not so sure I think that now, though. Although I still hope it.
The thing is, there are three ways to make science fiction entertainments outside of the plain old printed word. Tom Bondurant would call these ways Does, Could, and Would…but I would call them slightly differently from a historical context, as Originating, Expressive, and Cynical. Where Expressive represents what is usually a second generation of creators who’ve found a way to talk about how they admire the psychological magnetism unconsciously employed by their predecessors, and Cynical (a loaded word, I’ll admit) stands for a later generation’s emulation of the Expressive attempt…but one fatally flawed by their failure to realize their own urge to dismantle the past, to engage in that Destruction which is also a form of Art…but not, I freely admit, always a type of Art which is my favourite.
Hmm. Actually, that doesn’t seem like quite enough fields, does it? Not to really cover everything that’s going on. So let’s have a couple more!
Patronizing, Non-Patronizing, and Deliberately Dissonant, where the third term denotes a sometimes-uneasy cooperation between the first two elements.
And yet a couple more:
Topical, Non-Topical, and Metatextual.
Idealistic, Exploitive, and Nostalgic.
And one more:
Classical, Modern, and Postmodern.
And okay, one after that:
Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious
Now that last one may seem to have a lot in common with the one before it, but I warn you, I’m being pretty jargonistic here at times. Well, you’ll see how it shakes out. Anyway by my count that makes six fields of three values each, which would combine for a great number of faces on this crazy culture-cube I seem to want to make. But let’s set some Principia-type rules for that combination, let’s set some axioms for this system, and aside from the thing where terms in a set aren’t permitted to combine I mean, like:
The Expressive approach always includes a Non-Patronizing element.
Originating is never Nostalgic.
Cynical is often also Metatextual and/or Postmodern.
Nostalgic can never be Contemporaneous.
Patronizing can never be Postmodern.
Exploitive is not Classical.
God help me, I think I’ve nailed it. Now where’s that Wittgenstein, I thought I told him and Godel to go do the dishes…
Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me. Term-defining:
I hope everything’s fairly clear, except for Classical, Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious. Well, for the purposes of this discussion I define the Classical, Modern, Postmodern distinction as storytelling styles in science fiction and fantasy that depend on a) enlisting the attachment of belief, b) vindicating the attachment of belief, or c) challenging the attachment of belief. Like the Originating, Expressive, and Cynical axis, these are much more the concerns of nuts-and-bolts art than of business, or even high-level authorial tone-setting…and Contemporaneous, Historical, Conscious, that just means whether you feel like you can make up your own stuff, or if you have to make up stuff in an environment where what’s gone before you forms a constraint on you (useful or otherwise), or finally if you’re living in a world where influences are simply undeniable, like the air that you breathe, and what you make will necessarily reference what has gone before, because it’s part of it, and you accept that: in fact that’s what drew you to this business in the first place, the richness of influence.
So…how many does that make?
Hopefully the point of it all will not remain obscure for much longer…as you might recall, we were discussing Dr. Who, specifically the “New Who” of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, which I delightedly took at first glance to be primarily Expressive, Deliberately Dissonant with a large component of Non-Patronizing (let’s just call that sort of thing DD/NP, shall we?), Topical, Idealistic, Classical, and Historical.
But now which I’m beginning to suspect is merely Expressive, Deliberately Dissonant (DD/NP), Metatextual, Nostalgic, Modern, and Conscious.
Not that the things in the first list of attributes are automatically the best things to have, in all situations; and not that the things in the second list are automatically the worst. In fact, in my assessment, even things which are Cynical, Patronizing, or Exploitive can be good, in their proper places…
Well, maybe not “Exploitive”…hello, Disco Buck Rogers with Wilfred Hyde-White…!
For elaboration, let’s take the case of the Doctor’s infamous Sonic Screwdriver.
To SF fans of an earlier time, the Patronizing approach was a particularly abhorrent one, as it demeaned the aspirations of a literature that was still trying to pull itself out of the ghetto of perceived subliteracy. Science fiction must not allow itself to be confused with “fantasy”, it was thought at that time: there must be no magic wands, no straight-up wish-fulfillment, no unscientific concepts. Where possible, academic journals ought to be cited, and math should be used. That’s what would keep the distinction nice and sharp, and so that was the only way to avoid the Patronizing approach to SF becoming further cemented in the popular consciousness by Exploitive efforts. Rise above Lost In Space, rise above Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea…don’t give ’em the chance to co-opt us.
Of course it was a bad strategy, full of oversimplifications. The faith in “hard” science fiction’s plausibility that persists today, as a sort of dry, unproductive cough left over from that ideological illness, is after all this time still no easier to support with facts — what is truly “hard” science fiction? Very, very little of it has ever been written: the substratum of fantastic supposition is normally quite visible, in your average SF tale. Yes, even when you use math…
But at the time, because of reasons specific to the time (some of which, it must be said, were good reasons), this ineliminable aspect of SF was de-emphasized as much as possible. You see there was all too much of Glen Larson in the bad science fiction of the day: “more astro-sugar for your space tea, Captain? Do try the “phillmok” — what you Earthers call peanut-butter cookies…” Oh, it got pretty bad sometimes, folks. Pretty bad. “What’s the matter, June?” “Oh, it’s this darn electro-comb, can’t you get the handyman-robot to do something about its transistors?” Yeesh. Not just subliterate, but often scientifically and culturally subliterate, too. A real mess, actually.
Hence the early hate for the Doctor’s “sonic screwdriver”, although really…that makes half-decent sense even today, doesn’t it? A sonic screwdriver. My God, when will they make one. But at the time, it sounded like someone saying “love the new space-tie, Bob, what colour do you call that?” “Oh, this? I guess it’s astro-green with a little ultra-yellow in it…it’s the latest thing! Let me tell you, these Plutonian haberdashers really know their stuff! Now let me freshen your grav-Scotch, Tom…”
…Sorry, it’s just really hard to stop with that stuff, once you get going…
But the point is…you know, it just may have been a little Patronizing, at that. Well, I don’t really think of it that way — I’ll give the all-time award for Patronizing to Star Trek: TNG for its near-continuous trekno-wank — “modulate the shield harmonics” my ass — give me a sonic screwdriver any day — but the point is (hey, wasn’t I just talking about the point?), that sometimes a little Patronizing can be good. You don’t want to use too much of it! But in what’s been my business for the last little while (writing alt-country songs), cliche is definitely a kind of resource too, you see? In most kinds of writing, cliche is absolute total instantaneous death every time you touch it, but in some kinds of writing, just a pinch of it qualifies as spice. In the alt-country game it’s even a little more than that: you really have to learn how to ride up pretty hard alongside it, sometimes. Flirting with cliche is pretty important, although you must still never actually make the mistake of leading it on…because you have to be original and Non-Patronizing, too, obviously. But on the other hand, let’s face it, a genre’s a genre, right?
The Brits are past masters at the judicious use of Patronizing elements in their juvenile fiction (although I guess, now that I think about it, that they’ve also produced the most sickeningly egregious overuses of it, too), as they’re also past masters at crafting the Non-Patronizing children’s story. Hey, they’re pretty good at Deliberate Dissonance, too — Harry Potter may be ham-fisted, but it’s dissonant at least, and that’s definitely an artistic accomplishment of some stripe or other. I mean, Harry Potter’s no Hobbit, but then what is?
Back to the sonic screwdriver. What’s wrong with it? Nothing, except at one time it sounded faintly like “astro-sugar”. It sounded like kid stuff. Of course it was kid stuff, and even with that it might not really have sounded like kid stuff, anyway…but at the time, as I’ve been saying, this was an issue people tended to get caught up in.
In fact, it remains an issue, sometimes, even today. Odd as that may seem.
And so now, through the avenue of the sonic screwdriver, we’re back to my ongoing assessment of New Who. The sainted First Doctor was clearly Originating, Deliberately Dissonant with about an equal mix of Patronizing and Non-Patronizing (as most SF efforts in the Originating class happened to be, in those dim dark times before Star Trek), largely Non-Topical, Idealistic, Classical, and Contemporaneous. Later, it got a lot more Expressive, a bit more Non-Patronizing, and less Non-Topical to varying degrees in various episodes.
Now here’s my ideal New Who: E, DD/NP, largely N-T, I, Cl, and H.
And here, to recap, is what I saw when it started up again with Eccleston: E, DD/NP, T, largely I, Cl, and H.
Then that Cl changed to an M.
But I forgave the M, because I thought, yes, they kind of do need to vindicate the enlistment of belief at first — I mean we deserve a little vindication, don’t we? And I actively wanted it to be H — because with so much history, it could hardly function without paying attention to it as a constraint, could it?
But then a little while later I started to see it as E, DD/NP, still mostly T but increasingly Mt, increasingly N, M, and at times rather C. Which wasn’t quite so good.
And now I’m beginning to fear it’s becoming E, DD/P, largely Mt, N, M, and C. Which is fine, but you can run out of freshness pretty quick, that way. And frankly that M is tasting a bit sour on my tongue, now. But, okay: it’s still Who.
However E could change to Cy soooooo easily, you see, given the right conditions. And if that ever happens it won’t be proper Who at all, will it?
Tell you how it breaks down:
We can easily envision other possible regenerations of Who in which the genetic recipe gets fatally garbled. A Cynical Who, an Exploitive Who, a Who which is purely Patronizing. Of course that’s not the real recipe, not really: the real recipe includes a detailed list of ingredients like humour, intelligence, simplicity, character, novelty, excitement, fun. What I’ve attempted to describe in my fields is just how all that stuff gets inflected, how the ingredients are prepared or cooked. You can have a bad plate of moussaka; it’s still moussaka, just not very good. That is, it’s still moussaka unless you do something really radically non-suitable with the cooking.
What’s happening here, in New Who, is that there are several objectives that are being worked towards at the same time. There is, of course, an unavoidable nostalgic objective, cleverly addressed and defused (very effectively at first, I thought) by the conceit of the Time War, and the almost-imperceptible, yet thrilling, creep of the Companion over to the box labelled romantic-interest status. This is a little bit of a postmodern approach, a little bit of an influence-conscious approach, a bit of topicality, and a bit of the stuff I’ve called dissonance, that mixes patronizing elements and non-patronizing ones — and, naturally so, because to be more than pastiche, the modern-day Doctor must be, well, modern-day: Rose can’t be Jo or Sarah Jane, of course! She can’t behave as they did! Modern audiences wouldn’t stand for it. Just as they wouldn’t stand for the early twenty-first century being portrayed as a futurescape, since it’s where they live. And how are we to make the next generation of Whovians, if we don’t put the stuff in that we liked as kids, ourselves? The creepy stuff, the stupid stuff, the jokey stuff, the English stuff. And this concern leads seamlessly to a second objective: to make the thing live again, not just as a nostalgic copy of Who, but as Who itself, the real deal. Dissonance is absolutely indispensible, here, because if it’s all going to work, it can’t wish to be “Dr. Who, except good this time”…this is where the cardboard sets come in, the Cybermen design, the sonic screwdriver. The Doctor’s nonsense about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. K-9. All of it. It must all be embraced, good, bad, and where necessary Patronizing…
And yet, the problem here is that “real” Who, ancestral Who, didn’t exactly love the cheese it had to put up with…it just put up with it, that’s all. Which meant, it got very creative because of it, but it still would’ve rather escaped it than deal with it.
Hmm…so if you want to do it right…if you truly want to resume the past…
Now all of a sudden we are deep into the postmodern, here (no, not my “Postmodern”, the real postmodern), because the question becomes, well…how do you resume the past? How is that done? You must have the creativity, clearly. You must be willing to break new ground. But, do you go with the restrictive cheese, when you don’t have to? Or do you not go with the cheese? Or do you mix it up…but then how do you mix it up?
I mean how do you even manage the theme song, for God’s sake, without deciding some things about spareness vs. richness?
In the end, it comes down to aesthetic, pure and simple. The aesthetic must be genius, because it’s the only thing that’s like a compass in this place. Some things must be pumped up. Some things must be pared down. But nobody knows which, except the man with the instincts.
And here we are again at the sonic screwdriver. What to do about it?
I was very pleased to see they kept it.
But I was even more pleased to see that the inevitable lantern-hanging regarding it had a light touch: some undercurrent of acknowledgement that the sonic screwdriver is not a dumb idea, without it openly degenerating into a declaration of the love of kitsch and “my childhood crap, which was brilliant, as opposed to yours which was stupid”. Always a danger, and SF entertainments that succumb to it aren’t exactly tough to find *cough*STAR WARS*cough*…
I mean, I’m still not really sure Billy Dee Williams even knew he was supposed to be in space, you know?
But maybe that’s a topic for another time…
Pickin’ up the space-ladies…hey, you space-ladies are looking absolutely beautiful tonight…
But the point is, you can even do astro-sugar right, if you can only figure out how to.
It’s still not the whole job, though. Well, in fact I am saying (though I certainly seem to be taking my time about it) that it is not even the job, anymore…!
Because what’s perhaps most interesting about New Who, and most central to the entire effort it represents, is the way it handles the Expressive stuff, to avoid the temptations of the Cynical approach. We’ve got some new directions here, the most obvious of which comes out in the sequence with the “Heart Of The TARDIS” — and this is the delicate bit, because this is where it gets goopy: romance symbolically blended with imagination, the two Holiest of the Holies in this new incarnation. Was it too much? Certainly it rode quite hard right up alongside “too much”, and exchanged some sweet nothings with it across the fenceposts. Of course, I liked it, you know…
But that’s when I started to worry about it, too. Because these recipes are delicate things. I don’t know if there’s anyone who can claim to be more delighted than I am, that it has indeed proved possible to resurrect real Dr. Who — resurrecting real anything was starting to look quite impossible for a time, wasn’t it? But now it seems as though there just might be life on Mars after all. Which is great: and we should all be studying the hell out of this experiment with the unexpected and longed-for result…so we can learn how it’s done…
However, this is not to say that we can’t still drown in the sea of Cynical, Modern, and Conscious, just because the menace of the Exploitive seems to have receded…or just because the old familiar sort of Patronizing seems to have disappeared. The naively Exploitive days following the insane success of Star Wars produced many bone-chillingly stupid movies and TV shows…but, they did know how to Originate, sometimes, and we are not so good at that anymore. Sure, they didn’t have a compass — well, Lucas did, and after a while it became apparent that Spielberg did (they’ve both lost it since), but nobody else did, for heaven’s sake even Gene Roddenberry couldn’t get the recipe quite right in the first Star Trek movie — and so it was all pretty lousy moussaka…but their very ham-fisted exploitive brainlessness represented a kind of productivity, and it’s a kind in short supply today. Not that new and even great things aren’t being created today, because they are! But my point is, these can be rough seas too.
Because the fight’s changed.
The old SF vs. fantasy war is over, and I guess somebody won, but I can’t tell who…and probably it doesn’t matter. The old Patronizing is gone — these days, even when somebody exclaims “felgercarb” it doesn’t make us cringe like it used to. Mostly. But there’s a new kind of Patronizing element evolving right under our noses, that’s got nothing to do with the sonic screwdriver or the astro-sugar, and that’s what we should be worried about.
Because, doesn’t vindication become patronizing too, after a while? And doesn’t a casual facility with Nostalgic and Conscious elements become patronizing, eventually? Even Postmodern storytelling or Cynical Destruction-As-Art, when they lose their novelty don’t these, too, start to pat us on the head a little too much for perfect comfort? Just how much legitimate mileage can be got out of these things, anyway? Now that the Pop Wars are over, everything’s finally become Alternative — both “hard” science fiction and “soft” science fiction have learned to either hold hands recombinatively, or suck. But that doesn’t mean the ship’s out of danger, and it doesn’t mean the good guys won. Even as we speak, the Empire of Suck is striking back. And, it is us. Was there ever a show more essentially Patronizing than the rebooted Bionic Woman, for example? And yet that was all for our benefit, the old pointy-shoed crowd…because it wasn’t the sort of patronizing that’s based on astro-sugar at all, that is to say it wasn’t intentionally, exploitively childish…
It just wasn’t grown-up, that’s all.
And, is Torchwood so different from Bionic Woman, in this respect? Does it not, just a little, seem to be an example of how the folks in charge of New Who might be as good at getting the recipe wrong, as they are at getting it right? I merely float the idea…I haven’t seen quite enough of Torchwood to really develop an informed opinion about how well it manages my crazy-cube fields, to produce the Expressiveness that could so easily be seen as pure anachronism…so naturally decomposable into a more Cynical approach, given only enough time…
But then I also haven’t seen quite enough of New Who to be able to decide that about it, either. So here’s the crux of it all, here’s the Heart Of The TARDIS if you will: can New Who truly be Resumptive, instead of merely Retro? An old professor of mine used to say that he thought “postmodernism” was a misnomer, because it was really just modernism with a new hat and a fake beard, a sort of Reggie Perrin modernism…and I don’t know if today I would agree with him, but it does seem to me that postmodernism is just what we call a certain kind of denouement, of a certain kind of story…the story of the detonation of History, of course. And, what happens after.
The post-War landscape, rubble and ruin and reconstruction. Chaotic terrain, and choices.
It’s the environment in which I came to adulthood; of course I love it, and I’m fascinated by it. I see all kinds of possibilities in it.
But, maybe my old professor was right, and that landscape’s just a story too. I hope it is, actually: because that would mean there could be such a thing as Resumptive, that was not just Retro in heavy disguise. And that would mean my vague, nagging worries that New Who might not last for another twenty-six years are unfounded, so long as the genius aesthetic doesn’t choose to move away from Expression, or embrace the Patronizing, or engage in too much Nostalgic navel-gazing or Modern fist-pumping and back-slapping.
Because that is the astro-sugar of our times.
Oh well. But if that all fails, there’s always Hellboy, you know!
[SPOILER ALERT: I may not have exactly “finished” this post — so it still may be a little half-baked. Uh…whoops? Damn.]