Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 43 (Independence Day, Sliders, Xena: Warrior Princess)


I’ve been batting around the phrase “cult television” for a while, but have managed so far to avoid talking about it in any depth or detail. I mean, we did Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the whole point of that was that it wasn’t cult. We did The X-Files, but had too much fun with paranoia to do its cult aspects. So we should probably slip one more in that deals with cult television. And, perhaps, for good measure, what it’s not. Actually, let’s start with that, simply because “actually successful science fiction of a sort” is probably a more useful baseline to have. So let’s go with Independence Day.

Improbably, and in addition to being an extremely successful movie, Independence Day is absolutely ridiculously fun. And a lot of this comes down to the fact that it is a movie that does not make the slightest effort to be taken seriously. It is not a movie that lends itself to any reading based on its supposed sincerity. Yes, it’s an overtly jingoistic film about how America is the greatest country in the world and Macs are compatible with anything up to and including alien death ships. But that’s not the point. The point is the scene where Will Smith’s dog survives.

The thing about this rather incredible scene is that it’s so spectacularly unsubtle in what it does. So, for those poor souls who haven’t seen the film, the aliens attack with their giant death explosion beam thingy. And Will Smith’s wife, played by Vivica A. Fox, is in her car in a tunnel, and is thus about to explode. So she takes off, with her kids, and runs down the tunnel to find a little nook to hide in and, you know, not explode. Which she does. And to be clear, at this point all of the significant human characters are out of danger. At that point Vivica Fox’s character whistles for their dog, which had been left in the car.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the dramatic implications of this sequence. All danger to the main characters has, at this point, been resolved. Absolutely nobody is in any danger except for the dog, who has been deliberately put into danger. At this point we must pause to consider the tastes of the average American moviegoer who has selected Independence Day for their evening’s entertainment over such options as Phenomenon, The Nutty Professor, and Striptease. These are not people who are going to stand for the death of a dog. The idea that the dog might die is actually slightly more implausible than the idea that Will Smith might bite it. (Will Smith, of course, is the lone black man who is allowed to survive action films.) Which means that this entire sequence has, in effect, been set up to tease the audience with the fact that the dog might die. Needless to say the dog instead runs down the tunnel and scampers into the hiding space just as the shockwave of the explosion rides past. In slow motion. So the film has set up a spurious threat for the sole purpose of giving a big dramatic payoff scene. Not, to be clear, for the purposes of engaging the audience or anything like that, but purely to get a visual set piece of a dog triumphantly bounding away from an explosion into the film.

This is the key thing to recognize about Independence Day. Nothing whatsoever in the entire film is there because it advances the “plot” or anything so pedestrian. No, it’s all there to string together the set pieces. It looks like a plot and acts like a plot, but the movie is not only purely interested in stitching together its big visual scenes, it’s not even invested in hiding that from the audience. This is important for contextualizing the movie’s name-earning scene, in which President Danes gives a stirring speech to the world about, essentially, how America is the best country in the world and will lead the rest of the world so that July 4th is their Independence Day too. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re probably underestimating how ludicrously jingoistic this speech is. But by that point in the film’s somewhat impressive running time the film has clearly sacrificed any goals other than chaining together all of the obligitory set pieces of the exceedingly obvious movie structure that it is. So it has the big stirring pro-American speech, but it’s impossible to take it seriously simply because the movie has been so unrepentant in being an insincere piece of shlock that there’s almost nothing to take seriously.

Almost nothing. As with any good piece of camp it’s not entirely possible to work out how deliberate Independence Day is in its insincerity. Certainly the requirement placed on the BBC Independence Day UK radio play (featuring Colin Baker, among others) that the British were not allowed to save the day is… troubling, especially given that the radio play was hardly going to risk any sort of backlash in the US in 1996. And the further work of Devlin and Emmerich never has them manage the level of self-aware and self-effacing irony that animates Independence Day. The film may well be a case of a bad film that came out at the exact moment where it could be good in spite of itself. It happens.

Nevertheless, Independence Day is another marker in a larger shift that’s going on through here in popular relationship to sci-fi media. Sci-fi has been a part of popular culture as long as it’s existed, but there’s obviously a division between what we might call “cool” sci-fi and “uncool” sci-fi. In 1995, at least, Doctor Who was spectacularly uncool, and Independence Day was very cool, to the point where it was the subject of a lot of “sci-fi is back” covers, because apparently it had gone away. But it’s worth charting a certain arc here. The category of “geek” as a vaguely oppressed category is largely a post-Star Wars invention. I mean, there were geeks before, yes. But the cultural construction of geeks was a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s. And I can vouch, as a geek growing up in the era, that there was something terribly strange about trying to figure out why liking Doctor Who got me attacked but liking Terminator would been OK. (Not that there weren’t dozens of other reasons I was screwed there.)

And here it’s worth looking at something we’ve mostly avoided, with is an utterly dire piece of American cult television from the 1990s. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Sliders. Alarmingly, this is one of the closest things that the United States has ever made to an American version of Doctor Who. It concerns a group of four people who travel between parallel universes via a malfunctioning machine that they can’t pilot, trying to get back to their home reality. So you’ve got all the tropes of the original premise of Doctor Who, right down to the cast size and basic structure, with the teenage girl demographic being replaced by the token black man. The only difference is that Doctor Who was good, whereas Sliders is the most eminently punchable television show I’ve ever watched.

For the purposes of comparing directly to Independence Day, let’s take “The Prince of Wails” as our episode of choice. There are others that would do, but that one concerns an alternate earth where the British won the Revolutionary War and so democracy never took hold anywhere in the world and every country is just a monarchy. It is difficult to adequately encompass how mind-wrenchingly and horrifyingly stupid this is, but just for the fun of it, let’s try. The idea that democracy is purely an American invention is, of course, absurd. The Founding Fathers were influenced massively by the Enlightenment. Key lines of the Declaration of Independence were nicked wholesale from John Locke. Other thought depended heavily on the French, who actually had their own revolution that was kind of important in global history. The idea that the British were particularly ruthlessly undemocratic is especially rich, given that they were busily devolving power from the king to Parliament at the time. Perhaps the crowningly offensive moment of this episode comes when the characters inform the crown prince of the concept of the “Bill of Rights,” apparently largely unaware that Britain had one for nearly a century prior to the American Revolution. Instead we get a vision of Britain as a tax-happy bunch of lunatics who casually and by royal decree impose tax rates of 80% or more. (In fact this is one of the things that the English Bill of Rights explicitly forbids.)

This sort of default jingoistic American patriotism is made all the worse by the fact that the wise old scientist character is played as British, and yet seems to firmly believe that America invented democracy, individual liberties, and freedom, cheerily dictating the American Bill of Rights to the crown prince as they encourage him to form a fairer society. He only gets through the first six Amendments, however, and hands the rest off as a quick series of notes. The seventh through tenth Amendments, incidentally, turn out to just be the Declaration of Independence. Who knew. Meanwhile, while all this discussion of the roots of government is going on, the lone black character attempts to get amendments added about how people should be treated equally regardless of race, religion, or musical preference, and apparently wants to enshrine the greatness of James Brown as a Constitutional principle.

So this is obviously terrible. But superificially there’s no obvious way to distinguish the ways in which it is terrible from the ways in which Independence Day’s jingoistic “Today we celebrate our Independence Day” speech. Both trade on a pro-American viewpoint that seems to be being expressed not out of any actual evaluation of anything but for the simple reason that a pro-American bias is somehow expected or necessary. It’s an utterly contentless patriotism that exists purely to reinforce a blind cultural default. Except for one thing, which is what we’ve mentioned already: Independence Day is, if not ironic, at least thoroughly camp. Sliders, on the other hand, seems to lack any self-awareness.

This is what makes it the epitome of uncool science fiction, and perhaps more to the point bad science fiction. It has no interest whatsoever in the question of whether it’s doing anything significant or interesting or meaningful. It’s just blithely executing sci-fi genre tropes with the expectation that they are inherently worthwhile and that an audience demographic will tune in and be fans. Which, as Sliders improbably demonstrates, some people will. Sliders hasn’t the slightest sense that anything has developed since Buck Rogers except for special effects. The result is almost unwatchable, and demonstrates what is so deadening about the bulk of self-consciously cult television.

But every once in a while something comes along that presents an alternative. Take, for instance, Xena: Warrior Princess, an unabashedly cult show that is nevertheless thoroughly fabulous. This is despite not actually being “better” than Sliders in any articulable sense. The only thing it has going for it compared to Sliders is that it has a reasonably sound self-assessment of its quality and is content to be a ludicrous piece of sapphism. And yet that turns out to be tremendous. It’s tempting to describe this in bland and cliched terms like “treating its audience as though they’re intelligent,” but that’s both insufficient and not quite accurate. It’s more accurate to say that Xena: Warior Princess, like Independence Day, is honest about what its audience wants. In this regard, at least, it comes much closer to the model offered by Russell T Davies in Dark Season or Century Falls: a show that simply rejects the idea that being campy adventure need be anything other than a source of joy.

But Xena: Warrior Princess opens another front here that has to be addressed, which is that it is so excessively and blatantly sapphic. But this is, in the show, meticulously rendered as subtext, albeit an almost entirely unambiguous one. That Xena and Gabrielle are a lesbian couple is possible to overlook only through willful blindness. But equally, the show goes to great lengths to keep from explicitly confirming it. Part of this is simply that you couldn’t get away with that yet in 1995. But Xena ran for six years, three of them post-Ellen and “The Puppy Episode.” If it had wanted to do a big “Xena and Gabriel are confirmed as gay” episode it could easily have gotten away with it.

A more useful explanation extends from the historical links between the camp aesthetic that Xena: Warrior Princess unrepentantly fits into and gay culture. There are a raft of historical reasons for this, but the point remains: there is something that is actually preferable about the deferred nature of Xena and Gabrielle’s lesbianism. There is a real sense in which it works better for them to be ensconced in a blatantly camp and transparent closet. And this is something that wasn’t hugely visible in Davies’ shows, at least up to this point, but that is important about Doctor Who and how it came back: the sorts of storytelling tools it used to reestablish itself came out of gay culture. And yet they’re tools that obviously apply well and specifically to cult television.

There’s years of untangling of this to do, and we’ve got some more significant milestones that we’re going to cover, but the basic issue should be clear. What does and doesn’t work in science fiction (and in most things) is getting increasingly complex and based on meta-awareness of tropes. A legacy of camp that intersects heavily with gay culture provides a road map out of that, but the overall intersections between gay culture and science fiction are minimal (although I’m sure you see where this is going for our purposes). And most people, or at least, most people with greenlighting powers for television projects, tend to think that Doctor Who is more like Sliders than it is like Xena: Warrior Princess. And while those in the world of books, particularly those with three-syllable names containing the bigram OR, largely see how to make the leap, the fact of the matter is that if Doctor Who were to come back around now it would be a complete disaster.

57 comments:

  1. "Will Smith, of course, is the lone black man who is allowed to survive action films."

    My dear sir, have you never heard of Denzel Washington?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or Samuel L. Jackson?

      Actually (and I'm freely stealing this from Nostalgia Chick), one of the very few interesting things about Independence Day is that Smith and his wingman appear to be written using the stereotypes of the opposite race--Smith is the heroic, tough white guy and his (white) wingman is the obnoxious comic-relief black sidekick.

      Delete
  2. '...the fact of the matter is that if Doctor Who were to come back around now it would be a complete disaster.'

    Thank goodness they never made that American co-production TV movie in my parallel reality.

    Actually, as a guilty pleasure I quite liked Sliders. The episode you cite was one of the many dumb ones though. But the fact that a show with the concept of parallel realities, and as you point out with 'all the tropes of the original premise of Doctor Who, right down to the cast size and basic structure' as its driving force was showing on early evening TV (in the actual Doctor Who slot IIRC) was a source of hope that 'our show' might have a chance of returning.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I never imagined that someone might take or meant Sliders seriously, and revelled in the joyous camp of it all. When they retooled after season 2 to make it a gritty war drama, I ceased caring about it.

      Delete
    2. "Thank goodness they never made that American co-production TV movie in my parallel reality."

      The thing I enjoy about the TV movie, and it bares some relation to what is under discussion, is that if we see Doctor Who as travelling through genre, rather than time and space, it is the episode where the Doctor lands in a 90's cult sci-fi show.

      Delete
    3. My take on Sliders: It was an interesting concept that, in its early years, actually tended to work provided they didn't try to get too big with their stories. I remember episodes in the first two years that were just as much about the lessons particular characters would learn about themselves and their lives by watching their parallel universe versions, as about whatever action plots they got embroiled in. The only epic-scale Sliders episode that really got my attention in its first two years was the one where J Edgar Hoover took over the country. And I think the main reason was the campy fun of casting Mel Tormé as himself, leader of the democratic resistance to the Hooverian government.

      Also, this was the show where I first realized how awesome John Rhys-Davies was (yes, I never saw Raiders of the Lost Ark until the late 1990s; never saw Last Crusade until 2007 — I was, in this way, deprived). I would often watch Sliders imagining how amazing it would be if Rhys-Davies got to play the Doctor. The only other epic Sliders story I loved was the one with Roger Daltrey, if only because of the drama that came with his killing John Rhys-Davies. Of course, that signalled the show's shift to total grimdark seriousness without the writing talent to pull it off. By then, Jerry O'Connell leaving to do Kangaroo Jack was a step up for him.

      Delete
  3. The thing about Sliders was that it kept occasionally showing little hints that the people behind it were actually capable of producing compelling drama and doing interesting things with the concept. But then every time they'd be inevitably crushed down into their network-mandated "Just make every episode be them traveling to a world where the events of whichever movie is doing well at the box office this week are playing out."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pretty much. It was one of those shows that was every so often better than it was supposed to be, but wasn't allowed to push further into that space.

      Delete
  4. I remember watching a handful of episodes of Sliders when it started, and while I didn't hate it (I didn't see the one Phil mentions), I never cared enough to remember what day it was on...

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm having trouble with this one.

    I think it starts with your description of Independence Day as "absolutely ridiculously fun," which doesn't sound like the movie I saw. I get that what you mean is that it's not presented as serious science fiction but as an over-the-top action movie involving aliens, but I think it'd be more interesting and convincing to discuss that genre distinction -- which might be the key to puzzling out why that sci-fi is mainstream and something else isn't -- than to argue that it's intentionally dumb and jingoistic and that there's any actual pleasure in that. If nothing else, look at Mars Attacks!, which isn't solely but is largely a send-up of Independence Day and which presumably wouldn't work if the latter movie were as campy as you claim. (I'm not an Emmerich hater, though I loathed ID..."absolutely ridiculously fun" does apply to Stargate, as far as I'm concerned.)

    I've never seen Sliders, so I can't comment there, but I've seen an episode or two of Xena and can readily accept that I'd be more entertained by it. That said, you claim that it's "preferable" for the lesbianism to be implied rather than explicit, and though I can see a case to be made for it, I think you actually ought to make it instead of just declaring that there is one. It doesn't seem self-evident to me. You might approach it by analogy to the X-Files and similar "will they/won't they" potential romances, but I think that would only serve to highlight the fact that the problem with spelling it out would be less about the fact that it's lesbian sexual tension than the fact that this opens the show up to the risk of becoming a soap opera.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find Independence Day more "intended to be ridiculous fun" than "actually ridiculous fun".

      Delete
    2. I sat through Independence Day once, and while there were some impressive bits I can't say it grabbed me; but I can see what Phil's getting at, so I'll have to go with Ununnilium on the "intended".

      On the Xena front, you've probably all seen or heard this, but just in case there's anyone who missed it: have a read of Kevin Wald's Heroine Barbarian.

      Delete
  6. One of the things I love about Xena is the opening theme, where the dramatic movie-voice announcer runs you through the entire premise of the show, as well as all the traits the protagonist has ("The Power!... The Passion!... The Danger!... Her courage will change the world!"). If your definition of camp includes treating the absurd as serious, the opening theme alone has enough fodder for a couple papers. Amy's opening narration for before the theme in series 6 is the closest I've come to finding another in this style, which is itself odd because it lays out the premise of the Steven Moffet Doctor Who, not the show as a whole... I'd love to try explaining to someone that Tom Baker isn't Sarah Jane's childhood imaginary friend.

    I often find myself trying to rewrite the themes of other shows in this fashion. ("In a world where people have trouble with relationships, where petty annoyances are worthy of extensive analysis, the world cried out for someone to make fun of it all. He was Jerry Seinfeld, a successful comedian in the city of New York. The pedantry! The cleanliness! The perfectionism! His sarcasm will change the world!")

    ReplyDelete
  7. My favorite part of "The Prince of Wails," which was the only episode of Sliders I can recall myself sitting through, was the British States of America's flag, which inexplicably had 13 stripes. I was also puzzled as to why California was a part of the British empire.

    But you know, as terrible as that episode was, I thought it did have a self-aware sense of humor. The rewrite of the Bill of Rights, the Rush Limbaugh parody, the title itself -- none of this was actually funny, but it was all clearly intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Much more so than Independence Day, which I thought was just relentlessly awful.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Independence Day is absolutely ridiculously fun.

    Wish I could have found the fun. With the exception of a handful of scenes, I found the movie a chore to watch. I didn't care about any of the characters or situations. Brent Spiner was cool; the special effects were cool; seeing the goddamn White House finally blown up was cool; everything else was a dreary slog.

    For all its flaws (the worst being the endlessly terrified and confused funny-black-man-esentially-in-blackface), I found Sliders far more entertaining; and I thought it sold its central scare (not being able to find your way back to your home dimension) more believably than Independence Day sold its own. But yeah, you need to know some actual history in order to do alternate history effectively.

    Of course Xena is even worse on the history front -- interacting with Trojan warriors one day and Julius Caesar the next, as though these weren't about 1200 years apart.

    the fact of the matter is that if Doctor Who were to come back around now it would be a complete disaster

    They might even have made him half human! And killed off the previous Doctor in a completely pointless Tasha-Yar-ish way!

    spoilersbelow,

    Amy's opening narration for before the theme in series 6

    That exists only in the American version, by the way. And it's particularly confusing after "The God Complex."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose there's a certain cool foreshadowing in having the dying First Lady be the actor who in BSG will play the dying President.

      Delete
    2. Really? Amy's narration doesn't go to air in Britain?
      Then why the hell do we have to put up with it in Australia?

      Delete
    3. There was opening narration in Doctor Who season six? What did Amy say?

      Delete
    4. There was opening narration in Doctor Who season six? What did Amy say?

      It was a variant of her voiceover at the beginning of "The Beast Below"; something like "When I was 7, I had an imaginary friend. On the night before my wedding, my imaginary friend came back, and we've been running ever since."

      Delete
    5. Here's the actual clip:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-L4dJ8n64HE

      Delete
    6. "Beast Below" voiceover text: "My name is Amy Pond. When I was seven, I had an imaginary friend. Last night was the night before my wedding, and my imaginary friend came back."

      Series 6 voiceover text: "When I was a little girl I had an imaginary friend, and when I grew up, he came back. He's called the Doctor. He comes from somewhere else. He's got a box called the TARDIS that's bigger on the inside and can travel anywhere in time and space. I ran away with him. And we've been running ever since."

      Delete
    7. Having seen Series Six in Australia and suffering through that narration every single episode is, I think, what turned me off the Moffat era more than anything else.

      The idea that Our Show required its premise to be spelled out every week - and in such sub-Gaimanesque, po-faced and calculatedly whimsical terms - was more than my poor mind could bear.

      Delete
    8. Now, try to picture Sophie Aldred saying it in her bad TV "rough teenager" accent, or Wendy Padbury in her chipper and informative educated future lady voice... Sheer poetry!

      Delete
    9. Man. That would be wonderful actually. Can we get Big Finish in on this?

      Delete
    10. "Really? Amy's narration doesn't go to air in Britain?
      Then why the hell do we have to put up with it in Australia?"

      Moffatt wrote it specifically for the newly-advertised-to US audience, and didn't intend it to go to air in Australia. However, the BBC in recent years has had a policy of selling the "international version" of programmes to Australia, regardless of broadcaster - hence until recently many hour-long programs running at 46 minutes and the ABC having to scrape together filler shows or start following programmes earlier.

      Delete
    11. At least it's not on the dvd versions.

      Delete
  9. I far as I remember Xena was one of the first show that could go from flat out comedy to serious drama. I'd be surprised if it wasn't an influence on Buffy and therefore down the line nuWho. It even had a Musical episode...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Xena was one of the first show that could go from flat out comedy to serious drama

      Well, there's also Hamlet.

      Delete
  10. I looked at today's headline and will confess spent some time staring in disbelief trying to figure out how on Earth you were going to manage a redemptive reading of Independence Day. Then I saw the next thing you covered was Sliders and it made a little more sense to me.

    I suppose for ironic, self-aware science fiction that has no pretenses about what it's being, you don't have any plans to cover Stargate SG-1, do you?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Because no one is defending it, I will.

    I thought Independence Day was awesome. I was also 13. Maybe this has something to do with it, but I think there's a campy element to the productive that makes it generally entertaining, providing you're looking for camp elements. One reason I couldn't take Mars Attacks! when I saw it was that the camp was so OTT and so in-your-face that it felt like an overdose. Independence Day hit a camp/epic sweet spot almost entirely accidentally.

    Thinking on it, it may have to do with the wildly divergent attitudes of the cast and the crew. The producers, directors, and writers all took the movie as serious drama. The actors, however, were playing up their types for laughs. Independence Day had an immensely talented cast. Will Smith knows how to pitch his persona to a production. Jeff Goldblum is one of the great trope-aware actors of our time. Bill Pullman was the star of Spaceballs! He knows how to pitch sci-fi comedy.

    I just finished reading Phil's Patrick Troughton book, so I remember one of your key critiques of The Space Pirates: all the actors play their comedically written parts in OTT comedy voices, and break the humour through overkill. Independence Day had a cast playing its super-serious action dialogue with enough tongues in cheeks to show how ridiculous it was.

    As well, I remember over a decade ago reading a Doctor Who fanfic that basically threw Paul McGann's Doctor in the middle of Independence Day with all the character and species names changed. It was terrible. Make of that what you will.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mars Attacks! is really odd in tone. OTT is one way to put it. I find it almost unbearably misanthropic, at least for the kind of movie it appears to be, and a lot of it is difficult to watch. I do think it's a better and more interesting film, but it's definitely not warmer. I really didn't get anything out of ID4 that I can recall (I had about 7 years on you, so who knows, that might have made a difference), except for fodder for my Harvey Fierstein impression, but I'll cheerfully agree that one man's Stargate is another man's ID4 and vice versa. All I meant to point out by bringing up Mars Attacks! was that it's almost certainly a reaction to ID4, in a way that to me strongly suggests that at least some of the camp in the latter is in the eye of the beholder (see also Starship Troopers, I guess). I think there's a gulf between a movie that "doesn't take itself too seriously" and one that's actually campy or satirical, and the former seems to me to be pretty common in Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe we're just talking degrees of camp. The contrast between Pullman's president and Nicholson's might be a good place to look.

      Delete
    2. The way he played it, Bill Pullman was President Lone Starr from Spaceballs, worn down by the office job of being President for four years instead of jetting around the galaxy in a Winnebago with John Candy where he belonged.

      Delete
  12. yeah, i echo the ID is supposed to be silly, ridiculous fun... but it really wasn't that great. I groaned more than was laughed at the movie.

    But on the cult TV reading: Sliders was terrible, no question about it, in the same way that the TV Logan's Run was. But there was a groundswell of cult TV pushing the margins of respectability that Babylon 5 did by sheer will power and inventiveness (and JMS's scripts and ideas) and the double hit of mid-to-late 90's Xena and Buffy would, in this older fan's opinion, be the tipping point that made people sit up and respect what had been sub-culture before. if the brits got RTD and Moffat with Who and Sherlock, the states got JMS and Whedon.

    It also must be noted that part of this was the expansion of channels that would allow for niche programs that could survive without huge ratings. The early versions of TNT or WB and the rest were happy with 2 million views, they didn't need 10 to keep funding the hsow. Babylon 5 got moved and moved and moved again, a show insearch of a broadcaster.

    ReplyDelete
  13. The problem with defending something as insincere and camp fun is that then you're defending the Adam West Batman. That's ok, but I think cult television can have higher ambitions than that. And it doesn't really provide us with the critical tools to discriminate between Tim Burton's Batman and Joel Schumacher's Batman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can take a scapel to Burton's Batman, and a sledgehammer to Schumachers easily enough. Frequently do so to both, neither of the films are good. Burton's wants to pretend its good and a ton of fans deluded themselves into believing it was good. its not.

      I can defend Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as a great little "romp" because it doesn't all need to be as serious as Asylum of the Daleks. I love the contrast. (I actually see Dinosaurs as something that Hinchcliffe would have loved had he the budget. Tom Baker would have enjoyed the hell out of that, and made that great transition to serious at the end, sending the rockets after the bad guy.) Even JNT understood the need for that, even though he didn't know how to pull it off at all.

      Delete
    2. There is absolutely no problem with defending Adam West's Batman. Sure, cult television can have higher ambitions, but if that's what a show wants to be, then that's worthwhile in and of itself. Certainly, I prefer it to Independence Day, Schumacher's Batman, and even Burton's Batman.

      That said, I don't think you have to "delude" yourself into thinking something is good. Taste differences exist, film at eleven.

      Delete
    3. inkdestroyedmybrush- Batman is heavily flawed in many ways, but Returns is actually really good. I'd go so far as to say it's the best of the Batman films we've had (though not necessarily my favorite).

      Delete
  14. Funny thing... most people are totally unaware that MARS ATTACKS!, which was based on the Topps bubble gum card set by Wally Wood & Norman Saunders (YEAH!!!), was announced a couple of years before INDEPENDENCE DAY, which seems to have been, like THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, thrown together very, very quickly in order to beat another film to the theatres (CONAN THE BARBARIAN). The difference being, in both cases, the cheaper film was by far the better one! I've seen ID once... "ONCE!!" Never again. MARS ATTACKS is one of my top favorite Tim Burton movies.

    I do think the 1989 BATMAN is a "good" movie, but not a great one. But BATMAN RETURNS really, realy SUCKS-- with the notable exception of the scenes of Bruce & Selina together. Would you believe, all these years, I never knew they were dating in real life at the time? (The 2 Schumacher films, simply, should never have been made. Awful beyond belief.)

    I never saw SLIDERS, but it just struck me as the latest in a long line of "Will we ever get home?" shows, like FANTASTIC JOURNEY, OTHERWORLD, THE TIME TUNNEL, and, especiallyu in its 3rd season, LOST IN SPACE.

    Wanna see really good John Rhys Davies? THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS!!!!

    I loved XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS... oddly enough, I never quite got that they were supposed to be lesbians. Maybe because at different point, both showed interest in men. But then, back in 1966, you couldn't have admitted that Adam West's "Bruce Wayne" & Burt Ward's "Dick Grayson" were GAY, either! But both of them sure seemed to go out of their way to avoid relationships with women...

    And in a un related point (but, maybe not), I always remember that one Halloween when my favorite all-girl band, The Friggs, came to Philly to play, all dressed in costumes. Kami was "Witchiepoo", Palmyra was "Sporty Spice", Lexy had to explain HER costume to me... but Mitzi Dodge, she was "Xena Warrior Princess". To this day, I always think of her that way. It was such a perfect fit, for the woman a mutual friend later described as "a roller derby girl"!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Really, Mars Attacks! was conceived first? Well damn, there goes my argument. Maybe ID4 IS intended to be camp, and it's therefore even shittier than I thought it was.

      I'd agree with your take on the first Burton Batman, though I frankly really love most of it. I agreed with your take on the second at the time, fervently wishing the Penguin bits had been left out entirely, but I watched it again a little while back and actually really enjoyed them. Whereas the first film is (unless I'm missing something) as straightforward as Burton gets, the second is a pretty thorough social/economic/political satire. I can't imagine what he would have done with a third film. Not that anyone asked, but my take on Burton is that he jumped the shark midway through Sleepy Hollow and has made maybe one or two bearable films since.

      Love The Living Daylights. Give me Dalton over Brosnan any day.

      Delete
    2. my take on Burton is that he jumped the shark midway through Sleepy Hollow and has made maybe one or two bearable films since

      He made Corpse Bride since, and I thought that one was great.

      Delete
    3. And of course Big Fish, which is undoubtedly the pinnacle of his career.

      Returns is fantastic, though, in so many ways. I always felt '89 was hampered by Burton's 'vision' for the film conflicting with what it necessarily had to be at the time, whereas Returns is freed of those complications by virtue of it being a sequel, and made under the caveat of Burton's free control over the project.

      I'm still hoping to write a full essay on why it's so great, but the short end of it is how the villains are thematically paralleled with Batman and the way the films develops him through their characters;,the underlying theme of the duality of self (which is itself a major part of the construct of them film and how we as the audience view and relate to the characters), the more Freudian elements that can be easily applied in several areas (Penguin is so obviously the id, for example), how the film offers an almost perfect balance between dark and serious and fun and campy, and how well-constructed both Penguin and Catwoman are as characters.

      It's a truly brilliant piece, and probably up there with the Donner Superman as the best supehero film we've had thus far.

      Delete
    4. I didn't like Corpse Bride much, and I don't have the words to express how much I hated Big Fish. But I'm aware that I'm in the minority, especially about Big Fish. The only two I've liked since Sleepy Hollow were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know, I'm insane, I'm sorry) and Sweeney Todd. I'd probably put Edward Scissorhands at the top of my Burton list, or Ed Wood if I wanted to come off all classy. :)

      I'd love to read that essay, Flynn. I actually don't think it was a superhero film at all, but I suspect I'd agree with most of the rest of what you had to say about it.

      Delete
  15. Damnit.
    I've been meaning to ask Phil about the Time Tunnel for about a year and a half, after he failed to cover it during the Hartnell years. It just never seemed to be a relevant post to do so in. And while I have never watched an episode of Sliders, from inference I always thought that it had been somewhat inspired by Irwin Allen's TT.

    Of course, I can kind of see why Phil didn't bring it up: there really isn't that much to say about it. One series of incredibly unambitious Inaccurate Historical swap to Ludicrous Sci Fi, that is more fondly remembered than it probably deserves to be.

    Don't get me wrong: I am one of the guys who remembers it so fondly. I watched several episodes with my dad (who is American) on repeats here on Australian television in the early 80s, and thought it was fantastic. As a nine or ten year old, I thought it was a brilliant American version of Doctor Who (my utterly favourite show).

    However, my wife kindly hunted down the complete series on DVD for me a few Christmases ago, and it unfortunately does not hold up to too much scrutiny. Even the vaguely interesting closet homosexuality of the two leads, and Lee Meriwether's fantastic unrequited input into that triangle aren't enough to save most of the stories.

    I fear that Irwin Allen just had no further ambitions for the series than "Make it Fun Adventure" and the creative team never really even tried to insert anything else.

    But I was a little disappointed not to see an analysis of the series - even in the book version. (Bought both in e-book version recently, just getting to the end of the Harnell years.)

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hokey as it was, I always have a bit of fondness for Independence Day...and know too much about it:

    Vivica's character was Will's girlfriend, not wife; there was only one kid (adorable, of course!) and the dog's name was (I think) Boomer.

    The other best thing in the movie was Adam Baldwin as the military aide who shot the hell out of the alien autopsy room.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Also, something I just thought of:

    "But the cultural construction of geeks was a phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s."

    Actually, I'd say that the cultural construction of geeks *by* geeks was a thing of the '80s and '90s. There was a previous one, seemingly written entirely by people who sought to define "intellectual" in opposition to "cool", with its apothesis being Steve Urkel, and the new one was in reaction to that.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I can't shake the feeling that Irwin Allen had seen DOCTOR WHO way back in the early 60's, before anyone else in America had, and so figured if he "borrowed" ideas from it, nobody would realize it. With THE TIME TUNNEL you have a time machine that nobody seems to know how to operate (I think Tony knew, but he was trapped in time, and so wasn't much help). And you have a show that started out doing historicals but evolved into sci-fi. ("Put him in the extractor!" --or was that a line from LOST IN SPACE?) Some younger fans actually have the nerve to complain about the stock footage, which is idiotic, they don't seem to realize that stock footage made the show lok like it had 10 times its actual budget.

    But when I watched the first 13 episodes of DOCTOR WHO, that's when I really saw what Irwin Allen had swiped from. The flight deck of the Jupiter 2 is the contro room of the TARDIS on an unlimited budget (okay, maybe it's really the control room from FORBIDDEN PLANET on a smaller budget... heehee). But look at the character parallels-- The Doctor/Doctor Smith, secretive, devious, self-serving, always causing trouble. Ian & Barbara/John & Maureen, the dynamic hero type and the sensible woman. Susan/well if you split her into 2 characters you get Will and Penny, with Will being the one who mostly fills Susan's slot, except he's actually smart, brave, etc. etc. I'd say the movie Susan was a closer parallel, which is why I much prefer Roberta Tovey to Carole Ann Ford.

    And of course, Sydney Newman did NOT want something like Daleks-- which became so popular. Both Dr. Smith and THE ROBOT were added to the show after the initial pilot was completely finished, and footage from it wound up getting cut up and spaced out over the first 5-6 episodes.

    In effect, Irwin Allen used elements of WHO in both shows-- and let's not forget LAND OF THE GIANTS ("PLANET OF GIANTS"), although that had precedents going back quite a few years before WHO.

    Sadly, you're right about Irwin Allen's extreme lack of ambitin in the script department. If only he'd had the sense to step aside, once a show was sold, hire someone who knew what they were doing and let them do decent stories, with the kind of budgets he had, he could have blown Gerry Anderson and Gene Roddenberry right out of the water... instead of spending generations being a borderline laughing stock, even among those (like me!) who really LOVE his shows, in spite of their monstrous flaws.

    That 1st season of LOST IN SPACE was really damn good stuff... as long as Dr. Smith didn't get in the way too much.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I remember at 14 seeing Independence Day with a friend. He so wanted to be the alien who wraps his talons around Brent Spiner- "it'd be col, I'd just grab you and talk- with *your* head".

    Then my mum rented the video and said she hated it for its jingoism "It's just an excuse to justify the Americans having a big military budget."

    As for Doctor Who being either uncool or a potential disaster during this time, I don't buy it for a second. The UK ratings of the TV Movie indicate the British public really wanted Doctor Who back and wanted to see more of it.

    ReplyDelete
  20. David Pringle has an interesting short-form essay in his Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy regarding Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, in which he argues that although Hercules is tremendously good fun - and it really, really is - it's bound by the constraints of its format (i.e. having a masculine hero) and is thus never one hundred per cent effective in skewering or lampooning the tropes of myth and fantasy.

    Essentially, he puts forward the proposition that Xena had to exist in order to fully realise the aims of Hercules.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Encyclops:
    "Really, Mars Attacks! was conceived first? Well damn, there goes my argument. Maybe ID4 IS intended to be camp, and it's therefore even shittier than I thought it was."

    I've had people argue with me, but then they always do. Both films, of course, borrow from "WAR OF THE WORLDS", but the bubble gum cards were around 1960, and I just have such a vivid memory of hearing when they announced they were going to do a film (based on bubble gun cards!!!!! --outrageous!). Then "INDEPENDENCE DAY" comes out, and by the time "MARS ATTACKS" hits theatres (a couple months, wasn't it, rather than a week or two as with "SWORD" and "CONAN") there was so much hype, as if it was the greatest thing ever ever ever, people thought it was ripping off the film with the bigger budget.

    Peter David said "ID" was a "yet" film. People would ask, "Have you seen it YET?" --as if it was a given. I think he also described it as the sort of film that you don't go to see, it comes to you to BE seen. (or something like that)

    Among other things, it cracked me up to see Nicholson (The Joker), DeVito (The Penguin) and Sylvia Sidney (from "BEETLEGUISE") all in one film together, with George Foreman AND Tom Jones! And Rod Steiger, too.


    "I'd agree with your take on the first Burton Batman, though I frankly really love most of it. I agreed with your take on the second at the time, fervently wishing the Penguin bits had been left out entirely, but I watched it again a little while back and actually really enjoyed them."

    Somehow, the more I watch the 2nd film, the worse it gets. So much bad writing AND bad acting, from DeVito and Walken (all the way thru) and Pfeiffer (before the murder attempt). There had been at least a vague attempt to follow the comics in the 1st film, but in the 2nd, they completely threw it all out and invented brand-new characters who they just happened to call "Penguin" and "Catwoman". The Adam West show had more respect for the source material that this!

    Speaking of these 2 films, it cracked me up a few weeks back watching an early episode of "WKRP" about a "guess the songs" contest, where the 2 people who show up to collect the money were later on the main henchmen of The Joker and The Penguin. What a bizarre coincidence! (Tracey Walter & Vincent Shiavelli)


    "Whereas the first film is (unless I'm missing something) as straightforward as Burton gets"

    The procuders had tighter control, and the script had been worked to death over an 8-year stretch. Which is why Burton did not want to do the 2nd on, unless they gave him free rein to do whatever the hell he wanted. I wish to God they'd have hired someone else! I also wish they'd have stuck with ONE main villain per movie. Going by the comics, Penguin should not have appeared until at least the 4th film.


    "my take on Burton is that he jumped the shark midway through Sleepy Hollow and has made maybe one or two bearable films since."

    I've missed a lot of his lately, but I did see "SLEEPY HOLLOW" when it came out, and loved it. It reminded me a lot of a Hammer Film, only, with a VERY intelligent script, and a much bigger budget.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've had people argue with me, but then they always do. Both films, of course, borrow from "WAR OF THE WORLDS", but the bubble gum cards were around 1960, and I just have such a vivid memory of hearing when they announced they were going to do a film (based on bubble gun cards!!!!! --outrageous


      Of course it's important to remember that the original 1960s bubble gum cards were being played straight (Insofar as the medium of bubble gum cards supports the distinction); doing a movie based on them as an Over-the-top parody of big-spectacle Sci-Fi Aliens-Attack movies wasn't part of the original concept and points to there being a lot of other influences mixed in.

      (This reminds me a bit of the movie 'Airplane!' which is, technically speaking, a near-word-for-word remake of a 1950s suspense thriller called "Zero Hour", with the key difference being that "Zero Hour" is a perfectly straight drama while "Airplane!" is a send-up of the primarily-1970s genre of Airplane Disaster Movies -- a send-up so effective that it more-or-less killed the entire genre it was parodying. It's an adaptation of a 50s movie, but the major comedy influences are parodies of 70s movies)

      (Just to bring things around Full-Circle, Zero Hour is, of course, itself a big-screen adaptation of a Canadian made-for-TV movie which starred future Star Trek engineer James Doohan, and which was so successful that its producer was brought over to england to work for the BBC. Said producer? Sydney Newman.)

      Delete
  22. Encyclops:
    ""Love The Living Daylights. Give me Dalton over Brosnan any day."

    I wqish Dalton had done "GOLDENEYE". Then again, in recent years, I wish Dalton had done "FOR YOUR EYES ONLY". "THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS" sometimes reminds me of an Agatha Christie, in that, the 2nd time you watch it, it's a completely different movie from the 1st time, because you realize that almost everything you saw the 1st time was not what you thought it was. It's also like a good "AVENGERS" episode in that it takes 75% of the film before all the pieces of the mystery finally fall into place. That is NOT a typical "Bond film"!

    "LICENSE TO KILL", on the other hand, reminds me now of a few "SAINT" stories where Templar went undercover. Every time he did, something simple & stupid would blow his cover near the end. It cracks me up how much Bond keeps screwing up in there, and how luck keeps being on his side, as he keeps getting more and more into the villain's confidence. I love the bit where the villain asks, "And what do you do for a living?" "I'm temporarily unemployed." Later, he admits, "I used to work for British Intelligence." Templar always knew, for a lie or con job to work, about 90% of it has to be true.

    I used to compare Dalton to McCoy, in that both had their eras at the exact same time, both got MUCH better writing than their predecessors, and both long-running series STOPPED while they were doing them. And they both became favorites of mine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd love to see a Bond film some day that was actually like the books. Not that I want all Bond films to be like the books. But it would be interesting to see how the more restrained, noirish Bond of the books would play on screen -- preferably in New Wave b&w. Which of course will never happen.

      Delete
    2. Either Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, or the first two Connery films may be as close as you'll get with that, BerserkRL.

      Also, Henry... GoldenEye WAS written for Dalton; the first draft, by Michael France, is very clearly geared toward his Bond, and even has a major role for none other than Pushkin! It's probably 90% better than the finished movie. I'll see if I can send it to you; it's a great script. You'd love it. :-)

      Delete