Everything Old Is New Again

This is cross-posted to my LiveJournal blog here. Feel free to comment in either place if you like. This is a summary of the presentation I gave at SFRA 2007.

1. Introduction

[1.1] I had several requests from people who wanted a copy of the paper I presented at SFRA 2007 (our panel was against some mighty stiff competition!). Although I spoke off notes and a proper paper does not exist, I’ve reconstructed the bones of my argument here. I hasten to add that our panel was not a proper panel, where we read papers stuffed with theoretical frameworks and dense quotations from critics; rather, we spoke to spark discussion with the audience and create a dialogue.

[1.2] The panel was called, “The Golden Age of SFTV Is Now,” and we discussed current SFTV offerings. Several of the texts I discussed are not yet available in the United States, notably both series of Life On Mars (LOM) and series 3 of Doctor Who (DW). At the request of audience members, I got rid of all specific textual examples of DW series 3 to avoid spoiling anyone, and I will do that here. However, spoilers may exist for all aired eps of the following programs in particular: Battlestar Galactica (BSG), LOM, ReGenesis, and series 1 and 2 of DW.

2. Outline of the argument

[2.1] I began by showing a clip from Life On Mars (LOM) that summarized the setup of the show, which is about a cop in Manchester, England, in 2006 who mysteriously gets thrown back into time to 1974, where he returns to police work, but in what seems to him to be a wholly alien world. This clip beautifully illustrates my point about the old and the new colliding. (My other goal was to make people want to see the program, and I like to think that I succeeded. By the way—BEST. SHOW. EVER.)

[2.2] My focus is the rethinking and repurposing of texts to keep them relevant. (See my blog post here about this activity and Robert Heinlein.) I discuss specific changes in the SFTV genre to keep the texts relevant. BSG was repurposed by taking the basic characters and situation from the old show and then entirely reimagining it. LOM creates a collision between the old and the new by having a modern person confront the police procedures of the past, with his ideas, which seem to be a matter of course to us, looked at askance by his work colleagues. DW takes an old franchise and cleverly updates it for a new audience. And ReGenesis‘s “twenty minutes into the future” take on the hard sciences deliberately creates collisions between the old and the new, both in the presentation of science and in the topics and themes evident in certain episodes.

3. Changes in the SFTV genre

[3.1] An earlier presentation at the conference by Lisa Yaszek noted that our reading of SFTV still uses criteria established during the cold war. I argue that this is slowly changing, and the new SFTV does certain things to the genre that update it. However, the “new” that I discuss is in opposition to this cold war–era “old,” which is the default way to structure a text, with set ways of reading the genre.

[3.2] One such updating is handheld camera work, originally used in the SF genre by Firefly, and used to great effect by BSG in particular to create a sense of realism and immediacy. This helps with the suspension of disbelief required with SF in general, because SF is not congruent with reality.

[3.3] Another updating is the inclusion of long story arcs, championed by Babylon 5 and before that by the original DW, which featured story arcs that covered an entire season. Many SF shows, such as Farscape, BSG, and ReGenesis, play with long story arcs, which permit better character development as well as complex plots that reward faithful viewing. However, the default in the SFTV genre is still stand-alone eps that can be syndicated.

[3.4] A third updating is the inclusion of a moment of emotional closure at the end of an ep. This is a further nod to character development, and it’s also a nod to audience members (usually the female demographic) whose desire for character closure is equal to the desire for plot-driven narrative closure.

[3.5] Finally, SFTV updates the genre by creating character-driven as well as action-driven stories. SFTV is thus less idea-driven that perhaps it was in the past, particularly during the heyday of the original Star Trek, when SFTV was more a genre of ideas (now it is often action-adventure). Further, plots are created to resonate with current events.

4. Gender, sex, and race

[4.1] Perhaps the most obvious example of gender changes in the SFTV genre is the character of Starbuck on BSG, which recast Starbuck as a woman. BSG also further problematizes gender by creating the Cylons and making them human; the character of Six is a wonderful updating of the robot. BSG in general features many strong women characters. Gender equity is a much bigger deal now, as evidenced by LOM, which features 1974-style overt sexism against a female police officer that strikes the modern audience is patently ridiculous, and which is delicately handled by the protagonist. In both texts, the juxtaposition of old and new makes the point.

[4.2] In addition to gender concerns in the show itself, SFTV is also retooling to appeal to a female audience, partly by casting more women in strong, crucial roles, but also by reworking the stories, as noted above, to include relationship- and character-driven plots.

[4.3] BSG again serves as a good example of the updating of race relations for a new audience. Race is partially subsumed into the Cylons, who now look human. The Other has been recoded as female, and as a robot. DW’s Rose, who is white, is in an interracial relationship with her boyfriend Mickey, who is black. However, my best examples of the problematics of race (and gender) are all from series 3 of DW by Martha, and so I will not discuss them here. Sex is updated in BSG by being treated frankly; however, most shows—including, disappointingly, BSG—do not treat homosexuality very well, despite the fine example of B5 years before in the person of Ivanova. DW’s character Captain Jack, who stars in DW’s spinoff, Torchwood, is bisexual, but he’s a fun, zany, outrageous character from another time and place.

5. Technology

[5.1] Technology is an interesting example in the “everything old is new again” paradigm because several shows treat it as a throwback, notably LOM, which uses old technology (the protagonist tries to use 1974-era tools to perform 2006-era functions, such as tape-recording interviews with suspects); and BSG, in which old technology can’t be infiltrated or subverted by the Cylons and is therefore safer. In these series, technology isn’t an end or an answer or the main driver of the plot; it’s a tool that permits a job to be done.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] SFTV has changed to make the genre more relevant to the concerns of its audience and to permit large-scale storytelling. The new shows do not hit the reset button that so infuriates Star Trek fans, whereby each episode stands alone and the characters never change or grow. The updating permits these more character-driven shows to deal with complex, difficult issues, including ones that mirror current events.

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