TV and A Sense of Time
TV and A Sense of Time
I once posted a piece about television that included Babylon-5 and British TV; it prompted this comment:
“I do find it fairly hard to believe that Babylon 5 was the first to have such a strong continuous narrative in anything but what the US would call a miniseries. The episodic nature of TV surely makes it an obvious path to follow. Did it really take until the 90’s for someone to realize this?”
I winced, then relaxed as he continued honestly:
“I have to say, I can’t think of any US shows off the top of my head that had anything besides fairly slow and mostly inconsequential character arcs.”
commented by Vandelay, January 11-13 2012 on the Whedonesque board
A Sense of Time
I remember an interesting tall young man in his twenties, with cloak and broad hat, in the Bordertown series edited by Terri Windling, on the exciting boundary “where Earth meets fairy.” In a borderland of aloof fairies and teenage human runaways, the man is an enigma to the teens. A loner, not part of any teen rock bands, he appears quite human, yet he also seems very long-lived, like a fairy. The kids wonder about him.
One day a youth hears the man conversing as an equal with a near immortal elf, an elf who is being friendly, not aloof. They happen to be in a bookstore. As the teen listens, the penny drops: The young man’s “old memories” and “knowledge” are from reading.
I can relate. As a teen I knew the reason my peers were so into being the “now generation,” besides their egos, was they didn’t read. What I did not imagine then, and I’m still grasping now, is how so many grownups don’t read either. I’m sorry.
I’m not totally innocent about this. As a news reporter for my university student newspaper, writing for fellow students, I was careful to respect how we all have gaps in our knowledge. Therefore I would give obvious background to every continuing story, as if a student might have been out of the country at a research station; I would spell out every abbreviation in full the first time I wrote it, realizing “there are new babies being born every day who don’t know the abbreviation.” I never felt it was a chore to be always explaining things, as “they say” the lowest common denominator for newspaper readers is age 12, and university readers aren’t much better, while for TV the age is eight. In my journalistic life that was OK, no problem.
My problem was in my real life because the writers I read were all readers like me, all making easy references to historical events and historical popular culture, without ever needing to worry, as a reporter would, that people wouldn’t get it. Whenever I dived into the pages of fiction, or nonfiction, I was into a world where, as a physician would say, everyone else was “well oriented as to time and space.” Surfacing back into my other world, a world where many people don’t realize their potential, I would come back bereft.
By definition, of course, I don’t expect “blue-collar” workers to read. I feel gentle, not irritated, when television episodes always have a “convention” whereby some character will always make an excruciatingly obvious comment on something, to make sure everyone watching at home “gets it.” In fact, I don’t even notice those silly comments anymore. My sadness, my mourning, is when “white-collar” college graduates don’t read about the world either. As my buddy Blair would put it, “They have not woven together a personal sense of history.” (Yet they still try to meddle with foreign policy) This I hadn’t expected when I was growing up.
TV and Time
Recently I was surprised to learn that even those who would appear to be avid watchers of TV are not, in fact, oriented to time and changing television culture.
Back in January I published a piece on the death of young Buffy Anne Summers. Someone linked it to a popular bulletin board for fans of all shows by director-writer Joss Whedon. It was Whedon who, after scripting the feature film version, made the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (BtVS) On the Whedonesque board my piece was labeled as “putting in context” the episode The Body. From a board comment, and from folks in my real life, I banged my nose against the fact young people don’t have any historical TV context. They had trouble believing that it was not until the 1990’s that the creation by Jan Michael Straczynski (JMS) of Babylon-5 (B-5) had broken trail for BtVS: With a dying hero, and strong character arcs, he created his episodes to be broadcast in order. I learned that young people took “shows in order” for granted. “It seems,” they thought “like such an obvious idea.” Not so.
Let’s backtrack. I’m old enough to have heard re-runs of radio shows like Gunsmoke, (my school band played the theme) The Lone Ranger, (cue William Tell Overture) and Dragnet (cue dummm dee DUM-dum) Many radio shows made it to the tube after black and white television sets were invented, often continuing with the same actors, such as Dragnet’s Jack Web as Detective Friday. “Just the facts Ma’am.” While children’s shows might be a serial, with the hero left hanging off a cliff, in order to get you to tune in next week, normally grownups would despise cliffhangers. Adult shows, on both radio and TV, were a series, with each episode having a tidy ending. Batman (on TV) used to spoof other shows by urging viewers to return to the “…same bat-time, same bat-station.”
And whenever you returned, if you did, nothing had changed. Not physically: Marshal Dillon did not save up his money and buy a ranch; Detective Friday did not become the Deputy Chief of Police. Not emotionally: Batman did not find a psychiatrist and work through his darkness. And poor Chekov: forever an ensign, always impetuous! Hollywood’s self interest was obvious: By keeping everything frozen, no growth allowed, Hollywood could keep the franchise going for as long as the ratings were there. Gunsmoke, after the radio version, went for a further 20 years on TV, continuing after Star Trek had come and gone.
For the boob tube, as soon as they stopped broadcasting teleplays live, which was very soon after bringing in the brave new medium, the new shows were no longer intended to be dramatic or moving. Forget Aristotle’s explanation of tragedy: In the family living room no one wanted catharsis. Not like going out with sweet anticipation to stage plays and the cinema. People didn’t want butterflies, they just wanted to relax in their living rooms and pass the time.
…Historians note: Producer Norman Lear re-introduced a form of “somewhat live” shows by recording “before a live studio audience” in the 1970’s with All in the Family. (Archie Bunker) “Going live” brings an escalating energy of performing without a net. People still didn’t want strong tragedy, but live worked well for comedy…
And yet, while plot and physical action is all very well… adults still wanted a wee bit of drama. I well remember nights at home, back in the days of neon lights, when shows often began with a narrator and some little portrait circles, showing the stars, “guest stars” and “special guest stars.” Here would be the drama: These guests, wearing a grey hat, could in the space of an hour change hats to white or black. They could learn a lesson. They were the only ones allowed emotional growth.
In a feature film, of course, anyone can grow. Or decline and fall. Interestingly, while Hollywood is known for stand-alone films, I’ve noticed in “recent” (to me) years, probably due to press packages from the publicity machine, the entertainment media has begun referring to the James Bond movies as a “franchise.” What “franchise” means, of course, is not only does Bond never grow up in terms of his own self-awareness, he is never aware of having previously saved the world, either.
Even after color TV arrived, in the mid 1960’s, episodes for the idiot box were still being franchised out. Any member of the writer’s guild could send away for the show bible and submit a script. The bible for Star Trek, I once heard, included a rule the crew could never return to the planet earth. There was a Cold War on, remember, and no wanted to get hung up on who had won. What the bible would never need to stipulate, because it would be common sense for any professional writer, was the Enterprise could save a little star colony, but never save the birthplace of humankind: Otherwise the rest of the series would be one long anti-climax. (OK, if you really must save the earth, then do so in a ST movie) As a franchise, with no character growth, and no climax, the ST episodes could be shuffled like cards and shown in any order. As they were in re-runs.
As for why they made episodes in a traditional franchise-style, a scene from the original Star Trek is instructive. In one of the first season episodes an air force policeman from the 1960’s is brought aboard the Enterprise. In order to keep this “accidental time-tourist” from changing history he is confined to the transporter room. Of course the “guest” needs to be fed. Well.
You may recall the USS Enterprise, in the original series, did not have “food replicaters.” While the crew, like on The Jetsons cartoon, could punch buttons and have a panel slide up to reveal a tray with food and drink,—wow!—such panels implied the food was like on The Jetsons: automatically made and conveyed. Not magically replicated using magical transporter “science.” Consider the real world: Back in the 1960’s, on an air base, a truck transport loading dock would never have a conveyer belt to the cafeteria; on a big navy ship, up on deck at the boat launch, there would never be a dumb waiter connected to the mess hall. Crewmen are at their stations only to work: Going to the mess hall is good for morale.
The obvious way, therefore, to feed the “guest” was for a crewman to carry in a food tray. Unfortunately, although Star Trek was the first sci-fi show based on realism, the episode dispensed with the crewman-and-tray: Instead the guest was fed, in the transporter room, using a sliding panel. Why? So they could dispense with the crewman… Why? The budget! They simply could not afford a “walk on” part. (I probably read this fact in David Gerrold’s book on ST) It is instructive to compare the limited bare cardboard walls of the original set to the intricate lush setting of the latest installment of the ST franchise, Enterprise.
Today our economy is more productive—and not solely from computers and automation. It takes fewer “man-hours” to produce a loaf of bread, and fewer hours, even at minimum wage, to produce the money to afford the loaf. We live in gorgeous affluence compared to how we lived as recently as a hundred years ago. Which means 21st century shows can afford, at long last, not only walk on parts, but full-time writer’s rooms too! Yes, shows are so affordable these days, they no longer need to be “brought to you” by a sponsor. It used to mean curtains to offend the sponsor with anything controversial, remember? Not anymore.
When JMichael Straczynski came out in the 1990’s with a show about a space station he franchised a lot of the first season; one of my favorite writers, David Gerrold, (best known for writing The Trouble With Tribbles) wrote an episode where the young B-5 doctor learns not to “Yankee imperialize” his own medical ethics onto “the little foreigners.” I liked how, casting against cliché, the doctor on the station was NOT old or wise. I treasured B-5 because it was not action-thriller: it was a political-mystery. (No torn-shirt fistfights) With the novel’s thickening plot and rising action, in order to keep all the clues organized, and revealed only at the proper time, JMS ended up being his own one-man writer’s room: writing the scripts himself. This all worked out. Fortunately, he had earned his writing chops, and Hollywood credibility, composing scripts for Murder She Wrote.
JMichael Straczynski made TV history in part for having so many scripts made “in house,” while his super nova claim to fame, of course, was in persuading the studio heads to forget about trying for the usual open-ended franchise. Instead, he proposed the first ever “five year novel.” Unhappily, this meant the show would have to end. And the episodes would need to be shown in order. Happily though, just like a novel there could be an awesome build up to a climax. And, like a novel, it meant there was room for misfortune to befall the regular characters too, not just strangers in red shirts.
Later, when Joss Whedon went on to make Buffy, people joked Whedon’s actors could not hold out for a higher salary at the end of each contract year: In the Whedonverse “no one is safe!” Joss is famous for that, justifiably so, but it was JMS who broke trail for him. JMS also had two main characters doing something impossible in an old “brought to you by our sponsor...” series: getting addicted to substances. Hence a tragic downward arc, as inevitable as King Lear’s, as the episodes were shown in order… Special note: Until B-5, I would never write “TV” and “Shakespeare” in the same sentence. (Come to think of it, BtVS had a couple of addicts: one to hubris, one to magic)
B-5 was something new under the sun, for more than just arcs and episode order. Consider a traditional show like Gunsmoke. In that show, despite all the flying lead, if a regular character left the series, then he might be shown leaving on the stagecoach, or, in the case of Doc, departing offstage and leaving a letter to be read aloud. B-5 cut a brand new trail: The hero dies right onstage… tragically… like a Shakespearean hero. I remember how hard it was to be at work the next day. A few years later a young guy named Joss would create a world where there can be only be one magical vampire slayer at a time, and all the slayers die young…
I wonder if JMichael Straczynski provokes any jealousy in Hollywood now, like what happened to Columbus after twenty years. “Lots of people are crossing the Atlantic now; he didn’t do anything so great.” …Alas, poor JMS: Once his innovation paid off, “it seemed so obvious” to guys who don’t read. But no, someone had to show the rest of us it could be done.
Wearing my “middle-aged man (reading) glasses”
~Down the years, for TV, I keep re-learning what I first learned from reading David Gerrold’s book The World of Star Trek.
~Joke: Q: Say, do you know the definition of an intellectual? A: Someone who can hear the William Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger.
~Trivial apology: for my January Buffy piece I hit “post” when I staggered home near midnight, forgetting that I had meant to a) add my URL and b) determine the spelling of JMS. My web site was so modest, I never expected wake up to hundreds of hits. Hurray, there are Buffy fans in every time zone!
~I used to go out of town and rent a hotel room, back when I had no TV set, “just to watch B-5.” When my buddy Blair, who hadn't seen Buffy, told me Joss Whedon had a new series out, “comparable to B-5,” I couldn’t believe it. “Really? That good?” Really. In fact, months later, from word-of-mouth, the Firefly DVDs were flying off the shelves at Amazon. And the show? Canceled… before Thanksgiving, even… Why? Easy: The highly paid old executives at Fox aired it out of order! ...
~Blair’s Amazon review of Firefly—The Complete Series is the very best, right at the top, liked by 727 of 747. And yes, Blair mentions B-5.
~Come to think of it, it was in the 1990’s that Dark Horse comics was introducing Japanese manga (comics) to America, thus opening wide the anime (cartoon) gates. I bet JMS took note! Americans were shocked and pleased at how anime (and manga) had limited episodes made with an ending in mind: See my essay Japanese Anime Cartoons archived in May 2011.
When anime came to America young fans were both amazed and gratified. As anime exporter Peter Payne of J-List (Dec 14 2011) puts it, “(anime is)… the freedom to create a story using the endearing medium of cell animation in which people actually died in dramatic ways instead of bailing out of the plane at the last minute, as they always did in those lame 80’s cartoons.” He added sarcastically, “I remember the days when TV studios would mix up the episodes of the anime you were watching because why wouldn’t you? There was no reason to show them in order.” Yes, broadcasters assumed anime was like children’s cartoons, with no story arc. ...From The Death of Buffy, archived Jan 2012
My two favorite anime are only 13 episodes long: I mentioned Lain, of Serial Experiments Lain, as one of my Three TV Nerd Heroes in September 2011; I devoted an entire essay to Elfen Lied, in June 2011.
~What do you think?
~What do you think?