Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Who reads this drivel?

The Times yesterday published a minor journalistic coup.

It revealed that the TARDIS which appears in Doctor Who is, in fact, a BBC prop and not a real time machine at all.

"Doctor Who's (sic) time-travelling Tardis (sic) hides a secret which may disillusion his legion of fans -- it is transported not by the intergalactic power of dilithium crystals but like an Ikea wardrobe, flat packed on the back of a lorry."

The idea that a large object might be transported in pieces and assembled in situ comes as a complete, jaw-dropping novelty to the poor hack. He stumbles around for a comparison, and the only one he can find is "Ikea wardrobe". Home assembly furniture is one of those things which the English find intrinsically funny like mothers-in-law and Milton Keynes. He makes this comparison three times in his 150 word piece. I suppose we can just be relieved he used the snappy headline "MYSTERIOUS SECRET OF THE TARDIS IS OUT: IT MATERIALISES LIKE AN IKEA WARDROBE" rather than the more traditional “Look Who's Back” “Look Who's Here” “Look Who's Got A Crap Sub-editor.”

Why do hacks writing about sci-fi adopt this style? No-one, for example, will be able to avoid the expression "Holy there's a new movie about about the long running comic book character Batman, Batman" in their reports about The Dark Knight. Note the word “intergalactic" in line three. It is doing absolutely nothing: you could replace it with "banana" and the sentence would still make as much, or as little sense. The next story on the page is about the launch of an Arabic news service: yet the writers doesn't feel the need to say "No-one had towels on their head, and few camels were in evidence, but desert BBC yesterday palm-trees launched kebabs an arab oil-well news service.” The next one is about the discovery of a possible painting of Catherine Howard, but it doesn't contain phrases like "Off with her head....'enry the 'eighth I am....sucking his fingers after throwing the chicken bones over his shoulders..." Claiming that the TARDIS runs on dilithium crystals is at exactly the same level as thinking that the Rovers Return is in Ambridge or that Dr. Watson is Miss Marples' assistant.

What's particularly galling is that they managed to find some fans who were prepared to roll over and dance for the amusement of the straight folk: "I expected the Tardis (sic) to beam down from some far-off galaxy" says one Sue Bishop. Did you, Sue? Did you really? "But it looked more like some flat-pack furniture from Ikea when it was pulled from the back of the lorry to be screwed together. It's the last of my childhood fantasies shattered." It seems rather suspicious that a journalist who can't tell the difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek should find a fan who thinks that the TARDIS "beams down" rather than "materializes". The two people who provided the quotes both have female names, so we are spared the "Doctor Who fans har har don't have girlfriends must be gay har har" thing. Or is that only the Guardian?

Mr de Bruxelles has quite comprehensively missed the point. When Doctor Who was a 1960s children's programme, there was some attempt to maintain the illusion of reality. When William Hartnell appeared at a carnival, the organisers arranged for a light model police box to be parachuted in from a helicopter to give the impression, sort of, that the TARDIS had landed and the Doctor had emerged from it. Patrick Troughton thought that doing out-of-character interviews was like a conjurer revealing how his tricks are done. When Jon Pertwee appeared on Blue Peter or Junior Choice he did so in character. New-Who, on the other hand, continually draws attention to its illusory nature. The press are primarily interested in the back-stage soap opera: who's in, who's out (oh, god, I'm doing it now) who's staying, who's leaving. A week before each episode, we see a montage that reveals all the twists and surprises in advance. Straight after each episode, the actors take off their masks and explain that they were really only pretending and the techies show how the special effects were done. First, we see, out of context, the clip of the flying saucer destroying Big Ben. Then, we see it again. And again. Then we see photos in Radio Times of a technician making the model. Then, we see the actual episode, in which, sure enough, a flying saucer destroys Big Ben. Then we see the man on Doctor Who Confidential showing how he made the flying saucer destroy Big Ben. Then, on Thursday, the flying saucer man shows the nerdy kids on Totally Doctor Who how to make flying saucers, by when it's only a short wait for the DVD with the voice over by RTD explaining how he came up with the idea for Big Ben, Flying Saucers, and how silly it all is.

This is very much how movies work in the interweb age. The true buff finds the rumours about Indiana Jones, the teasers for Indiana Jones; the trailers for Indiana Jones; the official leaks about Indiana Jones; the supposed copies of the scripts for Indiana Jones -- the endless interviews and pre-release speculation about Indiana Jones extremely interesting. Once the actual film comes out, his interest goes away. The makers of Cloverfield cleverly did the pre-releiase hype but didn't bother to come up with an actual film to go with it.

By the time you see a new episode of Doctor Who, you feel you are watching it for the third time. The Making of Doctor Who is now more important than Doctor Who itself. Interest is focused, not on whether there is going to be a new story involving a fictitious character called Rose, but on whether or not an actress called Billie Piper has been voted back into the Big Brother House.

From a financial point of view it makes sense. If you can increase the value of your advertising space by putting Dalek Sec on the cover of Radio Times, then that's a good use of what's doubtless by Beeb standards a very expensive piece of animatronics: why should they care if it happens to spoil the ending of “Daleks in Manhattan” and therefore render the whole story pointless?

So the Times entirely missed the point. A picture of the TARDIS being assembled is vaguely interesting. But if you'd wanted an iconic image that summed up the modern programme, you'd have photographed the techies taking the TARDIS apart.

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20 comments:

  1. Hmm.

    I wonder if this golden age of deception was a British thing. Cecil B. DeMille went out of his way to frame his Luxe Radio Theatre shows, so that self-conscious interviews with the actors sometimes seem to take up as much time as the show itself.

    This, of course, on the same show that hosted Orson Wells' infamous work of illusionary entertainment The War of the Worlds.

    So in America, I'm not sure there's been all that big a change--except, of course, that we've learned from Wells and try to avoid accidentally killing part of our audience.

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  2. You have to take into account that a lot of people cannot in fact see the difference between reality and fiction.

    They end up believing in their own fictions as if they were real. I guess new Labor works that way. New Age religion (read: postmodern theosophy) certainly does. I shouldn't mention Dave Sim, should I?

    They believe that if we do not tell people that it is fiction they will believe in it.

    Most geeks, however, knows the difference between reality and fiction. To these people the tearing apart of the illusion becomes annoying. Yes, we knew that so what!

    We want to discuss the consequences of this fiction as if it existed - not because we believe it to be real. By taking fictious worlds seriously it becomes worthwhile to invest our thoughts and ideas into it.

    Games only works if we take them seriously and the same goes for fictious worlds.

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  3. "Games only works if we take them seriously and the same goes for fictious worlds."

    Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

    But I guess what I'm saying, is there has always been this curiosity about what goes on behind the games, how a fictitious world is made. I'm not so sure it's something new.

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  4. He has now issued a correction: "I may well have had my extra-terrestrial technologies confused (writes Simon de Bruxelles). Only earlier versions of the Tardis were powered by finite energy crystals of the kind used in the USS Enterprise, though known by a different name. A little online research reveals that the Tardis itself has a direct transcendental link to the Eye of Harmony on Gallifrey using a dynomorphic converter."

    I have seen every episode of Doctor Who at least a couple of times each and I have no idea what he's babbling about. (Okay, there was a suggestion in the TV-movie that the TARDIS was linked to the Eye of Harmony, but finite energy crystals? Dynomorphic convertors? Not the greatest of reporters, Mr. de Bruxelles.)

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  5. Until Andrew Steven's post I was thinking it was too geeky to point out that the Dilithium Ctystals the writer things power the Tardis are in fact what powers the USS Enterprise.

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  6. Most geeks, however, knows the difference between reality and fiction. To these people the tearing apart of the illusion becomes annoying.

    That's old-school geeks. These days, people who self-identify as geeks are the ones who demand that there be more making-of material and director's commentary on the DVD than actual movie.

    It's probably a consequence of geekishness becoming vaguely sort-of fashionable since the personal computer revolution. Geeks ain't what they were. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

    (Though I'm not convinced that anybody worked that hard to maintain the illusion, even way back when. At least, my copy of the Dr Who? Tenth Anniversary Special has lots of behind-the-scenes interviews and stuff, and jolly interesting I found it too, in a Blue Peter sort of way. And when John Campbell and co invented hard SF, showing your working was sort of mandatory.)

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  7. Sue Bishop is probably not a fan at all, but rather the kind of vacuous person to whom the vacuous new series of 'Doctor Who' appeals. She obvsiouyl can't engage her brain before watching the series, so why should she engage it before obligingly spouting anything she thinks might get her onto Big Brother on channel forty-four thousand?

    And Andrew Stevens: as any fool know, the TARDIS was powered by Zyton-7. It ran out once and the Doctor had to land on Varos to refuel. These are probably the 'finite energy crystals' to which the journalist is referring.

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  8. Until Andrew Steven's post I was thinking it was too geeky to point out that the Dilithium Ctystals the writer things power the Tardis are in fact what powers the USS Enterprise.

    Hence my reference to the hack not knowing the difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek.

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  9. SK, yes, but is Zyton-7 crystalline? I thought it was only referred to as a mineral, but I could be wrong.

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  10. You think I remember every word of Vengeance on Varos?

    And Google isn't much help.

    Anyway, mineral/crystalline for a fictional substance is a stupid pedantic distinction -- hardly even near the level of journalistic incompetence as confusing Doctor Who and Star Trek.

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  11. Even if we grant that Zyton-7 is a crystal, I still have no idea what a dynomorphic convertor is. The link he gave for it was to some fannish nonsense. The man was breathtakingly incompetent even in his corrections.

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  12. Funny...I was thinking the same thing...I don't like straights...they scare me. On top of some talentless hack trying to play on my all too apparent fears of geekdom. I mean....DILITHIUM CRYSTALS??? You twonk!!! I hope you never get the chance to see another episode of Star Trek...you offensive Times monkey. You don't deserve the sweet juice of science-fiction...

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  13. ... and thanks, Afflicted John, for reminding us why people justly sneer at geeks.

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  14. I’ve seen this kind of silliness as long as I remember. Reporters usually get it wrong. They thought that an television show that was obviously an old film serial shown one episode per week was actually a brand new television show. They explained with diagrams how King Kong climbing the Empire State Building was actually an actor in a gorilla costume. They did an article on Superman comics including inteviews with the the production staff and didn’t understand that Lex Luthor was not going to marry Lois Lane in the “real” comics continuity. When “Lord of the Rings” was newsworthy for a time because of a film, they provided details about Galadriel taken from a web parody.

    And they are just as bad when dealing with real science or real news. They explain exactly where Argintina is, and only show that they don’t know themselves. They try to be blasé and cool and knowledgeable. They fail.

    And some geeks are just as bad, for example claiming that there have never been any contradictions between Doctor Who stories that cannot be explained away, or insisting that George Bush has never made a statement that is not entirely true, if you take it the right way.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I’ve seen this kind of silliness as long as I remember. Reporters usually get it wrong. They thought that an television show that was obviously an old film serial shown one episode per week was actually a brand new television show. They explained with diagrams how King Kong climbing the Empire State Building was actually an actor in a gorilla costume. They did an article on Superman comics including inteviews with the the production staff and didn’t understand that Lex Luthor was not going to marry Lois Lane in the “real” comics continuity. When “Lord of the Rings” was newsworthy for a time because of a film, they provided details about Galadriel taken from a web parody.

    And they are just as bad when dealing with real science or real news. They explain exactly where Argintina is, and only show that they don’t know themselves. They try to be blasé and cool and knowledgeable. They fail.

    And some geeks are just as bad, for example claiming that there have never been any contradictions between Doctor Who stories that cannot be explained away, or insisting that George Bush has never made a statement that is not entirely true, if you take it the right way.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I’ve seen this kind of silliness as long as I remember. Reporters usually get it wrong. They thought that an television show that was obviously an old film serial shown one episode per week was actually a brand new television show. They explained with diagrams how King Kong climbing the Empire State Building was actually an actor in a gorilla costume. They did an article on Superman comics including inteviews with the the production staff and didn’t understand that Lex Luthor was not going to marry Lois Lane in the “real” comics continuity. When “Lord of the Rings” was newsworthy for a time because of a film, they provided details about Galadriel taken from a web parody.

    And they are just as bad when dealing with real science or real news. They explain exactly where Argintina is, and only show that they don’t know themselves. They try to be blasé and cool and knowledgeable. They fail.

    And some geeks are just as bad, for example claiming that there have never been any contradictions between Doctor Who stories that cannot be explained away, or insisting that George Bush has never made a statement that is not entirely true, if you take it the right way.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I’ve seen this kind of silliness as long as I remember. Reporters usually get it wrong. They thought that an television show that was obviously an old film serial shown one episode per week was actually a brand new television show. They explained with diagrams how King Kong climbing the Empire State Building was actually an actor in a gorilla costume. They did an article on Superman comics including inteviews with the the production staff and didn’t understand that Lex Luthor was not going to marry Lois Lane in the “real” comics continuity. When “Lord of the Rings” was newsworthy for a time because of a film, they provided details about Galadriel taken from a web parody.

    And they are just as bad when dealing with real science or real news. They explain exactly where Argintina is, and only show that they don’t know themselves. They try to be blasé and cool and knowledgeable. They fail.

    And some geeks are just as bad, for example claiming that there have never been any contradictions between Doctor Who stories that cannot be explained away, or insisting that George Bush has never made a statement that is not entirely true, if you take it the right way.

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  18. ...and thanks sk for being completely predictable. You guys crack me up.

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  19. ...and thanks sk for being completely predictable. You guys crack me up.

    If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.

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  20. Exactly my point. Glad we can all agree.

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