Tuesday, March 24, 2015

(-268)


I sometimes wonder if cultural historians have paid enough attention to breakfast cereal. [1]

We have already talked about Kellogs Pep which sponsored the Superman Radio Show about 30 years before I was born. There was nothing especially super about them: so far as I can tell, they were just fortified bran flakes. And that's why they needed a strange visitor from the planet Krypton and a wrist-mounted sun-dial to make them seem exciting. All breakfast cereal is exactly the same so it's a blank slate on which advertising men can inscribe anything they feel like inscribing. This box of toasted rice will make ladies thin, but that identical box of toasted rice will make young men leap over fences. And because it’s all the same, Mum (it is, after all, she who buys the groceries) can afford to delegate the decision about whether to have toasted rice or frosted toasted rice or chocolate frosted toasted rice to her offspring. So the advertising people shamelessly direct their patter at children, or rather KIDS. We were all brought up to believe that HEY KIDS rice and corn going soggy in milk is FUN and GOOD FOR YOU and also the HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR DAY. And being a WEETABIX PERSON as opposed to a FROSTIES PERSON defined you tribally. Possibly. 

It also comes in big flat boxes. There is a space to draw a Tiger or three little Elves on a packet of cornflakes. There really isn't on a tube of toothpaste. 

There were Magic Roundabout figurines in Ricicles (which were, it will be remembered, twicicles as nicicles). I remember getting a box with NO GIFT IN IT and writing to Kellogs and receiving a letter of apology and THREE figures to make it up to me. But not the Dougal figure I needed to finish the set. I was three years old. It taught me an important lesson about life.

There were cut out "code wheels" and badges on the backs of Shreddies packets that initiated you as a member of a Tom and Jerry fan club. Do they still make Shreddies? It is the only one I would want to eat. Mini ("spoon sized") Shredded Wheat came in the same livery, and they were disgusting. 

There were indescribable little plastic animals with scissor action middles called "Stretch O Pets" in Rice Krispies, which were the same as Ricicles only without the sugar or the elves. 

Wetabix did picture cards. Everyone remembers the two sets of Doctor Who cards, but there were also Robin Hood cards and Superman cards and Star Trek cards. 

And the Honey Monster, obviously. 

Grandad must had more conservative tastes in breakfast than us; because he sometimes collected the gifts that came in plain old common or garden Kellogs Cornflakes and presented them to me. There was a set of circus animals and a set of self assembly fair ground rides that never worked and I assume a set of vintage cars. There was always a set of vintage cars. 

One Saturday afternoon he presented me with two cardboard masks, cut from the back of the  box itself. One represented An Android. (Androids look like bald Boris Karloffs, apparently.) The other represented a comically sinister figure with huge ears. His name was Mr Spock From Star Trek. I would have been six.


There was a moment in my life when I first discovered who Spider-Man was. (Feb 1973: "The Menace of Mysterio.") There was a moment when I first heard the name "Luke Skywalker". (On page 3 or 4 of the Marvel Comics Treasury Edition.) We can divide the pre-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew from the post-Dungeons & Dragons Andrew with a fair degree of historical confidence. But there never was a point in my life when I didn’t know who Mr Spock was. I can hazard a guess as to when I first watched Star Trek: the BBC showed a series of daily repeats over the Christmas holidays in 1974; which was also the year the decanonized cartoon series occurred. But I also had one of those Viewmaster stereoscopic slide viewers (which I thought was the most fantastic toy ever – a rare example of a 3D effect that actually works) and that came with a Star Trek disc: "The Omega Glory" retold in 21 frames. I remember them going over to the other ship and finding the crew reduced to dust in their uniforms. It frightened me and unnerved me in a way that Doctor Who monsters didn't. And I remember sitting on the coach to school camp reading one of the James Blish adaptations. And when I was very small indeed I had a set of light blue PJs with a design featuring pictures of the Enterprise. I think that was also ordered off the back of a Cornflakes packet. You could also order a torch in the shape of a phaser but I never had one of those because guns are not toys.   

When did you first know about Mr Spock? You might as well ask "When did you first know about Father Christmas?" or "When did you first know about Jesus."

If you never watched Star Trek, then Spock represent the idea of aliens—the thing you fall back on if you want to show that sci-fi is silly but don't want to use little green men with antennae sticking out of their heads. When people wanted to take the piss out of ludicrous Tory wannabe John Redwood, they called him Spock. (His campaign manager said that he understood that Dr Spock said "Live a long time and be prosperous" which was a pretty could summation of Conservative Party values, but he couldn't do the salute.) Rowan Atkinson's alien is not sending up Spock but he is, I think, riffing on an idea of aliens that wouldn't have existed without him. So, obviously, was Mork From Ork. The BBC made a big deal out of Trek, putting it in prime time shot right after the Moon landings, but everyone else clearly thought that space men with funny ears were the kind of things that belonged on the backs of cereal packets. Grown ups don't wear Star Trek masks on. (At least, I assume they don't. Maybe it was different in the 70s. The Beatles had just broken up and the Internet hadn’t been invented.) 

Notice how big and exaggerated Spock’s ears are in the drawing. They were never like that on TV. Nimoy always claimed that Special Effects wanted them to be huge and exaggerated and reptilian and the unobtrusive prosthetic ones were a last minute alternative cooked up between him and Make Up. There was an advertisement which imagined the ears drooping, in order to demonstrate that a particular brand of lager refreshed the parts that other brands of lager failed to refresh. They didn’t get Nimoy’s permission; he was reportedly not amused when he came to England claiming that he was Not Spock and discovering that his face was plastered on every billboard in the country. I think the advertising standards people stomped on the adverts in the end; forced them to become cleverer and sillier but to remove any suggestion that consuming alcohol could make floppy parts of your body stand up straight. 

I once said that there are Star Trek people and there are Doctor Who people, in the way that there are cat people and dog people. It has since been pointed out to me that by no means all dog owners spend their time luring cats into cages and turning them into fur coats and sausages; and that Aunty Jemima doted equally on her poodle and her Siamese. I think that my view still sounds: Doctor Who is silly and Star Trek is sensible; Star Trek is slick (for it’s time) and Doctor Who is, er, charmingly amateurish (ever for it’s time). Star Trek is American and Doctor Who is British. (One of the characteristic things about being British is not going on and on about it, of course. You couldn’t imagine Doctor Who waxing lyrical about Magna Carter in the way that Kirk does about the Constitution.) Star Trek episodes are called How Sharper Than A Serpents Tooth and For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky; Doctor Who episodes are called Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

I am a Doctor Who person, not a Star Trek person. But I watched Star Trek. Everyone watched Star Trek. My Mum watched Star Trek. (She correctly spotted that it was basically just a cowboy story. "Trek" is a vary cowboys and Indians kind of word. As everyone knows, it was going to be called Wagon Train To The Stars.)

There has always been Star Trek. This is why the abomination offended us so much. Abrams stole Star Trek from us and pasted on a thing which had nothing to do with Star Trek, and this means that for ten years at least, there won't be Star Trek any more. (But he is totally going to get Star Wars right, okay?) People become vehement about this stuff, as they do about all religions, but it seems to me that while more than one point of view might exist about whether or not Voyager and Enterprise were good Star Trek or bad Star Trek, they were unquestionably Star Trek.

Proper serious science fiction fans don't quite approve of Star Trek. One reason is that it was (like most cowboy stories) almost always a morality play and the solution to the moral dilemma almost always involved paying attention to both Dr McCoy and Mr Spock -- finding some kind of balance between Heart and Head. If it were proper science fiction then Spock (representing brains and intellect and science and, well, logic) would always be right and McCoy (representing emotion and feeling and intuition) would be chucked out of the nearest airlock. I'm not even sure that proper serious SF ought to admit the idea of morality in the first place. If you can't solve the problem with logic and express the answer to three significant figures then it was a silly question.

On the other hand, Asimov rather approved of it.

The main reason serious science fiction fans didn't like Star Trek was that Star Trek came to be what people who weren't really science fiction fans thought science fiction was like. It was never true that Space: 1999 and Blakes 7 were copying Trek or trying to do Trek all over again: it's just that they were "science fiction" and that’s what science fiction had become. On TV, at any rate. Three or four characters on a "bridge", with a big TV screen, travelling to a new planet each week and trying to figure out what's going on down there. And to be honest, and once all the sectarian strife calms down, that’s closer to science fiction than your Flash Gordons and your Buck Rogerses and even your Doctor Whos. It was at least to some extent most of the time quite often about ideas.

And it did have a scientist in it. 

If Star Trek was science fiction, Spock was science. Spock was logic. Spock was intelligence. Spock was sometimes incredibly irritating, but Spock was smart and superior and confident very much in the way a clever person ought to be. Particularly when surrounded by people far below our own intellectual level, as most of us feel we are. I wasn't the only kid to drive his parents crazy by using big words where a small one would have done perfectly well and trying to be all calm and condescending and being told that, no, as a matter of fact, having tea half an hour early tonight couldn’t be described as "illogical".

Spock the supporting character; Spock the science officer; Spock with his eye in a microscope: he was more fun than Spock the Alien, Spock the Mystic, Spock the Agonized Sex Symbol, Spock Messiah, of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most (sob) human. 

If you took Hardy out of Laurel and Hardy you wouldn’t even have Laurel any more. Shatner and Nimoy were a double act. Nimoy is in the pilot episode / flashback where Shatner is still being played by an unrecognisable bit-part actor called Pike, but he’s not Spock, only Nimoy in a jumper. It was only when you put the two of them together, Shatner over acting, Nimoy rather under-doing it, that the sparks started to fly.

-- It has to do with...biology.

-- Biology as in reproduction? Dammit, Spock, that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to the birds and the bees...

-- The birds and the bees, Captain, are not Vulcans. If any creature were as proudly logical as us and then had their logic ripped from them....

Spock has always been there, is what I’m trying to say. And now he isn’t any more. 


(1) Yes, they have.





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