Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Fragment on Fan Writing

In researching Star Wars in Context I was time and again surprised to find that answers to many fairly obvious questions about the Star Wars franchise--even discussion of those questions--were awfully scarce on the web. Some of it was even nonexistent.

For example, "everyone" knows that George Lucas based Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress to a considerable degree. Indeed, in a typically shallow and pointless display of erudition, Ted Mosby even dropped this little factoid on Stella while sitting her down for her first viewing of the movie on How I Met Your Mother.

Yet, just how did one film inspire the other? And not less important, what are the significant differences? Actual discussion of the connections and parallels between one film and the other, even of the most superficial kind, is actually quite elusive for a Googler--and for anyone in general.

This was not a problem for me because I had plenty of my own to say about that; and anyway, to the extent that I was saying something others weren't, well, that said to me that writing the book wasn't so pointless as I'd feared.

All the same, why is this kind of thing so often the case?

Simply put, it's a lot easier to serve up generalizations than home in on the finer details, easier to offer impressions than analysis, easier to assert than to really explain--and while generalizations, impressions and assertions are not necessarily uninformative or unhelpful (some of them actually are informative and helpful), we could generally do with a whole lot more detail, analysis and explanation than we are getting in our online chatter.1

It probably doesn't help that the comparative few capable of doing better--who have the grasp of the history and technique of the medium they want to write about, who really know something about film and actually see films like Hidden Fortress (black and white, subtitles, etc.) so that they understand them and can communicate that understanding--rarely (not never, but rarely) write about films like Star Wars. And when they bother, they rarely take the same trouble that they do with more "serious" subjects.

And so a Mosby can get away with such a pointless display of erudition as dropping the name of Kurosawa's film--pointless because I'm not sure what significance this could have had for Stella in the scene, unless she was familiar with the other film, and it was some sort of cinematic touchstone for her, and we were never given reason to think that she was; and because making too much of the connection has doubtless confused the issue for many.

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts
2/5/17
Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress: Thoughts on my First Viewing
12/12/16
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
"The 25 Most Hated Sitcom Characters of All Time"
9/15/15
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Notes on Kirby Buckets Warped

I'm just as surprised as anyone to be writing about this show.

I was scarcely aware of the existence of Kirby Buckets until just a few weeks ago, and have as yet seen very little of it prior to the recent third season, which caught my attention because of how unusual it has been for broadcast television--the sharp shift of the show in genre and structure (the episodic tween sitcom about an aspiring cartoonist become a 13-episode story of interdimensional hopping, heavy on science fiction parody), and the unique airing schedule (the 13 episodes airing on 13 weekday mornings over three weeks).

Alas, the writing rarely rises above the level of the mildly amusing. In fact, the heavy reliance on gross-out humor reflects a certain laziness in its pursuit of its target demographic. All the same, they do take their arc seriously enough to actually write one, rather than just tease the audience with the prospect--and manage to have some fun with science fiction clichés they evoke. (Of course there's a post-apocalyptic dimension where the characters meet the Mad Max versions of the people they know; here they even come complete with Australian accents.)

Additionally, the cast is a pleasant surprise, accomplishing a lot even when they have just a little, with two members standouts. Suzi Barrett shows some flair for the role of Kirby's mom, getting more than her fair share of laughs. His sister Dawn, generally conforming to the stereotype of the shallow, superficial high school kid/big sister-from-hell, comes off as sympathetic and charming, principally due to the efforts of Olivia Stuck. And of course, improv master, veteran voice actor and "Simlish" cocreator Stephen Kearin's Principal Mitchell is a memorable mass of eccentricities who can (almost) singlehandedly make the hackiest of shows tolerable.

And so it went up to the finale (aired Thursday), which, to the writers' credit, actually wrapped up a storyline, and in the process, offered the sense of a bigger tale ending as Kirby, Mitchell, Dawn and the rest closed one chapter in their lives and began another. However, whether all this will be enough to lead to a fourth season are a different matter. The show, poorly rated to begin with (one reason for the change, I suspect), seems to have had its viewership plunge to abysmal levels--under 200,000 if I read the numbers right, rather worse than the shows Disney XD so recently axed, Lab Rats: Elite Force and Gamer's Guide to Pretty Much Everything. Whether it will survive that will depend, I suppose, on whether viewership picks up in the reruns this weekend (and further airings of the show), the executives feel bothered by the way they are running out of shows--or the creators can sell them on another sharp shift of course. And maybe all of them.

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Small-Screen Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Science Fiction Television
12/20/12

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts

When writing my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV the Long 1990s," (or revising it for reissue in my book After the New Wave) I specifically concentrated on North American-produced live-action television oriented toward adult audiences, leaving out animation, and children-oriented programming of both the animated and live-action varieties. This was partly because I'd seen very little of it since elementary school (certainly nowhere near enough to even think about writing anything comprehensive), but also because I didn't think that the scope I set for the article was overly narrow, and I didn't think that broadening it would have changed the picture it presented very much.

I'm still not sure that it would have. Given how long and how heavily science fiction's tropes have been mined, and how dependent the genre has become on Baroque handling of old concepts and inside jokes, TV aimed at a young audience seems an unlikely place for fresh ideas.

Still, in hindsight it does seem fair to note that fiction supposedly for children often isn't really that--fiction genuinely about children and their experiences, or at least engaging the way they really see the world. Rather it's just the same stuff written for the regular, "adult" audience, sanitized sufficiently to pass a more stringent censor. This isn't altogether new--the early versions of fairy tales children grow up were not the stuff of Disney films. Still, this seems to have become more conspicuous in recent years, partly as pop culture has gone increasingly metafictional. I remember, for example, an episode of Animaniacs that was an extended parody of Apocalypse Now (and even more obscure still, the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness). Now on the Disney Channel they have a sitcom about a summer camp run by a family with the last name Swearengen, where one of the campers quotes Omar from The Wire ("You come at the king . . .") in an episode that is basically Scarface with candy and video games instead of the original product.

And as all this might suggest, I have noticed some relatively sophisticated genre content here and there. An obvious instance is Jimmy Neutron--which can seem like merely another iteration on the century-and-a-half-old tradition of scrawny boy genius inventors.1 Still, this theme, already backward-looking when it was first put into print, is notable for its consciously retro handling of that retro idea--Jimmy growing up in a household where everything from mom's hairdo to the design of the family television set looks like it came out of the '50s, in a town called, of all things, Retroville (complete with a Clark Gable lookalike for mayor).2 Steampunk has remained a genre of cult rather than real mass appeal--but Harvey Beaks included an eccentric steampunk enthusiast in its cast of characters, and served up an hour-long musical steampunk special.

Something of this has been evident in live-action programming as well. Television has been awash in superheroes for years--but Disney XD offered a more original take than most in developing a show about a hospital where they go when they need medical treatment and the two kids who stumble into it in Mighty Med. More recently the same channel's Kirby Buckets, for its third season, shifted from sitcom wackiness set (mostly) in the mundane, regular world, to a season-long, dimension-hopping adventure through alternate timelines.3 A good deal more tightly written than most of the season-length stories we get (arcs on American TV remain mostly about stringing audiences along, in my experience), it actually is a story with a real beginning, middle and end, and the experiment has been all the more striking for its 13 episodes being aired in a mere three weeks (an exceptionally rare move for broadcast television).

Whatever else one may saw about it, very little of the comparable stuff pitched at grown-ups in prime time as of late has been as knowing or risky or innovative or audacious. (And when it has been at its best, rarely as much fun.)

1. This all goes back to the original "Edisonade"--Edward Sylvester Ellis' 1868 dime novel The Huge Hunter; or The Steam Man of the Prairies.
2. While Ellis celebrated the young, lone amateur inventor, the red-brick universities and Land Grant colleges and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were promoting national science policies through their graduation of their first candidates, while scarcely a decade later Thomas Edison established the world's first big corporate lab.

Notes on Kirby Buckets Warped
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
The Small-Screen Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Science Fiction Television
12/20/12

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