Richard Morgan is the author of six novels: the cyberpunkish Takeshi Kovacs trilogy beginning with the Philip K Dick Award-winning Altered Carbon (2002); standalone near-future satire Market Forces (2004), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award; Black Man (2007), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and fantasy The Steel Remains (2008). All are notable for their engagement with masculinity, and with forms of oppression; also for being violent, action-driven thrillers. He has also written two volumes of Black Widow for Marvel Comics. Morgan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
Yes, I do. I can rattle on about noir crossover and slipstream with the best of them, but in the end, what I’m writing is quite recognizably SF (and more recently Sword and Sorcery), and pretending otherwise would just be deeply sad!
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
Well, take your pick – space travel, alien worlds, dystopian futures, jacked up gene engineered super-soldiers, exotic weaponry and tech … It’s all in there somewhere.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
It’s funny because I don’t remember ever actually making that choice at a conscious level. I think it was simply a case of writing the kind of books I wanted to read. At the time I took my first tottering steps towards writing publishable material, I was also wedded well and truly to the SF&F genre. I just never thought to change. And to be honest, SF&F is still my first love, even now. There’s really no other type of fiction out there that gives you the same latitudes of discretion with regard to the reality you’re creating.
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
A pervasive sense of cynicism and despair, maybe?
To be honest, I think the overall flavour of my work probably owes far more to American templates than it does British. Noir is largely a US invention (with a little focal help from the French), violent anti-heroes have had their modern testing bed in American fiction since at least the thirties, and so really has science fiction as a mass market dynamic. And what’s often forgotten these days is how dynamically subversive all of that stuff was. Currently, we have this perception of American SF as a bit staid and conformist/conservative, while the UK is the powerhouse of brutal malcontent genre work full of edgy political and cultural content. But most of us included in that stable are actually mining the rich seams of style and subject matter laid down by former practitioners on the other side of the Atlantic – guys like Sheckley, Heinlein, Bradbury, Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, and of course the whole cyberpunk crew, who in turn owe a huge debt to old style American noir. I don’t think there’s anything specifically British in my influences that can stack up against all that.
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?
No – though British protagonists have, a couple of times. I think my problem with British settings is that I find most of the UK just too comfy to be useful as landscape. An American once said to me, on the subject of wilderness, Yeah, you guys don’t really have any of that, do you. The whole country is just like this big park owned by the Queen. A little harsh, maybe, but I know what he means. Give me the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of the north Norwegian coast, Istanbul and the Bosphorus, the Peruvian altiplano or western Australia’s coral coast; there’s an exotic appeal to these places, a drama of place even before you start to tell a story located there. And then, of course, there’s off-world, which is even better because it can be anything you want it to be. What I’m interested in exploring in my fiction is human intensity, whether that be via a dynamic plot or desperate characters or both. And I find that intense landscapes or exotic cities work best as backdrop to that kind of story-telling. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t tell an intense, dynamic tale in a British setting – many authors do, and I’ve even done it once myself – but for me the inspiration of place just doesn’t hit as often or as hard on my home turf.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
In genre, William Gibson, Poul Anderson, Bob Shaw, M. John Harrison and Robert Sheckley, probably in about that order. Out of genre, the whole of the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition right back to Chandler and Hammett, but most notably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and American Tabloid, and James Lee Burke’s early Dave Robicheaux novels. To that you’d also have to add the influence of cinema, but that covers everything from Bladerunner to Jesus of Montreal, and it’s very hard to play favourites.
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Not really – I’ve been lucky in both cases to get publishing houses and editors who are quite content to let me do my own thing and apply only the necessary minimum of professional oversight when the manuscript comes in. I keep hearing horror stories out of the US about massive editorial pressure to mutilate manuscripts so that they fit better into this or that template or demographic appeal, but I have to say from a personal point of view I’ve never suffered even the hint of that. Both Gollancz and Del Rey have always been behind me a hundred percent.
There was of course the briefly (internet) famous Black Man/Thirteen controversy, but what got lost in the flurry there was the fact that – though I was, and remain, somewhat bemused about the why of it – I really wasn’t bothered about changing the name; my books, after all, are often re-titled in European translation, and even the original UK name sometimes changes from the working title (Altered Carbon was originally called Download Blues, Black Man started life as Normal Parameters, and so forth…) so bitching about the US change would have seemed a little hypocritical. Thirteen was my own idea as an alternative title, and the conversations I had with my New York editor about it were very much along the same lines as the ones I had with my London editor about dumping Normal Parameters in favour of Black Man. My only real concern when my books are published is that the content should remain unadulterated, and in that, I’ve detected no measurable difference in attitude anywhere I’m published.
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Well, yes and no. You do see some minor cultural hiccups sometimes when my work crosses the Atlantic – for instance, there were a number of comments criticising the amount of foul language used by the characters in my last novel, and these complaints were almost exclusively American in origin. The British (and Australians and Norwegians and French and Italians and just about everybody else) just took it in their stride. Ditto complaints about the explicit sex in my books, and bad reactions to the explicit political commentary in a couple of my nearer future scenarios. So it would certainly appear that, in general terms, there is within the US SF&F readership a group of people who are far more uptight and tender in their expectations than any you’d find on this side of the Atlantic. Sort of controversy virgins, I guess you could call them, going to the literary marriage bed in the expectation that it’s all going to be dewy-eyed candle-lit, air-brushed cuddles.
That said, I think my books have found a readership in the US which is very much at ease with the kind of fiction I’m writing and relates to it every bit as enthusiastically as my British readers. And it has to be said that it was the Americans who started garlanding me with awards first. I picked up the Philip K Dick and John W Campbell awards a long time before I got the Clarke. So clearly I was speaking at least as effectively to the American readership (or at least a portion thereof) as I was to anyone in the UK. And there is maybe a more whole-hearted, passionate enthusiasm in play across the Atlantic, which embraces new things in a way the rather more conservative British literati take longer to do. Maybe. Truth is, in the end, I think it doesn’t do to make too much of this cross-Atlantic cultural divide – there are, of course, substantial cultural differences between the UK and the US, and I think anyone who’s been paying attention is probably aware of them; but within both populations, there is also quite sufficient variance of taste and mindset for a writer to find his or her audience and flourish in both countries.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
That’s a bit of a minefield question, to be honest. I’m extremely wary of making prescriptive templates for literature, cinema, drama, genre, what have you, not least because hard on the heels of prescriptive comes proscriptive, and after that we’re all just down to tribal fucking squabbling and beating our sad little chests for attention in our particular corner. I have an instinctive dislike of the kind of person who can turn on a dime and give you a cut-and-dried answer to questions of this sort – science fiction should do X, good fantasy is Y, literature must be Z, and so forth.
That said, the project of creating fiction requires a skill set, like any other activity, and like any other activity, you can do it better or worse. So it’s not unreasonable to lay out some broad guidelines for best practice, and I don’t believe in special dispensations for genre here. A good SF or fantasy novel must be, first and foremost, a good novel full stop. That means engaging characterization, convincing sense of milieu, compelling story – in short, the salients of any good fiction. I have no sympathy for (or, really, understanding of) the mindset that says sure, the writing style is for shit, the characters cardboard, the settings unconvincing, but hey it’s a cool concept or a good fast moving story, so who cares? To me that’s like ordering a meal and saying you don’t mind the fact the steak is burnt to a crisp, the sauce cold, and the salad unwashed, because, hey, the chips are good. I mean, come on, people.
As to what all this adds up to in terms of effect upon the reader, I quite like Kafka’s “a book must be an ice axe to break the seas frozen inside our souls”. Good fiction moves you, I think, forces you to feel something when the storm of experience and day to day existence very often dulls that ability in us, especially as we grow older. And then there’s Bradbury’s argument for “telling detail”, as specified in Faber’s speech in Fahrenheit 451: “The good writers touch life often….[books] show the pores in the face of life.” Those two quotes balance out quite nicely, I think – you’re looking for something that provokes emotional responses and engagement, but from a basis that’s anchored enough in reality to convince. Without the latter, you’re just not going to buy into the fiction enough to care, but without the former you’re not going to care enough to buy in. So, as regards genre writing, I’d say that if your imagined future or fantasy landscape and the characters that inhabit it feel real and emotionally engaging enough to care about, then you’ve done your job well.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?
A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?
Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison. Moore, on his own admission, can’t make a living out of stuff like From Hell – he’s forced back time and again to the superhero template. There never has been another SF movie to touch Bladerunner, and the Alien franchise has degenerated, god help us, into Alien vs Predator Requiem. People would – apparently – rather watch the same old same old: Spider-man 5, Iron Man 3, Batman Again, and yet more bloody Star Trek and Star Wars. And the sci-fi channel can get away with cranking out product that HBO would blush to be associated with. To briefly paraphrase the movie Trainspotting – it’s a shite state of affairs, Tommy, and all the CGI in the world won’t make any fucking difference.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
Hmm – tough one. Would depend a lot on your defining parameters. In purely demographic terms, of course, you’re talking about the re-launch of Doctor Who and the advent of Harry Potter. Both of those have unquestionably sown the seeds for a massive influx of fresh, young readers and viewers into the genre, and we should all be very grateful for that. But taking a more quality-based and adult approach, I suppose I’d prefer to cite Iain M Banks’ re-invention of space opera in his Culture novels and China Mieville’s paradigm-shifting Bas-Lag fantasy trilogy – both those sequences have been a huge tonic for the genre in terms of imaginative power and reach; in many ways you could say that they were the base building blocks for the so-called British SF&F Renaissance.
66 thoughts on “BSFA Survey Response: Richard Morgan”
Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire?
Richard is refering to this interview with me here and I have to say I don’t think the answer is that mysterious. In fact, he answers it himself: a preparedness by producers and punters to accept very poor levels of quality as long as the gosh-wow factor is there.
There are some who would argue that there is little if any TV Series as good as The Wire in any genre. On an individual episode basis though, Doctor Who stories such as ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Blink’ ought to be considered as highly. The trouble I have is imagining how those episodes would work without the background knowledge of the ongoing series and most of that series is poor in all respects.
“On an individual episode basis though, Doctor Who stories such as ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Blink’ ought to be considered as highly”
Not by anyone who has actually seen The Wire though, eh?
The sample size for TV series is far too small to make any grand statements. How many new TV dramas are there each year in the US and UK? I don’t know but it’s in the range of dozens. Of those, maybe one or two are science fiction and five or six are (broadly defined) fantasy.
So why isn’t there a science fiction version of the Wire? Because it probably takes over a decade to have as many new SF shows as there are new crime shows in a single year. The batting average on shows like this just isn’t high to consistently produce quality at these rates.
Jonathan, as someone who was a fan of The Wire from the start and has been quite dismissive of most Who, I do think that occasional episodes of the latter approach the intelligence and depth of the former.
Martin, yes there is the fan culture aspect where mediocrity is valued through cult appeal, but series like The Wire have cult following too. So why does the crime audience not settle for the same low standards? The answer is that actually they often do. For every The Wire there’s dozens of lesser shows. CSI: Miami for instance. Equally in books for every Geoff Ryman there are hundreds of Stephanie Meyers. So it isn’t just down to audience acceptance.
Is it relevant that the writers of The Wire include several highly acclaimed novelists (Pelecanos, Price, Lehane, Alvarez)? Imagine M John Harrison, China Mieville and Gwyneth Jones writing for Doctor Who.
There are good SciFi and fantasy shows out there, but I must admit I do think The Wire is probably in a class of its own. Babylon 5, BSG and Tru Blood are the genre shows that I think have come closest to achieving that level of quality and integrity.
Personally I really enjoy the new Who and think it has given us some great TV (and its spin off Torchwood with CoE), but Who in particular is a very different show aimed at a different market, not just in that its a family show but that it work on a stand alone episode basis.
I also think some scifi&f fans bear a huge responsibility for the quality of TV shows, you just have to look at the maulings that Caprica and SG:U have received for trying to make a deeper more intelligent TV show than the likes of trek or SG1.
I don’t think the statistical argument works here, unfortunately. In the interview with Martin, I referenced The Wire, but I might equally have talked about The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Office, Red Riding, Underbelly, Life On Mars, Deadwood, Damages, Generation Kill, The Good Wife……. These are not exclusively crime fiction, nor am I necessarily a fan of them all. But what they all share is a high-end, adult approach to subject matter and production, a kind of observational genius and the will to put it to work in the service of good human story-telling.
The equivalent SF shows (in terms of profile) seem not only to pursue, but almost to glory in, the exact opposite – an unrepentantly YA-eyed comic-book reading of the world. I’ve heard much talk of the new Battlestar Galactica, and will freely admit I can’t judge it because I haven’t seen it – BUT: how seriously can you take a piece of drama that hasn’t got the balls or basic realism to permit the use of the word “fuck” by its characters? Similarly, though I applaud the very high production values of HBO’s True Blood, I can’t help noticing that my interest in the series dries up in almost exact proportion to how much screen time Sookie and her dreary vampire love interest get. The fictional conceits of the world and some of the secondary characters and plots are very engaging and very well-executed – but in the end, it all serves as not much more than window-dressing for the Mills and Boon angst of a female character who seems to have a mental age of about fourteen. It is Twilight with a (patchy) veneer of adult dramatic quality smeared on top, the quality here serving not as something intrinsic to the work itself but as a sales measure – rather like binding the collected works of Dan Brown in leather and hoping it’ll look like Dickens.
I would say that my despair for genre TV were complete, were it not for Misfits. Here finally is exactly the kind of grown up SF drama I was longing for – something that seizes the potential of the form to create a witty, pertinent and genuinely powerful human narrative which just coincidentally happens to be science fiction. More, much more, of this please.
But will we get more, much more of this? Misfits runs low on gosh-wow. Anecdotal evidence suggests it struggled to find its audience and only just scraped a second series. So is this the start of something great, or just a flash in the pan like Ultraviolet back in the nineties (again, a genuinely adult, genuinely human drama about what it might really be like to fight vampires, again notably low on gosh-wow – and a show that was cancelled after one short season). The extent to which a show like this can succeed, and more importantly succeed in changing the genre TV landscape as The Sopranos did for TV drama as a whole at the end of the nineties, hinges on the broader audience and how that audience’s demands are perceived. And as long as people are going to go on treating Who as if it were a show for adults, accepting a fictional world in which people say “frack” instead of “fuck”, and stuffing the box office coffers of offerings like Star Trek, I’m afraid no real change for the better seems likely.
Stargate:Universe has been the first American SF show I’ve found myself able to enjoy on something like the same level as Deadwood, Rescue Me, Sopranos, Shield etc – it’s not operating at the same level of sophistication with regard to characters and themes, but it’s not insultingly stupid either. I came to it cold with no prior interest in the franchise other than a vague recollection of the original film, but I’ve found it genuinely involving and well scripted. I didn’t like Battlestar Galactica at all, for what it’s worth. I understand that the rank and file Stargate fans haven’t taken to it particularly well, though.
Funnily enough, I would have cited Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes as being on the sf side of the fence. I think there’s something in Matt’s argument, but it’s not that the good sf shows don’t exist, it’s that the mechanisms for promoting and discussing them prefer the CSI: Miami end of the spectrum. I haven’t seen Misfits (hadn’t even really heard of it), but in the last couple of years I’d point to The Sarah Connor Chronicles (particularly the second season), Survivors (particularly the first season) and, increasingly, Caprica (even with frak-not-fuck; I agree it’s fundamentally an avoidance technique, although you can argue there are in-show justifications for it) as approaching the sort of thing you’re looking for. Al, I watched the first five or six episodes of SGU, and didn’t find it hugely compelling, but I’ve heard interesting things about the latter part of the season, so I might take another look. And from the people who brought you Life on Mars we can look forward to Outcasts (and of course there’s the HBO A Game of Thrones in the offing). But most of these shows, in one way or another, don’t fit the perception of what sf is “meant” to be — either in the mind of the general media, or the general fanbase — and receive limited attention.
Richard: I’m not a huge fan of Galactica, so I’m one of these people who says it’s not as good as the Wire. But Galactica’s faults are faults of execution, whereas you are criticizing the aspirations of televised SF. I won’t defend the “frack” thing except to note that there’s a lot more to an adult attitude than saying “fuck” (which is now being used in YA fiction anyway, if I’m not mistaken). Galactica was aiming for a very adult take on terrorism, the role of the state, the nature of humanity, etc. and while in my opinion it fell short I don’t see how anyone could say it had a YA view of the world.
Another genre show that’s probably not popular around here, Lost, has many failings, but its story is concerned with (maybe even obsessed with, in the final season) Serious Business: the toleration of evil, our relationship with the divine, and other religious themes that I would again argue are very adult.
Martin blames the “punters” for accepting poor quality, but this strikes me as harsh. The Wire, after all, was a prestige show for HBO, and on any other network would have been canceled due to its poor ratings. SF-watching punters watching Star Trek are no different from their mainstream counterparts watching CSI. To return to my statistical argument, the bigger the market for a certain kind of fiction, the more highbrow work can be supported by the far end of the bell curve.
Now I think movies show that in fact the interest in SF in visual media is probably very comparable to that of “mainstream” genres like crime and medical, but the gosh-wow is expensive (especially for television budgets but even for movies) so there are less entrants, and what entrants there are must aim at playing it safe. When you’re taking the huge financial and technological risks of making Avatar there’s no stomach for taking chances with the story. As the special effects costs continue to fall I expect to see better and better SF movies and TV.
I have lots to say about the issues under discussion here, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to say them right now (bloody clocks changing and losing an hour). However, there is one small thing I feel I should correct.
“The Wire, after all, was a prestige show for HBO, and on any other network would have been canceled due to its poor ratings.”
The above implies that the Wire, due to its critical acclaim, was never in any danger of cancellation. This is untrue; as early as the season three there were real fears that the Wire would be cancelled due to low ratings, and there was many a meeting twixt Simon and executives to secure the future of the show.
Let us not forget, HBO also gave us Deadwood, Carnivale, and John From Cincinnati – to name but three shows that *were* cancelled despite varying levels of critical acclaim. So, while HBO may allow some shows more leeway, lets not kid ourselves here that they don’t concern themselves with ratings.
And being YA or not is nothing to do with quality or lack of it – for every teen drama TV equivalent of Stephenie (not “Stephanie”) Meyer there’s a My So-Called Life. (Which was cancelled after one season due to low ratings.) Also not a (SF/fantasy) genre show, but one of the best UK drama series of the last decade was Bodies – a hospital drama but with a far higher level of writing sophistication than Casualty/Holby City (though I enjoy those too). Made for BBC3 no less. And cancelled after two series and a feature-length finale.
Is there a pattern here? Many of the canonical best TV shows of recent years haven’t done well ratings-wise.
@Richard – Sorry but for you write off a show pretty much because it uses frak instead of fuck is about as retarded as it gets. Swearing has its time and place and as a college lecturer the word frak joined muppet as standard parts of my teaching lingo so I don’t have to swear at those I teach, how many comedians are there who think ALL they to do is swear lots to be funny….
Give the show a watch and you will find plenty of ‘adult’ themes and instances in the show… right from the mini series when you see 6 and her child care skills, to the no compromise attitude of Laura Roslin when it comes to survival. As for it being a uncompromising series just watch the mini series and then the bravest 1st ‘proper’ episode of show in 33….
I will accept that it did loose its way at the end of the last series, but then take The Wire (which I actually watched again in its entirety over a week or 2) and consider the whole serial killer story of the 5th season. Look at Sopranos and how such a brilliant show just fizzled out with no real ending/conclusion or anything.
As for Deadwood… Sorry didn’t work for me and whilst I have no problem with swearing I did get bored senseless by the constant swearing and wooden acting of Timothy Olyphant and gave up when his wife turned up because I just couldn’t face anymore.
But hey its all personal taste and my taste can’t be that bad as I am a huge fan of most of your novels ;-) Sorry I just don’t like Market Forces.
I would say I think the best scifi/genre shows include B5, BSG, Misfits, Terminator Sarah Conner Chronicles, Firefly (both of which fox killed for reasons that I can’t understand), Total Recall (Bladerunner the tv series, but they couldn’t get the rights to the name), Ultraviolet was brilliant and I shall be digging out my copy to watch again. Heroes series 1 and the 1st half of the second series when it was about people rather than powers. I think Lost is brilliant if flawed by being too over ambitious.
My high hopes for Caprica are fading a bit as I think they need to step the pace up, but I am hopeful of SG:U which after a dodgy start has just got better and better. They just need to introduce/build a protagonist to hold a candle to Robert Carlyle’s excellent antagonist , because he over powers the rest of the cast before he even opens his mouth.
p.s. Frak is also a carry over from the original BSG which made in the 70’s would never have gotten on air if they had used fuck. I suppose they just decided to keep it as part of the character of the show.
I wonder if people also hate Father Ted for Feck, Judge Dredd for stomm (shit) and drokk (fuck), Red Dwarf for smeg….
@ Andy W
But in Ireland, ‘feck’ is a recognised and widely used expression –‘fuck’-lite, so to speak. And anyway, over here Fatrher Ted was a documentary.
Spurious list time! Top ten seasons of sf TV so far this century:
1. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, season 2 (2008-9)
2. Firefly (2002-3)
3. The West Wing, season 7 (2005-6)
4. Farscape, season 3 (2001-2)
5. Life on Mars, season 1 (2006)
6. Carnivale, season 1 (2003)
7. Angel, season 3 (2001-2)
8. Caprica, season 1.1 (2010)
9. Survivors, season 1 (2008)
10. Battlestar Galactica miniseries (2003)
So there you go.
1. Angel, season 4 (2002-3)
2. Battlestar Galactica, season 2.1 (2005)
3. Better Off Ted, season 1 (2009)
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5 (2000-1)
5. Deadwood, season 1 (2004)
6. Dexter, season 2 (2007)
7. Farscape, season 3 (2001-2)
8. Firefly (2002-3)
9. Veronica Mars, season 1 (2004-5)
10. The West Wing, season 3 (2001-2)
If it weren’t so early that they haven’t even finished, I’d consider putting The Good Wife and Community on there too, and I feel that 30 Rock deserves a spot though I’m not sure which season, the first of the second, I’d choose.
Upon further reflection, I might knock off either Buffy or The West Wing for Futurama‘s season 5.
I can’t wait to hear your arguments for Deadwood as sf. :-p
I didn’t catch the SF bit. Given that, my list would probably be a bit closer to yours – Carnivale and Life on Mars would probably get spots.
I still think it’s a stretch to claim West Wing as SF/F. Yes, it’s a fictional presidency, and thereby a kind of alternate history (see also: 24) but beyond that … really? That’s not to say I don’t rate it very highly, mind.
Since when did everyone become 12 year-olds? There were TV series made before the year 2000 you know…
I’d be interested to know whether people’s judgments of some of these recent shows in based upon more than one viewing. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago what my top 10 list was like then I think it would have resembled Niall or Abigail’s (without TSCC though obviously because that was just unrelentingly terrible) but since moving in with Jenny I have rewatched Buffy, Angel and DS9 and found them all to be wanting – though interestingly I’d say DS9 stood up to a second viewing much better than Buffy and certainly better than Angel.
So,in no particular order, my much denuded list :
Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959)
Kaamelott, series 1 (2005)
Angels in America (2003)
John from Cincinnati (2007)
Of these I would say that only Angels in America and Quatermass and Pit come close to The Wire in terms of systematic brilliance.
I think series 1 and 2 of the West Wing remains its best but if we are dealing in fictional premierships then I think House of Cards series 1 and 2 would have to feature too, particularly as that series does explicitly try to fit itself in with the existence of Thatcher and Major (Thatcher successfully, Major unsuccessfully). I’d also rate State of Play really highly but by that point any pretense of SF is long out the window and I might as well suggest Cracker or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
It’s interesting how the survey responses of a writer have led to a lively exchange of comments on sf tv and tv in general. I’d rather read Richard Morgan’s books than watch any of these shows (most of which I can’t comment on).
What i would say is that US tv has created a particular aesthetic, which here seems to be being privileged relatively uncritically by a number of people. The point about DR Who is not just that it is a family show but also that it doesn’t run according to the same aesthetic (and for example the attempt to do the longer bank holiday ‘specials’ are noticeably weaker than many of the weekly episodes, which still retain something of the BBC series feel of the original). The point I’m trying to make is that certain shows might work better if we had a number of different bench marks of what a good series should be like, instead of just the sopranos/wire model. For instance, BBC’s recent Survivors would have been better if made as a pre-watershed drama for family viewing. (at which point I could rage at the way that ‘family’ has become a code word for vanilla – actually some of us do want to watch stuff with our children). The first season episode with the father keeping his kids in the house was good drama and would have been better pre-9 (as the original series ran in the 70s). Where the series fell down was in its attempts to be a slick action adventure with conspiracy thriller elements (all of which seemed to me to be fruitless emulation of US models). I should add that my definition of ‘family’ wouldn’t preclude alternative sexualities, people dying, some swearing etc.
So it is not just a case of sf fans accept worse writing than the wire and so get rubbush shows. Rather, it is that many people would like to see a number of alternative models available and it is the system which is letting them down.
Jonathan, most of my picks are based on multiple viewings — not Caprica (obviously), Survivors or BSG (which is one reason they’re lower down), and only partially in the case of TSCC (but it’s just so obviously excellent :-p). I do agree that Deep Space Nine holds up well, it just fell outside my entirely arbitrary cut-off date; ditto the first two seasons of The West Wing, although I think it’s only in the later seasons the sf argument is really tenable, because of the increased and substantive foreign policy events.
It’s interesting how the survey responses of a writer have led to a lively exchange of comments on sf tv and tv in general.
Ah, ’tis always thus… certainly agree about Survivors, which is why I picked the first season over the more action-driven second (which I’ve still only watched about a third of). On the Who point, I think “doesn’t run according to the same aesthetic” is putting it mildly. :-)
Niall — Oh… THIS century. Oops. I thought you meant ironically meant ‘in the last 100 years’… *ahem*
DS9 does hold up very well, if only because it is quite self-consciously padded. There are quite a few times where the writers visibly take their foot off the narrative accelerator and give you some whimsical sidebar or stand-alone concept-driven episode. It’s a different approach to the X-files say where everything was initially presented as central to the meta-narrative only for it to be revealed that there was no meta-narrative at all beyond “Oh I liked that episode, I’m going to refer back to it”. The Farenghi (sp?) episodes are frequently terrible but they actually work in terms of the series’ structure and some of the stand-alone episodes are simply the best things ever to come out under the “Star Trek” brand. Indeed, I think that the DS9 episode dealing with 1950s SF really is comparable to stuff like Buffy’s Hush or the one where Joyce dies.
Wonders why I am the only person to have mentioned Babylon 5, the show that made it possible for scifi shows to be intelligent with character driven plots and not rely on lame ass technobable to fix problems.
On an slightly different note Underbelly season3 kicks off on April the 11th finally.
Wonders why I am the only person to have mentioned Babylon 5
Because it’s historically important, but not actually reliably good. Even its S2/S3 heyday — which I’m in the middle of rewatching — looks distinctly ropey now.
I agree its looking dated, and it did have problems with pacing because of constant problems with getting re-commisioned but the characters and plot are still very strong and still work.
I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your insults to yourself. As a college lecturer, you should be able to address an issue without ad hominem. As a college lecturer, you should also be able to manage the basic skill set of reading what I actually wrote – which was that I can’t (and don’t) judge BSG for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it.
What I did judge, after making that massive caveat, was the specific bowdlerisation of language I know the show employs – a textual tactic which demonstrates either:
(a) a base assumption that this is a show for kids, or
(b) a profoundly patronising attitude to audience, or
(c) some kind of bizarre time-slip back to the days of the Lady Chatterly’s Lover obscenity trial.
Further to this issue, “feck”, as Ian so neatly advises, is observational, not evasional/patronising, and while I truly love Father Ted, I don’t think trying to equate it with drama like The Wire is really useful.
And as to Judge Dredd, when I discovered it (at age about 19) hell, yes, I was staggered by “Stomm” and “Drokk” – because I’d been recommended this stuff by adults my own age and older, and presumed that it therefore *was* for adults. The adult prose fiction I’d been consuming for the past decade or so used “fuck” when you needed “fuck” and “shit when you needed “shit”. Pretty simple really. I just couldn’t get my head around this maiden-aunt substitution censorship deal – and I still can’t. I had the same hallucinatory experience nearly twenty years later when I (very briefly) wrote for Marvel.
If a piece of fiction’s base assumptions are that there are certain words we mustn’t use, regardless of the context, what percentage chance does that fiction ultimately have of reflecting a genuine human reality back at us? If there are words we mustn’t use then it’s a safe bet that just around the bend are images and concepts we mustn’t use either ( I had that happen at Marvel too), and yup, hold it right there, picture please, bang goes your shot at any meaningful adult fiction.
In conclusion then (and @ Matt – you were perfectly polite and pleasant, but you also seem to have misread what I wrote) I don’t judge BSG, because I haven’t seen it. But I expect the writers of the fiction I consume to treat me as an intelligent adult equal – “frak” does the opposite, and does not therefore encourage me to view a show which, for all I know, may very well have a number of sophisticated adult themes at its core. That, unpacked, is *all* I said on the subject of BSG.
“And being YA or not is nothing to do with quality or lack of it”.
That’s a very fair comment, as far as it goes. The problem arises when something is claiming to be adult drama, but has YA-type (and usually weak YA-type) concerns at its heart – True Blood being exactly a case in point. The Start Trek movie double ditto. I guess what I’m ultimately talking about is the creeping infantilisation of a genre’s adult arm
Also loved Bodies – superb adult drama (though I felt the fiction was starting to creak a bit by the second half of series two.) But I seem to remember cancellation had as much to do with lead actors bowing out as anything else……?
“When you’re taking the huge financial and technological risks of making Avatar there’s no stomach for taking chances with the story.”
Well said, and I think in the end this may be key to the whole issue. When you say “taking chances with the story”, we all know immediately what you mean – character depth and ambiguity, moral ambivalence, complex issues, food for thought, a potentially unhappy or ambiguous ending….in other words the life-blood of good adult drama. And likewise we all know why such ingredients constitute “taking chances” – because the potential audience out there whose tastes allow them to see such ingredients as worthwhile entertainment is small, and probably shrinking. This is precisely the weakness I was talking about – the fact that we work and consume in a genre where introducing the salients of strong adult drama is *in itself* a major risk. To some extent, this is a general cultural malaise, of course, but in SF/F we seem to suffer the symptoms far worse than elsewhere.
“As the special effects costs continue to fall I expect to see better and better SF movies and TV.”
Hmm – I wish I shared your optimism. The thing is, there *were* better SF movies before – I mentioned a couple in the survey; the trend, if anything, seems in the opposite direction. Avatar was a massive step down in dramatic terms from Aliens or The Abyss. Star Trek was dumb (and dumbed down) beyond belief, where the original series, by contrast, was quite revolutionary *for its time* – and here my point about warmed over visions thirty years past their sell-by date comes into play; we’re living off stored, nostalgic body fat, and the visions we’re deriving from it are trite and infantile. As to that changing as costs come down, well, do you truly expect Avatar 2 to be full of character ambiguity and moral ambivalence? Hell, why change a dynamic that’s just made a billion dollars?
Richard: Re: “taking chances”–that’s not quite what I mean. Or at least, not entirely. It’s true that American audiences, generally speaking, don’t like unhappy endings, for instance. But I was thinking more about just departures from the basic story structure that has been the foundation for Hollywood blockbusters since at least 1977. Executives know that formula sells. It’s not that other types of adventure stories don’t sell…they do, and looking over successful movies you can find examples of them selling, even selling huge. But the standard formula sells much more reliably, and given all the other areas that can result in a bad film, why bother innovating?
Seen that way it’s clear why I’m optimistic in the medium term. I think there are artificially low numbers of SF and fantasy television shows right now. People have been spoiled by cinema effects quality, so they’ve been watching genre blockbusters in droves in the theater and watching cheap police and medical procedurals on television. But even now pretty solid effects are available on cable TV budgets (Galactica being a standout in this regard), and I think they’ll get cheaper still. SF and fantasy both lend themselves to visual media and in the long run I expect them both to capture a lot more market share.
Cultural oddities aside, Japanese animation is probably a preview of where we’re going. There are popular anime shows in every genre (including genres we, ah, don’t really have in the West) but there’s tons of SF and fantasy, way more than on American television. And, yes, almost all of it is garbage. But on the edges of the popular dross there’s some impressive work–adult, highbrow, “literary”, whatever you want to call it–as well.
But you have to accept my statistical argument first. Maybe you’re right and genre shows have been getting dumbed down over the years. I haven’t seen enough older material to know…but I’m suspicious of “kids these days” style arguments. The original Star Trek was revolutionary and better than the recent movie, but there are a lot of deservedly forgotten genre shows from that era. Like the original Battlestar Galactica, to take one that could stand to be a lot more forgotten than it is. I don’t know about the genre as a whole, but for all my complaints about the recent one (and I had a lot), in the narrow subgenre of “shows called Battlestar Galactica” the trend is up, up, up.
I expect the writers of the fiction I consume to treat me as an intelligent adult equal – “frak” does the opposite
I just don’t see this. Frak (and its equivalents on Firefly and Farscape) is, on the contrary, an appeal to the audience’s intelligence and understanding. It’s the writers telling the audience that of course characters of this stripe – soldiers and pilots scrambling for survival following the destruction of their civilization, smugglers and outlaws, escaped prisoners – would use profanity, but that circumstances outside the writers’ control – FCC regulations in Firefly‘s case, a channel-wide policy (I’m assuming) in BSG and Farscape‘s case – prevent this. The audience knows what they’re supposed to substitute for ‘frak’ and ‘frell,’ and though one might argue that this substitution damages the viewers’ immersion in the show’s imaginary world, the very fact that these alternate terms have gained cultural currency as profanity in their own right counteracts that effect.
All of which is not to say that BSG does not belittle its viewers’ intelligence in other ways, but I don’t think ‘frak’ is one of them.
(One might argue, of course, with the cultural mentality that banishes certain levels of profanity from the public airwaves, but that, to my mind, comes too close to suggesting that profanity = maturity or even quality. With the exception of Deadwood, I can’t think of a single work of television to which profanity was a vital and necessary ingredient, and can’t imagine which failed series might have been improved by the addition of unimpeded cursing. On the contrary, I think writers more often use profanity, and nudity, as hallmarks of a maturity and sophistication their work doesn’t actually possess.)
“I can’t wait to hear your arguments for Deadwood as sf. :-p”
Alternate history is SF.
Deadwood changes things from historical events; for example, Farnum owned a general store, not a hotel, Bullock didn’t marry his brother’s widow, Al hadn’t actually opened the Gem at the time but was running a smaller establishment instead.
Therefore, Deadwood is alternate history.
Therefore, Deadwood is SF.
Oh God, now you’re calling me a Grumpy Old Man! :-)
In my defence, I don’t think the problem is *kids* these days, I think it’s adults – adults unable to let go of a TV show or movie they loved thirty years ago and whose time has GONE! (Kids are more likely to be jacked into some video game or web-comic with a completely fresh IP which, in its freedom from prior canon, does at least have a fighting chance of going somewhere new and interesting). Oh, and the decision-making, cheque-signing adults within the genre industry who, with profound cynicism, continue to tout the lowest common denominator as the only way to go – they’re the problem too.
Incidentally, I’m not averse to formula as such – Aliens was very much a formula movie and so, after a fashion, was Bladerunner. Formula and Lowest Common Denominator are not the same thing at all. It’s how the formula is *deployed* that galls (or enthrals) me. There was something profoundly saddening about watching a brilliantly-realised 3D movie full of appallingly realised 1D characters, not least because I’ve seen the same writer/director deliver so much better using mere 2D. Gosh-wow rules.
“I can’t think of a single work of television to which profanity was a vital and necessary ingredient”
Try The Wire, The Sopranos and Generation Kill, just for starters. In all three cases, the human realism at the heart of the drama would have dissolved utterly without the language. Crack-dealing Baltimore street kids who say “heck” when someone steals their supply – yeah, way to imitate real life. Ditto Baltimore homicide detectives. And First Recon Marines under fire in Iraq shouting “frak” when the shit hits the fan. Yeah, would have been really hard-hitting and gritty.
“Frak” sends the message “this is supposed to be “fuck”, but we didn’t think you were adult enough to handle it” Whether “we” here refers to the FCC, the channel or the writers themselves is irrelevant – the message is the same; we in our infinite wisdom have decided that this is not appropriate content for your shell-like ears. That’s fine for a child. For an adult it is, frankly, insulting.
But worse than all of that is that this approach is *dishonest* and dangerous as a result. To expunge “fuck” from Generation Kill or The Wire would help certain wilfully blind Americans to go on pretending that Our Troops are sweet innocent boys in whose mouths butter wouldn’t melt and that American law enforcement is carried on with the same decorum and delicacy as life in the Little House on the Prairie. The ellision of foul language thus becomes a(n initial) political tool in the fabrication of a political lie – which is exactly the kind of thing good adult fiction is supposed to mitigate against. We consume fiction to have our sense of life and humanity renewed, not to have it transformed into an Elect Sarah Palin ad.
Earlier I said, I have lots to say about the issues under discussion here, but unfortunately I don’t have the time to say them right now.
I’ve since had the time, but I ended up having slightly more to say than I thought. So I’ve said it over here instead – Niall asked that I link to it here so you guys could see it.
“I can’t think of a single work of television to which profanity was a vital and necessary ingredient”
Though we’re moving out of SF and fantasy, an obvious answer is anything based on historical events where profanity was uttered. The first scripted drama on the BBC to use “fuck” was a 1980 (i.e. twentieth anniversary) drama tisation of the Lady Chatterley trial. And one of the first films I saw on the BBC with expletives undeleted was All the President’s Men, whose plot depends on the phrase “ratfucking”. (ITV, and especially Channel 4 when it started in 1982, broke these boundaries earlier than the BBC did.)
Having said that, there are plenty of properly adult films which don’t employ profanity. And pre-1967 films (let alone TV) weren’t allowed to. The Production Code had a lot to do with this, you could say, but Pre-Code films, eye-opening though they are in many ways, didn’t use profanity either. (One possible exception is the short cartoon Bosko’s Picture Show, from 1933, but I digress.) The acceptability of profanity in public entertainment is due to a generational shift in taste.
@Richard – Sorry I didn’t mean to come across as a prick. I just don’t see your comments about frak/fuck the same way as you do. Frak comes from the original show, and I consider it just part of the character of the BSG universe in a similar way to feck in Father Ted. That said I do hate it when they use motherfraker in Caprica, it just sounds awful.
Back to work.
@ Andy W – apology accepted. Thank you.
On a more general note, though mainly for Abigail, I should probably stress that I don’t believe extensive use of the word “fuck” to be a *requirement* of good drama (for all that my books might give you the opposite impression :-) ). There are contexts where people say “damn”, and there are contexts where people say “fuck” and there are contexts where people don’t swear at all. The requirement for good adult drama is simply that *all* those options should be available to the writer, without any squirmy maiden-aunt exceptions.
Example – there’s a lot of swearing in The Sopranos and it reflects perfectly the raw working class/underworld environment Tony Soprano belongs to. In contrast, his upper middle class, wealthy, mannered and educated psychiatrist Dr Melfi rarely (if ever) swears at all, again perfectly reflecting the social realities of who she is. If and when you hear Dr Melfi say “fuck” (and I can’t now recall if she ever does), the shock impact of it will be massive, whereas with Tony, it feels more like back-beat.
This is is Dramatic Realism 101.
“Frak” TV fails Dramatic Realism 101 with a resounding F, not because it *avoids* “fuck” per se, but because it *wants* to use “fuck” to convey raw context, but lacks the writerly nous to do so. And, given the existence of so many shows outside SF/F where that same nous is now on open display, we are forced to one of two conclusions, neither of them particularly attractive: either the language in genre TV is being de-fanged because those responsible for the shows feel in their heart of hearts that “this stuff is for kids” (with all the wider implications that has) or, more sinisterly, that those same people feel that where art and entertainment is concerned, *all* citizens should be treated as kids (with all the wider (and very scary) implications *that* has).
Either way, it’s very bad news.
In the original BSG did they not also say something along the lines of ‘feldercarb’?
I agree with Richard up to a point. I think the issue for me is that BSG systematically presented itself as a grown-up piece of drama and in grown-up drama, you have swearing. If this were Trek or Buffy then I don’t think that anyone could complain about the lack of proper swearing but you can’t do gritty psychological realism with quaint euphemisms… it’s completely jarring.
I agree with Richard up to a point.
Yes, same here. What’s getting a little lost, perhaps, is the use of made-up swears as a marker of difference, which is quite handy for sf. This doesn’t work terribly well in BSG, because the rest of the series is trying very hard to be very similar to the world we know; it works pretty well in Farscape, where you wouldn’t necessarily expect translator microbes to be able to handle alien genitalia and related uses (that justification only goes so far; on the other hand, “mivonks” is a truly excellent word for testicle-equivalents, and they do deliver the relevant lines with relish); and it works really quite well in Firefly, where the swearing is, once you’re aware of the translations, still really quite filthy.
No love for Lost? Or Jekyll? Or … wait, this is a barren exercise.
I increasingly fight shy of the procrustean ‘defintional’ games we’re so fond of in our genre (‘West Wing is SF!’ ‘No it isn’t!’) I’d prefer a contextual reading, not a pigeonholing one. So it seems to me for its early series the novum of a world that diverged from ours to give us The Ideal Democrat President gave the show enormous dramatic and political purchase; but that the longer it went on, the more its imagined world necessarily separated more and more from the real world, and so diluted the force of the drama. This reached a tipping point with 9/11, which changed so much in the political world the show represented (without reproducing) but which, since it didn’t happen in the show’s timeline, became a kind of monstrous spectral absence distorting what The West Wing was doing. And though I watched it avidly enough when it was broadcast, the last series was pretty stupid.
Thick of It/In the Loop makes an interesting counter example; precisely because the scriptwriters there were too canny to get trapped by the ‘consistency! timeline! consistency!’ bugbear that rides so many otherwise intelligent SF imaginations. That the characters in the latter text were the same as the ones in the former even though they existed in a completely different fictional world, matters not at all. It’s the characters that give the show its satiric focus on our world, not the worldbuilding-chronology.
In sum: fuck fuckity fuck fuck fuck.
My comment’s second para’s third sentence, is atrociously written. Hmm.
Do you know what would be nice? A preview option for the comments box.
It would be very nice. Doesn’t seem to exist for WordPress-hosted blogs, mind.
Yeah… I’m not convinced by the linguistic argument. Most of our swear words have firm roots in our history. ‘Fuck’ is good, honest, anglo-saxon.
I could see a case be made for exotic words as an othering device but I think it’s either one approach or the other : either you have people speaking English in which case you can’t ignore ‘fuck’ any more than you can ignore any of the other words that come to us from anglo-saxon OR you go the Mel Gibson route and just have alien languages.
By the by, looking back on The West Wing’s supposedly ideal democratic president is interesting as, much like Blair, Bartlett was actually a real warwonger. I think he actually went to war more frequently than his real world GOP equivalent. there are theories explaining why this type of thing might be but they usually boil down to the fact that democrats invariably campaign as doves but wind up being hawks.
Most of our swear words have firm roots in our history.
And thus no new swears are ever going to take root? I think not.
I think he actually went to war more frequently than his real world GOP equivalent.
Without getting into the legitimacy of the interventions in question, I think they’re two-all, aren’t they? In TWW, there’s the intervention in Kundu in S4, and on the Russia/China border in S7.
Niall — Hmm… Bartlett had more one-off military strikes I think (very Clintonian) plus Russia/China, plus Jerusalem whereas Bush had two huge open-ended commitments. I don’t know… it just seemed that Bartlett was constantly in and out of the war cupboard.
As for new swear-words, yes but old swear words are still around and more often than not new swear words are modifications of existing words. Firefly had a much neater response to the problem with its Chinese swearing but it did beg the question as to why people only lapsed into Mandarin when they were annoyed.
Adam — Nah mate… squirrels!
As for new swear-words, yes but old swear words are still around and more often than not new swear words are modifications of existing words. Firefly had …
… “Gorram”, in addition to the Mandarin. I’m not saying Firefly‘s perfect in this regard — although I think there was some non-annoyed Mandarin slang, there wasn’t as much as you might hope for (plus you could argue the whole thing should be in Mandarin with English swears, which would have been … interesting) — but I think the case for it being an unserious gimmick is less convincing than it is with BSG.
Both Richard and Andy have quoted my comment about profanity not being a necessary component of good drama without noting the exception I made of Deadwood, which I suspect is because they’ve mistaken my reasons for making that exception. I don’t think that profanity was necessary on Deadwood for reasons of historical realism. Deadwood is entirely unrealistic, both in the historical events it depicts and often twists and slants, and in its distinctive dialogue – I don’t believe that anyone, anywhere, has ever spoken with that particular mix of poetry, theatricality, and crassness. What I mean when I say that profanity was a necessary component for Deadwood is that the show created its own, entirely unrealistic, dialect, to which style profanity was a baked-in ingredient. Whether it’s realistic for sheriffs and outlaws in the 19th century West to say motherfucker like they’re substituting it for pauses in the conversation isn’t the question – it’s whether that profanity fits with the style of the show.
Which is why I find the whole question of whether ‘real’ soldiers or mobsters would use the work fuck utterly irrelevant. One need only read a few articles about Rahm Emmanuel, or note Vice President Biden’s recent gaffe, to guess that the tone of speech in the real world White House is quite different from that depicted in The West Wing, but I don’t see that that show was damaged by the limitations the FCC placed on it, in part because like Deadwood it also had its own, not entirely realistic, dialect, to which profanity would have been as foreign as it was natural on Deadwood. Like so many other elements, profanity is a stylistic choice, and though I understand that it might be frustrating for an artist to have their choices limited, I don’t think that those limitations necessarily prevent great art from coming into being.
What I should probably add to this is that I do agree with the toned down point that’s been raised later in the thread, that no profanity might be better than pseudo-profanity, and that frak in particular doesn’t suit BSG’s tone. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it’s something the show outgrew and that the writers would have gotten rid of it if the miniseries hadn’t tied their hands.
Without getting into the legitimacy of the interventions in question, I think they’re two-all, aren’t they? In TWW, there’s the intervention in Kundu in S4, and on the Russia/China border in S7.
Doesn’t he choose to reinforce the middle east peace with troops in season 6? I don’t quite remember and I am sure as shit not watching those episodes again.
For some reason Farscape is the only show with made-up swears which work for me, maybe because they throw them around with the same mad enthusiasm the rest of the show was working with. There are lots of mainstream dramas on networks where they can’t swear which manage to be effective without it, and every time they say frak on BSG I wish they’d found a way to avoid it instead of drawing my attention to it.
(That’s a phrase that didn’t exist before Kes/Porridge, apparently).
“One need only read a few articles about Rahm Emmanuel, or note Vice President Biden’s recent gaffe, to guess that the tone of speech in the real world White House is quite different from that depicted in The West Wing, but I don’t see that that show was damaged by the limitations the FCC placed on it,”
I don’t know – I guess it depends what you want: drama that reflects and addresses reality or escapism that’s in full-scale retreat from it. TWW (or as I prefer to think of it, The Little White House on the Prairie) is certainly a proud example of the latter, and sanitised language is the least of it, the canary in the coal mine, as it were, for an overall “cuddly” gestalt that for me rendered the whole thing faintly nauseous and pretty much unwatchable ( I barely managed the first two or three episodes; thereafter I caught it occasionally by accident and was never able to muster the interest to watch the episode in question to the end – this is all despite being a huge fan of Martin Sheen as an actor). Here was American politics as fondly imagined by someone who’d never stood (or perhaps, more tellingly, never *wanted* to stand) within a hundred miles of the real thing or its fallout.
And here I think we get some traction on my earlier point about political lies. Along with the sanitised language, we got sanitised political reality as well. The Little White House on the Prairie allowed American audiences to fantasise about their President as a courageous, competent and loveable teddy bear father figure (as opposed to the suited thugs, buffoons and philanderers who habitually occupy the post in the real world) surrounded by well meaning and honourable staffers, (as opposed to the coterie of the compromised and corrupted that serve in reality) and serving the American people with all his hearts (as opposed to lying and breaking the law, cutting deals, starting wars and servicing the corporate lobby). It was a forty five minute weekly dose of narrative morphine dissolved on a massive cube of sugar and swallowed whole. Too right, there was no swearing – that would have risked fracturing the pipe dream.
Give me Primary Colours any day.
I think that the kind of deference to people in positions of authority that people in the UK find naturally sickening (particularly at this point in our political history) is one of the quirks of Sorkin’s writing : Look at Charlie Wilson’s war – that ends with a self-celebratory scene in which he is given a medal by the CIA. Look at the scene in which the President first appears in series one – off camera and quoting scripture like the voice of God.
I also think that Sorkin is one of the quirkiest writers to ever achieve that level of visibility. Most writers have quirks but Sorkin’s tics are evident in the way he structures his episodes, the way he writes dialogue and the values he prizes in his characters. When I last tried to rewatch TWW (having purchased the complete box set) I found it completely unwatchable because I simply could not get past the quirks. I found it intolerable that I could predict a) how many beats there would be in any exchange and b) what tone of voice the characters would be using by the end of it. One of the reasons why TWW survived the loss of its main writer is that his style is so easy to replicate.
David Milch (Deadwood and John from Cincinnati) is also incredibly quirky but I think he’s naturally a better writer and because his series haven’t lasted as long as TWW, his tics haven’t started annoying me yet. I imagine that by series 5 I would have found J from C completely unwatchable – Giving speeches to mobile phone voicemail is his arguing in corridors.
All this to say that I can entirely understand Richard loathing The West Wing.
One of the reasons why TWW survived the loss of its main writer is that his style is so easy to replicate.
You haven’t actually watched the later seasons, have you? The transition (and, as far as I’m concerned, decline) is breathtakingly obvious.
There’s undeniably a drop-off in quality, but I think that stylistically the show does not change that much. I think that the later series are frequently rubbish : They become soapier (CJ has a love interest!), they become evasive on matters of politics (Toby solves the problem of paying for the elderly entirely off-screen) but you still have the same kinds of back-and-forths, the same arguments in corridors and the same destabilising juxtaposition of intellectual machismo and whimsical humour.
Nope… I’m happy sticking to the idea that the series continues to ape Sorkin’s style long after he left it :-)
Attempts to ape it, yes. Fail miserably to ape it, also yes.