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Zed vs. Zee
Canadian identity in a sci-fi world



 
 

Given that I have often alluded to the lack of a "Canadian" presence in many Canadian movies and TV shows, I couldn't help but notice that there might be something strange in the wind, something almost imperceptible. Something almost aggressively...Canadian.

As I've mentioned before, many, many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they aren't Canadian, instead being set in the U.S., and with their main characters American. That hasn't changed...but the balance may be tilting, however slightly. Oh, sure, there have always been archly, in-your-face, Canadian TV shows...usually on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and usually in the expected genres of drama and comedy. But now it seems to be spreading out.

The Movie Network's ReGenesis is a big, splashy, "American"-style drama-suspense series about hi-tech scientists battling virulent diseases and bio-terrorism under the auspices of a multinational organization. Ten years ago, "multinational" in a Canadian TV series would have meant mostly American heroes, with maybe a mild-mannered Canadian character thrown in to fill out the peripheries. With ReGenesis, the characters are clearly based in Toronto, and no less a character than the series' maverick lead is supposed to be Canadian. While Stargate: Atlantis, the hit spin-off from the hit Canadian-made Stargate: SG1, features a prominent Canadian character in its ensemble. And a lot of the smaller specialty channels are getting in on the act, with new series on Showcase and Bravo all happily admitting they are Canadian.

So...wot happened?

Maybe nothing. As I said, there have always been Canadian-set series. Maybe this is nothing more than a slight bulge on the curve, nothing more. Maybe the success of Corner Gas has inspired filmmakers. Maybe Canadian film industry folks finally couldn't take the shame of doing their Stepin Fetchit routine, and have decided to stand up and admit who they are. Who knows? Maybe a site like this encouraged them (well, a fellow can dream, can't he?) Maybe it's just the world around them that has changed. Personally, I'd like to think George W. Bush had a little something to do with it. People have long claimed -- often pejoratively -- that Canadians define themselves simply as being "not-American". Maybe having Bush the Younger sitting in the oval office has made more and more Canadians happy to be "not American" than ever before. Suddenly instead of being embarrassed by their Canadianness, maybe some film folk actually want to flaunt it. You go, girl!

But it's not all maple leaves and bearclaws, not yet.

I was thinking about this after flipping through an article in Canadian Screenwriter Magazine, specifically an article about the bonanza of Canadian-made sci-fi series out there, and how and if they reflect Canadian identity. Needless to say, the message of the article, as it always is in Canada, was "everything's fine, stay in your homes, there's no need to panic"; the guys doing these shows were quick to proclaim they were doing a bang up job, insisting the whole debate over Canadian identity was silly, even as they (paradoxically) maintained they were preserving it with gusto. The fact that most of the shows alluded to in the article still aren't set in Canada, feature few "Canadian" characters, and usually feature an American actor to headline, didn't seem to diminish their conviction that they were the great preservers of Canadian identity and culture.

One commentator dismissively likened the debate about Canadian identity to it being as if New Yorkers complained more American shows weren't about New York. I think that argument says more than he intended about his views. First off, no New Yorker would say that...because many American movies and TV shows are set in New York. Secondly, New Yorkers are Americans...Canadians are not. That's the effing point! Another commentator dismissed the question about Canadian identity as irrelevant to sci-fi, since how can you be "Canadian" when the story is set among alien worlds in a distant future? Fair enough. But it's a spurious argument. Even shows set in the future on distant worlds usually manage to work in American references (consider Star Trek or the Canadian-made Andromeda).  And, anyway,  most of the Canadian sci-fi shows currently in production aren't set in the future on alien worlds but are rooted very much in the here and now.  "Here" being planet earth somewhere south of the forty-ninth parallel.

I'm as dubious as the next guy about talking about Canadian "themes", about concepts "defining" Canadian identity. Cultural identity has to arise from the people, not be imposed from above. Which is why I put such an emphasis on objective things -- setting shows in Canada with Canadian characters -- as opposed to subjective things, like insisting on certain themes that supposedly "reflect" Canadian identity (my vision of Canadian identity isn't necessarily the same as someone else's, nor should it be). With that being said, even in a show removed from earth and our time, Canadian "themes", as differentiated from American "themes", could be employed...such as doing a story about a middle power planet next to a more powerful, somewhat morally ambiguous, galactic super power planet (most U.S. series like Star Trek have the heroes be part of a super power) or do a show about an alien civilization, founded by different cultures, speaking different tongues, and the tensions that arise between them.  Vive Le Planète Quebec!

Anyhoo...

Still, one must give credit to the makers of Stargate: Atlantis. After some eight or nine years of producing Stargate: SG1 with nary a Canadian character in sight (though most of the actors were Canadian) they finally decided to insert a Canadian character into the spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis. Better late than never. And, all the better, the character in question is a prominent, flamboyant character...he even pronounces the letter "z" as "zed" (as opposed to the American "zee"), and since a subplot in the series involves them searching for a power source labelled a Z.P.G., he gets to say "zed" a lot.

Before I go further, let me repeat: I applaud them, I salute them. And, significantly, Stargate: Atlantis is a hit series for the US Sci-Fi Channel. Apparently American viewers have no problems with watching Canadian characters (despite industry pundits who have always claimed the contrary).

But here's the thing: despite having this prominent Canadian character, occasionally wearing a Canadian flag on his jacket shoulder, and occasionally saying "zed", he's pretty much the only Canadian character in the entire series. The team is multinational, so you've got a Scotsman, and a European (most played by Canadian actors), but the vast majority of the characters are supposed to be American. So even though there is a Canadian...he's very much a token, an aberration. And more noteworthy still was something I noticed recently while watching an episode. While continuing their search for a Z.P.G. on an alien planet, the Canadian character said "zed", the American characters said "zee"...and all the alien characters (played largely by Canadian actors), representing non-earth cultures, said "zee", too -- the American pronunciation.

Sure, one could make the argument that it would be distracting if aliens from the same race had different accents. But, firstly, in the episode to which I refer, more than one alien culture was represented. More to the point, linguistic uniformity has never been crucial to SF (in the TV series Babylon 5, members of the same alien race were played by Yugoslavians, Americans, and Englishmen, all maintaining their respective accents). For that matter, the Star Wars movies would have us accept that a skinny little guy with a high-pitched voice somehow grows up to be a big man with a booming voice and erudite diction. If audiences can accept that, I think they can accept mixed aliens saying "zed" and "zee".

Yeah, I'm being petty, but it's not quite as minor a distinction as you might think. Because the message promoted by Stargate: Atlantis is that "zee" is the logical, the normal pronunciation of the letter "z", and "zed" some quirky, eccentric speech impediment of the lone Canadian character. It doesn't matter that "zed" is the original pronunciation of the letter and that most English-speaking countries still say "zed" (and many non-English countries), and that the American alteration is the quirky eccentricity (apparently derived from an obscure British dialect that crossed the pond centuries ago). According to the makers of Stargate: Atlantis, the universe, and all those who inhabit it, are American, save for a starbase peopled with a token Canadian, a Scotsman, and the odd European. Praise Be and Hallejujah!

Am I making a mountain out of a mole hill and fixating on a silly non-issue? Not to the makers of Stargate: Atlantis themselves...after all, they're the ones who insist, week after week, that their largely Canadian cast use the American pronounciation. If it wasn't an important issue to them, most of the actors would be saying "zed".

No doubt my writing this will cause a lot of people to throw up their hands, to fume and say: "nothing we do will ever make you happy!" But that's not true. As mentioned, I do applaud Stargate: Atlantis, and welcome its "Canadianness" and I revel in the quirky, obnoxious, scientific brilliance of its Canadian character. If I could, I'd pat the creators of Stargate: Atlantis on the back and shake their hands and welcome them back to the home team. But that doesn't mean we should all sit back smugly, put our feet up, and say, everything's alright, the battles have been won.

Does it matter how the letter "z" is pronounced? Will civilizations rise and fall on whether, say, "colour" is spelled with a "u" (Americans leave out that vowel)? Is it a mark of cultural superiority whether "lieutenant" is pronounced "leftenant" (the Canadian way) or "lootenant" (the American way)? Well, no, I shouldn't think so. But it means that, even in Stargate: Atlantis, there is a tendency, however slight, and whether conscious or unconscious, to marginalize Canada, to suggest an inherent superiority to all things American, and therefore an inferiority or, at best, a quirky irrelevance, to all things not American (like Canada). And to say that there are basically two kinds of people in the universe -- those who follow the American way...and those who don't follow the American way...yet.

And at a time when George W. Bush sits in the white house, that's a very troubling message indeed.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

June 26, 2005

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