A little while back I wrote a piece called The Franklin Conspiracy: Myths, Monsters and Canada's Phantom Culture. At the end of that piece, I promised to return to the topic. True to my word, here I am again.
Just as an aside, the impetus for that previous essay was the publication of the book, The Franklin Conspiracy, by Jeffrey Blair Latta, which took a bizarre and frightening look at the mystifying disappearance of the legendary Franklin expedition. Apparently the book is doing very well for itself. The publisher has received re-orders from book stores and the book is ranking among the best sellers the publisher has ever produced. So if you don't buy it soon, you're not going to know what they're talking about around the office water cooler.
O.K., yes, I'm shamelessly plugging a friend's book, but it's for a reason that's relevant to today's topic. You see, The Franklin Conspiracy (the book) examines a bizarre and mysterious incident in Canadian history for what it is: a bizarre and mysterious incident that warrants a bizarre and mysterious solution. It sees Canadian history, not as some dull, dry, exercise in statistics, but a rich, colourful realm of mystery, of the unusual, of the fantastic.
So let's talk about fantasy.
The Franklin Conspiracy is allegedly non-fiction (though some have argued it reads like the "X-Files" version of Canadian history) but I'm using it as a jumping off point to talk about total fantasy: science fiction, horror, fantasy.
More significantly: to talk about the importance of such things to culture or, at least, to the pop culture. Culture is a big word that can be used -- and abused -- to mean many things. "Culture" can mean everything from a shared indigenous identity to High Art that is irrespective of national origin to a lot of things in-between.
The reason I bring this up is because to some people, referring to science fiction, fantasy, and horror as "culture" is, at best, obscene. There are people who seem to have physical, visceral aversions to the flights of imagination that fantasy fiction represents. Why? I don't know. What I do know is that fantasy fiction is more truly culture, or at least "pop" culture, than many more respected genres. If culture is a shared reference point, if culture is something that is casually familiar to vast numbers of people, then fantasy, SF, and horror is it. More people can name Superman's girlfriend (now wife) than Othello's. In part that's because speculative fiction (as we'll call it from here on) is a genre that often speaks in metaphors and symbols -- it has meaning outside of, and greater than, itself.
And people respond to those meanings.
Mary Shelley wrote a half dozen novels, but her most successful continues to resonate, and to have meaning, almost two hundred years later: Frankenstein. In fact, some have called Frankenstein, a mixture of horror and science fiction, the first modern novel. H.G. Wells wrote many books in his life, but he remains a significant literary figure only for his earliest science fiction novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to be remembered as a literary writer, but his posthumous longevity is based on a novel about explorers discovering dinosaurs in The Lost World and on the super human detective, Sherlock Holmes (whose most famous adventure has him investigating a ghost hound).
Jump ahead in time and mediums, and you'll note that when Rod Serling created "The Twilight Zone" and Gene Roddenberry created "Star Trek", they didn't just create successful TV shows, they created phenomenons, they created icons, they created...culture.
Speculative fiction often resonates long after non-fantasy stories have been forgotten. Consider that in the early 1990s there were two American TV programs: "Twin Peaks" and "Murder One". Both were prime time serials dealing luridly with crime and other sordid goings on, both were embraced and applauded by critics, and both ran two seasons. Yet "Twin Peaks", the show that was steeped in images of fantasy and horror, continues to resonate, to be a reference point with no less than two recent series, the Canadian "Paradise Falls" and the American "Smallville", comparing themselves to "Twin Peaks". While "Murder One" has, largely, disappeared from the public consciousness. One became "culture", the other...didn't.
As well, if you go through a list of the highest grossing Hollywood films of all time, you'll discover the majority are either science fiction or horror...disproportionate to the number of speculative fiction films that Hollywood churns out every year.
So if speculative fiction is so important to "culture" and, potentially, so profitable, where is Canada's speculative fiction?
Well that's the question, ain't it?
I flipped on the TV the other night and caught a few minutes of the mini-series of Stephen King's "The Stand", a science fiction/horror story about the end of the world and the survivors' battle with demonic forces. I had seen it when it first aired a few years ago, as had many other people (I believe it was a ratings success). And watching it this time, I thought, gosh, why don't Canadians do that? Why can't I flip on the TV one day and watch a big budget, adult-aimed Canadian mini-series with a science fiction or horror theme, one that's identifiably set in Canada featuring Canadian actors playing Canadian characters? We could. With modern special effects and computer graphics, the budget for an SF or horror mini-series wouldn't have to be noticeably more expensive than that of, say, a period drama like "Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story" or "Random Passage".
Currently, Canadians make an enormous amount of fantasy-flavoured products for the small screen. Andromeda, Earth: Final Conflict, First Wave, The Lost World, Beastmaster, Mutant X and more are all co-produced with Canadian companies. But most people wouldn't know it. Because although Canadians supply actors, directors, locations and crews, and though these productions qualify as "Canadian" enough for Canadian broadcasters to count them toward their Canadian Content Quotas, most of the string pullers are south of the border in Hollywood. The series are mostly set in the United States, and not one series features even a single character who is supposed to be Canadian (even though the actors often are).
I won't explain here why it's so important to set stories in Canada, or why it's so potentially damaging to not set them in Canada (I covered that in a previous editorial: The Vindication of Stepin Fetchit).
Yet despite the success of these various quasi-Canadian produced series, and the fact that they prove Canadians have the technical skills to pull them off, one can't escape the feeling that if someone went to, say, the CBC and suggested an idea for a Canadian-set SF/fantasy/horror movie or series, they would be a: laughed at, b: told to get out before security was called, or c: told that that's not Canadian Culture -- dontchaknow?
This despite the fact that when done well (a subjective criteria, to be sure) speculative fiction can lead to a "Star Trek" or "X-Files", a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Star Wars". It can create more than just entertainment, it can create myths, icons and...culture.
And isn't "culture" what Canadian TV programmers claim they're trying to protect and promote?
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
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