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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

May 14, 2006

Where Are All the Brainiacs?:
The dumbing down of the hero

I read an article a few weeks ago about the popularity of the "dumb" hero, epitomized by TV series like "My Name is Earl" and the Canadian cult-comedy, "Trailer Park Boys". But it tied into something I had been thinking about for the last few years. Namely, invert the question and instead of noticing the rise of the "dumb" hero...we could ask what happened to the "smart" hero? You know: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Doc Savage, Captain Future.

Warning: the following editorial will be rife with absurd semantical distinctions and facile generalizations -- but, hey, I'm writing to a deadline.

There's a sense that we've lost our interest in, or respect for, brains.

When the TV crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigations premiered, I was pleasantly startled by the lead investigator, Gil Grissom (William Petersen) -- who was unapologetically an intellectual nerd. In a genre (the cop show) generally populated with big guys who glower real well and shoot real straight, Grissom was an atypical hero, and he made CSI worth watching (well, that and the fact that Jorja Fox is HOT -- uh, note to self: delete last entry before posting). So popular was the series that it spawned two sequels that follow rigidly similar formulas (right down to using classic The Who tunes for theme songs) -- except they dropped the notion of the nerdy brain hero.

Okay, quick interruption -- I said there'd be absurd semantical distinctions and here's one. Because, obviously, the characters in CSI: Miami and CSI: New York are smart, educated characters. But I'm just not sure they're supposed to be, y'know, nerd-smart. And sure, I haven't watched too much of those shows...but, hey, CSI: Miami even stars David Caruso...who used to star as one of those above mentioned big, glowering, shoots-well cops in NYPD Blue.

The distinction wouldn't be significant...if Grissom wasn't such a rarity.

A few years ago there was a sitcom called Fraiser about a psychiatrist and his brother who were erudite and listened to opera and, yeah, they were lampooned for it (frequently by their Joe-Average dad), but the audience must've liked them, 'cause the series ran for years. But it remains largely an aberration. Most sitcoms, supposedly meant to reflect "real" people (and smart people aren't "real", I guess), are about low-brow, beer guzzlers who rarely lose an opportunity to make fun of opera or ballet or what have you.

Now if Fraiser had been a failure, it might seem less significant. But the fact that it was a success (just as CSI's Gil Grissom is a success) the fact that so few shows seek to follow suit is...very interesting (as the Frantics' Mr. Interesting might say).

But where the shift, if there is one, is most glaring, is in science fiction shows (at last, you sigh, something that relates to a pulp website).

First, consider some comic book heroes...

Take Superman who, when I was growing up, was a super-man in all respects...including brains. Then DC Comics revamped Superman in the mid-1980s and among other changes, Supes was dumbed down considerably. He was now an "average" guy with super powers (his arch-foe, scientific genius Lex Luthor, was likewise dumbed down, turned into a business man who merely employed scientific geniuses). Spider-Man in the comics was such a brain he built his own web shooters...whereas in the modern movies the webs come as part of his super powers (okay, I'm quibbling...he's still supposed to be a science nerd in the movies, but I still think the change is significant). Batman in the comics built all his nifty gadgets and trained himself in crime fighting...but in the recent movie Batman Begins, he has hardly one thought that isn't first spoon fed to him by another character! (Yes -- Batman Begins is the best live action Batman movie...but that's only because the Batman movies are so unrelentingly awful; Batman Begins still isn't a good movie, it's just not as terrible as the others).

Heck, in old Superboy comics, Clark Kent was a glasses-wearing science TV's current Smallville, he's a football star who wouldn't dream of hiding his baby blues behind horned rims.

What's significant is less these specific changes -- which might be driven by valid, individual artistic needs -- than the fact that I can't think of many opposite know, a dumb character who is then "re-invented" as an intellectual.

Turning to TV:

Star Trek in many of its incarnations tended to reflect the notion that heroes should have brains as well as brawn -- starship captain's seemed to have what we would call "classical" educations, and could quote Shakespeare as readily as they could rewire the hyper-drive engines. They were supposed to show us there was something cool and, yes, sexy, about brains. And this was vaguely echoed in other sci-fi series like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and SeaQuest (series almost identical to each other).

But there has been a significant shift in the last few years as sci-fi heroes have become increasingly less intellectual...even downright boorish. No longer do you want a hero who can think and shoot...just shooting will do, thankee very much. So in series like Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis and Farscape and Andromeda and Battlestar Galactica and yes, even the most recent Star Trek series, Enterprise...heroes are as a dense as a collapsed binary star -- and darn proud of it! No longer do we want first contact to involve the best and the brightest...but good ol' boys who are fast with a quip and a sports allusion. (Yeah, I'm exaggerating a tad -- but only a tad).

The intellectual hasn't been dismissed from the ranks of herodom. In the Stargate series, for instance, the intellectuals are co-heroes, often called upon to save the day...but they always receive second billing. They can save the day just as long as we don't mistake them for the star.

And the culturally educated hero seems a thing of yesterday -- Stargate: Atlantis' brilliant Dr. McKay (David Hewlett) may be able to jury rig a sonic whosis out of clothes pins and dental floss, but I doubt he'd know his Marlowe from his Moliere.

Somewhere along the line...did we become scared of intellect? Did we come to despise the thinker? When...why? Perhaps one could trace it back to political leaders who have endorsed policies that tend to run counter to scientific consensus. Forced to choose between homespun leaders who we are taught to respect and intellectual scientists, have we chosen to reject the intellectual?

And is it really a reflection of the public...or of the media? After all, as noted, Fraiser and CSI: Crime Scene Investigations were hits -- the public didn't reject the intellectual hero, the media just didn't offer new ones.

Look: I ain't smart (as anyone who has read my editorials will no doubt happily attest). I don't listen to opera, I haven't read most of the books on lists of the 100 Greatest Novels ever written. I can't tell you the difference between the philosophies of Descartes and Socrates. And people who can are often annoying twits. But...I've always liked heroes that were smart. Partly because I sometimes could painlessly pick up little crumbs of knowledge that way. As a kid I always thought it was soooo cool when, in the Classic Star Trek series, Kirk and villain Khan could have an entire nuanced discussion simply by one saying, "Have you read Milton?" I laughed uproariously when Monty Python did their Philosophers Olympics sketch, or Wayne & Shuster their Shakespearian baseball piece.

Star Trek is an interesting map of the way things have changed (and I apologize to all you non-Trekoids for my frequent allusions to Star Trek in my editorials -- but as a pop/pulp sci-fi phenomenon that has lasted four decades, spawning TV shows, movies, books,'s just too useful as a cultural barometer to ignore). What's interesting with Star Trek is how even it redefined itself.

When the first spin-off series arrived, Star Trek: The Next Generation, fans were quick to contrast Picard, its supposed chessmaster, intellectual hero, with the original series' supposedly poker playing space cowboy, Kirk. What was curious about this contrasting of the heroes was that it was Kirk who was the Milton-quoting chess player while the game of choice in the Next Generation was -- you guessed it -- poker! So it was a lie, but at least it was a lie for a purpose -- to celebrate the intellectual (Picard) at the expense of the supposedly low-brow Kirk. Intellect was still seen as commendable. But it's perhaps interesting that he had to be a cliched intellectual -- bald and British and very stiff. It was as if because Kirk was young and energetic and matinee idol handsome...the modern thinking was he couldn't possibly have been an intellectual. So we saw him re-remembered as the poker playing cowboy. It was the beginning of the split between an archetypal hero...and an intellectual. You could have one, but not both.

This trend continued in the Star Trek movies. Whereas in the series, Kirk would usually devise a smart plan and get intellectual Mr. Spock to help him implement it, in the movies, Spock would usually come up with the smart plan and Kirk would simply nod dimly and say, "Do it." He was no longer the thinker, he was the hero.

Though the later Star Trek series continued to promote the idea of classically educated heroes, a subtle shift began even with The Next Generation. The Second-in-Command Science Officer of the original Star Trek was replaced by simply a Second-in-Command...and a Security Chief. In fact, the Classic Star Trek is one of the few Treks in which there even is a Science Officer...and is the only one of the Star Trek series in which a Security Chief wasn't part of the command crew! By the time of Star Trek: Enterprise, we'd come full circle with a smart Vulcan Second-in-Command Science Officer...but things have been so turned-on-their-heads vis-a-vis the attitude toward intellectuals that her "orthodox" scientific views usually turn out to be wrong and her entire culture is shown to be corrupt and sinister.

While what do we make of the new Battlestar Galactica where humanity's greatest intellect, the weak-willed dupe of the evil Cylons?

Staying with Star Trek for just one more paragraph -- honest, just the one! -- another intriguing reflection of the changing view of intellectualism was that in the original series, we were told that in his Academy days Kirk was a bookworm. Yet with subsequent Trek heroes like Picard and Deep Space Nine's Sisko (don't know about Voyager's Janeway), we were told that they had been wild n' crazy, fun loving guys in their Academy days. In other words, don't let their intellects scare you: deep down inside, they were regular fellahs at heart. What became most telling was when, at one point, there was talk of doing a Star Trek movie focusing on Kirk's Academy days (days, remember, described in the TV series as being when Kirk was a grim bookworm) -- and the described scenario was one showing Kirk as a wild n' crazy, fun loving guy. (The movie was never made -- though unconfirmed rumours are that the next Trek film will focus on someone's Academy days).

Somewhere in 40 years we went from believing a hero and an intellectual could be one and the same to believing a hero is a hero...and an intellectual (when not actually evil) is just the guy you keep around to stop the planet from exploding (rather like the idea of jocks who get the nerds to do their homework for them)...and, don't worry, 'cause even the intellectuals weren't born intellectuals, but used to be Joe-party frat boys.

At one point there was talk of doing a movie of Doc Savage, the pulp-era hero, starring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Regardless of whether you think Arnie makes a good state governor, at least his jump to politics spared us that. Because I can't really see Mr. Terminator playing the scientifically brilliant Man of Bronze -- can you? And I'm guessing that's because that wasn't how the producers were picturing the character. (Now, Campbell Scott might be a good Savage, perhaps using some forced perspective camera tricks to make him seem bigger).

But someone like Schwarzenegger as Doc Savage seems the way of the future.

And I don't suppose anyone will be trading quotes from Milton on Stargate: Atlantis anytime soon, neither.

D.K. Latta, editor

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