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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

April 8, 2007

Knowing Then What I Know Now
New understandings of old stories

Continuing in a bit of a nostalgia vein (that I started in a previous editorial) I was thinking about how what we know -- or think we know -- can influence our understanding, and appreciation, of stories.

Back in the mid-80s I saw the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and loved it, a weird mix of bizarre silliness, sly wit, and just enough sincerity to make the action suspenseful, the pathos moving. At the time I recognized, in general, that it was an homage/affectionate parody of comic booky and pulp heroes. But it wasn’t until a little later, after I had started reading the old Doc Savage novels, that I would go one step further and say it was a direct riff on Doc Savage specifically -- stories which, themselves, were written with a certain tongue-in-cheek.

Recognizing that provenance hasn’t changed my opinion of Buckaroo Banzai -- I thought it was a great movie, and have continued to think it was a great movie every time I’ve seen it (one critic defining it as a “silly movie for smart people”). But it’s interesting how time, and changes in my own experiences, can alter my understanding of something.

Another example was the British SF series, Doctor Who. Doctor Who is, of course, about an alien time traveller who periodically regenerates into a different actor, complete with a new look and often, attitude. One of my favourite Doctors was Jon Pertwee who essayed the role in the early 1970s. The Doctor had previously been played by older actors with a certain avuncular air, but Pertwee, who was himself middle aged, and generally know as a comedian (even acting in some of the Carry On… films) defied expectation by playing his Doctor has a canny man of action. And he also dressed in a weirdly anachronistic outfit -- frilly cuffs and velvet jackets. As a kid, at the time, I took that as just being the eccentricity of the character who, after all, was a time traveller. Yet then when I saw the episode where he first acquired his suit -- he just nicked it from a doctor’s change room.

And I thought: huh? That explains why he’s dressed that way…but not why the unseen medical doctor had that suit.

Of course, years later, as my appreciation and understanding of pop history grew, I then heard the term: Mod. As in Mod Squad. As in Mods and Rockers. As in, The Who. Or, for the modern generation, (shudder) Austin Powers. And I realized that that style of dress had been in fashion at the time. So for the Doctor to wear it was still meant to seem incongruous -- but not because it was archaic, but because it was a middle aged man affecting the dress of youth. In fact, considered in the context of the period, when the “generation gap” was threatening to become a chasm, and the Doctor Who series itself was becoming more overtly political than it had before, often with a “green” theme, the choice of wardrobe was perhaps meant to convey an added message to the series’ young audience -- the Doctor is one of you.

Also in the early 1970s, DC Comics published a run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories by Denny O‘Neil and Neal Adams that drew critical acclaim for its willingness to tackle real world issues in a medium more comfortable with super villains and alien invasions. In one issue, the two heroes come upon a town under the thumb of the corrupt company -- a company that employs ex-Nazis as enforcers. When I first read it, my feeling was O’Neil had gone a bit over board in his attempt to convey the vileness of the company. I mean: ex-Nazis? That’s kind of like hitting your theme with a two-by-four.

Then, many years later, I read an article about how some unscrupulous American companies really had recruited ex-Nazis to break up unions. So what I first read as being a bit silly and over-the-top, turns out to actually have a sharp and incisive edge. Of course maybe it was over-the-top, maybe O’Neil didn’t know how close his story had hewed to the truth. Either way, my appreciation of the story altered, not because the story changed, but because I had.

And so it goes. As my knowledge of politics, literature, and history, expands, bit by bit, item by item, one finds that even pop culture and pulp fiction contains significance and subtexts that I missed the first time around.

In the TV series Star Trek, one of my favourite episodes was the brooding, “The Conscience of the King” -- ironically, perhaps the least science fictiony of all the episodes. But even though I had enjoyed it as a kid, it wasn’t until years later that I was able to understand it as a metaphor for the post-WW II hunt for war criminals. And it was still later that I realized the story itself was meant as a riff on the play Hamlet. I recognized the Shakespearian ambience -- the story involves a troupe of classical actors, and the title is derived from a line from Hamlet. But it wasn’t till years later, when I had actually read and seen Hamlet, that I realized the entire story was a riff on that play -- but a clever riff, echoing Hamlet, without simply parroting it (Kirk is alerted to the villain, not by a ghost, but by a broken, shell of a man…a metaphorical ghost).

And of course, as you add more and more items to your personal repertoire of information, you can also ponder what sort of repertoire do artists call upon. (To this day, I suspect there are very few professional movie critics who were familiar enough with Doc Savage to make the connection to Buckaroo Banzai). For example, mainstream critics have long pointed to Star Wars’ various antecedents -- the King Arthur legend (with Luke, Leia, Han, and Ben as Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin) as well as classic movies like the Hidden Fortress and The Searchers. All sources creator George Lucas has acknowledged. Yet among comic book fans, many have also pointed to Jack Kirby’s The New Gods -- something which, I believe, Lucas has never suggested was an inspiration. Years later, having finally read the New Gods, I can certainly see the reason comic fans are suspicious, the two sharing, not the same plot, but similar ideas and terminology.

And, of course, the opposite can be true. Sometimes you can make assumptions that, later, you think were maybe a bit presumptuous, as P&D founder Jeffrey Blair Latta touched on in this earlier editorial.

In fact (just to bring things back to the beginning a wee bit) I’ve always thought of Buckaroo Banzai as a very weird kind of movie -- hilariously funny, yet you can’t quite call it a comedy, because it does still function on the level of what it’s spoofing -- an SF adventure movie (unlike, say, most of the Inspector Clouseau movies, which no one would suggest function as thrillers as well as comedies). And it’s a movie where the humour is often very -- odd, oblique, where you either get it or you don’t, more about how a line is said as what’s said, or where the humour is how nonchalant the characters are: it’s funny because the actors play it almost realist. But then I realized that in that time period, a number of movies were released with a similar style: Return of the Living Dead and (one of my favs) Night of the Comet. So Buckaroo Banzai can be seen as part of a brief, firefly trend of movies that (maybe) were a little too wry, a little too subtle for their own good. And, again, I only perceived this over time.

And one final thought I’ll leave with you, relating to how time, and our understanding of context, can alter our appreciation of a work, involves Star Trek (yeah, you knew I wasn’t going to let this essay go by with only one Star Trek reference, didn’t ya?)

Star Trek, particularly in its original, 1960s incarnation, was perceived as being optimistic, envisioning a future where humanity has overcome many of its baser instincts, its prejudices, and curbed many of its social injustices. Despite the fact that creator Gene Roddenberry himself I don’t think ever made a claim to predicting the future, so much as trying to encourage a future, Star Trek has often been knocked for this perceived Pollyanna-ness. And despite Star Trek being the most successful SF franchise in TV history, and many fans citing this optimism as one of its attributes, most subsequent SF TV series have bragged about their grittiness, their cynicism, their “realism” in contrast to Star Trek’s silly optimism. Even subsequent Star Trek series have often edged (a bit) away from the clean, hopeful optimism of the original series.

We all accept this as truth -- love or hate Star Trek, we accept it is “unrealistic” in comparison to darker SF series. But, then, applying our understanding of context, and history, to re-examine Star Trek, something else emerges.

In the 1960s, Star Trek presented a fully integrated (gender and race) quasi-military organization, at a time when women had very limited roles in the armed services and, in civilian life, blacks were, literally, fighting for their rights. Now? Women serve in all aspects of the military and racial equality is, at least, a legal right. In the 1960s, Star Trek envisioned a multinational space program, at a time when the space “race” was heavily politicized in the US vs. Russia Cold War. Now? We talk of “international” space stations and shuttle launches routinely feature non-American personnel. In the 1960s, Star Trek envisioned non-lethal weaponry, and everyone said that was silly. Now? Police routinely use tasers and pepper spray. In the 1960s, Star Trek envisioned a legal system that had abolished the death penalty (well, except that Talus IV thing) at a time when most nations executed criminals. Now? More and more nations are abolishing the death penalty (ironically, the US is, itself, the only remaining western democracy to still retain the death penalty!) Heck, in the early 1990s, director Nicholas Meyer grumbled that executives wouldn’t let him have the characters smoke on the Enterprise, and he felt that was unrealistic. Now? No Smoking signs are in most buildings and institutions.

Ironically, despite it’s “optimism”, Star Trek did envision a dark future, predicting a devastating third world war in the 1990s -- and that’s actually the one prediction that hasn’t come true (well, so far).

So next time you’re watching an old movie, or re-reading a favourite book, take time out to think about what you knew the first time, and what you know now, and whether there are nuances to be discovered, sub-texts that were a little too sub-textual the first time around. And the next time a fan of the new Battlestar Galactica, or some other dark n’ gritty series, tells you how much more realistic his show is compared to Star Trek…well, suggest that he maybe needs a better understanding of history, and context, before he can make such statements.

And as each of us acquires more and more info, and comprehension, who knows what meaning we’ll find re-reading and re-watching things we enjoy today ten years from now?

D.K. Latta, editor

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