by Colin Ravey
One of the most glaring differences between UK and US SF is the on screen
texture. US is smooth and expensive, creamy and shiny, even dystopia looks
metallic and shiny. UK is tatty, and wobbly, utopia is a couple of pot
plants and a fat self-satisfied old thesp. Beneath the surface there's a
difference too, but one which will take some explaining.
As a rule of thumb, I grew up believing that the flashier the special effects, the worse the product. This is a grumpy, crusty old tradition amongst some SF fans, easy to ridicule and put down as sheer jealousy. "Your team may have fancier kits than ours, but for all our tattered rags and knackered boots we play better." This belief is so strong that some fans were outraged when the BBC, the makers and owners of perennial favourite Doctor Who, decided to re-release one of the shows, anniversary special 'The Five Doctors' with re-mastered effects. Sacrilege!! This was to suggest that the Bible would be better with a few colour pictures of Pamela Anderson.
Fans of low budget SF had fallen into a simple belief: Visual gloss means no depth and credibility, tatty visuals means deep and credible substance, that, like, doesn't need bangs and flashes man.
A ST:NG fan once asked me if quirky characters, decent performances and an 'interesting' (subjective term) show couldn't spring from a big budget? Was I so naïve that I thought that a big studio employed people to iron out groundbreaking ideas once the budget went beyond a certain level? I do, and yes, they do.
Doctor Who was conceived as a science fiction fantasy show, but allotted the budget of a comparable BBC police drama, Z Cars. This is like Star Trek Voyager being made on the NYPD Blue's budget -- 'star' names not included. There was no budget. From this limitation came some great ideas, as the normal SF clichés were avoided. The literary genre of fantasy and science-fiction is free from all budgetary limitations, but, believe it or not, there is a limit to the imagination, or at least a limit to what an imaginative reader can read and comprehend, so the same ideas pop up again and again. They didn't in Doctor Who, because the BBC couldn't afford them. They were given a Cop Show budget, so they used a Cop Show prop. Enter the TARDIS.
There are two explanations for the Doctor's craft: Explanation One: TARDIS is an anocronym for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. It is a mini-universe created by a master race of time travellers, the 'doorway', or portal to which, manifests itself as an outer shell which can be transported to any time or place in the normal universe. This outer shell can disguise itself as any object, utilizing a chameleon function to blend into its surroundings. Explanation Two: The BBC used a Police Box as the outside of the TARDIS because they couldn't afford a spaceship.
Explanation two came first, but what an interesting flight of fantasy explanation one is. People still debate the nature of the TARDIS, a little piece of serendipitous magic to gloss over a budgetary limitation. Who needs unique ideas when you've got a budget? When you can afford a proper spaceship, who needs quirky ideas? What is special about the Starship Enterprise? Answers on a postcard, and toss them on the fire, please. It looks cool, both in and out, it goes REALLY fast, and it has REALLY powerful blasters. The TARDIS has the offensive capabilities of a chicken vol-au-vent and looks like a little blue box. It may not look like much, but, oooh, there's a lot going on benath its looks. Just like a lot of low budget shows...
So there's an example of necessity being the mother of invention -- but what about the second idea, ludicrous at first, that the maker of a TV show will iron out original ideas as the budget is stepped up? Simple. The more money that's spent on a show, the more money has to be recouped, the more people have to watch, the more people have to understand the show, the more people have to relate to the show, the more dimbos and grannys have to drool in front of the show, paying for those ad slots, buying that merchandise. An original idea is not going to be popular. It's untried, it's untested. Duh, Wagon Train in Space -- sounds good, let's try it. Old man in space, traveling in a call box and two teachers, we don't find out who the main character is for a good seven years. Hmmm... Can't we make them hip kids on a bogus adventure? (Don't get me started on that!)
Necessity is the mother of an invention, and a less secure background than other SF shows made Doctor Who incredibly inventive. In the next article I'll look at how the show survived and changed as its fortunes bobbed and swayed. Why does he travel in a blue box -- what is a Police Box? Why did the actor change? In truth, and on screen, Doctor Who was never quite like anything else...
Meanwhile, I'll end with another cry of defense for the cheap and tatty. The producer of the BBC space opera Blake's Seven (more of which in future articles) once chastised a writer for including the line "Look, it's amazing," or some such. The writer was told to remove it, as, obviously, it wouldn't be amazing, whatever it was.
The most boring part of the usually fun Trek movie romps has Shatner gazing in wonder at the recently renovated Enterprise. In a Jurassic Park, 'see them stampede' fashion, he gazes in wonder as the effects team show off the new model, unadorned by plot advancement or character development, for a good couple of minutes, whilst Kirk lets the model take the performance strain.
And when you know that your characters won't be on amazing spaceships, or be looking at amazing things, they'd better be saying amazing things in amazingly interesting ways. The BBC still have a lingering scent of the stage about them, and most of its SF series are theatrical in the extreme -- the backdrop may only change at half time, so the plot, dialogue and characters take the burden, in true Shakespearean style.
Cry low-budget, and let slip the dogs of invention!
Colin Ravey is a twenty two year old Internet journalist, born and bred in Glossop, Derbyshire. Nope, people in the UK haven't heard of it either -- head for Coronation Street, and take a left into the countryside. He isn't half as jingoistic as he sounds, and welcomes your comments.
Interested in reading more of Colin's commentary? You can find it in his other SF Site columns, Rant and Ravey.
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