Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Reluctant Geek - The metaphor in the room

I don’t watch much TV these days. But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some holier than thou tirade about how the Goggle Box rots your brain and gives you cancer and makes puppies sad. I actually kind of love TV as a medium and would happily have a go at convincing anyone that good TV, thoughtful TV is worth easily as much as any book or movie.

Science fiction and fantasy TV tend to span both ends of the spectrum, being either breath-takingly, heart-stoppingly, spine-tinglingly wonderful, or slit-your-own-throat awful. And one of the things that set the two apart is the willingness of the good stuff to delve into the murky world of the metaphor.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s all about to get a little bit literary. But bear with me. Luckily, we have the god-like Joss Whedon as our guide for this particular journey into uncharted territory.

Putting aside for one moment the fact that I want to have his babies, Whedon really set the bar for using the sci-fi and fantasy elements of his shows to explore issues with universal relevance. You don’t have to be a blonde teenage girl with kick-ass dress sense and a stake under your pillow to appreciate the 'high school is hell’ idea which Buffy took and ran with, framing episodes in which ignored teenagers really did disappear and swim team jocks turned out to be even more monstrous than they first appeared. The knack lay in taking those widely accepted ideas and using fantasy settings to really explore them. Thus, the ultimate 'big bad’ in Angel became law firm Wolfram and Hart. Because everyone knows lawyers are evil right? And time and time again, sex in the Buffyverse ‘changes’ people, which plays to all of our fears about falling for someone who isn’t who we think.

The latest British show to use a fantasy setting as a way of playing with ideas about the human condition is the aptly titled Being Human, in which the wacky adventures of a vampire, ghost and werewolf become tropes for a post-modern agenda of alienation, difference and the search for meaning in an ambiguous world. The show also embraces the kind of moral relativism that means the right thing to do rarely has one of those helpful flashing signs and pointy arrows over it. These concepts are turned into moral puzzles for the viewer, with domestic violence, the dark side of sexuality and drug addiction all explored within the fantasy remit. And in many ways, Being Human gets to deal with them more directly and with less of a nod to the censors. Not least because it lends itself to the wide-eyed innocence of ‘we’re just some silly fantasy program’ when challenged directly on its darker content.

And amazingly, the belief that fantasy and science fiction tend not to produce TV to be taken seriously really does persist. This is frustrating when time and time again great shows are overlooked for BAFTAs and other awards, but the bright side is that they accordingly exist on a ‘Wild West’ style frontier, (literally in the case of Firefly!) where the normal rules don’t apply and it’s possible to push boundaries further than in almost any other genre. Being Human and Joss Whedon’s back catalogue are by no means the only great shows doing it either. Even the more mainstream appeal of the re-vamped Doctor Who (bow ties are not just cool, they’re pretty damn sexy too) frequently uses metaphor to delve into deeper issues for its adult viewers, whilst maintaining the fun and action for its younger audience.

The bottom line is that science fiction stories are modern day myths. We’ve figured out that the sun is a big ball of gas a squillion miles away rather than some gorgeous glowing god and that the sound of thunder isn’t Thor’s rolling chariot, but hot air collapsing into cool. But we’re still no nearer to answering the bigger questions - Love, Death, Identity, Meaning. Shows like Buffy and Being Human are the closest thing we have to those comforting stories that might explain such concepts. And at the very least, there are few genres as willing to tackle them head on. As Asimov once famously said, "Reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle science fiction".

Kate Townshend is currently appreciating the pathetic fallacy of the weather.

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