Telefantasy and Me

I have a slightly odd relationship with the word ‘geek.’  Initially this was because it was used as an insult against me at school; it took me a while to adapt to the fact that it had become a more positive statement.  But I feel I don’t exactly fit the criteria of ‘geek’ as it is usually used.  I’m interested in some geeky things, particularly Doctor Who, but a lot of my geeky interests are circumscribed and I have non-geeky interests.  I’m interested in the humanities more than the sciences and I went through a phase of calling myself a humanities geek to indicate that my interests were less science and technology and more history, economics, politics, literature (not just geeky books, but the Western canon in general as well as some nineteenth century Yiddish literature) and Jewish philosophy.  I’ve never got into computer gaming or RPGing at all.

I don’t read much fantasy, although I’ve read what I suppose you could call the core British fantasy texts (Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Mervyn Peake).  I read quite a lot of science fiction, but I tend to concentrate on particular writers (Philip K. Dick, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula le Guin) who I read at great length rather than exploring  the genre.  I have a long list of SF authors to try that I’ve never got around to and I don’t read much contemporary SF except occasionally for people like Christopher Priest and Connie Willis, not least because I don’t know who is worth reading.  I tend generally to be a timid cultural consumer and have to force myself to try new things, geeky or otherwise, although at least I do try to make a constant effort to try new things, as well as to force myself to read more books by women and non-Westerners.

What I do like is a very narrow subset of things that link up in a way that seems coherent to me, but perhaps not to other people.  I like vintage British television science fiction and fantasy, mostly from before the 1990s and the influence of the US SF TV and film explosion of that time, what used to be referred to as ‘telefantasy.’  Things like Doctor WhoQuatermass, The Prisoner, The Avengers (the British Avengers, with John Steed), A for Andromeda, Sapphire and Steel and Blake’s 7.  For me the appeal is less pure SF (arguably most of these are not pure SF or even not SF at all, but science fantasy, horror or genre hybrids) and more about atmosphere.

For a bunch of reasons, some budgetary, some probably more cultural, British telefantasy developed its own unique style, focused more on atmosphere and the collision of the everyday and the fantastical or horrific.  Visually, it often appears as a collage of tropes from different genres, of which the Doctor’s police box time-space machine is perhaps the boldest symbol (albeit a steal from Lewis’ wardrobe, itself really a version of the magic door), putting the science fictional literally inside the everyday prop of the police procedural.

Surrealism often appears here.  In the sixties and seventies, many of these stories had their own distinctive sound as well as a distinctive look, with bizarre sound effects, experimental electronic incidental music and pervasive electronic ‘atmospheres’ that broke down the barriers between music and sound effects.  While plots varied, the style was often wittier, sometimes in a somewhat self-aware way, than the American science fiction of the same time.  The original Star Trek, for example, rarely deployed humour outside of closing tag scenes or purpose-built ‘comedy’ episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles.  On the other hand, British telefantasy could often be much more bleakly dystopian than the optimistic Star Trek and Star Wars.  The Andromeda Breakthrough (the sequel to A for Andromeda), Quatermass, some Doctor Who and especially Blake’s 7 take the view that human nature is basically selfish and unthinking and without some kind of external shock or brake will result either in tyranny or self-destruction, a strong contrast to Star Trek’s utopian vision.

It’s the atmosphere and the aural and visual misc en scene, the moments when the normal gives way to the surreal, that appeal to me most, I think, the feeling of being somewhere unlike the everyday and yet recognisable in a way that makes it more, rather than less, sinister.  As someone who has struggled since adolescence, if not earlier, with mental health issues and who is on the borders of Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism, I often feel totally lost in an threatening, alien, unintelligible environment and it is helpful to me to find fictional worlds that mirror that sense of alienation and surrealism, perhaps because the nature of the fiction allows me to take control and tame it or understand it, particularly as the heroes attempt to impose logical order on the chaos they find.

My feeling is that these styles of stories are also found in other fictions I like, some of which may have been influences on these stories, but not always in other geeky stories or series.  I like Star Trek, but I think Doctor Who has more in common with children’s TV programmes like The ClangersMr Benn and Bagpuss than it does with Star Trek.  Similarly, my favourite prose fiction authors are Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka.  Only Dick is considered a ‘real’ SF author (although the others have had significant influence on the genre), but they all share, in different ways, the sense of alienation and surrealism, the struggle to make sense of the incoherent and to grasp the infinite[i].

[i] I think I read somewhere recently, although I can’t remember where, that Dalek creator Terry Nation seems to have been the first person (of many) to adapt a Philip K. Dick story for the screen.  This would be Impostor, adapted by Nation for Out of this World in 1962.  The episode, like all bar one of the others in that series, no longer survives, so we can’t see how well Dick and Nation’s very different takes on the science fiction genre meshed.

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