Star Trek’s continuous Re-Discoveries

After years of waiting season one of Star Trek: Discovery has finally been broadcast (or rather made available to stream) in its entirety. The first Star Trek adventures to hit the small screen since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005, fans were excited not just to see Trek back where it belongs but also to how it would have evolved after its absence, especially in the wake of the likes of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica.

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Beating Swear Trek at its own game…

The result was a series which was full of action, drama, suspense, even a little humour, and to quote Cadet Sylvia Tilly was just “so fucking cool”. As with the best of Trek before it Discovery also dealt with important and contemporary humanitarian themes, in this case the rise and consequences of nationalism. Something which is obviously designed to resonate with the current climate of Trump and Brexit, yet was metaphorical enough to be subtle in its comparisons.

At its heart it was also a very human(oid) story which put the emphasis on characters above all else. A choice I can only applaud it for and was at the heart of its success, but which also came with its own complications. Although it is hardly the first season of any show to take its time finding its feet, this is just one way in which the series suffered from its over reliance on misdirection.

The series’ delight in its playing with the audience’s expectations began right from the very beginning when the title of the first episode ‘The Vulcan Hello’ was announced. Ostensibly referring to the celebrated greeting which has transcended its way into pop-culture lexicon, “Live Long and Prosper”, but it in fact translates to what is essentially “go in all guns blazing”, the polar opposite of a race so peaceful they’ve adopted vegetarianism as one of their commandments.

Although this is one example of many which worked by taking something so established into an unexpected direction and fitting in with the narrative of the episode, others were not as succesful. In fact there are several which aren’t simply because they fall into the category of just being one too many.

When used correctly, misdirection can be one of the most powerful tools in a creative arsenal, something superbly exemplified by Metal Gear Solid 2. One the most highly anticipated games ever when it was released on the Playstation 2 back in 2001, the advertising campaign focused on two main elements. The first was that of the gameplay, and how the technology had progressed even since the release of the original Metal Gear Solid in 1998. Three years and an updated console later and an impressive nine minute cinematic trailer teased the literally game changing ways in which characters interacted with elements such as rain and shadows, and could shoot even the smallest of elements, including individual light bulbs to hamper the enemies’ vision.

The second was of course the main character of Solid Snake. The protagonist of the games predecessor, Snake was a military veteran who, thanks to being a clone of another veteran, was quite literally born to undertake this kind of stealthy yet action-oriented mission. Having already established the importance emphasised on narrative as much as gameplay in the first game, this series (which now comprises five main, and countless spin-off titles) is one which has created an entire world with complex characters, of which Snake is an integral part.

When players finally had their hands on MGS2 however, after completing the short opening chapter they were dumbfounded when they discovered that the majority of the game took place in a completely different environment and were now controlling a brand new never seen before character, the naive rookie known as Raiden. Not only had the advertising campaign been almost exclusively taken from this initial chapter, but the nine minute trailer actually conveys its entire narrative (Snake infiltrates a tanker which is also boarded by a special ops team betrayed by Revolver Ocelot who destroys said tanker in the process of stealing the Metal Gear) to the point that if you’ve seen it you wouldn’t actually need to play this opening in order to understand the whole/main story.

Despite everything the game had done in terms of its technological and world-building leaps, this instantaneous almost 180 degree flip is still one of the games most defining moments. Gamers expectations were completely cast aside as they had to reimmerse themselves in what the series creator Hideo Kojima later revealed to be a more thorough examination of Solid Snake by forcing the player to view him (he continued to appear occasionally throughout as a non-playable character) from a different perspective. The rug had well and truly been swept out from under them, and everything from here on in was completely new.

Obviously times have changed since this trailer was given away as a magazine freebie on VHS and this level of secrecy would be virtually impossible in the current age of social media and spoiler alerts, but even taking this into consideration the fact that Discovery went through so many minor changes during its run resulted in a drawn out period of confusion and continued adjustment so that even several episodes in the viewer is still not fully up to speed with what is happening.

The series began with the unconventional ‘The Vulcan Hello’/’Battle at the Binary Stars’ which were more of a two-part prologue than pilot. Like MGS2 it was from these episodes which the bulk of the trailer footage had come from, even though keen fans would already be aware that despite Discovery continuing in the tradition of Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise and take place on a ship (or station) bearing the same name as the series, these first two episodes focused on the USS Shenzhou instead.

The Vulcan Hello
It was a good day to die…

By knowing that the Shenzhou would not be what is often refered to as the “hero ship” of the series, the fact it was abandoned by the end of ‘Battle’ came as no surprise. The death of T’Kuvma however, someone billed beforehand as a Klingon leader, would have his own comic miniseries – written in conjunction with the writers of the TV series itself – and even instigated the events of an interstellar war, was unexpected.

(Again, this is something comparable to MGS2 in that T’Kuvma and his ideals are discussed from an outside perspective, but are done so all too infrequently.)

So in addition to the series’ main character having been sentenced to life imprisonment, by the start of the ironically titled ‘Context Is For Kings’ rather than a big single change the audience know they are yet to be introduced to the majority of the regular cast whilst at the same time now trying to figure out how much of what they had essentiality been ‘promised’ from the advertising campaign would still feature.

Prior to its initial broadcast, the build up promised that the show would be set during the war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire which was alluded to in The Original Series, and even included distributing cast announcements and promotional material relating to the Klingons, such as T’Kuvma, as much as those to the latest crew of Starfleet’s finest. Watching through the series itself however, and it becomes obvious there is a difference between Discovery being ‘set’ in, and ‘about’ The Klingon war.

Somewhat surprisingly in this day and age of almost exclusively serialised storytelling, the pilot and finale episodes of Discovery may revolve around the instigation and ending of the war to bookend the season, but by weaving a tale in which the Discovery characters will change and grow through their experiences of love and loss however, for the majority of its run the Klingon war is little more than a McGuffin.

Ash Tyler’s true identity as the Klingon Voq was predicted long before its ‘shock’ plot twist reveal, although where many would have expected the sleeper agent to play a significant role in major galactic events (something which had previously been seen with Arne Darvin in both TOS and DS9), instead the repercussions of his true existence only served to affect the crew of the Discovery; namely his murder of Dr. Hugh Culber, and in his relationship with Michael Burnham.

As mentioned before, this is a choice I admire and respect, but is also something which they could/should have made more of rather than sharing its screentime alongside the reveal of ‘Captain’ Lorca’s true origins which may not have been as predictable, but like the entire mirror universe arc was only linked to the rest of the season thematically, and its inclusion added to Discovery‘s restlessness.

Had this particular twist have waited until season two it would not only have had a bigger impact by receiving the full attention it deserved, but also by playing the long game Lorca would have had time to become more of an established character. In addition many saw the seeds in earlier episodes as Trek casting its spotlight on the serious issues surrounding the consequences of war such as PTSD, which also caused disappointment when it became obvious they were sewn for nothing more serious than yet another narrative curveball.

All of which make up for a season of science fiction television which takes far too long to find its feet before suffering from an overambitious desire of filling its episodes with too much too fast. Much like Dollhouse it’s almost as though the second half of the season was made in certain knowledge it would be cancelled immediately, with more than one episode setting up the next reveal before it’s finished exploring (or even completely ignoring) the repercussions of last.

Although each of the individual arcs which run throughout the season all make for fascinating viewing, hopefully so many different threads each vying for the title of biggest misdirection is a lesson Star Trek: Discovery can learn from in later seasons.

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Learning and having scones

Think of a weekend away to celebrate and examine the works of Joss Whedon, the genius who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who wrote & directed Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble) and Age of Ultron, and you’d be forgiven for thinking about a convention. That was the reaction I had from several people when telling them I would be attending EuroSlayage, but it instead was something rather different (and I would argue a whole lot more) than this.

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Poster courtesy of the WSA, and designed by Michael Starr. T-shirts were also available.

Organised by the Whedon Studies Association, the seventh biennial Slayage was an academic conference; an oppurtunity for teachers, scholars, and researchers to come together to present and discuss ideas from across a wide range of the Whedonverses, or to utilise ideas and characters present in them as an example of wider arguments.

Although primarily a gathering of those active within academia itself, there were also a number of passionate fans of Whedon’s work who had attended essentially for their own enjoyment. Having studied for both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in the realm of Film and Television Studies, although having finished the latter four years ago, I was somewhere between the two.

Regardless of background however, it seems as though talking with friends, family, and colleagues, was met with the same kind of misunderstanding. “You’re studying Buffy?” is a question often posed to academics by those from other disciplines, whereas “you’re studying Buffy?” is one posed by those outside of academia. Thus EuroSlayage was made up of fans and academics (although I argue that both labels would apply to all at the conference, regardless) who not only recognise the value of studying such topics, but who were also delighted to be in the company of those who understand the struggle of dealing with others who consider it ‘just’ a TV show. There was even one presentation which dealt specifically with this issue.

As this was my first Slayage (primarily as it was the first to be held outside of North America, and as such much attention was paid to Whedon’s use of Englishisms), and my first academic conference at all, I was told on several occasions that it was not to be taken as an example of academic conferences in general. My first thought upon hearing this was to feel sorry for the rest of academia…

Having booked my train to the wrong station (I was so excited about securing my place at the event in Kingston that I failed to notice I was actually staying in the neighbouring London borough of Surbiton), my Slayage began by turning up to register at the Knight’s Park Campus, followed by taking my travelling backpack to the Seething Wells halls on what can only be described as an urban hike (it is a rather big backpack), and then the journey back again.

I arrived at the wine reception shindig to see a room full of people all chatting away as if they had known each other for years, and at this point realised that many of them indeed had, and that I had no idea as to how I would join in. Luckily I arrived just before the welcome by WSA President Stacey Abbot, and Associate Professor at Kingston University Simon Brown. As much as I enjoyed their introduction, I have to say nothing was as welcome as the whole sea of hands raised at the question of “who here is attending their first Slayage”. I was far from alone.

And far less alone that I originally thought, as people soon came up to me to introduce themselves, thankfully negating the fact doing this for myself is not one of my strong points. Although I didn’t recognise any faces, I have to admit that there was a great thrill at having Rhonda Wilcox, the author of Why Buffy Matters, a seminal Buffy textbook, say hello and that she recognised my name. Admittedly just from the list of those registered to attend, but still.

This was matched by having a short but sweet conversation with a lovely lady taking photos, about whether she wanted us to pose or if she would prefer us to act natural. She then introduced herself as Mary Alice Money, someone who Wilcox often quotes and defers to in her book, essentially becoming analogous to a grand sire of mine in terms of Buffy studies. Whoever came up with the idea of never meeting your idols because you’ll only be disappointed obviously never attended a Slayage.

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I’m not saying Kingston is far from the centre of London, but this is the Thames..

This was also another situation in which geeky T-shirts should never be underestimated, as they made a great ice breaker for many more than just myself. After the formal event ended, this lead to going to dinner with two women I had never met before, from entirely different countries to my own, but who I was chatting with as though I had known for years.

The next morning the conference began in earnest, with three full days (9am – 7pm) of talks, presentations, and four flights of stairs to get to them. I personally couldn’t have asked for a better start, with a keynote speech about fan reactions to the endings of TV series, and the ways in which those series continue, something which I find particularly interesting. After this came something completely different, but which I was equally looking forward to.

Although Joss Whedon is undoubtedly the current writer/producer/director whose work has the most analytical scholarship about his works, the first talk of the day (or at least my first, the nature of parallel sessions meaning I couldn’t attend them all) was entitled “Images of Tea in the Whedonverse“, something I had never begun to consider before, and was curious as to what I would learn.

In fact it turns out that tea is a perfect example of how even something that a first seems like the most inconsequential element will have many layers of meaning that you only realise after they have been explained to you, but which you can’t unsee afterwards. As well as conforming to English stereotypes, tea – of the British/European variety – was used to highlight the idea of the friendship group; both Wesley’s tea set and Fred’s mug being the first and most obvious possessions seen to be packed away after their respective leavings of the core group in Angel.

Chinese tea meanwhile, and the rituals surrounding it, is also often used as a representation of invitations, particularly those of an intimate or sexual nature. Upon watching Firefly when I returned home I noticed that the introduction of companion (read: courtesan) Inara saw her entertaining a client – both in the physical and ‘smile and nod’ sense – only to be insulted by an insinuation of cheating him of both time and money. With the mood obviously ruined, her reaction is to discard the tea set she had been carrying for seemingly no other reason that to discard it. As I said, cannot be unseen.

Other talks throughout the conference ranged from such a wide variety of approaches and disciplines that it is impossible to list them all here, although the full schedule can be found on the conference’s website. Whilst some may be fairly obvious in terms of tracing the links to classical literature (comparing Serenity‘s Operative to Les Misérables‘ Javert), or looking at the influences and contrasts of ancient mythology (the reversal of the Greek Orpheus myth, with heroine rescuing the male from hell), others took more outside the box approaches to Whedon’s work. There were also those which looked at Whedon himself, with one such talk examining at how fans (and indeed anti-fans) react to his own politics and charity work.

There was so much on offer to take in, and as much as I can only congratulate the organisers for the entire weekend, I cannot blame those who chose not to attend every session, particularly those directly before or after their own presentations. While it was impossible to attend every single panel due to them running parallel with each other, all those I did attend were fascinating, although perhaps last thing on a second full day wasn’t the best time slot for an examination of Buddhist philosophical concepts about self/no self regardless of any relation to Dollhouse? It’s fair to say that wasn’t when my mind was at its sharpest, but then I highly doubt I would have understood it all anyway. Perhaps at least this way I have a reasonable excuse?

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Dinner and a show…

Luckily the first day was followed by an evening meal which, presumably like other conferences, allowed the attendees to continue meeting new people and continue many discussions. There was also a raffle in which a number of text books were given away as prizes, of which I myself was a lucky winner, and now that my brain has been given a rest I can actually sit down and read. There was also a handing out of lyric sheets for the Buffy Sing-a-long, although I have been lead to believe this is not a standard occurrence at other conferences. As I mentioned before, the rest of academia has my sympathies.

In fact the only downside to such an evening was following a group who were walking back to what myself and one of many newly made friends originally thought was where we were staying, but who turn into the car park of a B&B and say good night. I can only thank them for not minding us tagging along in the first place, add London to the list of cities in which I’ve gotten lost, and figure that hey, part of the reason I attended Slayage was to learn, right? And what better way to learn than from your mistakes?

But whilst I wholeheartedly endorse this type of behaviour (by which I mean the merriment, although getting lost can have its merits), it is important to note that the conference wasn’t one to shy away from the more serious topics either.

Several presenters at Slayage raised many valid points which often came to the same conclusion about how Buffy, and pop-culture in general, help frame society’s values. One talk focused on how ideas of/reactions to abortion and sterility have been represented in the Whedon’s works, and the now infamous attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” was mentioned several times in relation to notions of ‘masculinity’, as well as actual audience reactions to the very real world concepts of consent and abusive relationships. These also lead to discussions as to why other attempted rapes (as seen in “The Pack”), and telefantastical rape analogies (“Tabula Rasa”) were often overlooked. Ideas which were summed up expertly at one of the last talks of the entire conference, in which “The Wish” in particular was examined in terms of upholding and continuing the trend of victim blaming.

Likewise, two other talks as part of the same panel were the start of an audience debate in terms of attitudes towards of the deaths of women of colour. Although each talk was looking at the death of a particular slayer as examinations of the vampires who kill them rather than the slayers themselves, the point was rightly raised that at the very least in terms of how arguments are phrased, more awareness needs to be highlighted in terms of both gender (slayers are always female), and race (Kendra and Nikki are both black).

Discussions such as these raised the quality of Slayage as not only are they those which have to be had, but despite the obvious passion with which people were making their argument, they were also done so professionally and in a constructive manner. “Xander’s a dick!” is another point which was brought up with regards to a central male character who is often considered to be the heart of Buffy‘s Scooby Gang (see “Primeval”/”Restless” in particular), but whose other actions throughout the series also include slut-shaming the female lead.

That’s not to say that the entire conference was dominated by such seriousness, as analysis of the varying ways post-coital “morning after” scenes depict specific relationships elicited the giggles you can’t help but expect from such a topic. This is to say nothing of the way in which a room of fully grown academics reacted to the image of Anya eating chocolate whilst unashamedly staring at Spike’s masculine (à la Bruce Lee) body. More than this though, the friendly nature of the conference as a whole meant that presentations were given in a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere.

All of which added up to something one of the earliest professors of my BA once said; subjects like Film and TV aren’t easier than any other, we just have more fun while we’re studying them. Something I can attest to personally as I thoroughly enjoyed my own studies, and attended Slayage having still followed the work of the WSA throughout the four years since I was last within academia. Going back to study for a PhD is also something I have always considered as a possibility for the future.

Despite being hectic at times, and with far more to take in (not to mention write down by hand) than anything else I’ve experienced in such a long time, Slayage has left me with that bittersweet feeling of being sad that it is now over and I have to go on living in the real world once more (apparently it’s the hardest thing), but also glad at having experienced something which, either despite or because of current events, chose to “live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be”.

So.

What am I gonna do now?

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From the Archives: A Low Down on Downloads

Okay, more from a shelf in my old bedroom at my parent’s house, but before I started writing for this blog regularly, I wrote a few articles and reviews for my Student Union newspaper while I was at university. I’ve now managed to dig them out, get them scanned, and can finally add them here. 

The first of which comes from the 29th April 2011 issue, and with a student readership in mind, looks at the cinematic costs of illegal downloads.

[Click on the image to zoom]

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Hopefully it hasn’t aged too badly for a two-year old article. My writing experience aside, I’d say it’s still pretty relevant today, and probably will be for a while yet as well.

How ‘Gogglebox’ ruined your TV?

This past couple of Thursday nights, TV has been giving us something of a meta-type look at itself. Starting a fortnight ago on the 7th, 10pm gave us the first of Channel 4’s new four episode series, Gogglebox. The following week this was joined by Charlie Brooker’s How TV Ruined Your Life on BBC2.

How TV Ruined Your Life is exactly what it sounds like. First broadcast back in 2011, each of its six weekly episodes focuses on a different aspect of your life that TV ruins. Cynical it may be, but it is no less compelling.

The first episode for example, was ‘Fear’, and through various analyses of TV programmes, satirical sketches, and sarcastic rants, it showed how TV’s “slightly hysterical take on the world” not only gives us a biased and skewed view of reality, but does so at the same time as being authoritative enough that we don’t dare question it. While only half an hour may not give it the depth to cover all of TV the way Brooker’s previous series Newswipe covered the news, the points it makes are still almost as fearful as the TV would have us believe everything else is.

Brooker's shows often contain satirical reactions to TV shows, which are no too dissimilar from those seen in 'Googlebox'.
Brooker’s shows often contain harsh criticisms of other TV programmes, which are not too dissimilar from those seen in ‘Googlebox’.

With TV scheduling akin to a strictly controlled science where nothing is left to chance, it’s clear why BBC2 has decided to repeat the broadcast of Brooker’s satirical pseudo-educational series specifically against Gogglebox. They’re both reactions to the modern televisual landscape (although How TV also delves into its history), and both look at modern audiences.

Beyond this however, I’m not entirely sure how to describe Gogglebox, as I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. All I can say is what it is, a show in which TV viewers at home can watch other TV viewers in their homes, watching TV.

No, seriously, that’s the whole show. People watching TV.

On one hand it could be produced as the of pinnacle of irony, a self-reflexive mirror trying to enlighten us to the ever increasing number of lowest common denominator seeking, exploitative and voyeuristic “reality” shows that Television now so often reduces itself to. Or, as one reviewer best describes it, “an Orwellian dream but with more conversations about dead cats being found in a morbidly obese woman’s fat folds“, it could also just as easily perhaps be the ultimate example.

I can only presume that Brooker’s opinion of Gogglebox would contain as much cynicism as his audience have come to expect from his trademark sarcasm, and would probably consider it to be the latter. Sitting side by side, the two shows could very easily be seen as two sides of the same coin, but if How TV Ruined Your Life were on half an hour earlier however, you could easily change the channel and see exactly the type of pacifying and brain numbing indoctrination that Brooker had just been warning you about. 

In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if Brooker actually thought up the idea himself as a comedy sketch for any one of the shows throughout his portfolio, but discounted it for being too satirical.

Throughout his career, it is safe to say that TV has been the main object of his attention. Series such as Screenwipe, and newspaper columns such as Screen Burn, a collection of which were published in a book of the same name, all in some way examine what TV actually is, and the effect it has on its audiences.

This is something he also does through his screenwriting as well as broadcasting and journalism. Of all the shows that could have been utilised in Brooker’s Dead Set, the E4 mindless zombie (running notwithstanding) apocalypse, it is no surprise that Big Brother was chosen. In much the same way that George A. Romero set Dawn of the Dead in a shopping mall as a critical view of consumerism, it is no surprise that in 2008’s counterpart it was the Big Brother house that “was like a church for them”.

Whilst I’m eagerly awaiting his opinions on Gogglebox (yes I’ll admit I include myself amongst his audience), I’ll try to examine it in the objective, if overly-analytical way, that academia has taught me.

For a start I’m not picking on it when I call it a “reality” show, just bringing attention to the fact that even Brooker’s shows are carefully and thoughtfully constructed, and even David Attenborough’s Polar Bears proved that television never depicts “reality” as it actually is.

Even from the outside, 'Gogglebox' tries to portray an image of recognisable British households.
Even from the outside, ‘Gogglebox’ tries to portray an image of recognisable British households.

Despite Channel 4 labelling it under the “documentary” banner, even the remarkably simple premise of Gogglebox showing us other people watching TV has been manipulated to the extent that possibly the only less factual “factual” show, is a Top Gear challenge.  

On one hand it has the potential to be a worthwhile psychological/social study, but in the same way Big Brother did (and still does? I lost count long ago) it instead reduces this idea to something my former lecturer Martin Barker, an academic renowned for many research projects into audience studies, might call “The Pornography of Voyeurism”.

In today’s climate of watching TV in order to laugh at people on shows such as Come Dine With Me and Don’t Tell The Bride, a woman who explains how her marriage to her last husband involved her going “straight down KFC”, was never just pulled at random from a hat. If answering the hypothetical “imagine while you watched TV, it was watching you”, I suspect most people’s wouldn’t see the same thing their owners were.

Similarly, by hand-picking a gay hairdressing couple from Brighton for example, alongside heavily made up Essex girls and a spirit guzzling well-spoken couple, the selection of the British TV watching public shown on Gogglebox seems to reuse stereotypes almost as much as it helps purvey them. 

But where the show doesn’t rely on these, it almost points to a preprepared list of shows to watch that had been handed out before the recording. Forgive me if I’m generalising, but I can’t imagine Countryfile is popular with all Liverpudlian body builders.

When adding everything up, even the inclusion of Caroline Aherne as narrator, best known for writing and starring in the fictional but all too real The Royle Family, seems to have been included to give the associated connotations that the people and families you’re watching aren’t real, and thereby giving you permission to jeer as much as you like.

This is even added to by fact that her narration has been underscored with Beady Eyes’ ‘The Roller’, which with too close for comfort similarity  to Liam Gallagher’s previous Oasis career and The Royle Family theme ‘Half The World Away’, seems to have been chosen with as much forethought as Brooker underscoring How TV Ruined Your Life with music straight from A Clockwork Orange.

All in all, Googlebox is something of an anomaly. Although a perfect example of how TV manipulates what it shows us, through doing so it show us exactly how TV manipulates what it shows us, as well as how it can try to manipulate us along with it.

A good example of this is when Gogglebox shows us the media’s speed to control and shape what information is presented to us, such as in the case of Oscar Pistorious – What Really Happened?, a documentary on BBC3 (not exactly well known for it’s attention to current affairs) allowing audiences around the globe (it has since been sold to the Discovery Channel in both the U.S.A. and even South Africa) to make up their own minds. Something which those seen on Gogglebox point out, is months before even the case’s jurors will one day eventually get to do.

In this way, Gogglebox also sits perfectly alongside Brooker’s Weekly Wipe assessment of TV’s reaction to this, complete with a clip from CBS’s Entertainment Tonight, in which the death of Pistorious’ girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, is treated in exactly the same manner as Kim Kardashian’s divorce.

At the same time as showing us that, through shows such as BBC1’s Call The Midwife, TV is capable of giving us characters that audiences truly care about, it also relays how even in the 21st Century, ITV’s prime time Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway seems to be saying that a female presenter should still be seen as mere eye candy. It might not be the French maid outfit Dec ‘wanted’, but as Dominic points out, it’s not far off.

As the accompanying Honda sponsorship tells us, “the more we look, the more we learn”, and Gogglebox really is a fascinating insight into modern television viewing. Not long ago our ability to use mobile internet to find out more about what the TV is (and what it isn’t) telling us would have been science-fiction, now we can clearly see that no-one thinks twice about doing it.

Reaction to 'Gogglebox' on twitter has been varied.
Reaction to ‘Gogglebox’ on twitter has been varied.

So is Gogglebox, like Brooker, warning us how TV is ruining our lives, but lowering itself down to the lowest common denominator level to get its message across? If there’s anything that studying TV at university taught me, it’s how simple it is to over-analyse, and it’s just as possible that Gogglebox could pure and simply just be voyeuristic entertainment at its most pure.

Like several of her peers, the reviewer I quoted earlier ironically thinks the Orwellian dream as she describes it is “brilliant”, but the more I write about it, and the more I think about it, the more my opinion is being split in two opposite directions. I can only say that the only way to make your own mind up about it, is to watch it yourself.

And hope that no-one is watching you.

The ‘Lie To Me’ effect?

Promo image for 'Lie To Me' season two.
Promo image for ‘Lie To Me’ season two.

Having been curious ever since I first heard of it, in the January sales I finally bought myself the complete Lie To Me boxset, which I have just finished. Not that I often buy boxsets merely on a whim, my curiosity had initially led me to watch several disparate episodes on TV, at which point it most certainly had my attention.

The detective style series focuses on the character of Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth), a published psychologist who spent years studying the universality of human facial expressions in remote populations, before founding the Lightman Group, a private company of psychologists and deception experts. Like similar series in recent years, the science behind Lie To Me is purported to be genuine, but unlike those such as C.S.I., it has a unique element which helps support this claim.

Where C.S.I. creator Anthony E. Zuiker has stated that “all of the science is accurate and we have real C.S.I.’s on staff that help us write the scripts and make sure everything is executed perfectly“, Lie To Me credits Dr. Paul Ekman as its scientific consultant on microexpressions, the Facial Action Coding system, and the whole pallet of tools used by Lightman and co. More than just one of a crowd however, Ekman has studied human psychology, emotion and body language in places such as Papua New Guinea, co-authored a book on Emotional Awareness with the Dalai Lama, pioneered the science of “deception detection”, and is also the C.E.O. of The Paul Ekman Group.

As I’m sure you’ve spotted, the unique inclusion of Dr. Paul Ekman is somewhat of a double-edged sword. Although C.S.I., along with its host of generic but original characters, contains rather liberal doses of “fudging for dramatic purposes” , it is clear to see that even if only in terms of the scientific psychology and it’s application in Lie To Me, Lightman is Ekman.

Without wishing to pick on C.S.I., I have used it here as a comparison for several reasons, firstly, the fact that of all the recent scientifically inspired detective procedurals, it is easily the most popular, and most recognisable. Mainly however, it is because of what is commonly referred to as the “C.S.I Effect“, the idea that people’s watching of on-screen fictional (and often inaccurate) forensic science will affect their perceptions of real life forensic science. Something reported to have been seen particularly among jury members presiding over actual cases, and even criminals attempting to cover their own forensic tracks. So  if C.S.I. and it’s skewed (for lack of a better word) science can influence members of the public, what about the more closely guarded science of Lie To Me?

Throughout it’s three seasons, the show not only depicts portrayals of microexpressions, facial expressions that are so-called because they are so quick and hard to spot, but those performed by the actors are often punctuated with still frames of those same expressions seen on the faces of politicians and other public figures under similar, often high pressure, situations (think Clinton and O.J.). Whilst these still frames are ostensibly another means to ‘show, not tell’ the emotion of characters, they also underpin the universality of microexpressions, and the science behind reading them. If, as the C.S.I. Effect claims, people take in and believe what they see on-screen, how much is Lie To Me teaching them about body language and deception detection? More importantly however, how much do people believe it is teaching them?

The disclaimer which accompanies every episode.
The disclaimer which accompanies every episode.

Although an interesting question, the consequences of any “Lie To Me Effect” are not likely to be talked about. More than those who disbelieve the C.S.I. Effect, Lie To Me was cancelled after only three seasons, and did not achieve the popularity heights enjoyed by C.S.I. With a smaller, audience, there is less of a chance that audience will contain members who have  be described as “gullible“, and even “incredibly stupid“. Something which also seems to fit the trend that the longevity of a show often (but not always) seems to be inversely proportional to it’s quality, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Each episode begins with a disclaimer, and through the DVD special features (admittedly  not available to a TV audience), Ekman and his team personally explain how, unlike their own, the science seen in the show is not immune to artistic license in order to tell entertaining stories. Despite this however, those same features also show footage of the Ekman group scrutinising the cast and crew interviews in the same way the Lightman Group scrutinise their own.

But if we were to consider an answer, what would become of people who believed themselves to be lie detectors, purely from watching a fictional TV show?

Whether their deductions were articulated or not, regardless of their accuracy, the effect would have far wider reaching consequences than the courtroom, criminal or otherwise. If viewers of C.S.I. really do go to extreme lengths to cover the tracks of their illegal activities, what lengths would they go to in order to cover their  incriminating microexpressions? Lie To Me shows us that through the subconscious nature of these quick as a flash  facial expressions, they cannot be faked in the manner of general expressions, and the only ways to avoid making them are either through taking muscle relaxants such as valium, and the use of botox, or cosmetic surgery.

It is through these factors that comes the main “warning” against trying to incorrectly , and perhaps the biggest difference between Ekman and Lightman. In many ways, Lightman is a true tragic hero. For all his boasting and flamboyance, he has an ability to read faces which he cannot switch off, but an inability to understand the people what he is seeing, leading to his wife leaving him for “someone who doesn’t study my eyebrows when I’m standing in a thong.”