Tag Archives: geek culture

A Tribute To Star Wars

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May the Fourth be with you! Ha ha!

The Star Wars movies are some of my all-time favourite films. Of course they are – I was born in 1976, and therefore Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are some of the fundamental stories of my childhood. Not only the films either; they were the first movies that really pushed the merchandising side of film-making, and so I had a substantial collection of Star Wars toys – the first one I acquired, second hand, was one of the third-stringers, an Imperial officer who got Force choked by Darth Vader, but I moved up the ladder. Heck, I had an X-Wing Fighter. I had the Millennium Falcon!

My grandmother wasn’t impressed by all this. A lot of the characters in the trilogy are pretty much grotesque, and if I was ever ill for no apparent reason, Nan blamed Chewbacca and the others. Medically speaking this was unfair, although a couple of George Lucas’s decisions over the years have made me feel ill if that counts..

Nah, as a kid in the early eighties, it was the aliens, robots and hardware that made Star Wars cool. Nowadays it’s easy to appreciate other aspects of the films, like how Harrison Ford becomes a megastar before your very eyes (“I love you!” “I know.” is one of the coolest moments in sci-fi history), or how there seems to be a whole back-story to the whole thing (I have a friend who thinks the Expanded Universe is better than the films; I don’t altogether agree, but it’s a fair position to take), or how good the costume design in Return of the Jedi is, but back in the day it was all about comedy robots, cool spaceships, and light sabers.

That covers a lot of its appeal – it’s not a science fiction film, not in the strictest sense of the definition. Science fiction, as a genre, is about technology and scientific potentialities and their imagined impact on humans. That’s not really Star Wars. Sure it’s set in space, but that doesn’t really make it science fiction, and while the hardware is seriously cool, that’s pretty much all it is. No, Star Wars is a fantasy movie set in space, complete with naive farmhands, princesses, comedy servants, wizards, swords and magic. It’s got the trappings of sci-fi, and it owes a massive debt to early movie serials like the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon adaptations, but at its heart it’s a fantasy movie with spaceships, and I think that’s a key component of its success. Fantasy, at least in the fairy tale guise that Star Wars taps into, is a bit more accessible than full-on science fiction; I think that’s a big part of Doctor Who’s success as well.

Another reason for the success of Star Wars is the way in which it lends itself to fandom; George Lucas has given his approval to fan films like Troops (Cops with Stormtroopers, basically – you can also join the 501st Stormtrooper Legion if you want ), you can have long arguments about why Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal when he did just as much work as anyone else, and you can sing along to Livin’ La Vida Yoda if you’re feeling musical. Never under-estimate the importance of fandom fodder to the success of all things culturally geek.

A lot of this is rose-tinted glasses – there are aspects of the original trilogy that look pretty dated nowadays – but at the same time it’s hard to see many blockbusters coming along nowadays that have half the impact of Star Wars; they may make more money, but I can’t see people cosplaying Avatar or Titanic in thirty years time. Or maybe, and again this is rose-tinted glasses time, there was a moment in cinema, late seventies to mid-eighties, that saw the release of a bunch of blockbusters that caught the imagination of audiences; Star Wars, yes, but also the Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters… Star Wars, to me, just seems to be the king of that movement. Or maybe it’s just because I loved all those movies as a kid.

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That’s the key, I think – Star Wars is for kids. And, of course, for adults who can accept it’s for kids and enjoy it because of that. And yet it’s also for the kids who once watched it on BBC or ITV every Christmas, and who had all the toys; for the kids who grew up and sold those toys because they grew out of them, even though they kick themselves because of what those toys are now worth to collectors; for the kids who, somewhere along the line, realised that, actually, there’s no point in growing up if you can’t pretend to have a light saber fight once in a while.

Because, for me and for a lot of Generation X, part of our imagination will always live in a galaxy far, far away.

Geek Urban Myths: Better than real

And so comedian and Doctor Who fan Toby Hadoke today tweeted some news that broke my heart:

“As there are some who still don’t believe it: I’ve just received written confirmation that Harold Pinter was not in The Abominable Snowmen!”

Okay, some context: for years a story has done the rounds of fandom, that Harold Pinter was hired by the producers of Doctor Who, not as a lauded playwright but in his other role as a jobbing actor. Yes, the man who would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was employed to play a yeti-fighting monk. That is, frankly, an awesome story.

Only it’s not true. And I’m gutted.

It’s not that I want all geek myths to be true – I’m glad there’s not really a Munchkin suicide in The Wizard of Oz – but some make the world more interesting. I want Bob Holness to have played the sax solo on ‘Baker Street’; I’m kind of freaked out but intrigued by the idea that the CIA invented a nefarious arcade game. I wish Kate Bush had written a Doctor Who story under a pseudonym, and frankly it now doesn’t matter that Uncle Ben never said “With great power comes great responsibility” in the original comics, the phrase is now deep in Spider-Man’s bones.

Like any other culture, the geek community has evolved a mythology over time. Often that’s based on flat-out misinformation, but it catches on because a need is fulfilled – attaching names like Bush and Pinter to a show traditionally made on a shoe-string grants it a certain legitimacy and credibility; that’s why these stories find themselves embedded in fan culture. It’s probably worth noting that, when Neil Gaiman wrote for Who, his episode got its name from one of the show’s most notorious hoaxes. After all, reinventing mythologies is one of Gaiman’s great strengths.

All of which goes to show, sometimes it’s more fun to print the myth…

Elvis, Comic Fans and Captain Marvel Jnr

(Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that, due to the mainstreaming of geek culture, San Diego Comic Con tickets were sold out in minutes, meaning that I’m not going to get to attend. That reminded me of the post below, which I thought might be worth a repost…)

 

Fandom is a funny thing. You think you can recognise other fans – they’ll make obscure references, they’ll have Star Trek mugs, they’ll wear t-shirts with the Green Lantern oath on them. Geeks love their referencing; I think it’s a tribal thing.

But then there are people you don’t come into regular contact with – one day you learn they’re a Fan and all of a sudden you’re dealing with that strange disconnect that comes with newly revealed geek cred.

Take Nicolas Cage. He doesn’t strike me as being particularly geeky. Okay, his son is called Kal-el, which is a major tip off (am I the only one who thinks Clark Cage would have been way more superheroey?), but what pinged my geekdar was when he sold his comic collection in 2002. Admittedly, the geekdar encountered some interference, because I struggle with the concept of a Superman fan selling Action Comics #1, but still. I’m glad he never played Superman but it looks like Nicolas is a geek. He’s One Of Us.

And don’t get me started on Obama. I’d never have pegged him as a Spider-Man collector who makes nerd references in speeches. But he is!

The king, excuse the pun, of unexpected geekery is Elvis. I mean, it’s Elvis. The archetypal rock n roller. They once refused to film him below the waist because of his dancing, for goodness sake, how could Elvis possibly be a geek?!

Well, in all fairness he probably wasn’t. Back in the day, comics were actually mainstream. You could buy them from newsagents and corner shops rather than specialist stores where you have to fight your way past mountains of t-shirts and Twilight memorabilia to get to the comics. But there’s no denying that Elvis was a fan, and when you look at it more closely, he was One Of Us before people made the distinction. Because Elvis was a fan of Captain Marvel Jr.

Some context, and we’ll get the complicated stuff out the way first: Captain Marvel isn’t a Marvel character. Well, okay, A Captain Marvel is a Marvel character, but THE Captain Marvel isn’t; he’s a DC character (nowadays anyway – he was created by Fawcett Comics but became part of DC in the seventies). This explains why DC can’t publish a comic called Captain Marvel (Marvel copyrighted the name), and so has to rely on the name ‘Shazam’ for brand awareness, Shazam being the magic word that transforms young boy Billy Batson into Captain Marvel.

(That last paragraph must hold some kind of record for the number of times the words ‘Captain Marvel’ were used in a limited space.)

Now, back in the day, Captain Marvel was the biggest superhero of them all. It’s hard to imagine that now, because he’s something of a second stringer in terms of his role in the DC Universe, but in the forties he was comfortably outselling Superman and Batman. And, in an effort to broaden the franchise, Fawcett decided to give him a family – his sister, Mary, and his friend Freddie Freeman, who became Captain Marvel Jr. That’s where Elvis comes in.

When I decided to write about this, I googled the subject and it turns out someone got there before me, with an essay that’s way longer and more researched than I could ever hope to achieve – for the full story, check out Captain Marvel Jr and Elvis Presley. Basically, Elvis was a big fan of Captain Marvel Jr, not just in the ‘okay, that was a cool story’ way, but as a major influence, particularly in terms of iconography. Young Elvis’s hairstyle was based on the character; Jumpsuit Elvis’s jumpsuits were based on Freddie’s costume, particularly the cape (it’s a half-cape like the Marvels’, not a full cape like Superman’s) – check out the comparison pictures in the linked article. Even Elvis’s TCB jewellery was adorned with a lightning bolt influenced by Captain Marvel’s logo. Yes, the iconography of the King of Rock and Roll was firmly rooted in comic books, which I think is awesome.

So maybe Elvis was a bit geeky. Maybe we all are, just about different things. And maybe, with geek culture becoming increasingly mainstream (Glee at Comic Con?! C’mon!), we’re heading back to the days when Elvis could become an icon partly by basing himself on a superhero. Comics may be a fringe hobby nowadays, perhaps even facing their final Crisis, but geekery remains, a driving force in pop culture.

So if you’ve always wanted to wear a cape, go right ahead. After all, if it was good enough for Elvis, it’s good enough for you…

 

All About The Bazinga: Why I love the Big Bang Theory

I am a geek.

I always have been, even before I self-identified as such. I like sci-fi, I have a comic collection, I’m socially awkward at times. With the exception of having great knowledge of science, engineering and computing, I tick most of the geek boxes. And that, my friends, is why I love The Big Bang Theory.

See, too many shows try to portray geekdom and they get it wrong. They have scenes with a computer hacker, and while they get the stereotype down pat, they get the details wrong; either that or the hackers are really cool and spend most of their day skateboarding. They rush a scientist character into frame and he spouts some technobabble that is utterly incomprehensible, but that’s considered appropriate exposition. Or they focus on what was geeky when the writer or director was 16, and therefore they’re attacking stuff that hasn’t been realistic for twenty years.

And so this is one of the reasons TBBT rules – attention to detail. Look at the comic books on display; they’re all fairly up to date. And because the characters seem to prefer DC over Marvel, you’ll notice that Sheldon’s bookcase is full of DC collected editions. I can’t see them well enough to swear to this, but I’m willing to bet they’re shelved in a logical order as well. And while I’m not smart enough to be able to comment on the science used in the show, the fact that they use a consultant who’s worked on the Large Hadron Collider makes me think that it’s fairly watertight (there’s an interview with the consultant, David Saltzberg, over at Wired).

The reason they put this effort in is, I think, their audience. The producers, writers and actors know full well that a significant chunk of the viewers will relate to the characters, and that means it’s an audience that will spot this sort of thing. Get a detail about Battlestar Galactica wrong and you can bet there are letters or, more realistically, emails. Probably Tweets.

But those Tweets are probably good natured, because the show is a celebration of geekiness, not an attack on it. Most of us could probably find something to relate to in underdog Leonard, cripplingly shy Raj or eternal adolescent Howard. I recognise these people; I am these people, at least some of the time. I’m laughing with them, not at them – they know settling things through a game of ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock’ is needlessly complicated but they don’t care. It’s fun.

That said, I’m not a geek all the time. I like to think that I’m not totally a stereotype. That’s where Penny comes in – the one who’s not as intellectual as her neighbours, but who’s the voice of common sense. The core group may be making her just a little nerdier, but she’s helping them become a little more… I dunno, social. The fact that they’re now a pretty tight group of friends is important – it’s not about a bunch of nerds and a ‘normal’ person who mocks them. It’s more affectionate than that.

Then, of course, there’s Sheldon. He fills a particular role, the traditional sitcom monster. In some ways he’s Basil Fawlty or Homer Simpson, the character who’s exaggerated enough to make him the outrageously funny one, the one that defies social conventions. Sheldon is annoying, arrogant and rude. We should hate him.

And yet… Well, maybe it’s because Jim Parsons plays him with just enough vulnerability. Maybe it’s because his OCD and other traits make him sympathetic. Maybe it’s because we know that deep down he doesn’t mean to upset anyone, he just doesn’t work to the same social conventions as everyone else. Whatever it is, it works in the show’s favour – the almost-sibling relationship he has with Penny isn’t unbelievable, it’s sweet.

But this is over-analysing the whole thing. You know the main reason I love The Big Bang Theory?

It’s because it’s funny.

Sure, that’s a prerequisite for a sitcom. But TBBT really makes me laugh. It has one of my favourite TV moments of the last few years, which moves within a couple of minutes from a joke about cloning Leonard Nimoy to a perfect moment of visual comedy. I howled. My neighbours probably thought I was being murdered, but they didn’t bother to make sure so I could watch the rest of the episode uninterupted.

Heck, it also doesn’t hurt that you can learn something by singing along to the theme song. A lot of shows don’t even have theme songs any more. I want them back, darnnit!

And so kudos to all involved in my favourite comedy show. You do a fantastic job, and I hope you continue to do so for a good while yet. May you continue to get your geek on, and may there be many more bright bazingas in your future.

 

Doctor Who Meets Star Trek

So apparently the Bleeding Cool news/gossip site has uncovered a scoop – IDW Comics will be releasing a Doctor Who/Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover in the near future. This is big – two of the three big sci-fi franchises getting together in a full-on, officially sanctioned get-together is an awesome piece of news. All the best to everyone involved.

And yet I can’t quite see how it’s going to work. Despite superficial similarities – aliens, spaceships, random acts of time travel – the two franchises are actually quite different.

Star Trek, for instance, exists in a techno-utopia, where science has helped eliminate some of humanity’s darker angels. The technobabble used by the show is largely meaningless, from what I hear, but an effort is made to at least use the right words. Combine that interest in progress with a fundamental optimism, and you’ll find many people working in science, engineering and computing were inspired by Trek – heck, look at some of the show’s gadgets and compare them to mobile phones and iPads.

Doctor Who exists at the opposite end of the spectrum – while science is important, it’s more about a way of thinking, a celebration of intelligence and imagination over conformity and homogeneity. It’s not exactly a metaphor for the Enlightenment getting us out of the Dark Ages, which is more Trek‘s deal; rather it’s the fire that gets us safely out of the haunted forest in a child’s fairytale. It’s more about the story and storytelling – look at how many Doctor Who stories are rip-offs of other stories and genres. And so, if Trek inspires scientists, Who inspires writers – look at how many people working in TV, novels and comics got their start in Doctor Who fandom and fanfic.

Star Trek is the culmination of the American Dream; Doctor Who is about beating childhood nightmares. It’s hard to see how they’ll fit together.

And yet, when I saw this piece of art, I smiled a big geeky smile and all my worries went away…