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Scott Larson

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Inside jobs

As I promised last time, here is my own take on an interesting, self-described rant on the web site by Charlie Jane Anders. Her post was titled “Why do your favorite heroes get bogged down in continuity and inside references?” and she gets right to the point in the very first paragraph: “It never fails: The cooler a hero is, the likelier he or she is to start tossing out references that only mean something to a handful of fans. The longer an epic story goes on, the more self-referential it gets.”

I think that any of us who has ever become addicted to a long-running television show (or a long-running series of movies) knows exactly what she means. Anders posits that characters who make the jump from one medium to another (comic books to television or movies, television shows to movies) are especially prone to this phenomenon because of something she calls “fan-service.” Another way of saying this is that, when you take established characters (like Superman, the Star Trek crew) into a new medium, one of the main reasons will be to bring along those people who are already fond of those characters (and hopefully bring new people as well). Because the story will inevitably be altered for the new medium (simplified, made more complicated, brought up to date in terms of fashion and culture), it may alienate older, die-hard fans of the original. To placate that group, certain nods need to be made in that group’s direction. A trivial example that comes to mind is the scene in Richard Donner’s Superman movie in which Clark Kent needs to put on his Superman suit and he glances wryly at an open-air public phone on a Metropolis street. Older viewers got the joke that, one time, public phones were in booths that provided a fair amount of privacy in which a hero could change his clothes at super speed. This helped old cranks accept the new modern touches.

But that movie was nothing, in terms of messing with the Superman mythology, in comparison to the long-running TV show Smallville. There may have been a time that the Superman story was fairly cast in stone because it was relatively new and had not had a chance to undergo revisionism. But those days are long gone. As the Superman comic books have gone through several generations, reboots of various forms have been inevitable. The Smallville series was but one more and a departure in many ways—not the least of which was that it re-introduced the hero as an adolescent at the dawn of the 21st century. Among its numerous specific conceits was that, in this particular universe, the popular culture was ignorant of such names as “Clark Kent” and “Lex Luthor” and “Krypton.” In other words, in this world no one had ever created a comic book about Superman. And, unlike the comic books of my own youth, Clark Kent was performing his heroics in secret without every donning a costume and calling himself Superboy. And, as was the trend during the past decade, the narrative was brimming with knowing references to all previous incarnations of the character—including the various comic book iterations, television shows, movies and even animated versions. Clark’s earth mother was played by the same actor (Annette O’Toole) who played Lana Lang in 1983’s Superman III. Guest roles were found for such veterans of the movies and previous TV shows as Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Marc McClure, Terence Stamp, Dean Cain and Terri Hatcher. In addition to casting, inside references were rampant with the inclusion of all sorts of characters borrowed from the different Superman incarnations. (One of my favorites was Mr. Mxyzptlk, the magical guy from the fifth dimension who, on TV, became an exchange student with the first name Mikhail.) This is all very entertaining for fans and probably harmless as far as the storytelling goes.

But even TV series that don’t have a previous life in a different medium can grow increasingly self-referential. Anders cites Doctor Who as a series that strikes a fairly good balance of continuing to expand the story’s universe and introduce new characters while occasionally bringing back old villains and other characters. This is true, although viewers who get tired of the Daleks could probably be forgiven for feeling that they were being trotted out a bit too often in the latter episodes during David Tennant’s tenure in the title role. Even the past season, Matt Smith’s first as the Doctor, felt obliged to bring them back (all shiny and in colors!), not only for a strange episode involving Winston Churchill but also for a grand two-part finale that brought back practically every villain who had made an appearance since the series’s reboot in 2005. I have a feeling that that episode exemplifies exactly what Anders was talking about. The kind of episode that crams Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons, Judoon, etc. into one scene. Aside from how illogical the scene is to begin with, it nearly offends one’s sense of storytelling. You are taking villains who, all by themselves, were supposed to be a threat to the whole universe and making them bit players and by-standers. It makes them hard to take seriously the next time they appear on their own. Tennant’s swan song “The End of Time,” on the other hand, made good use of cameos of his companions and other significant people from the previous five years. His tour of people who meant a lot to him was completely logical for a time traveler who was about to expire.

In the end, if we are going to watch TV shows about Superman or the Doctor, we have to accept that they are an integral part of our popular culture and there is going to be a fair amount of self-indulgence and self-reference. It’s part of the territory. For people who are annoyed by that sort of thing, the answer is series which are original and conceived as one long self-contained story. The premier example, for my money, is one I have bored you with before. That would J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. For five years, the story unfolded and any references to any other media were strictly of the literary variety. If there were any obvious in joke in the whole series, it was in the final episode, “Sleeping in Light,” in Straczynski himself literally turned out the lights on the last of the Babylon stations.

-S.L., 17 March 2011

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