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Doctors, Of Various Sorts, and Dahleks

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So here’s the thing.  My older son spent a fair amount of his growing up watching British television, since we were in London.  He didn’t watch Dr. Who, because by then the program was off the air.   When Matt wanted to watch Dr. Who, he had to do it off the dozens of VHS tapes Bill had made especially just to get the whole series.

This was not easy.  Some of those tapes were made from broadcasts on a Connecticut PBS station, and they were usually interspersed with long, weirdly embarrassing fund raising efforts.  The fund raising efforts were always accompanied by a threat:  Dr. Who brought in the most donations of anything they showed on the station.  If you wanted your Dr. Who, you’d better pony up.

Bill always did pony up, but they ended up cancelling Dr. Who on that station anyway.   Maybe this wasn’t surprising, since you could tell–on those long fund raising sessions–that the people doing the fundraising had no idea why something like that would be on their PBS station.

After the station cancelled Dr. Who, Bill stopped watching it, and stopped contributing to it.   Hell, he stopped listening or watching anything on any PBS station.  He wouldn’t even watch British sitcoms, which he missed once we were back in the States for good.

I bring all this up because I sympathize, in a way, with the people doing the fundraising.  I never did “get” Dr. Who. The first year we were in England coincided with Peter Davidson’s reign as the Doctor, and I sat down with Bill and watched the thing on and off.

Davidson was a tidy looking man who wore a stalk of celery in his jacket pocket.  The production values were embarrassingly awful.  The plot lines just mystified me.

Bill was still alive when Steven Spielberg made his bid to buy the series and produce new seasons.  I don’t know if he got what he wanted or not.  There are new seasons, and they’re much better done–and much better written–but watching them over the last couple of days, I wasn’t really catching on to who was making the thing or what the relationships were between the various production companies and sponsoring organizations.

The Canadian Broadcasting Company is involved.  So is the BBC.  So are a number of other people.

Okay, I’ve got a headcold–the winter has hardly started, and it’s already awful–and I wasn’t paying too much attention.

But what I was paying attention to is this:  a remarkable number of the people in my generation who have become successful in entertainment, and especially in movies, have done so by making adult versions of what all the baby boomers loved to watch on television as children.

Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Yogi Bear.  Dr. Who.  The Chipmunks.  I can’t get through the Christmas season any more without running head on into the live action movie of some television show I used to watch when I was nine.

Some of these movies are good.  The first Chipmunks movie was actually rather sweet.  Some of these movies are awful.  The Rocky and Bullwinkle movie was so awful it was hard to sit through. 

In general, by the way, the movies that are good treat the original television shows as if they’d had a brain in their head.  The problem with the Rocky and Bullwinkle movie is that the people who made it apparently never got the fact that the original television show could’t have been completely understood by children in the first place.  I was thirty and watching the thing is reruns before I got half the jokes.

The new Dr. Who series is very good indeed, and I say that as somebody who was just required to sit through a two day marathon of the thing. 

But it does occur to me that this goes back to something I was talking about before.  Increasingly, over the last ten to fifteen years, what has been really successful in entertainment is work aimed at children–or maybe I should say quasi-aimed at children.

I’m not talking about the stuff that is self-consciously made for children–the awful treacly sugaroverdose nonsense like the Care Bears or Rainbow Brite. 

My basic feeling about those is that no self respecting child would touch them.

But think about it–Harry Potter is an obsession in both print and on film with adults as well as children.  Adults read YA titles, and genre titles (at least in mystery) that eschew big words, controversial subjects and too much “realism” do better than the kind of naturalism I was brought up to think of as the only “real” way to write fiction.

I can’t even say that I’m immune. I don’t much hanker after old children’s shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle–although if I want that, I’ll go for the original, and not the recent mess of a movie–but I am completely enamored of the old Perry Mason series.  I’ve got all the available seasons on DVD.  I often decide to watch those instead of whatever is playing on television.

I don’t know what any of this means.  Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.  My sons think I watch the old Perry Mason series because it reminds me of my father, and I miss my father a lot.  And I do.  Miss my father, I mean.

Or maybe it’s what I was talking about a few months ago.  Maybe, with a population that is no longer taught how to read even fairly simple literary devices (like third person multiple viewpoint and extended metaphor), work at least ostensibly written for children is more comprehensible than the stuff that assumes an acquaintance with grown-up references and techniques.


I just think this is very odd.

And thinking about it keeps my mind off the fact that what it sounds like is happening outside my office window is sleet.

I’m not ready for sleet.

Written by janeh

November 8th, 2010 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Doctors, Of Various Sorts, and Dahleks'

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  1. “Dr Who” isn’t the only example of the PBS problem: often their most popular programs aren’t the ones the management approves of, and it drives them a little nuts. They are the wise and virtuous PBS, and they’re not supposed to have to consider the popular taste the way those other people do.

    But has ANYONE in our generation become “successful” by making a movie of a Baby Boomer program? It’s done quite a bit, because it’s an easy idea to sell, and presumably some of them made back their expenses, but the only one I can think of which was an artistic and commercial success was THE ADDAMS FAMILY. By a strange coincidence, it was also one of the very few which showed some respect for the original series.

    And the producers of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE knew exactly what they were doing. The original ADDAMS FAMILY did exactly the same thing–writing episodes which worked for both the children and the adults in the audience. No, the kids didn’t get all the references. I accepted that as a kid. I knew “tell me about the rabbits, George” YEARS before I knew about OF MICE AND MEN–and I knew it was a joke I didn’t have the reference for. If you only do fiction for which you understand all the references, you limit yourself.

    It still happens to me. I read Terry Pratchett and watched Constable Carrot bring order to a dwarf bar before I’d ever heard of DIXON OF DOCK GREEN, and I bet not even the majority of his English readership knows why one of the Nazi werewolves in THE FIFTH ELEPHANT is named “Unity.” But I would think the less of Pratchett if he wrote so that everyone would get all the references–and the same is true of the writers of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE and THE ADDAMS FAMILY.

    Which maybe backs into juveniles. Heinlein once observed that what he was really writing were “cadet” novels–meaning not a military person, but an age range–except that the category wasn’t used in the United States. He also wrote that HOW you wrote them was to write the best story you knew how and leave out the explicit sex. (I suppose he would have added “and gore” had that occured to him.) But it was why he could take a rejected “juvenile” manuscript to an adult editor, unchanged, and make money and win awards. No one but the literary establishment ever confused THE LORD OF THE RINGS with a juvenile, but they confused it at the top of their lungs–and it’s certainly true that a twelve year old is going to miss a lot of what Tolkien says, no matter how much he enjoys the story. My friends who are “Harry Potter” fans are well-educated and well-read, and I don’t believe anyone ever called PERRY MASON children’s fare–just good solid TV detective stories.

    I think academics have a distorted view of both “realism” and “controversy” which may be playing a part here. I haven’t found the Chandler school of crime fiction nor the Silas Weekley school of general fiction particularly realistic. As for controversy, the literary preference seems to resemble a “guided discussion” in school–approved topics only, and approved answers as well. Heinlein and Tolkien, Tey and Kipling might raise more interesting questions and answers.

    Which I thought was one of the points?


    8 Nov 10 at 5:25 pm

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