Cult TV Questions

What role does Hills (2004) suggest the fans play in the construction of cult TV? How is new media central to this?

Hills (2004) outlines three competing definitions of Cult TV but emphasizes that none of these are enough to understand the full extent of the term by itself, but a major factor in the second two definitions is the response of the fans and viewer to the work such as how they make create secondary texts/intertexts commenting on the show in some form, or how it inspires devotion and fan practices. With such a fluid definition Cult TV becomes largely defined by the circumstances and opinions surrounding the shows and their subcultural status. A large part of this is facilitated by the nature of these shows in that they are built  in a way which engenders discussion and long-term investment (often through a potential romantic pairing between characters, although this is not a requirement) and the creation of an interesting and varied world that is most often couched in “fantastic genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror” (Jones, as cited by Hills, 2004) allowing the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

A striking case study of how new media changed the status of Cult TV is Doctor Who, a show which has wildly fluctuated in popularity throughout the years, arguable falling in and out of cult status through these years. After a gradual decline that lead to ratings at an all-time low the show seemed to be picking up steam again when it was cancelled in 1989, leaving the franchise isolated from mainstream audiences. Due to the fact the show was not perceived one creator or team’s vision (as how Hills criticizes the discourse around shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Star Trek) and the fact that the format of a Doctor Who story allowed for various styles and genres, a novel series known as The New Virgin Adventures (NVA) became the de facto main timeline of Doctor Who in lieu of the show. This hardcore audience were generally older, and the writing changed to match them adult-oriented, and the series accepted both professional and amateur submissions elevating what would have been fanfiction into a near-canonical level. (Novitz, 2018) A stranger example of a venture by fans came from the obscure company “Bill & Ben’s Videos” – otherwise known as the BBV (possibly to create confusion about whether they were part of the BBC or not) which created straight-to-DVD films using the actors of Doctor Who as thinly veiled versions of their characters or using the show’s intellectual property. Much of this was of dubious legality or blatantly illegal. While it had been a staple of British television for many decades it was only in 2005 with the show’s revival spearheaded by Russel T. Davies, one of many authors who wrote for the NVA, that the show found a mainstream international success. The show also adopted many of the NVA’s such as story arcs and a greater focus on the personal lives of the Doctor’s companions. One of the show’s most critically acclaimed stories (Human Nature/The Family of Blood) is an adaptation of one of the novels.

Before the advent of new media fan practices had a higher barrier of entry, and even re-watching the show was a challenge. Shows such as Star Trek only gained an appreciation society over a decade after it finished airing. (Hills, 2004) Now that social media and platforms such as Reddit, Tumblr, YouTube and 4Chan (each containing their own culture and subcommunities) have allowed fans from across the world to form fanbases, the type of discussion that was once limited only to diehard fans now finds itself played out by people who can afford to be more casually invested. No show is ever truly off air as streaming and pirating have allowed shows to disseminate in unlikely circles and reach a wider audience.

I think that Hills’ outlining of ways that a cult show can be manufactured has actually been achieved for the most part by the entertainment industries, as they realize the value of nostalgic properties (which have attracted those with a strong devotion to their work) and of cultivating a dedicated fanbase. However, that is not to say the idea of subcultures have died out completely, and in fact has allowed many shows to find their own audience. For example – the obscure and quite bizarre Lexx. And while it may not be sci-fi or fantasy I personally would have never been able to watch one of my favourite TV shows, Ikebukuro West Gate Park, if it had not been translated from Japanese by a dedicated group of fans.

 

Reference List

Hills, M. (2004). Defining cult TV; Texts, inter-texts and fan audiences, in R. C. Allen & A. Hill (eds) The Television Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Novitz, J. (2018). “Too broad and deep for the small screen”: Doctor Who’s new adventures in the 1990s. M/C Journal, 21(5), 1–3. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.aut.ac.nz/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=134034472&site=eds-live

[QuintonReviews]. (2018, December 1). Doctor Who Knockoffs | Quinton Reviews. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acI7DRYFUPk

 

 

Wilcox and Lavery (2002) identify 9 defining characteristics of ‘quality TV’ – can you apply any of these to other television series that you have viewed recently? Are there any other characteristics that you could add to their list?

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (BtVS) made a huge impact on the landscape of television, providing a model for longform series that is still in use today. One example of it’s profound impact is the 2005 Revival Series of Doctor Who. Showrunner Russel T updated the show from a multi-part, 20 minute per episode serial format to the modern forty-five minute per episode show (with occasional two-part stories, similar to BtVS) which the show kept in use until 2018. Although the previous incarnations of the show had built a cast of characters over time they seldom appeared throughout the show. The Revival series which shifted a much of the emotional focus and the story arcs of the series onto the companions. In the first series of the revival this is through the Doctor’s companion Rose, and her relationship with her boyfriend and mother on Earth. This grounded the fantastic sci-fi premise of the show with “emotional realism” (Whedon, as cited by Wilxcox & Lavery, 2002), and saw the development of an ensemble cast – both elements the show shares with Buffy (Wilxcox & Lavery). The show was also writer-based in that Davies had great influence over the scripts (and ever since the show’s eras have been largely defined by the showrunners in charge) but he also created a team of writers that could bring their own voices to the forefront. Notably Steven Moffat was one of the episode writers and would go on to become the showrunner, as well as to create the BBC series Sherlock.

 

This influence extends to two of the shows spinoffs, which shares many of the same qualities but also lifts actual plot elements from the BtVS franchise, although few would argue the latter is an example of quality television – both Torchwood and Class feature rifts in time and space which spew forth aliens and monsters for the protagonists to defeat (functionally identical to the Hellmouth of Sunnydale) which act as metaphors for the themes of the episode. Class has a lot more obviously similar to BtVS as it takes place in a high school, and similarly attempts to deal with controversial and heavy issues facing teenagers (“the subject matter of quality TV tends toward the controversial”, (Thompson, as cited by Wilcox & Lavery, 2002, p. xxiv)), but it is fraught with problems in tone and presentation. Torchwood perhaps parallel’s BtVS’s own spinoff, Angel, in that it follows the exploits of an anti-heroic supporting cast member from the parent show on a quest for redemption – the show even goes so far as to cast James Marsters (actor of Spike) as a rival to Torchwood’s lead protagonist, similar to Angel and Spike’s rivalry in BtVS. Torchwood dealt with controversial issues with varying degrees of success, particularly in its early seasons (the second episode features an alien who is literally ) but eventually found great critical acclaim. However, the majority of the cast was shown to be openly bisexual and the lead character of Jack Harkness, originally from Doctor Who, entered into a relationship with another male cast member, giving representation to same-sex relationships on television in a manner similar to Willow and Tara’s relationship in BtVS. To it’s credit Class does the same with one of its main protagonist, although overall it is the lesser show.

 

Both shows are strange in that they involve much more sex and violence than their parent show, clearly being aimed at a different audience, although in Class’ case this audience may not have existed as the show varied wildly in tone (Jeffrey, 2917) while BtVS was clearly aimed at teens but had enough substance to crossover age demographics. Russel T. Davies was the showrunner for Torchwood and brought much of the same qualities over from that show with a consistent writing team, but Class is more surprising in it’s confused tone as every episode’s script is attributed to the same author – Patrick Ness. Here we see the idea of “high pedigree” as a characteristic challenged, or at least in need of further definition as arguably Ness may not be considered high pedigree depending on how well one likes his work. On paper Patrick Ness seemed perfect for the job – he had already written a hit Young Adult novel and written a screenplay for a fairly successful film. Class itself only had the surface appearance quality TV, stretching itself too thin to delivery on its ensemble cast (with five main characters in only eight episodes) and attempting to tackle controversial subject matter and emotional realism without a proper handle on tone – one particularly jarring scene occurs in the first episode as one of the characters’ girlfriends is murdered in front of him by an alien, showering him in her blood before The Doctor (protagonist of the family-friendly Doctor Who) arrives to save the day, robbing the show’s actual main characters of all agency and relevance to the solution of the episode’s plot.

 

Overall, while I think these characteristics identify many of the key aspects which make this kind of show good I think they are too narrow as they only describe a certain model of television which BtVS pioneered. Quality is largely a matter of taste, and it may be because I live in a post-Buffy world where this sort of discourse in normalized but I see no reason why BtVS needs to prove itself. While BtVS should be applauded for mixing lighter genre conventions with this level of emotional realism, this is not the only valid form of artistic expression television can take. Doing so discounts critically acclaimed shows such as Fawlty Towers or the surreal Monty Python, or the heightened theatricality of Twin Peaks (all shows which existed before BtVS). And while self-conscious television can refer to it’s lineage or other texts to allow extra enjoyment in it’s audience it can it can also be used a crutch to receive praise via association. The worst of form of this is simply name-dropping or referencing franchises with little to know real relevance, as in the film and book Ready Player One. A big part of BtVS’s success in the regard is the fact that most of the characters are teenagers naturally preoccupied with pop culture and references (although this sometimes leads to characters sounding too much like each other or more clever or knowledgeable than they should), but in a show such as Breaking Bad or the almost documentarian approach of The Wire leaning too heavily on the fourth wall in this way would simply compromises the believability of the world they portray. Wilcox & Lavery’s article does not account for the full breadth and depth of what the medium of television has to offer.

 

Reference List

Jeffrey, M. 2017. Here’s why the doctor who spin-off class just didn’t work. Retrieved from

https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/cult/a830699/doctor-who-spin-off-class-why-it-just-didnt-work/

Wilcox, R. & Lavery, D. (2002). Introduction, in R. Wilcox & D. Lavery (eds) Fighting the forces: What’s at stake in buffy the vampire slayer. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

 

Dominic McAlpine

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