Saturday, February 25, 2012


Regeneration (or, how a failed TV pilot restored my faith in art and humanity)

It's been a couple of months since I wrote a proper blog entry. A far cry from the early days of this blog, when I was posting every day. Back then I was recapping which scenes were being filmed 25 months ago on that day, as a way of promoting my then-imminent world premiere screening of Saberfrog.

This past October I started a new day job, which I guess is always a big life change. It's a great job that fully uses my skills, but it has also kept me very busy. I found myself having less and less inclination to keep up my writing or to really do anything with Saberfrog.

I began to develop a theory (which I'm sure someone else has also thought of) that we create art only when we are dissatisfied. I remembered that it was a much younger and more alienated me who went to film school in the hopes of becoming a writer-director. And I also thought about how much less magical the movies seem to be today – the bankruptcy of Kodak, the hiatus of Rochester's 360|365 film festival, and the fact that Hollywood executives has so little faith in their own industry that they think movies have to be based on an established brand from another medium (comics, TV, board games, etc) in order to convince people to go see them.

So weeks went by without me writing anything. At the end of 2011, I was going to post something about two people who passed away that year: Ken Russell, director of Altered States, and John Neville, star of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, two films that had a huge influence on Saberfrog. But I was busy and that never happened. I was even going to write a blog entry announcing that I was done with the blog, and that maybe I was done with filmmaking as well.

But all that changed this past weekend, when I went to Los Angeles to attend the Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One.

I had gone to Gallifrey a few times in the early-to-mid 2000s and enjoyed it, but financial and relationship-related constraints caused me to stop going. (And disillusionment with fandom caused me to stop going to genre conventions of any kind anyway, a point I'll return to later.)

But I went this year because William Russell, one of the original cast members – now in his late eighties – was scheduled to appear, and as a longtime Who addict I decided that was not something I could bear to miss.

The last time I'd gone to a Doctor Who convention was around 2006 or so, when the modern series was still new, and the lovably grubby old show was still the main draw. This time, I was immediately struck by the vast majority of people dressed as characters that hadn't existed the last time I went to this convention.

The crowd was now younger and more female, and for the first time I saw with my own eyes a trend I'd previously only heard about – that of women going to conventions dressed as customized female versions of male characters (i.e. with a skirt or dress instead of pants, and maybe a girlier tie or jacket). After years of learning to associate fandom with grumpy middle-aged goons bemoaning their lost childhood, I was struck by the sight of fans expressing (gasp!) creativity, and having the same curiosity and excitement that I had when I first discovered the show.

I was struck by the genuine joy and enthusiasm for all aspects of Doctor Who. No character was too obscure or unpopular not to merit a fan-made costume. (The most obscure was surely the Doctor as depicted in Scream of the Shalka, an animated web series that was meant to be an official continuation of the old series before being swiftly buried once the new live-action series was greenlit.)

I did indeed get to see William Russell in person. I also got to chat with Steve Roberts, one of the wizards behind the restoration of old episodes for DVD release. I also met the guys behind BroaDWcast, a New Zealand-based website devoted to archiving the history of Doctor Who airings around the world (amusingly, they seem to have used my blog as a source for their WXXI entry).

But the highlight of the weekend was surely a screening of the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie (made as a pilot for an American series that never happened), with live commentary provided by its stars and producer, all of whom were guests at the convention this year.

It was one of the greatest movie screenings I've ever attended.

Sometimes it's fun to watch a movie on its own terms, as a work of entertainment. Sometimes it's fun to listen to a DVD commentary, and listen to the creators tell their anecdotes and war stories. And sometimes it's fun to watch a movie with friends who talk over it and laugh with or at it. Impressively, this screening managed to entertain on all those levels at once. The producer and stars spoke just enough to be amusing and enlightening, and just little enough that you could follow the movie on its own. They and their film had a huge audience, laughing and cheering from beginning to end.

And still, that's only part of what made this screening so great to me. To explain the rest, I have to backtrack a bit …

The week before leaving for Gallifrey, I happened to visit YouTube, and one of the featured videos was of someone reviewing the Star Wars novel Darth Plagueis. The reviewer gave the book a glowing review, saying it made him think a lot about philosophy and politics, and that it helped explain certain plot details in the Star Wars films.

I haven't read this book, but the reviewer spoke with an intelligence and insight that I'd stopped hoping for in Star Wars fans, at least the ones in my own age group. He seemed to be interested in larger concepts and ideas, as well as fleshing out his knowledge of the Star Wars universe. (The book's title character does not appear onscreen in the films, but is mentioned in dialogue in Episode III.)

I thought about how reading, viewing, and storytelling habits have changed in recent years. People complain that movies are all sequels, remakes and franchises now, and I've been foremost among them. But there is something to be said for creating a world, story and characters across multiple installments and multiple media, secure in the knowledge that a committed audience will be able to keep track of it all and will make the mental effort to form it all into a whole.

During my trip to Los Angeles, my friend John and I managed to squeeze in a screening of the 3D rerelease of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I've always had mixed feelings about this film – while I never hated it the way my contemporaries did, I've always found it a flawed film that could have gotten a better response simply by being better-paced and less confusing. I was on the fence about seeing it again, but knew that if I did, it would have to be in Los Angeles, not Rochester; and that I would have to see it with John, who's slightly younger than me and more of a fan of the film.

Seeing it on the big screen again, and in 3D no less, I was pleasantly surprised. The bold, CGI-heavy visuals and convoluted plot don't seem so jarring today. The last 13 years of TV shows, novels, comics and games have trained audiences to follow complex narratives with multiple characters. Even the slow spots were enlivened with colorful background detail. And of course, unlike the original films, Episode I was surely made with the knowledge that there would be books and games to explore all of its nooks and crannies. (Bounty hunter Aurra Sing, who appears very briefly onscreen during the pod race, went on to play a larger role in the Clone Wars TV series.)

The famous Red Letter Media fan review of Episode I seemed to argue that the earlier films were better because they were more straightforward and easier to follow. But there's now a younger, smarter, more media-savvy audience who doesn't need things to be made easy to follow. Episode I was made for them, not for the slacker generation who still cling desperately to their own 1970s childhood (when pop culture was a lot dumber, as Steven Berlin Johnson has argued).

All of this put me in exactly the right frame of mind to watch the Doctor Who TV movie with an enthusiastic crowd of fans. Since its 1996 debut, this film has struggled to shake off its reputation as merely a failed TV pilot. It was considered too glossy, mawkish and Americanized to properly “count” as Doctor Who in the eyes of established fans, while being too saddled with continuity and backstory to have a prayer of appealing to mainstream viewers.

But like Episode I, the Doctor Who TV movie seems to have been made for a future audience with different expectations. In 1996, both Doctor Who fans and indie-slacker types had a stifling distrust of anything that appeared to be competently made or decently financed. But now there's a new audience who got into Doctor Who through the new series. To them, there's nothing wrong with lavish production values, a soaring orchestral score, or hints of romance between the Doctor and a human woman – that's all the stuff they like about Doctor Who to begin with!

Far from being dumbed down, the TV movie is fast-paced and funny, full of action and spectacle, with throwaway jokes and colorful supporting characters. The supposedly garbled plot was surprisingly easy to follow, and the high stakes (Earth and a big chunk of the universe are in danger, and the Doctor's time machine is out of power!) justify its position as “Doctor Who: The Movie.” I know fans objected to the fact that the film contained a shootout and a motorcycle chase. But it's a very old-fashioned, Gen-X attitude to think that a franchise must never, ever do anything it hasn't already done yet.

And any complaints that the TV movie relies too heavily on audience knowledge of Doctor Who can at last be dismissed. It may have been a misstep in 1996, but the world has caught up. People do know about the Doctor and his universe. They know the TARDIS is alive (a recent Neil Gaiman-scripted episode dwells on this at length), so why shouldn't a surgeon like Grace Holloway be able to repair her? (That might not be what the script had in mind, but fan culture is interactive – you can draw on your own knowledge and imagination to fill in any gaps.) And the Paul McGann-performed Eighth Doctor, seen onscreen in this movie only, has (like Aurra Sing) led a full life in other media, enjoying a loyal and passionate following.

The TV movie's producer, Philip Segal – who struggled for seven years to bring Doctor Who back from oblivion, only for the result of his labor to be ignored or condemned – must have felt validated at that screening. If I ever again hear the question “If you could switch places with someone famous, who would it be?” that will be my answer – to be Philip Segal on the afternoon of February 19, 2012. I can only begin to imagine how it must have felt to see your long-maligned kid get crowned homecoming queen like that, in the company of the family who helped you raise her.

That screening, and the weekend overall, was the latest and biggest sign that it was finally time to leave the bad old days behind.

For more than half my life – since “Generation X” first became a thing – I've felt poisoned by the relentless assumption that anything true or “real” has to be despairing and angry and mean-spirited.

I looked to sci-fi and fantasy as a respite, as a sign that things could be better. Name authors such as Asimov and Bradbury talked about the strength and inspiration they found as young writers entering “fandom”. But I eventually concluded that they belonged to an older world, when people were optimistic and visionary, and set themselves positive goals to strive for.

The fans closer to my own age, that I actually knew, seemed defined by resentment and jealousy. The fact that they'd been unpopular in high school, or had problems at home, was to them universal proof that everything, everywhere, was contaminated. To them, life's obstacles were something to be complained about, not overcome. And I slowly came to notice that the way fans of my generation defined themselves was in opposition to someone else. To bolster their own puny self-esteem, they needed to find someone else to pick on, just as they had been picked on.

My first indication of this came in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was hanging out with aspiring sci-fi authors. Devotees of sci-fi literature had (and maybe still have) an intense hatred of sci-fi movies and TV shows, so much so that – as a filmmaker myself – I sometimes felt like a closet Jew at a neo-Nazi rally. When going to conventions, I saw that no panel topic was too broad or specific that it wouldn't immediately devolve into bitching about movies and TV.

At one such panel, while listening to someone ramble about how much they hated Star Trek: Voyager, I thought: How did we get here? I thought fans were the smart guys, the cutting-edge guys, the guys who lived in the future sooner than everyone else. If they can't even cope with the existence of a mediocre TV show, how are they going to cope with the sweeping social and technological changes that sci-fi is supposedly preparing us for?

But because I still identified with fandom, I tried to overlook this. I tried to overlook the tendency of literary-SF authors and readers to condemn every medium but their own. I tried to overlook the tendency of Doctor Who fans (in those days) to hate anything made after the early 1980s (or after the mid-1970s, in the case of extremists). I tried to suppress my growing suspicion that these weren't the smart guys – that these were the dumb guys, who couldn't cope with new styles or approaches, who resented “kids” who were in fact older than they'd been when they'd become fans.

But the constant, unrelenting moaning about the Star Wars prequels, and the smug personal attacks on George Lucas, was the last straw for me. That's when it occurred to me that Generation-X fandom, with their constant bleat of “my childhood!”, is about keeping your own maturity and comprehension levels as low as possible, to the absolute exclusion of anything new or different. I don't agree with everything Lucas has done, but he was one of my biggest inspirations as a young filmmaker – his own example proved that a small-town kid with limited social skills could overcome obstacles and learn to be a writer, a director, and a businessperson – so I always take those insults kinda personal.

And it's not just Star Wars. Whenever I hear Gen-X nerds criticize anything (even something I don't like either), it makes me want to ask: How are you smarter than a person who made something? How are you more accomplished than the person who wrote a script, finished a novel, drew a comic book, devised a TV story arc? If you know so much more about the craft than the people who do it for a living, why do you have nothing to show for it, even in an age when the tools for creating and distributing stories have never been more widely available? Not to play the old-man card, but 20 years ago people still had to do things the hard way – they loaded film cameras and typed on typewriters – and still managed to create art, instead of just having resentment and jealousy towards the people who did.

In the 1990s I sometimes saw interviews with indie-type filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Terry Gilliam or Spike Lee, in which they would bash Hollywood or other directors (often gratuitously) ... but at least when they did it, there was the implication that they themselves were aspiring to do something different, that they wanted to be part of the solution.

I sometimes encounter people who would rather make nothing at all than gain experience making something bad. I disagree with this attitude. Making something bad requires the ability to make something. And making something requires knowing the craft to at least a basic degree, and it requires the ability to complete a project. It's also a learning experience; you develop new skills and, hopefully, figure out how to do better next time. Every time I make a film, I'm a different person at the end of it. And I'd like to think that other people are similarly capable of personal growth, but multiple encounters with bitter idiots had caused me to abandon any such hope.

It took Gallifrey 2012 to strip away that armor of cynicism that I'd built up in recent years. There's now a younger generation that is a hell of a lot more fun. They don't have the same allergy to anything bright or cheerful, or that girls might like. And I find that I can actually stand to be around them. I can't say for sure what caused this cultural shift (I'm sure the Internet is a big part of it), but I think I can at least say what the shift is.

For the past century or so, art was seen as an act of defiance. The way you proved that you were an artist was by criticizing society, or corporations, or the government, or by showing how depressed and alienated you were. And if you weren't an artist, the way you proved you were sophisticated was by appreciating things that were depressing or alienated, to the exclusion of anything more light-hearted. Even in more populist artforms like film and/or sci-fi, the way something gets hailed as “art” is by being cold and depersonalized, or satirically despairing of the direction in which things are headed. And if you ever have a craving for something a bit less dull or depressing or hectoring … well, that just means you've been brainwashed by The System and need your consciousness raised. Or it means that you're one of the bad guys, oppressing everyone with your bourgeois aesthetics.

While sci-fi fans only rarely overlap with the tweed-jacket-and-goatee stereotype I just described, they have often seemed to carry a similar attitude that the whole world is their enemy. So many of geek culture's iconic characters – Spock, Data, Ripley, Han Solo, almost any superhero – are defined by their outsider status. They either don't have normal human emotions, or have been made tough and stoic by experience. Many genre characters (superheroes in particular) are suffering martyrs, designed to appeal simultaneously to the high self-importance and low self-esteem of those fans who grew up in less tolerant times.

That brooding attitude makes a certain amount of sense when you're struggling to navigate the labyrinth of adolescence. But personally, I think you're eventually supposed to stop being fifteen, and develop the capacity for emotions other than jealousy and sarcasm. The newer generation seems to be a lot more confident and a bit more interested in what they can do, not what they can't.

But, but … you may say. But what about the economy, and the environment, and the Republicans/Democrats, and reality TV, and

There will always be bad things. Emphasizing them, and using them as an excuse to give up on achievement and happiness, does not make you wiser than other people. The wise people are the ones who try to do something to make the world better. Either by volunteering, or by creating art, or just by being good at their job and good to their loved ones.

In a world of cynics, it takes courage to like something, and no courage at all to hate something.

And besides, sometimes the thing you hate is the thing someone else loves, and bashing it will just make you look like a dick. Some reality TV shows are good. I liked L.A. Ink (especially Hannah).

I guess all of this is just me de-toxing, and getting the bad stuff out of my system once and for all, so I can move forward as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a person.

P.S. As I was sitting in Starbucks finishing this post, the loudspeaker started playing Iggy Pop's “Lust for Life.” This might be meaningful. Or not.