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Posts Tagged ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Further to the last post to slam into Not A Planet Anymore, I got to wondering about the larger question: what form of media (books, TV, movies. video games) makes the most effective SF gateway? What’t the most effective way to introduce a non-fan to SF, or for a mainstream to stumble into SF on their own? What’s the media that’s most likely to hook their interest and encourage them to pursue SF further?
I think, first of all, we need to be clear that when we’re talking about the most effective gateway, I mean for adults. WIth kids there’s a different way of thinking at work that I suspect makes it easier for them to get drawn into something a lot faster.
But getting back to the question of the most effective of the four major incarnations of SF culture… I think there are a couple that we can knock out of contention right off the bat.
The first: movies. SF movies, be they monster summer blockbusters or quiet, late-in-the-year thought pieces, certainly attract the biggest audience of mainstreamers – and of mainstreamers who deliberately seek this SF out – but I think in large part these are one-off circumstances. A mainstream movie-goer is quite likely to see many SF flicks over the course of their lifetime, but probably not because they’re specifically seeking out SF; they’re probably more attracted to the size of the film, or the action or comedy elements, etc. I doubt mainstream movie-goers demonstrate any loyalty to the specific genre of SF films. And I don’t believe they actually make the connection that whatever good qualities they’re picking up from the SF film they enjoyed can be found in SF books or TV or games. In fact, I’m fairly confident in saying that you could probably pick 10-20 people randomly from a lineup in front of a theatre for an SF film and ask them “Are you a sci-fi/fantasy fan?” or “Do you think after watching this movie you’ll be an SF fan?” or “Do you think after watching this movie you’ll want to explore other forms of SF entertainment like sci-fi books or TV shows or massive multi-player online fantasy role-playing video games?” the answer would probably, in most cases, be a flat “No.” (likely accompanied by derisive laughter and choice epithets) Sure, in some cases you might get a mainstream movie-goer who likes an SF movie so much that when he or she is passing through a book store they might pick-up a movie tie-in novel, and from there might get into other SF, or who might stay on a channel one night that was running an unrelated SF TV show, but I think those people are in the minority. And I certainly don’t think a movie would inspire hordes of them to start playing video games. No, I think that while movies may bring SF notoriety, they don’t ultimately increase the adult fanbase significantly and thus are not the most effective gateway.
In a similar light, (and I realize I’m stepping out on thin ice here ’cause I’m not a gamer) I don’t think video games are the most effective gateway media either. I’m kind of curious how many adult, non-SF fans suddenly pick up gaming, follow it loyally, then branch out into other areas of SF culture. I doubt it’s many. I suspect your average mainstream adult who gets into gaming is likely picking up a system and game as a one-off or limited interest sort of thing – they want to play a cool-looking game based on their favourite sport when the real games aren’t on the tube; or, and this is probably more likely, they’re picking up a platform for their kids, and while buying games for the kids to go with the system, they pick up a copy of Madden Football or Gretzky Hockey or something for themselves and play it once in a while. I would expect that the amount of time required for a lot of games these days is probably a disincentive for an adult with no previous grounding in SF to follow it religiously, much less to branch out into other areas of SF culture. As for those who do stick with it, the question remains of how much of a gateway does it really become for them? Do they just stick with one type of game, and thus have more of a door to a short, empty corridor, or do they really get interested enough to follow other SF avenues – the true gateway to the SF universe? Would it really get them to start watching BSG if they hadn’t before, or inspire them to read the classics by Clarke and Bradbury (or even media tie-in novels that might lead them to weightier fare)? I’m not so sure. Again, as with movies, there probably are a few mainstreamers who get the light switched on by video games and explore other avenues of SF, but I suspect they’re very much in the minority. For that reason, I don’t think gaming is necessarily the most effective SF gateway.
That leaves us with books and TV – two very strong contenders. But as they said in “Highlander” (the first movie, that is – not the idiot sequels or the sappy TV show): There can be only one.
Books should be the most effective gateway to SF. In my opinion, they are certainly the best gateway. The massive selection of SF books out there, the shallow and the deep, the new and the old, with the multitude of specialty genres, guarantees there is a story for everyone if they can only find it. Discovering a great story that hits home for a person is pretty much guaranteed to get them to seek out more books by the same author, then similar books by other authors, followed by experimentation. This seeds a deeply-rooted love of SF that easily promotes the other forms of the culture because it intrinsically carries respect of the subject matter (as long as it’s treated well and to the reader’s tastes). Someone who enjoys SF novels and short stories will have no qualms about watching an SF TV show or movie, and might make the time to play a video game or even buy a system and enjoy many games. The fact that even the dumbest book requires you to use some imagination (and, in the case of intelligent books, requires you to use your analytical skills and ability to understand metaphor) indicates that books are an active medium, they insist that you make some effort which, I think, in turn encourages a person to be active in seeking out more that they will enjoy, thus increasing their chances of exploring SF movies, TV and gaming.
But books do require you to think (at least on some level), and your average mainstreamer who could potentially become an SF fan may not initially want to invest the time and effort on a book in a genre he/she has no experience with. And buying an SF book (substitute checking one out at the library, if you wish) would require a mainstreamer to go into a part of the bookstore/library where they might encounter someone who appears to be a refugee from his mother’s basement, and the thought of having to deal with this nerdy stereotype might keep them away. Or, even worse for an image concious mainstreamer, they might go into the SF section of the store/library and someone might see them and think they were a geek pursuing less-than-popularly-acceptable reading material (gasp!). The fear of being labeled as having the SF cooties by other mainstreamers might keep potential down-the-road fans away from the chance to experiment with SF. And then there’s the problem of the rate of recreational reading in our societies today. One of the panelists at the Canadian SF panel at the recent VCon I attended pointed out (and I haven’t had time to check these figures, so feel free to take them with whatever size of salt grain you feel necessary) that only 1 in 4 Canadians are recreational readers, while a mere 1 in 7 Americans are. This is deeply unsettling in countries with education systems that aspire to ensure universal literacy. And yet, not surprising given the variety of different forms of entertainment out there (like the other major types of SF culture!) and the heavy demands on personal time from work and, in some cases, family and/or education. If the public isn’t battering down the doors of our bookstores and libraries, it’s hard to make the case that books are the most effective gateway to SF for mainstreamers.
And then there’s television. This is a feast or famine form of media, where there are times with few, if any, SF shows, and other times (like now) where it’s hard to turn on the tube on any given night and not be able to find something (and that’s just taking into account the modern/current shows, never mind the reruns available on all manner of specialty channels). During the good times there’s a lot of mediocre and poor fare, but you also get your works of inspiration like the new “Battlestar Galactica”, the new “Doctor Who”, or (looking back a couple of years) “Firefly”, or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, or “Babylon 5”. And the pattern of lean times and SF gluttony on TV is cyclical enough that there aren’t more than a few bad years before SF shows start to pop up here and there, followed by copycats and franchises and a few more originals, and pretty soon there’s a good selection again to entice new fans. And the shows that are good, are generally REALLY GOOD (so good that they might even draw the grudging appreciation of mainstream critics). But even the bad and mediocre shows can draw loyal followings. Unless a show is heavy on necessary backstory, it’s usually possible for a mainstreamer flipping through the channels to come across SF, catch a moment that interests them and then stay for the rest of the episode and perhaps follow the rest of the season. From there it’s a short hop to seeing SF movies (which they’re probably doing anyway) and allowing themselves to check out a title or two in the SF section of a bookstore or give some consideration to a video game they see advertised on TV or in a mall. Moreover, once a person becomes a fan of a certain show, they’re more likely to pay attention to other, similar shows, giving SF a good chance at gaining a foothold in their entertainment preferences. TV is also a safe gateway for mainstreamers – no-one else needs to see them geeking-out to BSG or The Doctor, or, heaven forbid: Trek. This allows them to be privately and gently, but none-the-less heavily (given the long-term investment of time following a show through a season) immersed in SF over time, eventually allowing the former mainstreamer to come out of the closet to some extent as a fan and begin experimenting with other forms of SF. In this way, television is an excellent medium for existing SF fans to expose and acclimatize friends and family to their passion and eventually get those others interested in it as well. And, ultimately, television is in pretty much every home in Western cultures, offering plenty of easy, cheap opportunities to get into SF.
TV does have its drawbacks though. The really good SF shows do tend to require consistent following to be aquainted with crucial backstory and to develop bonds with characters (BSG or B5, for example, would be difficult to pick up in the middle of their gigantic and complex story arcs). Another problem, as seen with “Firefly”, is that networks are far less patient with SF shows that they “don’t get” or that are suffering in the ratings, or (and this is most definitely not the case with “Firefly”) are poor quality, and are more likely to cancel them before they’ve had a chance to develop. In this respect, a potential fan could get interested in a show, only to have it yanked from the air before he/she was able to get into it enough to want to branch out to other SF. The other problem with network execs (or should I say, an other of many problems with network execs) is the current trend to create SF shows, and then, in mortal fear of the SF cooties and losiing suspicious mainstream audiences, backpedal for all their worth and publicly declare that the shows are NOT SF, but rather political dramas that just happen to be set in space (this line has been used with BSG), or dramatic stories with occasional uncommon or supernatural elements (“Lost” has been given this treatment). These cheesy cop-outs serve to drive away mainstreamers who may watch and enjoy these programs, but get negative stereotypes of SF reinforced and thus don’t bother to accept SF as intelligent and worthwhile entertainment and fail to expand their horizons.
But for all of that, I think, sadly (because -and I will state it again – I think books are the best gateway), that TV has the slight edge. Because of the larger audience potential and the ease of encouraging private acceptance and further exploration, TV is ultimately the most effective SF gateway.