Tag Archives: Cult Tv

What I Learned from Cult TV: Friendship is Magic

Cult TV show My Little Pony

This is about my My Little Pony epiphany. I have sighed my way through a lot of bad entertainment consumption with the Executive Princess, much of it day-glo and glittery. I think the bottom of the barrel might be Barbie’s Life in the Dream House but it could also apply to the endless package openings on YouTube where that woman with the grating voice goes into orgasmic raptures in that sing-song way over every product that she’s paid to drool over.

If you do not know her, be grateful.

So I expected no less of MLP, which originally kicked off in the 80s with a film promoting a toy line (the horror of that 80s animation! If you have seen that travesty, you know of what I speak: believe me, anything that Madeline Kahn cannot rescue is irredeemable). Sure, I had heard of Bronies and other cutesy appropriations as every pony knows, but considering the unearned fanaticism that makes some folks fawn over that saccharine Speilbergian horror, Goonies, I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was another ‘I love it because I grew up with it’ phenomenon (I grew up with war pictures and Westerns: I do not generally love either). I really didn’t think MLP would be any different from, say, those interminable Strawberry Shortcake episodes (scarring, I assure you).

I certainly never expected to fight off tears watching MLP’s Rainbow Rocks.

Somehow a bunch of things collided in my head last summer while I first got immersed in Ponyville. I was also reading some Megan Abbott (Fever and then later The End of Everything) and also noticing stories like the Slenderman stabbing. They stirred up a lot of the best and worst of girlhood. There’s a darkness in it that no one much likes to admit; it can be a very claustrophobic world.

Girls lives are circumscribed by society. Much as we like to think we are free and liberal (all current evidence to the contrary), the truth remains that girls lives are tightly bound. At the far end of the spectrum, they’re literally locked away until handed over to a husband or some other patriarchal organisation; at the more lenient end, they’re hemmed in by social constructions that breed fear into their very skin. They’re both disparaged and protected. They don’t have a choice. So what happens?

Girls expand to fill the spaces allowed them.

It may be very little, it may be a little bit more. But it’s almost always less: less than they want, less than they need, leaving a permanent curvature to their psyches like bound feet. In countless ways they are encouraged to be girly: ‘you look so pretty!’ ‘isn’t she adorable?’ ‘just like a little lady.’

Yet ‘girly’ is usually a slur. I know, I’m still dealing with that one, being a former tomboy now step-monster to a quintessentially girly girl. Do you know how much glitter there is in this house? Everything seems to sparkle. It makes me feel like Lou Grant sometimes, because this girl: she’s got spunk and there is not enough pink in the world for her. She has lots of princess dresses and I don’t know how many Elsa dolls. She’s better at applying makeup and not even six. It’s not my thing: and she sighs at my mostly black clothes. She paints my nails. There’s a part of me that finds rebellion in that. Because girly gets sneers. What’s more derided in pop culture than girls and their selfies? Could it be because selfies allow girls to choose how they’re represented?

Me and Executive Princess

Because girls are never right: if they’re girly, they’re denying themselves—if they’re not girly, they’re denying everyone else (‘Can’t you wear a dress at least once in a while?’). I hear parents who claim they raise their boys and girls the same; I also hear them say things to the girls they would never say to the boys. That’s because I remember too well not being allowed to do things my brothers were allowed. Seldom said ‘because you’re a girl’ but I knew that was why.

Everything girly is tainted: pop stars, for example. Is there anyone more despised than the floppy-haired pop stars girls scream for? Cultural disdain for them is one of the few things seemingly everyone can get away with. Girls like those safe, sexless, moronic pop stars, you say. No, girls are allowed them. They channel all the passion that frightens their parents into cute and inoffensive stars. Look at all the audiences at Beatle concerts: the tears, the ecstatic expressions, the clenched fists and contorted bodies. Where else do girls get to show that? Read Abbott’s books: she’s great at revealing how girls’ desires terrify their parents — and often themselves.

One of the keys to surviving girlhood is friendship, but that’s problematic, too. Friendship when it’s manly is the stuff of Oscars and literary prizes: important. For girls it’s rivals and mean girls and frenemies, at least that’s what popular culture tells us. For girls friendship is both safety and danger. When Lauren Faust worked on MLP to demonstrate Friendship is Magic she delved into one of the most rich veins of human existence: the compressed world of girls’ power.

I’ll admit it: the MLP world is girly as girly can be: Twilight Sparkle, the solitary and bookish young royal, gets sent to Ponyville to understand the power of friendship. She hooks up with Flutter Shy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack and Rarity to discover this strange thing just in time to deal with a real crisis—the return of Nightmare Moon! Okay, if you’re still with me, this is a lot more charming than the cutesy names indicate (which were chosen by marketers after all). The dialogue of the show is often clever and there’s loads of winking references and homages (especially in the music and the music is often really good).

The essence of MLP’s world is the elements of harmony: everyone is valued for their unique abilities. The 1984/Harrison Bergeron-esque episode ‘The Cutie Map’ makes this point well. The ponies go to the mysterious village and discover its chilling appropriation of the equality sign in an attempt to make everyone in the village the same. Blah blah blah libertarian blah: the more interesting aspect comes out when our heroines start bickering over how to deal with the situation. One of the villagers asks them with alarm if their friendship is ending. The ponies are surprised because they bicker all the time: they’re all so different after all. For the villagers, however, difference = danger.

The episode hits at the fear wrapped up in girls’ friendships: that tension between wanting to be safe and trusted versus the knowledge that they have power over someone and want to test it. Girls have power over so little. The nice thing about MLP is that they demonstrate all the ways that friendships can be stressed by these differences—the anger and the frustration—but they also show the rewards of bringing those differences together to celebrate their community. Not just each other: their community, their town Ponyville and all of Equestria. But it’s never easy.

You see, the thing I hadn’t anticipated was how dark MLP gets. One of the monsters they fight is a creature called Discord. His chief evil is turning all the friends against each other. Of course they need to come together to fight him and he’s vanquished by being turned into stone, yet the discord between the friends causes them a great deal of pain. Like Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings or Lord Tirek, antagonists are often removed or neutralized, but sometimes they’re brought back and rehabilitated. One of the foundational myths of Equestria is that Princess Luna is the restored Nightmare Moon. Even Discord’s magic is believed to have its uses. No one is doomed to being evil.

Rainbow Rocks

In the Equestria Girls narratives (where the ponies become girls in an alternate world no there’s no time to explain, just roll with it) this idea of reclaiming those who would abuse power is key. In the first EG film Sunset Shimmer tries to steal Equestrian magic for her own self-aggrandizement. The girls stop her selfish use of power with their collective cooperation, which Twilight Sparkle spends most of the story building because in this world, the friendships had soured. Despite the anger and hurt from misunderstandings,  that cooperation is something they all yearn for—and its power. Power for yourself alone is bad. There’s nothing wrong with competition (ask Rainbow Dash!) but when you think the world revolves around you, the girls will stop you.

Even more interesting is the follow-up Equestria Girls adventure, my fave Rainbow Rocks. You know I’m a sucker for a battle of the bands. The songs are seriously good pop songs. Part of the appeal of the story is that Sunset Shimmer spends most of the story being cold-shouldered for her past mistakes, even when she tries to help make things better. Twilight Sparkle insists on her being part of the gang, but the others find it difficult to get over her previous bad behaviour. Her outsider status allows her to see the clashes that begin to crack up their tight relationships, though of course no one wants to listen to her.

As their rivals, the magically powered Dazzlings, gain power—all for the glory of Adagio Dazzle (‘We Will Be Adored’)—the girls bicker bitterly with each other, trapped below the stage for the finale. Escaping by luck, they almost succeed in the supernatural fight, but the Dazzlings are too powerful what with their magic amulets. It’s only when the Equestria Girls realise they need to truly welcome Sunset Shimmer—not just tolerate her presence—that they have the power to stand up to the magical assault from the Dazzlings (also thanks to DJ Pon-3’s cool mobile DJ station–the unsung heroine!).

It may not sound like much, but it chokes me up every time. There’s just something about the exile being welcomed at last, the outsider invited in. Maybe all the scorned hope for understanding. We may only get it in fiction, yet it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m lucky: I have a secret cabal of powerful, creative, magical women in my corner (though literally around the world). It didn’t happen over night and there are always some bumps along the road. I know how important it is to tend that garden (she says mixing metaphors like assorted nuts). It’s essential to have that kind of support. We need to be there to call bullshit on those negative messages women all hear just because we’re female. There’s an incredible power in testifying, ‘No, it’s not just you’—that many of us have been in the same situation–especially when all the other voices of experience avalanche like candy from a piñata.

I’m hoping the that uphill battle is changing. While it’s a bit hard to believe as we inhale the last poisonous gasp of truly toxic misogyny, I’m hanging on for tomorrow. Largely because there’s this Executive Princess here. I want to see what she’s becoming. I’ve got a feeling it will be something amazing. When the generation of girls who bellow along with ‘Let It Go!’ come to power, we all better hang on to our hats.

I don’t care / what they’re going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway. [door slam]

Elsa slams door

Things I Learned from Cult TV : Alex Bardy

‘V’ The Original Mini-Series (incl. V: The Final Battle)

 

*** WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD ***

From the dreary, droning soundtrack and the contrasting credits that flash up to flag each actor/actress we’re about to see (delivered in typical Dallas or Dynasty style), one could be forgiven for not expecting much from the original ‘V’ mini-series. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere on a Monday night at the start of the children’s summer holidays, on 30th July 1984 here in the UK. The two-part mini-series, called simply ‘V’ was shown on Monday and Tuesday, and was followed by the three-part sequel V: The Final Battle on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – a five-day extravaganza of sci-fi drama and action the like of which hadn’t really been seen on British TV before.

I was just fourteen at the time, and while I don’t recall the exact details of the broadcast, I do know it was on ITV every evening of the week, with a break in the middle for the News At Ten (which Dad always watched). And after being allowed to stay up and watch the first one (again, with Dad), my world irrevocably changed…

It would be another four or five years before Star Trek: The Next Generation would be unleashed on the world, and ten years or so before Deep Space Nine appeared, so at the time this was the closest thing you could get to anything approaching big budget spaceships and aliens on TV, or at least, that’s how it felt at the time – needless to say the show itself doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny nowadays. Previous to this, I’d been an avid viewer of Battlestar Galactica (and its terrible sequel, Galactica 1980), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Logan’s Run and several other ‘future/space’ shows, and both Blakes Seven and Dr Who had long since dropped off my radar (esp. once Tom Baker left the latter), so other than Knight Rider, there was very little ‘bells & whistles’ TV available for an impressionable kid of the early 1980s when this came to our screens.

‘V’ taught me many things, and introduced me to many more – and all of them in the same week, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

A quick summary first. In brief, visitors come from outer space claiming to be on a mission of peace, they park their huge mega-spaceships in the air above all the major cities, appear to be similar to humans and proceed to ingratiate themselves into all the major communities of the world. They apparently need some of Earth’s resources, and through elaborate machinations involving a bogus ‘scientist’s revolt’, end up enforcing a state of fascistic martial law on the entire planet while they carry out the systematic draining of its main resource: water. They also want to use humans for food, and turn them into soldiers for a war that’s rarely referenced later in the series, but that’s another story. To the surprise of no-one, it was an allegorical tale recalling the Nazi occupations of 1939 and even the stylised Visitor badge/logo is reminiscent of a Nazi swastika.

The Visitors badge and logo appeared prominently throughout the series,
the similarities to the swastika have been well-documented since.

Back then I was oblivious to any of this, every part of me transfixed and filled to bursting by all the amazing guns (“Even that Daniel kid has one, Dad!”), the huge motherships and smaller shuttle craft, the incredibly pretty alien leaders (most of them blonde), the true reptilian nature of the aliens underneath their soft-skinned human exterior, the action scenes, the alien baby (called the Star Child of all things), everything about the show in fact – my wide-eyed, innocent younger self had never seen anything like it, and I firmly believe this series alone shifted the goalposts as to what could be seen at home on your own TV without venturing out to a cinema. Consequently, it also shaped my own expectations as to what incredible worlds and universes an active imagination could transport you to, and an appreciation of those same worlds that could be created for the entertainment of others without ever having to leave the planet.

I started taking more active interest in what books and comics I wanted to read shortly after this series aired, decided I wanted to be an astronautical engineer when I was older (that didn’t happen), and also discovered roleplaying games for the first time; and all this because I wanted to pilot a spacecraft and defend the human race, just like our heroes Mike Donovan and Dr Julie Parrish seemed to do.

Alas, many dreams and wishes of youth never really came to pass, but I have remained hooked on science fiction (and fantasy) books ever since, and this proved the founding stone that kick-started a lifetime’s interest in discovering other worlds of the imagination. I did manage to branch out into editing fanzines in later years (incl. Dark Elf, Eh?, Cerebretron and Sierra Heaven), and reading some horror and mystery/thrillers too, but the latter have never really held quite the same appeal.

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It’s hard to put my finger on just why I have such abiding memories of ‘V’, but the iconic scenes throughout are probably a big part of it, and many of them tinged with humour too:

seeing a granny throw a Molotov cocktail into a shuttle craft showed me that even old people could be rebellious; watching one of the busty female visitors strip to her underwear probably left an altogether different type of imprint on me, I suspect (“You sure don’t look like an iguana!” remarks our hero, Mike Donovan); the crazy acrobatics of the small shuttle as Mike makes his maiden flight as a space pilot showed me that even heroes could get it all wrong; the hopelessly poor aiming throughout the series (seemingly alien and human alike were all terribly bad shots) taught me how TV makers could maintain interest by stretching fight scenes and keeping multiple flashes of laser-fire on the screen at the same time; the powerful female characters throughout showed me that women could be just as badass as men in real-life … the list of youthful influences goes on. There were many things in the show that were there simply to be enjoyed as part of the overall visual extravaganza, but once again back then a lot of the underlying message and meaning was lost on me (and truth be told, probably doesn’t bear up to thorough scrutiny now) – lost that is, in a haze of gun battles, explosions, attractive women leaders, and of course, green reptilian-like aliens…

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This is one of the many symbolic images that defined the series. The smiley face of the
Visitors sits comfortably alongside the little reptile you’ll uncover once you start digging…

And then there was that iconic scene when Diana, the ruthlessly ambitious alien science leader, swallows a live guinea pig in one gulp just before the credits rolled on part one… this alone remains a memory forever seared into my soul – despite appearances, aliens were not very nice people, and TV producers could be absolute buggers when it comes to leaving viewers begging for more…

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Things didn’t let up after the two-part mini-series, either, with V: The Final Battle proving –in three parts – just as chock full of iconic scenes and grisly drama: the uncovering of leader John’s reptilian skin beneath his face was broadcast across all TV networks, making us feel like we finally had a chance against the visitors (listen to me, us and we he says…); Mike Donovan’s mother shooting at her own son was a sure sign that she was beyond redemption. Similarly, there was the come-uppance of that traitorous little blighter, Daniel – yes, he shot our beloved Ruby, captured our heroine Julie, and was generally an irritable little twerp throughout – but the bullying lapdog did at least get what was coming to him: I couldn’t have been the only one who cheered when he was led off to be served on a silver platter for his former masters… Yup, another rock solid fist-in-the-air from my younger self!

But there was still more: the iconic birth of the twins: one normal-ish (albeit with a forked tongue, aka The Star Child), the other as green and slimy as you like; watching Diana’s truth serum in action as Mike is forced to reveal his green-skinned spy-cum-collaborator, the remarkably deadpan Martin; seeing the spandex-clad Julie and also that famous Dr Whatsisname experience the dreaded conversion chamber taught me that cream-nude was a colour that could never catch on… then there was the somewhat OTT death scene for that poor defenceless little green devil-twin while the ‘normal’ Star Child shed one skin after the next, growing so fast that we all knew she was evidently having more than the famed three shredded wheat that no-one else could manage according to the TV ads of the time… 😉

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Other notables: an ex-army priest carrying a gun everywhere he went, and that same priest being so hopelessly misled by his unerring faith in God that he brings the Star Child to Diana along with his trusted bible, it’s hardly surprising when Diana’s take on the bible proves somewhat at odds with his own lofty expectations.

Ahhh… the little green alien thingy… We were supposed to go teary-eyed when this blighter snuffed it…

Yeh, there was hammy acting, and even hammier dialogue, and plenty of blossoming relationships that were bound to end on the trash-heap, with your typical “we’ll get married after this”-type scene resulting in at least one or the other being disappointed after the next raid. That said, the stumbling relationship between Harmony and the hapless, clumsy Willie (Robert Englund aka Freddy Krueger playing a painfully shy alien) could probably be considered a roaring success compared to the fate that befell visitor poster-boy Brian and the seemingly innocent Robin – yes, they begat the Star Child and the green thingy between them, but responsible parenting stopped when Robin decided to use Brian as a guinea pig while her daughter looks on…

‘V’ also showed me how people could deceive those they love yet still remain at heart good people, it showed me how even bad evil aliens could have a good side, and it also showed me the flipside of human misery and suffering in all its glory, and therein lies the rub, because it’s clear throughout the series that humans could also be very nasty indeed: selling each other out to the visitors at the drop of a hat, backstabbing their own for a brief slice of recognition, lauding it over those in less fortunate circumstances, the dread consequences of misplaced hope, trust and belief… The whole gamut of human weakness gets an airing, our moral frailties exposed again and again throughout, and at the heart of it the knowledge that none of this is real, yet deep down it is just that: it’s all too real and has already happened in one form or another in our past, whether or not people still choose to believe it.

 

Yes, a remarkable pair of mini-series was ‘V’ and V: The Final Battle, but all the moreso for an awkward, spotty teenager who struggled to find a place for himself between the cool footballers of the school and the smarty-pants nerdy-types (I was very good at football yet smart enough to hang with the nerds, too) – it looks like the nerds may have won that one, though, or lost it, depending on your point of view… 😀

 

SOME HANDY LINKS TO CHECK OUT:

Link to IMDB entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085106/

Link to short V summary vid (recapping the first episode: 2 min warning!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M77HfZu24bw

 

Things I Learned from Cult TV : Dave Probert

Unhappy Endings

Some of my earliest formative memories are of cult TV. Particularly from the year 1981. I remember being terrified of the Watcher in “Logopolis” and seeing Tom Baker transform into Peter Davison. I also distinctly remember the ending of the final episode of Blakes 7, simply entitled “Blake”.

I was four years old and my father was a sci-fi fan and watched the show regularly. I was too young to fully understand what was going on but I knew that by the end the heroes of the show were being killed one by one. It is well remembered as one of the most shocking ends to a show in the history of television and with good reason.

Many years later, as a teenager, I began to collect episodes of the show on VHS. The episodes I chose to buy were from the first three series. The memory of that final episode was still with me and I didn’t feel ready to watch it again.

In my early thirties I obtained the whole series and started to make my way through it. It was as good as I had always remembered. Sure, there were some shortcomings in the special effects and some of the costume designs and acting choices were quite out there, but it was more than made up for with some sparkling dialogue and some great characterisation which made you question both the methods and motivations of the main characters who are ostensibly our heroes.

Blake leads a rebellion against a totalitarian regime, the Federation, but as the series goes on it becomes clear that being righteous isn’t the same as being right. Blake’s war against the Federation is fuelled by obsession and ego. Blake doesn’t just want to destroy the Federation he wants to be seen to be the one destroying it. This arrogance leads him to push forward with actions that are ill advised. The goal is more important to him than how it is achieved. His actions lead to the deaths of allies and members of his crew. His initial reaction to his first major defeat is to sulk on an uninhabited planet and lick his wounds.

blakes7

When he finally gets into a position to strike a potentially fatal blow to the Federation, he finds that he can’t do it because of a greater threat preparing to invade their galaxy. Instead of destroying the Federation he finds he has to not only warn them but fight alongside them against their mutual enemy.

The crew of the Liberator never fully recovers from this defeat. Blake disappears and Avon, Blake’s most vehement detractor amongst the crew, finds himself in command of the ship. While this is something that he has wanted since he got on board, Avon finds that being in charge isn’t everything he thought it would be and develops obsessions of his own.

The first of these obsessions is avenging the death of his lover, whom he believes the Federation killed when he was arrested for large scale embezzlement. This truth of what happened shakes him and he becomes obsessed with a new goal: finding Blake.

This obsession will lead to the destruction of the Liberator, the death of one of his crew and the rest of them being marooned. Even when they find salvation and a new base of operations Avon has become totally obsessed with fighting Blake’s fight and finding the man himself. When, in that final episode, they finally meet both men are so changed by what they have gone through as to almost not recognise each other. Blake’s poor decisions along with Avon’s paranoia lead to everyone getting killed and the Federation winning.

blakes72

What does all of this have to do with my memories of first seeing “Blake”? Well, I didn’t know it then but I was being taught an important lesson. As a child we are told stories with happy endings. Happy endings make us feel safe and comforted. They give us hope that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. Blakes 7 was always more complex, watching it again for the first time since I was four, there is a feeling of doom about the episode but also an inevitable culmination of events. Avon has been on the back foot the whole series suffering defeat after defeat. Avon smiles as he is about to be killed because deep down he has always known that this was how it was going to end. He knew as early as “Cygnus Alpha”, the third episode of series A. In that episode he tells Jenna that they should take the Liberator and abandon Blake:

“We have to. He’s a crusader, he’ll look at all this as just another weapon to use against the Federation and he can’t win. You know he can’t win. Which do you want to be? Rich or dead?”

Jenna elects to be loyal to Blake, but Avon’s prediction about their fate hangs over everything they do and ultimately he is proven right. When it happens it feels like the only way it could have ended. They were a handful of people with conflicting goals attempting to stand up to the might of a massive empire. It was never going to end well for them and it doesn’t.

What Blakes 7 taught me is that a happy ending isn’t necessarily the appropriate ending for a story and that an unhappy ending can still feel right. It is a lesson that took a long time for me to process and it is a lesson that I am glad to have learned.

Things I learned from Cult TV : Carol Borden

Project Runway

I used to watch American Chopper with my good friend alex. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s about a family owned and operated custom motorcycle shop. It became a huge media deal. You can’t stop in a New York State rest stop without finding a selection of Orange County Choppers shirts. Alex and I liked seeing the process involved in making bikes. We liked seeing people work together and solve problems. And when the show went batshit crazy with drama, we just stopped watching. I have rubbernecked as much as the next morally-compromised person, but it turns out that I am more interested in seeing the creative process than distressed or exhausted people acting out, let alone a family tear itself apart.

Early on in American Chopper, I noticed that bike designer Paulie Jr. kept building the same bike. He had no interest in building a bike that wasn’t one he liked. He complained about building an “uncool” Santa themed bike that would entertain kids in a local holiday parade. Though it’s possilble seeing how happy little kids could be made by the uncool caused his heart to grow two sizes that day because eve after building a few of his dream bikes, he started designing ones that took his clients’ desires and taste into account. And I was fascinated by Paulie Jr.’s evolution because some artists never get past building the same bike over and over. We can all plateau. After being driven away by the too painful interfamily drama of American Chopper, I picked up on Project Runway and I got some of the same satisfaction out of it that I did with American Chopper.  Every week, Project Runway reminds artists that you have to figure out how to do something your way and you have to know when to drop something that’s not working.

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On Project Runway, designers compete to show a collection at New York Fashion Week as well as win  prizes that vary every year, but always include: a chunk of cash, make-up services from companies ranging from L’Oreal to Mary Kay and a sewing and embroidery studio. Model Heidi Klum gives the designers a challenge and then they have one or two days (most often one, lately) to create their design. The challenges include designing around a theme, making avante-garde clothes, creating their own fabric designs, or working with “unconventional materials.” The latter challenge is often the most fun, as designers work with materials they’ve gotten at the grocery store, a flower market, ripped from a car, or found at Coney Island, for example. The designs are judged by Heidi Klum, Marie Claire fashion director Nina García, and, in the early seasons, designer Michael Kors or, in more recent seasons, designer and cartoon tom cat Zac Posen. There’s also a weekly guest judge who might be another designer like Betsey Johnson, a costume designer like Bob Mackie, a tv star, a fashion blogger or an executive from whatever corporation sponsors the challenge. Each week, one designer wins and one designer is eliminated or “auf’d,” after Klum’s habit of saying “Auf Wiedersehen” to losing contestants.

Sure, there is ginned-up reality show drama, weird product placement (why keep that refrigerator in the shot?) and heavy-handed corporate sponsorship, but I watch for the process of creation, the struggle to make something within insane parameters and for Tim Gunn. Gunn is the designers’ mentor. As Parson’s New School of Design former chair of fashion, he is a man who understands himself as an educator first–which also leads to some charmingly awkward voice-overs and readings of scripted product placement.

I mention Parson’s, Marie Claire and corporate sponsors to give a sense of the variety of perspectives and some of the competing tensions in the show. Marketing and art. Experts and people who just like what they like. People who really know what they are talking about and, sometimes, people who really, really don’t. And these tensions encompass the tensions in fashion—and other commercial art pretty well. Sometimes it means gorgeous couture gowns and sometimes that means a tortured attempt to make a Samsung tv relevant in a sponsored challenge as Tim gunn awkwardly stands by a television reciting: “Your new challenge is intended to test your ability to push the boundaries of design, just as Samsung has done here with their new ultra-high-definition TV.”

But even during the most convoluted challenge, I still enjoy watching the designers decide what to create and how. Lessons I’ve learned the hard way are well-illustrated by the show and pithily summarized by Tim Gunn. “Make it work” is much more concise than what I generally think of as “working with what you have,” or “work with yourself or around yourself.” It might be a catchphrase now, but “make it work” summarizes a lot about creation.

In Project Runway‘s work room, I see designers struggle every week with knowing: when to abandon the ideal in favor of making something as good as it can be now; the difference between tenaciously trusting yourself and stubbornly refusing to see the fugly or sometimes far too revealing truth before you; knowing when to jettison something that’s not working, even when you love it; learning that constraints of time, materials, budget can be liberating. In any kind of creative project, it’s easy to get hung up on what something should be, blinding you to the difference between what you are trying to make and what you have made, and preventing you from following your creation to its best conclusion.

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I hear the designers say things that I have thought or said about my own writing. It’s hard to recognize that what you want to accomplish and what you have accomplished are not necessarily the same. And clinging too strongly to either can ruin your work. I’m doing better with that, but I would like to be able to communicate more effectively to a variety of people when they ask for an opinion or an edit. Tim Gunn demonstrates an approach to art that, if not universal, is easily adapted, and there’s a lot to learn from how he talks to individuals to help them achieve their best work. Being able to say the right thing in a way that cuts through mental static, uncertainty, distress, even absolute certainty to help someone see what they have done and what it can be is tremendously difficult. I admire Tim Gunn’s ability to calibrate his responses and suggestions so that they are honest, clear and effective with each individual designer. He finds a way to communicate his concerns effectively to a variety of people about a variety of designs. And he’s so good at it that it’s more noticeable when he can’t find a way to help a designer because he almost always does.

 

On Project Runway, you can recognize the designers in trouble by the things they say. Almost anyone who says, “I’m going to stay true to my vision” is doomed. There are designers who have trapped themselves during a challenge because they can only imagine bad clothes that they don’t like. They usually say, “I don’t do red carpet gowns” or “I don’t do color.”  The designers who confuse design with good sewing skills remind of me of people who think good writing is mostly excellent spelling. And there are the extremely talented but defensive designers who have a hard time listening because they’ve always been the best in the room—or because they’ve been alone with their work for too long. Sometimes these same designers crumble after receiving criticism, losing faith in themselves. The more experienced designers either scrap the design and start over or try to make what they have work. And if they really do know their own vision, and their own strengths and weaknesses, they might decide to stay with their original design. And they might even win. The trick, as always, is knowing how to make it work.

 

Things I learned from Cult TV : Brian Baer

Going into the World 

As I grew up, Cult TV provided a precious escape from suburbia. Being trapped in a cul de sac in a small, dull town was somehow more bearable when I could imagine Fox Mulder and Sam Beckett out there having adventures. The more escapist, the better.

Initially, that’s what drew me to Star Trek. The outside world never seemed bigger than when I was watching Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in the 23rd century, overthrowing evil computers and having their three-headed debates about human nature. Their Technicolor sets were often little more than cardboard, but they still hinted at an intergalactic grandeur that inspired me. But I didn’t travel for myself, at least not at first. That didn’t happen until I discovered Doctor Who.

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I was one of many who came onboard after the 2005 relaunch and began devouring every episode, new and old, that I could find. Doctor Who‘s scope of adventure seemed even larger, as I watched those lucky companions travel through both space and time, but it was also somehow more grounded. It was easier to picture myself as part of the action. It was no longer simply watching someone else experience a new place, it was practically an invitation to have my own adventures. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.

So I went out into the world. I visited the Torchwood tower in Cardiff and attended a Star Trek exhibition outside of Berlin. I took blind trips, stepping off of a bus in a strange country with no idea what language they spoke, what sort of money they used, to better feel like I’d just beamed down or stepped out of the TARDIS. As great as it was, I began to realize I’d overlooked the underlying point of these programs.

Star Trek was never really about exploring the stars. Doctor Who isn’t about running from Daleks. They’re both about exploring humanity, discovering our strengths and our flaws, and how to be our very best. They promote acceptance and celebrate diversity. That shiny veneer of the future I’ve been drawn to is these shows’ inherent optimism, the belief we could get over what plagues us now.

Cult TV has inspired me to try new things, go to new places, and consider new ideas. It shows us that the future can be a better place, and encourages us to be better people as well.

 

Foxy Friday : Kate Jones

Please send your Foxy Friday recommendations to submissions@foxspirit. co.uk, now over to Kate.

For 2015, I’ve resolved to review and recommend more works of fiction with diverse casts which feature issues of diversity as character notes rather than plot points. I want to see these characters starring in gripping stories which don’t necessarily revolve around their experiences of being a person of colour, a non-heterosexual, a transgendered person or someone struggling with illness. For my Foxy Friday, I’ve chosen five works that are gloriously entertaining which also provide a platform for characters who don’t fit in and aren’t necessarily trying to. Here’s my celebration of the misfits, the geeks, the sex workers, the BDSM community, the people of colour, the working classes, the chronically ill, the injured, the disenfranchised women, the old folk and my hope for everyone who may have struggled to find a story with a central protagonist who is just like them.

Fantasy Novel

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Give me this over any 50 shades book any day! A wonderful and complicated political intrigue, set in a world where sex work is considered an honourable career choice. So refreshing to read a fantasy book set in a world where women can enjoy power within sex, where their right to say ‘no’ is sacred and their wish to enjoy physical pleasure is not shamed. If you are looking for a book which respects diversity in sexual taste and also tells a compelling story, this one is for you.

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Short Story

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman

I love old tales and legends, myths that have endured and seeped into our consciousness. In this story, I loved the idea that they are still here, not strange and distant but part of our own small worlds of charity shops, families and daily life. This story reminds me that the fantastical can be part our everyday lives, and that our everyday lives can be improved for their accidental brushes against it. It also reminds me that not all heroines are necessarily young and beautiful, although they may still remember the days when they once were.

Fantasy Novella

Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

#WeNeedDiverseBooks and this one is a great starter! Cordelia Vorkosigan, plunged by marriage into an archaic, socially divided world, struggles to fit into her new home. She faces prejudiced behaviours which are new to her, including sexism, homophobia, institutional class bias, poverty and ableism. With help from a misfit band of social outcasts, Cordelia defies these social rules and restrictions, a course of action which culminates in a covert mission to rescue her infant son during a revolution and change the world for all future generations of Barrayarans.

Barrayar

TV Series

Spaced

Priot to becoming megastars with epic geek credentials, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost starred Spaced. With only two series, each containing six half-hour epsiodes, you could watch the lot in an afternoon. Meet Tim and Daisy, two artistically inclined and utterly hapless twenty-somethings, who along with their diverse cast of friends and acquaintances are trying to avoid growing up. Each episode is a miniture jewel, littered with delicious geeky references to sci-fi, fantasy, horror and all things cult and classic. If you’re a young geek who hasn’t figured out where life is going yet – watch Spaced, and know that you’re not alone.

Film

Attack The Block

Forget the army, forget the police – it’s up to a South London gang of teenage hoods to save their neighbourhood from an alien menace. Clueless but determined, lead by Moses (John Boyega, now confirmed for a lead role in Star Wars VII), the gang aim to defend their territory with a little help from a nurse, a couple of drug dealers and some teenage girls. Attack The Block is a raucous comedy, but also touches on more serious issues, such as racism, crime, child neglect, poverty and distrust of the police, alongside positive ideals such as honour, bravery and loyalty.

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Things I Learned from Cult TV by Dave Gaskell

The cold never bothered me anyway

 

One Wednesday afternoon in the very early 1990s BBC2 aired the TNG episode The Best of Both Worlds Part 1, the game changing season three cliffhanger which pretty much informed on every Star Trek incarnation from then on. As a scifi/fantasy/cult TV nerd of longstanding I was suitably agog when old Locutus of Borg filled the viewscreen and then beardy shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later Will Riker gave the order to fire. Like Isaac Asimov shouting out for them to ‘start part three’ as the credits rolled at a screening of The Empire Strikes Back, I was quaking to see the conclusion. Okay, I thought, it’s a season finale, I’ll have to wait like everyone else… How naïve I was.

The BBC lost the first run rights (didn’t fight for the rights?) to screen TNG after that. I didn’t have access to Sky One, and lived in a small village in the north of England with little or no access to video rental beyond a few copies of Death Wish 4 and Ladyhawke on a revolving carousel in the off licence. No internet back then, no VOD, DVD. Pretty tough to find any spoilers in the years before the global village.

I waited almost two years to find out what the hell happened. Although it did not produce a sudden epiphany, those two years in the phantom zone taught me a lesson, perhaps the most important lesson I have learned about being a cult TV fan: sometimes you have to just let it go.

Living in this time of tenuous television I witnessed horrors and disappointments. I lived through the annual decimation of the cult TV landscape.

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Prey, Profiler, Millenium, Early Edition, VR5, Space: Above and Beyond, Seaquest (DSV and 2032), Earth 2, Dark Skies, First Wave, Crusade, Time Trax, Nowhere Man, Space Precinct, Crime Traveller, Earth: Final Conflict, Beauty and the Beast, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. All gone all too quickly (well, most of them anyway).

This is by no means a complete list, and I’m not saying they were all worth saving (it is a sad indictment of British cult TV at the time that without remembering a single sharp detail of the lacklustre Crime Traveller I think of it fondly and the DVD is in my Amazon basket as I write this). There wasn’t a Buffy or a Battlestar Galactica among them, but I remember them all like Mr Chips remembers his pupils. They were offered to us as an investment: invest your time, invest your emotion, invest your money even. And then they were gone.

I know that for every half a dozen of these there might have been an X-Files or a DS9 or an SG1 but there were times I didn’t want to play that game. I didn’t want to set myself up for the fall. Those short and intense relationships can take their toll. I know it’s not me, it’s you; and I know it’s not personal, it’s business and viewer demographics and advertising and blah blah blah but goldarn it you ask us to care!

So in these thoughts, myself almost despising, haply I thought on TNG.

I thought on that long and frustrating wait between S03E26 and S04E01 and how I’d played all scenarios in my mind. I remembered how I took solace in remembering and re-watching. I recalled how the hole in my fanboy life had been filled by self-reliance, novels and a dozen unproduced screenplays of my own. I remembered that I’d never picked up a novel in my life which was cancelled before the end or frustrated me with two year cliffhangers (A Song of Ice and Fire notwithstanding).

So these days, when Revolution goes, or we lose Almost Human, or Believe, I can sit back and smile at the memory of those brief yet intimate moments we shared, and I can deal with them not lasting forever. And I also know none of them have truly gone. Because boxsets!

shiny

From watching – and being prevented from watching – cult TV I have learned patience, forgiveness and to take what I can get. If you ask me if I’d rather have a cancelled-after-one-season Firefly or no Firefly at all, I’ll take the short and shiny thank you very much.

Things I Learned from Cult TV by N.O.A. Rawle

What I learned from cult TV – A Window on the Weird!

 

I grew up without TV. That is to say the years before I became aware of what effect I could have on the world around me and how I could manipulate it, were TV free. Then in 1977, the most amazing thing happened; the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee. Now I’m not especially a royalist it’s just that this meant my parents decided it was time we had a TV.

I was enthralled! All the pictures I had had only in my imagination until then became a monochrome reality; toys could talk and walk, miracles happened and aliens were common place! TV time was warped; unlike my toys, it didn’t wait for me while I went off to eat my tea.

As I cowered behind the sofa peering over my father’s shoulder as the Daleks advanced on Doctor Who, it occurred to me, that there was something bizarre either about me or human nature. My dread was what kept me glued to the screen (one eye at a time). This has to be the essence of speculative fiction: facing one’s fear of unknown possibilities regardless of the consequences!

Then later, as Joanna Lumley strutted her stuff in Sapphire and Steel I discovered that there was a tacit agenda between a man and a woman that was much more exciting than playing house. Zombie mutated form of chase became a favoured game tested on the unwitting boys in the fourth grade of primary school!

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The Whiz Kids let me know that I needed to stick to my guns and not give up, no matter what sort of pickles I got into (and there were many), technology would always be there to back me up. The re-runs of Children of the Stones told me the weird could happen closer to home than I had hoped possible – I lived then not far from Avebury. Robin of Sherwood brought my all-time hero to life and intermingled the legend with the arcane. Blake’s 7 gave me the ever delicious concept of the reluctant hero. Then Sonny Crocket in Miami Vice confirmed my long-held belief that good and bad are not clear-cut issues, no hero is without flaws. It was also on this series that my first stories were loosely based.

So it is not one show but many moulded my impressionable imagination. Cult TV gave me a perspective far broader than my immediate world. The Hollywood camera angles and soundtracks of the American shows gave my visions new depth and scope. The weird creativity of the British ones freed me of my inhibitions and fear that the murky depths of my imagination were something to be ashamed of. All in all, cult TV series taught me that to view the world as the weird and gave me the confidence that the pictures in my head could become one form of reality or another.

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I’ll let Blake’s 7’s Dr Havant have the last word, “Reality is a dangerous concept. Each one of us interprets it in a slightly different way. Every sense impression is filtered by the brain and altered, sometimes just a little, sometimes completely, to fit our individual model of what the world is about. If that model should be challenged…”

Things I Learned from Cult TV by Tom Everley

Pagans in Space

 With the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, I can’t start a conversation, walk into a shop, or look on social media without hearing about someone’s fascination for everyone’s favourite tree, the lovable Groot. But it seems a little strange to me that it took an unlikely friendship with a machine gun wielding raccoon for us to notice the importance of nature.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-groot

Let me take you back around fifteen years: I was but a teenage boy, home from school. Homework done, I was finally allowed to watch TV. Most nights, I’d enjoy the animated antics of The Simpsons, but tonight something different was about to happen – something new. I was about to discover for the first time a show that would forever have a place in my heart: The crazy, dark, mind*%@^ of guns, aliens and puppetry that we all know as Farscape.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But wait! I can see some of the similarities between Guardians and Farscape – the badass human on the other side of the universe, shooting stuff up, the evil empire keeping other races in check, the daring spaceship chases that made me more excited than I’m proud to admit. But Groot? Are you high?”

Well, bear with me. There is a Groot-like character in Farscape that a lot of people (unjustly) tend to forget about – Moya.

moya

Moya isn’t just a ship; she’s a Leviathan, a living ship. And just like Rocket and Groot, the crew have a symbiotic dependency with her. We hear her scream in battle; we see Pilot double over in physical pain whenever they take a hit; we even see her give birth. I’ll agree, she didn’t any zingy one-liners, but I doubt we’ll be seeing the QE2 with a lifeboat in the oven any time soon (if you know what I mean)!

Farscape, in particular the relationship between Moya and Pilot, taught me an important lesson that I still carry with me. Just because we can’t hear what our environment is saying doesn’t mean it isn’t screaming out in pain. The show taught me that we need to respect our world around us, look after the planet and pay attention to nature. After all, is the Earth not simply our own living spaceship?

By now some of you will have either stopped reading or are rolling your eyes muttering, “Tsk! Bloody bleeding heart liberals! What, would they have us all worshipping moss like some filthy pagans?” Well, let me end with a question: How many times in the five years it was on TV would Farscape have had to include the line, “I am Moya!” before everyone started going all goo-goo eyed and squeeing, “Awww! It’s so cute!”

Things I Learned from Cult TV by Alex Davis

Looking Into the Black Mirror

In terms of Cult TV, Channel 4 has always been where it’s at for me. From some of my favourite comedies – the overblown horror of ‘dreamweaver’ Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and the smutty delight of Pets – to dark dramas such as The Fear, featuring an incredible central performance from Peter Mullan, Four has always been my number one stop for my viewing.

The stand-out series in recent times, in my opinion, has to be Charlie Brooker’s superb Black Mirror. I’ve always been partial to loosely-linked one-off shows like this, having grown up on a steady diet of The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Tales from the Crypt and The Outer Limits. But from its first episode – the gut-wrenching dark comedy of The National Anthem – I was hooked in. Here was a series that left me asking questions every single week, not just of the world around me but also of myself. Fifteen Million Merits asked just how far reality TV would go, something that often revolves around my own mind – where is the bottom of the national obsession with these constructed realities? Be Right Back addressed a commonly-explored theme – namely, would you bring you loved ones back from the dead, given the chance – with a technological slant. Even more powerful, to me, was White Bear, something that took this formula even further – namely, punishment for crimes as a form of national entertainment. Does the sentence go to far, or is it possible to argue that the punishment fits the crime better than even our own justice system?

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And while these are clearly nightmarish scenarios, a little part of your brain tends to think – would I do the same thing, in that situation? And would it truly end any differently? By turn thought-provoking, intelligent, and grimly amusing, I can only hope that we’ll get a third chance to stare into the Black Mirror and see what lies behind it. Because what really made this show stand out above many of its dystopian counterparts is that each episode felt so believable. There was no sense of looking, hundreds, or thousands of years into the future – each felt like a glimpse into a future that could be here sooner than we think.