Things I learned from Cult TV by Fiona Hutchings

Life Lessons in 50 Minutes

Cult TV shows become cult because they provide the viewer with something to relate to.  It might be a character or story resonates with the audience straight away or makes us laugh.  Equally it might provoke confusion and even distress but being aware that we are reacting is why we watch some things over and over, quote them to our friends and ‘like’ them on Facebook.

ST:TNG and DS9 both taught me that no one is every wholly good or bad and that sometimes painful decisions are necessary.  Troi sending La Forge to his certain death in order to pass her command exam has always stuck in my mind.  While Roddenberry’s optimistic view of humanity was a welcome relief from the many apocalyptic/post apocalyptic visions of the future, it didn’t shy away from showing some situations can not be resolved neatly and painlessly.  While Kirk revelled in being the boss, TNG explored the weight of responsibility that comes with power.


This was also a recurring theme in The West Wing.  In the season 2 finale ‘Two Cathedrals’ the President stops being the commander in chief and instead becomes accessible.  He stands alone in the great and holy space and vents his sheer fury with the God he believes in.  His anger and confusion and disgust as he rails against a force unseen and unheard resonated with me so powerfully the scene left me sobbing.  I thought I was the only person who struggled with reconciling the idea of a supposedly loving God  with the pain and hate and downright unfairness I see in life everyday.

Doctor Who taught me that love can run very deep without being romantic or parental and that no man is an island, even a mad man in a box.  The Doctor in all his regenerations has been very clever but despite having two hearts he has relied on the human sensitivities of many of his companions to come to important decisions.  In return his companions and his audience have been presented with ethical dilemmas with no obvious answer and resolutions that must be reached with the minimum of violence, at least on The Doctor’s part.

Firefly demonstrated that morality is a social construct not an absolute.  If Inara Serra was being portrayed in a TV show set in the present, her job as a companion would not be lauded or as glamorous as it seems aboard Serenity.   She would be damaged in some way, there would be drugs and violence around her which would wreak havoc inside and out.  She would be judged and discarded and be presented as an invisible part of a society that would like to pretend she didn’t exist.


In Whedon’s world Inara is perfectly happy with her chosen profession and it grants her a higher social standing than Captain Tightpants and his ragtag crew of soldiers, preachers, medics, mercenaries and, well, River.  Inara is one of the few female characters who is shown as at peace with her sexual appetites and partners.  That some clients are female provoke no anxiety about her sexuality, she is truly comfortable in her own skin.  Plus although there is a strong romantic undercurrent between her and Mal, neither sees those unspoken feelings as meaning they can’t have sex with other people.  In making sex such a fundamental part of Inara, it actually freed her from the usual stereotypes and expectations so many female characters become buried under.

Sometimes 50 minutes considering what constitutes a violation of the prime directive or a UN peace treaty, crying with a President because grief and loss leave scars that never quite heals or getting lost in a space western is the best therapy there is.

What I Learned from Cult TV by Tony Lane

What The A-Team Taught Me
When I first watched the A-Team I remember thinking that for a unit of soldiers they were all really bad shots. Watching ten years later I had a better understanding of what suppressive fire was. In basic terms it means to proving covering fire to aid the movement of troops. The added bonus being that it is significantly harder to stand up and shoot straight with incoming fire whizzing above your noggin. Last year I watched some episodes again and realized that the firing of weapons by The A-Team was usually a distraction as well as covering fire. It made me think of that old adage about true strength being in not using your strength. I’m pretty sure that any member of the team could have wasted every single criminal in their path whilst they were sleeping if they wanted to. That for me was always one of the central parts of the story. They were accused of theft and murder but when they acted as mercenaries for hire they asked for little or no financial recompense or glory. Must importantly though they did not kill the criminals and took great pains to avoid seriously injuring them.
ateam w

It was a violent show. People got hurt, but NOBODY got killed unless it was important to the plot. Think back to all those car crashes. There was always a shot of somebody crawling out of the car. When somebody was shot they were only winged by a through-and-through. Everybody pulped by B.A Baracus either got up or was shown later in cuffs.
Cabbage cannons! How freaking cool! OK, I’ll calm down now. There was something fundamentally appealing about the way The A-Team were able to turn a pile of old junk in to a tank with a bizarre but effective weapon. I may have strapped the odd water pistol and stick to my bike after watching an episode. I still would if I was allowed.
I can’t really talk about The A-Team without mentioning Hannibal. The leader and perennial smartest man in the building always gave off the impression that he was intellectually bored and seeking a challenge. I loved the way he took great delight in using disguises and other methods of subterfuge to undermine the bad guys. It was like he was playing chess several games ahead. It showed that you didn’t have to be as physically imposing as B.A. Baracus or mad like Murdock to be effective at taking nasty people down a peg or two.
a team
More than anything the thing I got most out of this show was a pretext to play soldiers in the woods  with other kids. We didn’t need to know each other as we could just play a role from The A-Team.

What I Learned from Cult TV by Kate Jones

What I Learned from Cult TV: Behind Every World Saving Hero Is A Geek Support Character

It has been said that cool is fleeting and the geek shall inherit the earth. I took a lot of comfort from that as a child. I grew up with the fictional company of plenty of geeks, who might not have saved the world, but they are standing rock solid behind the people whose job it is to save it. Cult TV taught me that no hero, let alone superhero, is anything to be reckoned with if they don’t have their tech wonder, programmer, computer whizz, inventor or scientist backing them up to the hilt.

It’s a time honoured tradition, one which dates back through some of the most classic geek series. Steeped in knowledge, willing to research, but absolutely prepared to get their hands dirty if the need should arise and their hero needs some more practical support, every hero needs their Geek Support character to help them save the day. The Geek Support is always steeped in knowledge, usually on the nerdy side. Medical science was certainly Dr Watson’s forte, while Q has the resources of MI6 at his disposal to come up with as many inventions, gadgets and gizmos as the 00 agents require in order to get the job done.

Watson and Q are both unusual in their early Geek Support roles however, in that they manage to get out from their labs and into the field to provide active support for their heroes. Watson not only supports Holmes during his investigations, but is armed and dangerous when it comes to protecting and defending his friend. Q, meanwhile, goes so far as to leave the confines of MI6 and meet up with Bond when he has gone rogue to avenge the attack on his friend Felix Lighter in ‘License to Kill’.

Traditionally, the general role of the Geek Support leaves such characters stranded within the safe confines of headquarters rather than allowing them out in the field. During the 1960s series Thunderbirds for example, the aptly-named Brains is the driving force creatively behind the Anderson Family’s International Rescue project, but it’s the sons of the family who actually pilot the thunderbirds and save the day. Even Lady Penelope gets to see more actions than the scientist responsible for the organisation’s potential.


Fast forward to series from the late 20th and early 21st century and we find that has changed in that regard, especially when it comes to TV series about espionage. No secret agent is complete without their technical support department, usually staffed by a grade A nerd who is rolls high on the intellect and low on the social skills. They’re indispensible even though they sometimes happen to be working for the enemy. Marshall fills the Q shaped role for Sidney Bristow in Alias while she works for SD6, and over in ‘Nikita’, Birkhoff provides a similar line of support for the Division agents such as Alex. However, episodes where they enter into the field are few and far between, and their presence is often defined by the overly technical explanation of the new gadget our heroes get to test out this week.

Geeks working for Government organisations do fare a little better in terms of being part of the action, although their role is often to restrain it and minimise it rather than encourage and propagate it. While the likes of General Hammond from Stargate SG1 and the X-Files’ Walter Skinner may be hyperaware of the value of Geek Support, this is because they prevent the more gung ho and obsessive heroes from cutting a swathe through the universe leaving a trail of destruction and chaos in their wake. While Jack O’Neil might be the original action hero who’s all about blowing it up with C4, Stargate Command had enough nous to add Samantha Carter (astro-physicist) and Daniel Jackson (archaeologist and historian) to his team to slow him down a little. And lest we forget, over at the FBI, the directors originally assigned Scully to Mulder’s department to try and debunk his work with her scientific research and medical knowledge. Sam, Daniel and Scully may end up part of the crusade and subsequently the action, but it certainly wasn’t what their characters were primarily intended for.


In space the need for Geek Support characters remains vital, although they may not make it onto the landing party very often. Captain Kirk would have been in a lot more trouble without his Chief Engineer, miracle worker Scotty, ready and willing to amp up the warp drive and beam him out of sticky situations, but Scotty is usually left behind in engineering to keep things ticking over rather than exploring the brave new worlds that the Enterprise is seeking out.

It’s not all hopeless though. Geeks are beginning to move out of the lab and into the field without losing any of their niche. It’s notable that the newer version of Scotty saves the day by getting off the ship and running around in enemy territory in Into Darkness as well as by providing an impressive multi-beaming rescue from the safety of the transporter room console during the inaugural film of the reboot series.  Geeks are beginning to multitask, it would seem. Simon Pegg has already played one character who receives this type of ‘promotion’ in the form of Benji Dunn, who provided technician support in Mission Impossible III and was promoted to the status of Field Agent by the time of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Geeks might often be cast in a role slightly stepped back from the front line, but that doesn’t mean that the Geek Support aren’t willing to face risk and danger in order to support the heroes. In Pacific Rim, Marshal Pentecost might have the plan and Gypsy Danger certainly had the moves, but it was Gottlieb and Geiszler, the bickering scientists, who risked brain death for their theories and worked out that the original plan would fail, putting aside huge personal differences to work together and find out the information. When the chips are down, the Geek Support characters prove that they’ve got what it takes and step up to save the day. When the crew of Morpheus’ Nebuchadnezzar were attacked and betrayed by Cypher, it was Operator Tank who stepped up while injured to save the day and get our heroes safely home.

More and more tech support roles are being given to female characters as new cult TV series emerge. Veronica Mars might be the super-sleuth of Neptune High and perfectly tech literate in her own right, when she needs support, she turns to Mac, the resident computer genius. Oliver Queen makes frequent visits to Felicity Smoak at Queen Consolidated, to ask for her help with various projects for his work as the Green Arrow. Meanwhile, hunters Sam and Dean, having learned the value of Geek Support in the form of Ash in the early series of Supernatural, know that they can turn to Charlie for tech based help in later episodes.


One Geek Support character who has actively turned away from the field based hero role appears in the recent Bond film, Skyfall. Bond is assisted by a unnamed black female agent, who can drive, shoot, wisecrack and hold her own just as effectively as he can. Eventually though, she chooses to step back from agent status and work in an administration based role. It’s refreshing to see this presented as a choice for a liberated young woman rather than something which is forced upon her, although she did shoot Bond in her first assignment which may have influenced her decision and may undermine her abilities in the eyes of the more traditional fans. At least now we know, however, that Miss Moneypenny for the 21st century is just as capable of kicking some bad guy ass as the agents who wait outside M’s door for her permission to go in.

Even for the more active female Geek Support characters, it is notable that they end up leaving their sanctuary of tech and research out of necessity rather than desire. Even Evie Carnahan, who went on to play an important role in the events of The Mummy and continued her work in the field alongside her husband Rick O’Connell, was influenced primarily by the rejection of her application to work with the Bembridge scholars. It was this which drove her toward field work, as this was the area where her application was judged to be most lacking. Had Evie been allowed to join them without gathering this experience, she may have stayed within her libraries for the rest of time. Lucky for the fans of the movie series that she didn’t, however.

Librarians and library lovers play important roles in supporting the heroes of our stories, and increasingly have become more active as their series have progressed. Ron Weasley may mock his bookish friend Hermione for her interest in books (‘it’s what Hermione does. When in doubt, go to the library!’), but it is her books and her logical thinking which guide Harry through his quest to locate and destroy Voldermort’s horcruxes. Meanwhile, feminist icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s efforts toward saving the world would not have been anywhere near so successful without being supported by her friend Willow’s hacking skills and the resources of the Mr Giles’ school library, where everyone’s willing to get down with the research to identify this week’s Big Bad. While Giles, Willow and Xander do become more active in the slaying part of the series later on, it is their research skills and work behind the scenes which are most useful to Buffy, especially in the early series. There is a reason why every female slayer has an older and more learned watcher with experience and knowledge at his disposal to guide her efforts, although Buffy as a series is notable for reversing the gender norm within that dichotomy.


The Geek Support cast members even act as consciences to the heroes who go too far or know that they risk becoming lost to their cause. Take for example Lucius Fox, who starts out during Batman Begins stuck in Applied Sciences at Wayne Enterprises but is later promoted by Bruce to CEO, showing just how much his character and judgement are valued by Bruce. Indeed, when Batman uses Fox’s technology to spy on Gotham, the only person he trust to ensure its destruction is the man who made it.

Geeks are slowly pulling together their credentials as being more than just the brains behind the brawn. It’s been a great evolution over time from being the unacknowledged purveyors of support to becoming active and capable characters out in the field of the action. We’re entering the final stage of this evolution now, though the Marvel film franchise, which has finally given us a Geek who is fully in charge of his own show. Who does the research, reads the homework, invents the gadgets and comes up with the techie solutions. Who also wears the tux, fights the good fight, all while blessed with the money, the social status, the looks and the love interest and the full acceptance of the public who know exactly who he is. He is Iron Man. Mr Tony Stark – take a bow, as you usher in the new era of the Geek Superhero and show that after long years of patient waiting for their time in the spotlight, the geeks truly shall inherit the earth.

What I Learned from Cult TV – Philip Thorogood

What I Learned From Cult TV – Self

Compared to some of my friends, my exposure to cult tv is somewhat limited. My journey through the phenomenon started when I stumbled onto Sir Patrick Stewart, commanding the USS Enterprise as Jean-Luc Picard. The details are blurred, but I remember being captured by the show almost instantly. I hit upon Buffy in a similar manner, and very clearly remember the episode I blundered into – The Pack (Xander is taken over by an animal spirit and effectively “goes rogue”).


It was my father that took me from Star Trek into the darker realms of the X-Files, roaming the America with Mulder and Scully in search of the criminal, the alien and the down-right weird. From there, I continued to explore Buffy and Star Trek further, seeking out the earlier episodes and seasons (and incarnations, in Star Trek’s case). Whereas my fellows spread themselves widely over the net of Cult tv, I settled into these few.

Together, my father and I tackled Farscape. Now this, I could really sink my claws into – strange aliens, twisting plot lines and characters that were fickler than Spike from Buffy (gotta love him, though) – Farscape was a sci-fi dream. Unfortunately, as these things go, the Sci-fi Channel cancelled the show, much to fan uproar. Luckily, or unluckily, depending how you view it, less than two years later a newcomer arose to fill my Farscape shaped-void. In September, 2004, along came the glorious, the frustrating, the amazing, Lost.



Lost was at once both incredibly riveting, and daringly frustrating. Each episode brought new information and even more questions to us dedicated fans, renewing the question in our minds over and over again – why do we keep watching? Whatever you think of the way they ended the series, it was ground breaking piece of television history for me; it made me realise what I gained from these shows. The characters of Lost were varied (to put it minimally), but each one held the same attribute that I suddenly recognised from the previous productions that I had fallen in love with – they were true to themselves.

The sense of self that each character had, from Lost and beyond, even when they doubted themselves, was believable. Not only were they believable, but they were admirable in their belief of their own personality. No matter what came their way, they were themselves. John Locke in Lost continually throws a stick into everyone else’s works, but he never does truly give up – he keeps on throwing that stick in there day in, day out. Buffy railed against Giles’ rules at almost every opportunity, and dammit if Jean-Luc Picard didn’t hold his own against Madred (THERE. ARE. FOUR. LIGHTS). It is this self-belief that has wormed its way into me, thanks to these shows, and others since.

There is some debate lately about whether or not shows like24 and Breaking Bad are to be considered “cult”, and I’m not here to argue the point either way. I will say that Jack Bauer did EVERYTHING in his power to do the right thing every damn time, and Walter White (Say my name), whilst he fooled himself on his motives for a long time, continued to produce that lucrative Blue Sky right up until the end of the series.

Walter White 

Whatever the truth about the above shows cult status, I learnt from these programs that you are who you are. It may change subtly from time to time, and some people may disagree with how you think and what you do; but thanks to these character’s perseverance I know that remaining true to yourself is the best course of action for everybody, and that’s a lesson I have taken to heart.

What I Learned From Cult TV – Jay Andrew

No Assembly Required

I grew up in a very dislocated, fractured and otherwise dysfunctional family. Any closeness and bonds were formed in pain and of secrets, of showing the world a united normality while hiding our wounds. I left as soon as I could.

All of my fandoms have bands of brothers and sisters, if not of blood then of spirit and purpose, brought together by happenstance. The various crews of the Enterprises, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Firefly, the Liberator and Galactica. The Scoobies and the Dollhouse actives. The Doctor and his companions. With my father dead and estranged from my mother and brothers, I set about building my own team of loyal compatriots who would have my back and supply the kinship I craved.

Fortunately for me, I found my life partner very early on in my search. He’s my Wash, my Paul Ballard, my Imzadi. That was the easy part. Slightly less easy but most satisfying was the child we have together. There aren’t a lot of good examples of parent-child relationships in the fandoms. I’ve tried hard to be more Joyce Summers or Beverley Crusher than John Winchester.


I set about auditioning likely candidates. Over the next 20 years, I tried and failed to bring together disparate people to fill the roles I was hell-bent on casting them in. I tried workers’ co-operatives, anarchist groups, theatre companies and I even dabbled in paganism.

The problem, as I was so very slow to grasp, was that I was not Gene Roddenberry, creating a world of harmony. I was George RR Martin and Joss Whedon at their most brutal. When these people didn’t come up to scratch, I killed them off. Not literally, you understand (although there were some who, if I could have got away with it I would have) but they were written out from the series in my head. And like George and Joss, I didn’t care that other people had become attached to them – when they failed to live up to my expectations or let me down as I saw it, they were gone.

I was not Captain Janeway, uniting the Federation and the Macquis. I was not Buffy, fighting the good fight at the Hellmouth (or Glasgow, same difference) no matter how much I tried.

This year the sharp truth finally dawned. I was destructive and controlling. I was Boyd Langton in the penultimate episode of Dollhouse –


“You’ve proven yourselves in so many ways. I-I-I wanted you all with me – except for Paul.”

There have been too many Pauls. I am Angel, sending Lorne off with Lindsey to do his dirty work for him (I have a soft spot for Lindsey – so sue me!) and Angelus at his raging worst. I am Bennett Halverson, trying to make dolls out of real people. I am Echo at her worst–

Paul Ballard: I think you’ve got a hundred people living inside your head, and you’re the loneliest person I know.

Echo: That’s kind of sweet.

Paul Ballard: Not for the person who’s with you.”

It’s hard to admit to yourself that you’re not the hero in your own story, not the captain of your ship. That you’re not even the wise-cracking Zeppo-like Xander or horror of horrors, the Neelix of the crew.  That maybe, you’re the one that’s broken. Alpha. Willow. Faith. Starbuck. But as in all the best stories, the most damaged and fucked-up person can be redeemed. It’s never too late to turn that corner. And I am trying. I’ve realised that the best people in my life are not the ones I put there but the ones who turned up and stayed. People I’ve known for decades, people I have grown up with who have always been there. My watchers, if you like. Yeah, I’ve been lost in the Delta Quadrant but I’m bringing this bird home. It just turned out I was the one in most in need of a rewrite and an edit.

“Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens.”


What I Learned from Cult TV – E J Davies

Gender, intelligence, background, job description, humour level, sense of humanity, number of guns, allergy to sunlight, being the chosen one, sexuality, marital status – none of them form an impediment to being a badass.
That’s right, folks, it’s the old EJ hobby horse of equality.  That’s principally what I learned from Cult TV, and it’s all thanks to Joss Whedon.
It was the delightful exposure to the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the tender age of 22.  Through the delightful eyes of Whedon I was exposed to the world of a typical teenage American high school girl, albeit one that looked like Sarah Michelle Gellar, her British watcher – Giles; and her geeky, outcast friends.  As someone who perpetually failed to fit in, it was an interesting cast and an interesting story.  I slowly fell out of love withBuffy as it strayed from its beginnings, as the stories got more convoluted and the cast got bigger.  Yet is still remains a genre defining TV show.
Angel, on the other hand, remains as a perpetual favourite.  Not least for the way that almost every character tickles the ribs of another.  It was through Angel, Wesley, Cordelia, Fred, Gunn, and Lorne that no matter who has the upper hand – strength or smarts-wise – each character is a badass in their own right.  Green, black, higher power, daemon hunter – rogue daemon hunter; genius abandoned in Pylea, vampire, reformed vampire, lawyer, female, male – it didn’t matter.  Though it never reached the popular heights of its sister show, it is still a firm favourite of mine.
Firefly, watched six times over in 2013, exemplifies Whedon’s work; and it is my favourite of his shows.  Its cast, clearly enjoying their characters and scripts, hit the ground running from episode one; and bring us such wonderful and enticing people to spend time with.  Each and every one of them strong, flawed, funny, interesting, complex, motivated, and individual.  The reasons I love this show are many and varied, but at Mal’s table every crew member has a voice and a job; even if the final say is his.
Dollhouse too feature ensemble casts of diverse characters, each a badass in their own right, and each contributing to a collective, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Whedon’s shows, sadly, are not typical.  His work challenges the preconceptions of the TV establishment – those that listen to focus groups, that talk in terms of racial diversity – meaning they need to get a black person, a gay person, a woman who isn’t the romantic lead, and an Asian person on the show full of white men.  There are too many TV shows these days that focus on diversity – or completely ignoring it – whilst forgetting about equality, and in doing so they lose what is magical to viewers like me.  I could care less what colour, gender, or sexual orientation my lead character is, or the group of people they surround themselves with.  What I want is something interesting to watch with a character that makes me laugh, and makes me think
Then I found this video:
Joss Whedon has been a pioneer in this field, crafting shows that appeal to the outsider, the forgotten, the smaller demographic.  He gives us an ensemble of characters so that we can choose who we identify with, without having to be told.  He gives us characters that understand that being together, and working together makes things all the sweeter in their victory, and failures are softened.
Yet, through everything, the one abiding message I have from all of the Whedon shows is this:
Heroes can come from anywhere.  They can be anyone.  They can do anything.
You don’t have the buy or be sold that the hero is black/gay/female/fat/short/an alien/not super smart – if the character does the heroic deeds with humility and is as flawed the next person, then you have a well written character regardless of who they are.
Equality means anyone can be a hero, and it’s Whedon’s world in which I choose to live.

Things We Learned from Cult TV: A Call for Submissions

Fox Spirit Books secret origin story begins with music…

“Fortune favours the bold.”

It’s typical that what I learned from cult TV is a little wrong. I never get quotes right. I gave that quality to the main character in one of my novels (Owl Stretching) because it amused me. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer may recognise this mangling of the line from the chilling episode Hush, “Fortune favours the brave.” I like the Latin version which has been attributed to Virgil, Audaces fortuna iuvat. I say it to my students all the time.

They think it’s one of my ‘very intellectual things’ I try to cram into their heads.

The smarter ones soon realise that I am as likely to quote from Buffy as I am from Beowulf. In the end they’re similar narratives (hmmm, new course idea…): Heroes coping with monsters, calling on friends, fighting evil to make a better world. While the Anglo-Saxon poem may have more gravitas in our shared culture, more people are likely to have been inspired by the television series — partly because Beowulf is often so badly taught, but hey, tv+DVDs+streaming=a whole lot of fans.

Even in academia, the study of popular culture has a long history. It used to be primarily a way of feeling the pulse of the populace, but now as scholars embrace their own geekiness, they delve into the depths and breadth of popular culture across the world. But it’s the personal effect that matters most to me: all the times I have muttered to myself, “Fortune favours the bold,” when I hesitated from taking a step or putting myself out there. I wasn’t thinking of Virgil, I was thinking of Buffy. And I did it — I was bold. I dared. Thank you, Buffy (and Joss and Sarah Michelle and everyone).

Fox Spirit Books was founded on the power of cult TV: we suspect you know its power, too. So we had this idea to crowdsource a little guide from the skulk, THINGS WE LEARNED FROM CULT TV.

Have you got a little story or anecdote for us? Have you felt the power of cult tv? Share it here. Don’t be shy. After all, fortune favours the brave. Just add something short in the comments below (be sure we have a way to contact you) and we will be in touch.


Note from Aunty Fox.. We will be running blogs under the ‘Things we learned from Cult TV throughout 2014 with a view to collecting them in an ebook in 2015.