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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Put your favorites in a box, Mister Geek

Column.

No matter how you categorize series, movies, books, you will always find examples that do not fit in. That refuse to respect certain borders. That are... different.


Sagely


This is the point where you, the reader, nod sagely and click away. Those in need of enlightenment might stick around a little more, as this is as much about Farscape and the Discworld as the book you're hiding behind your back...


Escape


It has spaceships, ray guns, aliens. So it must be SF, right? Well... think again. The Farscape universe doesn't always make much sense. The powers of some of the characters are more 'magical' at times than they are 'paranormal' (or whatever you want to call it). The basic principles, the laws of nature, are broken again and again. But does that matter?

No!

Of course that doesn't matter! It's all about bringing the story forward, see the characters interact with each other and the rest of the world, enjoy that sense of wonder, shed a tear for all those hurt feelings, and smile when the main characters launch another wisecrack. Who cares if we break the mold and forget about the rules and if necessary change the building blocks our world is made of.

Is it SF?

Well... that would depend on your definition. If you talk about hypothetical worlds following certain preset worlds... somewhat futuristic, following a 'what if' scenario... yeah, it could be. But to me, it's certainly a border case, if not outright Fantasy.

Or, you might even say it's horror... Imagine you are strapped on a table, your head cut open, while a monster is taking out stuff that somebody else put in there... if fact, the surgeon is trying to remove a demon your archenemy put in tthere... laying comfortable?

It doesn't help when you realize your one and only love is dead, and you killed her yourself while you were under control of that demon. Okay, says the monster, you won't be able to speak afterwards, but at least you will stay alive, right? Wrong. Because at the height of the moment, your arch enemy enters the room to kill the surgeon, leaving you behind to let you suffer.

With your brain pan open.

Ouch.

That...
...is...
...horror.

We're not going to talk about dear Scorpius eating John's brain, are we? 😋😱


Nothing is a lie. Everything is possible.


At least on the Discworld. Terry Pratchett's The Truth is Discworld novel number 25. His fantasy world is intended to be comical, funny. It's magical, yes, and exists on the edge of reality. Dragons? Got them, well, in some way. Trolls, dwarves, golems, thieves, barbarians, wizards, witches, it's all there. The whole environment should provide space for endless epic adventures.

Yet, most of the time, Pratchett writes about the small man ( m / f / whatever race ), just trying to scratch a living, or even trying to stay alive. What happens in the Discworld is surrealistic, unreal. But... it is all based upon certain rules, a certain logic.

Pratchett's world is as real as it can be. The logic is consistent. There's always a reason. There is, in fact, a whole structure of rules that apply to the somewhat unstable nature of the Discworld, and everything in the novels follows those rules. (Have a look at the Gurps: Discworld role playing game, which is build upon the Gurps system and the Discworld rules, and which not only discusses the rule-system of Gurps the game, but also the rule-system of Discworld the world.)

If you characterize SF as stories based upon a consistent application of science and the laws of physics, etcetera, you could hypothesize a realm where certain laws would apply whilst others would not. From that point of view, the Discworld series is a logical and scientifically sound application of those laws, and the stories are mere extrapolations to present matters in a more digestible format...

In other words: it's SF?!? You certainly will NOT find Terry Pratchett in a bookshop under the header SF...


The Slayer. The Watcher. The Key. The Gay One. The Loyal. The Bloody. The Geeks.


On we go to one of the weirdest and perhaps most successful TV shows: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. This was before before Game of Thrones turned a fantasy serial from a guilty pleasure into a public phenomenon (and we're not going to talk about Xena).
  
Once there was a forgettable movie with the same name, then, out of the blue, came this series. Young teenagers out at night, bloodsucking vampires, ghouls and zombies and demons, love stories, high school.

It's not SF, I guess. It's supernatural, but would it be horror?

Well, horror as a genre is supposed to spook, to make you nervous, to scare or shock you. It often involves demons and the like, but most people will laugh when they see a vampire. (Unless it's a lawyer, that is.) Buffy is not scary. Well, she may be but the series is not 😊 so it does not exactly qualify as horror. 'Gothic' perhaps, but certainly not horror.

Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of scientific support, so all it can be is fantasy. Juvenile fantasy, at best.


The wor(l)d is not the thing.


It isn't, isn't it? Have another look at several (older) television series, books, or movies, and try to qualify them. It's not always easy. Try to put the following items in one of three categories: Scifi, Fantasy, or Horror... Some would clearly fit, some would be somewhat... complicated.

  • Farscape
  • Discworld
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Star Trek
  • Star Wars
  • The Matrix
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Space: above and beyond
  • Babylon 5
  • Neverwhere
  • Dungeons and dragons
  • Final Fantasy
  • Resident Evil
  • The Longest Journey
  • Millennium
  • X-files
  • Existenz
  • VR5
  • The Avengers
  • Twin Peaks
  • Witchblade
  • Xena
  • Space: above and beyond
  • Big Trouble in Little China
  • Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
  • PlaneScape: Torment
  • Cult

... to name but a few...

I guess categorization is not that simple unless you clearly define the boundaries.


It's easy for me


I take a simplistic view. If it features spaceships, high technology, or claims to be SF, it's SF to me.

If it's intended to scare, shock, terrorize, it's Horror.

If it has magic, or claims to have magic, or features magical creatures, then it's Fantasy.

Let's add Supernatural to the mix as well, to have a fourth category.

And if it doesn't fit into any of the above, I consider it 'cult'. And still enjoy it 😇

I have the intent to add a page to this site to list all series with proper endings, so in a way, this is a general rehearsal, listing some of the series I watched and may need to watch again if only to rate the cliffhanger / wrap-up ratio.


Geeky Cultists


Nobody can tell you what belongs to which category. You decide for yourself. Some stuff, however, defies classification. Sometimes deliberately (magic in space, cyberpunk, technomages) but sometimes it's just what it is. Not even intentional.

Some movies and / or series are not exactly part of what is considered mainstream (or what was considered mainstream before these series showed up)... Often these series gather a strong but loyal following who believe it's the best thing since sliced bread. These followers are the material that, among other things, fandom is made of.

Care to discuss some typical cult series that do not fit into the normal pattern? Here are some... A hundred points for those recognizing the more esoteric ones...


Millennium (1996)


"Brooding ex-agent fights against the darkness."

A very dark and brooding series, somewhat reminiscent of the X-Files. It starts with a main arc of a paranormally gifted individual versus some sort of evil association. Nothing new, nothing special. X-Files did it, Chameleon did it. VR5 did it. What made Millennium special was the ultimate brooding feeling. Nothing was right, positive. Even the happy endings were full of gloom and doom.
Later on, unfortunately, the series descended into 'gifted detective' stories, a close relative to Profiler. The darkness still there, but no longer compelling.

Where would this fit? I'd be tempted to put it into mainstream... It isn't really 'cultish', is it? And if the first season was supernatural, the later seasons were just... so so.


X-Files (1993)


"Two FBI agents investigate impossible cases."

Buffy and The X-Files made being a geek acceptable.

This is the series that changed a cult to mainstream (all followers of the school of 'the-government-lies-to-you' sing together now).

Fandom around the X-Files is (was) enormous, and the mix of SF and fantasy makes it hard to classify it. However, it's so well known and mainstream I won't even bother to put a label on it.

And yes, there are some supernatural, religious, horror-styled, and / or magical episodes. With FBI cops. And I still would call it SF. Sorry.


VR.5 (1995)


"Female computer hacker enters other people's minds."

(The dot in the series' name is intentional and required.)

Now here's a cult series if there ever was one. Just a single season, no follow-ups, weird and of-beat. A bit too weird to be continued, I guess... I guess I would classify it either as 'SF' or 'Cult' but hey, SF it is.


Space: Above and Beyond


"Young Marines aka. Fighter Pilots fight against alien enemies."

SF and nothing but. One season, dark, brooding, great. An extremely sad case of not being continued, but clearly SF.


Xena


"Barely dressed warrior-princess battles for justice in a mythological world."

A rather common theme 😏 But still fairly enjoyable... if you can stand the (outdated) effects and the (lack of) acting. A mix of historical, mythological and fantasy settings, and even some character development. Don't expect too need much intelligence to understand this though, and Fantasy it is.


Neverwhere


"Mr. nobody, accountant, saves a girl and ends up in a surrealistic world under London."

Now how to qualify this one? At first glance, I would say Fantasy, but I'm not so sure anymore. Worlds under London, hasn't that been done before? Anyway, inspired by names of metro lines / stations it sometimes offers a twist, but it's mostly bewildering. Neil Gaiman wrote it, that might give a clue 😉


Buffy The Vampire Slayer


"Modern teenager kills Vampires and has a troubled love life."

😄 No matter how you look at it, this is a horror cult that became mainstream. It's weird, somewhat stupid, definitely juvenile, but damn, it's fun. And, in fact, sometimes quite surprising... take Buffy's sister... (No, I'm not going to spoil anything in here.) Or the musical... Definitely cult turned mainstream. Definitely supernatural but definitely not horror.

(In fact, it became so much mainstream that there even exists a porn flick called Buffy The Vampire Layer... Time for a reality check!)


Babylon 5


"Crew on space station tries to intervene in a war that would destroy the galaxy."

Perhaps one of the best SF series ever made (in my humble opinion etcetera etcetera) but unfortunately, it did not age very well.

Long, extensive, complicated, short and long story arcs. Interesting characters and themes, and one can even feel compassion for the baddies... Note that you cannot miss too many episodes, or you will feel lost. Cult? Perhaps not.

Unfortunately, it hasn't aged very well. The plots, yes, the graphics not so much. I suggest to watch this on a small screen.

SF? Yep, definitely. And pretty damn good.


Farscape


"Astronaut passes through a wormhole and is lost in a different place in the universe."

Well, now that is a novel story-line! (Not really.)

Yet Farscape is nothing like any other SF series. Yup. We have aliens. Yup. We have ships. Yup. We have love stories. (Do you notice that almost every series these days has one or more love triangles in there?)

Farscape is different. Why? Well, it's not that easy to describe... the 'designs', the art of the show, the camera work is different. Not better, not even accurate, and sometimes totally non-SF, but it gives the show it's own style. The story-lines are of varying quality, but there are enough surprises and jokes in there to keep you on your toes. Characters are believable and do develop, change. (Why Zhaan is showing more and more hysterical behavior is lost on me though.)

However, most importantly, you never know what to expect with Farscape. The writers are more than willing to change course and then go full reverse.

(And, perhaps, don't most of us silly engineers dream about a career as an astronaut, having sex with an alien, and becoming the commander of a space vessel? Okay, we'll have to deal with crazy half Scarran's, crazy military men that want us killed, sleazy Hynerian Dominars and intelligent vegetables, and a living ship that does not always listen, but hey! What do you expect? We're only human...)

SF? Yes. It has spaceships. But more importantly: it has great story telling.


Twin Peaks


"FBI agent visits a sleepy, little town to investigate a murder, but gets more than he wants."

So weird, it's perhaps the ultimate definition of cult. And yet, it received so much attention it became one of the most popular television series ever. Which, coincidentally, invalidates its 'cult' status...

I have no idea whatsoever what category this one would fit in to. I guess Cult, as I can't seem to squeeze it in anywhere else.


The point


I seem to have been rambling a bit... I was going somewhere... What was it?

No matter how you categorize series, movies, books, you will always find examples that do not fit in. That refuses to respect certain borders. There are some general tendencies, schools of thought, but there is space for much diversification.

Cult series are somewhat non-mainstream. They feature characters, themes, concepts, that are not generally understood or appreciated, yet these series attract small but enthusiastic numbers of fans. Cult series rarely enjoy extended life spans, and often only survive a single season.

The most remarkable thing is: sometimes, given enough time, a cult series can become mainstream, by either carefully marketed, or by simply being around long enough to be recognized. So, don't fear to be laughed at when discussing your favorite series. Consider yourself an early adaptor. One day, the whole world may see the light and enjoy it.

Until then, stay a geek. That's what I do.


PS


So... SF or Fantasy? Does it matter...

Ah, now I remember! The point was it didn't matter and still doesn't matter. Stop putting books and movies and series in boxes. Enjoy. That's what I do.



Dapper / TellTales! 38
  

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