The Diminishing Returns of Popular Culture

A. Lee Martinez is troubled by the increasing Disneyfication of popular culture, as Disney gobbles up all sorts of media properties, and by the exploitation of popular media properties in general without asking if there really are any new stories to tell in the [insert your favourite property here] universe. Found via SF Signal. I very much agree with him (and ou know my view on J.J. Abrams’ involvement in anything).
Indeed, there are more and more things I once loved or at least enjoyed that are now so played out that I’m way beyond caring.

I was a huge Star Wars fan and there was a time when new Star Wars films would have been a dream come true. And I still was excited about the prequels and I’ve actually defended them on occasion. But those latest announcements regarding the Disney takeover and J.J. Abrams directing a new Star Wars film left me between very lukewarm and wishing nasty things upon J.J. Abrams. But most of all, I don’t really care anymore and haven’t for a while now. I will always love the original trilogy and I kind of like the prequels (really, they’re not as bad as many make them out to be), but I gave up on the expanded universe novels, the comics, the Clone Wars cartoons, etc… a long time ago. Star Wars was a great story, but it’s been told.

Ditto for Star Trek. I loved the original series, though never quite as much as Star Wars. I faithfully watched the The Next Generation and the various movies, tried watching Deep Space 9 until it became too much of a Babylon 5 wannabe around season 3 or 4, somehow managed to stick with Voyager and even sort of liked Enterprise* until they did that annoying war on terror analogy with a new species nobody had ever heard of (Oh dear, they cut a swath through Florida) and only stuck with it, because someone promised me that season 4 would be better. Then season 4 started with aliens wearing Nazi uniforms and I was out of there. When Enterprise finally ended not long thereafter, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and thought, “Thank goodness, it’s over. Cause that franchise was really played out”.

By that point, the original 1960s Star Trek was the only series I could still watch, even The Next Generation (which I used to enjoy) had become tedious. I go a bit into the reasons for that (short version: 1960s dubbing made the show funnier than it was) here. And then J.J. Abrams showed up to “reboot” the franchise by having Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and the gang played by new actors. Which made me – who’d never been a Trekkie and was way over Star Trek at that point – explode with anger, because the idea of the iconic Star Trek characters being played by different actors infuriated me. “It’ll bomb”, I said, “No self-respecting Trekkie will ever watch this travesty.” Obviously, plenty of Trekkies felt differently.

Doctor Who: A friend introduced me to Doctor Who during the wilderness years before the new series came along, when I mentioned only ever having seen half a Sylvester McCoy episode, which I found kind of silly (Delta and the Bannermen from 1987, generally considered a low point of the series), and he hooked me up with some good episodes from the 1970s. Happy to have found a new show to enjoy, I sought out lots of vintage Doctor Who. When the new series was announced, I was very happy and thoroughly enjoyed most of seasons 1 through 3. And then there was Torchwood, the spin-off, which I loved even more and which had so much potential in its first season. I was kind of meh about The Sarah Jane Adventures, but then I wasn’t the target demographic (my students love it, though). I fell out of love with Doctor Who more rapidly than with some of the others, once I realized in the (otherwise very good) season 3 finale that I no longer liked the Doctor as a character, since he was something of an arse who treated his companions Martha and Jack abominably. Okay, so there was still Torchwood to look forward to. Except that season 2 of Torchwood destroyed most of what I had ever loved about the show and made me hate all the characters they did not kill off (and seasons 3 and 4 were even worse). I still tried watching Doctor Who, but unwatched episodes increasingly started to pile up. I thought of making a fresh start with a new Doctor, only that I disliked what little I saw of the Eleventh Doctor intensely. I thought I might make a fresh start when the new companion came on board (since I really did not like Amy, Rory and River Song), but it’s been more than a month since the Christmas special and I still can’t be bothered to watch it. In short, I’m so over it.

As for comics, I was a die-hard comic reader throughout the 1990s, but now I haven’t even read an American comic since 2006 and my enthusiasm had been fading since long before that. I continued to watch the movies for a while, but I haven’t seen either X-Men First Class nor The Avengers nor the last two Spider-Man installments and those involve characters I used to like. I never even bothered with Thor or Hulk or the Christopher Nolan Batmans or Captain America, because I don’t like either the characters or the actors/directors or both. Again, it was fun for a while and I’ll always have a soft spot for certain characters, but I’m over it.

The above are just a few notable examples. There are more and more. TV shows, film series, sometimes even book series (though my enthusiasm tends to last longer there), which I really liked once upon a time, until they go on for a few books or seasons or films too long, until I’m no longer even angry that this thing I once liked has turned to crap, but just indifferent.

Meeting some old pals from university last year, I had the oddest experience. Now I was always the geek of the circle, the one who wrote her MA thesis about science fiction and inserted all those geeky references into her stories and poems. The others were – what’s the politically correct term these days? Muggles? Mundanes? But now two people were chatting about Doctor Who and how wonderful the last season was, another pal had just gotten into superhero comics, while some others were geeking out about Firefly and Serenity and Red Dwarf. And I was just sitting there and thought, “Whoa, is this bizarro world? Is this really my painfully highbrow and/or radical alternative culture pals geeking out about genre stuff, while I haven’t even watched/read that in ages?”, quickly followed by “Couldn’t you have discovered this stuff while it was still good and I was still watching/reading it, so we could’ve geeked out together? Cause this is really bad timing.”

It’s not just my university pals either. One of my students is a Torchwood fan, for heaven’s sake. And plenty of my 5th and 6th graders love The Clone Wars.

I’m not really sure what the point of all this is, except that there still are enough of us old-time fans (of whatever) who’ll go watch/read/buy anything related to this thing we once enjoyed and don’t mind the increasingly diminishing returns. I mean, Mercedes-Benz uses 1980s TV hero MacGyver to advertise a rather pricey car (And I have to admit, those ads brought a smile to my face – I used to be a fan), so my generation is obviously worth marketing pricey stuff to now. Meanwhile, new people, whether kids or just people who didn’t discover something before, find the diminishing returns and take to them, because the concept is still cool and they often have no idea that it used to be better. So the strategy of reimagining something old ad infinitum in ever diminishing returns obviously works. I just don’t think it’s a good thing for us and for the culture at large.

*It’s telling how we distinguish between the different Enterprises in my family (and in Germany both TOS and TNG were called Spaceship Enterprise, which makes things even more confusing). There is Kirk’s Enterprise, Picard’s Enterprise and Porthos’ Enterprise. Why Porthos’ Enterprise? Because none of us can ever recall the name of the captain or indeed any other character except for the captain’s dog. Yes, the most memorable character in Enterprise was a dog.

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8 Responses to The Diminishing Returns of Popular Culture

  1. Estara says:

    I stopped subscribing to US comics, which I had collected since high school (first the few then German translated DC ones and some of those Marvel Taschenbücher, then the US originals in university) in 1994 or so, when too many crisis had been written – I quite liked the original DC Crisis of Infinite Earths, as it led to the Byrne reboot for Superman and the utterly marvelous, best ever reboot of Wonder Woman by George Perez. The Superman is dead (Doomsday) was the first death knell for me.

    HOWEVER! Did you ever get into manga? That is continually and consistently (although of course I’ve waded through mediocre stuff) managed to present me with storylines and characters that can involve me as much as books (as has Japanese anime). As a matter of fact I’m taking a breather from a cathartic crying jag which the 12th volume of Natsume Yuujinchou induced in me (not that all manga makes me cry or even wants to :P).

    A matter of personal taste is that I prefer the English translations, which usually keep the Japanese honorifics to the German ones, but I’m glad to get German manga if it hasn’t been licensed in English – like the Die rothaarige Schneeprinzessin, for example. Or school shoujo romance Blue Spring Ride.

    • Cora says:

      I’ve never been much of a manga reader, but I watched quite a bit of anime as a kid and teenager, long before it became really popular in the West. My Dad worked in Singapore for two years and when we visited him during the school holidays, I watched local TV. They had some western cartoons, but a lot more anime. Of course, most of it was undubbed (if I was lucky, there were English subtitles) and drove my parents crazy, who never quite understood why I liked watching cartoons in a language I couldn’t understand. Later, when my Dad worked in the Netherlands, I still got to watch some anime on Dutch and Belgian cable channels who ran it mixed in with US cartoons. I suppose they used it as cheap filler programming, since a lot of it wasn’t suitable for kids at all (I remember one show with a distinct underwear focus), though it delighted my teenaged self.

      Though I agree that manga/anime offers a much wider range of stories and genres than US comics. Ditto for the whole complex of Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics, which I read a lot as a teen, considering it was what was available to me. And my parents, who did not want me reading comics in German, because they believed it would stunt my reading ability (two of my older cousins read Donald Duck and had school trouble, so of course the comics were at fault), had no problem when I read comics in Dutch.

      • Estara says:

        Ah well, you can’t read everything. But you do miss out on some great storytelling.

        In the way of western comics I can still recommend Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting, Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming and Ursula Vernon’s Digger.

        And Girl Genius…
        and 2D Goggles… and some other internet comics ^^

        • Cora says:

          These days, the only comics I still read are the occasional French-Belgian-Dutch comics. And those take me a lot longer than US/UK comics, because my Dutch is rusty, my French worse and many series are not available in translation.

          I could never get into Girl Genius for some reason, though theoretically it should be right up my alley.

    • Andrea says:

      Natsume Yuujinchou manages to be sweet and melancholic and kinda cool all at once.

      Doctor Who makes me sad these days. The Doctor has always been on one level a sort of horrible person (frequent companion abandonment and flashes of nastiness), but the stories worked well because the stories were generally about the current plot and the companion arc.

      The RTD series managed to maintain this (though I prefer the four episode format), but also added a LOT more focus on the Doctor as someone of universal importance. Instead of being A timelord, he was THE timelord. Then “The Gathering Storm” and the person who was enemy of almost everyone and all sorts of ridiculous rot. That got tedious and repetitive and the long goodbye of Ten just made me wish he’d hurry up and leave.

      Still, the Donna season is my favourite season of them all (and I’ve watched almost all). Donna’s arc is brilliant, even if her ending sucks, and I loved the dynamic. The plotlines were also generally really powerful.

      When the showrunner changed, I was generally looking forward to it. I’d mostly liked the various episodes the new showrunner had done, I thought Eleven had potential, and that Amelia was wonderful.

      Amy (and OMG they killed Rory!) however, carried a lot of negatives and contradictory characterisation. We hit a lot of overt sexism. And the PLOTS were nonsensical. Someone called them “all spectacle and no heart” and that covers it for me. [I call them “look, a three headed monkey!” plots – waving a series of cool ideas or set pieces to distract from the illogical and thread-bare characterisations.]

      ABC Australia recently played the entire new series. I watched all of season 1 to 5 again, and not one episode of the last two seasons. The actress who plays the new companion seems very charming, but she’s yet another perky white sexy sassy hot girl who kisses the Doctor a lot and has Some Big Secret which means most of the episodes will again not be strong in themselves, but rather set-pieces around the next Big Reveal of the incredibly important companion. She even looks liable to be killed in every episode, because if there’s anything better than fridging a female, it’s a female you can fridge each week.

      Sigh.

      Sore point for me, you might guess.

      • Estara says:

        This quality of “cherish what you have while it is there for time is fleeting” in NY can really hit me when they go into his past. I had to be in a reasonably even mood to read the last three volumes available in one go. And then the story of the artisan-crafted tea cup yokai sacrificing his life for Takashi’s shoulder while the main thrust of the chapter was his ambivalence about the role of yokai in his and his lonely grandmother’s life – that really hit me hard and tears basically gushed.

        Not as bad as when I read Code Name Verity, but still. I felt better afterwards, so there must have been stress built up (we’re hurrying up to mid-term grade papers).

      • Cora says:

        I totally agree. Yeah, the Doctor was always something of a jerk, but it has gotten more notable in the new series. Indeed, the moment I noticed that I no longer liked the Doctor as a character was during a discussion of least favourite Doctor Who episodes. I repeatedly found myself saying, “Well, I really dislike episode X (mostly latter Sylvester McCoy episodes), because the Doctor behaves like a jerk” only to realize that the Doctor had behaved much worse in the new series. Interestingly, she still like Nine much better than Ten, though the problems were already there during Nine’s reign. But I kept making excuses for Nine – Oh, he’d just lost his planet and his people, so it’s only too understandable that he’s going to behave out of character. By the time Ten came and stuck around (and around and around), I had run out of excuses. Never mind that the Doctor never liked neither Gallifrey nor the Timelords in the first place. Captain Jack Harkness started doing the same thing on Torchwood – mistreating companions, doing things that were not just morally questionable but flat out wrong – ironically after having been at the receiving end of the very same behaviour from the Doctor. So apparently jerkiness is contagious.

        That said, given the increasing jerkiness of the Doctor, I wonder if they are setting themselves up for the Valeyard/evil future Doctor storyline from the Colin Baker era. But that’s a long build up, never mind that the Valeyard storyline is best forgotten.

        I really liked Donna, too, if only because she was different from the usual new series companion. For starters, she was not a perky young girl, but a bit more mature (39 at the time of filming, which had people complain she was too old). Plus, Catherine Tate is a very fine actress. And she did have a great arc with a crappy ending and was overshadowed by the return of every other companion and their mother (literally in the case of Rose). And come to think of it, in addition to Donna I mostly liked the male secondary companions (Mickey, Rory, Jack and even Adam from season 1) much better than the primary female companions, because they were a lot more interesting and different. Meanwhile, the women are all the same type of character, which became even more notable, because the companion was now the focus of the series in a way unseen since the First Doctor (and Barbara and Ian would be unthinkable today – too old). The original series was much more inventive than that and gave us historical companions, future companions, alien companions, Timelord companions, even if most of them were attractive young white women. The audio dramas even had an elderly woman as a companion, which sounds like a fabulous idea.

        I’ve never understood the fuss about Steve Moffat in the first place. I do like his other shows (Sherlock, Coupling, Jekyll), but his take on Doctor Who never worked for me. And the whole “big puzzle surrounding the companion” plot rendered the show nigh incomprehensible to anyone not totally immersed. The repeated “fridging” of the latest companion (I saw the actress in the recent Titanic mini-series and quite liked her there) sounds incredibly problematic. But then Steve Moffat had the Doctor marry the grown-up daughter of his companion in a relationship that may well be incestous (yes, there is a lame explanation why she can regenerate, but I don’t buy that) and it doesn’t get much more offensive than that.

        So sad to see the show so ruined, especially since it has lasted for fifty years.

  2. Pingback: Cora’s Reflections on Doctor Who – Nightmare in Silver | Cora Buhlert

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