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She's been to Earth. She didn't care for it.
May 7, 2012 11:57 AM   Subscribe

"Historical dramas have a lot in common with science fiction when you consider how alien/exotic the settings might seem to a contemporary audience. As a kind of squeakquel to the Arthur C. Clarke maxim; “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” I’d like to assert that any sufficiently different set of social mores in a historical context is indistinguishable from an alternate universe. Consider the following bizzaro dimension: limited electricity, paranoia related to class struggles, shifting loyalties, and rigid caste system. Could it be Battlestar Galactica? Yes, But it’s also Downton Abbey!"

"What does Downton Abbey have in common with Battlestar Galactica? Well, both shows have two central cores that make them thematically identical; all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened. Second, and probably more effective; both shows constantly tease the audience with secrets, and star-crossed lovers."

Worth it almost entirely for the detail in the image of Countess Crawley in a space fighter as noted via on Google+
posted by Blasdelb (50 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
"What's a... 'space-fighter?'"
posted by Madamina at 11:59 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened

Not entirely true in the case of DA. Haven't seen the 2d season, but isn't the youngest Crawley girl trying to run off an be a suffragette or something?

I like this idea. Is Mary real, or just a figment of Matthew's imagination? Is Bates actually a Cylon? And when will we get to see hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, Hun-slaying Lady Sybil?
posted by orrnyereg at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


The trappings of space opera and historical fiction are just a catch narrative device to draw viewers/readers in to your story. I often wonder why many historical dramas (movies a tv shows, not books) such as modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings. It would make things way more compelling, and no one would quibble about the historical accuracy of the costumes etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think if you generalize out, you end up with similarities in all manner of storytelling. Joseph Conrad call your office and all that. And I think you don't have to generalize out as far for things set in circumstances different than what you're living in.

However, "squeakquel"? I'm not sure if the world needed that word.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2012


I think there's a case that can be made that John Colicos would have made a wonderful Dowager Countess.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:10 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, shit, was that nerdy!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:10 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I often wonder why many historical dramas (movies a tv shows, not books) such as modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings. It would make things way more compelling, and no one would quibble about the historical accuracy of the costumes etc.

For many of us, quibbling about the historical accuracy of the costumes is the most compelling part.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:14 PM on May 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


KokuRyu: "I often wonder why many historical dramas (movies a tv shows, not books) such as modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings. It would make things way more compelling, and no one would quibble about the historical accuracy of the costumes etc."

Because then they'd be quibbling about "realism". Fewer people will catch errors in costuming or outright liberties taken with the setting than will catch modern day narrative shenanigans.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:15 PM on May 7, 2012


Yeah, I figured Thomas and O'Brien were Cylons.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:16 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: I often wonder why many historical dramas (movies a tv shows, not books) such as modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings. It would make things way more compelling, and no one would quibble about the historical accuracy of the costumes etc.

Sometimes, it's to draw parallels to modern events and thoughts. "Wow," the audience will say, "things really aren't so different!"

That, and it's more fun to do a period piece, because fashion was better then (whenever then was).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:17 PM on May 7, 2012


The trappings of space opera and historical fiction are just a catch narrative device to draw viewers/readers in to your story. I often wonder why many historical dramas (movies a tv shows, not books) such as modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings. It would make things way more compelling, and no one would quibble about the historical accuracy of the costumes etc.

Well, first, the trappings do catch the eye, bringing your drama more viewers. Second there is the freedom that distance gives you. The class struggles that provide the drama in Downton are not personal for many of us, so we can focus on the characters and the drama itself. If it was called Downton Acres and was about the housing bubble and religious intolerance (say), our own personal experiences and preferences would cloud our view of the drama.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:18 PM on May 7, 2012


I always knew this. It's why I basically read fantasy, SF or historical novels -- they are all variations on the genre I like to call "Not-Here". I also like novels set in rural areas (I live in an urban one).
posted by jb at 12:18 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened

orrnyereg: Not entirely true in the case of DA. Haven't seen the 2d season, but isn't the youngest Crawley girl trying to run off an be a suffragette or something?

There is a range of efforts to maintain the former way of life in DA, and through the series, the various characters efforts shift, as most of them come to terms with the reality that things will never be as they were. Many still chafe at the changes, but few (if any?) really dig their heels in for the full two seasons.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:21 PM on May 7, 2012


modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings.

Many of Shakespeare's plays are (were) already set in explicitly othered place and time, for many of the same reasons people have pointed out contemporary fictions do so upthread.
posted by junco at 12:23 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should have said: already explicitly foreign to the viewpoint of turn-of-the-17th-century English theatre attendees.
posted by junco at 12:25 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


As somebody who just (finally) finished reading Game of Thrones, thinking the whole time that the short chapters, intertwined story lines, changing viewpoints, great cliffhangers, and fantastic plot twists reminded me of nothing more than Tales of the City* (more swords, less sodomy), I'm fairly certain I'll agree with a lot of this article (though I'm not reading it too in depth - as I'm avoiding spoilage)

Fiction trappings gotta trap, I guess is what I'm saying.

Also, don't be a snob about your favorite genre because it's really not that different than all the rest if you strip it down past the costumes.

* Not to mention how both illustrate a fantastical world that seems neat at first but on further examination I'm pretty sure I wouldn't actually want to live there for very long
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:26 PM on May 7, 2012


What does Downton Abbey have in common with Battlestar Galactica? Well, both shows have two central cores that make them thematically identical; all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened.

They both tell stories about people.

Second, and probably more effective; both shows constantly tease the audience with secrets, and star-crossed lovers.

They both are written in such a way that you'll keep watching.

Next up: What metafilter and reddit have in common (hint: it's a paradigm where people who have access to the same source material electronically contribute their thoughts and ideas in an open discussion)
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:27 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


You know, for all the flack HBO's ROME got for historical accuracy (well killing of characters who Did Not Actually Die will do that) I thought it expressed the otherness of the time period and the squalor* of everyday life with character motivations and actions being colored by a very alien-to-our-eyes background and morality.

The Libertine is another historical drama where the look of the past isn't bowdlerized or romanticized, there's a lot of mud and greasy candles and poorly heated rooms.
posted by The Whelk at 12:27 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


(more swords, less sodomy)

strike that, reverse it, and I may watch the series more.
posted by The Whelk at 12:28 PM on May 7, 2012


Second, and probably more effective; both shows constantly tease the audience with secrets, and star-crossed lovers.

In other words, no matter what we sell you on as what the show's about, what you're going to get is the same old drawn-out who's-screwing-who and who-wants-to-be-screwing-who crap that you've seen before.
posted by Legomancer at 12:29 PM on May 7, 2012


all the characters are struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened. Second, and probably more effective; both shows constantly tease the audience with secrets, and star-crossed lovers.

This is an extremely low standard for observing meaningful similarity in fiction.
posted by clockzero at 12:29 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The article is really stretching. BSG wasn't trying to maintain the status quo unless the status quo was being alive. Preserve a way of life? There wasn't a single way of life among the humans in BSG, there were several different cultures which were suddenly rubbing up against each other.

Interesting in a general way, but trying to nail down specifics is like trying to make Doc Cottle quit smoking. Ain't gonna happen.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:39 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


modern adaptations of Shakespeare, for example, don't just set their stories in contemporary settings.

Another reason NOT to do this is that so many of the plots really don't make sense outside of their original settings. Fathers forcing daughters to marry? Families feuding so badly that they murder each other in the streets? Much more believable (whether true or not) of 15th century Italy than 20th century Canada. Even the comedies don't make sense in modern settings: women could pass for men much more easily, for example, when both men's and women's clothing was very covering. (We have lots of historical evidence for women successfully passing as men for years at a time).
posted by jb at 12:44 PM on May 7, 2012


Yes, Rome is my go-to example of blue-and-orange morality
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:45 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


women could pass for men much more easily, for example, when both men's and women's clothing was very covering.

Not to mention that all the (fictional) women were already portrayed by (actual) men!
posted by junco at 12:49 PM on May 7, 2012


Not to mention that all the (fictional) women were already portrayed by (actual) men!
posted by junco at 3:49 PM on May 7 [+] [!]


Maybe more believable for the same reasons that women could pass as men.
posted by jb at 12:51 PM on May 7, 2012


The real and eerie similarities between the two shows are more thematic; the ways the shows make you feel.

BSG makes you feel like "Holy crap that show was amazing, why'd the mess up the final season and ending so bad?!"

DA makes you feel like "Hey that was amusing, but come on, they help weren't treated that well. And Jesus Anna, quit mooning over Bates, you're just embarrassing yourself."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:54 PM on May 7, 2012


This really rings true to me. When I saw Fellini Satyricon for the first time I was struck by how closely the experience matched that of watching a great hard scifi film like the original Solaris or 2001. Ancient Rome seemed so alien!
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 1:16 PM on May 7, 2012


Also the losers in BSG can't even cure cancer while in DA two aspirins will do for paraplegia.
posted by biffa at 1:17 PM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


The article is really stretching. BSG wasn't trying to maintain the status quo unless the status quo was being alive.

No, beyond that they were trying, as much as possible, to maintain their way of life despite radically changed circumstances. This was lampshaded several times early on, particularly by the politicians. It wouldn't take more than a costume change to make season one of Downton the pilot for BSG. (It's certainly better than Caprica.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:32 PM on May 7, 2012


When I was trying to get people into Battlestar Galactica, I used to tell them it was The West Wing in space. Now that I'm trying to get people into A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), I tell them it's The Wire in Bizzaro Medieval England, with dragons, ice zombies, and extraneous boobs.
posted by lunasol at 1:34 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I tell them it's The Wire in Bizzaro Medieval England, with dragons, ice zombies, and extraneous boobs.

I've been saying, "Think The Sopranos in Middle Earth."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 1:46 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been saying, "Think The Sopranos in Middle Earth."

That's probably a bit more accurate. But the Sopranos didn't have Littlefinger!
posted by lunasol at 1:59 PM on May 7, 2012


For anyone interested in reading an excellent cross between sci-fi and historical fiction, there's Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle
posted by rebent at 2:05 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think of Game of Thrones being more like The Tudors crossed with The Walking Dead.

The Whelk, I have to disagree with you about The Libertine-- it was a dreary, tedious, miserable movie that way, WAY overdid the whole Dung Ages trope. Restoration or even Richard Lester's Musketeers movies from '73 did a much better job, IMO, of evoking splendor and grime.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 2:06 PM on May 7, 2012


I think the TV show is definitely more like the Tudors - very soapy. The books are more like The Wire for the intricately detailed world-building, fully realized characters, and general sense that there's only so much justice to go around, and it doesn't get spread around fairly.
posted by lunasol at 2:09 PM on May 7, 2012


No, beyond that they were trying, as much as possible, to maintain their way of life despite radically changed circumstances.

Reducing the comparison to this level and ignoring the differences between is pointless. Everyone has changed forced on them from outside forces. Everyone struggles with the change and at least attempts to preserve the status quo at first.

The more interesting observation is that Downtown Abbey was more alien than BSG. There were a lot of parallels to modern day life with BSG, while DA was almost literally a different world.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:12 PM on May 7, 2012


My main objection to this argument is that this sense of the alien is common to almost all great novels, historical or not. It doesn't take much to go beyond my personal matrix of economic/educational/racial/gender/regional/cultural background, and I'd imagine that holds for most people. Do you really read that many novels, even of the most contemporary realistic sort, that feature people just like you in cultures just like yours doing things much like you do? Novels had their origins in the gothic, and even the heyday of 19th century realism hardly stuck to a single culture or class; and since then, they've been all over the map, as vigorously as the imaginations and backgrounds of their writers would allow. On top of all this, even the most middle-brow, middle-class, white male novel about growing up middle class in the midwest becomes almost instantly alien after only a decade or two. But really, no one even needs that point made to them unless they happen to be a white middle-class male who hasn't realized that most readers are no longer him (and probably never were), and thus could never have had the illusion that the unalien was the norm. 95% of the novels out there are already alien, because we live in a multi-cultural, multi-regional, multi-age, multi-class world, and because that's what makes interesting narrative. And for the remaining few percent, white guys reading white guys writing about white guys, well, who really needs to read The Corrections right now anyway?
posted by chortly at 2:25 PM on May 7, 2012


Metafilter: struggling against outside influences to maintain the status quo and preserve a way of life which is threatened.
posted by happyroach at 2:48 PM on May 7, 2012


Worth it almost entirely for the detail in the image of Countess Crawley in a space fighter as noted via on Google+

Thanks, blasdelb! Some background behind the picture: I work for the site and will occasionally get the urge to photoshop something for an article or for my coworkers to hang on the wall. (The Dude coming out of the TARDIS, Sarah Jane Smith as Captain Janeway, Owen Wilson as Episode III Anakin... My current favorite is a mock-up of a book cover for a fake Jar-Jar Binks political history.) When the writer of that piece turned it in, he requested something along those lines, "Maybe the Galactica hovering over the Abbey? Adama at the dinner table?"

We were crunched for time that day. Nevertheless, I immediately replied, "NO. YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN." and went radio silent for nearly the entire rest of the work day. This silence did not go unnoticed, and when my unaware coworkers asked what was going on they received a manic, just as puzzling, "ALMOST DONE. I HAVE TO GET HER CALL TAG RIGHT."

I may or may not have asked our IT department to clear usage of the Viper font.

Anyway, when it was done I popped it into the article with the caption. It's not the greatest image, as what I know in the way of Photoshop skills consists of repeated fumblings in the dark. The call tag is still a little messy and the Countess' hat is overly sepia-ed and doesn't have the right color to it. (She had to have her hat. She does not go without her hat, even into space, I decided.)

But. It made the entire office very happy on what was otherwise a stressful day. So it's nice to see that we got to amuse other folks, too. I like to think she's still up there, you know. Smokin' toasters out of the sky.

(And IT never did install the Viper font on my machine...)
posted by greenland at 3:21 PM on May 7, 2012 [34 favorites]


greenland: "ALMOST DONE. I HAVE TO GET HER CALL TAG RIGHT."


The call tag is exactly right, it is the best thing.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:42 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


greenland: "The Dude coming out of the TARDIS"

LINK PLZ.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:11 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


But if you photoshopped Downton Abbey Road, which four characters would you choose to depict crossing the road, and which of the four would you make barefoot and out of step with the others?
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:29 PM on May 7, 2012


which of the four would you make barefoot and out of step with the others?
Baltar
posted by LiteOpera at 4:56 AM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


George_Spiggott: "But if you photoshopped Downton Abbey Road, which four characters would you choose to depict crossing the road, and which of the four would you make barefoot and out of step with the others?"

Tough call. I'd have to go with Matthew, Mary, Bates and Anna, and Bates would obvs be Paul.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:36 AM on May 8, 2012


greenland: "The Dude coming out of the TARDIS"

LINK PLZ.


Given the website and image description, my guess is that greenland is referring to the awesome image associated with this post.
posted by mysterpigg at 9:05 AM on May 9, 2012


Historical dramas have a lot in common with science fiction

To me, that's actually a hallmark of bad science fiction. Oh look, we're in a unique situation in deep space, social moires underpinned by X Y Z would no-longer apply, something else would happen... but instead of exploring that, let's just ignore the universe of mind-expanding possibilities and focus on people's petty drama and write the same inter-personal bullshit as every other show.

I know that screenwriters are taught that the entire universe revolves around human conflict, nay human drama is the very fabric of the known universe, but this gets really tiresome when instead of exploring unknown territory, we're watching the same old stories rehashed yet again about X in love with Y but oh noes complication Z, but somehow it's supposed to be different because the set backdrop is made out of rock instead of wood, or whatever. Gah!
posted by -harlequin- at 3:39 PM on May 9, 2012


(If human drama absolutely MUST be the focus, at least let the "science fiction" play an interactive role rather than just be empty set dressing. For example "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - it's all about the same human drama, but the science fiction interacts with and informs that drama. It asks "What if...?" and then actually tries to answer, instead of asking "What if...?" and then forgetting the question and wandering off to plagiarize the answer to a different, unasked question.)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:47 PM on May 9, 2012


I think it depends upon which direction a given SF work is looking. SF does one or both of two things (among others, but these are the two usually thought most important): 1) translates some present human/social experience into a radically different context so as to encourage a new perspective on things that otherwise we don't really see (like fish in water); and/or 2) explore the possibilities of experience in contexts that don't and haven't existed (particularly with regard to technological change and not other kinds of change, which is my particular pet-peeve).

It's not really fair to criticize the first kind of SF for not being the second kind. BSG was very explicitly intended to be the first kind, just as ST:TOS was. Indeed, most of the SF which is well-regarded outside of the genre is in the first form and not the second. People uncomfortable with genre prefer to see it as metaphor. And that's fine, because it often works very well in that form.

Truly, the very best SF, genre or more literary, does both things at the same time. Because, really, all the best art is looking for deeper and (in some sense) universal truths about human experience (or "human" when it becomes "self-aware, intelligent consciousness") and the best art does this by taking the familiar and finding ways to challenge it. That is to say, the very best science-fiction isn't just allegorical and it's not just an intellectual exercise in counterfactuals, either. But this is true about all fiction, isn't it? The best fiction shows us how to see the familiar in new ways by both giving us a new perspective on how we already experience it and and by teaching us more about what's going on inside of the familiar by actually manipulating it into new territory and transforming it into something truly new. We can understand, say, a house by learning to look at houses from perspectives that we normally ignore or we haven't been privy to before; and we can also better understand houses by seeing how the very notion of house and home changes over time and in varying social contexts.

Doing just one of those two things is, honestly, not very ambitious for SF, though that's by far the norm. And I think that it's a mistake to think of the second as more ambitious and more meritorious. SF as elaborate counterfactuals for the sake of being elaborate and self-consistent counterfactuals is interesting from a technical perspective, but not really good art.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:44 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think if you generalize out, you end up with similarities in all manner of storytelling. Joseph Conrad call your office and all that.

Of course, I meant Joseph Campbell. That's a wacky name server failure on my part.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:10 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


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