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Recently, I've been enjoying a lot of The OC (and stay with me here, people, I'm working towards a point). The OC is actually far better written than you think it is—the first two seasons, which are all I've managed to catch up on so far, produce witty scripts and feature characters that are, on the whole, well thought-out. Plus, it's mine. Nobody I know will entertain talk of it.

It's odd, really, that so many of my friends have spent their lives being roundly mocked for liking something as ridiculous as "science fiction" and yet don't hesitate to pour scorn on a show they've never seen. And that's a wonderful thing to have happen. Without talking about it, without discussing or dissecting it, I can appreciate it on its own merits. I have no hivemind or consensus to affect me, consciously or otherwise.

I am a man forever tainted by fandom, of course, so simple things like Jim Robinson being head of the Newport Group or that kiddy-fiddling vampire who tortured Angel being a history teacher at Harbour bring me a geekish joy beyond words. And let's not even start on how Ryan's mom loved to listen to Puccini and killed the seventh Doctor.

I am tainted. And it's the fault, frankly, of the internet and of books like these.


Billson Buffy cover

There's something else you should know. Buffy wasn't half as clever as you think it was. Oh, sure, it had metaphors. But frankly, the class of Buffy was in the dialogue and the action scenes. The oft-cited "monsters as metaphors"? Yawn.

The other thing about Buffy is that there's a bloody lot of it, and it all happened in the space of merely seven years. When it was good, it was "Becoming." When it was bad, it was season six. There's a chasm between the two, and yet such a short timeframe. In total, there were 144 episodes spread over the seven years of its run. How do you really cover that much TV for a critical study when your page count barely manages a page per broadcast episode? The answer, per Anne Billson's study, appears to be "sparingly."

There isn't much you can write about Buffy on a pan-season basis. Buffy's strength lay in individual episodes, not in the coherence of discrete seasons. Season three is a prime example—oft-cited as the finest run of episodes the show produced, it still manages to casually disregard Faith's existence for chunks of time with no satisfactory narrative answer. Individual episodes trump the needs of the season-long arc plot, and the season as a whole lacks strength. By contrast, seasons six and seven push the balance too far in the opposite direction—to the extent that those two years' worth of episodes blur into an uncomfortable mess in the mind, each week's episode becoming subsumed beneath a mass of fumbled soap opera. And let's not even start on the coherence of the series across its whole run, because that's really not a pretty conversation.

And what's more, once you've done the line about how frat boys are worshipping a big penis monster, you've covered "monsters as metaphor" (though, strangely, nobody ever seems to mention that cheating at life requires the sacrifice of young women to a penis monster with no balls attached—a far more cutting insight, in my humble opinion). And then there's the old "blonde girl in alley fights back, yadda yadda" thing. To her credit, Billson fleshes this out by providing a potted history of her own attempts to identify a televisual role model when growing up. It's an interesting read and though it has nothing to do with Buffy per se, what it does at least do is make a decent stab at the "Buffy revolutionised telly" schtick.

But the meat of Billson's book addresses each season in turn, with a brief précis of the main events during the season in question taking up a page or two at the start of each chapter. This approach falls a little flat because there's little to find here that isn't readily apparent to anyone watching the episodes themselves. Buffy isn't actually a constantly rewarding text whose semiotic thickness may be a little further revealed and appreciated with each new discussion—it's merely superlative entertainment. As a result, Billson sets herself the unenviable task of writing a book where there is very little that can be said about its subject matter. That's partly the fault of Buffy as a series, and partly a fault of the format of a book which attempts to wring meaning from whole seasons at a time.

One suspects a more rewarding format would have been an analysis of selected individual episodes. I get the impression that Billson would have been amenable to such an approach, as she uses "The Wish" as a jumping-off point for a look at "alternate reality" storylines in a wider televisiual context. But here, sadly, page count and the season-by-season approach preclude standout episodes from being given the level of discussion they deserve. There's a world of difference between "Passion" and "Doublemeat Palace," and I for one could quite happily read a book which concentrated on the former and never mentioned the latter. The quality between episodes varied wildly, and it might have been a better approach to simply cherry-pick the episodes which afforded the best opportunity to provide insight. In not doing so, a shorter book like this inevitably feels unfocussed.

That said, there's little to actually disagree with in Billson's analysis—but crucially, there's little here that's new. Yet I find myself reluctant to write the effort off entirely. I am, after all, tainted by the hivemind of fandom. I know it's a penis monster because the websites, the newsgroups, the fans I spoke to over a pint in the pub, the interviews with writers, the DVD commentaries, and my own filthy mind tell me that it's a bloody great penis monster. With the exception of my filthy mind (which I keep locked under the bed, away from prying eyes), these are the same sources that Billson has used—her footnoted references mainly point to DVD commentaries or freely available websites, things that pre-existing fans are likely to already be very familiar with.

But to people new to watching Buffy, to anyone looking to join the hivemind, I suppose that I'd say (a) you've clearly been living under a rock for the last ten years, and (b) you could do worse than start with this as an introduction. It will at least show you that you're not alone in thinking Tara is boring and Dawn is whiny (something Billson will quite happily repeat to you whenever you're in danger of forgetting). But at least watch the episodes first—that way, if you really feel the urge to join the hivemind you'll at least have the benefit of your own opinions behind you.


Kim Newman Doctor Who cover

By contrast, Kim Newman's volume on Doctor Who—part of the same British Film Institute series as Billson's book—has an awful lot more to play with. The original run of Who spanned 26 years, but produced roughly the same number of individual stories as Buffy's entire series—the difference arising because Who's traditional format was multi-part stories spanning anywhere between four and six weeks apiece. Those years were overseen by a vast number of producers, directors, editors, and writers and left behind a series of neat little cultural nuggets which are most definitely of their time. As a result, it's easier for Newman to show how outside influences affected Who than it would be for Billson to do with Buffy. Over the course of 26 years, the world changed, television changed, and Who changed along with it—sometimes radically, sometimes glacially, but it always gleefully stole ideas from then-current popular culture.

Newman's chapters aren't broken down easily by season, or even lead actor, but nonetheless act as a very rough chronology of the series, moving from early days through to the late 1970s, when K9 made him stop watching in disgust. It's worth noting here that Who has an even more firmly established hivemind than Buffy. This is largely because publishers have been churning out Who reference books for decades now, tackling everything from cast biographies to writing or directing critiques, through to the most nerdy collection of stats a boy could love. (Seriously, I can grab a book from my shelf and tell you where and when serial 4B was shot and who the floor manager was on the second Wednesday of filming, should I ever want to melt your brain.)

Newman isn't from canonised fandom, the types who produce novels or audio plays or even, lately, write the whole damn show. I mean, sure, he dabbled a few years ago and produced an excellent novella—but when a man's sole contribution to Who fandom is a 110-page slip of a book, it would be a bit unfair to call him institutionalised. His background is in critiquing ye olde British fantasy, SF, and horror films and TV shows, so he brings to the table a wider cultural awareness than most commentators muster. Anyone can chuck in a reference to Doomwatch, Quatermass, or Dixon of Dock Green if they have to, but Newman manages to reference contemporary sources succinctly, effectively, and with enough authority to convince you that this is a writer thoroughly capable of spotting Who's influences and its place in the wider cultural marketplace. Because Who lasted 26 years, there's a substantial analysis that can be made of its influence on and evolution alongside wider cultural touchstones—the kind of analysis that just isn't possible for Buffy, with its mere seven-year run. Incidentally, one of these influences was R2D2 (a cute squeaky robot) and the response of the Who production team was to introduce K9 (a box of a robot dog on wheels, voiced by a squeaky-voiced man). Newman's response to K9 was to stop watching—and he seems to still be slightly bitter towards the character.

Newman's analysis, then, comes from outside "established" fandom. And it's a personal analysis where he isn't afraid to, for instance, mention a girl from his junior school geography class in one of the footnotes. He's also quite open about the fact that he holds pre-1980 Who in far higher esteem than post-1980 Who—and barely gives Sylvester McCoy's Doctor a paragraph's worth of discussion. For what it's worth, I found this a disappointment but, in keeping with the whole "personal perspective" thing, I like that Newman stuck to the areas he felt comfortable discussing and didn't feel obliged to cover areas he viewed as extraneous. And then, towards the end of his volume, Newman unashamedly refers to old-skool Who as "often embarrassing"—a point at which I cheered. The book succeeds because it defies the hivemind and presents an eminently readable, fresh, and personal perspective on the show's roots and influences. It ain't cheap, but it should at least be on your library watchlist if you're interested in the show itself or, even, British TV from the 1960s onward.


Through Time cover

From an introduction to the hivemind to a point outside of it and, now, to the very epicentre. Through Time is a critical appraisal of Doctor Who by Andrew Cartmel, the original show's final script editor. Cartmel's run on the show was notable for the darker streaks which ran through the narratives—the Doctor merrily destroys Ace's self-confidence because she's messing up a plan he's been hiding from her; Daleks fight a civil war based on racial purity in a 1960s London where hotel proprietors hang signs reading "No Coloureds" in their windows; Sheila Hancock sends a murderous Bertie Bassett after anyone who isn't smiling and happy (no, really). Cartmel's take on the show was a renaissance after the mid-80s creative doldrums. Plus, he wrote a couple of cracking novels in the mid-90s. So I have a lot of respect for his work.

And then, so help me God, I had to read this book. A book so muddled, so poorly edited, so brain-meltingly unreadable that I will be dying three years earlier than I otherwise would, had I not put my body through the stresses and strains of continuing to turn the pages. I kid you not; at least that bloody Skinks book had the theory of dogativity.

Most of my issues with Cartmel's guide stem from the fact that the book doesn't actually know what it wants to be. Cartmel picks random stories from the show's run to discuss in detail, and has the declared intent of providing commentary from the perspective of a script editor. Sadly, he doesn't take long to indulge in talking about how bollocks the science-y technobabble was in 1973, or how wobbly the sets are, or how much the monsters look like flaccid willies. The first of these I can excuse, but the latter two have very little to do with the quality of scripts.

See, when Newman talks about shortcomings, it's couched in terms of what was going on in TV more generally (or, alternatively, about how the BBC has always been a bit paternal). When Cartmel does it, it manages to come across as rather more petty than anything else. (And, as an aside, when Billson does it, it's usually couched in terms of either Whedon being around less, or Dawn/Tara being around more, both of which seem about right to me.) The thing is, just watching the episodes will quite happily show me that, yes, it's a penis in a cloak or that the walls wobble. But where o where is this much-vaunted script editing insight?

There are clearly moments of Doctor Who that Cartmel admires and respects—some of them even stem from before his time on the show. But few of them, in fact, are from the tenures of "Hartnell," "Troughton," "Pertwee" et al and many of them date from the point when "Sylv" and "Sophie" are the leads. I suppose I could view it as charmingly honest that he doesn't even bother to try and be objective about his own lead actors or writing. ("I wrote this great speech about nuclear war and it was OMGFAB!" being a reasonable summary of his take on a particularly contrived and turgid piece of dialogue.)

But sadly, "charmingly honest" isn't really the attitude I get from it. Cartmel tries too hard to have his tonal cake and eat it, early segments being more formal and later ones being a gushing love-in, but it doesn't work. Saying how cack "Carnival of Monsters" is because the look of it ruins the story stops me, I'm afraid, from feeling any goodwill towards you when you say your own monsters would have been brilliant if only you'd had more time and money. And perhaps you may feel that I'm carping too much about the internal consistency thing, and that there's still value in the perspective of a guy who worked on the show. And yes, there is, but not when it's as actively boring as this. How Cartmel wrote this and Warlock with the same pair of hands, I'll never know.

For the book Cartmel wanted to write, read Newman's own (no pun intended). Or if you want something more in-depth, pick up Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's superb About Time series from Mad Norwegian Press (which comes with a small health warning about the accuracy of trivia tidbits, but nothing that should put you off). But don't, for the love of all that's holy, read this if you want to keep those last three years of your life intact.


As for me, I'm off to order season three of The OC on DVD. Already, glimmerings of the hivemind have been appearing to tell me that it's not a patch on the first two. But I don't care—I'm just looking forward to making my own mind up about it, instead of have someone else telling me what I should think about it.

It's been suggested to me by my esteemed editor that writing a review this curmudgeonly about fandom having a hive mind may appear inconsistent with my (and I quote) "Yay! Fandom!" review of "Love and Monsters." But the fandom I love is creative, affectionate, mocking, and occasionally brutal. It doesn't tell you what to think—it recognises that you're a fan because you love something, and love has never been known for its rationality. The hive mind—the thing that says "The Gunfighters" is awful without anyone having seen it, or says that "Lungbarrow" was written by a man determined to make Time Lords asexual, or thinks that Riley was boring when, in fact, he had arguably the best storyline of anyone in season five—is to be distrusted. For me, fandom is a group of idealogues and not a set of grundnorms. We are, to borrow from Monty Python, all individuals.

Newman's book earns my recommendation because it's the most insightful—but that insight is also symptomatic of a very personal take on the show it's studying. Billson's study offers little real insight, and Cartmel's guide is just badly written. But before you're tempted to spend your hard-earned on anything listed here, try making your own mind up. You might find you like it.

Tim once failed a job interview by saying "I guess I'm just a very boring person," and he'd hate to repeat that mistake here. So every day, Tim reads fifteen impossible books before breakfast and then sprints twelve miles to work. During a working day, he has the productivity of twenty of his peers. When he leaves work, he stops to help old ladies cross the street and to rescue cats from trees before volunteering at the local homeless shelter. He has recently trekked around the equator whilst standing on his hands. A best-selling author in two hundred and four countries, Tim is constantly on the lookout for new experiences and ideas. If he had the time to bother talking to you, you would find him to be quite the most interesting person you'd ever met. Honest.



Tim doesn’t write as often as he should, because every time he does he fears disappearing up his own wormhole.
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