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Visualizing the British Boom: British Science Fiction Film and Television

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 13, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 155-178 | 10.1353/ncr.2013.0023

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In the fall of 2003, Science Fiction Studies (SFS), the leading journal in the field, published a special issue on the British Boom, an academic evaluation of and response to a larger series of conversations that had been taking place at conferences and in the pages of publications such as Locus and Vector. From at least the mid-1990s, much of the energy in the field seemed to emanate from British writers, leading to speculations that British perspectives were poised to shape early twenty-first century science fiction (SF) as strongly as American ones had shaped the field in the pulp years of the 1920s through 1940s. In his Pioneer Award-winning essay in that issue, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the British Boom,” Andrew M. Butler speculated on contributing characteristics and contingencies. Discussing number 11 on his list, Mainstream, he argued “Since the actual readership within science fiction in Britain is rather small, and new fans of science fiction seem more interested in films, tv, and comics than in the written word, British science fiction is dependent on the mainstream” (Butler 2003, 387), and proceeded to discuss a number of texts ambiguously positioned between genre and mainstream literature. In his comments and in criticism on the British Boom more generally, little is said about nonprint media.

In this essay, I want to build on Butler’s observation and consider another implication of his statement—the relationship between the British Boom and contemporary British films and television. While it is by no means the case that those new fans interested in nonprint media would focus exclusively on British productions, the distinct role of film and television contributions to the British Boom remains under-theorized. In a talk given during the 2002 Wordfest Literary Festival, reprinted in this same issue of SFS, writer Stephen Baxter discussed the importance of an earlier period of British SF television for his generation of writers who grew up watching Nigel Kneale productions such as Quatermass and the Pit (1958–1959), most importantly the original Doctor Who (1963–1989), and various Gerry Anderson productions such as UFO (1970–1971) (Baxter, 2003). Thus, writers of the British Boom were themselves products of a genre that was already multimedia in its orientation, and the distinct voice of the novels they later wrote was informed by this context. Many of the qualities that Butler associates with the print version of the British Boom can also be seen in contemporary British film and television. Focusing in particular on texts produced following the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both supported by British troops, I argue that these visual texts not only rewrite and resist the ideological tropes of their Hollywood contemporaries, but also articulate a perspective that challenges British capitulation to “American” values of individualism and militarism. British Boom film and television offers a very different response to the post-9/11 world than the resurgence of hyperactive patriotism that characterized many Hollywood productions of this period.

New Labour, Hybrid Genres, Crises of Masculinity

Roger Luckhurst argues that the British Boom must be understood in the context of the rise of New Labour in the 1990s and its specific politics of cultural governance. As the government sought to support and channel creativity into culture industries supportive of New Labour’s Third Way, he contends, a certain freedom opened up in Gothic, SF and fantasy texts not deemed sufficiently middlebrow to be worthy of New Labour’s interest. In this specific context, he declares, and “Relative to the co-optation, complicity, or evasion manifested in other cultural forms, these genres become available as sites of critique, if we understand this to emerge contextually and temporarily, within a particular historical conjuncture” (Luckhurst 2003, 424; emphasis in original). A similar pattern is discernible in twenty-first-century television and film texts that are openly critical of Britain’s recent past and able to question the economic inequality and other neoliberal tendencies that characterize New Labour’s platform. The rebooted Doctor Who (2005–present), for example, is darker in tone than its predecessor and raises troubling questions, from the Doctor’s ethical relationship to humans to the morality of committing genocide against his...



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