Gravitas and Triviality

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For fans of science fiction TV, there can be no doubt about the biggest news story this week: Martin Landau died. A brooding, serious actor who trained in method acting at the Actors Studio, Landau was perfectly cast as the stoic and humane Commander Koenig of Moonbase Alpha in Space 1999. After starring in Mission: Impossible with his wife, Barbara Bain, the couple bravely moved from the USA to Britain to play the leading roles in Space 1999, a show which dared to marry an enormous budget and ultra-cool design to scripts that were morality plays with added aliens.

As co-stars, Landau and Bain received an equal amount of time on screen, helping to make their show considerably more gender-balanced than Star Trek, the predecessor to which it was most commonly compared. However, Space 1999 was not blessed with good fortune. It suffered especially from the erroneous belief, held by some SF fans and various media professionals, that science fiction always needs to emphasize action over dialogue, and visual effects over acting. This was especially unfair to Space 1999 because it looked the equal of any cinematic offering of that time, whilst daring to take an interest in psychology and mood instead of focusing solely on ray guns and spaceships.

Landau’s Space 1999 performances are worth revisiting. They show how an actor can maintain gravitas whilst playing in a low-gravity environment. His talents later received the level of recognition they deserved when his performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood secured him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. With Landau in the cast, it is possible to imagine that even Plan 9 from Outer Space could be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, some people chatter about a casting decision for a long-running BBC children’s show. Though presented as an event of some importance, it is remarkable for how many of the people feel moved to comment even though they mis-identify the character in question. Nobody has cast anyone as Doctor Who because the character in question is known simply as “Doctor”. And contrary to many reports, we do not know if the Doctor’s gender has changed. Whilst the gender of actor Jodie Whittaker is not in question, we cannot use that knowledge to infer the gender of characters she plays. The irony of many people babbling about 21st century mores is that they have all simultaneously forgotten that sex is not the same as gender, and that gender is self-identified. This means we do not currently know how this new Doctor will identify his or herself, and hence whether we should refer to the character as being a man or a woman. Even if the makers of Doctor Who claimed to know the gender of the Doctor, their authority would be open to question, for reasons observed by David Kyle Johnson when concluding that recent incarnations of the Doctor have been incorrectly numbered.

I expect many of the people currently prattling about Doctor Who will watch two or three episodes and never tune in again. Perhaps that is for the best; I struggle to understand why some feel SF&F must be dominated by stories that 12 year olds find intelligible and entertaining. Maybe they might reincarnate too, and hopefully return wise enough to realize that the gender politics of a body-swapping alien requires a tad more social construction than suitable for teatime telly. However, that is not a question that will be exercising me. I would rather re-watch stories involving the well-drawn heroines of Hayao Miyazaki, or those thoughtful episodes from the first season of Space 1999, all of which deserve more regard than some endlessly gimmicky output from the crushingly self-congratulatory BBC.

Ray Blank
Ray Blank is the Executive Editor of Sci Phi Journal. You can learn (a little) more about him here.

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