Monday, March 24, 2014

Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek: the Big Three?

This post is very tentative. I’m thinking out-loud, playing around.

As the title suggests, I’m wondering if these three franchises, Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek, with their different themes and agendas, triangulate a certain very large space in the world’s popular culture over the last half century. Each has fans all over the world.

The Godzilla franchise is the oldest. It originates with the 1954 film, Gojira (the Japanese for Godzilla), about a large prehistoric beast that was disturbed by atomic testing and, in consequence, destroyed much of Tokyo before it was destroyed. The Japanese film was Americanized by eliminating some footage, adding new footage, and re-editing. This new film was released in America in 1956 under the title, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The Japanese have so far made 27 more Godzilla films plus spin-off films about other monsters. An American remake is scheduled for release later this year. The franchise also includes animated television programs, comics, and assorted merchandise.

Next comes Doctor Who, a British television series started by the BBC in 1963; it centers on a humanoid alien, the Doctor, who is last of the Time Lords and who travels through time and space in the TARDIS, a time machine. The series ran 26 years until 1989, by which time it had generated enough secondary material – comics, books, and merchandise – to keep the franchise alive until it was restarted in 2005 and remains in production.

Star Trek started on American television in 1966, three years after Doctor Who and 12 years after Gojira. The original series lasted three years on network television but then became firmly established in reruns. The first feature film came out in 1979 and the first of four spin-off programs, Star Trek, the Next Generation, debuted in 1987. The franchise has generated a dozen feature films along with comic books, novels, video games, and animated series, and other materials.

What strikes me about these three franchises is that each is multimedia and each is long-lived, with Godzilla being the longest-running franchise in the movies. The Superman and Batman franchises are also multimedia and are even older, dating back to the late 1930s in comic book form. Which is a way of raising the question of whether these three franchises – Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek – constitute some analytically coherent group or not. I could eliminate Superman and Batman by specifying a post-WWII starting point, but is that an arbitrary move or not? I suspect it isn’t, but that’s not something I’m interested in pressing hard here and now.

Given these three post-WWII pop-culture franchises, they are distinctly different in character. The significance of their longevity is not simply that they have remained popular, but that they have defined the imaginative space in which other titles must situate themselves. All three fall within science fiction, broadly understood – and that might differentiate them from Superman and Batman. Of course, we also have the Star Wars franchise, which is a decade younger than Star Trek, but arguably as widely spread. Does that matter? Don’t know. Let’s press on.

These three franchises are distinctly different in character. As far as I know (I've not watched more than handful of the films), the Godzilla franchise centers on the monster, albeit one that undergoes a change in character over time (from malevolent to friendly), and is earth bound, though aliens figure in some of the films. The Doctor Who franchise, of course, centers on The Doctor. While the Doctor appears human, he’s not, and much of the action takes place on other worlds and much of the earthbound action takes place in the past or the future. The physical appearance of the Doctor has changed over time. That’s obvious a solution to the problem of changing the lead actor, but it has become incorporated into show’s mythos. The Star Trek franchises are anchored only by an organization, the Federation, and a concept, an ensemble cast playing out a more-or-less egalitarian ethos.

Of the three, Star Trek most is most typically science fiction. Doctor Who has strong elements of the fantastic and the whimsical. And Godzilla himself is one of the creatures that define the notion of a creature feature.

One also needs to explore the ways in which each franchise is the expression of an ethos characteristic of the nation that produced it. The original Star Trek’s dual concern with exploration and with civil rights issues seems characteristic of American culture. Can we argue Doctor Who’s travels through time, space, and alternative universes is the expression of a nation whose empire once spanned half the globe? I note that in various episodes he has encountered Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Winston Churchill. Is THAT what makes it British? And what makes the Godzilla series Japanese? The original film in that franchise, the 1954 Gojira, is Japanese in its use of a conflict between arranged marriage and marriage by choice as a trope for “modernization” but, so far as I know, that’s not characteristic of franchise as a whole. To be sure the central monster has become associated with Japan in pop culture, but is that monster somehow expressive of Japanese culture in the way that the Starship Enterprise is expressive of American culture?

How do these franchises sort themselves out in the global myth space? How do they define and articulate it? Both Star Trek and Doctor Who have something of an omnibus character, with episodes covering a wide variety of themes, situations and concerns. I don't know the Godzilla franchise well enough to know whethe or not it has this characteristic as well.

Those questions need to be explored. But not here and now.

4 comments:

  1. I just wrote a long comment, and it was cool, damn it. Stupid blogspot. The gist of it was that the frameworks you mentioned insure against change. We're loyal to the frameworks and not so much the incarnations. With Godzilla, since he's animated/animatronic, the franchise is insured against actors since latex, rubber and fiberglass tend to hold up better than actors do. TLK

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    1. That's fine, TLK. But I like to study things in detail and I think work needs to be done on these three series, among MANY other things. Here's a link to a working paper I put together from my posts on the orignal 1954 Gojira. Scroll to the end and you'll see a table I put together of what happens in the film. It's by no means complete. I'd like to see such tables for A LOT of films and TV programs. It's more than I can do and the academic world isn't yet quite ready to recognize its intellectual responsibility here. But that job is WAY MORE than I can handle.

      What I'm wonding if some fans would be interested in doing that sort of thing? I mean, I know that something a little like it is bieng done already. But, for example, the summaries of lots TV episodes you find on Wikipedia aren't reliable (I've looked at a lot of them and compared against the episode itself). And, in any event, those summaries don't have the kind of detail we need.

      Imagine that you're one of those proverbial Martian anthropologists and you've be assigned to study Earth (or whatever the Martains call it) and its inhabitants. What are you going to study? The films and TV shows that millions and millions of people watch or the handfull of books assigned in college lit classes as 'classics.' Well, since you are a very sophisticated Martian anthropologist you're going to study both. On those classics, you're going to study why they've been institutionalized as such, etc. (probably for the same reason a handful of Martian texts have been declared classics in various Martian societies). But you're also going to study the popular culture becasue, well, it's popular, that's why.

      Anyhow, I'm interested in picking up some of the slack down here on Earth.

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  2. Look, I'm a BIG fan of cogent analysis of popular culture so I say go for it. There was, after all, a legitimate academic journal dedicated to the study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm not well-versed enough in any of these three franchises to help out with this but I do think it is a valuable enterprise!

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    1. I'm not sure what "well-versed" means in this context. I've watched a bunch of this stuff, and a lot more (like lots of episodes of "Cardcaptor Sakura" and all of "Little Snow Fairy Sugar"), and no one taught me how to do what I did with Gojira. I just went ahead and did it.

      More generally, I"m interested in nurturing "citizen scholarship" in the humanities. It's like "citizen science" but with different subject matter. You know, some people look at the sky with telescopes, some people watch birds, some people give excess CPU cycles to SETI data, and other people (are going to) produce detailed and accurate timings of pop culture movies and TV including timings.

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