Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Five)

I was struck by a lacoona on p.128 where you start to distinguish your concept of world-building from transmedia storytelling. I wanted to see if I could get you to spell out more fully your distinction here, since you stop rather short in the text. Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on Trek as a television series, even as you discuss the feature films in relation to the television franchise. Yet we might also point at various moments in its history to key roles played by the novels, comics, games, and other extensions of Star Trek, suggesting that while there is a distinction between world-building and transmedia extension, in this case, the Trek world was built up across multiple media. Thoughts?

First, let’s say that, given our focus on Star Trek as television we decided that we simply could not deal with the whole franchise because that would have precluded us from dealing with television Star Trek in the depth that we wanted to. Showing yet again that there’s always more to say about Star Trek, there’s still a book to be written about the franchise and transmedia storytelling (although Derek Johnson does have many interesting thinks to say about this in his book on franchises).

Second, it’s important to recognize that while we tend to associate world building with multiple texts, any fiction, even a short story, has to engage in world building. To draw again on narrative theory, a fiction has to establish its relationship to the ‘real’ world – its proximity to or distance from an historical ‘reality’. It then has to construct a credible world based on this proximity or distance. So for example, in a novel about the Napoleonic wars, like War and Peace, Tolstoi can inject fictional characters into a real historical setting and the presumption is, that with the exception of those characters, everything else will match the ‘historical reality’.

Fantasy fiction, precisely because it’s more distant from the ‘real’ world, has to work harder at world building, establishing the key differences between its world and the world we know. Star Trek began building its distinctive future world in its very first episode, introducing audiences to the military organization of the Enterprise, future technologies and the like. Even had the series ended there a corner of the Star Trek world, albeit a very small one, would nonetheless have been constructed. But in Star Trek’s case the world building continued over more than seven hundred television episodes and over other media.

We’d want to make a basic distinction between world building, which can occur in a single medium, either in a short story or over 700 plus episodes of a television show, and transmedia storytelling, which we would argue by definition has to involve two or more media. Maybe if all the worldbuilding is done within one medium we need a new term – we used ‘extended seriality’ to refer to the Star Trek television shows’ worldbuilding.

This is the kind of one-medium world building that takes place in comic books; so, for example, the Batman world has been undergoing construction and refurbishment and some degree of demolishment since 1939. Even though various comics titles contribute to this world building it still takes place in one medium. Anthony Smith has a very good chapter on the Bat-world’s continuity strategies in the reboot of The Many Lives of the Batman, Many More Lives of the Batman, which Roberta co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (it will be out next year with BFI Publishing). Picking up on Bobby Allen’s analysis of soaps, he argues that the writers construct both syntagmatic and paradigmatic seriality as they seek to satisfy dedicated readers and keep casual ones happy, introducing a subtle continuity that the latter will recognize but which won’t baffle the latter.

Transmedia storytelling raises problems of coordination and integration and consumer behaviour that single-medium, and sometimes single-authored, world building doesn’t. One of Roberta’s doctoral student’s, Matthew Freeman, is just finishing a terrific dissertation on the pre-convergence history of trans-media storytelling. He argues that world building is one of the factors, together with characters and authors, that hold transmedia worlds together to a greater or lesser extent. So we would see world building as a necessary condition for, but not coterminous with, trans-media storytelling. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘these are deep waters, Watson’ and we can either stop here or engage in a protracted discussion of media industries and of narrative theory. So we’ll go on to the next question.

Your focus on the future of Star Trek in the conclusion focuses almost entirely on official television production, yet you could argue that Trek does exist in a Post-Network era in the form of various fan-produced web-series on the one hand and the J.J. Abrams produced feature films on the other. How might we extend your arguments if we incorporated these two forms of textual production into the mix?

Yes, once again those are topics that we couldn’t really address within the scope of the book, although they are of course important, since at the moment its only in the Abrams and fan films that Star Trek exists on the screen (other than the endless reruns of the various series all over the channel spectrum that is –and of course in games which should also be given some consideration). Looking at these texts raises very interesting questions about who and what is Star Trek.

Considering the Abrams films and the fan films would require addressing in more detail than we did in the book issues of authorship and branding. It would also require considering issues of canonicity, which we didn’t touch on in the book except somewhat indirectly in terms of Roddenberry’s conception of the Star Trek world. In terms of the feature films, you’d have to think about whether or not these are seen as part of the ‘official’ canon because of the change in perceived authorship. We make an argument in the book concerning the importance of the Roddenberry brand to Star Trek television even years after his death. But has this continued now that Star Trek no longer exists as television?

Roberta’s doctoral student, Leora Hadas, has a forthcoming piece in Cinema Journal (“A New Vision: J. J Abrams, Star Trek and Promotional Authorship”) in which she analyses the tensions between the Roddenberry and Abrams brands in the publicity for the Star Trek films. Her conclusion, as we remember it, is that relatively little attention was paid to Roddenberry and for the most part only in sources specifically directed at the fan base.

The whole point of the reboot was to bring in new viewers, who might not even know about Roddenberry and Paramount doesn’t seem to have had much concern for the core fan base in that regard (even though Roddenberry’s name features prominently on the posters for the first film and in the credits for both). And, if we may be permitted a personal observation, we think that Abrams has gone so far off-brand that he’s turned Star Trek into Star Wars, just another space-opera, spectacle-filled blockbuster. We’d be interested to know whether this is a perception shared by the fans.

Must admit that we’ve only watched snatches of the fan films, but we would suspect that they are much more ‘faithful’ to the established television canon than the Abrams films, as indicated by their efforts to incorporate writers from the original series. So it seems that further commercial exploitation of Star Trek has to be predicated on drawing in new viewers, which means downplaying authorship and canonicity, while the fans have much more of an attachment to the canon. In that sense, it may be the fan films in which for some of us the ‘real’ Star Trek lives on.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

 

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Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Four)

A key tension on any television series is that directors come and go but actors tend to develop a stronger ownership of their characters over time. To what degree have Star Trek actors been able to shape the characters they play?

In the book we point to this key tension as one of the primary determinants of the actors’ agency. Over the course of a long-running show they tend to take ownership of their characters, partly because no one else, including the writers, really does.

Part of this comes from the natural tendency that actors have toward wanting more screen time, so if they are powerful enough they can lobby for this. But it also comes from professional standards, which gets back to the question about a good script. The actors believe in consistent characterization, having their characters engage in actions and speak dialogue that they believe flows naturally from previous representations of the character.

In the book, we have a long quote from Patrick Stewart about his input in to the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which he says that he changed the script to make it more consistent with his vision of the character. But he also pointed out that not all actors can do that. As we argue, there’s a hierarchy of agency within any ensemble cast with the stars usually having more control over their characters than secondary cast members. And in Star Trek, the captain had more control than anyone which leads on to your next question.

While fans have often been drawn to secondary characters, there are strong television logics which work to insure the centrality of the Captains to our experience of the series. What are some of the ways that these television production logics re-assert themselves?

Herman Zimmerman, production designer on all the post-TOS series told us when we interviewed him that originally the TNG bridge was oval, with “a big oval conference table.” But that didn’t work, because “it didn’t give the captain precedence. And one of the things that Gene was really regretting, but then he realized that he had no other choice, the star of the series had to be the captain. He wanted every one of the crew members to be the star . . . but always the captain has to have the last word, and the captain has to have the bulk of the action or the audience is confused.”

Even in shows with large ensemble casts, like TNG, it seems that, to become a bit theoretical, there has to be a focus of narrative alignment, a character whose perspective guides viewers through the narrative or with whom they can ‘identify’. That’s tricky because, although both Murray Smith and Jason Mittell write about narrative alignment, they do so from a somewhat formalist and cognitive perspective. There’s no empirical audience research that we know of to back up the claim.

However, it certainly seems that television writers believe that there has to be a dominant focus of narrative alignment. One of the beauties of a long running series is that it does have the space to focus occasionally on secondary characters. But we would hypothesise that in any long running show from TNG to ER to Lost to Madmen, many episodes will be ‘star-centric’ with the remaining spread among the secondary characters. The only real exception that we can think of to this rule is The Wire which initially set up McNulty in a way that made it seem he would be the central character and then strayed away from him in the second season. In The Wire Baltimore was the main character in a way but this is the exception that proves the rule and we can’t think of another example of this strategy.

And of course not just the logics of television but the long-established logics of Hollywood centre around the star system, that gives some actors higher billing and more money than others. As we detail in the book, this became a point of contention between William Shatner, who because he was the Captain thought he was the star, and Leonard Nimoy, who very quickly became an audience favourite.

I generally respect your decision to bracket off the study of Star Trek fans from the study of the production process. I was struck, though, reading your chapter on character that this was somewhat problematic, and pleased that you added a brief, but important, discussion here about the ways character operates somewhat differently in fan fiction from on the aired episodes. That said, while it is true that we do not yet have a very conceptually rich way of talking about television characters, much work on Star Trek fandom has argued that it is very much a character-centered approach to understanding the series, hence the charge sometimes made against fan fiction that it is moving from space opera to soap opera. What might we learn if we brought together your production studies approach to how the creative team thought about the Star Trek characters with a more audience-centered approach on how fans conceived of these same characters?

That was another of those pragmatic decisions intended to keep the book from becoming a multi-volume series. Certainly no disrespect was intended to the fans who are such an important part of the Star Trek phenomenon, but you and others have devoted many pages to them and Trekkers are undoubtedly the most studied of all fandoms. And we ourselves talk about how the fans of the original series may have helped to push the networks towards a more nuanced understanding of their audiences.

As we’ve already said, the writers we interviewed very much stressed that they had a character-centred approach to their writing so in that sense they are to some degree aligned with fan fic writers. There are of course fans who take other pleasures from the Star Trek world, enjoying the technologies or the space battles for example, but for the most part they don’t seem to write fan fic although they might produce blueprints of the starships.

We think it would be, in Spock’s word, ‘fascinating’ to do a systematic study of the television writers’ approach to the characters versus fan fic writers. As you say, one of the key distinctions is genre, particularly when it comes to shipping in all its marvelous variations. Television soaps, which are fundamentally about relationships, can spend endless amounts of time on characters’ romantic entanglements, but other genres can’t do this. When Deep Space Nine started to have lots of romantic pairings, some referred to it rather scornfully as DS90210. Shifting genres can alienate audiences, as we saw many years ago when Twin Peaks began as a murder mystery but became supernatural in its second and final season in a shift that seems to have driven viewers away.

Also extensive exploration of characters and their relationships can, as we say in the book in the bit that you’re referring to, potentially undermine the stability of the series format. The example we give is that of the TNG episode ‘Chain of Command’ in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians. The second episode’s conclusion very quickly deals with Picard’s post-traumatic stress because he has to be back in command of the Enterprise in the next episode. But numerous fan fics deal with his recovery, particularly in terms of his relationship with the doctor, Beverly Crusher. But the television show can’t divert from its basic format of space exploration for several episodes of psychological and romantic drama that removes the Captain from the bridge. The Captain has a narrative function that he must continue to fulfill.

The different treatment of characters in the shows and in fan fic also relates to the point that we made above about an ensemble cast in which secondary characters have always to remain somewhat secondary in terms of their screen time.

There’s a good episode of Voyager called “Timeless” set fifteen years ahead of the present time line. Chakotay and Harry Kim managed to escape Voyager’s destruction and have spent the intervening years trying to find a way to undo the past. In those fifteen years Chakotay has acquired a girlfriend who helps them in their quest. Although we’ve not checked, we’d bet dollars to donuts that there are lots of fan fics filling in that narrative ellipsis and detailing the romance. But the television writers couldn’t devote time to that story not only because Chakotay is a secondary character, albeit an important one, but also because they would have had to stop telling stories about Voyager’s quest to get back to the Alpha quadrant in order to deal with events in a hypothetical future timeline.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Marie Messenger Davies (Part Three)

You raise some important points about the stability of Star Trek as an ongoing franchise over more than 18 years of production. How did this stability and predictability impact the creative process behind the show — for better or for worse?

Star Trek was very atypical in its 18 year run particularly with regard to the fact that many of the same people, like executive producer Rick Berman, stayed with the show throughout those years. As you imply this stability had its upsides and its downsides.

With regard to the first, one of the most significant upsides was that it gave the producers the chance to create one of the most extended and complex fictional universes of all time, on a scale that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, no other television program has achieved. And, as we discuss in chapters five and six, this led to some very ingenious world building, with producers, many of whom had been fans of the original series, harking back not only to TOS and TNG but in the post-TNG shows to all the previous series. This results in a degree of what’s come to be called fan service that can only be achieved within a vast canon. The creative process was stimulated by this and resulted in some very memorable and for fans emotionally satisfying episodes like TNG’s “Relics” which brings back the beloved Scotty.

But as Ron Moore pointed out to us when we interviewed him, the producers also had to be careful not to cater to fans too much and not to give in completely to their own fannish instincts. Had they done so they would have been writing fan fiction and not a television show aimed at millions of viewers.

Indeed, Stephen Moffat has been criticized for too much fan service in the most recent series of Sherlock, so it can negatively impact a show’s reception and perhaps exclude new viewers. We don’t think this happened with Star Trek, but it did become increasingly difficult for new viewers to enter such a complex universe.

Enterprise was meant to reboot the franchise by being less connected to the complicated backstory, but ironically, it became the most self-referential of all the series. The successful Star Trek reboot, the one that did attract new viewers, took place in cinema not on television and without the involvement of anyone who had made the television series. By contrast Doctor Who has successfully rebooted on television both honouring the backstory and managing to draw in new viewers. But maybe that’s because it did so precisely by drawing on new voices like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. You didn’t ask us about Doctor Who, but one of the reasons that there is always more to say about Star Trek is that as a case study it raises issues that are ongoing in terms of current productions.

Stability also had an upside with regard to the production process, one that we document in the book using interviews with many of the practitioners working on the show. As they constantly told us, the Star Trek production team was a ‘family’ that had worked together so long that they communicated by way of a creative shorthand. This both facilitated the smoothness of the production process and undoubtedly led to some very good episodes.

But that ‘family’ depended on having people at the top who were good managers. Michael Piller, now sadly deceased, joined TNG in its third season, after two seasons of upheaval, turmoil and some pretty bad episodes. He drew together the current writing staff and brought in new voices. But Brannon Braga seemed to be unable to do the same thing for Enterprise, one of the factors that we speculate could have contributed to its failure.

Reflecting in retrospect on the book, we perhaps should have made more of the downside. The producers told us that one of the problems with the failed Enterprise was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write Star Trek. But maybe what they meant was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write the long-established version of Star Trek that they themselves had helped to form.

Many fans and some academics have critised Berman and his fellow executive producer Brannon Braga for exploiting Star Trek simply for profit and not caring about Roddenberry’s vision. Our interviews did not lead us to this conclusion and we strongly refute this opinion in the book. However, in hindsight, perhaps it was not only Braga’s less than excellent management skills but the failure to incorporate new voices and new ideas that made Enterprise for the most part an inferior retread of the previous series.

You write about “Roddenberry’s Box” and the ways that founding concepts about what constitutes a Star Trek story have both enabled and constrained future creative contributions. What are some of the ways creative talent has negotiated in and around that Box through the years?

As we discuss in the introduction of the book, and at a number of points throughout, Roddenberry has become a ‘brand’ – the only name associated with television Trek to be given a credit in the new movie franchise. As such he represents both commercial value, but also something more intangible – what Kerry McCluggage referred to as a ‘vision’, and what writers sometimes referred to, using the more restrictive metatphor of a ‘box’. McCluggage told us:

“You do try to factor that [the Roddenberry vision] in, because that’s part of the appeal of Star Trek. He had an optimistic view of the future. He had a whole notion of how the Federation would evolve, and the Prime Directive, and things that are key elements in the show and values that are inherent in the show. In exploiting this property on a commercial basis, you really do find yourself going back to that, thinking, How does this fit in with the original vision of the show?”

Which is all very well, for the CEO, but for a writer the ‘vision’ and its strict rules could raise practical problems of narrative structure, not to mention a tendency for the ‘vision’, paradoxically, to generate conflict among the production team.

The two writers who specifically referred to the Roddenberry Box were Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore and they gave us specific examples of how they worked both within it, and around it. Piller described Roddenberry’s strict insistence that in the 23rd century (the period of TOS), “there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the characters because with the disappearance of want, poverty, disease, people were out pursuing a better quality of life;” this caused arguments among his writing team, who felt that conflict was necessary in a drama.

He described how he got round these strict rules in TNG’s ‘The Bonding’ [3:5] by using Gene’s insistence that in this advanced era of humanity nobody grieved when someone died, as a hook to develop a more interesting story. “The freakiest thing you’ve ever seen . . . a kid that doesn’t cry when his mother dies” enabled Piller and his team to bring forward an underdeveloped character, Counsellor Troi, to “strip down” to the underlying emotions of the bereft child. This was a good example of writers’ resourcefulness in being able to kill different birds with the same stone – giving Marina Sirtis a more satisfying role, which she had wanted, as well as solving a narrative problem arising from the restrictions of the ‘vision.’

Piller described how the Roddenberry Box suited him, and it became, to some extent, “ the Piller box”. Ron Moore, the author of “The Bonding”, also described arguments over the fight between the Picard brothers in a TNG episode he wrote – a two parter called “Family” [4:1 and 4:2]. On this occasion, Piller and Berman were able to prevail over Roddenberry and to leave the fight in – despite the fact that Roddenberry didn’t want it. These discussions are described more fully in Chapter 2 of the book, ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and also in a chapter by Máire: “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of Television Storytellers,” in Quality Television: American Contemporary Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 171–84.

You describe how the creative talent on the series tends to stress the importance of “good scripts” in triggering the production process. What are some of the traits they associated with a “good” Star Trek script?

First, let’s address this question from a more general perspective. Judgments as to good and bad have been largely dodged by people within media and cultural studies, because of the influence of theories of cultural relativism. As we told you, we did try to come to grips with questions of quality in a chapter that didn’t make it into the book, both because the book was getting too big and because we didn’t manage to resolve the debate to our own satisfaction. But since producers, critics and audiences all continue to make value judgments it’s important that academics address this issue. And in doing so, it’s vital to listen to what practitioners have to say about their own value judgments, even though they might believe in them implicitly and find them hard to articulate.

That being said, in terms of Star Trek, perhaps surprisingly in light of its genre, the writers and others’ evaluation of scripts depended on criteria that were established with 19th century literary and dramatic realism. Perhaps primary among these is what you might call fully developed, rounded or psychologically motivated characters whose motivations contribute to story development. Several of our interviewees, especially Michael Piller, emphasized the importance of character above all.

So a good script might be one that advanced a character’s arc through giving him a dilemma to grapple with and resolve. Piller told us that the fan favourite “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter in which Picard gets assimilated by the Borg is really more about first officer Riker’s decision to take his own command or stay with the Enterprise.

A good script could also explore the ongoing relationship between two characters. Good characterization, consistent with the previous establishment of the character, we think, was the overarching criterion determining whether a script was good or bad. Scripts would also have to be like the proverbial ‘well-made’ play or for that matter, classical Hollywood film, setting up and resolving enigmas and wrapping up everything neatly at the end.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

USC Annenberg Offers Tenure-Track Position in Diversity and Digital Media

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking a tenure track Assistant Professor or Associate Professor in the area of diversity and digital media. We seek faculty who will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in higher education through their teaching, research and service. We are especially interested in work at the intersection of communication theory, digital media and issues of difference.

As communications media serve increasingly diverse and global constituencies, understanding of the ways in which differences in gender, class, race, ethnicity, national origin and other “fault lines” can divide us and present barriers to communication becomes even more critical. We seek candidates who are interested in a broad array of topics in the area, including barriers to adoption of digital technologies by underrepresented groups; media diversity and public policy; representation of women and minorities in the media; social networking and political mobilization; assistive and adaptive technologies for persons with disabilities; and diverse voices in user-generated content. Candidates should have competencies in robust qualitative and/or quantitative techniques for examining data from media sources across multiple platforms.
The successful candidate will have the opportunity to collaborate with the new Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA). IDEA will examine diversity in media, illuminating the complexities of inclusion and multiculturalism with the goal of making positive, long-lasting change to facilitate civic engagement and foster partnerships between the School of Communication and other organizations.

About the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

The USC Annenberg School was established in 1979 with a gift from US Ambassador Walter Annenberg. It was expanded to include programs in Journalism and Communication Arts and Sciences in 1994, and has continued to grow to its current size of 95 full-time faculty, 100 adjunct faculty, and 175 staff, with the support of more than $182 million in gifts from the Annenberg Foundation. We have recently opened a new 85,000 square foot building, made possible by an additional $50 million gift from Wallis Annenberg. The Annenberg School has a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of 2200.

About the University of Southern California

The University of Southern California is a leading private research university. USC was founded in 1880 and is today home to more than 40,000 students and nearly 3,600 full-time faculty. It is located in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. An anchor institution in Los Angeles, and the city’s largest private employer, USC enrolls more international students than any other US university. USC has an endowment of $4 billion and substantial federal research funding, placing it in the top tier of US research universities.

Applicants

In order to be considered for this position, all candidates must apply via the USC Employee Recruitment Services website at this link
Submission materials should include a cover letter, curriculum vitae, samples of recent refereed publications and the names of three references. Final candidates will be required to submit three (3) letters of recommendation. The cover letter should be addressed to School of Communication Faculty Search, attention Dorine Lawrence-Hughes, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, 3502 Watt Way, Suite 305, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.

Applicants may direct questions to Dorine Lawrence-Hughes:
dllawren@asc.usc.edu or (213-740-3970). Materials submitted by regular mail will not be accepted.

Review of applications will commence on January 5, 2015 and continue until the position is filled or the search closed.

USC is an equal-opportunity educator and employer, proudly pluralistic and firmly committed to providing equal opportunity for outstanding persons of every race, gender, creed and background. The University particularly encourages members of underrepresented groups, veterans and individuals with disabilities to apply. USC will make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with known disabilities unless doing so would result in an undue hardship. Further information regarding accommodations is available by contacting uschr@usc.edu.

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger (Part Two)

You discuss Star Trek as in some ways a transitional text between the models of the mass audience and the least objectionable programming which shaped the early network era and the model of the niche or segmented audience which would inform the multi-network or post-network era. This seems closely connected to your idea that the series is both representative and exceptional to the television practices of its time. So, what was it about Star Trek which encouraged networks and producers to think differently about television audiences?

In our chapter 1, on Star Trek and television history, hopefully we make it clear that during the network era, the networks and producers didn’t really ‘think differently’ about TV audiences, even though there’s obviously evidence that audiences were already ‘niche-ing’ themselves by becoming active fans. Star Trek fans certainly did this, although they didn’t affect the network’s decision to cancel the show. In terms of the industry’s attitudes, it’s only with hindsight that we (and other writers on Star Trek) have been able to see that what saved the show/franchise during this era was the beginnings of a ‘niche’ audience when it was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting for syndication.

In 1967 Kaiser syndicated it at 6 pm against the news on other channels, calculating that this would attract ‘young males.’ We describe the ‘faint signals’ of the future of specialized audience targets on pp 45- 46. Star Trek fans were the elusive 18-25 age group and they were even prepared to ‘march in the street’ to try to save their show. But NBC at that stage cancelled it because success was still primarily measured in mass numbers. To some extent it continued to be and still is – Enterprise failed in 2005 because it didn’t get high ratings, other shows still fail for the same reason.

But as we point out, ‘eras’ don’t neatly stop and give way to the next one; there’s always overlap and even in the fragmentary downloading world of today, the ‘mass’ audience has continued alongside ‘niches’, who are of course, components of the ‘mass’.

We collected a lot of information about audience behavior in 2002; Mike Mellon, the head of audience research at Paramount gave us masses of material, wonderful breakdowns of demographics within the Neilsen ratings, and Paramount’s own qualitative research. But this kind of information tends to be ephemeral and because our book was written over such an extended period of time, anything we said about particular audience figures would have been outdated.

We also had some audience research of our own – questionnaire and interview data collected at different cultural venues, and we’ve referred to some of it in other writings (see references in the bibliography), but again, we decided it didn’t quite fit the shape of the book in its final version. But we certainly do think that audiences are important and interesting, and Star Trek audiences especially so.

You write at the end of the book, “Without Roddenberry, there may have been no Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Carter, or whoever else may follow in their footsteps.” So, what role did Roddenberry’s self-promotion as a producer/author contribute to the contemporary concept of the show runner?

It’s always hard to make historical connections across time, so not sure that we’d want to argue for direct causality here. What’s needed is an historical study on the rise of the showrunner in US television from about the 1970s onwards, including key figures like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. That book would have to account for all the other changes that were going on during those decades, particularly the shift from the classical network era to the multi-channel era that began to put the emphasis on named producers as a way of distinguishing content in a much more competitive environment.

That being said, you’re really asking two different questions here, one about the role of the showrunner within the industry and one about the role of the showrunner as a publicity mechanism.

With regard to the first, that’s something that the book waiting to be written would need to engage with. While Roddenberry functioned like a modern showrunner in that he was both producer and writer (although he actually wrote relatively few of the Star Trek scripts), how many of his peers did the same? And while he seems to have exercised the same degree of overall control and oversight that his successors now have, did his contemporaries have that same degree of control and oversight? In other words, were there producers in the classical network era whom we would want retrospectively to dub showrunners aside from Roddenberry (and probably Rod Serling)?

And we shouldn’t forget of course, that a lot of the people with whom Roddenberry worked, particularly Herb Solow, resent the extent to which Roddenberry attempted to co-opt all the credit for Star Trek. One of the most important arguments in our book is that a good television show requires the input of a lot of talented people. Roddenberry presented himself as Star Trek’s sole auteur but there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, associate producer Robert Justman, and all the others who worked on the show. But, today at least, it also seems to require a named individual to serve Foucault’s author function – to market the show.

We think it’s easier to make an argument for Roddenberry having served to some extent as a template for subsequent showrunners with regard to their publicizing themselves and their shows as opposed to the specific production tasks he undertook. In the classical network era, this self-publicity was most unusual, not really necessary and probably resented to some extent by NBC.

In that era, it was assumed that most shows, let alone their producers, would not really stand out much from the pack. That’s because the three networks were content to divide the mass audience between them, airing ‘least objectionable programming’ the goal of which was to keep people tuned into the same network throughout the evening. Shows were associated with networks, rather than with named individuals, except for their star actors of course.

But Roddenberry showed that it was possible to engage in a discourse of artistry and authorship that distinguished him and his show from the pack. And as you say somewhere, viewers, fans particularly, are culturally inclined toward a belief in auteurism, a single guiding voice that creates meaning throughout a programme’s episodes.

In Roddenberry’s case, as we discuss, that guiding voice became elevated to ‘Roddenberry’s vision’, a utopic notion of the future associated with him and with Star Trek. In that regard, we can’t really think of a single one of today’s showrunners who have had quite the same cultural impact, probably because the field is much more crowded; there’s much more content and many more people producing it. And of course, in the tele-fantasy genre Roddenberry got there first.

Fans may refer to the ‘Whedon-verse’ and critics may characterize aspects of Whedon-produced or directed texts as ‘Whedon-esque’ but that refers to a certain style and tone rather than a complete world, which is what Roddenberry is associated with. The more we think about it, the more we think it might be the case that being in a sense a man out of time, a post-network showrunner in the classical network era, Roddenberry was actually a one-off. But that’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested with empirical research.

One could also argue that Star Trek’s appeal to its intellectual pedigree — from the science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for the series, to its ongoing references to Rocket Scientists and Harvard/MIT students in describing its audience, helps to establish the contemporary concept of “quality television.” What qualities were ascribed to Star Trek in its heyday and to what degree do these anticipate or contrast with the “complex narratives” and “novelistic characters” associated with today’s quality dramas?

That’s a whole book in itself. In one of our earlier drafts there was a whole chapter called ‘Is it any good? The quality of Star Trek.’ Looking at this discarded ‘quality’ chapter again, I see we offer a number of definitions of ‘quality’ and address the question of ‘is it any good’? in a number of ways. We look at academic definitions of ‘good’ e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon’s: ‘[it’s good] in terms of its closeness to already-‘legitimate’ cultural forms, such as theatre or literature. Secondly, it is seen to be good because ‘it poses a privileged relation to ‘the real’’. In our discarded chapter we argue that Star Trek meets both of these criteria. We also discuss ideological interpretations of ‘good’ – is it sensitive to minorities, and to the representation of race, gender and general ‘otherness’? – the subjects of a very great deal of writing on Trek. And we particularly quote our production interviewees on their definitions of ‘quality,’ such as Michael Westmore comparing his work on alien makeup with that of Star Wars, which he described as ‘a real cheap job.’

We also discuss a couple of individual episodes that we thought were ‘good.’ Much of this material got lifted and dispersed to other chapters in the final version of the book: the craftworkers and writers’ views on ‘good’ appear in Chapter 2,’ ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and Chapter 3, ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production’. Textual aspects of quality are woven into the textual chapters at the end of the book on worldbuilding and character, where the ideology question is also addressed – here, mainly by arguing for Trek’s ‘heteroglossic’ characteristics. The best of Trek, such as the TNG episode, ‘The High Ground’, offers ambiguity not clarity, enabling diverse interpretation, which again, is a traditional literary criterion of quality.

Because Star Trek has been such an enduring show, it ought to be possible to make comparisons between it and other ‘high quality’ TV shows contemporary with it over the years, for example at Emmy awards. But, as several of the writers pointed out, Trek has never been honoured by its peers in this way. Berman was indignant that Patrick Stewart never got an Emmy for his performance as Captain Picard. Ron Moore told us how he suppressed his Trek work in his resume because he thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously and Patrick Stewart had similar reservations about foregrounding his Trek work, proud as he was of it.

The craft workers, on the other hand, have received multiple awards over the years, thus highlighting the division between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ positions in the creative hierarchy – a division which we argue, in our book, is somewhat artificial in terms of how the final product gets produced. Everyone has to pull together: the line producers Merri Howard and Peter Lauritson, who had to make sure everything ‘gelled’, and came in within budget, were particularly enlightening on this aspect of ‘quality.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies (Part One)

The book recently published by Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies might well have been titled The Making of Star Trek, but that title was already taken, by none other than Gene Roddenberry, who published the book as part of his campaign to promote and protect the series in the 1960s. Instead, they called their book, Star Trek and American Television.

As far as I can tell, no other academic has had the degree of access to the “above the line” and “below the line” workers who helped to create Star Trek as these two did. And, as a result, we have never before had such a rich account of its production process and of the ways that Star Trek fits within larger trends within the television industry. They do not set out to demystify Roddenberry’s original book, precisely, but the effect is to shift the focus away from the notion of Roddenberry’s authorship onto the collaborative process by which television is produced. Roddenberry certainly has a central role here, as will be clear from the frequency with which his name surfaces in the following interview, but they also direct attention onto the many collaborators who helped to shape that original “vision” and onto the many who have carried forward Star Trek‘s legacy to the current day.

Anyone who knows me knows how central Star Trek has been to my life on so many levels. I have myself written two books in which Star Trek plays a key role. But in recent years, I have declined many invitations to say or write more about Star Trek because I was skeptical that there was much more that could be said.

Pearson and Davies proved me wrong: there are new insights and new historical details on every page of this book. Star Trek and American Television is the kind of book that could only be written now — now that we have some historical perspective on the ways that this iconic series fit within the evolution of television as a medium, looking forward in some ways to developments in terms of ideas about franchising, world-building, and audiences, that are only being fully realized today.

As an interviewer, I am bit rude to these authors (both old friends), pushing them to speak about topics that are just on the margins of the book, getting them to revisit the decisions they made about what to include or develop in depth. My bet is that as a reader, you will appreciate some of the insights I got them to scoop up off the cutting room floor here. But at the end of the day, I agree with most of their editorial decisions. This book works because they focus on Star Trek as a television series, not as a cult phenomenon, not as a fandom, not as a transmedia franchise. Dealing with Star Trek as a television series encourages us to look upon it in a new way and at the same time, to use its history to shed light on the possibilities of television as a medium.

This five part interview will constitute my last posts for this blog in 2014. I need some time to refresh myself, to get more interview questions out to authors, to focus on finishing up some of my own writing projects. But, I think you will agree that this exchange ends the year on a highpoint.

I’ve known Pearson for most of my academic career. Our overlapping interests has led to us working together in many ways through the years. And I have a great appreciation for what she has contributed to our understanding of popular heroes (including The Batman and Sherlock Holmes) and cult media. Through her, I’ve also gotten to know her co-author, Davies, who has produced a great deal of important work on children’s television and the notion of quality as it relates to popular media. So, I am delighted to share with you their reflections here on “the Making of Star Trek” and so much more.


Many readers may be skeptical –as I was initially — that the world needs another book on the Star Trek franchise. So, let’s tackle that right away. What are people going to learn from this book that they do not already know?

As we explain in the introduction and opening chapters, of all the myriad books that have been published on Star Trek, we believe that none of them has effectively dealt with its core status as ‘a television show’ (William Shatner’s description of it, to us, in our interview with him.) On p. 9 of our book, we discuss the Star Trek entry in Oxford Bibliographies by Dan Bernardi and Michael Green, which lists the following categories of academic literature on the subject of Star Trek: ‘reference works and bibliographies; anthologies; fandom; popular culture; critical race studies; gender studies; sexuality studies; religion; technoculture; and nationalism and geopolitics’. It doesn’t list television studies.

In this book we are writing as television scholars, not fan scholars, nor sci-fi scholars, nor national geopolitics scholars, and we are admirers of the television show but we’re not – (and we’re really sorry about this word, I don’t know how it happened, after all our careful proof reading) – ‘Trekkies’ in the sense of being the kinds of fans who attend conventions, write fanfic and the like.

So, as our research proceeded, our question became: why didn’t anyone write about Star Trek as television because the programme is a really terrific case for examining the history of American television.

The project started life as core material for a teaching module on ‘Television, Culture and Society’ on the undergraduate course TV, Film and Journalism at Cardiff University. Because we were both keen on the show, and wanted to teach about it, we decided to adapt the TV, culture & society module to enable us to use Star Trek as a case study about television: the course included lectures on television production; TV history; TV economics; American /British contrasts; aesthetic and narrative aspects; TV audiences. The book went through various incarnations since we began the project in 1999, losing some cherished aspects of our original module on the way (including a big chunk about audiences – not just fans, but audiences, Nielsen data etc.) But we never lost sight of the fact that we wanted to talk about Star Trek as television, and that was our selling point to UC Press back in 2000.

The other unique aspect of it, we believe, is the interview material. We were lucky to be helped by Patrick Stewart to gain access to so many Paramount workers, from executive producers to make-up artists to actors to set builders to writers to craft workers, during our visit to Hollywood in 2002, funded by a grant from the British Academy. We think that the insights these interviewees gave us don’t appear to the same extent in other literature on Star Trek, partly because our research questions focused very specifically on televisual aspects. In particular, because we talked to people who were working together as we met them (on the TV Enterprise and the film Nemesis at the same time), there were constant references to, and plentiful evidence of, their interdependence as a working team. Collaboration and co-operation emerged as key components of how a TV production is put together, which was one of the main questions we were pursuing.

We were privileged to meet these people at work, and it was as industrial workers (very hardworking workers) that they came across, not as showbiz luminaries. This was one of the most illuminating and paradoxical revelations of the Star Trek phenomenon as we observed it. It has been such a valuable financial property within a huge global, capitalistic corporation but what we saw was its socialistic way of working.

One of our most revealing interviewees on this aspect was construction co-ordinator, Tom Arp, head of his Local trade union, who’d been working on the show for 14 years, and told us ‘the people on this show pretty much work together as a family’. (All the Star Trek workers we spoke to were unionized). In one of our discarded passages, we wrote about how interdependence and collaboration, rather than conflict and individual heroism, are essential narrative tropes, particularly in the female-dominated Voyager (see e.g. the episode, ‘One’). If the whole team doesn’t pull together, the ship is doomed – the experiences of the working production team often seemed to be reflected in these kinds of ‘socialistic’ storylines, which we suggest, is one of the enduring aspects of the Roddenberry Utopian ‘vision’ (see more comment about the ‘vision’ below). Interdependence between different levels of above and below the line workers is discussed more fully in our chapter on ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

Paul, you make a case in the book for curation as a “media literacy imperative” in an age of participatory culture. How are you defining curation and what has made it such an urgent skill? And again, how can we think about curation in relation to the ideas of teaching about media and teaching through media you discussed above?

Paul: In a paper I recently published titled, Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education, I contextualized curation as:

The word curate derives from the Latin root Curare, or ‘to cure.’ To curate, historically, has meant to take charge of or organize, to pull together, sift through, select for presentation, to heal and to preserve. Traditionally reserved for those who worked with physical materials in museum or library settings, curation today has evolved to apply to what we are all doing online. The preservation and organization of content online is now largely the responsibility of the individual in highly personalized information spaces. This has created a need to understand how individuals choose to pull together, sift through, organize, and present information within these spaces.

I think there is an urgency to curation, at least now with some semblance of free choice online, largely because young people can design their own engagement with information with more choices and diversity than they ever have in the past. At least in terms of strict content and platform. In an age of filter bubbles, search algorithms, sponsored content, and endless aggregators trying to personal and define our information needs, I think it’s an imperative that we teach ability to organize, sift, sort and continuously recreate the type of content diets that we want and need.

As a result, I think curation becomes a core competency in media education today. From issues of access, values, identity, assessment, sharing and express, we must continue to ask how these are situated in the context of engagement with me, but also use of media. These involve social and informal information sharing and consumption, but also in civic spaces. Curation has been decentralized from the few to the many. Knowing how to effectively navigate, use and create strong media is, I argue, an essential skill for all citizens in digital culture.

Your book offers a survey of the ways media literacy is practiced in a number of distinctive countries and regions. What do you see as the most significant continuities across these various contexts? Where do you see the most significant differences emerging?

Paul: Of course the unique approaches to media literacy pedagogy and practice emerge from different educational, political, cultural and social properties of a specific society. In our book, we tried to find a nice balance of media literacy scholarship and practice to highlight. We sought voices from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, so we could show what’s similar and what’s unique. The similarities all rest on the aim to engage young people in competencies to critically analyze media. The more traditional model of media literacy approaches, if you will. That’s to a large degree because in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong, media literacy is still emerging as a pedagogical concept. As a result, they are still finding their footing in terms of how to implement and build media literacy as a skill set for their youth. Luckily, they have a wealth of information, content, and experience to choose from, so they’ll be scaling up rather quickly.

Most importantly, I think the differences that emerge in this space are embedded in socio-cultural practices that reflect media systems and government control. In places that have arguably less “free” media systems, media literacy is not so much about expression and voice as it is nuanced consumption. In places where political dissent is vibrant, media literacy is embedded in more narratives around corruption, propaganda, and civic inquiry. Interestingly, most forms of media literacy practice and pedagogy around the world are embedded in formal communication practices, and not many about information or participatory spaces. By that I mean that most media literacy approaches from emerging parts of the world focus on more traditional media literacy content (news, political speeches, ads) and less in newer cultural spaces (fan clubs, social networks, and so on).

I think, overall, the trends will continue to move to a more similar place, because a lot of research, pedagogy and practice are now being shared. And more media literacy scholars from around the world are meeting at conferences, publishing together, and doing more work alongside each other in general.

Many ideas about “21st Century Learning” stress the kinds of skills needed for performing well in the classroom and the workplace. Where do notions of civic or citizen-related skills fit into these models? In what ways might media literacy be understood as an effort to bring about social change?

Paul: This is a great question, and one close to my heart. I’ve just published a new book titled Media Literacy & the Emerging Citizen, that explores the role of media literacy in civic life. This is more about social change than formal pedagogy. I would argue, however, that pedagogy is at the center of long term civic engagement and social change, it’s just not explicitly made known. I think media literacy has a lot of growing to do in the social and civic change space, and that’s an area where we need to grow the field. Our book takes this topic on briefly with a chapter on citizenship by Frank Gallagher of Cable in the Classroom, but most of the work is pedagogically centered. I’d personally like to see media literacy be the civic education of the future.

Perhaps that’s the next book :-)

Some have been skeptical of the need for media literacy education in schools because so many youth are “digital natives” who grew up with the technology and are more adept online than most of the adults around them. The Harvard Good Play project has found that most youth lack mentors who can talk with them about the choices they make as participants in online communities. And, of course, access to technologies and to meaningful experiences online are unevenly distributed across the culture. What roles might formal media literacy education play in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap?

Belinha: As I stated previously, I think the term “digital natives” is loosely used to correlate with “digital savviness,” and that’s a concern because most of the time it isn’t true. Just because we have a generation of students who have grown up with technology does not make them adept at being online. Most students I see in schools working online tend to not go past the first page of any search results, and then turn around to the teacher and say they can’t find anything on their given topic. Just because a teen can find their way through their social network does not mean that they can search for viable, truthful, or accurate information. In fact, that is evenly distributed across the line when we are looking at how youth engage with each other online and they make some major social gaffes. What I mean is that we are looking at two different problems. There is the technology component which drives how students interact with each other. There is also the adolescent maturation point where that part hasn’t caught up with the part of themselves which is engaged in an online community. They need social skills that transcend face-to-face to online. The digital divide isn’t just about technology, it is about interrelations and lack thereof. We have a generation of students who have not learned how to interact as people. They have allowed the computer to be their voice without actually having a history or a background to that voice. The mentorship that they need is in bridging their knowledge of themselves with the knowledge of how they want to be represented. Media literacy education provides them with opportunity to understand representation and what that means on a worldwide scale. It helps them to consider multiple viewpoints and not the singularity of one –themselves.

Given the lack of formal media literacy education in many American schools, media literacy creeps in around the edges, through, for example, the work of librarians or museums and institutions or churches. What roles can these organizations play in ensuring wide access to core media literacy skills?

Belinha: I think these places offer opportunity- creative opportunity for engagement which is not offered in schools as much. Besides being places which are considering the innovators and the creators of educators, museum and libraries are providing resources that would not be accessible elsewhere. They are offering classes and opportunities with new technologies because they are reaching a very public platform. Libraries in particular tend to have an open-door policy when it comes to engaging with students or other patrons. They hold up the ideas that censorship is not acceptable. They provide patrons with books, databases, and the most current materials which may oftentimes not be available in schools. They have become the house for children whose parents can’t afford certain technologies including the basics of infrastructure such as Wifi. They already offer production classes. Why not infuse those classes with media literacy? Asking key questions as students work to get them to think more deeply is important. Helping students to problem solve, consider multiple points of view, or even understanding real-world questions related to money and power. It doesn’t have to formal, but sure put it up on a sign that teaching and learning in the structure of a museum or library is done with through the guide of media literacy education.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

Many of our earliest understandings of media literacy took place around the particular properties of broadcast media, especially television, but in some cases, before that with radio. How did those assumptions inform prevailing models of media literacy? How are those ideas being rethought as we deal with the very different properties and processes associated with networked computing?

Paul – I think media literacy has long been concerned with the the skills and dispositions needed to effectively engage with information in daily life. The outcomes around access, evaluation, comprehension and production–in essence critical thinking and critical expression–have long been applied across traditional platforms and integrated into new digital spaces. Back when film, radio and television first emerged as mass mediums, media education typically treated their pedagogy as teaching about the way that these mediums work more than deconstructing the content that they delivered. As the mediums grew more diverse and complex, there was a need for media literacy to become more critical. This coincides I think with the increasing centrality of commercial culture in media and the need to actively respond with educational initiatives.

Media literacy is still largely emerging from the “mass media” era, and I think the traditional protectionist model of media literacy is prevalent in some of the work being done, particularly in the health and advertising spaces.

The emergence of connective technologies and networked computing has led to a re-imagination of how we understand media literacy in terms of identity, community, engagement, and agency. While we still need to have foundations in media literacy education around critical analysis of media texts, it’s become equally if not more vital to apply new competencies around curation, appropriation, remix, collaboration, spreadability and production that the web now affords. Media literacy needs to leverage the connective capacity of the web for civic value, and I think that’s at the core of where media literacy is headed. Not abandoning the past, but simply using our foundations for more applied and responsive participation.

Why do you think there has been such resistance in the American educational system to fully incorporating media literacy skills into the curriculum when there has been much more widespread take up in other parts of the world? What can/should we be done to shape public policies so that they reflect the needs of students and the realities of educators in a world where more and more of our core practices are conducted through networked communications?

Belinha: At the policy level, they don’t know us. We don’t have a large body of research to support our ideas. Policymakers tend to like the research and the numbers. Yet, if we actually talk to them about what we say is the value in media literacy education, they most definitely get it. Part of what drove this book was that idea that there are a number of us who talk about it at different levels–academic, schools, libraries, advocacy organizations, non-profits, etc; each group speaking of the value of media literacy, but not necessarily with each other. Moreover, there are a number of organizations who work with policymakers who continue to promote media literacy education throughout their work such as the Aspen Institute, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and the Cable Impacts Foundation. In particular, every year for the last five years I have attended the FOSI conference which is a two day event in Washington DC where many people who work in government appear and listen to the conversations on digital safety. Each year, I hear people discuss or bring up media literacy and the need for media literacy education and then the conversation appears to end. There are meetings by invitation only to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA), but I don’t know how many people are represented there who focus on media literacy education other than perhaps the Cable Impacts Foundation.

Media literacy education as a dialogue comes very close to policymakers, but then stops before entering the door. The conversation at the government level has deemed to fall into digital literacy which is more about digital technologies and the need for schools to be equipped with more of it. Yet, the discussion of literacy as a critical approach to teaching about digital technology, not heard much. In the book, I addressed the opening that the Common Core State Standards provided schools with its not clearly defined look at media literacy. I offered it up for discussion as an opportunity versus a problem because I believe when we break something down too much we limit the capacity for instruction. That being said, media literacy education still needs to be discussed in the policy documents, but where is it?

Internationally, I think there has been a better acceptance of it at the policy level because it was introduced with the concerns with television and such. For years, I would have said that the Europeans, and the Canadians were ahead of us with media literacy education, and then the Internet hit us all simultaneously and that generated another conversation regarding media literacy education which was inclusive of all these new technologies. Yet, here again there is the worry as expressed best by David Buckingham in the UK that the rhetoric of today may actually be problematic for media literacy education. That it has become so saturated with the discussion of digital technology, digital footprints, and digital infrastructure that the capacity for understanding and learning has been set adrift by good intentions. However, at least in the UK and in the EU, policymakers talk about it and welcome the idea of growing this type of literacy. And, they demonstrate this further positive appeal by providing government resources to develop curriculum and ideas.

Several of your contributors make the case that media literacy means teaching about media and not simply teaching through media and that the goal should be to incorporate “critical production” rather than simply a focus on production practices. I agree, but the distinctions being made here between doing and thinking may not be fully adequate to a culture of participation, where many are arguing that “making” or “tinkering” or visualization or simulation or games each represent distinctive modes of thought and not simply tools and practices. Would you agree? If so, has there been a shift in what it might mean to teach about and through media?

Belinha: I think I allude to what you are suggesting here earlier. Sometimes ‘critical production’ is very individualized. I do believe that when students are “tinkering” and “making” that they are processing and making some key decisions as to what is useful to them and what is not. Does that mean that they have gone far enough? This is where there tends to be some push back. Watching someone craft together a presentation at any grade level there is a certain amount of thought going into that product. Is this the right picture? Does this mean what I want it to say? Depending on the level of the learner and the maturity of the producer, you can see a growth in thinking when they disengage with themselves and consider the audience. Many times that isn’t a step that is complete at for example the middle school years, but that is a step that can be seen later. Not for all, but for some. When I see this type of work happening in schools, I am mostly surprised by the people who are either overly surprised and pleased by very simplistic pieces of work by students or stumped that their students aren’t as media-savvy as they expected them to be.

When I work with future teachers, I always remind them that just because students are engaged in their technology doesn’t meant that they are critically thinking. Or for that matter, that they even know how to produce or create? There is an overall assumption because this generation has the most technology that they are in fact technology literate. Neither is true. Many students know what they know, but not much else. For example, they know how to play an online game or participate in social networks, but that doesn’t mean that they can work within some basic platform tools such as word documents or presentation tools. Yet, they can move quickly through various programs once they have been taught and they can create given the time. They just don’t tend to have many opportunities to do so at school because of the regimented curriculums. Outside of school, they may have more opportunity, but once again they tend to stick to what they know and are most comfortable.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

Earlier this term, I ran a lengthy conversation with Tessa Jolls, the the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. We discussed some of the core, underlying concepts behind the Media Literacy movement and considered their potential relationship to the work being done by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. Today, I am happy to be sharing with you some reflections on many of those same issues from two of the Next Generation leaders of the Media Literacy Movement.

Belinha S. De Abreu, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University, currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council. Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College, is the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. Together, they have edited an important new anthology, Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, which offers us a snap shot of Today’s media literacy movement.

The table of content reads like a who’s who of the most important doers and thinkers around the world, including Julian McDougall, Tessa Jolls, Neil Anderson, David Buckingham, Erin Reilly, Eric Gordon, Sonia Livingstone, Frank Gallagher, David M. Considine, and many others. The book shares cutting edge research and words of wisdom from founding figures, offering us insights into the struggle to get media literacy in the curriculum and what happens when we do.

I am just getting to know Abreu and Mihailidis, but what I’ve seen so far impresses me greatly, including the thoughtful and substantive responses they offered to my interview questions here. Enjoy.

In his opening chapter, Julian McDougall describes media literacy as an “unfinished project,” while David Buckingham’s foreword suggests that “we are unlikely ever to arrive at a point where we can all sign up to a single definition and prescription for media literacy education.” What are some of the reasons why media literacy as a field seems so unsettled and unresolved — is it simply that the media landscape itself has changed so rapidly over the past few decades? Is it that media literacy advocates see the movement as addressing very different problems that stem from their own rather different perceptions of the role which media plays in our lives?

Paul: I think there are a confluence of reasons for the continued struggle of media literacy to find a cohesive foundation and concrete direction. Firstly, media literacy education has cast a wide net, perhaps intentionally but also because the movement and it’s core principles advocate for outcomes like critical thinking and critical engagement. These mirror outcomes for a lot of pedagogy. And while useful, they often lack direction or application. So we see spaces like digital media and learning, news literacy, civic literacy, science literacy, information literacy, and more, all find more coherent and concrete homes, funding, and support. At the same time, media literacy tries to claim a part of all these spaces. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. But rather it makes it difficult to grow in a cohesive way. I think of it as: If media literacy tries to be everything related to literacies, it will at the same time be nothing.

Stemming from this, I do see media literacy advocates, scholars, and educators using the term to advocate for their projects and approaches to how they understand media’s role in daily life. Many apply the term to their work in discipline-specific areas, while at the same time, others come into media literacy with their own perceptions of what it should do, and because media literacy has such a broad purview, there isn’t a conceptual grounding from which such uses of the term can be sorted, sifted, and understood.

Perhaps, however, what McDougal and Buckingham are alluding to is something that they may think of as positive. That media literacy can be an agile and adaptable movement provides greater space to engage in pedagogical and scholarly dialog where it is meaningful and related.

I think personally media literacy will continue to struggle as a cohesive disciplinary space without more conceptual agreement, directional engagement, and scholarly recognition.

In the late 1990s, Bob McCannon, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, noted that “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!” Is this still the case? Have we found better ways to work through differences between competing visions of media literacy?

Belinha: I don’t think we are circling the wagon any longer, but I do think we still suffer from a bit of a complex regarding who we are in the field. We are still somewhat confused about the term that we use to describe ourselves —Certainly there continues to be a discussion about whether we are a field or a movement, but frankly does it matter? What it comes down to is that we are talking and we are talking to each other. More and more, I see conversations that push the limit of what we do and question approaches. You had one of those such conversations in your blog recently with Tessa Jolls which really tried to go through the layers of conversations from the DML perspective and the media literacy perspective. I appreciated the line that you used about “people talking past each other.” Your blog and other conversations, I believe brings about more dialog as long as we can keep egos out of the way. They happen at conferences all the time — all over the world. The best conversations seems to happen at the most unexpected times with people who you didn’t think you had a common language when in fact it is there. Media literacy is an active engagement of thinking and if it happens from various groups then it is growing the dialogue.

My one concern which actually takes us a step back from Bob McCannon’s statement is that those who lay claim to media literacy as a body of work tend to not have a history of what that means. They don’t seem to know the Len Masterman’s, David Considine’s, and even David Buckingham’s who have generated some of the best thinking and most in depth work in the field whether it is through their research or through their development of future educators at the school or academic level. Even to the wider audience of people who have been in media literacy whether through their different organizations such as the Alliance for Media Literacy in Canada or Cary Bazelgette out of the UK, these people and organizations have had longevity in the field, yet they tend to go unnoticed at times.

Renee Hobbs’ “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” sought to map some of the core fault lines in the field. You are coming in more than a decade later to similarly lay out some of the core strands in the media literacy movement. Which of Renee’s debates are still active? Which if any have been resolved?

Belinha: Fault lines is a very good depiction of some of the cracks in the media literacy movement. Perhaps, we could even say that those cracks have been broken into factions although this may be where the argument starts to go adrift. My point is that if we keep bringing up the same issues or problems over and over again, we tend to not generate any movement past these ideas. The debates of the past could still be held up and do. People who are protectionists in the movement are still there, but there are just as many who are saying that teaching and learning are more important. Banning and censorship don’t seem to resolve what worries parents or other protectionists groups which is how to make the media less important in children’s lives.

Our mediated worlds have shifted drastically since the time that Renee Hobbs wrote that piece. Producing media which was conceptually thought to be a part of media literacy education has shifted with the fact that many students are already media-makers because technology has made it accessible. Is that media literacy? Are children/teens being critical, conscious producers of media? In most cases, the answers would be “no.” Does that mean that they fall away from the ideals of media literacy? I would say they miss the mark in some points especially when it comes to evaluation or discernment. However, they may argue that they did evaluate and did discern. We just don’t like their conclusions. What I value most in the debated questions that Hobbs proposes is the commentary that “all points of view are heard, respected, and accommodated.” I think here is where we are starting to see some headway. As a group of individuals who are interested in media literacy we do disagree, we do challenge, but we also like the engagement. Whether one method is better than the other will always be its own debate, but we can still find a middle ground to work together which makes those fault lines just a bit smoother.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Four Conversations We Can Have About Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow is, to use a technical term, “Bat Shit Crazy,” and that’s what makes it such a generative text for thinking about some of the discursive struggles in America today around race, nation, family and religion/mythology.

Like most American television series, it is a grand example of improvization — they are making a lot of this up as they go and it shows. As a consequence, it feels like Sleepy Hollow is emerging in conversation with its audience — especially when you factor in the very active social media presence of Orlando Jones, who has actively engaged with the program’s fans through many different means. Where race is concerned, there is some sense, especially this season, of one step forward and one step backwards and so there are no shortage of contradictions and compromises in the characters and storylines that emerge. So, there are moments when the minority characters seem to draw on older racial stereotypes, and then, the next moment they are challenging or shattering those stereotypes.

So, there are moments where Orlando Jones as Frank Irving starts to pop his eyes with fear like Stepin Fetchit in a haunted house (“feets do your stuff”) and then the next moment, he’s standing firm and strong, very much in control of the wild and crazy situations he is confronting. He is a black man struggling to hold onto his family; he is a black man in authority who commands the respect of his people and yet is ready to put all of that at risk to do what he thinks must be done; he is a skeptic who is struggling with issues of faith, all of which makes  him much more complicated than the remains of the stereotype might suggest.

How could it be otherwise? Keep in mind that Scandal made news just a few years back for offering us the first black woman in the lead of a drama series that survived more than a season in something like 30 years. Sleepy Hollow was the next step towards a more diverse kind of television drama: a series with a white man and a black woman, as non-romantically linked partners, in the lead. And the social media buzz and ratings success of these two series may have paved the way for more diverse casting in this year’s television slate, although as even the network executives are acknowledging at this point, not nearly as much diversity as America deserves and seems ready to accept.

But, that history means that there has not been a diversity of different kinds of characters to draw upon: certainly there have been one or two minority cast members on a range of ensemble based dramas and reality television programs, but there has still been real limits to what kinds of characters, how complex their motives are, what kinds of story arcs they are allowed to explore, what kinds of relationships they are involved with, and so, we are now at a moment of transition in how television deals with America’s evolving racial politics.

When everything is said and done, Sleepy Hollow will be seen as a key transitional text through which networks and audiences negotiated those changes, all the more important because it wraps itself up so fully in a particular conception of the American nation state and bridges so often between past and present, history and the speculative future. There were moments in the first season where, much as America would soon be, the majority of the cast were people of color, as the white protagonist was pushed to the sidelines of his own story. So far, this season, there has been a resurgence of white characters — especially Katrina and the newly introduced Hawley — which has resulted in less screen time for the Mills Sisters or Frank Irving and his family, but this could change at any moment.

I have been thinking about Sleepy Hollow a lot of late, since I was asked to be part of an extensive panel discussion of the show at the conference of the American Academy of Religion, held in San Diego last weekend. My fellow panelists were Sheila Briggs, University of Southern California; Diane Winston, University of Southern California; and Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania. Getting ready for the conference led me to watch all of the episodes to date with computer on hand to take detailed notes, and I thought I would share a few of my thoughts with you, knowing that I am far from the only Sleepy-Head who reads this blog. Please be warned that there should be Spoiler Warnings on everything that follows since I do flag many specific moments and episodes to illustrate my points.

I focused my presentation around four key themes:

Rewriting the American Revolution –

One of my fellow panelist was sharply critical of the series for reconstructing the idea of “manifest destiny” I can see where she is coming from — this series aligns the American founding fathers with the forces of good and the Redcoats (and especially the Hessians) with the forces of evil. But, I would also argue that the show is making a specific set of interventions to question or challenge the ways that the American Revolution has been constructed in popular memory. The Revolution and its figures have been evoked in various ways through the years: as a force for progressive politics in the popular front (1930s) with the Jefferson and Lincoln Brigades or evoked by Abby Hoffman during the Chicago 7 Trial (“I was there when Paul Revere road his motorcyle up the hill, shouting ‘the pigs were coming’ — paraphrased by me) and more recently as a reactionary force in relation to the Tea Party.

Again and again, we see Sleepy Hollow engage with the encrusted meaning of the revolution, often through the way Ichabod’s memories contrasted with today’s beliefs. See, for example, his challenging of the docent who tries to explain Paul Revere in “The Midnight Ride” and his commentary on the Revolutionary War re-enactors he encounters in “Bad Blood” (though by second season he seems to himself have made a nostalgic return and sought friendship amongst those same re-enactors).  Much has been made of Crane’s fish out of water responses to the modern age, which might involve his struggles with child proof tops or his confusion over the proliferation of Starbucks across the land. But often, the show uses Crane’s confused questioning to depict the revolution in more progressive and diverse terms than the Tea Party version: so we see references to the alliance between revolutionaries and the Mohawks and Crane’s outrage over the genocide against Native Americans in “For the Triumph of Evil”, his concern over the rights of women in “Necromancer”, we see him question the obsession with the right to bear arms in “The Vessel” or his acknowledgement that Jefferson and other founding fathers were questioning of basic Christian beliefs in “The Indispensible Man”, We see him more open to issues of homosexuality than we might have anticipated in “Root of All Evil.” Beyond this, I would point us towards several scenes where the African-American characters question Crane about the inequalities of his time: Abby and Irving challenge him about Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his affair with Sally Hemming in “The Midnight Ride” and this season, we also saw Abby challenge who had the franchise in early America as Crane sputters over not being allowed to vote because he could not produce a proper ID, itself a reference to current voter suppression efforts, in “Deliverance.”

And as the casting of people of color in the present day timeline has increased, there has also been an acknowledgement of the role of black freemen in the historical flashbacks. Keep in mind that the first question Crane asks Abbie is whether she has been “emancipated,” though he seems more than prepared to adapt to a world where she has police authority. We meet the black revolutionary and martyr Arthur Bernard in “The Sin Eater,” the man who helps to convert Crane from a red coat to a revolutionary spy, and we see the construction of a haven for black freemen in “Sanctuary,” which also introduces us to Grace Dixon, Abbie’s ancestor, the midwife who delivers Ichabod and Katrina’s child. All of this, however, can be questioned in terms of the ways that the black characters are often depicted in roles where they are seeking to protect the white characters, often at the cost of their own lives – a classic trope in contemporary popular fictions.

 

Diversity

This brings us to the second key point I might want to make about the series – the role that Sleepy Hollow is playing as television is negotiating a slow, overdue transition towards greater diversity in casting.  Throughout the first season,  we saw the cast’s composition shift towards characters of color, who play central roles in the narrative. If we apply the Bechdel test, we see many examples of scenes that feature women (the sisters) talking with each other about topics other than the men in their lives and we see similarly powerful moments where the black characters (especially in relation to Irving and his family or his priest) are talking with each other about issues important in their lives. This would seem to be a modest step forward in terms of representations of race, but it is remarkable how few shows meet this criteria. As much as I love that series, ask yourself how many scenes we seen on Scandal, say, when Olivia Pope has had a meaningful conversation with another black woman.  Here, We get full character arcs centering around these relationships, as well as the kind of close (non-romantic) friendship that exists between Abbie and Ichabod.  We might throw in the roles played by John Cho’s Andy Brooks, by Abbie’s ex Detective Luke Morales, and by Leena Reyes, the officer introduced this season. Several times now, we’ve seen glimpses into contemporary and historical Native American cultures, suggesting each time that there is much more that we can learn.

All of this has been brought to focus to me by Orlando Jones’ engagement via social media with the fan community which is being held up as a model example of a performer who creates a new relationship with his fan base. These interactions create a reading formation that sees the Irving character as more central to the series than he might be otherwise. The series does not always call attention to the race of its protagonists but does consistently cast many roles with minority actors that  in other contexts would most likely have been cast white. As Hollywood likes to put it, the characters “happen to be black.”

Season two has been somewhat less commendable in this regard: the expansion of Katrina’s role, the introduction of Nick Hawley, the marginalization of Frank Irving and his family, and the stronger focus on Henry Parish and Abraham Van Brunt in their human incarnations, has resulted in a stronger focus on white characters, though we could argue that the central focus here has been on the ways that these characters may be less than fully reliable and in some cases, represent the monstrous side of whiteness (see especially Joe Corbin in “”And the Abyss Gazes Back” for example). This same season, though, has seen a strong emphasis on strengthening the bonds between Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills, suggesting the complex ways that the history of White and African-America have been intertwined, and the ways we can come to see those connections as a source of strength. (See Maureen Ryan’s smart critique of the Second Season at the Huffington Post).

Normality and Monstrosity

I have always valued Robin Wood’s analysis of the horror film genre, which starts with the formulation, “normality is threatened by the monstrous,” and attempts to define each of these terms in relation to the others. The tendency, Wood tells us, is to focus on the monstrous, which is where the most exotic elements are, but it is really helpful to start with normality. So, strip away the monsters for a moment and we see again and again the ways that acts of violence disrupt families, the ways we betray those we love, and often the violation of the innocence of children. We have Abbie and Jenny’s encounter with a stranger in the woods and the refusal of the legal establishment to believe Jenny’s account of what happened to them: without monsters, this becomes a representation of child predators and the failure of the law to take accounts of child victims seriously. We see Abbie break with her sister denying what she experienced where-as Jenny speaks the truth and ends up in and out of mental institutions. We learn something along the way about how the two girls have been treated by foster homes (“For the Triumph of Evil”) and also as the second season continues, about their mother’s mental breakdown and suicide. We also learn about the collapse of Irving’s marriage following the accident that cripples his daughter as a key motivation for his actions across the series. When he attempts to act to protect her, he also finds himself in  the prison-mental health –industrial complex. And then we have Henry’s story – the way he must be put up for adoption by his mother and how this leaves him vulnerable to darker forces. We might also mention Joe Corbin’s jealousy over the relationships his father has with the Mills Sisters or we might think about the ways that Crane’s father disinherits him when he sides with the revolutionaries. So, in each case, what is “normal” here are children at risk, with their problems amplified by the supernatural forces.

Often, in many of the best episodes, the monster of the week plot is also linked to this theme of children at risk within the system, such as “John Doe”, “The Golem”, and especially “Go Where I Send Thee.” In this last case, a mother is ready to sacrifice her young daughter to Moloch in fulfillment of a family curse and to save the rest of her family.  As Diane Winston noted during the panel discussion, one of the ways that Moloch was worshipped historically was through child sacrifice, making him an apt embodiment of the disrupted family.

At the same time, we see the series embrace the idea of families of choice — that is groups of people who forge family-like units for their self-protection — as occurs when Sheriff Corbin “adopts” both Abbie and Jenny at different times as the beneficiaries of his mentorship or the ways that all of these characters come together, learn to trust and care for each other, across the series as a whole. The series takes literally the idea that we struggle with “demons” in our personal lives, perhaps most powerfully in “Mama,” which aired last week, where we learn that Abbie and Jenny’s mother made all kinds of self-sacrifice to try to protect her daughters from the dark forces swirling around them.

Acts of Faith

There’s so much to discuss in terms of the depictions of religion in the series. There’s plenty here about Bibles and encrypted information, about prophecy and revelation, about purgatory as a space between worlds, about the place of rituals in contemporary society. I am perhaps most interested in the ways that the rationalist characters must negotiate a space in their lives where they can consider spiritual questions and take action based on faith. So, there is the moment of redemption that occurs when Abbie first meets Corbin in “Blood Moon” – the whole scene around the hot pie a la mode – or the moment where Irving talks about the two things you try to protect as long as you can because once they are lost, they do not come back (virginity and skepticism) in “The Sin Eater”. I am perhaps most interested in two church-based scenes in the first season – the one in “John Doe” where Abbie goes to the hospital chapel and searches for a sign of the way forward and experiences something she takes as a miracle and then the one in “The Golem” where Irving goes to talk to the priest and describes his own crisis of faith and questions whose interests are being served by “God’s plan” for him.

This series cobbles together a mythology from many different sources — fairy tales from old Europe, including the Jewish concept of the Golem; bits of Native American mythology; Freemasons and Quakers; Wiccan practices and other forms of esoteric knowledge; a dab of Catholicism, and much much more. And the protagonists, especially those who are called to be “witnesses” or “apostles,” are at best seekers, more often skeptics, who struggle to reconcile their experience of the divine and the demonic with their understanding of the modern world. People have talked about contemporary romantic comedies as “nervous romances” since, in an age of frequent divorce,  they have to rework the genre to satisfy the skepticism of viewers about “a happily ever after” resolution. We might see Sleepy Hollow as a “nervous mythological saga” because it tries to reconcile premodern beliefs with a very contemporary style of rationalism and skepticism. In that sense, we need to read Abbie and Ichabod’s relationship alongside Scully and Mulder in The X-Files: neither is simply a believer or a skeptic but both struggle to reconcile conflicting pulls on their beliefs.

There’s so much more to say. I haven’t tried to reproduce the insights of the other panelists here, each of whom had their own frames to make sense of a series which I started this post describing as “bat shit crazy.” My point, though, is that Sleepy Hollow is exemplary in the ways it is negotiating with the contradictions of our current social attitudes towards the nation state and its history, racial and ethnic diversity, the state of the family, and the nature of faith in a rationalist society.