Leadership Lessons from GI Joe

Russell A. Smith challenged me to watch GI Joe: Arise, Serpentor, Arise! (follow along at the link) and write about the leadership side of the story. Well, challenge accepted.

Some members of Cobra senior management, and their fetishwear.

The plot, for those of you not wanting to sit through two hours of mid-Eighties American cell animation, is as follows: Doctor Mindbender, a high-ranking and somewhat kinky member of terrorist organisation Cobra, has concerns about the leadership of the organisation by its current shrieky CIC, Cobra Commander. After a trippy dream involving a DNA helix, he decides the best thing for it is to manufacture a Cobra Emperor out of the DNA of various famous past leaders, gets Cobra senior management on side, and spends the next three episodes raiding a bunch of tombs, finally succeeding in producing an individual called Serpentor, of whom more later. GI Joe, allegedly the heroes of the story, singularly fail to prevent any of this happening (even though the Cobra operatives all repeat over and over in very loud voices that they’re after the DNA of historical figures, it takes the Joes several episodes to finally catch on). Owing to an intervention by Joe alpha male Sergeant Slaughter, however, Sun Tzu’s DNA remains uncollected; Doctor Mindbender manages after great effort to obtain Sergeant Slaughter’s instead, but is thwarted in including this in the mix as well. The implication is meant to be that the throughly insane and irrational being which results would have been less so had things gone according to plan, but, given that Sergeant Slaughter is hardly the most stable electron in the atom, one doubts the logic.

…and the ego of Norma Desmond.

It’s hard to know where to start with all this, but perhaps it’s best to begin with the observation that Doctor Mindbender is clearly an advocate of the behaviourist school of leadership: namely, that good leaders have certain traits, which can be acquired, and that acquiring these produces a good leader. Mindbender himself says early on that he intends his creation to have “the military genius of Napoleon; the ferocity of Genghis Khan; the leadership of Alexander; the evil of Ivan The Terrible.” Sun Tzu is of course included because it’s 1986 and every Yuppie worth their brick-sized cell phone is reading The Art of War and convinced, using the same fallacy as Doctor Mindbender, that it’ll make them a better manager. The rest of Mindbender’s wish list includes Montezuma, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Geronimo, as well as somewhat more dubious examples of leadership as Vlad Tepes, Rasputin, Erik the Red (I don’t know, maybe Doctor Mindbender thinks his creation should have a good sense of direction?) and Xanoth Toth-Amon (allegedly an Egyptian general, but actually a character in Conan The Cimmerian, probably the result of letting a group of English graduates loose on a cartoon series with few instructions other than “mention the new battle tank toy, don’t suggest Vietnam was a bad idea, and try not to include any naughty words”).

Sergeant Slaughter: warrior, motivator, and winner of the All Forces Dance-Off 1986.

However, let’s consider Cobra Commander’s leadership style. While he’s got issues with interpersonal relations, has problems inspiring loyalty among middle management, and really ought to be delegating his military leadership function, he has all the hallmarks of a perfectly good transactional leader. He motivates Scrapiron, Sergeant Slaughter and even Serpentor to do things for him over the course of the story (bargaining with them to do so– a classic transactional-leadership move). He has been doing a pretty good job of getting Cobra outfitted with cool planes, mini-tanks and battle androids thus far, and the only reason Cobra loses the battle at the start of the story is because Sergeant Slaughter appears to be a human mutant capable of smashing said androids with his bare hands, which Cobra Commander could hardly have anticipated. And at the end of the story, the main reason the Cobras lose their battle is that they run out of fuel and ammunition, such logistical considerations apparently being beyond Serpentor.

This rather suggests that what Doctor Mindbender is actually after is charismatic leadership, since this is the main trait that Cobra Commander lacks. It might also make sense of the more unexpected names on his wish-list, such as Rasputin (arguably not much of a leader, but famously popular with the Moscow chicks), and also why he thinks Sergeant Slaughter might make a good candidate for inclusion, since he’s the most charismatic member of GI Joe’s leadership team. And it has to be said, Serpentor certainly is charismatic, inasmuch as the Cobra members all seem irrationally inclined to follow him. The problem is that, as noted elsewhere on this blog, charismatic leaders can also be toxic, or, as in this case, mad as a bag of frogs.

General Hawk: Mostly he points at things.

Finally, it’s worth noting that leadership among Cobra’s opponents, GI Joe, is basically nonexistent. There are four official leaders: Hawk, in overall charge, Duke and Flint, who seem to run most of the on-ground activities, and Sergeant Slaughter, who one would expect would be Senior NCO but actually seems to be a bit of an anarchist. The former three characters don’t actually seem to do any leading, bar basic troop deployment. Sergeant Slaughter provides some leadership in that, as noted, the Joes find him charismatic, and he does force them onto a training programme at the start of the story which, we are told, puts everyone back on their game (somewhat belied by the fact that Cobra then score four easy victories in succession, but never mind).

However, for most of the story the Joes, Slaughter included, seem to operate very much on an individual or small-team basis, with no real need for leadership, making ad-hoc decisions and with leadership roles being similarly rough-and-ready. Nobody seems to have much respect for rank either. The same, incidentally, seems to hold true for their Russian counterparts, the October Guard, who make a cameo in Episode Three; I’m reasonably sure the tall dark and handsome one’s officially in charge, but since he barely does any actual leading, it’s hard to tell.

The secret of GI Joe is out: they may look like they’re a propaganda vector for the US military, but in fact they’re a small-scale anarchist-terrorist collective.

Robots of Death: The Stage Play

People who’ve read my book The Black Archive #43: The Robots of Death (and if you haven’t, you can buy it at the link), may remember that I talk about a stage adaptation of the classic Doctor Who story which was produced in 2012. Well, as a bonus, someone’s only gone and found some footage of Paul Darrow in the inaugural performance!

More Praise for “The Black Archive #43: The Robots of Death”

My book gets the nod from We Are Cult! Pull quote:

“Though very few points in the series’ history are as highly regarded as The Robots of Death, Fiona Moore’s newly released Black Archive volume about the story – the 43rd in the series – nonetheless offers a fresh and compelling analysis.”

Read it here.

The Colour out of Space Opera: Index

An index to my series of posts on colour, symbolism, style and space opera, featuring Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Star Wars (with guest appearances from all over).
Part One: What is a Space Opera?

Part Two: What is structuralist anthropology, and why should I care?

Part Three: Red And Blue

Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Part Six: The Anti-Hero’s Journey

Part Seven: White Hat Hackers

Part Eight: What Colour Is The Sky On Your Planet?

Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Part Eleven: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

Bonus: The Mandalorian

Conclusion

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Five: Blake’s 7 and the Colour Coded Universe

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera, a serial essay on colour symbolism, structuralism, and their uses in space opera television series (links to parts one, two, three and four for those of you just joining us).

This instalment: Blake’s 7. Like original Star Wars, and both series of Battlestar Galactica, there’s a clear nature/culture divide. Because it’s 1978, we get organic, warm nature on the side of our protagonists (they’re not exactly heroic), with their partly-living ship and green-clad leader:

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And cool, technological culture is on the side of our antagonists, with a minimalist aesthetic straight out of Gary Numan’s stage performances:

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In Season Four, our heroes take on a more technical/cultural aesthetic (more on why next episode) but it’s worth noting that they still keep touches of nature symbolism, for instance the lush houseplants around Xenon Base:

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What Blake’s 7 also does, though, is something else you see colour doing in space operas. Take a look at this picture from Forbidden Planet, and see if you can tell, based on it, anything at all about the characters’ individual jobs:

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Apart from the man at third from left, who’s clearly the cook (and also, just as clearly, going to be the comedy figure), nothing. You can’t tell at a glance who’s the doctor, who’s the captain, who’s the engineer, whatever. Which is problematic enough in Forbidden Planet, where your audience only has to keep everyone straight for ninety minutes, but it’s likely to be absolute murder for a television space opera, where casual and intermittent viewers will be tuning in all the time, and to keep them from tuning out again just as quickly, you need an easy way of differentiating characters and jobs. But you also can’t make it obvious and laboured, or you’ll alienate your regular viewers. Hence:

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With the addition of a simple colour palette, it’s plain just from looking at the picture that we’ve got three groups of people, differentiated somehow, but probably by function. After a few minutes of watching, viewers should be able to have a rough idea of what the classifications are (blue is science/medicine; yellow for command and navigation; red for engineering and getting shot at by aliens). Regular viewers, though, aren’t being constantly whacked over the head with the distinctions. Much better.

Blake’s 7 used this sort of device to differentiate its human characters according to the functions and emotions we associate with different colours. Take a look at Season One’s space-anorak getups: dark green for our Space Robin Hood, Blake; paler green for telepathic nature-girl Cally; brown for earthy strongman Gan; pink for femme-fatale Jenna; blue for computer-expert sociopath Avon (not pictured: Vila, the comedy thief, in orange):

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Later, when June Hudson takes over, she eschews the colour-palette symbolism, but does much the same sort of thing using clothing styles. Spot the Robin Hood, the femme fatale, the strongman, the telepath, the comedy thief, and the sociopath:

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Finally, in the Season Three surrealist tour-de-force Sarcophagus, the characters’ alignment with their archetypes (musician, magician, priestess, warrior and death-bringer) is again symbolised through their colours:

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Blake’s 7 does something else with colour and costume, though, which we’ll look more closely at next episode.

The Colour out of Space Opera Part Four: Nature/Culture in Battlestar Galactica

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! It’s been a while since the last instalment in the series (sorry, it’s been a very busy summer for writing things, as you may have noticed), so if you need to get up to speed again, here are links to part one, two, and three.

This episode, I’m going to follow on from the discussion of Star Wars, and explore how nature/culture imagery is used in the costuming and styling of Battlestar Galactica and its spinoff Caprica.

Before I do, though: reader Taz, from AO3, messaged me with a very good question based on last instalment, namely, why is Palpatine’s dominant colour  purple?
My reply:

“Characters mixing red and blue are usually in an ambivalent relationship between rationality and emotion. Palpatine is himself rational, but he incites others to destructive rage— Anakin first, and later Luke.”

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More on this later in the series…

Anyway. Battlestar Galactica, like Star Wars and Firefly, references nature and culture in the way it styles its heroes and villains. This is not unexpected (while it’s not fair to call original BSG a ripoff of Star Wars, as some of its contemporary detractors did, it was certainly made with one eye on the popularity of a certain space-opera movie). What’s different, though, is that BSG does this less through colour than through styling. Our Colonial heroes’ closeness to nature is represented through clothing that evokes nature: warm earth-tones for flight uniforms and medical staff, silver and gold-trimmed dark blue velvet (evoking the night sky) for bridge personnel:

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Meanwhile, the Cylon bad guys are all culture, being mostly chrome and lights:

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And our ambivalent characters? Baltar, the human traitor, dons a Cylon-like helmet in “The Living Legend”,

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echoed in the uniforms of the humanoid Cylons in the Galactica 1980 story “The Night the Cylons Landed”:

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While cute cyborg-dog Muffit is a mix of natural fur and cultural metal, hinting that the humans and Cylons may not have as many differences as they think:

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The reimagined series picks up on this, giving us Colonials in green uniforms with lizard-like elements (which picks up on the idea that the Cylons, in the original series, were once a reptile race), and warm orange tones for the technical crew:

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While the interior of the Cylon basestars is again all minimalist decor and blinking lights:

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And yes, these elements do blend repeatedly. For instance the Battlestar itself has a retro-technological look, while the Cylons’ attack ships are literally natural, being intelligent animals armoured and sent out into space. Some of the Cylons (e.g. Leoben) wear natural fabrics and colours, while some of the humans’ palettes skew the other way (e.g. Gaeta). However, since the point of the series is to get the viewer questioning where the boundaries between human and Cylon are, if indeed there are any meaningful boundaries at all, this is to good effect.

Which brings us to the prequel series Caprica. In this series, nature and culture imagery, and indeed colours, are used throughout. The most obvious way is by differentiating the cool, technological world of the Graystone family:

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from the organic, emotional and violent life of the Adama family:

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However, it also does something more subtle. Watch how colour is used in the title sequence (go on, it’s only 45 seconds, I’ll wait):

Note that, in the title sequence, blue-grey, cultural, colours are used for both families. The point at which the reds and greens start to come in is when the viewer enters the online world. This sets up the subtext of Caprica itself as a repressed, restrained society, which, like Morbius in Forbidden Planet, is possessed of a dangerous, roiling id under the surface.

Finally, on that score, note the advert for Caprica Season two:

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The Temptation of Eve imagery is fairly obvious. Perhaps slightly less obvious is that Zoe, as Eve, is a cyborg woman represented in technological colours– biting into a very natural, and very red, apple. The threat to order in Caprica isn’t the Cylons: it’s their own repressed id.

Next episode: a different take on nature, culture and colour, with reference to classic British space opera Blake’s 7.

Royal Geographic Society Presentation: Doctor Who, The Mutants, and Postcolonialism

As well as presenting a paper at Worldcon last month, I also got to present one at the Royal Geographic Society’s annual conference, on Doctor Who’s serial “The Mutants” and its take on postcolonialism– a rare instance of a 1970s serial being post- rather than anti- colonial.

I’ve uploaded the draft paper to Academia.edu as usual; I couldn’t really record it this time, so there’s no accompanying video, sorry.

 

Worldcon Presentation: Colonialism in The Terror

I’m back! Between attending Worldcon, attending the Royal Geographical Society conference and teaching in Singapore, I’ve been busy of late. As a start on updating you on my activities, I include a video of me presenting my paper “Comparing Colonialisms in The Terror“, contrasting the treatment of colonialism in Dan Simmons’ 2008 novel and AMC’s 2018 adaptation. You can read the draft paper on my Academia.edu site here.