The Colour Out Of Space Opera: What Is A Space Opera?

The following blog post series is based on a talk I gave at Eastercon in 2018. While normally the talks I give at conventions usually wind up becoming either academic papers or magazine/fanzine articles, this one involves way too much visual content– videos, photos, links to outside sites– to work in this format. However, including visual content and meta-content is of course what blogs do best.

If you’re interested, you can watch a video of the full talk here, and before I begin I would like to thank Caroline Mullan for asking me to give it, and Tony Keen for coming up with the title.

The subject of this series is the use of colour in space opera, and how colour and style are used to cue and direct the viewer, even without them necessarily realising it. According to structuralist anthropology, humans tend to view the world, unconsciously, according to certain classification systems (e.g. nature versus culture, raw versus cooked…), and the colours used in many space operas need direct our minds in certain ways.

Why?

For the present purposes, I’ll be defining space opera as an ongoing series based on or around a spaceship and its travels. If all television series are, to paraphrase the old saying, either Gilligan’s Island or The Fugitive, then space operas are the SF version of The Fugitive: rather than waiting in one place for the action to come to them, the protagonists go to where the action is. This a bit of a rough-and-ready working definition, as there are certain series, like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which tend to get considered “space opera” despite being based on and around a space station. However, in some ways they are exceptions which prove the rule: DS9 is not only part of a wider, more conventionally space-operatic, franchise, but after the introduction of the Defiant it fits much more in a space-opera mould, whereas Babylon 5, by virtue of being an epic saga spanning multiple star systems, manages to get the distance aspect as well.

My examples here will mainly draw on Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Battlestar GalacticaStar Trek is in some ways the archetypical space opera; as for the latter two, as well as representing some of the different directions space opera can go in, they are also series that I know something about, having written a book or two on them (that was the word from our sponsor. We can now resume the programme).

The nature of space opera has certain knock-on effects on production. One of them is the need to establish character fairly quickly and easily for anyone new coming in (particularly for programmes like original Star Trek, which don’t follow a story-arc structure but are made up of mostly stand-alone episodes), and even for regulars (as space operas tend to have constantly-changing guest casts). Mood also has to be established quickly, and not too blatantly.

The other main point is that you need to differentiate locations easily and cheaply. If a series is going to a different planet almost every week, building a whole new set is out of the budget even for a series like original Battlestar Galactica (at the time the most expensive television programme ever made). Locations tend to be affected by geographic proximity: you want to film somewhere within easy commuting distance of the studio (hence the frequent use of Vasquez Rocks in Star Trek, original Battlestar Galactica and other California-made series, and Kamloops in the 2003-10 Vancouver-made Battlestar Galactica).

Given this, it’s not too surprising that colours are frequently used to establish character and mood, and to turn a small number of sets and locations into a dazzling array of new planets.

Next post, I’ll be giving you a brief guide to what structuralist anthropology is, and what it’s got to say about all this.

Leadership Lessons From Game Of Thrones Special: The Battle of Winterfell, or How Not To Lead

Last time,  I said the next entry would be about alternative career patimagehs and Ramsay Bolton. Well, forget that, because I watched “The Battle of Winterfell” at the weekend, and I think we need to take a moment to talk about it.

People who know more about tactics than I do have written about the problems with that aspect of it, so I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of what’s wrong with it militarily. However, I have spent a while talking about leadership on Westeros, and so I feel compelled to point out that this whole episode is a pretty good example of how not to do leadership.

1) Failure to designate authority. Who, exactly, was in charge of that battle? You don’t always need a clear, hierarchical chain of command, and in this case they’d evidently decided on doing the battle in small autonomous units rather than according to an overall plan, but you do need some allocation of responsibilities. The only people who seemed to have someone in charge and directing things were the Unsullied, and of course no one else noticed what Grey Worm was doing, because it seems the Westerosi are racist (while I’ll be coming back to this in a future post, this is a very good example of the problems poor diversity management can cause for any organisation). Jon and Daenarys may be up on the dragons and Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts (on which, more later), but Edd, Jaime, Brienne and Torvald are all perfectly capable of directing a battle better than they do here.

2) No system for operating at multiple levels. It’s helpful to leadership if they’re able to understand the big picture, and the smaller one, so as to get everyone on the ground level working towards a larger goal. While the dragonriding team can’t communicate with the ground, this is where Bran’s ability to warg into ravens could have provided a useful asset. Mind you, the lack of people in authority might make it hard to figure out who to pass the information on to.

3) Lack of flexibility. Almost any operation needs fine-tuning as it goes along, whether it’s an audit, an acquisition, or a battle for your lives against the zombie hordes. Nobody at Winterfell appears to be showing any interest in deviating from the previously-worked-out plan, staring dumbly as the wights figure out how to get over the firewall.

4) Failure to utilize available skills. Tyrion, in the crypt, has evidently figured out Problem #2, and mutters about how he and Varys ought to be out there helping to guide the battle. Sansa shoots him down on that one, but he’s actually perfectly right. None of those three are fighters, but Tyrion at least is good at thinking of tactics on the fly, and they’re all intelligent people, and yet they’re all locked up in the crypt where they can’t actually be of any use to anyone. Not that it would matter much, because there’s also the problem of…

5) Poor communications. If you’ve got the person, or people, up in the tower, surveying the field and coming up with changes as needed, you need some system to communicate those to the people on the front lines. This is why there were drum and bugle signals in earlier times. Now, it’s a fair point that you’re assembling a force that’s quite diverse in terms of its tactics and background, but it’s not an insurmountable problem, since presumably everyone, in this case, is on board with the basic mission and wants to complete it without dying.

So, the Battle of Winterfell is not just a failure of tactics, or dragon-wrangling, but of leadership. Next time: I really will get around to Ramsay Bolton, I promise.

Working for the Car Factory: The Tour, Part Two.

Continued from last episode…

Our guide for the tour of Body In White, the area where the unpainted car is assembled, is Tommy. He explains that he used to work there for 20 years and only retired recently. Throughout the tour, staff keep coming up to him and shaking his hand or hugging him and wanting to chat. Tommy’s delivery is not the greatest, but the robots are fascinating to watch; they remind me of animatronic dinosaurs (same technology powers both, I’m sure), and I keep expecting one to bend over for a closer look at me. I mostly see men in the BIW shop, with one White and stout woman. They wear jeans rather than metal-free trousers, but then I suppose chipping the paint isn’t an issue here.

On the way to the Assembly area, one of the young German women takes over to talk about Paint, which she says we can’t go into “because of the dust”; she doesn’t elaborate, which must puzzle most people on the tour (having interviewed people in the Paint Shop before, I know that special measures are taken to keep the area free of airborne substances that might cause the paint to be uneven). Her command of English is poor, she is mostly reading from a prepared script which she doesn’t seem to totally understand. To top it off the microphone she is using isn’t built for outdoor use and reception is faulty; she tries twice and then we walk to Assembly in silence. I feel very sorry for her, and throughout the rest of the tour I see the other guides giving her hugs and pep-talks.

In Assembly, Jim takes over. His delivery is more fluid and humourous than Tommy’s; he keeps talking about how the right component is always delivered for the right model of car, “always, always, no, honestly it is.” He also salts in little jokes—most of which revolve around getting the wrong components on the wrong car model– and bits of trivia, like pointing out that the wheels of one car are reflective: “that’s to NASCAR standards, North American System car. So if I saw one of those with a right-hand drive, I’d be suspicious.” He too is greeted by a lot of the people on the line, patted on the back, hugged, and so forth. Small pickups are driving back and forth up and down the lines, bringing components and people at speed. Blue Shift appear to be the ones online today. Tommy asks me if I know which shift I’m on yet, so I tell him. At 3:15, a small pickup truck drives through honking and a cheer plus catcalls go up on the line: John says that this is the one-hour-till-shift-change signal. We are in perpetual danger of being run down by the small pickups.

On the way back Pris asks what I thought. I said I thought it looked OK. “I’m less afraid now, there wasn’t anything there I couldn’t see myself doing,” she says. I say that I wouldn’t want to be the one on the last station, a petrol pump where a small amount of petrol is dispensed into the vehicles as they come off the line. “Oh no, you’d be standing there all day with a silly grin,” she says.

Back at the info centre, we discover that not only is the place locked, but the person with the key has disappeared. The German lady rushes off to find them; Mike suggests that those who want to smoke do so, but Pris says “My cigarettes are in the building!” She bums one off Saeed, and says “Lesson number one, always keep your cigarettes with you.” Finally a harassed-looking administrator turns up in a pickup with the key and lets us in. I get my bag, drop my stuff and go.

Your host

I am a doctor…

In 2002 I successfully defended my doctoral thesis, “Ethnicity, Transnationalism and the Workplace“, at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Now I’m a professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway University of London.

“…of many things….”

Along the way, I’ve done other things as well, like:

becoming a science fiction writer;

Writing books, articles and talks about science fiction TV and film;

working on audio plays with half the cast of Blake’s 7 and many other exciting and talented people;

Traveling all over the world;

-Working as a historical interpreter, an auto worker, a theatrical production manager, a voice artist, an archaeologists’ assistant, a tech-support woman;

-Teaching management studies;

-[continued page 94]

“…if we could examine…”

This blog is a place for me to write about things that don’t fit well into a story or a paper. Travelogues, living-in-London-on-a-student-grant cautionary tales, Anthropology true-confessions, behind the scenes anecdotes. If you like, I’ll show you my skull collection.

Read on.

Planning to update the blog monthly; hoping to do so more frequently, but I know what my schedule is like.