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.

A Blast From The Past

Turned up a surprise on YouTube the other day: apparently, not only did they record my keynote speech at Kristu Jayanti College (Bangalore/Mangaluru) in 2015, but they posted the video on Youtube!

Here’s me talking about anthropology and business, on a hot and humid but rather lovely day.

Working for the Car Factory: The Union Rep

Continued from last episode…

The union rep is about fifteen minutes late. We hang about, some talk quietly, one of the black men talks on his mobile. I start reading the book I have with me, Wild Swans, but Pris wants to talk. She talks about how the Car Factory is a real local landmark; it used to extend over to the other side of the road, where there are houses now, “but they’ll put up houses anywhere there’s a spare inch of land, won’t they?” The young blond man on my other side complains that he is sick of union presentations as he has sat through far too many. One black man with a hawk nose and Middle Eastern accent is talking with the others in his row about South Africa, specifically the animals you find there. Sara, sensing the boredom, starts everyone playing a word game where everyone has to come up with a different country for each letter of the alphabet (I get G: Germany). The hawk-nosed man is particularly good at this, whispering hints to people unfortunate enough to get stuck with Q and W. Nobody could think of one for X; Jo claimed she could but didn’t enlighten us. When we got through with countries we started on rock bands (I’m G again: Garbage), and had gotten up to H when the rep arrived.

The rep is named Liam; he looks like a skinnier, older version of Noel Gallagher. He has a very  monotonous delivery, stream-of-consciousness, and leans against the table with his arms folded. He says that 96% of the workforce are in the union. He outlines the benefits of joining: the first, he says, is the accident cover. He tells us about a man paralysed from the waist down in an industrial accident, and how the union were able to get him and his wife a settlement which allowed them money for a customised bungalow, car etc., although he never returned to work again. He tells more stories of equally horrible accidents. He adds that the union provides good fatal-accident cover, and that they have a free will service, which, he says, would cost you 40-200 pounds in the outside world. He goes on to say that the union will also provide representation in cases of disciplinary hearings, and tells us more war stories about these.

He passes out the form, and everyone, by this point thoroughly convinced of the benefits of union membership, fills them out. He asks if anyone’s already a member, and the blond guy says he is, and names his branch (a big hint that he’s worked at a Car Factory before). Liam asks him to reregister for here so that he can get more rapid cover. Liam emphasises that we should fill out all the fields of the address form; he says “it’s no good saying 10 Charlsbury Lane, thinking everybody knows where that is; this goes back to Newcastle.” He adds that we needn’t bother with the payroll number, though, as he can add that.

Continued next episode…

 

Working for the Car Factory: Induction Continued

Continued from last episode

Mike explains about uniforms; we will be given T-shirts to reflect our shift. People on weekends are the Yellow Shift, and get four yellow T-shirts; people on rotating shifts are either on Red or Blue shift and get four T-shirts in the relevant colour; people on Permanent Nights get two red and two blue. The older woman, Pris, asks me why that is, and I suggest that it is to blend in with whichever rotating shift is currently on. We will also get black trousers, made with no metal parts because it might damage the paintwork. Likewise Mike says that people working in certain areas will need steel-toe boots, but that in other areas these are verboten, because they might damage the paint; most, he says, wear trainers. He says that we are not to wear uncovered rings or watches; tape and sports wristbands will be provided. He gives us a health and safety talk, and warns us against being offstation; on the line 37 cars come by an hour, so if you take a 2-minute bathroom break you’ve missed a car or two already. Smoking outside of the designated areas is also streng verboten.

He passes around sheets giving the shift patterns. There is one person on Weekend and about six or so on Permanent Nights. He then gets those of us not on Weekend or Permanent Nights to pick our shifts, by dint of saying that there are three spots to start at 6 tomorrow and the rest will do the night shift. I wind up on night shift.

He then passes out laminated cards depicting the dress code, and on the other side a diagram of How to Push a Car. Mike jokes about the cards, saying they’re valuable and rare: he then says, “Seriously, I really love this place, my father worked for Car Factory for thirty years.”

Sara discovers that all but the last six of us have now got our ID cards and sends the rest of us downstairs.

The six of us line up outside and wait: Pris goes first. I talk with the blond girl about the weather, while some of the boys go outside to smoke. After Pris comes out, I go in, and am directed to a table around the corner where an elderly man positions me on a stool in front of a digital camera. “Say happy worker!” he says. I do. He then asks me to do it again as he erased the first one. I do and get my card a minute later. When I come back up Sara gives me a sheet on which to fill out my shirt and trouser size; we start talking about my project as she wants to know more about it, but as it could take a while I say I’ll explain more fully at the break. I never do; she vanishes at lunch and I don’t see her again.

Working for the Car Factory: Induction

Continued from last episode….

I arrive about ten to nine. There are about ten people in the waiting room outside the factory gate, a small glass building with comfortable chairs and magazines. A minute later a woman who I recognise as one of the HR department’s secretaries arrives and tells all people here to take the temporary labour agency’s induction to please wait outside. All but three people obey. The weather is chilly and overcast and it is threatening to rain. I talk with an older woman; she says that when she took the proficiency tests, only four of seven candidates passed.

About 9:10, Mike arrives. By this point there are about twenty of us. Four women, including myself, the older woman and a young blond woman, all White; of the men, 7 are Black and 4 are Middle Eastern. One of the White men turns out to be Yugoslavian, and was encouraged to join by another Yugoslavian employee, who Mike also knows and describes as “the Eastern European Del Boy.” Another holds an extensive and puzzled conversation with Mike in Spanish. Mike leads us to the temporary labour agency on site office; we still take the stairs, but we only go up to the second floor this time—Mike says it is an act of mercy.

Mike leads us into a conference room, sparsely furnished. We all take seats; Mike remarks that you can tell a lot about group dynamics by how they seat themselves; when the older woman takes a chair from the stack at the side rather than choosing from those set out he says, “there’s always one, isn’t there?” “Yeah, and I’m it,” she says. He remarks that sometimes you get people sitting all in a group and sometimes all dispersed, but this looks OK. He fusses with a sheaf of acetate slides, which he says are the reason why he was late (“the printer wasn’t working”); he frequently pauses throughout his talk to hunt for one missing slide or another.

Mike starts the talk by reintroducing himself and remarking that we are now in a better class of room than before, but the Car Factory still hasn’t switched on the heat. He explains the outline of the day: i.e. first he will talk and have us fill out forms, then there will be a talk from the union rep, then from a trainer. Then there will be lunch, and then, he says, we will be taken on a tour of the plant. He says this is a very new thing; we are the first, the “guinea pigs” as it were. The older woman says no one told her about this (me neither), and when will we be finishing up? Four, he says, but you’ll be paid for the whole time.  He also warns us not to smoke outside of designated smoking areas, which are indicated by a painted green box on the floor or ground. “Filthy habit anyway,” he says.

Sara comes in and is reintroduced; she takes six people down to be photographed and carded, which she does at intervals through the rest of this. Also periodically through the talk, there are breaks in which Mike and/or Sara go off in search of various unspecified things or to do various tasks (usually remarking that we should consider ourselves lucky as we’re being paid to sit around); when one happens, usually four or five people wander off in search of a smoking area, and about the same number in search of the shop, returning with sandwiches, crisps, drinks, biscuits. the older woman returns from a cigarette break complaining that the designated area is a “fume cupboard.” Sara optimistically remarks that the radiators are feeling a little warmer now and if anyone wants to sit next to them for warmth, they can.

Mike explains about our status here; we are officially on a “summer holiday” contract, but really, he says, it’s an ongoing one; if you do the job and get on with people, he says, there’s no reason why, if you want to, you can’t carry on working here indefinitely. He says there are temps here who have been in the place for two years (i.e. since the factory opened).  He explains about the structure of the teams.  He also remarks on the ethnic mix of the people on the site; he descirbes the workforce as “cosmopolitan.” He says that the fact that we only have 9 ethnic groups represented here today is disappointing; last week, there were thirteen. He says they are trying to build up their own axis of evil for George W. Bush; “we have Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians and Libyans working here, so if any of you know of any North Koreans or Cubans, send them to us.” He also remarks that he interviewed an Iraqi for a job here just last week.

To be continued…

Working for the Car Factory: Assessment Tests

As part of my ethnographic study of the Car Factory, I worked on the assembly line (see introduction). To do this, I went through the same assessment and induction procedure as anyone else who wanted to work on the line, which I’ll outline over the next few posts, based on my fieldnotes and beginning with the assessment tests:

I arrive at the car factory about 9:40, having been told to get there at 9:45; there are already plenty of people there, hanging around the reception booth, a small glass structure at the factory gates. None of them greet me. I go into the reception booth, give my name and am given a small piece of paper with my name, the date etc. on it in biro—apparently a special temporary pass for temporary labour candidates, much less flashy than the pass I have worn to visit the factory on previous occasions. When I come out, the lone woman in the group (middle aged, office-lady type) smiles at me and says she guesses we’re the only two women here? The others are male—about one-third each White, Asian and Black. Several have a studenty look. Most are aged about 18-30; there are two older men. One of the younger White men approaches me and shyly asks if I have done assembly-line work before: I admit to not having done so, and he says, “Good, I’m not the only one.” He adds, “I can’t even drive!” There are about 20 of us all told.

Around ten Mike [all names changed to protect the innocent], the temporary labour agency manager, turns up, wearing a factory uniform jacket. Although we have met on several occasions before he does not acknowledge me and I do not acknowledge him. He introduces himself and asks if we have all remembered our proof of entitlement to work (excluding one very tall, bald, Black man, who apparently works for another plant in the group and whose details are there). There is consternation among several of the candidates. Mike is exasperated: “well, I told you to bring some!” He takes their names, then leads us the long way round to the building which houses the temporary labour agency’s office. The other woman protests at the length of the journey. She remarks that since there are so many men here, she and I don’t stand a chance of being hired.

When we reach the building we are on the side with the broken lift and have to walk up four floors; some protest. Upon arriving at the testing area, Mike wearily tells us not to complain about the heat, as they can’t turn the heater off. Much later, Mike tells me that all this is actually part of the assessment, intended to test physical fitness, endurance, and ability to cheerfully deal with difficult conditions.

We are split into two groups, directed by a small Asian woman named Sara. My group does the “practical” test first; this involves fitting together a small engine part following directions and diagrams in a booklet. This is not hard; my biggest problem is learning how to operate the ratchet, since I have never used one before (although, to judge from the noises from elsewhere in the room, neither have several of the others). The second group does a written test. The other woman leaves after the practical, as she has apparently done the written tests elsewhere. I never find out if she passed or not.

Then we all come together to do an attention-to-quality test, which involves looking at pictures of groups of objects and identifying those with defects; the second part involves classifying different defective objects by type of defect. One man with a Jamaican accent has to have the directions explained at length; another man, with an Oxford accent, complains that he can’t make out the pictures without his glasses. He is told to do the best he can. After these tests, my group does the written test.

Mike and Sara then go into an office to grade the tests; people sit around, one or two talk quietly but the rest stare into space. When they reemerge, Sara calls out six or seven names (including mine) and asks us to join her in the side office; Mike stays with the others. Sara informs us that we are the ones who passed, and now we will have our interviews. The others include: two young Asian men, a small Black man about thirtyish, and two young White men, one of whom has multiple facial piercings. She gives us some forms to fill out.

My interviewer is a man my own age named Tim. I explain to him about the project, and refer him to my HR contact, Tessa, at the Car Factory. He seems interested, and when he goes away to photocopy my passport he apparently asks does ask them about it, as when he comes back he tells me that Tessa will be handling my case from now on. The interview is not strenuous; he asks details of my previous employment, why I quit, have I done any comparable work before, what sort of assembly-line work do I feel I’m best suited for, what can I bring to the organization. I emphasise my teamwork skills and attention to quality. He makes sure I am briefed about shifts, salaries, etc. He does not shake my hand when I leave, but says that someone will be in touch about starting dates soon. I am left to find my own way out.

Next episode: induction.