I’m going to be talking about my book in a virtual session for National Taiwan University! Tune in at 9:30 BST on 19 October to join.
…But if NASA won’t take you there, try Elon Musk.
If Elon Musk won’t take you, the Russian space programme has been quietly doing the job for decades, so try them.
And if even they won’t take you– then consider buying time on a satellite.
(Extended metaphor courtesy of the qualitative research methods clinic I run for the Academy of International Business– during a discussion of whether to aim for the higher profile journals that are more methodologically conservative, or stick to the lesser profile ones which are conversation-starters).
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 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
So, by way of ending The Colour Out Of Space Opera, I’d like to offer a few general thoughts and takeaways from this, and a few directions you can pursue yourself if you’re interested in learning, or researching, more on this subject.
- Everything uses symbolism to make its point, and, because we’re in “Western” society (in this case, blatant ethnocentric shorthand for the UK and USA), we tend to get a lot of symbols in our popular culture that fit our own particular set of nature/culture oppositions. There’s a reason why I’ve steered clear of talking about Japanese space opera; it might be an interesting thing for someone with more knowledge of their particular culture to explore colour symbolism in that context.
- The way space opera uses symbols, particularly colour symbols, is linked to the job space opera has to do: to introduce casual viewers quickly to casts and scenarios in a way that doesn’t alienate regulars, to provide new and interesting alien planets on a weekly basis in a way that keeps costs down but doesn’t get the viewer saying “Vasquez Rocks again?” (by the way, shout out to Star Trek: Picard for using the actual Vasquez Rocks as a location).
- Nature/culture: is a big trope that designers and directors exploit big-time, for its emotional significance in “Western” (op cit) culture, but it changes over time. In the sixty years that we’ve been covering here, we’ve gone from culture-good, to nature-good, and now we seem to be going back into culture-good (albeit with some interesting fusion symbolism in The Mandalorian, but it seems to be the only one so far). Arguably in 1990s space operas like Farscape and LEXX you had a period of we-can’t-tell-what’s-nature-and-what’s-culture, which is probably not too surprising, given that it was a decade when people were having to rethink a lot of pre-existing social categories (and, come to think of it, that might make a good bonus episode/coda to this series; comment if you’d like me to write one).
- Finally, historical-futurism goes back longer than most people realise, and the reason it works is for the same reason that the colour symbolism works: because we have sets of associations piled up in our cultural knowledge that mean we go to certain places when we see certain things. But they work best when you’re evoking a time period sideways, as it were: making us think of Westerns not through Western-style visuals, but through other symbols that evoke the same sort of ideas.
So, I’m going to leave you here with those four takeaways. Obviously one could go on much further, and I might do more pieces later on exploring in depth what particular series do with particular sets of symbols. I should also probably mention here that I have a book coming out in Obverse Book’s Black Archive series of Doctor Who monographs: it’s #43: The Robots of Death, and the reason I mention it here is because there’s a whole chapter on Expressionist design, historical-futurism, and how Doctor Who producer Philip Hinchcliffe made use of it throughout his tenure on the show. So if you like what you read, there’s more!
In the meantime: go out on your own, play with these tools, look at what the designers of your own favourite space operas are doing with colour and visual trope, and have fun with it.
Also a more-than-usually-massive spoiler warning for Blake’s 7.
Before we go on, a question from Pat McMurray:
“How conscious was all this?”
The answer is, it’s complicated. I do very much doubt that the costume and set designers were going out there armed with copies of Levi-Strauss when they made their designs. However, they did all have a specific task, to wit, evoking a particular emotion relative to a character (or group of characters) quickly and unobtrusively. Meaning they were probably looking for something that “feels right,” leading to the sort of imagery we’re seeing in the space operas we’ve been looking at so far.
For example: if you look at the pilot of Star Trek, they clearly aren’t there yet with the primary-colour functional scheme, but they’re also just as clearly putting a lot of thought into the task of making the characters and their roles instantly recognisable in a way that they aren’t in Forbidden Planet, which will eventually evolve into the distinctive three-colour uniform scheme.
It’s worth noting as relevant to last post’s topic that in this case they’re clearly not just differentiating characters through costume, but through recognisable distinctive physical traits; you’re not going to get those three chaps in blue confused in the way that you might the officers in Forbidden Planet.
Furthermore, Farah Mendlesohn also commented that colour-coding as a deliberate strategy was very much in vogue in the 1970s, citing, among others, the acclaimed school production of “King” (later filmed by Channel 4), which used yellow and red T-shirts to symbolic effect.
Sometimes we have documentary evidence of how and why certain colours were chosen: outside of genre, the designers on Breaking Bad have been quite forthright about their use of colour coding to define characters. Other times, there’s a clear thought process going on but it’s harder to define the inspiration.
This post’s main topic, however, is to look at another distinctive use of colour: namely, to illustrate the emotional or narrative arc of a character or characters (something else for which Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul provide a high-profile recent case). For this blog, though, we’ll return to Blake’s 7 for our first example.
Servalan, the titular rebels’ antagonist, starts the series with an all-white colour pallette. This makes her stand out visually against the, usually black-clad, Federation troops and our multi-coloured heroes. It also continues even after June Hudson takes over as designer and our heroes lose the colour-coding.
And then, in Season Three, she switches to black. For those unfamilliar with the story, the shift comes in the episode “Children of Auron”, in which she attempts, and fails, to have herself cloned. As Jacqueline Pearce explained it, after that point she’s always a little bit in mourning for her loss, and so this continues to be her colour palette long after the events of “Children of Auron” are of immediate relevance to the storyline.
The only story where Servalan isn’t in either white or black is “Gambit”, where she wears red– and significantly, in “Gambit”, her presence is entirely unofficial and the activities illicit, so the red highlights for the viewer the fact that she’s off the record.
Servalan isn’t the only character this happens for, though. Dayna Mellanby undergoes a mini-arc from her wild and free days as the daughter of a rebel who has fled to a primitive backwater:
To her re-absorption back into society as a gunslinger and weapons expert. Note her colour palette is bright and youthful and the cut of her clothes recalls the Greek tunic she wears in her first story (and she’s wearing her now-deceased father’s medallion, symbolising her sworn quest for revenge against Servalan):
In the final season, after the Liberator is destroyed and the titular rebels have largely given up their political activities, she adopts a much more austere look (and lost the medallion):
Also note that, at this point, our heroes are generally clad in shades of black, white and grey, rather than the bright colours of earlier seasons:
This is more than a little significant, given what we were talking about before regarding nature and culture imagery. At this point, there is no longer an opposition between Blake’s rebels/nature and the Federation/culture, so the heroes’ colour palettes become more and more culture-aligned, and much more along the lines of the Federation’s own monochrome palettes.
Which brings us to the most significant example of the way this happens in Blake’s 7. We’ve had a look at some of Avon’s earlier costumes in the last installment, but what’s worth noting is that from Season Three onwards he goes from grey:
To more and more black (with occasional silver and white bits):
So there’s a few things to notice. One, his palette is becoming more and more cultural, and more and more aligned with the Federation, as Avon himself becomes more and more of an anti-hero. Second, that as he becomes the focus of the series in Season Four, his costume makes him stand out very clearly against the muted greys of the rest of the crew. And finally, it makes the last scene of Blake’s 7 very much not just a victory of the Federation over the rebels, but a victory of culture over nature. Watch who dies first, and watch who’s standing at the end:
Next post, a look at how Battlestar Galactica does something rather similar.
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:
And cool, technological culture is on the side of our antagonists, with a minimalist aesthetic straight out of Gary Numan’s stage performances:
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:
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:
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:
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):
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:
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:
Blake’s 7 does something else with colour and costume, though, which we’ll look more closely at next episode.
Friends in International Business Studies, human geography and anthropology of elites: I’m co-chairing the Research Methods track at this year’s Academy of International Business, and am looking for innovative, exciting and controversial papers and panel proposals. Deadline is December 2, so get submitting!
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?
“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.”
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:
Meanwhile, the Cylon bad guys are all culture, being mostly chrome and lights:
And our ambivalent characters? Baltar, the human traitor, dons a Cylon-like helmet in “The Living Legend”,
echoed in the uniforms of the humanoid Cylons in the Galactica 1980 story “The Night the Cylons Landed”:
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:
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:
While the interior of the Cylon basestars is again all minimalist decor and blinking lights:
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:
from the organic, emotional and violent life of the Adama family:
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:
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.
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.
So, to recap: this is a blog post series, based on a 60-minute talk I gave in 2018, on how designers working on space operas secretly use structuralist anthropological concepts to establish character and mood quickly and unobtrusively, and to differentiate locations easily. You can read the introduction here.
By this point, a few people are probably asking what “structuralist anthropology” is, and, yes, why it’s at all relevant. So: this post will be the quick-and-dirty, oversimplifying, explanation (if you want longer and more complicated, I recommend Claude Levi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Edmund Leach’s Social Anthropology, Needham’s introduction to his edited volume Right And Left, and Pierre Bourdieu’s essay The Berber House. Yes, there are a lot of French names there– the reason will become obvious in a second. Please also note that the use of Amazon links is indicative only– I’d encourage you to use your local library if you can).
Structuralist anthropology emerged in the 1950s, initially in France (see my recommended reading list above), but with the UK and other places (such as India and South Africa) following close behind (what about North America? While it wasn’t uninfluential, at the time the US and Canada were largely dominated by an emerging culturalist anthropology developed from the works of Franz Boas and his student Ruth Benedict, so took a slightly different approach. Again, longer and more complicated).
The defining characteristic of structuralist anthropology is, essentially, the idea that culture is sort of like language: that people have cultural traits, but underlying these is a sort of “grammar”, which informs the ways in which people possess and express these traits. The initial idea the structuralists had was to drill down through these and identify what’s universal to all humans. While they did identify some things that seem to be common to all human cultures, the problem was that they were expressed differently, sometimes quite radically differently, all over the place: for instance, marriage, as an institution, is arguably universal, but the idea that “marriage is always (or even usually) between one man and one woman” is wrong, dead wrong, and the idea that every person in a given society should, ideally, be married, is also not a given.
Eventually, having figured this out, the structuralists instead wound up focusing on comparison and context: looking at the different ways different cultures address the issues humans face around the world, though without losing sight of the initial premise about culture as a kind of language, with an underlying grammar.
One key point to raise here is the idea of binary oppositions. Structuralists fairly rapidly turned up the fact that human societies love developing informal classifying systems (what we call “native categories”, and incidentally I’ve written about this too), which often revolve around oppositions between categories: nature-culture, raw-cooked, female-male, left-right, yin-yang, etc. But again: this is complicated and problematic, and these binary systems are far from universally expressed or interpreted (“left”, for instance, is “sinister” in the UK, but “sacred” in Japan). Many of my readers might find that list I just gave familiar and even self-evident, but that’s because my blog stats show most of you are from the UK and the USA, or secondarily from Australia and Canada, where all of those are, well, your native categories.
See how this works?
An example from the literature is the idea, analysed in an essay by Sherry Ortner, that “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture”: this spawned an entire (very good) edited volume by Carol McCormack and postmodernist living legend Marilyn Strathern, coming to the conclusion that this wasn’t universal, and, even in places where it is, the meanings of “nature” and “culture” and their symbolic relationships to gender aren’t necessarily the same. Furthermore, that it changes over time: what European people in the 18th century understood by making that sort of opposition isn’t what Europeans mean now.
What has all this got to do with space opera? Hang on to your tricorders, we’re going back in….