Our hero trio come to New Eden, apparently deserted but for a single young woman, Lisa, who is traumatized into speechlessness. She rapidly recovers and starts manipulating the trio, setting them against each other. Unbeknownst to them, they have wandered into a social experiment run by two scientists: Dr Asgard, an Ayn Rand type who thinks humans are basically selfish, and Dr Diana, who thinks they’re basically compassionate.
The whole thing plays out rather like a multi-way cross between Blake’s 7: Duel, Star Trek: The Empath and any given episode of The Prisoner, and as such it’s actually not too bad, for The Starlost values of “not too bad” of course. Of course Dr Diana’s view eventually triumphs as the hero trio demonstrate that their love for each other is transcendent and self-sacrificing, but we do actually get a little time to explore Garth’s ambivalent feelings about being the third wheel to Devon and Rachel’s romance, and there’s a suggestion that Rachel’s puritanical upbringing means she’s a little suspicious of men in general, even ones she likes, which wouldn’t be too surprising.
Drawbacks: the message is iterated over and over in declamatory speeches between Asgard and Diana, to the point where I was groaning every time the story cut away to them. Also, while we do actually get an older woman with agency in this story in the form of Dr Diana, the gender politics are still mighty sketchy: of course it’s the Woman Scientist who is all about Compassion and Love, and the Delilah trope with Lisa is more than a little misogynous.
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!
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?
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.
Last instalment, I talked about how to evoke the past well, and not so well, with a quick detour round Metropolis. This instalment, I’m back with our usual case studies, and looking at how each of them has used the Wild West as a reference point: successfully, and not so successfully.
We’ll start with the unsuccessful. Here, once again, is an image from the classic Battlestar Galactica “The Lost Warrior.” Now, this one really ought to work. The Wild West is an appropriate referent for the story, which riffs heavily on Shane and other Westerns of the “stranger rides into town, fixes things, rides off again to the great disappointment of the comely local widow” variety. To be fair, there are some creative design elements in the serial– making the buildings look like repurposed spacecraft, for a start– but the Western aspects include a lot of, well, silver cowboy hats and vests. And, while, as I noted last time we talked about this episode, it does bring home one of the symbolic associations of white clothing for a villain (plantation bosses), it also makes it really sort of too obvious:
Meanwhile, Star Wars is arguably the textbook example of Doing Wild West Space Opera Right. The Tatooine sequences especially are a coming-of-age Western at heart: young boy, dreaming of leaving the ranch and fighting in a civil war, teams up with a grizzled old gunslinger after his family are brutally murdered, and they go to a saloon in a disreputable little desert town in order to recruit a maverick mercenary pursued by all the local bounty hunters, and his brown partner who doesn’t speak English.
This is the sort of thing that generally goes unnoticed by the audience, however, and for fairly good reason. In order to make sure it doesn’t wind up being as on-the-nose as “The Lost Warrior,” the design team have drawn their past-times elements from the Middle East:
And 20th century abstract sculpture:
The most obvious nod to the Western genre is Han Solo’s costume. Even there, you’ve got an interesting mix of black and white, pointing to the idea that Solo’s morals and allegiances are a little variable (we don’t see the colour of his hat, after all):
So people don’t tend to notice that the whole thing is a coming-of-age Western. They also don’t usually notice, by the way, that our protagonist’s family have a plantation and own slaves, and he wants to fight for the “rebels”, which does add an element of ambiguity to the literally black-and-white distinction between the heroes and the villains.
But, and here’s the point where structuralism comes in: the symbolic connotations of all of these places overlap with the Wild West. The Middle East, in the 1970s, was seen as a lawless gold-rush area, province of hyper-masculine gangsters; Kurosawa, one of Lucas’ key influences, is best known for Samurai warrior movies which have later been remade as Westerns; abstract sculpture developed under the same chaotic global conditions that spawned the Wild West (war and extreme financial instability). So, unlike Padme Amidala’s forays into Japanese and Weimar imagery in the prequels, it doesn’t just Look Neat, it Tells Us Something.
And finally, you have Blake’s 7. On the one hand the Western is sort of baked into the programme’s DNA, since one of the reasons for the title was series creator Terry Nation pitching it initially as “The Magnificent Seven in space”. Somewhat wisely, though, the team largely steer clear of using Western costumes and sets, presumably for reasons of not wanting to make that connection too obvious (also, presumably, because it’s hard to do well on the cheap– that’s a compliment, by the way, Blake’s 7 is a good example of how one can do even space opera well with no budget, provided you have a strong writing team and a creative production team).
The one episode where they do go a little further than usual is “Gambit”, where the Seven and the Federation have both tracked fugitives Travis and Docholli to a bar in a lawless frontier town. The name Docholli is also an explicit reference to Doc Holliday, meaning that it’s hard to ignore the connection. Consequently, both Docholli (right) and Travis (left) rock delightful big hats (Travis’ is, naturally, black):
However, Blake’s 7 does a Star Wars, and takes the curse off it, by heavily referencing the Weimar Republic in other aspects of the story’s costuming and design (for instance the Croupier, emceeing the Big Wheel casino with an aesthetic that’s half Joel Gray and half Marlene Dietrich):
This also, by the way, includes the brief use of South Bank as a futuristic location– famously a product of Bauhaus-influenced modern architecture (there’s not a single good shot of South Bank from the production, you’ll just have to take my word for it). In any case, this even makes the delightful big hats less obviously cowboy-related. Since Weimar fashion could also include big-brimmed hats (many lovely examples here, but take particular note of the gent on the far right):
And Travis, in his hat and cape, looks like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera, subject of a not-unfamous film of the 1920s:
So, again, one takes the curse off the Wild West aesthetic, by linking its imagery with the imagery of another period of lawless gangsterism, reckless gambling, hedonism, violent sexuality, interwar social trauma and extreme financial instability.
And then there’s The Mandalorian. Which I was going to talk about briefly here, but then realised I had enough to say about it to warrant another blog post, so that’ll be next time.
Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera! As promised last time (catch-up links: one two three four five sixseven), this episode will take a quick look at the problem of planets.
As we’ve seen extensively, one of the crucial issues in space opera is how to differentiate characters, and ideally give the audience some understanding of who they are and what their role is, in a quick and easy way that can help casual viewers tuning in to the series, while not alienating or boring regulars.
However, another crucial issue is that space operas require characters to visit different planets on a near-weekly basis. Which presents a twofold problem: first, how to make a landscape look convincingly alien on a budget– and, second, how to disguise the fact that the same location usually has to stand in for several planets?
(as an aside, I’d like to stamp very thoroughly on the idea that this is the result of space operas being done on the cheap. This is a problem that affects all space operas, from the genuinely low-budget Blake’s 7 through to original series Battlestar Galactica, at the time the single most expensive TV programme ever made. Because it doesn’t matter if you have the resources of a small multinational corporation, that budget still has limits– and, even if your budget was completley unlimited, physical and logistical considerations also mean your choice of locations is not infinite).
One easy, cheap and effective way of doing this is through lens filters. A simple filming or post-production effect can make a normal Earth landscape look alien, as in Battlestar Galactica‘s War of the Gods:
This particular effect clearly led to problems, as in the same story vis-FX shots including laser beams and the revelation of Count Iblis’ demonic forms were incompatible with it and had to be shot in conventional colours. Nonetheless, for the audience, the planet has been established as alien.
Blake’s 7, on more of a budget, used a red lens filter instead in Time Squad to make the planet look more alien and less Southeast England, without the troublesome vis-FX problem (sometimes simpler is best):
Which is rendered even more effective by the social and emotional connotations of the colour red, giving the adventure a sense of urgency and danger. Similarly, in Cygnus Alpha, the titular planet’s superstitious theocracy is highlighted early on by having the exteriors set in darkness:
Colour and filtering can also be used to drive the audiences’ emotions regarding the setting more subtly. For instance in the New Caprica story arc of reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the lighting and post-production teams indicate the sense of frustration, monotony and despair associated with the colony and its later occupation by giving it a grey, rainy tone throughout:
But, in the episode Unfinished Business, as characters remember happier days on New Caprica, the planet is seen in unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, reflecting how it can look with the rose-tinted glasses on:
Finally, the Eye of Jupiter story arc shows us how lens filters and visual effects can be used to achieve multiple ends at once. The use of lens filters, first, disguises the fact that the team are filming in Kamloops (handy for Vancouver and nicely rugged) yet again, and sets up a harsh, bleak, washed-out emotional tone reflecting the characters’ increasingly frayed relationships as well as their feelings about the planet:
And, when the revelation in the temple is about to unfold, visual effects can change the sky and the landscape to something more suitably terrifying and apocalyptic:
Next time: A shift back to costuming, and how to get historical referencing right… and hilariously wrong.
Welcome back to “The Colour Out Of Space Opera”! Here are the links for people wanting to catch up: one two three four five
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 ForbiddenPlanet, 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.
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….
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.
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 Galactica. Star 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 writtena bookor 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.