The Colour Out Of Space Opera: Some Call Me The Space Cowboy

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:

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Japan:

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And 20th century abstract sculpture:

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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):

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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):

Brothers Don't Shoot!' Placard During The German Revolution Berlin circa 1918-circa 1919 : News Photo

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:

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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.

 

The Colour Out Of Space Opera Part Ten: The Faustus with the Mostest

Last instalment, I introduced the concept of using the past to evoke the future, and how it works, with a detour into The Fifth Element. This time, I’m going to go back into film design history for a bit, and talk about what makes this work.

My argument about this is that it can’t simply be done for its own sake, or because it Looks Neat. With reference, as we have done throughout this series, to structuralism, there has to be a fit between the symbols used, and the thing being symbolised (for more on this sort of thing, and for those of you who like academic references, look up Dan Sperber’s 1974 monograph Symbolism, or Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By).

Let’s take a look at Metropolis, one of the best known early SF movies, and also, though it’s frequently not mentioned, one of the earliest examples of using the past to evoke the future. In the picture below, we see our male protagonist, Freder, pampered son of an elite capitalist, in the Garden of the Sons, a sort of leisure facility for men like him:

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There’s a few things to observe here. One of them is that Freder’s own futuristic businesswear, with the natty jodhpurs, has ironically aged far less well than the 18th-century-inspired gear of the courtesans around him (supporting last week’s point). The other, though, is that the period chosen is more than a little appropriate: if you want a complex of symbols associated with decadence and sexual license, with an added dollop of twee pastoralism, you could do far worse than raid the closets of the Ancien Regime.

Now the story’s female protagonist, Maria. She’s kitted out in a costume evoking medieval peasant garb to evoke the fact that she comes from the poor labouring classes of Metropolis, as well as providing a counterpoint to the Ancien Regime costumes of the courtesans (since, like the peasantry of France, Maria, or [spoilers] her doppelgänger, will later stage a revolution to overthrow the aristocrats):

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And the story’s anti-hero, mad scientist Rotwang, wearing a flowing black robe over his work coveralls, evoking medieval wizards alongside industrial imagery (not incidentally evoking the Industrial Revolution which was also kicking off in the 18th century):

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So, one could say the use of a particular period aesthetic is appropriate because Maria is, symbolically, a peasant girl and Rotwang, also symbolically, a wizard (and the aristocracy they both severally oppose evokes the French nobility). But it goes further than that. This is a publicity picture from FW Murnau’s film version of Faust, showing Camilla Horn playing Gretchen:

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Note the resemblance to Maria’s costume. Gretchen is also a simple, good soul who remains pure despite the trials life throws at her, and, like Maria, winds up at the hands of a mob determined to burn her at the stake. Faust also revolves around the activities of a magician who is drawn to do evil. So Maria’s costume doesn’t just evoke the peasantry, but provides its German audience with a complex of fictional symbols they would instantly recognise.

So what happens when you start evoking the wrong symbols, or evoking them to little purpose? Here we need to return to Star Wars, and take a look at the Prequel Trilogy. Here’s Padme Amidala, from the first film (one example will suffice):

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The costume’s certainly pretty, and certainly looks ceremonial. The film is also heavily based on Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, so a Japanese aesthetic is, seemingly, appropriate. However, if you start to think about what it’s referencing, it’s not necessarily where you want to go. Padme’s hairstyles and makeup continually evoke apprentice geisha (rather than the tomboy princess who is the heroine of The Hidden Fortress), giving an undertone of sexuality that’s arguably not appropriate for a character who’s defined more by falling in love with the wrong man than by providing entertainment and sex to male audiences.

Another of her costumes appears to borrow heavily from one of the characters in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen:

 

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The character in question, though, is Kriemhild:

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Kriemhild is a woman who avenges her husband’s death at the hands of her brother by calculatedly marrying her brother’s enemy, luring her brother and his men into a trap and burning a fortress down around their ears.

Kriemhild is one of my favourite characters in cinema, so actually I’d’ve liked a Padme Amidala who’s both a cultured and sophisticated woman and a calculating schemer who uses her sexuality and her power to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who wronged her doomed husband. But since that’s not the Padme Amidala we got, there’s a cognitive dissonance to the way she’s dressed.

Next time: cowboys in space.

The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

Welcome back to The Colour Out of Space Opera (links to previous instalments: one two three four five six seven eight). One of my long-standing holiday traditions is to re-watch as many of the Star Wars movies as I can manage, which brings me nicely to the subject of the next couple of instalments: raiding the past.

From the first moment SF moved into the visual media, designers have made heavy use of the practice of evoking the future through, symbolically, evoking the past. The idea is that viewers may find it alienating when confronted with costume and styling meant to evoke a different, future society:

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While on the other hand, costumes which evoke a past era, give the viewer a set of symbolic cues to work from:

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You can see how it works. The first image, from Aelita, Queen of Mars, is based on constructivist art, and consequently leaves us with a blank canvas, meaning the viewer is forced to learn about the society from other symbolic clues. The second, from Blade Runner, evokes the 1940s (while being different enough from actual 1940s fashions to tell us this is the future not the past); straight away the viewer can reach for a palette of associations about the 1940s to sketch in the background to the society (it’s probably repressive, hierarchical, subject to rampant surveillance and violent criminal activity, and with an undercurrent of misogyny. There you go, and Sean Young hasn’t said a word yet). As with our subconscious approaches to colour, filmmakers can use our associations about the past as a quick and dirty way of introducing us to a society in the future.

However, it’s a little more complicated than that. This image looks like it’s got more in common with Aelita‘s constructivism than Blade Runner‘s nostalgia:

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However, Milla Jovovitch’s costume is actually based on a piece of early 1970s kinetic art by Rebecca Horn:

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So what we have is a costume which seems to evoke an alienating future society, but in fact evokes late Sixties pop-art, giving us a palette of associations: decadence, drugs, way too much day-go plastic.

The costume design of The Fifth Element more generally plays with this, usually giving us enough retro costume elements to evoke a mood or style, while changing them enough to remind us that this is the future, and keep us off balance:

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The mixing of periods also tells us something. Note the use of 1940s elements as in Blade Runner, but a shift towards a Sixties pop-art colour palette, and hairstyles more associated with the 1920s and 1930s. So what we get is not a straight set of associations, as in Blade Runner, but a mix: we can expect a society that’s repressive, hierarchical, fascist and over-surveilled, but also one with heavy elements of commercialism, of psychedelia, of decadence. By mixing elements of the past, you can develop complicated background world building.

So what does this have to do with Star Wars? Mainly that the early films are textbook examples in how to evoke the past, evoke the past by stealth, and mix the palette.

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Dressing Alec Guinness in a gi, for instance, evokes associations to do with Japanese martial arts: skill, codes of honour, feudalism, hierarchies, self-control to the point of (in the movies, at least) feats of magic. Which takes the curse off the fact that he’s also wearing a wizard’s cloak, and means that, although we still have that association, it’s buried beneath, and mixed with, the other associations.

We’re so busy thinking of him as General Makabe Rokurōta, that we’ve forgotten he’s actually mostly Gandalf.

Next time! Carrying on with Star Wars, and considering what makes retro-futurism work (and what makes it fail).
Continue reading The Colour Out of Space Opera Part Nine: Nostalgia By Stealth

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.

The Colour out of Space Opera: Red And Blue

So, having got the preliminaries out of the way (part one here and part two here, for those of you just joining us), we now get on to some actual space operas, and the things they do with colour.

Last time, I pointed out that structuralist anthropology is quite big on binary oppositions. Male/female, raw/cooked, nature/culture. Well, nature/culture oppositions are quite a big thing in space operas too. This goes back to the ur-space-opera, the First Ancestor: Forbidden Planet (1956), the prototype for Star Trek and, with it, all of American space opera ever since.

Forbidden Planet straight away set up a colour opposition between culture, rationality, technology and science– represented by colours on the blue spectrum: neutral, quiet, calm. Here’s the spaceship:

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Here’s the crew:

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Here’s the city of the Krells:
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However, when we encounter the Id Monster, representing the irrational, natural, emotional state, its colours are on the red spectrum:

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Meanwhile, just look at what the designer is doing here with Robbie The Robot, who, being a helpful robot built with Krell technology, and serving Morbius, the rational scientist who is in fact the calm face of the Id Monster, is on a rather ambivalent position between the rational and irrational, the technological and the natural:
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This particular grammar of blue/technology/rational, red/nature/emotional, has become a huge part of space opera visual culture– to the point where it’s worth noting that in the climactic fight at the end of Black Panther, T’Challa (rational, technological) wears a costume with blue elements, and Eric Killmonger (emotional, natural) one with red elements.

However, as I also said last time– one of the things about these oppositions, they aren’t always interpreted in the same way. In the 1950s, when Forbidden Planet was made, technology is a positive force, emotions are wrong and dangerous, and so our good guys are in blue, and our Id Monster in red. Twenty years later, however, and with people becoming much less certain technology was their friend, and recognising that it’s not a bad thing to be in touch with one’s emotions, we get Star Wars. And guess who’s got the blue:

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And who’s got the red:

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Which is probably why we also get this association in Firefly. Red:

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Blue:

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Once you’ve established that grammar, though, you can start playing with it. In the prequel movies, before his transformation into sleekly technological Darth Vader, Anakin is clearly associated with the colour red:
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The intention here is fairly obviously not to present him as a good guy– he murders a schoolful of Jedi children and tries to strangle his own wife, after all. However, one of the themes of the prequels is that Anakin’s failure to master his emotions is what leads to his downfall. And, by contrast, Anakin’s son Luke, with his blue lightsaber, on his green swamp planet with his little green Jedi master, learns to achieve this control:

 

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So again we have red/nature/emotional, blue/culture/rational, but whether they’re good or bad things clearly depends on the character and the situation.

Similarly, have a look at the poster for Serenity, the movie which wrapped up the story of Firefly:

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What we have here is River Tam, dressed in green, but in front of a rather red and orange explosion. Tam herself is poised, skilled, and controlled: but the result of her actions is always chaos. So here we have nature/culture, ego/id, represented visually in the same character and in the same image.

To sum up: as discussed last week, space opera has a grammar, expressed through the use of colour. But once you understand that grammar, you can use it to say different things– and even convey completely opposing ideas within the same story, as with Anakin’s journey to the dark side.

Next up: Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7, and other things you can say with nature and culture.