moriarty: (SIX outside tiems nao)
♥ パール ([personal profile] moriarty) wrote2009-07-29 08:35 pm

Old Telly Isn't Necessarily Bad Telly.

...Or, Why Special Effects Don't Matter If The Acting Is A Bit Daft.

Old telly suffers a lot under modern scrutiny - sexism, racism and homophobia are chucked around as casually as a can of beer in a group of excited teenagers, the Red Fear died out before many modern viewers were even born (taking these mythic examples from my own generation, that is), and the out-dated views of the future have not come to fruition (computers are now the size of our palms, not our houses, and the VHS tape went out of fashion quicker than paisley). CGI was practically unheard of, the bad guys were made of either tinfoil, plasticine, or both, and a lot of the acting is now seen as too melodramatic or cheesy to be taken seriously, except in those rare cases when it is too bad to be laughed at. It is these last two points combined that I would like to take a look at today.

In the Doctor Who four-part arc Full Circle, Tom Baker's bad guys are rubber-suited flaily-armed monstrosities from the boiling lakes of the first of the E-space worlds, Alzarius. Upon first sight of them a modern audience would fall over themselves laughing, as indeed I did - until one came up against Tom himself. The Fourth Doctor is almost always stereotyped as a goofy, intergalactic bohemian with a love of scarves and ranks quite low on the list of my personal favourites, but his performance in this episode really made me change my mind about his position on my list - and inspired me to construct my argument whilst it is still vaguely coherent in my brain. Upon coming up against one of the Marshmen, a child he readily identifies, the Doctor attempts to soothe the frightened creature before being knocked over the head by one of the misunderstanding Starliner crewmen. This is the exact point that I stopped thinking of the Marshmen as men in rubber suits, and started thinking of them as people. People who posed a tangible threat (until their existence was explained, that is) to my hero, the Doctor, who was just doing his thing and trying to help the universe. And suddenly, the crap effects ceased to be important.

Here is where I put forward my argument: you can take the best CGI effects in the entire world and paste them all over a film or television show, but if the actors aren't up to it, then the effects will look as fake as they indeed are.

As human beings, we take our cues on how to respond to a situation from the other humans - or sometimes other mammals in general, if horror movies that feature friendly dogs in them are anything to do by - present at the scene. And if you have a fantastically CGI'd dinosaur swooping toward your hero, but the actor is gaping in slightly the wrong direction or looks wooden when he ought to look terrified, suddenly the reality of the situation all falls apart. It doesn't matter how much money was spent on said dinosaur: if the actor it is interacting with doesn't take it seriously, neither will the audience. A perfect example of CGI/human interaction done correctly is the 2007 movie Transformers, whose effects, whilst totally mind-blowing, only really gel once you realise the actors genuinely believe they are talking to giant robots, or running away from them, or mourning them. A perfect example of bad effects/good human interaction I told you of above: because Tom believed the Marshman was real, and in pain, and needed comforting, so did I. Because he later displayed fear of them when they took over Romana, so did I. And when he finally revealed who and what they really were, and displayed pride for their species, I felt proud as well. It wasn't the special effects department that made them real, it was Tom.

Old science-fiction can convince you of anything so long as the hero can carry the conviction necessary to do so. My first ever classic Doctor Who arc was Patrick Troughton's outing The Tomb of the Cybermen, and those tinfoil-plastic robots who were so obviously just men thrown into badly-made suits were more terrifying than the modern examples (who showed up in Tennant's Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel arc) could ever be because the Second Doctor and Jamie and the archeological expedition's reactions made them all the more terrifying. Modern actors don't seem to bother in the same way. (I am not, of course, talking about the entirety, just the examples I've seen). They know that all of the stops will be pulled out to make whatever monster of the week look as realistic as possible, and so their response to said monster is either lacklustre or stereotyped. Mark Gatiss's creature of the New Who ep The Lazarus Experiment is a case in point. I wasn't scared of him. In the slightest. Something in my brain told me to think he was scary, but when I saw the dinner guests running around screaming and wringing their hands like so many bad actors/actresses, my response was to laugh. The only emotion he actually generated was vague pity, and that was when David Tennant's Doctor stepped in and began to lecture - unfortunately too late in the episode for me to actually care about what happened, as too much time had been spent building up to a creature who wasn't scary because not enough effort was placed on making the actors react to it as such.

This is possibly why something is all the more scary in a visual medium (IE., a television episode or movie as compared with a book or audio production) if it is unseen, because then the only thing we have to go by are the actors' reactions: we don't have to worry about their reactions to something that ought to be laughable being completely wrong and thus turning that monster or ghost or zombie into something not only not frightening but also comically bad. All we have is their frightened faces and our imagination. The television adaptation of Stephen King's The Langoliers was frightening and atmospheric even after the badly-animated balls of teeth showed up at the end because they were initially unseen and thus treated seriously, but also because the actors managed to continue being frightened even after they had become visible. (Special props to Bronson Pinchot as the overworked neurotic mess that was Mister Toomey, the character who gave the name 'Langolier' to the time-eating monsters).

No doubt future generations will look back at modern telly and film and point and laugh at Optimus Prime battling it out with Megatron, or the Doctor saving a red London bus from killer wasp-things, or the Enterprise escaping a burning planet as examples of extremely bad CGIness. Whatever we consider state-of-the-art now will be redundant in fifteen, ten, even five years' time with the never-ending march of technology. (Remember when DVDs were state-of-the-art? Nah, me either.) But I don't want them to look back and ask, "Why aren't they taking this seriously?" One thing you can never accuse the majority of old television of is not taking their effects seriously, from the space corridor of Doctor Who to the neon-suited aliens of UFO to the lizard people of V to whatever goes in The Outer Limits. They were real to them. They were real to their audience. And, to me, they're still a lot more real than some of the crap we're faced with today.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred foil the evil pepperpots' attempts to commandeer the black shiny box of bad CGI in order to invade the universe of the BBC studios - otherwise known as the Seventh Doctor and Remembrance of the Daleks.

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