Friday, 28 May 2010

Inner Sight / Outer Space: Some ideas on the opening of Serenity

The following was originally written for the first issue of an online journal that asked various academics for 1000 word pieces that analysed the opening sequence of a film. Unfortunately, the journal was never published, and I was left with the two pieces I had written. I had hoped to reuse this piece, on the opening ten minutes of Joss Whedon's Serenity, in the book I'm currently writing (Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction) but I've had to cut it for reasons of length. Rather than consign it to the recycle bin again, I thought I'd present it here instead:


The opening sequence of Serenity features four linked scenes where, I would argue, visual revelations that are intended to mislead the viewer also illuminate core themes: the uncertainty of vision, and the illusion of seeing (or, rather, the illusion of what is shown). The four scenes are a prologue about a future space Diaspora, our introduction to a young girl called River, an adult River being rescued from a medical laboratory by her brother, Simon, and the mysterious ‘Operative’ viewing footage of their escape. While this description suggests the narrative progression (and relevance) of the scenes, reducing this sequence to its expository function overlooks their deeper function: raising uncertainty over what we are watching, and questioning how much faith or trust we can place in the images presented to us.

The first sign of the film’s larger themes comes when a standard science fiction image (a planet, hanging in space) blinks twice, before being dissected by a white line. The image pulls back to reveal we are no longer ‘in’ outer space, but viewing a computer program that displays a circular star chart, planets radiating out from a central sun. We ‘pull back’ further and the computer is an oval screen set into a classroom wall – the visual motif of circles within circles and oval / eye-shaped apertures recurs throughout – where a female teacher talks to a class of young children. Here, the term ‘pulling back’ does not define a specific camera movement, but a moment of spatial (and temporal) dislocation – from an outer space vista to a computer screen, from the screen to the classroom. In this circular room (with its ovular entrances) we meet River, who challenges the teacher’s view of the galactic Alliance. As the teacher leans forward, apparently to strike River, the film cuts to an older River, in a medical lab. The visual match between the teacher’s thrusting finger and the large needle sticking out of River’s forehead links the scenes, but the edit offers another ‘pull back’, from the inner (subjective) space of River’s mind to this (seemingly objective) view of the laboratory. As if to confirm, or underline this, a lab technician comments: ‘She’s dreaming…off the chart. Scary monsters.’

The sequence of cuts that pull the viewer back, into new scenes, allows us to question the validity of what we are seeing. The film deceives its audience with each new scene, forcing us to question the visual narrative being constructed. How reliable is the information we are being given? Was everything we watched a dream, or memory? The classroom was shot in natural colours, while the laboratory is tinted blue with deep shadows – is this more nightmarish location the reality? A doctor suggests River cannot perceive between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’: ‘The neural stripping does tend to fragment their own reality matrix.’ The viewer’s reality matrix is also fragmented, as we remain unsure whether the visions / images we’ve been offered by the film are objective or subjective, whether we can place our trust in them or not. River is being monitored by banks of instruments – are they the source of the previous images? Were we truly seeing River’s internal thoughts?

This confusion only deepens during Simon’s rescue attempt. Over an image of them, about to escape, an unseen male voice commands the film to ‘Stop… backtrack… stop’. The images obey the orders – first reversing, then freezing River’s face, its blue tint fading into sepia tones. A male face (the Operative) appears ‘through’ this image of River, rippling and briefly combining with it before solidifying. Once again, the film ‘pulls back’, switching to a new spatial location and undermining the reliability of the previous image (and, by association, all the preceding imagery). In this new sparse blue-grey room, the figures of Simon and River hang in the air, now a holographic representation of the event rather than the event itself: the use of sepia reduces the image to the status of old photographs, another call to memory, present tense becoming past.

Again the film challenges our understanding of the image – our ‘reality matrix’ is revealed to be technological, a CCTV recording that can be rewound and frozen at will. By placing directorial control of the image at the hands of the Operative, the series of ‘pull backs’ is finally narrativised as it becomes clear we have been returning to this place, this present tense. With his ability to rewind time, and to displace River (by physically inhabiting the space on screen that she occupied) the Operative is presented as omnipotent, a godlike figure. His control over imagery, so potent here, is contrasted in the film with Mr. Universe, a supporting character who collects and intercepts all visual information in the galaxy. Unlike the Operative, however, Mr. Universe remains neutral – he believes in the power of ‘the signal’, while the Operative believes in the power of secrets – access versus restriction, freedom versus control.

This final scene between the Operative and the doctor is expository, but it continues to play with notions of access and vision. The scene literally revolves around the frozen image of River and Simon, while an echo of the oval / eye theme can be found in the set design for the room. Almost circular in shape, it has a large circle in the ceiling that houses the holographic projector: if the room is an all-seeing eye, this is its pupil. The previous references to eyes, or vision, combine in this scene – like the star chart’s concentric circles, the characters all revolve around River; the doctor’s confusion that he can ‘see no listing of rank or name’ demonstrates his blindness to the Operative’s power over vision; looking into Simon’s (holographic) eyes reveals his love for River; and vision is revealed as the film’s MacGuffin – what did the psychic River ‘see’ in the minds of the powerful government officials who came to inspect her? These themes of vision and visual uncertainty develop through Serenity’s running time, but they are established here in this first sequence.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Afterthought: trailers and transmedia

A couple of days after I published my last blog post on The Wombles (and its potential as an early example of British transmedia storytelling), one of my students asked me about the narrative content of recent franchise teaser trailers (specifically Star Trek (2009) and Transformers (2007), arguing that they should be seen as transmedia storytelling extensions. The trailers, for those who haven't seen them, feature the construction of the Starship Enterprise, and the destruction of the 2003 Beagle probe to Mars by a Transformer. The argument here would be that these 'prologue' teasers extend the film narrative by introducing essential story elements ahead of the main feature.

I mention this here, partly because it might expand the discussion of transmedia storytelling, but also because in my recent book (Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology) I, quite deliberately, stopped short of claiming any transmedia element for trailer narratives. The reasons for that were mainly: 1. This would have taken place in my chapter on the Internet and I remain unconvinced that transmedia is a purely computer-based innovation; and 2. I think there is an issue around the 'trans' element of transmedia in such cases.

So, given its been two years since I completed the book, have I changed my mind on the nature of trailers and transmedia?

My earlier concern around transmedia as something unique to (or created by) a computer-based system remains strong. My first reaction to my student was whether there was anything 'new' about using trailers as story extensions: Hitchcock's Rope (1948) trailer features a scene that takes place before the murder (that motivates the rest of the film); another Hitchcock trailer The Trouble With Harry (1955) offers a mock-travelogue of the New England setting for the film; a more recent example might be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) trailer, which featured the Guide (voiced by Stephen Fry) explaining what a movie trailer was, but also operating as a gateway into the humour of Douglas Adams' 'universe.' While the examples of Star Trek and Transformers fit within this tradition, are they doing anything different from 50/60 years ago? Are they anything other than prologues to an existing narrative rather than an extension of that narrative across different media?

And this links to my second concern, which relates to Henry Jenkins' note that 'each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story' and that the serial nature of transmedia narratives involves dispersing story information across 'multiple media systems' (

These prologues do seem to fit within that definition. But it raises the larger question of whether a trailer is a medium in its own right.

Because if we regard the trailer in the same light as the film it is advertising, then surely they belong in the same medium? My work on the trailer considered film, television, video, and Internet trailers (i.e. trailers that were produced for one specific medium) and, despite some medium-specific aesthetic and structural differences, they were all recognisably 'trailers.' Given the film trailer created that template, would we want to claim that film and Internet trailers belong to different media - when, in fact, the main media difference might simply be one of dissemination method?

Personally, I love trailers, think they are endlessly fascinating texts to watch and study, and am happy to claim that the trailer is a unique audio-visual format - there was nothing like it in existence before the 1910s, and despite links to elements of poster and fan magazines, its style and structure (its poetics, if you like) are distinct and unique.

But do I think the trailer is a new and unique medium? No, which means I remain unconvinced that they operate within the transmedia storytelling tradition identified by Jenkins. If the film trailer and the feature film (whether seen in a cinema, on DVD or via a computer) belong to the same medium, then can they be regarded as transmedia?

However, as my student has gone away, intent on proving their case, we will no doubt return to the debate over the next few months...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Was The Wombles a transmedia narrative?

To celebrate / note the publication of my article 'Underground, Overground: Remembering The Wombles' (in Sue Harper/Laurel Forster's great new book British Culture in the 1970s: The Lost Decade), I was reminded of a particular theoretical link I didn't have time to pursue in this piece -one that has become more relevant given recent teaching and research I've been working on.

Henry Jenkins' work on 'transmedia storytelling' and its influence on current Hollywood narratives was a central (and popular) topic in my recent module 'Film, Television and New Media': in the lecture, I used Superman as a challenge to Jenkins' new media focus, exploring how the narrative development of that universe took place across various 1940s media (most notably comic books, radio shows, animated shorts and serials). I used an American example mainly due to Jenkins' largely U.S. focus, but my work on The Wombles did seem to point to an early British experiment (though possibly not an intentional one) in this kind of cross-media narrative techniques.

For those unfamiliar with the theory, Jenkins recently posted an updated definition. Transmedia storytelling is 'a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.' ( This is (arguably) distinct from branding or merchandising, which often has little narrative impact (for example, a Wombles bedspread or lampshade has no direct narrative relationship with the main 'universe'); and also from adaptation, which makes minimal changes to the original text.

Applying this theory to The Wombles, an earlier (non-internet) example, may not in itself be unique, but given the Hollywood-centric focus of debates around transmedia, it does offer a useful examination of whether British television producers of the 1960s and 70s were able to think about, and exploit, multiple media narratives.

To establish whether The Wombles was a transmedia experience, we should start with the basics. The Wombles' animated television series was based on a series of books by Elizabeth Beresford that featured the litter-collecting, waste-recycling Wombles of Wimbledon Common in adventures both domestic and international. The character line-up remained constant across all formats: six male Wombles (the elders Great Uncle Bulgaria and Tobermory; the four youngsters Orinoco, Wellington, Tomsk and Bungo), one female Womble (Madame Cholet, a French emigre) and occasional guest Wombles (such as Cairngorm MacWomble the Terrible, a Scottish visitor). All the Wombles live in underground burrows, and their 'job' is to collect all the litter that humans leave behind, recycling and reusing it in a variety of ingenious ways.

The TV series (which ran on the BBC 1973-74, with stop motion animation by FilmFair, voices by Bernard Cribbins, and music by Mike Batt) was, however, more than just an adaptation. Most of the stories were set in the same 'universe' as the books, but were new adventures designed for the short four minute animated format. So, immediately, we could argue that the animated shows were a transmedia extension of an existing universe.

Jenkins claims that 'integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels': The Wombles, in both book and television series, stress similar narrative elements, and the re-release of the book series with new covers featuring the FilmFair/BBC Womble designs could, arguably, create the 'unique and coordinated entertainment experience.' The television series also gave the Wombles individual personalities, voices and character designs: again, expanding the universe created by Beresford.

The notion of a systematic delivery across multiple channels grew from this promising starting point: first, BBC Enterprises (a relatively new arm of the corporation), FilmFair and Wombles Inc. (Beresford's company) reached an agreement over merchandising rights that saw multiple Wombles product in stores from 1973 on. While most of these products would count as branding rather than transmedia extensions, there was one major element that caused a transformation in the Wombles universe: music.

Composer Mike Batt (creator of the TV show theme tune) received permission to write more songs about the Wombles. Over the course of three years, he produced over thirty Wombles songs that expanded the Wombles universe in new and unseen directions. Expanding out from the Beresford and BBC verions, Batt painted a wider Womble universe and added depth to existing characters. There were French, Chinese and American Wombles. Wombles in Space. Wombles throughout history. Wombles in every genre of music possible. Batt gave Orinoco and Wellington dreams and ambitions (to be cowboys, super-Wombles), and wrote in a backstory for Great Uncle Bulgaria that included meeting Mozart. By crossing into this new media of pop songs, the Wombles became a band capable of achieveing top ten hits and featuring on Top of the Pops. The Wombles' universe was no more complex and varied, while the Wombles themselves were minor cross-media celebrities, appearing in government sponsored campaigns to 'Keep Britain Tidy', on the Eurovision Song Contest, and finally (in 1977) a feature film Wombling Free (which borrowed from, and expanded, on all previous iterations).

While there may not (yet) be an online ARG, or Wombles slash fiction (oh god, I hope that doesn't given anyone ideas), The Wombles influence is not strictly limited to these media, or to the 1970s. The Queen Mother had a Womble marching band during the parade for her 100th birthday, while more recently the Wombles were used to demand more British children's programming on television. Books, television, pop music, films, personal appearances (I haven't even begun to mention the 6-foot tall Womble costumes that popped up at fairs and fetes across the country in the mid-70s) and political campaigning? While there may be issues around a central cohesive force controlling this univerise, I think there is more than enough here to claim The Wombles as an early British experiment in cross-, or trans-, media narratives.