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Three Cheers for Verisimilitude July 25, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Television.

Back in the 1990s, there was a wonderful TV show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. Its premise was that a mad scientist had kidnapped an ordinary working Joe and imprisoned him on a spaceship with three robots. The captives were forced to watch terrible sci-fi movies, their wisecracks during these stinkeroos being the whole point of the show. The theme song closed, “If you wonder how they eat and breathe, and other science facts / repeat to yourself, it’s just a show, you should really just relax.”

This is a good motto for lovers of science fiction and science fantasy in dealing with the visual media. Movies and TV shows have only a brief while to tell you an entertaining story. Long digressions to improve verisimilitude (similarity to “real life”) might make the novel or short story more believable, but in dramas they serve only to impede the “flow.” It would be like getting onto a roller coaster and stopping the car halfway down the first dip to explain that roller coasters are scientifically designed to be safe, so the park will stay out of the headlines.

So I don’t stop to ask why the united bad guys of the Universe would design a prison for the Doctor that would not only revive the “mostly dead” who were placed inside, but also revive the completely dead who were in line of sight of the prison’s open door. (Shouldn’t the bad guys want the good guys to stay dead?) I just relax.

So there are shows whose “science facts,” or lack there of, I just let slide. Doctor Who, and its spinoff Torchwood, for example, are strictly science fantasy. Utterly impossible in “the real world,” but so charming! (I do wonder, however, why no one in, say, 1941 London or 1580 Venice, or even 2015 Upper Leadworth, ever said to Amy Pond, “Put some clothes on!”)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel were also science fantasy; but, like Doctor Who, internally consistent; these shows obey the “rules” of the version of reality they present, or in other words, they have verisimilitude. On Being Human, who cares if there’s no such thing as ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves? Being Human has verisimilitude, a consistent set of “science rules” the series never departs from.

But then there are shows I simply cannot watch, be they never so charming to others, because they have completely lost track of what little verisimilitude they pretend to. The New Adventures Robin Hood, for example, has little to do with the medieval myth beyond a few of the characters’ names, and nothing whatsoever to do with actual real-world history. Xena, Warrior Princess had zero to do with the myths, legends, or actual history of whatever era it pretended it was set in (Socrates-era Greece, I gather); on the one episode I forced myself to sit through, characters from 60 BCE, 900 BCE, and 400 CE rubbed elbows, all of them talking 20th-century English to each other out of a 20th-century zeitgeist and a 20th-century weltanschauung.

Hercules. Merlin. Jekyll. Primeval. I’m sorry, guys, you’re just going to ignore any fact you find inconvenient, thereby infuriating me with your contempt for my intelligence and hard-won education. Maid Marian was not a liberated woman morally and culturally indistinguishable from Gloria Steinem. Flying dinosaurs would not make cute pets. People were NOT open-minded, liberated, socially conscientious marvels in 1963, or 1947, or 1864, or 1215, or 1000 BCE, who would never dream of treating a black, a woman, a Jew, or a “furriner” with disrespect.

I have much the same problem with the various versions of Star Trek, although I’ve seen them all. (I fell in love with Mr. Spock at a formative age.) I think the J.J. Abrams reboot of 2009 was brilliant, and I hope to see more from him. But that being said, no version of Star Trek has ever shown us aliens who were genuinely alien. I remember one scene where a man on Voyager had been sharing a meal with an alien male. As our hero rose from the table, he gave a friendly clap on the shoulder to the alien. If I had been that alien, I might have ripped off our hero’s arm and beaten him to death with it for the deadly insult to my value system — but on TV, the alien reacted just as if he’d been a modern human from Los Angeles.

I’ve never watched Mad Men, the hugely popular, award-winning series set in the 1960s. I lived through the 1960s. Either the series is historically accurate, which would make me feel both sad and antiquated, or (which I think far more likely) it is stuffed with teensy, negligible historical inaccuracies that few other than myself would care about — the wrong brands of shampoo and hair gel, for example, or slang from a year or two later than the year the show is set in. This would make me feel sad, antiquated, and annoyed.

It was much the same for That ’70s Show. I watched the first 10 minutes of the first episode, and remember two instances of 1990s slang and one instance of “hell no, she would never have done that in 19 bleeping 70!” It’s a comedy, I know. I “should really just relax,” I know. But shows like That ’70s Show / That ’80s Show / Happy Days / Laverne & Shirley / etc. offer viewers a perverted version of a reality I knew firsthand, prettied up and made politically correct for modern tastes and transformed to dramatize modern concerns. To distort my memories and imply your version is accurate is to insult me.

And then there are shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Warehouse 13, and even Haven, that I really want to like. I do. But they spit on verisimilitude, these shows. They invent myths, legends, and various forms of magic and the supernatural, and these shows aren’t even internally consistent, much less episode-to-episode. They make up lies about Native American myths, Creole myths, Hindu myths, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll, magic, extraordinary powers, whatever . . . and then next week those inventions are usually forgotten, and it’s on to the next perversion. “The scary monster is on its way? Oh, that was last week — never mind, there is no scary monster any more.”

I’m sorry. I just don’t like it when they hand me a crap sandwich and tell me it’s lobster thermidore.

This is what’s making me both delighted and nervous about the reboot of Eureka. Eureka is a science fantasy show, and I went into it fully expecting to dislike it. (Historically, the movies and TV have not done well by dramas depicting intelligent people.)

Its first three seasons, Eureka rated a B-plus for me. This year’s reboot has turned it into a solid A, appointment television. The only reason I watch Haven is that it airs between the new episode of Eureka at 9 p.m. and the repeat of the same episode at 11 p.m., and my husband is tired of How It’s Made reruns. Haven claims to be based on a Stephen King story, but I notice that no one is bothering to reissue the Stephen King story to boost ratings, which makes me think the story must be as much of an anti-verisimi­li­tude stinkeroo as the TV show.

The writers of Eureka (follow EurekaWriters on Twitter!) had a brilliant idea. They sent five of the principal characters on the show back in time to 1947, to the founding of Camp Eureka as a quasi-Army facility. This was made possible by one of the supergenius founders of Eureka, a smart-as-Einstein fellow who built a time machine in 1947 but in the original timeline could never get enough power to make it work. Getting the time machine to work fell to an autistic teenager in 2010.

(Isn’t the idea quaint that supergeniuses were so valued immediately after World War II that the government would build a secret town just for them? In 2010 we’re supposed to think that Joe the Plumber is as deep as Nietszche and tax cuts for the wealthy are more important than jobs for the jobless or school lunches for the starving.)

Eventually, our heroes managed to return to 2010, and they brought the founding supergenius, Trevor Grant, with them. Our heroes returned to a reality that is mysteriously unchanged in most respects, and dramatically different in a few. The autistic teenager is now happy and normal. A couple that had been on the point of becoming engaged isn’t even a couple. A confirmed bachelor is now married.

For the most part, I wholeheartedly approve. I’m delighted the “synthetic colleague” Andy is back, now demoted to deputy. I’m glad Jo got a big promotion; it means we’ll be seeing more of her. I like Henry’s new wife. I like that Jack broke up with Tess, so that he can return to pursuing Alison.

The “reboot” offers all sorts of options for new directions for the show. Deputy Andy will be able to fill our heroes in on differences in their new timeline. Jo will try to reclaim what she had with Zane, and dramatic complications will ensue. I’m a little dubious about making a loser like Fargo into the Big Kahuna (what could a plausible backstory possibly be?), but I’m sure fun and frolic are in store.

But having Trevor Grant, a man from 1947, now living in 2010, makes me very, very nervous. I’m terrified that he is NOT going to be a man from 1947 trying to make sense of 2010, but instead will be just another man from 2010 who says “sport” and “gams” and “She’s a peach” instead of “fo’ shizzle.”

For one thing, the first two episodes depicted Grant as smoking filtered cigarettes. Cigarette filters were invented in the late 1920s, but they were considered a “specialty” item until 1954, because most manufacturers didn’t consider the expensive machinery a necessity. In 1954, following a rash of announcements about the possible health effects of tobacco, filters began to come into more general use because they were “safer,” but it was the 1960s before they were easier to find than non-filtered.

Eureka depicts Grant as a man wildly ahead of his time, so perhaps he would have gone to the trouble of finding a ritzy tobacconist and special-ordering his cigarettes. Myself, I think he would simply have used a cigarette holder, but I’m willing to “just relax” and let the quibble slide.

But couldn’t James Callis, the actor who portrays Grant, have gone to the trouble of watching a slew of ’40s movies so he could get that distinctive faux-genteel quack into his voice? At least for the first few episodes, Trevor Grant ought to sound like Don Ameche, Fred MacMurray, or Lew Ayers. William Powell, Humphrey Bogart. Callis delivers the lines just fine, but his voice is strictly 2010.

To my way of thinking, Trevor Grant ought to have a moustache, like other late-’40s intellectuals, and to use the sort of hair products my husband (who remembers 1947!) calls “goose grease.” He ought to have been wearing a long coat and full-cut clothing, fashion’s reaction to the scarcities and rationing of World War II. If he were really daring and on the cutting edge of fashion, he should have been wearing a Hawaiian or “Carisca” shirt, first popular on the beaches of California and Florida in 1946 and 1947.

In the interests of political correctness, the Eureka writers have also put some remarkably stupid lines into Trevor Grant’s mouth. For example, after Alison saves a man’s life with her “nursing” skills in 1947, Grant, born around 1908, asks her why she’s not a physician. Hello? Not merely a female, but a black female, in 1947? Isn’t the answer screamingly obvious? Why is a Muslim not president of the 911 Foundation?

In 1947, Grant looks at a strange artifact the same size and shape as a small cigarette case and comments, “I think it’s some sort of communication device.” Why, when it didn’t even have an antenna? I would have had him say “Maybe it’s for business cards.” Or maybe it’s the Doctor’s psychic paper, or a teensy Etch-a-Sketch. (Oops, no, the Etch-a-Sketch was invented in 1959.)

Jack Carter tells Grant admiringly “You rule!”, and this man from 1947 accepts slang introduced in the 1980s or ’90s without a blink.

1947 was the year Truman first propounded the Truman Doctrine. That year Truman also began having the FBI investigate prominent people suspected of ties to communism. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (to which Grant would surely have subscribed) introduced a Doomsday Clock, showing that in 7 metaphorical minutes World War III would turn the world into nuclear Armageddon. Burmese nationalist Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated. Britain created Pakistan as a new nation. The “Hollywood Blacklist” of Commie sympathizers was first compiled. Chuck Yeager, age 24, broke the sound barrier. The AK-47 was invented. A novelist was elected president of Venezuela by an overwhelming majority.

On July 27, 1947, President Truman risked his entire political future by asserting forcefully in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial that the U.S. Constitution considers black people just as worthy of civil rights as white people. A year later, Truman desegregated the U.S. military by executive order, and no yammering of protest was heard by non-military who were concerned about how hurt the feelings of military bigots would be.

In 1947, the CIA was invented. Henry Ford’s death made the Ford Foundation the wealthiest philanthropic organization in history. George C. Marshall proposed his famous Plan. Howard Hughes’s “Spruce Goose,” built at a cost to taxpayers of $23 million ($219 million in 2009 dollars), took its first and only flight. Scientists were amazed to discover that bacteria reproduce sexually. A Bedouin boy who was farting around at Qumran stumbled across the Dead Sea Scrolls. There was an epidemic of an incurable disease called polio. The Polaroid Land Camera was invented, producing a sepia image in 60 seconds. Marlon Brando, age 23, wowed Broadway audiences as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life debuted on the radio. Miracle on 34th Street debuted. Brigadoon was the popular musical. Christian Dior introduced his famous “New Look.” The Harley-Davidson company began selling black leather motorcycle jackets.

On June 14, 1947, a farmer found a strange collection of artifacts in Roswell, New Mexico.  Ajax cleanser was introduced. 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth Windsor married her Greek cousin, Philip Mountbatten. Al Capone died of syphillis. Levittown opened on Long Island. London endured its worst “pea-soup” fog. Pittsburgh’s air was so thick with smog that streetlights had to be left on even at midday in nice weather. Everglades National Park was established by act of Congress. The first commercial microwave oven was introduced (with close-to-inedible results). Tupperware was introduced. Monosodium glutamate was introduced and called “Ac’cent.” The minimum wage was 40 cents per hour. The Dow ended 1947 at 181.16.

Of course all these 1947 factoids are largely irrelevant to you and me (although some of them fascinate me!). But they would have been current events to Trevor Grant. His character ought to have been fascinated by the Doomsday Clock, by microwaves, by sexy bacteria, by the first Polaroid, by the breaking of the sound barrier. One of the first questions out of his mouth ought to have been, “Were we really visited by aliens at Roswell?” Or, even better: “Is G’Kar still alive?”

Instead, this man born in 1908 (assuming that Grant, like Callis, recently turned 39) finds himself in 2010, with no birth certificate, no Social Security number, no driver’s license, no school records, no dental records, and no knowledge of history between 1947 and 2010. No knowledge of TV or the Internet as cultural phenomena. Does he race for the nearest library, to catch up on 63 years of history and technological progress? No, he picks up a technobabbulator and dives right in to 2010.

If not a fish out of water, Trevor Grant is a man wildly outside his own time. As Dr. McCoy said of a man from 1930, Grant, compared with you and me (and forget Eureka!), is back with the stone knives and bearskins. And yet, he seems poised to become an expert with all of Eureka’s technobabbulators without even one or two episodes of culture shock.

I love Eureka. I think the reboot is brilliant. It solves some problems for the writers, it opens up roadblocks, and it spins every character into a new arc. But I am worried that the character of Trevor Grant will be as true to 1947 as the character of Xena was true to the genuine, real-world 500 BCE, or whenever it was she was supposed to have been a princess.

Which would dismay me. I’d like to see a season-long arc where Trevor Grant learns how to fake being a man of 2010, while still providing the perspective of 63 years. Much has improved since 2010, especially in terms of technology, women’s rights, black civil rights. We no longer live in fear of the Red Menace; nuclear Armageddon does not quiver on the could-be-tomorrow horizon.

But what have we lost since 1947? What will Trevor Grant miss the most about never being able to go home again? The home cooking? Spam? The innocence of small-town life? Being able to leave your car keys in the ignition and your car unlocked and walk away light-heartedly? Vivian Leigh?

Please, Eureka writers: Keep verisimilitude in mind as you tell your stories. Don’t make Trevor Grant a man of 2010 who says “sport” and “peach” as the only evidence that he’s supposed to be from 1947.



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