Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Textual and the Intertextual

Are Best Dramatic Presentations celebrated too much for their context, rather than on their text?

In 2018, Westworld’s second season was lifeless, but for those who waded through the robotic acting and pedestrian plotting, the eighth episode of the season “Kiksuya” stood alone as an exploration of loss, grief, and cultural genocide. Kiksuya’s text was excellent, the context sub-par.

Fuelled by nostalgia and avarice, X-Files returned to television screens in 2016 with two new seasons that have been described as bewildering, threadbare, and out-of-touch. But amidst a morass of repetitive and pointless episodes, writer-director Darin Morgan managed to craft a near-perfect parable about the fallibility of human memory with his one-off episode “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat.” Again, an excellent text is found in a sub-par context.
One of the weirder episodes of X-Files
aired in 2016, and was better than
anything the show had delivered
in several seasons.
(Image via

If an audience had still been paying attention to The X-Files or Westworld, one of those episodes might have garnered awards attention. Conversely, it is hard to imagine works like Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or “The Family Of Blood” being recognized on their own merits rather than on the strength of the series of which they were a part.

Which raises the question of whether the Hugos for Best Dramatic Presentation are awarded based on the textual or on the intertextual. In essence, many dramatic presentations seem to serve as avatars of their respective Cinematic Universes, rather than being judged strictly on what is in that individual episode or film.

This leads to many excellent one-off works being overlooked in favour of run-of-the-mill entries of popular franchises. With the benefit of hindsight, is Dr. Who’s “Planet Of The Dead” really better than Misfits “Episode Six,” or Sarah Connor Chronicles’ “Adam Raised A Cain”? In our eyes, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Of all TV series, Dr. Who might mean the most to fandom overall because of the weight of 50 years of goodwill built up by stories like "Blink", "Fury From The Deep", "Delta and the Bannerman", and "The Happiness Patrol". It is understandable then, that there is a block of voters for whom Dr. Who will always be on their nominating ballot, because it is first considered on the basis of being Dr. Who, rather than being assessed as whether or not it is absolutely the most sterling example of science fiction.

We would suggest that two of the most egregious examples of honouring a work based on associations that have little to do with the work itself were on the ballot just last year. These were the cacophonous mcguffin quest Avengers: Infinity War and the execrable and racist Batman film that made the Retro Hugo ballot. Batman is clearly a popular franchise with a strong fanbase, but we highly doubt that most Hugo nominators had actually seen the character’s first foray into cinema. Avengers: Infinity War is three hours of visual noise that capitalized on the good will generated by 10 years of good MCU movies.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(image via

We have previously argued that annual awards are in some ways the ‘first draft’ of the cultural canon. The shortlisted works are often the standard by which science fiction is judged, and are an important vehicle for continued rediscovery of classic works by future SF fans. With this in mind, imagine how mystifying Avengers: Infinity War might be to someone who watches it 40 years from now, and experiences it without the context of 18 previous movies: Steve Rogers’ reunion with Bucky would fall flat; Peter Parker’s death would be stripped of impact; the revelation that The Red Skull is guarding an Infinity Gem would have little resonance.

In terms of directing, let’s compare the movie that built the emotional weight of Gamora’s relationships to the other characters (Guardians of the Galaxy) with the movie that offers us the “payoff” (Avengers: Infinity War). GoG’s directing provides some thoughtful and interesting camera work (remember those amazing opening shots of a tiny figure dancing in the ruins of an ancient civilisation?), at every turn Infinity War’s directors offer pedestrian tried-and-true techniques like snap-zooms on falling figures and jerky camera work for fights. More importantly, major moments in Avengers: Infinity War (such as the death of Gamora) aren’t meaningful unless the viewer assesses them with knowledge of texts other than Avengers: Infinity War.

In December, the New York Times’ published a list of what they considered the best individual episodes of television to have aired in 2019 — its an interesting list with a lot of hidden gems in it (including a reminder that in an otherwise critically scorned season, Game Of Thrones turned in one excellent episode). Tellingly, there’s very little overlap with a separate article published a few days earlier in which the same critics had selected their list of the best overall series to have aired in 2019. Perhaps it is worth recognizing that there is a difference between what is a ‘best series,’ and ‘best individual episode.’

Some might suggest reorganizing the Best Dramatic Presentation categories into ‘Best Series,’ ‘Best Episode,’ and ‘Best Movie’ … but this risks both adding to the confusion, and could exacerbate the already unmanageable amount of media consumption needed to make informed choices as a Hugo voter.

As with many aspects of Hugo Award voting, we suspect that more discussion of these systemic biases is the way to address these issues.

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