Queer Eye For The SciFi

If you’re white, straight and male you’ve probably never stopped to think about diversity in genre entertainment; but if you don’t fit into that very specific box it can be a very important subject indeed. Peter MacKenzie examines representation and depiction of alternative cultures in geek entertainment, highlighting when it goes right and explaining why it’s a problem when it goes wrong…

As the hiatuses (that’s the right word – I checked) of the 2013-14 TV season start ending, and the shows start reappearing, it’s a good time to take stock and see what our favourite genre has given us in the last year. And, it’s fair to say, the pickings have been slim.

By far the biggest event of the autumn offerings was Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, an unambitious show that was spun off some little-known film series. And the trouble with that is that I’m not being completely facetious.

It should have been huge. I think we were expecting huge battles along the lines of the aforementioned movie series. Super heroes galore. Much trailed potential guest appearances from some of the biggest stars within town car distance of Los Angeles. A weekly dose of life on the helicarrier.

Sadly, it was not to be. Instead, our loyalty to the Marvel cinematic universe was rewarded with multiple episodes barely the right side of bottle shows. There were far too many cameos and throw-away lines about the bigger picture which jarred and annoyed rather than amused and enriched and, after the pilot, the Whedon Guide to Witty Banter seemed to be propping up the writers’ wobbly desks rather than sitting open on top of them.

And Clark Gregg’s reinterpretation of Agent Coulson as a mardy sod, rather than the comic relief he provided in the movies was not a good decision.

Ah, the lost potential.

On sturdier ground, The Tomorrow People is showing a lot of promise and is, surprisingly, staying oddly faithful to the original series… although I do seem to remember more aliens than is looking likely in this reboot. And a tongue-in-cheek reference to the word “jaunt” wouldn’t go amiss either.

Two other shows (namely The Originals and Once Upon A Time In Wonderland) are spin-offs of shows I haven’t watched in the first place so I probably won’t bother, certainly not with the former, as sexy vampires aren’t my thing. Which, incidentally, is also why we turned off Dracula less than five minutes in.

Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to the Fox adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain. But then, I’ve read the books and I don’t really think that the vampires there could be described, or portrayed, as “sexy”.

Funnily enough, the other half and I had been persuaded to give the original Once Upon A Time a try, so it’s possible we would have checked out its spin-off when it aired on UK television. Of course, at the time of writing, it has no UK broadcaster and Channel 5 have also dropped the parent series, which is entirely typical. That Ethernet cable we need to get for the TV is looking more and more like a necessity…

Much more promising was Sleepy Hollow, making up the last of the new batch of genre shows. The premise is, so far, tending towards the absurd, even for a fantasy show, wherein the headless horseman of the American myth is actually one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and his adversary Ichabod Crane is resurrected in the present day to fight him. Why, and by whom, aren’t exactly clear yet, but it does open up many possibilities of fish-out-of-water scenarios from both sides of the time gap. Modern characters show scorn for Ichabod’s tale, sometimes even in direct contradiction to their own witness, and Crane himself mocks how far we have – or rather haven’t – come. Morals and sides in this shadow war are often ambiguous, and certain characters do seem to act as if they know more than they do. It’s well written and acted, and was a delightful surprise in the schedules.

I did have one niggle, though.

In this very column, I’ve berated shows set in the past for being far more accepting of modern values than they should. The wonderfully romantic, but utterly implausible, dance and kiss between Captain Jack Harkness and his namesake in Torchwood series one springs immediately to mind.

And I was disappointed at first by a tendency towards the same in Sleepy Hollow. 250 year old Ichabod Crane – who has a lot to catch up on – has what many would consider to be some very 21st century views on feminism, racism and slavery despite coming from a full century before the Emancipation Proclamation. His main partner is a black woman, something which he took in his stride. The issue was actually briefly addressed onscreen with him showing surprise, but also some satisfaction, that the world was at least trying to be a better place

I was beginning to wonder just how PC the character would be, but I realised that having views against misogyny and racism should just be part of acting like a decent human being and an educated gentleman like himself would be more likely to hold more liberal views.

But how would he react to meeting someone gay?

I imagine the character, as portrayed with wit and empathy by Tom Mison, would be just as blasé. And somewhere in my mind, despite this not actually happening yet onscreen, I thought of this as wrong. Having grown up in the latter part of the twentieth century, it seems odd to imagine that there was anything other than homophobic prejudice and discrimination at all times before that.

It became almost illogical to believe that there may have been a more enlightened acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the past which was then quashed by a more puritanical society that clamped down on it and its public expression. Unfortunately, though, this is almost certainly the case.

In the real world, the views of Victorian society, which almost certainly were fed down from Victoria herself, were very intolerant of pretty much anything away from the perceived norm and a strict code of conduct arose, which was both informal and legislated for.

This is, however, entirely contradictory to the views of many individuals of the era, a phenomenon which was very well demonstrated by the BBC drama Ripper Street, particularly in the episode when DI Reid and his team entered a clandestine Molly House during their investigation into a mysterious cholera outbreak and showed complete disinterest in what was going on, just wanting the facts pertaining to their own enquiries.

Even the shallowest research shows that, anecdotally at least, there was a general acceptance of homosexuality and even other third gender matters within London’s East End and beyond, a fact that is validated by that wonderful man, Rifleman Richard Sharpe, who was born and bred in the docks of East London. (Apparently his Yorkshire accent is due to time spent there when he ran away after killing a man. True story.)

One of Sharpe’s many nemeses is Lord Pumphrey, who appears in a couple of the chronologically earlier books. Openly homosexual, he quite clearly fancies the salt of the earth officer who simply shrugs it off. In Bernard Cornwell’s own words… “I’m sure Sharpe wouldn’t care.”

Even the idea of Lord Pumphrey himself being openly gay made me wince, but the idea of hiding in plain sight has been suggested as a strategy for many people through the centuries. Initially you might think it preposterous, but let me throw a few other names into the mix…

Liberace. Elton John. Freddie Mercury. George Michael…

So, it becomes actually highly possible, if not probable, that our Ichabod Crane would be fully accepting of a gay character within the narrative of Sleepy Hollow. Although buggery laws had been in force in England since Cromwellian times, his own educated, liberal views, coupled with the fact that a Victorian clampdown was still a century away from his own viewpoint of time, would ensure that there would be some real-world truth in his acceptance.

It’s just a shame that, ironically, his present day colleagues would be less likely to be so…