When The Shit Hits The Fan

The Black Dog Podcast’s Lee Medcalf has one major bugbear when it comes to fandom; all of it. From his chair on GeekPlanetOnline’s front porch he likes to shake his walking stick and yell at the kids to get off his damned lawn; we’ve tried asking him to stop, but he has a nasty bite when riled…

So this week finds me in a weird place mentally. You see, without giving state secrets away, this week saw me start work on a project based around the latest incarnation of Batman in cartoon form.

Batman: The Brave & The Bold is as bonkers, a interpretation of the Dark Knight as I've ever seen, comprising of gleefully cheese-ball heroics, dry wit one liners, like Adam West's Batman hired Larry David to write for him, and finally some mental cosmic madness straight out of silver age DC. You know, the era, when Superman would, for random shits n' giggles, fight Muhammad Ali or discover his head has turned into an ant, that kind of thing. All of which is presented so heavily tongue in cheek that the tongue is practically poking out of the creator's ear.

And yet, even with Batman returning to his Bat-Shark Repellent days, the cartoon works and, if I may be so bold, works exceptionally well.

And it was after watching the sixth, as yet unaired, episode of this latest season, I suddenly realised. Where was the darkness? Where was the DARK Knight? The twisted vigilante, sent off the rails by the death of his parents? Why am I essentially watching a more capable version of The Tick, without shouting fan rage at the screen?

Then the real pertinent question occurred to me; Why does it have to be dark at all?

It's the perennial clarion call of any genre franchise's fan-base, used as some kind of stamp of quality, but I now have to wonder why on earth we as fans demand and laud above all else the fact that something is "dark" ?

I mean seriously, what is the obsession with things being "dark" and its companion descriptor "gritty"? What is it that these two descriptions do to a show, film series, comic, whatever that improves it so immeasurably that we, as fans demand it like drug addicts?

Personally, I blame Frank Miller. With the release of The Dark Knight Returns, Miller took Batman to the logical extremes of the character. It was a success, as we all know (and if not why not? Go read it now!) and in turn, along with Alan Moore's superlative Watchmen, comics became cool, renamed under the more publicly acceptable group moniker of "graphic novels".

Now, in my opinion, what made both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen popular and rightly successful was that they approached the medium in a more mature manner and were both blessed with some trail blazing, well-written narratives.

However, somewhere along the line, the message devolved from "It's great because it treats this material with maturity, great characterisation, interesting plot structure and some logical thought" to "It's great because it's dark, you see blood, tits, sex, ultra-violence and people properly die... It's GRITTY!"

Despite this change in appreciation for what made both of these titles and subsequent releases work, both The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and their progenitors sold well and gave the medium social acceptance. No longer were comics for the under 10s and shame-free over 30s, now comics *ahem* sorry, Graphic Novels were an appreciable art form anyone could enjoy. And for the layperson, the reason was due to a more mature, dark take on characters that they enjoyed when younger.

And since that brief moment of public acceptance in the late 80s/early 90s "dark" and "gritty" have become verbal short-hand key words that fans launch at members of the public who dare question why anyone at the age of 40 is still reading Green Lantern, watching Doctor Who, Star Trek or going to see Harry Potter in the cinema without kids in tow.

When confronted with the question about their viewing or reading habits we fans, myself included, will eventually fall back on the "It's dark" excuse as if that will somehow justify why, as a 39 year old man, I have a full-sized working lightsaber, a 5ft-high Clone Trooper cardboard standee and an Alien Queen model on my work desk.

And further still, this call for more darkness appears regularly on fan sites and forums. Especially when someone is trying to convince a non-fan of a series as to what could possibly lure them in to giving the show in question another try.

But in the end who are we really trying to convince with this need for darkness and grit in everything? Calls for shows such as The Sarah Jane Adventures to be darker, a show that even in its darkest moments is so light and fluffy that a gentle breeze could blow the images off the screen, are patently ridiculous. However, it does answer part of the puzzle in my mind, because after all in the case of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it's a show resolutely aimed at the ages of six to 10 and these fans calling for more grit in such a show are clearly wishing the show would tonally up age to something more acceptable for an adult to watch without shame.

And I have to say that my feelings now are, why must things be dark to be more acceptable?

Films such as Thor or the original Iron Man movie did little more than briefly dally with dark and gritty moments, mostly happy to keep their attitude light, breezy and in the case of Thor, camp as a row of scout huts. Yet neither film suffered any commercial ill-effects from being just a good old-fashioned romp.

Naturally there will be films that go too far the other way - yes, Batman & Robin I'm looking at you... AGAIN! - but overall, I think this obsession with dark and gritty should just get dropped. Because, things like Doctor Who don't have to be a time travelling equivalent of Sin City to improve them. Because when you do try to inject that universe with what fans consider dark and gritty, you end up with the first two seasons of Torchwood, a show which was one CGI dog away from being a brain dead, soft porn version of Scooby Doo.

Yet, in Torchwood's defence, when you make something with a level of restraint and maturity, not with the brain of a 14 year old tanked up on Red Bull about to watch a DVD marathon of Star Whores followed by all of the Friday the 13th movies, then you get something that is genuinely dark, disturbing and interesting such as the excellent mini series Children of Earth.

And that's the problem for me with this whole fascination with narrative darkness. Some fans clearly see it as legitimising their genre, by adding adult themes into something that to the outside world is considered childish or naive, but in truth it really doesn't. By shoe-horning swearing, violence and sex into something like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Superman, it amplifies the silliness of the core concept and makes them seem even more childish, like a kid pretending to smoke to look cool. Shows like Battlestar Galactica, and to a much lesser extent Babylon 5, get away with it because they're shows built around concepts and universes that are mature in tone from the first episode, before any boobs hit the screen or heads come flying off while the hero shouts "motherfucker!" at the top of his voice.

In the end, darkness can't just be applied like a patch, it should be gradually eked out of established situations and characters. As I already mentioned Torchwood: Children of Earth, took the Cardiff Scooby Gang led by Captain Scarlet, lover of show tunes, and told a genuinely disturbing tale, that fans had clearly been yearning for since the show premièred two years earlier, without having to have random shagging and the occasional exclamation of "Fuck!" every 10 minutes of running time.

But away from all this darkness, why not just be comfortable with light and fluffy or just bombastic and enjoyable? Not everything needs to be brooding and dark, the original series of Star Trek was like a Technicolor kaleidoscope viewed under a disco light, yet to this day it remains one of the best, and certainly most iconic, examples of good SF TV. Same goes for everyone's favourite timelord. In almost any interview with Stephen Moffat or Russell T Davies, there'll always be a reference to the show at some level being inherently fun and silly. So while episodes like Family of Blood or Blink are great little pockets of darkness in a generally light-hearted show, they tend to be dark within reason of the show's own constraints, not resorting to the Doctor descending into alcoholism or sexual debauchery just to make the show more edgy for older audiences.

So, let's just give it a try eh? Let's see if we can just accept that not every show, magazine or film franchise is going to be like Apocalypse Now and ignore the detractors. Lets step out of the dark and enter the light. You never know, it might actually be fun.




Lee Medcalf is currently writing a treatment for a dark and gritty reboot for The Care Bears.