It’s Culture, Jim, but…
I may just be a grumpy old man, but it does seem to me that many aspects of popular culture are becoming more, well, disappointing. Or perhaps it’s just that our expectations are constantly being ramped up by the media, in which case my problem may be more with the reviewers than with what they’re reviewing.
I’ll try to make my case through two genres: Detective Fiction, and Star Trek films. I’ve been a lover of Detective Fiction for over 40 years, and I use the term ‘detective’ advisedly, to separate this sub-genre from the much wider (and currently more critically acceptable) genre of ‘crime’ fiction. For me, Detective Fiction is about the solving of puzzles (crimes) within a dramatic framework, while Crime Fiction is more concerned with psychological dissection. The locus classicus would be Ruth Rendell’s splitting of her authorial personality in two, with the procedural Inspector Wexford novels under her own name, while her series of psychological studies, which are much more about why a crime was committed than how, were initially published under the pen name of Barbara Vine.
In the last month I’ve read two new examples of Detective Fiction which, for wider reasons, have been very high profile. First was the third novel in the Cormoran Strike series, ‘Career of Evil’, published under the pen name Robert Galbraith but written, of course, by the incredibly prolific J K Rowling. Rather to my surprise, I had really enjoyed the first two Galbraith novels. There was something pleasingly old fashioned about them, and the writing seemed much more accomplished than in the Harry Potter series, where I’ve always found the prose rather leaden. So I approached this third outing with real anticipation, and was seriously underwhelmed. It was far, far too long and repetitive (admittedly a common Rowling failing), but in trying to take us into the mind of a serial killer, obsessed with dismembering young women, it was following a wearily well-trodden path (in books, movies and TV dramas), and a distasteful one at that. Worst of all, for much of its length, it was simply dull.
By now the whole literary/reading world is familiar with the Rowling/Galbraith phenomenon. My next read has, however, has excited much more media interest and anticipation than did the third volume of a well-established series, because ‘The Monogram Murders’ is the first new novel ever to be formally approved by Agatha Christie’s estate, and therefore the first ‘proper’ Hercule Poirot story since Christie’s death. Now, I was looking forward to this for two reasons: first, I’d greatly enjoyed the two similarly ‘authorised’ Sherlock Holmes novels by Anthony Horowitz, and second, the author chosen to resurrect Poirot was Sophie Hannah, a critically acclaimed (and also prolific) writer of Crime Fiction, whom I’d once seen talking very interestingly about her work at the Nairn Book and Arts Festival.
This was a much bigger disappointment than the Galbraith. For anyone at all familiar with Poirot’s character, there were wrong notes from the outset, but the premise was sufficiently intriguing to keep me reading. But the last third of the book was a remarkably tedious slog through increasingly convoluted explanations of a literally incredible plot. Some of Christie’s original Poirot novels, in their entirety, are shorter than the many pages it took Hannah to unravel this farrago. Maybe that’s what happens when a ‘crime’ writer turns to classic ‘detective’fiction.
What these two books have in common, apart from excessive length, is the generally favourable reception they’ve been given in the ‘serious’ press: Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, etc. In the mainstream media only the (also incredibly prolific) Simon Brett, writing in the Daily Express of all places, tells it as it is about this underwhelming Poirot resurrection. Instead, one has to look to blog and fandom sites to find really thoughtful and accurate analyses of the failings in these books.
Now we’re regularly treated to dire warnings and plangent laments about the ‘death’ of professional criticism, as cash-strapped newspapers shed their paid reviewers, and blogging allows anyone to have their say online. But I’m becoming increasingly aware of a kind of trahison des clercs where it’s harder and harder, at least in the world of books, to find genuinely analytical and honest professional reviews, while the best bloggers, as in the example above, have a depth of knowledge, and the space to display it, that’s increasingly at a premium in the mainstream media.
So, what about Star Trek? I’m not sure if I really count as a Trekkie—I’ve never yet attended a Trekkie convention, in costume or otherwise—but it has been part of my cultural mainstream since the very first episode aired on the BBC in the Dr Who teatime slot when I was 14 years old. I’ve not followed every spin-off TV series (‘Enterprise’ was a step too far), but I have seen all the films, most of them more than once. Now I know that the critical consensus is that, with a few exceptions (‘The Wrath of Khan’, ‘The Voyage Home’, ‘First Contact’) the movies featuring the original two Enterprise crews were fairly ropey, and I’m prepared to go along with that verdict, and just enjoy them as guilty and nostalgic pleasures. But since JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009’s ‘Star Trek’ it’s achieved a blockbuster prominence that the early films never reached. I still think that that first, daring, reinvention of the origins of the crew of the Enterprise was a clever, inventive, and thoroughly enjoyable slice of space opera. I was much less impressed by its successor ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’, perhaps because I made the mistake of watching it in a very distracting 3D, but also because the last 15 minutes of the film were really ridiculous, totally unnecessary in terms of a satisfying story arc, and changed Spock’s character in ways that just didn’t seem right.
So I didn’t bother to catch the latest episode, ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (no colon, this time) while it was in cinemas. But it got such generally good reviews, with a broad consensus that this was a ‘return to form’ and to those elements that made Star Trek so memorable—namely the interaction between the main characters—that I rented the DVD as our Christmas Day movie. Well, the first two thirds delivered, looking dazzlingly beautiful and with some sharply written dialogue from Simon Pegg, but the last third was utterly preposterous and dumb to a degree that, it seems to me, dishonours Gene Roddenberry’s memory. Even if, over the years, the Star Trek universe has sometimes played fast and loose with scientific fact and theory, it’s nonetheless tended to retain a certain plausibility, or at least consistency, within its own terms of reference. But the vast space station ‘Yorktown’, a visual fantasy only made possible by state of the art digital imaging, would, if it was to have any possible reality in the Star Trek world, have required an application of technology and resources that would have been centuries ahead of the oddly retro/future world of the rest of the film (remember, we’re in the timeframe of the original, William Shatner, TV series, not even of ‘The Next Generation’ series, set 70 years later). And the ‘action’ that then occurs within this impossible world is simply stupidly over the top to the point where I ceased to care about what happened, and just wanted the movie to end.
So, is popular culture really getting dumber as it gets more hyped? Did things used to be better, or did we at least have, in the past, a sharper critical awareness and a better sense of proportion? Evidence that this may be the case came, also on Christmas Day, in the unlikely form of ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’. Never a Muppet fan, I’d avoided this film ever since it came out in 1992, assuming it would be silly, sentimental, and tiresome. I’m happy to admit I was entirely wrong: it is a modest masterpiece, telling Dickens’s original story with great fidelity and visual flair, with a nicely understated performance from Michael Caine as Scrooge, and setting this all within the madcap world of the Muppets in a way that is very witty and oddly touching. Who would have thought that presenting Tiny Tim as a small green frog would bring a tear to the eye? Yes, maybe popular culture really was better then….
© Robert Livingston December 2016