Serendipity

Will the age of the iPlayer and VoD keep us 'mainstream' and away from the lesser-travelled tributaries of Geekdom...?

Wave of the future, dude...100% electronic.

As a Follower Of The Dood, I marvel now that, nearly ten years ago, it took weeks of persuasion round a friend’s house before I would let him put The Big Lebowski on. In fact he had to describe the entire plot and a fair few of the jokes before I relented and permitted him to convert me to Dood-worship.

It sounded like a ropey Chandler rip-off with a few bad gags. And in a way that’s what it is, but how could I have foreseen the genius of the Coens or the fact that I would love the way the whole thing was concocted? Maybe it was Jeff Bridges who tied the whole thing together, or maybe it was the rug. Fact is, my preconceptions were dead wrong.

Carrying that kind of negative perception, TBL is not something I would have picked from the list in iPlayer or its various competitors, had they been around then, nor from an on-demand cable or satellite service. But show it in the desperate hours (and the young amongst you can’t imagine how desperate late-night British TV was 10-15 years ago), competing only against the test-card, a screen full of static or a Hungarian hippy explaining Brecht in black and white in pre-recorded 1975, and you have a captive audience.

The amount of shit I used to watch when there was nothing else on staggers me – yet I found many bizarre little gems in that blind-alley, that Gordian knot of nocturnal choicelessness; quirky little films that were either forgotten or never known, such as Chicago Cab (1998), Nosferatu (1981) and A Short Film About Love (1988). TV shows too: the tedium of Space: Above And Beyond (US TV 1995-96) was relieved by the quirky and occasionally sexy madness of Lexx (1997-2002).

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None of these oddities would I necessarily have picked out of a list when I could instead pick something that I know I am already disposed to like, because of previous positive experiences with the writers, producers, stars or actors (though Morgan Freeman lost me at Dreamcatcher). The sad aspect of the multi-choice multimedia age is that our participation in it ensures that we get what we want, but risks that we rarely give anything new the kind of chance we would have given it in the old days, when there was scant competition for our attention.

The ‘recommendation trail’ remains from days of yore – our friends know us and will tell us about new shit they have seen that they believe we will like. They’ll often be right, but about as often wrong, and also may dismiss and never communicate news about films or programmes that do nothing for them, but that we would love.

The controversy about time-shifting programmes, currently drowned out in a flurry of comment-thread invective regarding broadcast flags and ‘compliant’ DVRs, seems at a wider glance to be an uncomfortable stage in the progression to total on-demand viewing, freed from the schedules, edicts and remit of broadcasters. We will get exactly what we ask for, even if that’s five straight steaks with never a hint of vegetables, metaphorically speaking.

And thus Hollywood’s magical phrase ‘From the makers of…’ will exacerbate our condition of incestuous viewing habits, where the same people are making – pretty much – the same show, over and over again. And this will happen because nothing random will interfere anymore in this seamless flow of marketing and back-rubbing. It’s the schizophrenic urge of all commercial entities – including entertainment corporations – to both innovate and to supply what there is already demand for. The age of on-demand TV begins to obviate the first of those obligations.

Some of the hottest trailer-space on British TV this year has been in the few minutes before Doctor Who series four; the point of anticipation where you dare not miss the pre-opening sting, and tune in early. Here it is that the BBC have your attention in a way they rarely ever do, and get to suggest that there’s something else besides Doctor Who that you might like to watch on the Beeb.

But even such marginal occasions to draw viewers away from the mainstream are rare. Will the BBC then, ultimately put out channels that broadcast nothing but trailers for on-demand content? In this way, they risk to ‘catch up’ with ITV, which has been pandering to very short attention spans for far longer. And in this way the pressure increases for quick delivery of every single aspect of the show that the viewer has tuned in to see. Not a great recipe for drama, and a syndrome from which Doctor Who has suffered in recent years, in my opinion.

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Very few people change their radio station every few minutes – thus, historically, many of us have found the music that we love; because we ended up listening to a lot of music that we were indifferent or even hostile to. Yet we will zap our way endlessly through acres of free-to-view or cable channels and wonder why so much of it is shit.

Sometimes what we need or would like isn’t necessarily what we’d choose. The remaining hope of diversity from the old days of ‘minimal choice’ is arguably…our partners. As long as we are not in a partnership following the more traditional divide where the remote control flits between football matches and soap operas, between dick-flicks and chick-flicks, it’s in the purview of our loved ones to stretch our minds beyond the familiar to the new.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column (almost) every Friday at Den Of Geek. He thinks the guy playing Cushing in Revenge Of The Sith is a poor substitute. Check out the complete list of his columns.