Keeping the Rabble in Line

Banging on about representation: The would be media lens

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Space Cadets: One final leap into the hyper-real

Well it seems the people of Endemol and Channel 4 television have finally decided to say "to hell with it!" In the most postmodern of forms [TV], the most postmodern -- or at least hyper-real -- of television events is now unfolding on our screens. Space Cadets has been referred to as Reality TV, now this term itself is difficult for many reasons, [though interestingly the term itself is never explicitly problematised on television itself, nor by mainstream TV critics] but in Space Cadets, the terms really does demand some attention.

Firstly the term Reality TV very obviously fastens itself to notions of real life/lived experience -- that which "we" know as authentic, "unmediated" and which we experience in the everyday. This is not to suggest that we can experience things "unmediated" [experiences and encounters are made sense of, or mediated through and in language] I merely use the term here to highlight its position in the televisual landscape as set in opposition to other genres and anchored to specific ideas of The Real :
Drama = Constructed, fictional, acted
Reality TV = Live, authentic, Real.
This seems self evident, but significantly the term is never allowed to be critiqued by mainstream discourse. It just is real[ity] TV

The Market Leader and Soap Opera signifiers
Our best initial means of analysing the form of reality TV is to discuss Big Brother [the market leader]. First, a quick re-cap of some of the key components, with various examples from BB. It's cast as drama [hero, villain, love interest, love rivals], framed as soap [even down to the classic Two Shot, lingering shots on rivals/lovers], has the constant deferral of narrative closure [at least for eleven weeks] of soap and it's edited as soap [editing creates the narrative drive]. So the casting provides the requisite conflict, the framing, casting and editing of these character[isation] traits provides a narrative...all these signifiers are points of recognition and reference for viewers. Viewers are encouraged to locate the characters within the soap matrix, as such, one could say; Big Brother is the Soap of the summer.

As for the chosen cast members: The default position of the "contestants" - for that is what they are in this context - is to mindlessly spout some nonsense with regards to "the experience"...."you know, living with a group of strangers". It seems to me that they use these phrases as sort of defence mechanisms lest they be accused of harbouring ambitions to win the show, become famous, or the worst sin of all, "playing up for the camera". Playing up for the camera of course marks one out as inauthentic. This apparent sin of inauthenticity, fakeness, "not being yourself" is the most heinous of crimes for what passes as comment in the "Reality TV" landscape. One BB6 contestants most frequent discussion topic was focussed around some spurious notion of "authenticity" and "being Real". The eventual winner -- banal, idiotic, pretty boy -- perhaps unwittingly nailed the whole idea of the show this year. He, and a few others were quite blunt about "this'll make good TV Innit" line of thinking. BB is now in its sixth series and as such the contestants have a sort of knowingness about the show. However, this knowingness does not translate to a cultural competency about the "form". Nor does this knowledge translate to a viewing public -- at least not to a viewing public allowed "On Air". Those interviewed on Little Brother or on the E4 fan shows still frame the debate via the same spurious notions of "realness" and "authenticity" as the housemates, again these important anchoring points are meant to be opposed to fakery and playing up to the cameras. However, as already mentioned above, in all forms of dramatic representation; casting and narrative are the keys to "success" of the program. All the housemates are cast, and significantly, cast to type. So, do we have an irreconcilable difference? On the one hand it is soap; on the other, it refuses to relinquish its grip on The Real...or does it?

In the hyper-real world of the television show, perhaps the contestants are incredibly self aware, or at least conscious of "what makes good 'reality' TV" or even "what makes a good self identity on TV". If what's required in that environment, is a bunch of uncritical, self obsessed, narcissistic, banal, unthinking, witless consumers, then each year this representation of self identity, just gets more and more convincing. Perhaps reality TV's contestants' very notion of authenticity is now bound up in previous experiences of the very form in which they are located. Perhaps the contestants and uncritical viewers had it right all along: this idea of authenticity [in which so much is invested] and "being real" can be entirely traced back to previous incarnations of the genre as the paradigm of 21st century [hyper]reality and selfhood. Perhaps in this world, the kind of self [re]presented on TV, is authentic. Constantly repeating the phrase: "I'm opinionated, ya know, I'm not scared to voice my opinion" is the new mark of authenticity. This self, in which so much is invested, is increasingly the mark against which all other selves and [hyper]realities are measured. "Having an opinion" it seems, is the new intelligence.

So that's the world of Reality TV, it looks like soap opera and its narrative unfolds like soap. It is replete with characters that have a similar narrative and dramatic functionality. But it is considered real. So is reality a soap, or is soap reality...and where/when the hell is Space Cadets going to feature in this interminably long blog?

Space Cadets, in terms of its casting, it is no exception to the general rule of Reality TV. In that: it is populated with attention hungry narcissists, desperate for their moment of [in]famy. So the casting and framing devices are similarly constructed. There is a narrative drive involving the interplay between "characters" and the love interest is, as expected, the focus of some representational attention. What takes this incredible show further into the realms of the hyper-real though is its attention to [filmic/televisual] detail. The show is based around duping a number of contestants into thinking that they are being trained for a space mission, and then being sent into space to orbit the earth for 5 days. Leaving aside the ridiculous -- but very cleverly constructed -- idea of "becoming a Space Tourist" after 3 weeks training, the lack of G-Force, no rocket required to take off and no zero gravity, we can still analyse some facets of this show in relation to the simulacrum/hyper real. On arrival in "Russia" [in actual fact a disused then reincarnated US Air base in Suffolk] the duped contestants were heard to exclaim "it's just like in a film" "the Russian Guard blokes were a bit scary, just like you see em in films" and so on. So in order that the contestants be fooled, Channel 4 Producers ensured that "Russia" resembled the Russia of filmic representation. The guards adopted the expected harsh, shouting, sharp tones of Russian soldiers from various [though not varying] war films "as seen on TV", and all was good. Before the "take off" [in actual fact a simulation shuttle] the "lucky three" were taken for a peek at the shuttle. Through a half opened hangar door, just visible through billowing smoke, was a large Shuttle nose cone. Again, a contestant was heard to say "it looks just like i'd expected it to...you know it was like something out of a film". The entire world of Space Cadets is an incredible example of a hyper-reality, a world in which the simulacrum is more real than reality. As long as things look the way we expect, as seen via representation, the simulations are able to be reconciled with our [tele]visual experience[s] and expectation[s] then it will be real to all intents and purposes.

Space Cadets is the ultimate simulacrum; The contestants inhabit a world where they are playing out a 21st century version of an "authentic" self; they are part of an unfolding television soap world narrative; and the things they think are Real, are only a simulation/simulacrum.

What next?

8 Comments:

  • At 5:14 PM, Blogger Imo said…

    Space Cadets is sublime it's so blatant in its voyeuristic intentions; it's like a "Freak show"- completely exploitative...I'm waiting for a heart attack from one of The Idiots when the space ship is taken away, it's just getting closer to my prediction that we won't stop (and probably not even then) until we bring back public execution. I’ve loved the way the programme positions reality tv as a reality in itself, right down to all it's points of reference belonging to films and other media. As you say “As long as things look the way we expect, as seen via representation, the simulations are able to be reconciled with our [tele]visual experience[s] and expectation[s] then it will be real to all intents and purposes.” This is not just found however in the production detail being based on the film to correspond with The Idiots’ own points of references but also the fact they have actually used actors throughout to make the scenario seem more "real" for The Idiots. What, then, would be brilliant is if it was revealed to the viewer that in actual fact The Idiots had been actors all along and the hoax was played on the public, that would be the ultimate in post modern hoaxes!

     
  • At 5:52 PM, Blogger Chris R said…

    Thanks Imo, you know there are rumours out there on the message boards of Channel 4 suggesting that the "joke" is on the viewer. You're right, it would be the ultimate disappearance up the postmodern arse I suppose. I hope not though in a way. Viewers take a lot of rubbish, but being the dupes in this case would *possibly* kill of the Reality TV genre. It kind of breaks the contract somewhat. That's not to say it won't happen one day [and perhaps Space Cadets IS the first of these] but somehow i doubt it. I'm not sure the makers and advertisers are ready to kill off the cash cow of Reality TV just yet...

     
  • At 10:15 PM, Blogger Rob said…

    Yes, but I guess it's not soap because, as far as I could tell, there was no interesting inter-personal drama or ongoing plotlines in need of resolution, other than the one master-narrative.

    Mind you, perhaps that's why it was bad reality tv, and nobody watched it!

     
  • At 12:47 PM, Blogger Patrick Duffy said…

    Speaking to Chris about this yesterday I actually distinguished between the idiots left at camp and those on the simulator by using the term "the ones left on earth"!!!!

    My only hope for the series was that the Simulator burned up on (simulated) take off killing all those brave Cosmonauts on board. They would have died thinking that it was just one step too far for 'ordinaries' to go into space. Hahahaha dead in Suffolk.

     
  • At 9:21 PM, Anonymous ramsay said…

    'problematised'???? I shall have to slap your legs young man.

     
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