Trash & Treasure is a miscellany of monthly opinions on SFF, fandom and general geekness from Foz Meadows.
Welcome to the first instalment of Trash & Treasure, a monthly column where I get to review, rave and/or rant about the various bits of SFFnal media I encounter. Warning: HERE BE OPINIONS.
So far this year, I’ve consumed a pleasing balance of old and new stories. Most notably, I was finally able to watch the entire four seasons of Gravity Falls, a Disney Television Animation series which aired on the Disney channel between 2012 and 2016, and which proved to be every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped. The story follows Dipper and Mable Pines, twelve-year-old twins spending summer break with their Great-Uncle Stan, proprietor of the Mystery Shack: a tourist trap in Gravity Falls, Oregon. When Dipper finds a mysterious journal full of eldritch secrets about the town (and after Mable has a weird encounter of her own) the twins become caught up in a steadily escalating series of supernatural adventures, the truths contained in the journal juxtaposed against the fake attractions at the Mystery Shack.
Like Steven Universe, Gravity Falls is ostensibly a kids’ show, but one whose characterisation, scripting and neatly executed long-game arc make it satisfying to watch at any age. My only complaint, which isn’t so much about Gravity Falls specifically as it is annoyance at the wider issue in general, is the extent to which Mabel and Dipper’s forays into romance and dating conform to some fairly stock, heteronormative tropes. Though a clear effort is still made to positively subvert the default forms – Dipper’s crush on his older co-worker, Wendy, ends with them being friends, even though his feelings don’t magically disappear overnight, while child psychic Gideon’s obsession with Mabel is always flatly decried as unhealthy – it irked me to see the same tired ground of Shy Logical Straight Boy and Overenthusiastic Romantic Straight Girl being firmly retrodden. In a show with a long-game villain like Bill Cypher, an otherworldly being who takes the form of an Illuminati triangle and speaks like an upbeat con-man, it would’ve been nice to see some more original romance, too.
Knowing that creator Alex Hirsch was deterred from overtly exploring explore queerness on screen due to fears of network censorship made it doubly frustrating, as I was constantly aware of straightness as a cultural default. In terms of the fantastic elements and the overall plot, nothing about Gravity Falls would’ve been different if, say, Mable was the one with the crush on Wendy, or if Dipper got tongue-tied around boys as well as girls, but even if Hirsch had been able to write that version of the story, I’m sure that many who saw the twins’ various canon straight romances as normal narrative subplots would’ve protested them as “forced” had even a whiff of queerness been permitted. Small wonder why so many of us fall, weeping with gratitude, into the arms of Steven Universe, which is unapologetically queer as fuck. Not that I’m pitting the two shows against each other, mind, especially as they’re key examples of a whole new style of cartoon narrative – I love them both dearly – but, well. You know what I mean.
(Plus and also: I have a Sekrit Headcanon that both stories exist in the same setting. Not only does this make perfect thematic sense, it also means that Robbie, Wendy’s emo boyfriend, and Lars, Steven’s emo kinda-friend, can one day meet up on their own awkward summer break and have Angry Emo Makeouts of Self-Discovery, I WILL FIGHT YOU ABOUT THIS, SHUT UP, IT WOULD BE AWESOME.)
On the retro side of things, I’ve been playing the newly remastered Crash Bandicoot trilogy on PS4, and it’s giving me feelings. Not, in fairness, universally pleasant feelings: as you traverse a vaguely antipodean island jungle in the first game, the generic “native people” designs of the only humanoid enemies you encounter in levels – brown skin, big ‘fros, no real facial features, leaf skirts, wooden spears and shields –means there’s a lot of lowkey racist squick at times, which I could do without. But there’s still something to be said for revisiting a thing you loved in childhood as an adult, even if from a more critical perspective.
In fact, revisiting the series made me wonder if part of the reason why comics and gaming are prone to so much vehement, territorial gatekeeping has to do with the inherently ephemeral nature of both mediums. It’s not something I would’ve considered prior to my current obsession with ice hockey, but – to indulge in a brief, relevant segue – the thing about falling in love with a sport as an adult is that, no matter how thorough your research or how keen your enthusiasm, you have to accept that there’s simply too much material for you to ever catch up with everything you’ve missed. Each team plays 82 games in a regular season, and as of this year, there are 31 teams; and that’s not even counting the extensive best-of-seven format for playoffs. Even though there are fewer teams the farther back you go, the NHL has been around for just over a century, and once you factor in international contest, minor leagues, juniors, and the Olympics, all of which can be hugely significant in the sport… well, you do the maths.
The only way to jump in is at random, is my point, researching forwards and backwards and learning whenever new information presents itself – but if, like me, you’re a person who prefers to start any new narrative from the beginning rather than halfway through, this can be an intimidating prospect.
And so it is with comics and gaming: the historical canon is simply so huge and so overwhelmingly inaccessible that, by definition, any newcomer is at a temporal disadvantage. We don’t tend to think of video games as occupying a closed-off historical niche, but with each new platform swiftly made redundant by its successor and with backwards comparability rarely prioritised, they really do. Some games are just unplayable now, and for those who define their identities by their lifelong commitment to the medium, knowing that any newcomer can’t possibly have shared in that set of unduplicatable early experiences is tantamount to an admission of neglect. Similarly, while it makes little sense to sneer at a child for failing to be alive when Silver Era comics were first being printed, many gatekeepers will happily do just this to anyone who discovers games or comics in adulthood, on the basis that they’ve already missed out on experiences that can’t be replicated, and that this must therefore be their fault for failing to see the light earlier.
Which is, of course, utter bullshit, never mind the frequency with which such accusations are paired with raging misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry. More to the point, even in contexts where newcomers do have a clear (or clearer, anyway) starting point – the first book in a series or the first episode of a TV show, the name of a specific author whose books are all in the library – the same sort of gatekeeping still appears. A starting point is a starting point, and even when we like to pretend that there’s some higher moral significance to discovering a thing early in life, there’s still no such thing as a universal set of experiences, even among people who did discover the same sort of fandom at roughly the same point in childhood. But acknowledging this fact means admitting that the perception of an inherently unified fanbase comprised of such early adherents is illusory: that, when we draw a line between Real Fans and those pesky, latecoming interlopers, we’re not actually deferring to the wisdom of some objective, inviolate yardstick, but are rather making choices based on our preferences, prejudices and – yes – politics.
Nor, for that matter, are our memories of how we came to love something set in stone, impervious to decay or alteration. As demonstrated by my adult reaction to Crash Bandicoot, it’s very possible to reassess our views of beloved properties for any variety of reasons. To take another old/new example, I’ve always been a self-professed fan of natural disaster movies, but it wasn’t until I watched Geostorm this week that I realised many of my old favourites quite arguably form a canon of cinematic cli-fi.
Climate fiction is a comparatively recent genre term, and one which I’ve always viewed with a little scepticism as to its utility, given that the twin labels of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction are already doing a pretty good job of covering the bases. But then, if you look at trashtacular action films like Twister, The Core, The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano, 2012, Into the Storm, San Andreas and now Geostorm, neither of those terms quite fits. Each of these films is explicitly premised on an outbreak of catastrophic natural disasters in the modern day or not-too-distant future, sometimes due to human interference with the environment – whether through man-made climate change or some other conscious action – or else merely the result of Mother Nature’s cruelty and caprice. Regardless of this, scientists and their supporting institutions are called upon to speak truth to institutional power in every story, to varying degrees of success.
Set in the aftermath of a future in which human-directed climate change has already fucked up the planet, Geostorm – much to my surprise – was primarily focussed, not on averting a natural disaster, but on uncovering the sabotage of a space-based weather machine designed to prevent those disasters. It’s a completely ridiculous movie in every respect, replete with stilted dialogue and terrible acting, but it still has some popcorn value, and if nothing else, it provided the mental impetus to catalyse my thoughts about the genre.
Tackling the destruction of Earth from a more comic angle, I’ve finally got around to re-listening to the original BBC radio production of Douglas Adams’s seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s been years since I last found the time to do so, and I’m not surprised to find that it’s just as brilliant this time around – and as scathingly salient. As such, given that we now live in a day and age when John Boyega is gloriously saving sci-fi via Star Wars, Pacific Rim and Attack the Block, and as the original Hitchhiker’s TV series was, despite its cult status, not great, I find myself with a sudden, powerful desire for Boyega to star as Arthur Dent in a new TV adaptation, preferably with Richard Ayoade as Ford Prefect and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Trillian and listen, listen, if anyone from Netflix or Amazon Original is reading this, I am willing and able to make this thing for you, okay? I have a MIGHTY NEED.
Also, I’ve just reread Emily Rodda’s Rowan of Rin for the first time since my teens, and found myself moved nearly to tears at times by a mix of nostalgia for the story and sheer awe at how much it manages to achieve – narratively, emotionally, structurally – in so little time. It’s an absolute classic of Australian YA fantasy that I recommend unreservedly, and which would, in the right hands, make a truly spectacular film. (Dear Hollywood: HIRE ME, YOU COWARDS.)
How’s your January going?