Classically Inclined

August 10, 2017

On the Monster book and the perils of television

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:57 pm
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We are now in the depths of August, which Andrew Adonis has decided in the spirit of university-bashing is our academic three month holiday. Needless to say, I have spent my last few weeks indulging in the hedonistic pleasures of grant application writing, preparing the next version of the postgraduate student handbook, reading draft work from my masters’ students, wrangling all the postgraduate taught admin, and other well-known indulgences of the academic labouring classes. Somehow, alongside all of that, I’ve also found time to get on with the Monster book, last written about at the end of my sabbatical.

At the end of the sabbatical, I had written two and a half chapters of the book – the first two were the theoretical heavy lifting, and the third was going to be the film chapter. I’d also written a conference paper on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, which I thought would be the starter for the fourth chapter on television. I naively assumed that I would be able to finish off the film chapter pretty quickly and move on. It turned out that this was not to be, because as I cracked on with the film chapter, it slowly became clear that this was not one chapter. It was two chapters. So into two chapters it was divided, which for lack of better reasoning I have dubbed the pre-Gladiator and post-Gladiator phase. Oh well, I thought. Surely dealing with television will be easy.

Alas, once more, this is turning out not to be the case. There are a number of problems with writing about television. The first is that you have to watch the dratted stuff. I can’t just sit down and watch selected random episodes of Hercules, as much as I would like to. My partner finds this position profoundly odd, but if I want to be able to write coherently and sensibly about the whole series, then I have to have seen the lot of it. This is doubly true for monsters – an episode recap might tell me if a monster is at the core of an episode, or perhaps even mention subsidiary rent-a-monsters who don’t get much screen-time beyond their obligatory defeat, but they won’t mention the throw-away lines of dialogue which are in and of themselves very revealing about the place that monsters are given in this rich fantasy world. So I have had to find time to watch 111 episodes of Hercules, which is over eighty hours. That’s a lot of time.

The second problem is that, contrary to my blithe and (in retrospect) daft expectations, not a lot has been done by classical reception scholars on television. Amanda Potter has done some fantastic stuff on the relationship between television and audience, but other than that, the pickings are pretty slim. (I haven’t yet looked at the new Wiley Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen, which should help a bit.) What scholarship there is tends to look at the television of the historical – HBO’s Rome, for instance, or the much-loved BBC adaptation of I, Claudius. This is all fine and good until you’re trying to put some production context in place for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and find yourself staring at the wall blankly. Thankfully, Amanda Potter put me onto the trail of Catherine Johnson’s Telefantasy, but it was a close run thing. There’s also a shockingly small amount written about Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, not just by classicists, but in general – there tends to be much more concentration on the companion spin-off Xena: Warrior Princess, mainly because that show created a particularly strong fan-base which caught the attention of nascent fan studies scholars, and has thus cemented it as a community that gets studied. Hercules? Not so much. (Please tell me in the comments if you think there is something I really must read!)

The third problem is that when you start writing about something that’s not been written about before, from a perspective that people don’t tend to think about, you have a lot to say. Which is why I’ve realised that the planned chapter on television is going to be – you guessed it – two chapters. And quite a lot of Hercules. I’ve also realised I’m going to have to be selective about what I watch of Xena, which I’m a bit cross about, but to find the hundred hours required to watch 134 episodes is just not going to happen. Plus I haven’t got the word count, to be honest. (There are also reasons that monsters matter less for Xena than they do for Hercules; I haven’t written that part yet, but trust me, it completely justifies a more selective approach.) Oh, and I want to talk about Doctor Who as well. Definitely two chapters.

In a way, this is good news, in that it’s all words towards the final manuscript total – I’m aiming to write 80% of them in the first draft, which has rubbish reference formatting and will need some tidying up on that front, and then for the remaining 20% to be introduction, prefatory material, bibliography and explanatory edits. On the other hand, it means my cheerful assumption that I knew the shape of the book when I started writing it has been neatly upended, and that the final product won’t look as I expected. Oh, and that I need to be writing about two thousand words a week to have this draft finished by Christmas, to give time for people to give me feedback and for everything to be tidied up before the contracted deadline.

I guess that’s my card marked, then…

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